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China's Malign Influence in Mongolia Threatens All Liberal Democracies

The author details why Munkhbayar's case reminds us how and why the Chinese regime so threatens sovereign Mongolia and the wider and free democratic world.



Munkhbayar Chuluundorj, Mongolian journalist and poet, received the Mongolian Hero of Labor award. (© Yoko Ishii)

Surrounded by Russia to the north and China to the south, Mongolia can be described geopolitically as an island of democracy in a sea of ​​dictatorships. As a fellow democracy, it is vital that Japan support Mongolia.

This is especially true now that Mongolia is under Chinese threat.

Uzra Zeya, the American State Department's Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, visited Mongolia from February 5 to 8, 2023. While there, she held talks with key figures in the Mongolian government and police. She also praised Mongolia as a country with shared values.

Just a year before Zeya's visit, however, a Mongolian national, Munkhbayar Chuluundorj, was arrested and imprisoned by the Mongolian government for the "crime" of conducting anti-Chinese espionage activities.

The arbitrary arrest of Mr Munkhbayar Chuluundorj symbolizes the abnormal situation in Mongolia. Munkhbayar's plight reveals the horrible reality of what happens when China's influence is allowed to expand.

The Mongolian Government Is Detaining a Foe of China

Munkhbayar (55) is a well-known journalist. After graduating from the National University of Mongolia, he worked at a newspaper company and published various books. He was awarded the Order of the Polar Star in 2015. It is one of the highest decorations in Mongolia. In 2021 he was granted the People's Honor Award from the Mongolian government.

Munkhbayar is also known for his enthusiastic work on human rights and environmental issues regarding Southern Mongolia. It is the region which Beijing calls the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. My husband, Hidetoshi Ishii (Senior Advisor to Free Tibet Fukuoka), acted as Munkhbayar's guarantor in 2016, helping him obtain a visa for travel to Japan.

However, on February 17, 2022, in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, Munkhbayar Chuluundorj was arrested by the General Intelligence Agency of Mongolia on suspicion of espionage.

The Mongolian government has now brought the following charges against Munkhbayar:

  1. collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency
  2. spying on China
  3. damaging relations between Mongolia and China, and thereby
  4. threatening national security.

The Mongolian court handling Munkhbayar's case names the second secretary of the Indian Embassy in Mongolia in the context of Munkhbayar's charges. Munkhbayar is alleged to have received funds from India in exchange for conducting anti-China activities.

Munkhbayar Chuluundorj was awarded both the Order of the North Star and the Order of Labor by his country, before his arbitrary arrest. (© Yoko Ishii)

Is History Repeating Itself?

Mongolia, originally one country, became divided into northern and southern halves as a result of a secret pact of the Yalta Conference in February of 1945. Later, during the Cold War, the northern half of Mongolia became the Soviet-influenced People's Republic of Mongolia. The southern half became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, ruled by the People's Republic of China.

The People's Republic of Mongolia began transitioning away from one-party dictatorship in 1990 due to the emergence of reformist Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and later, the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the People's Republic of Mongolia ended and the modern state of Mongolia was born.

Over the past 30 years, there have been frequent peaceful changes of government due to the multi-party system. Mongolia has progressed as a democratic country.

Democratic progress in Mongolia is now called into question. For example, Munkhbayar was arrested by the General Intelligence Agency of Mongolia and not by the police. This allows the proceedings against him to be carried out in secret.

Secret trials, of course, were a feature of the Soviet era.

Japan Leads the Way

Immediately after Munkhbayar's arrest on February 17, 2022, human rights groups around the world issued statements condemning the action.

On September 13, 2022, PEN America called for the immediate acquittal and release of Munkhbayar, insisting that freedom of speech be upheld.

But one of the main drivers in Munkhbayar's support has been Japan.

From August to September of 2022, my husband and I visited the members of the Parliamentary Support Group for Southern Mongolia in Japan. Thereafter, on October 26, the group issued a statement in Munkhbayar's support. The statement reads:

Munkhbayar's activities are in line with the purpose and activities of our Parliamentary Support Group for Southern Mongolia. … We hope that the trials will proceed fairly and equitably based on the laws and regulations of Mongolia, without any pressure from other countries. Henceforth, we will be observing the progress of the trials with grave concern.

human rights
People from several counries including Southern Mongolia are in a Peace March for human in Tokyo's Ginza area. December 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of FB/ MI & FF)

Human Rights Groups Condemn the Arrest

It goes without saying that the mention of "pressure from other countries" implicitly refers to China.

On January 12, 2023, more than one hundred human rights groups around the world issued a joint statement calling for the Mongolian government to release Munkhbayar immediately.

The idea to issue this joint statement was Hidetoshi Ishii's. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, and the proposer Hidetoshi Ishii, are among the lead signatories.

Other signatures were collected by the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center and the International Tibet Network. Mongolian groups from all over the world, including Mongolia and Southern Mongolia, Buryatia in Russia, and Hazara in Afghanistan, are also listed.

Former Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj signed the statement, too, acknowledging that Munkhbayar's arrest was unjust and calling on the current administration to release him.

Togochog Enghebatu, President of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, also signed the January 12 statement. He said, "Munkhbayar's case reminds us that the Chinese regime is not just a colonial power that occupies once independent Southern Mongolia, Tibet, and East Turkestan, but also a global hegemon that threatens its sovereign neighbors and the wider free and democratic world."

No Legal Basis for Arrest

The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center is disseminating information about Munkhbayar's case. Letters written by Munkhbayar in a detention center in June of 2022 were delivered to the Center through his family. The original Mongolian text was translated into English and published on the Center's website.

In the letters to his family, translated and published by the Center, Munkhbayar refutes each of the prosecution's allegations as unsubstantiated and maintains his complete innocence.

Free Munkhbayar poster (© Yoko Ishii)

Through frequent press conferences, Munkhbayar's lawyers have made it clear that there is no provision in Mongolia's constitution or statutory law to punish its own citizens for spying on other countries. In other words, there is no legal basis for Mongolia's punishing its own people on behalf of China.

And, so far, no evidence of any crime has been produced.

At least some in the Mongolian judiciary appear to agree. In Ulaanbaatar on April 1, 2022, a court remanded the case to the prosecutor's office, citing "insufficient evidence to prove the crime."

Ten Years' Imprisonment for Munkhbayar – But the Fight against China Continues

However, in a truly bizarre turn of events, on June 28, 2022, the very same Ulaanbaatar court, following a renewed deliberation (without considering any new evidence),

The same ten-year sentence was affirmed after the appeal trial at a higher court on September 21, 2022.

On December 21, the Mongolian Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. Legal avenues for Munkhbayar are now closed.

International opposition, however, continues to grow.

On February 7, 2023, I and my husband issued a press release announcing that two members of the Japanese Diet had nominated Munkhbayar for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Munkhbayar's case should not be ignored. The rescue movement for him is not about helping him alone.

Hidetoshi Ishii says, "China's human rights oppression is not only happening in China. It's also happening outside China's borders."

The movement to secure Munkhbayar's release is also a movement to protect Mongolian democracy and stop the expansion of China's hegemony.


Author: Yoko Ishii

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