Inner Mongolians do not hope to overthrow the Chinese, nor do they demand independence. They want to save their language and identity.
Since mid-August, hundreds of thousands have staged protests and school boycotts in China’s Inner Mongolia, prompted by a modified, government-imposed teaching curriculum that ethnic Mongolians are calling a form of cultural genocide.
Bilingual boarding schools have been surrounded by paramilitary police to keep enrolled children from leaving, parents have been beaten and arrested and authorities have posted pictures of people shown taking part in demonstrations, offering rewards for information leading to their arrests.
In the city of Tongliao, police officers with clipboards have been checking cars at the toll gates leaving the city, comparing faces with photos on wanted lists.
Protesters have been charged with “forwarding false and harmful information” about the new policy, as well as “creating and spreading rumors [and] maliciously obstructing students from attending class.”
According to recorded messages and other communications from parents and eyewitnesses, a number of students and teachers were taken to school by force. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times was reportedly grabbed by the throat and pushed into a cell in Hohhot, a regional capital, where she was held for more than four hours before being forced to return to Beijing.
Inner Mongolia is a region of 25 million people bordering independent Mongolia to the north. 17% of the population is ethnic Mongolian, while Han Chinese make up the majority. The new education policy dictates that literature classes, formerly taught in Mongolian, adopt a national textbook and be taught in Mandarin Chinese. Next year, “Politics and Morality” courses will likewise switch to Mandarin. History courses will switch in 2022. Students will also begin learning Chinese in the first grade, a year earlier than before.
The US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) estimates that 300,000 students have boycotted classes to date across Inner Mongolia. In a region west of Tongliao, a city at the eastern end of the expanse of grassland, forest and desert occupying China’s 2,880-mile border with Mongolia, ethnic civil servants and public employees were told their paychecks and benefits would stop and that “investigations” would follow if their children did not attend school. Punishments would be served, they were told, on citizens who “failed to rectify behavior after being admonished.”
Many parents learned about the policy only after they had left their children at school, said Nure Zhang, a Tongliao resident. Authorities at one elementary school refused to let parents take back their children, according to Zhang, who attended the protest. Mayhem ensued as parents and others rushed at the police in an attempt to enter. “They used a human wall to block us,” he said. “We kept on singing and shouting slogans.”
Suicide as protest
An ethnic Mongolian woman employed by the Chinese Communist Party in Inner Mongolia’s Alxa League died by suicide in late August – an act of protest, the family attests, over the Party’s plans “to phase out Mongolian-medium education and language teaching in schools.”
The woman’s husband announced his wife’s death via WeChat, according to SMHRIC, and said the language policy is aimed at the “total eradication” of the Mongolian language.
Her death was the fourth suicide reported since the protests began. An elementary school student leapt from the roof of a school in Shebotu, near Tongliao, Radio Free Asia reports. A teacher from Zhenglan Banner also died, followed by a Mongolian herder from Ongniud Banner.
Government authorities in Shilin-Gol insist that “other subjects will be still taught in the Mongolian language and bilingual education in these schools is not scrapped.” The new regulation, authorities said, “has not been fully explained to parents, and disinformation has misled the public.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in 2014 that the “language of communication in the country” is necessary for ethnic citizens. “It will be of great benefit to them in employment, in learning modern scientific and cultural knowledge and [will] allow them to integrate into society.”
“The will of the party”
“Teaching materials,” the new policy states, “reflect the will of the party and the country, reflect the major concerns of the people, and inherit the excellent Chinese culture and the advanced achievements of human civilization. They are an important carrier to solve the fundamental problem of who to train, how to train and for whom, and are directly related to the party’s educational policy Implementation and [how] education goals are achieved.”
In September, local Inner Mongolian governments began posting videos featuring students smiling in classes and playing in school yards, implying the system was running as usual.
Most of China’s five million Mongols are concentrated in eastern Inner Mongolia and are urbanized and bilingual. The core unrest has come from the million or fewer who still embody a version of traditional nomadic culture. They inhabit the steppes and migrate frequently, tending livestock, and rely on boarding schools as a necessity. They have often been called a “model minority,” coexisting in peace with Han Chinese despite the killings of 22,000 Mongols in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and mass displacement in “eco-migration” programs in the 2000s, when Mongol herders were moved to cities allegedly in the interest of preserving grasslands.
Minorities living within China’s borders have often been patronized, but rarely considered threats and yet insecurity in the ruling elite has prompted measures to homogenize cultures. In Tibet, where dissent has been all but completely erased, more than 100 people have burned to death in protest-suicides since 2009. In Xinjiang, a million or more ethnic Uyghurs have been placed in concentration camps and stripped of religion, language and culture.
