Why am I interested in Mongolia?

[See the Mongolian version as well.]

Sometimes people make the mistake to ask me a seemingly straight-forward question about Mongolia. Well, once I get talking, I get pretty excited and it’ll be hard to stop me.

So, why is that? Why am I so interested in Mongolia and how did I become interested in the first place?

How I Got Interested in Mongolia

I’ve been traveling to Mongolia very regularly since 2005, we’ve been running this blog since 2011, but my fascination with Mongolia goes back further.

I grew up in (West) Berlin. Occasionally we would visit East Berlin and when we did we had to exchange a certain amount of D-Marks for East German Marks. There was generally very little that was attractive for us to spend our money on in East Berlin. Typical purchases were sheet music and pencils, later on we were keen on East German flags and perhaps an FDJ-shirt. Books were also a common choice, in part because German classics were often available for pennies in East Germany and assigned for school back in (West) Berlin.

I must have come across Galsan Tchinag’s (Galsan Tschinag as transliterated in German) Eine tuwinische Geschichte on one of these trips, his first book published in (East) Germany in 1981. What a wonderful story teller he is and how he brought me into Mongolian, well Tuvan anyway, settings as a teenager! Curiously, I did not read Fritz Mühlenweg’s In geheimer Mission until much later, which would have been another easy to get fascinated with Mongolia as a German boy. I have continued to enjoy Galsan’s writings very, very much and had the great pleasure to meet and host him in Vancouver in 2006 when he participated in the Vancouver Writers’ Festival on publication of his first English translation, The Blue Sky (see Milkweed Editions for his English books).

So, it was Galsan Tchinag’s storytelling about growing up Tuvan in Mongolia and growing up into a shaman and leader that planted the seeds of a youthful fascination with Mongolia in me.

The Japan Connection

The next thread that lead me to Mongolia was Japan. I had started learning Japanese in high school in Berlin and then ended up pursuing it in university at UC Berkeley as well. From Cal, I went to Sophia University (上智大学, Tokyo) on exchange in my third year of university in 1990-91. Turbulent times in the world. My best college buddy, Ross, was also in Japan on exchange at the time, so we decided to travel home (for me) to Berlin from Japan by train. So, at some point in July 1991, we started from Beijing (also a very different city at the time from what it is now, the little I remember of that trip) on the Trans-Siberian trip through Mongolia. And it was breathtaking.

In a way, I thus visited Mongolia for the first time in 1991, but it really was only transit through Mongolia, since we didn’t leave the train other than for the 20 minutes that it stopped in Ulaanbaatar. All I recall from that trip is the beautiful landscape (we had glorious, pleasantly warm weather), and the brief run around the square in front of the Ulaanbaatar train station where we encountered the empty shelves that I knew from East Germany. While the trip left a deep impression, I have only a very few photos and memories focused primarily on the existence in the train.

For the next 10 years my attention was almost entirely focused on Japan. After a brief hiatus between my undergraduate degree (Sociology, with a minor in Philosophy) and graduate school when I lived in Berlin and Japan again, I entered Princeton University in 1993 to pursue a PhD in sociology. While I focused on social scientific analyses of Japan and somewhat more broadly, of East Asia, for much of the 1990s, I rarely came across Mongolia in these pursuits. I continued reading Galsan Tchinag when new books were published (as my mother knew of my delight in his writings and kept me up-do-date on his publications, now in united Germany). The only encounter with the region was a job I had as a graduate student producing an index for a book, Rediscovering Russia in Asia: Siberia and the Russian Far East, that Stephen Kotkin and David Wolff at Princeton had co-edited.

My dissertation work on historical narratives in school textbooks in Japan and East and (West) Germany kept me busy for many years and took me for fieldwork back to Berlin and to Japan for a year each.

As I was completing the dissertation, I accepted a fellowship at Cambridge University where I spent 15 months from 2001-2002. Sadly, I had very limited contact with the Mongolia crowd at Cambridge during this period, largely because my interest had not really moved much beyond the early fascination.

Vancouver and my Mongolia Break

In 2002, I accepted a junior faculty (assistant professor) position at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research where I continue to work today. The position continues to be focused on Japan, but given that I used to teach in our Master of Asia Pacific Policy Studies until recently, and now teach in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs, my perspective was never focused exclusively and narrowly on Japan, but certainly spanned an interest in Asia and transpacific relations.

At some point relatively soon after I arrived, occasional articles mentioning Mongolia began to appear in Vancouver and Canadian media and I noticed that a significant amount of investment capital was flowing from Vancouver into Mongolian mining. This only intensified as the “discovery” of Oyu Tolgoi pushed Mongolia further onto the radar of journalists and investors. While I didn’t know much about the mining industry at the time, I did notice that this was a very concrete link to Mongolia, and also realized that the extractive sector was not only a vibrant sector in Canada broadly, but of particular relevance to the British Columbian and Vancouver economy.

I started paying closer attention to these news items.

In October 2004, then-president N Bagabandi, came on a state visit to Canada and included the Univ of British Columbia on his itinerary.

