The Mongolian Adiya was persecuted by the Chinese state even after fleeing to Thailand. The Chinese government has no reason to classify the Mongolian teacher as an enemy.
My Mongolian name is Adiya, but my passport name is Wu Guoxing. I am 34 years old and was born in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia, a region in northern China.
When I was little I was taught all subjects in Mongolian and I used Mongolian in everyday life. That changed as I grew up.
The Chinese government sent tens of thousands of Han Chinese, who make up more than 92 percent of China’s population, to the Mongolian areas as migrants. Many people in Inner Mongolia married Han Chinese and their children attended schools where classes were taught in Mandarin.
As time went on, it seemed like there were fewer and fewer Mongolians. As a kid, I just thought, “Oh, there are more Chinese people, so we need Chinese to communicate”. It wasn’t until later, when I was in my 30s, that I realized that this development was permanent.
In the early 2000s, we were forced to use Mandarin for all official affairs. At school, even English classes were held in Mandarin, which was already our second language.
The price tags and product names in the supermarkets were gradually written in Chinese; you had to speak Mandarin with the cashiers. The party is smart – they have been working on the implementation of this process for 20 or 30 years. I did not go to university, but studied software engineering at a technical university. After that, further training in the field of computer science was no longer possible in Mongolian, only in Mandarin.
In 2008, I moved to Beijing and got a job in IT maintenance. I self-taught myself computer skills in Mandarin. After eight years, my Mongolian began to deteriorate.
I’m still able to speak it, but I end up using Mandarin for a lot of nouns – I’ve forgotten what they’re called in my native language.
In 2016, I moved back to Inner Mongolia to Hohhot, the capital of three million people. There are more Chinese here than in any other city in the region, and we don’t speak much Mongolian on a daily basis. In Beijing, I worked for a company that offered programming courses for children for several years.
I decided to start my own business to teach computer literacy to Mongolian children aged 8 to 12 who otherwise have little access to this type of education. I taught part Mandarin, part Mongolian programming and mathematical reasoning.
Since many parents initially thought that the children would only play computer games, I did not charge anything for the lessons. The students enjoyed the lessons and over time their grades improved.
Many parents were satisfied, so I charged fees in the second year. However, when the local education and trade ministries found out that I was teaching some classes in Mongolian, they asked me to stop teaching.
However, they could not tell me any specific law that I had broken, only required that I teach in Mandarin. I decided to keep going.
In the past, I was too busy with my work to worry about politics, but because of my computer skills, I knew how to bypass China’s Internet firewall.
In 2019 I used a VPN to watch the Hong Kong protests. I recorded some of them and put the clips together into a short video that I posted on WeChat and Weibo.
I was impressed by the unity of Hong Kongers and wanted to support it. My accounts got banned a few minutes after I posted the movie, but I didn’t give it any more thought at the time.
Most people in Inner Mongolia didn’t notice or care about what was happening in Hong Kong. I explained to my friends that if Hong Kong is like this today, it could soon be the same in Inner Mongolia.
Most of them laughed. We don’t have problems, we don’t cause trouble, they said. A year later, however, the problems began.
In 2020, the Chinese government passed an education reform that would reduce the number of primary school subjects taught in Mongolian and instead use Mandarin as the language of instruction.
For the Mongols, this was a significant change. The first few years are crucial for learning the language. People were worried that the children would forget their mother tongue and their culture would slowly be erased.
I thought about my experiences of losing my own language. I felt a strong urge to protect my mother tongue to protect my people.
The government’s new policy provoked protests in all cities of Inner Mongolia. On September 1st, the first day of school, I went with some friends to the entrance of a high school that is affiliated with the Normal University of Inner Mongolia.
More than 100 people had gathered outside that morning when the parents arrived with their children. Students went inside, but many refused to go to class and instead stood on the sports field shouting, “Protect our language, protect our people, reject the new education policy.”
The police were on the street and the parents tried to prevent her from going to school. We joined them and screamed too. The whole thing lasted about an hour, but in the end the police dispersed the crowd and the students went back to class.
I attended two other protests this month – smaller ones, with only a few dozen people. One was in front of a local university and the other in front of the Hohhot City Government building.
We wrote banners in Mongolian and Mandarin that read, “Protect our mother tongue and culture.” In China, there are cameras on every street, so the government had pictures of all the protesters.
Our WeChat groups were also monitored. When we put photos and videos of the protests online, they were censored. Most Mongolians are farmers or nomads and do not have the technical skills to get through a firewall.
People can only post pictures to WeChat friends or video recordings on Douyin (as TikTok is called in China). Many valuable records of what happened have been lost.
Both the State Security Bureau and the Public Security Bureau came to my home in Hohhot. They took away my phone, laptop and hard drive and looked at all my video recordings, pictures and class materials.
You deleted everything. In the two to three months after the protests, they visited my parents five times and called them every week. They said I had engaged in illegal activities and advised them to stop me from doing it.
My company was practically closed. It was the only source of income for my whole family: I had put all my life savings into the business and we had just rented a new building and renovated the classrooms.
