"The right to learn and use one's mother tongue is an inalienable right for all,” tweeted the former president of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, in response to a decision by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to terminate bilingual Mongolian education in China’s Inner Mongolia.
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was created in 1947, two years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Today, Inner Mongolia is part of the PRC and has a population of roughly 24.7 million, of whom around four million are ethnic Mongolians. The neighbouring independent nation of Mongolia, called Outer Mongolia by the Chinese, has a population of just over three million, making Inner Mongolia the largest population of Mongols in the world. Under Chinese law, the Autonomous region has the right to self-governance regarding education, culture and language. These rights have been under constant attack, however, since 1949, with over 20,000 Mongols killed and tens of thousands of others charged with “separatist activities” during China’s Cultural Revolution.
On August 26th 2020, the Chinese government informed parents in Inner Mongolia that the bilingual education policy had been changed and “some” courses would no longer be taught in Mongolian. Parents complained bilingual education was being terminated. The Chinese government retorted that it was not ending bilingual education, as Mongolian would still be taught in language lessons. The definition of bilingual education, however, as opposed to foreign language education, is that subjects are taught in both languages. The new policy determined politics, history and literature would all be taught in Mandarin and that all textbooks and teaching materials had to be in Mandarin.
The crackdown on Mongolian language is moving far beyond the language of instruction in classrooms. Most international social media are blocked in China, but Mongolian netizens are reporting, through friends and family in independent Outer Mongolia, that signage displaying the Mongolian alphabet is being taken down and Mongolian books have been removed from bookstores, Mongolian groups on WeChat (China’s leading social media platform) have been deleted, and the only Mongolian language app, Bainu, has been shut down. In some places, the use of Mongolian in schools has been completely banned. Schools have issued statements saying “Students are prohibited from speaking Mongolian during any school activities.”
The new policy violates the Chinese Constitution, which states, “Where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the medium of instruction.” Similar crackdowns have taken place against China’s two other large ethnic minorities, the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region. According to the Chinese Educational Bureau, the bilingual programs in those regions had already undergone the same changes. In Tibet, not only has the language of instruction been switched 100 percent to Mandarin, but local Tibetan-language kindergartens and schools have been closed down, with children being forcibly sent to Mandarin boarding schools, far away from the influence of their parents and culture.
While Tibet and Xinjiang have been hotbeds of rebellion, the Communist Party has always referred to the Inner Mongolians as the “model minority”.
Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania, says Mongolians were the first ethnic minority to declare their support for the Communist Party in the 1940s. In exchange for obedience, the Mongolians were left in charge of the education of their children, but China has continuously decreased bilingual educational access. In 1990, about 60 percent of children attended bilingual education. By 2019, that number had dropped to 30 percent. The same year, Mongolian historian Lhamjab Borjigin was arrested for publishing a book documenting Communist atrocities in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution.
After the new education policy was announced, it was estimated as many as 300,000 students had boycotted school and taken to the streets in protest. Over 300 employees of the state-owned Inner Mongolia TV network threatened to resign over the policy, an unprecedented act of defiance given effectively all media in China is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by the state. TV anchors went as far as to post messages encouraging parents to keep their children out of school. Large numbers of ethnic Mongolian civil servants resigned rather than comply with demands they implement the policy. One resident reported most ethnic Mongolians, regardless of their job, had called in sick in protest.
A few days after the protests started, Xi Jinping sent Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi to the region. Zhao called on protesters to “unswervingly” adhere to Party policy and to cease separatist activities. Public Security used surveillance, financial and employment threats, detention, social credit blacklisting and media censorship to preserve “social stability”. Four Party members who were working as schoolteachers were fired because of the stance they took against the policy. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people have been arrested, while arrest warrants were issued for at least an additional 1,300 people who the state called ringleaders, each carrying a cash bounty of 1,000 Yuan.
