Mongols Protest in Inner Mongolia After Clashes Over Grasslands Use, Mining Operations

July 1, 2011

Protests occurred in Inner Mongolia between May 23 and May 31, 2011, following two separate confrontations between workers from mining operations (some reportedly Han Chinese) and herders and residents near the mining operations (reportedly including Mongols and at least one Manchu), during which workers reportedly killed a herder and resident. Protesters called on authorities to prosecute the alleged murderers and also called for protecting herders' rights and Mongol culture. Authorities reportedly clashed with protesters in one case and have taken some protesters into detention. Authorities addressed some of the protesters' grievances but did not acknowledge a connection between the protests and official restrictions on Mongol culture. In the aftermath of the protests, security reportedly remains tight.


Protests occurred in cities and county-level areas across the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR) between May 23 and May 31, 2011, following two separate confrontations in mid-May between workers from mining operations (some reportedly Han Chinese) and herders and residents near the mining operations (reportedly including Mongols and at least one Manchu) who were protesting the mining. In each case, workers from the mining company reportedly killed one person: a Mongol herder killed in the first case and a Manchu resident killed in the second. Following the incidents, Mongols held a series of demonstrations reportedly calling for authorities to prosecute the alleged murderer of the Mongol herder (reports vary on the connection between the protests and the second murder of the Manchu man), as well as protesting government curbs on grasslands use and Mongol culture. Protests reportedly appeared to be peaceful and numbered mostly in the hundreds, though protests on two days reportedly had protesters in the thousands, many of whom were students. Authorities reportedly clashed with protesters in one case and reportedly have taken dozens of protesters into detention, as well as people believed to be involved in organizing the protests.

In the aftermath of the protests, residents in the IMAR reported that security in the region remained tight, with high numbers of security forces stationed in the area and curbs on the Internet and other communication tools. Authorities have acknowledged some of the protesters' grievances in a way unseen during widescale protests and riots in Tibetan areas and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2008 and 2009, but also have cast some blame on activists and overseas groups they deemed to have contributed to social unrest through the protests. Authorities have not acknowledged any connection between the protests and official curbs on Mongol culture. In June, authorities in the IMAR sentenced the suspects in both murder cases. Authorities also announced more economic support for the region, while reporting on steps to convey the government perspective on the protests.

"5-11" and "5-15" Incidents

Late on May 10, 2011, Mongol herders in West (Right) Ujumqin Banner (an administrative area equivalent to a county, transliterated into Mandarin as Xiwuzhumuqin qi), in Xilingol League (an administrative area equivalent to a prefecture, transliterated as Xilinguolei meng) reportedly clashed with workers at a mining company, according to overseas and Chinese government reports. (See, e.g., a May 17 report from the West Ujumqin Banner government Web site (cached), May 19 report from the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), and May 29 report from the IMAR Public Security Department.) The West Ujumqin report said that herders affected by dust and noise from mining freight vehicles passing through grasslands, including at night, attempted to block passage of the vehicles that evening. The SMHRIC report described the clash as a "day long confrontation" involving over 40 herders and hundreds of mining company workers, after petitioning efforts by the herders reportedly had failed to stop coal trucks from trespassing through the grasslands. The IMAR Public Security Bureau report said the confrontation began during the day, involving nearly 20 herders, and that people's police officers stopped a fight between a herder named Mergen and workers named Li and Lu. Afterward, however, the two workers reportedly hit Mergen with a vehicle, resulting in his death at the scene, according to the report. PSB officials received news of the fight early on May 11 and have labeled the incident the "5-11" case.

On May 15, 2011, residents in Abag Banner (Abaga qi), Xilingol, also clashed with coal mining workers while reportedly attempting to stop mining operations for a second day in a row, according to a May 18 report from the Xilingol Government Web site (cached) and the report from the IMAR Public Security Department. Residents were protesting dust, noise, and water issues connected to the mining operations, according to the reports. Clashes escalated during the day, though some were staved off by police, according to the IMAR Public Security Department, and a forklift driver reportedly hit Yan Wenlong with his vehicle. Yan died at the scene. (Yan is identified by Xinhua, via China Internet Information Center, May 30, as an ethnic Mongol but identified by reports from the Xilingol government, containing more detailed information on Yan, as Manchu. See the May 18 report and a May 26 report (cached). Chinese sources do not identify the residents as herders.) Other people reportedly were injured that day (14 people according to Xinhua, 7 according to the sources from within the IMAR).

