Updated at 2:00 p.m. EST on 2013-09-05
Authorities in Inner Mongolia have detained 52 people in connection with online posts in recent weeks, amid growing ethnic tension in the region and violent standoffs between ethnic minority herders and Chinese mining companies.
Inner Mongolian police said in a statement last week that they are holding 52 criminal suspects who "created and spread rumors via the Internet" on more than 1,200 occasions.
They are mostly being charged with spreading "Internet rumors and false reports of disaster, epidemic, and police emergencies," and the official language used suggests the authorities are increasingly worried that localized conflicts between majority Han Chinese and ethnic Mongolians could reach a wider audience.
According to the official news agency Xinhua, those detained were accused of "sensationalizing conflicts that occurred during the development process in Inner Mongolia, deliberately stirring up ethnic relations, encouraging the masses to appeal for their interests in a radical way such as student strikes and protest demonstrations."
A U.S.-based rights group said the Xinhua News article partially admits to "increasingly tense ethnic relations" between the Mongolians and the Chinese in the region.
“Upholding the principle of ‘strike, investigate and punish group by group,’ this round of special operation further traces the clues, deepens the investigation and digs deeper to unearth organized rumor-mongering networks," the police statement, quoted by the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC), said.
The statement forms part of a major "strike hard" campaign targeting those who spread online information that Beijing doesn't approve of, amid a broader, nationwide clampdown on "rumor-mongering."
Of the 52 people detained by police, 21 were handed administrative sentences of up to 15 days without trial, 10 were fined, while 21 were issued with warnings, reprimands, or "education" sessions, SMHRIC said.
Meanwhile, Xi Haiming (also known as Temcheltu in Mongolian), chairman of the Germany-based Inner Mongolian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said his group had received reports that a herder in Xilin Gol league (prefecture) had been detained after he help organize local people in protest.
"In Ordos, a herder died after being run over, causing a mass incident because the construction of the railway was affecting the grasslands and causing opposition among local people," he said.
"In the past few days, the destruction of grasslands in the southern banner has caused friction between herders and the authorities," Xi said.
Last month, Chinese authorities “punished” at least 13 ethnic Mongolian Internet users for “spreading rumors” about the resettlement to Inner Mongolia of hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese left homeless by a 2008 earthquake.
But it was unclear whether that figure was included in the total of 52.
Citing Xinhua, SMHRIC said the goal of the Inner Mongolian campaign in particular is to "establish a long-term mechanism for suppressing Internet rumors."
Clashes between Han Chinese and ethnic Mongolian herders protesting at the exploitation of their grasslands are increasingly common in Inner Mongolia.
"It's not that the Mongolians want to make trouble. It's that the grasslands on which they depend for a living are constantly being taken over, forcing them to stand up for their rights," Xi said.
"If the Chinese government doesn't solve this problem, many more Mongolians will stand up, and the situation will escalate," he said.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, complain of environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Reports of Chinese government plans to resettle “about a million Chinese” from regions of southwestern China devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to Inner Mongolia have sparked a series of protests among Mongolians in recent weeks, who have used social media to spread the word and rally other protesters.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.