Photo: Foreign language is a tool, own language is soul” (SMHRIC – 2020-08-20)
On 5 February 2021, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, together with its member the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, filed a letter of allegation with the United Nations Special Procedures regarding the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) moves to remove Mongolian language as a primary language of instruction in schools in the so-called, “Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.” For many years, the ethnic Mongolian population have suffered from repeated efforts to eradicate their culture and identity, including population transfers, central government erosion of autonomy and minority rights guaranteed under the Constitution and laws of the PRC, and efforts to undermine the use of Mongolian language in employment and regular life. A new policy enacted in August 2020, forcibly implemented amid significant repression of the Mongolian population, effectively eradicated the use of Mongolian language as a primary medium of education, relegating it to little more than a second language of instruction, even in supposedly Mongolian-language school. The letter of allegation, asks the UN Special Procedures to investigate and ultimately condemn this dangerous new policy.
The Mongolian language is one of two official languages in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), alongside Mandarin. Over the years, however, experts and activists have witnessed a progressive erosion of bilingual rights which are de jure protected by the Chinese constitution and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.
This erosion accelerated in August 2020 when the IMAR Department of Education at the direction of the central government of the PRC began implementation of a new education reform. The reform, referred to as the “Nationally Compiled Textbook” plan, substitutes the use of the Mongolian language in favor of Mandarin as the medium of instruction in all elementary and middle schools of the IMAR. Indeed, throughout IMAR, the number of students enrolled at Mongolian elementary schools has dropped from 110,000 in 1980 to 19,000 in 2009 – an 82.27% drop in 29 years.
This policy violates Article 37 of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, which provides that “[s]chools (classes) and other educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction. Beginning in the lower or senior grades of primary school, Chinese language and literature courses should be taught to popularize the common language used throughout the country and the use of Chinese characters. Every local government should provide financial support for the production of teaching materials in the minority scripts and for publication and translation work”. In effect, this legislation requires bilingual learning. The Chinese Constitution further requires freedom to use, develop and preserve languages and custom.
The new policy denies these rights through an immediate transfer to the exclusive use of the Mandarin language, denial of bilingual opportunities, and a lack of transparency and dialogue in formulating such policy. No consultation on the policy was conducted with Mongolians in the IMAR, as laid down in the Chinese Constitution, which states that all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.
In reaction, citizens took to the streets and coordinated a large-scale, region-wide, nonviolent civil disobedience movement and mass boycotts in defense of their language rights on 28 August 2020. According to information gathered from our sources a total number of 11 Mongolian students, parents and teachers committed suicide as a result of the new directive which prevented them from enjoying their rights.
As a result of the protests and boycott, the authorities immediately intensified the crackdown. It is estimated that between 8,000 to 10,000 Mongolians have been placed under some form of police custody since the beginning of the civil disobedience. More specifically, according to the information shared among Mongolian communities on the ground, between 2,000 to 5,000 people have been detained in prison, while between 4,000 to 4,500 are under house arrest. Moreover, an additional 2,500 people disappeared and are believed to have been detained following their participation in demonstrations. In addition, official notices from local authorities have been published ordering parents to send their children to school or parents would be obliged to attend “legal education and concentrated trainings”.
These tactics have proved to be effective. By the middle of October 2020, most of the students were forced to go to schools in which Chinese has almost completely replaced Mongolian as the medium of instruction. As of January 2021 protests appear to have been fully repressed.
The long-term implications of this policy are severe. First, since private schools and courses in Inner Mongolia are banned from accepting Mongolian students, this policy change will ultimately result in the eradication of the Mongolian – Chinese bilingual education system and the use of the Mongolian language in society in Inner Mongolia. This will occur despite protections of Mongolian language formally contained in the Chinese Constitution and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.
Second, the National Compiled Textbook policy, alongside the repressive means in which it is being enforced, including through threats of “concentrated trainings” represents a continuation of the dangerous pattern of linguistic, cultural and identity eradication that is occurring across the PRC, most visibly in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. While this policy was formally requested by local administrations, these local administrations do not truly reflect the will or voice of the community in what is a society governed with force from the center. Rather, the Nationally Compiled Textbook directive represents a further extension of the Chinese Central Government into regions supposedly granted autonomy as a means to protect the multi-ethnic character of the PRC.