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Revisiting History: Debt and Protest during the Manchu Period

Hedwig AWaters15 May 2017

 

As has been discussed extensively in this blog, Mongolians, both on a national and personal level, are tackling daily with the phenomenon of growing indebtedness. On the eve of receiving another bailout by the IMF, these questions over the growing debt are also linked to further unrest over the economic activities of politicians (that demand transparency and the revealing of offshore accounts). In short, Mongolians are currently struggling over the duties of politicians to citizens and how much of a role money and economic advancement should play in these relations. Yet, although these struggles are frequently framed as new, emerging discourses,[1] taking a foray into history allows us to see how Mongolians have been negotiating questions of debt, politics and obligation for centuries. Through the case study of one 19th century prince, Togtokhtör, and the protests in his province, we can understand more about the relationships and obligations inherent to debt in the Mongolian context—including how history might be repeating itself.

During the Qing/Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911), Mongolian territories underwent struggles over the debt, protest and politics. In this era, the current territory of the state of Mongolia was a vassal region under indirect Manchu colonial control. It was split into 4 large provinces (aimag) and, within those, smaller banner administrations (hoshuu) that were controlled by Manchu-selected, Mongolian aristocratic lineages. In return for the power to administer over their territories, the Mongolian princes had to levy taxes from their populace as tribute to the Manchu Dynasty; and were required to offer local men into service for the military, border control and postal relay stations. In addition to these regulations, they were to rule their areas in accordance with Manchu law, which, for example, endeavoured to maintain the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle of Mongolians (Namjim 2004: 224). Otherwise, the princes were relatively free to administer and implement policy as they pleased, taking advantage of the ‘variegated sovereignty’ (Dear 2014: 306) of the Manchu empire.

Although it had initially been discouraged by the Manchu elite, Chinese traders started entering the Mongolian territories at the beginning of the 19th century. Over the next 100 some years between their arrival and the start of the Mongolian Soviet Revolution in 1924, Mongolia saw the gradual accrual of large levels of debt by their princes (and also citizens) to the Chinese mendicant traders, trading houses (puuz) and banks. The contemporary trope of the Chinese usurer emerged during this period, as Soviet accounts heralded the revolution as a release of the ‘slaves of debt’ from their debt bondage (Sanjdorj 1980: 103) to said traders. Yet, more recent accounts (Dear 2014) discuss the consumer desires of Mongolians during this era. In an economic atmosphere without one clear currency or denomination of value, credit became a simple way of accessing new consumption items like tea, rice and silk (186). Whether extractive or consumptive (and likely, both), the levels of debt in Mongolia reached colossal proportions—by 1924, the total debt to Chinese shops in Mongolia reached 30 million taels of silver, equal in value to half the entire livestock of the country (Onon and Pritchatt 1989: 4; Wheeler 2004: 224).

This debt was carried by the general populace (ard) and managed through distribution among larger and larger swaths of peoples. According to Manchu regulations, princes were allowed to tax their populace for various needs—in practise, noblemen frequently paid their debts to Chinese houses though taxes collected from their populace. Consequently, princes and their populations negotiated the ever-rising debt by mobilizing ever growing population segments across networks. For example, Dear (2014) writes about a case in 1830 of a Tüsheet Khan Aimag nobleman who racked up debt purchasing luxury items from Chinese firms for daily use (208). The nobleman started paying back the debts through distributing the burden over several banner (hoshuu) territories, but, when many of them were hit by drought, he pleaded to neighbouring areas to help him. What followed, Dear says, ‘…was a complicated transfer of resources to remedy the debt, demonstrating the long-distance networks available to some Mongolians’ (2014: 208-9). In total, populations became accustomed to constant and distributed levying of duties and services. Through a triple burden of princely debts, personal debts and military service, the general populace was literally and figuratively overtaxed.

