Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 26 March 2021


Moscow and Beijing Are Waging a War on Words

Autocratic states pay lip service to diversity, but the push for control means one language dominates at the expense of the rest.

A protest near China’s embassy in Seoul last September.
A protest near China’s embassy in Seoul last September. Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

One of the vignettes in “Ten Years,”  a dystopian Hong Kong film anthology from 2015, focuses on a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver, tormented as he finds himself hemmed in by his failure to learn standard Mandarin, China’s official language. Unable to ply certain routes, to work his GPS navigation unit and even to chat to his son, he soon becomes an outsider in his own city.

That hasn’t actually happened — at least not yet. For all its compromised freedoms, Hong Kong is still a territory that overwhelmingly speaks Cantonese, with English and Mandarin on the margins. Yet it’s telling that this fear features in dark visions of a Beijing-dominated future. That’s because of how closely connected mother tongues are to sense of self — and because of Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, autonomous regions where this scenario is already reality as local languages, culture and religion are stifled in the name of economic progress and national security. 

Debate over language is fraught anywhere. In China and Russia, it’s far more than that: Both have become battlegrounds as policy is used as a means of homogenizing the population and imposing one version of national identity. Minority groups have linguistic rights on paper, but as both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping tighten control over their societies, the reality is different. Among a flurry of changes to the constitution in 2020 to prepare for the latter stages of Putin’s rein, the Kremlin chose to elevate the ethnic majority by describing Russian as “the language of the state-forming people.” 

Moscow has reined in its regions over the past two decades. Nominally to protect Russian speakers, it has reduced the role of other languages spoken across the world’s largest country, ending a period of benign neglect. Portrayed as eroding Russian, compulsory teaching in minority tongues has been halted, and instruction limited — despite anger in regions such as Tatarstan, where roughly half the population names Tatar as their mother tongue. Falling birthrates have not helped. Abroad, protecting language has been useful cover too, as Moscow blames interventions on the need to shield Russian-speaking diasporas.

In China, which has hundreds of dialects and languages from Shanghainese to vanishing Manchu, those spoken beyond the majority Han population have come under particular pressure. Non-Han groups make up less than 10% of China’s 1.4 billion people, but they speak hundreds of languages and are increasingly being pushed to the edges, stigmatized as poor and underdeveloped. Despite promises of diversity, standard Mandarin is promoted as the single path to improvement. Schools, airwaves and the printed word are instruments of control.

Provision of local language education has been progressively curtailed, and that’s most visible for autochthonous languages, as in Tibet, which saw widespread protests over schools in 2010. Xinjiang’s officially bilingual system is a misnomer and Mandarin residential schools have become more common across the board. Even Inner Mongolia, usually seen as less threatening, found itself obliged to replace  the language of instruction last year, prompting demonstrations while parents kept children home from school. Justifying the moves with the need to alleviate poverty and support social mobility, Beijing is cracking down on cultures seen as separatist and troublesome. It’s no accident that, as my colleague Adam Minter has written, Inner Mongolia was singled out for admonition at the National People’s Congress earlier this month. Other groups suffer through negligence and sheer lack of recognition.

One For All

Over 90% of China's population is ethnically Han, but more than 400 languages are spoken across the country

Source: China Census 2010, 'Language Power and Hierarchy', Linda Tsung, Bloomsbury, 2014

Language choice is always about more than mere communication. I realized this while struggling through obligatory Afrikaans lessons as a primary school child in apartheid-era South Africa: African languages spoken by most of the population were not offered. But it’s evident everywhere, as countries balance the need to communicate with equal status and cultural protection. Indonesia, India and others struggle with the political and practical challenges that come with being multicultural states: All-India Radio has programming in 23 languages and 179 dialects. Neglect is common outside China and Russia, too: New Zealand has only begun reviving Maori, for example. As for use in nation-building, modern Hebrew was key for Israel before and after independence in 1948.

The difference for both Moscow and Beijing is that there’s a growing asymmetry of power between the center and the rest. Efforts to impose a single tongue are ultimately about dictating political hierarchy. The policies are reminiscent of Francisco Franco’s Spain, which sought to create a unified, centralized state in part through language. The impact was particularly harsh on Basque and Catalan, and still fuels grievances.

For China, the nation-building debates of the early 20th century encompassed discussions over a lingua franca — a common topic elsewhere in a period that also saw the development of invented language Esperanto, as Gina Tam, a historian at Trinity University in Texas, pointed out to me. Putonghua, meaning “common speech” and based on Mandarin as spoken around Beijing, was eventually picked, and in the mid-1950s was endorsed in Communist Party efforts to boost literacy rates. These also included simplifying fiendish orthography and introducing hanyu pinyin, standard romanization. The Cultural Revolution soon left no room for alternatives.

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Today, even Han vernaculars are pushed aside. Cantonese is fiercely protected in parts of the south and Hong Kong: There were protests in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2010 when authorities sought to limit local-language broadcasting. But it’s still consistently described unflatteringly in official rhetoric as a dialect, rather than a language in its own right. What’s at issue is control, Tam explains. Much as in Beijing’s approach to religion, eradication isn’t the stated goal, but the government gets to set the rules. It influences even what portrayals of China are projected abroad in language classes the world over: Increasingly, a single Mandarin-speaking version, rather than a pluralist one, despite a diaspora that speaks numerous Chinese languages.

Mother Tongue

Russians make up the largest of nearly 200 ethnic groups in the country

Source: Russian Census, 2010

Numbers provided as a percentage of those who named an ethnic group.

In Russia, pressures are different, but motivations similar. With little evidence of the separatist enthusiasm of the 1990s, tighter language policies say more about the increasing paranoia of the later Putin years than any real threat, says independent political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra, who studies the regions. There is limited fiscal autonomy and local elites are largely coopted. It hasn’t stopped Moscow’s grip on words.

Such policies are already producing avoidable pain and loss of identity, not to mention the missed political opportunity to build the stability that comes with fair representation and diversity. It’s not too late to consider other models. Singapore has built a system that while not exactly perfect or multilingual across all ethnic groups, is largely bilingual with English and one other language, and provides space for the most-represented in the curriculum. India’s New Education Policy introduced in 2020, for all the ruling party’s nationalist decision-making, appears to have yielded to its non-Hindi speaking states with a first-language-first strategy that allows primary teaching in local languages. This is often favored in developing economies where people are otherwise disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, in Russia and China, the trend is still in the opposite direction, toward homogeneity. More people will face the fate of the fictional Hong Kong cab driver in “Ten Years” as the national imperative dominates. The loss will be everyone’s.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Clara Ferreira Marques at

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