The Filthy Rich and the Racists in Mongolia's Mining Boom

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Niccolo and Donkey
Byssus Dionysian

This article is very, very difficult to format so I'm just providing a link, a description, and some pix.

The Filthy Rich and the Racists in Mongolia's Mining Boom

Sitting on the resources China needs, Mongolia is enjoying boom times, too. But the foreign funds and geopolitical games have some Mongols worried about how the people of Ghengis Khan will handle their new relationship with an old enemy.

Genden Chinchuluun gestures outside her family’s ger in Zaamar.

Zaamar, west of Ulaanbaatar. Beyond the hills, mining has scored the landscape.

A spectator fiddles with his cell phone at a Mongolian wrestling event in Ulaanbaatar.

Gee outside a concert.

Why must everyone try to look like wiggers?

Today, 28-year-old Munkherdene, a popular rapper better known by his stage name Gee, is every inch the modern Mongol, typical of a country barrelling from a nomadic past to an urban future. He is shaven headed and hulking, and his forearm features a tattoo in tribute to the New York City rap collective Wu-Tang Clan. In place of the typical bling around his neck, there is a charm of a metal mirror, bells, a ring, a swastika, and mink and reindeer fur — a gift from his shaman.

Swaggering on a stage in front of a sweaty crowd of university undergraduates, he asks rhetorically: “What is this thing, growing among us every day here in Mongolia?”

The crowd, hands thrust into the air, doesn’t miss a beat: “ Hujaa! ” they yell, a Mongolian slur for Chinese, something like the English insult “ chink .” It’s also the title of one of Gee’s biggest hits, a collaborative effort with a traditional folk band, Jonon. The film clip, which features Gee swaying menacingly in front of dangling sheep carcasses, has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

He begins, in the guttural rolls and pops of the Mongolian language:

“Way better than a chink who perceives the world with his stomach / I’m a Mongol / That’s why you have to bow to me.”

As the crowd sings along, he paints a picture often depicted here – adorned with unvarnished racism – of the proud land of Genghis Khan being gobbled up by voracious Chinese. All around, money is flowing in, but greed, division and miscegenation reign. Until, that is, Mongols unite to throw out the interlopers.


Besides the big mining projects, there are black market mines, many of them run or backed by Chinese interests, which have popped up largely unnoticed in remote corners of the country, he says. Construction too has brought to the capital thousands of Chinese who live in high-walled compounds. No one, in the government or elsewhere, seems to know how many there are. While Mongolia’s democracy has proved resilient, an ugly ultranationalism has been on the rise. At the most extreme end, a handful of home-grown neo-Nazi groups have, with a blithe lack of irony, turned against Chinese and other foreigners, picking fights, harassing inter-ethnic couples, and carrying out vigilante attacks. More generally, the sort of reflexive racism of Gee’s music has become commonplace. If China’s economy loses strength, Mongolia goes down, Luvsandendev says. Problems also will arise if things go too well and Mongolia’s economy overheats. “If inflation is high then you should expect public disturbances,” he argues.


I have just met Kishigbadrach Batbold, an underemployed electrician from the capital’s ger district, as he pans for gold left behind in mining waste. As we begin talking, an elderly man from Shijir Alt, which translates as Pure Gold, the dusty Wild West-style town around the corner, reels up drunk and begins helping himself to Batbold’s group’s dirt. The reaction is explosive. Amid a crescendo of yelling, a friend of Batbold’s lifts a fist-sized stone from the creek and slams it down across the man’s head, splitting it open and sending him stumbling away, bloodied. “That’s what Mongolians are like,” Batbold says. “It’s not just here. It’s in our nature. We’re quick-tempered.”


Sipping on salted tea in his ger, Tsetsegee Munkhbayar is the poster boy for a small section of Mongolians who have become attracted to an increasingly radical brand of environmental activism.

A few years ago, Munkhbayar was a darling of the international NGO circuit; in 2007 he won the international Goldman Prize for environmental conservation, for his efforts to curb excessive water use in mines near his home southwest of Ulaanbaatar. But since then, he has taken an increasingly militant path. As we speak in his camp in a grove of trees by a clear brook outside of Ulaanbaatar, Munkhbayar waits on bail on charges of using a gun to shoot up the equipment of three mines in the south of the country. He faces up to five years in prison for damaging property. Fellow defendants include activists who shot an arrow through the nation’s parliament. “It’s their way of saying, ‘We will crush you if you rise up against us.’ But it won’t crush the hearts of Mongolians,” says Munkhbayar.

He and other activists in recent years succeeded in pushing through a national law restricting mining in sensitive areas of water and forest, but Munkhbayar says the area encompassing Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi is not covered. And, he adds, politicians and companies, both Chinese and Western, are gaming the system.

“I’m confrontational because there’s no other way,” he says.


On the other edge of Ulaanbaatar, the steppe has become the backdrop for regular drag races. Leading the way to a race site in a dust-spattered Mercedes Benz is Gankhuyag Byambatulga, the leader of Dayar Mongol, one of the country’s neo-Nazi groups. Beside him as he drives, his girlfriend, who is well over six feet tall, chain smokes. In the back seat, another man, sporting a black eye, sits brooding.

As twentysomethings in hotted-up Japanese cars race along an empty stretch of road and a single yellow Humvee tears off at speed across the plain, Byambatulga sketches a swastika on his car’s bonnet and outlines Dayar Mongol’s philosophy.

