I owe you an explanation.

A year ago, I posted a blog announcing I was going to die soon.

A year later the blogs still roll out, and so do I.

The tumours are still there, in the lungs and elsewhere, and they will consume me. But no-one knows when. A year ago, the doctors told me: no more operations, no more radiation or chemo, all treatment options are exhausted, nothing more to be done. You have months.

The sudden bout of coughing blood, which triggered the CT-scan that resulted in that final diagnosis was a shock, not a surprise. All along, through the several operations, bouts of radiation and chemo, I had been told there is a high likelihood of recurrence. Even when the surgeons, after a 12-hour operation, triumphantly announced: “You’re cured”, my immediate reaction was to say: “You can’t say that.” So the spread of the tumours, from skin, to salivary glands, to nerves, to lymph glands and into the lungs was half expected.

In some ways, I was glad to be definitively off the medical treadmill, a clear message that neither I nor the doctors had any further hopes. I signed on to palliative care, and tried to ready myself for the long journey into the next life. That included saying good bye to everyone, including online in that blog.

For three months, I wasted away, all my energy consumed by the voracious tumours. I ate a lot, but the tumours ate it all, leaving me grey, tired, rudderless, but somehow determined to face dying and what happens beyond.

There was a token cycle or two of chemo, as the doctors said: “to give you a little more time.” No more talk of remission, just, at most, slowing the tumours a little. It didn’t work.

What made the difference was immunotherapy, and here I am a year later, not only able to tell the tale, but with energy refound. That’s why the blogs continue.

Technically I am an HNSCC, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma patient, one of only a few thousand worldwide to get the new immunotherapy infusion that simply reminds the immune system how to recognise cancer cells and destroy them. It works the way sowa rigpa works, not by attacking, but by strengthening.

Is this luck? Is it the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas? It’s all that. It’s the biggest advance in cancer treatment in a century, and it became available at just the moment it made all the difference between life and death for one individual, me.

My wanderings through the many layers of cancer world have had such junctures before; this is only the most dramatic. Many times, causes and conditions have combined, producing moments to be seized, decisions to be made, conducive to life. Again and again such moments arise, to be recognised and acted on. I am blessed, surrounded by enlightened mind and its uncountable legacies, and potentials, for me to awaken to if I have my wits about me. I am blessed.

Now, a year on, the miraculous is humdrum, a fortnightly train trip to the city, to have that clear liquid pumped into my veins, no pain, no drama of any sort, just the routine of nurses administering drips, sitting alongside those getting chemo that same way. It might be done, for administrative convenience, in a chemo setting, but what a difference, between calculated poisoning of all fast growing cells, benign and malign alike, compared with this strengthener of the body’s innate capacity to recognise and deal with cells that don’t belong.

Now I look back on the three months when I was definitely dying, before the immunotherapy started. Being able to say my goodbyes, tidying my affairs, turning to face death and what occurs beyond, was a privilege few get. We all know we must die, but it is out of sight, over the horizon, until it suddenly happens.

I got to do a three month rehearsal, now the force of habit has locked back into place, and death again seems far. Only it’s not, those three months did remind me that trying to stay in control is a delusion, that it can’t be fixed, our entire civilizational obsession with calculating and managing risks only multiplies threat perceptions, which proliferate endlessly. I’m changed, and not much changed by those three months approaching death’s door. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once instructed someone, instead of the usual ngondro process for softening a rigidly habitual mind, to chant, one million times: “It can’t be fixed.”

Living on means living with the 24/7 consequences of radiation damage, a constantly stiffening neck and shoulder, as muscles tighten into a fibrotic clutching of the neck. The removal of salivary and lymph glands, the operation that stripped half my face of all its nerves, leaves me with dribbling mouth, swollen cheek and sagging eyelid, collateral damage of surgical skill that did save my life, for long enough to be still around when immunotherapy arrived. Managing the complications of a dry mouth, dry and irritated eye, plus the many odd side effects of a recharged immune system in combat inside my lungs, is tricky. It’s all too easy to make it a medical treadmill. I see dentists, plastic surgeons, ophthalmologists, dermatologists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, lymphoedema specialists, masseurs, rehabilitation gym coaches regularly, as well as the oncologists, CT imaging folks and the chemo infusion nurses. In the public health system of a rich country nearly all of that is without monetary cost, an extraordinary blessing.

Anyone in my circumstances in India or China could perhaps get such treatment, if they were millionaires. I would have been dead two years by now, if in Tibet. If I was American, no problem, immunotherapy is there, but I would have long mortgaged my house to pay for it, and be exhausted, at every step, arguing with health insurers refusing to pay for treatments of unproven effectiveness.

Managing all of this can so readily become full-time, blotting out the eastern sun of awakening to the bigger picture. It is my default setting to fixate on all those yoga stretches and trigger points and dry eye ointments, routines within routines, making myself a suitable case of micro-management, a miniature of the global obsession with controlling risks.

I remind myself you can’t face death like that, it will come, ready or not, control freak or not. You have to be able to let go, to remain focussed and not distracted by minutiae, awake to rediscovering the nature of mind, not compulsively swallowed up by its momentary contents. The tumours are still there, one year on. Immunotherapy can have dramatic unintended consequences, including auto-immune attacks on healthy organs by an overstimulated immune system. Courtesy of the immunotherapy manufacturer, I wear a wristband alerting hospital emergency departments that if I arrive unconscious on an ambulance trolley, it could be something they don’t recognise, immunotherapy anaphylaxis. My life is on a thread, as it is for us all, only I have the blessing of frequent reminders.

This affects my writing. It motivates me to continue delving into China’s plans for Tibet, seeing in them writ large the delusion of top level design, the central planner’s fixation on controlling everything. Am I projecting? Why can’t I just mind my own business? There’s plenty of unfinished business to attend to, to think through, to turn the mind to. That includes, having publicly said goodbye to my blog audience, to you, the embarrassment of saying, hi, I’m still here.

Having said bye and hi, it could be bye again, any time. All it would take is for those pesky side effects to become too much, I’d be taken off immunotherapy and back to dying again. The tumours would come roaring back, or (maybe) the immune system has now learned not to be outfoxed, and will by itself remember to keep zapping the tumour cells, in no further need of fortnightly reminders. No-one knows, it’s all too new. So many unknowns, as is so for us all.

So I continue to garden, and to write. There’s not much else needs doing, other than the hospital treatment visits. I get on with investigating China’s gold mines in Tibet, poverty alleviation, national parks, rigid zoning rules, reshaping the state, and more, blogging at length, knowing that a few readers, despite my dense prose, need to know the details, forewarned is forearmed.

Back here, on this patch of densely planted hillside, it is winter and at last the rains have come, the frogs remind me every night. Last winter I was withering away, now I do my weight training twice a week at the gym, despite the partially collapsed lung. Winter flowers bloom –cockies’ tongue (templetonia retusa), guichenotia, soon the first of many wattles.

Despite reverting to old habits, things have shifted. That three-month rehearsal for dying has given me more trust in enlightened mind, and in accessing it wherever and whenever, that it is ever present. I am not alone and don’t need to invent everything all over again from first principles, as if I am a random atom. I’m a bit more grounded, attentive to what’s going on, a bit more aware of how I habitually distract myself, trip up and take literally the phantoms conjured by mind.

Is that enough to maintain stable awareness when the consciousness no longer has a body foundational to the exhausting project of being me? No. Confusion in the bardo is more than likely. Am I ready to die? I did descend into the valley, felt the shadows lengthen, but now I am back up on the plateau, back on default settings. I take renewed interest in the plateau nomads. When the time comes to plunge again to the valley, it will again be no surprise, but still a shock.

Talk of death is now everyday talk in our family, practical talk, of wills and what to do with all of those books. I’d like to ask Rukor readers to also consider the future of this niche blog, not because it has any reason to live on, beyond me, but because it serves, I hope, as an early warning system for Tibetans as to what China, at the highest level, has in mind for Tibet. That is useful.

I am struck by the extent to which China, as part of its engineered transition from a resource-guzzling low cost factory for world consumption, is now refashioning itself into a consumer-driven tourism consumption middle to high income country. The transition has been years in the making, and at first just seemed to be the usual CCP sloganeering, but now momentum is growing, and the shift is happening. For Tibet, especially U-Tsang, it means a shift from mining and resource exploitation to a new, post-industrial vision, in which whole landscapes are exploited, marketed as pure, pristine, romantic wilderness, for city Chinese to see for themselves, en masse, and commune with nature/consume nature. That requires emptying the land of its people, who inconveniently get in the way of the emotional gush of witnessing no-man’s land and its iconic wildlife.

This is a new form of exploitation, which requires depopulating rural Tibet, herding the nomads and perhaps even the farmers off the land and into concrete boxes under intensive surveillance. The old economy, of intensive exploitation of resources such as water, gold, copper etc. has not disappeared, and in Amdo and Kham continues to grow, but depopulating the production landscapes of rural Tibet is also accelerating, in the name of biodiversity conservation, protection of water supply, carbon capture by growing more grass, and even poverty alleviation.

Much of this may turn out to be ideology that never becomes ground truth, just the fantasies of top level designers in charge of official ideology. China has always struggled to impose its visions onto Tibet. Yet mass domestic tourism is shaping up as the dominant industry, across Tibet, a new form of urban-based consumption that requires depopulation.

That is what is seldom the focus, among Tibetans free to look into what’s ahead. We all have our default settings, and that includes averting our gaze from China’s long term plans for Tibet. We assume China does not change that much, or that Xi Jinping Thought tells us nothing about what matters, on the ground, in Tibet.

It would also be a big mistake to assume that all of China’s plans for Tibet will be realised. Central planners love the neatness of mapping the entire Tibetan Plateau into Key Ecological Function Zones or as Key Economic Zones. In overcrowded China, they have no such freedom to allocate entire landscapes and ecosystems to accord with their exclusionary categories, but in Tibet, they love to go mapping.  Much of this may turn out to be fantasy. A consumer-driven China may no longer need all the hydropower dams planned for remote Tibetan rivers, because China’s electricity-hungry industries are shifting to Cambodia and Myanmar. But the first step is to know what a highly centralised China has in mind for Tibet. That is what this blog has tried to do.

That is worth continuing, not only because Tibetans in Tibet need to know those plans, but also because the world has stopped listening to Tibet, and we need new issues, new arguments, to attract new attention. We need to connect with what the world is focused on, issues such as climate change, food security, wildlife conservation, China’s global role as importer of food and minerals, exporter of railways and surveillance technology. When these issues come up, we can insert a Tibetan angle, Tibetan viewpoints, into those ongoing debates. We can make Tibet relevant again to people who see it now as tangential, a side issue in a world struggling with more urgent things.

That means focussing on China’s ambition to dominate global manufacture of electric vehicles and the global production of lithium for car batteries. It means focussing on the new high speed rail lines constructed in Tibet, through the Dola Ri of northern Amdo and connecting Xining with Chengdu via Rebkong and Dzitsa Degu (Jiuzhaigou). Not only does high speed rail access to Tibet speed up tourism arrivals, it turns Tibet into a sales showroom for railway technology customers around the world. The same is true of surveillance technology. Come to Lhasa and see hi-tech grid management in action.

I have no way of knowing how much longer I will live, as it true for almost all of us. But those tumours (neck, shoulder, lung, pelvis) have already proven stronger than all the major operations and cycles of chemo and radiation, and must win in the end. I enjoy this plateau while it lasts, but this is not remission, still less the “breakthrough” or “miracle” that fills cancer survivor forums and media chatter. I will wither away.

The Tibet movement is withering. The world has moved on, and we can move with it. In hindsight, the peak decade for the Tibet movement was the 1990s, a decade in which, in a post-Cold War world it seemed possible that human rights became universal, transcending national sovereignty. Those days are now long gone, as ugly nationalism roars back. I need to move on to be better prepared for the confusions of the bardo, and we all need to move on to deal with the bardo of this life and its aggressive governments.

Tibetans have always been good at seizing those moments when, in that moment alone, the small may best the big. How did minister Gar Tongtsen win the Chinese princess Wencheng to marry her to the Tibetan king Songtsen? By a clear mind, wit, and an earthy groundedness. How do we reinsert Tibet into global debate? By noticing Tibet as the far end of China’s “social credit” system of punishments and rewards for people judged, by hi-tech surveillance, to be trustworthy or untrustworthy. Not only is China’s delusion of total control of each citizen a widespread concern worldwide, there is now increasing recognition that China’s reliance on Alibaba, and our reliance on Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google have much in common, and it’s scary.

We need a minister Gar to join the dots, to remind us where all that Orwellian nonsense is first trialled and implemented: in Tibet. That means Tibet is no longer an afterthought, it is central to the world we are now in, where huge high tech monopolies dominate our lives, know exactly who we are and what we want, and make their money from selling their data on you and me to product makers. There is a rapid convergence here, in which China and the rest of the world are not really different, and if anything China is the leader we are all following, with Tibet in the vanguard as laboratory for testing big data gathered from our every move. That’s a major opportunity.

Only Tibetans can make that pitch. Even if I live on a while, there is not much one old white guy in a village in peripheral Australia can do, other than watch carefully. So that is my pitch, to you, the Tibetan reader, to become a new Gedun Chophel.

I do owe you an explanation, and it morphed into an exhortation. Is this my “last will and testament?” No one knows. May we meet again online, in this world as well as the next.



Posted in Tibet | 5 Comments


Blog two of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people


If all human activity in Tibet is harmful to biodiversity and water supply, nature and culture have been fully divorced, and exist only as antagonists. The possibility of humans living in nature, with nature, in sustainability, is swept aside, as an impossibility. Extreme dualism is now normal. Until, at last, construction of ecological civilisation brings these two competing realms together anew, thanks to the wisdom and top-level design of the Chinese Communist party.

China’s scientists, attuned to official policy,  are now able to reduce the whole of Tibet to a single number, the Human Footprint Score, proclaiming its rise as a danger signal, attributable mostly to increased impacts of livestock herd numbers rather than China’s intensive investments in enclaves of extraction and urbanisation, and the transport networks connecting them. This naturalises the dominance of a single metric, which would never be administered to the overworked, overloaded landscapes on the other side of the Hu Huanyong line. Imagine the Human Footprint Score (HFS) for the polluted, overcrowded, industrialised and highly urbanised provinces of eastern China. But the focus of Chinese science, and central planning, is on Tibet, and the HFS numbers are increasing, by as much as 32.35% (note the precision) in only the two decades from 1990 to 2010. Further, this alarming increase is due mostly to the grazing pressure of increasing herd sizes, rather than other satellite readable indicators of human impact such as the amount of streetlamp light detectable from space, which is actually one of the five metrics constituting the Human Footprint Score.

The antagonism  between nature and any human presence in the landscape, established by the Human Footprint Score, supplies the scientific rationale for depopulating Tibet, while no one has dreamt of depopulating lowland China since Han officials of the Yuan dynasty talked their newly ascendant Mongol rulers out of killing the Han peasant farmers of northern China over six centuries ago.

In 2018, a team of Chinese land resource geoscientists from prestigious research institutes in Beijing, Wuhan and Berlin published their HFS assessment of Tibet Autonomous Region in a respectable academic journal, Science of the Total Environment. [1] Their starting point is that any human activity in Tibet is harmful, a self-evident, axiomatically true baseline. They “considered five categories of human pressure (population density, land use intensity, grazing intensity, road and railways, and the electricity infrastructure) to map the human footprint for 1990 and 2010 in a spatially explicit way. These pressures were weighted according to estimates of their relative levels of influence on nature. Tibet has one of the world’s largest high-mountain grassland ecosystems and is a major pastoral area of China. Therefore, grazing intensity was considered to be a human pressure in Tibet, which was consistent with previous studies of the Tibetan Plateau.”

The scientific team weighted all their sat-cam generated data in accord with this initial assumption. Their frame was the years 1990 to 2010, both being census years which reveal the total human population of the Tibetan Plateau has increased greatly, from around six million in the 1950s to over ten million today, due mostly to the influx of Han and Hui immigrants to urban areas and farming districts in Qinghai.  This population increase, accompanied by rapid urbanisation and a massive capital expenditure on infrastructure and logistics, on highways, railways, hydro power stations, electricity grids, oil wells and pipelines somehow add up to a lesser impact than changes in nomadic grazing between 1990 and 2010.

From the outset, they make brazen assumptions: “Human activities pose severe threats to ecosystems. As the Earth’s third pole, the Tibetan Plateau (TP) provides various ecosystem services for human beings, including water resources for nearly 40% of the world’s population.  The eastern and southeastern TP and the central part of the Tibet Autonomous Region saw high HII. For 1990–2010, the 1 km scale mean HII increased by 28.43%, which is much greater than the global level of 9% for 1993–2009, suggesting that the TP and the ecosystem services it provided may face with more threats. HII increase was mainly observed in the northeastern TP. Rapid increase of human activities within valuable regions for water retention and biodiversity conservation during 1990–2010 were detected, especially for the former.[2]

The mapping of the scientists is misleading, even dishonest, for several reasons. First, by taking the years 1990, 2000 and 2010 as their benchmarks, the intensive industrialisation of parts of Tibet prior to 1990 is largely ignored, especially in the Tsaidam Basin. China has extracted around two million tons of oil a year from the Tsaidam for decades, more recently large quantities of gas have been extracted and piped to Chinese industrial centres.

