Defiant former political prisoner remains true to Mongolian cause
In the 19 years he spent as one of China’s longest-serving political prisoners, Hada says he was beaten, injected with drugs and threatened with death. Authorities wanted him to recant his advocacy for the country’s ethnic Mongolians, whose autonomy and independence he has long sought. He refused.
He is now out of prison, released four months ago after serving a sentence for separatism. His fervour and outspokenness for the causes that led to his arrest are undiminished. His people remain subjugated, he says, and the beloved grasslands so integral to their herding culture remain endangered.
Both are issues Hada wants the world to know about. Although he knows that Chinese authorities keep a close watch on him – indeed they have ordered him not to speak with foreign media and forcibly prevented him from meeting a Globe and Mail reporter face to face – he spoke passionately about the threats in an exclusive interview conducted in an online chat.
Mongolians in China are in a “crisis for our lives, and a crisis for our ecosystem,” Hada said. The 67-year-old former bookstore owner, who like many Mongolians goes by one name, also vowed to continue to protect a way of life Inner Mongolia has known for centuries. “It’s time to fight, or we will be completely Chinese-ized,” Hada said.
Hada’s charges are disputed by the government of Inner Mongolia. It said it is taking care to preserve Mongolian culture and way of life, including free Mongolian-language education from kindergarten to high school, tradition-based health care covered by insurance, subsidies to herders’ families and regulation of grasslands expropriation.
“The equality of nationalities is the base of our country’s policy on ethnic peoples,” said Feng Renfei, a spokeswoman for the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Government, in an unusually lengthy written response to questions from The Globe.
The government also denies Hada was mistreated in prison. “Hada was provided the same food and medical treatment as other prisoners during the time he served out his sentence. There was no issue of being tortured,” Ms. Feng wrote.
The grievances that Hada expresses – and Mongolian activists abroad call him a “national hero” – echo those of minorities in other regions of China such as Tibet and Xinjiang, home to Muslim Uighurs, some of whom Beijing has accused of a string of terror attacks in train stations, markets and Tiananmen Square in recent years. Ethnic Mongolians have also shown signs of unrest, with 59 major protests since 2011, after a grasslands herder was killed by a coal truck. Authorities arrested or detained 300 herders in the past year alone. In January, one herder hung himself outside a government office.
Inner Mongolia is bigger than Ontario and its grasslands are nearly twice as large as the entire Canadian Prairies. (Inner Mongolia, with 24.7 million people, is Chinese territory, politically distinct from the independent country of Mongolia to its north, although Mongolian people on both sides of the border come from similar roots.) It has seen rapid development: From 2000 to 2014, coal production rose 14-fold and oil output more than doubled. But it has come at a cost. Herders accuse Chinese companies of stealing their land, or offering compensation as low as $13.50 per hectare, to make way for the mines and energy development. The expansion of military bases has also caused tensions.
At the same time, Mongolians are outnumbered nearly five to one and they tell stories of sometimes violent clashes with the dominant Han, or Chinese, culture. Saren Gaowa, a 60-year-old herder in Inner Mongolia’s Wulatezhong Qi region, described in an interview how she once tried to stop a gold mining operation from digging up her land. “The miners almost killed me by putting me in a soil mixing machine,” she said.
“The conflict between Mongolian and Han people is serious,” said Ulj Delger, an ethnic Mongolian in Japan who is among the overseas diaspora pressing for change. “In the next few years, it might become what Xinjiang and Tibet is like now.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a visit to the region last year, called on local governments to do more to modernize traditional husbandry and said people of all ethnic groups should unite for the good of economic and social development.
The ethnic Mongolian situation is complicated by history. In recent decades, the proportion of Mongolians in the population has risen, after Communist-run health care helped sustain a baby boom and because minority ethnic groups are largely exempt from China’s one-child policy. Population growth has contributed to overgrazing that has brought major damage to the area’s grasslands; in 2003, 74 per cent were considered degraded and one-third of that is highly damaged. (Communist policies played a role, too, in particular, through efforts to intensively farm grassland; half of the farmed areas have now become barren or turned to desert.)
Some of the current conflict with herders is rooted in China’s efforts to undo the damage, including heavy-handed grazing bans that have been strictly enforced. Governments have sought to move people off the land, too, in part by building local employment.
“That’s what the resource development in the 1990s and 2000s has made possible,” said John Longworth, an Australian agricultural economist who first came to study the region in 1989.
“Only when you have fed yourself and housed yourself, and your family and everyone feels considerably secure, can you afford to spend considerable time to foster your own culture,” he said. “The Mongolians have done relatively well.”
Many ethnic Mongolians, however, fault China for eviction efforts they say are severing their connection to the grasslands and with it, their culture. It is an “unprecedented crisis,” Hada said. “The grassland has almost disappeared out of misuse.”
Hada was president of the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, a group that directly challenged the authority of the Communist Party and talked openly of Mongolian independence, when he was arrested two decades ago. A Chinese court convicted him of “splitting” the nation, essentially separatism, and espionage – counter-revolutionary crimes. Few other political dissidents in modern China have emerged from so long in prison on such charges.
In prison his health and eyesight deteriorated. He lost teeth. He was released from the regular prison system after 15 years, then transferred to an extra-judicial “black jail.” The treatment was friendlier. He was promised a comfortable life if he would just agree to stop advocating for ethnic Mongolians. He refused. He was kept behind bars for another four years.
Enghebatu Togochog, director of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, an advocacy group, calls him “a national hero to the Mongolian people.”
He is also a potential lighting rod for anti-government protests – a rare dissident with leadership potential inside China’s borders.
Soon after his release on Dec. 9, 2014, he released a photo of himself holding a handwritten sign that said: “I firmly support the herders’ activities to defend their legal rights under the law.” The photo quickly circulated through Chinese social media.
He is an “idol,” his wife, Xinna, said, “which is why they have tried so hard to beat him down.”
He is out of prison but his phone is tapped and frequently cut off, his family said. Officials have offered him enticements such as a job if he will just sign a confession of guilt. Hada said he has refused because that would mean “giving up my ideas and becoming the underling of the government – selling out my nationality’s benefit, and selling out my soul. I would rather die by starvation than sign.”
Still he wonders whether he might be of best use operating from outside China. Authorities recently returned his national identification card to him, and he said he plans to apply for a passport to seek treatment for health issues abroad, and because he would be more free to advocate away from the reach of Chinese security. He said the world should support his cause. “Mongolians must be free.”