Guest Post: China’s Belt and Road Initiative – Mongolia Focus

By Connor Judge and Sanchir Jargalsaikhan

Myriad conferences, expos, forums and articles have recently elevated the profile of acronyms “OBOR” and “BRI” to a par with “blockchain,” the latter being a ground-breaking technology that few fully understand, but which has the potential to fundamentally transform the human experience. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is seen by many to promise the same, but ambiguity remains regarding risks, benefits and wider implications for partnering countries. This article explores Mongolia’s BRI experience and manifestations of its own Third Neighbour policy. We hope to demonstrate the case is useful for framing other global experiences and foreign policy approaches.

China’s Belt and Road

The BRI will operate in more than 66 countries, comprising around 40% of global GDP. The spearhead international organisation for BRI is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), composed of 69 members (regional and nonregional) and 24 prospective members.

BRI is premised on the broadest range of global sectoral initiatives. It can and has remained flexible enough to co-opt any situation or geography beyond the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) proposed by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Kazakhstan in 2013, now extending into the African subcontinent and even Latin America. Central Asia is the historical heartland of the Silk Road, but even today functions as a pivotal alternative to maritime routes riddled with strategic “chokepoints.” BRI thus consists of six proposed “economic corridors” with substantial overland components. Finally, the price-tag for this venture ranges inexplicably from between $1 trillion to $26 trillion over a vague time-frame (from decades to a century).

This level of discourse sums up the BRI as a whole at present. BRI is not incorporated or trademarked in any substantive way other than within the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constitution, amended in concert with the 19th National Congress in 2017. Even BRI’s official website (yidaiyilu.gov.cn) does not comprehensively list projects. It is an unowned process that can mean everything from infrastructure investment to cultural exchange, and by meaning everything, it ultimately means nothing. A social constructivist mindset most appropriately suggests that the Belt and Road is simply what we make of it. While there is no shortage of professionals in business and academia claiming to know what falls within and beyond its scope, they neglect that stakeholders from the provincial to state-owned enterprise (SOE) level have considerable agency in shaping the initiative. Hence Jinghan Zeng has accurately described BRI as an unsealed “policy envelope.”[1]

The China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor

What parts of Mongolia fit into this broad policy envelope? The northernmost of the six BRI routes is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC), which follows the pre-existing Trans-Mongolian railway and AH-3 Highway Route (1041 km) passing through Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Altanbulag, Darkhan, Ulaanbaatar, Nalaikh, Choir, Zamiin-uud and finally in Erenhot in China. The primary domestic route within China traverses Zhangjiakou (Hebei Province) en route to the port of Tianjin. This sub-initiative, called the “Prairie Road,” is the only viable route in the medium term which actually involves Mongolia.

In June 2016, Xi, Elbegdorj and Putin signed the “Project Outline for Constructing the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.” The document is mainly rhetorical, calling for promotion and simplification of trilateral customs and investment regimes. The international funding organisations were proposed to be comprised of, but not limited to, the AIIB, the BRICS New Development Bank (which only funds projects in BRICS countries), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Interbank Consortium and Silk Road Fund (SRF). The chief executive bodies were also agreed to be China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Remaining proposed routes are wishful visions, with the western sections more likely to be subsumed by the New Eurasia Land Bridge Corridor. The 250 km dedicated railway from Tavan Tolgoi to Gashuun Sukhait/Ganqimaodu, intended to alleviate significant bottlenecks for coking coal crossing the border to Chinese processors, is the only other promising route under construction, but a funding shortfall has forced Erdenes-Tavan Tolgoi toward a significant overseas equity drive. The prospects for the railway being completed even by the projected 2021 are questionable. Therefore, much of what is now being called the CMREC is a trade route that already exists and is merely being paved and modernised for the primary purpose exporting mineral and energy resources from Siberia and Mongolia to global markets via China.

Other projects in Mongolia

The criteria for what constitute “BRI” projects in Mongolia are relatively vague. In the broadest definition, the Chinese state or SOEs merely need to be involved, and this could apply to proposed hydroelectric dams, wind power, solar power, UHV grids, port infrastructure, free-trade zones, cultural centres, Confucius Institutes and diplomatic exchanges in and of themselves.

Another possible qualification could be whether or not a project seeks funding from one of China’s “BRI” financial institutions such as the SRF and AIIB, in which case the Sainshand-Ereentsav, Nomrog, Bichil crossrail certainly counts. However, despite Mongolia being a founding member, no proposed projects have received approval from the AIIB and there is public acknowledgement by AIIB’s directors that the institution is not a “policy bank” and does not have an explicit mandate to fund BRI projects.

How then is BRI financed in the rest of the world? Expert Mendee Jargalsaikhan has observed that the PRC ambassador to Mongolia does not prioritise BRI for the coming year, whilst simultaneously observing the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim) have opened offices in Ulaanbaatar. However, as of early 2017, the China Development Bank (CDB) and Exim Bank had started funding in excess of $200 billion worth of projects in BRI countries, whilst the triumvirate of PBOC, ICBC and China Construction Bank (CCB) have offered in excess of $500 billion for more than 1,000 projects. The former are policy banks whilst the latter are commercial lenders, but ICBC is the largest bank in the world by asset value (approximately $4 trillion as of 2018).

There has been a departure from the 2016 outline and perhaps opening local branches in the capitol is a step in the right direction for BRI in Mongolia as a whole. That said, although Exim Bank has more of a government mandate, researchers suggest it will still insist on making profitable investments worldwide regardless of BRI’s status (Hameiri and Jones 2018). One may, therefore, question whether the Mongolian government expects too much.

Mongolia’s BRI receptivity and connectivity

President Battulga suggested CMREC is not being advanced quickly enough, stating in 2018 at the Mongolia-Russia Economic Forum, “we wish to accelerate the implementation of the Trilateral Economic Corridor program, which is no more than a dialogue today. Mongolia, for its part, is ready to put all necessary efforts for this development.” This is not simply support for the CMREC, but strong support. At the fourth annual trilateral China-Mongolia-Russia summit meeting on the SCO summit sidelines in June 2018, Battulga also critically stated that despite the project outline being signed two years prior, the three parties should “commence the implementation of the Economic Corridor program.” This implies that he believes not enough has been done, further prompting an MoU on a “Joint Mechanism to Advance the Development of the Economic Corridor.”

How strong is this degree of receptivity relative to other BRI countries? Indebted to a receptivity index (RI) metric devised by Shaofeng Chen (Chen 2017), degrees of receptivity to BRI can be theorised. Criteria could consist of statements of support, Belt and Road Forum (BRF) summit attendance, comprehensive strategic partnerships and joint declarations, linking to existing development initiatives, special economic zones (SEZs), projects under construction, projects postponed, signing the BRI Financing Guidance Principle, inward foreign direct investment (IFDI) and founding AIIB membership. The results of an independent study by Connor Judge suggest Mongolia (RI: 21) appears highly receptive, similar to Laos (RI: 22), contrasted with a less receptive country such as Vietnam (RI: 14) in Chen’s study. Mongolia’s score is significantly boosted when considering structural IFDI, trade dependence and the number of projects under construction. Another significant point is the symbolic linking of BRI to local development initiatives such as the “Road to Development” (Хөгжлийн зам) and Prairie Road.

The inverse perspective could be the “China Connectivity Index” (CCI), published in 2016 by ICBC Standard Bank and Oxford Economics economists, which places Mongolia at the top of a list of 86 countries to be affected by BRI (CCI: 69), followed by Singapore (CCI: 55.5) and then Cambodia (CCI: 44.1). Mongolia tops the trade component of this index given the sheer volume of exported mineral resources relative to the rest of the economy (32.44%), followed by Turkmenistan (21.69%, given natural gas exports which comprise roughly 40% of China’s total natural gas imports). Mongolia also topped the capital component with portfolio investment from China accounting for 7.32% of GDP, followed by Singapore (1.86%). Mongolia was also second to Singapore only in the “people connectivity” component but ranked highly on counts of visitors to China as a percentage of the total population (11.45%) and visitors to China out of total outbound tourists (48.13%).

If China’s leadership truly believes BRI goes beyond mere infrastructure investment, holding the “Five Connectivities” of policy communication, infrastructure connectivity, smooth trade, capital flows and common popular sentiment in equal regard, then by almost all measures Mongolia has already achieved the ultimate BRI standard. From this perspective, securing the country’s increased participation in the initiative may not be a priority for Beijing. Nonetheless, Mongolia’s top ranking is a distortion given an almost artificial asymmetry. CCI is a macroeconomic snapshot rather than a reasoned attempt to define BRI and measure instances of successful collaboration. The same study also ironically noted that economies of Mongolia, Angola, and Oman were at serious risk as China continues striving for global decarbonisation and investment in renewable energy. Whether Mongolia will be receptive to BRI in a predominantly green connectivity context remains to be seen.

The “Third Neighbour” doctrine and Mongolia’s foreign policy

What then are the implications of this heightened receptivity to BRI in Mongolia in light of the country’s perilous political and economic situation? Could the wave of expectations and disappointments concerning BRI lead to a more active and flexible foreign policy such as the Mongolia Third Neighbor Trade Act or an opposing position that complicates Mongolia’s current foreign policy principles?

One case is the bitter public debate about possible Mongolian accession to permanent membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though the Foreign Minister Tsogtbaatar assuaged the public by declaring that there are no ongoing attempts to push the issue to the State Great Khural (Parliament), seeds of doubt have been planted by successive statements from Mining and Heavy Industry Minister Sumiyabazar and Deputy Foreign Minister Battsetseg. In a recent interview, Battsetseg declared, “if Russia and China wanted to annex Mongolia, they do not have to do it through the SCO framework.” This is tantamount to suggesting that the BRI and SCO are more or less interchangeable and that there are no serious security concerns surrounding the latter.

Similarly, the dominant narrative used by pro-membership actors has mostly revolved around highlighting economic opportunities that the SCO could provide whilst downplaying political and security implications. Given the SCO’s heavy focus on security cooperation and successive Chinese attempts to persuade Mongolia to accede fully, many politicians and experts are protesting vehemently, going so far as to declare entertaining accession as “treasonous.” While the assumptions behind both sides’ of the debate in Mongolia are simplistic on the surface, more alarming is the grave misinterpretation of Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” doctrine, which it has pursued gradually over two decades.

Rather than a straightforward foreign policy strategy that hedges on opposition between Mongolia’s two neighbours and the West, the Third Neighbour doctrine is a collective identity and “world building” construct fostered since the 1990 democratic revolution. It stems from Mongolia’s unique historic and geographic position between two potential superpowers and is influenced by a desire to reconstruct its identity and place in the globalised world of the 21st century. A prominent Mongolian strategist D. Munkh-Ochir perceptively explicates that this concept is “based on the self-perception of a small state with experience of subservience to neighbouring great powers and an indigenous culture, sometimes seen as the ‘northernmost extension of the Indosphere,’ flanked by three of the world’s great civilisations—Christendom, Islam, and Confucian East Asia.” Third neighbours, therefore, are not only limited to serve defensive functions connected with more realist, hard balancing approaches in international relations.

Constructivist dimensions instead occupy the fore. In this wider observation, modern Mongolia’s neighbourhood is not only spatial but also social. The choice of neighbour is ‘political’ in the sense of Carl Schmitt’s distinction between good and bad (Schmitt 1996). As a result, Mongolia’s post-socialist neighbourhood is composed of neighbours that can bolster the country’s development by investing and assisting its democratic consolidation. This new neighbourhood, according to Bulag (2016), “has a built-in paradox of both the political and the anti-political” and can become both the problem and solution. Basing trade, security and integration initiatives solely on this doctrine or assessing its effectiveness exclusively on its economic (i.e., Oyu Tolgoi) or political merits means negating dynamic ideational features of BRI and other international development ventures.

