In Mongolia, Protesters With Empty Stomachs Are Denouncing Empty Promises

Mongolia has seen a wave of protests in response to soaring inflation. The demonstrators have rallied around the slogan “we want to live” — damning the disappointed promises of the country’s postsocialist transition.

Protesters in Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Christian Sorace)

In Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, April 7 and 8 saw massive youth-led protests in the main Sükhbaatar Square in front of the parliament building — colloquially referred to as the Government Palace. A common theme of the protests was the absence of any future, voiced in slogans and signs, which read, “We are not living, only surviving”; “We want to live a good life in Mongolia”; “We don’t want this kind of future”; “Is this life?”; and “Mongolia’s economy is a disaster.” Runaway inflation, along with a series of empty promises and insensitive remarks from politicians, brought the protesters into the street. Yet it did not create the underlying sense of economic crisis, which has developed across the past decade.

Prior to inflation, Mongolians would often describe themselves as “living from debt to debt.” On top of these economic complaints, the protesters chanted “Do your job” at a practically empty and unresponsive Government Place. Finally, in the late afternoon on the first day of the protests, justice and internal affairs minister Khishgee Nyambaatar briefly appeared and gave a barely audible speech, which was greeted with boos — and empty plastic bottles hurled in his direction, as he hurriedly returned to the parliament building. Around 2-3 AM, police holding riot shields arrested over a dozen young protesters. A video of police holding and kicking a protester went viral, drawing more people into the square the following day. So did a meme comparing photos of the police’s newly unveiled, anti-riot water cannon, with the antiquated, lumbering water truck used to clean public spaces. On the evening of the second day of protests, Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene emerged and offered vague promises and gestures of sympathy in response to fifteen demands specified by the protesters, which ranged from lowering the price of consumer goods to improved transportation and business conditions.

What originated as an anti-inflation protest also happened to coincide with the Mongolian Economic Forum, which one protester’s sign referred to as “Mongolia’s Disaster Forum.” Together with the prime minister’s empty promises, the economic forum — which showcased the administration’s “New Recovery Policy” to kickstart the economy, in front of representatives from government, foreign embassies, and the private sector — appeared totally disconnected from people’s ordinary lives. Some protesters even held up signs that read “If only I could live like a Parliament member” and “3 million Mongolians [should] eat together,” while others brought and held up everyday items, such as a half loaf of bread, a small piece of meat, a handful of potatoes, and empty plastic bags. The demonstration became a protest against empty stomachs, empty promises, and an empty government palace. While everyone was voicing different aspirations and discontents, there was also a shared feeling of euphoria and solidarity organized around the imperative: we want to live.

We Want to Live!

Translation: “Give hope for the future.” (Christian Sorace)

Unlike the empty promises of politicians, the protesters’ slogans had a visceral dimension. There is something haunting about the line “Since I can’t die, I must live” and seeing a teenager holding a poster with the message “I would like to live.” Although the demand “to live” seems like the most basic and self-explanatory of human rights, there is nothing simple about it. It implies the question: to live what kind of life? On one level, the protesters associated this demand with the right to afford the basic necessities of daily life and its reproduction. To be able to afford bread? Of course. But life is about more than biological survival. To be able to live without crushing debt? To be able to trust in the public institutions and infrastructures that organize social life? It is impossible to separate these two. The demand to live, and to live well, is a collective problem experienced as individual privation.

Significantly, many of the slogans added the words “to live well in our own country” — conveying the desire to stay in Mongolia rather than migrate to South Korea or the United States for potentially higher salaries. The protest was patriotic in tone, with protesters collectively singing the national anthem, while several school-aged children clasped their hands over their hearts. This was followed by instantly familiar songs about the passionate attachment to one’s homeland, such as: “There’s no clear sky bluer than this / There’s no place better than my native land / No faith lovelier than this / There’s no place better than my native land.” Read together “Do your job” and “We want to live well in Mongolia” formulate the position that it is the government’s responsibility to the nation and its citizens to create the conditions of livability. The demands were powerful because of their seeming simplicity and common sense: Mongolians want to be able to live and work in their own country.

