Ten Things We’ve Learned about Mongolian Democracy (and China)

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

ULAAN BAATAR, Mar. 4 – Attending the Mongolian Economic Forum this week has in part been an interesting case study in two contrasting and competing systems of government. While Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, lies closer to Beijing than Shanghai does, it employs a democratic system as opposed to the one-party state. That system itself has only been in operation for 20 years, about the same time as China has risen to become a world trading giant. In such close proximity to each other, the differing political contrasts are quite apparent. So what have we learned this week about Mongolian democracy as compared to China’s one-party state?

Revolutionary leaders rise to the top
Mongolia threw out the Soviets in 1990, fanned by unrest largely driven by Mongolia’s University students. The Russian regime, holding onto power for over 70 years, had been largely reviled. Those same students are now wealthy men, and in positions of high power. The president, prime minister and much of Mongolia’s Parliament are made up of ex-students lionized for throwing out the Russians. They are also young – at about 20 years of age when the Russians pulled out, none are currently older than 50.

Democracy is a pain
While China has been able to steam ahead in a long series of well-executed five year plans driven ahead by one-party in power, Mongolian politicians have to focus on the next election and deliver within four years or face being replaced. This bane of democracy strongly inhibits the development of much-needed long term visions. China’s one-party state system is superior in its ability to implement and execute long term planning.

Government officials are there to be harangued
A democratic system means the politicians are there because of the votes of the people. And they are expected to listen to them. While some voters may be ill-informed or even plain nuts, a government official is expected to listen politely. It means perhaps the burden of having to sit through 90 percent of rubbish and anger. That remaining 10 percent, however, is where the true value and innovation lies. Try haranguing a Chinese government official and you’re likely to be imprisoned. Chinese officials would do well to be a little more humble and actively seek out that 10 percent value from the populace’s wisdom.

Democracy as a safety valve
That same haranguing of officials, coupled with a multi-party system, actually provides a useful conduit that allows the population to vent their frustrations. What could otherwise develop into social unrest can be alleviated through allowing the people to let off steam. Or, if more serious, to elect a replacement. China’s danger is that it does not possess this safety valve, and it has to continually pander to public discontent through ever-expanding wealth, improved services, and public security. How sustainable this proves to be is an issue that still has to be addressed and is China’s main political weakness.

People like their freedoms
The population, once they have a voice and a vote, become a personal stakeholder in the future of their nation. They will endure almost anything – unemployment, high taxes and a lack of services – but these are their problems to solve. Once given, that civic responsibility is almost impossible to remove. People like democracy, as is quite evident in a nation surrounded by China and Russia. A strong source of the Mongolian national pride is their freedom.

Democracy, by its nature, is subversive
Planned and free elections every four-five years deliberately introduces a system that encourages the fall of the incumbent government.

Differing political systems have ceased being barriers to trade
The days of barter systems between communist states and the “them and us” mentality of the Cold War has long gone. Political systems appear no barrier to trade. Mongolia’s largest trading partner by far is China. So much for the perception of American support of democracies by funding trade.

Democratic politicians are more fun
Perhaps it is because social skills to win the vote have to be honed, but democratic politicians are more fun and accommodating than their stern one-party counterparts. No one ever accused the Communist party of being a barrel of laughs. Mongolia’s president, by contrast, is hugely charismatic and, in a slightly bizarre welcoming speech at a reception yesterday evening, appeared on the stage to a fanfare of Vegas style Latin big band cacophony and then proceeded to both kick his English translator off stage and then educate the assembled guests in how to say “Cheers” in Mongolian. It was weird, but strangely brilliant.

You tend to get more transparency in democracies
A major part of this conference has been the debate over the development in Mongolia, and the introduction of institutional agencies into the political structure to ensure checks and balances on the incumbent officials and government are maintained. While such structures in democracies can be dismantled (see Silvio Berlusconi), it does tend to lead to an insistence of greater accountability. A much-debated and hotly-contested law was passed by Mongolia’s Parliament last year that makes it mandatory for all officials, unelected and elected, to disclose their income. China’s State Council recently rejected such a move.

Media freedom doesn’t mean a responsible media
One way of subverting a democracy is to influence the minds of what people think. That is now done via control of the media. While this isn’t an issue in Mongolia, it has given rise to biased and unfair media in democracies in India, Italy and partly, the United Kingdom. The media barons operating in democracies have more in common with the Chinese State than is commonly perceived.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner and principal of Dezan Shira & Associates. He is a member of the regional UNDP business advisory council responsible for North China, Mongolia, Eastern Russia and North and South Korea. He is currently in Mongolia attending the Mongolian Economic Forum on national development. His articles on Mongolian development can be read here “Mongolia’s Wolf Economy Comes in from the Cold” and here “Governance Key in Unlocking Mongolia’s Wealth.” Chris is based in Beijing and may be contacted via chris@dezshira.com.

Chris will be hosting a Mongolia Investment Forum at the Capital Club in Beijing on Wednesday, March 23, 2011. This will detail investment opportunities and the legal/tax regulatory environment in Mongolia. For further information and to RSVP please click here.

Editor’s note: Chris’ more detailed comments about the development of Mongolia can be found on our Emerging Asia web site 2point6billion.com. His travel and culture guide to Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia can be downloaded for free at mongoliaexpat.com.