“The Chinese Communist Party now regards ethnic Mongolians as the ‘enemy within’, who are planning to incite separatism in China.”

These are the words of ethnic Mongolian Boronruh Tsinrh, who grew up in China but is now studying in Paris. Mongolian rights activists have documented persistent problems in Inner Mongolia including  “arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial detention, violation of Mongolian herders’ right to land and right to maintain their traditional way of life, suppression of freedom of speech, press and assembly.”

Along with the violations are colonial Chinese policies of Han Chinese migration to the area — increasingly making Mongolians a minority. According to activists, the Han Chinese are guilty of illegal land-grabs, used for mining and unsustainable farming projects which encroach on the pastoral land the Mongolians need for their animals and for the perpetuation of their traditional nomadic lifestyle.   

The independent republic of Mongolia (formerly Northern Mongolia or outer Mongolia) is a democracy which borders on China and Russia. The southern part of Mongolia was seized by China, becoming the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a province of the People’s Republic of China. Independent Mongolia has a population of roughly 3.17 million, while Inner Mongolia has a population of roughly 23 million of whom 4.4 million are ethnic Mongolian. Most of the rest are Han Chinese.  

Mongolia became an effective Soviet Satellite in 1921. During World War II, Mongolian and Russian troops fought the Japanese in Manchuria. The joint forces entered southern Mongolia in 1945, but Russia did not support the Mongolian government’s desire to annex Southern Mongolia or its pan-Mongolic aspirations to unite all of the Mongolic people, including the Tuvan Republic, Altai Republic, Buryat Republic, parts of Xinjiang and other clusters of Mongolian culture and ethnicity.

Chiang Kai-shek made an agreement with the Soviets that he would grant independence to outer Mongolia, if the Russian and Mongolian forces would exit Southern Mongolia. Since that time, Tuvan Republic, Altai Republic, and the Republic of Buryatia became part of USSR and then Russia. Inner Mongolia became part of China. And Mongolia has remained an independent country.  

In 1949 the forces of Chiang Kai-shek lost their war against the Communists under Mao Tse Dong and were forced to retreat to Taiwan, leaving Mao in control of the Mainland. A communist party group took over the government apparatus of Southern Mongolia, carrying out a “crackdown on counter revolutionists”, as well as imposing “land reform,” redistributing pastoral lands necessary to the maintenance of the Mongolian herders’ way of life. They also arrested, tortured and killed Mongolian elites including those accused of being landlords and “rich farmers”.

By 1956, measures were taken to alter the demographics by relocating Han Chinese into the region, until the Han became the majority. Mongolian grasslands were converted to large, Han commercial farms in the name of “nationalization/collectivization.” As a result, Southern Mongolia’s demographic structure lost its balance. The combination of these policies effectively ended nomadism, as the Mongolians and their animals no longer had free movement.  

Repression and starvation

An “Anti-Rightist Movement” campaign was carried out in 1957, targeting Southern Mongolian professors, school teachers, writers, poets, artists, and intellectuals. Land reclaim initiatives which began the following year, under the “People’s Commune” movement and “Great Leap Forward”, resulted in the starvation and death of countless Mongolians between 1959 and 1961. While the people were dying, the government attacked the culture by creating radio stations, newspapers, dance companies, and propaganda squads to promote Marxism and Maoism. The next phase was the “Four Cleanups Movement” between 1963 and 1964 which laid the groundwork for the “Great Cultural Revolution” that began in 1966. 

By some estimates, during the Great Cultural Revolution, as many as 346,000 Inner Mongolians were accused of being members of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and punished, with roughly 16,222 being killed. 

Since 1949, freedom of religion has been lost in Inner Mongolia, with numerous temples being destroyed and many lamas killed. Under Chinese law, only five “patriotic” religions are sanctioned. These include: the Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant Christian) and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, all of which are administered by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which has been absorbed into the United Front Work Department, the influence arm of the Communist Party of China. 

