By Julian Dierkes
I generally have not paid very much attention to Inner Mongolia. Even beginning to understand the setting of Mongolians within the People’s Republic seems like a daunting task. I also find many of the current actions of the Chinese regime despicable and fear that this feeling would not make a strong basis for attempting to analyze Inner Mongolia. 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.
Here are some examples of tweets about the language education situation in Inner Mongolia:
Receiving a primary education in one’s own mother tongue is a universal human right. https://t.co/GhZxlb6Y5R
— Munkhsaikhan O. (@munkhsaikhan_o) August 30, 2020
— Munkhnaran Bayar (@MoRientalist) August 29, 2020
This September a new Chinese language textbook will replace the previous version used in Mongolian schools from Year 1, in 2021 Political and Moral course will be taught in the medium of Chinese, in 2022 History. Then Mongolian schools will disappear… pic.twitter.com/MW3o3s89y9
— Dr Gegentuul Baioud (@gegentuul) August 23, 2020
Most of the tweets or posts that I see are targeting language policy specifically and a defence of the (use of the) Mongolian language within the People’s Republic. However, there is a very clear subtext of national self-determination as is clear in Munkhsaikhan’s tweet above.
There are two comprehensive and approachable scholarly articles that explain the background to some of the fears regarding “bilingual” education as it is practiced in China.
Chris Atwood (UPenn) “Bilingual Education in Inner Mongolia“
Gegentuul Baioud (Macquarie Univ) “Will education reform wipe out Mongolian language and culture?“
Foreign Policy Detour
As I said above, I pay scant attention to Inner Mongolia itself. However, I do pay close attention to the Mongolia-China relationship. In this sphere, I have been arguing for some time that it is Inner Mongolia and the threat of ethnic/pan-Mongolist/pan-Mongolianist (is that a term?) unrest that has tempered Chinese exercise of coercive power over Mongolia.
In principle, Chinese economic domination over Mongolia is overpowering. Yet, the Chinese regime has not used this power to force very visible projects/concessions on Mongolia. Is it not surprising in the context of total economic dependence that no Chinese investors have muscled in on some of the large Mongolian resource projects? Sure, the Chinese regime is not monolithic and there are many competing economic interests in particular, but even then, it continues to strike me as odd that over the past ten years or so, no strong pressure has been applied to the Mongolian government to allow for large, single-project investments. This is in contrast to Russia, for example, far less dominant economically, but episodically muscling in on the Mongolian economy as in the example of the distribution of petrol or the uranium mining sector.
A more political example is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is very clearly a Chinese initiative and the Chinese regime has hinted for some time that it would like for Mongolia to become a full member rather than remain at observer status. Yet, Mongolia has not joined. President Battulga seems to be in favour of membership (for unfathomable-to-me reasons), but no clear steps have been taken.
My interpretation of this relative restraint has been that the Chinese regime continues to be nervous about the quasi-diasporic relationship between Inner Mongolia and Mongolia. Given the global reactions to violent repression in Tibet and Xinjiang (examples that many beyond-Mongolian discussions of minority rights in China draw on), the Chinese regime would likely want to avoid any attention to and perhaps any need for repression in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. This is even more the case because while the IMAR is often portrayed as a peripheral frontier region (just one step away from “Outer Mongolia” that Sion-centric colonial appellation for Mongolia), it is actually not very far away from Chinese economic centres along the coast. After all, the drive from Beijing to Hohot is a mere 500km.
Knee-Jerk Foreign Policy Reactions
The one example where all gloves come off in China-Mongolia relations is the Dalai Lama, especially visits to Mongolia and any talk of succession centred on Mongolia. We are very familiar with the knee-jerk nature of this reaction from the Chinese regime and see echoes of it even in some Chinese university students abroad with whom discussions of Tibet or Xinjiang feel similar to confrontations with gun-enthusiasts in the U.S., irrational and angry.
Any official pronouncements from the Mongolian government about the fate of Mongolian – never mind Mongolians – in Inner Mongolia, would likely be met with a somewhat violent reaction, violent not in the sense of actual physical or territorial violence, but most likely in language and possible sanctions like interruptions to trade flows and the like. Despite Munkhnaran’s above call for a more active stance from the Mongolian government in this regard, I do not think that the government is ready to react in any strong manner, at least not until reactions in Mongolia itself get louder and more numerous and until there is some international support for a reaction.
Such support may be coming, of course. Not surprisingly, Radio Free Asia will be happy to oblige with reporting that points to Chinese misdeeds. At some point, such reporting may come to the attention of the Trump administration, eager at the moment to needle the Chinese regime politically while making nice economically. Criticism of the perceived-to-be-tame reaction from the EU on the takeover of Hong Kong may lead to a greater desire to criticize China on an economically less-central region like Inner Mongolia.
In a tweetshell:
Noticeable increase in concern about #Mongolia-ns in Inner Mongolia in my timelines over past 2 weeks or so.
Language policies that are at forefront of Sinicization policies & newly focused on Mongolian language teaching, seem to be meeting w/ some resistance in IMAR.
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) August 28, 2020
It is this increase in activities that made me first notice that the current situation seems to be somewhat different from previous reports of protests and resistance that are regularly circulated, for example in English by the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center.
In paying more attention, I have noticed that some Mongolians are mobilizing against these language policies online. Interestingly, this seems to be a somewhat more organized, deliberate campaign than many activities during the recent election, perhaps because there are no immediate (domestic) political implications.
Mongolian Twitter remains relatively unorganized, the use of hashtags is still not very common. However, on Inner Mongolia, some hashtags are being used:
Facebook Profile Picture Frame
Launched by FB user A Tsend-Ayush: