Critique to Franck Billé's Sinophobia (2015)


The moment when Franck Billé’s Sinophobia[1] appeared on my radar I felt there was something missing. In this essay I will try to articulate that ‘miss’ and I hope by doing so it will complement the phenomenon of Sinophobia in Mongolia (if it really exists in inherent form) and present it in wider spectacle.

The book is the account of the author’s personal experiences in Mongolia on his two travels in 1998 and 2006. The main portion of it is the result of his 2006 fieldwork and much of the observations were made in that period. In many ways, it is a descriptive account on how Sinophobia was manifested in various forms particularly around 2006 or more broadly in the early 2000s. It should be noted that the account is bound to its particular period of time, presenting a period when Mongolian social life was becoming increasingly mediatized, which I will return at the end of this discussion since I do not have enough evidence to support it.

Sinophobia (2015) unpacks the phenomenon of Sinophobia in Mongolia mainly around 2006 and more broadly answers two questions why? and how? to make sense of what he was observing. On how? question, Billé provides enough colorful cases and examples how Sinophobia is manifested and does a very extensive work applying various other prominent theories in social sciences which I am in no position to judge given my ignorance to many of those theories.

On why? question, however, he pays little attention to the history and the agency of Mongolians or in more general, the Mongols. The central argument of the book, if I am reading it correctly, is that Sinophobia what has Billé observed in Mongolia is the result of yellow perilisque thinking that was imported from Russia during the period when Mongolia was under Soviet domination. It is the hyperreal effect of something that is not experienced in Mongolian soil that has artificially supplemented during socialist modernization period of Mongolian nation-building process. Indeed, though there are many hyperreals in Mongolian society then and now, I will argue that when it comes to Mongolian imagination of China and the Chinese there are several points in history that had derived from lived historical experience. On why history is not sufficient to make sense of Sinophobia, Billé writes “Centuries of warfare cannot, of themselves, account for present hostilities. If this were the case, we might expect even stronger anti-Mongolian sentiments among the Chinese, given that most of this historical violence has been directed against them”[2]. This, for example, omits entirely the more recent historic memory of the Mongols regarding the incoming Chinese population, particularly the Mongol-Han interactions during the late-Qing dynasty. It seems that history here is understood in a very simplistic terms, giving us an idea of history of warfare, in particular, Mongol conquests of China and the Yuan and all the while, treating unproblematically a linear historical development where two separate nations: Chinese and Mongols have existed and reached to the current era. Though similar view on history is dominant in Mongolia and it is still part of the official Mongolian histography, one needs to dig deeper look for real origins of the subject matter. So here I will present three main historical points, interactions between Mongol and Han populations in the Qing dynasty where it may have in some way shaped the Mongolian imagination about China and the Chinese.

Spread of smallpox

One of the features of the yellow peril in the Western imaginations when it contacted the Chinese in 19th and the early 20th century was the idea of decay and degeneration – a subtext of disease generation. Whether it was developed separately from different experiences in Chinatowns in North American experience or from travel logs from European explorers in the late Qing or in the early-Republican period, it was seen from a superior position of modernity the West was then going through. It was therefore based on othering China for its lack of modernity – its foreignness, backwardness, and irrationality, while also not necessarily realizing the population boom it had witnessed earlier. In other words, what was perceived as China and the Chinese was mainly tied to migrants from rural areas who had become concentrated in the cities the result of enormous demographic changes in the late Qing period. These perceived characterizations of the Chinese would later be used in the times of epidemic to scapegoat racialized Chinese and even today, some similar sentiments still survive, as what has been witnessed from recent COVID-19 related anti-Asianness in the US and elsewhere. These sorts of scapegoat behaviors function by fitting and including everyone in the racial categorization of what is understood as an east-asian.

Centuries earlier, however, Mongols had undergone real historical experience dealing with contentious disease – smallpox. And from point of view of the Mongols the source always been in the Chinese hinterland. The spread of smallpox overwhelmed the entire steppe population to such an extent that many of the political elites – Ligden Khan, Galdan Tseren and Amursanaa all died from smallpox. Considering how it affected the Mongolian elite, one could only imagine how the commoners have dealt with it. The infamous Zunghar genocide also has also something to do with smallpox – so much so, that according to Wei Yuan some 40 percent of the population have died from smallpox[3] alongside battle and wholesale slaughter. In short, the peril of the disease was very real and one could imagine how fear can be developed from such footing. Fear is the primary of any negative sentiment in human psychology – so that yellow peril itself was also founded on fear – a fear of Other, a fear of marching beasts from the East - the Huns, the Mongols, the Russians and Soviets and now the Far East increasingly towards the PRC. However, in the 17th century Mongols’ fear of the Chinese and the Chinese settlements were not seen from superior position of modernity when the West contacted Chinese in the 19-20th century but on less hierarchal othering based on mainly on way of life: sedentary vs pastoralists, and to certain extent it might have developed into racial features which might also explain the perceived racialization between Chinese and Mongols in the Mongolian imagination. It is difficult to imagine from today’s standpoint, debates whether or not Mongols considered themselves as “asian” or not - as categorizations as such were invented in later period of time. However, more important and primary marker between the two groups seemed to be the lifestyles they followed, rather than strict racial categorization.

Jindandao incident

Another important historical point of Mongolian imagination of the Chinese is the Jindandao incident. The Jindandao massacre or Jindandao incident is a peasant led insurgence directed by secret society in 1891 which was popular at that time in the aftermath of Taping Rebellion and upcoming Boxers Uprising in the late Qing dynasty. It was a direct result of colonial expansion of the Chinese peasants supported by the Qing government into Mongolian lands which subsequently led to conflict with the local population. Some parts of nowadays Inner Mongolia were main destination of Chinese farmers after years of population boom in Chinese hinterland. It was also promoted by the so called “New policy” by the Qing who were concerned with Russian expansion in the north. During this time, newly arrived peasant population would outnumber the local population and because of mishandling concerns of the two sides it will turn into ethnic tensions between two groups. Mongols as co-sponsors of the Qing, and also surviving ethnic group with its distinct identity would be scapegoated as foreign, therefore needed to be overthrown by the Han peasants. Similar to what has observed during Boxers Rebellion – it was early making of Han-centered Chinese nationalism which is still visible to this day. Because of this interaction with the Chinese – the rural peasants who have migrated en-masse to Mongolian lands, the Mongolian imagination of the Chinese was not tied with literati class or any other sophisticated representative of Chinese civilization but to that image of reckless and violent peasants who at one historic episode terrorized the Mongolian lands and populations. It has been estimated thousands of Mongols have been killed – in one source, it is suggested in ten days 10,000 Mongols were killed and 1000 villages were attacked and destroyed[4]. Though this incident happened not in today’s Mongolia, as argued by Yang Haiying (Oghonos Chogtu) there was no clear boundaries between two peoples of Inner and Outer Mongolia that we have today. This can be confirmed looking at letter written by Eighth Bogd Jebtsundamba to Russian Empire for appeal mentioning Jindandao incident as one of the key events of Chinese expansion onto Mongolian lands.[5] It could be argued that this event marks the ‘contemporary’ idea of the Chinese as hordes of peasants in Mongolian imagination. The mass migration of Chinese peasants into Mongolian lands should not be viewed in a simple humanitarian crisis lens similar to refugee crisis in our day but because in many cases migrants outnumbered the local population and because given different way of life, it led to that unbridgeable conflict between two different lifestyles that it required complete reorganization of land, economy and subsequently social and political reorganization as well.

While the two mentioned earlier, historical periods occurred mainly in present day Inner Mongolia that is part of today’s PRC – one could argue against Mongolian (or Outer Mongolian) lived historical experience.  But as mentioned earlier by Oghonos Chogtu[6], there was only one Mongolia at that time, especially when we see it from the point of view of linguistically, religiously, and culturally homogenous people of Mongolian steppes.

Dashengkui (Daashinhuu) and economic exploitation of Outer Mongolia

In addition to these two, the economic domination of Chinese enterprises in Outer Mongolia is the one memory that was directly experienced in nowadays Mongolia. Dashengkui (mongolized Daashinhuu) was one of the largest Chinese enterprises that was active around frontier regions including Mongolia, Xinjiang and parts of Inner Mongolia. With the Qing mandate and with support of local princes and aristocracy it has dominated and monopolized economy of collectively known as Outer Mongolia for about 200 years. By 1911-1915, according to Mayskii the total debt to Dashengkui was estimated around 15 million rubles and each household owed around 1000-1400[7]. In some other estimates, it is stated that for one tea block that cost around 0,8 lan the interest for one year would cost two lamb leather or six sheepskin. Considering the respective prices for both products to 1 lan and 0,6 lan – it would inflate the price up to 150-250%. Not only the commoners but across on all social strata Mongols were indebted and were dependent on Chinese merchants. Mongols were aware of the exploitation and in many cases various movements would emerge targeting Chinese merchants and destroying the debt files. It is this image of Chinese being greedy and cunning with their involvement with Mongolian economy that the cover Franck Billé’s is most probably based on.

