Protests erupt in Inner Mongolia over China's plans for teaching in Mandarin

A protest in Mongolia about plans in neighbouring Inner Mongolia to introduce more Mandarin lessons in schools - Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP
A protest in Mongolia about plans in neighbouring Inner Mongolia to introduce more Mandarin lessons in schools - Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP

Mass protests have erupted across northern China as tens of thousands of ethnic Mongolian students and their parents rally against government plans to phase out teaching in their language.

The rare display of dissent in the Inner Mongolian cities of Tongliao, Ordos and the regional capital, Hohhot, began last week in opposition to a move by Beijing to gradually shift the language of instruction in schools from Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese in three key subjects.

According to Radio Free Asia, pupils have boycotted classes and kneeling students at one school chanted: "Our language is Mongolian, and our homeland is Mongolia forever! Our mother tongue is Mongolian, and we will die for our mother tongue!"

Riot police have reportedly been dispatched to other schools across the region, with accounts of the authorities locking down campuses and pupils bursting through police cordons to join their demonstrating parents at the gates.

In one of the more disturbing RFA reports, a student is said to have died after jumping from the roof of his high school after seeing his mother detained.

Social media posts show school pupils in blue and white tracksuits shouting slogans and their parents singing in the streets. Some ethnic Mongolians are believed to have been beaten by police, Mongolian-language social media groups shut down and books removed from shop shelves.

The autonomous region of Inner Mongolia was established in 1947, and the Mongol minority makes up about 17 percent of the 25 million strong population.

Public unrest is unusual in the region but the encroachment on the Mongolian language, which lies at the heart of the minority’s cultural identity, appears to have been a step too far.

The protests reflect turmoil elsewhere in China’s outer perimeter. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has been accused of trying to erase the unique cultural and ethnic identity of Tibetans, Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and to crack down on the autonomy of Hong Kong. 

"The context of the [Mongolian] conflict are ethnic policies of the Chinese party-state which aim to overcome cultural and linguistic differences through forced assimilation,@ said Andreas Fulda, author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and Its Discontents.

“Instead of respecting the cultural autonomy of minority groups through bilingual education an increasingly totalitarian Chinese Communist Party seeks to socially engineer a mono-cultural race-state."

A statement by the regional education bureau that the language changes will only apply to three subjects has done little to assuage fears.

According to the New York Times, the three subjects involved are language and literature, history, and politics.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said that government policies billed as bringing economic development to areas like Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia had already eroded cultural ways and connections to their heritage.

“The byproducts of development policies – Han migration, intermarriage, environmental damage, economic marginalisation – have already weakened the sense of identity,” he said.

“The threat to language, even if the government insists in this case that bilingual education in some subjects will continue, targets one of the few remaining markers of identity and local culture - and a symbol of recognition and legitimation,” he added.

“The experiences of Tibet and Xinjiang demonstrate that autonomy in cultural matters cannot be taken for granted. Education is a pillar of nation building and key component of the authoritarian information order, which includes all media and cultural production.”