Deep-seated cultural ties to the grasslands and traditional nomadic ways lie behind recent protests across Inner Mongolia, experts say.
While the protests were sparked by the death of a herdsman from the Shiliin-Gol (in Chinese, Xilin Meng) area, overseas rights groups believe they reflect a deep and widespread anger over continuing exploitation of the region's grasslands, the heartland of Mongol culture.
"This is no external propaganda; it really is the reason, in my view," said Temtselt Shobshuud (in Chinese, Xi Haiming), exiled rights activist and chairman of the Inner Mongolian People's Party.
"On the face of it, it looks like a clash over a mining operation, but really, the much deeper reason is that the livelihood and culture of the Mongolian people [in China] is in crisis," Temtselt Shobshuud said.
"We Mongols are a nomadic people; a people of the grasslands," he added. "If you spoil our grasslands and deprive us of them ... you are cutting off our roots and razing our ancestral tombs."
No political aim
He denied that there was a political aim to the protests, which have included high school and university students in major cities across the region.
"This has nothing to do with Mongolian independence," Temtselt Shobshuud added.
Independent documentary film-maker Lu Guang, whose film "Polluted China" has earned international awards, said there is strong public opposition to the mining of Inner Mongolia's grasslands.
"The mining that they're doing in Inner Mongolia isn't like the mining they're doing in Shanxi and Shaanxi, which is underground, where you dig a pit," Lu said.
"It is open-cast mining, which spoils the entire region of grassland," he said.
Environmentalists say open-cast, or strip mining, is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of mining, destroying the surface ecosystem over a wide area and releasing pollutants into the air.
Lu said he sees large-scale environmental destruction in Inner Mongolian regions where mining is taking place, while the ecosystem has remained intact in place where there is no coal.
"In the places where there are mines, the destruction is extremely serious," Lu said.
"If a coal seam was 50 kilometers (31 miles) long, then they would unnecessarily work all the way along its length, laying waste the whole grassland in a horrifying way," he said.
'Roots of life'
He said the recent protests were only triggered by the death of a herder from Shiliin-Gol named Murgen, who was run over by a mining truck during a standoff last month.
"This isn't about a single individual getting run over," Lu said. "This is about the entire Mongolian grassland, the very roots of life for Mongolia."
"If you lay waste the grasslands, you lay waste their lives."
Chinese authorities have poured armed police and security forces into the region in the wake of protests sparked by the death of Murgen, confining thousands of students at major schools, colleges, and universities in the regional capital, Hohhot, to campus.
The Hohhot clampdown followed demonstrations the past week by hundreds of ethnic minority Mongolians who called for better rights protection for Mongolians and the release of detainees.
The U.S.-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said an estimated 40 people were detained since major protests erupted in Xilin League last month, including two young Mongolians accused of sending photos of the demonstration to overseas rights groups, and two teachers accused of encouraging their students to take part.
Officials have responded by vowing to hold talks with protesters and respond to "reasonable" demands.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's 23 million population, complain of destruction and unfair development policies in the region, which is China's largest producer of coal. The overwhelming majority of the residents are Han Chinese.
The SMHRIC says ethnic Mongolians have derived scant benefit from the industrialization of the region's grasslands.
"The original inhabitants of the grasslands ... have given up their lands and lifestyle and in exchange, for the most part, have been given a life of poverty," the group said in a recent statement.
Official media have responded by saying SMHRIC has few connections to the region.
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.