State-Socialist Legacies and Selective Perception of Propaganda

By Julian Dierkes

Every so often, my conversations, especially on visits to Mongolia which are so valuable for my thinking, touch on bigger issues that are challenging to frame as a blog post. This is one of those attempts to wrestle with the legacy of state-socialism, but also the selective citing of propaganda as a cause for current attitudes.

I approach this topic with my own set of biases, especially my refusal to ascribe a lot of causal power to such things as “national identity” or “Mentalität”. My dissertation research comparing constructions of national history in Japan and the Germanies was an attempt to find more proximate causes for differences than some kind of “shame vs guilt culture”.

Enduring Legacies of State-Socialist Propaganda in Gender Relations?

This particular version of the on-going conversation about the extent to which the state-socialist period still has an impact on today’s Mongolia started with a close and exciting conversation with an eyewitness to the revolution.

While I was able to purchase the new book from Irja Halász, she also showed me a copy of an earlier book she had published with photographs she took during the winter of 1989/90 as the only Western eye witness (armed with a camera no less) to the revolution. As we were looking through her photographs, I noticed that many of the photographs showed very few women, at least in the front row of the protesters. This might not be surprising when considering contemporary Mongolia where the country and many of its institutions are clearly run by women, yet the nominal figureheads, including government figures, are almost always men. That observation is particularly poignant in the aftermath of the dismissal of prominent female politicians like D Sarangerel for condescending remarks that appear to be unlikely to have landed a male minister in danger of dismissal.

More startlingly, in my mind, this came after 70 years of state-socialist propaganda espousing gender equality. While it is unclear how deep that propaganda really went in terms of action toward gender equality, particularly in terms of representation of women in the political leadership, it is clear that the propaganda espousing gender equality was consistent and persistent. Marie-Dominique Even has written about the topic of “Sex-equality norms versus traditional gender values in Communist Mongolia” (trans. Helen Tomlinson). She initially agrees with seeing the lack of representation of women in the revolution as a paradox,

In view of the rights acquired during the communist period, after the democratic transition of 199017 one might have expected Mongolian women to enjoy a sound social position and a capacity for action close to that of their male fellow citizens. (p. 168)

She points to some possible explanations of the paradox of a lack of representation of women in politics, for example, the channeling of women in civil society organizations rather than political parties, but ultimately identifies the persistence of very traditional gender norms that have come to the fore following the end of state-socialist gender parity propaganda.

I have yet to obtain a copy of Manduhai Buydandelger’s A Thousand Steps to Parliament – Constructing Electable Women in Mongolia, to have a look at what her take on this presumed paradox might be.

But the question I want to raise here is: when do we take state-socialist propaganda to have an impact, and when do we deny this impact?

Unless Manduhai reaches very different conclusions in her research, Even and conversations that I have had, including with Irja Halász, suggest a near-consensus that  state-socialist propaganda failed to fundamentally change gender norms in many areas.

The Case for State-Socialist Propaganda

The two most prominent questions that are often answered by the impact of state-socialist propaganda, are

  • where does the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment in Mongolia come from
  • is there some kind of state-socialist Mentalität lingering in economic affairs.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment

While anti-Chinese sentiment in some countries may be linked to China’s contemporary rise in economic and political power, its roots in Mongolia seem to go deeper. The historical resentiments from Qing era subjugation of Mongolia were reinforced by state-socialist propaganda following the Sino-Soviet split, as Franck Billé argues in his Sinophobia, for example.

In this general view that appears to be a near-consensus, anti-Chinese sentiment is thus attributed to state-socialist propaganda since the Sino-Soviet split. Here, it is argued that state-socialist propaganda has a continuing impact on contemporary thinking.

Economic Relations

Maybe economic relations is not quite the right term, but I do hear somewhat frequent references to a state-socialist Mentalität when talking about matters as welfare state provisions, business relations, or even staff relations within companies. It is difficult to a) pin down what exactly this state of mind or attitude refers to, b) how to measure it, and c) whether it has anything to do with state-socialism, even more so with state-socialist propaganda. Was it the reality of a planned economy that has shaped lives and continues to exert an impact, or was it state-socialist propaganda about a planned economy and what individual Mongolians should expect of the economy that shapes attitudes today. I have to say that I find it more plausible to think of the actual impact on lives as being primary for those born before, say, 1980, while portrayals of the economy as state-centric continue to linger on to younger generations.

So, bottom line in these three areas is something like this:

Gender Relations Anti-China Attitudes State-Centric Economy
Propaganda Impactful X ?
Propaganda Not Impactful X ?

Obviously, that is quite simplistic at this point. Ill-defined, third column not resolved, and static, where surely this would have to be a dynamic assessment or at least one with two points of time, 1990 and now.

But still, this schematic does raise questions.

Why the Difference?

What’s different about gender relations vs. anti-Chinese sentiment? The obvious difference would be that gender relations are very much “here and now”, while anti-Chinese sentiments are primarily an othering that is not confronted by social reality regularly. Again, a simplistic explanation, but certainly one that seems plausible.

Dissertations Galore!

Clearly, there are several seeds of very interesting (to me) dissertations in this short musing. I will also continue to keep an eye on when state-socialist propaganda is referred to as impactful and when it isn’t mentioned, as well as on constructions of economic policy.

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 toots and tweets @jdierkes
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