To better understand the sudden wave of state violence that China has unleashed on Inner Mongolia we spoke with Doris Tala Motomura. Doris (a pseudonym for safety) is intimately familiar with Inner Mongolia’s history, culture and how Mongolians are trying to resist the state terror that has affected Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and now Inner Mongolia.
This will be a multi-part Interview, as it’s designed to be a comprehensive introduction both to the protests and to Inner Mongolia’s contemporary relationship to China.
Parts two and three can be found here.
Asia Art Tours: To begin, could you discuss the recent changes in Mongolian language education policy instituted by the Central PRC government? And why have these changes led to protests in Inner Mongolia?
Doris: Inner Mongolia is one of the five so-called Autonomous Regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In Inner Mongolian there are some 376 Mongolian-language schools, with about 19,000 students that partake in the 9-year compulsory schooling system. Until recently, all Mongolian-medium schools have been using Mongolian textbooks and all subjects have been taught in Mongolian. Mongolian children learn Chinese from grade 2 and by the time they competed their senior high school they are bilingual. The system has been working well for over the 70 years and produced many high achieving Mongolian scientists and professionals.
However, on the 26th of August 2020, the Inner Mongolian Bureau of Education announced that Mongolian-medium schools would have to use new state-compiled unified textbooks and teach some subjects in the national common language, Chinese, rather than in Mongolian. The aim is supposedly to promote understanding and solidarity between the different nationalities in order to achieve a unified Chinese national identity (zhonghua minzu) and to fulfil a new national narrative called ‘The Dream of China’ (Zhongguo meng). The officially announced changes are: 1. Starting from the 1st of September 2020, Chinese-language teaching will be instituted from grade 1 rather than grade 2. The existing Chinese-language textbooks will be replaced with new nationally unified textbooks that include much heavier content. 2. A nationally unified textbook (in Chinese) for the subject of ‘Morality and Law’ will replace the existing Mongolian textbook for the subject. The subject will be taught in Chinese from grade 7 from 2021. 3. The same will happen with the subject History starting from 2022. In brief, Chinese-medium education is being extended at the expense of the local ethnic language, as has already been taking place in Xinjiang and Tibet over the last three years.
The authorities presented the proposal as a trivial change. Indeed, while changing a few textbooks might look trivial to outsiders, this will, however, have huge implication for the future of the Mongolian language and the Mongolian Script – not only for the Mongols of Inner Mongolia, but also, far more broadly, for Mongolian culture and heritage. Reducing Mongolian-medium education in schools means that Mongolian children will not have sufficient time and training to learn and use their own native language in both a school and society-wide context. Inner Mongolians are a minority within their own territory and make up only about 17% of the 22 million plus population of Inner Mongolia. Moreover, the main language used in state-administration and the media is Chinese, even though according to the PRC Law of Autonomy both Chinese and Mongolian should be used. Children are constantly exposed to Chinese via the media and learn it fast. Especially for Mongol children living in urban areas the social environment outside the family home is all in Chinese. Their neighbours are Chinese, they play with Chinese children, they watch Chinese cartoons. Mongolian parents are already been struggling to teach and create a Mongolian-language environment for their children. Due to rapid industrialization, the urbanization of Mongols has been progressing very quickly in recent years. Many Mongols have moved into the towns and cities looking for work, either voluntarily or because they have been forced off the steppe by the government. Village-level schools have also been abolished over the last 20 years. Most children who come from the countryside attend boarding schools in their sum (district centre). These sum towns have also been rapidly urbanizing due to the growing number of Chinese businesses.
As a result, the day to day environment of Inner Mongolians is rapidly being replaced by a Chinese one. Thus, if bilingual education of Mongols is the goal, as has traditionally been promised and the new proposal also declares, actively replacing more and more Mongolian-medium education in schools with Chinese would seem a counter-effective way of achieving it. From the Mongolian point of view, rather than promoting a national common language, these changes would seem to promote the imminent disappearance of the Mongolian language in the near future. This is not about promotion of ‘bilingual’ education and solidarity among ethnicities, but a proposal to shift from the current successful bilingualism to Chinese monolingualism and cultural assimilation. Realizing these implications, the Mongols started to protest and asked the government to revoke the new policy via petitions.
