Advocates of Mongolian culture and language say a recent decision by authorities in China to ban a collection of books on Mongolia's history nearly two decades after its first publication is just one example of the tight controls Chinese authorities are imposing in Inner Mongolia.
From books in libraries to what is taught in the classroom, measures that authorities are taking in Inner Mongolia — a semi-autonomous region in China — are raising concerns, advocates and experts say, about the preservation of Mongolian culture and language. It is also part of an effort by authorities under China's leader Xi Jinping to forge a common national identity.
On August 25, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Book and Periodical Distribution Industry Association issued a notice instructing its members to halt the distribution of the "General History of the Mongolian Ethnic Group" and called on them to "adhere to the correct [Chinese Communist] Party historical perspective and resolutely oppose historical nihilism."
The notice said: "After careful examination, we recommend temporarily suspending distribution" of the multivolume series and ordered that it be "removed from shelves immediately."
The series was authored by Inner Mongolian writer Mansang Taichuud and first released by Chinese publisher Liaoning Nationalities Publishing House in 2004.
The official notice also said: "We should enhance the prevention and resolution of risks in the field of ideology and ensure effective control at the source of general book distribution."
Enghebatu Togochog, director of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), said the multivolume history is not the only book on Mongolia to be banned.
"We have learned that recently Mongolian books and publications are being removed from shelves in libraries in colleges and universities, and in some cases, Mongolian textbooks are burned in schools in the regional capital Hohhot," Togochog told Voice of America.
In recent years, authorities in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have removed several books, including "Inner Mongolian History and Culture," "Mongolian History," and "Bor-tohai History and Culture" (three editions), as well as "Hulun-boir History and Culture." A trial edition of "Horchin History and Culture" was also removed from middle and elementary school curricula in the region, he said.
"It is not surprising to see that the Chinese government is doubling down on the banning of Mongolian books and publications, as this has always been an integral part of the larger effort of the Chinese government to eradicate the Mongolian language, culture, and identity since the first day of the colonial occupation," Togochog said.
Mongolian activists outside of China often refer to their homeland as Southern Mongolia, instead of using Beijing's official name for the area, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.
Not just books
The efforts extend beyond the banning of books and encompass a comprehensive prohibition on the use of the Mongolian language in educational settings.
September 1 marked the end of a three-year transition to the use of Mandarin as the only language of instruction for all subjects in Inner Mongolia. The transition was opposed by parents.
In posts that have since been removed from Chinese social media, one Inner Mongolian parent named Mandaa shared concerns about the new school year, according to SMHRIC, which shared the original post with VOA.
"Today marks the start of the new school year, and I've heard the voices of helpless and frustrated Mongolian parents in our local communities. It appears that Mongolian students are no longer receiving instruction in their native language," Mandaa stated.
"This policy, implemented under the guise of 'Second Generation Bilingual Education,' is widely regarded by Mongolians worldwide as a form of cultural genocide," Togochog said.
"For the 6 million Southern Mongolians who have already lost their national freedom and the fundamental right to maintain their traditional way of life, language represents the last bastion of national identity," he said.
When asked about the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center's criticism of Mongolian language policies and book bans, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the accusations were just "political speculation with ulterior motives."
"The Chinese government, in accordance with relevant laws, promotes the use of the national common spoken and written language in ethnic minority areas, upholds the principle of equality in the spoken and written languages of all ethnic groups, and guarantees, according to law, the freedom of all ethnic groups, including the Mongolian ethnicity, to use and develop their own spoken and written languages," Liu told Voice of America in an emailed response.
Why authorities are so concerned with the collection of Mongolian history books remains unclear. Interestingly, according to Baidu Baike, China's equivalent of Wikipedia, the author was previously praised and even credited with enriching "the treasure trove of the history of civilization of the Chinese nation" for compiling the "General History of the Mongols" by Chinese authorities.
Christopher Atwood, department chair and professor of Mongolian and Chinese frontier and ethnic history at the University of Pennsylvania, tells VOA that authorities have yet to disclose why the book was banned, even after such a long time in circulation.
For many parents, Atwood said, the Mongolian language education situation in Inner Mongolia has evolved into a "test of endurance."
"Many ethnic Mongol parents are hoping to maintain their children's language competence at home until the policy changes and once again Mongolian-medium education is allowed," Atwood told VOA. "The party-state, however, is hoping to get the Mongols to accept the new normal and acquiesce to a steady decline in the public profile and use of Mongolian language."
However, Atwood said that even before the new policy began in 2020, the number of students in ethnic Mongol schools was in decline. The percentage dropped from more than 60% in the early 1990s to about 30% in 2019.
"This decline was driven by parents prioritizing employment over their ethnic language. So, I think while a committed minority of ethnic Mongol parents will continue to prioritize Mongolian language education, in the long run, odds favor the party-state in this contest of endurance. Not to mention that the idea of the policy changing is just a vague hope at this point," he said.