Have you ever wondered at the persistent coupling of Tibet with the possessive prefix China’s? China’s Tibet is obsessively used to claim possession, since that claim is so clearly contested.

China never talks of China’s Xinjiang, or China’s Sichuan. Let’s unpack that oithy two-word slogan, and look at what it signifies.

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs. So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. The agenda of this logo is that Tibet must be different, but not too different. It must be exotic, a mirror of otherness held to the visage of the visitor, yet also safe, familiar, domestic, with the reassurance that in China’s Tibet™ all Tibetans love China, and as a destination Tibet is not only safe but even comfortable.
In these ways central authorities achieve a “narrative uniformity that is enforced upon and over lead tourism sites [which] constitutes a form of cultural grammar by and through which the state defines travel itineraries and controls the meaning held over landscape, space, and place.” Cheng Yan received a PhD in recreation, sport and tourism from University of Illinois, pointing out that: “the pursuit of collective and monolithic national imagery has caused a representational violence –one that is committed by the nation-state ideology operated through the organisation of tourism language.”

China's consumerism Hulme book cover

This book, due out in July 2014, looks in depth at China’s tourism boom in Tibet.

How is it possible that Tibetan culture, history and identity can be turned inside out in this way? How can it be that an articulate and profound culture cannot speak for itself? How could it happen that Tibetans have only minor, walk-on roles in a massive Tibetan tourism industry in which Tibetan history, culture and scenic spots are the core attractions?
Elsewhere in China, other minority nationalities have succeeded in controlling the tourism industry that brings many visitors to their villages. They are not bit players but actively build, manage and operate their own tourist village, their own cultural displays. This has been documented by several anthropologists.

Yet there are several iconic scenic spots in the lands of minority nationalities that are now utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Han Chinese domestic tourists, and have become marginalised in their own land. Tourism notoriously “spoils” destinations, swamping the original, authentic and local with kitsch replicas, mechanical reproduction, endless hotels and bars, until it becomes hard to find what drew people to come. While this greatly worries the discerning international traveller, it is much less of a concern to Han Chinese, who have no problem accepting, and enjoying, the “authentic replica.” To westerners, the phrase seems paradoxical, even self-contradictory. Chinese tourists are more relaxed about spectacles staged for them, less troubled about whether they are witnessing something pure, original, authentic, unspoiled.

In the lowlands close to the Tibetan Plateau, Lijiang, Dali and Xishuangbanna are case studies in the marketisation of ethnic difference as a profitable commodity packaged by a tourism industry that dominates the lives of the ethnic minority who were the original attraction. These places first got on the radar of tourists as funky, offbeat, quaint and charming destinations known only to intrepid backpackers. Then they were officially designated as scenic spots, fitting them into China’s long tradition of iconic scenic spots one must visit if one is to be considered civilised. Tourism at these paces scaled up and up. Mass tourism flourished, and also elite tourism with its luxury villas, upmarket hotels and resorts, taking more land and resources. The minority nationalities still sing and dance, at times that suit tour organisers, only the singers, dancers, ethnic artefact sellers, even the sex workers, are increasingly Han Chinese in ethnic costume. This does not trouble China’s tourist masses, who enjoy the spectacle, accepting the authentic replica.

One of the case studies in this anthropological fieldwork is of three performances staged daily for tourists in Lijiang. The oldest, conceived at a time when all the tourists were international backpackers seeking unspoiled authenticity, is deliberately staged in a rundown hall with dim lighting of a ramshackle stage, in a dilapidated mansion down a winding alley. All this reeks of authenticity, the pure, unspoiled, actual original that has somehow survived intact.

The newest of the daily spectacular performances, geared for the mass Chinese domestic tourism market, features pyrotechnic lighting, an outdoor setting that makes dramatic use of a snow mountain as backdrop, a fast pace, a romantic story of tragically doomed love, inviting tourists to escape their ordinary stressful urban lives and participate in various forms of transgressions, and it enables their secret selves to be displayed while pursuing an unrestrained hedonic experience. The latest product, specifically aimed at the Chinese domestic market is a re-enactment of traditional Naxi minority nationality wedding ritual, cut down from the customary three days to a five minute performance, conducted by a Naxi wedding ritual specialist, in which Han couples don’t merely watch, but dress as Naxi, and are actually married. This is what today’s China calls the “authentic replica”, a term that is not, to Han Chinese, in any way paradoxical or contradictory. English speakers, by contrast, habitually go to the other extreme, making sharp distinctions between “the real” and “the fake.”

