China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a two-day visit to Mongolia on September 15 and 16, holding meetings with Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa, Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, and Foreign Minister Enkhtaivan Nyamtseren. What would have been a fairly straight forward diplomatic exchange between neighbors, however, took on added significance amid Mongolian anger over a new language policy unveiled earlier this month in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.
The policy, announced just ahead of the start of the new school year on September 1, requires schools to use new Chinese language national textbooks, replacing Mongolian language books. That sparked outrage among ethnic Mongolians in China, who fear the sidelining of Mongolian language education will eventually resign their native language to oblivion. Parents and students alike took the streets in protest, and many students boycotted the start of the school year. Beijing responded with force, arresting protesters and attempting to pressure students to return to classrooms. Estimates of the number of those detained range from “hundreds” to “4,000 to 5,000.”
The new language policy – and resulting crackdown — also sparked an unusual amount of attention across the border in Mongolia, according to Julian Dierkes, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Writing on his Mongolia Focus blog for UBC, Dierkes noted that the new language policy was attracting more attention on Mongolian social media than he had seen before on Inner Mongolia topics, with numerous commentators speaking out against the policy on Twitter.
Offline, that surge of interest resulted in more protests. According to Reuters, around 100 protesters gathered in front of the Government Palace in Ulaanbaatar on the first day of Wang’s visit, chanting slogans such as “Let’s protect our native language” and “Wang Yi go away.” The protesters were hoping to nudge their government into raising the issue with China – something it has not done, at least publicly, thus far.
“Our leaders need to speak up,” one protester told Reuters. “If our government keeps silent in the name of international relations and economic stability, one by one Mongolians are being pressed out and Mongolia will cease to exist.”
In the Chinese read-out of his meeting with Mongolian Foreign Minister Enkhtaivan, Wang listed three main goals for his visit: strengthening and extending cooperation in the fight against COVID-19; extending cooperation on “economic and social development” and the Belt and Road Initiative (including Wang’s bid to “promote the resumption” of key Chinese-invested projects in Mongolia); and “work[ing] together to ensure the long-term healthy and stable development of China-Mongolia relations.”
The last point took on the most salience given the protests awaiting the Chinese foreign minister upon his arrival in Mongolia.
While Wang did not specifically mention the backlash in Mongolia against the new education policy, he laid special stress on the need for the two sides to “in particular respect each other’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.” Doing so is the “anchor” for a healthy bilateral relationship, Wang added. The message was clear: Mongolia’s government should resist public pressure to speak out about China’s ethnic policies in Inner Mongolia.
“China and Mongolia are permanent neighbors and should also be permanent friends,” Wang stressed. “This is the only right and the best choice for the two countries.”
According to the Chinese read-out, Wang secured a commitment on this point from his Mongolian counterpart: “The two foreign ministers reiterated and confirmed that China and Mongolia will respect each other’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and will not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.”
The meeting summaries from MONTSAME, a Mongolia-based news agency, did not include many hints that the topic of Inner Mongolia had come up at all – exactly as China would prefer. Instead, the focus was on COVID-19 cooperation, boosting bilateral trade, and some deliverables in the form of a new agreement to establish three additional railway border ports. There was a ghost of a reference, however, in the read-out from President Battulga’s meeting with Wang: “The dignitaries also shared their opinions on some humanitarian issues, and agreed on the importance of maintaining the principle of mutual respect.”
That vague approach is apparently the farthest Ulaanbaatar feels comfortable going in broaching the topic of China’s treatment of ethnic Mongolians. As Dierkes noted in his blog post, “Any official pronouncements from the Mongolian government about the fate of Mongolian [language] – never mind Mongolians – in Inner Mongolia, would likely be met with a somewhat violent reaction, violent not in the sense of actual physical or territorial violence, but most likely in language and possible sanctions like interruptions to trade flows and the like.” He added that the government in Ulaanbaatar was unlikely to take that risk – “at least not until reactions in Mongolia itself get louder and more numerous and until there is some international support for a reaction.”
The reason for Mongolia’s reticence is obvious: The country is economically dependent on China. According to World Bank data, in 2018 China bought a whopping 92 percent of Mongolia’s exports – mostly minerals and ores, notably coal. China’s ambassador hinted that trade could be at risk in an interview with a Mongolian newspaper. Reuters summarized his comments as follows: “China’s demand for Mongolian coal — its biggest export earner — was shrinking. Though shipments have continued, they were piling up because there was no market for them.”
Given China’s record of economic coercion against countries from Norway to South Korea to Australia, the implication is clear: Don’t rock the boat, lest coal imports come to an unfortunate halt.
In that sense, there are echoes of Kazakhstan’s dilemma vis-à-vis the detentions of ethnic Kazkahs in China’s Xinjiang region: Public outrage, fostered by shared ethnic identity, takes on a nationalist bent – but is fundamentally at odds with what the government sees as in the country’s best interests (read: avoiding frictions with Beijing to maintain economic stability). Thus far, Mongolia has followed Kazakhstan’s choice to sideline its citizens’ demands rather than crossing one of Beijing’s red lines.