A market in Ulaanbaatar
Central Asian energy resources and transport links have become crucial elements in China’s long-term economic and security strategy, even as Chinese imports now dominate many Central Asian markets. This is the third in a series of articles on the manifold impacts of China’s growing presence in the Central Asian region.
In April, Mongolian Prime Minister Sukhbaataryn Batbold visited the annual Boao Forum for Asia in southern China. Batbold met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing, then flew to Hong Kong for meetings with senior officials, including Governor Donald Tsang, about listing Mongolian firms on the Hong Kong exchange.
Chinese media reported that Batbold named Hong Kong as the Mongolians’ first-choice market to raise funds for state-owned assets. It was agreed that direct air flights would begin between Ulaanbaatar and Hong Kong, and that Mongolia would open a new consulate there.
Batbold’s trip is another sign of warming official ties between the two countries. Over the past decade China has been Mongolia’s major trade partner and investor. Chinese penetration of Mongolia’s economy, and high expectations for long-delayed exploitation of Mongolia’s rich mineral deposits, are the dynamic forces driving the relationship. But other cultural, psychological, and historical factors continue to impair bilateral ties, and foretell limits on future progress.
For many Mongolians, the burgeoning economic relationship has contributed to a new interest in things Chinese. Chinese-language courses have sprung up in 60 universities, high schools, and primary schools, including the American School and the International School in Ulaanbaatar, to meet new student demand. Since August 2009, Mongolia’s private EZNIS airline has opened a new route twice weekly from Ulaanbaatar to Hailar in Chinese Inner Mongolia. Last summer the Mongolian government brought 60 Chinese students from the Sichuan quake area for an eight-day “rehabilitation” visit and to study Mongolian culture and customs.
There is general appreciation for Chinese willingness to provide spot assistance to Mongolia, such as 300 tons of emergency rice and flour supplies for blizzard-bound nomads in March. And bilateral ties have been strengthened in such areas as joint UN peacekeeping military drills. In July 2009 45 soldiers from each side met for six days of training at a Beijing base, China’s first joint peacekeeping exercise with any foreign nation.
At the same time, there has been a significant rise in overtly anti-Chinese feelings among Mongolians, reflecting fears of ethnic and economic colonization – a hangover from eight centuries of hostile border relations, exacerbated by a 70-year Soviet campaign to encourage Mongolians to view Chinese as enemies. (During the Soviet era tens of thousands of Chinese were expelled from Mongolia in several waves, the last in 1986.)
A Mongolian website petition is demanding that UNESCO not permit China to register khoomi, or Mongolian throat singing, as a Chinese cultural art form. In the Mongolian media, Chinese are routinely accused of trying to poison Mongolians through purposely defective products, stealing street children to sell their organs, and running government-sponsored programs for Chinese men to seduce and impregnate Mongolian women.
More ominous is the appearance in recent years of blatantly Nazi-inspired gangs and organizations, often made up of young, unemployed, undereducated men who publicly issue death threats against Chinese.
There are three well-known ultra-nationalist organizations: Blue Mongolia, Dayar Mongol, and M.Y.A. (Mongolian National Union). Some members of these groups shave their heads, sport swastika tattoos, and often wear black “biker” outfits or military fatigues decorated with Iron Crosses and hats with the SS death’s head pinned to the front. They patronize a Third Reich-themed Ulanbaataar pub festooned with Nazi flags, political posters, mannequins in SS uniforms, and photos of Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler.
Mongolians do not seem to equate such displays with war atrocities and anti-Jewish hatred; rather, they view such glorification of a militaristic power in the context of strong Mongol nationalism and anti-Chinese views. The leaders of Blue Mongolia and M.Y.A. have defended shaving the heads of Mongolian women caught sleeping with Chinese men. In 2008 Blue Mongolia’s founder was convicted of killing his 17-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, a young Mongolian who studied in Inner Mongolia, thus raising questions about his patriotism. Several years ago the former head of the Dayar Mongol group was executed for a racially inspired murder, and last year Time noted accusations by Zagas Erdenebileg, another Dayal Mongol leader who sports a Hitler-esque haircut, of Chinese involvement in prostitution and drug trafficking. .
Mongolia has the reputation of a peaceful country with few incidents of political violence or civil unrest. Violence against Chinese, or Mongols who associated with them, was not considered a major societal problem until Chinese workers began coming to Mongolia in large numbers to work in the past 20 years.
The past two years has seen a rise in press reports of ultra-nationalists boasting of beating Chinese, people suspected of associating with Chinese, and even cab drivers who pick up Chinese passengers. Last year’s Mongolian press accounts and U.S. Department of State and local embassy reporting on anti-Chinese hostility, incidents of racist attacks, and improper seizure of property in which Chinese invested seem to lend credence to the notion that racial violence is on the rise.
What might be most worrisome about the trend is the lack of a firm official response to anti-Chinese extremism. The government and all major political parties have to a certain extent manipulated extreme nationalist sentiments to curry political favor with the public.
About 6 million ethnic Mongolians live in China – more than twice the population of Mongolia itself. In the 1990s the Mongolian Democratic Party backed a union of “Great Mongolia” and sponsored an Ulaanbaatar conference to push regional pan-Mongolism. Press accounts in the mid-2000s described Blue Mongolia as a branch of the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party. Reportedly, some police, judicial officers, and public officials do not prosecute xenophobic attacks, even if they know the perpetrators’ identities.
In researching this article this writer heard a Mongolian government source voice sympathy for anti-Chinese extremists. The English-language UB Post newspaper wrote of allegations that Dayar Mongol had joined with a local district police department in Ulaanbaatar to threaten Chinese and Korean shops. In 2009 the newspaper’s publishers wrote an open letter to the Mongolian Parliament to condemn acts of extortion, intimidation, and racial abuse. Their letter charged that the government treated racism against the Chinese as justified and was doing nothing to combat the growing problem.
Other Mongolian press reports maintain Chinese are abused and attacked on the streets and live in fear, and that anti-Chinese nationalist groups are swelling in members and even receiving international financing. It is now relatively common in Ulaanbaatar to see swastikas, SS memorabilia, and Nazi-style propaganda posters in public places. Legal anti-Chinese protests featuring signs that proclaim “Shoot the Chinese” and “All Chinese Must Die” have taken place regularly in the capital’s main square.
Local Chinese businessmen in Ulaanbaatar believe the assaults are politically motivated, and that hatred and violence are whipped up on TV by exaggerated reporting on Chinese penetration of Mongolia’s mineral sector and on poor quality control in imported Chinese foodstuffs. To date the Chinese government has not issued any public protest through its embassy.
That nationalism can directly affect Chinese-Mongolian trade is clear in the ongoing parliamentary debate on how to exploit Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s biggest undeveloped surface mine.
Transport the mine’s huge coal, gold, copper, and uranium reserves requires building a new rail line. One option, backed by Moscow, is to connect with the nearest existing railway, a Russian-gauge line 400 kilometers away. A far shorter and cheaper option would be to build a new 80-kilometer, Chinese-compatible spur line direct to the border, as proposed by Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s state-owned railway, and supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
The latter suggestion has drawn opposition from Mongolia’s National Security Council and the government, which see linking the mine to the Chinese rail system as counter to the national interest. It is widely expected that the line proposed by the Germans will not be authorized, indicating that Mongols’ traditional fears about China still trump potential economic benefits.
Alicia Campi is president of the consulting and marketing company U.S.-Mongolia Advisory Group (USMAG), based near Washington, D.C.
Photo of market by Mario Carvajal, Creative Commons licensed.