Trinity and Chinese universities
Sir, – The Irish Times has carried articles that report on a controversy surrounding Irish collaboration with a university that until recently was called “The Central University for Nationalities” (“UCC academics concerned at deepening links with Minzu University”, News, November 25th).
When the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 created the People’s Republic of China, it envisioned a land of multiethnic and multilingual flourishing.
Although PRC citizens classified as Chinese account for 92 per cent of China’s population, they are just one of 56 officially recognised and legally equal nationalities that call the country home. Standard Chinese remains just one of 300 languages spoken in the PRC today.
The Central University for Nationalities was founded in 1951 as the flagship institution of a network of “nationality universities” that are intended to serve the educational and research needs of the country’s non-Chinese peoples.
The university is small by Chinese standards, with some 15,000 students; it covers the standard disciplines such as mathematics and computer science, but its strength in the history, languages, and ethnology of China’s indigenous communities, such as the Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uighurs, makes this university truly unique.
The Chinese Communist Party’s foundational commitments to autonomy and inclusiveness for minorities and their languages have come increasingly under pressure. This change is tied to an exclusionary geo-political model, that is characteristic of European 19th-century nation-states, but remains prominent today, both in China and across the world. In this exclusionary model, security and prosperity are achieved through assimilation into a single ethnic group that speaks only one language. Minorities have no choice but to assimilate.
The retreat of the multiethnic model makes itself known in many facets of life in the PRC today and throughout the world. This exclusionary model explains the camps in Xinjiang as well as the curtailment of Mongolian teaching in the primary schools of Inner Mongolia. It also explains the recent rebranding of the Central University for Nationalities as “Minzu University of China”. The new English name foregrounds “China” and obscures the term “nationalities” (minzu) by leaving it untranslated. The university’s Chinese name is unchanged.
With the rebranding campaign have also come, across the whole network of China’s nationality universities, the requirement to assess students only through the medium of standard Chinese rather than indigenous languages, and the closure of all departments and institutes uniquely devoted to the study of specific ethnic and linguistic indigenous groups.
For me, the increasing marginalisation and oppression of minorities constitutes an imperative to pursue collaborations with the Central University for Nationalities and other nationality universities rather than a reason to hesitate in our engagement with Chinese university partners. By teaching students from indigenous communities, collaborating with scholars of indigenous background, and by reading literature or research in indigenous languages, we help to promote and sustain the multiethnic conception of the PRC that its founders envisioned.
I am proud to work at a university that values linguistic and cultural diversity. I myself mainly research Tibetan, but I have taught Mongolian and supervised students working on Uyghur, Lisu, Yi and other languages of China. As director of the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, I hope to deepen and to strengthen our ties to the Central University for Nationalities and other Chinese universities as a means of deepening our understanding of China’s rich ethnic and linguistic diversity. – Yours, etc,
Prof NATHAN HILL,
for Asian Studies,
Trinity College Dublin,