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Amid Xi Jinping’s efforts to keep ethnic minorities in check, monuments to a famous conqueror have begun to vanish – and a new education policy has left Inner Mongolians worried their language is under attack too

A dark area on the pavement in Hulunbuir, China on Nov. 19, is all that remains of a plaque that once commemorated Genghis Khan, a 12th-century Mongol emperor.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

One of history’s most influential figures has been drawn into a Chinese government campaign to impose ethnic conformity on people of Mongolian descent.

Genghis Khan, the 12th-century conqueror, has long been both an icon of the Mongolian people and a rallying figure for nationalists. Now he is becoming a symbol of Beijing’s new effort to put pressure on its Mongolian population, as authorities across the country are demanding greater adherence to a centrally defined notion of what it means to be Chinese.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China has made it harder for ethnic minorities to maintain unique languages, identities and belief systems – a policy that also includes a push to expunge foreign influences from religion, philosophy and schools. Genghis Khan’s standing among Mongolians has long made him a source of disquiet for the Chinese government. “Genghis Khan is a god in Mongolians’ minds,” said Ulzidelger Jagchid, an ethnic Mongolian from China who is now an activist living abroad. “The government fears that Mongolians, with this belief in a god, will come together and unite.” Beijing, he said, “wants to lower the position of Genghis Khan in Mongolians’ world.”

In Hulunbuir, a small administrative centre of China’s Inner Mongolia region, in the midst of sprawling grasslands, plaques describing the warrior’s exploits have been removed and defaced in the area around an oboo, a sacred site built around a stone from his birthplace. One rock formerly held a tablet with a quote from Anandyn Amar, a former Mongolian prime minister and independence advocate who called Genghis Khan a leader who had made the Mongolian people “famous across the Four Seas.” A series of other plaques, displayed until recently below a lengthy stone frieze depicting his birth and exploits, have disappeared; only their dark outlines remain on the concrete below.

It is not clear who is responsible or whether their removal was an instance of historical negationism or an act of protest against the government. Some plaques still on display show signs of having been painted over and subsequently cleaned. The propaganda office in Hulunbuir did not respond to a faxed Globe and Mail request for comment.

Defaced plaques and outlines of removed tablets are visible around the Genghis Khan monument site.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

But the alteration and vandalism of a site devoted to Genghis Khan inside China comes after local authorities banned unilingual, Mongolian instruction in schools, supplanting it with bilingual – Mandarin and Mongolian – education that, people in Hulunbuir say, has dramatically reduced the classroom time devoted to a language that is still used in many homes. About 6.5 million ethnic Mongolians live in China today. Similar education policies have been used to enforce conformity in other areas of China with large culturally distinct minorities, including Tibet and Xinjiang.

The bilingual education policy prompted a rare series of public protests across Inner Mongolia this fall, with parents and students boycotting classes for more than a week in Hulunbuir. Authorities responded with arrests and firings. A number of Communist Party members were ordered to attend “the Party school for education and training.” When some refused, they were expelled from the Party.

It has been followed by other signs of a deepening crackdown on Mongolian culture.

Last month, the Château des ducs de Bretagne history museum in France postponed an exhibit about Genghis Khan and his empire that had been planned in partnership with the Inner Mongolia Museum in China. Before the exhibit could open, the French museum said, the Chinese Bureau of Cultural Heritage demanded changes, including the removal of the words “Genghis Khan,” “Empire” and “Mongol.” The bureau instead proposed its own plan for the exhibit, which sought “the complete disappearance of Mongol history and culture in favour of a new official narrative,” the museum said.

Schools in Inner Mongolia have continued to display Mongolian script, according to pictures seen by The Globe. But activists say images of Genghis Khan have been removed, although The Globe was sent a photo of a portrait that remains in one school in the region.

This portrait of Genghis Khan dates from China's Yuan dynasty, established in the 13th century by Genghis Khan's descendant Kublai Khan.National Palace Museum of Taiwan/AP

Communist China has gone to war with Genghis Khan before.

During the bloody tumult of the Cultural Revolution, worship of the Mongol emperor was outlawed and some of his relics destroyed. Mao Zedong mocked him as a short-lived ruler who knew “no more than hunting eagles.” Subsequent Chinese policies have actually sought to recast and embrace him as a Chinese leader.

But for ethnic Mongolians, Genghis Khan remains very important, said a Mongolian woman in Hulunbuir, adding that all Mongolian families have an image of him in their homes.

The Globe is not identifying Mongolians in Hulunbuir because those who criticize government policy in China face serious reprisals.

At least two museums in the region with Genghis Khan and Mongolian culture exhibits are currently not open to visitors. In Manzhouli, the Zhalainuo’er Museum says it is doing renovations in response to a forest fire that took place Oct. 1 near a city almost 1,400 kilometres away. In Ordos, the display halls at the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan are also closed. A worker said infrastructure upgrades are under way. Outdoor areas with religious significance remain open.

Another museum dedicated to “The Secret History of the Mongols,” which state media called the only museum of its kind when it opened last year, says it only accepts pre-screened visitors.

Mongolians hold a 'save the Mongolian language' banner in Ulaanbaatar during a Sept. 15 visit by China's Foreign Minister. They denounced China's planned bilingual classes in Inner Mongolia.BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

In Hulunbuir, classes have resumed. An apparently new police station now sits outside the gate of a local middle school. Large characters on an electronic sign inside proclaim: “10,000 people of one mind, unity is strength.”

But resentment simmers.

One young Mongolian man in Hulunbuir said – in flawless Chinese – that when he was a student, classes were conducted entirely in Mongolian and that Mandarin was a minor subject. Many families still sought Mandarin lessons for their children because the language offered better employment prospects.

Now, however, there is no way to resist a government intent on enforcing a single vision of what it means to be Chinese, the young man said.

But what can’t be taught in school can be taught at home, he said, vowing to raise his future children with a knowledge of their ancestral tongue. “Maintaining the Mongolian language to me is a must. It’s a symbol of our people,” he said.

Genghis Khan, meanwhile, remains a spiritual ballast, he said.

People visit the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue near Ulaanbaatar.B. Rentsendorj/Reuters/Reuters