Panchen Rinpoche’s Australian Visit April May 1986

30 years ago: Panchen Rinpoche comes to Australia

#1 of 2 blogs

When we first heard, improbably, that the Panchen Lama was coming to Australia, we didn’t really know what to do. It was 30 years ago, early 1986, and we were a small group, calling ourselves the Tibet Information Service (TIS), based largely in just one of Australia’s cities, trying since 1982 to help Australians hear the concerns of the Tibetans. As far as average Australians were concerned we might as well have been lobbying for the little green men of the planet Mars; that’s how far Tibet was from popular consciousness back then.

Remarkably, we somehow managed to arrange for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to speak directly to each other by phone, during that visit, for over an hour, with no minders present. At the time, we had no idea how historic that was. Only four years later, when HH Dalai Lama published a volume of autobiography, did we discover this had been a unique moment. It was the only time they ever managed to speak freely, according to the Dalai Lama’s 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, though they did have two closely monitored conversations when the Panchen Lama was in Beijing. The Dalai Lama says: “However, while he was in Australia, he managed to give his escort the slip at a prearranged time and I spoke to him from West Germany. We were not able to speak for long, but it was enough to assure me that in his heart the Panchen Lama remained true to his religion, to his people and to his country.” (p.287)

How did a small group of Australians manage to do this? We didn’t really know what we were doing, but, as we discovered, nor did his Chinese minders, nor the Australian Parliament, the official host of his visit. If we succeeded, it is because they all bumbled as much, or more than we did. In hindsight, the only person who knew exactly what to do was the tenth Panchen Rinpoche himself.

So this is a story, not before told, of the only time China allowed the Panchen Lama out of China, apart from one visit to Nepal. The story is told now, exactly 30 years later, at the request of former Tibetan exile minister Kalon Tashi Wangdi, who, in retirement, is gathering documentation for future generations, and has graciously agreed that this can now be published here.

What should we do? All we knew was that a delegation of Chinese “parliamentarians”, members of the National People’s Congress, would tour Australia, as guests of the Australian Parliament, as a reciprocal follow up to a visit to China by Australian members of parliament. We knew only that one of the delegates was named Bainqen Erdeni, and we recognised this as Chokyi Gyaltsen, the tenth Panchen Rinpoche. No-one in the parliamentary protocol section had a clue who this unpronounceably pinyinised fellow was.

Should we draw attention to who he really was, not just the second-in-charge of an NPC delegation, but the highest lama remaining in Tibet? Should we ignore it, for fear of embarrassing him, playing it all down to give him quiet space to do his skilful negotiating work? Should we accuse China of using him to publicly legitimate China’s control over Tibet? Should we criticise Australian leaders for allowing Australia to be a platform for Chinese propaganda?

The itinerary of the tour, decided months in advance and published by the Australian Parliament as a pocketbook guide, was even more baffling. The NPC delegation was to spend almost two weeks in Australia, with only short periods in the major cities of Sydney, the capital Canberra, and Melbourne. The rest was to be spent sightseeing the coral reefs of tropical Queensland, inspecting sheep and cattle ranches and mid-sized factories making tools. It seemed more like a tour put together for a visiting chamber of commerce deputation.

Fortunately we had months to think it all through and prepare for various possibilities, enough time too for Nyima Sengpo, Chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies to write to the Speaker of the Australian Parliament, and for Tibet supporters from Sydney to have audience with HH Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and receive his guidance.



Was the Panchen Lama himself, as some exile Tibetans unkindly put it, “just a fat businessman”? So little was known about him, especially about what he had been doing in the years since his release in 1978 from 14 years in prison for daring to criticise Mao’s great famine. We knew nothing about his courageous efforts to rebuild ruined monasteries and ensure that young reincarnate lamas got a proper education. Maybe he was coming to Australia to buy sheep? Or simply to eat them?

Those 14 years in prison and home detention were well known, but not the petition he sent to Mao in 1962, plainly listing the sufferings of the Tibetans at the hands of leftist zealots who caused famine. It was not until 1997 that this 70,000 character petition, escaped suppression and was published, in Chinese and English, in London.

We did know this was the first time he had been permitted to travel to a Western country, though not that it would be also his last, and that in three years he would have passed away. We also guessed that he and the Dalai Lama had few opportunities to talk directly to each other, without intermediaries and surveillance. So it seemed like a moment for us to set up a direct phone call. Luckily, in those days before the Internet, TIS had time to write an airmail letter to Gyalwa Rinpoche’s secretary, and in due course, weeks later, receive an airmail reply confirming it was a good idea, and that His Holiness would be in Germany on the day, with much more reliable phone lines.  Our chance to do so was in Melbourne, during a reception for the small Tibetan community, but it was at the end of the NPC’s 12 day Australian tour, and much could happen beforehand.

The decision TIS took was that above all, we should show respect for Panchen Rinpoche, as for any great lama, rather than confront him with demands that he denounce China; and that we would educate media to understand that he was not free to speak his mind. This was our attempt at some sort of middle way.

It was an uneasy middle path, separating religion from politics, avoiding speaking up too loudly for the suffering Tibetans, and there were Tibetans in Australia, and their supporters, who thought we were too low key.

TIS tried to ready itself for a wide range of eventualities, such as the prospect that China would parade the Panchen Lama as proof of freedom of religion in Tibet; even that Australian leaders, keen to get closer to China, might assist such a propaganda effort. Even back then Australia knew it had the full range of raw materials China needed, and was actively seeking to integrate the two economies.

So we prepared a Backgrounder information kit, explaining to Australians the delicate situation of the Panchen Lama, “who may not articulate the wishes of the six million Tibetans. That is the price he must pay for remaining in China, subject to the closest scrutiny. He is not free to speak of the continued sufferings of his people under an alien, deeply resented occupation.”

Whether any politicians found time to read four pages of background information is unclear, plus pages more of the most recent March 10 statement by the Dalai Lama,  and documentation on the actual situation in Tibet as Hu Yaobang’s reforms were fizzling out, and Tibetan frustration growing. All of this was unfamiliar to Australians, just getting used to the idea that Australia might be part of Asia. And the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was due to go to Beijing one week after the NPC delegation returned.

More pointed was a one-page TIS press release for distribution the day the NPC delegation arrived in Canberra on 5 May. Its headline was: “Who’s a Cat’s Paw Now?” This alluded to an accusation China had made that Australia was being duped by Vietnam, after Australia urged the Vietnamese who had overthrown the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime to help make a lasting peace in Cambodia. China, hostile to Vietnam and close to the Khmer Rouge, made use of a metaphor from an old European folk tale to accuse Australia of being gullible, doing the dirty work of others.

The TIS press release reminded Australian leaders that China has no real parliament, and if both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader welcome this group, they might be a cat’s paw for China. In Australia’s robust democracy, this would be considered a low key, even a polite criticism.



As the visit grew closer we wondered what China’s approach would be. Gradually this became clearer. On 22 April Australia’s most serious newspaper, the Financial Review, reported that “the Chinese are making the point that they want equal treatment to the Dalai Lama, who visited Australia in 1982.” The Australian government had no difficulty in deflecting that, as the Dalai Lama came to Australia at the invitation of lamas and Australian Buddhists, not as a guest of state; a distinction China found hard to understand.

By then, Tibetans had briefed Australian officials well, and the Financial Review reported that “the visit has placed Federal parliamentary officials in a quandary. There is no apparent precedent for such a visit being used for what appears to be strong propaganda purposes. Pressure is understood to have been applied from the Dalai Lama’s supporters for a lukewarm response.”

That article was almost the only media coverage of the entire visit,  which was indeed publicly neutral or lukewarm.

What China actually wanted was that Panchen Rinpoche be received by what China would call “personages of Australian religious circles”, with lots of photos taken, which could be used in China to show China’s liberal attitude. The Chinese government made little serious attempt to highlight the Panchen Lama’s standing, and left it up to the Australian parliament to make the arrangements. This included an approach to the Buddhist Studies Department at the Australian National University in Canberra, which, on being told China expected Panchen Rinpoche would be accorded parallel status to the Dalai Lama, politely refused to assist. Likewise the Buddhist Society in Canberra declined to get involved.

In Sydney, Panchen Rinpoche, billed as “a leader of Tibetan Lamaism”, was due to address the Australian Council of Churches on 30 April, the most public of his talks. He spoke there in general terms about the need for peace, equality, compassion and fraternity. Australian media found nothing to report. Media were interested only in a scandal over whether a judge of the High Court had been corrupt.



Australian lack of interest, our refusal to play a simple back/white, bad/good dualism, and the awkwardness of Chinese diplomats all combined to ensure Panchen Rinpoche seldom had to publicly embrace positions he did not believe in. After it was all over, David Templeman, of the TIS, noted “our almost free hand in most situations as they arose. It was almost within our power to completely muzzle the statements of the delegation (e.g. the speech of Panchen Rinpoche to the Australian Council of Churches). The score was always well in our favour and at no stage in the visit did we feel that it was out of our hands. Our confidence grew as we realised how thorough we had been in laying the preparatory groundwork, the wide range of valuable contacts in places of influence we had and how good the media were to us.”

In hindsight, the help and sympathy TIS elicited at every turn reflects well on a simpler Australia, less obsessive about security and border protection, more inclined to side with community voices against powerful governments. Australia was not yet earning billions from selling raw materials to China, and sympathy for the small against the big was an Australian tradition, much less so today.

Thus, on the last of the three days the delegation had in Canberra, a lunch with Panchen Rinpoche had been arranged for key Australian political reporters, normally preoccupied with domestic scandals, and TIS wanted to find out who was attending, to ensure they had the TIS information pack, complete with appropriate questions to ask. Trying, through the front door, to find out who had been invited got us nowhere, but through a back door we got their names and made sure they were briefed on the sensitivities of the situation

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



#2 of two blogs on the 30TH anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s 1986 tour of Australian sheep ranches, with time for a phone call from the Dalai Lama.

When the Panchen Lama arrived in Australia, as guest of the Australian Parliament, he was, on paper, just one of a large delegation of members of China’s National People’s Congress, officially just the deputy leader of the delegation.

The delegation was large, with not only NPC members but plenty of minders and handlers as well, plus Canberra-based Chinese Embassy staff, plus Australian security personnel, official drivers with official cars, in the entourage. Everywhere the delegation went official photographers took the appropriate images, which are now available in the Australian government archives.

Only two events were off the record, and not for public consumption: the private receptions in Sydney and then Melbourne for the Panchen Rinpoche to bless the small Tibetan communities, then a fraction of today’s 1700 Tibetan Australians.

Sydney, at the start of the tour, did a press release, issued by organisations that mostly focused on charitable fund raising for refugees, the Australian Tibetan Society, and Tibetan Friendship Group. Their press release stressed the need to understand that, whatever Panchen Rinpoche might feel obliged to say publicly, there is much more to be said.

When the event happened, the sadness of many Tibetans at the manipulative situation was expressed vigorously, alarming some of the Chinese minders, who seemed to find it unruly, even insulting.

So when the time got close, at the end of the tour, for the Melbourne Tibetan community reception, when the delegation flew in, they said the event had been cancelled, or, at most, would be confined to a few Tibetans coming to Panchen Rinpoche’s hotel suite to privately pay their respects.

The Tibetan community in Melbourne had done much work to prepare a suitable event. A wealthy Indian couple, Zarna and Anil Somaia, had kindly made available their spacious house in the outer suburb of Ringwood as the venue, and it had been decorated with thangkas, auspicious symbols and a throne flanked on either side by large posters of HH Dalai Lama.

Since the delegation reached Melbourne 24 hours before the community reception, TIS members persuaded delegation officials to meet, at their hotel. We tried to persuade them that the event was harmless, but they remained suspicious, without being sure what to be suspicious of. So we suggested they inspect the venue for themselves, there and then, even though it was already late in the evening.

Zarna and the Tibetans had made not only a throne room but also an inviting dining room, and downstairs a carpark had been made into an inviting space for the many who would not fit into the intimate dinner for Panchen Rinpoche and the two Tibetan teachers resident in Melbourne.

The plan was that Panchen Rinpoche would first give a teaching, bestow blessings, photos would be taken; then in the next room he would be served dinner, with the rest of the entourage downstairs. That way the phone call with the Dalai Lama could take place without third parties monitoring every word.

Zarna liaised with the official Tibetan Representative in Switzerland, the closest Tibetan office to Germany, where the Dalai Lama would be teaching. Zarna recalls that two days before the scheduled date she got a call from Switzerland, politely asking if hers was an Indian household, and if she was indeed able to connect the two great lamas. The Dalai Lama, she was told, would like to speak to Panchen Rinpoche.

