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China - Inner Mongolia: Changes to Education Policy Endangers Linguistic Diversity and Undermines Free Expression

Tuesday 24 November 2020 - 10:30am

Ethnic Mongolian uses “Mother Tongue” face paint as a form of protest (credit: SMHRIC)

PEN International is concerned over recent education reforms in Inner Mongolia, which seek to prioritise instruction through Mandarin Chinese at the expense of the Mongolian language, a key marker of ethnic Mongolian identity in the region.

In Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), recent changes to the educational system have led to mass demonstrations by ethnic Mongolians and a crackdown by the PRC government.

For many ethnic Mongolians in the region, these changes represent the latest effort by the PRC authorities to erode the usage of their mother tongue, which is a distinct marker of their cultural identity as a minority constituting under 20 percent of the region’s overall population.

Inner Mongolia’s status as an autonomous region ostensibly provides its ethnic Mongolian population with greater freedoms to use and develop their language as an ethnic minority. However, in reality these protections have provided little security against government policies that have sought to undermine the use of the Mongolian language as part of the school curriculum.

The latest educational reforms, announced in summer 2020, seek to increase the number of class hours taught in schools through Mandarin Chinese by changing subjects previously taught in Mongolian to Mandarin Chinese as the language of instruction .

For Mongolian-medium schools in the region, the recent changes have diminished their ability to provide students with an education through the Mongolian language. With greater priority given to subjects taught through Mandarin Chinese, there will be fewer hours each week where students can learn through Mongolian-medium instruction, limiting the ability for ethnic Mongolian students to develop their ability to communicate using their mother tongue.

According to the PRC government, the motivation for implementing the education reforms is to ensure that students in Inner Mongolia benefit from the most up-to-date teaching material found in the national textbooks, which is written in Mandarin Chinese.

While any efforts to improve the quality of education are to be lauded, the reliance on a national curriculum provided solely in Mandarin Chinese risks undermining the spirit of regional autonomy for minority regions in the PRC, eroding the right to use and develop minority languages, as articulated within the PRC Constitution. These concerns could be easily addressed if the PRC government invested in translating the national curriculum into minority languages.

Despite statements from the regional government that the education reforms do not signal the phasing out of the Mongolian language, the changes echo the implementation of similar ‘bilingual’ education policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, which has had a devastating impact on the use of minority languages in both regions.

In recognition of the potential threat that the reforms pose to the use of the Mongolian language in the region, the largest demonstrations in almost a decade took place in August, with thousands of ethnic Mongolians gathering outside schools across the region to protest against the new language policy.

In retaliation to the public demonstrations against the reforms, the PRC government has cracked down on any perceived dissent. Reports include authorities shutting down China’s only Mongolian-language social media website, and there are accounts of regional authorities threatening students with expulsion and parents with being placed on a government blacklist if they continue to boycott schools. The security services also carried out a heavy-handed crackdown against demonstrators, detaining at least 23 people, and offering cash rewards for those accused of spreading “fake news” through social media.

More recently, PEN International has received reports that several prominent ethnic Mongolian writers have been confined to house arrest as part of the clampdown, including Lhamjab Borjigin and Nasanulzei Hangin.

In response to the education reform in Inner Mongolia, Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, Chair of the PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, said: "PEN International is very concerned by the recent developments in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. The PRC government should be proud of the important linguistic heritage it has and has a responsibility to protect and promote it. Efforts to replace textbooks and the language of instruction in order to assimilate the Mongolian speaking population is not only a violation of their linguistic rights, it also reveals a problematic view of integration where citizens have to cease speaking their own language. Instead, it should be the state that adapts to the needs, particularities, cultures, and languages of specific ethnic groups, thus proving its pride in the rich linguistic heritage of the country and its speakers."

PEN International urges the PRC government to respect the distinct identity of its ethnic Mongolian minority population, to effectively protect and facilitate the development of minority languages, and to implement bilingual education policy in a manner that does not promote a lingua franca to the detriment to minorities’ ability to communicate and flourish using their mother tongue.

PEN International has been at the forefront of the campaign to ensure the protection and promotion of linguistic diversity. The Girona Manifesto, a tool to aid the dissemination and implementation of the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (UDLR), was developed by PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee in May 2011, fifteen years after it lead a coalition of civil-society and international organisations (including UNESCO) to develop the UDLR at the 1996 World Conference on Linguistic Rights in Barcelona.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: