Protesters gathered in front of a chemical refinery complex in Inner Mongolia. Photo courtesy of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

Villagers in China’s Inner Mongolia region have protested for the past three weeks against chemical plants that are dumping untreated waste on their farming and grazing land. Last weekend the police cracked down, injuring more than 100 villagers and arresting dozens, according to activists. Despite Internet cuts in the area, they have managed to smuggle out several videos and photos of the crackdown.

These images of the crackdown were posted online by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a Mongolian NGO based in the United States that is in close contact with residents of Inner Mongolia.

Protesters running away from police during the crackdown on April 6. Video courtesy of the the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

About 1,000 protesters from several villages were demonstrating to demand the shutdown of the Naiman Chemical Refinery Zone, located near Daqintala village, in the eastern part of the Inner Mongolia region. On March 29, the authorities issued a notice saying that they would respond to concerns by suspending the companies’ operations and carrying out environmental testing. However, protesters did not believe these promises, and on April 5, they tried to block the entrance to the complex, which is home to several refineries. Riot police quickly moved in.

Police moving in on the protesters on April 6. Video courtesy of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.

“We don’t believe the authorities’ promise that they will shut down the refineries”

Yi (not his real name) is a farmer and herder who lives in Daolidai village.

When the police attacked the protesters, there was nothing we could do but flee. We were outnumbered, and they were shooting rubber bullets and spraying tear gas. They also had water cannons and dogs. The dogs didn’t bite, but they jumped on people to make them fall over. Many people were injured by the rubber bullets, and we’ve heard that one person has since died, but there’s no confirmation yet.

Protesters survey a line of policemen blocking a road near the chemical refinery complex. 

The chemical plants have been around for a little more than a decade now, and the pollution is getting worse every year. They dump their toxic waste on our lands without any sort of treatment. Our crops have suffered – we produce 20 to 30 percent less corn than before. And all our fruit trees have died. There are strange smells in the air, and rates of cancer and thrombosis have gone up quite noticeably. The groundwater is polluted, so we’ve had to buy purification systems. We think this helps, but fear that the water could still be bad for our health.

In the past years, we’ve tried everything – we petitioned all levels of government. However the responses were never adequate. At best they would take temporary measures, like stopping the plants’ production for a week of two. That’s why we don’t believe the authorities’ latest promise: that they will shut down the complex this coming weekend. It’s not a good sign that they’ve shut down the Internet in our area, and that phone communications are sporadic. If we have to, we’ll protest again.

“The Chinese government sees this as just empty land, but it’s not empty – the Mongolian people have lived there for thousands of years”

Enghebatu Togochog is the director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Center. He’s managed to talk to people in some of the other nearby villages.

We’re getting some very disturbing news. Locals have told us that the authorities are going house to house, searching the premises and questioning people. We’ve been sent official documents in which the local government announces that it will prosecute those who participated in the protest. They’re also trying to force locals to sign agreements that they will not participate in any new demonstrations. Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the villagers don’t believe that the complex will actually be shut down.

The authorities have done this before, trying to appease people temporarily (and cracking down if necessary) so that protests don’t escalate. This also buys them some time to round up the most troublesome activists. The same scenario played out in 2011 in the central part of the region, during large-scale protests against mining companies. At the time, the local government promised to shut the mines down, but that never happened, and they are still operating today.

The Mongolian population is losing more and more of its land, not only to chemical and mining companies but also to huge military training bases. The Chinese government sees this as just empty land, easy to grab and develop. But it’s not empty - the Mongolian people have lived there for thousands of years, and need this land for the herds and their crops. They need it for their survival.

Inner Mongolia, which is one of China’s “autonomous regions”, spreads over 12 percent of the country’s land mass. It is very rich in resources, notably coal, gas, and rare earth metals. A mining boom has brought a massive influx of Han Chinese to the region; ethnic Mongolians now account for just 20 percent of the region’s population. The younger generations are increasingly deserting their traditionally nomadic way of life in the polluted grasslands to go look for work in cities.