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Chinese, Russians, and Others

The 1979 census identified the "nationality" of 5.5 percent of the population simply as "other," an undefined category that presumably included small numbers of Tungusic-speaking hunters and reindeer herders in the northeast, some Turkic-speaking Tuvins in Uvs and Dzavhan aymags, and, in the Altai region, isolated clusters of Uzbeks and Uighurs (the latter of whom - whose ancestors migrated north from Xinjiang in northwestern China - grow irrigated rice in the relatively sheltered Hovd Basin). The category also included Russian and Chinese residents, whose national and legal status is, perhaps intentionally, obscure. Mongolia's 1956 census counted Chinese as 1.9 percent and Russians as 1.6 percent of the population, but as of 1989 no totals for those groups had been published since. The United States Government in 1987 estimated 2 percent of the population as Russian and 2 percent as Chinese.

Historically, the Gobi served as a barrier to large-scale Chinese settlement in what was, before 1921, called Outer Mongolia; the unsuitability of most of the territory for agriculture made southern settlement less attractive. The small Chinese population in the early 1920s consisted of merchants or peddlers, artisans working for Buddhist monasteries or Mongol aristocrats, and a few market gardeners near Ulaanbaatar (then called Niyslel - capital - Huree, or Urga) and the smaller population centers of the Selenge region (see Religion). Many of the Chinese married or formed liaisons with Mongol women. Their children, who spoke Mongol as first language, were regarded as Chinese by the rules of patrilineal descent common to both Chinese and Mongols. In the early 1980s, Ulaanbaatar was reported to have a small Chinese community, which published a Chinese-language newspaper and which looked to the Chinese embassy for moral support. In 1983 the Mongolian government expelled about 1,700 Chinese residents, who were accused of "preferring an idle, parasitic way of life" to honest labor on the state farms to which they had been assigned. At the same time, ethnic Chinese who had become naturalized citizens were reported to be unaffected. Because the presence and the status of Chinese residents in Mongolia were politically sensitive subjects, Mongolian sources usually avoided mentioning the Chinese at all.

The same sources frequently referred to the Soviet residents of Mongolia, but they always described them as helpful foreigners who would return to their proper homes when their terms of service were over. Most presumably were not included in the Mongolian census figures. There were small numbers of descendants of Russian settlers along the border, and the "national" status of Buryat Mongols, Tuvins, or Kazakhs who at some point had crossed the border from their home territories in the Soviet Union was not clear. Thousands of Soviet nationals were working in Mongolia as technical experts, advisers, and skilled workers; they were a noticeable presence in Mongolian cities in the late 1980s. Erdenet, which was built around a joint Mongolian-Soviet copper-molybdenum mining and processing complex in the late 1970s, had a 1987 population of 40,000 Mongols and 10,000 Soviet workers on three-year contracts. In the 1980s, an estimated 55,000 Soviet troops were based in Mongolia, and some of them worked on construction projects in cities (see Threat Perception). Although since 1920 many Russians have settled in the Tannu Tuva and Buryat Mongol regions of Siberia across the border from northern Mongolia, there has been no Russian migration to, and settlement in, Mongolia.

Last Update: 2010-12-07