( Video: a collection of petitions signed by Inner Mongolians against the policy of language change. The signatures are placed in a circle on the petition to indicate that there was no ringleader for their movement and that all had voluntarily signed. This tradition of circular signing was used by the duguilang (circle) movement that protested against authorities in Ordus, Western Inner Mongolia, during the 19th century.)
More generally, the new proposal flies in the face of both humanistic values and competent management. The changes were announced on 26 August, just five days before the start of the school year without any prior consultation. No consideration was given how the changes would affect both the students and teachers. How could schools reschedule teachers and get them to adequately prepare for classes in time? This is before one even mentions the obvious impact this would have on children’s mental and physical health due to increasing hours of school work and the pressure to catch up with their Chinese peers who learn everything in their mother tongue. In any other modern nation, changing the curriculum is always a big issue and has to be discussed and prepared well in advance because it affects not only children’s health and future but also the health and future of the nation in general.
Moreover, the changes were not even lawful. There was no official policy document produced for these changes – no serial numbers nor government stamp, as is required by all official policy documents in the PRC. There was only an announcement of how to implement the changes. Protesters have been determined to negotiate within the legal framework of the PRC. They have hoped that the Inner Mongolian government, if not the Central Government, would take their petitions seriously and offer a response to their concerns. They believe that this is a lawful request by citizens living in a modern country with the Rule of Law.
AAT: What are the techniques and tactics currently being used by Inner Mongolia’s protesters? And how diverse are those who are protesting? Are protesters from all walks of life in Inner Mongolia, including Han Chinese Residents?
Doris: The protesters had been working peacefully within the legal framework of the PRC and have especially been focussed on the submission of petitions to government. Submissions began and increased rapidly from the end of August when the official announcement of changes to education was made. The protests started with parents and teachers, who are directly affected by the new changes, but their concerns were soon echoed by the broader Mongolian community, including intellectuals, herders, some officials and the students themselves. For example, over 300 employees of the Inner Mongolian TV station submitted a collective petition to express their concerns about the curricular changes, while many Mongolian communities outside Inner Mongolia also sent their own petitions. When there was no response, either from the Bureau of Education or the state government of Inner Mongolia, parents started to talk about how they could get the attention of authorities. They thought that if the authorities would not respond before school started back, a school boycott might get their attention. Officially, the start date for primary school is 1 September, but this year it was pushed forward one day to 31 August, presumably to avoid any organized school boycott against the new proposal. A school boycott by parents and concerned teachers happened anyway because neither the Inner Mongolian Bureau of Education nor the government responded in any manner to the many thousands of petitions that had been submitted. Parents were determined to keep their children at home until they received a satisfactory response to their petitions from the authorities. In some places parents who were not aware of the boycott sent their children to school, but joined the boycott as soon as they became aware what was happening which began to spread rapidly across all of Inner Mongolia. Some high school children who had already started their classes before 1 September boycotted their classes and collectively left school grounds and went home despite the efforts of security guards to prevent them, while other high school students walked in procession around the school yard, singing songs or carrying out silent demonstrations, until the school leadership would speak out against the new policy.
The general public, however, was not aware of the problem because all the TV stations (including those broadcasting in Mongolian) and newspapers were reporting the official narrative of a cheerful, normal start to the school year and how smoothly the ‘bilingual education’ program was progressing. On 31 August Mongolian-language broadcaster Odon TV even went as far as falsely re-using old footage to do this. Mongolian communities across the world were shocked by this deception. While most people understood that they were forced to report the official narrative, Mongols were deeply disappointed that even a Mongolian TV outlet would ruthlessly spread fake news using false images like this. A former teacher said of what was being shown: ‘they report about 30 students who showed up but they don’t report 30,000 who did not show up!’ Many Mongols have said that they have since stopped watching the news because all the channels report with one voice the same lies.