SCO and BRI: Two sides of the same coin?

How can BRI and SCO be contextualised within Mongolia’s Third Neighbour foreign policy framework? Alternatively put, in what way does the Third Neighbour doctrine inform, constrain or shape Mongolia’s foreign policy in the context of BRI?

For Mongolia, a country marked by opacity in any political decision-making, it is difficult to decode reasons behind foreign policy decisions. Where, how, and from whom different policy initiatives come is equally ambiguous. In certain cases, especially where the establishment does not have a consensus on certain policies, answers to these questions come from public performances of politicians or high-ranking officials. Protests against amendments to Mongolia’s Land Law in 2013 and the recent wave of adverse reaction to the SME scandal demonstrate that public discourse can have an immediate and powerful effect on these politicians’ decisions. The political debate surrounding the SCO similarly attests to the existence of political and public discourses specific to Mongolia.

Mongolia’s diplomatic protocol of seeking inclusion in as many neighbourhoods[2] (e.g., ASEAN, APEC, OSCE, East Asian Community) as possible, as well as maximising investment projects is believed to aid its transformation from a landlocked state to a more connected and vibrant spatial community. However, this approach leads to confusion and dissatisfaction about tangible benefits emanating from the same initiatives. On one side, Mongolia’s foreign policy is in line with strategies of other small powers in terms of maximising influence through the platforms of supranational institutions (Melakopides 2010; Pantev 2010). On the other side, many of these supranational institutions, which sprang from the Washington consensus, come with neoliberal conditionality that has led to deep socio-economic inequality, deindustrialisation, and rentier extractive capitalism in Mongolia since the 1990s (Reinert 2004).

This is the arena in which China’s foreign policy, the SCO and BRI by extension complicate the public discourse in Mongolia. Aid and concessional loans from China are often offered relatively condition-free (Yue & Wong 2011), which makes those extremely attractive to many Mongolian politicians. However, some experts observe that (with perhaps the exception of Kazakhstan) other Central Asian states have not gained much tangible benefit from BRI. A layer of complexity is added due to the intricacy of Mongolia’s relationship with China. Mierzejewski et al. (2019) describe how China adopts different kinds of “self” conditional on with whom it is relating:

To its immediate neighbours, China presents itself as a state that needs clear-cut borders. In relation to the developing world (Global South), the PRC narrates “self” as an ideology with the banner of materialism, equality and justice. To its third “audience,” the developed world (mainly Europe), China presents itself as a peaceful, innocent cultural construct based primarily on Confucius’ passive approach. By bringing these three identities into “one Chinese body” (sanwei yiti 三位一体,), China’s policymakers skilfully manoeuvre and build the country’s position in the arena of global affairs.

In this sense, both BRI and SCO cooperation enjoy doctrinal similarities along the second dimension where the “spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit permeate both frameworks” (Mierzejewski et al. 2019). Still, for many Mongolian experts and commentators, the first security-related face of China (that is the main preoccupation of the SCO) is seen as a straitjacket that could constrain the country’s options. The last face of a peaceful and innocent actor is not widely accepted in Mongolia for historical reasons. The second face provokes more ambiguous reactions as the country’s recent economic difficulties and isolated geography make it unusually receptive as well as vulnerable to BRI. A justified concern thus arises that Mongolia is creeping towards China’s sphere of influence and SCO accession is seen as a precipice.

A neorealist analytical approach to Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy accentuates both structural and material variables. Emphasis should nonetheless be placed on sub-state level variables, types of political settlement (Khan 2006), the nature of main patron-client networks, and constraints and incentives they face under conditions of international anarchy. The rentier and neo-patrimonial nature of Mongolia’s political settlement has been partially responsible for some foreign policy rhetoric and goals. To cultivate domestic legitimacy, Mongolian elites have at intervals utilised foreign policy to legitimate their aspirations. Individual politicians thus turned outward to construct a self-image that is democratic and international and this pervasive proclivity partially explains motives behind Former President Elbegdorj’s declaration on Mongolia’s permanent neutrality.

In our interpretation, the divisiveness surrounding Mongolia’s permanent SCO membership is derived from a strict technocratic reading of the “Third Neighbour” doctrine that is not designed to frame or guide intricate policy decisions. The debate is emblematic of Mongolia’s fragmented foreign policy-making wherein individual politicians and experts’ desire for greater legitimacy results in actions that are high profile, subjectively low cost, and filled with symbolism. It should be recognised that, as with many similar initiatives in Mongolia, the discourse surrounding the SCO and BRI has coasted away from original narratives to become part of a public discourse geared toward fundamentally pondering Mongolia’s identity and place in the world.

Wider implications

The 18th SCO summit in Qingdao reaffirmed that BRI is a fluid concept that can be used practically in any context. However, the summit also highlighted how different countries perceive the relationship between the BRI and SCO. The final product of the two-day summit, the 17-page Qingdao Declaration listed countries who have supported BRI with a notable exception of India, the organisation’s newest full member:

Reaffirming their support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan express appreciation for the joint efforts taken towards its implementation, including efforts to coordinate the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI and call for using the potential of the regional countries, international organisations and multilateral associations to create a broad, open, mutually beneficial and equal partnership in the SCO space.

At this juncture, Indian Prime Minister Modi objected to BRI on grounds that it does not “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations,” emphasising India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Therefore, for a regional power like India, BRI and not the SCO presents a potential threat. Contrasting the Mongolian public discourse on SCO and BRI is thus a stimulating exercise.

The Third Neighbour doctrine, seen from a narrow foreign policy perspective, is at risk of becoming irrelevant in a new strategic environment where small powers are at the mercy of either Moscow or Beijing since Washington has de facto indicated a decline of interest in Central Asia and Mongolia by extension. So far, Ulaanbaatar has dealt with its security concerns through Democratisation (early- to mid-1990s), Proactive Diplomacy (mid- to late-1990s), and Peacekeeping Commitments (the 21st century). However, the current “Security through Vested Interests” stage, pre-occupied with unilaterally opening the domestic economy to multinational capital predominantly into the mining sector, raises concerns that can undermine other security dimensions. The doctrine’s state-centredness is ill equipped to deal with a world dominated by multinational corporations and private capital flows and where China through its initiatives such as BRI is creatively co-constructing a liberal order with its “market-based networked transactions across a transnational space in Eurasia without necessarily promoting the liberalist values” (Cheng 2016).

Change is on the horizon and the potential dominance of the region by Mongolia’s two neighbours threatens to constrain Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy options. Mongolia has no other choice than to engage with them creatively and pragmatically. Therefore, it is paramount to remember “that the nation’s perception and pursuit of security was successful up to now only because each of its stages, from geo-political to geo-strategic, were logically consecutive and evolutionary” (Dorjjugder 2009).

Regional structural changes are already in strident motion and unlikely to stall. If Mongolia’s BRI experience is tailored through close civil society engagement and multilateral diplomatic consultation, then it need not be regarded with negative suspicion. The BRI is what China and Mongolia make of it with the caveat that Mongolia is a small cog in a vast machine which must be more efficient than it is perhaps prepared to be. Of equal importance are South-South dialogues and consolidation of initiatives and organisations such as the Third Neighbour Act and International Think Tank for Landlocked Developing Countries (established in Ulaanbaatar by the UN). Mongolia’s neighbourhood strategy of assembling as many neighbours as possible (Bulag 2016) also needs to be seriously considered. In our view, a more multi-level approach is warranted and Mongolia may work to establish meaningful connections with Chinese provinces such as neighbouring Gansu. In any event, it should be hoped that Mongolia’s foreign policy in the age of BRI is proactive, sustainable, development-oriented and more attuned to today’s realities.

About Connor Judge and Sanchir Jargalsaikhan

Guest contribution by Connor Judge and Sanchir Jargalsaikhan. Connor is a PhD Candidate at SOAS, University of London specialising in Chinese history. His research output is supported by the Wolfson Foundation. Sanchir is a political scientist and director at the Sustainable Development Strategy Institute.

[1] Jinghan, Zeng, “Beijing’s limits in telling a good story of One Belt One Road” (BACS paper, Kings College, London, September 14, 2018).

[2] Mongolia engaged with NATO, via the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Posted in China, Connor Judge, Foreign Policy, Infrastructure, International Relations, Mongolia and ..., Policy, Russia, Sanchir Jargalsaikhan, SCO | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Hip Hop in Politics

By Paweł Szczap

With hip-hop culture being often highly saturated with political and social commentaries, so far I have mostly concentrated on the presence of nationalist discourse within the Mongolian hip-hop scene. There are loads of material for research and much that still needs to be said about nationalism in pop culture but in this post I’d like to concentrate not on the presence of politics within hip-hop but rather on hip-hop’s presence in Mongolian politics. Despite a rather commercial (as opposed to anti-consumerist) character of Ulaanbaatar’s urban culture, to many hip-hop still remains a territory seemingly uncontaminated by political and economical influences of Mongolia’s ruling class.

In an attempt to question such an assumption this post focuses specifically on two music videos: Урагшаа Улаанбаатар by Tsetse and MekhZakhQ and Бүгд Нэг by NMN. By comparing these recent examples of hip-hop MVs utilized in political campaigns this post hopes to shed light on a possible trend of unexpected convergence in interests of political parties and hip-hop artists. Pushing through utopian visions of progress and a unified communal identity both fashioned as expressions of urban youth culture becomes an opportunity to suffice hungers generated by Mongolia’s present socio-political system – a hunger for poll gains on the side of the political parties and a hunger for more immediate monetary gains on the side of hip-hop artists.

These two songs have been commissioned by members of Mongolia’s two main political parties – (accordingly) the Democratic Party and the Mongolian People’s Party as parts of their political campaigns. Урагшаа Улаанбаатар dates back to 2016 and was part of the Нийслэлийн Ардчилсан Нам (the Ulaanbaatar or rather capital city fraction of the party)’s parliamentary campaign and Бүгд Нэг was part of Miyegombiin Enkhbold’s 2017 presidential campaign. Below I compare these two music videos. First I look into their symmetries (both similarities as well differences) and then concentrate on specific elements of the two music videos’ narratives and means used to produce them.

Both Videos

  • are works commissioned for political campaigns,
  • are visually and rhetorically embedded in the style of the according campaign,
  • make (more or less) subtle use of campaign slogans,
  • are works by commercially established artists,
  • feature dance performances,
  • are set against very concrete scenographic backdrops,
  • have subtitles embedded within the music video.

