[lg policy] Ethnic Protests in China Have Lengthy Roots

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jun 11 15:56:51 UTC 2011

June 10, 2011
Ethnic Protests in China Have Lengthy Roots

DAMAO BANNER, China — The Mongol nomads who have ranged across these
blustery grasslands for millenniums have long had a tempestuous
relationship with their Han Chinese neighbors to the south. Genghis
Khan’s horseback conquerors overran Beijing in 1215, and Qing dynasty
armies returned the favor four centuries later.

By the time Mao’s Communist rebels declared victory in 1949, the
Mongolians who occupied what became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous
Region of China had been by and large pacified through Han
immigration, intermarriage and old-fashioned repression.

But the ethnic Mongolian protests that have swept a number of cities
in recent weeks are a sobering reminder that government largess,
assimilation or an iron fist cannot entirely extinguish the yearnings
of some of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, who account for 8 percent of
the country’s population.

Even as an exemption from the nation’s one-child policy granted to
minorities helped expand their numbers, Mongolians are still
outnumbered by Han five to one in Inner Mongolia, a region twice the
size of California that borders the independent nation of Mongolia.

“We feel like we are being drowned by the Han,” said a 21-year-old
computer science student, speaking through the fence of Hohhot
Nationality University, where he and thousands of other Mongolian
students were penned up for five days last week to prevent them from
taking to the streets. “The government always talks about ethnic
harmony, but why do we feel so oppressed?”

Although the immediate trigger of the demonstrations was a hit-and-run
accident in which a Han coal truck driver struck and killed a
Mongolian herder in early May, the underlying enmity can be tied to
longstanding grievances that spilled out during interviews with more
than a dozen Mongolians last week: the ecological destruction wrought
by an unprecedented mining boom, a perception that economic growth
disproportionately benefits the Han and the rapid disappearance of
Inner Mongolia’s pastoral tradition.

In Xilinhot, a mining hub not far from where the herder was killed as
he and others tried to block a convoy of coal trucks, as many as 2,000
people, many of them students, took to the streets on May 26. Five
days later, about 150 protesters marched through the center of Hohhot,
the regional capital, despite the presence of thousands of soldiers
and paramilitary police officers who kept college students confined to
their campuses.

The government response has hewed closely to the recipe used to quell
the far more violent ethnic turmoil that convulsed Tibet in 2008 and
the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang a year later. Internet
access has been severely restricted, with most Mongolian Web sites
shut down, and scores of students, professors and herders have been
taken into custody. Enhebatu Togochog, an exiled human rights
advocate, has described the crackdown as a “witch hunt.”

But officials have also sought to address some of the underlying
drivers of the discontent. They have vowed to correct abuses of the
coal industry, among them unregulated strip mining and trucks that
career over the fragile steppe. The government has also committed to
broader changes, promising hundreds of millions of dollars for
education, environmental protection and the promotion of Mongolian

And in an unusually prompt trial — apparently a reflection of Chinese
leaders’ fears of further unrest — a Xilinhot court on Wednesday
handed down a death sentence to the Han driver convicted of running
down Mergen, the Mongolian herdsman. The trial, which lasted six
hours, according to the official Xinhua news agency, also yielded
stiff sentences for three other men involved in the episode. The
authorities said they planned to quickly try another Han driver
accused of killing an activist with a forklift during a confrontation
between the two groups at a coal mine several days later.

But it is unclear if the swift action will still resentments that have
simmered despite Inner Mongolia’s fast-expanding economy — the growth
rate has topped that of all other provinces since 2002 — and
affirmative action policies that have provided tens of thousands of
government jobs to ethnic Mongolians.

“The Mongolian situation is very worrying for the Chinese leadership
because you can’t just throw money at an issue like ethnic identity,”
said Minxin Pei, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace and professor of political science at Claremont
McKenna College in California.

Here in Damao Banner — banner being the Mongolian equivalent of a
county — a decade-long effort to restore grasslands to health by
moving thousands of shepherds into towns and cities has helped fuel
antigovernment sentiment.

The reasons for the land’s decline are a matter of some debate,
although many environmentalists say the damming of waterways, coal
mining and overgrazing all play a role. But the government’s most
ambitious solution, known as ecological migration, focuses solely on
the herdsmen, providing subsidies to them — but only after they have
sold off their flocks.

In Damao, those with money are encouraged to move into new apartment
blocks on the outskirts of town. For now, they appear largely vacant,
although a billboard near the entrance claims that 20,000 people have
already moved into the 31 buildings.

Those too poor to buy new homes rent cramped rooms in the town’s
Mongolian quarter, a grim, densely packed cluster of brick buildings.
On a recent afternoon, Suyaltu and Uyung, the husband-and-wife
proprietors of a small canteen called Friend of the Grassland,
explained how they were forced to sell their pasture and a herd of 300
cows, sheep and horses in 2004. There are perks to the program, they
said: subsidized school fees for their college-age daughter, a $2,775
annual subsidy and the advantages of living near medical clinics,
shops and schools.

Still, Uyung, 50, who like many Mongolians goes by a single name, said
that even when combined with the income from their restaurant, their
soon-to-expire subsidy was not enough to sustain the family. Then
there are other, less tangible downsides to the arrangement. “We feel
lost without our herds and the grassland,” she said as her husband
looked at his feet and dragged on a cigarette. “We discovered we are
not suited to the city, but now we are stuck.”

Chen Jiqun, director of Echoing Steppe, an organization that works to
protect Inner Mongolia’s grasslands, said the benefits of ecological
migration were questionable. For one, he said, a healthy pasture
depends on the hooves of grazing animals to grind up manure.
“Otherwise it just blows away and the land loses its fertility,” he

In a report issued last December, the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, criticized
China’s nomad resettlement policies as overly coercive and said they
led to “increased poverty, environmental degradation and social

But Christopher P. Atwood, an expert on Inner Mongolia who has studied
the disintegration of herding communities, said ecological migration
was merely accelerating the inevitable demographic shift brought on by
two decades of sagging livestock prices and the rural stagnation that
drove young Mongolians to the region’s Han-dominated urban centers.

“Rural communities are the stronghold of Mongolian culture and
language, so breaking them up has a direct impact on ethnic identity,”
said Mr. Atwood, chairman of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana
University, Bloomington.

The result has been a steady decline in the proportion of students who
attend Mongolian-language schools, a figure that has dropped by nearly
half, to 40 percent, since the 1980s. The shift has largely been
propelled by former herders like Huang Liying, 38, a shop owner whose
13-year-old daughter studies at a Mandarin-language school in Baotou,
an industrial city 500 miles away. “To be successful in the modern
world you need to speak good Chinese,” Ms. Huang said. “I feel regret
she doesn’t speak her mother tongue, but Mongolian is not very useful
beyond the grassland.”

Even if the government is not directly responsible for the ebb of
Mongolian language and culture, many of those who joined the protests
last week directed their ire at the Han officials who run the show in
Inner Mongolia. They complained about increasing intermarriage, the
heavy-handed censorship of local Web sites and the fact that Mongolian
script on street signs is sometimes rendered smaller than the adjacent
Chinese characters.

Such sentiments are not confined to students. During one of several
unwelcome confrontations with the police last week, a Mongolian
officer in Damao sidled up to a stranger and made a startling
confession. He said he wished he had been brave enough to join the
protests. “The anger I feel,” he said with a conspiratorial grin, “is
burning through my veins.”


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