Ethnic Mongolians, including students and parents, in China’s Inner Mongolia region are demonstrating their anger in rare public protests against a new bilingual education policy that they say is endangering the Mongolian language.
A high school student in the city of Hulunbuir said students rushed out of their school on Tuesday and destroyed a fence before paramilitary police swarmed in and tried to return them to class.
“We senior students were talking and we thought we had to do something,” said the student, Narsu, who like most Mongolians has only one name. “Although this doesn’t directly affect us now, this will have a huge impact on us in the future.”
The policy, announced on Monday ahead of the start of the new school year, requires schools to use new national textbooks in Chinese, replacing Mongolian-language textbooks. Protesters say they were aware of demonstrations and classroom walkouts in Hohhot, the provincial capital, as well as in the cities of Chifeng and Tongliao and Xilin Gol prefecture.
Nuomin, the mother of a kindergarten student in Hulunbuir, said she saw police in places she normally wouldn’t and a metal barrier in front of one school. She has kept her child home since Monday.
“Many of us parents will continue to keep our kids at home, until they bring Mongolian back in those classes,” she said.
In 2017, the ruling Communist Party created a committee to overhaul textbooks for the entire country. Revised textbooks have been pushed out over the last few years.
The new policy for Inner Mongolia, a northern province that borders the country of Mongolia, affects schools where Mongolian is been the principal language of instruction.
Literature classes for elementary and middle school students at the Mongolian-language schools will switch to a national textbook and be taught in Mandarin Chinese.
Next year, the politics and morality course will also switch to Mandarin, as will history classes starting in 2022. Remaining classes, such as math, will not change their language of instruction.
Students will also start learning Mandarin in first grade. Previously, they started in second grade.
The move follows similar ones in other ethnic areas. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the primary language of instruction in such schools has become Mandarin, and the minority language is a language class. Academics studying China’s policies in Xinjiang and the resulting tensions have highlighted changes in language policies as important early changes underscoring a shift in the dynamic between the region and Beijing.
In an explainer on the new policy, Christopher Atwood, a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that “Uyghur- and Tibetan-medium education in Xinjiang and Tibet had already been largely eliminated, and Mongolian and Korean were the only minority languages continuing to be used as media for instruction in China, at least in theory.”
As Atwood notes, Mongolians in China have sometimes been seen as a sort of “model minority,” due to the lack of “any massive and highly visible instances of interethnic conflict” and to the “strongly secular” nature of Mongolian identity (versus the emphasis on Islam for Uyghurs in Xinjiang and and Buddhism for Tibetans). Education, rather than religious practice, is seen as the crucial vector for carrying on Mongolian identity in China: “Public schools teaching Mongolian thus acquired something like the significance for Mongols that Buddhist monasteries have for Tibetans and Islamic holidays and shrines have for Uyghurs,” Atwood writes. The new policy is seen as a threat to that education, and thereby to the very existence of Mongolian cultural identity.
The education bureau in Inner Mongolia did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
China has been changing education under a new model of assimilation into the Han majority culture that leaves behind Soviet-inspired policies of promoting minority language education.
President Xi Jinping has said that if people don’t speak the same language, it is difficult to communicate and achieve understanding.
“The ethnic minority schools, if they study well the language of communication in the country, it will be of great benefit to them in employment, in learning modern scientific and cultural knowledge and allow them to integrate into society,” he said at a Central Ethnic Work conference in 2014. His words were quoted in the most recent policy document.
But for ethnic Mongolians, the new directive is creating fear that they will lose their mother tongue.
Gegentuul Baioud, a linguistics scholar who was educated in a bilingual school in Inner Mongolia, summarized the potential impact of the new policy:
The Mongolian language is already fragile and has entered the early stages of endangerment. In today’s Inner Mongolia, less than 40% of Mongol parents choose Mongolian bilingual schools for their children; the rest enroll their children in mainstream Chinese schools. In such circumstances, this reform pushes already emaciated Mongolian language and culture further towards the abyss of extinction within the Chinese borders.
She added that the “secret implementation” of the policy has also aroused opposition, with the documents containing the changes released just a week before the school year began.
In the city of Tongliao, parents decided to take their children home from a boarding school on Monday. Many parents only found out about the policy after they had dropped off their children at school, said Nure Zhang, a Tongliao resident.
But authorities at one elementary school, backed by police, refused to let parents take back their children, according to Zhang, who attended the protest.
There were multiple clashes as parents and others rushed at the police, trying to get into the school, Zhang said. “They used a human wall to block us. We kept on singing and shouting slogans,” he said. The police used pepper spray twice on the protesters, he added.
At 9 p.m., the school principal and local officials said parents could take their children home.
Now the Mongolian-medium schools sit quiet in Tongliao. Local Communist Party leaders have been visiting each family to try to get the students to return, Zhang said.
Authorities have banned a popular Mongolian-language social media platform called Bainu.
Zhang, a parent as well, said he already felt they were heavily influenced by the Han, who make up 79 percent of Inner Mongolia’s 25 million residents, according to the most recent census data from 2015. Ethnic Mongolians make up 17 percent.
“Now Chinese class is literature class, Chinese is the primary language and Mongolian has become a supplementary language,” he said. “If this continues for 10 years, 20 years later, our language will slowly be forgotten.”
By Huizhong Wu for the Associated Press in Taipei, Taiwan with additional reporting by The Diplomat.