A senior official has promised students and teachers in Inner Mongolia that authorities will get justice for an ethnic Mongolian herder run over by a Chinese truck driver _ a bid to assuage anger in the far-flung Chinese region after the death sparked unrest this week.
Demonstrations in two counties and a nearby city in Inner Mongolia this week are thought to be the region's largest in 20 years. Such protests are rare for the area, unlike China's other troubled border regions of Tibet and Xinjiang where violent protests have erupted in recent years.
The state-run Inner Mongolia Daily reported Sunday that the region's Communist Party chief, Hu Chunhua, told students and teachers at a high school in one of the protest towns that he was meeting them to "seek their opinions on the current situation." At the Friday meeting, Hu also said authorities would quickly punish those responsible for two recent cases in the Xilin Gol League region that have sparked the unrest.
Though he did not specify, the two cases Hu is understood to be referring to were the herder's death and the death of a resident in a mining area over a coal mine dispute. Local authorities had earlier this week announced arrests in both cases.
"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," the report cited Hu as saying.
Protests occurred every day this past week in the seats of two counties, known as Zhenglan and Xiwu in Chinese or Shuluun Huh and Ujumchin in Mongolian, and Xilinhot city, where thousands of ethnic Mongolians led by students in uniform marched Wednesday. Hundreds of herders marched in Zhenglan on Friday until they were stopped by police. Accounts differ over whether a clash ensued.
There were no reports of protests on Saturday or Sunday. But, over the weekend, police continued to cordon off streets leading to government buildings in the two county seats.
Behind the protests is a sense that Mongolian identity is under threat. Their traditional way of life _ herding sheep and cattle _ has almost disappeared as the grasslands give way to mines, farms and urban sprawl. A coal mining boom is accelerating the degradation, and a standoff between herders and coal truckers precipitated the recent protests.
Those complaints echo ones from places like Tibet, where the indigenous people say an influx of Han Chinese _ China's ethnic majority _ and rail connections with the rest of China are eating away at the traditional Tibetan way of life. Beijing's response is typically that such development have lifted thousands out of poverty.
But unlike Tibetans in Tibet and Uighurs in Xinjiang, ethnic Mongolians are a small minority, less than 20 percent of the 24 million who live in Inner Mongolia. Many speak little or no Mongolian, having been educated in Chinese school systems.
On May 10, herders angry at truckers for driving over their grazing lands blocked a road, and one truck driver struck and killed a herder, Mergen, who like many Mongolians goes by one name. Authorities later arrested two Chinese in the death.
In the other case, residents in a mining area tried on May 14 to stop a coal mine's operations because of the air and water pollution it was causing, but one of them was killed after a mine worker drove a forklift truck into his car, state media earlier reported. The miner was arrested.
Hu's comments come amid tightened security in the region and as unconfirmed reports circulated on Chinese microblogs and Twitter that Internet access on college campuses in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot had been cut.
An Inner Mongolia Finance and Economics College student surnamed WU said, when reached by phone, that students have had been no access to the Internet for several days. Wu, who would only give his surname for fear of government reprisals, said school authorities had advised students not to leave the campus, though they did not give a reason. He said police officers and vans could be seen patrolling the campus.