China Extends Hand and Fist to Protesters
By ANDREW JACOBS
Published: June 1, 2011
HOHHOT, China — As riot police officers pounced on ethnic Mongolian protesters on Monday, hauling at least a dozen into waiting vehicles, a young college student took refuge at a nearby cafe, shivering with fear. He checked a metal teapot for imaginary listening devices and glanced repeatedly at the door while explaining how soldiers had prevented thousands of his fellow students at Hohhot Nationality University from joining the rally.
“First they shut down our Internet, then they interrupted our cellphone service and finally they imprisoned us at school,” said the student, an intense, foppishly dressed literature major who was not on campus when the lockdown took effect last Saturday. “The students are afraid, but more than that, they are angry.”
Over the past week, as rallies protesting the deaths of two Mongolians run down by drivers who are Han Chinese spread across this sparsely populated expanse of grassland and desert, officials of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have sought to stanch them through a classically Chinese carrot-and-stick approach to ethnic instability. They have announced a raft of lavishly financed development projects and vowed to prosecute the drivers accused of killing the two Mongolians, both of whom were struck last month during protests against mining operations that have marred the fragile landscape.
The government this week added to the menu of appeasements, promising to spend $308 million, to promote Mongolian culture and another $200 million, on student subsidies. On Wednesday officials announced a monthlong overhaul of the region’s lucrative coal industry “to ensure safe production practices, protect the environment, and address the welfare of local residents,” Xinhua, the state news agency, reported.
But the authorities, never shy about baring their teeth, have also rolled out a formidable show of force, cordoning off parks and public squares with paramilitary police and threatening to dismiss government workers who join the rallies.
They have also blocked entrances and exits to at least a half-dozen campuses here in Hohhot, the regional capital of 2.6 million whose population is more than 87 percent Han, the predominant ethnic group in China. Despite the official state of emergency, classes have been taking place as usual, although Internet access has been cut and wireless signal-blocking devices — four-stories tall and clearly visible from the street — have been playing havoc with cellphone reception.
An official document circulating on the Internet says the open-ended confinement of college and some high school students, now in its fourth day, is designed to “isolate bad people,” weed out the hostile and the subversive among the study body and ultimately “safeguard our regime while protecting the achievements of the opening up policy.”
Students, especially at overwhelmingly Mongolian schools, have not been entirely quiescent. On Sunday, students at three colleges staged impromptu protests on campus after being blocked from leaving, according to students. At Inner Mongolia University, students showed their displeasure by tossing Chinese-language textbooks out classroom and dormitory windows.
School officials have promised to eject from school anyone caught protesting or even escaping from campus. Reached by phone on Wednesday, an exasperated administrator at Inner Mongolia University said no one at school knew when the sequestering might end. “Everyone just has to be patient,” he said.
Public security agents in Xilinhot, a city where nearly 2,000 people demonstrated last week, have apparently run out of patience. According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, an advocacy group in New York, the police have been summoning students who sent out multiple text messages about the protests. One student in Hohhot, who dashed off a similar note on QQ, a popular instant messaging program, was promptly picked up by the authorities, the group said. Another student who made his way to the Monday protest said he was desperately trying to get a doctor’s note to explain his disappearance from campus.
Although news about the turmoil has been scrubbed from the Web, local Communist Party officials and the police have been painting the protesters as subversives intent on fanning ethnic disunity. Asked about the demonstrations on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu echoed that theme, blaming unnamed overseas forces for stirring up the trouble. “Their attempts are doomed to failure,” she said during a regular news briefing.
In interviews, some of which took place through the wrought-iron fences surrounding their campuses, several students objected to such characterizations, saying they were driven to protest by news of the death of Mergen, the shepherd killed by a coal-filled truck on May 15, and by stories about the ecological destruction wrought by Chinese-owned mines.
But their passion quickly turned to more esoteric matters: the disappearance of the region’s ancient grazing culture and pride in an identity that has been diluted by decades of migration from other parts of China.
“I’m tired of seeing my language disappear while all these banners at school shout about promoting the Mongolian tongue,” said Naranbaatar, a history student at Hohhot Nationality University who like many Mongolians uses one name.
Another student, speaking by cellphone, said students were becoming increasingly agitated. “We are not sheep or cows,” said the student, who described himself as Xiao Ming, a Chinese name. “The longer they keep us locked away, the angrier we will become.”
The restrictions, however, are not ironclad. Students able to produce a train or plane ticket can get an exit pass, but only after gaining the signatures of three university officials — their dean, their department head and the university’s all-powerful Communist Party secretary.
On Tuesday night, Yao Xiaolu, 24, emerged triumphantly from Inner Mongolia Finance and Economics College with a suitcase in hand, having secured a plane ticket that would take her to a summer job in Beijing. Although administrators had not articulated the reasons behind the protests or the restrictions, Ms. Yao, an international trade major who is Han, described the rallies as a “rebellion” — evidence that the official propaganda has been somewhat effective.
“Most students I know aren’t interested in rioting,” she said. “Right now the main thing is everyone is just bored.”
No.1376 2011/06/02(Thu) 21:10:16