Chinese authorities Sunday blanketed volatile towns in Inner Mongolia with armed police, blocked Internet and telephone connections, and confined students to their campuses and activists to their homes in an effort to forestall protests scheduled Monday over the death of a Mongolian herder during a confrontation over land use.
The killing of the herder, allegedly run over May 10 by truck drivers who were transporting coal across pastoral lands, triggered the largest demonstrations in decades in the Chinese province. In an effort to calm tensions, the Inner Mongolia Communist Party chief, Hu Chunhua, reportedly met with students Friday and promised that two Chinese suspects who were arrested would face a speedy trial.
"Teachers and students, please rest assured that the suspects will be punished severely and quickly, in accordance with legal procedures, to resolutely safeguard the dignity of the law and rights of the victims and their families," he was quoted as saying in Sunday's issues of the state-run Inner Mongolia Daily.
Mongolian activists are calling for demonstrations Monday outside Chinese embassies and consulates around the world and are predicting more protests in areas of Inner Mongolia that saw demonstrations last week. The largest were in the city of Xilinhot and in the county seats of Zhenglan and Xiwu, also known as Shuluun Huh and Ujumchin in the Mongolian language.
"The situation is very tense and very dangerous. The schools are sealed off. The army is ready to crack down if there is any kind of protest," said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. He said the deployment of security forces was tantamount to martial law.
The underlying tension, as with Tibetans and Uighurs, concerns the threat posed to ethnic identity and traditional lifestyle by China's rapid economic development and policy of resettling the majority ethnic Han in minority regions. But China's Mongolians, now less than 20% of the population of Inner Mongolia, have been better assimilated. The last large-scale demonstrations took place in 1981 over Communist Party plans to bring hundreds of thousands of settlers to Inner Mongolia.
The herder who was killed, Mergen — who, like many Mongolians, was known by a single name — had been involved in protests before over the expropriation of grazing lands for coal mining. He had been trying to block a convoy of trucks from driving through grazing lands.
Mongolians allege that ethnic Han truck drivers deliberately ran him over, while yelling ethnic slurs.