HOHHOT, China — As the capital of a sprawling frontier region that was once in Mongol leader Genghis Khan's vast domain, Hohhot has many ethnic Mongol flourishes. Streets signs are in Mongolian, yurt-themed architecture graces the city and some park benches have a Mongol saddle motif. At least one television channel airs in the Mongolian language.
There's only one thing in short supply: ethnic Mongolians.
Fewer than 10 percent of the greater metropolitan area's 2.6 million inhabitants are ethnic Mongolian, and the ratio isn't much higher in the surrounding grasslands.
Over the last six decades, China has kept an open-door policy on migration to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and now only one out of five people in the region abutting Russia and Mongolia are ethnic Mongolian. Activists say the influx has overwhelmed them and imperiled their culture.
"We used to be the hosts here. Now we feel like the guests in our own land," said Xinna, an owner of a handicraft store who, like many Mongolians, uses only one name.
What happens in Inner Mongolia might seem like a footnote in the story of social changes that are accompanying China's economic rise and massive population boom. The issue of preserving ethnic identity is weighted with politics, however. It resonates in restive Tibet in the southwest and in Xinjiang to the far west, where minority Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs use the example of Inner Mongolia to explain why they resist migration by China's majority Han ethnicity.
"In the autonomous region of (Inner) Mongolia, Mongolians became a minority," the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, said earlier this month in Japan. "That is our real anxiety. If in Tibet and in Xinjiang the local people become a minority, it's very difficult to preserve culture."
Authorities in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which has a population of about 23 million, offer a vastly different perspective on the issue, saying that they seek to preserve Mongol culture, enshrining protections in law and promoting the culture. They note that some ethnic Mongolians have chosen to assimilate with the Han.
"Among the five autonomous regions of China, Inner Mongolia does best in dealing with relations among minorities," said Wang Huiming, the vice director of Hohhot's ethnic affairs commission. "For example, marriage between Mongols and Han people is very common. I myself am Mongol but my wife is Han."
Wang said Inner Mongolia was "recognized by the central government as a model autonomous region" with "very stable" social and political conditions.
Late last year, though, authorities acknowledged a dramatic falloff in the number of students who were being taught in the Mongolian language, one of the indicators that Mongols are steadily losing elements of their culture as they adopt Chinese names, wear Chinese clothing and abandon speaking and reading Mongolian. According to the official Inner Mongolia News, the number of students who were receiving Mongolian-language education had fallen from 380,000 in 1986 to 240,000 last year.
Officials said they were aggressively trying to turn the trend around.
"I was worried about this," said Dalaiduren, the principal of the Xing An Road Ethnic Elementary School in Hohhot. "If we lose our language, we will lose our culture."
He said that some Mongolian parents chose to send their children to schools that taught in Mandarin Chinese, thinking that it would give them a leg up in the job market.
"If both parents are Mongols and their kids go to a Mandarin school, they begin to lose Mongolian ability. Sometimes they can't speak Mongolian at all," Dalaiduren said.
In another sign of the decline of Mongolian literacy, the number of copies of the Mongolian-language newspaper Inner Mongolia Daily has dropped in the past 15 years from 13,800 a day to 6,000.
Some Mongols complain that reading and writing Mongolian brings no benefit, a situation that's painfully clear to those who obtain degrees in Mongolian literature and culture.
"A graduate or a Ph.D. in this field finds it difficult to get a job. Only if they are good at foreign languages, like English or Japanese, or they specialize in doing research can they get one," said Nabuqi, who graduated from Inner Mongolia University but operates a small dairy-goods shop that she said barely made ends meet.
An exiled human-rights activist, Enghebatu Togochog, of the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, said that laws protecting Mongol language and culture often were ignored.
"It is said that it is an official language. But in meetings, they don't use Mongolian," he said in a telephone call from New York, where the group is based. "If you want to send a letter and you address it in Mongolian, they won't deliver it. It's really useless."
Like the Kurdish people in the Middle East, ethnic Mongolians spill across borders. Some 3 million live in the Republic of Mongolia, an independent landlocked country of steppes to the north. Another million live in Russia. More than 5 million live in China, in Inner Mongolia or in abutting Liaoning province in the northeast.
The dispersion has strengthened the hand of Han Chinese rulers who don't want ethnic unrest in a resource-rich frontier region.
"They are very confident they have already assimilated these people. They feel victory is almost theirs," Togochog said.
A setback to Mongol ethnic identity has unfolded since 2001 with the forced relocation of some 650,000 nomads and herders from their ancestral pastures to urban areas. Mandated by the government, the "ecological migration" is aimed at reducing overgrazing, which has increased sandstorms. Much of the overgrazing was caused in the 1990s by an inflow of Han farmers who were rushing to raise goats in Inner Mongolia to feed a global boom for cheap cashmere sweaters.
The Mongolian herders have become environmental refugees in new towns, deprived of land and a way of life, Togochog told the U.N. Forum on Indigenous Issues in April.
In his office in City Hall, Wang Heixiao, the director of the Culture Bureau in Hohhot, said that the government did its utmost to protect Mongol culture.
"We can see the Mongolian yurts and gold domes and totems in Xinhua Square in the center of the city," Wang said, "and on Genghis Khan Street there's a big statue of Genghis Khan riding a horse."
His tone changed as he recounted his personal history during the Cultural Revolution, the 1964-1974 period of political tumult in China when paramount leader Mao Zedong turned the youth against party cadres as a way to steer the nation more firmly under his control. In places such as Inner Mongolia, ethnic minorities were viewed with deep suspicion.
"You weren't allowed to talk in Mongolian. You weren't allowed to study in Mongolian," Wang said. "My school was shut down. I was sent to the countryside."
Wang, a famed Mongol actor and dancer, said the errors of the Cultural Revolution were long over. He said ethnic culture would be protected in a China that would remain powerfully unified.
"Of course, we think of ourselves as Chinese," Wang said when he was asked about his own identity, "then we consider ourselves as Mongols in China."
(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this report.)
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