People in Ulaanbaatar on August 31 demonstrate against China’s new language education policies. Image credit: Mingpao

China’s latest effort to accelerate ethnic assimilation into mainstream Han culture has reached Inner Mongolia. Curriculum reforms to phase out local history, literature, and ethnic textbooks in favor of Mandarin-language education triggered widespread unrest among the country’s ethnic Mongols in early September. The new rules were announced just days before the start of the school term.

Hohhot, Tongliao, and Xilin Gol prefectures were among the cities swept up in an unusual display of dissent among ethnic Mongols. In Inner Mongolia, protests are typically joined by herders who air grievances about the mining pollution of grasslands. However, the protesters in September consisted of urban dwellers who fear that the new rules will erode the Mongolian language and identity. Tens of hundreds of parents pulled their children out of schools and took part in demonstrations, demanding that the Mongolian language be reinstated as an education language in the ethnic autonomous region bordering the independent state of Mongolia.

Initially, government officials were sent to persuade parents to send children back to school. As the protests continued to escalate after two ethnic Mongolian protesters jumped to their death, China resorted to coercion to end the unrest. Public-sector employees were warned that they would be stripped of social benefits, suspended, or fired should they continue to boycott classes. Bounties were offered for suspected protesters. China detained about 130 people in connection to the language protests within just one week. Incidents of unrest appeared to have stopped by the second week of September.

The rules came months after the independent state of Mongolia announced plans to gradually abandon its Soviet past by restoring the use of the traditional Mongolian alphabets by 2025. Since the 1940s, the difference in alphabets has kept Mongolian people in the two countries divided: three million living in Mongolia write in Cyrillic, whereas nearly six million Chinese Mongols continue to use the traditional script written in vertical lines.

The Chinese government blames the west for spreading disinformation about China’s ethnic policy, and defended the adoption of a standardized curriculum, which it says will improve ethnic minority students’ path to higher education and employment. However, some observers believe that having the same writing system among Mongolians in the two countries would breed ethnic sentiment and even separatism.