For Buddhists, the only option is the Buddhist Association of China, which caters to the Han majority, who are Mahayana Buddhists, but does not accommodate the Tibetans and Mongolians, who follow a lamaistic, Indo-Tibetan style of Buddhism. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is both the head of the Tibetan and Mongolian faith, but communication with him or even displaying his picture is strictly forbidden by the Communist government of China.  

Southern Mongolian independence 

Dui Hua’s Human Rights Journal published a report on “splittism” and “inciting splittism” charges brought by the PRC between 1949 and 2016. The report found that 92 percent of those charged with splittism and 86 percent of those charged with inciting splittism were ethnic minorities. In 1992, 11 of the 197 people targeted by the regime in Ordos were characterized as splittists. Acting to counter splittism, in 1996, the Ordos police cracked down on the Ordos Branch of the Southern Mongolia Democratic League Central Committee, as well as stopping Mongol students who were supporting the Southern Mongolia Democratic League. In Urad Rear Banner areas, in 2009, two of the 18 people targeted were accused of being “ethnic splittists.” 

In 1991, leaders of a Mongolian independence group based near Hohhot were charged with separatist activity and sentenced to two years in prison, driving Mongol independence activist Xi Haiming to flee to Germany, where he obtained asylum in 1993. Hada, a peaceful activist who formed the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, was charged with attempting to split the country and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Having completed his sentence, he now lives under close surveillance and is subject to a travel ban.  

Leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there were protests in Tibet. At the same time, authorities took a stronger hand in Inner Mongolia where Quehezhou and E’erjian were sentenced to nine and 10 years in prison, respectively, for splittism. In a related case, an ethnic Mongolian with a Tibetan sounding name, Lobsang Gongpo, was also sentenced to 10 years.

Mongolian dissident writer Tumenulzei Buyanmend commented on Facebook: “Genocide, killing, torture, and imprisonment for over 70 years have not really helped the Chinese to wipe out our national identity.”  Mongolian identity is closely tied to the connection with their animals and with their ancestral ways of nomadism. By restricting their free movement, the Chinese government took away the Mongolian’s ability to be nomads and to live among their herds.  

In 2011, widespread Mongol protests erupted as a result of Han Chinese mining operations which encroached on the grasslands. Tsogjil, an ethnic Mongolian who hosted a number of discussion groups on WeChat, was preparing to file a complaint to the local government on behalf of Mongolian herders when he was detained by authorities and charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.

In 2019, Mongolian herders protested a Chinese government plan to install 300 pig farms in Inner Mongolia which would destroy the grasslands. According to protesters, the ethnic Mongolians will be prohibited from allowing their herds to graze, but Han Chinese companies will be allowed to farm pigs. The herders are only allowed to drill wells 200 metres deep, while the pig farms can drill 450 metres. The police used force to break up the protest. The seizure of land for these pig farms is authorized under the ministry of land and resources which posted on the Chinese Agricultural Net “Central Government’s Special Approval: Starting September, Agricultural and Pig Farming Land Appropriation Needs No Approval! … no local government shall restrict or ban any large-scale animal farming in the name of expanding rural villages or recovering ecosystems.” 

In Lindong, 200 of 400 herders were arrested in June of 2020 after launching a protest against a Han Chinese land grab. Restrictions on grassland usage are particularly troubling for herders as the Mongolian livestock eat only grass and need to move frequently to avoid depleting grass supplies. Restricting their movements or decreasing the land they can use for grazing will decrease the number of animals they can raise, causing families financial hardship, as they need to raise a certain number of animals to survive. Additionally, restricting the rotations of the herds will also degrade the grasslands.  

Education shutdown

Local Mongolian schools in the countryside have been closed for several decades. This meant that for Mongolian children to receive instruction in the Mongolian language, they had to compete for increasingly fewer and fewer spots at schools in the cities. And if accepted, they often had to live away from their parents who remained in the countryside. Mongolians have little or no say over the curriculum their children study. Article 22 of the educational law stipulates that the schools will enable ethnic minorities “to foster many cadremen … to make them fully exercise their roles in response to demands of progress of socialism.” Consequently, the curriculum is heavy on Han and communist propaganda, while courses in Mongolian history are non-existent.  

