China Clamps Down in Bid to Halt Protests in Inner Mongolia

Wall Street Journal, 30 May 2011

BEIJING—Chinese police clamped heavy controls across Inner Mongolia on Sunday after a week of ethnic protests by students over the hit-and-run killing of a Mongolian herder by a Chinese truck driver.
The incident exposed simmering tensions in the resource-rich region, which so far has largely escaped the violence that has plagued China’s Tibetan and Muslim regions.

Police across the region were requiring students to obtain permission and to register with authorities before leaving university campuses in an effort to keep protesters off the streets.

Meanwhile, authorities blocked searches for terms such as “Inner Mongolia” on Internet sites such as Sina Weibo, China’s most active microblogging service, to try to prevent the upheavals from spreading.
Reached by telephone on Sunday, ethnic Han Chinese residents of Hohhot, the region’s capital, described paramilitary police in riot gear concentrated in the city’s main square. SMS messages to local residents from police said authorities were prepared to “intensify the crackdown.”

Residents in other parts of the region shaken by last week’s protests said demonstrations had subsided Sunday afternoon, but online postings called for protests to begin Monday in Hohhot.

At least 18 protesters were injured and 40 detained by police last week during protests by ethnic Mongolian students, according to rights groups.

The protests began on May 23 after a Mongolian herder was killed by a person whom authorities describe as an ethnic Chinese truck driver. Details of the incident, including where it occurred, are sketchy. Authorities say they have arrested the driver of a truck and a passenger.

Inner Mongolia is a vast region spanning about 2,400 kilometers (about 1,500 miles) across the top of northeast China. It has a population of just 24 million but has become one of China’s fastest-growing regions economically because of its vast reserves of coal and other natural resources, whose prices have been rocketing. The region is a critical producer of rare-earths elements, which are increasingly required in high-tech devices and weaponry but are almost exclusively mined in China.

About 20% of Inner Mongolia’s population is ethnic Mongolian, while China’s majority Han ethnic group dominates the region. Though outright protest in Inner Mongolia has been rare in recent years, the government struggled to suppress an aggressive Mongolian independence movement in the early 1990s.

In one of the biggest of the recent protests, some 2,000 ethnic Mongolian students took to the streets in the city of Xilinhot on Wednesday, according to Amnesty International, a London-based rights group. On Friday, hundreds of protesters marched on government offices in Shuluun Huh Banner, calling on Chinese authorities to give greater respect and rights to traditional Mongolian herders in the region, the group reported. A banner is a traditional Mongolian division for land and is roughly equivalent to a county—the basic administrative unit in other parts of China.

In a bid to quell the protests, the region’s top Communist Party official met with students on Friday. “Please rest assured, teachers and students, the suspects will punished severely and quickly, in accordance with legal procedures,” said the party chief, Hu Chunhua, according to a report by the state-run Inner Mongolia Daily.

Phone calls to police public-relations departments in multiple areas affected by the protests went unanswered Sunday.

Inner Mongolia, designated one of China’s “autonomous regions” due to its sizable ethnic minority population, has seen little of the strife witnessed in other parts of northern and western China, particularly the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where protests have turned deadly in recent years. Clashes between Han and Uyghur ethnic groups in July 2009 in the northwestern province of Xinjiang left nearly 200 dead. Similar unrest in 2008 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa killed about 20, according to government totals.

“The protests are a wake-up call for the authorities,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asian-Pacific deputy director. “As in other minority areas, authorities must start heeding the message rather than attacking the messengers.”

Inner Mongolia has become an increasingly important coal-producing region in recent years. It has more than 730 billion metric tons of verified coal deposits with annual output of around 600 million metric tons, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. The region is at the center of massive government infrastructure-improvement efforts, which aim to make inland China’s resources more easily available to the country’s resource-hungry east.

—Yang Jie contributed to this article.
Write to Brian Spegele at [email protected]