The tourism boom in Tibet follows this authentic replica pattern. The focus now is on Lhasa, with global brand hotel chains in a race to get a branded property on the map in Lhasa, to get market share as tourist numbers swell and China’s new rich readily pay for the Tibetan décor and personalised butler service that are features of the newest hotels. But Lhasa is not the first major tourist destination in Tibet, only the latest. The first places in Tibet to become popular tourist destinations were on the peripheries of the Tibetan Plateau, some in places so remote and obscure few Tibetans had heard of them. Jiuzhaigou (Dzitsa Degu in Tibetan) and nearby Huanglong, now world famous for their scenery, became major destinations because peripherality could be turned into proximity. The further they were from the centre of Tibet, the closer they were to lowland China, accessible to backpackers by local bus, then to mass tourism on improved highways, then to the rich by air, even by helicopter from Chengdu, Sichuan’s hot and humid capital city. Chengdu now had its hill station, much as the British Raj in India built hill stations to escape the summer on the plains below. The deep valleys and their Tibetan farming villages were no longer associated, in tourists’ minds, with the adjacent nomad pastures above. They became China’s newest iconic scenic spots, magical places of exquisite beauty, jewels in China’s crown, with the special status of UNESCO World Heritage listing. In both Tibetan and Chinese, Dzitsa Degu and Jiuzhaigou means the nine stockaded villages of the Tibetans, but this meaning is lost, the Tibetans forbidden to farm or to host visitors overnight. The remaining villagers depend solely on their menial roles in the mass tourism industry, holding a docile yak for a Han Chinese tourist to bestride for a photo op.
Other peripheral places, many of them close to China, also boomed as tourist destinations, including Labrang monastery in Gansu; and Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, (Ta’er in Chinese) not far from Xining, the capital, and now surrounded by polluting industries. Another remote area, in the far west of upper Tibet, is the holy mountain of Gang Rinpoche, known worldwide as Mt Kailash. What all these locations share is not only remoteness but also that they were “discovered” first by nonChinese visitors, by backpackers and, in the case of Kailash, by Indian pilgrims. It was only later that the backpacker guidebooks, and China’s enthusiastic culture fever for all things foreign, led to a Chinese fascination with such places. China belatedly “discovered” these jewels in its own back yard, and built them up as destinations attracting millions of tourists a year. UNESCO’s scientific advisors long ago expressed alarm that World Heritage listing was achieving the opposite of what inscription on this select list was intended to do. Instead of ensuring preservation, World Heritage became a brand to be monetised by a growing Chinese tourism industry, a magnet to visitors guaranteeing a quality scenic experience.

In this way, Tibet was colonised by tourism from the outside in. Lhasa, the heart of Tibet, joined this accelerating process only this century. Prior to the arrival of fast, cheap, heated and pressurised rail services in 2006, Lhasa was too far, too expensive, too difficult, too lacking in infrastructure and dangerously lacking in oxygen. That was the prevalent attitude in lowland China: no-one would choose to go to Tibet unless they had to.

As the tourism industry expanded its palette to include Lhasa, some of the expansion was led by the same entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes on Tibet’s peripheries. This is especially so of Deng Hong who made good use of his connections, and his father’s military reputation, to gain exclusive access to much of the land surrounding the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage area. There he built luxury villas, hotels and resorts, in partnership with the InterContinental hotel chain; then did the same in Chengdu, and now Lhasa. In 2002, he was indiscreet enough to boast to a Washington Post reporter of his Party connections, and that they were the secret of his success. Now, in 2013, as China’s new leaders pursue their pledge to crack down on corruption, he is one of the first to be investigated and interrogated.

