COMMENT: Why critics are asking if Inner Mongolia is the next Tibet or Xinjiang

COMMENT: Why critics are asking if Inner Mongolia is the next Tibet or Xinjiang
The famous Mongolian poem “I am a Mongol” is written on a blackboard (Image: WeChat post, spotted by Language on the Move socio-linguistic research site, reminiscing and mourning the impending loss of the mother tongue). / WeChat social media.
By Antonio Graceffo February 25, 2021

“Mongolian is our mother language! We are Mongolian until death!” shouted ethnic-Mongolian students in China’s Inner Mongolia, in opposition to a government policy, ending bilingual education. Critics of this policy see it as the latest move in a decades’ long campaign aimed at erasing the Mongolian culture.

"Inner Mongolia" written in Mongolian script.

The new policy replaces Mongolian with Mandarin in core subjects—morality and law, history, and language and literature—while Mongolian would remain, alongside English and Korean, as a foreign language. The Chinese government says that the presence of the Mongolian language class is proof that they are not scrapping the Mongolian language altogether. The issue, however, is that true bilingual education means subjects being taught in both languages. There is a dramatic difference between, for instance, taking Spanish language classes in high school and taking history and law taught in Spanish. The fluency level of students who only have language classes, rather than language as a medium of instruction, will be considerably lower. The argument from the parents is that they are ethnic-Mongolians and fluency in the mother tongue is a significant component of their identity. Cancelling bilingual education would eventually lead to children having the same level of competency in the language as the average American remembers from high school Spanish classes.

There have never been Mongolian history classes in Inner Mongolian schools, leading to a second complaint that exposing the children only to the government-approved, Communist version of Chinese history, taught in Mandarin will further drive them away from their own culture and identity. Critics see this as one more attempt by the Communist Party of China to Sinicize the entire nation, making everyone speak, think, behave, and ultimately identify with being Han Chinese.

The partition of Mongolia

In 1206, the great Mongol Empire and the nation which would become Mongolia, was founded by Genghis Khan himself. The grandson of Genghis Khan, the fifth great Khan, Kublai Khan, founded China’s Yuan dynasty in 1271, which ruled over China, Mongolia and Korea. After his death, in 1294, the empire went into steady decline, breaking up, as the nation of Mongolia became smaller. In 1911, Mongolia declared its independence from China. In 1924, Outer Mongolia became the Mongolian People's Republic, a Soviet satellite. After World War II, Southern Mongolia became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia underwent a peaceful transition to democracy and capitalism. Today, citizens of the independent republic of Mongolia enjoy freedom of the press, speech, and religion, while those in Inner Mongolia live under the restrictions of the People’s Republic of China.

In Outer Mongolia, much of the modernisation, construction of infrastructure and introduction of technology was carried out by the Russians. As literacy levels in the country were low, it was decided that the public schools would use a version of the Russian, Cyrillic alphabet to write the Mongolian language. Consequently, the classical Mongolian alphabet was dropped. In Inner Mongolia, by contrast, the ancient Mongolian alphabet coexisted, alongside simplified Chinese characters. Beijing claims that allowing the Inner Mongolians to maintain their traditional alphabet was proof of their commitment to preserving minority culture. It may, however, have been a strategic move to make it more difficult for Inner Mongolians to communicate with Outer Mongolians in written form. It also prevented the spread of Russian ideas, or later, democratic and religious ideals from being disseminated from Mongolia into China. One of the many reasons why Mongolians are upset about the language policy is that China’s Inner Mongolia has become the last repository of the Mongolian alphabet. Prior to and unrelated to the recent protests, the government of Mongolia had announced that it wanted the country to switch back to the Mongolian alphabet by 2025. 

Plaque with a quotation from Xi Jinping in Chinese and Mongolian in the entrance hall of the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot (Image: BabelStone, CC Attrib:SA:3.0).

Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping has made it clear that he does not wish to rule over a country of diverse ethnics. His words were painted on the wall of a school in Inner Mongolia: “All ethnic groups must embrace tightly like the seeds of a pomegranate.” Beijing’s stated goal for dealing with the ethnic minorities is to use the “melting pot” theory. Ironically, they claim to be following a US model, whereby they would erase all of the differences of China’s ethnic minorities, making all of the races become Han Chinese. Three of the largest and most distinct ethnic groups in the country are Uighur, Tibetans, and Mongolians, all of whom have had their religion and language challenged by the Communist Party of China (CCP).

