Inside Story

Another front in Beijing’s war against difference

Amid an economic boom, protests in Inner Mongolia reflect wider tensions

Kerry Brown 29 September 2020 1267 words

The protest against China’s language restrictions in Inner Mongolia spread to Ulaanbaatar, capital of neighbouring Mongolia, when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited a fortnight ago. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/EPA

Inner Mongolia is almost as big as China’s better-known autonomous regions, Xinjiang and Tibet. A massive strip, it runs from the centre of the country to its northeast, where it becomes the meat in the sandwich between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic, as someone complained to me when I was living in the provincial capital, Hohhot, in the 1990s.

Tibet’s turmoil attracted global attention before the 2008 Olympics, and Xinjiang captured wide coverage when its own protests erupted a year later. But an outbreak of dissent in Inner Mongolia in 2011, sparked by the local police’s treatment of a herdsman’s death, attracted much less coverage. Small-scale as it was, the flare-up was a reminder that the region had many of the underlying problems of its better-known counterparts — grievances over local ethnic minority rights, tensions with the Han majority, and anger at iniquities reaching further back into history.

Inner Mongolia was, after all, one of the places that suffered bitterly in the Cultural Revolution. During the period of “rectification” in the early 1980s, the central government acknowledged that 22,000 people had died in the region during the upheaval of 1966–76 — almost certainly a huge underestimate, but a rare admission by a regime that seldom admits culpability.

Student protests broke out in 1981, in 1986 and again in June 1989, in the latter case associated with the student unrest in Beijing. In 1995 a small group agitating for greater autonomy and more cultural rights was taken in by the police. One of them, Hada, who had run a bookshop in a town I visited when I first arrived, was to spend the next decade and a half in jail. Each of these incidents was a reminder that bad feelings persisted despite the central government’s investments in the region.

But the most striking thing about Inner Mongolia is the economic boom it has experienced over the past two decades. Visiting again around 2006, I remember a local official telling me that Hohhot’s economy had grown by 36 per cent in a single year — the highest rate in China. Fuelling this growth was coal, which the region supplied to the great metropolis of Beijing and the rest of coastal China. Local businesspeople in this sector became multimillionaires almost overnight.

The physical changes were remarkable. Cities I remembered as bereft of modern buildings, their streets potholed and their ancient residential areas crumbling, had become gleaming monuments to modernity. Hohhot’s Old City had become that most typical of recent Chinese phenomena — a sort of “new” old. On another visit, around 2015, I was able to stay in the plush Shangri-La Hotel and gaze around, slightly disorientated, at a landscape I could barely recognise.

A lot of the wealth has trickled out to the grasslands, for sure. But the changes there have not been so dramatic or deep.

These days, Mongolians constitute around 15 to 20 per cent of the autonomous region’s population. They have been a minority since the late Qing era, which ended in 1912, their numbers diluted by the widespread Han migration into the area that accelerated after the communist takeover in 1949.

Many of the older people I knew in Hohhot in the 1990s had moved there as part of the Mao-era resettlement campaign. And while plenty of ethnic Mongolians still lived there, those who spoke the language and lived what would be regarded as a culturally Mongolian lifestyle were out in villages on the massive grasslands that stretched in all directions around the central city. For many of them, tradition was more than just an add-on.

In those areas, you needed at least a smattering of Mongolian language to get by. People spoke Chinese, but often with a heavy accent. Younger Mongolians were more likely to be bilingual, but even the most sinified of them regarded the language of their own group as carrying huge symbolic importance.

I can understand why language is now even more significant. The march of standardisation means that signage, media and almost everything else is in Mandarin Chinese using Chinese characters. In this context, using at least some of the old-style Mongolian script carries particular importance.

Even in independent Mongolia across the norther border, the years of Soviet Union influence led to the wide adoption of Cyrillic script. Inner Mongolians have often been berated by their northern neighbours for having become wholly Chinese, but at least they could point to the fact that they had maintained the traditional written language.

But a Mongolian living in an urban area today needs to work harder than ever to maintain any kind of language ability that isn’t Chinese. And once that is taken out of the picture, in terms of lifestyle, identity and cultural self-expression, what is left? As one scholar noted in the early 2000s, the only way individuals could declare their Mongolian ethnicity was to dress in traditional clothes and engage in what passed as traditional dances. These seemed pallid ways of expressing one’s intimate sense of self-identity.

These developments help explain the angry backlash against Beijing’s recent demand that education take place in standard Mandarin — rather than Mongolian, as previously permitted — with new, centrally imposed textbooks in key subjects. Since late August, large numbers of Mongolians affected by the demand have been protesting and many students have stopped going to school. For Inner Mongolia, this is revolutionary.

No doubt the central government’s stance rests on the argument that students without a decent understanding of the national language won’t be able to get into university or find a good job. After all, similar changes have been imposed across the country, regardless of local dialect or even, in some places, a completely different language. The Xi era is one of standardising, creating predictability, making everything fit into one template. The national government can argue that it is simply making sure that no one is left out of the opportunities opened up by speaking the national lingua franca.

Nor is it likely that Beijing will back down. The government has shown itself to be unyielding in the face of far fiercer pushback, as evidenced by its inflexible handling of Hong Kong and its massive repression in Xinjiang. Even so, Inner Mongolia is worth paying attention to. It shows the perils of going too far with a dogmatic and overly centralising policy.

Because of the wealth that has swished through the area, Inner Mongolia has seemed largely unproblematic in recent years, but its modern history is not a reassuring one. The turbulence that occurred there during the Cultural Revolution was built on deep, historical divisions, many of them along ethnic lines, exacerbated by Beijing’s antagonising policies. Today, ominously, it looks like history is being repeated. At some point, Beijing must begin to wonder whether, by fuelling simmering resentments and anger on its norther border, its western borders and now in Hong Kong, it is creating a rod for its own back.

Under Xi Jinping, China certainly seems to be willing to tell other countries that they can either accept it or leave it alone. But that’s not a message that’s likely to be accepted by the people who live there. And fighting against not just external opponents but also those inside should be unsettling even for a leader like Xi.

Beijing needs to rethink what it is doing in Inner Mongolia. But the question now is not whether it will, but whether it can. And that, on its own, is worrying. •