For two months I went to government offices and asked what laws I had broken. Nobody ever gave me a concrete answer. I was just referred from one department to the next.
The parents of one of my students told me that the police came and said, “This teacher, Mr. Wu, is anti-government. He belongs to a terrorist group. Don’t go to his school anymore.
If you have any evidence of his terrorist activities, report it to us. You will receive a reward.” Many parents had received such visits, but only a few told me about them.
We Mongolians are a minority. We want to protect our language, but we have nothing against the power of the state. Friends told me that the party arrested people who took part in the protests. They told me to try to escape because they don’t know if the people who were taken away are still alive.
In January 2021 I left China. I managed to fly from Inner Mongolia to Tianjin and from there to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I had brought a camera and told the border officials that I was a photographer and that I was traveling on behalf of my company.
A friend introduced me to a Cambodian smuggler in Poipet, a town in western Cambodia near Thailand. We rode our motorbikes to the border and then walked through a forest.
After swimming a river that runs between the two countries, we walked through fields for hours. When we finally got to the road, a pickup truck took me to a place where I could spend the night. I had paid the smuggler 15,000 Thai baht ($400). We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time.
I was finally out of China – for the first time in my life – but I was still scared. In Cambodia, I had read the news about two Chinese nationals who had been murdered in Phnom Penh.
Her killers were also Chinese. I didn’t feel safe in Thailand either. My brother was already living in Chiang Mai with his wife and child.
We noticed that people who didn’t look like Thai people were following us around town. We then moved to Bangkok, where I applied to the United Nations for refugee status.
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This was approved in July last year. However, as the United Nations office was closed due to the Covid pandemic, I did not receive a refugee card for months. In the meantime we moved to Suphan Buri, a small town north of the capital where life was less expensive.
On October 3rd of this year, I was at home when my landlord, accompanied by two Thai immigration officers, knocked on the door. They took me to the local immigration office and told me that the Chinese embassy had sent a notice wanting me.
I asked to see the notice. They said they didn’t have him but they had to take me into custody until I could be deported.
Two weeks later I was taken to an immigration detention center in Bangkok, where I was told that my papers to return to China were ready. I had not applied for it, but was told that the embassy had applied for it on my behalf.
The next day, four people came to see me. Two of them were Chinese embassy officials. A woman, whose surname was Chen, said she was a police officer from Inner Mongolia. The fourth was a younger Chinese policeman.
I was sick and confused: I was coughing and sweating and my eyes were red. They thought I had Covid so they stood a few meters away from me. I didn’t really understand what they said.
The younger policeman showed me a document on his cell phone. “Sign this and everything will be fine,” he explained. I declined. They said we know everything about your parents and your siblings: where they live, what they do, we know everything.
I was so scared that I signed a confession and an agreement to return to China. They dictated to me, word for word, what to write. I confessed to the crime of “illegally receiving public funds.”
I don’t even know what that means. I asked them why they sent the police so far to find me, to which I received no answer.
Little did I know that members of my family were waiting in front of the immigration detention center that day. They had asked the UN refugee agency for help and were trying to see me. A UN official was arrested later in the day.
She said my case was complicated because I signed the agreement to return to China, which made it difficult for her to put me under UN protection. So I wrote another statement that I didn’t want to go.
The UN official came every day for about a week to stop my deportation. The Chinese booked three different flights for me. I refused to board a plane, yet the deportation center would not let me go.
On October 26, the younger Chinese policeman came to see me and informed me that my refugee status would eventually expire. “After those 15 months are up, I’ll finish you off,” he threatened.
When I told him he was being filmed threatening a Chinese civilian at a Thai immigration center, he immediately denied everything he said. The next day, seven Chinese police and government officials showed up and I was threatened again.
The immigration prison was fruitful. I shared my cell with almost 200 people. Every day there was the same soup and plain rice to eat. Sometimes the food spoiled. We slept crammed together on the bare floor.
There were eight other Chinese, but when they found out I was a refugee, they became rude. They said I had betrayed China. Most of them were Han Chinese who had fled to Thailand from Myanmar or Laos after being involved in telecommunications scams.
Everyone really wanted to go back to China. Some have been waiting for six to eight months but have not been able to obtain an exit permit. While I, who didn’t want to go back, got my application to leave the country within just one day.
While most people had to pay for their Covid tests out of pocket, I was tested six times in preparation for the flight. Apparently, the expedited procedure was intended to get me back to China as quickly as possible.
On November 2nd, after a month in detention, the Thai police informed me that I had been released. My family somehow managed to get the support they needed to bail me out.
I arrived at my brother’s house at 9pm and was incredibly happy to see everyone again. But I still feel in danger. I’ve noticed people who are obviously not Thai hanging around in our neighborhood. Tomorrow I will stay at a friend’s house.
Maybe I’ll live with different people for a while and not stay in one place for too long. I have to live with the knowledge that the Chinese police can threaten me even here, far across the Chinese border. It’s hard to feel safe.
The article first appeared in The Economist and was translated by Andrea Schleipen. The interviewer was Alice Su, senior China correspondent for The Economist. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
*The post “Even though I wasn’t in China, I was scared” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.