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    Greater China
     Jun 8, 2011


SUN WUKONG
Green motives in Inner Mongolian unrest
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Unrest that erupted last week in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese autonomous region, has once again drawn attention to Beijing's ethnic policy.

Western media are describing it as "ethnic unrest fueled by resentment over Chinese rule", but there are important differences with the 2008 riots in Tibet and a year later in Xinjiang.

These demonstrations are better compared to the "mass incidents" that are common in China. Sparked over land seizures or human-rights violations rather than political issues, these protests rarely make headlines.

What is eye-catching about this "mass incident", however, is that

 
it involves ethnic Mongolians. This is an ethnic conflict - but only to a certain extent. The fundamental difference from the riots in Tibet and Xinjiang is that there are no noticeable political, religious or cultural motivations, such as demands for independence or religious freedoms.

Nonetheless, the unrest could still escalate into full-blown ethnic conflict if the Chinese government fails to handle it properly.

The incident poses a big challenge to Inner Mongolia Communist Party secretary Hu Chunhua, 47, a protege of President Hu Jintao being groomed to become a key member of the party's six-generation leadership after Vice President Xi Jinping. If he can ease the current unrest to the party's satisfaction, he'll get an additional credit to ensure his political future. If he fails to solve the problem and ethnic unrest escalates, his record will be forever tainted.

The unrest in Inner Mongolia reportedly started on May 10 after an ethnic Mongolian herder in Xilingol prefecture was run over while trying to stop coal trucks from crossing into his traditional pastureland. The truck was driven by a Han Chinese. Five days later, a forklift driver allegedly struck and killed a Mongolian who was among a group of people protesting pollution in a coal mine.

The incidents triggered anger that brewed for weeks as Mongolians exchanged messages through mobile phones and the Internet.

On May 23, a group of ethnic Mongolians, spearheaded by students, took to the streets in protest in Xilingol, and demonstrations quickly spread to several other places. On May 30, under tight security, street demonstrations erupted in Huhhot, provincial capital of Inner Mongolia, with protesters chanting "Defend our grassland!" and "Chuncheng Group, get out of Xilingol!," with about 50 people arrested. Chuncheng is the coal mining enterprise whose truck killed the Mongolian herder.

Amid the unrest, previously unknown groups fighting for Inner Mongolian rights and independence suddenly emerged on the Internet. The most active is the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), which has been dispatching unconfirmed reports about alleged escalating tensions.

This has aroused Beijing's suspicion that overseas "hostile elements" are trying to pour oil on the fire and turn the unrest in Inner Mongolia into a political movement. On May 31, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, "As for those overseas trying to play up this incident for ulterior motives, we feel that it would be impossible for them to succeed."

Beijing seems confident that the current unrest will not morph into a political movement for Inner Mongolian independence. This was evident in an editorial in the state-run Global Times on May 31, which concluded that the recent protests were not politically motivated, but part of a conflict between development and environmental protection.

"Objectively speaking, the recent unrest in Inner Mongolia is just another example of various conflicts and troubles in current Chinese society, which should not be given any special meaning," it said. It predicts overseas groups like SMHRIC will soon be forgotten, like the so-called China Jasmine Revolution Organizing Committee on the Internet.

Given the region's history and realities, the chances of an independence movement emerging do appear minimal - at least at this stage.

Historically, ethnic Mongols built a different relationship with the majority Han Chinese from Tibetans and Uyghurs. In the late 12th century, Genghis Khan led his Mongolian army to conquer China and his grandson Kublai Khan founded the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) to rule most of present-day China. In the 17th century, a number of Mongol tribes joined the Manchu empire and helped the latter to conquer the whole of China and founded the Qing Dynasty (1664-1911). For a long time in the Qing Dynasty, Mongols enjoyed a higher social status than Han Chinese.

After the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by the 1911 revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen, Mongolia began to seek independence, but had to struggle until 1921 to break free with the support of the Soviet Union, and had to wait until 1945 for international recognition.

The independent country of Mongolia represents only part of the Mongols' historical homeland with a smaller population (slightly more than three million). More ethnic Mongolians live in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The Chinese Communist Party recognizes the independence of Mongolia, but the Republic of China (Taiwan) still constitutionally insists that it is a region of China called Outer Mongolia.

Today, ethnic Han Chinese people make up 79% of the 24-million population in Inner Mongolia. Unlike in Tibet and Xinjiang, ethnic Mongolians in the region have got along with Han people very well in past decades. Ethnic conflicts are rarely, if ever, heard of, so much so that Inner Mongolia has been known as a "model autonomous region for solidarity" for ethnic groups.

Aside from history, one practical reason for this may be that there already is an independent state of Mongolia just to the north, so independence-seeking ethnic Mongolians in China could just cross the border to join it - similar to the Jewish diaspora returning to Israel after it declared independence in 1948.

Moreover, living standards in Inner Mongolia are so much better than in Mongolia that not long ago some parliament members in Mongolia began to talk about the possibility of rejoining China. Few ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia are interested in fighting for independence.

Even SMHRIC director Enghebatu Togochog seems to agree that the protests are not politically motivated. "People demanded legal rights for Mongolians, for herders. They didn't mention higher autonomy or independence. Their goals are practical, so the government can't find an excuse to crack down hard on them," he was quoted by CNN.com as saying.

The fundamental cause for the recent unrest in Inner Mongolia lies in unbalanced development, though Inner Mongolia is not an economically backward province. In 2002-2009, Inner Mongolia's economic growth led all other provinces. In 2010, its gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded 1.17 trillion yuan (US$181 billion), ranking 15th among the 31 provinces in the country. In terms of per capita GDP, Inner Mongolia ranked sixth (about 49,000 yuan), even higher than Guangdong (about 43,000 yuan) - China's richest province.

But Inner Mongolia's development largely relies on cultivation of its natural resources: cashmere wool, coal, rare earth metals and natural gas. The price for high-speed economic growth is over cultivation of such resources, causing damage to the environment. And like elsewhere in China, the wealth gap widens fast.

All this has made life for Mongolians, who are mainly nomadic people, increasingly harder. According to a research paper released in March by the Beijing-based China Economy Research Institute, if measured by its happiness index (the ratio between per capita income and per capita GDP), Inner Mongolia was on the very bottom of the list, even worse than Tibet and Xinjiang.

Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that any small incident could trigger unrest. And since Inner Mongolia is a place where a major ethnic minority lives, the situation becomes more complicated - if it is not handled properly, social conflict can become ethnic conflict.

Because of this, Chinese authorities dare not lower their guard. On the one hand, they have deployed riot police and paramilitary troops to disperse crowds and patrol the streets. On the other they also tried "soft" approaches.

Hu Chunhua went to schools to meet students and teachers, promising to severely punish the truck and forklift drivers. He also sacked the Communist Party chief of Xilingol and four people arrested over the death have been charged and will face a public trial. The central government of China has also promised to limit development projects in environmentally vulnerable areas in Inner Mongolia

The Ministry of Environmental Protection is aware of the impact of mining on the environment of Inner Mongolia and attaches importance to the problem, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie said at a press conference on June 3.

The ministry will assist local governments and environmental protection authorities in punishing enterprises that have breached environmental protection laws and regulations, the official added.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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