In 2016, Mongolian parents complained when two Han Chinese principals in Ulaanhad city (known as Chifeng in Chinese) banned Mongolian teachers from teaching in the Mongolian language. Parents also complained that these were the only two Mongolian kindergartens and that limited seats were increasingly being given to Han children.

As Han Chinese commercial farms intrude on the grasslands, herders are increasingly abandoning their traditional lifestyle, and moving to the cities in search of manual labor jobs. This creates even more demand for the scarce opportunities for Mongolian education. Mongolian rights activists estimate that even in the regional capital of Hohot, a city of over 2 million, there are only 3,000 places for Mongolian education. In the 1980s, there were 110,000 Mongolian education seats in the entire province. By 2009 this number had dropped to 19,000. 

In 2019, a teacher was accused of separatist activities and an investigation was launched at the Ulaanhad Mongolian No. 1 High School for displaying a Mongolian flag in a Mongolian language class. The class ate Mongolian traditional food and took a photo in front of the flag and a map of the Mongolian Empire. The same year, in a closed-door trial, ethnic Mongolian historian Lhamjab Borjigin was convicted of “national separatism”, “sabotaging national unity”, and engaging in “illegal publication and illegal distribution”. These charges came after he published a book, called China’s Cultural Revolution, which documented Chinese repression of Inner Mongolians.   

Battle for the language  

The Mukden publishers, Mongolian publishing houses in Republican China, were founded in 1926 and 1927 and existed until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Among other subjects, they published books on translation and textbooks for primary education. Since that time, the Communist government has been tightening the noose on the Mongolian language, slowly pushing it out of schools, media, and publishing. Radio Free Asia quoted a professor at Inner Mongolia University as saying: “If our language is wiped out, we as a distinct people will also cease to exist.” 

In Tongliao City, home to nearly one million Mongolians, Mongolian language classes were suspended for coronavirus lockdown. Just before the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, the government announced that it would be ending Mongolian education completely in the northern Inner Mongolian cities of both Tongliao and Ulaanhad, which border independent Mongolia. Schools were told that, effective from September 2020, they must teach all courses, except Mongolian language, in Mandarin. Tongliao Nationalities University will also begin using Mandarin for courses in history and politics.  

The government warned citizens not to discuss the policy on Wechat. Teachers were forced to sign a statement, promising not to talk about the policy. Officials also shut down the only Mongolian language social-media platform in China, Bainuu. Parents and other citizens who discussed the government’s decision on Wechat received visits from State security police.  

In August, 2020, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) reported that “Southern Mongolia has quickly become a police State again in the past few days as the tension has risen between the government and the Mongolians who are about to be deprived of their last symbol of national identity — the Mongolian language.” 

Protests and social media posts related to the changes in law are being monitored and quelled by the police. Many parents have said that they will keep their children out of school, rather than subject them to a Chinese government curriculum. Some young wrestlers have also joined the protests by boycotting the summer wrestling tournaments.  

Rather than traditional Mongolian script, independent Mongolia uses the Cyrillic script, which was adopted to accommodate the Mongolian language during the Soviet era. The government of Mongolia has announced a plan to replace Cyrillic with the old Mongol alphabet by 2025.

One of the reasons for the change, apart from preserving the ancient culture, is that the government of Mongolia wants Mongolians to be able to communicate with Inner Mongolians in written form. In some ways, this decision may be coming too late, as the next generation of children in Inner Mongolia may no longer be able to read and write Mongolian.

On the other hand, this act may help to preserve the alphabet which will no longer be prominent in Communist China.  

Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo

Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is a China economist, the author of Beyond the Belt and Road: China's Global Expansion and The Wrestler's Dissertation. He is based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.