(Photo: Demonstration against the Chinese proposal affecting Inner Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)
During the first three to four days of the school boycott, the situation was very tense, but there was also a hint of hope that the authorities might respond to the thousands of petitions that had been submitted. Rumours circulated that the existing system would be kept if more than 50% or 70% of children would not show up at school. At the same time other rumours all circulated just before the official start of school that some people were buying and borrowing large quantities of traditional Mongolian children’s clothing in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. The Mongolian community was concerned that there might be some sort of conspiracy at work to dress up Han Chinese children as Mongolians in order to make it look like Mongolian parents were sending their children to school. Some people even thought that the authorities or anti-Mongol Chinese would stage fake street-demonstrations to make the Mongols look bad, as happened several years ago in Tibet. On the other hand, parents who attempted to remove their children from school and were prevented by police were presented by the media as demonstrators stirring up unrest. Some parents’ photos were even taken and they were put on a wanted list with prices on their heads for their capture! Nonetheless, at this time people were still hoping that the Inner Mongolian Government or the Chinese Central Government would listen to their peaceful and lawful petitions and provide a response. They were determined not to stir up unrest. They were hoping that the Chinese Constitution, the Law of Autonomy and the Language Law of Inner Mongolian were all on their side.
AAT: Simply put, what are the protesters demanding? And what are the consequences protesters have faced from the PRC State, state/private businesses and the Police?
Doris: The protesters’ demands were simple: to stop the new proposal and revert to how things had been. If not, then at very least they expected the government to give them a convincing explanation for the changes. They wanted to keep the original bilingual system that has historically been very successful: learning Chinese from grade two, conducting all classes in Mongolian and using Mongolian textbooks in all subjects except for Chinese language class. The protesters are not opposing the contents of the state-compiled unified textbooks. Even the current Mongolia textbooks are simply translations of Chinese textbooks, except for specifically Mongolian and Chinese language and literature textbooks. Mongolian textbooks for all subjects simply mean that Mongolian children can develop their analytical language and thinking in their own first language. If these subjects are taught in Chinese, Mongolian children will miss out developing their vocabulary. Moreover, recent international research shows that learning in one’s first language helps children’s mental health and intellectual development.
Under the pressure of local authorities to end the school boycotts by parents and students, the authorities pressured teachers to start their classes and collect students by phoning parents and knocking on their doors. Where these efforts were ignored, local officials began to visit people’s houses. In some places, school teachers went to people’s homes accompanied by police officers to persuade parents to send their children back to school. When these methods failed, psychological and emotional black-mail started: parents were threatened with the loss of jobs and expulsion from the communist party. Worse, their children would be ‘black-listed’ and ‘their future would be doomed’. Government employees came under particularly strong pressure, not only as parents themselves, but also as the implementers of the new ‘law’. In many places, government officials were given a quota of bringing five children to school. In some workplaces, supervisors visited their employees’ house and offered to drive their children to school so that they could meet the quota; others used moral blackmail to the tune that ‘they [the supervisors] would lose their jobs’ if their employees did not send their children to school!’ Under huge pressure, officials in urban areas began to send their children back to school. A brief video clip was circulated on social media of a young boy with an Eastern Inner Mongolian accent, probably in grade one, running way from his father saying ‘bi irgen helig chin sorhui!’ [I don’t want to learn your Chinese!]. In the video his father is seen chasing after him and calling out for him to come back and go to school because his supervisor wants it. By 4 September, Mongolian schools in Hohhot were forced to start their classes. Some parents sent messages on social media and apologized for not being able to continue the boycott because of the pressure. One mother cried and said ‘I am so sorry to say that I sent my daughter to school today. I don’t care about my job, but I couldn’t stand to hear that my daughter will be black-listed and her future would be ruined if I hadn’t sent her back’.
(Video: Inner Mongolian Schoolchildren, participating in a video protest, saying ‘I would like to Study Mongolian’, in Mongolian)
Not all officials and school directors complied with the authorities, however. A number of banners (counties) and sums (districts) convened meetings and decided to submit petitions to voice their concerns. A woman from central Inner Mongolia sent a message on social media saying: ‘Our banner had a town hall meeting today and decided to submit a petition. It was very moving to attend the meeting. Our cadres were all in tears when they discussed the new proposal’. One police officer said to his supervisor, when asked to send his child back to school, that he could not do so because his wife was responsible for the children’s education. As a police officer he was far too busy to deal with it and unable to force his wife to do what she did not want to. However, he did not want to lose his job either, and so asked his supervisor to allow him to sleep in the office so that he could divorce his wife to avoid domestic arguments and keep doing his job dutifully. As a result, his supervisor stopped pressuring him. In regional Inner Mongolia, when the pressure mounted, parents came up with even more creative forms of resistance. Some parents decided to ‘divorce’, so that one parent could give up their job and keep their children at home while the other parent could save his or her job to support the family. When this kept happening, the authorities became suspicious and even stopped issuing divorce certificates!
Initially, herders were spared much of this, but within a few days, as urban children were gradually forced to go back to school, it was now their turn to be pressured. Herder parents received constant phone calls from local authorities to push them to send their children to school. When this didn’t work, local officials and security people would visit their homes in groups of five to eight people to pressure them. Some herders took their children with them to pasture to avoid the unwelcoming visitors. Some even escaped by car when they heard that the officials were approaching. All government sections including the building sector (!) were mobilized to phone school children’s parents. When asked why they are calling, often the Han Chinese officials were not even aware of what was at stake and were compelled to admit: ‘I have been asked to do xuanquan (propaganda)’. When some parents explained their reasons for keeping children at home, often officials displayed some understanding.
When all this chasing up and hunting down parents and students had become tiresome by the second week of the boycott, all sorts of semi-official and official letters, orders and regulations were issued by schools and local banner administrations. These letters and documents threatened herders and even included statements to the effect that their bank loan agreements would be cancelled if they did not comply. So too would their pasture and land certificates be confiscated and their children’s names removed from the school. In some places, school authorities also tried to use monetary rewards, saying that children who came back to school by a certain date would be rewarded with scholarships and their school accommodation fees would be waived. Other places threatened to issue fines if parents failed to send their children back to school by 15 September. The situation only worsened as 15 September approached. Some parents were taken in by the local police or security officials for long ‘interviews’ and children were left unattended at home. In a heartbreaking video clip that was circulated a young girl of six or seven-years old is seen desperately crying for her parents at a police counter while her parents are presumably taken into an ‘interview room’.
As mentioned above, in the beginning petitions from the protesters were accepted in a civilized and friendly manner. However, by the second week of the school boycott, copies of a number of the petitions were sent by authorities to the employers of the petitioners with instructions to interrogate them for their actions. Some popular representatives who submitted petitions to their district centre were detained for several days. Rumours circulated that they had been detained because they had all put their signatures in a circle on the petition to indicate that there was no ringleader for their movement and that all had voluntarily signed. This tradition of circular signing was used by the duguilang (circle) movement that protested against authorities in Ordus, Western Inner Mongolia, during the 19th century. In official Chinese communist historiography, this movement is considered to be a revolutionary movement by proletarian herders against feudal lords. Ironically, it began to look to some as though petitioners were staging a revolution against the current communist government. However, the main reason that petitioners were ignored and then harassed, was probably not the manner in which the petitions had been signed, but rather that an order had come from above to force through the new educational proposal and that the concerns of the Inner Mongols was to be ignored.
