BEIJING - The herder couldn't speak for long. His phone was being monitored, he said, as are those of many other Mongols around him.
"We have no way out. There's nothing we can do," said Gangbater, a herder in Xilingol League, a central part of China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, where mass protests broke out three weeks ago when the government implemented a new "bilingual education" program to replace the Mongolian language with Chinese in half of Mongol school classes.
Demonstrations against the program appear to have been largely suppressed. More than 90% of children who had boycotted school in Xilingol were back in class - including his own, said Gangbater, who asked not to use his full name for fear of retribution from authorities.
"If you don't send the kids (to school), they take away your jobs," said Gangbater. "You can't get subsidies or loans from the banks. They put you on a blacklist. They are arresting the people who signed petitions. They have all kinds of methods."
The Chinese government's crackdown on Inner Mongolia has been swift and unsurprising, using a familiar arsenal of tactics - surveillance, financial and occupational threats, detention, social credit blacklisting and media control - often deployed against ethnic minorities and others deemed a threat to "social stability."
But it is remarkable for taking place in what has long been known as China's "model minority" region. The backlash against the bilingual plan has raised criticism from Mongols within China and across the border in Mongolia, but it has also drawn a rare rebuke from Communist Party elite in Beijing.
The protests, however, have not deterred the government's resolve to erode minority cultural identity. Last week, local authorities in the city of Xilinhot, the seat of government in XIlingol, announced via WeChat that parents who did not send their children to school by Sept. 17 would lose access to government subsidies. High schoolers who did not attend classes would be expelled and blocked from taking the college entrance exam. Banks would stop loans for the next five years to any parents who did not comply.
A separate government notice stated that parents who did not abide would be placed on an "untrustworthy persons list," and face restrictions on jobs, special market transactions, cross-border travels, home reconstruction and other actions requiring good social credit standing.
Xilinhot authorities announced last week that they had successfully brought all 3,469 students in the area's Mongolian-language schools back to class. "Chinese ethnicities as one close family, building the China dream with one heart," declared bright white Chinese and Mongol letters against a red background on top of the announcement.
A police source within Inner Mongolia told the Los Angeles Times that most students had returned to school, but officers were tracking down people who had posted anything "harmful to the government" online. He shared images of police orders that included people's names, identification numbers, phone numbers, addresses and workplaces, and required police to implement "education and stability control" on the individuals.