New to Ulaanbaatar April 2019

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping lists of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: December 2018 | 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
  • child seats
  • sidewalks
  • parks
  • farmers’ markets
  • yoga
  • pet dogs on and off leashes

  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • 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
  • 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.
  • coffee roasting. Not only is instant coffee being beaten back (it obviously still reigns in the country-side), but beyond mass market chains, small roasteries are now appearing in the market. Some Mongolians are speaking of a new coffee addiction.
  • surveillance cameras. I recall seeing these first at large intersections, presumably to monitor traffic. Now, every other buildings seems to have haphazardly attached a CCTV camera to its facade. I do wonder how many of these are operational and where the feeds lead and if any of them are monitored.

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
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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, a fate it shares with many other buildings

Posted in Change, Curios, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Cybersecurity or Cybercensorship?

By Otgonpurev M

According to an article by policymakers in the Mongolian parliament perceive fake news that appear on social networks as a cyber attack.  Officials have responded to the demand to combat cyber harassment and the spread of fake news with a proposal for a Cybersecurity Law.  The response included measures like the establishment of a National Cyber Incident Response Center (probably CERT) and mandatory registration for social media accounts using national identity number and mandatory ownership assignment for mobile subscribers.

I personally agree that the spread of fake news is becoming a threat to our national security by manipulating the uninformed public and influencing the politics and policies. As an ex-vice minister of Justice mentioned in an interview, the primary information source for a majority of the people already became online news sources according to the research done during the beginning of 2019. The so-called trolls or fake social media accounts spreading hoax or controversial news against politicians or disseminating hate content against specific ethnic groups (such as Chinese) are the primary examples of fake news in Mongolia. But I don’t believe that the proposed Cybersecurity Law would be an effective tool to fight this battle. My reasons are:

  1. Basically there is no effective and 100% foolproof solution to control the attribute and ownership of identity on online space. Even if there was one, it is just a matter of time to find a work-around in this age of rapid technological development. And if you can’t impose a control that covers everyone, then that control could be selectively applied and potentially misused for malicious purposes and might become a tool to silence whistleblowers and political opponents.
  2. It is true that Mongolia is in need of cybersecurity legislation. Apart from a sentence that has been included in the National Security Directive of 2010, there is no regulation whatsoever in terms of cybersecurity. The authority and mandate who would respond and prevent to national-level cyber threats is still not yet clear and no specific policies for inter-agency cooperation or handling of critical infrastructure exist.
    The proposal for a cybersecurity law has been circulating for a while but has never reached the stage of an actual bill. I’ve participated in public discussion of the proposal in September 2018. From that discussion it was clear that online censorship was primary objective of the bill. For example, the proposal version of September 2018 states that the National CERT who is supposed to be the responder to national-level cyber threats has the duty to limit and remove what authorities determine to be fake news. Conceptually, the tasks of security engineer or security institution would include preserving the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information no matter the contents of the information.
  3. The proposal mentioned mandatory registration using National Identification Number (NIN) to use social media in Mongolia effectively undermining the anonymity of the users. Even though there has not been a case of a successful anonymous whistleblower in Mongolia, I personally believe that preserving online anonymity is a fundamental human right and UN, U.S. Supreme Court and organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) agree. Having a traceable attribute to an online identity could potentially become a tool to harass socially vulnerable groups and limit the freedom of expression.
  4. The technical details and solutions of these controls are not clear as of now. The national identification number (NIN) is confidential only in theory and there are publicly available records of personal information that includes names, NIN, date of birth etc. Additionally the NIN itself is not fully random and could be derived as a function of a person’s birthdate, birthplace and gender etc. Thus having a mandatory registration using NIN does not guarantee the non-repudiation requirement of the security. In other words if your personal information is compromised, how would you prove your authenticity that you are not the person who spread the fake news? There are similar problems with the solutions of using authentic mobile subscription numbers to register for social network.

Therefore I believe that even though we are in dire need of cybersecurity legislation it should not be aimed at censoring online contents and undermining the anonymity of the users. An attempt to regulate online identity would potentially harm our democracy. Rather, I believe the soft controls such as educating and campaigning for online literacy would be more effective tools to prevent from spread of fake news and online harassment.

