China’s fractious far-west region of Xinjiang has changed its university entrance exam rules to give children from mixed families a leg up on other students, in what experts have said are the latest efforts to erase a mostly Muslim ethnic culture.
Following a flare-up in violence in 2014, Chinese authorities have rolled out draconian security measures across Xinjiang in the past few years, from banning long beards and Muslim veils to placing an estimated 1 million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in internment camps.
Chinese officials have described the facilities as voluntary “vocational education centers” where Turkic-speaking people are taught Mandarin and job skills in a bid to steer them away from religious extremism.
However, rights groups and former inmates see the measures as part of a campaign to forcefully assimilate Uighurs and other minorities into the country’s majority ethnic Han society, diluting their unique cultures and religious beliefs.
Observers have said that the change in the university enrollment system is another step in that direction, particularly in a region where Uighurs in 2015 made up almost half of the population of 23 million.
In an online notice posted last week, the Xinjiang government published new rules for giving bonus points to disadvantaged groups in the nationwide college entrance exams — a key deciding factor for attending university in China.
In a reversal of last year’s policy, the regional government doubled the number of bonus points allocated to interethnic students — defined as those with one Han parent — to 20, while more than halving the amount for students whose parents are both ethnic minorities to 15.
The new exam policy is “part of this effort to Sinicize any kind of non-Han forms of thoughts and behavior,” La Trobe University professor James Leibold said.
The government believes that “interethnic marriage is a key vehicle for promoting national integration and assimilating the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Chinese nation,” said Leibold, who studies ethnic relations and policy in China.
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology China policy expert Timothy Grose said that the “new incentives for intermarriage expose the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] systematic approach to weakening Turkic-Muslim identities.”
“Perhaps officials are reintroducing the ‘carrot’ when in the past few years they have only been lashing the ‘stick,’” said Grose, whose research focuses on Uighurs.
The Xinjiang government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The change in exam policy is not the first time Chinese authorities have offered incentives for interethnic mixing.
In 2014, the Qiemo County Government in Xinjiang reportedly announced that it would gift mixed couples — one Han, one ethnic minority — annual cash payments of 10,000 yuan (US$1,447 at the current exchange rate) for the first five years of their marriage.
“Chinese policymakers and sociologists have long viewed high rates or high instances of interethnic marriage as a kind of proxy symbol for social cohesion and national integration,” Leibold said.
On top of initiatives spearheaded by the government, videos promoting Uighur-Han marriages have also emerged on social media over the past year, although it is unclear whether they are directly linked to official policies.
In October last year, a video published by “Grandma Li,” a culture and lifestyle social media account run by a Xinjiang-based woman, encouraged more people to move to the region to “look for love.”
“Even though their ethnicity is different and their beliefs are different, it seems like it [interethnic marriage] is happening more and more now,” Grandma Li said. “Besides, the government is very much encouraging it — there are even rewards.”
However, it is unlikely that the latest government-backed incentive will change perceptions of Uighurs and Han across ethnic lines, experts said.
Although statistics on interethnic marriage in China are scarce, national census data from 2010 showed that Han and Uighur populations tend to marry within their ethnic group, with only 0.2 percent of Uighurs married to Han people.
“Officials have encouraged interethnic marriage for decades, but with little success,” Grose said. “I don’t see how this change to test scores will persuade minorities in droves to seek out Han partners.”
Online, Chinese social media users have voiced skepticism toward top-down policies rewarding interethnic marriages, with some complaining that they are unfair to Han people.
“There’s a great deal of mutual suspicion and distrust between the two groups, but that doesn’t stop the party-state from trying to push the agenda,” Leibold said.
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