To Van: An ‘Odd Bird’ Amongst Princes

One prince who skilfully implemented mechanisms of debt and taxation in his province was Togtokhtör, better known as To Van (1779-1868; ‘Van’ being the word for his title).[2] I first encountered the legacy of To Van in my fieldsite area of Khalkh-Gol, which is the present-day location of the Manchu era province of ‘Ilden Gün’ hoshuu, which To Van inherited in 1822 from his father (Namjim 2004: 222). To Van continues to be well-known to this day, as he was considered a ‘rare bird amongst his fellows’ (Bawden 1968: 179) for the various economic and political reforms he carried out in the province. In fact, To Van is regarded as a prescient leader, because he was exemplary in implementing various alternatives to pastoral herding, including agriculture (despite being contrary to Manchu policy at the time), small-industry (like craftsman schools, handicraft shops and water mills) and even forms of mining. Within academic circles, To Van is well-known for having written the first economic text in Mongolian, his ‘Hevei Vangiin Aj Törökhiig Zaasan Surgaal’ or ‘Treatise on Livelihoods from the Hevei Van’. This text is a series of practical instructions compiled from his own province on how to run a culturally-appropriate, economic and self-sustaining pastoral-based household. Thus, To Van was erudite, farsighted, innovative and dynamic, which explains his continued positive reputation among contemporary academics and Khalkh-Gol residents.

To Van.

Portrait of To Van.  Source: http://www.dms.mn/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Tovan.jpg

 

However, according to historical texts, To Van was known within his own banner as hezuu or ‘difficult’ because of the intense and uncompromising aspects of his reforms. Although he ran his territory ‘…as an integrated and diversified economic and cultural unit’ (Bawden 1968: 180), it is unclear exactly what his motivations for this were. His ‘Treatise’ contain several instructions on how to maximize economy and live as frugally as possible, which the Soviet-era scholar Nasagdorj claims ‘…did not in the least spring from his consideration of the welfare of the people, but are to be explained as being aimed to reducing the people’s consumption as far as possible and increasing his own exploitation of them’ (quoted in Bawden 1968: 182). Indeed, To Van did utilise several loopholes and unclear legal rulings to tax at irregular intervals, under multiple justifications and even to tax his own lower princes (which was debarred under Manchu legislation) (Namjim 2004: 24-5). Despite his clever legal manoeuvring, however, the ultimate rebuke of his policy came from his own populace.

In 1837, as part of his reforms, To Van had a large, 60-room monastery built and ordered all of the over 1000 lamas of his province to be permanently installed there as pupils. In order to have this monastery built, however, he mobilised the resources and people of the entire province for four years—he had the locals provide all the transportation and construct the bricks and materials (he even had the disabled members of the community form a line by sitting on the ground and passing bricks) (Nasagdorj 1968: 23). This idea of having the lamas moved, however, was largely disliked by the populace, because it a) meant that the previous 11 religious schools in the area would be dissolved and therefore locals would lose independence over their practice, and b) lower lamas, who frequently lived together with their families, would have to leave their households permanently. Considering that the majority of families in the area were very impoverished, losing the labour of young men meant that families would have added work burdens. This idea was thus generally unpopular, but particularly in Daivan sum (one of four districts in To Van’s province). In this district, all the residents gathered, deliberated, and declined To Van’s plan, saying that their 98 lamas would not participate in the school. To Van temporarily acquiesced after he had a stupa dismantled and increased whippings and taxation in the area, but when the Manchu Dynasty declared To Van’s large new monastery an example of cultural heritage revitalisation in 1839, he redoubled his efforts. When he reiterated the order for all lamas to move to the monastery, Daivan sum members sent the missive: ‘We are having our own religious gathering. Our people are incredibly poor, and so they attend our own gathering to read religious texts, but then must go home to help our families. We can’t separate from them…This is the religious legacy of our forefathers and not something you control’ (Nasagdorj 1963: 228). With this sentiment, the locals of Daivan sum resolved to protest against their Van.

Fearing a swift and unforgiving reprisal from their prince (as per his reputation), the locals gathered and decided they must take up arms and fight. As Nasagdorj (1963 and 1968) describes, the people of the district and their three leaders—a commoner, a scribe and a lower lama—gathered all the religious devices, scythes, shovels, wood, and iron bars in the area, and then travelled to a leader’s camp to fell trees and make wooden clubs (1963: 228-9). They devised a plan in case the Van decided to send Manchu troops—they would protest at two locations, in order to force the troops to divide, and then lie in wait to ambush. As expected, To Van gathered 150 troops, provided weapons and gear, and sent them to Daivan district to capture the leaders of the protest. And thus, the troops went to Daivan sum and stole 170 horses, 16 yurts, 30 male sheep and many other items under the pretence of needing them for a relay station. Continuing to the first protest meeting point, the troops encountered over 100 lamas and laymen, wives and children, all standing there with weapons in hand, ready to fight.

