It surprises no one that the Chinese government has disputes with some of China’s ethnic minorities. The people of Inner Mongolia are no exception. In this New York Times article from 2011, Reporter Andrew Jacobs discusses events that the Mongolic people have done in protest against the Chinese government.
A major issue involves the nomadism that has been a part of Mongolian culture for a very long time:
“The Mongol nomads who have ranged across these blustery grasslands for millenniums have long had a tempestuous relationship with their Han Chinese neighbours to the south.”
Relations between Mongols and the Han have been rocky for a very long time. Genghis Khan, though not the only reason, was a strong catalyst for these conflicts. Today, although named after the Mongols, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has a Han majority:
“Even as an exemption from the nation’s one-child policy granted to minorities helped expand their numbers, Mongolians are still outnumbered by Han five to one in Inner Mongolia, a region twice the size of California that borders the independent nation of Mongolia.”
This is not unique to Inner Mongolia, as the Han have become the majority people of other autonomous regions of China such as Xinjiang and Tibet. The Han and Mongolians have very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Traditionally, the Han were sedentary, and their language a part of the Sino-Tibetan family. Mongolians, meanwhile, have historically been nomadic herders, speaking a language in the Mongolic family which includes other languages like Yugur spoken in the province of Gansu and Kalmyk and Buryat in Russia.
Hindering the Mongolians’ herding culture plays a major factor in their unrest, but it was a possible murder that was the catalyst:
“Although the immediate trigger of the demonstrations was a homicide in which a Han coal truck driver struck and killed a Mongolian herder in early May, the underlying enmity can be tied to longstanding grievances that spilled out during interviews with more than a dozen Mongolians last week.”
Economic unrest always plays an important role in political activism. It’s important for the people to be able to pay for their own costs of living without being taken advantage of by taxes or inflation. The government’s response has been harsh:
“Internet access has been severely restricted, with most Mongolian Web sites shut down, and scores of students, professors and herders have been taken into custody. Enhebatu Togochog, an exiled human rights advocate, has described the crackdown as a ‘witch hunt.’”
The Chinese government apparently fears the possibility of uprisings, and so acts preemptively to stifle such events from taking place, in order to save face. The Inner Mongolians are not the only ones to struggle with Han dominance, and other groups similarly want autonomy.
There are over 200 languages spoken in China, but the government only recognizes a fraction of those ethnic minorities. Notable examples include the Uighur, the Hakka, the Cantonese, the Hui and of course the Inner Mongolians. They all have disagreements with the Han majority and the mostly Han-run government:
“…an iron fist cannot entirely extinguish the yearnings of some of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, who account for 8 per cent of the country’s population.”
When rights are being infringed upon, people will often react, even if those reactions are then repressed. It seems like an unfortunate ping-ponging effect. To its credit, however, the predominantly Han government is making an effort to preserve Mongolian culture and language, at least on paper. This also includes measures to make a greener industry model:
“They have vowed to correct abuses of the coal industry, among them unregulated strip mining and trucks that career over the fragile steppe. The government has also committed to broader changes, promising hundreds of millions of dollars for education, environmental protection and the promotion of Mongolian culture.”
This is important to a group of people who also have their own country just north of them. One cannot help but wonder how difficult it would be to defect from the PRC into Mongolia.
There would be some adjustments, such as learning to read and write Mongolian in the Cyrillic alphabet, but perhaps it could be a solution to preserve their language and culture. In the meantime, the Chinese government is trying to appease Inner Mongolians, at least in part for economic reasons:
“But it is unclear if the swift action will still resentments that have simmered despite Inner Mongolia’s fast-expanding economy…and affirmative action policies that have provided tens of thousands of government jobs to ethnic Mongolians.”
China needs Inner Mongolia because it is an economic powerhouse, so it’s important for the government to curtail Mongolian frustrations.
The future is uncertain for Inner Mongolia, but at least there is a discussion going on. Cultural and linguistic preservation is important for any group in any country, and Inner Mongolia is no exception.
They have held on to their indigenous writing system when Mongolia opted for the Cyrillic alphabet. They value education, and it is good that they and the central government are working together to improve the situation. Whether or not the Inner Mongolians’ rights will continue to be taken advantage of is difficult to say at the moment.
Here’s to hoping.