The CCP is fixated on ‘fostering ethnic unity’ by dismantling Tibetans’ and Uighurs’ faith; after all, according to Karl Marx, religion is the opium of the masses. In addition to the Mongolian language being erased, the Mongolian religion is being attacked. The Mongolians follow a Tibetan style of Buddhism, which acknowledges his Holiness the Dalai Lama as the highest lama. Restrictions against Tibetans recognising His Holiness are equally as repressive to Mongolians. In Outer Mongolia, photos of His Holiness are prominently featured in temples.

The end of bilingual education

Parents in Inner Mongolia were originally told that bilingual education was being temporarily suspended, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Then, just before the beginning of the new academic year, the government announced that the changes would be permanent. When the news broke, parents immediately said they would rather keep their children home than send them to Mandarin education. In the first week of school, it was estimated that over 300,000 students had boycotted school attendance.

Many parents in Tongliao city only found out about the policy after they dropped their children off at a boarding school. When they went back to collect their children, the police attempted to stop them. A standoff and low intensity clash resulted. In the end, the parents won the day and took their children home. At other schools, the police used pepper spray to turn the parents back. An online video appeared to show students from Horchin Mongolian Middle School forcibly escaping from the campus, while authorities tried to contain them.

“Save the Mother Tongue!” Protest sign against the reform on a delivery bike (Image: WeChat post, spotted by Language on the Move socio-linguistic research site).

Pen America has said that the new language policy “threatens to degrade ethnic Mongolians’ language rights and cultural identity.” The Chinese Constitution as well as the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law guarantee the rights of Mongolians to maintain their language and culture. Chinese officials claim that Mongolians have the right to maintain their language and culture, but clearly, by cancelling bilingual education, the government is preventing them from doing so. The protests have been largely non-violent with ethnic-Mongolians holding up signs written in Mongolian, singing Mongolian songs, and with some wrestlers boycotting tournaments.

Comparisons have been made between Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Tibetan-language education advocate, Tashi Wangchu, was charged with “separatism” and sentenced to five years in prison after calling for the government to uphold its own policies guaranteeing protection for Tibetan-language education. In Xinjiang, millions are in detention centres which the West sees as an attack on the culture of the Muslim Uighur people. The Wilson Center issued a paper, suggesting that Inner Mongolia could be the next Tibet or Xinjiang, stating: “What the Inner Mongols are confronting now is an unprecedented assault on their political and economic integrity.”

The crackdown

Bu Xiaolin, chairwoman of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, described the new education policy as an “important political mission” which must be collaborated on to show loyalty to Chairman Xi. In order to ensure compliance, not only by citizens, but also by local officials, a county discipline inspection commission ordered local cadres to increase surveillance of citizens, guarding against “radical moves and speeches.”

Arrest warrants have been issued for hundreds of ringleaders, which carry a reward of 1,000 yuan. The government has published lists of names and photos of the alleged offenders, similar to “wanted posters” in the old, wild west. In separate incidents, two parents who kept their children out of school in protest, were reported to have died of “suicide.” One was a teacher and one the husband of a teacher. In spite of all media being state-controlled, the 300 employees of Inner Mongolia TV signed a petition against the policy. State employees taking such a stand is rare and suggests how seriously they are taking the situation. Obviously, it would be very easy for officials to find and punish them.

Officials claim that 23 arrests have been made, while Inner Mongolians sending word to friends and relatives in Outer Mongolia have estimated the number to be in the hundreds. Violations that resulted in arrest included “organising and collecting signatures for a petition” to “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble… flagrantly insulting a deceased former leader of the country”… and “sharing videos in a WeChat group to obstruct the implementation of the national textbooks policy.” Members of the Communist Party who have failed to carry out the policy have been suspended from their work.

After a week of protests, the Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi went to Inner Mongolia, calling for the harsh suppression of the protesters. He told police to “severely clamp down on domestic and foreign forces that carry out infiltration and sabotage, and… fight against separatism.” In a public statement he said that ethnic Mongolians should “unswervingly adhere to the CCP’s absolute leadership of public security work, always take the CCP’s flag as the flag, the CCP’s direction as the direction, and the CCP’s will as the will, and ensure that all resolutely listen to the CCP and follow the Party at all times and under all circumstances.” He went on to say that the CCP would firmly maintain “the anti-secession struggle” while strictly implementing anti-terrorist measures.