Everything now depended on suspicious Chinese officials. Fortunately, they agreed to go and see Zarna’s house for themselves. Sonam Rigzin and Gabriel Lafitte drove them all the way through the endless dark suburbs, having rung Zarna first to say that what was off may all be on again, so take down the posters of the Dalai Lama, and get ready to receive visitors. Zarna, by then already in pyjamas, hastily dressed, and got her mother-in-law up too.

What greeted the Chinese minders was a picture of serene piety. They were greeted at the door by a sweet old lady, the embodiment of devotion. She greeted them with palms together in a namaste. It was indeed a beautiful shrine room, and all the lights were on, inside and out, everything beamed welcome.

Carefully they inspected everything, looking thoroughly for anything unusual. They even searched the grounds. Were they worried Tibetans might kidnap the Panchen Lama? But all was impeccable, upstairs and down. So they agreed the reception could go ahead.

Next day Zarna phoned Switzerland to confirm the arrangement, and at 7pm the official Australian government cars arrived, to be greeted by Tibetans in their best chubas, and the Indian hosts. Panchen Rinpoche was in a simple brown brocade robe. Everything about him emanated power.

He took the throne, and gave a teaching, flanked by portraits of the Dalai Lama. He presented many gifts in response to the offerings made to him, such as pictures of lamas of his lineage. Everyone assembled for photos with him.

Then it was time for the evening meal. Panchen Rinpoche was ushered into the dining room, with only two Tibetan Buddhist teachers resident in Melbourne with him, and his personal attendant. Zarna slipped away and placed the call, as arranged, to Germany. Everyone else was ushered downstairs, where there was plenty of food, and Melbourne Buddhists to serve, and keep the group happy.

One burly Chinese made a big show of having to closely inspect the fire, but he too went down. The door connecting up and downstairs was closed, with Gabriel standing guard. The phone rang, just as the meal was starting, and handed to Panchen Rinpoche.

The call lasted 80 minutes.

As the call went on, some in the party downstairs wanted to go up. Anil Somaia, a prospering textile manufacturer, knowing the delegation had been looking at Australian wool and sheep farms, engaged them in an animated discussion about wool. Eventually, one did get up the stairs and tried to enter, but the doorkeeper refused entry.

Did anyone downstairs realise what was happening above? If so, by the time the call was done, the doors opened and everyone together again, it was the Chinese who decided to save face, rather than make accusations. The man who had tried to push back in apologised, explaining that he had accidentally left his camera upstairs and had wished only to retrieve it. Honour was satisfied. By the blessings of the lamas, what began as a  simple idea nine weeks earlier had come to fruition. Even the phone company seemed part of the blessings. Zarna hadplaced the call, and had to pay the bill, and at that time international calls were not cheap. The Tibetans, overjoyed at the result, offered to pay, but Zarna insisted. However when the bill later came, she recalls, she was charged for only 20 minutes, not one hour and twenty minutes.

In hindsight, though we all bumbled, behind it all was the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We may have been quite unsure of what to do, but so were the suspicious Chinese officials, and to the protocol staff of the Australian Parliament it was not quite your average tour of sheep stations. Yet the result, despite confusion all round, was clarity. For that we can thank the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama.

One year later, the patience of Tibetans ran out. Lhasa was in flames. Suddenly Tibet was on the map, and we were ready to create a national organisation in all Australian states to speak up for Tibet.

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment

Planetary climate agreement: what does it mean for Tibet?


#1 in a blog series of 3

Around the world, everyone was relieved that the negotiations in Paris in December 2015 finally produced agreement on what, as a planet sharing a common fate, we can do to mitigate rapid climate warming. After decades of climate science, warnings, alarms, denial, failed negotiations, recriminations and fresh attempts at consensus, finally an agreement was reached. The Paris cop21 agreement was all about reducing emissions, in the hope of limiting the warming of the planet to only two degrees above preindustrial levels.

Now, climate is suddenly off the agenda, and may not return until the next major negotiation due in five years. But on the ground, and in the air we breathe, the climate continues to warm, and the Tibetan Plateau is affected.

Everyone knows about the melting glaciers of Tibet. Many know that climate warming is especially rapid in Tibet, is already drying out the many wetlands, shrinking permafrost and, for the first time in centuries (maybe millennia) lake levels are no longer dropping but rising.

What few people know is that the agreement in Paris may at last establish a global carbon market. This will also impact Tibet, in ways Tibetans have never before seen, bringing new players to Tibet, proclaiming their corporate virtue by investing in carbon capture in Tibet that, incidentally, locks pastoralists out of their pastures.

The new global agreement will be in effect for a long time, shaping policy towards planetary warming, desertification, land degradation, and much more.

But when we consider the impacts, over coming years, of these agreements on Tibet, they intersect in many ways, and are likely to generate perverse outcomes, unforeseen by the negotiators who earnestly hoped to move the world in a positive direction. There is reason to suppose that the cop21 national commitments will, ironically, be used by China  to further disempower, marginalise and depopulate the Tibetan Plateau, and further sideline or displace the Tibetan people from their own lands.



Some global treaties or conventions require all governments that have signed on to the treaty to meet regularly, to review progress in implementation and propose further steps to be agreed on. These meetings are known in UN jargon as a Conference of the Parties, or cop.  Since the first agreement that something must be done to prevent disastrous climate warming, there had been 20 such annual meetings, so the 2015 gathering in Paris was the 21st., hence COP21.


Implementation of COP21 will only gradually pick up momentum, and impact on the land and people of the Tibetan Plateau. A new architecture of key concepts and acronyms was created and formally adopted worldwide, in 2015. How does China see those new concepts will be implemented? China has long insisted that all key concepts and policies must be formulated to conform to “Chinese characteristics”, as defined by the ruling party-state. The Paris agreement creates no governing body, very little supervision, everything is up to each government to set its own targets, and implement them in its own way. Implementation is totally in the hands of China’s government. The insistence on implementing global policy with Chinese characteristics is especially true of the cop21 outcome. The cop21 did not result in a new treaty, still less any accountability of nation-states to some higher order empowered to monitor compliance and enforce emissions reductions.

The most the world system was capable of achieving in 2015, despite decades of climate science alarm, was that each nation sets its own goals, with little monitoring and no mechanism for enforcement. China did manage to announce a goal that promises no reduction in climate warming emissions at all until 2030, and this was not challenged, as everyone wanted to at last have an agreement in which, for the first time, every nation-state is a participant.

China did promise to start reducing its emissions, by unspecified amounts, starting in 2030. Between 2015 and 2030, emissions by the world’s biggest emitter, will continue to rise. In the intervening 15 years, China will continue to increase its coal consumption by at least four thousand million tons (4bn t) a year. China already consumes more coal than every other country in the world combined. Despite this, China has all along insisted this is its right: to catch up with the richest countries, by developing fast. Economic growth continues explicitly to be the number one goal of the 13th Five-Year Plan covering the years 2016 to 2020. The environment is a secondary goal. The only way China may reduce emissions earlier is if it is unable to meet its own goals, due to economic difficulties, especially excessive investment in factories that can produce more than China or the world need, and may be closed.

Instead of committing to actual emissions reductions, China got away with promising only to reduce the energy intensity of its economy, rather than committing to actual emissions reductions. Since China is fast growing its services sector, it can reduce energy intensity per unit of gdp without reducing emissions at all. As services become a bigger percentage of the Chinese economy, as Chinese do more banking, retail, wealth management, property speculation, gambling, entertainment, sport, education and health care spending, manufacturing becomes a smaller portion of the total economy, and China will achieve its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (indcs), UN jargon for each country’s pledge for what it promises to do to save the planet from overheating. China has succeeded in promising the world nothing by way of actual reduction in emissions.

A major aspect of China’s pledge to the cop21 was that, while coal use will continue to increase, China will also invest heavily in hydro power. Nearly all the dams due to be built in the near future are on Tibetan rivers, especially at the edges of the Tibetan Plateau, where the great rivers of Asia plunge into deep gorges, their wild mountain flows tempting China’s state-owned dam builders and electricity generators. An intensification of dam construction, in remote areas of Tibet previously left alone by the Chinese state, will have major impacts, both social and environmental.

The cascades of hydro dams have long been announced, and many are scheduled for construction during the 2016 to 2020 period of the 13th Five-Year Plan. But on the horizon are other players entering Tibet for the first time, among them the world’s biggest brand names,  attracted by the prospect of becoming pioneers in saving the land of Tibet from the  grazing practices of the Tibetans, thus saving the planet from climate warming.



While China has not yet enlisted new corporate allies to invest in carbon capture in Tibet, the emerging global carbon market already has  a full suite of fashionable concepts that make Tibet attractive, and which obscure the impact of single-minded carbon capture, to the exclusion of all else, on Tibetan livelihoods. Not only are there fashionable concepts, familiar to environmentalists worldwide, they are packaged as acronyms, a new jargon language that Tibetans will need to learn, if they are to unpack what at first looks positive, and without downsides.

Such schemes are still in their infancy, but momentum is growing and cop21 gave corporate investors greater confidence that all the world’s governments are now more serious and determined to create a price for carbon emitted. At cop21 in Paris many big corporations played major roles, because they can see the day coming soon when  the cost of carbon emitted must be included routinely in calculating the total costs of their production, and they are now pro-actively planning to build those costs into their internal accounting process.

Key concepts which may magnetise global brands to come to Tibet are PES, REDD+ and LDN: payment for environmental services, reducing emissions from degradation and deforestation, and land degradation neutrality. A detailed guide to these new jargons, and other environment policy jargon in use in China, is no. 2 in this blog series.

Their impact on Tibet will depend on how new, more distant financial partners working with China to finance REDD+ and PES and China’s continued insistence that global policies be applied with “Chinese characteristics” will change the implementation of the new policies. The new players who will emerge in the next few years will be not only rich countries directing their aid budget to implementing redd+, ldn and pes in Tibet, but also the major corporations of the developed world, using in Tibet ways to offset greenhouse gas emissions by buying up and locking away Tibetan opportunities for development and growth.

These new mechanisms have the potential to disempower Tibetans in many ways. These new acronyms, unfamiliar to Tibetans, have been embraced by new players, attracted by the prospect of corporate reputational marketing opportunities to be achieved by advertising how they are “saving” Tibet. A new dynamic will gradually emerge, as some of the biggest corporations worldwide look to Tibet as a cheap way of repairing corporate reputations damaged over many years by their record as polluters, including massive emissions of greenhouse gases that heat the entire planet.

Because they are “market-based”, PES and REDD+ projects tend to be amazingly complex, and hard to understand. They are complex contracts for several reasons. First, there are many parties to such a contract, whose responsibilities have to be specified. For example, an oil palm plantation owner and commodity trader based in Singapore can now offset the emissions caused by chopping down tropical rainforest in Indonesia for oil palm tree plantations by investing in growing grass in Tibet. The investor in Singapore is primarily concerned with the offset rather than the actual impact on Tibetans and the Tibetan environment. As such, questions about who will do the actual work of growing more grass; who receives the payment; how to prove that the removal of grazing, and the growing of grass has succeeded in capturing carbon; and how long must the captured carbon, now in the soil, remain in the soil, before Tibetans can return with their yaks, sheep and goats and start grazing again are unanswered and considered irrelevant.

For the oil palm plantation owner, such a contract is attractive. For a modest investment, far less than he would have to spend on directly curtailing his carbon footprint, he gets to offset his pollution by locking up pasture land in distant Tibet, and gets to advertise to the world what a good job of saving Tibet, and the planet, he is doing.

But such a contract will always have “Chinese characteristics,” and China will almost certainly be among the contracting parties. It will not be a simple agreement negotiated directly by a Tibetan community and an oil palm factory owner. China may argue that it is already saving in Tibet from the Tibetans by removing much pasture from grazing, and has been paying the cost of their relocation, and subsistence rations. If the oil palm plantation owner wants to use Tibet as an offset, China may demand that he bear those costs and excuse China from further responsibility. Already we have three contracting parties: a Tibetan community unable to provide free, prior and informed consent; China, and a Singapore entrepreneur. There may well be more contracting parties complicating things further. For example, the biggest environmental ngos working in Tibetan areas in recent years, such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International may wish to be partners to such contracts, as it may enhance their reputations as well as the reputation (and share price) of the oil palm magnate. It is also quite likely that a European government’s aid agency might join in, perhaps to finance those aspects that China has usually neglected, such as paying for vocational education for the Tibetan community to train them to enter China’s urban labour market and get off welfare.

So there could be five or six parties to such a contract, each with their own agenda, acronyms, reporting regimes, all proclaiming themselves saviours of Tibet. In such circumstances, will Tibetan communities have time and opportunity to understand that they are signing away their right to development, their economic right to growth?  Will they realise that new parties will now have a big say, not only in this generation, but, because some of these contracts can last for 100 years, their children and grandchildren as well, in how Tibetan land is used, and what may be done with that land?

