Inner Mongolia's new language policy: Will it endanger Mongolian culture and language?

Inner Mongolian students were told that they will be taught in Mandarin instead of the Mongolian language using national textbooks. This policy seems to be for the greater good of fostering national unity in China, but the implementation methods can certainly be better refined. Zaobao correspondent Edwin Ong examines the issue. 
Demonstrators, holding signs with Mongolian script, protest against China's changes to school curriculums that remove Mongolian language from core subjects, outside the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 31 August 2020. (Anand Tumurtogoo/Reuters)
Demonstrators, holding signs with Mongolian script, protest against China's changes to school curriculums that remove Mongolian language from core subjects, outside the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 31 August 2020. (Anand Tumurtogoo/Reuters)

Inner Mongolia’s recent move to introduce national textbooks at elementary and middle schools, and to reduce the teaching of Mongolian language in favour of Chinese, has led to much discontent in the region. 

At a government meeting this week, chairwoman of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region Bu Xiaolin emphasised that the new policy is beneficial for the strengthening of a common Chinese national identity and is an “important political mission” for Inner Mongolia. She asked that the teachers explain the policy to parents and to ensure that students continue their usual lessons.

Interviewed academics think that China’s push for using national textbooks in Inner Mongolia would advance the national integration objectives of China and guard against the threat of separatism. However, as government officials have failed to give a clear explanation of the policy and have rushed its implementation, the intention of the policy has been misunderstood.    

New policy resulted in demonstrations and strikes

According to reports on Inner Mongolia’s official website, director-general of the Inner Mongolia Education Department Hou Yuan said on 31 August that from 1 September, the language classes of first-year elementary and middle school students previously taught in the Mongolian language would now be taught in Mandarin using national textbooks. For the following two years, national textbooks would also be used in first-year political lessons in elementary schools, as well as first-year history lessons in middle schools. These lessons would be taught in Mandarin. According to an AFP report, the Inner Mongolia Education Department announced this new policy on 26 August 2020.    

Based on Reuters and AFP reports, this new policy sparked fears that the Mongolian culture and identity would be adversely affected, triggering protests and strikes across Inner Mongolia. Some parents reportedly refused to send their children to school.

The conference made clear that the new education policy would help foster unity among different ethnic groups, advance regional development, and forge a common Chinese national identity.

First grade elementary school students look at aviation models in school, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, 31 August 2020. (CNS)
First grade elementary school students look at aviation models in school, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, 31 August 2020. (CNS)

According to a WeChat official account of the East Ujimqin Banner (东乌珠穆沁旗宣传平台, “banner” meaning an administrative division), the East Ujimqin Banner Commission for Discipline Inspection issued a notice asking local cadres whose children studied in ethnic schools to take the lead in sending their children to school themselves. It also ordered the resolute removal of dishonest, disloyal and “two-faced” cadres who indulged in recalcitrant behaviour.

According to a WeChat official account of the Ar Horqin Banner (廉政阿旗), the Ar Horqin Banner Commission for Discipline Inspection also followed up by ordering party members and public officials not to issue or disseminate any information that would violate the country’s common language education policy. The notice also reiterated the importance of dealing with those who offered groundless criticisms of central government policies, provoked discord, and created serious trouble.     

According to state media Inner Mongolia Daily (《内蒙古日报》), the government of the autonomous region held a video conference on 1 September during which Bu gave a speech. The conference made clear that the new education policy would help foster unity among different ethnic groups, advance regional development, and forge a common Chinese national identity. Various departments at all levels were asked to reaffirm their political stands and implement the policy properly and carefully.   

Bu also asked cadres and teachers to explain the policy to students, parents and the public so as to allay their fears and concerns and to start the school term as usual. She called for the safeguarding of the people’s unity and the border stability of the Inner Mongolia region.

Dean of Beijing Normal University’s School of Government Professor Tang Renwu told Lianhe Zaobao that the Inner Mongolia’s tough crackdown on public backlash is to quickly resolve the problem and maintain social stability before the situation gets out of hand.

Children in traditional costumes sing and perform at the opening ceremony of the Naadam festival in Hinggan League, Inner Mongolia, 8 August 2020. (CNS)
Children in traditional costumes sing and perform at the opening ceremony of the Naadam festival in Hinggan League, Inner Mongolia, 8 August 2020. (CNS)

On 2 Sept, the police of the prefecture-level city of Tongliao released several investigative reports on their official WeChat account, alleging that over ten people had been involved in gathering and causing disturbance between 30 August and 1 September. The notice offered 1,000 RMB (roughly S$200) for information that could lead to their arrests and also urged suspects to turn themselves in.  

Dean of Beijing Normal University’s School of Government Professor Tang Renwu told Lianhe Zaobao that the Inner Mongolia’s tough crackdown on public backlash is to quickly resolve the problem and maintain social stability before the situation gets out of hand. He does not rule out the possibility of external forces working behind the scenes in this incident.  

Policy intentions right but method of dissemination wrong

Tan Gangqiang, head of a psychology consultation center in Chongqing (重庆市协和心理顾问事务所), told Zaobao that China is still facing the threat of separatism in recent years. Pushing for the use of national textbooks in an ethnic minority region can help foster national cultural norms and is beneficial to the general integration of the Chinese nation.

Mongolians protest at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, against China's plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the neighbouring Chinese province of Inner Mongolia on 31 August 2020. (Byamba-Ochir/AFP)
Mongolians protest at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, against China's plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the neighbouring Chinese province of Inner Mongolia on 31 August 2020. (Byamba-Ochir/AFP)

With regards to the public outrage as a result of the new policy, Tan said, “There could be something wrong with the way we explain things, or it could be that we were each too eager in our execution or that we may have oversimplified the situation… If evil forces repeatedly incite trouble, the people’s misunderstandings would worsen, and this would result in a large-scale protest.”  

He continued, “This time, there was an over-emphasis on standardising the teaching methods and texts. One may have wanted to correct some wrongs, but the way in which one corrects them is very important.”  

In response to reports on the protests, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said yesterday that “they are political speculation with ulterior motives”. “The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty. It is every citizen's right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language,” she explained.

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