URUMQI: Teaching Mandarin to students in the remote Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region was helping the fight against terrorism, chairman of the autonomous region Nur Bekri said.
"Terrorists from neighboring countries mainly target Uygurs that are relatively isolated from mainstream society as they cannot speak Mandarin. They are then tricked into terrorist activities," Bekri said.
Bilingual education has been gradually rolled out in the northwestern prefecture since 2002. Mandarin is now widely taught in pre-schools and kindergartens to prepare children for school life in a second language environment.
But foreign media have criticized the policy, in which Mandarin is used as the language of instruction and minority languages are taught as a subject.
Bekri said there had been demand for Mandarin language lessons from ethnic minority students who wanted to be able to communicate with other Chinese.
He made it clear that these students had not been compelled to learn the language, but that they saw it as a desirable skill.
"The students have benefited from mastering Mandarin. We are making our best effort to create opportunities and an environment for them to learn the language," Bekri said.
"We don't need to force them."
The autonomous region has a population of just over 20 million, with 60 percent being ethnic minority groups, mostly Uygur and Kazak, whose mother tongue is not Mandarin.
Bekri said the policy was primarily designed to improve the standard of Mandarin among ethnic minority graduates, so that they would be more competitive in the workplace.
Han students were also encouraged to learn minority languages, such as Uygur.
"Speaking and writing Mandarin is important for my future," said Muremuhan, a 15-year-old high school student from Urumqi. "Everybody knows that it is a must-have skill."
"I cannot speak Mandarin, something I always regret," said Enimar who has dropped his 9-year-old daughter Qimaiduo off at a village bilingual elementary school in Aksu region, western Xinjiang.
Enimar said he was not concerned that the focus on Mandarin would lead to limited use of his mother tongue, or the loss of local heritage. "Instead, mastering Mandarin can help us to promote our culture."
The implementation of the policy has been slow. In 2002, there were few minority teachers who could speak good Mandarin, so the mother tongue continued to be the main instruction language in most minority schools.
In order to speed up its implementation, the central government began upgrading the Mandarin level of established elementary and high school teachers through learning programs, and sending teachers with good Mandarin to rural schools.