After the announcement that the Mongolian language would gradually be replaced by Chinese in schools around Inner Mongolia, thousands of ethnic Mongolians in northern China have gathered outside schools to express their discontent with the policy which favours Chinese.
“We Mongolians are a great race as well,” Dagula, a 39-year-old mother of two, said. “If we accept teaching in Chinese, our Mongolian language will really die out.”
Images of the protests shared on social media sites showed crowds of parents and students amassing peacefully outside schools, singing and shouting slogans as the authorities looked on.
In one video, a woman was shown flipping through the pages of a textbook, decrying the absence of Mongolian language. In another, students in blue and white uniforms shouted, “Mongolian is our mother language! We are Mongolian until death!”
By Monday afternoon, many of the posts had disappeared from Chinese social media sites.
Under the new policy, which marked its first day on September 1, classes would also rely on Chinese textbooks compiled and approved by the government, part of a broader government effort in recent years to standardize curriculum in schools.
While the new policy states that the Mongolian language would still be taught to students, the role of Mongolian as a language of instruction would effectively be diminished in many schools.
In August, the Inner Mongolia regional education bureau sought to reassure parents by issuing a statement vowing to limit the changes to only the three subjects: language and literature, politics, and history. In all other subjects, the bureau said, the textbooks, medium of instruction and hours devoted to teaching Mongolian and Korean, another minority language in the region, would remain unchanged.
“The existing bilingual education system has not changed,” the bureau said.
Still, Dagula, who like many Mongolians goes by only one name, said that she would join other parents who planned to protest the policy by not sending their children to school when it reopens.
She said that she had come to this decision despite exhortations from the local authorities, who recently called and knocked on doors to urge parents to send their children back to school.
“When you turn on the television, it’s all Chinese — even the cartoons are in Chinese,” she said. “We don’t need to worry about our children not learning Chinese.”
The official explanation for the change to a bilingual education system was to ensure the curriculum and textbooks were of a high standard, and that government documents cited by analysts also referred to president Xi Jinping’s push for shared language as part of a common identity.
The authorities say such policies help ethnic minorities by making it easier for them to integrate into the Han mainstream. Some ethnic minority parents have welcomed Chinese language instruction, believing it would better equip their children to compete for coveted spots at Chinese universities and jobs in the Chinese economy.
But the new policies have also stirred anxiety and fears, with some arguing that the measures will quickly erase their own native cultures and identities.
Activists say that the recent demonstrations are the largest in Inner Mongolia since 2011, when the killings of two ethnic Mongolians by Han drivers sparked protests across the vast borderland.
“Our way of life has already been wiped out,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, an exile group based in New York.
“In the past 70 years Mongolian people have gone through a lot, including genocide, political oppression, economic exploitation, cultural assimilation and environmental destruction. So, after 70 years of China’s heavy-handed policy, the Mongolian language is the last remaining symbol of Mongolia,” he said.
Togochog said several protesters were beaten up and taken away by the authorities.
The party has also pushed a greater emphasis on the Chinese language in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. Education has been just one part of a sweeping crackdown in the region in recent years, in which as many as one million ethnic Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities have been detained in internment camps.
Across schools in Xinjiang, Chinese is replacing Uighur, a Turkic language, as the main language of instruction. Most elementary and middle school students are now taught in Chinese, up from 38 percent three years ago.
Inner Mongolia has experienced less of the violent ethnic strife that has convulsed Xinjiang and Tibet in the past decade or so. The region, which borders the independent nation of Mongolia, was seen to have been largely pacified over many decades of Han migration, intermarriage and repression.
Still, resentment of Chinese rule in the region has grown in recent years over the ecological damage wrought by a mining boom and economic growth that disproportionately benefited the Han, as well as the rapid dismantling of the Mongolian pastoral tradition.
Elbegdorj Tsakhia, president of Mongolia from 2009 to 2017, published a video in support of the protests which said, “No matter where you live, as long as you are a Mongolian, you should join this movement. Without Mongolian language, there is no Mongolian nation we can speak of.”