Updated: May 15
Inner Mongolia faces environmental and ethnic tensions over coal mining, which has brought unequal economic development to the region and ravaged much of the iconic steppe landscape. Can a series of photographs from Lu Guang and a banned Mongolian rap song provide a way to understand the complex ethics and impacts of this and other environmental catastrophes?
The photograph shows a close-up of grassland in Inner Mongolia, but there is no grass in sight. Or people for that matter. Instead, latex gloves, plastics, and other detritus erupt from a sea of dark sand. Splayed and tattered, the gloves resemble fingers reaching from the wasteland. While human bodies are absent from the image, our presence is nevertheless profound. Faced with a landscape of litter and refuse, we are left to face a sobering question: How did we get here? And more importantly, why shouldn’t we look away?
Appearing in Robert Pledge’s December 2018 New York Times opinion piece “A Photographer Goes Missing in China,” this photograph belongs to a larger series by the Chinese activist and photojournalist Lu Guang that sought to chronicle the catastrophic effects of environmental degradation in China and Inner Mongolia due to coal mining. Lu disappeared five weeks before the article’s publication and was released by Chinese authorities a year later in 2019. His evocative and almost otherworldly photos document the plight of some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in Chinese society. Moreover, they reveal the dark underbelly of capitalism and industrialisation in one of the world’s rising economic and political superpowers.
In May 2011, seven years before the publication of the New York Times article on Lu Guang, a Mongolian herdsman named Mergen attempted to prevent a convoy of Chinese coal trucks from driving through his pasture land. When he was killed in the conflict by a Chinese truck driver, a wave of protests unfurled across Inner Mongolia. Mergen quickly became a symbol of the contentious intersection between environmental and ethnic tensions in Inner Mongolia. It was the most serious ethnic unrest seen in the region for over thirty years.
Thousands of Mongolians took to the streets to express their anger at the severe violence done to grassland communities by the region’s rapidly expanding coal industries. During the protests, an anonymous rap song dedicated to Mergen entitled ‘Hero of the Grasslands’ appeared briefly on several Chinese social media sites. While the identity of the rapper remains a mystery, many believe that it is a Mongolian college student from Tongliao City. (According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, the rapper’s friends have since lost contact with him.) The now-censored song calls attention to the connection between environmental degradation and ethnic tension in Inner Mongolia, as well as the ways in which that connection is obscured. The rapper notes the irony of language as a colonising tool. ‘I am an ethnic Mongolian,’ he reminds us in the song, ‘even though I am rapping in Chinese.’
Both the song and Lu’s photograph look at the relation between violence and seeing, as well as the violence of seeing. Each is a call for visibility. I’m reminded of what critic and poet John Berger said: ‘We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.’
To have this information is one thing. What to do with it is another.
Inner Mongolia is one of many places across the globe where narratives of indigenous, marginalised groups consistently face censorship and violence. An autonomous region within China, Inner Mongolia serves as China’s northernmost border between Mongolia and Russia. With a Han ethnicity of over ninety percent in its population, China officially recognizes fifty-six ethnic minorities, including the indigenous Mongolian people. Autonomous regions such as Inner Mongolia remain bound to the central Chinese government, which controls its diverse populations through a unified economic plan.
In recent years, Inner Mongolia has become one of China’s top producers of coal and rare earths. The region accounts for nearly one-quarter of the country’s coal production. Mongolians—who make up only one-fifth of the population of Inner Mongolia—have been victims of widespread environmental abuse and injustice at the hands of coal companies. These injustices include the unequal distribution of wealth from coal mines, severely polluted waterways, and the threat that mining-related ecological degradation poses to Inner Mongolia’s pastoral traditions. According to researchers at Human Rights Watch, many ethnic Mongolians live in remote grasslands where access to mining-related economic benefits are simply inaccessible.
It’s challenging to communicate these injustices in China, where environmental issues remain deeply censored by the authoritarian government. Chinese citizens need a virtual private network, or VPN, to open many websites, including information and communication applications such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Additionally, the Chinese government headed by Xi Jinping is quick to clamp down on social unrest and maintains a comprehensive censorship machine by carefully monitoring online discussions. In the past, the government has even appropriated grassroots anti-pollution movements in an attempt to control public environmental outrage. In a country where it is not uncommon for environmental activists to be arrested without notice, there are immense stakes behind protesting the environmental and human costs of China’s global economic dominance.