These are complex negotiations, which should happen between parties equal in power, in access to information, and time to consider carefully the consequences of such a long term binding contract. In theory, according to China’s Constitution, rural land is owned by collectives, but in Tibet do those collectives function in any way outside the control of the local Communist Party apparatus? Will the village chief, or county cadres or prefectural head of the State Forestry Administration speak for and on behalf of the Tibetans, who will effectively have no say, nor even realise that their land has been designated as non-productive for the coming century? These are probable scenarios given the disempowerment of the Tibetans and the concentration of power in official hands.

The example of the oil palm plantation operator is not exactly hypothetical. If one looks at major events at the Paris cop21, one of the biggest was the Global Landscapes Forum,[1] a high-profile event over two days giving corporate partners opportunity to improve their reputations. One such corporation is Wilmar,[2] hardly a household name but big in providing the ingredients used in a thousand consumer products, notably palm oil. Another corporation promoting itself as a backer of COP21 is Mars,[3] the manufacturer of big brand chocolate sweets and packaged pet foods. Mars, under pressure for selling junk foods and for the global obesity epidemic, needs green credentials, and knows it. Other sponsors of the Global landscapes Forum include the big Swiss bank Credit Suisse, and the global food commodity trader Cargill. Both face reputational risk problems, finding themselves caught in controversies about secretive banks enabling the rich to avoid taxes, or grabbing the lands of the poor for cash crops, lands no longer useful to poor peasants displaced by corporate power. Another corporation with a questionable environmental record,[4] Asia Pulp and Paper, is also keen to invest in landscapes that will compensate for its record in its base, in the forests of Indonesia.

As a global carbon market gradually develops momentum, as a direct outcome of the Paris cop21, it is not hard to imagine such corporations investing in saving the land of Tibet from degradation by growing more grass or forest. The publicity will be good for the investors, the world’s biggest environmental organisations will applaud, and no one will notice that growing more grass with “Chinese characteristics” means displacing pastoral nomads from their pastures, to lead wasted lives as fringe dwellers. In May 2015, TCHRD published a detailed report on the disempowering impacts China’s grassland policies on nomads.[5] Corporate investors will be credited with creating the global carbon market, pioneers in implementing ldn, redd+ and pes.

Another organisation strongly promoting redd+ is cifor,[6] which as a result of Paris COP21, hopes for a scaling up of the many small-scale REDD+ projects around the world. Technically, REDD+ is limited to forests, but can readily be extended to the growing of grass on the vast rangelands of the world.

All these market-based schemes promise that everyone will benefit. In reality, such a universally beneficial outcome is extremely hard to achieve. The most powerful participants with the loudest voices can see how they will benefit and will use their power to ensure they do. In Tibet these actors are international investors and China. The key question is whether Tibetans will also benefit, or be sidelined and largely ignored or even excluded, in the name of carbon capture and remediating land degradation. There is no reason why Tibetans need to be disempowered or marginalised by such projects, but their criminalisation, whenever they speak up for local landscapes, puts them at enormous disadvantage.



All such schemes begin by turning Tibet into numbers, which become objective truths that take on a life of their own, no longer under Tibetan control. The numbers initially are scientific estimates of the amount of carbon sequestered by ceasing grazing, or planting grass, or planting trees, in specific landscapes, measurement work Chinese scientists have been done intensively in Tibet.  Those numbers, for extra carbon in the soil, or in the roots and leaves of ungrazed plants, are then formulaically converted into dollar numbers, part of the growing financialisation of nature, the translation of nature into capital.[7] All of this is done without Tibetan input. If anything, Tibetans pastoralists start at a disadvantage, as livestock production is regarded as a substantial source of greenhouse gases, due to the methane belched by cattle as they digest the grasses.

Despite much scientific research, there is very little evidence that traditional pastoralism is a net source of carbon emissions, but among scientists and policy makers, there is an inbuilt assumption that all pastoral livestock production is a heavy source of methane, a climate warming gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. The scientific evidence actually suggests that the Tibetan Plateau is in danger of sending huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as temperatures rise, because permafrost locks up much carbon, and so do the many wetlands of Tibet, and now the permafrost is shrinking fast, and also the wetlands are drying out, partly due to China’s program of deliberately draining the water meadows, partly due to earlier arrival of spring which melts away subsoil water, leaving plants at the start of the growing season without water. As the Tibetan wetlands dry, they become dry peatland, releasing methane to the air.

These are among the reasons why Tibetans may welcome international investment, if it can restore wetlands, or assist Tibetans to improve their pastures, sow more native grasses and be paid to work as stewards of recovery from degradation. These could all have positive results, both for landscapes and people of Tibet. But this would require Tibetans to be free to make their own decisions about how to best achieve outcomes that actually cut carbon emissions, capture carbon, and enhance Tibetan livelihoods. Under the current situation, with ccp officials speaking for all Tibetans in all public spheres, it is hard to imagine how Tibetans might be allowed a speaking position.

Meanwhile, China is not a spectator, but an active participant in the growing financialisation of nature. China has many well-established avenues to connect and participate in these new steps towards a global carbon market that provides finance to remote, under-developed areas such as Tibet, in the name of mitigating climate change. Included in the many consortia of promoters of the new market based “solutions” to climate warming, are many government aid agencies, international organisations with global reach on environmental issues, major ngos, scientific research organisations, academics specialising in different disciplines, universities, charities and advocacy groups; many of which have strong connections with their Chinese colleagues, who are now part of these coalitions clustered around their common cause.

As a result of China’s embrace of cop21, with Chinese characteristics added, these trends are rapidly intensifying. In the name of carbon capture, the provision of environmental services to downriver lowland China, net land degradation neutrality and reducing emissions from degradation, Tibet is being emptied of its people, always on scientific grounds that seem entirely plausible to the architects of cop21, lnd, pes, redd+ and other fashionable concepts now at the forefront of environmental and developmental governance.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy.











Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment




#2 in a blog series of 3


If the world arrives in Tibet, announcing corporate investment in carbon capture on the Tibetan Plateau, it will arrive wrapped in jargon. We might soon find we need to learn that jargon, and learn to decode what it conceals as well as what it reveals.

Jargon serves a purpose. It is not just a shorthand abbreviation, it is insider language, empowering its users as people with specialist knowledge. Jargon privileges those able to use it, proclaiming them to be experts, people who have mastered scientific rationality.

In reality, jargon technicises debate, narrows debate to the seemingly rational concepts enclosed by acronyms, excluding human realities that are deemed extraneous externalities. Technicisation narrows the focus so that the only question is whether the package identified by its acronym achieves its narrowly defined goal, such as capturing carbon. Human impacts on people’s livelihoods are secondary, incidental, unintended consequences, unforeseen and unforeseeable side effects at most.

Today’s China loves to be up to date with the latest concepts and intellectual fashions, to prove yet again it is a great and advanced civilisation with high human capital, and much investment in technicisation.  The advocates of technical solutions, by sticking to their jargon, can avoid any suggestion that they are straying into political questions, which, in China, is strictly the prerogative of the party-state, and no-one else.

This section is a guide to all the new jargon: INDCs, Five-Year Plans (FYPs), and many more. There are plenty of people fluent in these jargon terms, which then take on a life of their own, becoming well-known, naturalised concepts, the building blocks of new regimes of global policy towards environment and human development. Once the jargon sets in, those who use it seldom step back to question the package that the acronym summarises. Thus they fail to notice, that in China’s hands, these jargons mutate, acquire “Chinese characteristics” and in practice, on the ground, in the farmlands and pasture lands of western China, they end up meaning something quite different to what was originally intended.

A.   Payment for Environmental Services

Payment for environmental services (PES) is an idea that’s been around for a while. It focuses on the lands and peoples who are providers of environmental services such as clean water supply, carbon capture or biodiversity, especially when those who benefit from those services live elsewhere, downstream, or in cities that make much use the resources and services provided by others. The basic idea is simple: beneficiaries should pay providers, to ensure the providers continue to provide. In Tibet, it would mean no longer taking for granted that Tibet provides China and Asia with pure water, clean air and much else; and if Tibetans are to continue to do so they must forego the opportunity to industrialise. So the Tibetans deserve pes payment, to compensate for the opportunity costs incurred by remaining under-developed.

In principle pes is widely accepted, but operationalising it in practice is difficult. Who pays whom? For how long? Who decides what services are measured? How can environmental services be monetised, given a dollar value? Can industries, used to getting air and water and much else as a free public good, be persuaded to pay?

Due to such difficulties, much effort has gone into coming up with new concepts that build on pes, which are more measurable and doable, such as redd+.

B.   Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and degradation

Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and (forest) degradation (REDD) is an idea intended to help achieve the key aim[1] of climate change action. The focus of redd is on the forests of the developing countries, because historically they have always captured huge amounts of carbon from the air, and because they are now threatened by logging, plantations, burning and clearing for cattle ranching. Although redd is focussed on forests, there is growing recognition that the vast grasslands of the world also have the capacity to capture carbon. The idea of REDD+ indicates an expansion of REDD beyond the forests.

The REDD+ idea usually involves a market-based scheme in which an industrial polluter pays a distant forested community to capture more carbon. For the polluter, this is much cheaper than reducing emissions. But if, in a remote corner of Tibet, for example, people plant more trees, how much carbon is thus sequestered? How long must it be sequestered? What is the monetary value of taking carbon out of the air, and into the soil, trees, grasses and herbs? Who receives the payment?  What are the responsibilities of beneficiary communities to ensure that carbon captured is not released to the atmosphere again?

These are difficult questions to resolve, even if all the parties are free to speak up; even harder in Tibet where local communities are not allowed to negotiate their free, prior and informed consent to a contract which may bind them for a century. redd+ is an idea with problems.

C.   The Sloping Land Conversion Program and the Natural Forest Protection Program

These are specifically Chinese slogans and concepts. Two decades ago China’s planners realised that much forest and grassland had been mistakenly cleared, or “reclaimed”, according to China’s propaganda, for farming.  The farmers spreading into the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and elsewhere ploughed up the grasses, exposing the soil to gales and blizzards, which even today cause Beijing to be blanketed in dust storms as the ex-grassland erodes. The farmers lose soil and livelihoods. In hilly country, including Tibet, land far above any river was cleared for agriculture, creating many dryland farmers barely making a living.

In the 1990s, China started to reverse these policy mistakes. The Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) and the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP) both aimed to reforest, or regrass, large areas and restore natural landscapes in which ecologically suitable trees, shrubs and grasses were planted, while compensating poor farmers for their loss of income. The overall slogan was: “grain to green”, or g2g.

In practice, nfpp and sclp succeeded in some areas, but did not work well in others. Despite massive investment in reforestation, China still struggles to halt desertification and degradation of land that once supported grassland or forest.

D.   Land Degradation Neutrality

The newest jargon is LDN: land degradation neutrality. It is a simple idea that is hard to implement. If degradation occurs in one area, it should be compensated for by restoration and rehabilitation of degraded land in other areas, so there is no net loss. That is a bottom line, if the world is to arrest the current slide backwards into worsening desertification and degradation. LDN is sometimes called NLDN: net land degradation neutrality.

The problem is that, as with all market-based solutions, it introduces trade-offs. Degradation in one area may be cheaper to remediate than in another area. In Tibet, because of the cold climate, rehabilitation of degrading grassland takes a long time, is often not very successful, and requires labour-intensive employment of local pastoralists to look after the freshly sown native grasses, herbs and sedges. The danger is that China will persist in removing rather than employing pastoralists to do the work of repairing degradation, because China persists in blaming pastoralist as the cause of the degradation, and because repairing degrading loess soils below Tibet is cheaper and easier.

