Inner Mongolian herdsmen have generally been placid in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) steady encroachment over the region’s natural resources and culture over the years. But when Mergen, one of their own, was crushed to death by a coal transport truck on May 10, their anger swelled.
Mergen was part of a group of herdsmen that had gone to confront coal transport trucks in their vicinity, that were destroying the grasslands. One truck driver rode over Mergen and dragged him for 150 meters, killing him, reports indicated. The drivers were arrested, and the authorities—rather than investigate and press charges—attempted to pacify the victim’s family with a cash payment of 560,000 yuan ($86,000).
The story was supposed to end there. But when a gruesome photo of Mergen’s dead body appeared on the Internet, the public was enraged, and pent-up anger with the way the CCP has ruled Inner Mongolia since the late 1940s bubbled to the surface.
Several hundred herdsmen on May 23 and 24 went to the Xilingol League government, the Communist Party’s office in the region, demanding the killer be brought to justice and a funeral held for the victim. Hundreds of police were sent to the scene and protesters arrested.
“There were 200 to 300 herdsmen blocking the streets. There were also many armed police and public security officers preventing us from getting close to the government building. The government officials refused to meet with us saying that Mergen’s case was closed. They arrested eight herdsmen who were later released,” one participant told The Epoch Times.
The herdsmen want dignity rather than money, Xi Haiming, president of the Inner Mongolian League for the Defense of Human Rights, told The Epoch Times from Germany. Included in their demands was a monument for Mergen, whom they want recognized as a martyr.
On May 27 the protesters again clashed with police in front of a government building in Plain Blue Banner, an administrative division of Inner Mongolia 111 miles from Beijing. After tussling with police, some herdsmen were arrested.
On the following day students in three other areas held protests, Xi told Deutsche Welle. Some confrontations resulted in dozens of injuries, others in arrests.
Local school students got involved, too, submitting an appeal letter to the local authorities, according to Khuvisgalt, a doctoral student and secretary-general of Inner Mongolia People’s Party in Japan, in an interview with The Epoch Times.
“This is not a traffic accident. This is intentional murder,” he said. “The conflicts between the government and local herdsmen are already very serious.”
He says that the area near where Mergen’s death took place was the site of collusion between Party officials and businessmen, who “gang up for their own benefits and completely ignore the needs of local herdsmen.”
The attempt to silence the family with a large cash payment did not help, Khuvisgalt said. “It’s illegal to use money to handle someone’s death. There has been no legal procedure, yet the government stepped in. Why should it meddle with the situation? Why did it arrest the protesting herdsmen?”
Before the weekend, calls had spread online for a large rally in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia. In response the authorities issued orders for schools to block their gates and not allow students home over the weekend, according to Khuvisgalt, who is in touch with people on the ground.
A middle school teacher told The Epoch Times news to the same effect, saying that their school received an urgent notice from Party authorities ordering students to stay on campus over the weekend. Following up the order, police parked their cars outside school gates, indicating a state of martial law having been imposed over the populace.
Khuvisgalt is most worried about the harsh measures that may be employed if the authorities cannot quickly gain control of the situation.
Xi told Deutsche Welle on May 27 that discontent with the Party among locals goes far beyond the death of Mergen. Vast swathes of grasslands have been destroyed or turned into agricultural land over the decades, he said, which directly impinges on the traditional lifestyle of Inner Mongolians.
Since “reform and opening up” began in the late 1970s under Deng, mining operations have taken off, further destroying Mongolian prairie land, Xi explained.
Large numbers of Han Chinese, the dominant ethnicity in China, have been encouraged to settle in Inner Mongolia over the years, and Mongols are now a only a fifth of the total population in Inner Mongolia—almost an inversion from the demographic of the 1960s.
“On the surface it was because a herdsman was killed, but the reality is that if Mongols do not fight back there is no way out,” said Xi, the activist from Germany. “The grassland is diminishing.”