Globalization Comes to Mongolia

It has been 20 years since I've been in Mongolia, the large country of high desert plains sandwiched between China and Russia, and a lot has changed. Some of it is for the better, a lot of it for the worse. And much of it has to do with globalization.

In 1992 Mongolia had just been liberated from the grips of the Soviet communist system, which did much to provide social services to people but eviscerated the traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture. The managerial formula of state socialism also left little room for democratic participation in governance.

So 20 years ago, the Mongolian air was full of excitement and anticipation. I visited new Buddhist monasteries that seemed to have sprouted up everywhere, and talked with leaders of a plethora of political parties that had emerged to compete in democratic elections. One of them was a Buddhist Party, based on traditional values.

Democracy was the new system that replaced socialism, and leaders of all branches of society were eager to experiment with it. Administrators in the State University asked me how we American professors elected the presidents of our universities, since they would like to copy our model. Sadly, I had to tell them that our university administrators were appointed, not elected, and they seemed surprised.

At that time, downtown Ulaan Baatar did not look like much. The typical staid socialist institutional architecture dominated the wide, well-maintained streets. But the buildings and the urban layout was neat and orderly, and had a certain amount of socialist institutional charm. Besides, there were very few vehicles in the streets, so the town was enveloped in a sleepy shroud.

The main hotel was the Ulaan Baatar Hotel near Sukhbaatar Square, which was named for the socialist revolutionary who had founded the modern nation in 1921, when he staved off an invading Russian army and established a socialist government, albeit one that maintained a titular role for the Bogda Khan, Mongolia's incarnate Buddhist theocratic leader. Thereafter Mongolia gradually became absorbed into Soviet domination. The Ulaan Baatar Hotel was a grand affair in Soviet style meant to host visiting dignitaries from Moscow. When I was there twenty years ago, a fancy new hotel was under construction several blocks away, near one of the city's three rivers.

In my recent visit I stayed in that once-new hotel, the Chinggis Khaan, named for the great leader of the Mongol Empire. In its heyday in the early 13th century, the Empire, based in Mongolia, stretched from Europe to Beijing. It has never been exceeded as the largest land empire in history.

The Chinggis Khaan Hotel is already looking a bit seedy, however. Though the staff has tried to maintain its grandeur, it already seems dated, the grand elegance fading. Even the statue of the great Khaan looks a bit worn.

Much can be said of the rest of the city. It has now swelled to twice its size in 1992. Almost a million and a half people live in the crowded valley, and it embraces almost half of Mongolia's total population.

Most of them seem to have cars. The roads are packed with honking, pushing vehicles, edging over pock-marked streets that appear not to have been maintained since socialist days. It took us over two hours one evening to travel from the periphery of the city to the center. Shops have been constructed in front of the Soviet-style apartment buildings, taking up the space between the buildings and the street that formerly allowed for front yards and a more open urban atmosphere. Their gaudy signs advertise everything from food marts to massage parlors.

Quite frankly, the city is a mess. New buildings are everywhere, with little regard to architectural niceties or consistency. The urban sprawl has taken up the surrounding valleys with huge encampments of low-waged workers living in traditional gers (yurts) with no amenities. The combination of exhaust fumes from the vehicles, wood stoves from the gers (and sometimes, I was told, burning tires), and the billowing smoke of three enormous coal-burning power plants has created the worst smog of virtually any city in the world.

Of course much of this might have happened in any period of history when political change allows for rapid economic development and demographic shifts. But there are some features of Mongolia's recent changes that are distinctly due to globalization.

On the plus side, globalization has raised the living standard of most urban, educated professionals. Cell phones are everywhere. Even in the Gobi desert I saw goat herders and camel drivers chatting away on their cell phones. I was told that one of the conversations I witnessed was an attempt to locate and round up lost goats, which I regarded as a great use of modern technology.

All college students have computers, and most are dedicated users of Facebook and Twitter. A computer fair was being held while I was there, and various manufacturers from Acer to Toshiba had set up tents to sell laptops, notebooks and tablets to University students.

A kind of Mongolian pop music has emerged, combining a modern beat with some traditional sounds. In one café, however, when the Mongolian pop music was finished, it was replaced by the sounds of Justin Bieber. American movies are available everywhere in theaters and on DVD, and American basketball is a national obsession. I passed one shop dedicated to Michael Jordan, selling the kind of sneakers and athletic shorts that the owners imagine he might use.

The quality of food has improved enormously. Twenty years ago when I visited the country I found nothing to eat but various kinds of meat, mostly mutton cooked in a stew. Being a vegetarian, I found this fare to be limited at best. When my hosts at the time searched for a restaurant that would serve vegetable soup, and triumphantly discovered one, I was presented with a huge bowl of the same familiar mutton stew, though in this case with one piece of potato and one piece of carrot.

This would not happen in contemporary Ulaan Baatar, where there are a number of vegetarian restaurants -- some of them even vegan. They are favored by young Mongolians who are concerned about animal welfare and eager to try new diets. Vegetables are easily available in the market, although they -- like almost everything else sold in stores -- have been imported from China.