When the representative of the Van encountered the people and demanded for them to stand down and to acquiesce, Tudev, a commoner leader, walked out and yelled:

“We don’t honour the words of half-witted helpers like you. We don’t follow your orders or the order of the Bogd Khan mandate, or the generals at Uliastai, or the ambassadors at Huree, or the Van… we won’t follow them, religion has lost the state, the government is broken, the iron pot has splintered, and we are not going to that religious school. And if the Van tries to come here, we will pummel him with dung!”

And with that, Tudev waved his wooden club in the air and the gathered people took up their arms and stormed, yelling, at the troops, tore the prince’s representatives from their horses, beat 30 of the troops mercilessly, and took back all the stolen goods that had been ransacked from their district earlier in the day. Scared of continuing to the second protest location, the prince’s representative sent a minor prince in his stead, who also encountered an angry rabble of lamas and laypeople who claimed:

 “We aren’t going [to the religious school]. But because we don’t know you, we will [not attack and] only tell you this once. If many people come, we won’t tell them casually like this. Every person here will fight with all of their strength and kill. We aren’t afraid of killing people”.

At the same time, 80 some lamas that had already gathered at the cultural revitalization monastery, rose up and almost killed the proctor by attacking his ger with stones. In this way, the protest was a highly organised, explosive event at multiple locations that involved several hundred people.

Due to the inability of the residents and the Van to reconcile their differences, the Manchu ambassador at Huree (current Ulaanbaatar) had to get involved and began legal proceedings between the two parties. In the litigation claim submitted by the protesting locals, Daivan district residents enumerated 40 times between 1821 and 1839 that To Van has unlawfully taxed them and ‘burdened them through extraction’ (möljin zovookh) (Nasagdorj 1963: 231). For example, in order to get his princely position, he had gone to Beijing and took out an interest loan for 1000 lan [3] of silver, which he was now having paid back through taxation of the locals. They had various claims of false pretences he had taxed them under to maintain his traveling, consumerist lifestyle. But at the end of their litigation petition, they wrote to please be ‘merciful to the slaves’ that had calmly lived under the taxation from the Van’s lineage for seven generations and 140 years—their goal was reimbursement, not revolution. Although the protest was comprised of both lamas and laypeople, this statement points to the common denominator among all those involved—they felt unable to economically carry the perceived extreme burden of taxation (Nasagdorj 1963: 235-6; Bawden 1980: 183). Their goal, however, had not been to overthrow the order, but rather to make aware that its levels were becoming untenable, such as the lamas needing to stay at home to help their families economically survive.

The Manchu administration ruled largely in favour of To Van with the understanding that princes had the prerogative to tax their peoples (Namjim 2004: 224). The Manchu rulers called the 40 taxation incidences listed by the movement as ‘trivial and minute events’ (aar saar yvdal) (Nasagdorj 1983: 223), cutting To Van’s salary in half for 5 years, while condemning the leaders of the protest to die in chains as servants or in exile. The burden of the princes’ ongoing debts, exercised through extreme taxation, was deemed intrinsic to the role obligations between prince and peoples. However, these issues continued to crop up in other movements and lawsuits as the populace became increasingly dissatisfied by illegal taxation to finance personal debts (e.g. Bawden 2004 on Ayushi; Nasagdorj 1963 on Dugartsembel; Dear 2014 on Prince Otai).