Урагшаа Улаанбаатар

  • Democratic Party (Нийслэлийн Ардчилсан Нам, hereafter shortened as UBDP)
  • parliamentary elections (2016)
  • two male rappers (Tsetse, MekhZakhQ)
  • music heavily relying on synthesized/modulated electronic sounds and dynamicpercussions
  • Tempo: 95/190 BPM (beats per minute) – rather regular hip-hop tempo
  • lyrics concentrate on personal growth and market struggle (forward trajectory)
  • on an overall level aims to cause the viewer to associate the DP with progress
  • set in the city, nature is nearly absent
  • multiple reference to modern themes
  • uploaded to the UBDP’s Youtube profile
  • over 248 thousand views since June 2016

Бүгд нэг:

  • Mongolian People’s Party (Миеэгомбын Энхболд)
  • presidential elections (2017)
  • one female rapper (NMN)
  • music heavily relies on a traditional instrument (yatga) which despite rather chopped samples and percussions manages to secure a calm and soothing vibe
  • Tempo: 60/120 BPM (beats per minute) – a rather downtempo hip-hop beat
  • lyrics concentrate on communal values and identity (community)
  • on an overall level aims to cause the viewer to associate Enkhbold with traditional values and community building
  • set in nature, city is nearly absent
  • multiple reference to traditional themes
  • uploaded to the artist’s (NMN not Enkhbold) Youtube profile
  • over 141 thousand views since June 2017

Slogans of both campaigns are rather gently incorporated into the music videos both visually as well as verbally obviously in order to to brand the pieces and impact the viewers on a semi-conscious level (still too overt to call it subconscious). The whole idea of including hip-hop in political campaigns speaks to several issues. One is acknowledging the wide-spread impact of hip-hop as an influential element of popular culture. It the context of a degree of neglectedness experienced by hip-hop artists this sends a powerful message about the position (as well as subversive potential) of hip-hop in society but also about a very instrumental approach from the side of the ruling class. One still needs to keep in mind that hip-hop remains one of the main outlets of popular criticism directed towards the political establishment. From this stems another aspect – the politicians’ will to use all necessary means to portray themselves as up-to-date and cosmopolitan, progressive and open to innovation, cultural reinterpretation and reidentification, as lending an ear to the streets (thus the society) or even cool. On a plain level this obviously boils down to utilizing the youth’s idols’ as well as (to an extent) women bodies’ images in an attempt to secure the electorate. From the lyrical and musical point of view both songs are potentially quite catchy (although in quite different ways).

One additional interesting dynamic to be noticed here is the fact that Урагшаа Улаанбаатар (being part of the Democratic Party’s attempt to take seat in the parliament) evokes the notion of personal success within the free market system whereas Бүгд Нэг which was part of the Enkhbold cum People’s Party’s presidential campaign is mostly about a sense of community and shared values. When considered separately this might make sense but when compared seeing the rhetoric of singular/private identity in parliamentary elections and a communal one in the presidential elections seem somewhat unintuitive, at least to me.

The above-mentioned values of trajectory and community come from a working classification developed to categorize hip-hop lyrics describing the urban where (based on their main underlying themes) most of the them fall into at least one of the following general categories: space, values, community, trajectories. Урагшаа Улаанбаатар is a prime example of a ‘trajectorial‘ urban song and Бүгд Нэг happened to fall very neatly into the ‘communal‘ category and so I decided to include these as additional features in the comparison.

Урагшаа Улаанбаатар

At first sight Урагшаа Улаанбаатар seems quite like a regular, almost canonical hip-hop song – featuring rappers and their peers traversing the urban environment (a very specific one to be exact),  set against concrete architectural backdrops (mostly shiny glass and metal constructions and rather well preserved residential sections of the city with the Blue Sky Hotel building serving almost as an axis mundi for the video) with elements of urban culture and lifestyle enlivening the scenes – sports, music, arts, dance, fashion etc. When considered on a near-surface level, the whole song seems a  self-made (hip-hop) men’s “becoming of” story most likely intended to inspire and serve as a motivational anthem for Mongolian youths struggling with breaking into the market. It is only when we consider that which remains to be shown and spoken of (especially in the context of the occasion for the song’s creation) that we can grasp the bigger picture and decode the dreadful messages the artists simultaneously and  to an extent also unconsciously managed to produce. Many  uncomfortable elements of the post-socialist, free market reality of Ulaanbaatar are intentionally or unintentionally omitted in the process of the UBDP’s construction of a vision of forward progress.

And so, rhetorically “Ulaanbaatar forward”  plays on notions of capitalist mantras of progress and success implying that one’s life situation is solely the outcome of their own efforts (a very bald statement to make in today’s Mongolia) swiftly interweaving them with the UBDP’s slogans. And so already the title references the main slogan of the UBDP’s campaign (Урагшлах уу? Ухрах уу? [Will you/we] Forward or reverse?) and reference to forward as well as reverse movement are abundant throughout the song, climaxing in the song’s hook:

Байнга бид урагшаа !
Алив урагшаа ухрахгүй арагшаа !
Байнга бид урагшаа !
Толгой дээшээ гшигэнэ урагшаа !

In the same vein a very uneasy (and possibly not fully intentional) metaphor appears in Tsetse’s verse with the words:

Ухарвал траншэи*
Зогсолтгүй урагшаа

If you reverse – manhole
Non-stop forward

[*spelling according to subtitles embedded in the Youtube version of the music video]

In these two verses forming almost a deterring “BEWARE” sign reference to the problematic realities of free-market Ulaanbaatar presents itself on a few levels:

immediate: the often uncovered manholes (resulting from metal covers being sold by junk collectors) posing a threat to automobiles in reverse gear (street-level manholes being poorly visible in the car’s rear mirror);

social: the sad reality of the homeless population inhabiting Ulaanbaatar’s manholes especially during harsh winters;

systemic: the question of (relative) establishing oneself within the market (e.g. securing a long-term work contract) being not enough to attain sufficient material security, further hinting that only constant progress prevents one from being sucked in by the backward currents of market forces i.e. as maintaining position = regress, progress = market motionlessness.

Not surprisingly despite extensive use of aerial filming the panorama of the city is rather narrow-angled – the ger districts tightly surrounding the city and sprawling outwards in most directions (note that almost none of the shots are directed southward or урагшаа – the only direction mostly void of vast ger district areas) are hardly seen. This of course is no coincidence. Despite making much effort to better the infrastructural and aesthetic standards of Ulaanbaatar,  Bat-Uul’s municipal administration failed to address many issues concerning the residents and areas of the ger khoroolol.  They remain systemically excluded area non grata and do not occupy any space whatsoever in the vision of progress offered by the UBDP – a rather shocking approach when thought of in the context of the attempt to secure a wide-flung electorate base.

ger khoroolol cameo
Half second-long ger district cameo

Бүгд Нэг

The lyrics of “All one” speak mostly about the environmental, cultural and historical affinity of Mongolian people and a need and desire to unite with an affirmative outlook in mind. Themes like joy and national (or rather cultural) pride,  heritage, cultivating customs recur throughout the text. In terms of other values promoted those of equality, diversity, mutual support, building and nourishing a harmonious community (гэхдээ бүгд нэг тэнгэр доор, эв нэгдэл) are mentioned much in tune with the traditional view on society. Not surprisingly woven into the communal narrative blood politics also enjoy a cameo in the song’s bridge (бүгд нэг, нэг амьтай, нэг цустай).

In order to supplement such and auspicious narrative the music video is set in a scenery of khangai-ish landscape with and abundance of water and forest vegetation and the lyrics are additionally sprinkled with reference to close ties with Nature, Tenger, the local fauna and flora etc. In terms of more directly anchoring the music video in the campaigns visual narrative, towards the end of the video the dancers filmed from below combine extended arms to form a circular shape resembling a toono viewed from within the ger – an image that then fades into the picture. When coupled with the metaphor of the ger’s uni as representing the country’s people (in the music video not surprisingly composed only of young individuals) the connection between the visual and rhetorical aspects of the campaign become clear:

Thus it can be inferred that the main ‘message’ of the song is essentially – all Mongolians are one and thus unequivocally they support raising the Enkhbold as the toono of the country. In order to be sure that no one misses this crucial point a logo with Enkhbold’s slogan is clearly visible throughout the whole video in the right top corner baldly reminding the viewers:
Эвтэй Монгол
Ээлтэй төр

Hip-hop’s involvement in politics

Despite hip-hop’s frequent political outspokenness on a grass-root level it is also natural for hip-hop artist to be confronted about their involvement in big politics. In its Mongolian context best exemplified by apolitical rapper Gee’s approach is THE model outlook rappers are usually expected to represent – openly critical towards the establishment yet vary of any attempts of its encroachment on their art and freedom of expression. In the song Би ганцаараа биш NMN makes brief reference to the work she was commissioned with stating it was not she who got the idea to get involved in the presidential campaign and that she agreed to cooperate simply because she was interested in the money:

At the same time the song makes numerous statements on NMN (portraying herself almost as a self-made woman)’s firm position in both the hip-hop scene and music market in general. It this way following the steps of Tsetse and MekhZakhQ NMN fits into the narrative presented in the UBDP’s song Урагшаа Улаанбаатар contributing to its lyrics’ becoming a kind of local meta-narrative about hip-hop’s involvement with politics (or more broadly with the market) creating an alternative to the previously dominating apolitical narrative represented by artists such as Gee and Ice Top. And so to an extent it can be understood that despite hip-hop’s cautious approach to financial gains from involvement in politics can become the community’s mode of moving forward i.e. remaining in position within the market. Further following on this thread raises questions on not only the rappers’ but also the dancers’, music producers’ and generally speaking the whole hip-hop community’s morally questionable (from an insider’s point of view) involvement with the political establishment – unfortunately an unsurprising development in today’s Mongolia.

About Paweł Szczap

Paweł Szczap is a Mongolist, Mongolian language translator and PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw. He mostly works with the Mongolian built environment and is currently researching Ulaanbaatar city maps and place names. He has spent over four years living in Mongolia and has on numerous occasions cooperated with the Ulaanbaatar City Museum. Previous works include research on Mongolian nationalism and the cultural impact of mining among others. He is currently developing two online projects: Ulaanbaatar Studies and Mongol hip-hop.

This post is cross posted with Mongol_Hip_Hop.

Posted in Ikh Khural 2016, Music, Music, Party Politics, Paweł Szczap, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidential 2017, Ulaanbaatar, Youth | Leave a comment

Charm Offensive: Chinese Ambassador’s Address on the State of the Sino-Mongolian Relationship

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Amidst the New Year’s celebrations and political tumult in Ulaanbaatar (South China Morning Post, December 6, 2018), Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming published a long seasonal greeting in the Mongolian media (Montsame, December 21, 2018). His message to the landlocked, Northeast Asian host country on the one hand focuses on describing all the successful bilateral initiatives to date. But on the other hand, it is also aspirational and prescriptive, highlighting what Beijing’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants from Mongolian leaders. Though a customary, annual tradition by Chinese ambassadors serving in Ulaanbaatar, Haiming’s recent New Year’s message interestingly goes far beyond previous years’ greetings, including in its attempts to soothe brewing anti-Chinese feelings within Mongolian society (News.mn, January 3, 2018).

According to the Chinese ambassador, as long as Mongolia continues to respect the “One China” policy, bilateral relation will remain highly regarded in Beijing. The Chinese government, as reiterated during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Ulaanbaatar in August 2014 (Udriin Sonin, August 22, 2014), pledges to respect Mongolian independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity as well as the country’s chosen democratic developmental path. In the past, China had raised concerns about Mongolia’s policy toward the Dalai Lama (Tibet) and Taiwan; but this year, the Chinese ambassador’s list includes Uyghur Xinjiang, a region with strong cultural links and gradually growing economic ties to Mongolia’s western regions. Mongolian leaders openly commit to recognizing the “One China” policy. Yet, they face enormous domestic political pressure regarding support for the Dalai Lama, the highest-ranking monk of Tibetan Buddhism, a version of which is the dominant religion in Mongolia. The Dalai Lama’s last visit to Mongolia, in November 2016, triggered a harsh reaction from Beijing and a long chill in relations (Fmprc.gov.cn, November 22, 2016; South China Morning Post, December 22, 2016; XinhuaNet, January 24, 2017).

