The historical viewpoint that we looked at yesterday seems likely to be the one taken by many ethnic Mongolians, as well as Western journalists. While many of the issues raised will need to be addressed, I think it’s important to consider the bigger picture that these protests are a part of.
Han vs. Minority Group
This first viewpoint has been the most popular one cited so far, but after talking with my Chinese friend at length about this topic, I think it’s only part of the picture.
I think this one has gained a lot of traction because in the past 4 years there have been protests in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. All of them sparked by a Han-Minority crime that exploded into larger demonstrations. These three regions also share similar histories. Traditionally on the periphery of the Chinese empire, they are claimed by modern China, and have been the focus of recent Han migration. The Han also seem to have little interest in local culture or religion (I did not meet a single Han person in Inner Mongolia that did not laugh when I asked if they spoke Mongolian).
These new migrants have seemingly prospered in areas where local ethnic groups have struggled to make a living. However the Han have brought with them massive investments for extracting the resources that were under the farmlands all along. This creates massive rich-poor divides in these areas which follow ethnic lines.
This frame fits neatly with the understanding that many foreigners have of China’s role in Tibet (that’s a topic for another day), and so it is easiest to process these new protests in that light.
Business/Local Gov’t vs. Farmers
This dichotomy seems to be a better reflection of growing protests throughout China. While the problems of Inner Mongolia run along ethnic lines, they also follow socioeconomic lines.
My friend (the one who wrote about joining the party) thought it was ridiculous for Western journalists to only be focusing on the ethnic side of the story, when throughout China there are almost daily protests from farmers whose land has been taken for special development projects (you can read here about yet another self-immolation that occurred as the result of a Han farmer losing his land, or here about large protests that happened in Yunnan for similar reasons). The difference is that the Han farmers don’t have a strong identity to rally around like the Mongolian herders do.
For example in Shanxi province, the gov’t is currently relocating 2.5 million people so that mining companies can access trillions of RMB worth of coal and other minerals (read more about that here), There haven’t been protests, yet. The Mongol’s ethnic status and cohesion has probably helped them avoid such blatant land grabs, so the companies have resorted to making traditional lifestyles hard for them.
So when we look at some of the problems facing China today, it’s important to look at the different narratives that are being formed and how the stories are presented. Is the treatment of Mongolians a factor in these protests? Absolutely. But is the way they are being treated really so different from how businesses/local gov’ts treat farmers throughout the country? I don’t think so.