Late last month, a friend in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, told me that military police were guarding the university there, and that students weren’t allowed to freely come and go. I was taken aback. I didn’t think that the killing of a farmer could escalate so quickly.
Inner Mongolia certainly hasn’t been a peaceful place recently, due mainly to unrest prompted by the conflict there between economic and environmental interests, specifically the coal mining activities of the Han Chinese and the farmlands that the Mongolians depend on for a living.
Last month, a Mongolian herder was killed, apparently for refusing to let coal trucks pass through the grasslands out of concern for the noise and pollution being caused. Following the herder’s death, protests involving hundreds of people erupted in the north-eastern region of Inner Mongolia. Among those protesting were students, who staged a sit-down protest against the government and demanded severe punishment for the ‘murderer.’ (The trucker was convicted and sentenced to death last week).
At a press conference held by local authorities, officials promised to promptly and strictly deal with the matter, but this wasn’t enough to quell growing anger. A text message urging a mass protest on May 30 began to circulate widely, and anxious local authorities dispatched a large number of military police to Hohhot and Xilin Gol; university students were even briefly stopped from attending school.
Inner Mongolia Communist Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, who is widely seen as a key member of the party’s sixth generation leadership, personally met the students, calling for calm and restraint. He also said that the government would properly handle the challenge of encouraging economic development while ensuring the environment is protected.
But a criminal case that should have been simple to resolve has become complicated due to a number of factors – ethnicity, economics and social tensions.
Of China’s five autonomous regions, economic growth has been strongest in Inner Mongolia, with few protests and relative ethnic and social harmony. Yet in some ways, this harmony has been superficial, and the incident involving the death of the herder highlights one of the big problems facing the region, namely how high GDP growth has come at the expense of many farmers’ livelihoods, adversely affecting the environment in the process.
Against this backdrop, senior communist party officials held a meeting to discuss measures to strengthen and rejuvenate public administration. The media interpreted the meetings as the Chinese Communist Party finally acknowledging some of the defects of China’s economic growth model, and the serious social problems it can create.
Many Chinese scholars are concerned that those hoping to see China destabilized will see this incident as a new opening. China should therefore remain vigilant over the possibility that the unrest in Inner Mongolia will be exploited by those seeking independence in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and elsewhere. If these current tensions really are exploited, it could spark major social unrest around China.