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Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar: Class Consciousness and Sinophobia in Mongolia’s Economic Periphery

Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar: Class Consciousness and Sinophobia in Mongolia’s Economic Periphery

Ulaanbaatar is a rapidly modernizing city, but some of its residents fear its new development may come at the price of its former uniquely Mongolian face. From the times of Chinggis Khaan, Mongolians have had their own united character as a people – despite all odds. After the collapse of the Mongol Empire, they were conquered and subjugated by the following Chinese dynasties. After being consumed into the Soviet bloc in the 20th century, the Mongolian people were subjected to further decades of anti-Chinese propaganda, when the USSR hoped to use Mongolia as a buffer to the possibility of a Chinese threat on its southern border. In recent years, as economic growth has boomed, new animosities have grown out of the influx of outside Chinese business investment which many Mongolians see as exploitative. Yet one new idea that globalization has brought to Mongolia has truly resonated with the population: hip hop. Mongolia’s crisis of identity, combined with a deep-seeded want to be separate from China, has spawned a new movement of nationalistic rap within the capital city—empowering the youth to feel a sense of pride, creating a commentary on modern Mongolian society, and exemplifying the underlying class tensions present, while also fanning the flames of anti-Chinese sentiments.

 

A New Nationalist Identity:

Emerging from Soviet colonialism, rappers within Mongolia are using the genre as a new platform to foster a nationalist sentiment within their youthful audience. Some older Mongolians had feared that the young generation would entirely discard their national identity for the glamorized Western way of life, yet Mongolian rappers are doing all they can to prevent such a loss of culture. One prominent rapper, Gee, inspires a powerful sentiment of unity within his audience. He grew up with a single mother in the Ger district of Ulaanbaatar – an extensive and destitute slum which houses nearly two-thirds of the nation’s largest city’s residents. Gee raps that “[i]n the ocean of globalization, Mongolia is like a boat without paddles. You better start to care before we [...] drown.” He is imploring his audience not to lose their Mongolian identity in all of the foreign influences pouring into the growing capital city.

Many Mongolian men are also afraid of losing their national identity by not being able to marry another Mongolian woman. They see their city as becoming overrun with Chinese foreigners who are impure, compared to their Mongolian blood. Yet the problem for these Mongolian men arises when Mongolian sex workers and even local women mix with members of the Chinese expatriate community within Ulaanbaatar. These fearful Mongolian men find comfort in music which promotes and glorifies the culture they are afraid of losing.

Rappers also fight against cultural assimilation within Mongolia, working to keep their own identity separate from all of those which globalization has brought to Ulaanbaatar. A member of the rap group TST says that “[w]e rap in our mother tongue, and we identify and distinguish ourselves from other groups with our own language,” and even their name TST translates roughly to mean “mother tongue.” The group wants to “inspire ethnic pride among their fans,” says reporter Yuan Ye, for more and more young Mongolians are learning Mandarin Chinese in hopes of economic benefits. The early adopter of the rap genre in Mongolia Sukhbaatar Amarmandakh, or Amraa for short, says that “[h]e is an unashamed Mongolian nationalist, hoping to instill young Mongolians with feelings of pride.” The rap culture is helping to rekindle an ethnic identity within the newly globalized population of Ulaanbaatar, and giving them a new way to voice their pride and opinions.

 

Rapping with a Conscience:

The Mongolian rappers set themselves apart from the hip hop scenes in many other countries by focusing on social issues over pop culture. Rappers use the platform to critique their society in hopes of improving their nation, and by doing so fostering even more national pride among the Mongolian people. The aforementioned rapper Gee says that “[m]ongol hip-hop should be wise and should tell the people what is right to do.” Indeed, there are significant hardships that a modernizing and urbanizing city endures, yet through rap music, Mongolians can create a commentary on these issues in hopes of solving them. The rappers work to combat substance abuse and violence within their city. Mongolian rapper Quiza states that “[t]here are lots of under-age victims who are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. This is because tobacco and alcohol companies are very powerful.” To combat this, both Gee and Quiza reject sponsorships from beer and cigarette companies, because as Quiza puts it, “[w]e have a responsibility to think about how we affect the younger generation.” Al Jazeera was right when they tweeted out that “Mongolian rappers have less bling, more heart,” for the rappers in Ulaanbaatar are really working to make a difference in their city. They are fighting to combat corruption within the government alongside social issues, so that common people can have a larger say in their own lives. The rappers of Mongolia contribute positively to their society in hopes of helping to create a new positive postcolonial identity as the nation reinvents itself socially and economically. As theorist Stuart Hall puts it, “[t]he very notion of an autonomous, self-produced and self-identical cultural identity […] had in fact to be discursively constructed in and through ‘the Other.’” Hall argues that new identities come from making existing influences their own, and through taking the increasing westernization spawning from the Chinese investment in their young capitalist economy and using the new western styles of music the modernization has brought to create positive change, Ulaanbaatar’s rappers are creating a modern Mongolian identity with their music.


