Ask Mongolians what they think of China and you are likely to hear about the Dalai Lama’s visit to their country in 2002. China scolded Mongolia for hosting Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, and Beijing even closed part of the border between the two countries for several hours.
“It was ridiculous,” recalls Batzul Gerelsaikhan, a 26-year-old business consultant from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. “There were all these goods that were held up at the border.”
Mongolia lies to China’s north, a country of 3 million people that has grown increasingly dependent on its much larger and more populous neighbor. Ninety percent of Mongolia’s exports go to China, mainly copper and other minerals. Visitors from China are the main driver of Mongolia’s growing tourism industry, helping Ulaanbaatar land some swish hotels and retailers, including a Louis Vuitton shop.
But even as Mongolians celebrate 25 years of democracy this year, some worry their nation could be mortgaging its future with ever-closer ties to China. They fear China could eventually overwhelm and assimilate their nation, similar to what happened in China’s Inner Mongolia province.
Ethnic tensions, rooted in history, fuel many of these anti-Chinese attitudes. Before becoming a Soviet satellite in the 1920s, Mongolia was ruled – often brutally – by China’s Qing Dynasty and a short-lived successor government. When China uses bullying tactics to protest Mongolia’s internal decisions – such as hosting the Dalai Lama – Mongolians hear echoes of the past.
Mongolian men are worried that Chinese men will also come here, and take all the women.
Batzul Gerelsaikhan, 26
Mendee Jargalsaikhan, a Central Asia specialist at the University of British Columbia, said official relations between Mongolia and China are now better than they’ve been in decades. But within Mongolia, he said, anti-Chinese sentiments remain strong, as can be seen in Mongolian literature, television shows and rap music.
One rapper, Gee, has become popular in Ulaanbaatar performing songs that include anti-Chinese slurs and calls for Mongolians to stand up for their national identity.
“You don’t see a lot of these kind of lyrics in modern Mongolian music, but you can run into them,” said Mendee, a former Mongolian defense attache who is now studying for his doctorate in British Columbia. “The sentiment is out there and it shows up in popular culture.”
For U.S. officials, Mongolia’s drive to avoid dependency has created openings in a part of the world where the United States has few friends. In 2007, the White House approved a $285 million “Millenium Challenge” grant to upgrade Mongolia’s railway system, education, health care and other services.
U.S. forces have helped train Mongolian troops in annual military exercises. Mongolia has reciprocated by sending personnel to participate in United Nations and NATO peacekeeping missions, after sending a small number of troops to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite such overtures, Mongolian leaders have been careful not to antagonize China and Russia, which the landlocked country depends on for markets, oil and access to ports. Last fall, in separate state visits, Mongolia hosted both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin within a few weeks of each other.
Since I am Mongolian, many people asked me if I ride a horse. I had to tell them I don’t ride horses. I am a city girl.
Those visits led to speculation that Mongolia was backing away from its “third neighbor” policy of closer ties with the United States, Japan and other countries. Analysts say such fears are misguided. Gungaa Bazarvaani, a Central Asia specialist based in Ulaanbaatar, said Mongolia must build stronger relations with China if it wants to improve access to Chinese ports, which could open new markets for Mongolian exports.
“We are doing all this to get better access to our third neighbors,” said Gungaa, who is affiliated with Mongolia’s Institute for Strategic Studies but said he was speaking for himself.
Because of its mineral wealth, Mongolia once was one of the world’s fastest-growing countries, recording a gross domestic product increase of 17.5 percent as recently as 2011. But China’s slowing economy has reduced demand for Mongolian coal and other exports. Foreign investment also has dropped, partly because Mongolia has squabbled with investors over mine projects, including the vast Oyo Tolgoi copper-gold mine in the Gobi Desert.
For Mongolians, the nation’s huge mineral deposits present painful choices. Traditional herders are highly protective of their grasslands, viewing their soil as sacred, not to be permanently disturbed. There’s also a streak of “resource nationalism” in the country, with Mongolians not wanting to partner with foreign mining companies, despite their capital and expertise.
Foreign-led mining projects potentially could bring in billions of dollars to national coffers. But corruption is rampant, and many people doubt the nation’s mining wealth will be distributed fairly. As of 2014, nearly 30 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, with many dependent on livestock as their only source of wealth.
Some traditional herders still manage to make a decent living. Unurbileg, 39, lives with her husband and three daughters in a ger (or yurt, a portable round tent covered with skins or felt) some 60 miles east of Ulaanbaatar, herding more than 1,000 horses, goats, sheep and cattle. The family drives a new Toyota Rav4 SUV and purchased a satellite dish to watch TV. They also own a large Kia truck, which they use twice a year for moving their household to greener pastures.
Yet Unurbileg – who like many Mongolians uses only one name – wonders about the family’s future. A single bad winter could wipe out hundreds of the family’s animals. Recently, there hasn’t been enough rainfall, turning some of the hillsides brown, she said.
“From year to year, it is getting worse and worse,” said Unurbileg. Lately, she added, there hasn’t been enough grass for her animals to produce milk, so all she could offer visitors were cups of clear tea.
Among Ulaanbaatar’s urban professionals, there is little doubt that Mongolia has to diversify its economy, and do so with help from its two big neighbors. “Mongolia needs to balance its interests, but we have neglected our relations with Russia and China,” said Munkhdul Badral Bontoi, who runs a consulting and analysis firm called Cover Mongolia.
Each year, hundreds of Mongolian nationals go abroad for college education. Some, such as Oyundari Eldevochir, are now choosing to attend schools in China.
Oyundari, 25, is partway through a three-year master’s degree program at Zhejiang University’s law school in Hangzhou, just south of Shanghai. She says she wanted to learn Chinese and experience China so she could build skills that might help her law career back home.
A native of Ulaanbaatar, Oyandari said she heard “all kinds of bad things” about people in China before moving to Hangzhou, but she now has several close Chinese friends and has warmed up to the culture. She did, however, have to initially confront Chinese stereotypes about her own background.
“Since I am Mongolian, many people there asked me if I ride a horse,” she said recently in Ulaanbaatar, where she is spending her summer break. “I had to tell them I don’t ride horses. I am a city girl, and I’ve never been comfortable on a horse.”
According to Mendee Jargalsaikhan, the Central Asia analyst, younger Mongolians seem to be shedding some of the anti-Chinese sentiment of previous generations. Some of that prejudice stems from the communist era, when the Soviets barraged the country with anti-Chinese propaganda, following the souring of Beijing-Moscow relations in the 1960s.
Still, even in modern Ulaanbaatar, nationalists continue to enforce social norms aimed at keeping Mongolian blood “pure.” Local men sometimes castigate Mongolian women when they are seen cavorting with a foreign man, especially one who appears to be Chinese.
“Mongolian men are worried that Chinese men will also come here, and take all the women,” said Batzul, who works for a real estate investment company in Ulanbaatar. Such fears were fanned a few years ago, she said, when it was reported that a famous Mongolian songstress, Serchma, had married a Chinese national in Beijing.
Of course, China itself harbors suspicions about Mongolia, a country that continues to revere Ghengis Khan and Kublai Khan, who conquered and ruled China during the Yuan Dynasty of 1271-1368.
Those fears seemed to surface earlier this month, when Chinese police in Inner Mongolia arrested 20 tourists, mostly from Britain and South Africa. Police accused them of watching videos that advocated “terrorism and religious extremism.” All 20 were later deported.
In a statement, one leader of the tour said the incident resulted from a “misunderstanding” about a video the tourists were watching in a hotel room. The video? A BBC documentary about Ghengis Khan.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth