A version of this article was published in Swedish by Sweden’s leading business daily Dagens Industri.
It feels like I can breathe for the first time in two and a half years. Having been stuck in Hong Kong since the virus outbreak, due to some of the world’s strictest quarantine and border regulations, I now find myself in a free and open democracy – Mongolia.
Not only can I take off my face mask and enter restaurants without notifying the authorities via various QR codes, I can also breathe the fresh air of democratic freedom, of open conversation and critical thinking.
The last few years have been terribly stressful in Hong Kong. It is heart-breaking to see how democratic principles are crushed, how journalists and politicians are thrown into prison and how indoctrination increases in schools. I experienced a dumbing down of society, where nationalists and yes-sayers wag their tails at everything the authorities say – no matter how senseless it is. No wonder Hong Kong is suffering the largest population decline ever – partly due to a net outflow of almost 100,000 people over the past year.
It is not only from Hong Kong that people want to leave. In China, a buzzword is spreading on social media, “runxue” – how to “run away” and settle in another country. During the shutdown of Shanghai last spring, the search term “how to move to Canada” increased by 3,000 percent on WeChat, according to the Financial Times. Relocation consultants confirm the picture.
Here in Mongolia, the situation is the opposite. Many of the Mongolians who studied and worked abroad are now returning home to contribute to the country’s development.
“I want to study at MIT in the United States, and then move back to Mongolia and start a company that will become world famous,” says an 18-year-old girl, Enkhzul, during a closing ceremony for a coding bootcamp.
Several of those who took jobs for the government in various high-level roles left well-paid international jobs.
“I decided to leave my job as an investment banker in Australia and return home. I want to be part of the change. This is the start of something,” says the country’s Deputy Mining Minister Nagi Otgonshar in an interview.
A Mongolian woman, who has lived in the United States for several years and is now visiting her home country, says she has “a hole in her chest” as she feels she is not contributing enough to the country’s development, and now is considering moving back.
Despite Mongolia’s challenging geographic location – it is landlocked between Russia and China – political and civil rights and a robust parliamentary system are maintained, according to observers. It has only been 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and Mongolia took its first steps towards democracy.
You can see the development in the rankings – even though Mongolia is placed far behind developed countries – but even more so when you are out on the streets and talking to people or sitting in interviews with politicians or business managers. Corruption remains widespread but there is a pervasive belief that democracy and openness are the way forward, and that bribery can best be put to shame through economic liberalization and modernization.
A lot can still go wrong. The roots of democracy may not be deep enough, and the risk of political turmoil is ever-present. Perhaps the country will not succeed in breaking the import dependency of energy from Russia and the export dependency of raw materials to China. Maybe Mongolia won’t manage to climb the value chains as planned and be trapped by the “resource curse” and mining dependency.
“The challenges are great but so are the opportunities. Mongolia’s democracy has the potential to become even stronger,” says Tapan Mishra, resident coordinator of the UN in Ulaanbaatar.
A 2021 nationwide poll in Mongolia by the International Republican Institute, a Washington based non-profit organisation, showed strong enthusiasm for democratic governance, while the asked Mongolians also acknowledged the need for continued improvement.
“While many people believe that democracy is backsliding around the world, the people of Mongolia are showing strong support for an open and transparent political system,” said Johanna Kao, regional director of the organisation’s Asia-Pacific division.
Indeed, while many countries around the world suffer political and democratic challenges – from populism and internal polarization to external threats – Mongolia can be seen as a beacon of democracy in Asia. It is something that leaders in democratic nations should pay attention to and support.
At the time of writing, the thought of traveling back to Hong Kong, being forced to put on a face mask and experience new crackdowns on freedom of expression and the press feel disheartening. But I will soon be back in Mongolia – and breathe the fresh air of democracy again.
Picture credits: Johan Nylander