Parts of Inner Mongolia, the region that forms much of China’s northern border, have been put under tight control following protests touched off by the hit-and-run death of a herder who was run over by a coal truck. The killing of Mergen, who like some ethnic Mongolians goes by a single name, has raised concerns about development and the exploitation of natural resources in the vast region that forms much of China’s northern border. It has also touched off anger among some ethnic Mongolians at the large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, the country’s largest ethnic group, over the past several decades.
Mergen’s death on May 11 came after a group of herders blocked a convoy of coal trucks from moving across grazing lands. According to reports from Mongolian bloggers, a Han truck driver declared that his vehicle was insured, and the life of a Mongolian herder wasn’t worth that much anyway, then drove into the herders, killing Mergen. Last week multiple protests involving hundreds of herders and students have hit towns across the Xinlingol league, according to the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), an advocacy group run by Inner Mongolia exiles. (A league is a traditional Mongolian administrative unit, equivalent to a Chinese prefecture.)
Video, said to be of a May 25 protest in Inner Mongolia’s Xinlingol league:
As protests began to spread last week, the authorities in Inner Mongolia stepped up countermeasures. Large numbers of riot police have been dispatched to protest sites. Students have been blocked from leaving campuses and online discussion of the demonstrations restricted, the SMHRIC reported. Foreign journalists have also been stopped from accessing some areas. A call for protests in Inner Mongolia’s capital of Hohhot and other major cities in the region has been spreading online, but the heavy police presence makes large demonstrations unlikely.
On Friday Ren Yaping, the deputy party secretary for Inner Mongolia, visited the Mergen’s mother and wife to pay his condolences. Ren told the family that the highest levels of the provincial leadership were paying attention to the case, now known as the “May 11 incident,” and the driver, who has been arrested, would be “severely punished according to the law,” according to a report in the Inner Mongolia Daily.
For the past few years Inner Mongolia has been untroubled by the large-scale ethnic violence that has hit other Chinese frontier regions including Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. When I last visited Inner Mongolia in 2009 the region was enjoying a healthy influx of tourists. Some Chinese tourists like to visit the country’s less-developed border areas, and Inner Mongolia was seen as a safer alternative to Tibet or Xinjiang, where some recent protests have ended in attacks on Han Chinese. So far the Inner Mongolia protests have been largely peaceful. But the region’s image of as a bastion of calm is surely fading.