To better understand Inner Mongolia, we spoke with Doris Tala Motomura, a expert on Inner Mongolia’s history, culture and ways of life

In part 2 of our interview we discus the ways in which Inner Mongolia is portrayed in historic and popular media within China. 

You can read part 1 of our interview (on politics) and  part 3 of our interview (on Inner Mongolia and China’s settler colonialism) here. 

Asia Art Tours: For Han Chinese Citizens, how does Inner Mongolia exist in the public imagination and media? 

Doris Tala Motomura: This is an interesting question. Historically, the Chinese considered the peoples to their north to be barbarians, including the Mongols, Tibetans, Uigurs, Manchus and others. In many ways this attitude has not greatly changed over time because many Chinese still think that the frontier regions including Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang are culturally as well as economically backwards. At the end of Qing rule in the early 20th century, the Chinese republicans led by Sun Yatsen started their revolution against the Manchus as ‘barbarians’. Sun Yatsen originally wanted to build a Han Chinese ethno-state without the inclusion of the northern frontier ‘barbarians’. However, in order to legitimize and stabilize their rule, the republicans had to represent themselves as the successor-state of the Manchu Qing dynasty and thus claimed the territory of the former rulers, the Wuzu gonghe, or Unity of Five Races or Nationalities, meaning Chinese, Mongols, Muslims, Tibetans and Manchus. Nonetheless, the Han Chinese-dominated Republic was based in Chinese chauvinism from its very beginning.


(Painting depicting the ‘People’s Revolution of Mongolia’ and the transfer of power to the Mongolian People’s Party. This was not the fate for Inner Mongolia. Photo: Wikipedia)


The Mongolians living north of the Gobi Desert declared their independence of China before the announcement of the new Chinese Republic at the end of 1911. They called for a Great Mongol State to be founded, including Inner Mongolia and the rest of the Mongolian plateau. Many Inner Mongols went to join the new Mongolian state but others were prevented by the armies of Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Chinese Republic. Although attempts were made by the Chinese to take over Mongolia, China was finally obliged to recognize Mongolia’s independence in 1946 in exchange for the former Soviet Union’s participation in the war against Japan. Although Republican China promised to keep the Inner Mongolians’ traditional rights to self-rule, these were often violated by regional Chinese warlords. Inner Mongolia as well as Manchuria (known as the Three North East Provinces) were not regarded as high priority by the Chinese government. The same was very much true of Tibet and Xinjiang at the time. These regions were often used by their more powerful neighbours, such as the USSR, China and Japan as buffer states and bargaining chips. Reportedly, Sun Yetsen was willing to give away Manchuria to Japan in exchange for Japan’s assistance for his revolutionary cause. When the Japanese in 1931 invaded northern China, including Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, they were left to their own devices. The Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kaisheck apologized that his Mongol brethren (Menggu tongbao) had to deal with the Japanese without any support. For him, fighting against the Communists in the south was much more important than putting the Northeast and Inner Mongolia in the hands of the Japanese. At the end of the war, the Chinese Nationalists negotiated with the USSR to keep Inner Mongolia as part of China in exchange for their recognition of the independence of Outer Mongolia (The Mongols north of the Gobi) and the Soviet special right there. After the war the Chinese Communists and Nationalists tried to win over the Inner Mongols to their respective sides because they both believed that Mongol cavalry would be a helpful in the Chinese Civil War. The Mongols were divided in their choices, but in the end following the Communists won out because they promised autonomy. The Inner Mongolian Autonomous government was founded in 1947, two years before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created. The Inner Mongolian Army greatly contributed to the Communist efforts against the Nationalists in the Civil War.

