China Makes Effort to Cool Unrest in Inner Mongolia

y BRIAN SPEGELE

HOHHOT, China—Authorities in Inner Mongolia sought to calm some of the worst ethnic strife in two decades by pledging to address concerns of the local Mongol population about the environmental costs of mining in the resource-rich region, and by announcing that a Han Chinese will be tried for murder over the death of a young Mongol man.

Police in riot gear on Monday sealed off the main square of Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia that has been transformed over the past several years into a boomtown amid strong demand for the region's coal and other natural resources to fuel China's rapid industrial growth.

Hundreds of People's Armed Police in camouflage uniform stood at attention at five-meter intervals around the perimeter of Xinhua Square. Hundreds more riot police dressed in black patrolled the square. Police buses with tinted windows waited nearby.

More than a hundred police in armored personnel carriers and many clad in riot gear waited outside the main entrance of Inner Mongolia Nationality University Monday night. Non-students were prevented from entering the campus, where many ethnic Mongolians students study, and cellphone data communication was cut off.

Outside the university gates, two second-year Mongol students sat sipping beers, chewing on grilled lamb and watching police. They said unrest in other parts of Inner Mongolia was a hot topic among the Mongol university students, but said it seemed unlikely that the protests would spread to Hohhot, where the police and military presence was more substantial than in the countryside. Still, they said, in places where Chinese influence had grown so large, they could never feel at home.

The unrest "is not an economic matter," one of the students said. "It's about protecting the environment, protecting our traditional culture."

The deaths of two ethnic Mongolians at the hands of Chinese workers earlier this month set off the kind of ethnic upheaval that has plagued Muslim and Tibetan areas in the far west of China in recent years, and threatened to open a new front in a long struggle by authorities to maintain control along China's strategically sensitive periphery.

"Our situation is just like the ones in Xinjiang and Tibet," said a Mongolian shopkeeper selling dried meats on the square. "Ours just isn't as severe," she said. She declined to say whether she supported the protesters.

The security forces were responding to Internet calls for demonstrations in the city after a week of student-led protests in other parts of the vast region bordering Mongolia and Russia in northeast China.
Internet censors blocked calls for protests on China's most popular microblogging services. Search terms including "Inner Mongolia" remained blocked Monday on Sina Weibo, China's most active Twitter-like website.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported Monday that Inner Mongolia's government will investigate the impact of the mining industry on the livelihoods of local people, which is at the heart of recent disputes. It didn't provide details on potential policy changes, but is the government's first response to protestors who complain that economic development at breakneck speed and unrestrained mining activities are destroying local lands and traditional Mongolian culture.

Mongolians, who today make up less than 20% of the region's population, have traditionally used its sweeping grasslands for animal grazing and herding.

Barry Sautman, an expert on ethnic Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the protests are rooted in a desire to protect traditional Mongolian culture. Conflicts between local populations and miners aren't unique to Inner Mongolia, he said, but the situation "takes on an ethnic dimension" when companies are being run by Han Chinese and those who feel victimized are predominantly Mongolian.

Deadly riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 2008 were partly inspired by Tibetan resentment against competition from Chinese merchants and laborers, as well as by more generalized fears that Han Chinese settlers are overrunning Tibetan culture.

In Xinjiang, there is widespread discontent among the Muslim population that the region's oil riches are being carried away into the rest of China. In July 2009, nearly 200 people were killed in fighting between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese.

The deaths of two ethnic Mongolians this month brought to the forefront ethnic tensions bubbling beneath the surface in Inner Mongolia.

In one incident, a local herdsman, who like many Mongolians went by one name, Mergen, was struck and killed by a Chinese coal-truck driver following local complaints that the trucks were noisy and damaging the local environment, according to Xinhua. Police arrested the Chinese driver and a passenger, who attempted to flee.

In a second incident, Xinhua reported Monday that the driver of a forklift truck ran over an ethnic Mongolian man, Yan Wenlong, during a clash on May 15 over noise, dust and water pollution at a local mine. The clashes occurred in Abag banner, near the small city of Xilinhot. A banner is a traditional Mongolian division of land, roughly equivalent to a county in China, the basic level of administration. Xinhua said the driver has been charged with murder and will stand trial.

Inner Mongolia, China's third-largest province—officially designated an "autonomous region"—, is among its fastest-growing economically. It is already among the country's top coal-producing regions, with annual output of about 600 million metric tons. China's government says the region has 730 billion metric tons of verified coal deposits—increasingly needed to fuel the country's economic growth.

The region is also a key producer of so-called rare-earth elements, which are increasingly in demand in high-tech manufacturing, and are almost exclusively mined in China, which accounts for about 97% of global output.

Write to Brian Spegele at brian.spegele@wsj.com

Source:Wall Street Journal




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