Rather than a reaction to the state of indebtedness, however, the grievances of To Van’s citizens reflect a desire to rectify a perceived imbalance. They did not desire to escape their obligation to To Van but viewed his debts and taxation as a duty to be carried. In fact, these economic linkages formed a relationship between prince and peoples that contained expectations of obligation to one another. When, for example, nearly a decade later (in 1850), a multi-year drought hit To Van’s principality, he and his princes took out further loans from moneylenders and distributed their animals among the populace. Yet, a year later, To Van wrote the Manchu administration in a plea for help—his debt had become so large that he couldn’t find the money to buy animals to feed his people anymore. In this way, the exigencies of nature (and the economy) locked prince and peoples in an unending economic dependence—the prince who needs his people for debt payments, the peoples who need the prince to take out loans to help them in dire circumstance.

From an anthropological perspective, debt is a relationship formed between people that encompasses an obligation (Graeber 2011). From a Mongolian historical perspective, the peoples (ergo nation) have frequently jointly carried their leaders debt. Reflecting on her fieldwork among microlenders in India, the anthropologist Guerin considers the ‘inherent ambiguity of all debt relations’, which is reflected ‘…in the fact that while debt can provide protection and solidarity and a means of expressing reciprocal trust and respect, when it is not honoured or is too imbalanced, it can be a source of humiliation, shame, exploitation, and servitude’ (2014: S44). Precisely this tension between the need for visibility, recognition and protection, and the ability to live lives free of economic coercion was negotiated by To Van’s retainers through their protest.

This situation begets the question: Is history repeating itself? The Mongolian government, seeking IMF approval, is in the process of implementing austerity, a ‘bitter medicine’, in order to control the accruing debt of the country. Although the political motivations behind these moves are unclear, the point of debt in Mongolia has rarely been to reduce it, but to use it to form a relationship and obligation between entities. Just like during To Van’s time, Mongolian citizens continue to deal with their government’s (ergo politicians’) debt by sharing and distributing it amongst themselves (see also Marissa Smith and Lauren Bonilla’s blog posts), as their politicians accrue more debt through the misuse of monies. However, the flipside of this debt relationship is the expectation that the politicians will provide for people when they are in need. Austerity violates this understanding by requiring the people to carry the debt without return. If To Van’s time is any precedent, the current growing unrest hints to the stirrings of recalibration.

Ih Burhant

The Ikh Burkhant statue is a giant Buddha carved into a hill face located approximately 30 km from Khalkh-Gol sum centre. This complex was built by To Van between 1859-1864 to ward off catastrophe and in reaction to the many droughts and zuds (as discussed in this piece) that were killing off the animals. To Van’s presence thus remains to this day.

 

References:

Bawden, C. R. 1968. Modern History of Mongolia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

Dear, D. 2014. Marginal Revolutions: Economies and Economic Knowledge between Qing China, Russia, and Mongolia, 1860 – 1911. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University.

Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: The First 5000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Guerin, I. 2014. Juggling with Debt, Social Ties, and Values: The Everyday Use of Microcredit in Rural South India. Current Anthropology (55) 9, S40-S50.

Namjim, T. 2004. Mongol Ulsiin Ediin Zasag: Boti 1. Ulaanbaatar: Interpress.

Nasagdorj, Sh. 1968. To van tuunii surgaal. Ulaanbaatar: Shinjlekh Ukhaanii Akademiin Hevlel.

Nasagdorj, Sh. 1963. Manjiin Ersheeld Baisan Ueeiin Khalkhiin Khuraangui Tüükh. Ulaanbaatar: Ulsiin Khevleliin Khereg Erkhlekh Khoroo.

Nasanbaljir, Ts. & Sh. Nasagdorj. 1966. Ardiin Zargiin Bichig—XYIII—XX Zuunii Ekhen. Ulaanbaatar: Shinjlekh Ukhaanii Akademiin Khevlekh Üildver.

Onon, U. & D. Pritchatt. 1989. Asia’s First Modern Revolution: Mongolia Proclaims Its Independence in 1911. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Sanjdorj, M. 1980. Manchu Chinese Colonial Rule in Northern Mongolia. London: C. Hurst & Company.

Wheeler, A. 2004. Moralities of the Mongolian ‘Market’: A Genealogy of Trade Relations and the Zah Zeel. Inner Asia (2004) 6, 215-38

 

[1] As a feature of the recent, post-2012 boom-and-bust cycle and not as a historical reoccurring phenomenon; see for example, ‘Mongolia: Living from loan to loan’ and ‘How the World’s Fastest Growing Economy Went Bust’.