Second, the watersheds rising in Tibet provide water to around 1.3 billion people, not “nearly 40% of the world’s population”, a number obtainable by adding the entire populations of the sovereign territories of all state from Pakistan through to Vietnam and China, including billions of people outside of watersheds whose upstream is in Tibet. To claim 40% of humanity drinks water from Tibet relies on political definitions of nation-states, not on scientific categories of water catchments.

Third, the map, immediately usable by policy makers, does unite the entire Tibetan Plateau as a singular entity, including all 150 counties, whether they are in TAR, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. However, their unit of reporting human impact is the county, even though what distinguishes China’s human impacts is their location in specific enclaves of intensive exploitation and intensive change of land use. By generalising impacts at county level, entire counties are branded. They also map at one sq km level, which is more precise in zeroing in on China’s interventions as the locus of human impact.

Fourth, many of the most intensively  impacted counties are in areas where Tibetans have long been outnumbered, disempowered and marginalised by decades of immigration of Hui Muslim Chinese and other Han Chinese farmers, and in recent years, industrial workers in the many factories surrounding Xining, the capital of Qinghai, now a city of well over two million, making it by far the biggest city of the Tibetan Plateau, with the biggest footprint.

Fifth, these studies fail to mention the rise in human habitation of the Tibetan Plateau, from a population of six million (by Tibetan estimates, less by Chinese census data) four or five decades ago, to a total of more than 10 million, according to the latest (2010) census. This rise of at least 65 per cent is in part due to a rise in Tibetan population, but is mostly due to push and pull immigration, as Muslim Chinese join relatives who settled in Qinghai earlier in the 20th century, and official resettlement schemes encouraged immigration, or coerced it.

Sixth, their headline finding is that human impact intensity in Tibet increased by 28.43 per cent, far faster than global human impact intensity increased.  This alarmingly precise computation, aimed at China’s policy makers, makes Tibet problematic, especially those very big areas already designated as Key Ecological Function Zones, whether for water supply (misleadingly characterised in these reports as water retention) or for conservation of (unspecified) biodiversity. The baseline for comparing Tibet to the world is a single 2016 study that self-importantly claims to reduce the entire land surface of the planet to a single number signifying the impact of humans in 2009 compared with 1993.[3]

These artifices, pretending to be objective, have been thoroughly critiqued.[4]






[1] Shicheng Li, Jianshuang Wu, Jian Gong, Shaowei Li, Human footprint in Tibet: Assessing the spatial layout and effectiveness of nature reserves, Science of the Total Environment, 621 (2018) 18–29

Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286

Fan, J., Xu, Y.,Wang, C.S., Niu, Y.F., Chen, D., Sun, W., 2015. The effects of human activities on the ecological environment of Tibet over the past half century. Chinese Science Bulletin 60, 3057–3066.

[2] Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286. The authors are from the Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences, Beijing; School of Public Administration, China University of Geosciences, Wuhan and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing.

[3]Oscar Venter et al, Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation, Nature Communications, 7, 12258, 2016,

[4] Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton University Press. (1995) 

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Blog three of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people.

Tibet has become human, all too human, and that is a problem. The Human Footprint Score or Human Influence Intensity (HFS or HII) has increased considerably in Tibet in recent decades, which, China’s scientists tell us, is deeply problematic. A double standard is now entrenched, with Tibet held accountable, and failing, to meet a standard of biodiversity that no longer applies to lowland China.

In an era of big data, there is now a scientistic precision suggesting an alarming increase in human impacts on Tibet which, mysteriously, are not due to China’s “leap-style” program of industrialisation and urbanisation of Tibet, but are very much the fault of ignorant, careless Tibetan nomads and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats.

Addressing central leaders the Chinese scientists who came up with a 28.43 per cent increase in human impact in Tibet, assert: “Over the past 20 years, the county-scale mean HII [human influence intensity] increased by 31.45% (28.43%), which is much greater and faster than the global level of 9% for 1993–2009, suggesting that the TP [Tibetan Plateau] may face with more threats induced by irrational human activities. More attention should be paid to this situation by scholars and decision-makers with regard to ecosystem services and biodiversity.” That’s the bottom line: what endangers nature, which is utterly separate from human culture, is not China’s self-defined “leap-style development” of Tibet, but the “irrational” activities of herders.

The 2016 global study divides the land surface of the Earth into 772 “bioregions”, assigning a number to each for 1993 and 2009, by quantifying such quantifiables as night light, as measured by satellites. That is meant as a proxy for the intensity of urbanisation.

Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286
Fan, J., Xu, Y.,Wang, C.S., Niu, Y.F., Chen, D., Sun, W., 2015. The effects of human activities on the ecological environment of Tibet over the past half century. Chinese Science Bull. 60, 3057–3066.

Since 1993 was their baseline, and their key conclusion was to compare that with a number for 16 years later, the entire industrialisation and urbanisation of the rich countries is built in to their 1993 basis of comparison. Not surprisingly, in many wealthy “bioregions” things actually improved from 1993 to 2009, while in the rapidly industrialising emerging economies, things got worse, since the whole point of the exercise was to quantify threats to biodiversity of bioregions. The main causes of a 2009 global human impact score in 2009 being worse than in 1993 was expansion of crop land, the amount of light emitted into the night sky, and human population density. Pastoralism’s global impact in 2009 was considerably less than in 1993. But, as usual, Tibet is different: it is all the fault of the nomads.

Since 1993, China has accelerated capital expenditure on urbanisation of Tibet, mineral extraction, hydropower dam construction, highways, railways, power grids and roads to all counties. Yet it is Tibetan pastoralism that the Chinese scientists singled out as the biggest threat. They assigned the highest and most threatening impact to pastoral district where human population density reaches 50 persons per sq km. Yet population density in the whole of China, including Tibet, is 151 persons per sq km.

Taken together, these six factors, all downplayed by these supposedly scientific assessments, point to a sharp increase in human influence intensity, concentrated in Tibet’s resource extraction enclaves, intensive farming zones, industrialised areas, booming urbanisation, and in the networks of highways, railways and power grids connecting them all. If human influence intensity is to be mapped, this is readily done: just follow the engineering corridors and urban boundaries. Intensification is explicitly the core of China’s productivist strategy for Tibet, and intensification by its nature is territorially specific and easily identified and mapped. The opposite of intensive land use is extensive land  use, which is what characterises the traditional Tibetan mode of production, which uses large areas lightly, grazing and then moving on to let grasses recover from controlled grazing pressure. A recent overview of all available research reports on this topic, both Chinese and international, concludes that the customary Tibetan strategy of moderate grazing, while avoiding heavy grazing, actually increases biodiversity.[1]

What if China’s scientists and the policy makers they advise applied this standard to the other side of the Hu Huanyong line, to southern and eastern China? What if they tested there to confirm that all human activity is a danger to biodiversity?

The data are readily available. One has only to look at a map of panda habitat two centuries ago, compared to now, to see how pandas are now restricted, by habitat loss as human impact accelerated, to their remaining refuges in the steep, dense bamboo thickets at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau.

The fossil record of prehistoric panda habitat shows an even wider distribution, across most of southeastern China, where hundreds of millions of people now dominate all resource use.

What if scientists quantified China as an importer of water, draining the water resources of other countries, not by direct transfer but through its reliance on crops grown in many countries, imported into China, all grown in reliance on rainfed agriculture using unpolluted naturally “green” water. Again this footprint is readily measurable. The UN estimates that, after the US, China is the world’s second biggest water importer. [2]

The Hu line slashes China into two realms, that operate on two different logics. To the west and north is the realm of nature; to the south and east the human realm of culture. The biodiversity remaining in the west must be protected by the superior civilisation of the east, precisely because  there is biodiversity remaining in the west even if this is a legacy of ethnic minority cultures that refused to privilege the human over the natural, or assign them to separate categories. It is precisely because there is so little natural left in the east that the question of assigning a Human Footprint Score there does not arise, is actually inconceivable.

The legislative voice that now declares all human activity west of the Hu line to threaten nature is the voice of the cities, high status institutes, ministries of centralised power, exercising their prescriptive discourse to reclaim the west –effectively China’s Orient- as the ultimate Other to densely packed lowland cities where wealth accumulation is the main game. Making the west the realm of nature makes the east feel it is more than the primitive stage of accumulating wealth. The concern to restrict human activity in the west makes the east a great ecological civilisation. Lands once considered to be wasteland, forbidding, inhospitable, even unnaturally cold, unnaturally hypoxic, are now to be embraced as a pure realm of biodiversity.

In some areas, everyone knows what the abstraction called biodiversity signifies, such as pandas, and implicitly a lot of other unnamed species and habitats that are incidentally protected when the last remaining panda habitat is nobly protected. In Tibet, however, biodiversity has taken on a magical status as an end in itself, without much reference. What is to be protected? Most often named are Tibetan antelopes, much less often gazelles, wild yaks, wild sheep, donkeys and horses. Rodents such as the pika (Ochotona) continue to be stigmatised as pests, or, worse, reservoirs of plague infection, to be eradicated by mass campaigns of poisoning. Behind all these mammals loom the wolf, the snow leopard, the brown bear, and other predators. The wolf is now highly popular as the model for today’s China to aspire to.

The Hu line is familiar to anyone who uses a keyboard, its shape has a familiar name: the forward slash//////////, the frontier enabling entry to our next online destination. It holds us back, then lets us rush forward, to fulfil our destiny. We must obey it, then advance. We encounter the barrier and find ourselves in an alternative universe. We press on to a more glorious future.

This insistence that all human activity is inimical claims to be the opposite of anthropocentrism, yet is an anthropocentric conceit originating in the Marxist dialectic asserting there is a contradiction between grass and animals. If such contradiction existed, all grazing systems, all dryland, extensive livestock production worldwide would be unsustainable, perhaps impossible.

The arrogant assumption that all human activity in Tibet must be stopped by the force majeure of the human activity of the party-state is a nonsense. It denies thousands of years of sustainable use of the most remote, high altitude landscapes by skilled, self-reliant, even-minded nomads who live fully in the present moment, because to let the mind wander is to not notice immediate dangers, such as falling in deep snow down a steep slope. Just watch the trailer for the quietly observant doco Shepherdess of the Glaciers. [3]

The doco maker, her brother, says: “For eleven months of the year Tsering lives at an altitude of 4,500 to 6,000 meters, in temperatures ranging from 35°C below zero, to 35°C. She is several days walk from the village. Up in the mountain, higher and higher, she walks all day long, in all weather, seeking meager pastures to feed the herd. How can she possibly survive up there? Where does she find the strength?  In fact, Tsering shepherds life – her own life as well as the life of the herd. Anticipating, nursing, protecting, delivering kids, worrying and, in the end, accepting. She and her herd engage in a daily struggle for life.  Last winter the herd lost seventy goats. The snows lasted too long, the kids died, famine threatened, the leopard struck. Tsering dealt with all these hardships. She’s not afraid of anything.

“When the possibility of marriage arose, Tsering chose to look after the herd. Denied all human company, my sister learned everything by contemplating the mountains, the elements, plants and animals. Tsering is attentive to everything, to everyone. She knows every crevasse on the glacier, all the plants that heal, the sky, the moon, the leopard. She knows every one of her goats.
All her senses go to work.

My sister is a doctor, herbalist, weather forecaster, veterinarian, botanist, Himalayan guide, economist, philosopher, and goatherd – she’s all of them rolled into one.
Every day Tsering has to cope with limits – her own physical limits, environmental limits. She knows the world is competitive, but that her only real adversary is herself. Tsering is strong.”[4]

Metropolitan China has no idea this is what it is losing, or that there is anything in Tibet to be lost by depopulating its open rangelands. Overcrowded China sees solitude as abhorrent, at the mercy of the vast and indifferent forces of nature, an existence barely above that of the animals. Tibetans know differently. There is no need whatever of invoking shangri-la romanticism, just of remembering the connection in Tibetan tradition between solitude and inner growth.

Those who do know what stands to be lost remind us that Tsering Palmo, in her solitude amid the glaciers and vastness of Ladakh, is someone we can recognise. The literary historian of Tibet, Roberto Vitali says: “Loneliness is her companion. Her father handed over the work of shepherd to Tsering Palmo. She was ten when she set out with him into the wild for the first time. He told her that a shepherd must have a head of steel. She talks about the wilderness as a friend she has known all her life.

They are not places for suffering if one’s mind is as light as the air one breathes. Tsering Palmo negotiates the harshness of nature with a confidence that comes from her empathy with the environment. The camera moves in the landscape and focuses on the sister in a way that communicates a sense of unity and belonging. I thought of the great hermit masters of ancient Tibet, who, in pursuit of a spiritual life, left all attachment behind. I wondered whether Tsering Palmo Zemskhang should be considered a special breed of human being. I think her traits are typical of a khandroma, a dakini or ‘fairy of the sky’. But she claims she has no knowledge, only a stick in her hand and a basket on her shoulders. Her attitude is a sign that she doesn’t miss an iota of this insight. She stays away from everything else to meet her world -rich and intense.”

(Tibet Journal, LTWA, vol 42 #2 Autumn 2017)



[1] Xuyang Lu, Kathy C. Kelsey, Yan Yan, Jian Sun, Xiaodan Wang, Genwei Cheng, Jason C. Neff, Effects of grazing on ecosystem structure and function of alpine grasslands in Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau: a synthesis, Ecosphere, January 2017  Volume 8(1)

[2] UN Water, Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation, 2018, 169



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Blog four of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people


In several Rukor blogs, we have explored the nationalisation of the Tibetan Plateau by a party-state keen to inscribe its ownership, active management and its sovereignty over vast lands it has never had much use for, or understanding of.

Nationalisation is a word summing up this assertion of exclusive sovereignty, China’s solution to the inherited problem of conquest, almost three centuries ago, of huge areas of inner Asia which today include not only Tibet but the new realm of Xinjiang as well. As all contiguous empires discover, conquest is the easy part, even if it took many attempts before succeeding. Then what?

When a vast empire, ruled by a distant capital, filled with conquered subjects who do not identify with their conquerors, what to do? This is the core dilemma of the conqueror, a long-term problem which academics who have taught in China have also considered in depth. [1]

The globally scattered empires of the European powers had different problems, limited to strategies for maximum extraction of commodities and wealth, from lands they conquered but had no need to settle, unless settlement of migrants from the metropole suited imperial interests. For the Europeans maximising extraction means installing the conquerors as apex predators, positioned by force at the top of the food chain, supported by an indigenous hierarchy of local rulers and rent seekers, clients of the new elite. Not much more is needed, other than a rationale making it all seem like a civilising mission that is all for the welfare of the natives.

Conquerors of contiguous empires connected overland to the metropole don’t have it so easy. The conquered must become nationals, alien rule must become acceptable, identities must shift from local loyalty to ethnos towards loyalty to the nation-state as primary. This is a massive task and a multi-generational one. Social engineering of identity formation takes time and strategic skills. The transfer of loyalty, from clan and tribe and nation to the modern nation-state requires an ability conquerors seldom have, to acknowledge and respect difference, to accept that the conquered do not share the same values as the conquerors, nor do they see their conquered lands the way the conquerors do. Those lands are home, not a distant outpost of frontier land of unknown potential.

If that distinguishes conquest from rule, China has failed to effectively rule Tibet. This is for many reasons. The conquests of the Qing dynasty three centuries ago were not followed by a program of sinification, of imposing Chinese characteristics, beyond imperial patronage of high lamas, and much imperial show of favour to hierarchs of Tibetan Buddhism. On the ground, in Tibet, Qing power faded and, by the early 20th century, was barely felt. When revolutionary China fought its way in, in the 1950s, it had to begin again, and took at first the route taken by the East India Company, of patronising the Tibetan aristocracy, keeping them well supplied with silver dollars, buying their loyalty for most of the 1950s.

That classic colonial strategy failed eventually, as more Tibetans in central Tibet became aware that in both Kham and Amdo the people’s republic waged full-scale war against Tibetans, sending waves of (disliked) refugees fleeing to Lhasa for shelter.

In hindsight, the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, which ended the tacit pact between the occupying People’s Liberation Army and the Tibetan aristocracy, could not have been at a worse time. Mao’s insistence that human will –especially his will- would overcome all obstacles, human and natural, was peaking, and he ruthlessly dispatched any who dared question him. The whole of China, and Tibet, were about to experience famine as a result. Tibet went overnight from “feudal serfdom” to what Tibetans experienced as a deeper slavery, their lives at the whim of commune cadres awarding work points redeemable as survival rations, granted to those who not only worked hard but chanted the right class warfare slogans and denounced all they had held dear. By 1959 Mao had crushed all flowerings of dissent, was fixated on a crash program to attain nuclear parity with both the US and USSR by insisting that human will overcomes all obstacles. Mao was the helmsman, able to inscribe his beautiful thoughts onto the blank minds of the masses, without interference from anyone.

The Tibetans had been exempted until 1959 from the rapidly accelerating great leap into heavy industrialisation by squeezing the peasants in who name the revolution had been fought. Mao had a high Stalinist dream of military industrialisation which required mobilising the entire population, without exception, to  surrender their few possessions and small plots of land to the command-and-control communes, which were to be the short cut to attaining a full suite of nuclear missiles fast.