With new apartment buildings and new opportunities for employment in a bustling economy, young educated professionals have a reasonably comfortable modern existence. If one is able to avoid having to drive through the streets for more than a half-hour at a time, one could be convinced that development and globalization have made a positive mark on Mongolian life.

There are, however, two areas in which globalization has played a darker role. They have to do with unbridled capitalism and political corruption. And the two are related.

When Mongolia opened up to the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, it also opened itself up to new economic investment. What the capitalist world found attractive about the country were its vast stores of mineral wealth, including coal, gold, and copper. Rare earth minerals are also to be found here, which are vital in the manufacture of high-tech computerized devices.

Investors and developers from around the world have poured into Mongolia from China, South Korea, Japan, Germany, and the United States. International investors have dumped five billion dollars into the construction of a copper and gold mine at the rich Oyu Tolgoi deposit in the Gobi desert. A new rail line is being constructed from China to carry the riches out. The plundering of Mongolian resources is moving at a breakneck speed.

Mongolians receive cash payments for the exploiting of their resources, of course. And it is easy to see where much of the money has gone. I counted six Lexus SUVs and two Hummers adjacent to our car one evening as we were stuck in the inevitable traffic jam. High class stores selling Hermes and Yves St. Laurant goods have sprouted up around Sukhbaatar Square. Fine dining in Italian, French and Thai styles is available on rooftop restaurants and the elegance of my Chinggis Khaan Hotel has been eclipsed by dozens of new gleaming high-rise hotels. Rows of huge new homes in gated estate settings have emerged in the foothills east of the city.

It is also easy to see where the money has not gone. As bad as the roads are in the city, as soon as they reach the countryside they collapse into dirt roads and muddy ruts. There is basically only one paved highway in the country, the east-west trunk road, and even it is full of potholes. Most of the other roads, even to important tourist sites, are dirt trails across the plains. Often drivers will choose to simply bushwack across the empty fields and sandy desert rather than have to navigate around the bumps and ruts of the main trails.

Money is not going into social services either. With the end of the socialist system came the end of free health care, university education, and guaranteed jobs. The first ten grades are still free, however, and Mongolia has an astoundingly high literacy rate. But the masses of ger camps (the tent-like yurts) that surround Ulaan Baatar and district towns are filled with underemployed Mongolians. The high-tech mining equipment of the new extraction industries do not need masses of unskilled laborers, alas, and little work is available for them.

In the countryside, people still live as they have since the time of Chinggis Khaan, living in gers alongside their goats and sheep, their horses, yaks, and camels. Fortunately there is a good price to be had for wool and camel hair, and many gers in the countryside sport a solar panel and a satellite dish outside their tent, with a shiny new television inside. So they are at least a cut above subsistence living, but not much.

One would think that the government would be getting wealthy along with rich individual Mongolians, and in fact the government does exact fees for licenses and the use of public lands for mining operations. But where the money goes is a matter of some contention.

One of the most prominent politicians in the country, N. Enkhbayar, has recently been convicted on charges of corruption and is serving time in prison. He had been the leader of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the successor of the communist party that had ruled over the country for decades. Enkhbayar had renounced his socialist past, however, even as his party held onto the reins of power, and he had made alliances with leaders of the influential Buddhist monastic organizations to curry favor with the religious masses. The monasteries, as a result, have been thriving and old temples have been restored.

Enkhbayar, who had served as both prime minister and president, was convicted on a long list of corruption charges, including lining his pockets with bribery money and absconding with government funds, including payments for international corporations' mining rights. Even supporters of Enkhbayar acknowledged that he was corrupt. But all politicians in Mongolia were, they added, and he was no better or worse than the rest of them.

So what happened to all of those hopes for a new Mongolia twenty years ago, when democracy was in the air and even college professors were inquiring about how they should elect their university president? Today the pattern has been established. The university president, for instance, is appointed by the Ministry of Education, and some claim that its officials can be influenced in their choice by a substantial bribe.

What has happened in Mongolia is what has happened elsewhere in the world in the post Cold War era of globalization. Two political systems have been merged, and the Mongolian case exemplifies the worst features of both.

In the West, the exploitation of unbridled capitalism was tempered by democratic control, and what Reinhold Niebuhr called the "countervailing power" of labor unions and government regulation. In Communist counties the autocratic rule of a managerial society was tempered by an ideology of social service and workers equality. Today we are seeing the merger of managerial socialism without the socialism, and democratic capitalism without the democracy.

Today's Mongolia matches an unfortunate trend throughout the world, even in the political ideologies of American and European right-wing parties. It is a trend that promotes a managerial capitalism bereft of democratic control or social aspiration. What it means for Mongolia, and for many of the rest of us around the world, is a future with cell phones, Facebook, and Lexus SUVS, but also with brown air, bad roads, and astounding economic inequality.