ORDOS, Inner Mongolia—Thousands of Mongolians turned up at the Genghis Khan Mausoleum here, in this otherwise forgotten corner of northern China, to usher in the Year of the Rooster earlier this month. They celebrated as usual under the watchful eyes of a tiny Mongol tribe that has protected the great conqueror’s shrine for nearly 800 years, safeguarding it from pillagers, communists, and now capitalist-style developers who may yet turn it into a theme park.
"On the first day of the Lunar New Year, thousands of Mongolians come to pay homage to our great ancestor, to worship the spirit of the Great Khan. We start from early morning and continue for the whole day," Mukhulain Banzranjav, a member of the Darkhad tribe and a principal caretaker of Genghis Khan's treasures, told a recent visitor.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, thousands of Mongols come to pay homage to our great ancestor, to worship the spirit of the Great Khan. We start from early morning and continue for the whole day.
According to legend, Genghis Khan’s possessions stayed behind when he died here in 1227 and his body was sent home for burial. Some 500 Darkhad families were ordered to protect the relics, and they have done so ever since. In 1954, Beijing built three dome-shaped buildings to house the treasures and proclaimed them part of China’s national heritage.
The complex is a major tourist attraction. "In the summer we often have several thousand visitors per day. Once we had 5,000 in a single day," one local man said. The Darkhad tribe sells refreshments, souvenirs, and horseback rides to visitors.
It was, in all likelihood, crowds such as this that inspired a local Chinese businessman last year to propose revamping the shrine into an entertainment complex and nearly tripling the entrance fee.
The entrepreneur, surnamed Hou, owns the Dong Lian Construction Co. According to a number of sources, Hou approached local authorities with plans to build a theme park around the shrine and raise the entrance fee from 35 to 90 yuan .
In October 2004, with the blessing of the regional Museum Administration, Dong Lian Construction Co. began demolishing nearby buildings to make way for the new amusement park.
A local official who asked not to be named told RFA’s Mandarin service in November that plans to privatize the mausoleum aimed to increase tourism revenues, of which the local government would take a share.
The deputy director of the Bureau of Genghis Khan Mausoleum Management, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Sun, cited financial pressure as a major reason to privatize the shrine. He also insisted that private financing wouldn’t bring about any dramatic changes.
"The government funding isn't enough. We need outside investment," he said. "But it doesn't mean the site will be changed dramatically after we use private source investment."
"Anyone who understands a little bit about tourism knows that the future (of the Mausoleum) will be bright, because Genghis Khan is a great man," Sun said. "Promoting tourism city-wide now, there will be more and more people who come to worship or just to visit. They will spend lots of money here, which will help local restaurants and hotels."
He acknowledged opposition to the project but said critics "never came out to stop us from construction."
Rumors that the sacred relics would be moved alarmed the Darkhad tribe, which immediately rallied against the planned development.
"When the construction began, Darkhad people gathered for a meeting and then sent their representatives, mostly elders, to picket the Museum Administration office, while others blocked bulldozers demanding that they stop the work," a local source said.
The Darkhads delivered a petition to the local government, and it didn’t mince words.
"Being motivated by economic profit, certain people have been attempting to dominate this cultural entity as a source of wealth to serve their own selfish needs," it read. "Dong Lian Co., which was established to 'reform the mausoleum of Genghis Khan,' is one example."
The petition accused the firm of "occupying several thousand mu of land surrounding the mausoleum through various methods and excuses" and expediting work on "a large compound of buildings named 'Genghis Khan's Second Mausoleum.'"
One ethnic Mongolian working for the Dong Lian Construction Co., who asked not to be identified, said in an interview that local Mongolians "had their feelings hurt as a result of this plan... As a Mongolian myself, I believe in my heart that Mongolians should manage this shrine."
News of the construction plans spread quickly through the 3.9 million ethnic Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province since 1949.
Police sealed off the campuses of the Inner Mongolian Normal University and Pedagogical University and authorities canceled a concert by a popular rock band from Outer Mongolia in a bid to prevent escalating unrest.
"We were ordered to stay after work at the campus, seeing to it that students do not make any trouble," a Normal University faculty member said.
When the construction began, Darkhad people gathered for a meeting and then sent their representatives, mostly elders, to picket the Museum Administration office, while others blocked bulldozers demanding that they stop the work.
In Ordos, the standoff lasted more than a month, with members of the Darkhad tribe blocking all attempts to start construction, locals said.
"Whenever the tribe heard that the work would resume, they would gather in front of the museum complex and picket it. After a day or two they would go on their usual routine of tending to their livestock but gather again as soon as a new alert came out," a museum administration employee reported.
In December 2004, the local government sided—at least temporarily—with the Darkhads, sacking the shrine's museum director and halting construction. Officials told the Museum Administration bureau and the Darkhads to work the matter out between them.
"We are very pleased with the outcome," a member of the Darkhad tribe said on condition of anonymity.
Neither the Dong Lian Construction Co. nor local officials would speak on the record for this report.
Mongolians have had their feelings hurt as a result of this plan... As a Mongolian myself, I believe in my heart that Mongolians should manage this shrine.
But while the situation remains unresolved, the Darkhads are not.
They vow to resist any further attempts at commercializing the shrine with a fervor befitting the great warrior whose quiver and flags are housed there.
"This shrine is ours," Mukhulain Banzranjav, the shrine caretaker, said recently. "The state doesn't own them—we do. We have taken care of the Eight Sacred Relics for centuries, and we won’t give them away."