Ulaanbaatar   -   Dozens of protesters demanding the release of ethnic Mongolians arrested in China for criticising a controversial language policy rallied in the Mongolian capital Thursday, days before a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The country of Mongolia neighbours China’s province of Inner Mongolia, which has seen weeks of protests and school boycotts over a policy requiring schools to teach politics, history, and literature in Mandarin rather than the local language.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will stop in Ulaanbaatar during an Asia tour next week that also includes Japan and South Korea but omits China.

Some protesters -- wearing facemasks as a precaution against the coronavirus -- were dressed in traditional Mongolian outfits and carried banners showing pictures of alleged Chinese atrocities against ethnic Mongolians.

Pompeo has previously criticised China’s coercive attempts to assimilate local minorities into the dominant Han population.

Ethnic Mongolians in China and elsewhere fear the move -- which limits the opportunity to use Mongolian in schools -- will lead to the language’s extinction.

Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Mongolia last month was also overshadowed by protests.

“During the Wang Yi’s visit Mongolian leadership should have spoken up and stated that China must release the arrested Inner Mongolians,” protester Elbegdorj told AFP.

Rallies in Inner Mongolia last month were the largest seen for decades, but a crackdown was swift, with armoured vehicles surrounding schools in some areas. 

Police also offered cash bounties for leads on ringleaders and publicized the arrests of dozens of suspects accused of gathering signatures and sharing dissenting messages on WeChat.

The clampdown echoes Beijing’s moves in Xinjiang and Tibet, where similar policies to assimilate local minorities into the dominant Han population were implemented in line with Xi’s vision of national and ideological unity through cultural identity.

“Obtaining an education in its native language is universally recognised human rights,” protest organiser Zolzaya Nyamdorj said.

“China is violating those rights.”