A Canadian school program has kept its doors open in China’s Xinjiang region for nearly a decade, collecting tuition and issuing Nova Scotia diplomas to students in the area where large numbers of local Uyghur Muslims were forced into political indoctrination during that time.
Since 2012, the Nova Scotia program at Karamay Senior High School has offered a small number of students a ticket out of Xinjiang, where the government is accused of committing crimes against humanity. On Monday, Canada’s parliament declared the oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang a genocide.
Established by a Xinjiang city intent on boosting its credentials as an international centre, the senior high-school program teaches N.S. courses to those who can afford the tuition of roughly $10,000 a year. It issues diplomas that have given entry to Canadian universities, including in past years for Uyghurs who have been the principal target of Chinese polices in Xinjiang.
But the Sino-Canadian program has also altered its own Grade 10 through 12 program to appeal to officials pursuing a broader agenda of what critics call “cultural cleansing.” This year, the Nova Scotia program has cancelled an elective sociology course, out of fear of angering local authorities. It bars any religious observance on campus, in line with Chinese dictates.
And it operates in a region that recently passed a new regulation that specifically obligates every school to “guide students of all ethnicities to love the Communist Party of China” and “enhance ethnic unity,” a term used to describe policies that have prioritized Chinese language and culture over that of minorities such as the Uyghurs.
Critics say operating a Nova Scotia curriculum school in Xinjiang risks participating in a broader program of cultural assimilation.
The Karamay program offers a particularly vivid illustration of the position Canadian schools occupy in China, with Canadian-trained staff seeking to deliver Canadian instruction – but without angering authorities in a sophisticated surveillance regime that actively polices the information its people can access.
In Xinjiang, “education, in addition to being a gear in the machine of mass internment, is also one of the main tools of Sinicization – of trying to turn the Uyghurs culturally into Han Chinese people,” said Rian Thum, a historian of Uyghurs and Islam in China at the University of Manchester. Operating a Nova Scotia school in Xinjiang “lends a certain kind of legitimacy to the system it’s a part of,” he said.
But Ili Ibrahim, the principal and sole Canadian teacher currently at the Canadian program in Karamay, said in an interview that he agrees with Chinese policies. In general, the school operates under a guideline that philosophy and religion “should not be taught to the kids,” Mr. Ibrahim said.
Indeed, in his view, people “less than 20 years old should not be related to religion at all. You poison your mind,” he said.
In Karamay, where nearly one-fifth of the population is made up of largely Muslim minority groups, “we try our best to respect Chinese law while offering the Canadian program. We try to make a compromise between that,” he said.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said it is not responsible for operation of the Karamay program. “The operators of the schools are responsible for the hiring of staff and teachers, selecting which electives to teach and the school’s operations,” said department spokesperson Violet MacLeod.
Education is one of Canada’s largest sources of revenue from China. EduNova, an industry association of education and training providers in Nova Scotia, boasts that the nearly 15,000 international students in the province – including more than 3,500 Chinese students – contribute more than $400-million to the economy.
Plans have also been advanced for a British Columbia curriculum school in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, where a local woman has pursued the idea. The school is not moving ahead at the moment, largely owing to disruptions caused by the pandemic, but also because of reluctance by authorities to deal with Canada amid continuing friction between the two countries.
A Canadian school would have particular appeal in Xinjiang, where students have fewer opportunities to attend international programs, said Adrian Conradi, a consultant who serves as a liaison between international school owners and the B.C. government. He dismissed the idea that a Canadian program might fit uncomfortably in a region whose authorities stand accused of committing crimes against humanity. In education, Xinjiang is no different from other parts of the country, he said.
“Political sensitivity is always something that comes up in any foreign-program school anywhere in China,” Mr. Conradi said. “It’s not like you can be a social studies teacher and walk into your classroom and spout off your own personal views about sensitive issues.”
A school like the Sino-Canadian program could once have provided a boost in social mobility for those who could afford to attend, Prof. Thum said.
“But I think the balance of benefits to Uyghurs now has likely tipped the other way,” he said. That’s in part because any program is required to comply with local rules, “some of which are assimilationist in intent.” Like other schools in Xinjiang, the Sino-Canadian program offers no Uyghur-language instruction, for example.
Karamay Senior High School hosts two international programs – one using a Nova Scotia curriculum (which began in 2012), the other Russian. The school promotes its international offerings as “embracing Chinese identity and acquiring global vision.”
Chinese instructional staff at the Karamay school include members of the Chinese Communist Party. In a promotional video, they describe the aim of the school’s moral education program as “the penetration of ideological and political goals.”
The school once boasted more than 100 students, but is now down to less than four dozen, Mr. Ibrahim said. The number of Uyghur students has also declined, as restrictions on their movement have made it difficult for many to travel across their home region.
Many foreigners have been forced out of Xinjiang in recent years. Mr. Ibrahim himself was only able to return last year by enduring 42 days of quarantine, as local authorities took an unusually rigid approach to pandemic enforcement. The school’s three other teachers are currently located overseas, delivering classes virtually.
Mr. Ibrahim began working at the Sino-Canadian program in 2013. He married a local woman, and has lived through strict enforcement of a crackdown that local officials called an anti-terror campaign. At one point, he could not enter a supermarket without showing a passport.
Things have since eased, he said. He declined comment on whether he has witnessed discrimination against Uyghurs.
“All I can say is, there are some restrictions,” he said. “I don’t like to go into detail about that.”
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