To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement.
First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy.
Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn.
Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the attention of the public and his critics. All this achieved was to further damage China’s credibility on the world stage.
If this were not bad enough, much of southwest and northeast China has since June been submerged under water due to catastrophic seasonal flooding.
China appears to be on the brink of collapse.
Faced with intense internal and external pressures, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might be expected to avoid generating fresh disputes. The last thing China needs right now is more chaos.
However, the CCP decided to stir up another hornet’s nest by tampering with the school curriculum in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
A new edict from Beijing requires that all classes taught at schools in the region, except for Mongolian-language classes, must be taught in Mandarin, not the mother tongue of Mongolians.
Unsurprisingly, Mongolians are up in arms over the CCP’s attack on their culture.
Looking from the outside in, the CCP’s actions appear foolhardy: Why are they bringing yet more trouble on themselves?
However, there is more to the CCP’s actions than meets the eye.
In March, the government of the Republic of Mongolia, which Beijing refers to as Outer Mongolia, passed a new national curriculum that requires its schools to teach all classes in traditional Mongolian script, also known as Hudum Mongol bichig, by 2025.
The Republic of Mongolia switched from traditional Mongolian script in 1946 after it gained independence from China, in favor of a Cyrillic script, also known as the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet.
Official documentation between the Republic of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia is to this day still conducted using Middle Mongol, the language spoken during the 13th and 14th century Mongolian Empire. Middle Mongol remains an official written language recognized by China and the Republic of Mongolia.
In the past, when China’s economy was thriving and its national strength appeared unassailable, the Republic of Mongolia switching back to traditional Mongolian script would likely not have been a big issue for Beijing.
However, with China’s economy a mess and its national strength diminished, the Republic of Mongolia reverting to traditional Mongolian script would, on a cultural level, act as a powerful magnetic pull to Inner Mongolia residents who share a common culture and language.
This would be a nightmare scenario for Beijing. After all, throughout Chinese history, Mongolia has, either directly or indirectly, been the cause of collapse for all of China’s dynasties.
This might still be the case today, with China’s old adversary, Russia, acting as the Republic of Mongolia’s patron.
In 2018, Russia donated a large cache of military equipment to the Republic of Mongolia, as well as providing training for its military officers to help it fend off a Chinese threat.
If Inner Mongolia, under the cultural pull of the Republic of Mongolia, also returned to using traditional Mongolian script in 2025, a Crimea-type situation could occur, where Inner Mongolia would break away culturally from China and move closer to the long-held dream of Mongolians of reuniting their nation.
In such a scenario, a weakened China surrounded on all sides by a US-led alliance of nations, including Taiwan, would be powerless to prevent Inner Mongolia from returning to the Republic of Mongolia.
This is why Beijing has decided to strike first and gain the upper hand. It is destroying the native language of Mongolians in Inner Mongolia in an attempt to sever the cultural ties that bind them to their brethren.
John Yu is a civil servant
Translated by Edward Jones
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