About Otgonpurev

Otgonpurev Mendsaikhan is a security engineer and board member of Mongolian Cyber Emergency Response Team (MNCERT/CC).

Posted in Law, Media and Press, Otgonpurev Mendsaikhan, Security Apparatus, Social Change, Social Media | Leave a comment

The Likelihood of Political Renewal

By  Julian Dierkes

Why I am generally optimistic about Mongolian developments, Mongolian politics presents a lot of challenges and the current state of affairs causes more despair than it has in the previous 12+ years that I’ve been paying attention.

The recent SME Fund corruption scandal mobilized a lot of protest online, but did not lead to large scale demonstrations. Neither did the dismissal of УИХ speaker M Enkhbold, or legislative changes to judicial appointments.

Posts in this series so far:

Now, let me consider the rebirth of political parties and thus the party system that will further institutionalize democracy in Mongolia.

A Process Toward Political Renewal

My guess is that political renewal might come either from within the powerful parties (unlikely in the medium term, unclear in the long term), revolution (always risky in terms of outcomes, unlikely in the short, medium and long term) or new political forces (attempts at establishment very likely in medium term, success less clear).

MAHAH: The Foggy Old Parties

Judging by the past several years, the two large parties appear to be unable to reform themselves. Corruption has become systemic, brief spurts of attempts to define a policy platform that would distinguish one party from the other, flounder, the leadership of both parties sees little turnover. Recently, Damdinnyam and I pointed to the various ways in which both parties have been involved in the long-term corruption of the political system. The Democratic Party seems paralyzed by the combination of the failures of its time in government until 2016, a lack of turnover in its leadership, and the apparent division between the party and its highest elected official, Pres Battulga (who, of course, formally is no longer a party member). PM Khurelsukh seems to have won the power struggle against Enkhbold’s “city” faction, but that has been just that, a power struggle, not a movement for renewal or reform, or any political substance.

The inability to reform themselves seems deeply embedded in both MAHAH parties, and there are real structural obstacles to reform, particularly around patronage relations and factions that have emerged over many years now. While party schisms are constantly a threat, even more so for the divided DP than the MPP, ultimately, few actors really want to spin off from the two parties as they offer significant political resources and infrastructure. This is what gives MAHAH its staying power.

Yet, there is always a chance that some actors within the two dominant parties see political opportunities in widespread dissatisfaction with the parties. Anyone who can make a credible case for real reform or, sadly, anyone who can appear to be making a credible case probably has a chance to rally some discontent around him- or herself to build a power base within either party. In the contest of demonstrations, I have asked how we might recognize genuine vs. paid-for protests; this would be no easier in the case of party reform.

The political opportunities associated with discontent do hold the possibility of real and maybe even radical party reform in the long term.


What are the chances that protests somehow build up into some kind of gentle revolution, leading to a radical shift, for example through a constitutional assembly or something like that? Low, I think.

To be sure, I think that the chances that we’ll see a violent revolution of sorts are very low, fortunately. The military or any other formal elements of the security apparatus are extremely unlikely to get themselves involved. We have seen almost no history of political violence in Mongolia with some exceptions like the murder of S Zorig in 1998, the violent protests following the 2008 parliamentary election, or the death of L Bolormaa in 2015.

But Mongolia’s most recent revolution, in 1989/90 was also not violent yet it led to a radical change in the political system from one-party state-socialism to a multi-party democracy. So could there be another gentle revolution to reform democracy?

And, obviously, any kind of radical change like a non-violent revolution bears a lot of risks in terms of what outcomes might come from it. In Mongolia’s current situation, almost the whole spectrum of outcomes seems possible, from some kind of authoritarian rule to a renewed democracy.

New Parties

There are a lot of doubts among Mongolias regarding the chances of new political actors establishing themselves. Most of these doubts focus on the low chances a new actor might have in elections.

Some Barriers to New Parties

Party Registration

As a democracy, of course, the Mongolian political system is principally open to the formation of new parties. There are some practical hurdles in terms of the registration of a new party, but these are practical hurdles only, not principle obstacles.