He swats away the incongruity of Asians adopting the symbols and rhetoric of white supremacists. Hitler, he explains, simply stole his ideas from Mongolia. “If you look at the beginning of mankind, it was in the Gobi. We’re the first people on the planet, and the greatest,” he says. “The real Aryans are Mongols.”

Such thought was not tolerated under the old Communist regime. But now that these sentiments are out in the open, Byambatulga says, nationalism is growing, even if groups such as his stay on the fringe.

“Back in 2002, people used to call the Chinese ‘Chinese citizens’ and almost worship them. Now they call them ‘hujaa,’” or chinks, as in the title of Gee’s song. “We’ve influenced peoples’ mentalities. This will spread.”

I ask about the sulking man with the black eye, and Byambatulga introduces us. Mr Black Eye gives his name, but says he does not want it printed. He is, it turns out, from across the border, in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. That region, incorporated into China centuries ago, is what many Mongolians say they fear: economic and demographic domination by Han Chinese, and an eroding Mongolian culture. The killing of a Mongolian herder by a Han truck driver there last year triggered a rare outburst of ethnic rioting.

Back in China, Mr Black Eye was something of a nationalist gangster, beating up and stealing from the Han, for which he spent a spell in prison. Finally fed up with Han domination, he says, he crossed over to Mongolia and sought out Dayar Mongol. But the injury, he says, is not the result of a fight; he simply fell. “I’ve never been beaten up by Chinese. I’m the one who beats up Chinese.”

“This is where Mongolia is headed,” if foreigners are allowed to be the ones to take control of Mongolia’s resources, Byambatulga says. “So many Chinese [are] coming in, our blood is getting impure. Mongolia will exist as a country, but there will be no Mongolians left.”


See also this Economist article : Booming Mongolia: Mine, all mine: The country that is likely to grow faster than any other in the next decade, and how it is changing, for better or worse

It is hard to believe on the clear sunny mornings the city enjoys much of the year, but UB’s air is now as polluted as anywhere—second only to the Iranian city of Ahwaz, according to a recent study by the World Health Organisation. In the winter, when temperatures average from -10 to -30 centigrade, and often fall to -40 at night, UB burns a lot of coal.


It is not just that Mongolia is a treasure-chest of geological wealth. It is slap-bang next to the world’s biggest and fastest-growing market for most minerals. Put together Mongolian supply and Chinese demand, and Mongolia will be rich beyond the wildest dreams of a population many of whom, a generation ago, saw themselves as nomadic herders. With just under 3m people, Mongolia has a chance of becoming a Qatar or a Brunei : a country that has only a small population but almost all of it, in global terms, loaded. Brian Fisher, an Australian economist who has conducted a study of the economic impact of OT, says Mongolia “sounds like Australia in 1930”.

In the third quarter of 2011 Mongolia’s economy grew by 21% compared with the same period in 2010. Even sober economists think the country is going to have to get used to this sort of thing. The IMF expects growth to average 14% a year between 2012 and 2016. In 2013, the year production is due to begin in earnest at OT, it is forecast to reach 22.9%. Others think it will be at least twice that.


Mongolia’s most flamboyant environmental campaigner is a former herder called Tsetsegee Munkhbayar. He made his name helping clean up the Onggi river, and then for his extreme forms of protest, involving shooting at mining equipment or vehicles. In April 2011 he led a group of supporters into Sukhbaatar Square on horseback to demand talks with the government. Mr Munkhbayar, a grim-faced man looking out of place behind a desk in his UB office in knee-length boots and traditional jacket, believes that if Mongolians exploit the mines, “we will never develop.” He suggests an alternative future of herding, dairy-farming and tourism. As he talks he is interrupted by a loud blare of traditional Mongolian music. It is the ringtone on his mobile.


The wealth generated by the miners is an obvious target. And the militant Mr Munkhbayar has many fans even among young urban Mongolians who moan that development is arriving too slowly. Like him, they wish it could come from some other industry. Every herder, says one environmentalist, hopes that at least one person in his family will carry on the life. But that may be changing. Twenty years ago it was hard to meet anyone in UB who identified with the city. Even if they were born there, they saw “home” as the “aimag”, or province, from which their parents came. Now a new generation of city-dwellers feels less attached to the countryside and to nomadic herding traditions. Their numbers are swollen by young people returning from an overseas education to chase the new opportunities the mining boom is throwing up.

One such, a young man called Damdin, is finding life difficult. After 15 years in Fairfax, Virginia, he has forgotten most of his Mongolian. He left Mongolia with his mother, who was fleeing his alcoholic father. At school in America the other Asian students were scared of him, despite his short stature; Mongolians, he says, have the reputation of being psychos. [lol] Now back in UB, living in a ger with his father who spends his time playing games on Facebook, his ambition is to open UB’s first skateboard shop.

When The Economist encountered him, outside a derelict Buddhist temple in a ger district in the middle of the afternoon, and later at the nearby police station, he had just been punched and robbed of his phone by friends of the friend he had lent it to (“It was 4G, man!”). He was drunk, despite saying he is always teased as a wuss for sticking to beer when real men drink vodka. He was cradling a little street-puppy he had rescued from his muggers, knowing his grandmother would not let him take it home. He presented as forlorn a picture as could be imagined of the pain and dislocation of being caught between two worlds. But he said he had no intention of going back to Virginia.


Stunning photographs--a noble people. Despite the passage of eight centuries one can see the spirit and blood of the Khans in their eyes and bearing. I highly recommend Ed Nef's 2011 documentary film, Mongolia: Mining Challenges a Civilization , for a superb modern history of this's a promo: