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Mastering the Margins: A Chinese Mine in Mongolia



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Zhu, Ruiyi 


In recent decades, Mongolia’s rich natural resources and small population have made it a sought-after destination for Chinese capital investment and labour migration, facilitated by China’s ‘going out’ policy. While this cooperation has been founded on the ostensible complementarity between Mongolia’s structural shortage of industrial labour and China’s surplus, the presence of Chinese workers has become a source of anxiety in Mongolian society. Historical interethnic and interstate entanglements, as well as Mongolia’s fear of China’s contemporary economic might, cast a long shadow over the relationship between these two neighbours.

Examining the complex, delicate, and fraught Sino-Mongolian relations, this thesis presents an ethnographic study of a Chinese-owned private fluorspar mine and processing plant in Mongolia. I followed a group of middle-aged workers who endured mass layoffs in China and sought to regain economic agency by participating in Mongolia’s extractive economy – an industry buoyed by hopes and rife with controversies. I argue that the Chinese workers view their time in Mongolia as an opportunity to ‘master the margins’ by extracting the marginal value of their own labour and exploiting their relationship with the geographically peripheral land and socioeconomically marginal other.

In this thesis, I seek to explore the nuances that elude the official discourse of interstate friendship and widespread apprehensions of neo-colonial hegemony by navigating a variety of quotidian interactions between Chinese workers and their Mongolian counterparts. The thesis consists of two parts, each with three chapters. The emphasis of Part I is on the emergence of the desire to command the margins, shedding light on familial bonds and entrepreneurial ethos as the twin forces undergirding the circular migration of laid-off workers, labour hierarchy on the shop floor, and ritual practices of ingratiation. Part II focuses on the discontent and ambivalence toward Chinese ‘masterhood’ by exposing the translation politics between monolingual and bilingual employees, the failure of skill transfer between the master and apprentice, and the aspiration for improvement through the discourse of standards.

The analytical concept of ‘mastering the margins’ delineates the dual position of people who are simultaneously victims and enablers of capitalist expansion. With its exploitative potential, ‘margin’ elicits opposing views in economic and social theories. While maintaining an anthropological openness to social complexities and contingent processes, this thesis investigates the concerns, strategies, and dilemmas of ordinary Chinese and Mongolian workers in a transnational labour regime. I describe and analyse marginalised subjects’ attempts at overcoming material and ontological insecurities within structural constraints. In a broader perspective, this Sino-Mongolian industrial encounter serves as a case study for examining the contradictions in a globalising China.





Bulag, Uradyn


Anthropology of mining, Economic anthropology, Ethnicity, Industrial labour, Margins, Migration, Sino-Mongolian relations


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
I received funding from the Cambridge-CSC International Scholarship, University Fieldwork Fund, Wilkin Fund, Wyse Fund, Worts Fund, Ridgeway Venn Travel Studentship, and Henry Ling Roth Fund across the University of Cambridge, in addition to the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Southern University of Science and Technology Fieldwork Fund.