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Looking at China Unrest from Mongolian Perch

July 10, 2009
NBC News
Adrienne Mong


Mongolians today prefer looking west, not to Russia or China (Adrienne Mong / NBC News)


ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – As events unfold in Xinjiang Province, we have seen a resurgence of ethnic Chinese nationalist sentiment mixed with fear and mistrust of not just the Uighur people but also the outside world.

China’s central and local governments were quick to accuse the U.S.-based World Uighur Congress of fomenting racial tension in Xinjiang and alluded to "outside" terrorist and separatist organizations working together to split up the country.

Meanwhile, China’s blogosphere has been rife with Han Chinese outrage at the foreign media coverage of the violence, calling it prejudiced and erroneous. And on the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Western reporters have faced angry mobs of Han Chinese accusing them of a long-standing bias against China.

But looking at the unrest in Xinjiang from a neighboring country like Mongolia offers an interesting perspective on China’s regional reputation. Whether the Chinese would acknowledge it or not, unfortunately the long reach of history often influences modern attitudes much more than any current day media reports.

How to insult a Mongol
The first thing we learned upon arriving at the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator was that one way of insulting a Mongol was to tell him, "You are Chinese."

Our translator, a good-natured 26-year-old nicknamed Togo, explained, "It just means that you think the person is very rude."

That’s nowhere as offensive as it could be, given the historical enmity between Mongolia and China. But this little bit of cultural exchange, as it were, goes a long way to illustrate how the Chinese are viewed by some neighbors – and how they increasingly may be seen in light of unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

An intertwined history
Over the centuries, the two countries have fought bitterly for supremacy.

One of China’s great but short-lived dynasties was Mongolian. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, established the Yuan dynasty in 1271 and made Beijing the capital of his empire. (It should be noted that ethnic Chinese culture flourished under this "foreign" Imperial Court, which promoted cultural diversity and welcomed outside ideas and outsiders, including Marco Polo.)

The succeeding dynasty, the Ming, rebuilt and fortified the Great Wall with the Mongols in mind – to keep them out of China.

Mongolia, in turn, lost a considerable amount of territory to the Chinese led by the Manchu during the Qing Dynasty. The swath of land it lost is now known as Inner Mongolia and is the third largest province in China, with almost a fifth of its residents ethnic Mongols. (In fact, China has more Mongols than Mongolia.) And they from time to time accuse the Chinese government of discriminating against them.

Inner Mongolia is also where – 800 years after the death of Genghis Khan, with almost as long a history of demonizing him as the leader of savage barbarian hordes – the Chinese have recently tried to reinvent the great Mongol warrior as one of their own. At the height of this rebranding push, critics concluded that China’s policy of assimilating Genghis was meant to reinforce the official line that Inner Mongolia has always been an integral part of China.

Fortunately, for Beijing, Inner Mongolia has not been riven by the kind of ethnic strife witnessed in Tibet or Xinjiang. Perhaps that’s because – unlike the Uighurs in Xinjiang province or the Tibetans – the Mongols actually have their own nation, even if at times Mongolia feels constrained by its much more powerful neighbor.

‘Caught between two hungry wolves’
I was particularly alert when, here in Ulan Bator, Togo introduced me to curious Mongols as an American and avoided any mention of my Chinese roots even when they were clearly mystified by my ethnicity.

Later, in private conversation, Togo described in great detail the animosity many Mongolians still feel toward China and the Chinese.

"We are like the deer, caught between two hungry wolves," he said to me, referring to Mongolia’s precarious geography between Russia and China.

And Russia, many Mongolians feel, has been the less hungry of the two – hence the close relationship between the two communist governments for several decades. In recent times, however, officials in Ulan Bator have played a cautious game of diplomacy with the Chinese, who have not hesitated to express their displeasure when crossed.

Take the Tibet situation, for example.

Through a common religion, Tibet and Mongolia have strong historical ties. Mongolia, which is predominantly Buddhist, practices the Yellow Hat sect, whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama. 

But when the Dalai Lama last visited Ulan Bator, in 2006, the Mongolian government took great pains to keep the trip low-key, calling it a religious exchange. After all, during a 2002 visit by him, the Chinese government protested by cutting off rail links with landlocked Mongolia for two days.

Many Mongolians feel a strong kinship with Tibet, and this is especially true for monks. Outside Gandan Monastery – Mongolia’s largest and most important Buddhist monastery – a monk told us that he had visited Dharamsala, India, many times to meet the Dalai Lama and that he hoped to be able to visit Tibet in his lifetime. But when asked what he thought about China’s relationship with Tibet, he demurred, preferring – like his government – not to take a public stance.

Looking farther afield to America
Today, Mongolia looks neither to Russia nor to China.  Instead, the government – especially under newly elected President Tsakhia Elbegdorj – wants to reorient the country toward the United States and its close allies, such as South Korea or Japan. 

