China has developed a reputation for being an unforgiving bully towards its 55 ethnic minorities. This is hardly surprising, given the consistently repressive policies adopted across the allegedly autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang over the last decade. Policies pushing these outer regions into line with the rest of China have been damned by most, including Ilham Tohti, an intellectual from the Uyghur ethnic group. He describes the situation as "worse even than colonialism".
More recently though, the previously media-shy autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, with a minority population of around 5 million, has started to gain attention. In 2011, the first large-scale unrest in two decades broke out when a Mongolian herder was killed by a coal truck driver, and last year there was further cause for unease when protests against land seizure were brutally suppressed near the city of Tongliao.
Several Mongolian minority human rights groups have sprung up abroad as a result, including the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. Such groups are where most media reports derive their information from, and it therefore becomes tempting to draw comparisons between Inner Mongolia and other autonomous regions, reflecting a further example of China's apathetic approach towards its minorities.
But I'd argue that this attitude comes from an over-simplification of Inner Mongolia's current economical, cultural, and environmental issues. The recent discontent has arisen due to the authorities' enthusiastic 'recovering grassland ecosystem' policy pursued over the last few years, where previously nomadic minorities, including Mongols and ten other minorities residing in the region, are seen to have been be turfed off their land by coal-hungry Han (the ethnic group which makes up about 92 per cent of China's population). As a result, they are jerked in to the glare of modernity, or worse still made into rare museum pieces lamenting the loss of their herds and grasslands, their unwritten languages and practical skills.
These accusations are not unfounded, as hundreds of thousands of minorities across the region have been forcefully encouraged to move into permanent homes on the outskirts of Han cities. However, it's not these cultures that the government has purposefully set out to destroy. It's their medieval lifestyles that are incompatible with a developing China that is exploiting coal mining opportunities, while simultaneously attempting to reclaim mass amounts of land. China's number one concern is economic prosperity, and with Inner Mongolia's rich natural resources, it now has the strongest economic growth of China's five autonomous regions. At the same time, the country now faces 2.6 million square-kilometres of desertified land, in part due to more modern and industrialising activities from Han farmers, but also thanks to problems of overgrazing, logging, and expanding populations, directly linked to animal husbandry lifestyles favoured by the minorities.
Clinging on to a minority culture is not a priority, but that's not to say that China's aim of a homogenised standard of living across the country is wholly bad. Reports from the area tend to focus on relocation schemes leading to the loss of traditional lifestyles and struggles in adapting to a modern world. Forty-two year old Bu Lie Tuo Tian of Ewenke ethnicity (one of the four main minorities in the region), who I met just outside Genhe city, reflected nostalgically on life in Shangyang Ge Qi forest before her family was relocated. "We were freer, we could hunt and move as we pleased, and we felt at home when we were close to our reindeer." More reluctantly acknowledged are the severe issues with alcoholism, and the many stories of tribe members freezing to death and mistakenly shooting each other whilst out hunting bears (up till last year, when their guns were unofficially confiscated).
From a modern day perspective, at least all of the recently relocated minority groups have seen their prospects significantly improve since their hunting days. The government has not only provided chalet-style housing within a tight-knit community, electricity, monthly welfare payments and vastly improved infrastructure, but also fresh opportunities in the recently revamped tourism industry. When the topic of Bu's 17-year-old son is raised, both her and her husband Xiao Liangku are regretful that their only child has chosen to leave his grassroots behind and move to the city to further his education, but at the same time, there is a strong feeling of pride. They also know that if their son is to make his mark, he must learn Mandarin and embrace a Han lifestyle.
Reluctance to change and grief over dying cultures are prevalent, and as ever the media is more than eager to criticise China's human rights policies. But it's difficult to say that these changes have been purely negative. It seems to me like China is stuck between a rock and a hard place when dealing with minorities here; condemned for dragging them into modern China, but also condemned if it leaves them behind. I’m not suggesting that their iron fist approach is healthy, but perhaps its time to consider that China too wants no child left behind.