Residential schools were a common feature of European settler societies until quite late in the 20th century, and their purpose was not just to educate, but to “deracinate” their aboriginal pupils: that is, to cut them off from their roots.
The Chinese government would reject the analogy with its last breath, but it is now doing the same thing.
Last week, in China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, ethnic Mongolian parents began holding rallies and keeping their children home from school in protest at new measures to reduce teaching in the Mongolian language in favour of Chinese.
Under the new rules, history, politics, language and literature will be taught in Mandarin Chinese, not in Mongolian.
It has not been reported in Chinese media, of course, but the BBC reports that students at one demonstration chanted “Our language is Mongolian, and our homeland is Mongolia forever!”
At another school, only 40 students registered for the autumn term instead of the usual thousand – and most of them left after the first day.
It should be noted that in Inner Mongolia, ethnic Chinese (Han) people are a four-fifths majority of the 25 million residents.
The province is beyond the Great Wall and was once almost entirely Mongolian, but it was already majority Han before the current Chinese Communist regime came to power in 1949.
Most of China’s five million Mongols are concentrated in three eastern districts of Inner Mongolia, but even there they are not a majority of the population – and many of these Mongolian-speakers are urbanized people who are fully bilingual and intermarry freely with their ethnic Chinese neighbours.
The core of the unrest is among the million or so who still pursue a modified version of the old nomadic culture.
They are traditional steppe-dwelling people who follow their herds on horseback (or in ATVs) through their seasonal rounds.
Unlike aboriginal languages, Mongolian has been written in its own script for many centuries, and Genghis Khan’s empire once briefly ruled about a quarter of the world, but the nomadic Mongols do depend on boarding schools.
Such schools are simply a practical necessity for people who live in small groups and move frequently, and in the Chinese case, they were not originally conceived as instruments of cultural genocide. Until recently, in fact, they operated entirely in Mongolian, with Chinese taught as a second language.
Chinese policy towards tribal minorities has traditionally been more tolerant than U.S. or Canadian policy towards Indigenous People, Australian policy towards Aborigines, Scandinavian policy towards Sami (Lapps) or Russian policy towards Siberian native peoples.
All of those unlucky people got the kind of residential schools that aimed at cultural assimilation and religious conversion.
The children spent most of the year in boarding schools, not with their families. They were taught the religion of the settlers, not that of their native culture.
They were forced to use the language of the dominant European group and forbidden to speak their own. And most of them were subjected to violence and sexual abuse. (Yes, most.)
Many of the adults who emerged from this ordeal were tormented men and women, and their legacy of alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, nihilism and despair is still being passed down the generations.
Nothing of the sort has happened to the Mongols of Inner Mongolia, so far as is known – but something bad is starting to happen to them now.
Chinese culture has always been patronizing toward the minorities living within China’s borders, but it didn’t usually see them as threats.
They aren’t threats now, either, but there is a growing sense of insecurity in the ruling elite that makes it impatient to stamp out differences and deviations from the norm.
You can see it in Tibet, where the screws have been turned so tight on dissent, that more than a hundred people have burned themselves to death in protests since 2009.
You cannot avoid seeing it in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uyghurs have been sent to concentration camps that operate like residential schools for adults, trying to separate the residents from their religion, language and values.
And you can detect it in a minor key even in Inner Mongolia, in a needless, destabilizing attempt to force Mandarin down the throats of loyal, innocent people who pose no threat whatever to the state.
What drives President-for-Life Xi Jinping and his advisers to such ridiculous and counter-productive extremes? The only plausible answer is fear that history will repeat itself.
China’s rulers are all Communists in theory (though how many still really believe it is another matter), and so they rightly worry that what happened to the communist parties of Europe in 1989 could also happen to them.
However, two years after that the Soviet Union broke up as well. It’s really unlikely that China will ever do the same, because more than 90 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese, but the guilty flee where none pursue.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).