In fact, Elbegdorj, who in May won on a campaign of hope and anti-corruption, was responsible for steering the nation’s education system toward adopting English as a second language instead of Russian.  In his youth, he attended the University of Colorado-Boulder and then Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Election campaigners in Mongolia dubbed him their Barack Obama, and he won votes from the country’s overwhelmingly youthful population.

But America isn’t in the headlines these days. Xinjiang is. And Togo has listened to our discussions about the unrest in Xinjiang with great curiosity. When I asked him about the coverage of the story in Mongolia, he laughed.  We’ve been working so hard this week, he hasn’t had time to keep up with the news, he said. But tonight he was going home to read as much as he could. 

Tomorrow, he smiled, we could talk about it.


Thanks for this informative article.  Wishing that the Han Chinese would let Mongolia have "Inner Mongolia." I wonder if Mongolia has any Oil or whatever, that the Han Chinese think they need? HA! The Mongols have a great history and I hope they keep looking towards the U.S. for friendship etc.  And I also hope the U.S. Government does not miss the opportunity to be good friends with Mongolia and the Mongols. The U.S. also needs to support Tibetan Independence.  

(With that said, anyone who gets a chance to watch the excellent movie "Mongol" about Genghis Khan,in Mongolian with English sub-titles), please do so.)

 Also, with all that the Mongols have in common with the Tibetans, can we imagine how fantastic it would be if Tibet was free of the Han Chinese yoke? It would speak well for the Han Chinese and their government in Peking (yes, I like the old spelling), if they would just let go of Tibet and Inner Mongolia.  Instead of holding on to places with large populations of radically different cultures etc., the Han Chinese would earn world praise if they let  Mongolia proper have "Inner Mongolia" now in China, and leave the Tibetans free to have their own richly deserved country - toally free (for ever) from Chinese control.  The Tibetans are NOT Chinese, and the Mongolians are NOT Chinese.  

The only readon Peking is holding on to "Inner Mongolia" and Tibet, is because the Han Chinese think that if they let these two areas go they will have a great loss of face.  On the contrary!  If China let Tibet and "Inner Mongolia" go they would earn more respect from the world then they could ever imagine.

Come on Han Chinese people and leaders, do something besides screaming at the world media and telling them they are prejudice towards you.  And quit trying to tell everyone that the Mongols and Tibetans are Chinese just because you drew Chinese borders around "Inner Mongolia" and Tibet.  

After all is said and done, you need to concentrate your attention on making better products for Wal-Mart instead of beating up on your ethnic "minorities."  All the money you spend on sending Riot Police to crack skulls somewhere could be much better spent on paying your workers more to make better coffee makers etc. etc.    
Why is the World press so reluctant to accurately portray the massive land grab of China's Imperialist invasions by Mao ?  Next perhaps will be the exposure of their gains of parts of Vietnam and India not to mention several offshore Islands.
As in other cases around the world, oftentimes the most accurate gauge of a country's true colors is gleaned by those in a position to know best : it's closest neighbours (its population not the sometimes illigitimate dictators).
Germany returned the conquered lands from this same time frame and the Soviet (Russia) Empire from the same era also has returned soverignity to it's diverse Nations ... When will the Chinese Empire also do so ??
it's just too low to use a racist activity in another country (Mongolia) to support the authors racist claim against all Chinese people.

Are you telling me I am rude, Adrienne Mong?

Maybe I am, but please educate me how a group of 1.3 billion people are rude.

So it's OK to be biased against China since the Chinese are rude. Look at your argument please and tell me you can keep a straight face.
Why is the US so keen on stirring up ethinic animosities in other countries?
I spent some time in Mongolia during the mid '90s. They are a fantastic bunch of people. When I told them that man had landed on the moon in 1969, they didn't believe me. They don't like Chinese for sure. They didn't appreciate it when Hillary Clinton so rudely did not drink the fermented mare's milk. I still have contact with my interpreters and one day I want to go back.
It is no doubt that Xingiang, Mongolia and Tibet are a part of China. People in the above provinces have lived harmoiously and peacefully with Han Chinese throughtout the centuries. Historically, the government has tried very hard to help them and to upgrade their living standard. Obveriously, the ethnic problem has been precipitated by outside agitators.
There isn't a country in that region that doesn't despise the Chinese or their government.The rest of the world is about to find out why.
I thought the article was superb. Some light has been shed on my limited understanding of china's ethnic strife.
As a "Chinese" (let's be honest here even if you are born and raised in America as long as you look asian you will always be considered to be a Chinese by everyone else)I find this article rather amusing.  Calling someone a "Chinese"  maybe an insult in Mongolia, but calling someone a "Mongoloid" is an insult in the English language.

