“We feel like we are being drowned by the Han,” said a 21-year-old computer science student, speaking through the fence of Hohhot Nationality University, where he and thousands of other Mongolian students were penned up for five days last week to prevent them from taking to the streets. “The government always talks about ethnic harmony, but why do we feel so oppressed?”
Although the immediate trigger of the demonstrations was a hit-and-run accident in which a Han coal truck driver struck and killed a Mongolian herder in early May, the underlying enmity can be tied to longstanding grievances that spilled out during interviews with more than a dozen Mongolians last week: the ecological destruction wrought by an unprecedented mining boom, a perception that economic growth disproportionately benefits the Han and the rapid disappearance of Inner Mongolia’s pastoral tradition.
The government response has hewed closely to the recipe used to quell the far more violent ethnic turmoil that convulsed Tibet in 2008 and the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang a year later. Internet access has been severely restricted, with most Mongolian Web sites shut down, and scores of students, professors and herders have been taken into custody. Enhebatu Togochog, an exiled human rights advocate, has described the crackdown as a “witch hunt.”
Those too poor to buy new homes rent cramped rooms in the town’s Mongolian quarter, a grim, densely packed cluster of brick buildings. On a recent afternoon, Suyaltu and Uyung, the husband-and-wife proprietors of a small canteen called Friend of the Grassland, explained how they were forced to sell their pasture and a herd of 300 cows, sheep and horses in 2004. There are perks to the program, they said: subsidized school fees for their college-age daughter, a $2,775 annual subsidy and the advantages of living near medical clinics, shops and schools.
Still, Uyung, 50, who like many Mongolians goes by a single name, said that even when combined with the income from their restaurant, their soon-to-expire subsidy was not enough to sustain the family. Then there are other, less tangible downsides to the arrangement. “We feel lost without our herds and the grassland,” she said as her husband looked at his feet and dragged on a cigarette. “We discovered we are not suited to the city, but now we are stuck.”
“Rural communities are the stronghold of Mongolian culture and language, so breaking them up has a direct impact on ethnic identity,” said Mr. Atwood, chairman of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
The result has been a steady decline in the proportion of students who attend Mongolian-language schools, a figure that has dropped by nearly half, to 40 percent, since the 1980s. The shift has largely been propelled by former herders like Huang Liying, 38, a shop owner whose 13-year-old daughter studies at a Mandarin-language school in Baotou, an industrial city 500 miles away. “To be successful in the modern world you need to speak good Chinese,” Ms. Huang said. “I feel regret she doesn’t speak her mother tongue, but Mongolian is not very useful beyond the grassland.”
Such sentiments are not confined to students. During one of several unwelcome confrontations with the police last week, a Mongolian officer in Damao sidled up to a stranger and made a startling confession. He said he wished he had been brave enough to join the protests. “The anger I feel,” he said with a conspiratorial grin, “is burning through my veins.”
There are around 56 ethnic groups in China. The Han represent around 92% of total population. Given China's population the remaining 8% represents more than 100 million people. This high numbers, and potential social uprising, keep the Chinese government nervous.
Ethnic diversity is just one dimension of diversity in the country. There is also high religious diversity, and socio-economic diversity. To maintain stability and harmony is a challenge. Global voices reported yesterday about the huge government apparatus displayed to maintain social harmony. To maintain internal stability is the key to continuos success or a big obstacle on the road to increasing prosperity in China.