Beijing removes Mongolian history from bookshelves

On the same day that Pope Francis praised Mongolian culture and traditions, the authorities in China’s Inner Mongolia region, where a fifth of the population is Mongolian, described them as “historical nihilism” in the name of sinicisation. The words Francis addressed to the Chinese people in Ulaanbaatar were banned in China, with no coverage in official media.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – While Pope Francis praised the great history of the Mongolian people during his historic trip to Ulaanbaatar, a few hundred kilometres away, across the Mongolian-Chinese border, that same history was removed from bookstores.

The authorities in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous region, where a fifth of the population is ethnic Mongolian, ordered the withdrawal of a 2004 book entitled "General History of the Mongols”, describing it as an example of "historical nihilism".

In Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing Sing Tao newspaper reported the order, citing a directive issued on 25 August by the Inner Mongolia branch of the government-backed Books and Periodicals Distribution Association.

The move was even more surprising since the book, which was authored by scholars at the Mongolian Studies Department of the Inner Mongolia Institute of Education, already framed Mongolian culture in a Chinese nationalist perspective.

"A lot of Mongolian scholars and Mongolians in general don't like [“A General History of the Mongols”] because it describes the Mongols as a people of China," said Yang Haiying, a professor at Shizuoka University in Japan, speaking to Radio Free Asia.

But in the spirit of President Xi Jinping's sinicisation policy, any mention today of a distinct Mongolian identity is going too far for the party’s apparatus. In fact, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang are not the only one to have claims based on a separate identity, in China’s border regions.

This explains why the Chinese government prevented mainland Chinese Catholic bishops from travelling to Ulaanbaatar for Pope Francis’s visit, a policy that continues.

Small groups of Chinese Catholics did manage to come on a tourist visa, and took part in the events, waving the flag of the People's Republic.

On Sunday, at the end of the Mass in the Mongolian capital, Pope Francis urged “Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens”, but as expected, this was not reported on official Chinese media. Significantly, Xinde, mainland China’s main Catholic website, did the same.

Xinde regularly keeps its readers informed about the pope’s magisterium. This included covering his Mass in Ulaanbaatar, taken from the Vatican News website; however, no reference was made to the pope’s message to the Chinese people nor any hint at the presence next to the pontiff of Card John Tong and Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong.

Nothing suggests that Xinde would refuse to report such details, were it not for a red line it cannot cross. Still, Pope Francis’s words are already making their way into China among Chinese Catholics via other channels.

In yesterday’s weekly press briefing, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry did not comment on the pope's unplanned remarks in Ulaanbaatar; instead, they drily referred to what had already been stated after the pope sent Xi Jinping a telegram upon entering Chinese airspace on his way to Mongolia, reiterating Beijing's desire to "strengthen mutual trust" with the Vatican.

On his flight home, Pope Francis once again stressed the path of dialogue. “I believe we must go further in the religious aspect, to understand each other more,” he said.

“Chinese citizens should not think that the Church does not accept their culture and values, and that the Church depends on another foreign power,” he added.

“The commission chaired by Card Parolin is progressing on this friendly path, doing a good job, a good job also by the Chinese side. The rapport is, in one word, developing. I have great respect for the Chinese people.”