I don't see the point of the article other than the usual China-bashing?  Bad Chinese, they are SO RUDE, we must CIVILIZE them.  
Get your facts straight there, buddy!
Your so-called "flourished" under Yuan dynasty means the whole Chinese culture was set back for hundreds of years under the Yuan dynasty. All southern Chinese people who had advanced to the brink of Capitialism were treated as "Two-legged Sheep" during that period of time. The goal of the Mongolian high court was to make the whole world a feeding ground for their sheeps. Why do you think the whole dynasty only lasted less than 100 years?
All things, all hatreds happen for a reason.
Nobody is innocent historically. If you think the name "Chinese" is bad in Mongolia, try the name "American" in Iraq. Billions of dollars to BUY a name people spit on in the streets, really smart!
It is such a shame that the main Problem here is that the Government simply is NOT addressing the issue at hand.  The issue is that the Uighur's have been repressed for 60 years by the Chinese government's one sided policy.  The relocation of millions of Han Chinese into Uighurs region and not giving equal opportunity to the Uighurs in their own homeland is the the ultimate cause.  EXACTLY similar to the Situation in Tibet, China's main goal has been to completely assimilate/eliminate the native population into their Han culture.  This is done by mass population transfer of Han Chinese into non Chinese region to make those cities Chinese cities.  In this day and age, Such purposely led policies will not be successful because people have access to information and they see the result of such harsh one sided policies of Chinese Government.

Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians etc are said to be part of "56 Chinese minority", when the reality is that we "minorities" are not treated like part of Chinese society, instead we are faced with discrimination that only has gotten worst and worst each year.
The Chinese media only shows killed/injured Chinese, a very cruel & calculated move. With thousands of Chinese mob hunting down Uighurs & around 20,000 heavily armed police deployed, don't tell me only few Uighurs were killed or injured.
In conclusion, the issue here is not the Uighur people or the Tibetan people (last year), it is the one sided Policies carried out by the Chinese Government for 60 years ever since its invasion of these non Chinese regions/countries.
We focus so much on China and their land grabs, but we forget how much the US exploited other nations. DonĘt forget where much of the US land comes from....

Hopefully, as the US loses its power, we will all get along better.
A friend of mine is in Ulanbator working for an Australian mining company. He talks a lot about the many untapped natural resources that Mongolia has. If I was the Mongolian government, I would be very wary of the intentions of both Russia and China towards my country. Especially as China's seemingly insatiable appetite for consumption continues to grow.
I think that people are taking this article too personally. I think it was well written. I don't think it is Bias at all. There are personal opinions of others, not the author. Don't accuse the writter for conveying the thoughts of someone they spoke too.

I do think the Chinese government uses a hammer too often and a feather to little. It is a brutish government system. I do give them credit for making vast strides over the past decade but they are still taking their time catching up.

Every country in the world faces racial and religious differences. Some just don't let their people wail on each other because of them. (In case you didn't notice....those that let the beatings commence are far behind, economically and politically, those that don't)
I would not worry about the chinese ( In china) they like all oppresive forces will do their own self in. For all who will look to insult this stance, I ask you to exam this first, how long can you keep a people under your thumb before they break it, how long do the chinese think they can push on all people with their heavy handed simple ways, before they push to far? Its funny to think of what will happen to their leaders when that day comes
For some ignorant people who thinks Mao's China grabbed all the land of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, please read this article more carefully. The author of this article told you that they were integrated in Qing Dynasty which was established 100 years earlier than the United States. By the way, Ray, why don't you return to Europe so this land can be returned to its original owner, Indians? I can fully rewrite your comments with compelling arguements by replacing "Tibetans and Mongols" with "Indians" and replacing "Chinese" with "Europeans". A bunch of Hypocrites who always complains someone else stinks but forgets his own butt is smeared with a big pile of ***t!!!
This is an excellent article, and very accurate. Mongolian history is amazing.....and even Tibetans draw their roots from Mongolia.  After Genghis Khan, his sons bestowed the title "Dalai Lama" (means Ocean of Wisdom) and the lands of Tibet to the high Lama.  His grandson, Kublai Khan. founded the Yuan Dynasty in China (note name of money ;-)

While Genghis Khan was brutal and harsh, his sons and grandsons brought a golden age to most of the known world.  China Govt would have us forget history; particularly theirs.

This is a bad time in which we live; soon China will fall....again....but not without much pain and anguish.  It is for the reason alone, that the Dalai Lama has been so patient with them; trying to get them to avoid this destruction. Not because he, Tibetans, or Buddhists are weak.....because they see the outcome of hate, anger, destruction, and violence.....perpetuation of the same. It seems to be the fate of humans. But where death came, flowers will grow.

So, there is hope....and that hope will flower in Mongolia.  They are strong enough to assure that.

"There isn't a country in that region that doesn't despise the Chinese or their government.The rest of the world is about to find out why."

