Protests broke out in Inner Mongolia after China imposed a new education policy replacing the ethnic Mongolian language with Mandarin in the academic curriculum, in what appears to be an attempt at national homogenization and assimilation. Chinese authorities have responded to these protests with the shutting down and censoring of social media sites, as well as the detaining of 23 people as of last week.
Following the Second World War, the southern part of Mongolia was annexed by China, becoming the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken steps to erode the region’s ethnic Mongolian culture, with Beijing encouraging the Han Chinese to relocate to Inner Mongolia. As a result, the Han Chinese currently outnumber the ethic Mongolian population by almost five times.
On August 20, 2020, U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center reported that education authorities informed teachers that all elementary and middle schools across Inner Mongolia had to switch to Mandarin Chinese as the language of instruction for three subjects, starting September 1, 2020.
The three subjects that will be taught in Mandarin Chinese are: language and literature, morality and law (politics), and history, all of which are subjects carrying ideological and political weight. Other classes – namely sciences, mathematics, arts, and physical education – will continue to be taught in Mongolian.
The Chinese government calls these efforts “bilingual education” and defends the national standardized curriculum, claiming it will improve minority students’ chances to higher education and employment.
But once the policy change was announced, school boycotts and protests broke out in Inner Mongolia. It was met with strong opposition, as expressed in a video statement by Dr. Chimenddorj, a professor at Inner Mongolia University, who said “If our language is wiped out, we as a distinct people will also cease to exist.” Another professor, Dr. Chogt Oghonos of the Shizuoka University in Japan stated that this was a “cultural genocide.”
Mr. Nasanbayar, a Mongolian parent, said, “I will refuse to send my children to school. Because forgetting your own identity and learning another language and culture mean your children have no future.”
As schools opened last week, many parents demonstrated their discontent by not enrolling their kids at school. In Naiman county, for instance, only 40 students registered this term as opposed to the normal 1,000 students, and only 10 showed up to class. In addition, more than 300,000 students across the region have gone on strike.
Meanwhile, on August 23, authorities shut down the only Mongolian-language social media site in China named Bainu, where many Mongolian speakers had posted complaints on the new policy. Many posts on social media platforms WeChat and Weibo on the matter were also censored. Moreover, over the past few days, 23 of the dissenters in the region were detained by the police, on charges such as “organizing and collecting signatures for a petition,” “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” and “sharing videos in a WeChat group to obstruct the implementation of the national textbooks policy.”
On The Grander Scope
Critics have raised concerns, as this new education policy bears strong resemblance to measures applied in Tibet in 2018 and Xinjiang in 2017, where Mandarin replaced the regions’ ethic languages in most schools and this “bilingual education” program was carried out.
The recent cultural policies implemented by China do not only reflect linguistic impositions, but are also a question of religious freedoms. In China, the only Buddhist faith allowed is the Buddhist Association of China, which is under the CCP. However, many Mongolians follow a Tibetan form of Buddhism that recognizes His Holiness the Dalai Lama as its spiritual leader, the visits of whom China had placed restrictions and occasional tariffs on.
China’s constitution guarantees the language rights of minorities, and the The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) states that ‘‘all ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minorities.” But this does not seem to be the case considering what has been going on in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, as well as other social policies of China, such as offering monetary incentives to Han Chinese men for marrying ethic minority women like Uyghurs and Mongolians. Critics claim these to be attempts at cultural assimilation that reflect the Han-centric approach that gained momentum under the presidency of Xi Jinping.
This assimilationist education policy contradicts with international human rights law, namely the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigeneous Peoples, which China has supported.
Sophie Richardson, the China director of the Human Rights Watch, said, “Chinese authorities should be focused on providing genuine bilingual education, not undermining it and persecuting its proponents. Reducing mother tongue education flies in the face of China’s constitution, international standards, and expert consensus, and erodes Mongolians’ distinct identity.”
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