Unlike the Tibetans or Muslim Uyghurs of its far west, China’s ethnic Mongol population has long been seen as pacified, content, and well-assimilated, fulfilling the stereotype of a “model minority” in a country bubbling with ethnic tensions.
In recent days, however, Mongols in China, most of whom reside in the vast Inner Mongolia autonomous region south of Mongolia proper, have vigorously protested an attempt by the government to curtail the teaching of Mongolian in schools, including shifting to using national Chinese-language textbooks instead of locally developed Mongolian versions. In short, Chinese will replace Mongolian as the main medium of teaching for classes such as math and science, while Mongolian lessons will continue. Authorities are cracking down, including posting photos online of people who attended the protests and offering cash rewards for tips.
The policy fits a broader pattern of Beijing’s quest to assert greater ideological control across all swathes of society, and increasingly oppressive policies against minorities. The starkest example of that is the human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, where some argue a full-blown genocide is underway. Days ago, China signaled an escalation of its repressive policies in Tibet, announcing plans to strengthen education to fight “splittism.”
In contrast, Inner Mongolia, where almost twice as many ethnic Mongols reside than in Mongolia, is seen as a much less restive place. The Economist reported in 2017 that Mongols in China have to some extent been mollified by the economic opportunities accorded to them, in an area rich in natural resources. They’re also much more integrated with the Han Chinese population than Tibetans or Uyghurs. Intermarriage is common, for example, while a majority of Mongols opt to send their children to Chinese-language schools over Mongolian ones in recognition of the economic opportunities that would reap, explained Christopher Atwood, a Mongolia expert at the University of Pennsylvania. Atwood estimates that about 60% of Mongols in Inner Mongolia now speak Mongolian as their main language.
As Gegentuul Baioud, an Australia-based scholar of Mongol origin, wrote: “Indeed, up until now, many Mongolian speakers have identified as Chinese people, and there is no need to suppress a non-existent ethnic separatism by abolishing bilingual schooling.”
By moving to target language, the state has hit a nerve. In a region where great powers have long jockeyed for influence over Mongols, the preservation of their language has been central to that resistance. Eradyn E. Bulag, an academic at the University of Cambridge, explained in a 2003 paper (paywall) that, after decades of withstanding the subjugation of the Mongolian language by the dominant Han Chinese population and the Communist Party, Mongols in China live under a constant state of “linguistic anxiety” stemming from the gradual loss of their language even as they reside in a region that is titularly Mongolian.
“We have been the weakest and oppressed in our own homeland,” said an ethnic Mongol person reached by . “Imagine you are not allowed to learn, sign public documents in your own language, let alone promote it.”
Even across the border, Mongolian continues to undergo a process of effective decolonization three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of communism in Mongolia. Earlier this year, the government said the country would move toward full adoption of the traditional alphabet (which is used in Inner Mongolia) by 2025, away from the Cyrillic alphabet, in line with other de-Russification processes in other former communist states.
Inner Mongolia’s language protests could revive older tensions. In 2011, protests broke out in Hohhot, the region’s capital, after two ethnic Mongols opposing mining were killed by Han Chinese men.
According to Baioud, the Chinese government’s “rash” moves in Inner Mongolia are hard to understand. “What are the consequences of bringing such tribulations onto the very groups that China has held up as ‘model minorities’?” she asked.
The same could be asked, perhaps, of the Chinese governments recent crackdown in Hong Kong and the intensification of its repression campaign in Xinjiang, even as international outcry grows. Seen in that light, the Mongolian language policy change fits in the larger pattern of the state asserting its power at all costs, particularly at a time when nationalist sentiments are on the upturn.
Previously, China had kept its coercive power in check not just in Inner Mongolia, but also over Mongolia, as it wanted to prevent fomenting any sort of pan-Mongol sentiment that could destabilize its rule, wrote Julian Dierkes, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Now, Dierkes notes, people in Mongolia are paying unprecedented levels of attention to the rumblings just over the border by signaling their support on social media—adding yet another problem to China’s periphery, which, from Taiwan to India, is already dangerously lined with tinderboxes.
—Jane Li contributed reporting