Early this month, parents and students across the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia streamed back to school campuses, not to attend classes, but instead to protest.
They gathered by the hundreds outside dozens of schools in rare acts of civil disobedience, protesting a new policy that sharply reduces their hours of Mongolian-language instruction. For several days, schools across Inner Mongolia stood empty as parents pulled their children out of class, the largest demonstrations in Inner Mongolia in more than three decades.
Just as quickly came the crackdown.
In Tongliao, a city of 3 million where protests were among the fiercest, residents told NPR that cars were banned from the roads for four days to stop parents from congregating. Municipal notices seen by NPR required parents to sign official statements promising to send their children to school or face punishment. Security officials in Inner Mongolia have issued arrest warrants for hundreds of parents who attended protests — complete with mug shots grabbed from surveillance cameras.
The city of Xilinhot said Wednesday that parents who sent their children to school would receive preferential access to government aid programs, according to a municipal notice seen by NPR. Those who did not would have their children expelled, and their livestock herds, which many ethnic Mongolians still depend on for supplementary income, would be inspected.
"Mongolian parents, the civil servants, party members and teachers of Mongolian descent are under tremendous pressure to send their children to school," says Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the advocacy group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. "Threats of arrest, detention, imprisonment, even confiscation of property are the most common methods of intimidation being used."
The policy that ethnic Mongolians are protesting mandates that schools previously allowed to teach nearly all subjects in Mongolian now teach two required classes — politics and history — in Mandarin Chinese and begin Chinese-language literature classes one year earlier. School textbooks and teaching materials for those classes must also now be in Mandarin Chinese — China's national language — with authorities saying Chinese-language books are higher quality than Mongolian-language books.
For China's some 6 million ethnic Mongolians, this policy feels like a betrayal.
"One very strong sense in Inner Mongolia on the part of Mongols is how much they've given up," explains Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mongolians were the first ethnic group to declare their support for the now-ruling Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. In doing so, they lost their opportunity for political autonomy but were granted a certain amount of cultural autonomy.
For the last seven decades, China's ethnic Mongolians have been allowed to attend school and take university classes in the Mongolian language — which has no relation to Mandarin Chinese — officially offered in six provinces and regions.
Mongolian-language education had already been diminishing in scope before the new policy. In recent years, more and more parents were voluntarily choosing to send their children to Mandarin Chinese-only schools, which afford better economic outcomes.
Now China is moving toward what it calls "second generation" ethnic policy — an approach that has emerged in the last decade that demands China's minority ethnic groups become more "Chinese" by reducing or outright eliminating their limited cultural autonomy.
In the past decade, similar policy changes first targeted Tibetan- and Uighur- language education, drastically reducing the numbers of language teachers and resources available for students in those languages. The new language policy "is not a special requirement only asked of ethnic Mongolians, because regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang have already undergone the same transition," Inner Mongolia's education bureau wrote on its website.
But experts say stricter regulation of ethnic Mongolians is especially counterproductive.
"Many more Mongols were already studying Chinese," says Morris Rossabi, an academic who studies Central Asian history at Columbia University and Queens College.
He explains that ethnic Mongolians are an assimilation success story from the eyes of Beijing, with high rates of intermarriage with Han, the majority ethnic group in China, and high levels of Mandarin Chinese fluency. "There was a kind of peace that had prevailed for 25 years. It just seems very odd that the government would create conditions that would arouse dissent," says Rossabi.
Empty classrooms as the school year begins
Dissent was widespread this September. Ethnic Mongolian television anchors and language advocates posted videos encouraging parents to withdraw their students. On Sept. 1, the first day of the fall semester in Inner Mongolia, many schools stood empty as parents kept their children home.
Within days, China's police state mobilized to contain the demonstrations.
In Bairin Right Banner, a region next to the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng, and Sonid Right Banner, to the west, authorities said elementary and middle school students who did not return to class by this week would be expelled. In Kangmian Banner, parents were asked to sign a statement pledging to return their children to school or face punishment, according to a notice seen by NPR.
Two parents in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia's capital city, told NPR that they had received nonstop calls from teachers and the school's principal pressuring them to return their children to school.
Waves of ethnic Mongolian civil servants have quit their posts rather than implement the policy. In the town of Wudan, two village Communist Party officials were fired for "creating a negative influence in the village" and "failing to follow orders," according to a notice posted by the local government and seen by NPR.