Party Finance

Election campaigns have long been seen to be very expensive, mainly for the advertising costs they incur. Frankly, this has been a bit of a mystery to me, as a well-organized grass-roots effort relying on social media would likely have a decent chance at gaining some traction, given the level of online participation, certainly in Ulaanbaatar and other towns. Generally, however, most observers guess that new parties would have a very hard time raising the funds necessary to campaign. A reform of party finance has been proposed as part of new party legislation, but seems very unlikely in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Media Access

Media ownership by political actors is a feature that has been worrisome in past elections. For the chances of a new political actor, this is a significant aspect as the absence of media ownership might give such a new actor a significant disadvantage in mobilizing voters.

Electoral System

In past elections, Mongolians have experimented with a number of different electoral systems, most of them majoritarian in some form or another. While there are lots of discussions of different electoral systems, the election law has generally been passed at the very last moment and not benefitted from much public discussion. From my perspective, many Mongolians also attach way too much significance to that choice (as to the choice of parliamentary vs presidential systems generally), as many electoral systems work in terms of translating voters’ desires into a government, though different systems have different advantages or less attractive aspects. Majoritarian systems do make it difficult for new parties to gain a foothold, certainly in a single electoral cycle.

Posted in Constitution, Corruption, Democracy, Democratic Party, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Ikh Khural 2020, Inequality, Judiciary, Mining Governance, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, Nationalism, Party Politics, Policy, Politics, Populism, Presidential 2021, Social Movements | Tagged | Leave a comment

Not the end of Democracy?

By Julian Dierkes

On March 27 2019, the Mongolian parliament passed legislation giving the National Security Council greater authority over judicial appointments and dismissals.

This very sudden decision has caused a great deal concern among international observers of Mongolia and some Mongolians themselves. Along with a number of media reports, I wrote about this decision in a previous blog post, c0-authored with Boldsaikhan S.

Since then I had the chance to travel to Mongolia which is always an opportunity to get a somewhat more complete picture of a situation  that from afar.

A General Disclaimer/Digression

Before I try to disentangle and complexify the current situation, let me mention that one of the on-going frustrations with tracking legislative decisions and parliamentary debates is that decisions are often very difficult to fully understand and/or to get accurate information on decisions. This has baffled me for some years. I will see a piece of news (most likely on Twitter, my main source for these kind of breaking news in Mongolia) and will take a stab at understanding what is going on. My Mongolian is generally not good enough for details/specifics of legislation for example, so I turn to contacts to try to understand. To my surprise, my contacts often respond with different, sometimes even contradictory information. Frequently, this leaves me very cautious in discussing a decision as I am uncertain of its details.

I should note that such uncertainty generally does not come with political news in Canada, Germany, or Japan, the other contexts where I pay close attention to current events. Why not? Because governments and political parties can be relied on to clearly communicate these kind of decisions and the media quickly and decisively analyze such communications. Neither is consistently the case with Mongolian legislation, at least in my experience.

Take the quasi-editorial that Mungunchimeg G wrote for the Mongol Messenger three weeks after the parliamentary vote as an English example.

This is much more of an editorial than reporting and it does not really clarify any questions one might have about the legislation.

In recent developments, the general lack of communication and analysis has been compounded by the fact that legislation was introduced, amended, and voted on very suddenly, virtually overnight. This has happened with several other very important pieces of legislation, going all the way back to the Windfall Profits Tax which was passed by a half-empty parliament on a Friday in 2006. This kind of overnight appearance of major legislation is not good parliamentary practice and certainly does not inspire much confidence in the intent of the legislation, particularly when other pieces of legislation linger for months before being added to parliamentary agendas.

Back to the Main Issue: Checks and Balances

Among the reasons why the recent legislation has prompted strong responses is that it is perceived by some to undermine one of the essential ingredients of a functioning democracy: the independence of the judiciary. As far as I can tell, the legislation gives the National Security Council (consisting of president, prime minister and speaker of the Ikh Khural) the power to dismiss judges and other appointed officials in the judicial system on request of the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council is appointed by the president, of course.

Proponents argue that a) the legislation is constitutional (as the constitution provides for judicial law to specify details, though the constitutional court will rule on that), b) the current situation (corruption, torture, lack of performance of the judicial system) is so bad that it called for drastic measures, and c) the increase of the power of the National Security Council strengthens democratic oversight by requiring ascent of its three members, rather than weakening democratic control over judiciary appointments as others have argued.

