“The spirit (of resistance) is still there, but we are afraid,” said the man, requesting anonymity as he watched other students bring their suitcases back to Tongliao Mongolian Middle School after a week. of boycott.
“Little by little, parents are sending their children away.”
Tens of thousands took part in protests and school boycotts in Inner Mongolia – a vast expanse of northern China where herders herd cattle in the grasslands – to protest a decree requiring the teaching of Mandarin , fearing that he would erase their language.
The rare mass rallies organized by ethnic Mongols are the largest China has seen in decades, where the authorities of Chinese President Xi Jinping tolerate no dissent.
But then the crackdown came.
Armored vehicles entered to surround schools in Tongliao, a stronghold of resistance where ethnic Mongols make up nearly half of the population.
The crackdown echoes Beijing’s initiatives in Xinjiang and Tibet, where similar policies aimed at assimilating local minorities into the dominant Han population have been implemented in line with Xi’s vision of national and ideological unity across the country. cultural identity.
Police have offered cash bonuses for leads on ringleaders and have gone public with the arrests of dozens of suspects accused of collecting signatures and sharing dissenting messages on WeChat.
Parents who refused to send their children back to school were threatened with dismissals, fines and expulsion of students. In one district, authorities offered money to students who convinced their peers to return, according to official notices.
The net frightened the most frank.
Petitions that circulated in early September and other outward signs of dissent have evaporated, as fear silences many Inner Mongols.
On a recent trip to the region, AFP journalists were followed by a convoy of propaganda officials and unidentified men, leaving contacts nervous and fearful of being named.
Hastily imposed for the start of the term on September 1, the new rules state that Mandarin must be taught in grade one – a year earlier than before – at bilingual boarding schools in the region.
History, politics and literature will also be taught in Mandarin instead of Mongolian.
Similar education policies have been introduced in Xinjiang and Tibet, other border areas that have faced government repression and widespread campaigns to curb minority education, religions and cultures.
“This is something we cannot accept,” the father told AFP.
“For young children who are now about seven or eight years old, in a decade or two, they will no longer be able to speak with their grandparents in their own language.”
Ethnic Mongols make up less than a fifth of the region’s 25.3 million people and are vastly outnumbered by the Han Chinese.
But they are fiercely proud of a heritage they share with Mongolia to the north, and fear that Beijing will accelerate an assimilation campaign.
“Schools are in some ways to Mongolian ethnic identity what monasteries are to Tibetan identity, and what Islamic festivals and shrines are to Uyghur identity,” said Chris Atwood, professor of Mongolian studies. and Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania.
The interference with the program matches Xi’s remarks that fluency in Mandarin leads to greater prosperity and social mobility for ethnic minorities across China.
This brings with it “clues that there is something insufficient about minority language education,” Atwood added.
The authorities show no signs of backing down.
Regional Governor Bu Xiaolin said that implementing the Mandarin policy is an “important political task”.
The Inner Mongolia Bureau of Education did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Bainuu, the only Mongolian-language social media app available in China, was taken down by authorities in August.
In neighboring Mongolia, which has close economic ties to China, the move has sparked a huge public outcry, though politicians have yet to challenge China on the matter.
Despite increasing pressure from the authorities, a small minority continues to defy the orders of the local government.
A parent from Tongliao told AFP by phone that his toddler is currently homeschooled, despite repeated threats from local police.
“My child’s thinking is still like a traditional Mongolian, but if they enter the school environment (Mandarin) they will lose that identity,” said the father who declined his name for his safety.
“It’s a very scary situation.”
The program change shows that China is determined to “eradicate Mongolian language, culture and identity,” says Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York.
“The Mongols really don’t want to lose their language. If they lose it, they lose everything.”
Watch Why tens of thousands of people protest against China in Mongolia
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