As I have attempted show above, disease, mass migration and economic exploitation are all lived experiences of the Mongols and they should be considered, if anything, diagnosing contemporary Sinophobia in Mongolia. Had Billé considered these historical facts, it could have complemented enormously to what he did the best – the descriptive account of Sinophobia in Mongolia around 2006. It would have provided a more nuanced picture of how these above mentioned experiences mixed with Western imaginations of yellow peril in some instances were institutionalized during the period of socialist modernization in MPR.

Now, as promised earlier I will dedicate few words on the particularity of the year 2006 and more broadly the early 2000s and how media might have played a role establishing a Sinophobic meanings and expressions in everyday life. A few things to consider of that period, particularity of 2006, is that it was the period when the media became prominent in Mongolian daily life. Exposed to various kinds of foreign media circulation at that point from linguistically more accessible Russian TV channels to American and other foreign media transmission, it was then, new media companies were being established changing the media environment from previously state-run TV and Radio broadcasting run by professionals to a multi-channel media environment by entrepreneurs and individuals. In other words, during this period Mongolian social life started to become increasingly mediatized. The more general development in telecommunication was also happening in the background. What the new media environment provided was the various kinds of information circulation and news generation often originated outside of Mongolia. Exposed to this newly opened door, Mongolians were bombarded with various kinds information flow that was not originally intended for them. Most often, these can be categorized more broadly as entertainment media in the forms of soap operas, different types of TV shows and some in more serious tone - conspiracy themed documentaries. After period of consumption of similar type of information, the indigenization process would start picking up some of the popular formats. Most notable also fascinating example of such indigenization was the remake of popular Russian TV show “Zön bilgiin tulaan“ (”Bitva extrasensov“) - itself a Russian clone of the British TV show „Battle of the Psychics“. Because it was in the very early period new media development in Mongolia, it might be that the producers hadn’t even realized it was a staged show. It was funny and also painful to watch because none of the participants – shamans, lamas and other people with supernatural powers – could not find the hidden object – or whatever they were tasked to perform. All in all, it seemed that both producers and participants believed that participants indeed have some kind of supernatural power and they were open test them in public. It should also be noted up until recently some of the winners of Russian „Battle of the Psychics“ have been visiting Mongolia do perform their „magic“ – and in terms crowd generation, some instances by number of people in attendance could even be compared when Dalai Lama visits Mongolia.

All this just to give a general sense how the new media environment was shaping the Mongolian social life and how the period itself represented an era of irrationality and confusion. Coincidentally, or not, it was also when various types of conspiracy theories were imported and later its Mongolian versions exchanged and communicated in all spheres of life. Even today, some of these versions are still present – which at this point seems to be not an isolated case but a wider global phenomenon. And precisely one of these conspiracy like information flows was embodied through Sinophobic expressions and meanings - a fear of Chinese and other many colorful China stories that are discussed in the book. So, while reading Billé’s book one should keep in mind that it is a description of a particular period of contemporary Mongolia but not the Sinophobia that is inherent, static and constant at all times. Media in Mongolia is one of the under researched subjects and requires special attention to make sense of increasingly mediatized social life in contemporary Mongolia and if my ‘theory’ of Mongolian media makes some sense, I propose we should historicize Franck Billé’s Sinophobia and leave it to 2006.

[1] Franck Billé, „Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence, and the Making of Mongolian Identity“ Hong Kong University Press, 2015

[2] Ibid. p6

[3] Peter. C. Perdue, „China Marches West“, Harvard University Press, 2005

[4] Buren Borjigin, “The Complex Structure of Ethnic Conflict in the Frontier: Through the Debates around ‘Jindandao Incident’ in 1891”, Inner Asia 6, 2004 (41-60)

[5] Ibid. p 54.

[6] Oghonos Chogtu https://www.facebook.com/groups/mongolianstudies/permalink/2651031461855455

[7] Ichinnorov Semchig, „BNMAU ööriin ediin zasgaas gadaadyn kapitalyg shahan zailuulsan n“ 1967.