Although Chinese leaders and the public have forgotten it or want to forget about it today, the founders of the People Republic of China (PRC) won the Mongols over by promising autonomous rule. They did keep their promises in the early days of the new Chinese state. From the 1960s, however, autonomy began to be steadily eroded, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Ulanhu, the very Mongol leader who had advocated Inner Mongolia’s destiny as an autonomous region as part of Communist China, came to be viewed as a counter-revolutionary. Tens of thousands of Mongol leaders and intellectuals were jailed, tortured, and killed, and Inner Mongolian territory was divided and incorporated into Chinese provinces. In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, Ulanhu and those who survived the tyranny were rehabilitated. Most parts of the Inner Mongolian territory that had been carved off and given to neighbouring provinces were returned. Nonetheless, the former autonomy was never really recovered and has dwindled further and further with time, especially as China’s public memory of state-foundation has been steadily reconstructed with every change of leadership.


(Mongolian Soldiers during World War 2. Photo Credit: Wikipedia


Even worse, the very political concept of ‘Autonomous Region’ has increasingly become a weapon to wield against citizens, rather than protect them. It has become a convenient cover for the Chinese Central Government to implement assimilation policies without getting their own hands dirty. As has already been stated, in the current case of the reduction of Mongol-language education and the introduction of the nationally compiled textbooks, the Central Government didn’t even bother to issue an official document for these changes. If it did, this would, as also noted, conflict with the laws and constitution of the PRC. The leaders probably did not care domestically about this, but instead were far more likely concerned about China’s international image. Moreover, it would seem more ‘natural’ if the announcement came from the Inner Mongolian Bureau of Education. For instance, in answering a phone call from a concerned parent, an official of the Department of Ethnic Education of the Chinese government in Beijing said that the National Textbook Committee had decided to use state-compiled unified textbooks across the nation, but they didn’t prescribe in what language the textbook content should be taught: ‘It is up to the local regional government to decide.’

This explanation would make it seem as though the Central Government is ‘not involved’ and that the onus is on the regional government to implement the required changes. It is, however, hard to believe that the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Government would have been able to make such a decision, which, in reality, is against both the PRC constitution and against the laws of the Autonomous Region. According to the law, such educational changes to be made would require the Inner Mongolian Government to change its very law of autonomy. This is probably the reason why at all levels the official narrative that has been pushed is that the changes are not as a policy, but a proposal about how to implement the changes. Some parents sought legal advice and tried to find a lawyer who could represent them, but the lawyers refused to represent their case, saying that it would be a very difficult, if not impossible, case to win. This is not wholly unsurprising given that the judiciary is not an independent branch of government in the PRC system.


(The Five Color Flag of the Republic of China can be seen in the middle, representing the ‘Five Races’ of the nation. Photo Credit: Wikipedia


The protesters’ attempts to fight the changes using the Chinese constitutional and legal frame as rightful citizens of China is now even being presented by some authorities as an attempt at fomenting unrest in the country by foreign influences. As one can see, this is just small step away from declaring the protesters to be ‘traitors’, as took place during the Cultural Revolution. Reportedly, some 20-odd Inner Mongolian lawyers prepared a petition against the new proposal based on constitutional and legal arguments in mid -September. However, they were told by their superiors that although they were in the right, they should not submit the petition because the protests were ‘backed by foreigners’. Indeed, at the time there was both interest from the international media and protests around the world in solidarity with the Inner Mongolians. PRC authorities twisted this to falsely claim that the protests domestically were the work of foreigners and not genuine concern from citizens. No one can win against an authoritarian government which has neither the will to follow its own laws, nor to serve the people. Although ‘serving the people’ is the loudest slogan from the government for decades, this has been little more than lip service. Laws and policies are there to serve the leaders and the state not the people they rule. In the early years of the PRC, the officials in the high-ranking positions in the Inner Mongolian government were mostly Mongolian, but today there is just a handful of Mongolians serving in these positions. If a Mongol leader who is concerned about regional development and his people tries to do beneficial things for the region, he or she will be removed from their position and given a position far away in the central government in Beijing that on the surface appears to be a promotion, but which, in reality, has no power at all. This happened to Ulanhu in the 1970s, and several others after him.

If the Chinese image of frontier peoples in the past was mainly cultural, today the Chinese mass-cultural image of them has been constructed by political propaganda. So the story goes, they were liberated by the Communist Party from both foreign invaders such the Japanese, Russian or Britain, and from their own feudalistic lords who exploited them. Second, these regions are represented as economically backwards and the Chinese state is assisting and developing these regions. Indigenous pastural economy is considered backward and has to be modernized. The theoretical foundation for their claim lies in the Marxist theory of economic development, which insists that sedentary economy is a more developed stage of production.

The public seriously believes that the state has been helping Inner Mongolia and other ethnic peoples economically. Without the Chinese state they cannot survive. This is a typical colonizer’s mentality of possessing a civilizing mission. Chinese government propaganda phrases it as ‘helping and assisting frontiers’ (zhiyuan bianjiang) or xibu dakaifa (The Westwards Great Development). Along with these projects, a huge number of Chinese have moved into the ethnic minority regions. The media and the state only talk about the resources put into the ‘development’ of Inner Mongolia, but never talk about the raw materials (minerals, coal, heavy metals, timber, sand etc) that Inner Mongolia has been producing and contributing to China’s industrial development. Inner Mongolia is especially rich in mineral resources. Inner Mongolia not only produces the most meat and milk products in China, but has the world’s largest rare earth metals mine in the form of Bayan Obo (Baotou). According to China Daily, as of the end of 2018:

‘Inner Mongolia’s 20 species of mineral resources are the highest reserves in China, its 45 species of mineral resource reserves rank in the top 3 in the country, and its 95 species of mineral resource reserves are in the top 10…The total for commercially viable coal reserves in the autonomous region is 409.04 billion tons, accounting for 26.87 percent of the country’s total and ranking it first among all the provinces and autonomous regions in China. The region also has 868.65 million tons estimated gold reserves, 8.19 million tons of copper, 17.22 million tons of lead, and 16.64 million tons of zinc.’ (


(A coal mine in Inner Mongolia. Source: Wikipedia


However, mining been destroying pasturage, polluting water recourses and threatening the livelihood and health of Mongol herders. Miners come and destroy the pasture, pollute the local water, and leave a landscape behind reminiscent of the surface of the moon. (

Culturally, ethnic minorities have been stereotyped by being visible in the media only through their ethnic music and dances and traditional costumes. The colourful ethnic costumes of minorities are always presented in important events like National Day. However, their language and script are considered backwards whereas Chinese is considered to represent ‘advanced Chinese civilization and modernity’, and most importantly, ‘unity’.


Asia Art Tours: What have been the standard policy frameworks for how the PRC has governed Inner Mongolia? And until recently, how would most Inner Mongolians see themselves? As PRC Citizens? As Inner Mongolians? Or something else entirely?


Doris Tala Motomura: Inner Mongolia has been considered to be a model ‘autonomous region’, because it was the first autonomous region. It became the blueprint for China’s other autonomous regions. There has not been any civil unrest since the student demonstrations against the policy to allow large numbers of Han Chinese to immigrate into the region in 1981. In general, Mongols are very forgiving and accommodating people. They survived the torture and the tyranny of the Cultural Revolution still believing in the Communist leadership, telling themselves that all the bad people and horrible things they did were now in the past. Mongols, like most of the Chinese population, have been happy with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns, but weary about his ever-increasing thought-control and surveillance of intellectual freedom. Inner Mongols closely followed his eloquent speeches given during his visit to Inner Mongolia and at other ethnic-related events. They had been impressed because his talks appeared to promote cultural diversity and the preservation of cultural heritage. Mongolian protesters against the new education policy have frequently quoted his phrases seemingly promoting cultural and linguistic diversity.