Not only was the policy unpopular among the Mongols, but even cadre within the Beijing government voiced their opposition. Ma Xiaoli, an elite member of the Communist Party, along with 18 signatories, submitted a letter calling for a retraction of the policy. The letter also asked for an end to the arrest of protesters, and that those arrested not be branded as “political criminals” or tools of “foreign anti-China forces”. Ma Xiaoli warned this type of crackdown could turn Inner Mongolia into another Xinjiang, a region where Chinese oppression has resulted in terrorism and separatism.
According to residents, the police began searching people’s phones to see if they had participated in protests. Initially, reports were being passed, secretly, from Inner Mongolia to Outer Mongolia, in real time, so Outer Mongolians could publish them on Twitter and Facebook, informing the world of what was happening, but then Chinese government censorship intensified and many Inner Mongolians suddenly had their cell service and Wi-Fi cut off. News was still getting out but in lower volumes and at a much slower rate. Some of those who the Party believed could be trusted were secretly using VPNs to bypass the Great Firewall of China and get information out.
These Inner Mongolians reported those who organised protests had been charged with “stability control”, and those who signed petitions were arrested. Parents were threatened with unemployment and loss of social security benefits if they did not send their children back to school. They could also face being blacklisted as an “untrustworthy person”, which could prevent them from obtaining bank loans. High school students were threatened that if they did not return to school, they would not only be expelled, but also be barred from taking the university entrance exam. Meanwhile, the police reported they were looking for people who posted anything “harmful to the government” on social media.
When parents first heard about the curriculum changes, they had to fight with police to get their children out of school. In at least one case, the children charged the barricades and escaped into the arms of their parents. In some schools as few as 12 percent of Mongolian students were in attendance.
At least nine Mongolians died by suicide, largely government workers who felt torn between enforcing government policy and betraying their own people. One of the suicide victims was the principal of a Mongolian school in Erenhot, Xilin Gol League, which borders on independent Mongolia. She was under tremendous pressure from the Chinese government, to terminate the bilingual education program. According to a local source, “This principal refused to help the government commit cultural genocide on her people and told the Mongolian kids to not come back to school. They (China’s government) insulted her and fired her and pressured her so hard she killed herself. She wrote a letter saying she’s doing this to wake the Mongols up so they can understand they must fight and do whatever they must in order to protect themselves. She urged them to post online and to the outside world to let everyone know what’s going on.”
Across Inner Mongolia, the educator’s death was widely mourned. When students and parents attempted to pay their respects at the funeral, the government sent 100 police officers to turn them back. According to a local source, the government claimed the principal’s death was an accident, “They don’t want a martyr.” On social media, the authorities posted, what is presumed to be a fake, messages from the principal, stating that “everyone needs to stop spreading rumours and her death had nothing to do with the language policy”.
"At least nine Mongolians died by suicde, largely government workers who felt torn between enforcing government policy and betraying their own people."
Apparently, this was done in several of the nine cases of suicide. The principal’s husband and child were made to sign a statement confirming her suicide had nothing to do with the new language policy. The husband was also forced to read a public statement asking everyone to leave his family alone, and “that if anyone says something false, he will take them to court”. Her body was quickly cremated, and further memorialising was made impossible.
A massive student hunt was launched by the police. Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted a parent as saying, “Even in the remotest rural communities, police presence is so heavy.” This was corroborated by a source which said, “Police then raided private homes, looking to drag the children back to school. Parents who resisted were arrested.” In an attempt to prevent the authorities from finding their children, many Mongolian parents abandoned the cities and villages, hiding their children in their traditional gers (yurts) in the grasslands.
Chinese government Twitter and Facebook accounts began posting videos of happy “Mongol” children, in traditional dress, cheerfully attending their Mandarin lessons. According to Mongolian netizens, however, the traditional clothes they were wearing were fake and cheap. Additionally, children in China wear uniforms to school, not ethnic dress, so the videos seemed suspicious and potentially staged. Some cell-phone footage even showed security personnel in the back of the classrooms.
