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China Cracks Down on Mongols Who Say Their Culture Is Being Snuffed Out

Mongols marched against changes to school curriculum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, on Wednesday.

Photo: byambasuren byamba-ochir/EPA/Shutterstock

HONG KONG—Chinese authorities are searching for protesters in Inner Mongolia after a new policy aimed at pushing Mandarin-language education across the region sparked widespread unrest among the country’s ethnic Mongols, with many angered by what they saw as a move to erase their culture.

Thousands of students in Inner Mongolia have taken to the streets during the past week to rally against the government’s three-year plan to push Mandarin-language education across the northern region and phase out local history, literature and ethnic textbooks in favor of national coursebooks, according to rights group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

Parents are also refusing to send their children to school in defiance of the new policy, said the New York-based human-rights center in a report earlier this week, while unverified videos of demonstrators protesting outside schools have circulated on Chinese social media.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has intensified efforts to promote Mandarin and push the country’s ethnic minorities to adopt a uniform Chinese identity. In Inner Mongolia, where the number of schools that teach in Mongolian has dwindled over the years, the latest move to roll out Mandarin-language instruction has raised fears that it could be the end for a minority language already at risk of fading away.

Video footage showed parents purportedly protesting outside a school in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, on Wednesday.

Photo: Nure Zhang/Associated Press

“The Mongolians consider this as the ‘final blow’ to their culture and identity,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the human-rights center. Language is one of the last strands tying Mongols to their traditional way of life, which has steadily eroded under Chinese rule, he said.

The Inner Mongolia propaganda department didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

Local authorities have moved swiftly to quell the protests. On Wednesday, police in Tongliao, a city in eastern Inner Mongolia, took the unusual step of publishing photos through an official social media account of 90 people who were suspected of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” terms often used to describe protests.

Many of the photos appeared to be stills taken from surveillance-camera footage. An accompanying notice said tips could lead to rewards of 1,000 yuan ($146).

“Anyone who gathers in a public place, the police will thoroughly investigate them all,” the notice said.

In response to the civil unrest and boycotting of classes this past week, the local government also instructed cadres to discipline those who spread rumors, especially those with “inappropriate views” of the central government.

Still, opposition to the new education policy is widespread in the ethnic Mongolian community, said Daguulaa, a clothes seller in Xilinhot, western Inner Mongolia, who goes by only one name like many ethnic Mongols in the region.

Students in a classroom in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, in April.

Photo: Xu Qin/Zuma Press

“Our ethnic language will slowly disappear—parents are worried about this,” said Daguulaa, whose daughter is starting third grade this year. Children already pick up Mandarin through the TV and in the course of daily life, she said.

The move to promote Mandarin in Inner Mongolia, where more than one-sixth of the population is ethnic Mongol, is part of a national drive to push Mandarin at ethnic minority schools around the country and standardize the use of national textbooks that government officials say are conducive to “promoting ethnic unity.”

Mongols demonstrated outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar on Aug. 31.

Photo: byambasuren byamba-ochir/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The far-western region of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has sent as many as a million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities to internment camps to undergo “transformation through education,” started rolling out courses in Mandarin and using national coursebooks in 2017.

While the government has described these policies as advancing bilingual education, activists say the real goal is to supplant local languages with Mandarin, expediting the erasure of ethnic minority culture.

On Tuesday, the first phase of the new policy in Inner Mongolia launched to coincide with the start of the fall semester. It requires all schools to teach Mandarin using national instead of local course material starting in first grade—one year earlier than under the old system.

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That means ethnic Mongolian children won’t be able to master the fundamentals of their own language before starting their Mandarin studies, Daguulaa said.

By 2022, all first-year students in Inner Mongolian secondary schools will take classes in Mandarin, and use national coursebooks to teach ethics, law, and history, according to the new policy.

“China’s ethnic minorities do not have the power to protect their own culture,” said Baatar, a herdsman in western Inner Mongolia, who said he is worried that future generations of ethnic Mongols won’t understand their own language.

Over the weekend, ethnic Mongols in China also took to social media to push back against the new education policy by posting videos proudly declaring their Mongolian identity or singing in the Mongolian language.

Videos purportedly showing parents gathering outside schools to pull their children out of classes also spread rapidly online, with many eliciting support.

“I am Chinese, I am Mongolian, you can take anything from me except my mother language. Without language, I cannot say that I am Mongolian,” said one user on the short-video app Kuaishou, underneath a video of what appeared to be demonstrators gathered outside a school.

On Tuesday, the former president of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, weighed in on the issue to voice support for the protesters on Twitter, calling the right to learn the Mongolian language inalienable.

“Upholding this right is a way for China to be a respectable and responsible power,” he said.

Write to Eva Xiao at eva.xiao@wsj.com

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Appeared in the September 4, 2020, print edition as ‘China Targets Mongolia Protesters.’

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