(A traditional Mongolian Yurt, as these lands are appropriated from Inner Mongolians their way of life will be commercialized for tourism, but off -limits for locals. Source: Wikipedia


Inner Mongols have considered themselves to be good citizens of China, while at the same time custodians of Mongolian history, culture and language, which, until very recently most believed were protected by the constitution and Rule of Law. Even in this recent instance, many believed that the new education policy was just a regional government’s bad decision and that Xi Jinping would definitely defend their constitutional right if the petitions reach him. Today, however, they have realized the gap between Xi Jinping’s eloquent speeches and what he and his people actually do. There is no reason that he and his leadership would not have heard about the protests and petitions of the Inner Mongols. Xi and his government have been completely silent about the issue. Even the head of the Inner Mongolian Government, Bu Xiaolin, the granddaughter of Inner Mongolia’s first leader Ulanhu, did not make any public statement. In the midst of the protest crisis, she left Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, for a study tour of regional Inner Mongolia’s Shilingool League, former Juu Uda and Tongliao Leagues, and reportedly visited schools and parents. The TV news, however, showed her meeting with school representatives and actively promoting the new ‘bilingual policy’. It was never recorded what she was actually saying. It is obvious that she left Hohhot to avoid any high-level engagement with the issue and wants to present herself as loyal follower of her master in the Central Government.

Even if Bu Xiaolin had the intension of talking to local schools and parents to understand the reality of what was happening, it would have been impossible for her to get the real picture if she goes publically. Lying is an endemic structural problem in China at all levels of officialdom. If you talk about problems you will be criticized and won’t be promoted. Therefore, you have to keep lying that everything is fine in the area you are responsible for. When representatives from a higher office visit a lower level administrative region, the guests are wined and dined and showed only those places that look clean, shiny and green. If there is no green along the street, then temporary trees will be planted to be taken away within a days or a couple of weeks, just like a Christmas tree in the West. As a public intellectual in China once said: ‘it is so easy to say the truth abroad while it is difficult to tell a lie because you have to be responsible for what you have said. But, by contrast, it is so difficult to say the truth in China while it is so easy to tell a lie because people don’t take responsibilities for their lies.’ Silence, too, can be a form of lying.

Under these circumstances, Inner Mongols have been truly disappointed with both the Central and regional governments and their leadership. They seem to feel that they are being cheated. Many people have begun comparing the new curriculum proposal to the era of Japanese rule in China during the 1930s and 40s when Japan forced the Chinese to learn Japanese at the expense of Chinese language education. Some people have been referring to the local authorities and police who have pressured parents to send their children to school as ‘worse than the Japanese police’ or ‘bandits’. Mongol disappointment was so deep that for some China’s National day on 1 October, which celebrates the foundation of the PRC, became a day of mourning rather than the usual cheerful celebration. The new ‘bilingual’ education proposal, which aims at assimilating the Mongols, unwittingly prompted Mongol ethnic consciousness. As a Japanese NHK news commentator said, ‘The Chinese government has woken up the sleeping baby”.


(The Inner Mongolian Band, Hanggai is one of the more popular representations of Inner Mongolian culture in China. What happens to their popularity after these large-scale protests against PRC policy in Inner Mongolia, remains to be seen.) 


Asia Art Tours:  Returning to the protests, should the PRC Central Government not back down, what will this likely mean in terms of how Inner Mongolians look to the nation of Mongolia? Do you believe that Mongolia will speak out publicly and condemn these policies affecting Inner Mongolians in China? Will we see an exodus of Inner Mongolians to Mongolia (at least for those who can afford to leave) in order to retain their Mongolian Identity?


Doris Tala Motomura: So far, the Chinese government has been pushing their plan without responding to Mongols’ concerns and questions and simply forced parents to return their kids to school. The official media has been quacking about the importance of the new proposal day and night and how it will promote ethnic harmony. However, they do not mention the very obvious fact that it is actually creating conflict! They say that it will help the Mongols to become more competitive in the job market, but they don’t ever ask whether the Mongols even want this ‘great proposal’. Moreover, in some cases, as soon as the children resumed their classes parents were asked to sign a letter stating that they ‘voluntarily’ sent their children back to school! So, lies create lies. At the same time, the government circulated a survey asking what the parents thought about changing teaching kindergarten to Chinese as well. Mongols know that this is nothing but a cruel show at their expense now – the government is even for uprooting Mongolian language from kindergarten! If the government is concerned enough about people’s opinions to send them a survey, then why have their petitions been completely ignored?!

