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A sign (left) outside a Mongolian-language school in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, reads: «When the people have conviction, the state has strength and the ethnic minorities have hope.» The sign at right says: «Rule of law.»
In this undated video posted by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, students and others demand a restoration of classes in the Mongolian language.
«One very strong sense in Inner Mongolia on the part of Mongols is how much they’ve given up,» explains Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mongolians were the first ethnic group to declare their support for the now-ruling Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. In doing so, they lost their opportunity for political autonomy but were granted a certain amount of cultural autonomy.
For the last seven decades, China’s ethnic Mongolians have been allowed to attend school and take university classes in the Mongolian language — which has no relation to Mandarin Chinese — officially offered in six provinces and regions.
Mongolian-language education had already been diminishing in scope before the new policy. In recent years, more and more parents were voluntarily choosing to send their children to Mandarin Chinese-only schools, which afford better economic outcomes.
Official statistics from 2017 show that about 30% of ethnic Mongolian students attend a school with some form of Mongolian-language education, down from an estimated 60% in 1990.
Now China is moving toward what it calls «second generation» ethnic policy — an approach that has emerged in the last decade that demands China’s minority ethnic groups become more «Chinese» by reducing or outright eliminating their limited cultural autonomy.
In the past decade, similar policy changes first targeted Tibetan- and Uighur- language education, drastically reducing the numbers of language teachers and resources available for students in those languages. The new language policy «is not a special requirement only asked of ethnic Mongolians, because regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang have already undergone the same transition,» Inner Mongolia’s education bureau wrote on its website.
But experts say stricter regulation of ethnic Mongolians is especially counterproductive.
«Many more Mongols were already studying Chinese,» says Morris Rossabi, an academic who studies Central Asian history at Columbia University and Queens College.
He explains that ethnic Mongolians are an assimilation success story from the eyes of Beijing, with high rates of intermarriage with Han, the majority ethnic group in China, and high levels of Mandarin Chinese fluency. «There was a kind of peace that had prevailed for 25 years. It just seems very odd that the government would create conditions that would arouse dissent,» says Rossabi.
Empty classrooms as the school year begins
Dissent was widespread this September. Ethnic Mongolian television anchors and language advocates posted videos encouraging parents to withdraw their students. On Sept. 1, the first day of the fall semester in Inner Mongolia, many schools stood empty as parents kept their children home.
Within days, China’s police state mobilized to contain the demonstrations.
In Bairin Right Banner, a region next to the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng, and Sonid Right Banner, to the west, authorities said elementary and middle school students who did not return to class by this week would be expelled. In Kangmian Banner, parents were asked to sign a statement pledging to return their children to school or face punishment, according to a notice seen by NPR.
Two parents in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia’s capital city, told NPR that they had received nonstop calls from teachers and the school’s principal pressuring them to return their children to school.
Waves of ethnic Mongolian civil servants have quit their posts rather than implement the policy. In the town of Wudan, two village Communist Party officials were fired for «creating a negative influence in the village» and «failing to follow orders,» according to a notice posted by the local government and seen by NPR.
Four Communist Party members and a Mongolian-language teacher were expelled from the party and fired from their jobs this week in Bairin Right Banner for failing to carry out the new policy.
As a result, many parents have begun sending their children back to school.
In mid-September, about a dozen parents lined up outside Tongliao’s Shebotu Middle School to pick up their children. One parent quietly explained why he finally sent his daughter to school only this week: «If you do not send your child back, the government threatens to fire those with state jobs or to cut your social benefits.» He asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of punishment.
The intimidation extends to journalists. A black car with no license plates followed NPR in Tongliao. Shortly after speaking to parents outside Shebotu Middle School, a group of 12 plainclothes and uniformed police officers, some claiming to be parents, prevented NPR from interviewing more people in the city.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.
- Inner Mongolia