Private entrepreneurs such as Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan of the Mangrove Tree Resort chain, also planning to build in Lhasa, got into the lists of the richest in China by speculative real estate deals, and building luxury resorts on some of the land they dealt in. But the state was never far, or merely a regulator. In China’s Five-Year Plans, tourism has long been identified as a “pillar industry” or “backbone industry” that can ignite economic take-off in Tibet, holding up the entire economy. Earlier Five-Year Plans, such as the 9th, in 1996, named targets of visitor numbers far ahead, but the reality was that the infrastructure, hard and soft, was not there. It was the state that engineered the urban construction boom of the 1990s and since, building the power stations, hydro dams, highways, railways, oil pipelines, airports and urban facilities, museums and exhibition halls that got Lhasa and central Tibet ready for mass tourism, and ready for entrepreneurs to create profitable businesses. In the past two decades, billions of dollars have been spent by central authorities to create the necessary preconditions for as tourism boom.

The hard infrastructure is obvious. Less obvious is the shift in popular attitudes essential to attracting the tens of millions of lowland Chinese now travelling to Tibet’s iconic spots. This too was engineered by the state, again working closely with private entrepreneurs, especially documentary film makers and glossy magazine editors. Tibet got a makeover. Lhasa became a place of comfort, inviting women and families, not just desperately poor men out for a quick fortune. Taking their cue from centuries of western fascination with Tibet as a land of mystery, Chinese movies, docos and tourism magazines represented Tibet as a land of great beauty, and the people as simple, timeless folk, always dressed traditionally, always smiling. China’s new orientalism remade the image of Tibet, editing out anything modern, including the massive military and paramilitary presence in all Tibetan towns. Tibet became an intriguing, exotic other that was at the same time safely domestic, where Chinese is the common language, where Chinese money works, where extra oxygen is reassuringly ever at hand for altitude sickness, where all the comforts and luxuries of global resorts are now available. It is this combination of the exotic and the domestic, the thrilling and the safe, the scenic and the familiar, the photo op and the hotel room, that makes Tibet especially appealing.

As a result, ten times as many Chinese visit Tibet as visit the US. Although the US is the leading nonAsian destination for Chinese tourists, 1.5 million came in 2012, while Lhasa alone receives 12 million Han Chinese tourists a year, Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong a further four million, and many more at other iconic Tibetan scenic spots.

The footprint of these visitor numbers is great, since almost anything manufactured must be brought to Tibet, to meet the expectations of visitors, from soy sauce to computers, steel to fresh prawns and plastic palm trees. The historic population of the entire Tibetan Plateau was never more than six million. According to China’s 2000 Census, the resident population had swelled to 10 million, not counting the floating population of immigrant fortune seekers, or the military stationed in Tibet. Since then, the tourism boom has further overloaded the carrying capacity of the Tibetan Plateau, which historically sustained a low density population willing to maintain a mobile way of life so as to not exhaust the alpine ecosystems of Tibet.

The guiding hand of the state is directly responsible for the emergence of tourism as a pillar industry. Not only did the state finance and engineer the physical infrastructure and reshape the popular image of Tibet, the state owns all the iconic scenic spots and controls the message given to tourists. The state trains and licences the tour guides permitted to interpret Tibetan history and culture, who must pass exams, in Chinese, in accredited tourism academies, which teach a syllabus written by the state. While insisting tour guides attain a high level of proficiency in the official line, tour guiding pays very little, and guides must detour their clients to Chinese enterprises and persuade them to buy, and receive their commission. This all makes for minimal connection between Tibetans and tourists.

The iconic sites of Lhasa such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple are no longer big enough to handle the tourist rush, and so many of Lhasa’s old buildings have been knocked down. The solution is to build a brand new city across the Kyichu river from Lhasa, on the south bank, as a major industrial expansion area, featuring a $4.75 billion investment in staging a daily spectacular enactment of the marriage, 14 centuries ago, of a Tibetan king and a Chinese princess. Yet again, the money is coming from the state.
A separate theme park is proposed to make the “Tibet Code” fantasy Chinese adventure books and movie into a literalised stage production enacted daily for tourists. This will appropriate a slightly later slice of Tibetan history, the reign of the preBuddhist Bonpo king Langdarma, who attempted to suppress the early adoption of Buddhism by Songtsen Gampo, his predecessor. The threat to Buddhism enables the Han Chinese hero in Tibet in the 9th century, and his trusty Tibetan mastiff, to come to the aid of the Buddhists and their treasures.

