As Chinese authorities began to introduce the new educational policy in Inner Mongolia, protests have been staged by ethnic Mongolian communities in Chinese northern provinces. The new educational policy, which has already been implemented in minority ethnic schools in autonomous regions of Xinjiang in 2017 and Tibet in 2018, requires three subjects—“language and literature,” “morality and law,” and “history”—to be taught in Mandarin Chinese instead of the minority languages. According to Christopher Atwood, the earlier introduction of this policy in Inner Mongolia failed in 1993 and 2018 in the face of quiet resistance.1 However, this time, the resistance quickly reverberated in Mongolia, an independent state with strong historical and cultural ties with ethnic Mongolian communities in China. With the democratic nature of their political system and global connections, Mongolian civil society actors and academics pressured their state officials and organized peaceful protests and petitions in Mongolia and abroad. These suddenly aroused domestic politics in support of Inner Mongolian brethren created an unfriendly setting for the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on September 15-16, unlike his previous visit in 2018, when he was welcomed warmly. The public, in general, does not seem pleased with the silence of Mongolian leaders during their meetings with Wang, simply committing to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Below I analyze Mongolia’s response to China’s new educational policy in Inner Mongolia and discuss potential implications for Sino-Mongolian relations, in general, and inter-Mongolian relations, in particular.
Vociferous civil society
Although people-to-people connections between Mongolians and Inner Mongolians have been completely interrupted by the pandemic outbreak since February, the video clips, photos, and messages about protests in Inner Mongolia have been widely circulated by social media in Mongolia. The Facebook Group, “Save the Mongolian language—Эх хэлээ аваръя,” was voluntarily set up by Mongolian youth, writers, and scholars since August 30, 2020. The group quickly attracted over 12,000 members, and its Facebook profile picture frame—“Save the Mongolian Language” —became popular among Mongolians. For instance, in support of this movement, Mongolian professional boxer Tugstsogt Nyambayar (King Tug) decorated his outfit for the championship match on September 19 in the United States with the logo—“Mongolians and Mongolian Language Are Forever”—in traditional script, which is officially used in Inner Mongolia.2
In the meantime, former Mongolian president Elbegdorj Tsakhia’s YouTube statement and tweets in support of the Inner Mongolians’ protests to save their native tongue have been widely shared in social media.3 In these statements, he appealed to China’s President Xi Jinping and even visiting Wang Yi to respect the concerns of Mongolian ethnic people in China. On September 7, fourteen Mongolian scholars, including renowned poet Galsan Tangad and translator Akim Gotov, sent an open letter to Xi Jinping expressing their concern that depriving the fundamental rights of Inner Mongolian children to be educated in their native language would cause irreparable loss to the wealth of knowledge and cultural heritage preserved in the Mongolian language and script.4 Inner Mongolia has preserved the traditional Mongolian writing system whereas Mongolia was forced to adopt the Cyrillic writing system in the 1940s by Soviet pressure. Since 1985, Inner Mongolia has become a key partner for Mongolia’s effort to reintroduce the traditional writing system along with the current Cyrillic writing.
The Save the Mongolian Language Movement sent letters to over 20 embassies in Mongolia, including representatives of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and European Union (EU). For instance, the UN Resident Coordinator Tapan Mishra acknowledged the receipt of the request and forwarded it to the UN headquarters in New York and Geneva.5 Although not openly offering its support, the US Embassy has highlighted its assistance for persevering Mongolian language and cultural heritage through the embassy’s social media accounts. Moreover, representatives of Mongolian Buddhist monks handed in their demand to the Chinese embassy through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.6 Several peaceful demonstrations were organized in Ulaanbaatar; however, all the protests were small due to the current restrictions of the state of emergency situation related to the pandemic. The most noticeable protests were the ones in front of the Chinese embassy and UNDP on September 3, another one with numerous posters in Mongolian traditional writing was at the National Library on September 10, and a protest with over 200 people against the Chinese foreign minister’s visit occurred on September 15. In addition to these protests in Mongolia, there were more protests jointly organized by diaspora communities of Mongolians and Inner Mongolians. At varying degrees of size, these communities generally protested in front of Chinese consulates in Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The largest protest with over 1,000 people was organized in Japan.7 Despite the current pandemic situation discouraging large gatherings, the new Chinese educational policy in Inner Mongolia has pushed Mongolian communities abroad and their supporters much closer with the united goal to protect their common language and cultural heritage.
