Re-education camps like those in Xinjiang are not seen in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. But the more than four million Mongolian Chinese cannot escape the hand of the government in Beijing, which wants to make minorities ‘more Chinese’. At the start of the new school year, the Mongolian language disappears from the classrooms. “Our language and culture are being eradicated. That is cultural genocide,” says Mongolian human rights activist Enghebatu Togochog.
Three years ago, three subjects in Mongolian were canceled at Mongolian schools. From now on, Chinese would be the main language for this. It led to unprecedented protests in the region. Parents kept their children at home. A teacher claims she remembers nothing about it. “I have no idea, I’m not very clear about all that,” she says on the edge of the square of the Mongolian school in Darhan Muminggan.
The parents have not forgotten. “After two weeks I sent my daughter back to school,” says one mother. Under pressure from the authorities. There were threats of dismissal and large-scale arrests. “We had to make compromises,” says the mother. A one-sided compromise: only Beijing got its way.
You are told that you have to speak Chinese to be a civilized citizen. That creates the feeling that speaking Mongolian is not civilized.
The party boss of the region promised that it would stick to those three subjects, but that promise did not last long. “On the contrary,” says Professor Christopher Atwood of Pennsylvania University, who closely follows developments in this Mongolian part of China. “The government’s position has only become more radical.”
As a result, subjects such as mathematics and gymnastics may no longer be taught in Mongolian. Mongolian becomes a secondary subject, like English. It is unclear to what extent all schools have already implemented this new policy, teachers do not talk about it. “You’ll have to ask someone else that,” says one of them, Chinese textbooks under his arm. Unknown followers beckoned her: end of interview.
You can’t talk freely
Talking freely is not allowed in Inner Mongolia. The followers intervene several times. They pull people away from the camera, others are ushered back into their homes. “We have our own laws here,” says one of them.
Her white Honda, without a license plate, is one of at least six cars in a motorcade that closely monitors our movements in the region on the hundreds of kilometers of journey. At night, some followers camp in their car in front of our hotel. Others stand guard in the lobby, returning to action at dawn. Until a few years ago, this was only common in Xinjiang.
“Parents in the region are discussing how to set up homeschools,” said Togochog of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center in New York. That’s not easy. “It is not allowed to keep your children home from school. We see a lot of discussion about the new curriculum on social media, but everything is tightly controlled.”
Until a few years ago, the Mongolian minority was largely left alone. There was no separatist threat, as Beijing saw in Xinjiang and Tibet. “It seems like it’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist at all,” Atwood says.
“The assimilation was accepted to a certain extent,” said Marin Ekstrom, researcher and publicist for China Currents. For example, Mongolians marry Han Chinese more often than other minorities. “It seems more motivated by paranoia. Atwood shares that view. “I think the reason has to be sought in the party’s thinking about national unity,” he says. “The idea that it is important that everyone speaks the same language.”
The majority of Mongolian Chinese speak standard Mandarin well. The calculation seems to indicate that the fact that they do not pose a threat now does not provide sufficient guarantees for the future. “Whether it was Xi’s plan, I don’t know,” Atwood said. “But I can’t imagine this happening without Xi saying this is a good idea.”
Multilingual street signs
Street signs in the region are multilingual, and many shops in Darhan Muminggan also use the Mongolian script in addition to Chinese characters. Mongolian can still be seen and heard on television and social media. But space is shrinking, Ekstrom says. “For example, you are told that you have to speak Chinese to be a civilized citizen.”
“The Mongolian people are being forced to accept the Chinese language and culture as superior,” Togochog said. He also points to the propaganda slogans. “Forge a solid sense of community within the Chinese Nation,” reads in large yellow characters on a red sign in the schoolyard in Darhan Muminggan. “What they mean: become more like the Han Chinese, a group with which we have nothing in common linguistically and culturally,” says the activist, who speaks of a cultural genocide.
‘There is no chance of success’
Experts agree with him. “Previously, families could choose between Mongolian and Mandarin language education,” says Ekstrom. “The fact that that choice is no longer there is a big red flag.” Atwood is of the same opinion. “The party-state is trying to put minority languages on a path that is certain to slowly disappear.”
The international community does not seem to care much about developments in Inner Mongolia. Mission accomplished will be the conviction in Beijing about the region where resistance appears to have been successfully broken. “Previous protests against education reform have shown that nothing is changing,” Atwood said. “If there’s no chance of success, why bother trying?”
At the Mongolian School in Darhan Muminggan, a teacher looks around. He thinks for a moment about his answer to the question of how much room he still sees for Mongolian, knowing that there are no more safe places in his region. “What can we say?” The teacher regains his composure and answers his own question meaningfully. “Some things cannot be said, I’m sure you are well aware of that,” he says. He walks away, is briefly called to order by the followers, but is then allowed to continue.
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