While appointments were previously controlled by the president (via nomination and the Judicial Council), dismissals are now possible, though only via the National Security Council, that is, with the agreement of at least the prime minister or the speaker of parliament.


Many Mongolians seem to approve of this change having been convinced by the argument that the judicial system has become so corrupted that it needs to be “cleaned up” in a hurry and thoroughly. It is the cumulation of corruption cases that go seemingly un-prosecuted that has convinced many people of the need to reform. Add to this the appearance of video-taped evidence of corruption, and it seems that many Mongolians are eager for action to be taken on this issue.

By contrast, many foreign observers and some Mongolians emphasize that the power of dismissal is a dangerous power because it allows those in power to undercut investigations against themselves easily. While the appointment of an official might make someone hope that the appointed official will be grateful for their appointment and go easy on themselves, any appointed official could be seen as a threat to subsequently elected officials. Yet, this is the very essence of the independence of the judiciary, namely that it is able to also investigate those currently in power. To a limited extent, the judiciary “guards the guardians”. With the current changes, that guardianship does appear to be weakened.

Leap of Faith

Many observers worry that the current change places a significant measure of faith in current office holders to “clean up” the judiciary. While the case for these changes includes references to the presumed corruption of former president Elbegdorj and his appointees, it has to be taken on faith that the current president, prime minister and speaker will not be corrupt. Most constitutional structures are constructed precisely so that such faith is not required.

There is also a lot of faith placed in the current constellation of actors. In typical fashion, there was much discussion in Ulaanbaatar last week about the different alliances and coalitions that people see among politicians. But, constitutional structures should not be built around the question of whether President Battulga and Prime Minister Khurelsukh are primarily rivals (presumably turning the National Security Council’s involvement into judicial dismissals into a limit on the president’s power), or whether they are secretly collaborating. Constitutional checks and balances are precisely intended to be resilient in the face of different governing constellations.

One of the suppositions I heard most frequently in Ulaanbaatar was that Khurelsukh and his MPP traded support for the judicial dismissal bill for restrictions on presidential power that constitutional reform might propose. Constitutional reform has been discussed for some years now. I would have to guess that it is unlikely to come to parliament this year and would be caught up in electioneering if it is not introduced this year. However, just like the judicial dismissal legislation, who knows how suddenly constitutional amendments might be introduced.

Yet, I do recognize that these changes appear to have the support of many Mongolians and that ultimately it is up to Mongolian voters to determine whether they support the parties and individuals who have initiated these changes or to vote them out of office in the next election.

Thinking Out Loud

My recent visit points to a number of topics that I will try to address in subsequent posts:

  • Why did everyone accuse me of being biased, all of a sudden?
  • How to avoid emotional reactions to political developments?
  • What are “red lines” that should not be crossed to maintain Mongolian democracy?
  • Have I underestimated the important of the rule of law in past assessments of political developments?
Posted in Constitution, Governance, Judiciary, Law, Public Service | Tagged | Leave a comment

World Class Oyu Tolgoi Safety

By Julian Dierkes

{Disclosure: I was invited to visit Oyu Tolgoi by the company and enjoyed their hospitality.}

In press releases, but also media accounts, Oyu Tolgoi is often described as a “world-class” deposit. To the extent that this meant anything to me, I mostly associated it with the size of the deposit. A visit to the site made me realize that “world-class” is also a corporate ambition for the operation of the mine.

I say this based on a comparison to a handful of other mines that I have previously visited in Canada, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. These mines have been of varying scale and have involved a variety of operators with open pits as well as underground operations.

First Impressions

At first, it seems quite incongruous to arrive at the Oyu Tolgoi site. A short drive from the ger-shaped airport (gerport?) leads through a fairly typical Gobi landscape. At the moment there are a lot more grasses based on last year’s unusual rainfall, but what was most notable to me on the approach was how ordinary the landscape is. Somehow my eye and my searched for hints of a great treasure of copper and other minerals, but couldn’t find it. Of course, in the history of the discovery of Oyu Tolgoi, exposed rocks containing copper not only played a role, but likely also serve as the origin or the name of the site, turquoise hill. Yet, that hill was just a small peak, and a layperson like me would not have imagined a large mineral deposit on site.