Chinese ambassador’s interview & foreign minister’s visit
Amidst this complicated setting, just a day before the foreign minister’s visit, Chinese Ambassador Chai Wenrui gave a lengthy interview to Udryn Sonin, one of the major daily newspaper in Mongolia, to explain China’s new educational policy in Inner Mongolia.8 Chai began his ambassadorship at an unusually amicable moment, which was developed by Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa’s visit to China during the pandemic as well as reciprocal humanitarian assistance against COVID-19. Posted multiple times to Mongolia and fluent in the Mongolian language, Chai generally receives a warm welcome in Ulaanbaatar. However, this time, his remarks about Elbegdorj being two-faced and pointed statements about Mongolia’s coal exports were not received well by the public. In his interview, Chai explained that China has been importing the coal solely in the interest of Mongolia and not because of the demand in China. In other words, China does not need Mongolia’s coal. The statement was perceived as a warning to be quiet concerning events in Inner Mongolia in order to receive Chinese developmental aid, which would be inked during the foreign minister’s visit, and to continue Mongolia’s commodity exports. In response, Elbegdorj tweeted that “Mongolia and China, both bilaterally and internationally never discussed the sovereignty of Inner Mongolia,” and Chai is for him “persona non grata.”9 Interestingly, Chai compared the new educational policy of requiring Mandarin-language classes with teaching Mongolian language to Kazakh minorities in Mongolia. However, Mongolian Kazakh minorities have more privileges when it comes to preserving their language and culture. The interview did indicate the complexity of the bilateral relationship, especially when it comes to the ethnic Mongolian community in China.
As a result of the pandemic situation and restrictions, no media were permitted to interview the visiting Wang Yi; otherwise, Mongolian journalists could have posed hard questions. However, this lack of access triggered more speculation among the public, e,g., if the Chinese authorities used economic leverage in regard to matters in Inner Mongolia. The other major source of speculation was about China’s eagerness regarding Mongolia’s potential membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which Mongolia has maintained observer status since 2005. Immediately after making a lengthy statement in Moscow with the Russian foreign minister about increasing regional cooperation through the SCO, Wang Yi was making this visit to Mongolia a few months before the SCO summit, scheduled to take place in November in Russia.10 However, based on official statements, his visit was solely aimed at getting a firm commitment from Mongolian leaders on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs rather than pressuring for Mongolia’s membership in the SCO. As expected, during their meetings with Wang Yi, Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa and Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa prioritized the importance of stable bilateral relations and economic cooperation, and the Mongolian foreign minister affirmed the country’s commitment to the non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.11 En route to Mongolia from Russia, Wang Yi stopped in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to secure similar affirmations from their leaders, both important players for Xinjiang Uyghurs, as co-ethnic communities that live across the border. Now he seems to have secured the same commitment from Mongolian leaders in regards to Inner Mongolia.
Although Sino-Mongolian relations could become one of the exemplary bilateral relationships between a rising global power and a neighboring small state, it is a vulnerable one, which requires careful management from both sides, and, particularly, inter-Mongolian affairs are the most critical element. A few recent examples are sufficient to demonstrate this complexity. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia in November 2016 derailed bilateral relations, which had gained momentum following Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, when both states declared a comprehensive strategic partnership. Faced with threats of repercussions from Beijing, the Mongolian foreign minister quickly made a concession to ameliorate Beijing’s concerns despite enormous societal pressure from Buddhist monks, worshippers, and nationalists. Then, from 2019, Mongolia’s strategic tilt to Russia and third neighbors was triggered mostly by its traditional paranoia toward China. Mongolia concluded a permanent comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, supported wholeheartedly gas pipeline projects, committed to the Russian standard railway extension, and prioritized a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Today, the events unfolding in Inner Mongolia are about to spoil the momentum, built during the pandemic outbreak by a surprise visit of Battulga to Beijing and bilateral commitments to revive economic activities, which is utterly important for Mongolia’s debt-ridden, commodity-based economy. Among these three factors – the Dalai Lama, Inner Mongolia, and geopolitical balancing with China’s competitors, inter-Mongolian affairs are the most critical one.
