Thousands of ethnic Mongolians have protested across northern China in opposition to Beijing plans to replace the Mongolian language with Chinese in some school subjects.
Tuesday marked the first day of a policy revealed in June, to gradually transition the language of instruction in Inner Mongolian schools from Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese. The change affects three subjects over the next three years in the autonomous region. The education bureau said Mongolian and Korean language classes would remain.
The official explanation for the change to a bilingual education system was to ensure the curriculum and textbooks were of a high standard, and that government documents cited by analysts also referred to president Xi Jinping’s push for shared language as part of a common identity.
However mass protests in Inner Mongolia – referred to as Southern Mongolia by ethnic rights and independence groups – have revealed the depth of fear that Mongolian would be relegated to a foreign language as part of government plans to assimilate ethnic minorities into Chinese Han culture.
Parents threatened to keep their children home and circulated petitions, and large crowds gathered outside schools to chant protest slogans and sing. Residents also protested against a lack of transparency by the Chinese central government.
“It is the inalienable right of Mongolians to learn the Mongolian language,” read one placard, according to Radio Free Asia.
Enghebatu Togochog, director of the US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, told the Guardian the region had been targeted for decades with policies that amounted to cultural genocide, and people had no faith that the language changes were for their benefit.
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“The main concern of the Mongolian people is that this language change is pretty much just to wipe out the Mongolian language education in Southern Mongolia once and for all,” he said.
“In the past 70 years Mongolian people have gone through a lot, including genocide, political oppression, economic exploitation, cultural assimilation and environmental destruction. So after 70 years of China’s heavy-handed policy, the Mongolian language is the last remaining symbol of Mongolia.”
Togochog dismissed the government reassurances, and suggested the current changes were a test of community resistance before a wider rollout.
The changes mirror those already made in Xinjiang in 2017 and Tibet in 2018. The Tibetan and Uighur languages in education have been under growing restrictions since the start of the century, and efforts to assimilate the ethnic minority groups – including some which have amounted to cultural genocide and drawn international condemnation – have stepped up under the leadership of Xi.
Togochog said he had received reports of authorities cracking down on protests, with some parents beaten. He also claimed schools had locked students in classrooms, and during clashes at one site near Tongliao city, a student died after jumping from a window. Dozens of videos posted by the centre showed students and parents protesting, including one of students appearing to break through barriers at one school.
Last week Chinese authorities also shut down the only Mongolian social media app in the country, VOA reported.
Elbegdorj Tsakhia, president of Mongolia from 2009 to 2017, published a video in support of the protests, according to a translation by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.
“No matter where you live, as long as you are a Mongolian, you should join this movement. Without Mongolian language, there is no Mongolian nation we can speak of.”