After 1959 Tibetans were no longer exceptional, and went immediately into the promised new heaven on earth, which required class warfare, struggle sessions, denunciations, liquidations and smashing everything old. The entirety of Tibetan history, culture, identity, mind training and mode of production were all classified as the four olds, to be swept away to make room for the new.

New China, dismounting from the conqueror’s horse in order to rule, never made any serious attempt to understand the conquered, nor to apprehend the pastoral mode of production that was uniquely suited to dryland, upland landscapes. Revolutionary iconoclasm had nowhere any space for Tibetans to both be themselves and negotiate their entry into modernity.

Once the revolution so nearly bankrupted China, and Mao had died, a new beginning was possible. Replacing Mao’s grand narrative with feeling for the next stone in order to cross the river was a step towards not only opening up private economic enterprise but also opening minds to the messy business of making life up, according to whatever arises. The early 1980s was a time when China made moves to inculturate. CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang acknowledged the party had made many mistakes, and urged Han Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet to learn Tibetan.

It never happened. The new class had nothing to gain by seeing the world through Tibetan eyes. Cadre promotion was determined by success in fulfilling production quotas, or at the least producing plausible statistics announcing greater production, and the introduction of new pillar industries such as intensive logging of Tibetan forests. The regional autonomy law of 1984 was a high point. By 1987 it was clear Hu Yaobang’s reforms were going nowhere. In Lhasa, Tibetans revolted and were crushed by the garrisons of PLA troops dug into every Tibetan town. The liberal moment had passed and, by 1989, had vanished across China when the tanks smashed their way into Tiananmen. The space, in which China might learn something about the nature of Tibet, from Tibetans, closed.

Tibetans were acknowledged as different but their convergence with the Han norm was also deemed a historic necessity, indeed an inevitability.  Republican China under Sun Yat-sen had declared the Tibetans one of the five great families that together constitute the Chinese nation, a way of accommodating and encompassing difference within a wider sameness.

Communist China repudiated this formula, and the coloured five stripe flag that went with it, while eventually adopting something similar. By the beginning of this century, driven by high-level fears that the Soviet collapse was due to ethnic minority separatism, the regional autonomy guaranteed by the 194 law was deliberately and systematically downgraded, with minzu redefined no longer as nationality, becoming merely the personal choice of individuals of cultural preferences.

At no point since the reconquest of the 1950s has China shown much curiosity about Tibetan language, culture, lifeways, modes of production as the foundations for modernity. With the exception of a few liberal years in the early 1980s, Tibet has been consistently seen as barren, harsh, unnaturally and dangerous cold and with life-threateningly thin air, a backward, poverty-stricken land that is unproductive, the Tibetans wasteful of its vast area and mineral treasures, indifferent to wealth accumulation, lacking in almost all attributes of civilisation.

Yet the task of the rulers of contiguous empires persists: how to make alien rule acceptable? The CCP not only wants the Tibetan and Uighur masses to love the party, they have made such love mandatory. This is self-defeating.

Despite the enormous differences between China in 1949 and now, there are continuities. When CCP Secretary Hu Yaobang toured Tibet in 1982, and instructed cadres to learn Tibetan, he was ignored. To this day, few Han have learned Tibetan, which only heightens Han fears that even Tibetans who dutifully profess their love for the party-state, in private deny it. For sixty years –the six decades in which China has vigorously attempted to actually govern Tibet- the starting point has always been that there is nothing to learn from Tibetans, not even how to manage landscapes so different to lowland China, in ways that are both productive and sustainable.

Much has also changed in those six decades. Revolutionary enthusiasm to sweep away all that is old may have caused contempt for all things Tibetan , backed by certainty that history is with the necessity of revolution, and any Tibetans who demur are victims of false consciousness. Today, faith in revolutions that can level mountains by sheer will are a faint memory best forgotten; yet certainty remains that Tibet is backward, lacking in all endowments conducive to progress, and is objectively, if left to persist with its traditional mode of production, a drag on delivery of environmental services. The new objective necessity for ignoring or even excluding customary lifeways is scientific, not revolutionary, but the conclusion is the same: for the good of Tibet, customary land use must end. Reducing human activity across the Tibetan Plateau is necessary to ensure provision of water to lowland China, to conserve biodiversity, to resolve the contradiction between grass and animals.

[1] Michael Hechter , Containing Nationalism, Oxford, 2001

Michael Hechter, Alien Rule And Its Discontents, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 53, Issue 3, 2009

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Blog one of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people

China’s frequently repeated Marxist dialectic proposition, that there is a contradiction between grass and animals simply means what is obvious: the more grass the animals graze, the less grass is left, until the next growing season; conversely, the fewer the grazing animals, the more grass there is.

On that simple observation an entire ideological edifice rests, of Chinese superiority and Tibetan inferiority, culminating in China’s new era mission to construct ecological civilisation. What makes this a contradiction, a serious problem requiring decisive intervention by the sovereign nation-state to govern the grasslands?  Why does this lead to the official policy of tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass, in effect for the past 15 years?

Not only in Tibet, but in rangeland livestock production landscapes worldwide, mobile pastoralists have managed this contradiction simply by moving on, taking their herd to the next pasture, lifting grazing pressure well before the grass plants are grazed to the point where they cannot recover. In Tibet, where the hardy grasses and sedges of the grasslands keep most of their biomass underground, as protection not only from grazing but also from fierce gales, hail and snowstorms, it takes a lot to kill the living biomass. The grasses and the grazers have evolved together.

China has never understood or appreciated this, nor bothered to ask Tibetan drogpa nomads to explain. China has steadily moved in the opposite direction, of seeing the grazing animal herds and their herders as illiterate, ignorant, careless, destructive, to blame for degradation of the grasslands.

It is not only the centralised state that sees all nomadic land use as inherently problematic, so too do most Chinese scientists who do research on the grasslands. In a public sphere where only those who agree with the state have a voice, this sets up a circle of reinforcing rationales, a self-fulfilling dynamic, in which the scientists follow the mass line of the centre, and the centre justifies its animus against wandering nomads by citing scientific findings.

In this closed loop, it is worth taking a closer look at what China’s scientists now say about Tibet, starting with what has become, in China, a naturalised, self-evident truth. All human activity anywhere in Tibet –from urban infrastructure construction to mobile rural herding of ruminants- is now defined as a loss of what Tibet is defined by, the provision of environmental services to lowland China. All human activity is a threat, a danger. So purist is this opposition of ecology and society, so absolute are its categories, so mutually exclusive are its realms of life, anything human is immediately problematic. This is the science of ecology taken to extremes, a vision of unspoiled pristine wilderness so pure no human hand has compromised it. The assumption that all human action is a degradation was long implicit in Chinese research reports on Tibet, now it is explicit.

For the party-state, this intolerance for all human use of landscape, even the most skilfully sustainable, is a major opportunity. This new imaginary, making not only Tibet but other rangelands into virgin grassland wildernesses, is opportunity for the nation-state to fully assert its sovereignty over territory, while reducing the customary land managers to irrelevance, ignominy and even amnesiac oblivion.

The separation of land from people, ingrained in ecology as a science, now gives the recentralised authoritarians command and control over the remotest plateau rangelands, without any need to win the hearts and minds of the population, or to resettle new immigrant populations in the cryosphere.

The cryosphere, the cold realm, stands now as the opposite, the ultimate Other, to the ecological civilisation construction that is the declared mission of the CCP. It is not possible to construct an ecological civilisation unless ecology and civilisation are separate, and thus need to be brought together. This entrenched dualism renews the mandate of the CCP, as the only force capable of  bringing nature and culture together. This conveniently ignores the historic reality that for thousands of years nature and culture commingled, co-existed in Tibet, and were never conceived of as competing realms, one to be subjected to the other, or laboriously welded back together.

Xi Jinping, in a major speech in May 2018, says China must:  “push ecological civilization to a new level ,during a tone-setting meeting on environmental protection ending Saturday. Xi said the country will channel more energy into promoting ecological civilization and resolving environmental problems, backed by the political advantages of the centralized and unified leadership of the CPC and the socialist system. Building an ecological civilization is of fundamental importance for the sustainable development of the Chinese nation, Xi said. The building of ecological civilization has entered a critical period.  Xi said ecology and environment are closely connected with people’s well-being, urging works to be done to meet public expectations by stepping up the building of ecological civilization and providing more quality ecological products. Xi said China must abide by the following principles to push forward ecological civilization in a new era:

— Ensuring harmony between human and nature. China must stick to the policy of putting conservation and protection first, and mainly relying on the natural recovery of the environment.

— Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets.

— Mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands are a life community. The building of ecological civilization must take all factors into consideration with good overall plans and multiple measures.

“The nation must speed up the construction of the ecological civilization system, to ensure that by 2035, there will be a fundamental improvement in the quality of the environment, and the goal of building a Beautiful China will be basically attained.”







China has found a solution to the long term problematic of turning an empire into a nation-state, not by winning the loyalty of the conquered to their alien rulers, but by removing the people from the vacated land, which is thereby renamed as biodiverse protected area. It is the party-state in charge of official protection, giving the party a role and a legitimacy it has struggled for six decades to find.

This bold move requires us to believe that the party-state cares so deeply for wildlife it is willing to forego food security, production landscape uses, mineral extraction uses and all other modes of production and revenue raising, for the sake of wildlife and water provision. Yet China has not at all abandoned its passion for economic growth, for maximal utilisation of arable land, its intensification of urbanisation, its wealth accumulation and transition to a high income economy dominated by high technology and high consumption. Nor has China abandoned its global dominance of wildlife trafficking, its destruction of migratory bird flyways by robbing shorebirds of shores, replacing them with industrial land reclamation and intensive aquaculture.

What has been abandoned, and is nowhere mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech praising mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands is the people of the grasslands who, in course of daily productive life, managed to sustainably maintain those grasslands and mountains, and the wildlife, without ever separating ecology from civilisation. There now seems to be literally no place for those Tibetans once the ecological civilisation is constructed.

This is not a question of double standards or hypocrisy, but of double geography, with a double logic. The decisive diremption of China, invented by geographer Hu Huanyong in 1935, is the key. By slicing one straight line across China, from the far southwest to the northeast border with Siberia, Hu elegantly dissected China into a southeast half that only accounted for 36% of the land but housed 96% of the population while the northwest half accounted for 64% of the land area but only 4% of the population. This had to be problematic.

This imbalance seemed, to Mao’s revolutionary China, to require emigrating millions of settlers to boost the thinly populated rangelands, a strategy backed by coercion and revolutionary pioneering enthusiasm, that in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Xinjiang often succeeded, but not in Tibet. If only four per cent of the total population of overcrowded China lives beyond the arable lowlands, move the masses, plough the virgin grasslands, dam the rivers, drill the oil. This old strategy had, over a thousand years, made southern China Chinese, then Sichuan and Yunnan. What was revolutionary about the revolution was not its goal, but its speeding up of well-rehearsed methods for pushing and pulling the poor and vulnerable from landless penury in their home provinces, to resettle the frontiers.

In Tibet alone, this strategy did not work. Tibet was too high, too cold, for immigrant farmers to farm anything, to produce crops sufficient to generate a new economic dynamic, and the Tibetans were too suspicious. Unlike Inner Mongolia, there had been very few Tibetan communists, and it took a full-scale modern war, won by PLA artillery and aerial bombardment in the late 1950s, to subdue the Tibetans of Kham and Amdo.

Thereafter, central planners, in one Five-Year Plan after another, announced many new pillar industries that would launch Tibet into production of surpluses, and nearly all failed to materialise, or destroyed their resource. Productivist ideology did succeed in increasing livestock herd size, but without creating an export commodity chain comparable to what Soviet aid set up in pastoral Mongolia for Russian consumption.

Productivism reigned for four decades or more in revolutionary China with little to show for it, other than the oil, gas and mineral extraction zones of Qinghai. By the start of this century logging of the forests of eastern Tibet had to be halted because summer monsoon rains on the stripped hillslopes of Kham went straight into the upper Yangtze, causing the massive 1998 floods downriver. Productivism had run its course.

The new approach is post-industrial and post-productivist, repurposing the whole of Tibet as natural, virgin, pristine wilderness, supplying environmental services, notably water and tourism destinations, to lowland China, and the world. In many ways, this is a repositioning in keeping with China’s transition from a centrally planned command and control economy in which Tibet is at most a supplier of raw materials, producer goods of high volume but low price, shipped off for value adding by smelters and timber mills elsewhere. China as a whole is transitioning from reliance on heavy manufacturing –the world’s factory- to more high priced high tech, and a services-based economy led by consumer demand. Tibet’s role in this transition is to become a destination for mass domestic tourism, which requires it to be a pure no-man’s land, largely devoid of inhabitants, providing glimpses of thrilling wild animals, China’s own safari land.

This turns the old problematic on its head. Since Hu Huanyong in 1935 identified northern and western China as having 64 per cent of China’s territory but only four per cent of its population, the policy imperative was to find ways of making the vast northwest produce more, and house more.



Now with the aid of ecology as a science of the non-human, a simpler solution beckons. Simply remove the four per cent from the land, park them in settlements of the expelled on the fringes of the new urbs, and the depopulated land immediately becomes the exclusive domain of the sovereign party-state, with no counter claim. As the pastoral production landscapes become national parks, a few of the former nomads can be retrained and employed as park rangers, displaying the magnanimity of the party-state in benevolently lifting the destitute out of poverty.

Removing the four per cent is far easier than doubling the plateau population. The entire Tibetan population of six millions (2010 Census count) is only one in 200 of the total population of China, a tiny fraction to move out of the way of fulfilling a grand consumer culture narrative of access to virgin lands.

This leaves a depopulated land unequivocally in the hands of the sovereign nation-state, in ways never achieved while those lands were the pastures of mobile livestock producers and Tibetan crop farmers. The loss of food production, and of food security in Tibet, are small prices to pay for allocating Tibet its part in the great rejuvenation of new era China’s ecological civilisation. Modern managerialism means the surplus Tibetans need not be removed too far, many staying on the land, trained and employed as national park ranger staff, to enforce livestock exclusions, greet the tourist masses, dress colourfully, dance and pose with visitors alongside yaks and mastiffs. Thus China achieves multiple goals the world yearns for: carbon capture, enhanced water supply, poverty alleviation, protection of wildlife, education in new vocational skills for illiterate herders, and education in individual tastes for the tourist masses learning to become individual consumers. That’s a six-fold win.

A further benefit, for a centralised authoritarian system is that authority is concentrated in the gaze of the state, while the aspirations, experience and values of the pastoralists fade from view. In order to ascertain the human footprint in Tibet, remote sensing satellites can do it all. Geoinformatics readily turns satellite sourced data into maps, resulting in visible, mapped,  objective truth fit for policy makers.

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Chinese announcements of mineral bonanzas under the Tibetan surface have been made for decades, but in only a few areas has this led to mining.

Now, in remote Lhuntse county, well to the southeast of Lhasa, we are told of the latest treasure, although the South China Morning Post story is remarkably vague as to what the metals are.

Why does Lhuntse suddenly burst into the news; in turn prompting a swift rebuttal, also in English, from the punchy CCP mouthpiece Global Times? Location, location, location. There are only two places where the borders of India, Bhutan and China meet. One is Doklam in Bhutan’s mountainous west, scene of a protracted and tense standoff between Chinese and Indian forces, now seemingly defused but with none of the underlying issues resolved. The other trilateral intersection is Lhuntse, on Bhutan’s mountainous eastern border with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet Lhoka Lhuntse.

To Tibetans, Lhuntse is special for very different reasons, as the entry to the sacred pilgrimage of the crystal mountain of Tsari, not as well known globally as Kailash/Gang Rinpoche or Amnye Machen, but just as revered for its ability to bestow blessings and deep insights into the nature of reality.[1] Traditionally, many Bhutanese did the Tsari pilgrimage too.

Now, we are told, there are billions of dollars of valuable minerals awaiting imminent extraction in this remote, mountainous county of southern Tibet. We might just as well say there are billions of dollars’ worth of valuable minerals below the street where you live; both statements are equally true yet utterly meaningless.

Such claims rest on basic misunderstandings of the intersections of geology and economics. The entire planet is made of valuable minerals, which occur everywhere. Some are naturally rare, such as the well-named family of rare earths, meaning that even in a highly concentrated deposits, only a tiny fraction is the sought after elements.  Other elements, such as lithium or silicon are very common.

What distinguishes a mineral deposit is an unusual concentration, usually due to unusual circumstances that arose many millions of years ago, deep underground. But a deposit is not a mine. Even if a deposit is laboriously mapped in all three dimensions, so its shape and mineral concentrations are known with some precision, there are still innumerable hurdles before a deposit (or more basically, a reserve) becomes a mine. It is easy for geologists to claim to have found great riches, to elicit congratulations. But in a globalised commodity chain economy, any deposit must then pass several more tests.

If one looks at where mining actually happens, especially large-scale mining, huge sums of capital were poured into that specific location on the basis of careful calculations that the mine will steadily produce a certain tonnage, at a certain cost of extraction, which must be considerably lower than the assumed selling price to those who generate demand for that mineral after it has not only been extracted but concentrated and smelted into something pure, for industrial use.

The business case for any mine must weigh many variables, and many assumptions, some of which usually turn out wrong, because who can tell what will be the price of oil, or iron ore, or lithium ten years from now? But a big underground mine can easily swallow capital expenditure by investors for a decade before it starts producing ores and profits. That is a major reason why mining has such booms and busts: the lead time is beyond our ability to calculate risk.