Four Communist Party members and a Mongolian-language teacher were expelled from the party and fired from their jobs this week in Bairin Right Banner for failing to carry out the new policy.
As a result, many parents have begun sending their children back to school.
In mid-September, about a dozen parents lined up outside Tongliao's Shebotu Middle School to pick up their children. One parent quietly explained why he finally sent his daughter to school only this week: "If you do not send your child back, the government threatens to fire those with state jobs or to cut your social benefits." He asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of punishment.
The intimidation extends to journalists. A black car with no license plates followed NPR in Tongliao. Shortly after speaking to parents outside Shebotu Middle School, a group of 12 plainclothes and uniformed police officers, some claiming to be parents, prevented NPR from interviewing more people in the city.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Chinese schools have reopened, but many ethnic Mongolian parents in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia do not want to send their kids - not because they're worried about COVID-19. It is because they oppose a new policy reducing the hours of Mongolian language instruction. They fear future generations will lose fluency in their mother tongue and, thus, lose their ethnic identity. NPR's Emily Feng reports.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In early September, thousands of Chinese Mongolians carried out extraordinarily rare acts of civil disobedience. As shown in videos posted by activists, students and parents gathered outside dozens of Inner Mongolian schools. Some waved signs or shouted, I am Mongolian.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in non-English language).
FENG: And for several days, schools across Inner Mongolia stood empty. The policy they're protesting mandates that schools once allowed to teach nearly all subjects in Mongolian now have to teach their three core classes in Mandarin Chinese, the national language. Ethnic Mongolians are intensely proud at having preserved their language and script, which is completely unrelated to Chinese. For this northern territory, the change feels like a betrayal.
CHRISTOPHER ATWOOD: One very strong sense in Inner Mongolia on the part of Mongols is how much they've given up.
FENG: This is Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Ethnic Mongolians, he says, were the first minority to throw in their lot with the now-ruling Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. In doing so, they traded political autonomy for this promise from the government.
ATWOOD: What we're going to give you is this cultural autonomy, this language, which will be a way for you to have your sort of Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.
FENG: But now China is moving towards what it calls second-generation ethnic policy, a view that ethnic minorities should become more Chinese. The Tibetan and Uighur languages were targeted first. That paved the way for later political persecution. And experts say there is little reason to target China's some 6 million ethnic Mongolians.
MORRIS ROSSABI: Things seemed to be going quite well for the PRC, for the People's Republic of China, in Inner Mongolia. Many more Mongols were studying Chinese.
FENG: Morris Rossabi studies Central Asian history at Columbia University. He explains that Mongolians are an assimilation success story for the Chinese state.
ROSSABI: There was a kind of peace that had prevailed for 25 years. It just seems very odd that the government would create conditions that might arouse dissent.
FENG: China's police state quickly mobilized to contain this dissent. In Tongliao, a city of more than 3 million where protests first began, residents told NPR that cars were banned from the road for four days to stop parents from congregating. Municipal notices seen by NPR require parents to sign official statements promising to send their children to school or face punishment. Dozens of teachers and local officials have been fired for refusing. And security officials have issued arrest warrants for hundreds of parents who attended protests, complete with mug shots grabbed from surveillance cameras.
ENGHEBATU TOGOCHOG: Mongolian parents, especially the civil servants, government officials and party members, they are under tremendous pressure to send their children to school.
FENG: That's Enghebatu Togochog, the director of advocacy group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Organization. At five schools NPR visited in Tongliao and Hohhot, two cities where public protests were most intense, a small number of students have returned to class at each school. Not all did so willingly.
TOGOCHOG: Threats of arrest, detention, imprisonment, even confiscation of property are most common method of intimidation.
FENG: One parent outside a Tongliao middle school quietly explained why he finally sent his daughter to school only this week. He asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of punishment.
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: (Through interpreter) If you don't send your child back, the government threatens to fire you if you have a state job or to cut your social benefits.
FENG: And the intimidation extends to journalists. A black car with no license plates followed me on my entire reporting trip. When I talked to parents outside a school, I was intercepted by a gaggle of 12 plainclothes and uniformed police. Some of them claimed to be parents.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: You're all parents, I ask them. They don't respond. The plainclothes officers interrogated me and my driver for the next two hours. Behind them, a handful of parents picked up their children from a Mongolian elementary school as loudspeakers blared patriotic music. With or without their support, school is back in session.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Tongliao, Inner Mongolia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.