It looks like there is no rest for China’s Xi Jinping as a wave of rallies recently occurred in Inner Mongolia. Protests arose after Beijing made it compulsory to use Mandarin Chinese in local schools, fueling ethnic Mongol communities’ rage. Mongol communities’ discomfort exploded during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent tour in Asia.
Although China is familiar with such resistance, the new protests come in the wake of upheaval and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as well as the growing condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, all in the bewildering context of a devastating pandemic.
The New Mandarin-Focused Educational Policy
Inner Mongolia was embedded in the Republic of China in 1911 and has officially been an Autonomous Region since 1947. Its demographics changed markedly in the 18th century with the migration of the Han Chinese ethnic group into its territory, becoming a Chinese colony in all respects until its annexation to China.
The ethnic communities of all five Autonomous Regions spoke a different language than Chinese, including Inner Mongolia. Now, since Beijing’s September 1 order, pupils starting in first grade must learn history, literature and politics in Mandarin.
Although Beijing always professed tolerance towards its 56 ethnic groups, it has dawned on the international community since 2014 with the Uyghurs’ situation in the spotlight and long before with Tibet, that flattening linguistic, cultural and religious differences at all costs is a top priority for the Central Government to implement its One China Model. However, the outraged public reaction in Inner Mongolia in Tongliao city is partly due to the dread that the new school law conceals the forewarning of a sly political architecture of cultural assimilation.
Mongols believed Pompeo’s trip in Asia would have been somehow beneficial for them and took to the streets as a proven political strategy, just as Hong Kong residents appealed to the US to get the international attention and find support from China’s rivals. Unsurprisingly, Pompeo did not miss out on the chance to lambaste the China Communist Party during a meeting in Tokyo, however he showed no specific interest in the Inner Mongolia issue.
Could Inner Mongolia be the Next Xinjiang?
Initially, the Chinese Government presented the new education policy as an opportunity for children to study in a bilingual system of Mongolian and Mandarin, but similar laws were also introduced in Xinjiang in 2017. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, in 2016 Beijing carried out a brutal campaign of mosque demolition called the ‘Mosque Rectification Program’ tearing down almost 5,000 mosques in the Xinjiang. By 2016 Kashgar witnessed the destruction of the 70% of its mosques due to “safety reasons,” as the Chinese Government explained.
The similarities between Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia also include a history of Han migration into the Uyghur region, as part of a policy supported by Beijing. As a direct consequence of the migratory flow, a huge salary gap between both ethnic groups was recorded, with the Uyghurs workers earning an average of 52% less than Han workers. The language obstacle for Beijing’s political project also occurred in Xinjiang, when in 2002 the Uyghur language was substituted with Mandarin Chinese in Universities, and a bilingual system was introduced in primary, middle and high schools.
Beijing’s aim of modernizing China’s system and state governance goes through the empowerment of local government and economic development of the poorest regions. Shifting from an economic-led government started with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to a decentralized Western model is indeed the path towards implementation of regional power. In light of this, Beijing is convinced that the autonomous areas must be assimilated into the ruling cultural system and perceives any ethnic, linguistic or cultural differences as a threat to the achievement of modernization and centralized control.
A Brutal Crackdown on Demonstrators
It is against this background that demonstrations in Inner Mongolia must be interpreted: part of a coercive narrative whose effects have already been seen in Xinjiang’s forced labor camps or so-called reeducation camps.
By the end of August 2020, the Chinese Communist Party made clear to local officials its intention to exacerbate the language measures, these last becoming public after a series of meetings between authorities and teachers. The shutdown of Mongolian social media company Bainu further increased people’s anger, which they channeled into the recent rallies.
Many of the activists were beaten and arrested, while students boycotted changes by walking out of schools. Police have arrested the human rights lawyer Hu Baolong on charges of leaking state secret overseas. Baolong refused to send his child to school as a sign of protest against the new educational policy.
By the first weeks of September 2020, nine people had died as a result of the protests, and thousands more have been arrested in Inner Mongolia, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. The Chinese Authorities reacted by deploying SWAT teams and carrying out arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial detention with a massive police army.
The Justice Bureau and the Educational Bureau of Inner Mongolia issued a warning, setting out the educational training for all those refusing to send their children to school. Many teachers and officials resigned due to the enormous pressure they have been subjected to by the Chinese government. For Mongols, language is a matter of dignity and even more of identity, directly connected to their past and to the Emperor Genghis Khan, who is still an endless source of pride.
The Winds of Change… in China?
Although the pandemic outbreak cushioned Hong Kong’s demonstrations and their long-term impact, Hong Kon residents’ dedication encouraged other forms of defiance such as that in Inner Mongolia. The extended rallies put a strain on China, which could not let another Tiananmen Square Incident happen due to the increased international interest in its domestic affairs.
However, the spread of COVID-19 offered Beijing an escape hatch from the Hong Kong dilemma, where they were able to introduce a special act to forbid any form of public gatherings. Yet the sparkle of rebellion traveled across the country to the banks of the Xiliaio River. It might not seem a huge milestone, but the recent events in Inner Mongolia represent a glimmer of hope in a country where the one-party dictatorship and propaganda have crushed out almost all democratic dissent.