A mineral deposit in Tibet must add other considerations that make mining expensive. Roads and railways are few, prone to landslides, earthquakes, permafrost heaving and slumping, with vast distances to haul in equipment and haul out the minerals. It’s a long way to market, especially for minerals used mostly by industries in coastal China, which have as a ready alternative buying the same minerals from abroad, or buying a mine in Peru or Congo or Australia, even cornering the global market.

These are among the obstacles facing any proposal to extract from Tibet. Further obstacles arise if the commercially valuable mineral, even in a highly concentrated deposit, is still only a small proportion of the total rock. That means it must be processed on the spot; it makes no sense to haul raw ores thousands of kilometres to a distant smelter. This may not matter in the case of oil, coal, iron ore or chromium, which may be pure enough as they come out of the ground to just haul away for distant processing. It doesn’t apply to alluvial gold, sitting as specks or nuggets in riverbeds, already pure. But most of the big deposits discovered in Tibet, across a very wide area, in the last three decades are polymetallic, containing several metals, usually copper, molybdenum, gold and silver, which at least need concentration if not smelting before shipment. That in turn means a substantial investment in the equipment needed to crush rock to powder and then cook it chemically to get rid of most of the waste. That requires a lot of expensive equipment, a substantial workforce skilled in industrial methods, urban infrastructure, a reliable power supply, and heavy freight transport to a smelter. None of these can be assumed to exist in the usually remote districts where the minerals are found, as Tibet is the size of Western Europe. A newly discovered deposit on the German border with Poland would not readily be considered economic just because there is already a smelter in Spain.

To this day, the only mineral extracted from Tibet Autonomous Region that is recorded in official statistical year books is chromium, an industry now in steady decline, with production for 2016 listed as 67,000 tons, which is a return to the levels of the late 1980s, from a 2010 peak of 201,000 tons.

Perhaps it is no surprise that gold is nowhere mentioned officially since much of the production was small-scale, artisanal, and highly destructive of pastoral and riverine landscapes. It may be that the copper, gold and silver extracted from Shetongmon, near Shigatse, are recorded (if anywhere) in Gansu statistics, as the concentrate is sent by rail to a smelter in Gansu. But what about the other copper mines, for example, upstream from Lhasa? Deposits are many, mines are routinely announced, then very little happens. When mining does occur, deposits are often parcelled out to various competing local interests all with claims as stakeholders, restricting mining to low tech extraction on a modest scale. Time after time, the headline announcements of massive deposits result in very little.

But very little, in terms of tonnage extracted, can be highly damaging environmentally, and Tibetan communities are usually quite upset at the intrusion by immigrants who care naught for local habitat or community. However this is far from the bonanza in the Himalayas that predictably presses the buttons of India’s geostrategists, ever alert for the latest Chinese threat.

In the most recent available official statistics, Lhuntse county is listed as having a rural population of farmers and pastoralists (rural labourers in official classification) of 18,000 in 2016, counting those officially registered as resident, not immigrant. Of those, 6490 were registered as agriculture and livestock producers, while only 250 worked in industry, including mining, suggesting an economy that employs very few Tibetans. A further 9560 –half the entire work force- were registered as working in construction, suggesting an economy based on recruiting much manual labour for urban construction.[2] In the 2000 Census, Lhuntse dzong had a population of just over 32,000, of whom 98.7 per cent were Tibetan. That, of course, does not include the garrison of PLA troops on border duty.

All this, the SCMP excitedly tells us, has changed dramatically since 2016, with an immigrant rush that has set up restaurants, “a hair salon, laundry service, supermarket, cosmetics store, Western-style bakery, confectionery shop and bars. After nightfall, the bars and barbecue stands are filled with the sound of people speaking dialects from across China. They are miners and labourers, but they are also sleek salesmen and investors dressed in suits and shiny shoes. A woman who runs a laundry service said she had about 30 to 40 customers a day, and although dry cleaning was expensive, that did not seem to bother her regulars.”

But what is actually being mined? “Enormous, deep tunnels have been dug into the mountains along the military confrontation line, allowing thousands of tonnes of ore to be loaded and transported out by trucks daily, along roads built through every village. Extensive power lines and communication networks have been established, while construction is under way on an airport that can handle passenger jets.”

Ok, but what are those ores? What is it that will make Lhuntse’s fortune? This lengthy story does not quite say. It does name the mining company, Tibet Huayu, which in its filings with Shanghai Stock Exchange, where its shares are traded, defines itself as focused on lead, zinc and antimony, metals found abundantly in many Tibetan areas, metals  which are seldom worth recovering unless they are classified as incidental by-products of mines with more valuable metals, usually copper, gold and silver. Even then, the on-site processing extracts only concentrates of copper, silver and gold, and usually dumps the lead and zinc in the mine waste tailings, along with a massive tonnage of uneconomic rock. This is both wasteful and toxic, as lead is highly poisonous and if it leaches into rivers causes serious damage to animals and people.

The photos accompanying the article give us some clues. We don’t see the “enormous, deep tunnels”, just drill rigs dotting a hillside, and the interior of a large shed, with machinery whirring away, driven by rubber belts, suggesting a small stamping mill to crush rock. Not much to get excited about.

There are a few clues in the SCMP story as to what this is all about. “Weng Qingzhen, who owns a Sichuan restaurant in the county, said she moved there less than two months ago after friends and relatives told her about the mining boom. “We came here for the gold rush, but this place is not as wild as I thought,” she said.”

A vein of gold explains a lot. Many Tibetan deposits of copper, lead and zinc, or copper and molybdenum also have gold and silver, and sometimes the gold is concentrated in a skarn cap on the top of the deposit, as it slowly formed over millions of years as molten magma deep underground very slowly cooled, and in the presence of superheated water, gradually separated the elements.

A vein of gold atop a deposit of lead and zinc explains the small-scale stamping mill, the underground tunnels, the trucks taking ores to some distant place where the gold can be smelted. This is not gold rush as metaphor, the gold is there.

Gold rushes usually are quickly exhausted, and the hair salons and bars (euphemisms for brothels) move on. What is left behind is the dumps of rock waste, on sloping land above the rivers that form the Subansiri River of northeastern India. That’s a real concern.

Lhuntse’s many rivers are transboundary, flowing into India and eventually into the Brahmaputra. The Nyel Chu, Jar Chu, Tsari Chu and Loro Chu all rise within the hook of the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra to the north, comprising the headwaters of India’s Subansiri. The hydropower potential of the upper Subansiri has been plotted and planned for decades, plans which would be seriously compromised if toxic heavy metals come down river from abandoned tailings dams in Lhuntse.

The SCMP story predicably got India’s security state pundits wagging. It stoked, yet again, Tibetan fears of the Chinese juggernaut. Unlike the SCMP’s blander print headline, its’ online headline no doubt intended this:  How Chinese mining in the Himalayas may create a new military flashpoint with India.

Is this patriotic fervour just the overexcited imagination of a reporter? Unlikely. Is it SCMP, now owned by Jack Ma’s Alibaba, out to prove its loyalty to Xi Jinping’s new era? Perhaps. The likeliest explanation for this flimsy provocation is that it was engineered by Tibet Huayu Mining, seeking to place itself on the frontline of China’s reconquest of Arunachal, fortified by Huayu’s success in bringing Chinese enterprise and Chinese immigrants to a remote border town. A key line in the SCMP story: “The new mining activities would lead to a rapid and significant increase in the Chinese population in the Himalayas, which would provide stable, long-term support for any diplomatic or military operations aimed at gradually driving Indian forces out of territory claimed by China.”

Why would Huayu place such a story? Is it because, in an authoritarian system, conspicuous obedience to the official line is the key to success? Of course, but that’s not the whole story. Huayu has specific reasons to be super patriotic. Huayu was incorporated in 2002, with its’ head office at Huayu Building, Gesang Road, Lhasa. It is highly profitable, even though it does little mining, and the minerals it specialises in –zinc and lead- are regarded by bigger miners as not worth bothering with in Tibet. In 2018 Huayu entered into a business deal with an exploration company to do work an experienced miner with 16 years’ experience would normally have in-house. How come a mining company does not have its own exploration division?

The answer appears to be that what Huayu does mine is not only minerals but subsidies. It all starts with making Lhasa the corporate headquarters, and putting Tibet in the company’s name. That alone entitles it to lots of incentives, subsidies and tax breaks, just for setting up shop on Gesang Road.

Early in 2018 Huayu forecast that its 2017 profit would be sharply up from 2016, explaining that: “The reasons for the forecast are sharply increased main product and contribution from government subsidy.”[3]

The choice of a frontier county which has never, until very recently, had many Chinese immigrants, was an investment in patriotism. That attracted state support, including installation of power grid extensions, road building and other urban services. An airport is under construction.

But Tibet Huayu has bigger plans, and bigger subsidies to attract. It has recently bought half ownership of a Tajikistan gold mine from  a state-owned Tajik Aluminium corporation,TALCO.[4] This places Huayu at the forefront of China’s Eurasian Belt and Road, a mix of patriotism and profit, and Huayu is not shy about it. It reminds its shareholders that: As the national “One Belt and One Road” policy continues to advance in Central Asia, the company is located in countries along it.”[5]

Being based in Lhasa, the TAR government has provided support for Huayu’s westward thrust into Tajikistan: “the company has actively promoted the overseas equity investment projects and successively obtained the Ministry of Commerce of the Tibet Autonomous Region Certificate of Overseas Investment of an Enterprise and “Project Filing Notice” issued by Tibet Development and Reform Commission.” That is what Huayu filed in one of its regular updates for its investors on the Shanghai Stock exchange.[6] This entitles it to further incentives and tax breaks.

Patriotism is good for business. Huayu –its name means Chinese language- is adroit in positioning itself at the forefront of China’s great rejuvenation, be it in Lhoka Lhuntse or Tajikistan. It is equally adroit at assuring central leaders that its intensive exploitation of gold at Lhuntse in no way contradicts the wider policy of classifying Tibet as a strategic reserve of mineral resources to be mined not now but some time in the future. The rhetoric has changed. SCMP: “The Lhunze mining boom would not be expanded to other areas. In other parts of Tibet, mining activities have been prohibited or strictly limited because large-scale excavation and processing of minerals could produce excessive waste chemicals and debris, posing a threat to the fragile Himalayan environment and potentially causing irreparable damage to the natural landscape.

With remarkable promptness, the SCMP Lhuntse story was repudiated one day later by party organ Global Times, a medium seldom outdone in loud patriotism. What Global Times repudiated was not anything about Huayu’s Lhuntse operation, but that this constitutes a springboard for retaking Arunachal from India. That, Global Times assured us, is “groundless hype.”[7]

Thus the news cycle completed, only to be taken up in India, and by Tibetan exiles.

What we find in these two stories is sophisticated PR and news management, from Huayu in placing the SCMP story, wrapping themselves in patriotic hype, and in Global Times prompt quashing of the slightest suggestion that China is aiming at repeating its 1962 conquest of Arunachal, at a time when China does not want to drive India into the arms of a Quadrilateral of countries aiming to contain China. What starts in English, on SCMP, stays in English, on Global Times. The last thing central leaders want is a patriotic wave within China demanding the reconquest of Arunachal.

We must learn to read between the lines. These days, the lines are written by authoritarians. We all know that in an authoritarian system, those in authority bark orders are subordinates. We sometimes forget that those who bark also submit to higher authority, and an authoritarian system rewards those who know both how to bark and how to submit. Huayu is a corporation for such times.





[1] Toni Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet, Oxford, 1999

[2] TAR Statistical Yearbook 2017, Table 17-1: Main economic indicators by county.

[3] Tibet Huayu Mining sees FY 2017 net profit up 52.27 pct to 70.97 pct, Reuters, 25 Jan 2018

[4] Tibet Huayu Mining Co Ltd: Says It Signs Jv Agreement With State Unitary Enterprise Tajik Aluminium Co Tajikistan Regarding Talco Gold Mine, Reuters, 18 December 2017

[5] Tibet Huayu Mining, Announcement on the Progress of Overseas Equity Investment Projects

[6] Tibet Huayu Mining, Announcement on the Progress of Overseas Equity Investment Projects

[7] Deng Xiaoci, Himalayan mining reports groundless hype: analysts:Global Times 2018/5/21

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China has for many years insisted that Tibet, usually meaning only Tibet Autonomous Region, is in fact progressing in great leaps, everyone benefits from China’s massive investment in Tibet, and incomes are rising rapidly, even if they lag far behind anywhere else in China, because Tibet by its nature lacks everything required for prosperity.  Yet despite the massive capital expenditure, Tibetans remain poor. This paradox, of poverty amid huge capital inflow, has been analysed in depth by economists.[1]

Official statistics that are publicly available, such as the provincial Statistical Yearbooks for 2017, suggest Tibetans, especially rural Tibetans, may be poor, but on average they are above the official poverty line. The TAR and Qinghai 2017 Statistical Yearbooks provide various ways of defining both incomes and consumption, based not only on calculating GDP per capita, but also on household surveys itemising how rural Tibetans spend their money. On official data, in 2016, per capita consumption expenditure of rural households  in Qinghai was RMB 5619 and in  TAR  5952, equivalent to  USD 945, above the World Bank poverty line of USD693 per person per year.

Wealth is now accumulating in Tibet, after 40 years of rapid wealth accumulation across China. Readers of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s vivid Coming Home to Tibet see through Tibetan eyes the seductive pull of the shiny new motorbike or the warmth of a heated shopping mall, even in the remotest rangeland.



There is poverty in Tibet.  This is not new. In a vast land where pastoral livelihoods are made from an unpredictable climate, where it can snow heavily and suddenly even in summer, Tibetans are expert at not only living despite uncertainty, but from it.[2] Out on the open rangelands, pastoralists know from daily experience that anything can happen, and do not have the modern compulsion to control every risk.


Life is risky, today’s rich man can quickly become poor, and vice versa. When that eventuates, the lamas remind Tibetans not to dwell on changes in fortune, or demand to know: why me? Sudden shifts are not a sign of divine providence, virtuous morals or divine punishment, but are to be attributed to accumulated past karma of previous lives, unknowable and not worth speculating about.

Adversity can reduce a prospering pastoralist to destitution as quickly as an unexpected snowstorm can block a pass, and animals die, not only of cold but lack of feed as they were about to be led down in autumn, from high summer slopes to lower winter pastures. When a herd is devastated by a blizzard, usually relatives and friends will lend animals, if they can, to help rebuild the herd. But destitution does occur.

When disaster strikes, nomads may become beggars, lining the streets of the nearest town, seeking alms. Around the world, beggars are stigmatised, denounced as fakes and wasters, undeserving of charity; but in Tibet there is little shame in eliciting the kindness of strangers. In a land prone to earthquakes, landslides, glacial lake outbursts, blizzards and howling storms, everyone knows that beggar could well be themselves.

This is what poverty experts call transient poverty, the low point in cycling through ups and downs of the human condition. Transient poverty is not the permanent state of entire populations, caused by an environment so harsh Tibetans are forever on the brink of immiserisation. Transient poverty needs special solutions, not wholesale removals of entire populations based on categorising the entire plateau as “contiguous destitute area.”


The king upon his golden throne

Can know hunger

The beggar with his begging bag

Can know fullness


What is new to Tibet is relative poverty, the juxtaposition of enormous wealth alongside deep destitution. China defines poverty in absolute, monetised terms, but in the wider world, the relative poverty of inequality is recognised as the measure of poverty, even though this means that, as long as inequality persists, poverty persists. In Europe, poverty is defined as relative, which puts an end to the fantasy that poverty can be eliminated, like an infectious disease, once and forever.

Tibetans now see, among fellow Tibetans, millionaires who made fortunes dealing in yartsa gumbu (cordyceps sinensis) trade; or earning high salaries on the official payroll. They see nonTibetans immigrating to Tibet as sojourners routinely remitting savings and profits to relatives back home. By comparison the hard and risky work of raising animals, through bitter winters and brief summers, is relatively less and less attractive. Not so long ago the Tibetan concept of wealth –nor– was synonymous with the herd on the hoof, the sight of grazing animals on the green sward, the bounty of nature needing only to be collected for human use. Pastoralists considered themselves wealthy; not so now.



One of the simplest solutions, tailored to the risks of the rangelands, is an insurance scheme that, when a snow disaster occurs, pays nomads to rebuild their herd quickly. There is such a scheme in neighbouring Mongolia, which shares with Tibet not only a mobile pastoralist economy but also extreme weather. The Mongolians have devised a scheme that costs neither the pastoralists nor the insurance industry, yet pays promptly and reliably as needed, without time consuming and expensive wrangling over how much snow fell over exactly what area, and how many animals each nomad family lost, and did they hide some animals from the inspectors to boost the payout? Rather than parsing the specifics of each adverse event, on each pastoral property, this insurance scheme simply uses official meteorological data for a whole district, and the average herd loss, and pays accordingly. This works well, except in the most catastrophic circumstances, which can be too devastating for this deliberately modest

Is this a degraded landscape requiring exclusion of customary livestock production?

scheme to handle. In a real catastrophe, the state steps in with compensation.