Yet it was not clear to anyone what the state can really do, apart from a handful of measures such as increased social spending and price-capping basic supplies. Such moves might temporarily ameliorate suffering but would not be able to address the deeper effects of global capitalist crisis. In particular, Mongolia’s dependence on mining makes it particularly vulnerable to global commodity price fluctuations. Beginning in 2014, the sharp decline in coal and copper prices undermined the high expectations of previous years, and the Mongolian government found itself mired in debt. More recently, the pandemic provided a brutal reminder of the country’s economic dependence on China, not only as its main export market but also for importing everyday goods. The closure of the Chinese border continues to have a damaging impact on small businesses and working-class consumers. Without a strong industrial base, Mongolia’s economy cannot survive apart from global supply chains. Although it may be emotionally powerful to invoke the nation and blame the state, without connecting it to a systemic critique of capitalism, it is a bit like the snake chasing its tail.

Do Your Job!

Mongolians’ anger at the state comes from the overwhelming sense that politicians live in their own bubbles sheltered from the lives of ordinary people. Despite more than three decades of democracy, most Mongolians feel powerless. It was notable that Mongolian youth, who have largely abstained from participating in elections, took to the streets to make their voices heard. A driving factor of the global phenomenon of “democratic disillusionment” is the depoliticization of policy-making, which paradoxically takes place under the mantle of democratic process.

In fact, despite its previous incarnation as the party that ruled socialist Mongolia for seventy years, the currently dominant Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) takes pride in being on the cutting edge of digital polling and deliberative mechanisms. When it comes to privatization and neoliberal reforms, it is ideologically indistinguishable from the opposition Democratic Party. At the same time, it resembles many big-tent or “Third Way” parties around the world by its agnostic stance toward all ideology but very discernible pro-oligarchic policies. In December 2021, during its thirtieth plenary, the MPP declared a commitment to uphold human rights as its highest ideal and outlined a series of legal reforms. General secretary Dashzegviin Amarbayasgalan announced, “We [MPP] don’t want it to become just another empty promise. We will address around 800 clauses in 318 widely used laws and regulations for potential human rights abuses and will take all necessary measures.” A few months prior to the protests, Speaker of the Parliament Gombojavyn Zandanshatar urged the general populace to express its opinions through a voting application as opposed to going into the streets. The reality is that such deliberative polling technologies circumscribe the space for democratic discussion and dissension within a predetermined set of choices. In the current context, these types of political technologies are misused to control and structure public opinion according to politicians’ own interests rather than to invite democratic debate.

In general, meaningful participation in a functioning democracy cannot be limited to articulation of narrowly formulated policy alternatives. Democracy indexes such as the Economist Intelligence Unit or Freedom House or other quantitative measurements are not inherently equipped to capture underlying socioeconomic dynamics, dissensions, and passions. Political technologies that claim to be inclusive actually close down the space of popular sovereignty and the self-organization of society, which momentarily erupts on the streets. This seemingly paradoxical combination of technocracy and populism may seem surprising at first sight — the former is based on expert rule, while the latter claims a direct link with voters is paramount. However, as in today’s Mongolia, they can mutate and merge. Technocratic initiatives that bypass democratic channels give the appearance of the establishment’s “desire” to connect with voters while legitimizing the establishment’s attempts to govern by depending on outside expertise.

The MPP’s response to the appearance of the people not conforming to its preferred mode of participation was to call in the riot police and water cannons. The brutal police response to peaceful protesting youth further discredited the government’s already hollow-sounding commitments to human rights. As one comedian joked, playing on current debates over toxic masculinity and domestic violence, “The police love us during the day and beat us at night.” Since the underlying causes of the protests will endure, as they are structurally unresolvable through the Westphalian framework of nation-states embedded in global capitalism, future protests are likely. When they happen, the Mongolian government will face a choice between democratizing itself or taking harder authoritarian measures.

