(New York, NY) — The Chinese government’s rollout of a new public education policy for Inner Mongolia threatens to degrade ethnic Mongolians’ language rights and cultural identity, PEN America said today. The policy, which went into effect this week, would remove Mongolian-language instruction for several key subjects and has galvanized a series of wide-scale demonstrations across the region. While government education officials have stated that the change is intended to standardize curriculums across the country, PEN America is concerned that the new policy ties into larger governmental efforts to push the assimilation of ethnic minorities at the expense of their ability to express their cultural identities.

“It is difficult to understand how the Chinese government can claim with a straight face to be upholding the language rights of ethnic Mongolians, when this new policy will so clearly undercut those rights,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “Simply put, without a commitment by the state to ensure that Mongolian children can learn the Mongolian language, their guarantees that these language rights will be respected are completely toothless. This new policy flies in the face of its own commitments under both domestic and international law, to listen to the concerns of Inner Mongolian citizens, and we call on the Chinese government to reverse the policy and re-commit to the observance of minority language rights.”

Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China, with a large ethnic Mongolian population. A new education policy for the region, rolled out this summer, will replace Mongolian-language instruction with Chinese-language instruction in both elementary and middle schools. On Monday, regional officials reportedly issued a statement declaring that the changes will be implemented for classes in three major subjects: language and literature, politics, and history. Critics, including teachers in the region, have alleged that this new policy goes further than officials are publicly willing to admit, however, and warn that the new policy represents an effort to diminish the Mongolian language.

In response to the new policy, large-scale nonviolent protests have emerged across the country. These protests reportedly include creative tactics and forms of expression, such as older Mongolians writing hand-written letters in Mongolian, herders and students gathering to sing Mongolian folksongs, and Mongolian wrestlers refusing to perform in protest; additionally, some parents reportedly intend to refuse to send their children to school when it re-opens.

News of the protests have been widely censored on Chinese social media. On August 23, the government reportedly shut down Bainuu, the nation’s only Mongolian-language social network, with 400,000 Inner Mongolian users. According to the rights monitor Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), hundreds of Mongolian users of the popular social media app WeChat have been personally contacted and warned by authorities not to spread information about the new education policy online. SMHRIC has also reported that hundreds of teachers across the region similarly been warned not to criticize or question the new policy, that protesters have been arrested or detained, and that students have been forcibly kept from leaving their schools in protest of the new policy.

“The people of Inner Mongolia are expressing their fear and grief at the prospect that their culture and language will be diminished under this new policy. By responding with censorship of their social media posts and targeting of peaceful protesters, the government is only further erasing their voice,” said PEN America’s Tager. “We call upon Inner Mongolian and Beijing officials alike to respond to these protests not by shutting down the conversation, but by listening to the people’s concerns and taking action to protect their culture.”

China’s constitution, as well as its Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, explicitly protect the linguistic rights of ethnic minorities, including guarantees of the freedom of ethnic nationalities to use their own spoken and written language. China also has commitments under international law to safeguard minority language rights, including through articles 29(c) and 30 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which have China as a signatory.

Language rights groups have warned that the government is increasingly advancing policies reducing the use of ethnic languages for education or government functions. One emblematic case: Tashi Wangchuk, an advocate for Tibetan-language education, who is currently serving five years in prison for “separatism” due to his peaceful call for the government to uphold Tibetan-language education and use. In Xinjiang, policies to reduce Uyghur-language education have accompanied large-scale abusive policies such as the forced internment of over a million Muslims.