Private investors are now being invited to see ldn as a profitable opportunity.[2]  This could become another way for third parties to improve both profit and reputation, while disempowered parties such as Tibetan communities find themselves yet again excluded from their own pastures, in the name of ldn. The United Nations says LDN should not work that way. The UN poses the key question[3] and supplies its answer: “ Is LDN an offset or compensation scheme that could result in a license to degrade? No. The focus and aim of LDN is to maintain and improve the productivity of land resources by sustainably managing and restoring soil, water and biodiversity assets, while at the same time contributing to poverty reduction, food and water security, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.  The key principle of LDN is that the people at a grassroots level, whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources, have to be involved in designing and implementing measures to halt and reverse land degradation.”[4]

However, in practice, ideas such as LDN do result in tradeoffs, and profit for a few, often at the expense of the disadvantaged. Tibetans should monitor all these new jargons closely, to see how they are actually implemented in practice. Tibetans will find many environmentalists worldwide share their concerns that REDD+ and LDN achieve little by way of actual emissions reduction, confuse everyone with their deliberate complexity, and disempower indigenous “beneficiaries.”[5] There are many REDD projects in Nepal, which Tibetans could check out to see what actually happens on the ground. A recent investigation of those projects says: “REDD+ policy making is dominated by a ‘development triangle’, a tripartite coalition of key government actors, external organizations (international NGOs and donors), and select civil society organizations. As a result, the views and interests of other important stakeholders have been marginalized, threatening recentralized forest governance and hampering the effective implementation of REDD+ in Nepal.”[6]


E.    Using jargon in Tibet: SLCP and NFPP

Not only do these jargon concepts guide policy from above, dictated by Beijing for implementation across China, irrespective of local differences, the jargons collide with each other, or are implemented serially over time, amplifying the impacts. One of the policy fashions of the 1990s was the sclp. As usual, the starting point that crystallised into an acronym was well intentioned. It began with a recognition that too much land in China had been converted to farmland, even in hilly areas where irrigation is impossible, and the dryland farmers struggle to grow enough crops to sustain themselves or keep the land, in dry years, from eroding badly. The slcp was a program requiring farmers on land that slopes to return a portion of their land to plantings of species that serve an ecological purpose, above all, holding remaining soil in place, preventing erosion, restoring habitat. At a national level, this was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) facing up to its revolutionary pledge to forever banish the danger of famine; a recognition that policies requiring each province to be self-sufficient in grain production had wrongly cleared for farming much land that should never have been farmed. China was learning to become a national market, no longer placing local self-sufficiency as the highest of goals. The initial impulse was good, and the policy was popularised by a simple slogan, grain to green, g2g. The policy recognised, at national level, that farmers on marginal drylands struggling to make a living would not want to lose part of their farmland for ecological plantings that produce nothing edible or saleable. So the national government accepted responsibility for compensating farmers by providing them with subsistence rations, to enable them to survive on a smaller land allocation. In theory, it was a complete package that made sense.

Likewise, China’s recognition in the late 1990s that it had exploited its forests, including those in Tibet, far beyond any sustainable capacity to grow back, led to the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP), mandating that much cleared land be reforested. Again, a commendable aim, but everything depends on how, at a local level, such policies are implemented.

Local government officials and party cadres at local level are meant, in theory, to transmit down the line the will of the central leaders, and ensure implementation.  But China is huge; policies suited to one area may not be suitable in another. When the people and the cadres are of the same nationality, and share sympathy for each other, national policies are often bent to accommodate local needs. For example, in the 1990s, monitoring of slcp and nfpp programs showed how much difference local government attitudes make. In areas where local officials sympathised with the loss of income of farmers ordered to replant ecologically useful species on their farmland, they widened the definition of “ecological” trees to include many trees that also bear commercially valuable fruits, which can be cropped and income gained. Strictly speaking, from a national viewpoint, this distorts policy implementation, and does not show up in national statistics that aggregate how big an area has been replanted.

In areas where the senior cadres are not of the same ethnicity as the local population, lack understanding of traditional lifeways, and do not care much whether they are liked locally or not, implementation is stricter. The cadres know their best chance of promotion, and a reposting to a town or a wealthier area depends on implementing national policies strictly according to orders from above.

In a country as big as China, national policy can only define goals, and the extent of official support, such as compensation or punishment, for local implementation, or resistance. How the policy is implemented may vary greatly. For example, in Kham, in the heavily forested, precipitous landscapes of eastern Tibet, nfpp, starting in 1998, was meant to reforest the steep slopes denuded by decades of Chinese logging. How reforestation was to be accomplished was not made clear and delegated to local officials.

Experience of successful reforestation worldwide shows that local communities are the best people to do the work, of gathering seeds, planting them, caring for vulnerable seedlings until they can look after themselves. However, China’s top priority was maintaining economic growth, not the environment. As a result, the main concern in implementing the nfpp was to maintain employment for the state forestry workers who had been cutting trees down, redeploying them in the unfamiliar role of forest guardianship. The workers put down their chainsaws and took to aeroplanes and helicopters to scatter tree seeds from the air. This method did not take into account the steep slopes of the rugged ranges that separate the wild mountain rivers of Kham. Not surprisingly, it was not very successful. Even when seeds strike roots, they must survive the hard winter without a surrounding shelterbelt of mature trees providing a protective microclimate. On many slopes, at differing altitudes, complex habitats exist, in which different species grow together, and such complexity is not readily reproduced, especially from the air.

Far from employing local Tibetan communities to do the work of reforestation, in many areas NFPP meant declaring areas designated for reforestation to be officially Protected Areas (PAs), within which human activity was banned, especially pastoralism, which was becoming possible as grasses naturally replaced trees. Tibetans, who could have been made part of the solution, were instead declared to be part of the problem.

The acronyms, and the thinking behind them, are seldom explained to Tibetan communities, still less in Tibetan. So there is a disconnect between Beijing policy and local engagement. Policy is often transmitted via simplistic slogans, which instruct people as to what is to be done, without explaining the policy goals.

Perhaps the slogan with the biggest impact has been tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass. This slogan, introduced in 2003, has led to more and more Tibetans pastoralists losing all or some of their pasture, officially removed from production for a temporary period of three or five or at most ten years, to see if the removal of grazing is sufficient, without any other intervention, to restore degrading lands. In reality, these temporary bans are not reversed, and Chinese scientists increasingly question whether degradation has been caused by overgrazing or by past policy mistakes that fragmented pastoral land, reduced seasonal mobility, forced pastoralists to invest much time and money in fencing, house building, winter fodder crop production and storage and other measures that had perverse outcomes, notably exacerbating poverty and squeezing herds year-round on lands allocated to nuclear families, depriving them of the flexibility of many families pooling lands and herds, to minimise over-grazing.

So Tibetans experience the simplistic slogans, such as “close pasture, grow more grass” as incomprehensible, and a threat to their ongoing livelihoods. There is a disconnect between official policy and the needs of the land and the people.

NFPP, SCLP, tuimu huancao and the other policies of the 1990s and first decade of this century are the background to 2015’s SDGs and COP21, bringing in pes, redd+, and ldn. All these policies result, for rural Tibetans, in disempowerment, restriction, exclusion, exclosure, poverty, dependence on official rations, relocation and resettlement to new concrete towns, while denied access to their traditional pastures and valleys. A 2015 review of the enthusiasm for REDD in Nepal concluded that: “Nepal’s institutional REDD+ planning structure is highly dominated by techno-bureaucratic topdown practices representing government interests and international donors’ requirements, while subnational and non-governmental stakeholders often find themselves to be merely used to legitimize the policy process rather than to actively shape it.”[7]


Since Tibetans had no opportunity, in the lengthy negotiations leading to the COP21 programs such as LDN, REDD+ and PES, to speak up for themselves, it will not be surprising, in coming years, if China implements LDN, REDD+ and PES in ways that further disempower, fragment, displace and depopulate the land of Tibet, separating the land and the people from each other. This is true also of theSustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), such as poverty alleviation, which sound commendable, but when given “Chinese characteristics” end up as a further rationale for removing Tibetans from Tibet, on the grounds that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, because Tibet by definition is so high, and cold, so remote and lacking in factor endowments, so vast and scattered, that there is no way Tibetans can ever get out of poverty as long as they remain rural. According to this paternalistic logic, Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, since no one would choose to live in Tibet if they had a comfortable urban alternative. Earlier projects, such as NFPP in Kham Dechen, failed to help poor Tibetan farmers.[8]


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy





[5] See, for example, a 2010 report by Friends of the Earth: redd: the realities in black and white; Global Witness also monitors REDD implementation, including Honest Engagement – Transparency And Civil Society Participation In Redd, 2009. A Nepalese NGO, Forest Action, in 2015 published several critiques of REDD and its impact on ethnic minorities:

[6] Bryan R. Bushley,  REDD+ policy making in Nepal: toward state-centric, polycentric, or market-oriented governance? Ecology and Society 19(3), 2014: 34., available at

[7] Rishi R. Bastakoti and Conny Davidsen; Nepal’s REDD+ Readiness Preparation and Multi-Stakeholder Consultation Challenges; Journal of Forest and Livelihood 13(1) May, 2015 30

[8] Horst Weyerhaeuser, Andreas Wilkes, Fredrich Kahrl, Local impacts and responses to regional forest conservation and rehabilitation programs in China’s northwest Yunnan province, Agricultural Systems 85 (2005) 234–253


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



#3 in a blog series of 3

The world now has a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a UN session in September 2015, all governments, including China, formally adopted these SDGs as their target for improving the quality of all human lives.

How do these new Sustainable Development Goals impact on Tibet? Surely Tibetans have more immediate concerns to worry about than a long list of worthy development goals, such as eliminating poverty?

The SDGs were adopted in 2015 and like Paris COP21 were negotiated over several years, mobilising the energetic participation of a wide range of official and NGO institutions, often with Chinese partners. The SDGs are a long list of goals, objectives and yardsticks for quantifying progress, on a wide range of issues such as health, education, literacy, women’s participation, children, poverty and much more. Implementation of the SDGs is firmly in the hands of national governments, and China is determined to maintain its reputation as exemplary leader of the developing world by following up its much-acclaimed success in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), between 2000 and 2015. In a complex world, with many weak states lacking capacity to intervene helpfully in the lives of the poor, China has been hailed as the great success story, an example to the rest of the developing world.

Since China is huge, its national statistics hide enormous regional variation. Few observers have noticed that in Tibetan areas in China has struggled to fulfil key mdgs. In Tibet illiteracy remains high, and maternal mortality shockingly common. Only if national numbers are disaggregated are such problems apparent.

Because China can hide its failures in Tibet with national statistics, it remains the favourite of the global sustainable development community, and is determined to maintain its reputation. When it comes to poverty alleviation, China has announced that in the 13th Five-Year Plan period, 2016 to 2020: “China’s top leadership pledged resolute measures to help the remaining 70 million poor people shake off poverty and enjoy essential social services by 2020. President Xi Jinping told the conference that ‘no single poor region nor an individual living in poverty will be left behind’ when the country accomplishes the goal of ‘building a moderately prosperous society’ by 2020.”[1]

In counting its’ poor, China ignores hundreds of millions of poor peasants reliant on the urban factory incomes of their adult children while the ancestral land, for lack of available labour, withers. China denies that the poor are many, despite China’s  urban boom, and focuses narrowly on the 70 million officially designated as poor, by official criteria. China’s definition of poverty is low, only RMB2300 per person per year or US$376 (at 2010 prices). In Beijing one meal in an upscale restaurant can cost that much. The World Bank says the poor in China are many more than China acknowledges.[2]

A high proportion of China’s official tally of 70 million intractable poor are Tibetans. China has dramatic plans for them: “The conference laid out concrete and diversified measures in poverty relief. Industrial development is key to poverty alleviation, Xi Jinping said. Local resources should be well utilized to develop industries and ensure employment for the jobless peasants. Relocation is also highlighted. Premier Li Keqiang urged to lift about 10 million people out of poverty by 2020 through relocation, and local governments should make sure the relocated people have stable jobs to make a living.”[3]

China will not only persist in being the exemplary developmentalist state, fulfilling the new sdgs, it will go beyond its quota and physically relocate ten million human beings, to save them from the lands that doom them to poverty. The Tibetans are to be saved from Tibet.

China views the Tibetan Plateau as unnaturally cold, its air terrifyingly thin, growing little more than grass, forcing its helpless inhabitants to wander like animals that follow the grass. For Chinese planners, it is inconceivable that anyone with a choice would choose to live in such a harsh place. Now China, will graciously relocate 10 million poor people by 2020. It is not clear how how many of them will be Tibetans, but what is clear is the Chinese view that it is Tibet that makes Tibetans poor, and this can be remedied only by removal, at the least to the comfort of towns and cities, enclaves of modernity in Tibet, or away from Tibet altogether.

Other official policy announcements made in early 2016 speak of relocating as many as 50 million poor people. The annual No.1 Document issued jointly by the Communist Party and the state is always about rural policy. The January 2016 Document No. 1 names the ex situ relocation of 50 million poor as the set goal of the party-state:


The key phrase above can be translated as:  “measures to address ex situ relocation of about 50 million people out of poverty.”



Emptying rural Tibet of human use will profoundly change the landscape, which, even in the decade of pastoralist removals in the name of growing more grass to capture carbon, has resulted in grassland becoming shrubland no longer useful for livestock production. Locking up the innumerable plateaus of Tibet, in the name of cop21 carbon capture and sdg poverty alleviation, may win China much acclaim from the many environmental and developmental institutions worldwide that argued for the cop21 and sdg achievements of 2015. Yet the consequences will be profound. A depopulated Tibetan Plateau, with its human populations concentrated in cities and urban fringe resettlement camps, will have lost its food security, land tenure rights, opportunity to fulfil economic and social rights, and thus have to live under enforceable contracts written by global investors that require productive land to remain unproductive of anything but grass and water, for as much as the coming 100 years.

