China's rulers face a new type of dissent

For democracy activists, hatred in the face of state violence hasn’t worked very well. China’s Mongolian minority – now being forced to adopt Han culture – is trying new approaches.

A herder drives sheep along an alley in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China.

Before his death three years ago, Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo left this message for those who would challenge China’s communist one-party rule: “I have no enemies and no hatred.” To counter the regime’s hostility toward freedom and democracy, said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one must “dispel hatred with love.” An echo of his approach is now playing out among one of China’s ethnic minorities, some 4.2 million Mongolians living in the northern region of Inner Mongolia.

This week, an edict from Beijing required Mongolian schoolchildren to stop using their native language in half of their classes. Instead they would be forced to learn in Mandarin, the official national language of China’s ethnic Han majority. A similar draconian effort to impose Han culture – and also official party dogma – already began against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province in 2017 and the Buddhists of Tibet in 2018.

While some Mongolians protested in the streets – invoking the legend of Genghis Khan with chants like “Mongolian brothers, get on your horses!” – others did something almost unheard-of. An estimated 300,000 students did not go to school, leaving classrooms largely empty. Many teachers also joined the rare boycott, offering to teach children in their homes – in Mongolian. A few high school students began a hunger strike.

Many Mongolian police who have school-age children refused to go to work so as not to participate in the official crackdown. “I want to live by my principles,” one policeman told the Los Angeles Times.

The more that the country’s hard-line leader Xi Jinping tries to impose his harsh rule, the more the tactics of dissent in China may be shifting toward Mr. Liu’s approach. In Hong Kong, for example, many pro-democracy activists are asserting their rights in creative ways, such as expressing songs without lyrics or holding up posters without words. The meaning is clear to the millions in Hong Kong who reject authoritarian rule and the imposition of the mainland’s Han culture.

In 1989, during the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the use of nonviolent tactics was symbolized by the famous image of a lone man blocking a column of tanks. Today, many in China are searching for ways that express protest of state violence without hatred. The threat of state violence is designed to establish a prison in the thinking of people in China. Breaking out of that prison requires a courageous step away from both hate and fear.

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