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Ethnic Tensions Simmer on Inner Mongolian Plains

Jan 17, 2007
By Ben Blanchard


Mongolian traditional summer gathering "Naadam" festivals are always under the authorities' tightened surveillance. Photo is a scene of Naadam in western Southern Mongolia's Bayannuur League --- SMHRIC



HOHHOT, China (Reuters) - Annie Feng seems like an easy-going person, with her ready smile and happy demeanor.

But ask the young teacher who she wants to marry and her expression turns serious.

"A Mongolian of course," said the 24-year-old. "They are my people. I could never marry a Han Chinese. My parents would never let it happen anyway."

Feng, a Chinese citizen, is also an ethnic Mongolian, a people who eight centuries ago were united by Genghis Khan and forged an empire that stretched from Beijing to Poland.

Today, decades of migration by the dominant Han has made Chinese Mongolians a minority in their own land, officially comprising less than 20 percent of the almost 24 million population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.

Still, more Mongolians live in China than Mongolia.

Inner Mongolia, which covers more than a tenth of China's land mass, is supposed to offer a high degree of self-rule. In practice, though, Mongolians say the Han run the show.

"There are very few Mongolians with any real power here," said Dulaan, who runs a Mongolian art and book shop in Hohhot, capital of the autonomous region.

"Mongolians are always deputy managers rather than manager. Those places are reserved for the Han," she added.

In November, police raided Dulaan's shop and several others in Hohhot and seized Mongolian language books and CDs, under the pretext, she says, of cracking down on piracy and illegally imported foreign publications.

But she says the real reason was political.

"The Han fear anything that suggests national pride in being Mongolian," Dulaan said, gesturing to a calendar written in the cursive, classical Mongolian script, which looks a little like Arabic written on its side and read from top to bottom.

"They think our beliefs have some political motivation," she added. "They are even scared when 50 or 100 of us gather for a wedding. They think we're plotting something."


Mongolian activists complain that the plight of their people is little known in the outside world, unlike that of the Tibetans or the Muslim Uighurs in China's far west.

"There's much less focus on us," said Xinna, wife of an ethnic Mongolian academic serving a 15-year jail term for separatism and considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience.

She denies that either she or her husband, Hada, want independence for Inner Mongolia, or even union with Mongolia. For her, it is about garnering greater respect and making sure Mongolian culture is protected and nurtured.

"Lots of Mongolian children are growing up not speaking their own language," Xinna told Reuters. "Parents think that being educated in Chinese gives their children a better chance of getting a job."

That's a problem that Erdun, who graduated from university last summer, has faced.

"It's harder to find a good job if you have been educated in Mongolian," said Erdun, 21, from the eastern city of Chifeng, who works as a hotel bellhop.

"As soon as you go for an interview they know Chinese is not your native tongue and that makes people more reluctant to hire you," he said in lightly accented Mandarin.

By law, Mongolian script -- replaced by a cyrillic alphabet in Mongolia -- is meant to be used on shop, street and government signs, and there is a Mongolian language television channel which plays lots of dubbed, politically vetted Chinese dramas.

Yet few Han speak Mongolian, and the two groups are often separately schooled.


Beijing, sensitive about ethnic unrest in strategic border areas like Inner Mongolia and Tibet, keeps a tight rein on minorities.

It has closed Web sites accused of promoting Mongolian nationalist ideas, banned concerts by groups from Mongolia proper and cracked down on student reading groups, according to rights groups and activists.

"The government thinks that any type of gathering by Mongols will possibly cause some danger to their regime," said Enghebatu Togochog, president of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

"They are really nervous about that kind of gathering."

On the surface, the government gives the Mongolians a lot of leeway, allowing them to use their native language at all levels of officialdom, but Togochog said that appearances are deceptive.

"Mongolian people have long names, but Chinese passports are limited to only three or four letters. Thus we cannot use our family names," he said.

"If you really check carefully, most of the Mongolian signs are wrong. They are written by Chinese people who don't know and don't care about it," Togochog said by telephone. "Sometimes they hang the signs upside down."



From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
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