In Ulaan Baatar, in 2013 I met with Mongolian officials in charge of this indexed livestock insurance scheme, who explained it to me in detail. I also met with international aid agencies that had been much involved in designing the scheme and in encouraging nomads to enrol in it. They wanted to know why an Australian, from a country with plenty of rangeland but no traditional herders, was interested to understand their creation. When I explained that my focus was on whether such a scheme would be helpful for Tibetans, they expressed amazement. Such a scheme, they said, works only where there is trust, between the insurers and the insured. To persuade herders to enrol, and pay their annual premium, they must believe the insurers will pay, when disaster strikes. Between Han Chinese, city-based, often state-owned insurance companies and remote, disempowered herders there is no trust that contracts will be honoured. They thought I was wasting my time.

In many ways, an indexed livestock insurance scheme would serve China’s interests, as well as guaranteeing the social security of nomadic pastoralists. China’s insistence that Tibetan herders cause land degradation arises from the Tibetan preference to maintain as big as possible a herd on the hoof, rather than selling for slaughter as many animals as possible as soon as they reach adult size, which is global modern agribusiness practice. One reason Tibetans keep their wealth sentient and not on abattoir meat hooks is that, in the absence of any insurance, when snow disasters strike, a bigger herd provides a bigger base for recovery. An indexed livestock insurance scheme would incentivise Tibetans to reduce herd size, thus reducing grazing pressure, knowing they will be compensated when they most need it, when many animals have been lost.


Everyone likes a win-win, even if, in reality, they are hard to find. This is a genuine win-win, an inexpensive way of sparing livestock producers from poverty, while at the same time reducing herd size and grazing pressure. China has shown interest in this, but little has been achieved.

Much the same applies to Tibetan farmers, whose ripening barley fields in the summer monsoon season can be destroyed in minutes by a sudden hailstorm. Again, an indexed crop insurance scheme would prevent poverty.




The world does not look closely at what China means by poverty alleviation. Little attention is paid to 60 years of Chinese failure to invest in the rangelands, in pastoral livelihoods, to improve herds, to enable access by pastoralists to China’s urban markets, even though affluent Chinese now eat lots of dairy products.

One of the few who took action to help Tibetans get out of poverty was Arthur Holcombe, who set up the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund (TPAF) almost two decades ago. On a modest scale, he did the work China has been reluctant to do, and in 2017 he published his reflections on what he learned.

TPAF microcredit loans helped to enable many poor Tibetan households to invest in supplemental small household income-generating activities. For women and their husbands, this often included small investments in the establishment of village dry goods stores, tea houses, barley beer bars, and the weaving of nambu woollen cloth for sale in urban markets. For men, who would access funds from the microloans being managed by their wives, this included funding for the purchase of carpentry tools for commercial woodworking and furniture-making, and for the acquisition of small tractors with trailers to provide marketing services for fellow villagers and to work in local building and road construction projects.  

“The second project involved poor nomad households in two townships and provided them with price incentives to sell their surplus yak milk to two small milk-processing plants that were located on a main highway providing easy access to an urban area. The project established rural milk-collection centres and provided vehicles that could then transport the fresh milk to the milk-processing plants that had a capacity to make high-quality yogurt, butter, and cheese prior to their sale in a main urban area. The scheme was intended to reduce the wastage of fresh milk at the household level, stimulate a demand for increased milk production and sales, and to provide nomad households with steady income for their surplus milk made possible with the steady demand for processed milk products in urban areas. “[3]


Greater wealth, greater suffering

Lesser wealth, lesser suffering


In extravagance

No virtue is accumulated

It has become a matter of national pride that “no-one is left behind” as China works towards becoming a consumer-driven middle income country. It is thus the patriotic duty of those currently “left behind” on their customary pastures, to surrender their land tenure rights, sell their yaks, sheep and goats, leave their ancestral pastures and live, on state rations, in closely monitored settlements close to Chinese towns in Tibet. These largely self-sufficient, professional land managers and livestock producers are reduced to dependence, treated, they tell us, like cattle. Yet on paper their incomes will look better in cash terms, as their self-sufficient barter economy is replaced by handouts.

In the name of

  • guaranteeing provision of Tibetan glacier-melt water to lowland China,
  • improving security and stability,
  • poverty alleviation
  • reforestation,
  • carbon capture,
  • grassland rehabilitation,
  • biodiversity protection,
  • national park management
  • and rational zoning plans, these policy categories will, in coming years, work to separate the land and the people of Tibet, replacing the classic extensive and skilful land use pattern with intensive urban concentrations kept going by endless subsidies.

China expects to be applauded for this depopulation, as its unique contribution to human rights, wildlife protection, water conservation and poverty alleviation. The payoff for new era China is that it is acclaimed worldwide, as the greatest of civilisations, able to not only aspire to “ecological civilisation” (to use a standard Chinese official phrase), but to exemplary poverty alleviation as well, thus fulfilling human rights and thereby negating critics of China’s human rights record. The ambition is to be acknowledged as the greatest civilisation ever, a model for all others, both developed and developing, to emulate.


The goal of the party-state is grand, but the components constituting this utopian vision of exemplary Confucian righteousness bear closer inspection.

Poverty alleviation, like clean rivers and skies, is so self-evidently good that few look more closely at what China defines as poverty, how it measures it, what programs it has to alleviate it, how they are administered, how effective they are, who misses out, how implementation is distorted by vested interests, how the poor are stigmatised and humiliated by the poverty assessment procedures. Few examine the assumptions built in to definitions of poor areas, and the reasons poverty is geographically concentrated.

China now has that mandatory quota of 10 million poor people, each year for three years, being compulsorily moved out of poverty. China thus becomes the most exemplary of developing states, a leader among the third world, able to overcome all obstacles.

Which of the newly redefined ministries of new era China is driving the poverty alleviation agenda? None of the seven ministries with the biggest impact on Tibet focus on the welfare, social security, income support or livelihoods of Tibetans, so who will carry out the ambitious 2018 target of reducing poverty across China by a further 10 million people?

While China does have a Ministry of Civil Affairs, as well as health and education ministries, poverty alleviation is now highly centralised, and under the direct control of Xi Jinping. The agenda is in fact driven by the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, which has wide responsibilities for the whole economy, and specifically to push the poverty alleviation agenda.

What is remarkable is that not one of the top ministries has any interest in helping Tibetans stay on their land, enhance their incomes from traditional productive work, or link the traditional economy, with its distinctive comparative advantages, to the modern economy. In fact, every one of the key ministries affecting Tibet has, for differing reasons, an emphasis on removing Tibetans, depopulating the Tibetan Plateau, concentrating the Tibetan populations in towns.



Before rushing to congratulate China for its drive to remove 10 million people from poverty in each of the years 2018, 2019 and 2020, we need to actually do due diligence. Fortunately, we have Chinese guides to help us, such as Prof Gao Qin, Director, of the China Centre for Social Policy at Columbia University whose 2018 book, Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China deals with our questions, in depth.

First, in order to claim that there are only 30 million poor left in China, poverty is defined solely in monetary terms, as income of RMB 3000 per person per year, about USD500. This rural poverty definition is extremely low, missing out on including tens of millions of people a little above this cut-off. This cash income definition also accounts patchily for subsistence producers with little need for cash, because they grow and make most of what they need, as Tibetans have long done. Nor does this monetised definition of poverty attend to other dimensions of being poor, such as access to education and health, electricity, insurance or secure land tenure. It ignores the slide into poverty that accompanies ill health and disability.  It is a narrow definition that ignores inequality, the relative poverty of those with little compared to those whose wealth is vast and concentrated.

Rural Tibetans make their livelihoods by taking risks. If you fall and break a bone, it’s a long way to a health clinic, where, even today, staff make most of their money selling the most expensive treatments, whether needed or not, for cash upfront. China’s poverty experts say: Furthermore, further investigations indicated that suffering from illness is the greatest contributor to current individual or transient poverty in rural China.”[4]

Then there is the process of identifying and targeting the poor. Sometimes this is geographic, designating an entire county as a “poverty county”, with geographic factors, including climate, aridity, soil degradation, absence of infrastructure and remoteness blamed. These are the intractably poor, whose poverty is caused, officially, by their perverse choice to remain in areas of poor factor endowments. This is officially called contiguous poverty, and is thus best remedied by depopulation, and removal of people to be rehoused where there may be better economies. For China’s scientists, the concept of contiguity lends itself to territorialised geospatial cartography, generating maps purporting to show the ecologically determined inevitability of poverty in rugged landscapes such as Amdo Ngawa. Because the headwaters of the Yangtze have cut deep valleys (surface incision, handily measurable by satellite remote imagery) poverty is inevitable, China’s geographers tell us.[5]

In recent years, China has moved somewhat from designating entire counties as “poverty counties” eligible for county-wide central support to “precision poverty alleviation”, in which specific families are designated as poor. However, each family not only has to answer many questions in detail, their declaration of income (or lack of it) is public, affixed to their door for all to see, to their shame. Moreover, a specific official is in charge of their case, responsible for delivery of whatever they are entitled to. However, those officials, even when their promotion is formally tied to success, have incentives to keep the central funding flowing, leading to both families, and entire counties redeclared poor, year after year, to keep the fiscal flow in place, and available for diversion by rent seeking officials.

As a result of these many perverse incentives, fraud, mismanagement and corruption have been widespread, as Xi Jinping acknowledges, and those who actually are poor invariably lose out, as they are at the end of a long line of official gatekeepers who must certify poverty alleviation delivery, through whose hands funds flow.


During the day

No cattle to milk and feed

During the night

No wealth to keep the mind attached

Until the new era reorganisation of the entire machinery of government, poverty alleviation was administered by the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), which has now lost many of its powers to the National Health Commission, Ministry of Veterans Affairs, the completely new Ministry of Emergency Management to manage disaster relief, State Medical Security Administration, and State Grain and Reserves Administration, which takes over organizing and carrying out the storage, rotation, and daily management of national strategic and emergency reserves which supply not cash but grain that had been held in storage for years, distributed to exherdsmen in their new concrete settlements, in lieu of a guaranteed cash income. This, as the former nomads themselves say, reduces them to cattle, dependent on handouts.

In line with the “one function, one ministry” idea, this could leave MCA more focused on poverty alleviation as its core function. However, China defines poverty as income, not consumption expenditure. Poor families are often poor because a family member is ill, or disabled, and the whole family bears the cost of treatment, which can be very expensive. In business terms, MCA is a cost centre, earning nothing, and it is now many decades since the revolutionary ideology of equality, barefoot doctors and “serving the masses”. MCA has been a weak department, and is now weaker yet. For a decade, from 1993 to 2003, a loyal Tibetan communist Dorje Tsering, 多吉才让, was Minister for Civil Affairs, the highest position any Tibetan has reached in modern China. He is an Amdowa from Labrang, and turns 80 in 2019.

The 2018 newly appointed deputy minister for Civil Affairs, Tang Chengpei, is a Han hydropower engineer by training.



On paper, poverty alleviation has shot up in priority, is now in the hands of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, directed by Xi Jinping. Does this mean poverty alleviation is no longer the arduous duty of an obscure ministry, and is now a high-level priority? Not so. CCFEA, 中央财经委员会, is a Party organ, a subcommittee of the Politburo. It sets policy; it does not administer or deliver policy. Several Ministers are members of CCFEA, but not the minister directly responsible for poverty alleviation, the Minister for Civil Affairs.

Official policy, in Xi Jinping’s own words, is full of commands, and threats directed at officials who distort policy delivery.  At the end of March 2018 the CCP Politburo held a meeting to review poverty work and issued stark warnings against “failure in policy implementation and mismanagement of poverty relief funds, as well as misconduct such as ‘formality for formality’s sake, bureaucratism, and falsification,’ the statement said. China has adopted the strictest evaluations and assessments of poverty alleviation, which is an important guarantee in its victory in the battle against poverty and should be further improved to ensure that poverty reduction work is carried out in a pragmatic, solid and truthful way.”

This blunt language repeats warnings issued early in March 2018 by Premier Li Keqiang, on behalf of the state, who “promised targeted measures against corruption and misconduct in poverty alleviation.”

In reality, the centre can thunder but implementation remains in the hands of local government officials of many ministries, including the depleted Ministry of Civil Affairs. They persist in going through the motions of doing as instructed from far above, formality for formality’s sake, while retaining power over the poor, who must beg, as if entitlements are personal favours. In many Tibetan areas, officials, especially at county and prefectural levels, are not Tibetan, consider their job a hardship posting, and feel entitlements belong to them, whenever possible, to compensate. They have little sympathy and frequent contempt for the poor they administer. Prof Gao in her 2018 book: “the decentralized implementation of Dibao [guaranteed minimum income] allows rural officials at the county, township, and village levels considerable discretionary power, leading to several types of targeting errors such as allocating Dibao on the basis of personal connections or relationships (guanxi bao or renqing bao), cheating (pian bao), and mistakes (cuo bao). These errors also exist in urban China, but they are more widespread in rural areas given the greater challenges in checks and balances in the rural setting and more discretionary power bestowed to rural Dibao officials than to their urban peers. Rural Dibao applicants tend to be less well-informed about Dibao policies, procedures, and standards than their urban peers. They may also be less willing to complain and have fewer channels for filing grievances about injustice in Dibao implementation.”[6] Prof Gao makes these points in a 2018 podcast too.

When the poor are also landless, because, in the name of national park construction, water supply, carbon capture and wildlife conservation, landholders have been required to surrender their land tenure documents, they are even more at the mercy of nonTibetan officials. Once they have lost their lands, they are concentrated in intensive settlements, under constant surveillance, regarded officially as both indolent and indigent. Corruption among local officials who are Tibetan, and follow the example of their Han colleagues, is also not uncommon.

Despite China’s push to fully abolish all poverty by 2020, one of China’s top three “critical battles”, poverty alleviation on the ground remains messy, contradictory, and patchy in its implementation, riddled with contradictions and opportunities for corruption. Yet China is determined to succeed, and at an accelerating pace, as helmsman Xi Jinping’s standing now depends on it.

A major tool in eradicating poverty is the shift to a guaranteed minimum income for each poor household, the dibao. In the last of this series of four blogs on poverty, we look more closely at this new wave of poverty alleviation




[1] Andrew M Fischer, Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: A Study in the Economics of Marginalization, Lexington, 2013

[2] Saverio Kratli and Nikolaus Schareika, Living Off Uncertainty: The Intelligent Animal Production of Dryland Pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research (2010) 22, 605–622

[3] Arthur N. Holcombe, Can China Reduce Entrenched Poverty in Remote Ethnic Minority Regions?Lessons from Successful Poverty Alleviation in Tibetan Areas of China during 1998–2016, Ash Center, Kennedy School Harvard, 2017,

[4] Yansui Liu, Jilai Liu, Yang Zhou, Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies, Journal of Rural Studies 52 (2017) 66-75

[5] Yanguo Liu, Chengmin Huang et al, Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China; ISPRS International J. Geo-Information,  2018, 7,   free download:

[6] Gao Qin,  Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China,  Oxford U P, 2018, 51-2

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The more closely one looks at poverty and its remedies, the more problems arise. In 2018, as part of a major reorganisation of China’s party-state power, a new approach has been announced, in the hope of better coordination among the many ministries and agencies involved in poverty work, overcoming past fragmentation, policy failures and widespread rent seeking by powerful local officials diverting poverty funds to their own pockets.



The newly appointed Vice Premier in charge of implementing China’s poverty alleviation policies and ensuring victory in this “critical battle” is Hu Chunhua, a veteran of Tibet work. Although he spent decades in Tibet,  he has not disagreed with the official label of the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau as “contiguous destitute area.” Hu was first sent to Tibet Autonomous Region in 1983 when he was only 20, by the CCP mass organisation the party youth league. It was a time when central leaders, notably Hu Yaobang, conceded the CCP had made many mistakes in Tibet, and ordered cadres, if they intended to stay on, to learn Tibetan.

By the time he was 22, Hu Chunhua was manager of the one modern hotel in Lhasa, the state-owned Lhasa Hotel, owned by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. This is the hotel made famous by its imported manager Alec le Sueur, whose 1998 book The Hotel on the Roof of the World depicts a capitalist manager trying, with little success, to persuade Han danwei work unit staff to actually learn customer service, rather than treating hotel guests as nuisances.

Hu continued to rise, too busy to learn much Tibetan. According to his China Vitae CV, by the age of 29 he led the Communist Youth League in Tibet, and in 1995, aged 32, he became deputy secretary of the party in Tibet, the second most powerful position. He reached the top, as TAR party secretary in 2001, and held it until 2007, before being transferred to senior posts in Hebei province, much closer to Beijing.

From 2009 to 2012 Hu Chunhua was party secretary of Inner Mongolia, while also climbing the central politburo ladder. Throughout his career, long after he ceased being young, the Communist Youth League was his platform, and entrée to the top. Before Xi Jinping decided he was in no need of an heir-apparent, Hu Chunhua was considered a likely contender.[1]

Now he is in charge of the poverty battle. By decree, it is a battle that must be won, within a predetermined, tight timeframe; yet the definition of poverty, its causes and cures remain undefined, conflicted and confused, especially in Tibet, where the party-state never invested significantly in building on Tibet’s inbuilt comparative advantage in dairy and livestock production.