The Tibetan Plateau was made humanly habitable by basing the whole Tibetan civilisation on extensive land use, spread out across a vast plateau, operationalised by the strategy of mobility.  Extensive land use made skilful use of all the resources nature provides for the pastoralists, without overgrazing, due to regular mobility, moving on with herds and homes.

This pattern of extensive land use is in contrast to China’s  intensive concentration of populations, both animal and human, in specific enclaves, such as towns and their surrounds, that is typical of modernity. China has brought modernity to Tibet, in the form of intensive enclaves of development that require huge external inputs, of fuel, electricity, hydropower, financial subsidies, even food trucked in from great distances.

China has repudiated the extensive land use pattern of Tibetan production landscapes, substituting in its stead the urban enclave pattern that is ever more heavily reliant on external sources of energy and material support.

It seems extraordinary that, in the name of poverty alleviation, Tibetans can be removed from ancestral pastures and moved to urban fringes or to a fully urban existence. Yet to China’s planners, this makes perfect sense, given the premise that Tibet is altogether too high, the air too thin, the climate too cold for any human being to want to stay there. It is time for Tibetans to explain, loud and clear, why Tibetans actually prefer to live in Tibet.

This series of three blogs looks ahead to looming threats that could accelerate the depopulation of the Tibetan Plateau, clustering the entire Tibetan population in the booming cities, leaving the land empty –until new settlers move in to productive landscapes that have supported human land use for 9000 years.

Taken together, these three blogs demonstrate an underside to seemingly innocent, or beneficial policies: halting degradation of land, capturing more carbon and alleviating poverty. In principle, these are all commendable aims. But when the compulsory “Chinese characteristics” are added, even the most benign of policies can in practice become a rationale for separating Tibetans from Tibet.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy





[2] Xiuqing Wang, Juan Liu et al.,China’s rural poverty line and the determinants of rural poverty;  China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 1 No. 3, 2009, pp. 283-300


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment

Saving Tibet from the Tibetans; saving Tibetans from Tibet


Tibetans live in Tibet, to state the obvious.

NonTibetans struggle with the altitude and extreme cold of the Tibetan Plateau, and a diet that has little to offer beyond fatty meat, dairy products and barley, surely conducive to heart disease.

Han Chinese struggle to survive in Tibet, and struggle even harder to not only survive but thrive, and live productive lives, in air so thin that each breath seems fearfully to be one’s last. At least ten percent of lowland Han Chinese sent to Tibet, or migrating to seek their fortune, never adapt to the altitude, suffer severe mountain sickness, for which the only remedy is to return to a lower altitude. This is true of Han soldiers too, meant to be fighting fit, not exhausted by just taking a few steps. For foreigners visiting Tibet, it’s a similar story. Even when people take care to gradually acclimatize to air one third thinner than at sea level, with one third less oxygen and everything else, many still get altitude sickness so strongly that they cannot stay.

So it’s not quite so obvious that Tibetans live and thrive in Tibet, daily doing the heavy work of milking, churning, spinning, weaving, cooking, caring for children, piling up the yak dung patties into mounds, energetically mixing and drying them to provide the only combustible fuel available on the treeless high plains. Nomad women especially work all the time, without a break, from the first milking of tethered animals before dawn, through into the next night.

The men get more periods of relaxation, but also intense bursts of activity, rounding up wandering animals, herding them back to camp, hunting  prowling wolves, riding to distant market towns, with no food other than dried meat, roasted barley flour and maybe a ball of butter to sustain them when far from the home tent.

Tibetan nomads like hard work. They know it is good for them. On the few occasions that nomads get to speak directly to the wider world, they make it clear that being a pastoral livestock producer is indeed hard work, and that’s good.



So how Tibetans manage to live energetically in Tibet is not at all obvious. What’s the trick? This is a question that has nagged at Chinese scientists for decades, resulting in dozens, probably hundreds of scientific research publications trying to identify the secrets of Tibetan physiology and metabolism. For China, this research program served the obvious political need to make Tibet habitable, for politically reliable lowland Han, to balance or even outnumber the natives, just as China has done in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

It has taken decades of experimenting and testing, but now a picture has emerged, of how the Tibetans have, not only as individuals but as a people, adapted to active life at 4000 to 5000 metres above sea level.

This new understanding, of Tibetan energy physiology, is not at all what China hoped to find. That may be why, even among educated Tibetans, there is as yet little awareness of the fruits of all that research (mostly in Chinese). China did not find a way to make the Tibetan Plateau habitable for lowlanders, other than to throw money at creating urban enclaves of mechanised comfort that require little physical exertion. China never found the “trick” enabling mass Han colonisation; and it still eludes them, which is why the four million nonTibetans living on the Tibetan Plateau are so heavily clustered in and around Xining, the boom city of Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese), at the much more manageable altitude of 3200 metres.

Not only did the scientists not find some magical solution enabling Han to live long in Tibet, they actually found what they least wanted to know: that over thousands of years Tibetan physiology has adapted, in complex ways, to the cold and the thin air, so much so that the landscapes shaped by the nomads and farmers, and the hearts of the Tibetans evolved over time together, in ways that are unique to Tibet. The only other people able to live at such high altitude, in the Andes, took a very different route of adaptation.

Far from extracting from those thousands of Tibetan blood samples a scientific magic bullet enabling lowlanders entry to all areas of Tibet, the research adds up to the strongest of arguments for the collective rights of populations, as peoples, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. The biological argument about the unique Tibetan energy metabolism is equally an argument about the co-evolution of place and people, belonging to each other.



This is an argument  of crucial importance, coming at a time when Tibetans are increasingly being removed from their lands and pastures, in the name of carbon capture, remediating degraded landscapes, biodiversity conservation, and even poverty alleviation.

In the 13th Five Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020, China has announced it will “relocate” at least 10 million people of the 70 million officially deemed to remain poor, arguing that relocation is the only solution to the chronic, endemic poverty inherent in having to live in terrible places such as Tibet. To Chinese central leaders it is self-evident that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, scattered over vast areas, suffering unnatural cold and life threateningly thin air. No-one in their right mind would choose to live in Tibet if there is any other choice. Thus the solution is obvious: the Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, by relocating them. It is for their own welfare.

Economists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences define Tibet solely in terms of what is lacking: “The border areas lie at the bottom of the economic system in China, where the poverty pressure is huge. Border areas are mostly characterized by poor natural conditions, vast territories with a sparse population or huge mountains, high traffic cost, lagging infrastructures, and backward economy. These areas are also the major regions where the impoverished population in China is concentrated with a high occurring frequency of poverty and harsh natural environment.”[1]

“These areas have a cold climate, high mountains, deep valleys and poor infrastructure. The Tibetan-inhabited regions have also historically lagged behind the national average, in terms of social and economic development. This gap has still not been bridged. In the Tibetan inhabited regions, about 70% to 80% of labourers make a living through planting crops, undertaking pastoral activity, collecting and other temporary jobs. The incidence of poverty among the farmers and herdsmen is noticeably higher than the national average.”[2]

The latest research on Tibetan energy metabolism shows that the energetic, hard work of pastoralism and farming is not only humanly possible but in fact essential to human health. Hard work, and the aerobic exercise generated by working hard, are central to the health of the Tibetans. To sedentarise Tibetans in urban fringe concrete settlements, with nothing to do beyond subsisting on rations, no longer active, reliant on sugary drinks from the local store, is a death sentence.



These are not the conclusions of the Chinese scientists, instructed to stay well clear of politics. But European scientists, summing up all the available evidence, paint a complex picture of how the Tibetans do thrive, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) marked international mountain day in December 2015 by publishing their report.  In an article called Metabolic processes in populations living at high altitudes, Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, of the Laboratory of Physiology of Sport, at the University of Perugia explain:

 “Elevation, slope and temperature do affect the productivity of the soils and their nutrient supply and, thus, the nutrient properties of harvested food. As a consequence, mountain people have adapted over the centuries and developed unique metabolic processes.

“People who are born and raised in villages at high elevations, up to about 5 100 m, have adapted to the altitudes over generations. They are genetically able to carry out normal daily activities in conditions that would not be amenable to the health of lowland people.

“The environmental characteristics of mountains – namely dry air, low temperatures and reduced oxygen pressure – are key factors to human adaptation to life in mountains. In fact, the genetic adaptation patterns of the two“highest” populations of the world, the Tibetans and the Andeans, cannot be found in any other populations.”

To create and sustain an entire civilisation at such extreme altitude is to adapt, in profoundly embodied ways, to the evolutionary pressures –dry air, intense cold, low oxygen pressure- inherent to the circumstances of the Tibetan Plateau. Those pressures cause physiological and biochemical effects, and the entire human organism must find ways of dealing with those effects, which could be toxic.

“Adaptation to mountainous environments means the optimization of oxygen use under the conditions of chronic hypoxia (low levels of blood oxygen). Oxygen is used in metabolic processes, both to maintain the basal metabolic rate and body temperature and for the oxidation reactions of the energy substrates that are needed for physical activity.

“Hypoxia also affects protein synthesis and thus the maintenance of muscle mass. Protein synthesis at high elevation is, in fact, reduced by the action of hypoxia on enzymes. This results in a need for meat and milk proteins, enzymes from various vitamins, and amino acids such as arginine, the substrate that allows for the synthesis of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts on vascular walls, causing decreases in peripheral resistance and thus vasodilation, better tissue oxygenation and a decrease in blood pressure. An increase in blood pressure in the pulmonary artery, on the contrary, would lead to pulmonary edema.

“Tibetans who live at high altitudes have a greater amount of nitric oxide in their muscle tissue than other mountain populations. They have less mitochondria than usually required for normal activities, and they remain very active.”

Mitochondria are subcellular structures that contain the energy metabolism machinery. Remaining very active while having lower capacity for generating energy, implies Tibetans have extreme efficiency in energy metabolism. Tibetans are uniquely able to make full use of all of the oxygen that is available to them.

“All the metabolic activities described above require catalysts, i.e. vitamins, for the redox (oxidation-reduction) reactions of the energy substrates (proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates). People living at high altitudes practice mainly aerobic activities. This helps to optimize the exchange of oxygen for the tissues and lungs. Aerobic activity can use substrates glucose, fatty acids and amino acids as energy, the latter also being essential to maintain protein mass.

“Fatty acids have higher energetic potential than an equal amount of glucose. During a maximal exercise performed at high altitude by local mountain people – people chronically exposed to hypoxia – lactate concentration progressively decreases. This phenomenon is known as “lactate paradox”.

Aerobic activity generates energy for the muscles, for example, when you push yourself, in a gym workout, to the point where you start puffing. Anaerobic activity is comparatively slower. It too generates energy for the muscles, but also produces lactate, which is eventually excreted, thus wasting some of the food energy supplied by the diet. Lactate buildup is why you may experience sore muscles after a gym workout. Because oxygen is so limited in Tibet this results, in most visitors to Tibet, in a lactate buildup, but this does not happen to Tibetans: that is the “lactate paradox.” This is because Tibetans make full and efficient use of all the limited oxygen available, so there is never oxygen to spare that becomes lactate.

“Altitude usually increases oxidative stress with related substance degradation. However, the Tibetan populations have proven to be an exception. Their muscles show low accumulation of lipofuscin, a substance that reflects the damage caused by free radicals to the body cellular structures, and a significant increase in protein with high antioxidant action. This feature is only present in the native Tibetan populations, living at altitudes up to 4 800 m. Tibetans also have a higher concentration of nitric oxide.”

Oxidative stress is the damage caused by half-degraded energy substrate remaining in muscle tissue. Tibetans are uniquely able to neutralise these damaging molecules.

 “While Tibetans adapted by developing these genetic protection factors, this is not the case for other populations, such as those living in the Andes. Their adaptation happens through ventilation mechanisms and through an increase in hemoglobin concentration and oxygen transportation.

“Tibetan women during pregnancy have an increased blood flow to the placenta due to the protective effect of nitric oxide. Andean women’s bodies ensure oxygenation to the fetus through an increase of haemoglobin concentration and ventilation.

“These scientific observations are consistent with the centuries-old history of survival of these populations, which is directly linked to the history of their agricultural and livestock production. Agricultural production in Tibet has always been based on a combination of agriculture, especially wheat and barley, as they are very resistant to cold, and animal husbandry. Their pastoralism activities include yak, sheep and Tibetan goat breeding. The yaks provide abundant milk and meat.”

