The promotion of Mandarin as China’s lingua franca, commonly referred to as “tuipu,” has been one of the most sweeping initiatives implemented by the Chinese government. Tuipu serves the dual purpose of forging a sense of national identity based on Han culture and weakening regional and ethnic loyalties. Some regional dialects and ethnic minority languages have largely died out in China because of tuipu propaganda that portrays them as “uncivilized” and “barbaric.” The use of regional dialects and ethnic minority languages (e.g. Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur) is banned in many government offices and schools, and on television programs. According to the latest official statistics, the literacy rate of Mandarin in urban China has reached 90 percent, however in rural areas it remains around 40 percent.
Within the carceral system, prisoners are not required to speak Mandarin among their peers, but the use of dialects and minority languages are subject to varying degrees of restrictions when it comes to family visitation rules. It should be noted that at the national level neither the Prison Law nor the visitation and correspondence regulations issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on December 5, 2016, contain provisions restricting the use of dialects or minority languages. However, in practice many local prisons have taken it upon themselves to mandate the use of Mandarin during family visitations, with varying degrees of enforcement. As many of those who come into conflict with the law are from rural areas, it comes as little surprise that many of those subject to prison surveillance have limited economic means and educational opportunities to learn Mandarin. Prisoners and their family members, especially older generations, who can only speak their regional dialects or their minority languages are consequently deprived of their visitation rights. Dui Hua’s research has found that those who fail the “Mandarin only” visitation requirement also have slimmer prospects for obtaining clemency.
Domestic news media in China occasionally report stories about the use of regional dialects during prison visitations to showcase the more “human” side of prison management. A news article in 2004 reported a story from Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Prison where well-behaved prisoners were allowed to speak in their local dialects when making phone calls to family members. A Xinhua article in 2014 covered a story about a prisoner serving time in Guangdong’s Jieyang Prison who spoke in a local dialect during a video call with his mother in Guangxi, who he had not seen in three years.
In Sichuan’s Jinjiang Prison, visitation rules state that prisoners and their family visitors can speak in Mandarin or Sichuanese during visitations. However, such leniency is not extended to many other prisons around the country. In Guangdong, Zhuang Songkun (庄松坤) is one of the Wukan villagers who was sentenced in December 2016 for allegedly instigating protests against local government corruption. When Zhuang’s wife tried to visit him at Guangdong’s Wujiang Prison on February 23, 2017, she was not allowed to speak in Chaozhou dialect. As she was unable to speak Mandarin, the prison officers confiscated her microphone, which had been attached to a video recording device, cutting short the whole visit to a mere five minutes. Henan-based lawyer Ren Quanniu publicly remarked that such a policy is an abuse of power, especially given that there is no written provision prohibiting the use of regional dialects. The MOJ regulation entitles prisoners to up to one monthly visit from family members or guardians in the form of telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, or video calls. (In some parts of China, visits from family members take place less frequently.) Meetings are not supposed to exceed 30 minutes, though sometimes more time is given as a reward for good behavior. Even during court proceedings, defendants, police, prosecutors, and judges often communicate in regional dialects. It is unlawful to deprive prisoners such as Zhuang of their visitation rights just because prison staff cannot understand them, says Ren.
Wujiang Prison is not alone in prohibiting regional dialects; similar visitation restrictions are commonplace across China. A guide issued by Guangdong’s Gaoming Prison in December 2015 states that a family visit will be cancelled unless both prisoners and visitors speak Mandarin. The same policy is enforced in Fujian’s Qingliu Prison as part of the campaign to “cultivate civilization.” In the same province, an exception is made at Putian Prison, but only for elderly prisoners who cannot speak Mandarin and who are meeting with a relative who can provide translation for the supervising guard.