“Tibetan and Uyghur minority language schools have mostly been eliminated since 2017 and replaced by Mandarin Chinese instruction,” the South China Morning Post reports, “in tandem with a Beijing crackdown on dissent and mass detention of protesters.”
Less visible and perhaps less extreme, Inner Mongolia’s modified education plan is part of a generational change in China’s ethnic policy, which is moving from a Soviet mode of ethnic autonomy to a monocultural model. Independent Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet decades ago under Soviet influence. As a result, Inner Mongolia is the only region in the world still using Mongolian script. Inner Mongolia’s schools and teaching system are thus necessary components in an act of cultural preservation.
China was governed by Mongols for nearly two centuries, part of the largest contiguous empire known in human history. The Mongolian language was universally tied to diplomacy. Letters from Mongol Khans to Popes and French kings are stored in Vatican archives. Even after the retreat of the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty communicated officially in Mongolian, so pervasive was its influence throughout Eurasia.
After the annexing of Mongolia’s southern region following World War II, Han Chinese men were rewarded monetarily for marrying ethnic minority women (including Uyghurs and Mongols) in government efforts to dilute ethnicity. The term “Inner Mongolia” soon arose and was in fact a Chinese creation. “Nei” in Mandarin, meaning “inner,” does not correspond with “uver,” which means “southern” in Mongolian. For the Mongols, there are two regions, “Ar-Khangai” and “Uver-Khangai,” meaning “Northern Kingdom” and Southern Kingdom.”
The constriction evoked in the name, the Chinese designation – a figure of language, a region bound on three sides – prefigured constriction to come, which continues today, with the suppression of language.
For Baatar, a herder in Hinggan League, the protests have prompted both fear and defiance.
“We just want schools to be like how they were before. Is speaking out for your own language a crime?” he asked. “If they come at us hard, we’ll come at them hard.”
“This might be my last live broadcast,” another parent-protester said, appearing in a video clip titled “Arrest Me Immediately.”
“They said they will arrest me in a month. I told them they are very welcome to do so … I categorically reject so-called ‘bilingual education.’ I urge all Mongolian parents not to send their children to school.”
“Mongolian until death”
Some protesters on social media clips, dressed in traditional clothes, have been seen with black flags, the battlefield standard of the Mongol army. Raising the khar suld, as it is called, is a declaration of war, the flag mobilizing the spirit of all Mongols to defeat enemies, according to legend. The khar is said to hold the soul of Genghis Khan.
“Mongolian is our mother tongue!” protesters shout. “We are Mongolian until death!”
Inner Mongolians do not hope to overthrow the Chinese, nor do they demand independence. They want to save their language and identity. The protests, boycotts and collecting of signature-petitions continue, but are difficult to track now, owing to government-imposed shutdowns of social media and censoring by state-controlled news. Recent reports suggest students are returning to school, but that can’t be verified, given rampant misinformation and propaganda.
“Before these things happened, we were able to get relatively accurate information through WeChat groups,” according to Enghebatu Togochog, director of the SMHRIC. “Now, it’s almost a communication blackout.”
A herder in Jarud Banner said he would keep his son out of school as long as he could. “They shouldn’t have done it like this,” he told a reporter. “I have no problem with him learning the Han language, but there should have been a discussion. We will teach him ourselves for now.”
“I don’t want to become Chinese,” a crying child in a film clip exclaimed, before the site was shut down.
According to Human Rights Watch, “China’s assimilationist education policy contravenes international human rights law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified. Both treaties guarantee that children have the right to education in their own language and culture,” the report states. “China has also supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both endorses rights to Indigenous language education and the right of Indigenous people to control their educational systems and institutions.”
Sophie Richardson, China director of the SMHRIC, told Human Rights Watch, “Chinese authorities should be focused on providing genuine bilingual education, not undermining it and persecuting its proponents. Reducing mother tongue education,” she said, “flies in the face of China’s constitution, international standards, and expert consensus, and erodes Mongolians’ distinct identity.”
“As in Xinjiang and Tibet,” Richardson said, “the Chinese authorities appear to be putting political imperatives ahead of educational ones” – though the imperatives in this case seem to have backfired. Xi’s methods, The Guardian reports, “are stimulating rather than reducing domestic resistance.”
What is next for Inner Mongolia? In censored, regimented, surveillance-state one-party China, there aren’t many options. While the Chinese constitution states, “all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs,” freedom in Inner Mongolia is in short supply. As Xi Jinping tightens his indefinite, ultranationalist one-man agenda, everything is defined on his terms. “It’s rumoured,” Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian, “he may soon declare himself “Chairman Xi.”
Less hopeful than some, Enghebatu Togochog puts it this way: “The Mongolian way of life (has already been) wiped out by so many policies. This new policy is the final blow to the Mongolian identity.”
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