For many Mongolians, the revival of Buddhism symbolizes the country’s full sovereignty from Russia and its recovery of spiritual freedom since 1990. At the same time, Mongolian elites have allegedly engaged in secret campaigns to encourage the Dalai Lama to recognize a Mongolian as the tenth Jebstundamba Khutukht, who would serve as the country’s religious leader (Tibetan Review, January 26, 2017). Furthermore, unofficial accounts suggest that several thousand Mongolian pilgrims visit Tibetan Buddhist holy sites in India every year (Hindustan Times, April 25, 2018). Although the CCP has been attempting to revive former Buddhist centers in Inner Mongolia to attract Mongolian pilgrims and monks (The Island, February 14, 2006; Archives-ouvertes.fr, November 24–28, 1999), the Dalai Lama issue is still likely to remain a challenge for Sino-Mongolian relations. Indeed, any attempts to repress or control domestic religious affairs to suit Beijing’s wishes would be politically far too costly for Mongolian leaders, even though many of them are aware of China’s prodigious economic leverage over the country.

In his New Year’s message, Ambassador Haiming conspicuously does not rank any Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects near the top of his economic wish list for the upcoming year. Rather, he expresses hope that the Mongolian authorities may soon issue operating licenses for Chinese banks and expedite the negotiations on a Sino-Mongolian free trade agreement. Three Chinese financial institutions—the People’s Bank of China (PBOS), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and the Export-Import Bank of China (EIBC)—have recently opened local offices in Ulaanbaatar. Moreover, the PBOC established a currency exchange swap mechanism and has continued to propose options for debt swaps. But the Mongolian parliament has been reluctant to approve the needed legislation since 2012. Many in Ulaanbaatar openly oppose extending local operating licenses to Chinese banks (Niss.gov.mn, November 11, 2018). Although the bilateral free trade discussions are quite recent, China wants to expedite the process over Mongolian hesitancy to do so (Niss.gov.mn, April 13, 2018). This further exacerbates the difficult situation Mongolian authorities find themselves in as the Kremlin has begun pressuring Ulaanbaatar to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (TASS, June 9, 2018).

In terms of economic matters, coal exports from the Tavan Tolgoi mine remain the foremost issue on the minds of Mongolian politicians. This massive coking coal deposit is considered the country’s most lucrative business. But working conditions in and around the mine are extremely dangerous. Plans to build a new 250-kilometer railroad from the mine to a Chinese processing factory remain stalled, which means the Mongolian coal has to be transported by thousands of trucks each year, resulting in 50 road deaths since 2010 (Ikon.mn, November 1, 2018). The state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi company is also the target of numerous corruption and embezzlement allegations. In his New Year’s address, Ambassador Haiming promises to do whatever possible to support continued coal exports to China from Tavan Tolgoi, despite Beijing’s shifting policies regarding coal imports and the steel industry (Montsame, December 21, 2018).

The limited attention the Chinese ambassador gives to BRI projects in Mongolia is quite notable and seems to undermine years of intergovernmental discussions on the matter, including the previously announced China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (see EDM, October 15, 2018). Meanwhile, Russia is reluctant to expose its own railways to too much regional competition, while Mongolia is concerned about Chinese economic dominance. Therefore, substantial near-term Chinese investment in Mongolian transit infrastructure will probably remain limited to constructing new highways or, possibly, two short rail links to mines near the Sino-Mongolian border.

The most extensive and far-sighted element in bilateral relations appears to be the institutionalization of cultural exchanges. According to Ambassador Haiming, the two countries have established a joint board on humanitarian exchanges. Second, his address notes the construction of a state-of-the-art Chinese Cultural Center, three Confucius Institutes and multiple Confucius classrooms across Mongolia. Third, he cites cultural exchanges (e.g., youth exchanges, governmental scholarships, media visits), which have become regular and well-known activities. At the same time, the CCP is seemingly relaxing its attitude toward increased cultural exchanges with Chinese provinces populated by Mongolian co-ethnics—namely, Inner Mongolia, Jilin and Gansu (Montsame, December 21, 2018).

The Chinese envoy’s 2018/2019 greeting does not leave out the CCP’s wish that Mongolia become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but he notably dropped his earlier insistence that Ulaanbaatar change its visa regulations for Chinese tourists. In the past, both issues have tended to trigger anti-Chinese rhetoric and fears of Chinese takeover and dominance among Mongolians. Thus, this latest example of public diplomacy toward Mongolia shows a growing sophistication in how China relates to its smaller Asian neighbors.

Note: re-posted with the permission of the Eurasia Daily Monitor of the Jamestown Foundation, for the original news, EDM (2019/01/29).

Posted in Banking, China, Cultural Diplomacy, Eurasia Daily Monitor | Tagged | Leave a comment

From Transparency to a Participatory Revolution

By Julian Dierkes and Damdinnyam G

[Mongolian Version: “МОНГОЛЧУУД: Ил тод байдлаас зѳв оролцооны хувьсгал руу…“]

Even by the standards of Mongolian politics, the last two months have been eventful. Scandals, no confidence votes, demonstrations… one might think it’s an election year, but the election is still 18 months off.

What HAS happened is that many Mongolians are (finally) beginning to make use of the arsenal of transparency tools that policy makers have handed to them over the past decade, they are actively engaging as citizens in a democracy!

From EITI to Glass Accounts

Transparency has been a catchphrase in policy-making around the world for more than two decades. The basic principle is that citizens who have access to information will hold governments accountable and that this monitoring by citizens will lead to better policy outcomes.

Given links between transparency and governance, these questions have been particularly prominent in the context of the transformation and growth of Mongolia’s mining sector from 2005 on. As this transformation has occurred with some understanding of the potential risks that come along with a mining boom (the “resource curse”), many initiatives have aimed at creating transparency throughout Mongolian society to promote accountability.

Yet, much of this push has been initiated from outside of Mongolia via development activities, international organizations, etc. Mongolian policy makers have largely complied with foreign requests for legislation and regulations that enable transparency, but there has not been a strong sense of an embrace of the underlying principles. Nevertheless, since 2007 a series of laws and regulations have created reporting mechanisms and methods by which the public can gain information about public funds and activities.

Here’s a selection of some of the most significant initiatives in this regard with the year they were created:

Over the past twelve years, laws and regulations have created many tools for Mongolians to engage and demand accountability from their government. However, until recently, this has remained a legal possibility only and not a practice.

Over this period, Mongolia has seen three parliamentary elections, three presidents and has had six prime ministers from S Bayar to U Khurelsukh, four from the MPP, two from the DP. Virtually all these governments have promised to fight corruption and to strengthen the nation through transparency. Voters had many chances to use transparency tools to examine politicians’ and governments’ action.

Below are the three most prominent contexts in which discussions of wasteful spending or corruption have emerged, the Chinggis and Samurai bonds, the ₮60b case, and the SME Fund.

Foreign Debt

Today’s fiscally precarious situation has been caused by the massive debt that was taken on via US$ (2012) and ¥ (2013) bonds. There certainly is a strong sense that these funds were not invested productively, but mostly wasted on populist projects. This unproductive investment has saddled Mongolia with sovereign debt that required the 2017 IMF-orchestrated bailout and will continue to restrict productive government spending until it can be paid off, most likely through revenues generated by the ramp-up of production at Oyu Tolgoi, but only if additional dept is not added until then.

While the landslide MPP victory in the 2016 election could be seen as voters’ reaction to the lack of accountability for this spending, demands for detailed information on that spending have been fairly limited.

The ₮60b Case

One of Mongolia’s biggest individual corruption cases has been the ₮60b case. This involves an audio/video recording allegedly showing a presentation to M Enkhbold and others in the MPP leadership on how much money could be raised from selling state offices with an election victory in the 2016 parliamentary election. That case remains unresolved and M Enkhbold continues to serve as speaker of the Mongolian parliament, but he has become the focus of recent demonstrations calling for his removal.

While he has not been prosecuted, he has also not really denied the allegations. As the video has been available to the public for some time, many Mongolians seem inclined to believe the allegations, being able to see the discussion for themselves.

In this case, Mongolians are not so much echoing allegations against an individual, but instead are seeing (quite literally) the evidence themselves. The availability of the original information has energized much of the objections to the apparent sale of offices. It thus raised awareness of and engagement with corruption allegations among the population.

The SME Fund Scandal

The SME Fund scandal broke late in 2018 and has been the most pointed impetus to direct engagement with transparency tools by Mongolians.

This engagement has built on a change in the law on beneficial ownership that resulted in the May 2018 publication of a list of all companies that had received low-interest loans from the SME Fund.

In a June 21 recap of parliamentary decisions, news.mn highlighted the amendments to the General Registration Law and explained what these meant. But as this was published in late June, i.e. just before Naadam, little attention was paid to these disclosures.

The investigation of the SME Fund and the extent to which politicians availed themselves of this fund really gained steam in the Fall.

Importantly, Ikon.mn was the first news organization that began to put these different sources of information together by looking for the owners of companies that had received loans from the SME Fund and pointing out that some of these owners were MPs or individuals with connections to Pres Battulga, PM Khurelsukh, and other high officials. In some ways, the entire political class and financial system has been implicated.

Here is a brief chronology of information that Ikon.mn put together from information that Ch Bolortuya, Ikon.mn’s editor-in-chief, kindly provided. The sequence of publications focused on the SME Fund scandal have been collected on the Ikon.mn webpage.

The investigations started with social media posts that identified the specific involvement of politicians and matched the SME Fund data with the declaration of income and assets from the IAAC (Oct 24). These matches were then expanded to thousands of public servants and Ikon.mn also published 2015-2018 expenditure of SME fund from ‘Glass Account’.

For an explainer of the scandal, see

Some credible actors emerged with a specific focus on information, accountability and transparency.

The specific linking of different sources of information demonstrated to many Mongolians that they could acquire and interpret information on corruption themselves and no longer had to rely on others’ allegations.

The Long-Term Significance of Recent Events

Currently, it is fairly uncertain what will happen next in Mongolian politics. There is a growing sense (certainly among Mongolia-watchers in Vancouver!) that a revolution of some kind is coming, but it is very unclear whether this will be a sudden upheaval, or gradual reforms and also unclear what will result from this upheaval. But, with so much polarization and little mediation at the moment, reasons for revolutionary change are mounting.

But, in the context of recent scandals, Mongolians have discovered the power of their access to information.

Cost of Corruption

Presumably, corrupt officials make a calculation about the financial gain that might come to them through corruption vs. costs like prosecution and sentencing. Past corrupt practices are also likely to be more costly, as more investigations may lead to a need to pay of more people, especially other corrupt officials, including law enforcement.

Grand corruption has been possible in the past because grand amounts enable corrupt officials to share the spoils from corruption. More scrutiny has changed this calculation.

Blame Game

Until now, corruption allegations have always been levelled at individuals. The typical response has been counter-allegations. The clearest example of this was the 2017 presidential campaign.

With an embrace of transparency tools and deepened political engagement, more and more Mongolians will realize the fundamental institutional problems with lack of prosecution and accountability. Yes, individuals helped themselves to the SME Fund and are individually guilty, but it is a system of state funds and lack of transparent authority over these funds that is the real problem and that is coming to light.

Propaganda Questioned

Political communication has inundated voters with distractions. It has redirected their attention from causes to symptoms. With an embrace of transparency tools, voters will see hard evidence of the background structures and causes and thus look past surface symptoms. Such a focus on causes is also a defence against populist appeals.

MAHAH at a Crossroads

Given recent scandals, it seems possible that voters will perceive both large parties, the DP and the MPP, to be fundamentally corrupted and reject this duopoly. Lack of confidence in political parties in the abstract, will also hinder the emergence of third parties.

At the same time, there are many DP and MPP members who are not corrupt and who believe in the efficacy of the party and of ideology to determine Mongolia’s future. These party members will demand accountability within the party as much as of the government, and will put pressure on the party leadership to embrace genuine reform and a new generation of candidates for the 2020 parliamentary election.

