The ink on my last column about textbook censorship in Hong Kong had barely dried when news broke of China’s plans to impose Mandarin-only classes in its theoretically autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

The change of language and standardisation of textbooks will apply to three crucial humanities subjects: language and literature, politics and history. The regional government claims that the move demonstrates “the loving care of the Party and the state” and is intended to aid development and progress in the “ethnic regions”.

Mongolians protest at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, against China’s plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the neighbouring Chinese province of Inner Mongolia on August 31, 2020. Photo: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP.

Even before the new policy, ethnic Mongolian schools operated bilingually and children have a good command of Mandarin. Fewer than one in six people speak the indigenous language of Inner Mongolia since many ethnic Mongols (who only make up 17 percent of the region’s population) do not speak the language.

Intermarriage is also much more common compared to Tibetan and Uighur areas, and pairings of Mongol females (usually from rural backgrounds) and Han Chinese males have especially increased due to China’s imbalanced female-male ratio resulting from the one-child policy.

With Han Chinese already making up nearly 80 percent of the population and continuous government efforts to attract more (such as the infamous ghost city of Ordos), Inner Mongolians are destined to remain a minority in their own land.

Nevertheless, those who have managed to retain their culture and traditions have done so with incredible tenacity. Despite the state’s implementation of 13 consecutive five-year plans (“The National Nomad Settlement Project”), Inner Mongolia is still home to one of the only remaining nomadic peoples in modern China (and the world).

Even more amazingly, the traditional Mongolian script is still used in everyday life in Chinese-ruled Inner Mongolia. Ironically it has been replaced by the modern Cyrillic script in the independent state of Mongolia just next door.

But this could soon change under the new education policy. Banning ethnic Mongol children from studying crucial subjects in their mother tongue is not only an attempt to reduce indigenous language usage at a young age, but also a disgustingly blatant attempt to prevent the next generation from discovering their own identity.

Ethnic Mongolian children will now learn about politics and history in the tongue of the people who have conquered them and have rewritten their nation’s textbooks; and they will learn to speak, read, write and perhaps even think in the language of their colonisers. If this is not cultural genocide, what is?

Largest protests since 2011

Although typically hailed as the “model minorities” of China, Inner Mongolians have rallied in their tens of thousands to object to this new policy. The mass protests are a rare public show of defiance for this usually pacified region.

As riot police cracked down on parents’ demonstrations outside ethnic Mongolian schools, students forced their way through police cordons and broke out of campuses to join the unusually high-profile protests.

At least one death has been reported (a student jumped to his death from the fourth floor of his school as his mother was detained outside), and hundreds have been arrested. Thousands of arrest warrants have been issued, while extended wanted lists with photos of alleged protesters have been released along with offers of cash rewards.

A thorough censorship campaign has now been launched to remove Mongolian-language books from shops and even Mongolian WeChat groups have been shut down.

Nevertheless, the Communist Party’s heavy-handed response does not seem to have crushed Mongolians’ determination to resist their Chinese rulers on this matter. When the new school year began, many classrooms remained empty as parents refused to send their children in protest at the new curriculum.

“Mongolian is our mother tongue. We are Mongolian until death!” These chants of resistance from the mouths of children have been heard throughout the first autonomous region set up in China.

Clash of interests

This has been the biggest revolt since the killing of a Mongolian herder by a Han Chinese coal truck driver in 2011. The herder, known as Mergen, was obstructing the trucks to try to stop them from barging through his fenced grazing land. After the hit and run, the mining company’s Chinese driver dragged Mergen’s body along for 120km. As compensation, the state presented his family with 10,000 yuan (just under US$1,500).

This atrocity sparked the largest wave of demonstrations in two decades, and sporadic protests have erupted ever since. The cold-blooded killing was a perfect reflection of the heavy price Inner Mongolia has paid for China’s conversion of its grasslands into mega-mines.

The remote and ecologically fragile prairies of Inner Mongolia were the unspoiled home of nomadic pastoralists for thousands of years, until Chinese mining companies got a hint of the immense wealth under those grazing lands.

Today, even the last remaining grasslands are masked in smoke and dust that drift from industrial smelters, while toxic chemicals and carcinogenic elements leach into the soil and underground water. Around pools of radioactive sludge, animals drop dead and plants stop growing altogether. The herders and local villagers who dare to complain are arrested and/or forcibly relocated to small urban apartments, sometimes even separating the elderly from their family.

Could it be Hong Kong next?

Hongkongers know relatively little of the plight of Inner Mongolians despite growing interest here in the Tibetan cause since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, along with recent concerns about Xinjiang’s concentration camps.

The city has been under Chinese rule for 23 years. But it has only just started to become apparent that Hong Kong might not suffer such a different fate to China’s other “autonomous” regions, which have been controlled by the Communist Party for at least half a century longer.

Photo: Felix Dance, via Flickr.

If we do not sympathise with our friends in regions like Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, there will surely be no one left to shed a tear for us when our tiny region with its unique language is next in line for assimilation.

To share a quote translated into Cantonese on a Citizens’ Press Conference post: “For a person without country, when they forget their own language, it is the same as forgetting freedom.”


HKFP does not necessarily share views expressed by opinion writers and advertisers. HKFP regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us in order to present a diversity of views.

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Christina Chan

Christina Chan is an activist who was a part of the Hong Kong post-80s movement. A graduate in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Hong Kong, she now lives in exile where she is heavily involved with permaculture and continues to keep an eye on Hong Kong affairs.