CHINA. Chinese authorities have begun special "patriotic education" sessions in schools and colleges in the troubled north-western region of Xinjiang as part of a crackdown on the restive Muslim-Turkic Uigur minority.
Xinjiang has been wracked by rioting and unrest, with several bus bombs exploding in the capital Urumqi. In February, riots were reported in the town of Yining, not far from the border of Kazakhstan.
The unrest by Uigur groups demanding independence from China has worried the Chinese authorities, which fear instability in the wake of the death of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
It has led to a clampdown on religious schools, previously tolerated because they helped to reduce illiteracy among the Muslim population. Mosque schools that are "approved" by the authorities will be subject to tighter controls.
"We will teach them about ethnic unity," the Communist party propaganda official Zhang Yuliang said earlier last month.
But such moves could be counterproductive. Educationists say that the shutting down of special Mosque schools and colleges last year was the spark that ignited the latest unrest, the most violent demonstrations for Uigur independence since 1949.
At least 19 unauthorised schools were closed, most of them attached to mosques, in a security sweep last summer. The authorities also targeted "outsiders" on campuses who interfered with study and the administration of education institutes.
The authorities claimed that underground schools taught religious dogma and even military training. Koranic professors and students were arrested at the time and some sent to re-education camps, according to exile groups.
There are only two streams of education in Xinjiang, where the 7 million Uigurs make up 62 per cent of the population: state-sponsored and mosque-attached.
Because the state system follows a rigid national curriculum, very little is learned about the local culture. In fact, said Dr Dru Gladney, an expert in China's minorities at the University of Hawaii, the state curriculum presents a negative, patronising view of minorities including the Uigurs.
This contributes to the low literacy and staying-on rates among China's Muslims: only 30 per cent of Muslim children in Xinjiang pass their exams at the end of primary school, aged 12. Even Beijing recognises that mosque-schools must be allowed in order to raise educational levels among the Muslims.
Allowing religious schools to flourish, however, has been a double-edged sword, as it contributes to a rise in nationalist fervour.
Rules restricting religious training to those completing nine years of compulsory education is widely flouted, and children of all ages study at the Mosque schools.
After unrest last year, when many "unapproved" schools were closed down, some children received no education at all - particularly girls - because the state system does not allow for single-sex education and parents would rather take their girls out of school than allow them to study alongside boys.
Illiteracy among girls, at almost 45 per cent, is double that of boys in Xinjiang.
In the state-school system there are new restrictions on teaching materials. Last April, the authorities banned the publication of books or cassettes on Islam without official approval. Books and cassettes in Uzbek or Turkish from neighbouring Central Asian republics, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are extremely popular.
"These include tapes of readings of medieval poets in central Asia and new central Asian soap operas that talk about local history in a way that is not particularly favourable to the approved Chinese version," said Dr Gladney.
Ironically, shortage of curriculum materials because of government restrictions gives teachers in Xinjiang a free hand to provide oral versions of history.
"This gives the teachers a lot of room for manoeuvre to talk about local history which may not be particularly favourable to the official Chinese version," Dr Gladney said.