Justice and Democracy

Fundamental to an embrace and practice of transparency is a dedication to justice and democracy. Many Mongolians still share in that vision. There is also recognition that ultimately and in the long term, democracy is the best bet at providing justice, even though authoritarian reforms might be a shortcut to temporary justice. Even though political frustration is growing in Mongolia and may be reaching a boiling point, solutions have to be democratic solutions because justice can only be provided in democracies not under populism or dictatorship.

About Damdinnyam

Damdinnyam completed his MASc in Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia with a thesis entitled “Stakeholders’ Perception on the Applicability of Shared Value Creation in Mongolian Mining Development” and is currently working on developing his dissertation research. He tweets at @Daimka07

Posted in Corruption, Damdinnyam Gongor, Law, Politics, Public Opinion, Social Change, Social Movements, Taxes | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Connecting Mongols Between Mongolia and China Through Hip Hop

By Thalea Stokes

The Project

My time in Mongolia and China has been towards the aim of coming to a deeper understanding of Mongolian hip hop culture in both nations, and how those cultures interact, intertwine, and inform each other. Beginning in July 2018, I spent four months in Ulaanbaatar and two months in Hohhot immersing myself in Mongolian hip hop culture and history, interviewing fans, casual listeners, and industry professionals, navigating the virtual spaces of Mongolian hip hop culture, and participating bodily in gigs, concerts, dance competitions and classes, and graffiti. Doing these things had inverse difficulty levels for from Mongolia to China. I dedicated more time there simply taking in Ulaanbaatar as a city and a culture, as it was my first time in the country, which was difficult. Yet it was very easy for me to connect with people in person and virtually. Meanwhile, this was my fifth trip to Hohhot in a series of several trips to China over many years, thus understanding the area was not a challenge for me. Instead, connecting virtually and personally with fans and industry professionals was what was difficult, as people in China are restricted in terms of artistic expression. Pursuing such a line of inquiry as Mongolian identity through hip hop can be dangerous both for the pursuer and the pursued. Nevertheless I progressed as carefully and conscientiously as I could, and was privileged to have been taught a great many critical things about Mongolian hip hop culture.

What I Learned, Encapsulated

I could give an overarching summary of all that I researched—and indeed I will in the context of completing my dissertation—but instead I will share a single experience that touches upon many of the myriad themes that were manifested and consistently present through my research. During my time in Hohhot, I had very few opportunities to go to hip hop concerts or live shows, so when one presented itself, I did my best to take advantage of it. One such live show opportunity presented itself well in advance, and I immediately made concrete plans to go. On the day of the show, I got a WeChat message from one of my interlocutors that the show was happening. He wanted to make sure that I was going, and I assured him that I was, not only for the main act of interest (Alihan Dze), but because an Inner Mongolian rapper (Billy King) that I particularly like was slated to perform and I wanted the chance to possibly connect with him for an interview.

Just a few hours later, I received another message from the same interlocutor telling me that the main act was cancelled. I pressed a little, trying to find out if the entire show was cancelled or just the main act. I didn’t get a clear answer, and something in myself told me to stop pressing further. I decided, for several reasons, to stay home.

It wasn’t until later that I found out on Facebook—utilizing my VPN to stay connected with my friends and contacts in Mongolia—that the act was cancelled because Alihan Dze had been denied entry into China, and possibly even banned, for having rapped about a kind of “one Mongolia” philosophy at some point in the past. I was immediately frightened and relieved that I had decided against going to the show anyway, lest there be undercover government officials seeking to find out just who would be interested in listening to an artist who posits ideas unfavorable to the Chinese government.

What this incident showed was that: there are active artistic collaborations going on between Mongolian and Inner Mongolian hip hop artists; these collaborations can and do tend to foster amiable, even familial feelings between the two groups under the philosophy that Mongols in China are still part of the whole Mongolian family, i.e. a “one Mongolia” cultural philosophy; Inner Mongolian hip hop artists are at the mercy of a government that necessarily and severely restricts the kinds of topics they can express and the kinds of associations they can make, and yet still manage to express their Mongolian identity through hip hop culture. They strategically conceal overt expressions of Mongolian identity with generalized proclamations of self-love and respect for others, and by encouraging their audience to open their minds and “think freely.”

The Most Important Takeaway

Where these two hip hop cultures critically intersect is through the complicated relationship between the two groups of people. In the past, Mongols in Mongolia were wont to look down on Mongols in China as not being “real Mongolians” but instead being Chinese with some Mongolian cultural characteristics. Inner Mongolians have generally felt a deep pain over this perception, as they view Mongolia as their ancestral home, and longingly as a home many of them will never be able to see. But through collaboration, artistic mediums, and virtual information sharing even despite the severe restrictions in China, Mongols in Mongolia and Mongols in China have been changing that relationship from one of conflict to one of enlightenment and more understanding with a desire to be a single, connected family that is simply spread out over great distances. Mongolian hip hop culture has been part of this ameliorating and unifying project (here is just such a collaboration video done by both Mongolian and Inner Mongolian hip hop artists). As it continues to evolve and its participants continue to share and learn from each other, Mongolian hip hop culture across the two nations will continue remain unpredictable, harrowing, and deeply meaningful.

About Thalea

Thalea Stokes hails from Atlanta, GA, and is a classically trained bassist who has been invested in exploring the musics of many cultures for many years. After receiving earning a Bachelor’s in music performance, a Bachelor’s in Global Studies with a regional focus on China, and a Master’s in music research, Thalea began and is currently working toward a doctorate in ethnomusicology. Thalea’s primary ambition in life is to open a school for world music to be based in the US.

Posted in Mongolians in China, Music, Nationalism, Pop Culture, Research on Mongolia, Social Change, Society and Culture, Thalea Stokes | Leave a comment

Genuine Protests or Political Grandstanding

By Julian Dierkes

A group of MPs is clearly trying to mobilize against M Enkhbold through the organization of public protests. We saw such protests at the ever end of 2018, but they have been announced for January 10 as well with the possibility of parallel protests across aimag capitals.

MP Lu Bold is among the most active organizers of these protests.

For many Mongolians, these protests seem to raise the question of whether they are “paid for” or somehow genuine and the default answer to this question seems to have become that these are opportunistic protests organized for particular political goals associated with individuals, not with a larger reform of political culture/processes. But how would we know?

Corruption, Conspiracies, and Protesters for Hire

In conversations about politics with Mongolians, conspiracy theories are almost the default, whether that is with individual voters, or with politically-powerful individuals. This, along with and as a cause of a general political apathy is preventing Mongolians from acting on the political frustration that has been building up over the past couple of years. Given the level of frustration, I do think that real change is coming to Mongolia over the long-term, but there are many different imaginable ways by which change could be brought about. Since protests are an obvious path to change, I think it is important to consider how we might evaluate protests when they do occur.

Given wide-spread suspicions about the importance of money in all things political, many Mongolians seem to look at protests through a lense of suspicion regarding the motivation of protesters, frequently asserting that many protesters are paid to protest, and thus may have no loyalty to the cause that they may be protesting for.

Paid Protests Possible?

One of the first questions that occurs to me in that context is: could individuals/groups actually organize large-scale protests by hiring protesters? I think the answer is probably yes.

I have not been able to get very concrete information on what the going rate to hire a protester is, but guesses seem to come in around ₮10,000 or so. Assuming that a crowd of at least 5,000 is needed to make protests seem significant that would suggest a required budget of ₮10,000 * 5,000 = ₮50,000,000 or around US$20,000. Certainly within the realm of the possible when there are wealthy organizers involved, though this calculation disregards the additional and potentially substantial costs that are required to maintain structures that can be used to organize protests, including logistics as I mention below.

Indicators of Paid-For Protests

So, what might be some possible indicators to identify paid-for protests?

Protests Logistics

In conversations with Mendee, we have come up with some specific aspects of demonstrations that we could look for that would indicate that these protests are orchestrated:

  • is there evidence of transportation being provided to demonstrators? Protesters who are devoted to the cause of a protest would likely organize their own transportation a protest, while transportation is likely to be provided for those who are paid to participate. Obviously, this factor is even more salient in winter-time protests when few people are going to walk a great distance for a protest. So, evidence of staged protests might come in the form of buses and minivans that can be observed dropping significant numbers of people off near a protest site.
  • is there evidence of meals being provided to demonstrators? Again, those who are paid to demonstrate might expect a meal to be provided when demonstrations might last over several hours, especially over lunch-time. So, evidence of food being handed out to demonstrators? [cold weather factor – are there any warm places/buses/ provided? protestors are taking turns to escape from the cold weather?]
  • what do signs look like that protesters are carrying? Are these largely hand-written even when they copy general slogans that have been given out or have appeared in social media for protests? Or, are they printed, with some evidence of mass production?

Obviously, all of these indicators can be faked, i.e. you could pay someone an additional fee to paint their own signs, but let’s hope that protest managers do not read our blog, so that they will not adjust their strategies accordingly.

Actors Involved

Clearly, currently active and powerful politicians are immediately “suspicious” in terms of the genuineness of their protests. For example, MP J Batzandan is clearly involved in the planning of Jan 10 protests, but he has been involved in many, many protests over the years, including the July 1 2008 riots. It will be hard to persuade many Mongolians that his involvement in protests is not motivated by some kind of political play rather than being genuine in its anti-corruption thrust, for example. The same could be said for Lu Bold as another prominent organizer of the Jan 10 protests.

On the other hand, there are some actors that would have more credibility if they got involved in protests, particularly individuals or groups who have previously not participated in party politics. By political actors I mean both, individuals, as well as parties or other movements. With their recent resurgence in prominence, for example, if the Monoglian Labour Party (XUH) joined a particular protest, that would likely add credibility of a genuine dedication an issue, at least at the moment.

At the same time, there are also participants in demonstrations that are a “kiss of death” for further involvement, like the various extremist and nationalist group who seem to be making it their habit to join protests.

Crowd Composition

Whether or not a large part of the protesting crowd might be composed of paid protesters might be clear by looking for certain groups like the elderly or students who are more likely to be attracted to payment for daytime protests than working age Mongolians, for example.

Some of that crowd composition may be visible on photographs, but the best evidence in this regard would probably come from observers/journalists walking through the crowd to pick up on different groupings or the mood and conversations going on.

Beyond the prominent of a particular group, more genuine protests can also be expected to attract a wider variety of participants, not only pensioners, but pensioners AND parents, or young people AND individuals from the countryside.

Resiliency/Sustainability of Protests

Another criteria to judge protests and protest movements by would be to look for some kind of sustained engagement. Not only would repeated hiring of protesters get expensive, even by the very simple guestimate we offered above, but if repeated events continue to attract crowds, it would seem like there is more genuine involvement in the topic that they’r protesting. With the announcement of nation-wide protests for January 10, we might also include the spreading of coordinated protests as a criterion.

Not Quite a Checklist

While this does not quite give us a list of criteria by which to distinguish genuine from politically opportunistic protests, these are some of the aspects will be looking for in coming demonstrations.

And, whether or not a specific protest is genuine or staged, any large protest surely creates opportunities for more mobilization and for new political actors, voices or leaders to emerge.

Posted in Politics, Public Opinion, Social Change, Social Movements | Tagged | Leave a comment

Embassies in Ulaanbaatar on Social Media

By Julian Dierkes

A recent post about the Twitter accounts of foreign embassies in Ulaanbaatar proved to be more popular than I had anticipated, so I’ll turn that into a blog post below.

Tweeting Embassies in Mongolia

Having checked in with John Langtry (outgoing Australian ambassador), I have also added his account to this listing as representing the embassy of Australia.

In the initial listing, I had missed the Kazakh embassy in Ulaanbaatar.

