China’s minority communities face a stark choice when it comes to cultural assimilation.
Last Thursday, China’s top leaders gathered for the annual opening of the country’s parliament. President Xi Jinping was front and center during speeches devoted to the economy, technology policy and other hot-button issues. But he didn’t speak officially until later in the day, when he stopped by a meeting of the Inner Mongolia delegation.
This was no accident. Last year, Inner Mongolia was roiled by protests against assimilationist policies that had been handed down from Beijing. For China’s stability-minded leadership, the unrest was as alarming as any local government debt problem. Xi sat at a table in front of the delegation. Inner Mongolia has played a “glorious role in promoting ethnic unity” in China, he said, and he expected its leaders to keep it that way.
Outside China, the comments received little attention. At home, the meeting was broadcast on all platforms, and the message was abundantly clear: The government is determined to stamp out the unrest that has flared repeatedly over the past two decades, from Xinjiang to Tibet. Ensuring ethnic unity, long a preoccupation among China’s leaders, is now a top priority.
For centuries, Chinese emperors worried about how to manage a sprawling country comprising hundreds of distinct cultures. Language proved to be particularly troublesome. In 1955, the government declared a dialect used in and around Beijing “Putonghua,” or “common language,” and ordered that it be taught and adopted everywhere. Other languages — spoken by hundreds of millions of Chinese — became simply “dialects.”
Yet even as it was imposing a common tongue, the government also adopted policies that granted regional autonomy to China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic groups. Among other things, this included protections for minority languages, especially in schools, and provided economic assistance designed to eventually pull China’s diverse ethnicities into an assimilated mainstream dominated by its Han Chinese majority (roughly 92% of the population). In furtherance of that goal, the government has encouraged (and sometimes forced) Han migration and investment into minority areas.
The tensions arising from this approach are most evident in Xinjiang and Tibet, where Han migration and resource extraction have provoked protests and violence for years. In the late aughts, antigovernment protests turned particularly unruly in both regions. Harsh security lockdowns were ordered and party leaders began rethinking decades of ethnic minority policies.
Xi’s ascension has resulted in a new approach, sometimes referred to as “ethnic fusion.” It seeks to assimilate minorities more aggressively than in the past via increased use of public security and surveillance, and an intense focus on linguistic, cultural and political integration.
China’s leaders probably didn’t imagine that Inner Mongolia would become a hotspot of opposition to that policy. Han migration into Mongolia dates to the 19th century, and the Mongol population has been in the minority for decades. Assimilation has followed. Between 1986 and 2007, enrollment in Mongolian language education dropped from 380,000 to 240,000. Thanks to rich resources and a comparatively diffuse population, the region’s per-capita GDP has also surged in recent years.
Yet China’s Mongolians haven’t entirely resigned themselves to the dominant culture. In 2011, violent protests broke out over a lead mine that expanded onto nomadic grasslands. Later, the government banned a rap song recorded in response to the unrest, and which included the politically pointed brag: “Yo, I am a Mongol even if I sing my rap in Chinese / No matter what you say I am a Mongol.”
Last August, the government announced that subjects previously taught in Mongolian would be transitioning to Chinese instruction with nationally approved textbooks. The popular response was massive: Across the region, students protested and parents refused to send their children to school unless the decision was rolled back. Without their own language, protesters argued, there was little meaning to being Mongolian. Yet the authorities only doubled down on security and censorship.
Six months later, those events were surely on Xi’s mind as he looked out across the Inner Mongolian delegation. He reminded the group that the Han majority and ethnic minorities are inseparable, and urged them to boost their identification with “the great motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Communist Party of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” To do so, he reminded them, they’ll need to adopt Chinese language and textbooks in schools.
It’s the kind of unbending policy for which Xi’s government is known and there’s little reason to think that the directive will be reversed. If anything, further unrest will likely provoke harsher crackdowns. If Xi worries about the risks of these policies — such as angering other ethnic minorities or inviting an international backlash — it wasn’t evident in his confident talk last week. For China’s minorities, “ethnic fusion” is starting to look increasingly one-sided.
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