An uprising of this magnitude has not occurred in Inner Mongolia in many years. Where there have been terrorist attacks and separatist movements carried out by Uighur in Xinjiang, the ethnic-Mongolians have largely found a way to coexist with the Communist Party of China. The most consistent source of strife, however, has been Chinese state mining and farming companies which seize and pollute the grasslands. Traditionally, the Mongolians are nomadic herders. In Mongolia, roughly 40% of the population still live a nomadic lifestyle, shifting their herds, according to the seasons and the availability of grass and water, as they have for millennia. In China, however, the nomadic lifestyle was one of the first elements of Mongolian identity to be taken away. There have been massive, government-sponsored relocation programmes, moving Han Chinese to the area; they now comprise over 80% of the population. Additionally, the continual increase in the number and size of mines and commercial farms has made nomadic herding all but impossible. Government programmes have also encouraged Mongolians to leave the grasslands and take jobs in the cities. Now, landless, sedentary Mongolians whose culture is already dwindling are seeing their children’s language threatened.

Support from abroad

Mongolians have created a petition to the White House titled “Stop the CCP's cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia.” Protests were held in Washington, DC, condemning the Chinese government and urging the US government to take action. Protesters shouted “Say no, to Chinese Communists.” A protest leader read from a prepared statement, saying: “They want to take away our language, our culture, and the legacy of our ancestors. Enough is enough.”

Ethnic Mongolian students living in Japan protest a during a visit by China's foreign minister in November last year (Image: Copyright © 1998-2020, RFA. Used with permission of Radio Free Asia, Washington DC 20036).

Similar protests were held by Mongolians in Tokyo. Aboriginal groups in Taiwan have also come out in support of Inner Mongolians, explaining that they were subjected to similar repression under the Kuomintang (KMT), who tried to force them to speak Mandarin and become Han Chinese.

In Ulaanbaatar, many citizens were upset about the news coming out of Inner Mongolia and protests were held in support. The Mongolian government, however, cannot take an official stance on supporting the Inner Mongolians because Mongolia is completely dependent on China, economically speaking. An educated Mongolian said on a promise of anonymity, “It’s a disgrace!” He felt that the inability of the Mongolian government to stand up to China in support of the Inner Mongolians represented a lack of sovereignty.

One Mongolian tweeted “I’m thinking if anti-communist forces, people from various religious circles, organizations or people who have been persecuted by CCP, as well as democrats, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kong people, Taiwanese, and Cantonese all gather together and follow us in Mongolia. People march together and then collectively oppose the communists.”

Voices from inside

Teachers and citizens in Inner Mongolia have been told not to criticise the policy. The only Mongolian-language social media site in China, Bainu, was shut down by the government. Chats about the policy were censored on WeChat and Weibo, and some posters were harassed by the police. In the first few days of the protests, information was getting out through citizen relays to Outer Mongolia, western countries, and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. People inside Inner Mongolia were sending photos, videos and texts, and asking people with access to international social media to repost them. Since about last September 5, however, there has been a near blackout of information.

Lama in Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar. Beijing is also accused of attacking the religion of Mongolians, a Tibetan style of Buddhism, which acknowledges the Dalai Lama as the highest lama (Image: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) CC Attrib:SA:3.0).

Below is a collection of tweets and posts which were smuggled out of Inner Mongolia. As these people have smuggled this material at great personal risk, their names must be kept secret, but their voices should be heard.

One of the protest posts placed on Twitter read: “Foreign language is a tool, mother tongue is the soul." Another Twitter user reported that the state was actively scrubbing Mongolian script from the public eye. “In Inner Mongolia, vandalism is taking place on car doors, replacing Mongolian with Chinese inscriptions and destroying everything related to Mongolian culture.” A cellphone video shows the Chinese police entering the home of an ethnic-Mongolian, to ask about a discussion she had related to the language policy.

Another post showed a young woman unconscious, with a caption, reading: “After a week of high-handed attempts by the CCP to forcefully promote the national assimilation policy, the southern Mongolians still responded with uncooperative response. So, the CCP is now calling Mongolian teachers and parents for separate meetings in various parts of southern Mongolia. One of the participants was a Mongolian teacher who was suddenly unconscious.”

