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Protesters in Ulan Bator hold a banner reading “save the Mongolian language” during a demonstration last week against China’s decision to expand use of Mandarin instead of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia. Photo: EPA-EFE

Mongolia: locked between China and the language of identity

  • Mongolia’s president has promoted traditional script and culture but has so far not spoken out directly about protests across the border against greater use of Mandarin in the classroom
  • Observers say the country is caught between its economic reliance on its neighbour and its desire to promote its mother tongue
As the new school year started in Mongolia on September 1, President Khaltmaagiin Battulga appeared on national television in traditional clothing and with a group of children reciting a poem.

Battulga was teaching the “first lesson of the year” against a background of traditional Mongolian standing script on a day that he had also designated the Day of the Mother Language.

The poem was about the standing script and was written by Secencogtu from the neighbouring Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, where parents were refusing to send their children to school in protest against Beijing’s decision to use Mandarin instead of Mongolian in some subjects.
The boycott followed weeks of protests and a crackdown in the autonomous region, igniting public anger and protests across the border.

Battulga has not explicitly raised the language issue with China, but the choice of poem was deliberate, reflecting the interests the government must balance with its biggest trading partner – which accounts for 90 per cent of Mongolia’s exports – and concerns in Mongolia about cultural heritage.

Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga appears on national television with schoolchildren reciting a poem by an Inner Mongolian poet on September 1. Photo: Twitter

In Mongolia, Beijing’s decision to teach three subjects in Mandarin was seen by many as an attempt to suppress Mongolian language and culture.

Inner Mongolia is home to more than 4 million ethnic Mongolians, who make about 17 per cent of a majority ethnic Han region.

The decision and the crackdown prompted prominent figures in Mongolia – including former president Tsakhia Elbegdorj and writer Galsan Tangad – to accuse Beijing of damaging to the heritage of the Mongolian language.

Elbegdorj, one of Battulga’s political rivals, has been particularly outspoken, describing the situation in Inner Mongolia as “cultural genocide” of the Mongolian language.

In addition, about 100 people protested in the main square in the capital Ulan Bator last week during a two-day visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“Mongols don’t go out in the streets and protest too often,” said Alicia Campi, a China and Mongolian specialist and former US diplomat in Mongolia, said. “The number, while not in the thousands, is something in the low hundreds is still very significant for the city of Ulan Bator.”

Campi said it was also significant that a former president had spoken out publicly.

“This is the only time I have seen this in Mongolia in the past 30 years,” she said. “The fact that he did that shouldn’t be underestimated. It was a significant message to the Mongol people inside Mongolia, as well as meant to send a message to the Chinese government.”

Demonstrators protesting against China’s changes to school curriculums gather on Sukhbaatar Square in Ulan Bator in Mongolia on September 15. Photo: Reuters

Mongolian Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh reportedly raised concerns about the Mongolian language and script with Wang.

Wang stressed that China and Mongolia should not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. He also announced a 700 million yuan (US$103.3 million) grant from China.

Marissa Smith, a social and cultural anthropologist who specialises in Mongolia, said the main concern in Mongolia was less about ethnic Mongols in China and more about preserving the Mongolian language and script.

“There’s this focus in Mongolia on saving the Mongolian language – that was the hashtag that emerged – this idea that China is a threat to Mongolian-ness, but people are seeing that as being something that is in independent Mongolia,” she said. “Anything like this heightens that sense of suspicion and fear of China.”


Mongolians protest Beijing’s language policy in Inner Mongolia as Chinese foreign minister visits

Mongolians protest Beijing’s language policy in Inner Mongolia as Chinese foreign minister visits

Oyunsuren Damdinsuren, senior lecturer at the National University of Mongolia, said that while many Mongolian politicians were silent on the situation in the autonomous region, more Mongolians were raising their concerns on social media with the #SaveTheMongolianLanguage hashtag. A Facebook group on the issue, created by her former student, drew more than 12,000 people in three weeks.

“The current situation in Inner Mongolia, however, causes a strong reaction among Mongolians,” she said. “The major concern is to have good relations with China to keep the economic blood flowing – that’s the main reason that our politicians don’t dare to say a word in support of Inner Mongolians fighting for their right to be educated in their mother language.”

Damdinsuren added that critics had seen Wang’s trip to Mongolia one month before the country’s municipal elections and the 700 million yuan grant as interference in the country.

Analysts said they did not expect Mongolia’s government to take any major action in response to the public anger.


Mongolians fear loss of languages as China pushes Mandarin at school

Mongolians fear loss of languages as China pushes Mandarin at school

There have been tensions between the countries in the past. Beijing responded to a visit in November 2016 by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama closing a key border crossing and imposing fees on commodity imports. At the time, Wang said he hoped Mongolia had “taken this lesson to heart”. That December Mongolia’s former foreign minister “expressed regret” for allowing the trip.

While Battulga has been reluctant to tackle the language issue directly, his presidency has overseen the promotion of traditional Mongolian language and culture, including the announcement in March of plans to use traditional Mongolian script in official documents from 2025 alongside the Cyrillic alphabet.

Cyrillic was introduced in the 1940s under the influence of the Soviets, while ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia continued to use the traditional script.

Campi said that Beijing’s language policy would likely be seen as hostile in Mongolia, given Battulga’s promotion of the traditional Mongolian script as a way to reject Cyrillic and to connect culturally and linguistically with Mongols outside the country, particularly in Inner Mongolia.

“Mongolians are saying, just as we are starting to promote this language change to make it more similar to what has been existing Inner Mongolia, suddenly at the very same time, the Chinese government is saying we are going to stop it,” she said. “So it looks like the Chinese government doesn’t want the Mongolian-blooded people in the two countries to have closer communications.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Locked between China and the language of identity