By 15 September, the authorities had forced most schools to resume. Most parents, including herders, who have been the last stronghold of the school boycott, were forced to send their children to school. The psychological and moral pressure exerted on parents and teachers was huge in urban areas, while the financial pressure exerted on herders was unbearable because most herders are highly-dependant on bank loans in order to survive. Thus, school started and children resumed their classes. Nonetheless, the authorities did not stop with their threats and persecutions. More parents, officials and teachers who were not actively promoting the new policy enough were taken in by the police or to security offices to be ‘interviewed’, or to be detained in a ‘room without windows’ as the Mongols call jail.
(Video: Old footage used by Inner Mongolian Odon TV. The message on top is added by Mongols who found out that it was an old setup footage nothing to do with this years’ school start. My (Matt-AAT) rough translation of the text is: ‘This fake scene is full of holes. Their school clothing is far too traditional. It’s supposed to be the first day of school and they are already halfway through the book!’)
Protestors were stunned and shocked by all the unlawful measures taken by local authorities against their peaceful and lawful resistance to the new proposal. Under unbearable pressure, a number of people even took their own lives, including one female official in Alashan Banner and another female school director in Ereenhot. The police were quick to pressure their families declare that their deaths were nothing to do with the new proposal. If the Mongols firmly believed at the start of their protests that the Rule of Law was on their side, several weeks later they had lost that hope forever. A protester posted a message to a social media after all schools resumed saying: “I would like to suggest that we have to stop now but feel a lump in my throat to say so” on 18th September. Many people began to compare the current situation with the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution and its brutal efforts to destroy their culture.
Although the proposal presented itself as the mere matter of promoting the common language, Chinese, it was by no means as simple as this. A quick glance at the new Mongolian language and literature textbooks for primary and middle school students showed that there was an attempt to systematically reduce content related to Mongolian culture, history and language. Neither the proposal, nor any other documents mentioned these changes. The re-editing of textbooks to improve and change content often happens, but none of this had ever really attracted people’s attention before. The changes this time, however, did not appear to be quite so innocent. A Mongolia story called ‘Grandpa with a Nice Horse’ had been replaced with the ‘Story of Lei Feng’, a Chinese figure who exemplifies the ideal of a virtuous person who selflessly serves others. A historical story about Chinggis Khan ‘Temüjin gained trustful friends’ was deleted from a grade four textbook. ‘Chinggis’s Friend Bogorchu’ was replaced with a translation of a Chinese story ‘Little Run Tu’ by Lu Xun in a grade five textbook. The classic poem ‘Minu Mongol Hele (My Mongolian language)’ by B. Rinchin was also deleted. The last stanza with emotionally-loaded phrases about love for the Mongolian language and homeland of the famous poem ‘Minu Nutug’ [my native land] by D. Natsugdorj was deleted from a senior year Language and Literature textbook. This is just to name a few of the changes and deletions that have recently taken place. The editors of the textbooks were even so ‘meticulous’ as even to change the details on some images to degrade the Mongolian language and traditional symbols. For instance, in the grade one Mongolian language textbook there is an image of new school children greeting their teacher at the entrance of a Mongolian primary school. In the original image we can see the Mongolian phrase Mongol Baga Surgaguli [Mongol Primary School] at the school gate. However, in the new version this Mongolian phrase was changed into Chinese: Mengguzu xiaoxue [Ethnic Mongolian School]. So too the Mongolian symbol of an interlocking diamond lattice beside the school name has been replaced with the phrase ‘Welcoming new students’ in Chinese!
(Photo: Traditional Grasslands in Inner Mongolia)
Part 2 of our interview w. Doris will be published shortly. For more on Inner Mongolia, see https://madeinchinajournal.com/2020/08/30/bilingual-education-in-inner-mongolia-an-explainer/; or https://www.languageonthemove.com/will-education-reform-wipe-out-mongolian-language-and-culture/