[2] The following historical information on To Van’s life is a consolidation of information from historical sources including Namjim 2004; Bawden 1968; Nasagdorj 1968; Nasanbaljir & Nasagdorj 1966; and Nasagdorj 1963. The Soviet-era scholar Nasagdorj used 170 documents, including litigation and postal relay missives, from the National Archives to compile this history, as well as To Van’s own written work (Nasagdorj 1963). I would like to thank Uchral Enkh for bringing the last two books to my attention.

[3] 1 lan is around 37 grams of silver. According to the historian Namjim, in 1919, one piece of tea was worth .8 lan of silver and one one-year-old sheep was worth 1 lan (Namjim 2004: 195).

 

“Shakhaanii Business”: Shared Debt, Privatization of Profit, and (Re-)Emergent Corruption Discourses in Mongolia

Guest Contributor2 March 2017

By Marissa J. Smith

Marissa J. Smith obtained her PhD from Princeton University’s department of anthropology in 2015, after defending a dissertation about Erdenet and its position in local, national, regional, and international contexts. She currently teaches at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. 

 

With presidential elections on the horizon, as the Parliament called its fall session into recess and Mongolians began preparations for the Lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar, major developments materialized regarding two particular issues that since the June 2016 parliamentary elections have become foci of interrelated concerns, controversies, and conspiracy formation about national debt, national development, and international mining projects, long noted and discussed on this blog.

The two issues are: 1.) the Parliament’s vote on February 10 that the state take (törönd avakh) the forty-nine percent share of the Erdenet Mining Corporation, deeming illegal the controversial sale of the shares on the  and 2.) the announcement on February 19 of a “staff-level” agreement worked out with the IMF, $440 million dollars through a three-year “Extended Fund Facility” program. This announcement included that around five and a half billion dollars of “support” from China, Japan, South Korea, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank were also expected. China confirmed the extension of an over two billion dollar currency swap on February 21 during the diplomatic visit of Foreign Minister Ts. Munkh-Orgil, while Erdenet was not officially addressed during Munkh-Orgil’s visit to Russia on February 13-14.

As noted and discussed on this blog, the senses prior to and just after the summer elections were of slow-down, “stalling,” “resisting closure;” the feeling may now be characterized as of urgency, sped up, as the first of a billion dollars’ worth of loan payments come due this year and presidential elections approach. With $580 million due for maturing bonds in March, the announcement of the IMF decision has been met with some relief. However, this relief has also been mixed with suspicions and speculations like those around the highly controversial “matter of the Erdenet 49%.” Some have also tied the two together:

imferdenettweet

“The $550 [sic] million of the IMF matches the amount of money that the 49% of the Erdenet enterprise was purchased for. It seems that the Mongolian People’s Party (MAN) is “settling accounts” of/with the people.”

Both of these events are easily placed in narratives noted and discussed in this blog. With the IMF package, there are ever more loans than can be paid off, as more loans are taken to pay for loans. While much more on the IMF package and associated “projects” from the ADB, World Bank, Japan, and South Korea can be expected after Tsagaan Sar, for now the announcement of stagnant salaries and increased taxes associated with the IMF’s conditions for the loans has been at the center of concern. The major worry with the Erdenet 49% is that shares (khuv) have been, and will continue to be, wrongly distributed. As I have written about elsewhere, while international headlines described the action as “nationalization,” what is expected is a re-privatization, one that will favor a small group of politicians, working together across party lines (see Bumochir Dulam’s post on Mongolia’s deficit of institutionalized and regulated opposition politics) and foreigners (with some of the major politicians accused hailing from minority ethnicities subject to being questioned as to their degree of “Mongolness,” like many of the residents and employees of Erdenet itself).

imftaxestweet1

“The country has no money, has taken loans from the IMF and China, there will be taxes and fees on the citizens, salaries will not increase, they say. The Ulaanbaatar City Council head SANDUI LIVES IN LUXURY on budget money!!”

 

twitterputinsuuniiuneg

Members of MANAN milking Erdenet, the “exhausted cow.”

