It is no secret that the concerns and rights of ethnic minorities in China fall to the wayside in favor of the Han, the ethnicity with the majority in the country. Inner Mongolia serves as an example of the cultural and economic strife caused by marginalizing one group over another. The result is what the Mongol minority believes is outright economic exclusion and the watering down of their culture.
One of the key issues within the region is the migration of the indigenous nomads from their native grasslands to the cities. The Chinese government waves off the migration as a move into modernity for the nomads. A removal from what Chinese authorities refer to as a “backward” culture, but as Nick Holdstock of the U.K. Independent points out, the natives have no say whatsoever when it comes to moving to the cities. This outflow of ethnic Mongolians to urban centers has raised fears among Mongolians that their culture, language and lifestyle are being threatened.
Another point of tension lies in the regional mining of rare-earth metals. Various mining companies have entered the region to take advantage of the lucrative prospects, especially since the value of these metals is demonstrated in their ubiquity among high-tech electronics. However, the mining has been accompanied by a degradation of the surrounding environment as well as the health of the nomads.
For example, the town of Baotou, a major mining hub, has seen its groundwater polluted to toxic levels, their crops ruined and much of their livestock destroyed. Moreover, the use of underground water sources, essential to the removal of impurities from the coal, has lessened the water available to crops and livestock. Many farmers, unable to deal with destruction of their livelihood, have moved away. The Guardian points out that the population within the surrounding villages of the Baotou plants has decreased dramatically. Those that have remained in the area are plagued by severe illness.
All of these factors have coalesced, creating serious economic problems for the ethnic minority. Environmental devastation of their grasslands has degraded some of the main forms of their economic livelihood; the mining industry in the region tends to hire workers from other provinces, excluding the nomads from many of the economic benefits the industry might bring. Furthermore, those who have migrated to urban areas have discovered cultural barriers to finding gainful employment, namely an inability to speak passable Mandarin.
Tensions have, moreover, reached the point of violence in some instances. In 2011, a herder was killed by a passing coal truck when he attempted to prevent coal trucks from crossing into his land during his protest against the mining industry. Several days later another protester was killed by a forklift driver. Tensions finally boiled over and several thousand Mongolians went out to voice their opposition toward the mining activities.
Unfortunately, the case of Inner Mongolia is a harsh reminder among ethnic minorities in China of their second-class citizen status. Perhaps in time, the Chinese government will listen to the voices of protest among the disenfranchised minority groups that populate many rural areas throughout China. Until then, Mongolians and other ethnicities face major economic and cultural challenges.
– Zack Lindberg