Mongolians protest on August 31, 2020, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, against China's plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the neighboring Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Photo: AFP / Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir

The media are once again ablaze with misinformation against China, this time on its supposed attempts to eradicate the Mongolian language from Inner Mongolia. A recent piece by Antonio Graceffo, an American economist and author based in Ulaanbaatar, in the Diplomat is an excellent introduction:

“In August, the government announced that when the school year began in September, classes in Mongolian would be sharply curtailed. Under the new regulations, literature, politics and history will all now be taught in Mandarin….

“Many parents in Inner Mongolia responded to the announcement by saying that they would prefer to keep their children home than have them forced to accept Mandarin-language instruction. As schools opened in the first week of September, strikes by parents were widespread.

“In Naiman county, for example, where there were normally 1,000 Mongolian students, just 40 registered for this term and only 10 actually showed up on the first day of class. Across the region, more than 300,000 students have gone on strike….

“Videos have surfaced online showing ethnic Mongolian parents trying to remove their children from school grounds and police preventing them from doing so. According to a report by the BBC, hundreds of riot police were deployed the prevent one strike, but after a standoff lasting several hours, parents finally managed to break through the police barricades and collect their children.

“Other videos have appeared on social media showing masses of Mongolian children chanting ‘Our mother language is Mongolian!’ and ‘We are Mongolian until death!’ One showed Inner Mongolian men, dressed in traditional clothes, raising the khar suld (or black banner), the battlefield standard of the Mongol army, which represents the power of the ‘eternal blue sky’ (monke khukh tenger).

“Traditionally, the khar suld was meant to concentrate and mobilize the spirit and power of all Mongols to defeat their enemies. According to legend, it is the repository of the soul of Genghis Khan. To many ethnic Mongolians, the raising of the suld is the equivalent of a declaration of war. As one Mongolian commented, ‘It’s a big sign that they will not give up. [The protesters] will go until [the] end.’”

The article goes on to accuse China of diluting Mongolian language and identity.

So is Beijing really up to its evil ways again?

Over the last few weeks, there have indeed been some protests in Inner Mongolia over the recent changes in bilingual education. Here is some background.

Currently, the nine years of compulsory schooling in Inner Mongolia require six to seven hours of classes per day. In a typical school, all classes are taught in Mongolian for the first two years – that is, language, literature, and science classes are all taught in that language. From third grade on, an hour a day of Chinese language is added, and from sixth to 10th grades a foreign language – usually English – is further required.

Over the summer, the Inner Mongolian Educational Department announced a change to its bilingual education program. The change calls for transitioning to state-compiled textbooks in Mandarin for language and literature, politics, and history classes. Mathematics, sciences, art, music, and physical education, however, will continue to be taught in Mongolian.

This new policy was to be formally implemented as of the 2020-21 school year, beginning September 1, starting with language and literature. Then starting next school year, the new policy will be extended to morality and law, and then to history in 2022-23.

At first, some teachers were worried about losing their jobs, which prompted some to protest. Those concerns, however, were quickly dealt with as the government clarified that its policy actually called for training teachers to teach the new curriculum. Most teachers should just need brief training regarding use of the new materials.

Rumors also arose that the change called for phasing out Mongolian language in its entirety throughout Inner Mongolia’s compulsory education system. The Inner Mongolian Educational Department, however, has clarified many times that only specified subjects will be transitioned to Mandarin. The core subjects of mathematics, sciences, art, music, and physical education will continue to be taught in Mongolian throughout all grades.

Closely related to the language issue is the sensitive issue of “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities in China. Some protesters voiced concerns that the move to more Mandarin in the schools would ultimately mean that they a deterioration of the “preferential treatments” that Mongolians – as well as the other 55 ethnic minorities recognized by Beijing – currently get, such as in the college entrance process.

Government officials have since made it very clear that the change in policy does not in any way change the preferential treatments of minorities for college and university entrance.

