23 Detained, CCP Members Disciplined After Inner Mongolia Language Protests

The Associated Press’ Huizhong Wu reports that at least 23 people have been detained following protests across Inner Mongolia against recently announced language education reforms. The new policies would gradually replace Mongolian with Chinese as the language of instruction for three core subjects—morality and law, history, and language and literature—in bilingual schools in the region, as well as others in Gansu, Jilin, Liaoning, Qinghai, and Sichuan. Many locals fear that this would lead to Mongolian becoming merely a subject of study, rather than a medium for it, and that it marks a step onto the same path of minority language erosion already followed in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The 23 detentions were across eight banners, the regional word for counties, according to an Associated Press tally of nine local police reports over the past several days. The reasons range from “organizing and collecting signatures for a petition” to “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Other detentions were for “flagrantly insulting a deceased former leader of the country” and “sharing videos in a WeChat group to obstruct the implementation of the national textbooks policy.” WeChat is a popular messaging app in China.

The local government is also exerting pressure in other ways. Authorities in Zhenglan banner announced Saturday that they had suspended two members of the ruling Communist Party without pay for failing to carry out the policy.

[…] “Before these things happened, we were able to get relatively accurate information through WeChat groups,” [the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center’s Enghebatu Togochog] said. “Now, it’s almost a communication blackout.” [Source]

Last week, police in the city of Tongliao posted a notice offering 1000-yuan rewards for the identities of 90 suspected protesters.

Huizhong Wu previously reported on the protests and official response last Thursday:

A high school student in the city of Hulunbuir said students rushed out of their school on Tuesday and destroyed a fence before paramilitary police swarmed in and tried to return them to class.

[…] In the city of Tongliao, parents decided to take their children home from a boarding school on Monday. Many parents only found out about the policy after they had dropped off their children at school, said Nure Zhang, a Tongliao resident.

But authorities at one elementary school, backed by police, refused to let parents take back their children, according to Zhang, who attended the protest.

There were multiple clashes as parents and others rushed at the police, trying to get into the school, Zhang said. “They used a human wall to block us. We kept on singing and shouting slogans,” he said. The police used pepper spray twice on the protesters, he added. [Source]

Parents were eventually allowed to take their children, but not before one student jumped to his death from the school roof after his mother was detained, according to Radio Free Asia and the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center. RFA also reported the closure of “more than 70” Mongolian WeChat groups. According to SMHRIC, Mongolian-language social network Bainuu had already been suspended late last month, while hundreds of WeChat users were warned not to post about the policy. The New York Times’ Amy Qin reported more granular censorship of protest-related postings from the region on other sites:

For many ethnic Mongolians, who see their language as one of the last surviving markers of their distinct cultural identity, the policy was a step too far.

“We Mongolians are a great race as well,” Dagula, a 39-year-old mother of two, said in a telephone interview from her home in Xilinhot, a city in Inner Mongolia. “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!” Photographs of petitions filled with signatures and studded with red fingerprints also ricocheted around the internet.

By Monday afternoon, many of the posts had disappeared from Chinese social media sites, presumably scrubbed by online censors. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Josephine Ma reported that senior officials had “doubled down” on the policy:

Bu Xiaolin, chairwoman of the autonomous region, told a video conference on Tuesday the new policy was an “important political mission” and ordered cadres to work meticulously to ensure its smooth implementation to show their loyalty to President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party leadership.

[…] A notice issued by the discipline inspection commission of East Ujimqin Banner, or Dongwu banner in Chinese, ordered local cadres to step up surveillance of the population. It said party officials should monitor the local cadres and the public to identify any “radical moves and speeches” and report to their superiors to defuse social conflicts at an early stage.

The cadres were also ordered to take the lead to send their children to school.

State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi conducted an inspection tour of Inner Mongolia and neighbouring Ningxia from Saturday to Wednesday.