Despite the generally lower Mandarin proficiency among many ethnic minority groups in China, there are still language restrictions in prisons located in provinces with large ethnic minority populations. In Guizhou province, where one-third of the population is non-Han Chinese, minority languages spoken in prisons are strictly regulated. A provincial visitation guide issued in 2015 bans ethnic minority languages and the use of any “secret languages” during visitations to the provincial judicial police hospital that caters to prisoners in need of medical treatment. The restriction aims to cultivate “linguistic civilization” and maintain “one’s dignified demeanor.” The same restrictions apply to Wenshan Prison and Yiliang Prison in Yunnan province, which has an ethnic minority population of over 15 million. Yiliang Prison does not explicitly forbid the use of Yunnanese among local prisoners, but all other regional dialects and minority languages are prohibited. Violators of the rule can have their family visitation rights taken away for six months and in serious circumstances a case can be filed to investigate the matter.
Sichuan appears to be one of the few exceptions. Given that Sichuan has a non-Han population of approximately five million, the Sichuan Prison Administrative Bureau permits the use of minority languages like Tibetan in prisons throughout the province. Shandong province, although not nearly as ethnically diverse as Sichuan, permits minority language use during visitations, albeit with some restrictions. For instance, Shandong's Luning Prison only allows the use of minority languages when prisoners have obtained prior police approval.
In China’s autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, regulations on prison visitation rules could not be found by Dui Hua researchers. However anecdotal evidence from formerly incarcerated individuals suggests that these regions are not unlike the rest of China when it comes to enforcing Mandarin during prison visitations. Circumstantial factors such as the particular prison, the language ability of the guards on duty, and the political climate at the time can impact whether and how language and dialect restrictions are enforced.
Dui Hua’s research into clemency judgments found that the practice of speaking regional dialects also has a significant impact on a prisoner’s chances of gaining sentence reductions and parole. The judgments reveal that speaking dialects can be considered evidence of not “showing remorse,” a prerequisite for obtaining early release. Sentence reductions and parole are granted to those who have accrued a certain number of points for good behavior. Between 2013-2016, prisoners in Fujian and Shanghai received point deductions ranging from 0.5 to 2 points for each instance of speaking regional dialects during family visitations. In December 2016, the Fujian Bureau of Justice implemented new measures for assessing clemency points, drastically increasing the penalty for speaking dialects to a deduction of 30-100 points. In accordance to the new provincial directive, Wuyishan Prison deducted 30 points from a prisoner because he did not speak Mandarin on just one occasion during a family visit in March 2017.
The impact these rules have on prisoners who are ethnic minorities or who come from rural areas with limited opportunities to learn Mandarin, or those who come from both backgrounds is significant. The rules not only deny these groups precious contact with their families and opportunities to gain early release but they also function to further stigmatize and criminalize these groups because of their ethnicity and limited economic means.
It is not uncommon for prisons to impose restrictions on communication within prisons for security purposes, such as to guard against distribution of printed materials that can be used to plan escapes or other crimes. However, language restrictions on visitations are now widely uncommon. (In the United States, Utah was the last state to drop the “English only” visitation requirement in August 2013.) While the promotion of Mandarin has been crucial to China’s development, punishments in the form of denying visitation rights and equal opportunities for clemency due to language ability deprive prisoners of their constitutional rights (Article 4 “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.”)
Dui Hua has found some cases where prisoners earn points towards clemency as a result of learning Mandarin. In some rare cases, rewards are given to those who learn minority languages and contribute to “bilingual education classes” offered to prisoners to learn both Mandarin and ethnic minority languages in autonomous regions. However, these cases are rare and resources for Mandarin education in prisons are by no means comprehensive.
The suppression of regional dialects and ethnic minority languages that has accompanied tuipu has long been a source of social and ethnic tension, sparking incidents of unrest across China. Learning Mandarin can better equip prisoners with skills for post-release integration and opportunities for clemency provide prisoners with a strong incentive to learn and a chance at earlier reintegration. Rather than directing resources to support prisoner’s education and rehabilitation, the punitive “Mandarin only” visitation rules serve instead to undermine inter-ethnic relationships and run counter to the ideal of the “harmonious society” that the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government strive to achieve.