Yak herding, milking and all the daily activities of a pastoral production landscape require prolonged aerobic activity, even to be able to walk at the pace of a yak. Tibetan civilisation, based on the yak,  provides exactly the specific food requirements needed for living at altitude. The Tibetan mode of production likewise requires particular forms of physical activity, and muscular contraction rates, resulting in a distinctively Tibetan metabolism that has co-evolved with the pastoral land use of Tibet.

“Tibetan monasteries and, in more recent times, small Tibetan schools have ensured protein availability with their small herds. Tea with yak butter is in fact the national drink of Tibet.”

High altitude dwellers in the Andes have physiological responses that adapt them to living at such a height. Tibetans, however, have evolved a metabolic response to the pressures of altitude; requiring hundreds of human generations of evolution, at the most profound level of embodiment. This is a genetic evolution, unique to Tibetans.

“Historically, Andean peoples have always had a diet comprising corn, potatoes, tubers and a special meat, the “cuy” (guinea pig), which is high in protein and low in fat, plus river fish. In the pre-Columbian era, the central Peruvian Andes were the largest cultivation centre of the ancient world for grasses, legumes, many types of fruit and aromatic herbs.

“Both scientific and historical anthropological studies have supported the assumption that for populations living at high altitudes, food quality is more important than food quantity. Unfortunately, migration and “food globalization” often meet the quantitative but not the qualitative criterion.”[3]

The Tibetans are not a people who happen to occupy a place which, for want of a more comfy alternative, is all they have. The Tibetan Plateau is a co-evolved people-place. The Tibetans belong to the land, in the most profound way, at the deepest possible level of human body forms.

To now remove Tibetans from the land, in the name of carbon capture, poverty alleviation, land degradation neutrality, payment for environmental services, or other current intellectual fashions, is to deprive Tibetans of life.

Tibet does not have to be saved from Tibetans by pasture closure; nor do Tibetans have to be saved from Tibet, by relocation in the name of “poverty alleviation.” To resettle Tibetans in concrete cantonments on urban fringes, condemned to inactivity, is to condemn them to wasted lives, in the name of realising “the China dream.” Tibetans have a right, as a people, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. This is a collective right of the entire six million Tibetans.

[1] Dadao Lu and Jie Fan eds., Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Science Press and Springer, 2010, 173

[2] Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap: Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu

Edited by: Luolin Wang (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), Ling Zhu (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), World Scientific, 2013, 2

[3] Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, , The relationship between metabolism, altitude and temperature, in Mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity, UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2015, 54-56


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment




In the first days of the Paris global climate treaty negotiations, China had a dream run, no longer the villain obstinately undermining any agreement, as happened in 2009 in Copenhagen, the last time the world tried to agree on what to do.

China has had six years to project an image of good global citizenship. When China announced to US President Obama that its emissions would decline after 2030, everyone (starting with Obama) hailed this as a breakthrough that signalled prospects for success in Paris.

What China actually promised was that its’emissions to 2030 2 emissions will continue to rise, all the way to 2030, and then start to decline. No specific amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants were named, just a commitment to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP, a tricky yardstick which can enable China, as its economy and especially its services economy grows, to meet the target without actually reducing emissions at all, since success is to be measured not by absolute tonnages of carbon spewed skyward, only those emissions per unit of a GDP that by 2030 will include not only heavy industry but casino gambling, golf courses, mass entertainment, banking and other services expected to boom over the coming 15 years.

None of this was apparent, in the optimism of the first days of Paris COP21. Everyone badly wants an agreement to happen, even if it is not a treaty, even if there is no enforcement mechanism, even if it relies solely on each country making its own declared goal, and even if all those goals don’t add up to a planetary warming of two degrees max, as much as the planet can take.

China has become part of the solution, one of the good guys, even if few wanted to look at the fine print. The world’s biggest environmental NGOs, all with offices in Beijing and close relations with China’s official agencies, amplified this message. No-one wanted to rain on the parade. China’s diplomacy, and soft power projection, have been more adroit and more successful than India’s. India actually emerged, quite quickly in media coverage, as the likely bad guy, the “deal breaker”, since India’s stance is a blunt rejection of responsibility for historic carbon emissions, and a demand that, as a growing emerging economy, it needs to burn much more coal.

Oddly, that is actually China’s position too, only media coverage doesn’t seem to have noticed. China insists on its exceptionalism, and on being a developing country, even the leader of a bloc formally known as G77+China, which has over 130 countries who vote en bloc. In Paris, behind the scenes, China continues to insist that any form of international scrutiny or accountability is an intrusion on China’s domestic affairs. China objected on 2 December to an EU plan to monitor emissions from ships in Chinese ports, their engines running as they wait to load or unload.[1] The UN International Maritime Organisation had proposed collecting data on emissions from ships in port, but China objects.

China has reverted to its long-held position that it did not cause the change in climate; it is the responsibility of the countries that industrialised earlier. As The Guardian reported: “Su Wei, China’s head of delegation, argued that rich countries like the US, Britain and Germany should not be allowed to evade responsibility for their historical emissions. ‘The basic facts do not change. The problem has been caused by developed countries. They need to take their historical responsibility into account and take the lead in reducing greenhouse gases’, he said.”

That has been China’s position all along, and that is what wrecked the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, which tried to face up to the changed reality that certain developing countries are now major industrial powers, and major polluters. If China persists in denying responsibility, insisting in exceptionalism, declaring itself to be (in this context) the same as Botswana or Honduras, the deal will come undone. But now everyone is so utterly determined that there must be a deal, it will go through, by choosing not to notice how little China is offering the planet.

The next day, in negotiations over key issues, such as whether any agreement will be legally binding, and whether developing countries will be exempt from cutting emissions, two of the poorest countries, Sudan and Tuvalu, proposed adding a clause allowing developing countries “willing to do so” to opt into global obligations to cut emissions. China and India immediately objected to any such phrase being included.[2]

China’s plan is to grow and go on growing as fast as it can, and that growth remains the number one priority, with environment second. China in its 13th Five-Year Plan that takes it to 2020 aims to grow by seven per cent a year, enabling it to meet its target of doubling GDP in one decade, from 2011 to 2020, whereupon it will at least drop all pretence of being a “developing” country and proudly announce its arrival as a high-income country. This is all explicitly stated in the documents of the 13th Five Year Plan.

China imposes on its citizens a burden of disease, and shortened lives, because it burns more coal than the rest of the world put together. Beyond China, the carbon emitted by coal burning, the toxic metals in coal and the fine particulate matter pumping into the air by coal combustion all become a global climate heater, and a global health problem. China cannot say this is China’s internal affair: we all breathe the one global atmosphere, which, as Tibetan lamas have pointed out, is taken for granted as an immediately available dump, precisely because there is so much of it. We pollute the air because it just seems to disappear.

Tibet is now especially vulnerable to China’s coal pollution, as China moves so many industries deep inland, to Xinjiang, upwind of the Tibetan Plateau. Xinjiang now has even worse fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution than China’s east coast, because of all the new coal-fired power plants China has built there. Most of the year, the winds blow from Xinjiang towards Tibet, carrying radioactivity from the nuclear blasts of earlier years, and now the PM2.5 pollutants that are so fine they pass through lung walls and into human bloodstreams. At a Coal Cap conference in Beijing in November 2015 Dan Greenbaum of the Health Effects Institute mapped exactly where the worst air pollution now occurs:

PM particulate matter Xinjiang upwind 2015



China likes to portray Tibet as pristine and unpolluted. Not any longer. Tibet now experiences the full spectrum of costs of global warming, and none of the benefits.

And China continues to get away with its vague promise to start reducing emissions by 2030. Scientific research on exactly what that means shows us that, firstly, China’s emissions will continue to rise until 2030, and then will only decline significantly if China’s growth rate also declines from the planned seven per cent per year, down to one or two percent, which is the level of most countries worldwide in recent years.

[1] Earth Negotiations Bulletin Vol. 12 No. 654 Page 2

[2] Earth Negotiations Bulletin vol 12 #656, 4 December 2015

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



When you talk with European diplomats about China and climate change, they sigh. Not only have China’s fast rising emissions negated all of Europe’s efforts at cutting emissions; China berates Europeans who raise the issue, calling them imperialists using climate as an excuse to try to hold China back from its rightful place as a rich country. To this accusation, the Europeans can only say, weakly, that their imperialist era was a long time ago.

On the other hand the Tibetans can, and ought to question China’s proclaimed right to pollute, and cannot be accused of imperialism or double standards, as the Tibetan Plateau suffers more than anywhere inhabited, from rapidly rising temperatures. The climate change that is desertifying much of Tibet most definitely was not caused by the Tibetans, which should give them a valid speaking position.

As the planetary Third Pole, the Tibetans have a direct stake in the outcome of the Paris climate negotiations, and a unique insight into China’s motives,  strategies and impacts. What can the Tibetans say?

First, they can point to China’s use of a huge portion of the Tibetan Plateau as nature reserve and national park, nominally dedicated to carbon capture, by excluding grazing animals and pastoralists. Most of the protected areas in China, which legally exclude human use, are in Tibet, giving China a positive story to tell the world about how it offsets the pollution from its factories and cities, by capturing carbon elsewhere. This claim gives China a lot of cred.

protected area China 1 map

Global databases of protected areas take China’s red lines excluding Tibetans from the best pasture lands as a big plus. China gets nothing but praise from professional conservationists who applaud the locking up of these alpine meadows of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR), and fail to notice the cost of exclusion borne by the pastoralists. A 2015 publication of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) actually swallows China’s propaganda without blinking: “In 2003, the SNNR was made a national nature preserve covering an area about the size of Germany. At the time, the central government invested 7.5 billion yuan (US$ 1.2bn) to preserve the full ecosystem with all its flora and fauna, and to maintain the livelihood of the diffuse Tibetan communities living within its borders.” Hundreds of thousands of displaced Tibetan pastoralists, herded onto distant concrete settlements on subsistence rations, in internal exile from their ancestral pastures, know that reality is different.



Tibetan pastoralists also know that grazing, grass, animals, carbon capture and sustainability go together, and are not mutually exclusive. China, failing to understand the basic dynamics of its unfamiliar grasslands, insists that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.” This crudely Marxist dialectic formula denies the possibility of a grazing economy, anywhere worldwide. This dialectic follows a zero/sum dualistic logic: the more animals you have, the less is the grass; conversely, the fewer animals you have, the greater is the grass. You can’t have both. The Tibetans have for the past 9000 years proven you can indeed have both grass and animals: the secret is mobility, always moving on before the grass is exhausted, giving it time to grow again.

The “contradiction” between grass and animals was made official in 1987, at a National Work Conference on Livestock-Raising Areas, by Du Runsheng, who warned that the reforms of the 1980s, returning yaks, sheep and goats to pastoral families, “destroys the grasslands that are the foundation of their existence.”[1] Du Runsheng, rightly hailed as the architect of China’s rural reform program, who died in 2015, was ignorant of the basics of grassland production landscapes, as are most Han Chinese.

China calls the pastoralists displaced by conservation “ecological migrants”, who have voluntarily surrendered their food security, land tenure rights and lost their livelihoods for the sake of the planet. This positions China to call on the world to pay the displaced pastoralists, relieving China of ongoing responsibility for their survival as urban fringe dwellers. As leader of the world’s developing nations, China is keen to see the Paris negotiations embrace and finance transfer payment packages.  China promotes concepts such as payment for environmental services (PES) in which upstream communities providing pure water for those downriver get compensation for foregoing development. China is also enthusiastic about REDD+, another Paris jargon acronym, meaning reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. Both PES and REDD+ are great ideas if they establish a mechanism for rich countries to assist poor countries and communities on the frontline of climate change. But in China’s hands, PES and REDD+ become excuses for displacing ever more pastoralists from the best pastures of the Tibetan Plateau.



Tibetans in Paris can also ask the world to see the bigger picture. China still calls itself a developing country, entitled to special concessions and exemptions; yet it is also by far the world’s biggest polluter, and insists on the right to grow as fast as possible. China burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined. These are facts.  In Paris, there are many conservationists, governments and international agencies desperate for a deal, talking up the hopeful prospects, willing to overlook China’s hardball stance. After the failure of the last attempt at a global treaty on climate change, in Copenhagen in 2009, it is understandable that many now assembled in Paris are willing to overlook China’s double standards, if it helps get an agreement, even if it is not legally binding, nor is it a treaty, nor is China committing to any specific reduction in emissions.

In Tibetan operas, as the plot gets messy and complicated, a bright green parrot often appears on stage, to tell the truth. That parrot, borrowed from Indian mythology, may enter the Paris stage to remind the world of inconvenient truths when everyone is hoping any agreement is better than none.