On arrival, I am not surprised to be asked to blow into a breathalyzer. This is standard practice at many – though not all – mines. We sign in and are issued with visitor passes. Security is not tight in the way that it is at gold mines, but the entry onto the site already hints at the scale of the operation at OT.

The next impression is that the traffic system resembles that of a small city, just with a lot more trucks and with SUVs that have springy flags attached. A road system complete with stop signs, directional signs, etc. Yes, of course one has to get around even on a mine site, but it is the extensiveness that comes as a surprise. Power lines criss-cross the entire site. Ger camps, container-style housing, and administrative buildings are visible, many people are moving around and between them.


During tours of the underground operation, the open pit, and processing, two aspects struck me in particular: safety and the intensity of the application of data (analysis). Below I write about risk management, with a follow-up post on ubiquitous data applications to come.


I had first encountered Rio Tinto’s self-imposed “obsession” with safety at meetings in the Monnis Tower in Ulaanbaatar. At the first encounter, starting a meeting with a safety reminder by the meeting host or chair seemed a bit quaint and even stilted. But as I encountered this more often, it made more and more sense to normalize reminders for safety concerns, even when these might be seasonal health issues or the ever-present “fasten your seat belts” reminder. I was actually so interested in this idea of a consistent message to begin meetings that was fundamental to operations that I introduced this in my own university administrative practice, though not focused on safety, rather on a central aim of the faculty that I work with.

But OT takes the focus on safety to another level that I had not seen at other sites.

Yes, our van driver actually waited until hearing a clear <click> from the seat belts, but he also came to a full stop at every stop sign. Parking with the front tires in a bit of a dip is relatively common practice on mining sites.

But even more noticeable is the “critical risk management” approach that has been adopted at OT.


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Mine rescue service is obviously also part odd risk management at OT.

A post shared by Julian Dierkes (@jbdierkes) on

A set categorization of 19 risks that employees face has been developed and everyone is reminded of these risks throughout the site. Risks are associated with graphic signage and these signs are EVERYWHERE. I can only imagine that these signs become part of the landscape for employees and are not as noticeable as they are to the first-time visitor, but the extent to which they consistently appear everywhere is a reminder of how seriously this issue is taken. Obviously, we were required to wear hard-hats, steel-toed shoes, safety vests, and goggles, and the briefing before we went underground was comprehensive and included use of the oxygen mask, operation of the CO2 sensor, and later details about the refuge chambers, but there were constant reminders of how to address safety risks from holding on to hand rails to the giant poison skull posted over access to a part of the concentrator facility.

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Okay, let’s go underground. Helmet, goggles, headlight, CO2 sensor, and oxygen mask on the hip.

A post shared by Julian Dierkes (@jbdierkes) on

But it’s not just signage where risk management is so visible.

In all management and administrative rooms, there were posted signs detailing recent incidents. For the data nerd, these are fascinating, but they also seemed to provide a telling glimpse into corporate culture.

Instead of having some generic safety reminders (“Don’t use your chair as a ladder”) of the kind that are posted all around Canadian universities, these posts referred to specific incidents, offered an analysis of what caused the incident and whether any injuries were sustained. The posts thus also went significantly beyond the typical “??? days accident free” boards that are common around mines and other industrial sites. These posts included photos and pointed to follow-up if needed or completed already. For example, one post I saw reported on a tripping incident where an employee was carrying a small load, but tripped over the edge of a ramp. Instead of blaming “operator fault”, this particular post pointed to the existence of the edge as a cause of the incident and noted that this had been reported to appropriate colleagues to try to address this issue.


OT has frequently pointed to its safety record in public statements. I suspect for most Mongolians or other observers like me, the real depth of the meaning of these statements is not alway clear. But, visiting the site, I recognized not only the depth of the effort in this regard, but also how this effort is introducing “world class” management and operations to Mongolia that hopefully can spread beyond a specific mine and generally raise safety standards.

Example of where it would be great for safety consciousness to spread:

Posted in Gobi, Oyu Tolgoi | Tagged | Leave a comment

Toward a Transition Away from Coal

By Sandeep Pai and Julian Dierkes

In November 2018, Tsenguun T and Aldarsaikhan T wrote a guest post describing the Mongolian podcast scene. Since then, more podcasts have sprung up, for example, recent guest post co-author Boldsaikhan S is involved in the “54 Cups of Coffee” podcast.