Few Han cadres have spent as much time in Tibet as Hu Chunhua, who arrived in 1983 and left in 2007, with breaks for Party School training. In those 24 years he learned to speak some Tibetan, yet in his many public performances he spoke only in party-speak, with not a hint of any ideas of his own.

Now in charge of poverty programs nation-wide, attempting to co-ordinate the many ministries and official agencies with actual budgetary responsibility for financing poverty work, Hu Chunhua has accepted the official definition of the whole of the Tibetan Plateau as a “contiguous destitute area”, divided officially into two separate destitute areas that are separated only by the political cartography of one zone encompassing all of Tibet Autonomous Region, the other “contiguous destitute area” being the Tibetan-designated counties of the other four provinces where Tibetans live.

China’s record of resettling villages, and entire districts, in the name of hydropower dam development or poverty alleviation, is at best patchy, when outcomes are investigated.[2] Promises of a better life are seldom fulfilled, hardly surprising in a country where all usable arable land is already in use. Those promises keep on being made. The poor are being displaced, for their own good, they are repeatedly told.

China acknowledges that the fragmented poverty programs of recent years, dispersed among many ministries and levels of government, have often generated results on paper that mask failure in practice. A CCP Politburo statement in March 2018 conceded that: “However, there are still prominent problems regarding poverty reduction, such as failure in policy implementation and mismanagement of poverty relief funds, as well as misconduct such as ‘formality for formality’s sake, bureaucratism, and falsification,’ the statement said. China has adopted the strictest evaluations and assessments of poverty alleviation, which is an important guarantee in its victory in the battle against poverty and should be further improved to ensure that poverty reduction work is carried out in a pragmatic, solid and truthful way, it said.”



Officially, every Chinese citizen is entitled to a guaranteed minimal income, known as dibao.

Prof Gao, in her exhaustive survey of available information on poverty alleviation, finds again and again that there has been little independent verification that official policies work as intended, and what little information that is available is focused on urban areas, rather than the remote rangelands where Tibetans have always lived.  However, she finds evidence that in rural areas four per cent of the population are eligible for dibao assistance, of whom three-quarters actually receive it.

In her 2018 book on dibao, Prof Qian Gao finds that: “Dibao’s anti-poverty effectiveness is limited and at best modest, largely due to its targeting errors and gaps in benefit delivery. Because relative poverty lines are often set relative to the median income in society and tend to be much higher than the more widely used absolute poverty lines, Dibao’s effects on reducing relative poverty are particularly limited. Dibao has had minimal effect on narrowing the income inequality gap in society. Dibao’s effectiveness in reducing poverty is limited by its partial coverage and delivery, thus its full potential in combating poverty has not been achieved.

“In rural areas, Dibao families had substantially lower per capita household disposable income, smaller dwellings, and fewer assets than their non-Dibao recipient peers. In a survey conducted among 1,209 Dibao recipients in six cities in 2007, when asked whether Dibao benefits were sufficient to cover their basic living expenses, only 3.7% of the respondents said yes. About half (47.9%) considered Dibao benefits barely sufficient, another one third (32.5%) said Dibao benefits were insufficient, and about one sixth (15.4%) considered Dibao benefits far from helping them meeting their basic needs.

“With regard to population targeting, across urban and rural areas, significant portions of eligible families were mistakenly excluded from receiving Dibao benefits. Others were mis-targeted or included erroneously in Dibao coverage. Rural Dibao has had more severe leakage and mis-targeting errors than urban Dibao.”



Such efforts are not new. Poverty alleviation has had programs since the mid-1980s, largely based on declaring entire counties poor, rather than specific households. Central funding was considerable, even if much of the money was for loans to the poor, who had to repay, as many Tibetans required to build permanent houses on their winter lands found. But designating entire counties as poor was not an effective way of ensuring the actual poor benefited.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued that basing poverty alleviation on designating poor counties was not working well, despite a central government spend of $20 billion on poverty work in the last 15 years of the 20th century: “We found that the amount of funds obtained by households is largely dependent on county income rather than household income. The funds are favourably distributed to households involved in non-farming activities. That is, agricultural farmers have a small chance of receiving the funds. We did not find evidence that poor households can obtain more funds than non-poor households. The findings reveal that households with more labour are more likely to get funds, suggesting that households lacking in labour force, most of them in poverty, have a disadvantage in the anti-poverty fund allocation.[3]


Throughout this analysis, so far, we have taken as fact  China’s central planning assumption that the poor (especially in Tibet) are chronically poor, largely because they inexplicably choose to live in areas where poverty is inbuilt, due to many lacks, including ready access to markets, harsh climate etc. However, recent research by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that in today’s rural China, poor families are transient rather than chronic, because their incomes are unpredictable and vary a lot from year to year. In 2016 IFPRI suggested: “most poverty among our sample has shifted from being chronic in nature to being transient, with households either shifting into a state of being non-poor moving in and out of poverty. Among our sample, vulnerability to poverty has been declining over time, but the declines are not uniform over time or space. We decompose household vulnerability status into two proximate causes: low expected income and high income variability, finding vulnerability increasingly due to income variability.”[4]

China’s official approach to poverty alleviation, especially in Tibet, has been highly deterministic, attributing poverty to the soil and sky, altitude and temperature. This ecological determinism justifies removing Tibetans en masse to distant locations with different factor endowments. What if those assumptions, in contemporary China, are plain wrong?

In this era of big data, China has moved on from targeting poverty by designating entire counties as poverty counties. China now says it is doing “precision poverty targeting” that identifies (and publicly stigmatises) specific poor families. But what if their poverty is, to use economists’ jargon, “transient”?

Many studies of how Tibetans participate in the modern economy suggest that, while the older generation seldom has sufficient Chinese to get regular paid employment in the towns and cities growing fast across Tibet, the younger generation is more literate, more mobile, and able to do demanding physical work such as road building and urban construction site labour. Those are the jobs available to Tibetans, who face competition from immigrant Han Chinese for skilled, steady work, and are generally restricted to casual, manual labour.

This is the cause of “transient” poverty. Especially when a Tibetan family, having lost their land tenure rights, depend on the fittest young adults for cash income, the only work available is transient, casual and unregulated, with no worker rights. A lot of this unpredictable casual construction work happens mostly in the warmer months, when Tibetan farmers and pastoralists are at their busiest, taking the able bodied young away from home exactly when they are most needed.

Construction work is not only unpredictable but dangerous, and accidents happen. Medical treatment is costly, and hospitals usually demand payment upfront before a patient is admitted.

These are all reasons a Tibetan family can go from being well above the poverty line, to well below, quite quickly. On the other hand, if they have managed to keep some of their animals, to be tended by relatives who are yet to be relocated and still have access to land, and the weather is not extreme, they may be able to move quite quickly out of poverty, for a while. However, those without their land now live in a cash economy, and have to pay for everything they used to produce for themselves. If state payments they are entitled to are actually delivered, they have to last a long time, in families unused to budgeting. These are among the reasons for transient poverty.



China’s “precision targeting” is not precise enough to provide a safety net for Tibetans experiencing seasons of poverty, as poverty is defined only as income, not expenditure. These days, in the name of national park construction, nomads are instructed to demolish fencing they were required to erect only 10 or 15 years ago. Often, the expense of compulsory fencing, and compulsory construction of a winter dwelling, though subsidised by poverty funding, required them to take a loan, to be repaid over many years. At a time when nomads are removing fences, to let migrating wild herds range freely, many such loans are still due.

This sketch of contemporary Tibetan poverty fits with the IFPRI analysis of rural China generally: “vulnerable households have lower observed incomes, lower expected incomes, and greater income variability. These are almost definitively indicative of vulnerability, given our methodology for estimating vulnerability. But vulnerable households do not only have generally lower incomes, they are also less diversified. Vulnerable households derive, on average, nearly 65% of their income from agriculture, whereas non-vulnerable households derive only about 45 of their income from agriculture. Non-vulnerable households derive a significantly greater share of their income from formal wage employment and unearned sources (including remittances) than do vulnerable households (30% and 15%, respectively, for non-vulnerable households as compared with 15% and 10%, respectively, for vulnerable households).  Vulnerable households are younger, with more than twice as many dependents and 20% fewer working age household members. Vulnerable household heads have less education, as do vulnerable household members in general. Vulnerable households have significantly lower levels of asset ownership, including the important income-generating agricultural assets and commercial capital, but also the other forms of assets such as housing capital, transportation capital, and durable goods.”[5]

While remittances sent home to the family by workers migrating to distant provinces lift families out of poverty, this is very seldom available to Tibetans. This is because Tibetans are largely immobilised by security state restrictions on movement outside of their designated hukou household registration area, and because few Han Chinese are willing to provide steady employment to Tibetans.  In fact, Tibet itself has become a remittance economy for immigrant sojourning Han, who make quick money in Tibet under flexible rules enabling them to transfer hukou from their home province to Tibet and back again when they leave.[6]


New era China is rapidly centralising authority in very few hands. Poverty alleviation has risen in priority, as a core task of making China exemplary, and in order to accomplish the frequently reiterated goal of fully eliminating all poverty in China by 2020, responsibility for accomplishing that goal has also been centralised, with the CCP’s Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs in command. Yet the reality is that poverty alleviation has been highly decentralised, not only in who does the work of implementation, but also where much of the funding comes from, and even in the basic definitions of what counts as poverty. A 2017 review of rural dibao minimum income programs, by economists from the World Bank, British and Canadian universities  reminds us that: “Although a national program, implementation remains decentralized: eligibility thresholds, beneficiary selection, and transfer payment amounts are determined locally. The program’s decentralized nature and considerable variation in thresholds and transfer amounts raise questions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of decentralization of public transfer programs.” [7]

They suggest centralisation could ensure more effective and consistent delivery of poverty alleviation, but only if at the same time there is an overhaul of targeting. In reality, for decades, poverty alleviation targeting has classified a wide range of rural population groups as eligible targets. While it might seem obvious that ethnic minorities are targeted, and communities/counties in remote and mountainous areas, also on the list are “revolutionary bases”, where the PLA, fleeing the armies of China’s government in the 1930s sought refuge, and time to begin again the revolutionary conflict. This jumble of categories has yet to be resolved.

data for all urban residents of TAR 2016


A major constraint has been the insistence of central leaders that local governments, even in poor counties where local government has little revenue, must contribute to the cost of dibao payments. This makes dibao payments highly variable. In 2007 dibao recipients on average received RMB 466 per person (US$60); by 2009, this rose to RMB 816 per person (US$119). This is hardly a generous level of support for the poorest of the poor.

The same has been true of spending on health and education, which have also been downshifted to local county responsibilities. As with income support, there are central programs to assist the poorest counties, but if a county is so poor it cannot meet the central party-state requirement of providing a matching sum equal to the central funding, it will continue to miss out, and the poor, the ill and illiterate yet again are the losers.

The jumble of eligibility criteria, ineffective targeting, inability of poor counties to support their poorest residents, and the low level of actual income support add up to a failure, despite official policy, to achieve much actual reduction in poverty. Yet officially China is now down to the last 30 million of intractably poor, and they too will soon be no longer poor.  The picture, at a national level, is glowing: a central state both able and willing to do what very few developing countries ever achieve: the full elimination of poverty. Seen locally, however, the picture is very different:

“In early 2007 the central government announced that the rural dibao program was to be implemented nationwide in all counties and with central subsidies. Under this new national initiative, the program would become more standardized and would absorb or complement several pre-existing programs that had provided subsidies for poor households, such as the five guarantee (wubao) program and the subsidy program for destitute households (tekun jiuzhu). Although central funding of the program increased, the program was to be co-funded by local governments based on their fiscal capacity, and the minimum income thresholds and subsidy amounts continued to be set locally at the county level in light of local fiscal capacity. Official statistics indicate that the rural dibao program grew quickly after 2006. In 2007, the first year of nationwide implementation, the rural dibao program provided transfers to 36 million rural individuals (4.9% of the rural population) and accounted for three-quarters of the rural recipients of social relief. By 2011 program participation had levelled off at about 50 million individuals, equivalent to 8% of the rural population.

This is more than double the size of the urban dibao program (23 million) and outnumbers by a large margin the sum total of participants in all of China’s other rural poverty relief programs (17.9 million in 2010; does not include disaster relief).


“Spending on the program also grew. According to the official statistics, in 2007 government spending on the rural dibao program was 11 billion yuan, with an average transfer amount of 466 yuan per recipient. In 2009 spending on the program was 36 billion yuan, with an average transfer of 816 yuan per recipient. The number of recipients levelled off after 2010–11, but program spending continued to expand, implying further increases in transfers per recipient.

As of 2015, total spending reached 93 billion yuan, averaging 1,900 yuan per recipient.

Due to the diversity of China’s rural economy and the difficulty of measuring income for rural households, the dibao program’s implementation has differed among localities and evolved over time. Local variation and flexibility were explicitly built into the central government’s dibao policy regulations.”[8]

 On official figures, rural dibao recipients by 2015 received on average RMB 1900 per person (US$ 292), enough to make a difference between destitution and achieving basic security. But, far from greatly reducing the number of rural poor, ineffective targeting means the number of poor in China, despite considerable expenditure, remains much higher than the official figure.

Selection of beneficiaries remains very much in the hands of the most local of officials, who inevitably favour those they are on best terms with. “Variation exists in the extent to which applications are open versus by invitation of local officials. In practice, village leaders often identify potential beneficiaries and invite them to apply. Village committees, which include village leaders and other community members, play a central role in identifying and screening potential beneficiaries. Members of village committees live in close proximity to and have local knowledge of

potential beneficiary households. Applications or nominations for dibao benefits are submitted to the township government and forwarded to the county Department of Civil Affairs. Decisions are made by township and county officials, who review the documentary evidence submitted by households and villages, and who sometimes visit the households to check on, or to collect additional, information.”

Our focus has been on the minimum income program, the dibao. However such income support (transfer payments in the jargon of economists, recorded as such in China’s Statistical Yearbooks) are just one of many methods of assisting the poor. There are many poverty alleviation strategies, used worldwide, to empower the poor to better access wider markets and other strategies for strengthening livelihoods, without any need of relocation.

Xi Jinping does know about these many strategies, for which, despite restructuring the government, many official agencies must be involved: “We should mobilize the energies of our whole Party, our whole country, and our whole society, and continue to implement targeted poverty reduction and alleviation measures. We will operate on the basis of a working mechanism whereby the central government makes overall plans, provincial-level governments take overall responsibility, and city and county governments ensure implementation; and we will strengthen the system for making heads of Party committees and governments at each level assume the overall responsibility for poverty alleviation. We will continue to advance poverty reduction drawing on the joint efforts of government, society, and the market.”[9]

This complexity means everyone is responsible for poverty work, in a system where everyone sharing responsibility often means no-one feels responsible. Responsibility remains diffused, and the menu of poverty alleviation strategies is often contradictory. Some options emphasize self-help, local solutions, strengthening existing economies; others insist on relocation and depopulation. The concept of “contiguous destitute areas” can be used to build up local economies, and to justify mass displacement. Xi Jinping on method:  “We will pay particular attention to helping people increase confidence in their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty and see that they can access the education they need to do so.”

Xi Jinping exhorts all of China’s citizens to “re-liberate thought” (解放思想) and do the work of “self revolution and self reform” (自我革命、自我革新). However, his own thinking is stuck in historic prejudice, in the viewpoint of the peasant farmer on a tiny plot of arable land looking with disdain at the nomad, who has such huge areas available and seemingly does so little with them. The nomad seems so wasteful, unproductive and even destructive of the grassland wilderness. Ancient concepts of Confucian rectitude, such as self-reform, now form the basis for a rejuvenation of all that is old in today’s new era China.

The thinking of the central leaders reproduces China’s inbuilt historic animus towards the dangerous, unpredictable nomads[10], but with several added layers of scientistic concepts, of carrying capacity, biomass growth, ecological environment, pristine national park wilderness, contiguous destitute areas, precision poverty alleviation, all of which require Tibetans to leave their pastures and farms, perhaps to leave Tibet altogether and assimilate into Han Chinese lowland cities. The Tibetans will inevitably merge into the great Zhonghua minzu, the Chinese race, and they will be all the better for it. That is China’s hope.

Tibetans will, of course, resist this trajectory planned for them, and continue doing so without extreme resistance that triggers the total crackdowns we now witness in Xinjiang. Tibetans have learned over the decades where China’s red lines are, not only the overt ones, like the territorialised “contiguous destitute areas” but the covert, implicit fears and racist assumptions of today’s China. Tibetans know how to assert Tibetan points of view, right up to those red lines, without transgressing them. Some kind of middle way seems to be still possible.

