DATELINE: INNER MONGOLIA

Guarding the bamboo curtain

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia is on the front line of China's defence against the Soviet Union

Brian Jeffries August 17 1981
DATELINE: INNER MONGOLIA

Guarding the bamboo curtain

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia is on the front line of China's defence against the Soviet Union

Brian Jeffries August 17 1981

Guarding the bamboo curtain

DATELINE: INNER MONGOLIA

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia is on the front line of China's defence against the Soviet Union

Brian Jeffries

Perched high on the roof overlooking the entrance to the museum in Hohhot, the bustling, broad-avenued capital of Inner Mongolia, is a magnificent statue of a sturdy Mongolian horse. With nostrils flared, rearing wildly on its hind legs, this symbol of Mongolian nationalism faces south into the heart of China and toward Peking. It was not always so. Before the cultural revolution in China, a similar horse gazed expectantly northward toward Outer Mongolia and the Soviet Union. To the late Chairman Mao’s fervent Red Guards, the horse was a national affront. They hacked off its head and

it later reappeared—facing the other direction.

The bow-shaped, 4,675-km frontier between Inner and Outer Mongolia was nonexistent until this century. Mongolian herdsmen, descendants of the marauding conqueror Genghis Khan, used to wander freely back and forth across the frontier. Today, Mongolia, a wild and windswept territory in remotest Asia, is a nation divided, its border a key military front line between the two Communist giants of China and the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet border region already holds the world’s secondlargest concentration of troops—some 650,000 Soviets facing an estimated 1.5 million Chinese.

Moscow has transformed Outer Mongolia into a nominally independent but

virtually subject satellite state bristling with both Soviet and Mongolian soldiers. Peking’s grip on Inner Mongolia is equally firm. Mongolians among the 18.5 million population are outnumbered 9 to 1 by Chinese.

Because of superior Soviet military might, the Chinese would have little chance of stopping any land invasion at the border between Inner and Outer Mongolia, which is a broad open plain. As a result, they have withdrawn most of their troops south to the mountains rimming China’s industrial and energyproducing heartland. Hohhot, with a population of 700,000, is tucked away on the southern edge of one of China’s I

first lines of defence in the Ta Qing mountains. The summit of the winding passis heavily guarded. The mountains on either side are laced with tunnels, tank traps and interconnecting trenches along which soldiers move.

Now that China has acquired its own nuclear weapons, the chances of outright war with the U.S.S.R. have diminished, although the possibility of occasional bloody border flare-ups remains. When China and Vietnam fought their border war two years ago, Soviet troops in Outer Mongolia drove their tanks to the edge of the border of Inner Mongolia and, as part of the war of nerves, they fired blanks while Soviet fighter jets screeched overhead.

These days, the frontier is quiet and there are even limited exchanges between Mongolians. China grants occasional visas to Outer Mongolians wishing to visit their relatives and permits similar visits in the other direction. The two sides meet regularly to exchange horses, sheep and camels that have strayed into each other’s territory.

The preoccupation of most Inner Mongolians these days is not war, but recovery from the horrors of the cultural revolution. The Peking government now admits that 10,000 people were killed or committed suicide as a result of harassment by the Red Guards in the 10 years following 1966. A glimpse behind the bamboo curtain that still surrounds those years is provided by Jamu Su, 38, Inner Mongolia’s only Living Buddha. As he sits nervously smoking cigarettes in a reception room of the Da Tzo Monastery in Hohhot, he says, “The cultural revolution must be regarded as the big-

gest crime in Chinese history.” Before the cultural revolution, there were 650 lama’s temples in Inner Mongolia. Now there are only five that can still be repaired, he says. About 1,000 of Inner Mongolia’s 20,000 lamas or priests were killed or committed suicide during the same period. He himself was jailed for a period and then forced for 10 years to do manual labor.

It is only in the past year that his monastery in Hohhot has been repaired and reopened for worship, in line with the more liberal policies now espoused by the new Communist leadership of Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping.

He does not fear a return to the horrors of the cultural revolution, but not all the residents of Hohhot are so confident. Many Inner Mongolians are still uncertain about the future, obviously fearing another upheaval. These days they’re concentrating on enjoying themselves. For students at the University of Inner Mongolia, dancing to music that includes disco tunes taped from the Voice of America and BBC broadcasts is all the rage. “I like the more social dances such as the tango and waltzes,” says Yen Hung, an English language student at the university, “but disco and rock ’n’ roll is very popular.” Her father, a language teacher at the university, was drafted to Inner Mongolia 20 years ago, along with hundreds of thousands of other Chinese, to develop the region. Yen says she will remain because Inner Mongolia still needs “cadres of intellectuals to develop it.”

She is, however, in a minority. Many of the Chinese sent to Inner Mongolia cannot wait to get out. The Chinese tend to look down on the Mongolians who, under Peking’s latest policy, are encouraged to have as many children as possible. The Chinese themselves are penalized if they have more than two.

During the cultural revolution, Peking’s policy was to bring the national minorities into line and assimilate them. Now the policy is reversed. Mongolian culture, language and history are being promoted in an effort to woo the descendants of Genghis Khan. Even the great conqueror himself, whose Mongol hoardes swept up to the gates of Europe nearly 800 years ago, has been restored to favor. After being cast as a mon -ster from an oppressive society, he is now a folk hero and statesman.

Peking now approves of his role in binding together the contentious tribes of the Mongolian grasslands. But the Chinese are not as enthusiastic about his role as a conqueror. It was, after all, Genghis Khan who first sacked Peking before cutting a bloody swath through Asia and what is now the Soviet Union. Far better, for Peking, that the warlike statue of the horse looks south in allegiance than in defiance.