Asia Program

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Inner Mongolia--Another Tibet or Xinjiang?

March 24, 2003 // 2:30pm4:00pm

Compared with Tibet and Xinjiang, China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region seems to have less ethnic tension between Han Chinese and minority people. Do most people in Inner Mongolia want greater autonomy within a Chinese state, or to separate from China altogether? What are the similarities and differences between ethnic nationalism in Mongolia and that in Tibet and Xinjiang? What are the historical roots shaping the ethnic issue? What, for the United States, are the benefits and liabilities of pushing China to give Inner Mongols greater autonomy? Three experts gathered for a March 24 seminar to explore these and related issues. The three speakers included Morris Rossabi of Columbia University and Queens College; Xiaoyuan Liu of Iowa State University, currently a Asian Policy Studies Fellow at the Wilson Center; and Uradyn E. Bulag of Hunter College and City University of New York Graduate Center.

Rossabi traced the historical roots shaping the ethnic issue in Inner Mongolia to the Qing Dynasty, when the region was conquered and explored by the Chinese Empire. Despite the collapse of the Qing Empire nearly a century ago, many Mongols retain a negative image of China, which contributed to the Pan-Mongol Movement in the early 1990s, aimed at bringing Inner Mongolia into the Republic of Mongolia. However, because of the tremendous economic influence of the Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia, it is unlikely that Inner Mongolia will be separated from China in the foreseeable future.

Xiaoyuan Liu argued that the ethnic issue in Inner Mongolia reflects China’s unfinished transformation from a traditional empire to a modern nation-state, resulting in tensions between a centralizing Chinese nationalism and several separatist nationalisms of the non-Han ethnic groups in China’s borderlands. Compared with Tibet and Xinjiang, the case of Mongolia is unique because half, Outer Mongolia, has become an independent state and another half, Inner Mongolia, remains part of China. The status quo represents both achievements and frustrations from the perspective of Mongolian nationalism. Further, ethnic nationalists in Inner Mongolia have never used religion as a means of mass mobilization. What they demand now is more autonomy, but not separation from China.

Bulag pointed out the ambiguous situation of Inner Mongolia, situated between Mongolia and China. Lacking sufficient economic resources and political power, Inner Mongolians have had no ability to become an independent nation-state, nor unification with Mongolia. What the Inner Mongols are confronting now is an unprecedented assault on their political and economic integrity as instituted in regional national autonomy system, and they are now attaining many characteristics of depoliticized cultural ethnic minority.

In brief, the three speakers agreed that the issue of Inner Mongolia is easier than Tibet or Xinjiang for Beijing to manage. However, whether Beijing will be able to accommodate the growth of ethnic consciousness among Inner Mongolians is a test for China’s new leadership.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4020

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