I find it interesting that you're saying all the countries that China borders hate the Chinese, yet if the Han Chinese hate on others it's a crime(!). If Inner Mongolia wanted to seperate like Uyghurs there'd be massive demonstrations just like in Tibet and Xinjiang but there isn't, ask yourself why.
Whenever for someone to tell the Chinese to free Tibet or Mongolia, let's tell the American to free America, the Australian to free Australia. Give those lands back to the natives. Unfortunately,there are not enough natives to raise their voice now, because they were genocided two hundreds year ago.
Before the invasion of the mongols Song dynasty was at the peak of Chinese civilization (more so than the Tang dynasty) in terms of arts and technology. While Europe was still in dark age Song dynasty was showing signs of evolving into the first capitalist society in the world, had Mongols not invaded it. Mongols attemped to exterminate Chinese initially by killing anyone with the most common five last names (Zhang, Li, Wang etc. but not Mong) but soon gave up.  However, the mass murdur committed by the mongols throughout numerous Chinese and European cities resulted in hundreds on millions of human death. This is historical fact, one simply needs to go to wikipedia or any open respected media to find it out.
There is nothing to glorify behind the vast territory occupied by the Yuan empire, or any other empire in the history of mankind for that matter. Under the mongolian rule Yuan dynasty was the only dynasty throughout Chinese history that divided all people into four classes (similar to India's caste system), where Han Chinese were at the lowest level. The animosity of Hans towards mongolian during the later rebellion and the establishment of Ming dynasty was not unfounded.

Ming dynasty didn't control inner and outer Mongolia, but Qing dynasty under Manchu minority rule did. Manchu of course were completely assimilated by the Han Chinese. The Mandarin spoken today was a hybrid language that had strong Manchu dialect influence and share no resemblence to traditional spoken Chinese, which for example resembles Cantonese, Taiwanese, Wu dialect or Japanese much more (Japan copied arts, technologies, languages starting from Jing, Tang dyanasties).

Both inner and outer Mongolia were under the rule of Republic of China (now Taiwan) right after the fall of Qing dynasty in 1911. Outer Mongolia was then allowed to be independent by secret deal reached between the Communists in China and Russia, a deal which even today Republic of China (Taiwan) refused to recognize (the map of official Republic of China still includes outer Mongolia).

One can change the citizenship but not the ethnicity. The YDNA and mtDNA in every single cell of your body speak for what your ancestors have passed on to you and make you look the way you look. It is unfortunate if one forgets the history (the story) of his or her ancestors.
China has always been hungry for power and more and more land. They conquered mongolia, tibet and even parts of India. And they still have border disputes with India..Go figure. Its high time that they liberate these indigenously different people and let them have their own country. Time for China to fall in USSRs footsteps.
Just curious.

What does "You are American" means in different countries?
To all the people seemingly defending Mao (modern day China) and his actions let us not forget…he is a brutal dictator who had millions of people slaughtered and who allowed millions more to die of starvation. The Chinese people have allowed themselves to be brained washed like the North Korean’s but it does not mean that those of us leaving outside that restrictive world can’t do a little research. The U.S. will never confront China as long as the American people keep buying up all the cheap products. I have nothing against this, but as an American understand that you are supporting a government that has done far more killing and destruction then the Nazi’s did. All so you can have your cheap products at Wal-Mart.
Thank you for informative clear article.

As an American with Mongolian heritage, I think the biggest problem is China's strategy of relocating thousands of Han to areas historically belonging to other ethnicities with the intention of diluting, marginalizing and eventually stamping out the original culture. This is not respectful and deserves to be chastised by the international community. Most importantly, the world needs to know the Uighur situation is not a first or isolated case of this ethnic cleansing. Their unrest is justified.
Ask me,
The story is about China. We get it that you don't like what they did 300 yrs ago. Why should we then like it that China is doing, as you claim, the exact same thing NOW ???
In fact the story is more specific to Mongolia so your concern should read " Don't forget where most of the MONGOLIA land comes from....."
Interesting article, Adrienne. While I did find the "How to insult a Mongol" section a bit obtuse, the article on the whole does a good job of laying out the premises and circumstances surrounding Mongol & Han ethnic relations, and how it intertwines with Mongolia & China's political relationship.

Mongolia's aspirations for Western alignment are especially important, noting China's current anti-Western social atmosphere & West-neutral business attitude.

I find Ray Manhattan's comment amusing, as if the US ever gave up part of its sovereign soil simply for PR's sake or for the sake of cultural differences. The American Civil War and the sometimes-aggressive rebuffs of Texas's repeated secession attempts come to mind as potent counterexamples.

Further, "mo" would do well to read up on what China, as a technically victorious nation, gained (or rather, lost) in the Treaty of Paris. Too many Americans are far too glad to forget (or never bother knowing) even modern history for the sake of furthering the illusion of personal moral superiority.





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