With that, there are currently (early Jan 2019) 11 embassies in Ulaanbaatar who maintain active Twitter accounts:

There are a number of ambassadors who maintain a personal presence as well (Jiri Brodsky, Czech ambassador may currently be the most active, the UK’s Philip Malone, Italy’s Andrea de Felip and the EU’s Traian Hristea are also represented), but these are more difficult to track. Of course, there have been some stand-out communicators in the past, most notable perhaps the UK’s Catherine Arnold who set the standard for engaged and engaging ambassadors from 2015-18 and recently received an O.B.E. for her diplomatic contributions.

What are they Tweeting?

For the most part, these accounts are fairly staid in their social media use. Most of them look very corporate, i.e. they follow design prescriptions from their ministries with the possible exceptions of the Russian embassy which uses a hard-to-see photograph of their not-so-striking-but-very-large embassy building and the Australian embassy which features a photo of the ambassador.

The Australian ambassador is also the only of these accounts that gets a bit more personal at times and also more active, while all the other accounts typically send out a fairly standard press-release-like diet of photos of ambassadors shaking hands (but not telling us what they might have spoken about with various Mongolian interlocutors) or promotion of activities of their embassy.

Embassies on Facebook

A number of these and other embassies also maintain a presence (often more active) on Facebook:

Posted in Australia, Canada, Digital Diplomacy, EU, Foreign Policy, Germany, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and ..., Russia, Turkey, United States | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blogging in 2018

By Julian Dierkes

Mongolia Focus is in its 8th year of existence.

We’ve continued to blog pretty steadily in 2018 with a total of 65 new posts this past year. Since July 2011, we’ve published at least one post every month for a total of over 570 posts.

Here are some highlights from Google Analytics:

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Energy Independence and Internationalism: Oil Extraction and Refining in Mongolia So Far

By Marissa J. Smith

As Julian penned his request for a study on renewable energy potential to members of Mongolia’s cabinet and other relevant policy-makers two weeks ago, London stock exchange-listed  Petro Matad continued its campaign of exploration drilling in eastern and central Mongolia.

As part of concerns about energy, development, and independence guaranteed by proper international relations, oil exploration and refining have been long-term interests for the Mongolian state and Mongolians more broadly. They have so far, however, been realized only on a small scale and with partial control of Mongolians themselves.

In the 1950s and 1960s, oil was discovered, extracted, and refined in central Mongolia at Zuunbayan and Mongolians trained as petroleum engineers in the Soviet Union and Romania, only for the drilling to be suddenly stopped (Sanders 2017, 671), and these engineers apparently retrained (Purev and Purvee 2006, 15 and back cover). In the early 1990s, American petroleum geologists and engineers were quick to enter Mongolia. The New York Times reported that President George Bush was “intrigued” by President Ochirbat’s apparent invitation to drill at Zuunbayan in 1991, and suggested this may have influenced Mongolia’s being granted “most favored nation” trade status. Drilling by American-owned, British-listed company SOCO commenced at Tamsagbulag in the Matad soum, Dornod province in the 1990s (Sanders 2017, 671) but the site was sold to a PetroChina subsidiary in 2009, and tensions have since arose around the issue of the company’s Chinese ownership (Nielsen and Pedersen 2015, Pedersen and Bunkenborg 2012, Pedersen and Nielsen 2013). Recently there have been renewed concerns from Mongolians on the predominance of Chinese rather than Mongolian professionals among employees.

Reports of negotiations to construct a refinery with Japanese, and then Indian, “partners” near Darkhan have surfaced regularly in past years. Funding and expertise for a refinery are the most tangible result of Modi’s widely covered diplomacy vis-à-vis Mongolia and China circa 2015. In June, Mongolian news outlets reported that ground had been broken for a refinery at Altanshiree near Sainshand; just yesterday it was announced through state press agency Montsame that the refinery is thirty percent complete and Mongolian-Russian joint stock company Ulaanbaatar Railways is involved in construction (the photo, however, leaves room for skepticism about the progress of the project).

During fieldwork in Mongolia, I have found that the price of gasoline is a regular cause for comment on the ability and legitimacy of the current government, and taxi drivers bringing me to the center of Ulaanbaatar from the airport will often comment on the price of gasoline (and red meat) as soon as it has been established I am a Mongolian-speaker who has been away for some time. In the past two years, Battulga’s government, and particularly fellow wrestler-politician D. Sumiyabazar, Minister of Mining and Heavy Industry, has emphasized that oil and gas extraction would be pursued with renewed vigor (as I discussed in a previous post, at Davos, where he named Kazakhstan and Norway as nations to emulate), and the drilling by Petro Matad and (reported) construction of the Altanshiree refinery seems to be being framed at least as delivering on that promise.

Several features of Petro Matad bear further comment as they reveal a status quo regarding Mongolian state-corporate relationships and their international character. Mongolia currently imports around ninety-five percent of its petroleum products from Russia, via rail and truck; discussions about pipelines have repeatedly stalled (Sanders 2017, 673-674). Across Mongolian society, national “energy independence” (guaranteed by relations with third neighbors) is regarded as a worthy goal. How this independence is managed, however, is a point of potential controversy. During my fieldwork in 2010-2012, I was also told that the import of Russian petroleum products is conducted through Petrovis – the same company that is now a part owner of Petro Matad, and evidently transforming itself into another example of the familiar Mongolian multi-sector, partly internationally-owned company, with subsidiaries in construction as well as oil, natural gas, and coal extraction, processing, and energy distribution.

While associated with American and British third neighbors through part-ownership and listing on the London stock exchange, no doubt a huge point in its favor as far as establishing its legitimacy as manager of Mongolian energy, Petrovis is also of note because of the role of family members of the former General Director of Erdenet, Sh. Otgonbileg. His son, O. Sodbileg, currently member of parliament for Orkhon aimag (comprised of Erdenet city and a single neighboring soum, the fomer negdel collective established to supply food for Erdenet) was formerly deputy director of Petrovis (Sanders 2010, 803), and the family connections with Petrovis were emphasized to me by Erdenet Mining Corporation employees during the 2012 parliamentary elections. For voters then, at stake was Sodbileg’s connection with the Erdenet – if this connection to the community were strong enough, Sodbileg’s connections with Petrovis would be a plus, but if not, these could be a drain on the community.

To summarize, the distribution of petroleum products in Mongolia has already revealed concentrations of power through exclusive control over resources, but may prove an interesting area in which to observe how this is held to be legitimate management informed by expertise from the “developed” third neighbors versus stealing from the Mongolian nation by extracting and exporting without obtaining a “fair world market price” through collusion with Mongolia’s neighbors by Mongolians less fully bound to the state based in Ulaanbaatar, as has long been key to controversy about Erdenet.

References

Nielsen, Morten and Morten Axel Pedersen. 2015. “Infrastructural Imaginaries : Collapsed Futures in Mozambique and Mongolia.” Reflections on imagination: human capacity and ethnographic method. Ed. Mark Harris and Nigel Rapport. London: Ashgate. p. 237-262.

Pedersen, Morten Axel and Mikkel Bunkenborg. 2012. “Roads that Separate: Sino-Mongolian Relations in the Inner Asian Desert.” Mobilities 7. https://doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2012.718938

Pedersen, Morten Axel and Morten Nielsen. 2013. “Trans-temporal Hinges: Reflections on an Ethnographic Study of Chinese Infrastructural Projects in Mozambique and Mongolia.” Social Analysis 57, 1: 122-142. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2013.570109

Purev, O. and G. Purvee. 2006. Mongolian Shamanism. Ulaanbaatar: Munkhiin Useg.*

Sanders, Alan J. K. 2017. Historical Dictionary of Mongolia. Fourth Ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

  1. Historical Dictionary of Mongolia. Third Ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

* Gurbaadryn Purvee, a Darkhad Mongol and brother of shamanism specialist O. Purev, writes in the preface to this volume of his attempts to publish earlier versions of the manuscript in Romania when he was a student studying petroleum engineering in the late 1960s. Purvee later trained in Ulaanbaatar and Moscow as a labor economist.

Posted in China, Energy, Foreign Investment, Foreign Policy, India, Oil, Russia, Trade | Tagged | Leave a comment

Getting it right: Preventing Conflicts in Company-Community Relations

By BYAMBAJAV Dalaibuyan

Conflict with host communities is a major business risk for mining companies in Mongolia. Though we can cite many specific issues causing local opposition to minerals exploration and mining projects, recent research suggests they all can be related to two dimensions of unfairness—procedural and distributional.

Procedural unfairness

Procedural unfairness—decision-making regarding any resource project made without inclusive and informed consultation— has instigated protest and conflicts in many places, especially in case of green-field projects. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a good example. Inadequate consultation during EIAs have resulted in uncertainty and opposition among local community members in the next phases of a project. In Mongolia, local, rural communities—may seem to fragmented and remote—have much higher public participation compared to urban citizens. For example, social surveys have shown that their attendance of community meetings is high.

Having better access to information and more lessons learned compared to the situation in ten years ago, local communities have now stronger concern about whether they will be better off as a result of the presence of resource development projects.

Another example is local level agreements (LLAs) between mining companies and local governments regarding collaboration, social responsibility and local development contribution. Recent research from Natural Resource Governance Institute shows that the content of agreements has attracted much attention in contrast to the adequacy of agreement-making process, including preparation, research, and public consultation. Despite good intentions of companies, LLAs can go wrong if procedural fairness is not ensured. One reason why the negotiation of Oyu Tolgoi`s Cooperation Agreement with Umnugovi aimag took 4 years was a challenge to develop and agree on governance mechanisms that can ensure procedural fairness in a long run (30 years!) and in the context of short-termism in local government (4-yearly elections!).

Distributional fairness

Distributional unfairness—asymmetric distribution of impacts and benefits of a resource project—does not usually cause immediate protests or opposition, but, if persists, it can have an adverse effect on the future of a project. A multi-partite agreement is one way to address this issue. An example is a new cooperation agreement between MoEnCo Company that runs Khushuut Coal Mine, Khovd aimag, and two soums. In the previous bilateral agreement with MonEnCo, Khovd aimag government took the responsibility to share benefits received through the agreement and, thus, coordinate relations of host soums with the company. That did not work well: benefits were not fairly shared and the company encountered community dissatisfaction. Now, Darvi and Tsetseg, the host soums, are a party to the agreement and, moreover, they should receive 30% of the fund.

In Mongolia and elsewhere, distributional unfairness cannot be managed or addressed by mining companies alone. Others such as government, civil society, and local authorities have their roles. The government has initiated schemes for providing fiscal advantages to mining regions in the distribution of mining revenues (royalties and licence fees), but they have been incomplete and inconsistent. The most recent scheme that the government approved in April 2015, promising to distribute 30% of royalty payments and 50% of licence fees accrued from non-mega projects, did not last a year. The government lowered the rate for transfer of royalties from 30% to 10% in response to Mongolia’s high risk of default on debt obligations in 2016, and in fact, implementation of the transfer was temporarily suspended in 2017. Surprisingly, local governments—except their frequent rejection of exploration license application—and mining companies have been silent on these reversals.

To have a consistent scheme and create certainty for local communities, concerted campaigns of local governments, mining companies and civil society are needed to facilitate informed, broad discussions about distributional fairness in mining revenue sharing.

Such discussions can also touch on the fairness of distribution of water fee. In September 2013, the government increased water use fee for the mining industry approximately 6 times (630%). The new rate had a significant impact on the amount of local budget revenue from water use fee—the right to collect it transferred from soum to aimag. While the Water Law states that the fee should be distributed for environmental purposes recent reports of the National Audit found many deviations. Importantly, soums and local project-affected areas seem to have no gains from water use fee. Companies and local communities can work together to fix this. For example, under an agreement, Oyu Tolgoi, Khanbogd soum and local herder representatives committed to collaborate on receiving a fair share of Oyu Tolgoi`s water use fee (12 billion MNT in 2015) from the aimag government to address the mine`s environmental impacts.