I last visited Inner Mongolia—where my father’s family is from—in 2009. I was eight years old and stunned by the vastness of the steppe. When my father was about the same age in the 1960s, he learned English by memorising the lyrics to John Denver’s West Virginian ode, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’ My father still hums the melody as he talks about the landscape of his childhood, the expanse of sky and pasture. Much of this landscape, however, has been marred by the scars of coal mines. These mines punctuate the land with mounds of mixed earth and metal.
For thousands of years, Mongolians have followed a nomadic, pastoral lifestyle that centres around a profound reverence for the natural world. Both this culture and the land informing it are in immense danger of disappearing. Coal mining, urban development, logging, and increased population pressures have all led to a crisis of land degradation: since 2019, desertification has occurred in nearly 62.24 million square kilometres of the region. This threat to both land and culture disrupts traditional Mongolian ways of living, enacting a loss that reverberates across generations.
My relationship to Inner Mongolia has become personal as well as existential. I first encountered Lu’s work through the New York Times article in 2018, during my first year at college. I had been taking an art history survey course at the time. Three days a week I sat among a few hundred other students and curious guests in a dimly lit lecture hall where my professor argued for the importance and necessity of art in a way I had never experienced before. We were asked to think about art as a way of perceiving the world around us, including its violence and environmental catastrophes. (That was the dramatic tail end of a historic summer when wildfires swept across Northern California and the administration decided to shut down campus for a few days when the air became dangerous to breathe.) I had never felt the existential threat of climate change more clearly than that autumn. Days would go by with smoky grey skies and an acid burn in the back of my throat. Experiencing Lu’s photographs and later, the rap song, moved me because they evoked a similar visceral, urgent response to an environmental crisis of which I had no prior awareness.
With the profound connections between land, identity, and culture for ethnic Mongolians, mining-related environmental degradation constitutes a form of violence done to an entire system of belief and living. So much of this system is tied to the disappearing land of the steppe. Efforts to protect what grazable land is left has resulted, paradoxically, in even more restrictions on grazing for Mongolian herders. It’s a vicious, violent cycle.
In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon examines the challenges of conceptualising catastrophes of pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change. Nixon calls environmental devastation ‘slow violence’ because it sometimes—but not always, as seen in the alarming rate of desertification in Mongolia—happens over time scales that exceed human perception. ‘Slow violence’ is an inherently temporal crisis. However, politics are built on the ability to bring tangible change, functioning on a scale that hyper-focuses on what can be seen and omits what cannot.
As an artist, I found myself turning to Lu’s photographs and the banned rap song because I wanted to see if they would help me understand how we can use the language of image and sound to grapple with environmental crises. Art dares us to implicate ourselves. It allows us to both bear witness to and maintain agency over the way in which we choose to respond. Lu’s photograph and the courage of the rapper challenge us to examine ourselves, to turn our outward gaze within. These works remind us that violence is not always spectacular catastrophe but embedded in our ways of seeing the world, of visualising and conceptualising the immense environmental changes occurring around us, as well as our place among them.
Lu’s photographs and the ‘Hero of the Grasslands’ song are in no way representative of a complete story. Rather, what they do is find power in specificity and locate the otherwise abstract in the profundity of something as stark as a rubber glove buried in the sand. Images, songs, and artworks emphasise that sometimes a partial perspective is all we have and all we can believe in. Those who create these works ask us to think deeply and critically about what and how we see, as well as more importantly, in what manner we choose to respond.
‘Have you ever really thought about it carefully?’ asks the rapper in the song for Mergen. ‘Whose fault is it really?’
The definition of fault—whether it refers to recognition or responsibility—is left to us to interpret.
Regina Kong - author and artist of this piece - studies environmentally-focused art and literature at Stanford University. She will begin the MSc in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford in autumn 2023. You can find her at reginakong.com or on instagram.