By Laurie CHEN
TONGLIAO, China (AFP) -- As his son returned to school under the watchful eye of plainclothes police, an ethnic Mongolian father admitted defeat after days of fighting against a curriculum imposed by the Chinese state, which he fears will suffocate his culture.
"The spirit (of resistance) is still there, but we are scared," said the man, requesting anonymity as he watched other students lugging their suitcases back into Tongliao Mongolian Middle School after a week-long boycott.
"Little by little, parents are sending their kids back."
Tens of thousands took part in demonstrations and school boycotts in Inner Mongolia -- a vast expanse of northern China where herders marshall livestock across grasslands -- to protest against an edict mandating Mandarin-language teaching, over fears it will wipe out their language.
The rare mass rallies held by ethnic Mongolians is the largest China has seen in decades, where authorities under Chinese President Xi Jinping brook no dissent.
But then the crackdown came.
Armoured vehicles moved in to surround schools in Tongliao, a stronghold of resistance where ethnic Mongolians make up almost half of the population.
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.
Police offered cash bounties for leads on ringleaders and publicised the arrests of dozens of suspects accused of gathering signatures and sharing dissenting messages on WeChat.
Parents who refused to send their children back to school were threatened with layoffs, fines and students' expulsion. In one district, officials offered cash to students who convinced their peers to return, according to official notices.
The dragnet has cowed the most outspoken.
Petitions that circulated in early September and other outward signs of dissent have evaporated, as fear silences many Inner Mongolians.
During a recent trip to the region, AFP reporters were tailed by a convoy of propaganda officials and unidentified men, leaving contacts jittery and afraid to be named.
In the footsteps of Xinjiang, Tibet
Hastily imposed for the start of term on September 1, the new rules say Mandarin must be taught from first grade -- one year earlier than before -- across the region's bilingual boarding schools.
History, politics and literature will also be taught in Mandarin now instead of Mongolian.
Similar education policies have been introduced in Xinjiang and Tibet, other border regions that have faced government repression and extensive campaigns to rein in their minority education, religions and cultures.
"This is something we cannot accept," the father told AFP.
"For young children who are now around seven or eight years old, in a decade or two they will not be able to speak with grandparents in their own language."
Ethnic Mongolians count for less than a fifth of the region's 25.3 million population, and are vastly outnumbered by Han Chinese.
But they are fiercely proud of a heritage that they share with Mongolia to the north, and fear Beijing is ramping up an assimilation drive.
"Schools are in some ways to the Mongol ethnic identity what monasteries are to Tibetan identity, and what Islamic holidays and shrines are to Uighur identity," said Chris Atwood, professor of Mongolian and Chinese studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The interference in the curriculum aligns with remarks by Xi that Mandarin language ability leads to greater prosperity and social mobility for ethnic minorities across China.
That carries with it "hints that there's something inadequate about minority language education," Atwood added.
Authorities show no signs of backing down.
Regional governor Bu Xiaolin has declared that implementing the Mandarin policy is an "important political task".
The Inner Mongolia Education Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Bainuu, the sole Mongolian-language social media app available in China, was pulled by authorities in August.
In neighbouring Mongolia, which has close economic ties with China, the move caused a huge public uproar, although politicians have yet to challenge China on the issue.
Despite increasing pressure from authorities, a small minority continues to defy the local government's orders.
A Tongliao parent told AFP via phone that his toddler is currently being homeschooled, despite repeated threats from local police.
"My child's thinking is still like a traditional Mongolian, but if they enter the (Mandarin) school environment, they will lose that identity," said the father who withheld his name for his safety.
"This is a very scary situation."
The curriculum change shows that China is determined to "wipe out Mongolian language, culture and identity," says Enghebatu Togochog, Director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York City.
"Mongolians really don't want to lose their language. If they lose this, they lose everything."