 

How are these two issues connected? The IMF cites predictions of a return to eight percent growth in the national economy by 2019, but why is the premise that privatization will generate excess wealth to pay off loans unbelievable and genuinely questionable, from the perspective of Mongolian citizens as well as an anthropological perspective?

Who Owns the Shares?

Beginning a period of field research this past summer, I arrived in Mongolia just one day before the Parliamentary elections. After settling in my hostel, I glanced at twitter and saw something about Erdenet trending (before now, highly unusual), but with arrival errands I was unable to look into the matter beyond noting a connection with the discourses about “offshore” assets that had broken into Mongolian political commentary in spring 2016 with the release of the “Panama papers.” The night of elections, I attended a party with other foreign researchers and journalists, where I was told that Prime Minister Ch. Saikhanbileg had made his announcement that Erdenet was now “100% Mongolian.”

Returning to twitter to take a closer look, I found that this very notion of Erdenet having become “100% Mongolian” was a major point being refuted in the tweets I had been seeing. In conversations considering the election results, consensus quickly emerged that the timing and grandiosity of the announcement had been a key element in the Mongolian People’s Party’s taking eighty-five percent of the Parliament, the announcement backfiring badly for Saikhanbileg and his Democratic Party. As I spoke with Mongolian friends with varying degrees of relation to Erdenet and the Erdenet Mining Enterprise, the theme of “who has taken the 49%?” continued to dominate conversations. Everyone, not only Erdenetchuud, the people of Erdenet, felt dispossessed. The matter did also come into my arrival errands, as while I waited to have a notarized copy of my passport made near the Government Building the morning after the election, the notary held court with clients on the issue of who had the 49%.

 

erdenetoffshoretweet

 

Answers to this question ranged widely: an eye-catching tweet showed a pie chart with the percentages of the Trade and Development Bank owned by shareholders in China, Luxembourg, United States, and Mongolia (just over two percent); those in and close to Erdenet tended to allege that the 49% had gone or would go into Chinese hands; others focused on individual politicians, doing politics in the way noted by Rebecca Empson: “speculation and circulation of rumours, of factions, motivations, alliances and actions of individuals dominates political talk.” A  friend who had worked at Erdenet while I conducted dissertation research there and was now living in Ulaanbaatar also framed things in this way a few days after the election, listing everything that had gone downhill since changes in political appointments following the 2012 elections. Her relatives had been compelled to retire, access to the sport center had been restricted with entrance fees, and there was speculation a national-level politician would take the vacation resort. She also told me how she was one of the few regular salary-earners in her extended family and was helping to pay off the mortgage on an apartment in the name of a family member while living in another apartment owned by still another family member, caught in an arrangement that reminded me of the story in the post by Bumochir Dulam.

The shared nature of debt makes privatization excessively threatening, go beyond expropriation, in ways that make scalar and even erase distinctions between consumer, corporate, and national debts. If wealth, and the relations generating wealth, are distributed into closed groups or exit from the national community, the burden of debt (made heavier with increased taxes and stagnant and evaporating wages) remains widely shared with less possibility of being alleviated. A pattern has even emerged in which it at least appears that more and more debt is taken on as shared, while ownership and possession of capital and profits is made increasingly exclusive. If the knowledge of where this ownership and possession lies and moves is unavailable, its realm of exchange cannot be entered, and thus “transparency” (shilen dans) has become a cornerstone of President Elbegdorj’s policy without stemming the flow of suspicion and speculation over conspiracies involving members of the government and business elite.

