More than 300,000 students have gone on strike in Inner Mongolia and refused to attend classes. Their parents, along with local police and Party cadres, have joined the protestors.

 

NEW DELHI: Over the past few weeks, protests and demonstrations have, quite unusually, erupted in China’s otherwise generally peaceful Nei (Inner) Mongol Autonomous Region where China’s 4.5 million ethnic Mongols, who today account for just under 15% of the population, reside. The disturbances coincide with the resentment among the ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibet Autonomous Region at the more hard-line policies now being pursued by the Chinese leadership in Beijing and the efforts since May/June to replace local languages with Mandarin as the first language.

Protests in Mongolia were sparked by the decision of the central Chinese authorities to replace Mongolian with Mandarin as the premier language in schools throughout the Autonomous Region. More than 300,000 students have gone on strike in Inner Mongolia and refused to attend classes. Their parents, along with local police and Party cadres, have joined the protestors. The authorities in Beijing have reacted with tough punitive measures and warned parents whose children did not return to school by 17 September, that they will be banned from receiving bank loans for five years and their children will be expelled and forbidden to take the important National University Entrance Exam. All 300 employees of the state-owned Inner Mongolia TV Station and Inner Mongolia Radio Station, who had signed a document threatening to resign en masse if the parents who work in these media are penalised, have been punished. The authorities are reported to have identified the “ringleaders” and published lists of another 130 “wanted” persons in different cities including Tongliao City, Horqin District. Rewards of 1,000 yuan have been offered to those who denounce the ringleaders.

Reports filtering out of Inner Mongolia on 17-18 September suggest that resentment has been further fuelled because of the efforts by authorities to recruit young Mongolians for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and send them to the Tibet Plateau. They are questioning why, when the Hans are so much more numerous, Mongolians need to be recruited and sent to fight in Tibet. Reports reveal that 900 Mongolian students were recruited earlier in September for being sent to Tibet.

Indicating the seriousness with which the protests are viewed by the CCP leadership, China’s Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi travelled to Mongolia on an “emergency inspection” tour on 2 September, where he ordered repression of the protests. He said the people, especially the ethnic Mongolian minority “should maintain the fundamental political attribute of public security, whose last name is CCP, unswervingly adhere to the CCP’s absolute leadership of public security work, always take the CCP’s flag as the flag, the CCP’s direction as the direction, and the CCP’s will as the will, and ensure that all resolutely listen to the CCP and follow the Party at all times and under all circumstances.” He warned that the police in Inner Mongolia “will further promote the anti-secession struggle, strictly implement anti-terrorism and anti-terrorist measures, and perform its solid job of maintaining stability in the field of ethnicity and religion and promoting ethnic unity”.

The “rushed” visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Ulan Bator, capital of the Mongolian Republic, on 15 September indicates that China is concerned that the disturbances might have been engineered by a hostile foreign power. The same day more than 100 protesters, many in traditional Mongolian clothing, gathered in Ulan Bator’s main square and chanted slogans calling for protecting their language, including “Wang Yi, go away”. Former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj criticised China’s actions on social media and said, “The right to learn and use one’s mother tongue is an inalienable right for all. Upholding this right is a way for China to be a respectable and responsible power.” During an interview with Mongolia’s Daily News on 15 September, China’s Ambassador to Mongolia, Chai Wenrui responded and criticised Elbegdorj for his remarks and said false information about the situation in Inner Mongolia would harm relations between the two countries. China’s Foreign Ministry said that during talks with his Mongolian counterpart Wang Yi said the two countries should “respect each other’s sovereignty, strengthen mutual political trust and avoid interfering in each other’s internal affairs”.

Separately, credible reports disclosed on 14 September that the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province had, between the end of June and early July 2020, convicted nine Tibetans for inciting “splittism”—a term used to denote separatist or other activities by pro-Dalai Lama elements. Three of the Tibetans were also convicted of arson.

Apprehending that the agitation could spread to other minority regions, Politburo Standing Committee member and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Wang Yang travelled to the Golok Tibetan Prefecture in Qinghai Province on 14-15 September while You Quan, Secretary of the CCP Central Committee and Head of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy towards non-CCP entities and China’s minorities, visited Sichuan Province at the same time. The CPPCC, incidentally, oversees the UFWD.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.