But Chinese Mongolians are still asserting their identity
BAYIN was three when he moved from the eastern grasslands of Inner Mongolia to Chifeng, a city of some 1m people. Like hundreds of thousands of ethnic Mongolian pastoralists forced to settle by the government, his family has gone from rural yurt to urban block of flats within a generation. Bayin, who is 32, moves seamlessly between staccato Mongolian and tonal Mandarin. In many ways he exemplifies the successful assimilation of China’s 6m ethnic Mongolians, most of them in Inner Mongolia in China’s north.
Yet Bayin lives largely within a Mongolian world. He designs Mongolian robes for a living and wore them to get married in 2012; of his 300 or so wedding guests only a handful were Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90% of China’s population. His daughter attends a Mongolian-language kindergarten. He likes to watch videos of Mongolian life in the 1950s.
The Chinese government has long struggled to bring the country’s borderlands under control. It took a decade for the Communist Party to subdue Yunnan in the southwest and Tibet after it came to power in 1949. In Tibet and in the far western province of Xinjiang ethnic tensions still sometimes flare into violence; both have separatist movements that have been brutally suppressed. Ethnic relations have not always been easy in Inner Mongolia either: Mongolians frequently clashed with the authorities until the early 1990s.
In recent decades, however, the province has been largely quiescent. It does not have a separatist movement—a surprise given that Mongolia, an independent, democratic country populated by 3m people of the same ethnicity, lies just to the north. Local gripes are more often expressed in economic terms than in ethnic ones. It helps that many ethnic Mongolians are visually indistinguishable from Han Chinese, says Enze Han of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. They are far more likely to marry a Han than minorities in western China. Many more youths leave the province to find work elsewhere too. Small wonder that the Communist Party is trying to replicate at high speed in Tibet and Xinjiang policies that have helped it subdue Inner Mongolia over many decades.