As posts on this blog from over the past year articulate, the mirroring of debt in personal life and one’s own business and household on the one hand and at the level of the national economy and international relations on the other are not merely apparent. As Lauren Bonilla put it last February, the “external debt” is also “internal debt” – for individual Mongolian citizens this debt is their own, and also for members of government who have calculated the share of the debt as held by every citizen (including pensioners and children). Most lately, at the end of January, as Mongolians were awaiting news on the IMF agreement and the Erdenet matter was being investigated in Parliament, major English news outlets reported that, “oddly enough,” Mongolian citizens were offering their own cash, jewelry, and livestock towards paying off the national debt. (This phenomenon and associated negative international attention were also mentioned by President Ts. Elbegdorj in his address to the Parliament before the vote on taking the 49%, which I assume is connected with the apparent encouragement of the practice by Prime Minister J. Erdenebat, though it has been stated that the donations, khandiv, will go into a separate fund and not be put towards debt payments. Both moves seem to demonstrate that the government members seek to take responsibility and authority for paying the debt onto themselves.) Bumochir Dulam also shows how the “8%” mortgage program tied not just individuals to the state bank, but also groups of friends and family, being at least informed by employees of commercial and state banks. The concerns of the Mongolian economists he cites as to who actually benefitted from the program and attendant negative effects on the economy broadly are apparently also borne by the IMF, who support legal reforms of the mortgage program and regulation of the state bank, passed at the end of the fall session of Parliament.

What is “shakhaanii biznes”?

On being told of the sale of the 49% on the election night in June, my reaction was of disbelief; having studied Erdenet for almost a decade I thought of the central roles I have seen the enterprise and city hold in relations not only between Russians and Mongolians (let alone other international relationships), but also among Mongolians; the great stresses that would be required to break these relations, the force with which these stresses would be resisted, and the massive scale of the potential fallout for the national economy and international relations, in which were also implicated the jobs and workplace communities of many of my friends, the infrastructure of the city of Erdenet, and the many Mongolians who accessed trade, schooling, healthcare, and employment more indirectly through association with the enterprise and its associated institutions throughout the city.

In the last two months, as I have followed news, opinion writing, and social media during the course of investigations by the Standing Committee on Law of the Ikh Khural, I have noticed a category for a particular kind of corruption that I had not picked up on before. The term shakhaanii biznes, or simply shakhaa, appeared particularly in connection with discussions of apparent conflicts of interest involving politicians most centrally involved with the movement to take the 49%. The term struck me not only as a category of corruption accusation I had been unfamiliar with, but also due to the force of its possible valences; a possible translation is “pressured” or “forced business,” but a related or homonymic verb with the meaning “to shoot” is commonly used in Mongolian as a strong swear word, analogous to English’s “f-word.”

While this concept and its contexts bear more investigation, the situation being described here is apparently that of trade being kept within a closed circle of participants to the detriment of those outside – as well as inside? The term might also refer to the “pressure” upon those inside to participate in the activity. In December and January the Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Mongolia-focused Russian-language news outlet asiarussia.ru ran two pieces (here and here) related to the issue of Erdenet’s 49% with shakaanii biznes in the headlines and with suggested translations, including tenevoi biznes (“business in the shadows”). Sociologist Alena V. Ledeneva, a major contributor to academic discussions about “barter economies” and “corruption” in postsocialist economies, devotes a chapter of her How Russia Really Works to tenevoi biznes, describing the way that networks of barter, in which the many participants she interviewed expressed being compelled to participate, kept the Russian economy itself, as well as individual Soviet enterprises (similar to Erdenet) going through the 1990s and beyond.

As I re-read Rebecca Empson and Lars Højer’s separate work about Mongolian pawnshops (lombard), it strikes me how it is not sharing or transferring property or personal substance itself that is objectionable, but being compelled to do so in conditions of anonymity or uncertainty, as the effects of these movements are so wide-ranging, potentially infinitely so. Such transactions involve and constitute ongoing relations, in which consequences and risk, as well as benefits and potential benefits, are shared. As Rebecca Empson shows, these “chains of debt” extend well beyond the lombard and the person handing over property in exchange for a loan, as she observed, remarkably, that a debtor had to also provide a list of telephone numbers belonging to other people also “accountable for payment.” The lombards themselves, Empson notes, are also “just ticking over;” rather than being profit-making ventures as her interlocutors alleged, they were as bound in chains of debt as their “clients.” Debt relations are not between a debtor and a creditor, but form “networks” and “webs” in which these distinctions become perspectival.

It seems that large enterprises and national economies and their politics are not so different, and thus are really involved and implicated in much more small-scale seeming interactions after all. To analyze Mongolian economy and politics, we must not lose sight of these points as we encounter one particular corruption accusation or conspiracy theory after another.