Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia are holding nine people after deploying police and tear gas to crack down on protests over access to land and water on Lake Dalinur at the weekend, local residents told RFA on Monday.
Ethnic Mongolian herding communities on the banks of the lake in the region's Heshigten Banner faced off with police on the shores of the huge freshwater lake on Sunday, video of the earlier stages of the incident showed.
Later, local police fired tear gas in the ensuing clashes, local residents said.
"They detained nine people, and we don't know where they are holding them," one local herder said. "There are more people gathering [now] to go to demand their release from the local government or at the police station."
A second resident said local herders are angry because the authorities have fenced off the banks of the lake.
"The herders on the shores of the lake rely on the grasslands and the water for their livelihoods," the resident said. "But in recent years, the government has been forcibly fencing off the lake and grasslands, with the excuse that they have signed contracts with fish-farms from elsewhere in China."
"So the herders wanted to protect the grassland, but the police came, and there were clashes. They sent more than 30 police vehicles," he said.
The first resident said fish from the lake are at a premium in today's China.
"Dalinur Lake is one of the four major freshwater lakes in Inner Mongolia. It is in Heshigten Banner, near Chifeng city," he said. "The fish from this lake are very famous. There are fishing rights that have been handed over to Han Chinese."
He added: "Every year, the lake just keeps getting smaller, and the grass is growing on the banks [where the water used to be]. Ethnic Mongolians are losing grazing rights to a lot of grassland across the region, and they wanted to make use of the grassland by the lake."
The dispute has been escalating since the first Han Chinese migrants were handed fishing rights in the lake by the local government, sources said.
Local herders have sued the government, and a local court has ordered the fencing to be taken down, but the ruling hasn't been implemented, they said.
Calls to the Heshigten Banner People's Court rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Ethnic Mongolian rights activist Hada, who has visited the region, said the courts are likely to be part of the problem.
"The large numbers of Han Chinese from the fish-farms are all in cahoots with the courts, and have stripped local herders of their rights to use the water," Hada said.
"My understanding is that a huge group of Han Chinese gathered on the shores of the Dalinur Lake, and when the herders found out about it, they went there to resist them [and] around 10 people were detained."
"This is blatant racial discrimination and persecution, and I strongly condemn these acts of violence."
Grab for resources
Germany-based Mongolian dissident Xi Haiming said local officials, predominantly Han Chinese, are conspiring with migrants from elsewhere in China to make a grab for the region's natural resources.
"The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party is protecting the rights and interests of Han Chinese people, so they have taken over a lot of land and resources in Inner Mongolia," Xi said. "Ethnic Mongolians need to find a way to protect themselves."
Calls to the Heshigten Banner government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Monday. An official who answered the phone at the banner police department declined to comment, saying she wasn't the duty official. She refused to provide the 24-hour duty phone number, however.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, increasingly complain of widespread environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Clashes between Chinese state-backed mining or forestry companies and herding communities are common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Wong Si-man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.