No surprise then, perhaps, that Julian has been wanting to talk about Mongolia for quite some time, having enjoyed his podcast debut on UBC’s Meiji 150 podcast to talk about portrayals of the Meiji Restoration in Japanese history textbooks.

So, here it is, a discussion between Julian and Sandeep that Tsenguun was kind enough to host on the Sustainable Mongol podcast:

After introducing ourselves in the episode, we spend some time talking about the report of the German “Coal Commission” that provides a blueprint for a move away from coal and what opportunities this might represent for Mongolia. Most significantly, as China commits to de-carbonization of its energy, Mongolia may well have significant opportunities for energy export to China derived from renewable resources. In this context, the Gobi Desert provides obvious opportunities for large-scale deployment of solar panels.

To reach its potential Sandeep drew on global trends to point to three central challenges that Mongolia might face in its transition:

  • Infrastructure needs/cost
  • Storage and transmission
  • Political inertia

Coal-Free Mongolia in 2040

We finished our discussion with our initial list of “action items” for Mongolia that might move it toward a vision of a coal-free Mongolian in, say, 2040.

1. Aid/investments from international financial institutions for expansion of existing grid, storage
The infrastructure that would enable the export of energy is hugely expensive. Not only would it require a massive upgrade of Mongolia’s grid, but this grid would have to be connected into a Chinese if not Northeast Asian grid. The construction of renewable energy “power plants” can occur on a smaller scale and does hold some promise of profitability which is why that is happening to some extent already. But the grid will likely have to be financed by public investments and given Mongolia’s fiscal situation, this will require international financing.

2. Investments toward utility-scale solar and/or wind power plants in Gobi Desert: begin training people, develop engagement and assessment processes
If Mongolian policy-makers can be persuaded that there is a promising future in renewables and if that future seems likely to only be 5, 10, 15 years away, foundations should be laid now. That means that education and training can pivot in this direction, but governance structures also need to be developed. Some of these structures might come from the mining industry, for example large-scale solar power plants might also require “local-level agreements” like they have been mandated for mining projects.

3. Ambition to become a net exporter of electricity to China
To realize the potential of renewables, there needs to be political discussion and ultimately commitment to a strategy that sees energy exports to China as a sustainable economic path in the future. Obviously, this would further exacerbate Mongolia’s dependence on China, so that may be a difficult step to take politically and will require more engaged debates.

4. Maximize opportunities for electrification to combat air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and other towns
Currently, it seems like massive electrification of Ulaanbaatar and other towns is the most direct way to combat air pollution. But if that electrification is powered by coal, then the positive impact is limited to local air pollution. Instead an upgrade to the grid and the development of renewable energies will combat local air pollution and offer economic promise.

5. “Just transition” plan to create good jobs by development for clean energy
Some resources that have been focused on mining coal will have to be re-deployed toward renewable energies. That is not an easy process around the world with the displacement of jobs, private and public investments sunk into coal, political lobbies in place, etc. A strategic approach to this transition will ease the difficulties that the transition will bring with it.

About Sandeep

Sandeep Pai is a PhD student & Public Scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC. Much of Sandeep’s research focuses on finding ways to make a global energy transition away from coal. Prior to UBC, he completed an Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management, jointly taught at Central European University, Hungary, Lund University, Sweden and the University of Manchester, UK. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism. Professionally, he worked for several years in South Asia as an award-winning journalist, writing for national and international newspapers and magazines. Recently, he co-authored a book “Total Transitions: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution

Posted in Air Pollution, China, Climate Change, Development, Diversification, Energy, Foreign Investment, Infrastructure, Podcast, Policy, Policy, Renewables, Sandeep Pai, Social Media | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Beginning of the End of Democracy?

By Julian Dierkes and Boldsaikhan Sambuu

Mongolians have voiced strong reactions to the proposal and the passage of a series of amendments to the laws governing the appointment and dismissal of judges, the Prosecutor General, and the Head of the Independent Agency Against Corruption. These amendments were hastily proposed by President Battulga and passed within a day by the special session of parliament on March 27. The vote came down to 34 MPs voting for and 6 against with 35 abstentions. Some, including legal experts, former MPs and ministers are speaking of the beginning of the end of democracy in this context.

