HONG KONG—Students, teachers, parents, and others are staging protests in Inner Mongolia, a semi-autonomous region in northern China, by surrounding police stations and gathering outside schools. Thousands are congregating in rare displays of open defiance of governmental orders.
These demonstrations were sparked by the Chinese government’s directive issued in the summer to broaden the footprint of Mandarin Chinese in state-compiled textbooks and classroom instruction within the region, displacing the Mongolian language in academic environments and daily usage.
From Sept. 1 onward, the authorities will shift public elementary and middle schools’ language of instruction to Chinese, specifically for three courses—language and literature, history, as well as morality and law (which includes political and ideological indoctrination). The change will be rolled out in phases, eventually keeping just mathematics and art classes in the region’s dominant native tongue.
On anonymous parent said teaching everything in a second language would make it more difficult for children to learn in school. “As Mongolians—myself and other parents—we are not willing to watch our mother tongue be gradually replaced by another language. Sure, we study Chinese, from a young age so that’s not an issue,” they told the Voice of America Mandarin service.
Ethnic Mongolians who reside in China see this as a step to erase an important part of their culture. Some see it as forced homogeneity directed at their youngsters, much like what is happening in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has strict rules that limit the public displays and practices related to each region’s cultural identity.
It’s all part of the Chinese central government’s objective to impose cultural and linguistic homogeneity on one of the world’s largest and most diverse nations. As new policies are rolled out to bring this closer to fruition, the many cultures of more than one hundred million people are slowly expunged.
The snapback came right before the start of the academic year. High school pupils, many wearing their school uniforms—blue and white track jackets with loose-fitting blue pants, worn by public school students all over the country—formed crowds and chanted, “Mongolian is our mother tongue! We are Mongolian until death!”
The gatherings were peaceful. As of Tuesday, police officers were on site mostly to observe the protests.
Since the July announcement that schools in Inner Mongolia would phase out Mongolian language instruction, 4,200 petitions have circulated by ethnic Mongols in China against the policy, according to Made in China Journal, a quarterly publication that covers the socioeconomic changes in the country.
In some cases, names are added to the petitions in circular formation so as not to create a hierarchy on paper, preventing the authorities from singling out one person as an organizer within the opposition. This method has historical precedence: regional resistance groups and secret societies in the 19th and 20th centuries applied this arrangement so that ringleaders could not be identified and captured.
The regional education bureau of Inner Mongolia issued a statement on Monday to soothe the concerns of parents and students, saying, “The current bilingual education system has not changed.” But people in the region point out that television, radio, and other forms of media are already broadcast in Mandarin Chinese, and that their own language is largely absent in massively distributed media. While families generally speak Mongolian at home, paring it back from schools will diminish the language’s usage by ethnic Mongols who live in China.
Language schools in five other provinces are also reducing their usage of local languages and dialects, replacing the curriculums with Mandarin Chinese instruction according to the government’s new rules.
Online posts about reactions to this policy, especially protests and petitions, are being censored. Videos of the demonstrations in Inner Mongolia have been scrubbed from Weibo, a domestic platform that functions like Twitter, as well as other social media sites. In late August, the only Mongolian language social network, Bainu, was taken offline by the Chinese government.
The People’s Republic of China propagates a myth of social harmony where the Han Chinese majority (more than 91 percent of the population) lives alongside 55 minorities. During the annual gathering of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, known as the National People’s Congress, delegates from non-Han regions wear their traditional attire to stand out from the sea of black suits worn by most bureaucrats. Oftentimes, the lives and cultures of minorities are reduced to folksongs and dances, paving over the tensions caused by the Chinese authorities’ demands for uniformity.
This is particularly true in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region where up to a million Uyghurs are in “thought transformation” camps at any given moment. People who are trapped in these high-security locations spend hours each day rehearsing musical and dance programs, which are then performed for visiting journalists as “proof” that individuals are “transformed” or “reformed,” and can be integrated into the Chinese fabric of society.
In these camps, language instruction plays an important role too. A leaked 2017 memo that was penned by an official who was at the time in charge of the region’s security included this directive: “Make remedial Mandarin studies the top priority.”
This type of linguistic engineering is not new in China. The Chinese Communist Party governs by uniformity, mainly addressing ideological and economic matters, not so much social and cultural factors. Part of the idea is that people can be unified—or more easily kept under control—if they speak, hear, and read a single, flattened language, one that removes cultural intricacies and distinctions, breaking connections within regional pockets to channel direct links to the party’s own organs.
The policy in Inner Mongolia is, on paper, meant to foster stronger economic inclusion in an impoverished area within China. But the fact is that locals see its implementation as a slight—and a continuation of Han Chinese incursion into their culture. Many feel that their traditions are being dismantled in the name of poverty reduction, and few ethnic Mongolians have benefited from mining booms in an area that is nearly twice the size of Texas. Instead, state-run enterprises have reaped most of the profits.
Now, the people of Inner Mongolia wonder if even their own language may be fading away too.