Under the new policy, Mandarin Chinese will replace Mongolian as the medium of instruction for three subjects in elementary and middle schools for minority groups across the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, home to 4.2 million ethnic Mongolians.
But parents fear the move will lead to a gradual demise of the Mongolian language, spelling an end for the already waning Mongolian culture.
“We Mongolians are all against it,” said Angba, a 41-year-old herder in Xilin Gol League whose 8-year-old son has joined the boycott.
“When the Mongolian language dies, our Mongolian ethnicity will also disappear,” the father said. As with the other Mongolian residents who spoke to CNN for this article, Angba requested to use a pseudonym over fear of repercussions from authorities for speaking to foreign media.
On Thursday alone, some 21,000 signatures were collected from residents in 10 counties, forming 196 petitions to the regional government’s education bureau, according to an overseas Mongolian scholar who has been in close touch with local residents. In the regional capital of Hohhot, over 300 employees at a prominent regional television station also signed the petition, said the scholar, who has requested anonymity due to sensitivity of the issue.
On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, some ethnic Han users have spoken out in sympathy of Inner Mongolia’s plight to protect its mother tongue. Some citizens in the neighboring country of Mongolia have also protested in solidarity.
A staff member at the Inner Mongolia regional government wouldn’t comment when reached by phone by CNN on Thursday.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry dismissed reports of the protests in Inner Mongolia as “political speculation with ulterior motives.”
“The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty. It is every citizen’s right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language,” spokesperson Hua Chunyin said.
Mongolians are one of only two ethnic minorities to have ruled imperial China. In the 13th century, the Mongol Empire arose from the unification of several nomadic tribes in the Mongolian steppes to conquer much of Eurasia — including China, where it was known as the Yuan Dynasty (from AD 1271 to 1368).
After World War II, the Chinese Communist Party gained control of Inner Mongolia, a vast strip of grassland and desert to the southeast of the country of Mongolia, and established the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1947 — the first of five so-called autonomous regions in the People’s Republic of China.
However, unlike autonomous regions such Tibet and Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia has largely avoided violent ethnic unrest in recent decades.
“Inner Mongolia is not against the Chinese government — it is a relatively stable place,” said Tala, a 26-year-old Mongolian who grew up in the region and now lives overseas.
“But even so,” he said. “We’ve been pushed to the brink.”
Under the surface, tensions have been running for years, especially between Han settlers and Mongolian herders, who complained their traditional grazing lands have been ruined by a coal mining boom.
Mongolian activists also lamented the loss of their pastoral tradition. Herders were moved from their homes on the prairies into new housing complexes in towns under “ecological migration,” a decades-long relocation program that officials say is aimed at alleviating poverty and easing overgrazing.
“The Mongolian way of life (has already been) wiped out by so many policies,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a New York-based advocacy group.
“This new policy is the final blow to the Mongolian identity,” he said of the curriculum change.
“Therefore, the current bilingual education system has not changed,” the statement said.
However, some ethnic Mongolians also fear that Mongolian will eventually be replaced by Mandarin in all subjects.
Critics of China’s assimilation policy say Mongolians only need to look at the ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet to get a glimpse of what the future might hold.
“We should implement bilingual education in some ethnic areas, both requiring ethnic minorities to learn the national common language, and encouraging Hans living in these areas learn ethnic minority languages,” Xi said at a high-level Party meeting on ethnic policy in 2014.
“If ethnic minorities learn the national common language well, it will be beneficial to them in employment, in accepting modern scientific and cultural knowledge and in integration into society.”
In reality, however, few Hans in ethnic minority regions know the local languages, which they are not required to learn at school, residents say.
“As in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese authorities appear to be putting political imperatives ahead of educational ones,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese authorities should be focused on providing genuine bilingual education, not undermining it and persecuting its proponents.”
For decades, Inner Mongolia’s model of bilingual education has allowed Mongolian to be used as the language of instruction and Mandarin taught as a subject. In ethnic minority schools, students used to receive their first Mandarin lesson in the third year of elementary school, but since at least the 1990s, it has started earlier, in the second grade.
And now, it will be taught in the first year, in Mandarin, and with more advanced content.
Angba, the herdsman in Xilin Gol, said by the first grade, many children haven’t even properly learned their mother tongue yet, and adding another language would be a big burden.
“Now, Chinese is already spoken everywhere in cities as well as pastoral areas,” he said. “So I hope school can be the place where (the children) learn Mongolian properly.”
For its part, the regional government has emphasized that the new curriculum is a policy decision made by the Party’s central leadership.
According to the overseas Mongolian scholar, however, parents are not against the use of standardized national textbooks — as long as they’re translated into Mongolian. In fact, she said the curriculum previously used in Mongolian-medium schools had all been translated from Chinese textbooks used in other parts from the country.
“The (old) education system has worked very well,” said the scholar, who grew up in Inner Mongolia and attended Mongolian-language schools in the countryside.
“The children don’t have any problem speaking Mandarin …They’re already bilingual.”
Under the old Soviet model adopted at the founding of Communist China and written into its constitution, ethnic minorities are meant to be granted a degree of autonomy in designated regions to run their own affairs and preserve their language and culture.
But in practice, critics say it is the Hans who have the real say and hold key positions. And in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, ethnic language, culture and religion have come under increasing restrictions.
That shift has accelerated under Xi, who has unleashed a heavy-handed crackdown in Xinjiang, where US officials say up to two million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and learn Mandarin Chinese. Uyghur activists have accused the campaign of “cultural genocide.”
And now, some ethnic Mongolians worry that Inner Mongolia will be the next in line for the so-called “second generation of ethnic policy.”
“It’s not at all promoting ethnic harmony,” said the overseas Mongolian scholar. ‘It is creating much more trouble than promoting harmony. It’s really counter effective.”
Togochog, the New York-based activist, said people in Inner Mongolia are merely defending their legal rights guaranteed in the constitution and the regional ethnic authority law. The Chinese constitution says “all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.”
“People are merely pushing the government to fulfill (its) own promise,” Togochog said. “They are not saying ‘we want to overthrow CCP rule’ or ‘we want independence.’ They didn’t even mention human rights…(all) they want is to save their language.”
But coercion and intimidation have already kicked in, according to residents.
Qiqige, a 38-year-old mother in Xilinhot, said some chat groups of Mongolian parents on WeChat, China’s popular messaging app, have been shut down, and authorities last month blocked Bainu, a Mongolian-language social media site.
She said police have detained some protesters, and Party members and civil servants have been told to send their children back to school or risk losing their jobs. Some parents have already bowed to pressure, she added.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the regional government ordered officials and teachers to “proactively promote the policy to students, parents and the public, and dispel their concerns and misgivings” to “ensure students return to schools as normal.”
But Qiqige, the mother of two in Xilinhot, has vowed to continue to protest against the policy until authorities give in.
“As long as we’re Mongolians, we’ll resist to the end,” she said.