Book review: Minority Education in China, by James Leibold and Chen Yangbin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:41pm

Minority Education in China
by James Leibold and Chen Yangbin
HKU Press
4 stars

Linda Yeung

Like other human rights issues on the mainland, the protection of equal access to education is fraught with problems. It was dealt a blow recently with the jailing of Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and campaigner for the rights of migrant workers' children to go to school or take the university entrance examination ( gaokao) where they reside.

Education for the mainland's 56 ethnic minority groups is no simple matter either. Minority Education in China: Balancing Unity and Diversity in An Era of Critical Pluralism reveals the challenges facing education for the non-Han population. It brings together essays by 21 experts exploring different aspects of education for the Uygurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and many other ethnic groups mostly concentrated in the western part of the country.

Previous books have explored the pedagogical and policy challenges of minority education, but this is the first to present the challenges in light of Beijing's efforts to instil a sense of national belonging among its ethnically diverse population. This volume presents empirical data on schooling in areas such as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, home to all 56 ethnic groups. The debate on what constitutes multiculturalism is also covered.

The state education system is a key battleground in the central government's efforts to promote "harmonious multiculturalism", write James Leibold and Chen Yangbin. Special measures exist to increase minority students' access to higher education, and to help them learn both Putonghua and their native language.

But creating a shared sense of national belonging when the minorities are vastly outnumbered by the Han Chinese, who make up more than 91 per cent of the population, is a daunting task. As noted by various contributors to the book, the present system is one more of separation than integration. The dearth of properly trained bilingual teachers is one reason why it has been hard to raise students' language proficiency.

This book identifies the multiple factors hindering true integration, from language barriers and ethnic attitudes to government policies. Its information on educational changes in the areas inhabited by minority groups makes it a useful resource for anyone interested in the topic, although the academic tone and style makes this book less engaging for the general reader.

That aside, Minority Education in China highlights - again - the half-hearted approach to safeguarding minorities' educational rights.