BEIJING -- Calls for justice by Mongols in the resource-rich, prosperous borderland of northern China have shattered the calm there to which Chinese leaders have grown accustomed.
Clashes that left two Mongols dead in mid-May triggered protests in several cities and towns last week that have become the largest demonstrations in the Inner Mongolia region in 20 years. The government has responded with a broad clampdown, pouring police into the streets, disrupting Internet service and confining high school and university students to campus.
The strategy appeared to thwart a major demonstration Monday in the regional capital of Hohhot, though a witness said students attempted to protest in one place but were turned back by police.
It's a rattling turn of events for Chinese leaders, who have long battled ethnic unrest by Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang but who have seen Inner Mongolia as a model, its economy booming and its Mongols integrated into the mainstream. On Monday, President Hu Jintao gathered the Communist Party's powerful Politburo to discuss what it said is the urgent need to reduce social tensions and promote fairness.
The stress on economic success that made Chinese leaders complacent and many Mongols satisfied -- and a lack of interest in pushing minority rights -- is fueling the strains that have burst into the open.
"It should not happen that we only focus on the economic development, but care less about the interests of the minority people," said Yang Jianxin, an expert on ethnic relations at Lanzhou University in western China.
A mining boom has enriched some but pushed further to the margins an already dwindling number of herders -- whose roaming the grasslands with their herds of cattle, goats and sheep lies at the core of Mongol identity. Meanwhile a new generation of Mongol students is coming of age wired to the Internet in a time of relative affluence and are questioning what it means to be Mongol.
"Tensions in Inner Mongolia have been rising under the surface for many years. These are classic issues that you see in many places related to policies toward minorities," Human Rights Watch Asian researcher Nicholas Bequelin said.
Inner Mongolia, with its grasslands and deserts, runs across northern China, separating it from the independent country of Mongolia. For centuries, Chinese rulers have long cast a wary eye north, fearing the nomadic tribes that periodically swept south and toppled dynasties.
Members of China's Han majority trickled into Inner Mongolia, often fleeing famine and poverty. But the flow increased after the founding of the communist state founded in 1949, and has turned into a flood in recent years on the back of boom in mining, especially of coal.
Coal production has soared threefold over the past five years, reaching 782 million tons last year, making it the leading producer of China's main energy source, according to government statistics.
Mongols today make up less than 20 percent of the region's population of 24 million and many speak little or no Mongolian as a result of being educated in Chinese -- a fate Tibetans and Xinjiang's native Turkic Muslim Uighurs fear befalling them.
Unlike Tibet and Xinjiang, which have exploded in violent anti-government protests in recent years, Inner Mongolia had been generally quiet. That's partly due to the perception among Mongols that they were better off under Chinese rule than their ethnic brethren in impoverished Mongolia, said Barry Sautman of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
While annual per capita GDP in Inner Mongolia exceeded $7,000 in 2010, more than triple that of Mongolia, more ethnic Mongols now seem to be questioning the system under which they live, said Sautman.
The current protest movement "could serve to reinforce Mongol identity and revive calls for protecting pastoralism as an aspect of the culture," Sautman said.
The last time China's Mongols took their cues from north of the border was 20 years ago when Mongolia sloughed off its status as a Soviet client state in a peaceful democratic revolution. Some Mongols have fled northward. About 30 Inner Mongolian exiles and members of an ultranationalist Mongolian political party staged a sympathy protest Sunday in the Mongolia's capital of Ulan Bator. Among their demands: protecting pasturelands and securing the indigenous rights of Mongols in Inner Mongolia, in an echo of the Inner Mongolian protesters' calls for preserving the herding lifestyle and strengthening protections for the Mongolian language and traditional Buddhist culture.
Inner Mongolians who have sought to organize politically have been ruthlessly suppressed. One of the region's best known ethnic nationalists, Hada, just completed a 15-year prison sentence for spying and separatism but remains detained in an undisclosed location.
Government policies in some cases meant to help have further alienated many Mongolians. Limits on the size of herds intended to preserve grazing land are deeply unpopular because they reduce rural incomes, meanwhile mining concessions are given out to Chinese, said Becquelin, the Human Rights Watch researher.
Moves to fence in pastures and relocate herders to more remote areas have backfired by causing overgrazing and making it more difficult to move animal products to market, he said.
The flashpoints for the latest unrest came from the mining boom. On May 10, herders angry at coal haulers for driving over their grazing lands blocked a road and one truck driver struck and killed a herder. A few days later, a group of Mongols went to a coal mine to complain and got into a fight in which a Chinese miner rammed a forklift into one of the Mongols, killing him.
Authorities have arrested two Chinese in the first death and said Monday that a Chinese miner would be put on trial for murder in the second case. The swiftness of the response highlights how worried Chinese leaders are.
At Monday's meeting, the Politburo said easing social tensions and promoting fairness is critical.
"Solving these problems is both urgent and demands long-term effort," it said.