However, it should probably also be acknowledged that “preference treatment” in general is a controversial topic in China. Some believe all citizens – whatever their ethnicity – should be treated equally, while others believe preferential treatment is required to bring about national unity and ethnic cohesion. The policy may indeed change in the future.

But whatever course China takes in the future, let’s take it for what it is, a nuanced policy decision. Throughout the world, different nations take different tracks on “affirmative action.” Reasonable people can disagree on this topic. When it comes to China, let’s not needlessly color it only through some sort of “genocidal” optics.

Taking a broader view, the choice of language used in schools has often touched nerves in many countries, not just in China. Controversies and perhaps misunderstandings are expected and should not be distorted and blown out of proportion.

In Canada, for example, where English and French are both official, traditionally the government has supported bilingual education. There have, however, continued to be heated and passionate debates about whether bilingual education is eroding French culture, language and identity in Quebec.

But despite the legitimate passions, as one observer has astutely noted, a love for other languages in Quebec doesn’t mean disrespect for French:

“A week can’t go by in this province without someone predicting the demise of the French language and its domination by ‘les maudits anglais.’ Hundreds of years after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and some of you are still confusing bilingual anglophones and trilingual allophones who happily live and work in Quebec with the ones who were brandishing muskets against the French.

“They aren’t the enemy. New immigrants, with their kids going straight to Bill 101-enforced French classes, aren’t the enemy either.

“We are fellow Quebecers, part of the fabric of this place, with major contributions of our own. There is no malicious ploy to ‘humiliate’ francophones or to quash French culture….

“I’ve grown really weary of the daily spectacle of pearl clutching. Not because I don’t love and want to protect French. But because I know you don’t protect a language by vilifying another. It just doesn’t work. It breeds resentment and it creates a real sense of inferiority that doesn’t serve language acquisition well.

“French isn’t threatened by a store clerk uttering ‘Bonjour-Hi!’ in downtown Montreal, or by a trilingual allophone tweeting in English. It’s threatened when it’s not being taught properly or used adequately or when a population isn’t enticed to love it. ‘What you love eventually survives,’ says a Senegalese proverb. You can’t guilt someone into speaking a language.”

Can people be as open-minded and nuanced about controversial subjects in China? It is true that a push for more Mandarin education will mean a decrease in Mongolian education. But will that eventually mean eradicating Mongolian culture and identity?

Throughout China, including in Inner Mongolia, there is a push for English education also. With time devoted to English, there is bound to be a reduction in hours spent on traditional Mongolian topics. Is that cultural eradication?

I see bilingual or even trilingual education as a gain, not a loss, for the Mongolian people. China truly cares about preserving its wide and diverse traditions. As Graceffo noted in his piece,

“Inner Mongolia, in spite of the repression, has been instrumental in preserving the traditional Mongolian alphabet, unlike independent Mongolia, which, as a former Soviet satellite, uses Russia’s Cyrillic script. But parents in Inner Mongolia now fear that under the PRC’s new education directives, the use of the ancient Mongolian script will fade from view.”

Isn’t it ironic that China, and not Mongolia itself, carries the torch of the traditional Mongolian language? Isn’t it also ironic that China would keep getting accused of planning to eradicate Mongolian identity and culture?

Please, Mongolian Chinese are full-fledged citizens of the China … and members of the world. Mongolians no longer live in isolated, local communities. They deserve an education that gives them access to the full set of opportunities in China … and the broader world. They deserve a modern and global education, just like all other Chinese citizens.

Teaching Mongolian children Mandarin is not anti-Mongolian, not any more than teaching them math, science, history – or English for that matter.

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Allen Yu

Allen Yu is an IP attorney in Silicon Valley and a blogger at hiddenharmonies.org. His articles on IP and technology law have appeared in the University of Southern California Law Review, Cardozo Law Review, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, and IDEA: the Intellectual Property Law Review. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a DEngr from UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science.