[…] “[The police] should severely clamp down on domestic and foreign forces that carry out infiltration and sabotage, and it should go deeper in promoting the fight against separatism,” he said. [Source]

There were signs of dissent among local authorities even before the disciplinary actions reported by the AP. NYU’s Jerome Cohen had anticipated this in comments on “extraordinary” report from the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, commenting that “if it is substantially accurate, the PRC is facing a crisis in law enforcement, ethnic policy and legitimacy in Inner Mongolia that will offer many comparisons with Xinjiang and Tibet. […] There may be a crisis in the local public security force and other law enforcement institutions if citizen opposition is as widespread as reported.” Reporting from The Los Angeles Times’ Alice Su, who was detained in and expelled from the region last week, suggested that this was indeed occurring:

A police source within Inner Mongolia who requested anonymity for his protection told The Times that security forces across the region were working overtime. They’d been detaining several people a day for the last two weeks in his local police station alone, he said. He showed The Times images of arrest orders on the police force’s platform and said they received new targets every two to three hours, usually people who had been protesting or supporting protests online.

[…] The policeman said that he had refused to participate in the crackdown and that many other Mongol police who had school-age children had refused to come to work at all.

[…] The police source who spoke with The Times said he feared that much worse would happen to the Mongols who are resisting the language changes — including himself. He knew about similar measures taken in Tibet and Xinjiang in recent years, and did not expect the Chinese government to show mercy to Inner Mongolia.

“There are many people within the system who are against what’s happening, but we are trapped,” he said. “We need the world’s attention.” [Source]

Local authorities denied Su’s story this week.

The police source’s words about feeling “trapped” echo those of former Central Party School professor Cai Xia, who was recently expelled from the CCP. Central authorities have recently announced a national campaign to “scrape poison off the bone” in purging corruption and political disloyalty from the country’s public security apparatus. The drive, set to last until 2022, is seen as a move to help cement Xi Jinping’s personal authority ahead of leadership changes elsewhere in the top ranks that year.

The protests have attracted a reportedly unusual degree of cross-border solidarity from the neighboring republic of Mongolia. The University of British Columbia’s Julian Dierkes commented last week that “for the most part, I have also found many Mongolians to be surprisingly (to me) indifferent to Inner Mongolia. The current changes in language education policy in Inner Mongolia seem to be generating much more social media traffic in Mongolia than I have previously seen on Inner Mongolia topics.” He added that China appeared to have exercised “relative restraint” in its dealings with Mongolia because it “continues to be nervous about the quasi-diasporic relationship.” Dierkes’ UBC colleague Marissa J. Smith noted a pair of statements from current and former Mongolian presidents, the former explicitly calling on others “to voice our support for Mongolians striving to preserve their mother tongue and scripture in China.”

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At Made in China Journal, the University of Pennsylvania’s Christopher Atwood offered an extensive Q&A on the protests’ cultural, historical, and political context. “Public schools teaching Mongolian,” Atwood wrote, have “something like the significance for Mongols that Buddhist monasteries have for Tibetans and Islamic holidays and shrines have for Uyghurs.” The fate of language education in Tibet and Xinjiang, he suggested, shows that fears in Inner Mongolia are “realistic.”

[… Official documents on the new policy] prominently cite Chinese president Xi Jinping’s emphasis on having a shared language as a crucial link for communication and, in turn, for mutual understanding and ‘common identification’. They also cite improving mastery of the common national language as the basis for more success in the ‘job market, in receiving modern arts and sciences education, and in integrating into the society.’

[…] The ‘Second Generation National Policy’ policy school builds on a stereotype of all minorities in China as ‘poor’ and ‘backward’. This impression is widely shared in China, even by Mongols themselves. Arguments that separate minority-language education systems must thus be inferior in quality and a drag on development have a lot of surface plausibility in a Chinese context.

If backwardness is measured by illiteracy, however, this impression is false in Inner Mongolia. In fact ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia have a higher rate of literacy than the ethnic Chinese of Inner Mongolia. In 1982, illiterates were 24 percent of ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia over 12 years of age; for Han Chinese, the comparable figure was 26 percent.