Protests Begin May 23

Following the incidents, herders―reportedly in the hundreds―protested in West Ujumqin Banner on May 23. Protests occurred again on May 25, with many student participants, and reportedly continued daily or almost daily through May 31. Reports indicate that protests typically numbered in the hundreds, though the May 25 and 26 protests reportedly numbered in the thousands. Sites of protest included Xilinhot municipality, Xilingol (May 25); Bordered Yellow Banner (Xianghuang qi, Huveed Shar), East (Left) Ujumqin Banners, Xilingol, and Alxa League (Alashan) (May 26); Plain Blue Banner (Zhenglan qi, Shuluun Huh) in Xilingol and Ordos municipality (May 27); Chifeng (Ulanhad )(May 28); and IMAR capital Hohhot (May 30, May 31). For reporting on the protests, see, e.g., reports from the SMHRIC (May 23, May 25, May 26, May 27, May 28, May 29, May 30, June 1, June 4), Reuters (May 27), Agence France-Presse (AFP) (May 25, via Google; May 27, via Sino Daily), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) (May 25, May 26, May 27, June 1).

Reports from the SMHRIC and elsewhere (see, e.g., RFA reports), based on sources in the region and slogans shouted at the protests, connected the events to the May 10 murder of Mongol herder Mergen as well as to broader grievances over official curbs on Mongols' rights, including restrictions on grasslands use. A May 30 New York Times article linked both the May 10 and May 15 alleged murders to the protests, and authorities within the IMAR have cited both events as sources of unrest in the region. (See below for more information on official reactions to the alleged murders and protests.)

Based on reporting on the protests, cited above, protests appeared to be peaceful and some appear to have been dispersed quickly (SMHRIC May 29, NY Times). In some cases, authorities reportedly took people into detention, including more than 30 or 40 people on May 27 (SMHRIC, May 28, May 30; RFA, May 27) and approximately 50 in Hohhot (SMHRIC, June 4, describing a total of at least 90 people from Xilingol and Hohhot who reportedly remained in detention as of that date). Authorities also reportedly took into custody university lecturers and students in the aftermath of the protests, including three teachers who were formally detained (RFA, June 7). According to a June 17 report from SMHRIC, most of "a hundred or more" protesters who were "arrested, detained and beaten," remained in detention as of that report's publication. During the protests, sources reported heavy police presence and intervention in some cases (Reuters, May 27, SMHRIC, May 27; NY Times), and an unconfirmed report said that police drove a car into protesters on May 27, injuring four people (SMHRIC, May 27). Residents inside the IMAR reported on the presence of roadblocks in some areas (AFP, May 27) as well as "martial law" (Reuters, May 27), although this could not be confirmed and may have been used by residents to indicate the heavier security.

Sources cited in multiple overseas reports indicated students at universities and other schools in the IMAR were not allowed to leave campus. (See, e.g., RFA, May 31; AFP, May 30, via Yahoo; SMHRIC, May 30). On May 31, Inner Mongolia Normal University posted a notice requiring students to apply to leave the campus. Earlier, the IMAR Education Department issued a notice to education bureaus in the region noting that under "incitement" from a few people with ulterior motives following the reported murders, some ethnic minority students collectively petitioned out of "desire to understand what really happened," and authorities were able to make most students "understand" the situation, according to a copy of the notice posted May 28 on the Web site of the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University (cached). The notice called for schools to take responsibility for students and organize activities within the schools. Authorities also took other steps to prevent other people from participating. The Xilinhot Civil Affairs Bureau held a meeting for cadres in its bureau, instructing them not to participate in the protests. The meeting also provided information on the "5-11" and "5-15" incidents, called on cadres to grasp "public opinion guidance," and suggested that heads of households carry out "ideology work" directed at their children, according to a May 30 report on the Xilinhot Civil Affairs Bureau Web site.

Response of Government Authorities in China

As authorities curbed protests and increased security in the region, official sources appeared to acknowledge some of the protesters' concerns stemming from the fights and murders earlier in the month, but they did not address broader grievances over curbs on Mongol culture. Authorities also cast blame on people deemed to agitate unrest, including overseas groups. A PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson reportedly said that authorities "will respond positively" to the "reasonable claims by the people," according to a June 1 BBC report, but criticized "those overseas trying to play up this incident for ulterior motives..." A May 31 editorial from the Global Times, which operates under the People's Daily, the official news media of the Communist Party, said that "some of [the protesters'] requests" were "reasonable," while stating that the protests were "not a politically driven demonstration" but rather part of "social conflicts" that occur throughout China. The Communist Party head of Xilingol reportedly described the presence of "mass incidents" in the region as "mainly premeditated, organised and instigated by some people both within and outside our borders with ulterior motives," according to a May 30 AFP report, via Yahoo!.

