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Protests In Inner Mongolia – Is This Really About Race?

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.

Protests in Inner Mongolia – Tension on the Northern Border

A few weeks ago a shepherd in Inner Mongolia was run over by a trucker moving a load of coal. The result has been wide-spread protests over the past two weeks, causing dozens of news stories about Han-Mongol relations.

Before we get too far into this story, we need to pause for a little background.

Around 221 B.C. China became a unified nation under the Qin dynasty. One of the emperor’s first acts was to connect the city walls along the Northern border to defend against the nomadic sheepherders who were also fierce warriors (the tribe at this time was the Xiongnu).

Even though the tribes along China’s border changed, the relationship between the nomads and the farmers never really improved. For another 1500 years the two sides clashed, with nomads raiding the farms for goods, and the empire attempting to push northward to extend their claims.

Then came the rise of Genghis Khan, perhaps the only Mongolian whose name Westerners recognize, who conquered not only China, but most of Asia (interestingly the Chinese now claim him as one of their own, I’m not so sure he would appreciate the gesture). In each region he installed a son as king who ignored local customs, and tried to change Chinese culture. The reign of the Mongol Yuan dynasty lasted less than 100 years.

The following Ming (Han Chinese) dynasty faced an increasing number of attacks from the North. The Ming dynasty though was slow to respond, and was unwilling/unable to raise an army that would drive the nomads from the frontier. It was this inaction that lead local governors to reinforce the nearly two millennia old Great Wall, which gave it it’s current stone exterior (prior to this it had been rammed earth).

Finally warriors from the Northeast conquered the Ming, and established China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing. During this period the northern lands fell into China’s empire, which led to the precedent of Chinese rule over what is today the province of Inner Mongolia.

Over the past 50 years the grasslands have changed more than they had in the 3,000 years prior. Han settlers were encouraged to move into the mostly open lands to begin farming, and Mongol herdsmen were provided/forced into living on one plot of land. There are now nearly 10x as many Han as Mongolians in the region.

Massive coal deposits were also found along the steppe which has led to a flurry of mining activity. These operations use a huge amount of water and have contributed greatly to the desertification of the grasslands. The local gov’t responded by banning the raising of livestock, which they blamed for the lack of grass (they are partially correct, without the freedom of a nomadic life, sheep will over-graze an area).

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These photos were taken by my amazing wife.

When my wife and I visited Inner Mongolia, we were told by a local family that they had been secretly raising about 50 sheep. However, the officials spotted the sheep and confiscated all of them, nearly ruining the family financially. We couldn’t help but notice the single smokestack on the horizon spewing black smoke into the air.

So when a shepherd was run over by a coal truck, it seemed as if it was the perfect metaphor for what has been happening on the grasslands, and the protests started to spread.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the larger context of these protests, and reconsider the larger story that they fit into.