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Chinese schools have reopened, but many ethnic Mongolian parents in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia do not want to send their kids - not because they're worried about COVID-19. It is because they oppose a new policy reducing the hours of Mongolian language instruction. They fear future generations will lose fluency in their mother tongue and, thus, lose their ethnic identity. NPR's Emily Feng reports.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In early September, thousands of Chinese Mongolians carried out extraordinarily rare acts of civil disobedience. As shown in videos posted by activists, students and parents gathered outside dozens of Inner Mongolian schools. Some waved signs or shouted, I am Mongolian.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in non-English language).
FENG: And for several days, schools across Inner Mongolia stood empty. The policy they're protesting mandates that schools once allowed to teach nearly all subjects in Mongolian now have to teach their three core classes in Mandarin Chinese, the national language. Ethnic Mongolians are intensely proud at having preserved their language and script, which is completely unrelated to Chinese. For this northern territory, the change feels like a betrayal.
CHRISTOPHER ATWOOD: One very strong sense in Inner Mongolia on the part of Mongols is how much they've given up.
FENG: This is Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian language and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Ethnic Mongolians, he says, were the first minority to throw in their lot with the now-ruling Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. In doing so, they traded political autonomy for this promise from the government.
ATWOOD: What we're going to give you is this cultural autonomy, this language, which will be a way for you to have your sort of Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.
FENG: But now China is moving towards what it calls second-generation ethnic policy, a view that ethnic minorities should become more Chinese. The Tibetan and Uighur languages were targeted first. That paved the way for later political persecution. And experts say there is little reason to target China's some 6 million ethnic Mongolians.
MORRIS ROSSABI: Things seemed to be going quite well for the PRC, for the People's Republic of China, in Inner Mongolia. Many more Mongols were studying Chinese.
FENG: Morris Rossabi studies Central Asian history at Columbia University. He explains that Mongolians are an assimilation success story for the Chinese state.
ROSSABI: There was a kind of peace that had prevailed for 25 years. It just seems very odd that the government would create conditions that might arouse dissent.
FENG: China's police state quickly mobilized to contain this dissent. In Tongliao, a city of more than 3 million where protests first began, residents told NPR that cars were banned from the road for four days to stop parents from congregating. Municipal notices seen by NPR require parents to sign official statements promising to send their children to school or face punishment. Dozens of teachers and local officials have been fired for refusing. And security officials have issued arrest warrants for hundreds of parents who attended protests, complete with mug shots grabbed from surveillance cameras.
ENGHEBATU TOGOCHOG: Mongolian parents, especially the civil servants, government officials and party members, they are under tremendous pressure to send their children to school.
FENG: That's Enghebatu Togochog, the director of advocacy group Southern Mongolian Human Rights Organization. At five schools NPR visited in Tongliao and Hohhot, two cities where public protests were most intense, a small number of students have returned to class at each school. Not all did so willingly.
TOGOCHOG: Threats of arrest, detention, imprisonment, even confiscation of property are most common method of intimidation.
FENG: One parent outside a Tongliao middle school quietly explained why he finally sent his daughter to school only this week. He asked to remain anonymous because of the threat of punishment.
UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: (Through interpreter) If you don't send your child back, the government threatens to fire you if you have a state job or to cut your social benefits.
FENG: And the intimidation extends to journalists. A black car with no license plates followed me on my entire reporting trip. When I talked to parents outside a school, I was intercepted by a gaggle of 12 plainclothes and uniformed police. Some of them claimed to be parents.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: You're all parents, I ask them. They don't respond. The plainclothes officers interrogated me and my driver for the next two hours. Behind them, a handful of parents picked up their children from a Mongolian elementary school as loudspeakers blared patriotic music. With or without their support, school is back in session.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Tongliao, Inner Mongolia.
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