In the aftermath of the protests, authorities reportedly continue to enforce a range of security measures, including widescale deployment of armed security and military forces, according to sources and a document cited by overseas media (SMHRIC, June 4; RFA, June 5). The heightened security measures also coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the Chinese government's violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement. In addition, authorities prosecuted suspects in both murders. In the "5-11" cases, West Ujumqin public security bureau officers formally arrested two murder suspects, Li Lindong and Lu Xiangdong, on May 21, along with two people suspected of impeding operation of official business. By May 26, the case was under investigation by the Xilingol procuratorate, according to the May 29 report from the IMAR Public Security Department. The Xilingol Intermediate People's Court tried and sentenced Li to death and Lu to life in prison on June 8, according to a Xinhua report from that day (via China Daily). In the "5-15" case, authorities reported that they took "compulsory measures" against 15 people from the mining operations, including 1 person, Sun Shuning, arrested as a murder suspect, 2 criminally detained for intentional injury, and 12 placed in administrative detention on suspicion of picking fights, according to the IMAR Public Security Department report.

In addition, authorities "warned" or "reprimanded" five residents who had engaged in "extreme" behavior. The Xilingol Intermediate People's Court tried and sentenced Sun to death on June 21 for the murder of Yan Wenlong, according to a Xinhua report (via Investor's Business Daily, June 21). According to an earlier report from Inner Mongolia Daily, via Northern News, May 28, IMAR Party Secretary Hu Chunhua made reference to both incidents in a meeting reportedly intended to address students' and teachers' uncertainties as to their "understanding" and "ideology" regarding recent events, and he pledged to handle criminal suspects in accordance with the law.

Authorities in the IMAR also pledged to carry out a broader one-month cleanup of mining industries and to shut down mines that infringe on the rights of herding communities, according to a Xinhua report (via China Daily, June 1). According to the May 26 report on the Xilingol government Web site, authorities in Abag Banner said they had closed the mining operations involved in the Yan Wenlong case, would investigate others, and investigate the influence of mining operations on residents' lives. IMAR authorities also pledged 78.8 billion yuan (US$12.2 million) in economic support for the region, including in pastoral areas, in fields such as infrastructure and education, according to a May 29 Xinhua report. The report cited the funding as a means to support projects in the region to raise incomes, as well as resettle herders. The funding builds on existing development programs in the region and educational programs to support minority education. (See the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report for additional information). The following month, at an executive meeting of the State Council on June 15, officials called for steps to promote the region's economic development and environment, as well as to "promote ethnic unity and social stability," according to a June 16 Xinhua report.

Controls over Internet and Press

As protests continued, authorities reportedly tightened controls over social media, searched the residences of Web site administrators, interrogated some bloggers and Internet users, shut down chat rooms, and blocked access to Web sites that mentioned the protests. (See, e.g., SMHRIC, May 27, May 28; Guardian, May 30). Foreign journalists have reported being blocked from reporting in some areas and being harassed or interrogated by authorities (AFP, May 30; Guardian, May 27; Reporters without Borders, May 31). In the aftermath of the protests, SMHRIC reported (June 4) that most Mongolian-language Web sites have been closed or restricted in their functions, while phone communication has been restricted. IMAR residents also reported limited access to the Internet and text messaging (Associated Press, via Kansas City Star, June 1).

Curbs on Grasslands Use

The recent protests have drawn a spotlight on longstanding grasslands policies in the IMAR. As noted in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2010 and 2009 Annual Reports and related analysis, programs in the IMAR and elsewhere in China have imposed grazing bans, for the stated purpose of improving grasslands ecology, and required some herders to resettle from grasslands and abandon pastoral livelihoods. Scholars have questioned the efficacy of the policies in ameliorating grasslands degradation, while communities affected―including Mongols, Tibetans, and Kazakhs―have reported forced resettlement, inadequate compensation, minimal recourse for grievances, and poor living conditions, along with challenges in upholding traditional pastoral livelihoods and preserving their cultures. Protests connected to grasslands use have taken place in the past in the IMAR (see, e.g., SMHRIC, September 3, 2009). At a State Council meeting on grasslands policy in April 2011, authorities called for "more forceful policy measures" for "speeding up development of pastoral areas, ensuring the state's ecological security, and promoting ethnic unity and border stability," along with "a more vigorous employment policy" for "encouraging herders to change [modes of] production and occupations." In addition, central government authorities launched a system in 2011 to provide new subsidies and awards for abiding by grazing bans, which IMAR authorities reported implementing in May, according to a May 31 People's Daily article. In late 2010, an official in Xilingol stated that authorities would resettle at least 100,000 herders away from grasslands, while allowing 50,000 herders to stay in pastoral areas to "retain the traditional characteristics of the grassland culture," according to a November 6, 2010, Xinhua report.

For more information on conditions in the IMAR, see Section II―Ethnic Minority Rights in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.