The 2017 Mongolian Presidential Election: Sinophobia as a Political Weapon

On June 26th, Mongolians went to the polls to elect their fifth president, repeating a process that has been in place for just 20 years. As with every election, Mongolians approached the event with gusto – even amid acerbic debate, they adorned their best, with their best displaying the wide range that the term implies. Bright deels with intricate stitching dotted voting stations, while white collared shirts and summer wedged heels hustled nearby.

However, this time, the majority of Mongolians got the opportunity to dress up twice as the elections resulted in the first ever run off between two finalists – Miyegombiin Enkhbold of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party (DP). Sainkhuugiin Ganbaatar of the Mongolian People’s Revolution Party (MPRP) was eliminated after a close performance in the first round. In a tense second round of voting, Kh. Battulga came out the victor, in a major upset for the MPP.

Kh. Battulga, an unexpected winner

According to Sant Maral data collected in March 2017, M. Enkhbold was expected to comfortably win, followed by Kh. Battulga. S. Ganbaatar was nowhere to be found in the top ten, even. So then what could have accounted for the giant gap between March and June?

One answer is that the nationalist campaign run by Kh. Battulga resonated with more Mongolians than anyone had thought. His slogan, “Mongolia Wins,” is an easy parallel to the campaign of Donald Trump, and his calls to renegotiate deals in which Mongolia is seen to have “lost” (such as the IMF deal) brought forth and solidified what Mongolians have all felt in the past several years – that they are losing control of their economy, their nation, and even possibly their identity.

Almost 80 percent of Mongolians believe that the country has become more unjust in recent years. Compounded with a loss of faith in the system, Mongolians have had to deal with unemployment, underemployment, inflation, stagnant wages, pollution, and embarrassment on the international stage.

In addition to loans from the IMF dipped in austerity, economic woes have led the country to rely even more heavily on aid from China. And that’s the real rub.

What is Sinophobia?

Fear of China – sinophobia – has been and always will be an element in the greater Mongolian conscience. There is a real worry amongst voters that China is pulling the strings behind the scenes in Mongolian politics. While M. Enkhbold’s campaign struggled with connecting with voters and responding timely to criticism, what ultimately sank it was sinophobia.

First of all, there has always been concern about M. Enkhbold’s connections with China. Many argued that he maintained uncomfortably close connections with the neighbor, and that an Enkhbold presidency would only further strengthen the already considerable influence that China has in Mongolia.  

Then, there were the personal attacks. A rumor spun around the nation that the reason M. Enkhbold was so close to China was because it was in his blood. There were questions over his lineage, even prompting the candidate to release his family tree. The same accusations fell upon former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj both times when he ran for election and were only put to rest when his mother tearfully asked the public to stop.

Sinophobia is, as Frank Billé explains in Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence, and the Making of Mongolian Identity, how Mongolians perceive China “as socially and culturally backward, fundamentally at odds with modern Mongolian social and cultural values.” This idea is further imagined by the sensationalization of the news and the rhetoric of political parties and individuals, solidifying the imagery of a “mass of Chinese bodies – an unstoppable wave of male bodies, eager for land and women, capable of submerging Mongolia.” Billé further writes that “for many, hating the Chinese is not a symptom of xenophobia or ethnic hatred but merely self-preservation,” complicating the presense of sinophobia in Mongolia and their position in the political discourse.

Outside of politics and elections, sinophobia shows up in society and traditional and pop culture quite often (as well as around Ulaanbaatar as grafitti). In pop culture, several rap and hip-hop songs dabble in sinophobia. One need only turn to YouTube to find songs like Buu Davar Hujaa Naraa by Dorvon Zug, Hujaa by Gee, and Fuck Them Chinese by L.A. Face. The content of the songs are derogatory. Billé writes that the songs describe the Chinese “as poor, puny, and worthless, with tiny bodies and bad breath.” He goes on to explain that the song Buu Davar Hujaa Naraa “calls for the removal of Chinese from Mongolia by the most forceful means, by killing them all, down to the last one if possible.”

What does this mean for us?

Of course, there will always be racists and haters in any population, but collective bias that leads to the collective undoing is dangerous. At some point, we must ask, is it an actual concern that China will invade any day and take over Mongolia? Billé explains that for the political platform in Mongolia, “while the threat is attributed to an external agent, the source of anxieties is internal.”

Kh. Battulga seems to think so – so much so that he refuses to do his job and replace the rail tracks to the Chinese gauge, as if the Chinese were just waiting for the gauges to change all these years.

But how much is sinophobia just discrimination and misunderstanding, and how much of it an act of violence against Mongolia, used to distort information and democracy?

While it is true that China has outsized economic influence over Mongolia, and all Mongolians should be concerned about it – is it a solution to elect a president based on fear? More and more, sinophobia is being used as a political tool to throw cover over inexperience, corrupt dealings and overall inability to lead. It’s not just Kh. Battulga and the DP that has used it – the MPP and the MPRP have all partaken. It’s become a trope in a badly written sitcom of a government.

Mongolians deserve better, and it is time that they start whacking away distractions and making the real concerns and real questions of real living people resound louder than the family trees and finger pointing.  

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