Business risks

Despite other factors, the reality is, however, that the cost of perception of unfairness and, thus conflicts, is higher for companies, just think of project delays, halt in production, reputational damage, government intervention, and a slump in share prices. Mining companies and professional associations need to seriously think about a number of critical questions: How should companies address local expectation about social investment if the distribution of benefits accrued from the mining industry is not fairly shared by government with local communities? How should companies improve community consultation in impact assessment? Leaving these questions to personnel in charge of community or government relations or to consultants alone is a common mistake among company executives. Some companies have lessons learned and take this issue seriously, strategizing at senior executive levels and integrating into corporate policy and operational procedures, and now it is time for others to follow.

This article was originally published in Asia Mining Magazine in February 2018.

Posted in Mining, Mining, Mining Governance, Oyu Tolgoi, Protest | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar December 2018

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping a list of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: August 2018October 2017June 2017 | May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | May 2014 | October 2013 | October 2011. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

I’ve copied the 2014-18 lists here and am adding to it. New items since previous posts appear in italics. Since this list has been growing, I’m also beginning to delete some items that I’ve had on the list for some time. Strikethrough means that these items will be off the next list.

What has arrived?

  • sadly: Louis Vuitton, KFC, Burberry Kids, Ugg and a Porsche dealership
  • Mini, Bentley
  • child seats
  • sidewalks
  • parks
  • farmers’ markets
  • yoga
  • dogs on leashes
  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • burgeoning coffee culture
  • river walkway along the Dund River (under construction in May 2015 but looking very promising)
  • city park along the Tuul
  • sports cars
  • organic shopping
  • gated communities (virtually all the new developments towards and in Zaisan)
  • wheelchair accessibility (moved from “What Will Appear” category as ministries are now (meant to be) wheelchair-accessible)
  • the “#замчөлөөл” hastag, a city campaign to shame property owners about their infringement of public space. Seems – quietly – very successful when you look at many photos posted.
  • large-scale BBQ extravaganza on the banks of the Tuul river, particularly near the ASEM Road. On summer weekends, so many cars parked right on the riverside, BBQs planted right next to them, families camping out, some literally
  • Harley-Davidson (now seemingly endorsed by new PM U Khurelsukh)
  • drive-home service for drivers who have been drinking. You call the service, they drop off a driver who drives you home in your car and is then picked up again. Given – fortunately – much stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, a great service!
  • bike lanes and bike parking, being shooed off bike lanes by riders (though not in December!)
  • street names and signs in the city
  • fat tire bikes
  • home air filtration systems that everyone is talking about
  • Hummer stretch limousine
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass under construction just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads.
  • Canadian cold weather brands, Canada Goose and Arc’teryx are everywhere, fake or not.
  • fully electric cars (though I don’t know where they charge)
  • electronic payment systems. There are a number of apps issued by Mongolian banks. There are some QR-code based payment systems. Often credit card payment is approved via a fingerprint reader.
  • Christmas Store, apparently

What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • stationary 80s-office-phone-looking old-granny cell phone booth
  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)
  • free WiFi on Sukhbaatar, er Chinggis Khaan, er, Sukhbaatar Square, er, Chinggis Khaan Square
  • open gullys/missing manholes
  • street kids (they seem to come and go. In summer 2017 there were very few of them again.)
  • packs of dogs
  • smoking
  • the sixth-floor souvenir shop at the State Department Store (though perhaps seasonal)
    oversized sunglasses for women that were so popular across Asia (?) some years ago
  • Nescafé (see above on coffee culture)
  • surprise at seeing bicycles
  • hillside Chinggis visible from the city centre as more tall buildings are constructed

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • new airport, apparently opening in 2019. I drove by there in summer 2017. Oh my, it is far from the city!
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead, but who knows whether either will come)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.)
  • road signs in the countryside (and not just the very random, very occasional ones that can be found now)
  • network of cross-country riding (bike and horse) trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters), electric charging in parking spots/lots
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • Canada Goose, Arc’teryx
  • giant hole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear! There also seems to be a proposal to blast away mountains on either end of the valley to let bad air escape!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays
  • tap payment system, perhaps using the transit card
  • Mongolia-themed coffee travel mugs

What will disappear in the medium-term future

I’m going out on a predictive limb here… 2-3 years is what I mean by “near future”.

Actually, since I have been predicting this as “near future” change for some years now, I guess I was wrong with all these predictions, and have changed the listing to medium-term future.

  • stray dogs
  • stretched-out hand to signal for a car ride
  • that awkward extra half-step on most stairs
  • whitening make-up.

What will disappear in the long-term future

I mean around 7 years or so. None of these seems to be coming true quite yet, so I’ve changed the name of this category from medium-term to long-term.

  • new (to Mongolia) cars that are right-hand drive
  • the neo-classical Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, with its Stalinist (if that’s an architectural style) spire [Tough call to make as the MFA building is now dwarfed by its own annex]
  • deels in the city [actually, they seem to be making a bit of a fashion comeback among young people]
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452) but see above
  • the Winter Palace. It won’t disappear entirely, but it is more-and-more surrounded by a very urban and very tall landscape making it look somewhat forlorn.
Posted in Change, Curios, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Political Bowl of Цуйван

By Julian Dierkes

Clearly, the second half of November into December 2018 has been an exciting time for observers of Mongolian politics. When the SME Fund scandal started gathering protest online, I was about to by an airplane ticket to join the revolution. Instead, I waited two weeks and arrived just after the Khurelsukh government had survived a vote of no-confidence.

But, I arrived seeking answers to what recent events might mean for bigger political trends, and for my expectation that we’ll see some kind of revolution in Mongolian politics in the next, oh, ten years, either in spurts, or all at once. But instead of answers, everyone presents me with pictures of political alliances, conspiracies, and party politics that looks like a bowl of tsuivan, i.e. fried noodles, it is so confusing.

Preamble

It is important to note that the current power struggles among Mongolian politicians and the possible reconfiguration of the party landscape is not about ideology or policy differences. That is too bad, as it would signal genuine debate that Mongolian voters might be interested in.

Instead, the account of the current turmoil that everyone has been giving me is about a struggle for power, and even more sadly, a piece of the business/corruption pie.

Why is it worth repeating these accounts of political alliances as they are based on conjecture? Because there are implications for the overall party landscape with possible splits of the two large parties, DP and MPP, and the arrival/rise of other political movements. But I would acknowledge that I am repeating common speculation, not analysis or fact below.

Parties: The Big Picture

Of course, the DP has been rife with factional fights in the past, nothing new there. The MPP has been able to maintain some more party discipline in the past, but has now broken into full-on internecine struggles. With all their faults (growth of corruption, lack of implementation of politics, no renewal of leadership), DP & MPP have collectively provided some institutional stability in Mongolian politics. Yes, governments change regularly, but more often than not, there is little change in policy that goes along with that change (other than personnel turnover which often leads to newly re-invented old policies).

The assumption for the moment will be that both parties somehow overcome the challenges to their unity (that they have largely created themselves).

However, there is some chance at splits in either of the big parties and below is what seems to be roughly the configuration that splits might take.

MPP

The fact that a party who has a supermajority and 1 1/2 years left to govern with that majority, now engages in seemingly suicidal internal struggles says a lot about Mongolian politics.

The fight pits former party leader and presidential candidate M Enkhbold and his “city” faction against the “countryside” faction of current PM U Khurelsukh who has come out of the MPP’s youth organization.

These two sides are so badly divided that the city faction forced a no confidence vote against the PM which they lost. In this fight, all kinds of rhetoric, but also more aggressive ploys involving various security agencies have been deployed. There is no ideological divide between these two factions. The Khurelsukh faction can vaguely claim a mantle of party reform, but really only quite vaguely.

Following the failed no-confidence vote, the Khurelsukh faction will likely continue to oust M Enkhbold from his position as speaker of parliament. Either side could announce a split from the party, though in the event of such a split, they would certainly fight over the significant party infrastructure that exists and that also became a subject of law suits and fighting when former president Enkhbayar split the MPRP off from the MPP in 2010.

There are some powerful party figures who seem to have remained in the background of the current fight, most notably perhaps former PM Su Batbold who has played a kingmaker-role in past cabinet reshuffles.

DP

Note that there is a widespread assumption that the DP will win the parliamentary election in 2020 simply because Mongolian voters have swung back-and-forth between the two big parties over past elections, and despite the fact that the DP has not made any attempts to renew itself following its disastrous showing in the 2016 election.

The parliamentary caucus of the DP no longer is a caucus because MPs Bold, Murat, and Batzandan have been expelled.

That development along with other (factional) splits in the party suggests that a formal split may also be coming.

In such a split, MP Lu Bold seems like to seek to form a party of some kind. He has previously run in Khaan-Uul together with Ts Oyungerel who has been on a long campaign for sanitation in Mongolia that may also double as the beginning of a political campaign. Her brother Ts Bat may also be ready to make the jump into politics at that point.

The party establishment around S Erdene would likely continue on its not-so-merry path.

Formally, Pres Battulga is no longer a party member, of course, but in any realignment, the suggestion is that he would line up with former PM Altankhuyag.

The (very) dark horse in all of this DP speculation then is former Pres Elbegdorj. Would he ally with elements of a split MPP? M Enkhbold’s faction would seem the most likely in that case.

MPRP

As I’ve noted, Enkhbayar and Ganbaatar have been somewhat quiet since the #Ждү scandal broke.

XUH

XUN is clearly getting some attention in the wake of recent scandals, but it’s unclear whether they can build on that attention and how any splits in MAHAH might benefit the formation of a new party.

Posted in Democratic Party, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cabinet Reshuffle: Dambadorj for Foreign Education Minister

By Julian Dierkes

With all the scandals surrounding corruption in the past month and the no-confidence vote against PM Khurelsukh failing, it’s time for a re-imagining of a previous post. I’m expanding my campaign from trying to become the foreign minister to trying to become the foreign education minister.

Warning: attempts at (nerdy Mongolian politics) humour below. Note that this is based on a Twitter thread I posted on Nov 30.

*****

Ts Tsogzolmaa voted for the motion of no-confidence against PM Khurelsukh in parliament on Nov 30. What makes that surprising is that Tsogzolmaa is a member of PM Khurelsukh’s cabinet where she serves as Minister of Education, Culture, Science and Sports. Khurelsukh appointed her to cabinet, but she now voted against him in the no-confidence vote. Would you agree that it is unlikely that she will remain in cabinet? In addition, a number of cabinet members are tainted by the SME Fund scandal, so perhaps we are due for a cabinet shuffle or Khurelsukh II?

And if a cabinet reshuffle, why not try something new, namely me as Foreign Minister of Education, Culture, Science and Sports?

My Qualifications to become Foreign Minister of Education

Biography/My Story

I grew up in Berlin, far Northwestern Mongolia, and thus practically Khovd with its strong tradition of powerful political leaders.

I am definitely not from one of the “30 families”, so move over, Nomtoibayar.

I enjoy lactase persistence.

I don’t wear a double deel (давхар дээл), but I do like to wear my themo-deel when it’s cold.

It has always struck me as odd how important candidates’ educational biographies seem to be in political campaigns, so here are the universities that I have attended or taught at:

  • Univ of California at Berkeley (BA)
  • International Christian University
  • Sophia University
  • Free University of Berlin
  • Princeton University (MA and PhD)
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of British Columbia (Assistant, then Associate Professor).