I was thrilled to be involved in planning for this event. Pres. Bagabandi gave a public address and joined a smaller group in a discussion that included a focus on higher education. During this discussion Pres. Bagabandi invited more people-to-people links between Canada and Mongolia in general, and also called for more academic connections.

Following this visit, I made an argument to colleagues and the UBC administration that we ought to follow up on this invitation and at least investigate whether there were opportunities for collaboration with Mongolian institutions. I was very happy volunteer for such an investigation and thus visited Mongolia properly for the first time in 2005. And thus… my interest in Mongolia grew very quickly.

Focusing on Mongolia

Since my first visit, I’ve been traveling to Mongolia from 1-4 times per year. I grab any opportunity I can get to visit, really, whether that is conferences, events, or research. Most of those visits have been to Ulaanbaatar, though I’ve also taken some extended trips to the countryside. I have yet to visit the Gobi, and the Eastern provinces, as well as parts of the West, including Lake Huvsgul.

On these visits, I have had the good fortune to get to know many individuals, Mongolian and non-Mongolian, based in Mongolia. They are the people I speak to regularly to keep up with events in Mongolia. Of course, the rise of the popularity of social media in Mongolia has made the task of keeping up with developments much easier.

My interest has been supported by two directors of the Institute of Asian Research (Pitman Potter, Paul Evans) and has been tolerated by many other colleagues.

Substantively, I have focused on two areas in particular: political development and mining policy. At the same time, the lack of scholarship on contemporary Mongolia abroad means that I have been forced to become somewhat of a generalist, aiming to be somewhat knowledgeable about many areas of Mongolian social relations, not just topics that I focus my attention on.

Political Development

It was by chance that I participated in election observation for the first time in 2008. That turned out to be an eventful election, of course, primarily with the riots in its aftermath. Even prior to this election, I had become interested in political development, however, in part because Mongolia’s democracy is one aspect of its contemporary development that makes it stand out among many countries. Given that interest and subsequent participation in election observation (2009, 2012, 2013), I remain fascinated by Mongolia’s democracy, including all the challenges that its mixed constitution, corruption, and democratic decision-making brings with it, as it does everywhere where democracy is the form of government.

I do firmly believe (this is more a matter of personal ethics) that democracy is intended to serve the people, and that politicians and the “political system” thus also serve the people. I think that evidence-based policy-making and open communications by politicians about the policies they are pursuing and the reasons they are pursuing them, are important, and I thus follow developments in Mongolian politics through that lens. Political corruption to me is the equivalent of stealing from your neighbour on a large scale, and I find it disgusting. Yet, any points I raise about politics should be based on evidence and given the scarcity of concrete evidence of corruption (as well as electoral fraud) I remain relatively quiet on this issue in public.

I do not have any intention to influence any particular direction that Mongolian politics might take, but I do comment on institutional and organizational questions as well as the  wisdom of specific policies.

Foreign Policy

Given my general interest in Mongolia and in political developments, I have also become quite interested in Mongolian foreign policy. To some extent this interest comes “naturally” through interactions with Mongolian diplomats and foreign diplomats who focus on Mongolia. For me this means that I am particularly aware of interactions between Mongolia and Canada, Germany and Japan. Recently, this interest has also begun to include “digital diplomacy” more broadly.

Mining Policy

One of the great delights of my interest in Mongolia has been the interactions this interest has spurred with colleagues and graduate students at UBC, especially in Mining Engineering.

Curiously, my father – who is also an academic – spent a fair bit of time on consulting projects with the Ruhrkohle AG, Germany’s giant coal concern, as it was closing the last of its coal operations in Germany in the 1980s. Other than that, I had no contact or particular interest in mining as a topic of inquiry.

However, as my interest in Mongolia grew after that initial 2005 visit, I quickly noticed that Canada’s and Vancouver’s main link with Mongolia would come via mining investment. So, I turned my attention to where the money was flowing, i.e. how is the Mongolian government trying to manage resource endowments, and what does that mean for Canadian investments.

With this interest, I soon encountered colleagues from the NBK Institute of Mining Engineering at UBC whose attention had also been caught as it became clearer that then-Ivanhoe Mines’ Oyu Tolgoi discovery was a major discovery and vault Mongolia into the club of mining countries.

A number of colleagues in Mining Engineering surprised me by their interest in policy and social science on Mongolia. While technical in their own training and research, they recognize that mining projects often fail due to social and political circumstances, and that their entire industry and profession is under threat from the poor reputation that comes with such failures or sometimes even with successes. Their recognition of a need for better understanding of the economic, political, and social context for mining has been at the root of long-standing collaborations that have led to graduate student projects, teaching, and our collaboration in CIRDI’s “IMAGine Mongolia” activities.

Graduate Students with an Interest in Mongolia

One of the crucial “ingredients” in my own interest in Mongolia have been collaborations with UBC graduate students who have pursued an interest in contemporary Mongolia. This blog is one of the most concrete expressions of that interest, but it has extended to my interaction with students in departments across UBC from Architecture to Mining Engineering and our own MA Asia Pacific Policy Studies and Master in Public Policy and Global Affairs. I continue to rely heavily on graduate students in furthering my understanding of contemporary Mongolia.