China's ruling Communist Party is to end Mongolian-medium education in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, which borders the independent country of Mongolia, according to an overseas-based rights group.
Hundreds of teachers in Tongliao and Ulaanhad cities have been called to urgent, secret meetings at primary and secondary schools in recent days, where they were told that the Chinese government has ordered them to switch to Chinese-medium education from Sept. 1, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a report on its website.
"The fate of Mongolian language education seems to be sealed," an ethnic Mongolian teacher said in an audio statement quoted by SMHRIC. "This not only is unconstitutional but also is a flagrant violation of the basic human rights of the Mongolian people from a universal human rights perspective," the teacher said, adding that they had been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements before leaving.
"All teachers were warned not to raise any questions or opinions of opposition," it quoted a second teacher as saying via WeChat.
Government censors have also shut down a popular Mongolian-language social media platform and censored comments on the policy on WeChat, the report said.
“Southern [Inner] Mongolia has quickly become a police state again in the past few days as the tension has risen between the government and the Mongolians who are about to be deprived of their last symbol of national identity—the Mongolian language," ethnic Mongolian blogger Nasandelger posted to the social media platform WeChat.
SMHRIC said ethnic Mongolians have been protesting in recent days after a government document detailing the plan was leaked.
The authorities responded by targeting the Mongolian-language social media app Bainuu, the group cited activists as saying.
"The systematic crackdown really started [with] the total shutdown of all Bainuu chat groups last Wednesday around 4:00 p.m. local time," the group quoted Bainuu user Dugar Zaisan as saying.
"Then almost 72 hours later, around 4:00 p.m. Saturday local time, the timelines and walls of all Bainuu users became unavailable," the message said.
WeChat discussions and posts on the changes, which are euphemistically referred to in official documents as "bilingual education," are being deleted in large numbers, while hundreds of WeChat users have received visits and warnings from state security police, SMHRIC said.
"At least 28 people in our WeChat groups, mostly consisting of concerned parents and students, were either summoned or visited by state security personnel in a single day," the group cited an ethnic Mongolian user Oyuungerel as saying via WeChat.
The group said some 450 Southern Mongolian WeChat users have been warned by local State Security and Public Security authorities either over the phone or in-person not to spread information about the “bilingual education” program online.
Writer Sechenbaatar told SMHRIC he had received a visit from government officials and state security police officers two days ago, during which they warned him not to speak out on the language policy on social media.
"Seventy years of killing and political oppression do not seem to be enough," Sechenbaatar said in an audio message posted online.
"Now the Chinese are about to cut our tongues off, too! Feet shackled and tongues cut off, our nation and our people are soon to be pushed into a dark and bottomless grave," he said.
SMHRIC quoted a third ethnic Mongolian teacher from Tongliao as saying that there is an official directive from Beijing with its characteristic red letterhead circulating among schools in the area, although teachers weren't allowed to read it directly.
“Yes, there is a secret official document from the central government," the teacher told SMHRIC. "The school authorities and the personnel from the Bureau of Education showed us the red letterhead of the official document but declined to show us the contents."
An official who answered the phone to SMHRIC in the Heshigten Banner education bureau near Ulaanhad city confirmed the reports.
"[Ethnic] Mongolian students in elementary schools must start learning Chinese from first grade as opposed to second grade starting this September," he said in an audio interview posted to WeChat.
Political studies will be taught in Chinese from Sept. 1 in Mongolian-medium schools with further subjects to follow in the next two years.
"[This comes] directly from the central government," he said.
The news comes after a visit by Ge Weiwei, a high-ranking Communist Party official in charge of ethnic minority education policy, to Tongliao on June 3.
This change has met with strong opposition among ethnic Mongolians, the SMHRIC said.
"Mongolians from ordinary herders to prominent intellectuals, from students to professors, have all expressed their opposition to the new policy through China’s only available social media outlet, WeChat," it said.
“If our language is wiped out, we as a distinct people will also cease to exist,” it quoted Chimeddorj, a professor at Inner Mongolia University, as saying in a video statement.
Parent Nasanbayar commented via WeChat that he would take his children out of school rather than allow them to lose their Mongolian identity.
"The Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government decided to implement a policy to ban Mongolian language education completely starting September 2020," Chogt Oghonos, ethnic Mongolian professor at Shizuoka University in Japan, said in a video statement referring to the changes as "cultural genocide."
SMHRIC director Enghebatu Togochog said the policy is the culmination of three decades of discriminatory policies in the region.
"Rural Mongolian schools have already been wiped out and the number of students taught in Mongolian has declined by 80 percent since the early 1980s," he said. "Our traditional way of life has been completely destroyed and our identity obliterated. Now, if we lose our language, then we have nothing else to lose."
"[This is] the finishing touch on China’s cultural genocide in Southern Mongolia."
Call for independence
The new policy sparked immediate calls for independence for Inner Mongolia from China, including by ethnic Mongolian rights activist and former political prisoner Hada.
"Even if this round of our resistance moment ends up with failure in the face of China’s brutal crackdown, the moment itself will help lay the firm foundation of our future movement for independence," Hada said in a statement posted online.
One parent from Left Ujumchin Banner, a county-like administrative division of Inner Mongolia, recorded his conversation with state security police, who warned him off commenting on the language policy.
"Let me make myself clear to you. If I were afraid of speaking, I would have not spoken," Suhee is heard telling police on the recording posted online.
"If you want to arrest me, go ahead and have [the police] arrest me, and throw me into your jail as political prisoner," he tells them. "I am not afraid of dying now."
Mongolian wrestlers said they would be going on strike in protest at the policy, SMHRIC said.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.