Anti-China sentiment and centuries-old hostilities take centre stage in Mongolian election campaign
The idea that China remains Mongolia’s ‘enemy’ is shared by only a portion of voters, while others have been frustrated by the negative campaigning
The waving flags, triumphant song and rousing speeches of a Mongolian presidential campaign rally were interrupted by a fight that broke out in the crowd. A group of men had entered the event for Democratic Party candidate Khaltmaa Battulga on Friday carrying posters denouncing the businessman, prompting his supporters to shove the interlopers and tear up their placards, all the while chanting: “You’re mixed Chinese! You’re mixed Chinese!”
The jeer – intended to be an insult to the men’s Mongolian heritage – reflected the tone of an election marked by anti-Chinese sentiment and calls to protect the country’s rich natural resources from foreign forces.
As Mongolia prepares to go to the polls on Monday, voters are grappling with the nation’s complex relationship with its powerful neighbour, characterised by centuries of historical enmity and current financial dependence.
Mongolia’s financial fortunes are closely tied to China, whose slowing growth has troubled the landlocked nation’s economy.
China is by far the country’s largest trade partner, with 80 per cent of Mongolian exports going south of the border.
Wary of this oversized influence, Mongolian presidential candidates have advocated a “third neighbour policy” for focusing Mongolia’s partnerships beyond Russia and China.
A video circulating on Mongolian social media shows black and white footage of a lively Chinese community in Ulan Bator, followed by clips of Chinese migrants protesting and scuffling with Mongolian authorities.
“Many Chinese people were expelled from Mongolia decades ago,” the voice-over says, “but today the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) has lost its values and is running a half-Chinese person in the election.”
The dramatic intonation refers to rumours that the candidate for the ruling MPP, Mieybombo Enkhbold, has Chinese ancestry.
“China has been Mongolia’s biggest enemy since the time of Genghis Khan,” said Tuvshinbulag Svarikow, a 26-year-old Mongolian-Russian university student at the Battulga rally. “Someone with a Chinese background has no right to represent Mongolia in the presidential office.”
In response to such suspicions, Enkhbold has published a family tree detailing his lineage. Sainkhuu Ganbaatar, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party’s candidate, has done the same.
This deliberate move to prove pure Mongolian origins points to a degree of nationalism absent from previous elections, said Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia scholar at University of British Columbia.
“My sense is that sentiment among voters hasn’t changed, but that politicians are more and more using nationalism to distract from the real issues,” he said.
Dierkes observed that this election has also seen the three candidates more frequently wearing a “deel”, a traditional Mongolian outfit, and using “Mongolia” in their slogans as opposed to simply “our nation” or “our country”.
Enkhbold has advocated for a “United Mongolia,” while Battulga’s slogan is “Mongolia will win”.
All three platforms emphasise the country’s territorial integrity, though its borders are not disputed.
The idea that China remains Mongolia’s “enemy” is shared by only a portion of voters, while others have been frustrated by the negative campaigning. Nor does it align with current geopolitics.
Bilateral ties have been stable for decades, receiving a boost last year through the announcement of a China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor to be established as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, a global trade infrastructure programme.
While Mongolia’s US$5.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout is expected to lessen its dependence on China, Beijing in February also announced additional financial assistance and favourable loan terms to the debt-wracked country. China’s central bank will extend a currency swap line to Mongolia worth 15 billion yuan (US$2.2 billion).
The aid was disclosed a couple months after Mongolia pledged not to extend any more invitations to the Dalai Lama after the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s visit to Ulan Bator last November angered China.
“I don’t think [anti-China] sentiment can win,” said Gerel Orgil, a Mongolian public opinion analyst. “People are increasingly rational. They are not thinking about what happened with China in the past; they’re thinking about what will happen in their daily lives if the economy doesn’t improve.”