Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have imposed a curfew in Lubei city in the region's Zaruud Banner, according to a video clip posted online by a New York-based rights group.
"Look at this, now. The capital city of Zaruud Banner is under curfew," an eyewitness said in a video clip posted to YouTube by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC).
"No cars are allowed to leave the city, no cars are allowed in either. The whole city is closed down,” the eyewitness said.
Curfews were imposed in Lubei city, the county seat of Zaruud Banner, starting Monday evening, following days of mass protests, civil disobedience campaigns, petitions, and class boycotts over plans by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to end Mongolian-medium education in the region's schools, SMHRIC said.
School boycotts have continued across the region, with widespread support from ethnic Mongolians, including taxi and delivery drivers, teachers, police officers and education bureau officials, and People's Representatives from across the region, it said.
Taxi drivers from the Shiliin-gol League stood outside their taxis and sang the song “My Mongolia – Steppe Mongolia” after a widely circulated prerecorded poem reading “Borders cannot separate us as long as we have our language, hearth, and livestock” was played, it said.
Food delivery workers in Tongliao and Ulaanhad printed “Save Our Mother Tongue” on the delivery boxes on their bicycles and scooters, showing their support of the region-wide language movement.
Assimilation drive stepped up
Germany-based Mongolian activist Xi Haiming said the Chinese government appears to be stepping up an assimilation program in the region targeting ethnic Mongolian language and culture.
"This shows clearly that the Chinese Communist Party just can't wait to assimilate us," Xi told RFA. "[General secretary] Xi Jinping wants all the ethnic minorities under his control."
Xi said some schools had deployed armed police to force ethnic Mongolian children to remain in schools, despite their parents' and teachers' efforts to free them.
He said the language policy, which will phase out Mongolian-medium teaching even in ethnic minority schools, has lit the touch-fuse on a keg of popular resistance across the region, however.
"The Chinese Communist Party is making enemies of children, by forcing them to join the other side," Xi said. "Everyone feels this hurt deeply, and resistance will only become more entrenched."
"This conflict has proven a major awakening for ethnic Mongolians [living in China], and they have risen up to resist as a unified people," he said.
Factional strife suggested
Boronruh Tsinrh, Paris-based convener of the Southern Mongolian Great Hural Assembly, said Beijing already has a track record of assimilation of its major ethnic groups in recent years.
But he said the relatively sudden nature of the new language policy suggested a regime that is being torn apart by factional strife behind closed doors.
"Xi Jinping may be reaching the end of his authorities ... so he has chosen an appropriate foreign enemy," Boronruh said. "The best targets are Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians."
"These so-called enemies, if beaten with the rod of Han Chinese nationalism, trigger the instinct to maintain the regime," he said.
He said the language policy is the latest in long line of rights abuses suffered by Mongolians in China, including the appropriation of traditional grazing lands for development, environmental destruction, the silencing of peaceful critics, and the exploitation of natural resources by government-backed companies.
"I know just how demoralizing it is if you can't speak your mother tongue," he said. "When a nation is resisting colonial oppression from another nation, it needs to figure out its identity, first and foremost."
"As a carrier of culture, language will tell you very clearly where the soul of a nation lies," he said. "Language is the key to an oppressed nation’s journey to freedom."
Officials who answered the phone at the education department of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and at the Tongliao municipal education department declined to comment, saying they weren't authorized to take external enquiries.
Elbegdorj Tsakhia, a former president of the independent country of Mongolia which borders Inner Mongolia, called on Beijing to respect the right of Mongolians to use their native language.
"I strongly support the [ethnic] Mongolians’ movement to save the Mongolian language," he said in a video statement cited by SMHRIC. "No matter where you live, as long as you are a Mongolian, you should join this movement."
"Without Mongolian language, there is no Mongolian nation to speak of. Losing your language means losing your head,” he said. “Without your language, what is the use of your head? Without your writing, what is the use of your hands?”
Thousands take to the streets
Thousands of students have taken to the streets of the region in recent days as the impact of the previously secret language policy has hit home.
Students have gathered outside schools demanding classes in Mongolian in Tongliao and other cities.
“Let us Mongolians strive to defend our Mongolian culture!” came the chanted from several hundred students in school uniforms outside the Naiman Mongolian Middle School in Tongoliao, while hundreds of students broke out of Tongliao's Horchin Mongolian Middle School and the Chavag Mongolian High School in Ar-Horchin Banner, defying police cordons and boycotting school in protest at the new curriculum.
Around 3.00 a.m. local time on Aug. 31, several hundred high school students who were locked into school dormitories in eastern Ongniuud Banner broke into lockers to seize back their confiscated phones, contacted their parents, and managed to escape, leaving the school empty within a couple of hours, SMHRIC reported.
A directive from the Inner Mongolia education department recently ordered an end to Mongolian-language classes for first-year primary students and an end to Mongolian-medium teaching and materials in favor of the Chinese language, teachers in the region have told RFA.
Teachers were summoned to secret meetings to discuss the changes, and the start of the new semester was brought forward, with some parents unaware of the new curriculum until their children were locked into campuses.
Others had been made aware of the plan and organized protests and class boycotts ahead of time.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.