I speak some languages fluently (German, English, Japanese) and some if need be (French). I understand a surprising amount of Mongolian, but am shy about speaking it. Becoming Foreign Education Minister would be a great opportunity to improve my Mongolian!

I do try to have a sense of humour on occasion (like here), though most of my jokes flop in English for linguistic reasons or as too nerdy.

I have dedicated myself to supporting Mongolian graduate students.

Qualifications

Subject Knowledge Education:
Past research on history textbooks (Japan and the Germanies), legal education (Japan), and supplementary education (Japan), democratization (Mongolia).

Administrative Experience Education:
Currently Associate Dean at a top-40 global university (UBC).

Culture:
I would be willing change my adopted name from Dumbledorj to Dambadorj (дамбадорж) to demonstrate my willingness to defend Mongolian culture against the onslaught of Western pop culture.

I am resistant to bribery and corruption because I’m hoping to be so good in this life that I’ll be reborn as a Mongolian throat singer in my next life.

Science:
I am definitely a social scientist and will pursue evidence-informed policy!

Sports:
I have supported the Mongolian Olympic Team as a volunteer in Vancouver and London and hope to do so again at Tokyo 2020.

I have played field hockey for over four decades, this season I even scored a goal!

Platform

  • expand and institutionalize academic freedom
  • review tuition for state universities and budgets based on tuition only
  • no political appointments to education positions
  • create Mongolian-Canadian Friendship School
  • promote field hockey as an Olympic sport
  • build up applied research capacity, focused particularly on solar power and how cold can aid carbon sequestration
  • public funding for Mongolian ethno-pop (Javkhlan will support my nomination!) and ethno-rap
  • reusable cups at all Ministry-events to reduce the number of plastic water bottles
  • commitment to bike commuting (instead of chauffeured car) for summer months

Support my Campaign

Use #ДамбадоржболовсролСайд

Endorsements

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Camping Nomads

By Julian Dierkes

Historically, Mongolians are a nation of “campers”. While perhaps less than a third of them still are mobile pastoralists, and even they are less mobile than they once were, nomadism and the movable home still play large in the Mongolian imaginary. Even in political discourse the symbolism of the free nomad comes up often.

In recent years, on short countryside trips within a day’s drive from Ulaanbaatar, I’ve noticed that camping has become a part of domestic tourism. No, not visiting relatives and staying in their spare ger. But actual camping, like we would do in Canada, i.e. with a tent, ideally with another family, a camp fire to sit around, etc.

The Mongolian countryside is set up well for camping. Except for the climate, of course, which restricts comfortable camping to the summer months. But otherwise, nature is very accessible, with relatively few unsurmountable obstacles like rivers and mountain ranges. There’s grass everywhere, though it is rarely a soft carpet of a lawn, more interspersed individual plants with rocks peaking through. Surface water can be hard to find, but Mongolians are more accustomed to life without ready access to unlimited amounts of tap water, so this seems like less of an obstacle.

Catering to Campers

And so it seems that businesses are catering to Mongolian campers.

Ger camps are the main infrastructure catering to foreign travellers in the countryside as they offer the experience of sleeping in a ger and they are set up only for the summer, as custom is very unlikely in other months in any case. Even in early June it can be hard to find an open ger camp as their business is so seasonal and also dependent on students on summer holiday for help.

But ger camps increasingly seem to be targeting Mongolian travellers in addition to foreign visitors. Often they have added small a-frame houses or cabins. Since they typically offer food to their patrons, they can easily extend restaurant services to nearby campers. More and more, they are offering electricity and running water, making them attractive for visits by campers as well.

They tend to be located near tourist spots that are as attractive to Mongolians to visit as they are to foreign tourists.

Tourism Business

Eco-tourism is often touted as a possibility for economic diversification. Unspoiled landscapes (if it wasn’t for the trash floating around in so many places), the eternal blue sky, life among animals, great accessible hiking… these are all features that are touted for these businesses. But, tourism remains underdeveloped as most travellers who will have some frustrating experience during their travels will know, and that is part of a critical mass challenge. You need some critical mass, but it should’d be so big that the “eco” aspects recedes.

Perhaps domestic tourism will give the business a boost? As incomes are on a longterm upward trajectory, more leisure activities are likely and foreign travel remains cumbersome other than to the large cities of Northeast Asia. Visits to Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo are exciting, but they are generally not relaxing.

Domestic tourism certainly seems to be growing in Mongolia. Here’s an example of one of our favourite Mongolia analysts modelling the 2017 domestic Mongolian tourism look.

Хархорины орк

A post shared by Mogi Munkhdul Badral Bontoi (@mbbontoi) on

A Changing Relationship of Mongolians with the Land

Even Ulaanbaatar residents often talk about summers spent with relatives, learning to ride horses, helping with animals, etc. Their relationship with the land is built around these experiences, I think.

But the growth of domestic tourism may be changing that. Some Mongolians at least are travelling across the country like Canadians travelling to national and provincial parks, i.e. in appreciation of the amazing resources and opportunities for recreation that the country offers. The same attitude can be observed on the banks of the Tuul River in the summer with hundreds of cars parked right on the river with BBQs and kids splashing in the river.

Along with this appreciation for recreation comes a different view of the land as a resource, one that is focused on the pristine beauty of the countryside. Well, not so pristine as many Mongolians have been noting in tweets from their summer travels this year.

 

Dissertation, Please!

Isn’t there some grad student out there who would want to look at the meaning of camping to Mongolians and perhaps the business of tourism?

Posted in Countryside, Curios, Social Change, Tourism | Tagged | Leave a comment

Party Implications of SME Fund Scandal

By Julian Dierkes

Since late summer, I have been speculating about different scenarios to bring about a change in political culture and in the party landscape. These speculations focused on trigger evens that might lead to protests which would lead to change.

In a sense, we have had the first of that kind of triggering event and it has hinted at some possible changes in the party landscape already, since the SME Fund scandal has left the MPP and DP somewhat speechless given the involvement of so many of its leading politicians in this scandal or hints at other state funds. And, in the process, the XUH party has enjoyed a bit of attention that has hinted at the possibility of electoral challenges to the MPP and DP.

Given past inability within the MPP and DP to reform themselves, especially under their current leadership, new parties or the revival of previously relevant parties does seem like one viable route to a change in political culture.

Note that I see two changes as needed urgently:

  1. comprehensive anti-corruption, pro-professional bureaucracy policies
  2. renewed political, ideological and policy contestation to offer Mongolian voters a say not just in whom they election, but also what kind of policies those elected will pursue.

Risks in Creating an Anti-Corruption Party

While a party organized around anti-corruption policies may be the most effective way to address systemic corruption and could also attract a fair bit of support in the electorate, I see such a party as a risk to the second element needed to get Mongolia out of the rut of cycles of new, but unenforced legislation and regulation coupled with populism that feeds on a lack of substantive debates.

Let’s say an anti-corruption party would win some non-negligible number of seats in the UIX in the 2020 election. That would give it a platform to hold government to account and to systematically examine policies for their corruption implications. That would be terrific.

But what position would this party take on raising teachers’ or doctors’ salaries, for example? Yes, there is an anti-corruption angle to teachers’ salaries, of course, but the real concern at the moment is grand, political corruption, not the day-to-day level of corruption that may also be plaguing Mongolian society. Sure, that “regular” corruption is also important to attack, but what I mean to say is that I would hope to see more political forces in parliament that offer a substantive position on the whole range of important choices Mongolia and Mongolians are facing. And, political culture would very much benefit from vaguely consistent positions on a range of issues by political actors, say broadly liberal vs broadly social-democratic policies. These ideological mantels are sometimes claimed by the MPP and DP, but so far, those claims have been largely meaningless in policy terms, I think.

Or, take another issue that has more grand corruption implications, perhaps, a sovereign wealth fund. Several such funds have been implemented in the past, and current political leaders have advocated for these again. Well, drawing on the lessons of the SME Fund, governance structures around such a fund should be constructed very carefully and that is an area where an anti-corruption party may be instrumental. But beyond the safeguarding against corruption and conflict of interest, what about the orientation of such a SWF? Would an anti-corruption party choose to emphasize the investment for future profit approach to an SWF (a liberal position that would emphasize taking funds out of Mongolia, basing decisions entirely on profitability criteria), or would it see opportunities for investment in the education of Mongolians or in diversification and employment opportunities within Mongolia (a roughly more social democratic position)?

When you line up MPP policies and compare them to DP policies, there is no ideological pattern to be found in either and voters would be unable to guess what position these parties would take on particular initiatives or challenges in the future.

So, an anti-corruption party would run the risk of being so focused on anti-corruption measures that it would neglect political discourse about other pressing issues.

Opportunities in an Anti-Corruption Coalition

To really give Mongolian democracy a boost, a coalition of two or more new/revived parties that are dedicated to anti-corruption and agree on the measures by which to achieve that goal, but differ in consistent ways on other political issues would offer more promise.

There are several different ways in which such a coalition could work, I think. Here are two:

  1. Planned obsolescence
  2. Elements of a shared platform

Ad 1. A single, true anti-corruption party might pursue an anti-corruption agenda only. It would dedicate any negotiating power it would derive from an electoral result to pushing through an anti-corruption agenda that would be specified in a specific and concrete election platform. If this agenda was passed, MPs could resign their seats, or if this “success” came within a certain short period before the next election, they might serve out their term, but the party would then dissolve for the subsequent election.

Ad 2. What if a coalition of parties agreed to a common anti-corruption platform, but competed over other issues? The practicalities would depend somewhat on the nature of the electoral system adopted, for example in first-past-the-post ridings, members of the coalition would probably want to agree not to compete, while proportional representation would be quite open to competition.

This coalition would agree on very specific platform items aimed at the shared anti-corruption goals, but would then leave it up to coalition members to specify other areas of policy. You might thus have two parties agreeing on public service reforms that would bolster the service’s independent, but at the same time competing with different visions for how to promote rural employment.

In the formation of a government, coalition members would be bound to their original agreement independent of whether they joined in a coalition together, individually or sat in opposition.

For a subsequent election, coalition members could review the anti-corruption achievements and decide whether they would renew the arrangement for another election or not.

[Addition Nov 21:] Parallels to DP Origins

When I was speaking about this more with Mendee, he reminded me that some of what I’ve written about here is instructive to think about in terms of the origins of the DP and thus the current party duopoly.

The foundation of the DP and its original components was focused on opposing the MPRP and bringing about democracy. It was an anti-party just as some parties might emerge now that could be anti-corruption. But that has also been the DP’s achilles heel and, ultimately, one of the weaknesses of the Mongolian political system. Namely, the DP never developed any kind of coherent ideological or policy platform. Yes, there were attempts by some to push the DP in the direction of (economic) liberalism, but these attempts never took root.

For different reasons, the MPRP also abolished its ideological and policy core, so that Mongolia has ended up with two dominant party that stand for nothing in particular in terms of a vision for Mongolia’s development.

Yet, the DP’s obsolescence was not planned for. And, the party’s inability to reinvent itself with a policy orientation has come to haunt Mongolian politics via patronage politics and corruption, as has the MPP’s.

That is precisely the risk that an anti-corruption movement focused on establishing a new political party faces.

Plea

I hope that any activists hatching plans for new parties or the revitalization of existing parties consider not only their anti-corruption motivations, but think beyond these to a renewed ideological competition that would offer voters an opportunity to voice their views on particular visions of Mongolia’s development.

Posted in Civil Will Green Party, Constitution, Corruption, Democracy, Governance, Ikh Khural 2020, Law, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Policy, Politics, Populism, Protest, Social Movements | Tagged | Leave a comment