Issue: 2023: Vol. 22, No. 1

Language Policy in Inner Mongolia and its Implications for Chinese and International Human Rights

Article Author(s)

Marin Ekstrom

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Marin Ekstrom is a lecturer and researcher based in Tokyo, Japan. She received her M.A. in International Relations from Central European University in 2020. Her research interests include Eurasian integration and language policy and education. 
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This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on the website of the now-defunct ERA Institute.

Inner Mongolia, officially an autonomous region stretching across a wide area of north China, has become a battleground for expressing linguistic and cultural identity. The crisis stems from the Beijing’s decision to push for Mandarin Chinese language education in the region’s school system at the expense of Mongolian, the primary language of the province’s titular Mongolian minority group. Protests that arose because of the policy not only shed light on ethnic Mongolians’ struggle to preserve their heritage, but also emphasize Beijing’s troubling tendency to increasingly impose on minority rights to consolidate its authority both domestically and internationally.

Initially, the ethnic Mongolian community and Beijing seemingly enjoyed a close-knit relationship. In 2016, authorities permitted schools catering to ethnic Mongolian students to use Mongolian as the chief language of instruction to advance their linguistic capacities and promote bilingualism.1 Starting in 2020, Beijing reversed its previous tolerance of Mongolian language education and began to aggressively campaign for the use of Mandarin Chinese. In August 2020, the federal government announced that all primary and secondary schools throughout Inner Mongolia had to conduct history, morality and law, and language and literature classes in Mandarin Chinese, rather than in the Mongolian language.2

Government representatives justified the measure by arguing that it would familiarize Mongolian students with Mandarin Chinese from a younger age and provide them with better educational and career prospects in the long run.3 Mongolian families, however, denounced the change, as they feared that Beijing would use this policy as a first step in replacing all forms of Mongolian-language instruction with Mandarin Chinese. In turn, they claimed that using Mandarin Chinese as the sole medium for education would disconnect young generations of Mongolians from their ancestral language and culture.4

Ironically, the ethnic Mongolians of Inner Mongolia had earned a reputation as China’s “model minority” because of their relatively amicable relationship with Beijing, especially when compared to other prominent ethnic minority groups such as the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the Tibetans in Tibet.5 Ethnic Mongolians account for more than 4 million residents (approximately 18%) of Inner Mongolia’s total population of 24 million people.6 In fact, almost twice as many ethnic Mongols live in Inner Mongolia compared to the nation-state of Mongolia (also known as Outer Mongolia).7 Inner Mongolia has a long history of integration with China. During the 17th century, the territories that comprise modern-day Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia became incorporated into Qing China.8 After the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, the regions of Outer Mongolia united and, with the backing of the Soviet Union, declared independence.9 On the other hand, Inner Mongolia remained with China and formally became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1947, two years before the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China.10 Following the foundation of the new government, Beijing encouraged internal migration to Inner Mongolia — particularly from the Han Chinese ethnic majority, which makes up over 90% of China’s population11 — but still vowed to grant ethnic Mongolians special rights and privileges to preserve their cultural identity.12

Overall, the ethnic Mongolian community has complied with the province’s national government policies. Most notably, they have not yet pursued a major separatist movement, and intermarriage rates between ethnic Mongolians and the Han Chinese are higher than their Uyghur and Tibetan counterparts.13 In turn, Beijing has tended to be more permissive in allowing ethnic Mongolians to use the Mongolian language and adhere to traditional practices and beliefs. Thus, Inner Mongolia had seemingly achieved a balance of promoting assimilation with Beijing’s preferences and the growing Han Chinese presence in the province while still allowing ethnic Mongolians to express their cultural heritage.

However, the campaign to require the use of Mandarin in schools when the academic year began in September 2020 led ethnic Mongolians to rebel against the education policy by staging protests and homeschooling their children.14 Federal authorities retaliated by threatening families with job losses and other penalties unless they sent their children back to school.15 Beijing also pursued a campaign of mass incarceration. An estimated 10,000 people were detained during the height of the 2020 protests.16 The events in Inner Mongolia gained international attention and sparked solidarity protests, most notably in Mongolia, but also in countries such as the USA17, France18, and Japan19.

Despite the widespread condemnation of Beijing’s policies in Inner Mongolia and abroad, protests eventually ebbed in the final months of 2020. Beijing, meanwhile, decided to push its Mandarin Chinese agenda in Inner Mongolia even further. CCP officials advocated ramped-up recruitment for Mandarin Chinese-speaking teachers20 to work in the region. As of Fall 2021, kindergartens must conduct all childcare activities in Mandarin Chinese21. Longer-term changes focus on entrance exams: junior middle school students will have to take senior middle school entrance exams in Mandarin Chinese starting in 2023, while 2025 senior high school graduates must take their college entrance exams in Mandarin Chinese.22 Beijing’s crackdown on Mongolian has also seeped into the cultural sphere. An additional Fall 2021 revision to the provincial educational curriculum excluded the use of books on Mongolian history and culture in the classroom.23

Beijing’s assault on Mongolian language and culture has extended outside school environments. In January 2021, provincial state media removed Mongolian programs and replaced them with Mandarin Chinese shows.24 Arts and cultural performances that previously celebrated traditional Mongolian elements now feature Peking opera, CCP anthems, and other Han Chinese influences.25 CCP officials have helped proliferate the slogan “Learn Chinese and become a civilized person”26 throughout Inner Mongolia.

As Beijing’s anti-Mongolian crusade has heightened intensity, the ethnic Mongolian population has grown weary over their resistance resulting in virtually zero reform. Moreover, the international community’s attention has also largely shifted to other issues, most notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These factors have increased anxieties that a “cultural genocide” is quietly but steadfastly occurring in Inner Mongolia.

The Chinese government’s actions in Inner Mongolia draw parallels to escalating crackdowns on ethnic minority rights in other Chinese provinces, including the mass detainment of Uyghurs in “re-educational camps” throughout Xinjiang27 and the forced placement of Tibetans into “training programs” in Tibet.28 Researchers and analysts on China claim that these measures reflect President Xi Jinping’s campaign to aggressively promote Sinicization throughout China.29 The Xi regime has pursued an agenda of pushing out minority languages and cultures in favor of Mandarin Chinese and Han Chinese culture, as ruling authorities believe that such measures will guarantee loyalty to Beijing and nullify internal threats to China’s ascension to global superpower status. Xi’s policies have also significantly impacted China’s foreign relations. The case of Inner Mongolia has ignited debates in Mongolia on the nature of its bilateral relationship with China and how to advocate for the rights of ethnic Mongolians while not risking major repercussions, especially in trade relations.30 The treatment of ethnic minorities in China has also spurred discussions about the future of the liberal world order, especially concerning human rights discourse, in the international community.31

Although the situation for Inner Mongolia currently looks grim, it is not to say that all is lost. If the international community takes a stronger stand to call out China for its human and minority rights abuses, then Beijing may ease up some of its policies in Inner Mongolia. Furthermore, an Inner Mongolian resident who was interviewed by Radio Free Asia stated that the Chinese government cannot take away Mongolians’ souls and minds, and their community can endure this hardship and hold onto their identities.32 Whatever the ultimate outcome of the language policy in Inner Mongolia will be, it not only has critical ramifications for the province’s ethnic Mongolians, but also for the future of Chinese nationhood and global norms and protocol as a whole.