Once the police had rounded up the majority of the children and coerced the parents into submission, the next reports out of Inner Mongolia revealed the army was pulling young Mongol males out of university and sending them to fight on the Indian border. A teacher in Inner Mongolia said she knew of at least 90 Mongolian boys who had been forcibly recruited into the army. She had also heard similar events were taking place in Tibet. The assumption she made was Tibetans and Mongolians are considered to be hardier people who can survive the harsh climate and environmental conditions on the China–India border.
The end of the Nomadic way of life
Ending the teaching of the Mongolian language is one way of dispossessing the Mongols of their cultural heritage and forcing them to become Chinese. Another is taking away their land. The traditional Mongol way of life is nomadic herding. In fact, in independent Outer Mongolia, 40 percent
of the population are still nomadic herders. In PRC, however, the government has been trying to end nomadism for decades.
The Apple Daily, an independent news media outlet from Hong Kong, reported that parallel to the language policy protests, thousands had been arrested in Inner Mongolia as herders rallied against a new Land Management law that would effectively make the nomadic lifestyle illegal. The Standing Committee of the Inner Mongolia National People’s Congress introduced new legislation, Regulations on Grass-Animal Balance and Grazing Prohibition and Land Resting in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, prohibiting grazing. This bill is just the latest in a series of strategic moves aimed at ending nomadism.
According to one resident of Inner Mongolia who responded to an interview through social media, “In the past 20 years or so, China has restricted the grasslands by building fences and mines. And that ended the nomadic lifestyle. So, now people have ranches and keep herds but cannot be nomads anymore.” The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre in New York called the move “cultural genocide”, since nomadic herding forms a significant part of Mongolian life and culture.
Only 17 percent of Inner Mongolia’s population are ethnic Mongolians. The majority of the others are Han Chinese who have been incentivised to move to the region as part of Beijing’s Sinicization efforts targeted at creating a Mongol minority. Long-term government initiatives such as “The National Nomad Settlement Project” are aimed at destroying Mongol culture, forcing to adhere to the dominant Han Chinese culture.
According to Taiwanese media, China is not in a good position to invade Taiwan because it faces a potential war with India and with the US, but Mongolia, with a population of only three million, is a soft target for annexation.
Many believe the recent crackdown on Mongolian language is an attempt to prevent Inner Mongolians from communicating or joining forces with Outer Mongolians. China has taken great steps to avoid Pan-Mongolism, the concept of all Mongol people uniting into a single country that would include Inner Mongolia, Mongolian Buryatskaya (in the Russian Federation), Mongolian Xinjiang, and other areas. Over the years, China has granted increased trade to Mongolia in exchange for Mongolia declaring itself a nuclear weapon – and WMD-free state, and for passing laws against hosting foreign troops.
The reaction in Mongolia
In response to the new language policy, former Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj said, “You cannot separate a person’s language and culture from the person.” He went on to say, “If someone hurts in Inner Mongolia, we feel it in Mongolia.” Chinese ambassador Chai Wenrui criticised the former president, saying that “false information about the situation in Inner Mongolia” would harm Mongolia–China relations. The statement also evoked heavy criticism from Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during his visit to Ulaanbaatar in mid-September 2020, when he told Mongolian media Elbegdorj was “two-faced” for supporting the Inner Mongolians. During his visit, Mongolians staged a protest against the end of the bilingual education program 0/in China as well as issuing a call to their own government to intervene on behalf of the Inner Mongolians.
Wang Yi’s visit coincided with a 700-million-yuan (A$150 million) Chinese-government grant, which many see as “hush money” to prevent the government of Mongolia from speaking out against the language policy. One Inner Mongolian who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “Mongolia took the money, so not good. This could be the beginning of the end. They can make China angry; they are just afraid to. [Inner Mongolians] actually already knew Mongolia would do this…But they were hoping otherwise.”
When Mongolian Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khurelsukh met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he reaffirmed that “Mongolia firmly adheres to the one-China policy, and it did not and will not interfere in China’s internal affairs.” During his visit, Wang Yi discussed increasing Mongolia’s coal and agricultural exports to China, as well as advancing the Belt and Road Initiative, a grand infrastructure project that calls for billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese investment. They also discussed China financing the construction of three additional railway border ports.