The truth is the pledges made by China do not require any reduction in emissions at all. What China has pledged (and encouraged India to also adopt) is merely to reduce the energy intensity of its production, per unit of GDP. This will happen naturally, as the services sector grows, as China’s citizens start consuming more, retail spending more, buying more sport, entertainment, health, education and financial services. The more China becomes a consumer society, the more readily heavy manufacturing becomes a smaller proportion of GDP, and China fulfils its pledge effortlessly, without any actual reduction in carbon emissions.

When Westerners say such things, China goes on the attack: you rich folks have polluted the skies for centuries and got rich; now it is our turn. You can’t accuse us of pollution when you consume what we make. That’s a valid point.

China cannot accuse Tibetans of an imperialist double standard, of plotting to deny China what Tibet already enjoys. The Tibetans remain poor, remote, marginal and largely unindustrialised. Tibetans are on the receiving end of accelerating climate warming: not only glacier melt but permafrost shrinkage leading to wetlands drying up, with loss of habitat for migratory wild birds as the water meadows dry, exposing peatlands to fire, releasing methane to the atmosphere, a gas far more potent in exacerbating climate change than carbon dioxide.


The optimists in Paris, in the hope that any agreement is better than none, seize on China’s embrace of a “green” economy, as proof that China is now a good global citizen. They often ignore what China means by its slogan of “building an ecological environmental civilisation.” In reality, this means shifting the heaviest of polluting industries far inland, to Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. Those smelters, power plants and resource extraction enclaves increasingly rely on the rich mineral endowments of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, plus the waters of the great rivers that flow from Tibet, plus the hydropower China can generate as the rivers descend from the Tibetan Plateau. China has great plans to divert water from south to north, and send electricity from west to east. In each case, the starting point for sourcing water and hydro-electricity, is Tibet.

dam cascade to 2050 graphic

China’s “ecological civilisation” construction still ranks behind economic growth. Officially, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020: “planning objective is that by 2020, China will enter the ranks of high-income countries. Plan is to build a comprehensive well-off society by 2020, GDP and per capita income should be more than double 2010. In 13th Plan the main task ranked first is to maintain economic growth, followed by the construction of ecological civilization and alleviation of poverty.”

Tibet is the planet’s high ground. The planetary high ground is so elevated even the jetstream must deviate around it. An island in the sky as big as Western Europe, Tibet has been peripheral to the global climate agenda only because Tibetans face so many difficulties when they try to speak for themselves. It is time we heard from the people of that high ground.



[1] Du Runsheng, Reform and Development in Rural China, St.Martin’s Press, 1995, p 191

Posted in China, Tibet | Leave a comment



As the global climate negotiations get under way in Paris, the planet awaits its man-made future. The Tibetan Plateau, not a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, also awaits outcomes from Paris, knowing full well it is a planetary front line, warming faster than almost any inhabited region of the Earth.

The facts of the accelerated warming of Tibet are well-known: the melting glaciers, receding permafrost, drying of the wetlands, earlier springs, advancing degradation, desiccation and even desertification, loss of habitat for migratory birds, stronger monsoon penetration into the deep interior of Tibet, poleward shift of the jetstream deviating northwards around that greatest of islands in the sky, the Tibetan Plateau.

What this means to Tibetans is the early melting and disappearance of water frozen in the subsoil, trickling away before springtime roots can reach down to it, resulting in crop failure.

Many people think that since Tibet is so cold, warming must be good. It’s not that simple. China looks at the warming as promising, in several ways. In the next few decades, higher rainfall plus melting glaciers mean greater river flows, a dividend of climate warming. Once the glaciers are gone, their capacity to magnetise all water vapour out of thin air, hold and release it steadily, will be gone, but that is decades away. In the short term, the lake levels across Tibet are rising, after centuries of slowly dropping; and the rivers flow more strongly. Chinese scientists are hopeful that eastern Tibet will warm sufficiently to be able to grow Chinese crops and trees.

Downriver from Tibet, those wild mountain rivers plunge to the lowlands of East, Southeast and South Asia, providing water drunk daily by over one billion people. As the rivers get stronger due to warming and deeper monsoon cloud entry into Tibet, those rivers will erode faster, carry a heavier sediment load, to be deposited in the cascade of dams China is building on all major Tibetan rivers; or the sediment will continue downriver, bearing with it dangerous toxic metals, including arsenic, with even more added to the natural baseload by large scale mines close to the rivers.

These are the well-known practical consequences of climate warming in Tibet; adding up to a strong case for Tibet be top of the planetary agenda, as the Third Pole of this Earth of ours, and almost two percent of the land surface of the planet.


What is less well known is that Tibet occupies a special place in China’s negotiating strategies, as a pawn in a great game China plays, with the objective of being left free, after Paris, to continue indefinitely to be the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, world’s biggest coal burner, committed to ongoing economic growth as fast as possible, without being bound by treaty to any emissions quota, or any legally binding treaty that holds China accountable.  These are China’s core interests, which it will be free to achieve only if it can deflect pressure from almost all other countries, Can China  persuade the world that in other ways, it is a good global citizen playing its part to reduce emissions? Enter Tibet, China’s great bargaining chip.

How can China, which burns more coal than the rest of the world put together, hope to get away without any international constraint on its factories? How can China avoid committing to actual emissions reductions, rather than its vague pledge to reduce the energy intensity of its GDP, which happens naturally in any economy no longer focused solely on manufacturing? As China becomes a consumer society, spending big on entertainment, sport, banking and retail, the amount of energy used per unit of GDSP inevitably reduces, as the service industries expand, and the economy is no longer dominated by mining, energy extractio0n, manufacturing and infrastructure construction. Yet while other countries pledge actual emission cuts, China has offered only to reduce emissions intensity by growing the services economy. Even though global governance is so weak that the best we can hope from Paris is that each country sets its own targets, will the world accept China’s declaration of what it is willing to do?

This is where Tibet comes in: the ace up China’s sleeve. More than half of China’s nature reserves and national parks, dedicated to carbon capture by excluding human use, are in Tibet. Those nature reserves offset China’s emissions by soaking up carbon into Tibetan grasses. Thus China shows it is a good global player, accepting its share of responsibility. The losers are the “ecological migrants”, the pastoral nomads of the Tibetan Plateau, removed from their ancestral lands, their herds sold and their land tenure rights cancelled, in the name of climate change mitigation and offsetting pollution from the world’s factory, located on China’s east coast.

China is huge, geographically as well as in population size, a world unto itself. China can well afford to zone its vast grasslands as counterweight to its industrial core. China has always focused narrowly on its arable lands as its source of food, largely ignoring the far bigger production landscapes of the grasslands, not only in Tibet but also Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and much of the cold northeast. Only arable land, suited to intensive farming, is counted as production landscape in China, leaving the vast rangelands  as a problematic periphery, often designated as waste land, but these days repurposed as land locked away from all productive use, for the sole purpose of growing more grass, proclaiming China’s green credentials.

China imagines itself as a nation of honest, hard-working peasant farmers, not as free ranging pastoralists. The more urban China becomes, the more official propaganda evokes nostalgia for peasant farming as the soul of China’s stability and identity. Here are propaganda posters from 2013:

ode to the motherland 13·中国龙腾 中华圆梦 Ò»¶Ù·¹Ã¦Ò»Äê busy all year to feed you W020130929572830566129


Although official rhetoric insists that the new wave of displaced people are voluntary “ecological migrants”, the reality is that when cadres come down to a nomad “village” with a fixed quota of how many people must leave, that quota must be fulfilled. The official slogan driving the pastoralists off their land is tuimu huancao: close pastures to grow more grass.

Grass is now fetishized as an end in itself. Chinese scientists dutifully measure the increase in grass  biomass in pastures where grazing is banned; while official planners draw red lines round huge areas designated solely and exclusively for downstream water production and grass growth, excluding all human use (at least on paper, since illegal mining flourishes even in “protected areas.”)





China can claim to be doubly virtuous. Not only is it sequestering carbon, the grazing herds are excluded, along with their herders, thus reducing the methane emissions from belching yaks, a serious source of greenhouse gases. In reality China is committed to rapidly increasing meat consumption, using up a high proportion of its corn and sorghum production to feed its rapidly growing number of pigs and cattle, fed not on the open range but in intensive feedlots close to cities, the most intensively polluting way of raising livestock. The long term plan for Tibet is also to invest heavily in feedlots, as the modern, scientific way of turning animals into meat.

But on paper it all looks good. If one looks at global databases of protected areas, China now seems to be a good global citizen, close to achieving the targets such as the UN Convention on Biodiversity target that 17 per cent of all land be set aside as natural habitat. The exclusion of the pastoralists of Tibet from the best pastures of eastern Tibet is at most a footnote, barely noticed. On the map China is playing its part:

Sanjiangyuan in China context uncluttered map

When the nomads were first told they must relocate to concrete settlements on urban fringes, they were initially told it was for 3, or 5, or at most 10 years, to ensure degrading lands recover and watersheds are thus protected from degradation. That was in 2003, when tuimu huancao implementation began. Now those “experimental” periods are over, and no-one has been allowed officially to return.

Do degrading lands recover by themselves, without human intervention, just by excluding the traditional custodians of the land?  The scientific evidence shows that areas overgrazed, due to official policies that fragment herds and crowd animals onto small allocated patches, do not recover by themselves. What does happen is that dominant grasses grow taller, overshadowing the many medicinal herbs Tibetans have always found in their alpine meadows. Biodiversity thus decreases, even when biomass increases. After a few years good grazing land reverts to shrubland, reversing the efforts of the pastoralists to keep their country open. Yet China persists in calling this policy a success.

Climate change in Tibet serves a second purpose to official China. Since climate change is global, and China gets much sympathy by blaming it on rich nations, China can claim special status as a developing country entitled to compensation, and latitude for its ongoing pollution as it catches up with the rich, as is its right. Likewise, China can fudge its role in causing the degradation of the Tibetan grasslands, through mistaken official policies and their perverse outcomes over many decades. China can argue that the degradation problems, even the desertification of Amdo, are due to global climate change, and the ignorance of the Tibetans, nothing to do with China’s improper policies and their perverse outcomes.

Global climate change masks China’s many policy failures, as it fragmented pastoral lands in the 1980s, after decades of doing the opposite: herding both people and animals into huge communes to intensify production. China’s productivist ideology is the heart of the problem, concealed by China’s climate change rhetorics.

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment


At the European Parliament on 16 November, at the European Union Diplomatic Corps (EU External Action) on 19 November, at the Belgian Foreign Ministry 19 Nov and the French Foreign Ministry 20 November, I had opportunity to pitch the case for Tibet, in a new way.

Europe’s diplomats and parliamentarians deserve our sympathy when they raise human rights with their bored and arrogant Chinese counterparts, who dismiss all such inquiries as European imperialist interference in China’s internal affairs.

So why not try a fresh approach, try for a reset, that also embraces a comprehesive story aboiut all the difficulties facing Tibet, the land and the people?

This is the pitch:

European Union External Action Service, Brussels, 19 November 2015

By Gabriel Lafitte   website

The glacier advertising this presentation is, as we all know, fast disappearing, as the Tibetan plateau warms much faster than any inhabited area of the planet. The climate crisis may be upon us, but seldom is it depicted as a human rights crisis as well. Is there a human rights dimension?

The mountains that attract every drop of moisture out of the frigid troposphere of Tibet, and thus create those glaciers, are also sources of the raw materials essential to global commodity chains, necessary for China, the world’s factory, to maintain favourable balance of trade with almost all European countries. Those mountains may be rich in gold, copper, silver, molybdenum and much more, but does resource extraction from the snow mountains that define Tibet also have a human rights dimension?

Below the mountains is the plateau of Tibet, a vast island in the sky, its floor four to five kilometres up into the troposphere, with the mountains above that. The plateau is home to millions of pastoral nomads and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats, who, in the name of climate change mitigation and carbon capture, are being rapidly removed to urban fringes. Is there a human rights dimension to this collective displacement?

Below the mountains, meandering across an endless plateau the size of Western Europe are the great rivers of Tibet, including international transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. In addition there are China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze. All of them rise in Tibet, fed by the glaciers of the Third Pole. In a rugged landscape, mountains, rivers and now mines are often close together, and those rivers are drunk daily by over one billion people. If those rivers are polluted by mining wastes, is there a human rights dimension?

By asking this question over and over, it has become rhetorical, with the answer obvious. These are all human rights issues, and largely they invoke collective social and economic rights, as well as breaches of individual civil and political rights. So we need to understand what infractions are occurring, and how they are likely to intensify as China accelerates its developmentalist interventions in Tibet.

We could go further, and enumerate a long list of human rights transgressions, especially when we look at the protests by Tibetan communities at the mining of their sacred mountains and the pollution of the lakes in which the goddesses live, and the rivers. When we look at the pervasive loss of self-sufficient food production across rural Tibet, in areas where nomad removals are frequent, we discover a collective loss of food security, the pauperisation of entire populations of displaced people, whose displacement, ironically, is in the name of fulfilling the “China dream” of modernity, comfort and access to services.