 

Class Consciousness on the Steppes:

Mongolian rappers are well aware that a divide exists between the core and the periphery in Ulaanbaatar, and that much of the core is made up of rich foreigners. The massive mineral deposits beneath the nation’s grasslands draw in Chinese mining companies who invest billions of dollars, but thanks to corrupt officials within the core, 30 percent of the nation still lives below the poverty line. In a studio surrounded by newly-opened upscale western clothing stores one rap group sings that “[a]lthough we grew up in yurts, after years in the city we’re forgetting our culture.” Yet the rappers are speaking out against some of the more seditious aspects of capitalism. The Mongolian rapper MC Bondoo says that “[w]e don’t admire luxury culture. We hate materialism, and the worship of expensive things.” Despite the efforts of Mongolian rappers to empower the periphery of Ulaanbaatar, the divide becomes even more profound when you examine how the core makes their money.

Chinese mining magnates have relatively free reign from a corrupt and cooperative government to strip the nation of all the wealth they can. The government is relocating the nomadic farmers which symbolize the nation on the falsified grounds that they are depleting the grasslands in order to allow mining companies to move in and take the land, sparking further anti-Chinese sentiments and inciting one rapper to sing that “[o]vergrazing is a myth and a lie/ We have grazed animals here thousands of years / Why has the desertification started since only a few decades ago?” Mongolians know that they are being exploited by the Chinese, sparking rapper Gee to become almost violently anti-Chinese, going as far as to say that the Chinese want to take everything from Mongolia. The animosity is exacerbated by the intense connection many Mongolians feel to their land, and the destruction that Chinese mines bring to it. Many Mongolian rappers have songs that revere the beautiful grasslands which are now being turned into a dessert by bulldozers and dump trucks. The rappers see the wealth that the Chinese are siphoning out of their nation’s well of resources juxtaposed against their own people starving for a drop to drink. Rapper Amraa calls for social reform and creates an economic commentary by posing that “[w]e have homeless children, we have poverty, but we also have a very grand history that was inherited from our ancestors. We sing about kids living in sewers, and we ask, 'Where's your kid living?' We want to get a message to the corrupt upper class.” The economic disparities present within Mongolia give fuel for Mongolian rappers to fire up and unite their audiences by calling for greater change.


 

The Smoldering Embers of Sinophobia:

Lauren Knapp quotes rapper Gee to say that “I’m not racist toward anybody… except the Chinese. I hate the Chinese.” This sentiment is shared by most Mongolian rappers and much of the local population. Gee even released a new song whose title, “Hujaa,” is a racial slur against the Chinese, and rap group 4 Zug released a song of their own called “Don't Overstep the Limits, You Chinks.” A history of conflict between the nations, alongside modern fears of Chinese economic imperialism, have heightened the racial tensions within Mongolia to a shocking level. It is possible that some of the sinophobia also stems from the sentiment in Mongolia that they are always a step or two behind China. Watching the Chinese mega-companies turn their national resources into huge profits, Mongolians might wish that they were able to do it themselves and see its benefits. On the world stage, China is seen as a key player, while Mongolia sitting immediately next to it has been relegated to backwater country. Thus, it is natural that anti-Chinese sentiments are a negative of the pan-Mongolian nationalism churned out by Mongolian rappers, for they can use universal hatred of the Chinese to further unite their people. A consequence of the postcolonial attempts to reclaim some lost Mongolian identity is a xenophobia. This fear and hatred stems from the pride and chauvinism endemic to any exclusive identity, and unfortunately by promoting the identity, Mongolian rappers are also promoting the animosity.

In Mongolia, rappers have helped to cultivate a new identity as the nation emerges from centuries of subjugation and adjusts to its new role as a part of the periphery within the capitalist global economy. They evoke pride and a new sense of ethnic identity within the youth of Ulaanbaatar, and fight against addiction and political corruption. Yet, they also incidentally feed into ultra-nationalist sentiments which can lead to hatred and racism against the economic core Chinese.

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