Many Mongolians harbour resentment and even hatred towards China. A Mongolian college student went as far as suggesting Mongolians should stop celebrating Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, because it was originally a Qin Dynasty holiday. “You know how the Qin treated us, yeah?” he said, angrily.
Additionally, many fear it is inevitable that Mongolia will be subsumed by China, eventually losing its independence. Mongolia’s current president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, even campaigned on an anti-China platform.
September first in Mongolia is “The Day of the Mother Language.” President Battulga appeared on television, in traditional dress, reciting a poem with a group of school children, standing before a backdrop written in traditional Mongolian script. The poem was about the Mongolian alphabet and was written by a poet from Inner Mongolia. It would seem clear where President Battulga’s heart lies, and yet the Mongolian government has issued no official statement of protest against China’s actions in Inner Mongolia. This is largely because the country is economically dependent on China, which purchases in excess of 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports. The Mongolian government remembers all too well when it defied Beijing’s protests by allowing a 2016 visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest Lama in both Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. As punishment, Beijing closed several border crossings and imposed tariffs on Mongolian exports.
Citizens criticised their government for its lack of response. One student said, “They are bowing down to China. Do you know why Genghis Khan made Mongolia powerful? Because Mongolia doesn’t bow down to anyone. It’s in our blood.” While their government remained silent on the issue, Mongolian netizens raised their voices on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #SaveTheMongolianLanguage. The South China Morning Post published a video about the protests in which a Mongolian protester said, “The centre of our Mongolian tradition is in Inner Mongolia. Our language here is also destroyed. If our traditional language is eradicated, the Mongolian lineage will disappear.”
One reason why Mongolians see the events in Inner Mongolia as a threat to the survival of their language is because Outer Mongolia, a former Soviet Satellite, writes with a Russian modified Cyrillic alphabet. Inner Mongolia was the last place on Earth where the traditional Mongolian alphabet was still being used.
“F--- Chinese” answered Bat-Orgil, an artist and photographer in Mongolia, when he was asked about the Inner-Mongolia language policy. The next question was if he thought the language and culture was in danger, to which he replied, “Of course. I can’t read it.”
As the Mongolian language is being squashed in Inner Mongolia, the government of Mongolia has announced it will be dropping the Cyrillic alphabet and going back to using the traditional Mongolian alphabet, Hudum Mongol bichig, by 2025. A Mongolian university student said, “China found out we are switching back to Mongolian alphabet, and they are not happy.”
The Mongolian traditional script is extremely ornate, written vertically, from top to bottom in columns down the page. For most people, even native speakers, it is considered quite challenging. The same student went on to say the change could never actually happen because it would be too difficult. “We have this alphabet from Russia, and we will be stuck with it forever, because everyone is used to it.”
Mongolian students only learn Mongolian traditional script for two to three years in junior high school, and there is only one section on the national exam which required students to translate from the old script to Cyrillic. In daily life, the old script is almost never used, so most students forget the little they have learned once they move on to high school.
A college student theorised, “They could incorporate it into the education system, but how would our generation survive? It would be hard for us.” He went on to say, “I learned it, but I suck at it.” Another student agreed, “I can’t even read it. That makes it pretty sad, I guess.” The first student added, “We’ve lost it.” A third student felt Mongolians had a responsibility to learn and preserve the old language. “You guys can learn. I am planning to learn Mongolian script. You can’t escape from the culture, guys.”
Some see Inner Mongolia as a repository of the old Mongolian culture. Student Three said, “But if you were Inner Mongolian, you would be using it [the alphabet].” English and Russian have heavily influenced the language of Outer Mongolia. The student went on to say, “They [Inner Mongolians] are more Mongolian than us. We don’t even know Mongolian vocabulary sometimes; we just use English. I think this is what is making us less Mongolian.” And now language programs are being terminated in Inner Mongolia and it is questionable if the script change will be carried out in Mongolia, the student concluded “It is sad for our language.”
This will be the end of the Mongolian alphabet which managed to survive from the days of Genghis Khan until August 26, 2020.