Friday, June 03, 2011

Protests break calm in China's Inner Mongolia area

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press May 31, 2011  BEIJING – Calls for justice by Mongols in the resource-rich, prosperous borderland of northern China have shattered the calm there to which Chinese leaders have grown accustomed.  Clashes that left two Mongols dead in mid-May triggered protests in several cities and towns last week that have become the largest demonstrations in the Inner Mongolia region in 20 years. The government has responded with a broad clampdown, pouring police into the streets, disrupting Internet service and confining high school and university students to campus.  The strategy appears to thwarted major demonstrations in the regional capital of Hohhot, though a witness and monitoring group said one group attempted to march on government offices on Monday but were turned back by police. Several dozen protesters were detained, the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center said.  There were no reports of protests on Tuesday and people reached by telephone at travel agencies, hotels, fast food restaurants and shops in Hohhot said they know of no demonstrations.  Staff at government offices, three local universities, and government-controlled Muslim and Buddhist religious institutions refused to comment in a likely sign that a media blackout has been ordered.  Hohhot's main downtown square has been cordoned off with crime scene tape and paramilitary policemen stationed along its outer edge, according to photos taken Sunday and posted on the Website of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. Riot police vehicles were parked along side streets, while officers also guarded the gates of local universities to prevent students from leaving or outsiders from entering.  Prevented from marching, students have instead staged small demonstrations and acts of defiance on campus, including throwing Chinese-language textbooks out of dormitory windows, the center said. Teachers were also being confined to campuses, it said.  Official Communist Party newspapers on Tuesday also carried front page reports emphasizing government support for herders and Mongolian culture — an apparent bid to address protesters' major concerns.  The People's Daily said 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) was paid to herders each year to compensate them for not raising livestock as part of efforts to preserve fragile pasturelands. Such payments could raise a herding family's annual income to 70,000 yuan ($10,7000), considerably more than the 40,000 yuan ($6,170) they would have earned from selling their livestock, the paper said.  The Guangming Daily said 2 billion yuan ($308 million) has been set aside for cultural projects over the coming five years.  Local officials have also vowed further measures to regulate the heavily polluting mining industry that has spurred deep resentment among Mongols.  While most Chinese media outlets have avoided direct mention of the protests, the party's outspoken Global Times tabloid said they must be viewed "rationally" and accused foreign media of exaggerating their size and seriousness.  The protests mark a rattling turn of events for Chinese leaders, who have long battled ethnic unrest by Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang but who have seen Inner Mongolia as a model, its economy booming and its Mongols integrated into the mainstream. On Monday, President Hu Jintao gathered the Communist Party's powerful Politburo to discuss what it said is the urgent need to reduce social tensions and promote fairness.  The stress on economic success that made Chinese leaders complacent and many Mongols satisfied — and a lack of interest in pushing minority rights — is fueling the strains that have burst into the open.  A mining boom has enriched some but pushed further to the margins an already dwindling number of herders — whose roaming the grasslands with their herds of cattle, goats and sheep lies at the core of Mongol identity. Meanwhile a new generation of Mongol students is coming of age wired to the Internet in a time of relative affluence and are questioning what it means to be Mongol.  Inner Mongolia, with its grasslands and deserts, runs across northern China, separating it from the independent country of Mongolia. For centuries, Chinese rulers have long cast a wary eye north, fearing the nomadic tribes that periodically swept south and toppled dynasties.  Members of China's Han majority trickled into Inner Mongolia, often fleeing famine and poverty. But the flow increased after the founding of the communist state in 1949, and has turned into a flood in recent years on the back of the boom in mining, especially of coal.  Coal production has soared threefold over the past five years, reaching 782 million tons last year, making it the leading producer of China's main energy source, according to government statistics. Mongols today make up less than 20 percent of the region's population of 24 million and many speak little or no Mongolian as a result of being educated in Chinese — a fate Tibetans and Xinjiang's native Turkic Muslim Uighurs fear befalling them.  Government policies in some cases meant to help have further alienated many Mongolians. Limits on the size of herds intended to preserve grazing land are deeply unpopular because they reduce rural incomes, meanwhile mining concessions are given out to Chinese.  Moves to fence in pastures and relocate herders to more remote areas have backfired by causing overgrazing and making it more difficult to move animal products to market.  The flashpoints for the latest unrest came from the mining boom. On May 10, herders angry at coal haulers for driving over their grazing lands blocked a road and one truck driver struck and killed a herder. A few days later, a group of Mongols went to a coal mine to complain and got into a fight in which a Chinese miner rammed a forklift into one of the Mongols, killing him.  Authorities have arrested two Chinese in the first death and said Monday that a Chinese miner would be put on trial for murder in the second case. The swiftness of the response highlights how worried Chinese leaders are.  At Monday's meeting, the Politburo said easing social tensions and promoting fairness is critical. "Solving these problems is both urgent and demands long-term effort," it said.

No comments: