Dozens of ethnic Mongolians protested on Monday outside government offices in northern China over restrictions on the use of the Mongolian language in two of the city's kindergartens.
They say that Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia are allowing discriminatory practices by local schools, which have targeted the use of the Mongolian language in two kindergartens in Ulaanhad city (known as Chifeng in Chinese).
The parents, who have been protesting since two Han Chinese principals were appointed to head Ulaanhad's 6.1 Kindergarten and Xincheng Mongolian Kindergarten, unfurled a banner outside the city government offices which read: "Respect our ethnic culture, improve the language environment, respect the Minorities Education Law, appoint ethnic Mongolian principals."
Parents of children at the schools launched a protest campaign last month on social media, writing open letters and collecting signatures to protest the principals' actions, which they say contravene existing legislation on minority educational provision.
"About 20 parents visited the complaints department of the Ulaanhad city government at around 8.30 this morning," protester Tanaa told RFA.
"There is now a Han Chinese principal of our Mongolian kindergarten, and they won't allow the Mongolian teachers to speak Mongolian to each other, or to plan Mongolian-language lessons," she said.
She called for the removal of both Han Chinese principals, and for the gradual conversion of both kindergartens to monolingual education, in Mongolian.
Unfair development policies
China's 5.8 million-strong ethnic Mongolian community have long complained about unfair development policies in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
However, ethnic Mongolian children have previously had much more opportunity to learn their native language and its cursive, flowing script during their early schooling.
The parents accuse 6.1 Kindergarten of "disregarding laws and regulations" by banning ethnic Mongolian teachers from teaching in Mongolian and from speaking it in school following the new principal's appointment.
"[This] public action of depriving the Mongolians of their right to speak and use their native language is ethnic discrimination," the parents wrote in an open letter posted online.
The letter said the move was a blatant form of Han Chinese chauvinism.
"Depriving us, the legitimate owners of the land, of the right to speak our language and telling us to shut our mouths up and speak Chinese is another form of ethno-terrorism," the letter said.
"This is typical of the hate speech and hate action against humanity that was practiced only by colonial occupiers in the past," it said.
Mongolian parents are also complaining that seats available for Mongolian children in the only existing two Mongolian kindergartens in the entire city of Ulaanhad are very limited, as an increasing number of Chinese children are accepted into the schools.
The Ulaanhad bureau of education responded on Nov. 15 with a promise to appoint ethnic Mongolians to the top jobs in both kindergartens, but haven't yet acted on that promise, according to the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC)group.
Tanaa said the children at the kindergartens, which are billed as "bilingual," are now being taught mostly in Chinese, after their parents enrolled them in a bid to keep their culture alive.
Job never advertised
She said that many ethnic Mongolians already have trouble finding a kindergarten that offers any Mongolian-language education at all.
A parent who asked to remain anonymous told RFA in a recent interview that the 6.1 Kindergarten had started using Chinese much earlier than this semester.
"Under this new vice-principal, there has been much, much more non-Mongolian content in class," she said. "We don't even know how this person was hired, because the job was never advertised publicly."
"A lot of former herders and farmers have lost their land, and they are coming into the cities to look for manual labor, and so we are seeing more concentrations of Mongolians in cities now," she said.
"Finding a kindergarten for their kids is a really huge problem," she said.
She said the schools are also insisting on the use of Chinese for many administrative tasks.
"Since when has there been a rule that this stuff has to be written in Chinese? The local education bureau doesn't want Mongolian [schools] to even use their own language," she said.
According to research carried out by veteran ethnic Mongolian activist Hada, the regional capital Hohhot only offers 3,000 Mongolian-medium primary school places to serve an ethnic Mongolian population of some 210,000, SMHRIC said.
The number of Mongolian-medium primary school places across the whole region fell from 110,000 in the early 1980s to just 19,000 in 2009, it said.
Hada told RFA on Monday he supported the parents' campaign.
"This incident is itself a crime of ethnic discrimination and oppression, and a major component of [Beijing's] policy of cultural genocide," he said.
"[The authorities] are trampling on both domestic and international law, and I will support the parents all the way."
Another parent activist, Tuyaa, told SMHRIC, "We are ready to fight for our rights until they are truly honored and respected."
"We are not asking for any special privilege. What we are asking for is our most basic right, the right to use our native language and the right to teach our language to our children," she said.
Ethnic Mongolians in China have long complained of widespread environmental destruction, violent evictions from traditional grazing lands, and unfair development policies in the region.
Hada has called the routine eviction of herders from their traditional grazing lands, often in the name of ecological protection, part of a calculated program of ethnic cleansing in the region.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Dai Weisen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.