Given Mongolians simmering frustrations with political parties, perhaps it’s not surprising that many observers are on edge when it comes to second-guessing Pres Battulga’s intentions in reconfiguring institutional structures. So, what’s behind the proposal on judicial dismissal and what do we make of it?

The March 26 Proposal

The amendments to the Law on the Legal Status of Judges grants the power to dismiss all judges to the National Security Council (NSC), which is made up of the President, PM, and the Speaker of Parliament. On the face of it, the amendments do not exactly grant this power to the council literally. Instead, they state that judges shall be removed if the NSC makes such a recommendation based on the request of the Judicial General Council of Mongolia, which is a constitutional body that is responsible for ensuring the impartiality of the judiciary. However, a closer reading of the relevant laws reveal that all five members of the General Council are appointed by the president. Consequently, these amendments might expand the power of the NSC and especially that of the president over the judiciary to the extent that judges may not be able to operate independently of political influence.

The new law also allows the NSC to ask Parliament to dismiss the Head of the IAAC and the Prosecutor General before their terms of office expire. Previously, these offices were appointed by parliament for a fixed term of 6 years so that they may remain independent of elections and of undue political influence. Although Parliament still retains a final say, the new law may make these institutions vulnerable to political pressure.

The Argument for this Proposal

Pres Battulga justified his proposal by arguing that the judicial system of Mongolia is directly controlled by a “political-economic” interest group, and alleged that judges, prosecutors, and other law enforcement authorities serve only the interests of those who have appointed them. He claimed that this politicization of the judiciary intensified under his predecessor’s tenure. It is worth noting that Battulga has repeatedly requested the Prosecutor General to investigate ex-president Ts Elbegdorj. The country’s top prosecutor has so far resisted the president’s pleas by insisting that his office must remain independent of political meddling.

Pres Battulga further argued that law enforcement authorities create false criminal charges for political reasons while ignoring many legitimate and serious crimes. He cited, among others, Erdenet and Tavan Tolgoi cases as examples. However, what seems to really made the difference among the MPs was the revelation of the previously classified video tape that allegedly shows law enforcement authorities using torture of the get confession from the suspects of Zorig’s case. The video seems to have convinced enough MPs of the narrative that the judicial authorities act with impunity and helped make the case that more oversight is necessary. Just precisely how and why the NSC is the best institution to provide that oversight was not effectively argued by the president or by his supporters in parliament. Instead, speaking in favour of the proposal, MPs like J Batzandan vaguely but passionately spoke about the need for taking control of the judiciary in order to fight against the so-called “MAHAH mafia.” Moreover, since the video was not shown to the public, it is difficult to say whether the MPs who spoke about changing their mind after seeing the tape were indeed genuine. It is also worth noting that the so-called “unresolved cases” the president listed strangely excluded the Small and Medium Enterprise scandal, nor does it mention the railroad embezzlement scandal for which Battulga himself was once being investigated by the very institutions he is now targeting.    

Mongolians’ Reaction

Reaction on Twitter was swift and harsh while Facebook was dead silent, a pattern that also prevailed in the early days of the SME Fund scandal. Mongolian lawyers were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the amendments with some even calling them a soft coup. There were a plethora of claims that the new law violates the Constitution, which explicitly guarantees judicial independence. The DP issued an official statement rejecting the proposal and boycotted the subsequent vote.

What Does this Proposal Mean?

All evidence suggests that Mongolians remain devoted to democracy in the abstract. Yet, frustrations are mounting to the extent that major institutional upheavals seem likely in coming years. One of the scenarios and perhaps the least attractive one is of a gradual take-over of state structures by some kind of “strong man”. Few would dispute that Pres Battulga would like to propose himself as just such a strong man and few would disagree that he is probably actively looking for opportunities to increase presidential power whether or not that leads to some kind of soft coup. It is worth noting that Battulga has criticized “western style democracy” for Mongolian economic woes and advocated in favour of a presidential system via his surrogates. His chief of staff, Z Enkhbold, recently spoke about the need for Mongolia to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a move that according to some foreign policy experts will rebuke Mongolia’s long-standing third neighbour policy.  

