Tensions are high across the vast grasslands of inner Mongolia after the introduction of a Mandarin curriculum in schools.
The new policy, enforced from Tuesday, means all ethnic minority schools in the remote region will now be required to teach core subjects – politics, history, and mathematics – in Mandarin rather than Mongolian.
This echoes similar moves in Tibet and Xinjiang to assimilate local minorities into the dominant Han Chinese population.
Demonstrators said almost every Mongolian is opposed to this, warning that their children will lose fluency in their mother tongue, reported Al Jazeera.
Mass protests involving parents, students and pensioners have erupted across the region, with thousands of students boycotting classes.
Young demonstrators swarm the streets, shouting in Mongolian: “I swear to the death that I will always learn my mother tongue.”
The police response to the unrest has been heavy-handed. Several parents were beaten and arrested by police late on Monday for refusing to send their children to schools that use Chinese as the only language of instruction.
Boarding schools were surrounded by hundreds of paramilitary police to prevent children from leaving.
Protesting WeChat messages and photos of petitions written in the traditional vertical Mongolian script have been mass-censored by authorities.
On Monday, dozens protested in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar against the Chinese policy, while thousands campaigned online in solidarity.
China has said the requirement of Mandarin was to ensure a high standard of textbooks and curriculum and to pursue a common identity through shared language, the Guardian reported.
Temtsiltu Shobtsood, chairman of an exile group called the Inner Mongolian People’s Party, told the BBC from Germany the policy was a form of cultural genocide.
“The whole world is talking about human rights, but we are not visible enough.”