What such a middle way might look like, in Tibet, on poverty, is clear when we look at the recommendations from the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund, in its 2017 reflection on its two decades of work in Tibet:

“1. Government poverty reduction efforts should stress “bottom-up” best practices targeting and incorporating poor individuals and households in a more integrated approach than generally followed by local government to provide for income and food security needs; 27

  1. The more integrated approach should target improved livelihood needs as well as related environmental protection and cultural preservation requirements;
  2. Best practices identified as important in reducing poverty should be adapted to local wishes, needs, and priorities through a local consultative process, and not imposed when not agreed to by the poor households;
  3. Local government should plan its household and individual poverty reduction activities in a more holistic manner, taking into account a more comprehensive activity cycle: initial planning, implementation, monitoring of results, evaluation of results, and reporting back to leaders (as required by Xi Jinping);
  4. In minority areas, ethnic minority personnel with knowledge of the local culture, attitudes, and language should play the key role in planning and implementation. This is critical to getting needed local acceptance and support during implementation;

Recommendations: 1. Review the ranks of Tibetans in government civil service to determine which ones might be given greater responsibility in the planning and implementation of poor village and household poverty reduction activities;

  1. Establish a roster of Tibetans out of government and their skills for possible recruitment for poverty reduction work;
  2. Give a greater role for local NGOs, especially ones with skilled Tibetans, to be subcontracted for village poverty reduction activities;
  3. Aim at incorporating improved behaviour practices into poor household poverty reduction activities that are compatible, sustainable, and reinforcing within the Tibetan culture;
  4. Establish a framework for Tibetan monks, nuns, and monasteries to provide essential developmental, secular, and spiritual support services to poorest households and communities.”[11]

Poverty alleviation is not as straightforward as it first seems, despite Xi Jinping’s insistence that by 2020 ALL rural poverty anywhere in China will be gone forever.

Another issue not as straightforward is environmental protection. When China announces a system of national parks across Tibet, everyone applauds. National parks are so obviously a good idea. Few have the time, (in a world of distractions) to ask what exactly does China mean by national park, how does a national park include its traditional residents, as ongoing stewards of land, biodiversity and sustainability. However, it turns out China’s concept of national park is not what you may expect. More on this in future blogs.








[1] South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), October 21, 2017

[2] Brendan A. Galipeau & Mark Ingman & Bryan Tilt,  Dam-Induced Displacement and Agricultural Livelihoods in China’s Mekong Basin, Human Ecology, 2013, 41:437–446

[3] Xinming Yue and Shi Li, Targeting Accuracy of Poverty-Reducing Programs in Rural China, China & World Economy, 101-116, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2004

[4] Patrick S. Ward, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, DC, Transient Poverty, Poverty Dynamics, and Vulnerability to Poverty: An Empirical Analysis Using a Balanced Panel from Rural China, World  Development Vol. 78, pp. 541–553, 2016

[5] Ward, Transient Poverty, 2016, 551-2

[6] Andrew Martin Fischer, The Political Economy of Boomerang Aid in China’s Tibet, China Perspectives, #3, 2009

[7] Jennifer Golan, Terry Sicular and Nithin Umapathi, Unconditional Cash Transfers in China: Who Benefits from the Rural Minimum Living Standard Guarantee (Dibao) Program?  World Development Vol. 93, pp. 316–336, 2017

[8] Unconditional Cash Transfers in China: Who Benefits?, 2017,  318

[9] Xi Jinping, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, 42-3

[10] Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Powers in East Asian History, 2002

[11] Arthur N. Holcombe, Can China Reduce Entrenched Poverty in Remote Ethnic Minority Regions?Lessons from Successful Poverty Alleviation in Tibetan Areas of China during 1998–2016, Ash Center, Kennedy School Harvard, 2017

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Note: these blogs are adorned by classic Tibetan proverbs on poverty and wealth.[1]

“The CPC Central Committee has drawn up a plan for poverty elimination. By 2020 all impoverished people in rural areas will be guaranteed the basic needs of food and clothing as well as proper access to compulsory education, medical care and safe housing. All rural population below the current poverty line and all impoverished counties will shake off poverty, so that regional poverty as a whole, including severely impoverished areas, will be a thing of the past.“                      

-Xi Jinping 23 June 2017[2]

China’s commitment to fully eradicate all poverty, anywhere in China, by 2020, generates universal acclaim. Who could possibly be against poverty alleviation?

However,  it is worth looking under the hood, to see exactly what China means by poverty alleviation. With much help from the experts, this blog finds many questions need to be asked. For starters: Is it true, as China’s central leaders say, that only 30 million of China’s 1300 million people in 2018 are still poor? How is poverty defined? Is it solely defined by cash income? What has China been doing to improve local economies in remote areas, to link them with the booming lowland China economy? What is a “contiguous destitute area”? Are some of the poor in poverty because their actual expenditure on health care for an ill family member is really high, even if, on official definitions, their income is above the poverty line? What sort of life can be lived at the poverty line?

Poverty alleviation triggers even more questions. How do central leaders know who is poor? Who decides?  Is poverty alleviation funding available evenly across rural China? (we aren’t looking at urban poverty here). Does politics (local or national) intrude on who is classified as poor? Why does China insist many of the remaining poor are poor because they perversely choose to live in “inhospitable” districts (such as Tibet)? Does this mean the solution to this ecologically determined, territorialised, contiguous poverty concept is to relocate whole populations?  Is the existing dibao minimum income program effective, fair, good at targeting those actually poor while not delivering benefits instead to those with better connections? What about corruption, falsified statistics, rigid targets and falsification of results?


Now that China seems to be on the last leg of fully eradicating poverty, it is high on the agenda. The target is straightforward: in each of the three years, 2018, 2019 and 2020, 10 million people will be moved out of poverty, so by the end of 2020 there will be no more poor. All 30 million will be above the poverty line. China will have demonstrated to the world, to universal applause, its superior socialist system leaves no-one behind; all are included in the China miracle of the great rejuvenation. The anti-poverty effort is a reminder China is still a developing country, with an arduous struggle ahead to become rich. China is not shy about telling the world that lifting that last 30 million out of poverty is a major contribution to fulfilment of human rights, as economic rights are more important than civil or political rights.

Xi Jinping has declared poverty to be one of three “critical battles” that define the agenda of the years to 2020 (the other two are stability of the macro economy and the fight against pollution). Xi mentions the battle against poverty frequently: “Winning the battle against poverty: Seeing that poor people and poor areas will enter the moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country is a solemn promise made by our Party. We should mobilize the energies of our whole Party, our whole country, and our whole society, and continue to implement targeted poverty reduction and alleviation measures. The central government makes overall plans, provincial-level governments take overall responsibility, and city and county governments ensure implementation; and we will strengthen the system for making heads of Party committees and governments at each level assume the overall responsibility for poverty alleviation. We will continue to advance poverty reduction drawing on the joint efforts of government, society, and the market. We will pay particular attention to helping people increase confidence in their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty and see that they can access the education they need to do so. We must ensure that by the year 2020, all rural residents living below the current poverty line have been lifted out of poverty, and poverty is eliminated in all poor counties and regions. Poverty alleviation should reach those who truly need it and deliver genuine outcomes.”[3]

Thus a lot hangs on success in this three-year campaign to eradicate poverty. It is useful even in other contexts, such as rebuffing American presidential accusations that China is a direct competitor with the US in high tech, stealing intellectual property, deserving of punitive tariffs. Part of China’s answer is that China, especially in its far west, is still poor, a developing country,  with a huge job yet to be done, to develop backward areas, bring the poor into the national economy, and lift tens of millions out of poverty.


Tibet Autonomous Region Statistical Yearbook 2017


If one is too attached to illusory wealth

Worry, fear, anxiety-

These three will never cease

”China will further reduce the poor rural population by over 10 million, including 2.8 million people who are to be relocated from inhospitable areas, Premier Li Keqiang said Monday.”

Is the starting point of planning poverty alleviation the removal of people from areas deemed unredeemably poor because the entire area is too cold, too high, too lacking in oxygen, too remote, too degraded for the people ever to prosper? For their own sake, those people should be removed, relocated somewhere warmer, where there may be better cash income earning opportunities. These are key assumptions to be examined closely in this blog series.

Tibetans, of course, do not see the land of Tibet as Chinese see it, as harsh, bleak, unnaturally cold, dangerously hypoxic (low in oxygen) and irretrievably poverty-stricken.  Nor does rugged terrain bother Tibetans, even in precipitous Kham and Amdo Ngawa, but the terrain enables Chinese scientists to add a lot to the list of what is wrong with Tibet: “including elevation, slope, relief amplitude, surface incision, variance coefficient in elevation, surface roughness, distance to roads, and distance to rivers.[4] But Tibetan opinions are not sought and not heard.

The 2018 target of 10 million, with a further 10 million a year in both 2019 and 2020, means China can, by the end of 2020 declare poverty is no more, and thus proclaim itself as the world’s most exemplary developing country, and a major contributor to human rights, since China counts cash income as fulfilment of human rights. Nothing must get in the way of achieving those annual targets.

Of the 2.8 million human lives to be displaced in 2018, in the name of poverty alleviation, it is not clear how many are in Tibet. What is clear is that Tibet, especially the counties designated as poor, are officially classified as areas of “contiguous poverty”, where the natural factor endowment is seen, from a lowland Han Chinese agricultural perspective, as utterly deficient, defined by what is lacking. Put simply, China’s central planners assume no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice. So, by relocating the poor (to where?) they are actually giving them a choice. Not only is this benevolent, it is a major contribution to human rights, and a reason why China can ignore Tibetan protests.

One of the new era 2018  reorganisation of government is the creation of a completely new agency, State International Development Cooperation Agency, 国家国际发展合作署, China’s own international development agency, which plans to export to the entire developing world China’s model of success.  China has long had a modest program doing poverty alleviation projects in surrounding countries, in partnership with Asian Development Bank.



The concept of territorialised contiguous poverty has a positive aspect. It can mean recognition that poverty has specific characteristics in specific areas, and so the solutions must be local, building on the strengths, capabilities, preferences, and aspirations of local communities. When looked at this way, the outcome can not only be empowering, and embraced by the local community, it can also achieve what China, in the past 60 years, has seldom attempted in Tibet, to build on the Tibetan comparative advantage in dairy and livestock production to improve quality and quantity of output, and access to the big, booming urban Chinese markets. Worldwide, this is the standard way of raising incomes and alleviating poverty, and it has been done in China, both by the state, and by international donors. But for 60 years, this kind of investment in local communities has been absent in Tibet. As lowland Chinas has boomed, Tibet has been left further behind.

If China sincerely wants Tibetans to improve their incomes, on their customary production landscapes, it is not too late to make up for six lost decades, as it is now much easier for Tibetan wool growers or dairy producers to directly connect with customers, as online access spreads quickly into rural areas. Tibetan producers have been disadvantaged by poor roads, distance from urban markets, absence of commodity flow chain logistics, as well as lack of investment. They have also been disadvantaged by the innumerable middlemen through whose hands product must pass en route to the customer, with the many middlemen capturing the profits. Now, with modern technologies promoted by the new Ministry of Agriculture  and Rural Affairs, e-commerce simplifies the supply chain. China has taken to e-commerce very strongly, more so than in the US or Europe.

Strengthening Tibetan livestock and crop production has for decades been the obvious route to alleviating poverty, a route not taken. China’s poverty experts say: Growth [of] China’s agricultural sector is particularly important for poverty alleviation, which is four times as effective in reducing poverty as growth in the secondary and tertiary industries.” [5]

In a positive way, the contiguous poverty concept can result in the comprehensive uplifting of an entire area, as Oxfam argued in 2013:

Whereas in the past the model was simply aiming to produce enough food for everyone, now it strives to make communities richer. The approach has also changed – under the new policy set areas, not villages are targeted. This adjustment exchanges the previous, fragmented policy for more collaboration and cooperation, thereby creating a win-win situation. The new approach combines the daily life situations of different ethnic groups with government knowledge and experience accumulated over a long period of time in poverty reduction to form a local basis for continued development. Once food and clothing shortages have been overcome, the new program focuses on eliminating poverty and improving ethnic minority areas’ overall level of development in addition to increasing people’s incomes. When choosing regional development objectives, local governments in ethnic minority communities focus on solving regional poverty by focusing on areas that lag behind in terms of economic development. The contiguous poverty alleviation model, in contrast, considers both efficiency and equity. It stresses the need for a comprehensive uplifting of an area to the average regional level to fulfil the poverty reduction goals. Its main objective is to develop a strong pillar industry to accelerate the development of poverty- stricken regions with hopes of having a radiating effect on income, and as a way to improve the region’s capacity for self-development and better enabling an income increase for the impoverished community in the future. As such, this model caters to the needs of the ethnic minority. Development goals should be layered, dynamic, temporal and regional as well as capable of taking into account the specific characteristics of impoverished ethnic minority areas.”[6]

However, this approach requires listening to local communities, not mandatory displacement. Oxfam’s vision is of participatory poverty alleviation in China, not mass relocations: “Ethnic minority communities operate with unique social and economic models. The communities have their own ways of economic production and societal organization, as well as their own culture and customs. Because of this, poverty alleviation and development policy design cannot and should not be considered separately from the communities’ economic and social features. More precisely, poverty reduction policies targeting community development need to reflect the internal cultural characteristics of ethnic minorities. Policies should respect ethnic groups’ cultures and customs, in order to earn these groups’ respect and motivate them to participate. At the same time, ethnic minority communities have special needs relating to poverty reduction and development. Poverty alleviation and development should, therefore, address each community’s special needs while also responding to their respective cultural and economic settings. Ultimately, only policies that are also capable of catering to local needs can push for real change in those communities. The contiguous poverty alleviation and ethnic minority community development model itself reduces regional poverty. It has advanced poverty alleviation.”

China has tried this constructive approach to contiguous poverty in ethnic minority areas, in several provinces, but almost never in Tibet.[7] The original concept of contiguous poverty held much promise. It was better able to identify who the poor are, the nature of their poverty, and come up with a menu of options all focused on working with local communities to overcome disadvantages and build on the strengths of communities which had made a living from marginal land for generations. The contiguous poverty concept was attractive, not only to China’s government but to international aid agencies, notably the World Bank, which brought its global experience to remote areas such as the Qinba Mountains, a declared “contiguous destitute area”  集中连片特困地区  jizhong lianpian tekun diqu of north-western China, in three provinces. Between 1997 and 2004 the Qinba Mountains Poverty Reduction Project spent $360 million, half of that from the World Bank, on many strategies for alleviating poverty. [8]


The poor districts were defined by mapping together village-level data in clusters that added up to overlapping dots signifying poverty is contiguous. Successive Five-Year Plans over decades announced  “pillar industries” that would arise in Tibet, to strengthen local economies. None actually happened, except for mass domestic Chinese tourism, which employs only Chinese speakers.

Some poor areas are quite large, yet carefully delineated.  For example, in western Yunnan, the ethnic minority areas of the rugged mountain ranges and deep valleys of the three great parallel rivers (Yangtze/Dri Chu, Mekong/Za Chu and Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu) are declared “contiguous destitute areas”, but not the Tibetan prefecture of northwest Yunnan, which is now branded Shangri-la, an idyllic land of happiness and tourism, and  thus definitely not destitute.

However, as China relies ever more confidently on big data and high-tech remote monitoring of entire landscapes, the definition of “contiguous destitute areas” changed dramatically in 2011, no longer tethered to local data on specific villages laboriously collated to patch together the cartographic concept of contiguous poverty. Now new era China is more ambitious. This is literally big picture stuff.

Judge a man for himself

Not for his wealth

Judge a man for his goodness

Not for his eloquence

Now that China sees itself as being in the final stage of eradicating poverty altogether, the methods are increasingly authoritarian and the model is increasingly centralised, not in the hands of local communities.  The current target of 10 million people a year requires 28 per cent of the poor to be relocated each year. This is the opposite of what Oxfam suggested. It is an authoritarian intensification, accompanied by the propaganda rhetoric of a mass campaign, and targets that must be met, not the slow work of local community development based on the opportunities identified by the locals. “Contiguous poverty” could have been liberating, now it has become a rationale for depopulating Tibet.

According to official data, at a time when the number of poor was declining everywhere in China, the rural poor in the Tibet Autonomous Region increased from 0.52 million in 2011 to 0.61 million in 2014.[9] Officially the total 2014 TAR population, including well-remunerated Han immigrants, was 3.176 million, so almost 20 per cent of TAR population is classified poor, or, to use official language, destitute.

This map displays the original concept of “contiguous destitute areas”, a bottom-up accretion of poor villages and counties in adjoining clusters, aggregated by central planners into the 11 officially “contiguous destitute areas” suitable for investment in community development, producer co-operatives, economic strengthening, linkage to markets, and other methods of alleviating poverty by enhancing the existing strengths of remote areas.  Almost none of the Tibetan Plateau is included in this territorialisedl targeting of poverty in “contiguous destitute areas”. Only part of the Qinba Mountains destitute area (purple, in the map centre) is in the Tibetan prefecture of Gansu province. This is the map on which contiguous poverty alleviation work, including much investment by the World Bank, was based, until recently.