A store sign in Erenhot, Inner Mongolia. The sign has information in Mandarin Chinese, Mongolian in the Cyrillic alphabet, and in the Mongolian script. (Image: Terfili, CC Attrib:SA:4.0).

Around September 7, your correspondent received a message saying: “The reason the phones were not working the other day was because the government was going through all of the chats, searching for the words Inner Mongolia.” The same person said that he was with some friends, discussing the language policy. One of them was talking on the phone and as soon as he said the words “Mongolian language” the phone service was cut.

A man in Inner Mongolia sent a message, saying: “What the government really wants is to move a bunch of southern Chinese into the lands and push the Mongols into the cities to become ‘Chinese.’ They will take all the land and do as they wish with it, like tourist attractions, mining etc.” He went on to explain that “Most of China’s clean air actually comes from Inner Mongolia. They have wind turbines everywhere that actually have killed the grasslands.” Apparently, the Chinese government also built a large military base, in the middle of the grasslands, which the Mongols believe is “because one day they know there will be a fight and they can easily wipe out all of the Mongols overnight if needed.”

“A lot of people are trying to resist,” he said. “Others are scared and complying. One community leader received a phone call threatening him that they would come after him if he didn’t send his children to school. He said ‘F you!’ He was trying to be strong for the rest of the community.”

A source told how “People have been threatened or detained or disappeared.” WeChat posts claimed, and the source confirmed, that when Mongols went to the bank, along with their deposit or withdrawal forms they were tricked into signing a petition, saying they supported the new policy. Those who do not sign or those who do not send their children back to school will be punished, they said.

Map of Mongolian Speakers with modern borders (Image: Skipr, CC Attrib:SA:4.0).

Separate from the language policy and the consequences of protesting, a source said that Mongolian families had been told that their land was being taken away, and that those who protested this landgrab were further threatened with jail or losing their jobs. It seems an odd time for Beijing to suddenly accelerate the confiscation of land, but this may be because they are facing a potential food shortage.

China has always been a net food importer, but over the last two years, it has suffered swine flu which drove pork prices up by more than 90%. Earlier this year, avian flu resulted in tens of thousands of chickens having to be culled. The coronavirus lockdown caused rice prices to hit a seven-year high. Due to fallout from a political dispute, China has also blocked beef and other food imports from Australia. It is not surprising that Xi Jinping has declared war on food waste, promoting the “clean plate” campaign. Commercial farming is one of the common uses for the grasslands, once acquired by the Han Chinese. Perhaps this is the summer that the CCP will drive all of the Mongols out of the countryside, into the cities, where their children can study in Mandarin, becoming Chinese, once and for all.

Meanwhile sources said that Mongols were still holding secret meetings, discussing how and if they should resist. One of them sent this message, “We are on a ticking bomb now.”

The crackdown expands

The great uprising of Mongolians in Inner Mongolia has never arrived. In the end, the power that the Chinese government exerts over its citizens is too compelling. Standing up, resisting, even complaining online could lead to someone having their social credit score downgraded, resulting in them or their family losing access to government services or even jobs. China’s power to coerce even extends beyond its borders.

The Diplomat reported that an Inner Mongolian, living in Australia, was contacted by Chinese authorities, who warnied him that if he spoke out publicly regarding the repression in Inner Mongolia, he would be extracted from Australia.

The Chateau des ducs de Bretagne museum in Nantes, western France, was meant to host a Genghis Khan exhibition, in collaboration with the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot, China. The Chinese government issued an official statement, demanding that the museum eliminate the words "Genghis Khan," "empire" and "Mongol" from the programme. To their credit, the French museum “postponed” the programme, rather than giving in to Chinese pressure.

The author, Dr. Antonio Graceffo PhD China-MBA, worked as an economics researcher and university professor in China, but is now living in Ulaanbaatar, writing about the Mongolian and Chinese economies. He holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport Wushu Department where he wrote his dissertation “A Cross Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Wrestling” in Chinese. He is the author of 11 books, including A Deeper Look at the Chinese Economy, The Wrestler’s Dissertation, and Warrior Odyssey. He completed post-doctoral studies in economics at Shanghai University, specializing in US-China Trade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Trump-China economics. His China economic reports are featured regularly in The Foreign Policy Journal and published in Chinese at The Shanghai Institute of American Studies, a Chinese government think tank.