Nor has Inner Mongolian education lacked quality. In response to the current crisis, a writer or writers using the pseudonym ‘Red Horse Reading Club’ pointed out that Shabag village in eastern Inner Mongolia has only 1,268 people, all Mongols educated in Mongolian, but it has produced ten current or graduate PhDs students, 17 MAs, and more than 290 university graduates. As he concluded, ‘This nationality education system in Inner Mongolia is the successful realisation of the Party’s nationalities policy’—it’s not broken, so it doesn’t need fixing.

[…] The overwhelming emphasis of the petitioners is that Mongolian-medium education has been successful and has existed in the PRC for 70 years. They thus claim to be simply defending an existing, successful policy, not demanding any new rights or any change in China’s constitutional structure. [Source]

Also at Made In China Journal last week, Uradyn Bulag described the development of post-Qing Chinese efforts to “stretch the short, tight, skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire,” including the emergence of calls for a more aggressive “Second Generation Nationality Policy.” “Although the CCP seems to have rejected such calls and stayed the course,” he writes, “fundamental changes have already taken place at multiple levels.” In a subsequent op-ed at MIC Journal, Gerald Roche and James Leibold argued that “China’s second-generation policies are already here,” with the rollback of preferential policies and bilingual education “gradually yet steadily implemented across China” since finding a “sympathetic ear” in Xi Jinping.

First proposed in late 2011 by two scholar-officials, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, the policy calls on China to abandon its failed ‘hors d’oeuvres’-style ethnic policies, which they contend the Chinese Communist Party copied indiscriminately from the Soviet Union, and instead adopt a ‘melting pot’ formula more in line with Chinese tradition and international norms (Leibold 2013). This requires the abandonment of ethnic privilege and distinction, and the proactive forging of a common culture, consciousness, and identity. If such measures are not adopted, these ethnic policy reformers argue, China would share the fate of the USSR and come apart along its ethnic seams.

[…] The second generation ethnic policies […] do not propose to undertake paper genocide [“the destruction of a people by their exclusion from formal recognition by the state”] by denying the existance of the 55 formally recognised minority nationalities (少数民族) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Rather they achieve similar effects by making the distinctiveness of minority nationalities meaningless, by removing the legal significance of this recognised distinction while slowly integrating them into mainstream society and its norms. Therefore, in order to understand the impacts this is likely to have, we can look at the historical experience of groups in China that have undergone paper genocide: those that were refused recognition in the ethnic classification process. These groups, denied recognition by the state, offer a window onto the future of recognised nationalities (民族, minzu) under the second-generation policies.

[…] Non-recognition and the removal of ‘minority privileges’ have the same effects: they both deny groups their rights to their own cultures, languages, and identities. Non-recognition silences by denying the existence of the group while second generation ethnic policies recognise the existence of the group, but deny that they should have any specific rights. Both end in the same place: with the denial of collective rights.

[… W]e should also look to the unrecognised groups of China, and see how paper genocide has led to cultural genocide. What Mongols fear to lose, most languages in China have never been granted. The situation in Inner Mongolia rightly raises concerns about the assimilatory intent of second-generation ethnic policies. The PRC’s unrecognised peoples show us how warranted these fears are, because they have been living with these policies since 1949. [Source]

Gegentuul Baioud also examined the new policy and its implications at Language on the Move, “a peer-reviewed sociolinguistics research site devoted to multilingualism, language learning, and intercultural communication in the contexts of globalization and migration” based at Macquarie University.

The Mongolian language is already fragile and has entered the early stages of endangerment. In today’s Inner Mongolia, less than 40% of Mongol parents choose Mongolian bilingual schools for their children; the rest enroll their children in mainstream Chinese schools. In such circumstances, this reform pushes already emaciated Mongolian language and culture further towards the abyss of extinction within the Chinese borders.

