Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 7 December 2023



Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger

A statue of Genghis Khan at the Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ordos, in November.
A statue of Genghis Khan at the Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ordos, in November. Source: Bloomberg

Beijing is rewriting history, banning plays, and restricting what and how children learn in schools, fueling criticism from the West

By Bloomberg News

Genghis Khan and his heirs once conquered the territory of modern-day China to create the largest contiguous land empire in history. Almost 800 years after his death, the Mongolian warlord is emerging as a new threat to President Xi Jinping.

On a visit last month to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese region triple the size of Japan and home to four million ethnic Mongolians, a local official explained that ritual celebrations of the conqueror have been curtailed.

Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger
A guard dressed in traditional costume at the entrance of Genghis Khan Mausoleum in Ordos, in November.Source: Bloomberg

Some 180 miles away in the regional capital of Hohhot, the history museum has gotten rid of its “Genghis Khan and His Empire” exhibit, along with any souvenirs featuring him in the gift shop. China last year even passed a law mandating that the Chinese language must be used over Mongolian in order to “safeguard national sovereignty.”

“Our ideology has changed,” a staff member at the museum in Hohhot said. “We are emphasizing unity and not highlighting any ethnicity over another.”

Xi sees ethnic minorities in China’s peripheral regions posing just as much a risk to the Communist Party as democracy activists in Hong Kong and independence advocates in Taiwan. And like in Hong Kong and Taiwan, his response in places such as Xinjiang — where China is accused of sending millions of minorities to reeducation camps — has led the US and Europe to impose sanctions against Beijing.

Yet more subtle moves like those in Inner Mongolia — rewriting history, banning theater performances, and restricting what and how children learn in schools — show the extent to which Xi is worried that any divisions in Chinese society could be exploited by domestic and foreign adversaries to sow discord and disunity.

A bilingual sign in Xilinhot, in November.Source: Bloomberg

Those fears underpin his campaign to forge a national Chinese identity that promotes the culture and language of the ethnic Han majority, who account for 90% of the population – and all of the Communist Party’s senior leadership.

“Diversity is viewed as an innate vulnerability under Xi Jinping,” said James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne who researches China’s policies toward ethnic minorities. “It’s something that can lead to domestic unrest, inter-ethnic tension and violence, and can be exploited by transnational actors in the form of terrorism.”

Inner Mongolia is among eight of China’s 31 mainland provincial administrative regions in which ethnic Han don’t make up at least 80% of the population. Although the region had traditionally been less restive than Tibet and Xinjiang, protests broke out in 2020 when some Inner Mongolian schools were ordered to teach more of their curriculum in Chinese instead of Mongolian.

A protest against China's plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in Inner Mongolia, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on Sept. 15, 2020.Photographer: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, new legislation in Inner Mongolia overturned an almost two-decade-old policy of protecting the right of locals to use and teach the Mongolian language. An earlier law from 2005, which described the use of Mongolian as “an important tool for exercising autonomy,” was voided when a law took effect in January 2022 that made it the local government’s responsibility to popularize Chinese language.

Xi’s measures to water down ethnic differences in China pose a risk for investors, both due to concerns about domestic unrest and possible punitive action from the US and allies.

An investment deal struck between China and the European Union fell apart in early 2021 when the bloc sanctioned Chinese officials over alleged abuses in Xinjiang. Later that year, US President Joe Biden signed a law that banned imports from Xinjiang unless companies can demonstrate the products weren’t manufactured using forced labor.

Inner Mongolia Among Eight Places in China Where Minorities Make up More Than 20% of Population

Top 10 areas in Mainland China with the highest proportion of minorities in 2020

Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China

Note: Data is only for Mainland China

Inner Mongolia now risks coming into the crosshairs of Western politicians after Chinese solar companies diverted investment to the region in the wake of the US restrictions on Xinjiang. In 2022, Inner Mongolia saw a six-fold increase in planned annual production of polysilicon, a key raw material for solar panels, prompting it to surpass Xinjiang in just 12 months.

“Xi’s assimilationist policy has drawn widespread criticism from the West, but he views it as a raging success that has contained separatism and terrorism,” consultancy Trivium China wrote in a recent note to clients. “It will continue to be a source of tension between China and Western countries.”