A violent overthrow of any kind seems highly unlikely, so for anyone who does fear a slide into authoritarianism, it’s democracy’s death by a thousand cuts that one might be concerned about.

Yet, corruption is one of the main factors undermining democracy, so are more executive powers to act against corruption in the bureaucracy not a good thing?

To make that case, one would have to be convinced that something is to be gained in a fight against corruption by reducing the independence of the judiciary. The new law certainly seems to do that by giving the National Security Council more direct powers to dismiss individuals. But does that not imply that no official would want to investigate anything that touches on any of the three members of the National Security Council lest that leads to the official’s dismissal? Whether justified or not, Pres Battulga’s reputation when it comes to corruption is not squeaky clean, so it seems difficult to argue that his proposal to reduce judicial independence would be seen as a positive step by many Mongolians.

About Boldsaikhan Sambuu

Boldsaikhan Sambuu is a PhD student of Political Science at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. He is also the host of the podcast show, “54 Аяга Кофе

Posted in Boldsaikhan Sambuu, Corruption, Governance, Judiciary, Law, Public Service | Leave a comment

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 ( 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

Challenges Arising from Growing National Herd

By Julian Dierkes

On an August 2018 trip to Western Mongolia, I heard a lot of countryside reports that the value of animal products, especially meat, is rapidly declining, exacerbating poverty, unemployment, migration to towns and cities, etc.

When you look at the overall perception and foreign reports on pastoralism in Mongolia, the sense of a degradation of pasture land is most urgent. Although this has been a topic for some years, recent weather, possibly related to climate change, have made some discussions more urgent. As Jangar argued in a guest post, a lot of the flooding in summer 2018 was linked to human use.

A variety of interventions have been trialed and carried out, from some kind of collective administration of pastureland to use certificates giving families exclusive use of some pastures over migrating families, but the most pressing concern in the countryside now seems to be the price of meat and of sheep fleeces/wool.

Most shockingly to me, several people mentioned that they had seen fleeces left to rot near gers for lack of buyers. There have also been reports of import of animal products from Russia to Uvs where herding and seabuckthorn and thus agriculture seem to be the only viable business.

While the decline of prices was mentioned frequently, there was very little discussion of its causes. It is hard not to think that this has been a fairly straight forward readjustment of prices in a situation of a large and growing supply.

The winter 2018/19 has been quite mild, with very low levels of snow fall. Few dzud-like conditions have been reported and animal deaths have been well below average.

For the Spring of 2019, the national herd thus seems destined to be growing further, leading to possible further downward pressure on prices paid for meat in the countryside. But if the low snow fall amounts will result in drought conditions this summer and further pressure on stressed pasture land, this growing national herd will exacerbate such pressures.

Disease Threats

Adding to the economic uncertainty associated with declining prices for animal products are worries about disease. Mongolia has been hit hard by several bouts of foot and mouth disease. The main countermeasure to this seem to be culls and disinfection stations along highways, but these countermeasures appear to have been ineffective as many provinces continue to be affected.

The export of meat and meat products has been a focus of efforts to diversify Mongolia’s economy for the past several years. Yet, any hopes of exporting meat face even greater hurdles given these outbreaks of disease.

Urban Impact

The decline in prices noted in the countryside does not seem to be reflected in Ulaanbaatar retail prices where wholesalers seem to be keeping prices up.

Meat Production and Diversification

If meat production is to become a focus of diversification efforts and also continue as a source of livelihoods in rural regions in a context of a rapidly expanded national herd and deteriorating prices, many hurdles have to be overcome.

To enable export, investments into the development of infrastructure are required. Health certification, slaughterhouses, and shipping infrastructure are all needed to enable any notions of exports.

Posted in Countryside, Diversification, Flooding, Grassland, Health, Infrastructure | Tagged | 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 (, 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 (, 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;, 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 (, November 11, 2018). Although the bilateral free trade discussions are quite recent, China wants to expedite the process over Mongolian hesitancy to do so (, 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 (, 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, 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, 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 put together from information that Ch Bolortuya,’s editor-in-chief, kindly provided. The sequence of publications focused on the SME Fund scandal have been collected on the 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 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