To win minorities’ support, China offers places at boarding school
Originally published at The Economist on February 28, 2019.
Meiduo was 11 when she left her village in Tibet to attend boarding school. Her family had been trying to secure this opportunity for her ever since she began her education. They believed that studying in a more prosperous part of China would give her a brighter future. Yet when the moment came to say goodbye, they could not bear to send her off. So Meiduo, with a suitcase bigger than herself, went to the railway station with a teacher who escorted her to her destination. It was four years before the girl saw her relatives again.
Meiduo (not her real name) is one of more than 141,000 children from Tibet who have taken part in a scheme known as “inland classes”, or neidiban. Set up in 1985, it offers selected students places at secondary schools in parts of China inhabited by the country’s Han majority. There are dozens of schools scattered over more than 20 provinces that accept such children from Tibet (including some of Han ethnicity). In 2000 the offer was extended to children in Xinjiang, a western region bordering Tibet with a large population of mostly Muslim Uighurs. Since then more than 100,000 students from Xinjiang have attended neidiban schools in 45 cities.
Admission to the programme is highly competitive. Applicants must not only excel academically. They must also “ardently love” the party and socialism, say guidelines issued last year by a local government in Tibet. Even so, those accepted must receive further “ideological and political education” before they set off.
The programme’s apparent aim is to win the support of elites in restive frontier areas and give the brightest ethnic-minority children more exposure to Han culture. The education they receive at neidiban schools is usually superior to that available in their native regions. It is also heavily subsidised. The students gain a mastery of Mandarin that would be hard to achieve at home. Under a government affirmative-action policy, university-entrance requirements are lower for ethnic minorities.
In 2015 President Xi Jinping said the project had achieved “outstanding” results. But it gets mixed reviews from participants. A Uighur graduate from the first Xinjiang class says most of his classmates were, like himself, the children of government officials. But they were described condescendingly at the school as “precious people” from Xinjiang, even “like pandas”. He says they were closely watched.
Despite efforts by his school to introduce the Uighurs to their Han fellow-students, members of the two ethnic groups rarely became friends. At most neidiban schools, ethnic-minority students attend separate classes and live in segregated accommodation (this is justified by schools on “security” grounds). “We’re second-class citizens. Why? We’re all Chinese...aren’t we?” says a former neidiban student of Tibetan ethnicity.
Some pupils find it hard to adapt to their schools’ Han-centric teaching, including exclusive use of Mandarin. Meiduo says there were many students at her previous school in Tibet who were good enough academically to qualify for neidibaneducation, but decided not to apply. She says they did not want to “forget their own culture”.
Among Tibetans the programme has a high drop-out rate—participants often find it hard to adapt to the different cultural and academic environment. After finishing their studies, ethnic minorities have difficulty getting the kind of work they want. The government offers them incentives to work in remote parts of their home regions as teachers and police officers. But most prefer to work in cities, says Timothy Grose of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana. In majority-Han areas they often face discrimination because of their ethnicity. Many people in China associate Tibetans and Uighurs with trouble: their regions are fraught with separatist tensions and brutally repressed by the state.
Yet demand for the neidiban remains strong. “Students [are] being lured in through the opportunities it creates for upward social mobility,” says James Leibold of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “Even if it comes at a cultural cost.”
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "A class apart"