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China’s Mongolian Language Policy and Implications for International Human Rights

Marin Ekstrom

Marin Ekstrom is an intern at the ERA Institute.

Inner Mongolia, a province located in the northeastern corner of China, has become a battleground for the freedom to express linguistic and cultural identity. The crisis stems from the Chinese government’s decision to push for Mandarin Chinese language education in the provincial school system at the expense of Mongolian, the primary language of the Mongolian minority group. The protests that arose following this policy not only shed light on ethnic Mongolians’ struggle to preserve their heritage, but also emphasizes Beijing’s troubling tendency to increasingly impose on minority rights in order to consolidate its authority both domestically and internationally.

Ethnic Mongolians account for over 4 million residents, or approximately 18%, of Inner Mongolia’s total population of 24 million people. In fact, nearly twice as many ethnic Mongols live in Inner Mongolia compared to the nation-state of Mongolia (also known as Outer Mongolia). At the same time, the province has a long history of integration with China. During the seventeenth century, the territories that comprise modern-day Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia became incorporated into Qing China. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century, the regions of Outer Mongolia united and, with the backing of the Soviet Union, declared national independence. The territories of Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, remained with China, and formally became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1947, two years before the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China. Following the foundation of the new government, the ruling parties in Beijing encouraged internal migration to Inner Mongolia— particularly from the Han Chinese ethnic majority, which makes up over 90% of China’s population— but still vowed to grant ethnic Mongolians special rights and privileges to preserve their cultural identity.

The ethnic Mongolians of Inner Mongolia earned a reputation as China’s “model minority” due to their relatively amicable relationship with Beijing, especially when compared to other prominent ethnic minority groups such as the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the Tibetans in Tibet. Overall, the ethnic Mongolian community has been compliant with the national government’s policies in the province. Most notably, they have not yet pursued a major separatist movement, and intermarriage rates between ethnic Mongolians and the Han Chinese are higher than their Uyghur and Tibetan counterparts.  In turn, Beijing has tended to be more permissive in terms of allowing ethnic Mongolians to use the Mongolian language and adhere to traditional practices and beliefs. Thus, Inner Mongolia had seemingly achieved a balance of promoting assimilation with Beijing’s preferences, as well as the Han Chinese presence in the province,  while still allowing ethnic Mongolians to express their cultural heritage.

However, the seemingly close-knit relationship between the ethnic Mongolian community and Beijing became jeopardized following the recent implementation of a new educational policy. In August 2020, the federal government announced that all primary and secondary schools throughout Inner Mongolia had to conduct history, morality and law, and language and literature classes in Mandarin Chinese, rather than in the Mongolian language.

Government representatives justified the measure by claiming that it would familiarize Mongolian students with Mandarin Chinese from a younger age and provide them with better educational and career prospects in the long run. Mongolian families, however, denounced the change, as they feared that Beijing would use this policy as a first step in replacing all forms of Mongolian-language instruction with Mandarin Chinese. In turn, they claimed that using Mandarin Chinese as the sole medium for education would disconnect young generations of Mongolians from their ancestral language and culture.

Ethnic Mongolians began to rebel against the policy by staging protests and homeschooling their children when the academic year began in September. Federal authorities retaliated through such means as threatening families with job losses and other penalties unless they sent their children back to school. Beijing has also pursued a campaign of mass incarceration, as approximately 10,000 people have been arrested or detained since the start of the protests. The events in Inner Mongolia gained international attention and sparked solidarity protests, most notably in Mongolia, but also in countries such as the USA, France, and Japan.

Although the protests remain ongoing, Beijing shows no signs of acquiescing to criticisms of the language policy: authorities have continued to target protesters, and the national government has ramped up recruitment for Mandarin-speaking teachers to work in Inner Mongolia.

The national government’s actions in Inner Mongolia draw parallels to escalating crackdowns on ethnic minority rights in other Chinese provinces, including the mass detainment of Uyghurs in “re-educational camps” throughout Xinjiang and the forced placement of Tibetans into “training programs” in Tibet. Researchers and analysts on China claim that these measures reflect President Xi Jinping’s campaign to aggressively promote Sinicization throughout China. The Xi regime has pursued an agenda of pushing out minority languages and cultures in favor of Mandarin Chinese and Han Chinese culture, as ruling authorities believe that such measures will guarantee loyalty to Beijing and nullify internal threats to China’s ascension to global superpower status. Xi’s policies have also had a significant impact on China’s foreign relations. The case of Inner Mongolia has ignited debates in Mongolia on the nature of its bilateral relationship with China and how to advocate for the rights of ethnic Mongolians while not risking major repercussions, especially in trade relations.  The treatment of ethnic minorities in China has also spurred discussions about the future of the liberal world order, especially with regard to human rights discourse, in the international community. Thus, the ultimate outcome of the language policy in Inner Mongolia not only has critical ramifications for the province’s ethnic Mongolians, but also for the future of Chinese nationhood and global norms and protocol as a whole.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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