Then we could add the consequences of the imposition of nature reserves, national parks and exclusion, in favour of growing more grass. This invokes the breach of those Articles of the Convention on Biodiversity,  which focus on the proven track record of local communities in doing a far better job of protecting biodiversity, and the right to life of myriad sentient beings. Then there is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which names free, prior and informed consent to mining and resource extraction as the necessary prerequisite for the commodity supply chain to gear up into action.

We could go further still, as UN Special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Olivier de Schutter, did a few years ago in China. He surprised and alarmed his Chinese hosts with the simple proposition that the right to food implies the right to secure land tenure to produce that food. He pointed out that the exclusion of pastoral nomads from their pastures, and the cancellation of their land tenure certificates, violates the right to food, and was much condemned by China for being so presumptuous.

Thus we quite quickly end up with an extraordinarily long list of infractions and transgressions of a wide range of rights.

But before going any further, we should stop and ask a seemingly naïve question: what is the point, in the context of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue ritual, of long lists? When we know, from years of experience, that our Chinese dialogue partners will swat aside any and all such concerns, condemning them as interference in China’s internal affairs, denying each and all breaches, no matter how well documented, what is the point? No matter how long our list, how well researched, it will all be dismissed as yet another imperialist impertinence of a Europe that actually cares far more about doing business with China.

As an Australian, I have watched, over many years the similarly technicised and ritualised Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue going nowhere. I can only sympathise with the diplomats assigned to ritually raise these long lists, knowing full well that there will be no meaningful response, no public accountability, no actual dialogue, and the issues raised will remain unresolved. When Katrin Kinzelbach, in her uniquely in-depth analysis of such ritual “dialogues” names them a stark failure, lacking impact, showing only the ineffectiveness of quiet diplomacy, I can only agree.[1]

So what is the point of regularly assembling yet another list of breaches and transgressions when we know, with absolute certainty, that not one of them will be taken seriously, investigated, or resolved? It is madness to try, fail, try, fail and just go on repeating those failures in the pointless hope that one day our strategy might get results.

So there is little to be gained by generating yet more lists of wrongs that will not be righted.

We need a new approach, if that is imaginable within a process that has “relegated and isolated human rights from higher level political dialogue”, to again quote Katrin Kinzelbach.

Despite the technicised ritual, the formulaic process, I suggest there are ways of bringing freshness, and Prof de Schutter showed us how to do it. With his simple and rather basic assumption that the right to food entails the right to land, he effectively ambushed his hosts. He was invited, because there is some obligation on members of the Human Rights Council to allow at least a few Special rapporteurs to investigate on the ground, and report. China, having repeatedly denied permission for many Special Rapporteurs to enter China, confidently expected that a rapporteur on food could only congratulate China on ending famine and making plenty of industrial agriculture available on the market. What confounded China was de Schutter’s insistence that agro-ecology is better than agribusiness, that pastoralists do care for the land and for production, and their removal is unnecessary and wrong. That’s an example of a fresh approach.

More importantly, it is an example of a holistic approach, which looks at the right to food as more than a quantum of product on supermarket shelf space. What we need now, if ever this dialogue is to become meaningful, is a holistic approach.

On the Tibetan Plateau, what might a holistic approach look like? What does our long list add up to?

These are the wrong two questions to pair up. We will not discover the whole by simply adding up lists. Lists may have worked, in the narrowly technical, professionalised milieu of official human rights dialogues, when the cases of individuals, arrested or tortured, imprisoned or executed, were the topic. In such circumstances, lists of prisoners can achieve much.

Now we are trying to begin again, to obtain a holistic overview of the circumstances of an entire population, through the lens of human rights. In this instance we are looking at the entire Tibetan Plateau, ignoring the fragmentation of the Plateau into units of differing “autonomous” status, so as to gain a wider perspective, taking in all six million Tibetans, the four million Han Chinese settlers, perhaps even the decimated wildlife, since sentient beings have rights too.

Taking a panoramic perspective enables us to look at the entire suite of official China’s interventions, where they are going, what effects they have, what direction they are trending. We can sketch in broad outline, for want of time, which can be amply filled in vividly by abundant evidence.

The broad picture is that China has consistently expected, required and demanded that the land and people of Tibet be more productive, yet also provide uninterrupted environmental services, especially water, to users far downstream in lowland China. China’s statist interventions have consistently pushed Tibetan pastoralists and farmers to make more meat, above all, and to commercialise their livestock production so pastoral care becomes a routine commodity chain operation, in which animals are nothing more than meat, and cash, on the hoof. Tibetan pastoralists have, for decades, resisted this commodification, not only because they respect their animals as fellow sentient beings, but also because they know they can never get a good price in markets heavily rigged against them, and because herds of the hoof are their only security, capital and insurance against disasters, in a risky environment.

Now China has altogether lost patience with this stubborn withholding of beasts from the market, and has declared a major goal of the 13th Five year Plan, operational from 2016 to 2020, is to transform rural production into a modern, intensive, feedlot meat production commodity chain. If this is development, it is disempowering development, to use the term coined by one of the few economists who closely studies Tibet, Andrew Fischer. The result will be a further depopulation of the vast Tibetan countryside, the concentration of animal production on urban fringes, in large scale Chinese owned industrial enterprises that employ only a few Tibetans. This will further intensify the existing trend of excluding rural Tibetans from their land, cancelling their land tenure security, displacing them to concrete peri-urban settlements where they are utterly dependant on official handouts of subsistence rations, and live under constant surveillance.

Another major goal of the Five-Year Plan to 2020 is a massive build-up of hydropower dams on all the major Tibetan rivers, from which one billion people drink daily. In the name of diversifying away from coal, all the wild mountain rivers are to be impounded, in endless cascades of dams. The upcoming 13th Plan period is also when an audacious canal bisecting eastern Tibet is scheduled to begin construction, to take water away from the upper Yangtze and into the Yellow River. This too will bring influxes of lowland Han Chinese workers into remote valleys where Tibetan life, identity and cultural continuity has until now been little interrupted.

Another substantive goal of the 13th Plan is the relocation of the world’s factory away from China’s east coast to new hubs far inland, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, which will draw their raw materials from Tibet rather than from imports. Tibet, Asia’s number one water tower, is to provide the water, copper, gold, silver and many other metals, plus enormous flows of hydropower to the factories of Chongqing, Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xining that make all the big brand consumer products in our pockets. This too is transforming Tibet, as China’s resource nationalism finds domestic sources to substitute for imports, primarily in Tibet and elsewhere in western China, such as the Uighur region of nominal “autonomy” in Xinjiang, and the nominally “autonomous” Inner Mongolia. If we add the lands of the Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs we are talking of half of China, an area bigger than the maximal definition of Europe, from the Urals to Portugal.

These are the announced thrusts of the 13th Plan, with much more yet to be announced in March 2016 at the session of the National People’s Congress. These policies drive Tibet further in a direction already well under way, such as the widespread exclusion of pastoralists form the best pasture lands in Tibet, in the name of conservation, repairing land degradation, and carbon capture.

These drivers drive Tibet and the entire Tibetan population in a discernible direction, their food security and land tenure lost, their future bleak since they are not provided with vocational education to enter the modern economy, and their freedom of movement is curtailed by hukou household registration rules, and by the pervasive, racist suspicions of the security state that Tibetans are generically a threat.

Due to the power of a strong state against a fragmented and impoverished society, the direction of the future is knowable. Even the 13th Plan’s emphasis on fully eradicating to poverty of the remaining 70m people across China officially classified as poor, pushes Tibetans to leave their lands, livelihoods and sacred mountains, to the miners. China argues that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet. Remote mountainous areas are by definition poor because low concentrations of scattered mobile pastoralists can never be reached by the comforts of modernity. So, in the name of poverty alleviation, the current social engineering of Tibetans away from the land, to the towns and then to cities and to lowland factories, is to intensify. When we hear that EU Special Representative on human rights Stavros Lambrinidis and “the EUSR welcomed some important developments since his last visit, including China’s commitment to lift an additional 70 million people out of poverty over the next five years”, we must urge you to look more closely at what China means by poverty alleviation, including wholesale involuntary relocation of substantial populations without prior consent.

Thus we arrive at an extraordinary picture. In the name of entirely worthy objectives such as conservation, carbon capture, efficient farming, poverty alleviation, resource nationalism, balanced energy use; the Tibetans are to leave their lands and become displaced, peripheral, useless fringe dwellers leading wasted lives, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term.

This surely is the ultimate absurdity. Taken singly, each of official China’s policies has surface validity. In principle we can all agree that carbon capture, or poverty alleviation, are worthy objectives. Only when we assemble the full suite of developmentalist governance do we see that in practice each objective actually disempowers, dispossesses and displaces the Tibetans en masse, as a people, as a nationality with nominal rights to self-determination.

How can we reveal this ultimate absurdity? The best cross-cutting tool we have, that penetrates the jargons of protected areas, reducing degradation, efficient farming, resource nationalism, renewable energy intensification etc. etc. is the discourse of human rights.

If we reframe the current direction Tibet is pushed towards from above, and add in the 13th Five Year Plan, seen now in a human rights framework, the absurdity is revealed. It will not be hard to understand that the entire project of the modern state, as it inscribes its power into Tibet, is disempowering, leads to depopulation and even for many, destitution. From the UDHR to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples we have the tools we need to understand the fate of Tibet in toto, as whole. This may be the best way available to us to puncture the self-referential insistence by official China that it is merely obeying the “laws” of development and of history, a claim often made in China’s White Papers on Tibet.

In a brief presentation such as this, you may doubt whether the evidence supports such a singular depiction of ground truth, as the Tibetans experience it.  That evidence is available, can be provided and tested.

If the modernising project is in reality marginalising and even pauperising the Tibetans, reducing them to endless dependence, we discover an absurdity that much needs to be named and exposed. This is so much more than compiling endless lists of individual cases of prisoners whose individual civil and political rights have been transgressed.

The absurdity of the Tibetans being developed to leave Tibet is not the only absurdity facing us. We also face the absurdity of technicising human rights, forcing the dialogue into a narrowly ritualised channel of sterile “exchanges” between EU External Action diplomats and their bored, haughty, dismissive Chinese counter parties. The stifling pretence that human rights, inherently political, can be squeezed into this airless format of formal “dialogue” of officials, is absurd.

So I conclude by making an audacious suggestion. By naming the absurdity of China developing the Tibetans away from Tibet, we also transcend the absurdities inherent in the ritualised EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. By speaking plainly of the big picture, we build on the enterprising Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and declare the emperor, in his own eyes adorned with all the splendours of modern statecraft, is actually naked.

Katrin Kinzelbach suggests the ritual of EU-China HR Dialogue has “relegated and isolated human rights” and “gave European politicians an excuse to hide in generalities.” The result, she says is “insincerity about the very principles it [the EU] hailed as fundamental.”

To name the pompous emperor as naked is to also liberate the EU-China HR Dialogue, and breathe life back into a stale ritual. To disclose absurdity is, of course, undiplomatic, yet it could give European diplomacy a fresh life, renewed purpose, and fulfil the “European dream” of a foreign policy that stands in solidarity rather than endless competition between the major states of Europe for China’s favour.

China takes full advantage of Europe’s increasing timidity. Shamelessly, China now accuses us of double standards, in the wake of the Paris terrorist atrocity, for failing to applaud China’s war on the fictional, non-existent “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” Is this insult, and brazen appropriation of the pain of Paris, not an affront to us all?

As Francois Godemont reminds us, China is debauching Europe’s greatest inventions, not only the concept of universal human rights, but also the entire international order. Godemont says: “What if China made us change our own perspective? Like any open tender, the search for an international order implies a choice between quality and cost. If China becomes the lowest bidder, that will surely impel other suppliers to lower the quality of their offer in order to stay competitive.  The result would be a low-cost version of the international order – less ambitious but also less demanding than the outgoing order.” Is that what Europe wants, a race to the bottom, in which human rights are invisible, having been technicised out of sight so that Volkswagen can continue to get 65% of its profits from China? Godement asks tough questions about the place of human rights in the discourse with China: “How much of a degraded or hollowed-out order are we ready to accept for the sake of general agreement? At what level can that order function acceptably? What is the trade off between the entente among large powers that a low-cost order might generate, and minimal value and content requirements?”[2]

If EU External Action were to take a holistic perspective on China, on Tibet, and on its own relegation to the technicised corner, it could signal a revival, a comeback, a renewed confidence in asserting European values.




[1] Katrin Kinzelbach,  The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits,  2015 – Routledge

[2] François Godement, China’s promotion of a low-cost international order, 06th May, 2015

also by Godemont:


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment