Curbing Mongol schools is step toward Sinicization of minorities

September 08, 2020 08:13
Demonstrators, holding signs with Mongolian script, protest against a phased program to replace Mongolian as the medium of instruction in schools with Chinese.  Photo: Reuters

While the world was focused on the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Beijing was moving quietly to further tighten its control over ethnic minorities in two other strategic areas: Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

President Xi Jinping, at a two-day symposium, called for efforts to build a “modern socialist Tibet” where Buddhism would be “guided in adapting to the socialist context and developed in the Chinese context.”

In Inner Mongolia, on September 1, Beijing launched a phased program to replace Mongolian as the medium of instruction in schools with Chinese, triggering protests and class boycotts, including at least one reported suicide.

The 55 ethnic minorities in China make up less than 10 percent of the 1.4 billion people, but they account for over 100 million people who are spread over 60 percent of the country’s territory, including sensitive border areas. More than 90 percent of the country’s people belong to the majority Han Chinese ethnicity. To the world at large, to be Chinese is to be Han.

For decades, official policy was to help minorities preserve their language and develop their culture. But the policy was reversed in recent years.

The Communists had developed ties with the minorities while they were fighting a civil war with the Nationalist Government.

The Mongols, in particular, were helpful to the communists and an Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region was set up by the Communist Party in northern China in 1947, two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Other “autonomous” regions, prefectures and counties for minority peoples were established in later years. The state offered privileged treatment, including not being bound by the one-child policy, so their numbers could increase.

The Mongols have a proud history, having ruled China in the 13th and 14th centuries as part of the Mongol empire, which at one time stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea. But now their homeland is divided between the independent country of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province.

Tibet, which had been independent before Communist troops took over in 1950, is a special problem, with Buddhism exercising a strong hold over its people even 70 years later.

After Xi, the Chinese leader, called for Buddhism to be “guided” by socialism, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala responded: “For Tibetans, Buddhism is more important than Communism. To force them to treat communism as more important than their faith is not only a violation of international religious freedom, but is also deeply misguided.”

Up until the 1980s, five minority languages were used for teaching in “autonomous” areas: Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, Kazakh and Korean.

After China adopted the market economy in the 1980s, numerous job opportunities emerged. But employers preferred native Chinese speakers; as a result many minority parents enrolled their children in mainstream Chinese schools rather than ethnic schools to widen their career choices.

In recent years, the government, too, shifted its emphasis. Instead of the preservation and development of minority language and culture, its emphasis now is on a common language and a common identity, namely, Chineseness for all. Non-ethnic Chinese must, in effect, become Chinese.

The Chinese language is now described as the national language, not just the language of the majority Han Chinese population.

“The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesman, said when asked about the situation in Inner Mongolia. “It is every citizen’s right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language.”

This approach is radically different from that of the first five or six decades of the People’s Republic. Now, the intention is to reduce – and, if possible, eliminate – differences between the minorities and the Han, with the Han language and culture as the norm.

Ethnic schools are being systematically closed. In Xinjiang, this happened in 2017, followed by Tibet in 2018.

Now it is the turn of the Mongols. The plan is to phase out Mongolian as the medium of instruction and replace it with Chinese.

Of course, Sinicization means more than the adoption of the Chinese language, history and culture as their own by the ethnic minorities. It also means that they must give up their traditional religious beliefs.

Thus, Xi recently asked ethnic Tibetans to “recognize,” or identify with, Chinese culture, the Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The goal is that, ultimately, everyone in China, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and others, all 100 million of them, will act and think like ethnic Han Chinese.

If the plans succeeds, China will become a country where everyone – whether Han or otherwise – thinks of himself or herself as Chinese, where, indeed, Chineseness becomes their only identity.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.