Culture war: Inner Mongolia seethes as China backs Mandarin in schools
As his son returned to school under the watchful eye of plainclothes police, a Mongolian-born father admitted defeat after days of battling a Chinese state-imposed curriculum he says will stifle his culture.
“The spirit (of resistance) is still there, but we are scared,” the man said, requesting anonymity as he watched other students return their suitcases to Tongliao Mongolian Middle School after a week-long boycott.
“Little by little, parents are sending their children away.”
Tens of thousands of people have taken part in demonstrations and school boycotts in Inner Mongolia – a vast swath of northern China where herders herd cattle across grasslands – to protest an edict mandating the teaching of Mandarin, lest he erase their language.
The rare mass gatherings held by ethnic Mongols are the largest China has seen in decades, where authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping tolerate no dissent.
But then the repression came.
Armored vehicles moved in to surround schools in Tongliao, a resistance stronghold where ethnic Mongols make up nearly half of the population.
The crackdown echoes Beijing’s moves in Xinjiang and Tibet, where similar policies aimed at assimilating local minorities into the dominant Han population have been implemented in line with Xi’s vision of national and ideological unity across China. cultural identity.
Police offered cash bounties for leads on ringleaders and announced the arrest of dozens of suspects accused of collecting signatures and sharing dissident posts on WeChat.
Parents who refused to send their children back to school were threatened with dismissal, fines and the expulsion of students. In one district, officials offered money to students who convinced their peers to return, according to official notices.
The dragnet intimidated the most outspoken.
Petitions circulating in early September and other outward signs of dissent have evaporated, as fear silences many Inner Mongolians.
On a recent trip to the area, AFP reporters were tailed by a convoy of propaganda officials and unidentified men, leaving contacts nervous and afraid to be named.
– In the footsteps of Xinjiang, Tibet –
Hastily imposed for the start of the school year on September 1, the new rules stipulate that Mandarin must be taught from the first year – a year earlier than before – in bilingual boarding schools in the region.
History, politics and literature will also be taught in Mandarin now instead of Mongolian.
Similar education policies have been introduced in Xinjiang and Tibet, other border regions that have faced government repression and widespread campaigns to curb their minority education, religions and cultures.
“It’s something we cannot accept,” the father told AFP.
“For young children who are now around seven or eight years old, in a decade or two they won’t be able to speak with their grandparents in their own language.”
– Assimilation campaign —
Ethnic Mongols make up less than a fifth of the region’s 25.3 million people and are vastly outnumbered by Han Chinese.
But they are extremely proud of a heritage they share with Mongolia to the north, and fear that Beijing is stepping up a campaign of assimilation.
“Schools are to Mongolian ethnic identity what monasteries are to Tibetan identity, and what Islamic festivals and shrines are to Uyghur identity,” said Chris Atwood, a professor of studies. Mongolians and Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania.
The interference in the program aligns with Xi’s remarks that fluency in Mandarin leads to greater prosperity and greater social mobility for ethnic minorities across China.
It involves “hints that there is something wrong with minority language teaching,” Atwood added.
The authorities show no signs of backing down.
Regional Governor Bu Xiaolin said implementing the Mandarin policy is an “important political task”.
The Inner Mongolia Education Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Bainuu, the only Mongolian-language social media app available in China, was taken down by authorities in August.
– Schoolchildren threatened –
In neighboring Mongolia, which has close economic ties with China, the move has caused huge public outcry, although politicians have yet to challenge China on the issue.
Despite growing pressure from the authorities, a small minority continues to defy local government orders.
A parent from Tongliao told AFP by phone that her toddler was currently being homeschooled, despite repeated threats from local police.
“It’s a very scary situation.”
The program change shows that China is determined to “annihilate the Mongolian language, culture and identity”, said Enghebato Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, based At New York.
“The Mongols really don’t want to lose their language. If they lose it, they lose everything.”
© 2020 AFP