Presentation Summary: Mongolian Perspectives on China

Mongolia Lecture Series
Institute of Asian Research, UBC

A Panel Presentation

FAQ Mongolia: Some Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions on (Mining) Policy

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Presentation Summary

How Is China Viewed In Mongolia?

MENDEE Jargalsaikhan

The Western literature and occasional articles like one in The Guardian (2 August 2010) refer to a deep-seated, traditional, historic, high-degree of anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia.  It is astonishing to see that Mongolian media also carry more negative headlines on activities of Chinese nationals in Mongolia and low quality of Chinese goods.  This could lead anyone to believe that there is a high prevalence of anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia.  However, anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia need to be disaggregated.

First, people in any nation express negative views, feelings, and attitudes toward their neighbouring nations. These negative attitudes wane and wax depending on issues and circumstances. If there is a conceivable power imbalance in terms of economy, military, and demography, people in smaller nations are often concerned about their bigger neighbours.  At the same time, people in smaller nations develop symbols, which are opposite to their neighbours’, to define and consolidate their own unique identity.  Mongolia and China have been neighbours for over two thousand years.  There was a high degree of anti-Mongolian attitudes in China during the Mongolian Empire while both Mongolia and China shared anti-Manchu attitudes during the Qing Dynasty and anti-Japanese attitudes during the Japanese expansion in the 1930s.  Mongolians use opposite symbols than Chinese – for example, if the number 4 is an unlucky one in China, then it is the luckiest one in Mongolia.  Mongolians pick a different date for their lunar New Year celebration than Chinese even though both follow the lunar calendar.  Therefore, anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia are a normal phenomenon which exists in any neighbouring nations.

Second, anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia were intentionally constructed during the 1960s-70s as Mongolia became a hostage of the Sino-Soviet confrontation.  The Soviets used the traditional anti-big neighbour attitudes for political purposes to justify their military deployments into Mongolia and at the same time, Mongolian ruling elites of that time marginalized their political opponents in alleged connections with China. Well-known American journalist Harrison Salisbury visited Mongolia in 1959 and 1966.  In 1959, he observed a visible Chinese presence, small numbers of Soviet advisors, and the participation of Chinese workers in the Naadam parade in 1959.  But, by 1966, the friendly relationship had disappeared, according to his observation; there was a huge Soviet presence, the disappearance of Chinese participants in the annual Naadam parade, guarded encampments of Chinese laborers (Salisbury, Orbit of China, 1967, pp. 107-121). During this period, national films, drama, and literature were used to introduce negative images of China and Chinese people. For instance, only one movie, Ardiin Elch (People’s Envoy), depicted a positive image of the Chinese settlers in Mongolia. The movie was produced at the height of friendly Sino-Mongolian relations, in 1959. The movies, documentary films, dramas, literature, and patriotic songs all painted an evil image of Chinese people. Chinese citizens, mostly laborer and their families, were also controlled (guarded) until their departure in 1964. Moreover, Chinese settlers, their children, people who were believed to have Chinese ethnic links, and experts on China (linguists, historians, and others with experience in China) were marginalized by having their access to privileges (party membership, higher education, and government works) limited.

Third, these intentionally constructed anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia are currently undergoing a de-construction process.  Mongolia and China agreed to increase economic, cultural, and educational cooperation within the strategic partnership agreement, which was concluded in June 2011. The conclusion of a strategic partnership agreement with China would have been an unthinkable policy option two decades ago.  The number of Mongolian students in China reached 6,200 in 2010, compared to 170 Mongolian students a decade before.  Unlike earlier periods, the government of Mongolia is no longer controlling the sources of information and promoting systemic anti-Chinese propaganda.  All sorts of images, views, and information, ranging from negative to neutral and to positive, about China, Chinese people, and their culture are becoming available in Mongolia.  However, like anti-Americanism in France, Mongolians will use China as a target of their self-definition and Mongolian identity consolidation.

Finally, there are generational factors.  Each generation will view China differently.  The following three generations could be good examples.

A cohort  born in 1930 would have seen high-level exchanges of Sino-Mongolian leaders, a visible presence of Chinese workers and their families in Ulaanbaatar, unique Chinese goods (e.g., silk, fruits, and tea), and culture (e.g., song and table tennis), and heard about Mongolian participation in the Liberation War in northern China during their formative years (17-25 years). Many of those who were educated in the Soviet Union would have interacted with Chinese students in Moscow and a few might have had opportunities to study in Beijing. The generation would have also lived through a period of three decades (1964-1989), when all these interactions would have ceased. They have seen a good China (providing assistance to Mongolia) and a bad China (cultural revolutions, political struggles, and the Tiananmen incident). This group of people might have played a crucial role in resuming normal relations with China at the end of the 1980s, since most members of the Political Bureau of the Mongolian Communist Party had been born in the 1930s.

The 1970s generation has mixed views about both China and Russia. They would have first-hand experience of anti-Chinese propaganda, strained relations with Russia (withdrawal of Russian military and the anti-Soviet attitudes), and increasing interactions with China. They would likely have similar feelings about the Tiananmen incident and the growing Chinese economy, as would earlier cohorts. Nevertheless, Russia would no longer be the window through which to see the world, as it was for earlier generations. Cohorts from the 1940s and the 1960s were more familiar with Russia, its people, and culture, since 32,000 Soviet civilian workers with their large numbers of dependents, and 80,000 Soviet troops were in Mongolia in the 1970s and 1980s. The Russian language was a mandatory second language for thousands of Mongolians who were studying in the Soviet Union, from the time of their elementary school. This was not the case for generations, from the mid-1970s and afterwards.

Logically, generations of people, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s, will likely have the most neutral view of China and be rather cautious and mistrusting of Russia. They have not experienced the anti-Chinese (pro-Soviet) propaganda, and are able to have multiple views on most issues, links with the West, and access to vast amounts of information (from the Internet, cable TV, and newspapers). The most significant events they are likely to recall are the winning of two gold medals by Mongolians at the Beijing Olympic game, rather than second-hand knowledge about the Tiananmen incident and bad images of China from the 1960s.

Video Record

42’50” – 50’18”

About Mendee

J. Mendee, graduate student, Political Science Department, UBC.  See his MA thesis in the Asia Pacific Policy Studies, Anti-Chinese Attitudes in Post-Communist Mongolia, and an Op-Ed, “Calls for a Sino-Mongolia Strategic Partnership“.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in China, Events, FAQ Mongolia Dec 16 2011, International Relations, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Presentation Summary: Mongolian Perspectives on China

  1. Keith says:

    Thank you for providing more insight on this matter, Mendee. As an Asian American planning to move to Ulaanbaatar in 2012 to start a business, this is a very concerning matter for me.

    • mendee says:

      Dear Keith,

      You’re welcome. It is really not that bad as occasional Western media or Mongolia media claim. Yes, there are lingering impacts from the past, but these sentiments are mostly in words. Things are changing.

      Cheers, mendee

  2. Pingback: Mongolia FAQ: Presentations Summaries and Video Record | Mongolia Today

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