Security forces quickly shut down a protest by ethnic Mongolians on May 30 in Hohhot, the capital of China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The small demonstration, which focused on the deaths of two ethnic Mongolian herders earlier in the month, was preceded by protests May 23-28 across the prefecture-level administrative area of Xilin Gol Meng. It is too early to tell if ethnic tensions have been quelled, but thus far, the regional government's plan to disrupt and placate potential protesters has been successful. A careful examination of the development of protest and counter-protest tactics in Inner Mongolia shows the evolution of China's ability to deal with unrest and underlines the difficulty of dissent in China. Disputes between local populations and resource extraction or property development companies are common in any developing area, particularly in China. Because new property developments can fuel local corruption, disputes over them often result in local protests or conflicts — and even deaths, as was the case with Qian Yunhui in Zhejiang province on Dec. 25, 2010. However, even similar disputes in Inner Mongolia failed to result in significant protests. The situation of the past two weeks resulted from the combination of long-simmering tensions between ethnic Mongolians and their perceived aggressors, the Han Chinese, and the protesters' deaths, a common spark for unrest. Chinese security forces from the Public Security Bureau, traditional police and the People's Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary unit mainly used to control unrest, quickly responded to protests that began May 23 in Xiwu Qi (the Chinese name for West Ujimqin Banner), outnumbering the demonstrators. However, on May 25, more than 1,000 students demonstrated in Xilinhot, the nearest city to the grassland and coal mine areas where the protests occurred. By May 27, Chinese authorities had closed schools in many towns across Xilin Gol Meng, and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), a New York-based advocacy group for Inner Mongolians, reports similar actions taken in Tongliao and Chifeng. Closing schools effectively keeps students in their dormitories, making security guards and teachers responsible for controlling them while security forces mobilize outside. A call for protests in Hohhot led to similar tactics there. It is unclear where the call initiated, but the SMHRIC was active in spreading the word internationally. Universities, and possibly other schools, were shut down in Hohhot, including the Inner Mongolia Normal University, which reportedly posted a notice saying students would need to fill out an application to enter or leave the campus. In closing down the schools, Inner Mongolian authorities effectively stopped the largest potential protest constituency. A New York Times video of the May 30 protest showed no more than a few hundred protesters in Hohhot's Xinhua Square, where a larger PAP force already was deployed. The protesters refrained from violence, so the PAP had little trouble dispersing the gathering. The situation in Inner Mongolia is by no means calm, but the quick response of the PAP, and the lack of new protester deaths, has stymied protests in the region for now. With students locked down and herders too widely dispersed to create large gatherings, the PAP should have little trouble handling further protests. International advocacy groups have been quick to highlight the events in Inner Mongolia and are no doubt trying to ignite more protests; the central government has countered by blaming the initial protests on foreign interference.
The People's Armed Police's Increasing Success
The PAP was the main force responsible for the security presence and crackdown in Inner Mongolia in the past two weeks. It was formed in 1983 and was formally given counter-protest responsibility in 2009. While it is under the Central Military Commission's authority, units are usually deployed under orders of the Ministry of Public Security. Experiences in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009 allowed PAP units to further hone their capabilities. The PAP's training and experience may be one reason for the limited violence during the Inner Mongolia crackdown. The deaths of protesters can strike fear into others, dispersing current unrest and discouraging it in the future. However, individual deaths, especially at the hands of state security forces, also provide a rallying cry, as with the protests that erupted after the death of Khaled Said in Egypt. Mobile phones and Internet connections have made the spread of information much harder to stop, so news of deaths can spread easily, even overcoming Chinese censorship, as seen with the two deaths that sparked the unrest in Inner Mongolia. In order to prevent similar events, the PAP has been growing in training, experience and responsibility, especially in the past decade. Instead of a focus on quelling ongoing unrest, Beijing has looked to arrest potential dissidents as well as develop intelligence on potential protests and mobilize beforehand. Due to the public nature of online calls for protests, this is not very difficult. Authorities in China have censored Internet searches and information on the events in Inner Mongolia and disrupted Internet communications, such as chat rooms, in the region in order to stop the spread of information on the protests. The PAP is divided into local units, and thus the training and experience is not necessarily standard. But given the commonality of local protests and the potential to train units in other areas based on lessons learned, the PAP's training is much more robust than it was two decades ago. Beijing is ever wary of new protests, and the new tactics of the Jasmine gatherings and Inner Mongolian protests may be greater causes for concern. Nevertheless, the PAP's success in Inner Mongolia undoubtedly can be seen as a proof of concept as the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident nears on June 4.
Every year, Chinese authorities increase monitoring and security measures to prevent June 4 demonstrations. This year, members of a group called the Tiananmen Mothers, which advocates public recognition of dead family members, have reported increased monitoring of their homes and questioning by authorities in recent weeks. Chinese authorities will also increase Internet censorship and fill public areas, particularly Tiananmen Square, with security personnel to stop any new dissidents. (click here to view interactive map)
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