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that human-rights abuses have occurred in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and other regions, arguing that their policies have prevented violence and benefited locals.

The Inner Mongolia Museum, the local government, education department and public security bureau didn't respond to requests for comment. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also didn’t reply.

As a figure credited with commissioning a written Mongolian language who is still worshiped among millions of ethnic Mongolians in China, Genghis Khan retains the ability to inspire dissent. Inner Mongolia shares a 2,600-mile border with Russia and Mongolia, a nation governed by and for ethnic Mongolians, making Inner Mongolia a longstanding security concern for the Communist Party.

Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger
A painting representing ethnic groups in traditional costumes under a large Chinese flag at the provincial museum in Hohhot, in November.Source: Bloomberg

At the history museum in Hohhot, the Genghis Khan exhibit has been replaced by a display of artifacts presented as a history of China’s northern grasslands, capped with a quote echoing Xi that extols the need for a common Chinese identity.

“The sons and daughters of all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia should remain closely united like the seeds of a pomegranate that stick together,” the sign read in Chinese, English and Mongolian. “And unswervingly nourish themselves with fine traditional Chinese culture.”

During the 2020 language protests in Inner Mongolia, authorities responded with a swift crackdown that activists say led to some 10,000 people being detained. Police, who didn’t respond to a request seeking confirmation of the figure, went as far as offering cash rewards to apprehend those linked to the demonstrations.

That appeared to be pay off, as no major protests broke out in September when Inner Mongolia expanded that policy to require all subjects taught in Chinese except for Mongolian-language classes. But the muted response may be more due to enhanced security than apathy: At a school in the city of Xilinhot, where students had protested in 2020, Bloomberg reporters were filmed by half a dozen men who followed them to the site.

Soyonbo Borjgin, a 34-year-old former resident of Inner Mongolia, signed a petition against the government’s actions on the use of Mongolian in schools. He said authorities responded by forcing him and other ethnic Mongolians to undergo a period of training that involved intensive study of quotes by Xi. After that experience he decided to leave China.

Now in the US, Borjgin said it’s hard for Americans to understand why some Mongolians are so upset that their children must learn in Chinese. “It’s not about an education choice,” he said. “It’s about preserving your own identity.”

Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger
Browsing winter hats at a store selling traditional clothes in Xilinhot.Source: Bloomberg

Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the history of Genghis Khan extend beyond its borders. In 2020, talks broke down between China and a museum in Nantes, France, that wanted to collaborate with Inner Mongolia on a Genghis Khan exhibit.

The Chinese officials wanted the organizers to delete references to Genghis Khan and other terms like “empire” and “Mongol” from the exhibition, according to Bertrand Guillet, the museum director. He said the demands were “impossible” and highlighted just how “problematic” it was to discuss Genghis Khan and his legacy in China.

“The process there is to impose a single cultural narrative history,” he said. “And it’s Han history and Han culture.” The museum ended up opening an exhibition in collaboration with Mongolia recently instead of China.

A sign says ‘Genghis Khan Spiritual Leader’ at the exhibition ‘Genghis Khan How Mongolians Changed the World’ in Nantes, France, on October 11.Photographer: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP/Getty Images

Even fictional depictions of Mongolian culture are targets. In September, authorities in the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos ordered a 130-strong theater troupe from Mongolia to leave China after their performance of The Mongol Khan was terminated due to “force majeure” without having been staged even once.

The troupe encountered constant surveillance and was asked to avoid wearing traditional Mongolian attire when walking outside. “It’s a bit weird to request such things, especially in the 21st century,” said Hero Baatar, the director of the show, which recently played in London’s West End.

Many ethnic Mongolians still hang pictures of Genghis Khan in their homes and businesses in a sign of reverence. One ethnic Mongolian resident in Xilinhot said it comes down to pride in their heritage, similar to how many ethnic Han Chinese hang portraits of Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Quest for Ethnic Unity Turns Genghis Khan Into New Danger
A statue of Genghis Khan with his horsemen in Ordos, in November.Source: Bloomberg

For Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, any leader who can inspire millions of citizens is dangerous — dead or alive.

“In the world of rational thought, Genghis Khan is not a symbol of separatism,” said Christopher Atwood, professor of Mongolian and Chinese frontier and ethnic history at the University of Pennsylvania. “In the world of irrational paranoia, he might be.”

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