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