By Gerry Shih,
Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir AFP/Getty Images
Unusually widespread protests have broken out in ethnic Mongol communities in northern China as Chinese authorities prepare to introduce new measures requiring classes in primary and secondary schools to be taught in the Chinese language.
The protests come in response to new rules in the Inner Mongolia region that will require three subjects — language and literature, politics and history — to be taught in Mandarin, the language of China’s Han majority and the official national language, effective in September.
Although authorities say the rules are being gradually rolled out to cover only those three subjects, activists say they presage a broader effort to roll back the use of Mongolian, mirroring campaigns underway in ethnic Tibetan and Uighur parts of the country that have left a younger generation of minorities monolingual and unmoored from their cultural roots.
In Inner Mongolia, rows of schoolchildren in uniforms gathered this weekend to chant “Our mother language is Mongolian!” and “We are Mongolian until death!” according to videos uploaded to YouTube by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a New York-based activist group.
Enghebatu Togochog, the group’s director, said angry parents across the region have been organizing for weeks to write petition letters and keep their children at home in protest. In one township outside Tongliao city, an ethnic Mongol stronghold, parents surrounded a boarding school to demand that their children be withdrawn. While they clashed with local police on Sunday, one student leaped from a fourth-floor window and died, Togochog said.
The Inner Mongolia education bureau released a statement Monday to reassure parents that the new rules requiring teaching in Mandarin would apply only to three subjects. Students’ access to daily Mongolian- or Korean-language classes — another minority language that is spoken in the region — would not be cut, education officials said, adding that “there are no other changes to the current bilingual education system.”
A massive belt of grassland and desert bordering Mongolia, China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region has a population that is one-fifth ethnic Mongol and is ostensibly guaranteed a degree of cultural diversity under Soviet-style policies that aimed to unite different ethnicities under the socialist banner.
In practice, leaders and policy thinkers in Beijing have wrestled with the question of whether to promote autonomy or assimilation among its minorities — a question that has grown sharper since the breakup of the Soviet Union and a rising tide of ethnic nationalism among minority groups in China’s periphery.
In the early 1980s, China’s relatively relaxed policies and the national constitution emphasized that minority languages must be “valued and respected.” In Inner Mongolia today, Mongolian remains an official language, alongside Chinese.
Yet over the last five years, China’s government has veered sharply toward the assimilative approach under the hard-line leadership of Xi Jinping, who has promoted classical Chinese culture and fanned Han nationalism while restricting minority languages and religious practices among Tibetans and Uighurs — the latter of which are forcibly detained and reeducated in sweeping numbers. Educators who promote minority languages have sometimes been charged with separatism and punished severely.
By overhauling education, government officials argue, citizens in restive areas from Xinjiang to Hong Kong could be instilled with a sense of patriotism and gain opportunities for economic advancement. But in each region, Chinese authorities have encountered resistance.
“We already lost our political autonomy, and our traditional way of life is pretty much wiped out” by urbanization, Togochog said. “Our only symbol of identity left is language.”