The relationship between the two Mongolias, the State Mongolia and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, has not always been very smooth. Partly this was due to the geographical division, partly also the geopolitical division after the WWII, especially from the 1960s when PRC and the USSR split, in which Mongolia sided with the USSR. The border between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia was closed for over 30 years until the late 1980s. For Inner Mongols, Mongolia is a state for Mongols and they have an emotional aspiration towards Mongolia. This is probably partly because they feel displaced in a Chinese state for obvious reasons mentioned above, and also partly because they share the same language and culture and history. The Mongolians in Mongolia, however, have been often suspicious about Inner Mongols, especially in the early days of the reopening of the borders. Many Mongolians assumed that Inner Mongols had all been assimilated: that they didn’t speak Mongolian, they didn’t know their history, and they didn’t know Mongolian culture. However, with frequent communication over the last 20 odd years, they have got to know each other a bit better. When in a recent interview he talked about his experience in Inner Mongolia a few year ago, former Mongolian president Elbegdorj said ‘Inner Mongolian herders welcomed me with tear in their eyes. We are the same people and I felt that. Even the way how we shed our tears is same…’. Nonetheless, Inner Mongols have still not been accepted as real ‘Mongolians’ by many of their brethren in the north.

(A Mongol standing in front of a wall which has a phrase ‘The mother tongue we learn from childhood is a culture we cannot forget’ from the famous Poet Natsagdorj’s poem ‘My Native Land’. Photo Credit: Deborah Tala Motomura

In spite of this, the recent Chinese proposal to reduce Mongolian-language education, united the Mongols across the border more than ever before. Many Mongolians for the first time realized that Inner Mongols have not become ‘Chinese’ after all. Many have been emotionally and intellectually engaged with the issue. Through social media they saw the voices of worried parents and weeping children forced to go to school, the sound of songs like ‘I am a Mongol’ sung by high school children and parents alike in front of school gate in the presence of the police. Probably for the first time, many Mongolians realized that they cannot take for granted that Inner Mongols still speak Mongolian and read and write Mongolian. So much determination and effort has gone into maintaining the Mongolian language, script and culture by Inner Mongols. Culturally, they realized that Inner Mongols have been the custodians of the traditional Uigurjin Mongolian script, the only vertical alphabetic script still actively used in the world, while in Mongolia the Russian Cyrillic scripts had been used since the 1940s and only a handful of people can read and write the old Mongolian script today. Although Mongolia had been trying to reintroduce the traditional script in school but never been able to materialize in systematic way. But recently Mongolia decided to reintroduce Mongolian traditional scripts from grade one in all schools from 2025. I am sure there will be people who will send their children to Mongolia to learn their mother tongue in the future, but not everyone can afford such things.

There were many demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar against the new Chinese policy and to support the Inner Mongols. When the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Mongolia on 17 September there was a long demonstration procession of Mongolians dressed up in their traditional costumes and holding slogans written in traditional Mongolian script to show their protest against what was happening in Inner Mongolia. The Mongolian public hoped that their government would express their own concerns regarding the Chinese government’s language policy in Inner Mongolia. The Mongolian leaders, however, kept quiet, which was of course a most welcome gesture to Wang Yi, who was offering a 7 million Yuan non-repayable loan to Mongolia. Most Mongolians felt that they ‘being sold’ by this. In brief, there was strong support from the Mongolian public but the Mongolian government did not or could not do anything. A Facebook message reads ‘Sad day for Mongolia. Our politicians are way too corrupt to fight against the CCP oppression on Southern (Inner) Mongolians in China.’ Inner Mongols have been touched by the warm public responses by the Mongolians, not only in Ulaanbaatar but also across the world. ( Mongolia is a small country and economically largely depends on its two big neighbours. Thus it is obliged to be diplomatic.

(Hamag Mongol – All Mongols, sang by Mongols from Tuva, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia)

Author Matt Dagher-margosian

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