Mongolia and Inner Mongolia have a centuries-long shared history and culture, which was completely interrupted during the Sino-Soviet conflicts in the 1960s-80s. Given the common language (Mongolian) and the vested interests of maintaining Mongolian culture, language, and the nomadic lifestyle, Mongolians and ethnic Mongolian communities in China are intimately connected. In fact, twice as many Mongolian co-ethnics live in China’s northern provinces and the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region than in independent Mongolia. Moreover, inter-Mongolian interactions have grown significantly since 1989. Inner Mongolians, fluent in the Chinese and Mongolian languages, have served as key connectors between Chinese and Mongolians—in all types of daily interactions. Inner Mongolia has become an important destination for Mongolians with Chinese visa-exemptions to get medical treatment, to trade, to study, and to sightsee. Inner Mongolian universities have established partnerships with Mongolian public and private universities, which resulted in increased faculty and student exchanges. Also, Inner Mongolia is Mongolia’s primary trading partner in the overall trade with China. 11 out 13 border ports, including the trans-Mongolian railway port, belong to Inner Mongolia. Mongolian southern provinces, which share a border with Inner Mongolia, have year-long collaborative mechanisms to broaden cross-border interactions. Since 2014, Inner Mongolia has been expected to benefit more from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) given its strategic locations for trading with Mongolia and Russia. Any major economic projects—railway, power lines, natural gas pipelines, and roads—of the (BRI) China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMEC) would contribute to inter-Mongolian relations. At the same time, Inner Mongolia along with Chinese northern provinces (e.g., Jilin, Hebei, and Heilongjiang) with substantial ethnic Mongolian communities have been organizing cultural and academic exchanges as a part of the BRI’s people-to-people connectivity projects.
After the China’s foreign minister’s visit concluded in Ulaanbaatar, discussion about protests, Inner Mongolia, and Chinese policies towards ethnic Mongolian communities in China has not disappeared from social media and academia. On September 25, Elbegdorj tweeted in traditional Mongolian writing that the Chinese embassy in Ulaanbaatar confirmed the receipt of his letter to Xi Jinping.12 But, on the following day, there was word of a letter from the Chinese ambassador, indicating that he had refused to deliver the former president’s letter and had asked him not to raise the issue, which is considered an internal matter of China.13 Elbegdorj refused to pick up his letter from the embassy, but pledged to way until his addressee sees his own letter.14 This matter could trigger more tensions in the bilateral relationship. Many Mongolian students are anxiously longing to go to their schools in Inner Mongolia and other provinces and cities of China. By next summer, Mongolians hope to begin to travel freely to and through Inner Mongolia for trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges if inter-Mongolian affairs continue as usual while Mongolia and Inner Mongolia become the test ground for the competing Russian Greater Eurasian Partnership and Chinese BRI regionalization visions. However, if the situation worsens in Inner Mongolia, Mongolian politicians will come under pressure from the public, civil society actors, politicians, and nationalist forces. This could be used by populist politicians for their own domestic political power struggle and, at the same time, could trigger the country’s lingering anti-Chinese sentiments, resulting in incidents against Chinese nationals and businesses like in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Henceforth, Inner Mongolian affairs require careful consideration from both sides.
1. Christopher Atwood, “Bilingual Education in Inner Mongolia: An Explainer,” August 30, 2020, https://madeinchinajournal.com/2020/08/30/bilingual-education-in-inner-mongolia-an-explainer/
3. Marissa Smith, “Current and Previous Mongolian Presidents Weigh In on Mongolian Language Education,” Mongolia Focus Blog, September 2, 2020, http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2020/mongolian-presidents-mongolian-language-education/; Julian Dierkes, “Blip or Shift in Sino-Mongolian Relationship?” September 17, 2020, http://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2020/china-mongolia-relationship-wang-foreign-policy/.
7. “Mongolians in Tokyo hold anti-China protest,” Osaka News.Net, September 14, 2020, https://www.osakanews.net/news/266388452/mongolians-in-tokyo-hold-anti-china-protest
9. Former President Elbegdorj’s tweets [in Mongolian], September 15, 2020, https://twitter.com/elbegdorj/status/1305746942908006402 and https://twitter.com/elbegdorj/status/1305710818718175233.
10. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Press Release, September 11, 2020, https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4335760.
11. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Press Release, September 15, 2020, http://www.mfa.gov.mn/?p=52170; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC, Press Release, September 15, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1815306.shtml.
12. Elbegdorj’s tweet in Mongolian traditional writing, September 25, 2020, https://twitter.com/elbegdorj/status/1309448938240372736, and his letter in English, September, 25, 2020, https://twitter.com/elbegdorj/status/1309466615335927809.
13. “БНХАУ-аас Монгол Улсад суугаа Элчин Цай Вэньруй Ерөнхийлөгч асан Ц.Элбэгдоржид хандан мэдэгдэл гаргажээ” [PRC Ambassador Chai Wenrui issued a statement to former President Ts. Elbegdorj], IKON, September 26, 2020, https://ikon.mn/n/1zv5;