On this point, the superficially commonsensical statement “Do your job” conceals a profound ambivalence. As citizens of country with a socialist history, which largely subscribes to the triumphal narrative of democracy and free markets, many Mongolians are critical of state interventions in the capitalist economy, colloquially referring to them as “remnants of the old communist society.” At the same time, they are also experiencing a breakdown of the capitalist system’s ability to provide for their daily needs, let alone flourishing. As a neoliberal, depoliticized state, the government is doing its job, which is precisely the problem. Indirectly, what the protests reveal is the state’s powerlessness to address the structural crises and contradictions of capitalism and the people’s powerlessness over the state — the emptiness of promises in response to unfulfillable demands. But we should also remain attentive to the possibilities that emerge any time people take to the streets. What was in the air was a collective refusal among the young generation to accept the status quo of stale promises and stale bread.

Inventing the Future

(Christian Sorace)

The protesters’ message was: we are not living and demand more from life than what the present has to offer. Complaints about life under capitalism, however, do not automatically become critiques of capitalism but can also present themselves as demands for equal opportunities and market access. Indeed, part of the protest is the struggle over its interpretation. On the one hand, many Mongolians see the pervasive socioeconomic inequality; political and business elites inhabiting a different world; their own labor not earning enough to make a living; and a terrifying dependence on global supply chains routed through China whose border closure has wreaked havoc on the Mongolian economy, and they feel their future slipping away. A week after the protests, a solitary individual set himself on fire in the same square, the second self-immolation attempt in nearly one year.

These acts are driven by economic desperation and political voicelessness and are a reminder of the need for collectivity and solidarity, which began to take shape during the demonstrations. Indeed, the protests were not limited to the capital, where more than half the population resides; solidarity protests popped up in other provincial centers. The Confederation of Mongolian Trade Unions (CMTU) also requested to hold a demonstration in accordance with the law, but it was denied by the governor’s office. Instead, it coordinated an online protest and forum discussing regional differences in price increases. One week after the protests, on April 12, union members gathered in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare to demand an increase in wages and real incomes, a higher minimum wage, and measures to reduce inflation.

But despite these encouraging signs of class solidarity, it is more common for Mongolians to blame corruption rather than capitalism for stealing their futures. Although disgust with corruption is understandable, the fixation on corruption deflects from broader structural problems, which would remain under more scrupulous and, dare we say, responsive leaders. Anti-corruption is not a panacea for the ordinary precariousness of capitalism. But while more fundamental Marxist critiques don’t find a particularly receptive audience among younger generations — trained to see themselves as “entrepreneurs,” in the neoliberal jargon — all hope is not lost.

To imagine a new future, what is needed is to critically dislodge the dominant narrative of the past. The collapse, repudiation, and negative historical memory of the state socialist past associates Marxism and socialism with values supposedly antithetical to Mongolia’s youthful, democratic, and open society. It does not help matters that the ruling Mongolian People’s Party was carved out of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mongolia during its seventy-year socialist history. Many people see politicians’ corruption, bureaucratic inflexibility, and hollow phraseology as the long tail of Mongolia’s socialist past, rather than as the creatures of electoral competition and market incentives. For most Mongolians, socialism is a failure of the past, which makes the idea that socialism could be something new, democratic, and capacious unavailable to the political imagination. As a result, political discourse is stuck in the dreary cliché of plucky democratic youth versus communist mummies — obscuring the reality that both the ruling party and the opposition are ruthlessly capitalist.

In Mongolia’s protests, the specter of anti-capitalism took to the streets trapped in the body of capitalist desire. The protesters still want to believe in the promises of democracy and capitalism that emerged from the husk of the socialist state — without quite taking the next step of recognizing that the promises themselves might be part of the problem.