This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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Seventy Years of Repression Culminates in Weeks of Unrest
Massive protests, 300,000 children kept out of school by parents, clashes with police, the arrival of the army, hundreds of arrest warrants, bounties offered for the capture of ringleaders, detention of foreign journalists, and cutting internet and phone service to the outside world. This has been the situation in China’s Inner-Mongolia since September 1 and it is only getting worse.
Radio Free Asia reported that young ethnic Mongolian protesters were shouting, “Our language is Mongolian and our homeland is Mongolia forever! Our mother tongue is Mongolian and we will die for our mother tongue!”
On September 2, a group of ethnic Mongolian men raised the khar suld (Black Banner), the standard of Genghis Khan – which is said to embody the spirit of the great conqueror – to unify Mongolians, empowering them to vanquish their enemies. According to Mongolians, this was akin to a declaration of war against the Han Chinese.
During World War Two, China annexed Southern Mongolia, renaming it the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Today, more ethnic Mongolians live in China than in the independent country of Mongolia. Under Chinese law, they were entitled to keep their language and culture, but over the past seventy years, China has steadily eroded their rights while attempting to stamp out their language. When the coronavirus lockdown started, Chinese officials told ethnic Mongolian parents that bilingual education would be suspended until school started in the fall. In August, they were notified that bilingual education would not be resuming.
Mongolian history was never taught in bilingual education, but at least the Communist, state-approved version of Chinese history was taught in Mongolian so children could be literate in their mother tongue. Now, the curriculum has been altered so no subjects will be taught in Mongolian, although Mongolian language will be offered as a foreign language, alongside English and Korean. In addition to Communist history, the children will have to take “politics” class in Mandarin Chinese, which will be rich in Chinese Communist propaganda. The Chinese governor of Inner Mongolia told teachers, “adopting the state-written textbooks was a ‘major political task’ that would be beneficial now and into the future.”
Destroying the Culture
The crackdowns on Mongolian education were already so severe last year that a Mongolian language teacher was arrested and charged with “separatism” for displaying a Mongolian flag in a Mongolian language class. This year, teachers have been told that if they discuss the new language education policy they will be punished. Many have received visits from the police because of posts they made on social media. Bainu, the only Mongolian language social media site in China, was shut down by the authorities.
The Uighur people of Xinjiang have been subjected to extreme surveillance and repression, which has prompted terrorism, as well as a separatist movement. Similarly, as recently as 2011, Inner-Mongolia was under martial law following widespread protests. Although there had been some unrest in Inner-Mongolia in the past, the Inner-Mongolians have largely gone along with Chinese government policies, as long as they could maintain their culture and language. One of the first aspects of their traditional way of life to be squashed was nomadism. Han Chinese have taken land away from ethnic Mongolians and the government has been running campaigns encouraging Mongolians to give-up nomadism and move to the cities. Many have complied, moving to the city but maintaining a “ranch” in the countryside, where they could raise their animals, albeit as settlers rather than nomads.
This language policy, however, seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. How can an ethnic minority maintain their identity without their language? Not only has the Chinese government forcibly integrated the region – Han Chinese outnumber ethnic-Mongolians nearly six-to-one – but they have offered financial incentives to Han men who marry ethnic Mongolian women, thinning out the blood-lines.
Violations of Human Rights
“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified. Both treaties guarantee that children have the right to education in their own language and culture.” The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which China supported, provides similar protections for the rights and languages of indigenous people.
The UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights characterizes religious freedom as a basic human right. This is another right denied the ethnic Mongolians who follow Tibetan Buddhism. Under Chinese law, the only Buddhist faith permitted is the Buddhist Association of China, which is under the United Front Works Department, the influence arm of the Communist Party of China. Tibetans and ethnic Mongolians are prohibited from displaying images of His Holiness the Dalai Lama or from having contact with him.
Videos of Han Chinese teachers beating ethnic Mongolian students have been passed from ethnic Mongolians in China to people in Mongolia who have been posting them on social media. Other images have appeared on Chinese government Twitter accounts of smiling “ethnic Mongolians” wearing traditional dress, happily attending their new lessons. These videos were immediately debunked by Mongolians who recognized the children as Han Chinese and the costumes as cheap copies. Also, Children in China generally wear school uniforms, not ethnic dress.
A person inside of Inner-Mongolia said he went back to his village from the city and found it empty. It took him a while to figure out what was going on, but apparently the government said they were taking land away from ethnic Mongolians to build holiday camps and commercial farms for Han Chinese. Consequently, many ethnic Mongolians left their villages, returning to their land to occupy it in protest of the policy. Beijing has issued statements saying that families who do not send their children to school, or who otherwise protest, will lose their jobs and their insurance. A member of the ethnic community said that Beijing’s threat was akin to being “erased.” Protesters will lose “everything, like they never existed.” The same person also confirmed that while international media has reported that 23 protesters have been arrested, he estimates the number to be dramatically higher, saying that large numbers of “people have been snatched, arrested, or disappeared.” Several thousand arrest warrants have been issued, many carrying cash bounties. “They published a list of people they were looking for and that number has quadrupled by now…they are snatching people up and threatening way more than that.”
Preventing Word from Getting Out
A US reporter was detained in Inner-Mongolia while covering the unrest. In an unrelated incident, the last two remaining Australian reporters were interrogated by police and then left China through the help of their embassy. China has also delayed the press cards for five reporters from US media. Under Xi Jinping, the ability of foreign media to report on China has been steadily reduced, while repression against ethnic minorities has steadily increased.
In spite of a near-complete media ban, some brave souls from Inner Mongolia have managed to contact people in independent Mongolia. I personally received this message: “Please Help. We need the US or the UN to step up. Time is ticking here. The government has said there will be soldiers here if we keep resisting.” The Trump administration has signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act as well as the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act into law. The Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019 has passed the House of Representatives and is waiting to be passed by the Senate. The Southern Mongolian Congress, a human rights group, has sent a letter to the US Congress, asking for a similar Inner-Mongolia Human Rights Act.