“Mongolia’s language is part of what makes a person Mongolian and if a person loses their language they lose their national identity.” So read a protest banner opposing the Chinese government’s recent decision to curtail bilingual education in Inner Mongolia.
After World War II, the southern part of Mongolia was annexed by China, becoming the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Since that time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has gradually eroded the culture and independence of the region’s ethnic Mongolian population. Beijing has encouraged Han Chinese to relocate to Inner Mongolia, where they now outnumber Mongolians nearly 6 to 1. They have decreased seats in bilingual public schools from 190,000 to 17,000 and have allowed Han children to fill them.
In August, the government announced that when the school year began in September, classes in Mongolian would be sharply curtailed. Under the new regulations, literature, politics and history will all now be taught in Mandarin. It has been reported that similar programs are being carried out in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic groups respectively.
Many parents in Inner Mongolia responded to the announcement by saying that they would prefer to keep their children home than have them forced to accept Mandarin-language instruction. As schools opened in the first week of September, strikes by parents were widespread. In Naiman county, for example, where there were normally 1,000 Mongolian students, just 40 registered for this term and only 10 actually showed up on the first day of class. Across the region, more than 300,000 students have gone on strike.
Beijing is responding by publishing lists of suspected ringleaders and offering rewards for their capture. So far, thousands of arrest warrants have been issued. Meanwhile, all 300 employees of the CCP-controled Mongolian TV and radio stations in Inner Mongolia have signed a petition, threatening to resign if parents are punished for refusing to send their children to school.
Videos have surfaced online showing ethnic Mongolian parents trying to remove their children from school grounds and police preventing them from doing so. According to a report by the BBC, hundreds of riot police were deployed the prevent one strike, but after a standoff lasting several hours, parents finally managed to break through the police barricades and collect their children.
Other videos have appeared on social media showing masses of Mongolian children chanting “Our mother language is Mongolian!” and “We are Mongolian until death!” One showed Inner Mongolian men, dressed in traditional clothes, raising the khar suld (or black banner), the battlefield standard of the Mongol army, which represents the power of the “eternal blue sky” (monke khukh tenger). Traditionally, the khar suld was meant to concentrate and mobilize the spirit and power of all Mongols to defeat their enemies. According to legend, it is the repository of the soul of Genghis Khan. To many ethnic Mongolians, the raising of the suld is the equivalent of a declaration of war. As one Mongolian commented, “It’s a big sign that they will not give up. [The protesters] will go until [the] end.”
China’s Ethnic Minorities Under Pressure
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stipulates that ‘‘all ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minorities.” In practice, however, the PRC authorities have spent the past 70 years slowly chipping away at the rights of ethnic minorities, in what appears to be a sweeping attempt at ethnic and national homogenization. Han Chinese men are even paid a generous bonus for marrying ethnic minority women, including Uyghurs and Mongolians. Drawing comparisons between the situations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang has become common among China watchers, as well as Inner Mongolian human rights groups abroad, who have termed the recent Chinese actions “cultural genocide.”
It’s not only a question of language. Inner Mongolians, like other ethnic groups, are also being denied religious freedom. In China, the only Buddhist faith that is permitted is the Buddhist Association of China, which is under the CCP’s United Front Work Department. Many Mongolians, however, follow a Tibetan form of Buddhism that recognizes His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the font of spiritual authority. Beijing’s restrictions on the Tibetan religion, as well as communication with or visits from the Dalai Lama, thus affect not only Tibetans, but also ethnic Mongolians.
While many outside of Mongolia are familiar with China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and against the Tibetans, few are familiar with the plight of the Inner Mongolians. An international petition, titled “Save Education in Inner Mongolia,” has so far received less than 21,000 signatures. U.S. President Donald Trump has signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law, while the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019 has passed the House of Representatives. The Southern Mongolian Congress, an Inner Mongolian activist group, based out of Japan, has since written an open letter, asking the U.S. Congress to do the same for the Inner Mongolians.
Reaction in Mongolia
The PRC’s latest maneuver in Inner Mongolia has unsurprisingly attracted attention across the border. The nation of Mongolia, a democracy, has a population of just 3 million, while Inner Mongolia has a population of 24 million, more than 4 million of whom are ethic Mongolian. Unlike in China, Mongolian citizens enjoy religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and press freedom. To prevent ethnic Mongolian parents from communicating and organizing, Bainu, a Mongolian social media platform in China, has been closed down. Defying Chinese government threats against citizens who speak out on social media about the new language policy, brave Inner Mongolians have been sending videos and posts to friends and relatives across the border, where they are being reposted on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, which are blocked in China.
Many Mongolian citizens are outraged at the ill-treatment of their brethren within China. One post from a Mongolian academic showed a rugged Mongolian man crying over the plight of the Inner Mongolians. She translated his sentiments as follows: “I feel sorry for Mongolians, we need to support Inner Mongolians. I can’t control my emotions. What can make Mongolians cry? The reason is that the CCP has suppressed and persecuted Mongolians for many years.”
Inner Mongolia, in spite of the repression, has been instrumental in preserving the traditional Mongolian alphabet, unlike independent Mongolia, which, as a former Soviet satellite, uses Russia’s Cyrillic script. But parents in Inner Mongolia now fear that under the PRC’s new education directives, the use of the ancient Mongolian script will fade from view.
As Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a former Mongolian president, tweeted recently, “If a Mongolian does not have their own culture, history and language, he is not a Mongolian. 300 years of humiliation against Mongolians should not continue in the new century!” He went on to say, “I know that the leader of our southern neighbor, Xi Jinping, respects the language and culture of others. The suppression of the Mongolian language and culture is not the path for a great responsible nation.”
While the average Mongolian is sympathetic to the plight of the Inner Mongolians, there is not much the Mongolian government can do in protest, given the nation’s heavy economic dependence on the PRC. China buys in excess of 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports and has hit Mongolia economically in the past. When Mongolia permitted the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia, in 2016, China retaliated by imposing high import tariffs. Consequently, Mongolians have been reduced to frustrated bystanders, watching via social media as the PRC targets what remains of ethnic Mongolian culture south of the border.
Dr. Antonio Graceffo is an American economist and author based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.