Tuesday marked the first day of school in China’s northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, but a boycott of classes left many classrooms and playgrounds empty. Hundreds of ethnic Mongolian students, parents and teachers are protesting a new bilingual education policy they say will endanger Mongolian language and culture.
The policy, announced before the start of the fall semester, requires schools to use national textbooks in Mandarin starting in the first grade of primary schools and in middle schools, replacing the current Mongolian textbooks. The Mandarin instruction is expected to expand to politics and morality courses and history classes over the next two years.
Over the past few days, protests by Mongolian students, parents, teachers and ordinary herders have taken place in many cities in Inner Mongolia, all opposing the "bilingual teaching" policy implemented by the Inner Mongolia Education Department.
Videos provided by the South Mongolia Human Rights Information Center show hundreds of middle school students in school uniforms chanting, "Defend Mongolian culture and language," while some of them, with the help of parents and citizens, are seen breaking through a closed gate and leaving school.
Many others are not choosing to make public demonstrations against the policy, fearing possible violent retaliation by Chinese authorities. Dagula, a mother of an elementary student, told VOA she was keeping her child at home.
'Just stay at home'
"Now everyone is saying, 'Don't march on the streets or anything, just stay at home. As long as you don't send your kids to school, everything will be fine,' " she said.
Like other parents of Mongolian students, Dagula worries that if Mandarin replaces Mongolian in classrooms, it may lead to the disappearance of their language.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region government’s interpretation of the policy published on August 31 says "the textbooks reflect the will of the Party and the State" and "inherit the advanced achievements of Chinese excellent culture and human civilization." The moves are being promoted as a major reform initiative that has popular support.
Yilalatu, another parent, disagrees. He told VOA that the younger generations are already heavily influenced by Mandarin culture and the new policy will further marginalize Mongolian language and culture, which will cause the younger generations to lose their Mongolian identity.
"I'm worried that if children learn Mandarin from first grade, they will forget their mother tongue,” he said. “This has happened. The father and mother are Mongolian, the child who learned Mandarin since primary school has become Han and doesn’t know anything [in Mongolian]. He can’t read or speak Mongolian, even doesn’t know how to say eating or drinking in Mongolian."
He said teachers, students and parents in Mongolian schools are simply asking the authorities to withdraw their new policies, resume their previous practices and start Mandarin classes in the third grade of primary school. They argue that starting later won’t affect their Mandarin skills. He explained that was what his own child did. Now a college graduate, his child’s Mandarin is better than Mongolian.
Dagula said she agrees, noting that parents can accept teaching solely in Mongolian in primary school and switching to Mandarin in middle school. She said that when she was in middle school, she was one of the best students at Mandarin. She said she thought that mastering Mandarin would be of great help to her children's future development, but that the descendants of the Mongolian people must first learn their own language and culture.
Deadline for home-schoolers
Chinese authorities appear to be planning consequences for parents who are not sending their children to school.
According to sources who asked not to be named to avoid retribution, Mongolians who work for the government or who are Communist Party members were given a deadline of Thursday to send their children back to school. Otherwise, they have been told, they could lose their jobs or be expelled from the party. The government also threatened to take away social benefits of those who disobey.
Dagula said she had received phone calls from her boss at work asking her to set an example by taking her child to school.
In the face of rising protests, the government also is proposing new security measures.
During a tour in the region this week, China’s Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi ordered the police to “severely clamp down on domestic and foreign forces that carry out infiltration and sabotage” and to promote “the fight against separatism” in the ethnic minority region.
Eyewitnesses report seeing armed police deployed on standby in protest locations. Videos circulating on the internet show hundreds of heavily armed riot police guarding Xinhua Square, the largest square in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, and some of the protesters being taken away by police.
According to the South China Morning Post, authorities are using a facial recognition system to identify and then arrest the protesters.
Chinese authorities are also controlling the channels of expression of public opinion. The WeChat accounts of groups that expressed opposition to the new policy have been blocked
But Dagula said Mongolians were willing to pay the price to protect their language.
"In order to protect the Mongolian language, everyone will pay the price, and we will certainly pay the price," she said. “There must be a solution. That's what I'm looking forward to right now."
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.