Inner Mongolia: China’s turbulent secret

A protest in another of China’s ethnically mixed regions highlights both Inner Mongolia’s singular history and the Beijing government’s political neglect, says Kerry Brown.

Inner Mongolia is the least understood of China’s major border autonomous zones. It is also, arguably, the most integrated. Tibetans make up 95% of the population of Tibet; Uyghurs compose about 50% of Xinjiang’s; but Mongolians account for only 20% in their own so-called autonomous region. Moreover, the fact that the area is closer to Beijing, is more densely populated, and has been settled for a longer time by largely Han migrants, means that it might be expected to be the most stable.

These factors make the explosion of protests after the death of a Mongolian herdsman in a road-accident in May 2011 all the more worrying for the authorities. The herdsman was run over by a truck driven by a Han, in a northern area which has seen big exploitation of its mining resources. Mongolian local people were furious at what they saw as the murder of an innocent man.

The attitude of the culprits was interpreted as disdainful, and the slow response of the local government reinforced the anger. By the third week in May, there were student demonstrations in the provincial capital of Hohhot; the party boss there, Hu Chunhua, was obliged to meet with some of the students and reassure them that everything would be done to bring the criminals to justice.

A single incident, as so often in China, embodies a far larger story.

A region transformed

Inner Mongolia’s recent history is unhappy, and its people have perhaps more reason to be resentful than those of any other of the main border regions. They suffered horrific purges in the cultural revolution from 1966, when a whole generation of ethnically Mongolian officials, intellectuals and others were accused of harbouring ambitions to create a pan-Mongolian state (that is, unifying with the Mongolian People’s Republic across the border).

Even official statistics, released in the early 1980s during a partial “rectification”, acknowledge that 22,000 were killed in this period. But tellingly, the man in charge of the area in its most violent phase, Teng Haiqing, died in Beijing in 1996 without ever having been brought to justice.

The rooted frustrations among Mongolians over the lack of freedom and opportunity for their ethnic group, and the more precise sense of betrayal and anger after the cultural revolution, extended into the 1980s. There were student demonstrations in 1984, 1987 and 1989. In the mid-1990s, a major state clampdown led to the arrest of over 250 alleged “activists”;  one of them, the bookshop-owner Hada, was released only in 2010 (although he has since disappeared).

Meanwhile, the economic background has been transformed since 2000, as rapid wealth-creation has created new social and political dynamics in Inner Mongolia. Until the mid-1990s, the region was relatively backward and poor, with only very limited foreign investment.

But in 2000, as China’s energy needs were exploding, the region’s plentiful coal and other minerals suddenly became of deep interest to the central government. In 2010, a six-day traffic-jam on the road from Inner Mongolia into Beijing, almost all the trucks filled with coal, became a major news story. The energy of the capital, and of elsewhere in China, is fired by Inner Mongolia’s resources - and this has made some people there very rich.

A visitor to Hohhot in 1996 and again in 2011 would doubt they were in the same place. The Hohhot of only fifteen years ago still had old buildings, only a couple of towers above ten stories, and a sleepy airport; today, the city is enjoying (at 36%) the fourth-fastest growth-rate on the planet, and 200 new cars are registered every day for use on its roads. These are the boom years.

A state transfixed

But the boom has brought great problems: environmental degradation (including terrible desertification), a critical lack of water accentuated by population growth and a series of very hot summers and freezing winters. The social and economic impact has also been very uneven.

Many Mongolians are wholly excluded from the new riches, and are in thrall to a local business elite who can behave with ruthless brutality. Inner Mongolia is one of the most corrupt provinces to do business, and one where the security agents have a particularly vicious reputation. For the losers of the economic reforms, and those who happen to be ethnically Mongolian, the good times for others reinforce how much and how rapidly outsiders have changed their society.

The central and local government have responded to the latest protests in standard fashion, as in Tibet (2008) and Xinjiang (2009) - with a harsh crackdown. So far, it has worked. No doubt, a little more money will be spent on put social projects in the area to placate people. But both problem and solution in Inner Mongolia reinforce the sense that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still maintains its utter commitment to economic growth, money and material outcomes over everything else - and that its solution to almost everything is to put money into it.

There is no sense that the government is thinking harder about its highly limited view of modernity, and about the alternative modernities that other cultures within the state’s own borders might be able to offer. Beijing noisily proclaims its multicultural credentials, but a closer analysis shows that at heart the Chinese state maintains a crushing conformity wherein there is almost no space for those with different, alternative or contrary views.

The worry for the central leadership must be that along a ribbon of territory that divides China almost by half, big disturbances have occurred in the last three years. But there is almost no sign at the moment that the central government is rethinking its strategy. The economic crisis in the west since 2008 has proved China right - and no provincial troublemakers on its borders are going to change that.