This map is from Comparative Analysis on Poverty Degree of China′s 11 Contiguous Destitute Areas: with View of Comprehensive Development Index by Ding Jian-jun, in 2014.[10]

After 2011, this map was supplanted by a much wider territorialisation of “contiguous destitution.” This map is now no longer in use by central planners, having been replaced by a new map that dramatically expands “contiguous destitute areas” to include the entire Tibetan Plateau. For the new map, see the next blog in this series on POVERTY, IMMISERISATION and DESTITUTION in TIBET






[1] Lhamo Pemba, Tibetan Proverbs, LTWA, 1996

[2] Xi Jinping, The Governance of China vol 2, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2017, 92-3

[3] Xi Jinping, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era Delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China October 18, 2017 blog’s_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf

[4] Yanguo Liu, Chengmin Huang et al, Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China; ISPRS International J. Geo-Information,  2018, 7, 16, free download:

[5] Yansui Liu, Jilai Liu, Yang Zhou, Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies, Journal of Rural Studies 52 (2017) 66-75

[6] Poverty Reduction Model Research Series and Minority Community Development, Oxfam Hong Kong 2013,  22

[7] Contiguous Poverty Alleviation and Ethnic Minority Community Development, by Deping Xiang, Ling CHENG, Hong TIAN, Gang HE, Fang LV, Wen SONG, Fengshao TIAN, Nationalities Publishing House

[8] Weiwei Chen , Danmeng Feng & Xiaoyuan Chu, Study of Poverty Alleviation Effects for Chinese Fourteen Contiguous Destitute Areas Based on Entropy Method, International Journal of Economics and Finance; Vol. 7, No. 4; 2015

[9] Yansui Liu, Jilai Liu, Yang Zhou, Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies, Journal of Rural Studies 52 (2017) 66-75, 68

[10]中国11个集中连片特困区贫困程度比较研究, 基于综合发展指数计算的视角,  地理科学Scientia Geographica Sinica, Vol.34 No.12 Dec., 2 0 1 4

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China’s official designation of the whole of the Tibetan Plateau as inevitably and incurably poor is grounded in a line across the map of China drawn by a geographer in 1935, still hailed today as a breakthrough.

The 1935 line creates a neat division of China into two contrasting zones, bisected by a satisfyingly straight line drawn from the southwest at the bottom of the map, up to the northeast at the top. Its’ inventor, geographer Hu Huanyong,  pointed out this neat division of China into a densely populated east and south, and the sparsely populated rangelands of the west and far north.[1]  It makes for a dramatic contrast, readily lending itself to the formulation of a Marxist “contradiction”.

The southeast half region only accounted for 36% of the land but housed 96% of the population while the northwest half accounted for 64% of the land area but only 4% of the population. This had to be problematic.

In reality it was simply China discovering that, largely through conquest, it had acquired a vast hinterland that does not conform to the Han norm of what is normal, of densely settled, intensively farmed peasant holdings. China did not know what to do with lands not classifiable as arable, not suitable for intensive cropping, and has been struggling with this ever since.

With Hu Huanyong’s 1935 dissection as the starting point, it is then easy to attribute the allegedly abnormal low population density of the rangelands to ecological factors, including mountainous terrain, limited rainfall, cold climate and high altitude. Tibet has all these attributes. Given the inherent assumptions inbuilt to the Hu-line, it is but a short, derogatory and stigmatising step to label the west a “contiguous destitute area”, a fact of nature.

The reification of this bluntly insulting concept of “contiguous destitution” is strengthened by turning to several new sciences to provide seemingly objective definitions proving ecological determinism. A 2016 report, Coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty in contiguous destitute areas, China: Empirical analysis of 714 poverty-stricken counties, was authored by scientists from institutes of geomatics, resources, environment, tourism, 3D Information Acquisition and urban planning. [2]



A penniless pauper has more thoughts to think

A cloudless sky has more expanse to show

 Now all of Tibet is contiguously destitute. The circle of circular logic is complete. Starting with drawing on the map a dividing line between upland, western, cold, subsistence economies and lowland, eastern, farming and urban wealth accumulating economies, it is now self-evident that the contiguous destitution of Tibet, and the rest of the west, is ecologically determined. This is reinforced by scientific languages, so as to build the model to reveal the coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty. The results show that Hu-Line could act as a feasible partition label to depict the spatial distribution patterns of ecological vulnerability, economic poverty, as well as their coupling degree in contiguous destitute areas.”[3]

This derogatory attitude is not new. Marxist determinism declared Tibet backward, primitive, “green-brained” and in need of a cultural revolution that smashed everything old. Now Marxist determinism has taken on a new dimension, adding natural categories such as altitude, slope, depth of river valleys, cold and thinness of the air, to make an even stronger argument for seeing Tibet only negatively, defined by what it lacks.

Amdo Ngawa: remote sensing satellite-generated maps of altitude and slope: proof of inevitable poverty


From this circular logic, it is only a short step to declare that since the drylands/uplands west of the Hu-line are “ecologically vulnerable”, the essential first step in alleviating poverty is to protect ecologically vulnerable areas, including the whole of the Tibetan Plateau, even if protection in practice means depopulating it. The same team just cited goes on to assert: In addition, there existed a symbiotic positive correlation between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty, therefore, the strategic significance of ecological and environment protection in poverty stricken areas should be specifically emphasized to reduce economic poverty by synchronously protecting the ecological environment.”

This map, published in 2017, shows the dramatic expansion of the yellow-lined idea of “contiguous destitute areas” to include the whole of the Tibetan Plateau, designated as Zones XII and XIV. This inflation of the “contiguous destitute areas” concept makes it no longer possible to intervene skilfully with targeted poverty alleviation projects designed to raise local incomes by building on comparative advantage, traditional specialties and local strengths. By adding the whole Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of the entire land area of China- the only possible solution to contiguity stretching for thousands of kilometres is removal of the population.

Yet this map also shows poverty as having precise locations –the little black dots. On this map poverty is both more precise and more generalised, across lowland China (dots) and the Tibetan Plateau, defined not by dot locations but by political provincial boundaries.

This is the current map of the poverty planners, replacing the clustered county-level map previously used to define poverty, especially contiguous poverty.

The map (and article in English) is in the journal Social Indicators Research, 2017. [4] The colours of the map signify demographic density.


When opulence sits astride a horse

The heart of poverty freezes



As big data accumulates, China announced, in the early years of Xi Jinping’s rule, that it was moving away from defining and targeting poverty at county level, and was now able to be more precise, targeting poor villages and poor households. The era of precision poverty alleviation was heralded as yet another Chinese advance, to pinpoint and thus effectively eliminate poverty, as and where it occurs. The new precision was based on ground-level household surveys, an exhaustive accumulation of data generated by aggregating all the village level surveys, and households registering themselves as poor.

Designating an area the size of all Western Europe –the Tibetan Plateau- as a “contiguous destitute area” is the opposite of precision. Instead of identifying specific pastures that are less productive, specific villages that are off-road and off-grid and unable to access markets, specific farming districts in need of investment in new seed varieties, specific towns in need of stockyards to keep livestock in good condition during the sales process, there is now a sweeping lack of specificity. Despite China’s keenness for territorially defined precision, Tibet is generalised, swept in its entirety into a category of irredeemable destitution.

By making the entire 2.5 million sq kms of the Tibetan Plateau “contiguous destitute area”, the very idea of contiguity has been nullified. The point of the concept of contiguity was to pinpoint those local factors that cause or perpetuate poverty. Local factors, including local community skills and aspirations that, with investment, can provide local solutions to local problems.

But when the entire plateau is classified as “contiguous destitute area”, there is nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, no local solutions to be found. It is no longer possible to encourage poor villagers to move elsewhere nearby, in their familiar home on the rangeland, where opportunities may be better.  It is no longer possible to train local communities in skills they can acquire, enabling them to develop new livelihoods, in their home districts.

Once the whole Tibetan Plateau is negatively classified as “contiguous destitute area”, there is only one possible solution to poverty, which is to depopulate the entire plateau, and move the whole population from their lands, initially to urban fringe camps, nodes of global modernity in Tibet, then to cities beyond Tibet, on the grounds that labour mobility is a necessity since capital investment has never come to rural Tibet, and never will.

In an era when everything is a form of capital, every aspect of every county of Amdo Ngawa is lacking:


The original 11 “contiguous destitute areas” were a concerted effort to identify, reach and engage the poor where they live, covering a total of 505 counties in 19 provinces and cities, almost 15 per cent of China’s total area. The three new “contiguous destitute areas” added in 2011 encompass a further 25 per cent or more of China’s territory, so a total of at least 40 per cent of China by area is now officially destitute, even though the number of poor people is so few. The whole concept of “contiguous destitute areas” has been muddied by these two incompatible concepts now sitting, literally, alongside each other.

On poverty maps of today’s China, there are the little black dots signifying poor villages, many of them sufficiently scattered to not swarm in clusters, thus not qualifying as contiguous. Then there are the thicker clusters of villages sufficiently close to each other to be lumped together as “contiguous destitute areas”, a category that crosses provincial boundaries, wherever the data leads. Both the dots and the clusters arise from laborious, grounded, village by village, household by household poverty mapping. This is the basis of the 11 “contiguous destitute areas”, the focus of intensive poverty alleviation project work, until China’s new era.

Then came the 2011 expansion, at the time of Xi Jinping’s rise. There are now three more “contiguous destitute areas.” Two of the three are the entirety of Tibet Autonomous Region, including the vast northern empty plain of the Chang tang where there are almost no villages at all; and the “Tibetan ethnic areas of four provinces”, China’s clumsy circumlocution for the other half of the Tibetan Plateau, including all 75 counties in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces designated officially as Tibetan Autonomous Counties. Making up the 14th  “contiguous destitute areas” is the new addition of southern Xinjiang.

These new areas have been mapped and defined, not by village surveys and gradually accumulating ground data, but on the basis of completely different criteria, which are wholly political. The boundaries of the three new “contiguous destitute areas” are provincial and prefectural, not based on actual locations of villages. There is nothing contiguous, or ecologically predetermined, about them. They are political artefacts, no longer moored in survey data. They are declarations, at the highest level of a centralised, authoritarian party-state, that Tibet, in its entirety, and the most Uighur of Xinjiang’s prefectures, are intractably, irredeemably, incurably destitute, beyond redemption and in no way suited to targeted poverty alleviation projects.

China used to blame the backwardness of Tibet on Tibetan culture. Now the seemingly scientific concept of “contiguous destitute areas” shifts the blame onto neatly mappable data on terrain and climate. Yet the social determinants of backwardness and destitution persist, in what China counts as constituting contiguous destitution. It’s a package of loss, absence and lack, all of which define Tibet and the Tibetans, who have low human capital and high altitude, high mountains and a low “social capital index.” Everything measurable, natural and human, is all a form of capital, and Tibet scores low on all forms. All of these are rolled into the ecological determinism that makes destitution inevitable.

Amdo Ngawa prefecture mapped to show relief amplitude (ruggedness of landscape) and river incision (depth of river valleys: further proof of the inevitable poverty of Tibet:

By now, this has been repeated so often, it has been naturalised, as a self-evident truth: The CAPADs[contiguous poor areas with particular difficulties] tend to the ecologically vulnerable zones where there are poor living conditions, frequent natural disasters, weak economic foundations, poor infrastructure and lagging public service, and special social fabrics. They also feature large land acreage  and great difficulties for poverty reduction and thus are categorized as the least-developed regions in China. Covering most state-designated poverty counties and key relief recipients, these areas are home to the largest number of rural poor with the highest poverty incidence rate. The distribution of the Chinese rural poor exhibits a distinct spatial agglomeration feature. Poverty is mainly concentrated in the remote deep rocky mountainous areas, border areas and minority areas of central and western China. The lack of natural endowments, poor geographic conditions and fragile ecological environment are the main driving forces behind persistent poverty. Complex geographical environments, frequent natural disasters, poor infrastructure and minority population agglomeration may be the main reasons behind the regional disparity of poverty. Most of the key impoverished counties suffering from frequent disasters are located in China’s western regions where there is a fragile ecological environment and an agglomeration of ethnic minorities.Furthermore, a high degree of overlap exists between the national key ecological function areas and the contiguous poverty-stricken areas with special difficulties in China. Poverty-stricken families usually live in remote areas in a harsh environment under poor living conditions and suffer from a high re-poverty-stricken rate.”[5]


When looked at more closely, China not only argues that altitude and climate determine Tibetan destitution, but that “contiguous destitution” is the result of ethnic contiguity, a racist assertion reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. A 2018 article in an open-source journal is headed: Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China. [6] Is it the contiguity of the Tibetan ethnos that causes the poverty, or the lack of factor endowments that causes poverty? Or are they the same thing? In short, is lowland China making the ridiculous assumption that no human would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice?

What used to be 505 counties has suddenly become 1311 counties:  “To be specific, there are 53,758 villages involved, covering 13 contiguous destitute areas, 27 provinces, 1311 counties. Overall, they are mainly distributed in Central and Western China. According to the county-scale poverty level, the counties involved here constitute 527 national poor counties, 439 provincial ones and 345 non- poverty ones; from the view of geographical division, they can be classified into 94 eastern counties, 442 central ones, and 775 western ones; In terms of the primary industry classification, they contain 83 pastoral counties, 117 agricultural-pastoral ones,and 502 agricultural ones; According to the terrain classification, there exist 598 mountainous counties, 303 hill ones, 264 plain ones.”[7] Yet Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) remains a blank on the mapping of actual poverty, contiguous or otherwise: “Tibet Area is also excluded from the study due to regional data privacy,” a polite reference to poverty data on Tibet being a state secret. TAR is routinely omitted from many reports, because its situation so embarrassingly contradicts the official narrative of new era great rejuvenation fulfilling the China Dream.




Beyond Tibet, some of the mapped black dots signifying poor villages are in areas to which the fleeing People’s Liberation Army retreated in the 1930s. These “old revolutionary areas”, though still poor, inspire a special place in CCP history, and Xi Jinping has visited many of them (none in Tibet) to express his care and concern. On one such visit, he focussed on what the local economy is good at, emphasizing his pledge to help them build on their local strengths: “Yanchuan County Party Committee Secretary Liu Jingtang focused on the practice of realizing the rapid growth of farmers’ income through the development of specialty products such as red dates and apples. The general secretary Xi Jinping asked, how are the red dates selling now? What do people eat when they buy it? Liu Jingtang made an answer. The general secretary must strengthen market research and master market conditions. Zhitan County Party Secretary Yang Dongping also talked about the use of local resources to develop agricultural and sideline products. The general secretary knows in detail the situation of their production of wolfberry wine and asks whether the production and sales are in the right direction. They must pay attention to opening the market.” 

 China still talks of local solutions to local problems, as does the World Bank, in its poverty alleviation work in China (but not Tibet).  In reality, now that poverty alleviation has become a “critical battle” of national and international importance, China is in a hurry, and in no mood for the slow and patient work of engaging and encouraging local communities to organise themselves into water user groups, farmer groups, marketing co-operatives and gradually evolve local solutions.

In 2018 Xi Jinping addressed senior poverty work officials from Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou provinces (but not Tibet), reminding them to: effectively strengthen grassroots organizations. To do a good job in poverty alleviation and development, the grassroots level is the foundation. We must organically combine poverty alleviation and grass-roots organization construction, do a good job of building village-level organizations with village party organizations at the core, and encourage and select outstanding young cadres and veterans who have good ideas, good work style, and strong abilities to serve the people. Every poverty-stricken village must have a village work team, and each poverty-stricken household has its own help. The task forces and cadres in villages must concentrate on poverty alleviation and development and play an effective role.”

Yet Tibet remains the exception, with almost no grassroots village organisations designing their own poverty alleviation, with help from central leaders. A decade ago, and two decades ago, there were many NGOs, from China and the world, working in Tibet, building and staffing schools, health clinics, improving farming, alleviating poverty. Now nearly all have been pushed out, excluded by a state that wants to be the sole author of all interventions in Tibet.

Xi Jinping is a politician, indeed, as many argue, the only politician in a dictatorship where all other voices are silenced. Like any politician, he says many things, addresses many audiences, tries to be all things to all people. He talks at length about local solutions to local problems: “Severely impoverished areas should improve their growth models and give priority to the development of business activities that benefit the impoverished, such as agriculture based on local features, labour-intensive processing industries, and the service industry.”[8]  This is exactly what Tibet needs, and has needed for the past 60 years, without success. Xi Jinping, in the same speech, says:  “We should relocate more impoverished people living under adverse natural conditions.”

These are two mutually incompatible models of what is meant by poverty alleviation, so which strategy is scheduled for implementation in Tibet? Everything points to the six decades of failure to invest in rural production, value adding and marketing persisting. It all points to further displacement of Tibetans from their land, now not only in the name of water provision and wildlife protection, but also poverty alleviation.

How common is poverty in Tibet? Has grassroots bottom-up poverty alleviation been tried in Tibet? That’s in the next in this blog series on POVERTY, IMMISERISATION and DESTITUTION in TIBET




[1] QI Wei et al, China’s different spatial patterns of population growth based on the “Hu Line”, J. Geogaphical Science,  2016, 26(11): 1611-1625

[2] Coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty in contiguous destitute areas, China: Empirical analysis of 714 poverty-stricken counties, 中国贫困地区生态环境脆弱性与经济贫困的耦合关系——基于连片特困区714个贫困县的实证分析, Chinese Journal of Applied Ecology, 应用生态学报, Aug. 2016, 27(8): 2614-2622

[3] China’s different spatial patterns

[4] Yanhui Wang and Yefeng Chen, Using VPI to Measure Poverty-Stricken Villages in China, Social Indicators Research, 133, 2017, 833–857

[5] Yansui Liu, Jilai Liu, Yang Zhou, Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies, Journal of Rural Studies 52 (2017) 66-75

[6] Yanguo Liu, Chengmin Huang et al, Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China; ISPRS International J. Geo-Information,  2018, 7, 16, free download:

[7] Using VPI to Measure Poverty-Stricken Villages in China, 2017

[8] Xi Jinping, Governance of China, vol 2, Foreign Languages Press, 2017, 94

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