[… ] Concomitantly the production of large numbers of unemployed, poor, institutionally discriminated and marginalized minorities including Mongols in coming decades will plague China with many unforeseen sociopolitical and economic problems. This dire consequence has obviously been brushed aside by the group of eminent Chinese scholars Ma Rong, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, who boldly proposed a Second Generation of Ethnic Policies (第二代民族政策) to solve ethnic “problems” by aggressively assimilating minorities (Leibold 2012). They envisioned the “melting pot” (大熔炉) formula of the West, in particular USA, as the ultimate “solution” to the ethnic “problems” of China, even though China’s native minorities are drastically different from diasporic immigrants in America (for further details, see Elliott 2015).

China’s ethnic policies have certainly taken a drastic turn in recent years, and this has sent shock waves through the “less-famous” ethnic minorities such as the Mongols, Koreans, and those in less visible areas such as Gansu, Jilin, Liaoning, and Qinghai. What are the consequences of bringing such tribulations onto the very groups that China has held up as “model minorities”, including the Mongols? Who gains most from this rash move? Indeed, up until now, many Mongolian speakers have identified as Chinese people, and there is no need to suppress a non-existent ethnic separatism by abolishing bilingual schooling. What is the point of destroying the Mongolian language and culture that is already staggering toward the brink of extinction and to whose speakers barely anyone pays any attention? [Source]

At Language Log, the University of Pennsylvania’s Victor Mair placed SMHRIC’s reports in the context of broader erosion of minority languages across China:

The recent imposition of the draconian National Security Law is only exacerbating the dramatic decline of Cantonese usage vis-à-vis Mandarin in Hong Kong. The disappearance of Cantonese in nearby Guanzhou is already pretty much a fait accompli.

Ditto for Tibetan.

Ditto for Uyghur.

Ditto for Shanghainese

They’re all disappearing. [Source]

Mair’s post includes links to previous Language Log coverage of threats to Mongolian, Uyghur, Tibetan, and Cantonese. The latter case illustrates both how language policy extends beyond traditional ethnic minorities, and how the pressures on minority languages extend beyond concerted language policy. Masha Borak at South China Morning Post’s Abacus News reported in April on interruption of Douyin livestreams over use of Cantonese which, although not against the platform’s rules, has nevertheless been discouraged because it complicates the task of effectively enforcing other regulations.

[… Nicolas Leung’s] account received three 10-minute bans over the last three weeks accompanied by prompts to switch to Mandarin, China’s official language, while using Douyin’s live streaming function.

And he’s not the only one. Cantonese-speaking content creators have been expressing dissatisfaction over Douyin urging users to speak Putonghua, the Chinese word for Mandarin that literally means “common language.” This is despite the fact that the platform doesn’t appear to have any listed rules governing the use of different languages.

[…] According to Douyin owner ByteDance, the issue with live streaming isn’t about the language — it’s about content. The company said in a statement that it’s “committed to building out moderation capabilities for additional languages” for Douyin Livestream, with Cantonese being a top priority.

[…] Since its brush with Chinese regulators, ByteDance has been building up its moderation capabilities. And so far, Douyin’s Cantonese speakers haven’t said anything about being unable to use the language in short videos, the app’s main form of content. But until Douyin’s “content safety capabilities” for live streaming are ready, prompts to switch to the country’s official language may continue. [Source]

Borak cited an earlier Twitter thread by Sixth Tone’s David Paulk on a related report the Shanghai-based outlet had tried to run:

Yun Jiang and Adam Ni commented on China’s assimilationist language policies in their China Neican newsletter on Monday:

We both experienced a strong push for Mandarin-only schools when we lived in Shanghai in the 1990s. Speaking Wu (which is officially designated as a “dialect” 方言) was forbidden in schools, even among students during the break. Local languages were absent from TV until the 2000s, when such policy was relaxed. Local “dialects” were once again allowed, alongside Mandarin. This resulted in a whole generation unable to speak their local language — most people do not even know that Wu is also a written language. Many students had to actively re-learn it.

But Wu is still a Sinitic language, it is written using a Chinese writing system, and Wu speakers are part of the majority Han ethnic group. As a result, Wu culture can be preserved relatively easily even with the dominance of Mandarin. The same cannot be said for ethnic minority languages such as Mongolian, which has its own writing system and has less shared culture with Classical Chinese.

[…] Assimilation through erasure of minority languages and dialects has been a common nation-building project by many states or empires around the world. However, many of us now recognise the need to  preserve linguistic richness and diversity (and not just in museums or for academic research). But it seems that in China, the desire for assimilation still outweighs any desire for cultural preservation. As the spaces for differences become narrower, the needs of ethnic minorities are increasingly made subservient to the dominant Han culture. [Source]

The evolution of these language policies is concisely explored in David Moser’s book “A Billion Voices.” CNN’s James Griffiths, whose second book “Speak Not: Empire, identity and the politics of language” will be published in 2021, also highlighted these other cases:

The protests have sparked broader discussion of language policy and preservation, including Twitter threads from Trinity University’s Gina Anne Tam, author of “Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960“:


The museum-style preservation Tam refers to resonates with the “museumification” of some religious sites in Xinjiang, described by Rian Thum in a recent essay at Made in China Journal on “the extraordinary scope of state efforts to replace Uyghur built environments and uproot geographically embedded expressions of Uyghur culture.” (Many other sites, he noted, have simply been demolished.)

Thum also noted campaigns to transform Uyghur household furnishings and “guide farmers, step by step, to abandon backwards customs and live a modern lifestyle.” Such “civilizing” settlement and renovation campaigns have also been a long-running theme in other areas including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. Nomadic peoples especially have been targeted, often in the name of grassland preservation, but the focus is not exclusively rural: Thum also notes the inauthentic but tourist-friendly replacement of Kashgar’s old town, while Xinhua reported late last month that more than 1.5 billion yuan had been allocated for “the renovation of 487 [old urban] communities, benefitting 60,307 households” in Inner Mongolia. This year, coercive resettlement policies have attracted attention and criticism in the eastern province of Shandong, though the reported softening of the policy there indicates that Han residents of central China still enjoy greater space for resistance than ethnic minorities on the country’s periphery.

At Foreign Policy late last month, the Office of Tibet-DC‘s Kelsang Dolma described the ongoing exchange of authoritarian practices between Xinjiang and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, noting the key role played by the former’s current and the latter’s former Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

[… T]he techniques honed in Xinjiang may be returning to their birthplace in Tibet. The CCP passed a bill titled “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” this spring, which aims to Sinicize Tibetans. While the bill’s title seems innocuous, similar ethnic unity regulations in Xinjiang preceded the detention camps for Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. The CCP strives to promote an “All ethnic groups in China are one family” narrative, since CCP totalitarianism necessitates conformity and obedience—anything to the contrary is considered a threat to CCP legitimacy. It has become clear what this means in Xinjiang. Ethnic unity means incarcerating millions of Uighurs in political reeducation camps, where detainees are forced to renounce Islam and profess devotion to communism. Ethnic unity means that children can be forcefully separated from their parents at a CCP official’s whim. Ethnic unity means that the Uighur identity must be beaten out of the individual.

Although attention has been understandably focused on Xinjiang’s vast network of prison camps, the increasing oppression of Tibetan human rights should cause equal alarm. The new ethnic unity bill in Tibet is likely to presage a new round of cruel ethnonationalist policies under the guise of reeducation in Tibet. This June, the CCP ordered the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, justifying it as “behavioral reform,” and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are steadily restricted by CCP-appointed officials. The CCP is fixated on “fostering ethnic unity” by dismantling Tibetans’ and Uighurs’ faith; after all, according to Karl Marx, religion is the opium of the masses. Though state-ordered family separation is not as common in Tibet, enforced political reeducation has been integral to Tibetan prisons. Other than the erasure of religion, increased language Sinicization will almost surely occur given that the CCP considers the Tibetan language as a vessel for separatism. […][Source]

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