Now that two of China’s richest and best-connected men, Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan, are building their Lhasa resorts, with InterContinental already locked in as operator of one, and smaller Starwood St Regis, Shangrila and Taj hotels in Lhasa either open, under construction or announced, the race is on among the big brands to get market share, to get the best locations, to be seen to have a full range of properties across China, including Lhasa. The new rich of China, despite recent requests from China’s new leaders that they be less ostentatious, continue to consume Tibet, and expect luxury. Across China, the number of star-rated hotel rooms is due to double between 2010 and 2017, from 2.25 million rooms to 4.16 million rooms. In 2012 China had 18,200 hotels of international standard. By 2017 that will increase by 50% to 27,300 hotels.

Throughout these major state initiatives, there have been tempting opportunities for official land managers and private developers to make massive profits, often by using borrowed money loaned by state owned banks, to finance the buying and selling of land for private profit. Throughout China, local governments used readily available central funds intended as economic stimulus, to speculate in land and run up massive debts when deals went wrong. Few cities have grown as fast as Lhasa, which may by now have its share of nonperforming loans weighing on local government, and on the banks that were instructed by the state to lend to them. Those loans have, for the time being, been rolled over, but must eventually be repaid, or written off. Land has become a valuable commodity in Lhasa Municipality, which covers a very large area far beyond the city, in which urban land can be bought and sold. Even before a building goes up, and before an international brand name operates a functioning hotel, there are fortunes to be made. Both in China and worldwide, there is increasing anxiety at these unrepayable loans, and at the secrecy surrounding them. Nowhere is more secretive than Lhasa, where the hotel boom guarantees property speculators with insider connections can make fortunes. Increasingly, the danger of a real estate speculative bubble burst looms over the Chinese economy. The rush to build luxury brand hotels in Lhasa, well ahead of international demand and perhaps ahead of domestic demand, may contribute to what is recognised, in China, as “a China style subprime mortgage crisis.”

Urban construction, in the small historic heart of an increasingly sprawling city, necessitates destruction. Prime sites are few and the 1990s decision by Lhasa Municipality to conserve remaining manors of Tibetan families is now swept aside in the urban construction boom, and speculative property bubble. With big brand hotels scrambling for market share, and other sites in demand catering to the mass domestic tourism boom, there is now intense pressure to further demolish traditional Tibetan buildings, which are too small to accommodate contemporary commercial uses.

A shopping mall under construction in Lhasa, with excavated space for 1000 car parking spaces underneath, has prompted a shocked cry of protest from Tibetan blogger Woeser, who is seldom allowed to see Lhasa for herself, and this blogpst on the shopping mall promptly censored. After her blogpost was removed, she told South China Morning Post: “I therefore plead to Unesco and other international organisations, Tibetan scholars and experts, and all of you, please stop this horrible modernisation from committing unforgettable crimes to Lhasa’s old town environment, culture and architecture. Lhasa is being destroyed by excessive commercial development. Lhasa doesn’t exist for only tourists. There are real people who live here and it’s also a religious place. You can’t just turn it into a Sanlitun village.” Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping mall complex in Beijing favoured by wealthy Chinese and international shoppers.

The mall alarms her for several reasons. The above ground loss of streetscape, the underground pumping lowering the water table of a river city, the huge scale of shops with 150,000 sq m of floor space, the relocation of residents to the edge of the city, and the danger of land subsidence as the water table recedes. The provision of 1000 car parking spaces is a sign of who the shopping mall sees as its customers. China is now the biggest automobile market worldwide, and sales of SUVs –large cars looming high above ordinary sedans- are especially booming. SUV sales have been energetically promoted by glossy advertising in travel magazines featuring Tibet as a self-drive destination. Chrysler Jeep and Tata Range Rovers have been particularly keen to sponsor rallies traversing Tibet, which set up photo shoots enabling them to insert ads into upmarket magazines, appealing to wealthy masculine Chinese drivers to personally conquer Tibet. The self-drivers need shopping malls to restock before photogenically splashing through more Tibetan rivers.


Tourism in Tibet should be in Tibetan hands. This is what visitors, especially international visitors expect. If the tourism experience fails to be built around real encounter, across cultures, between Tibetans and visitors, tourists leave disappointed and Tibetans miss out on opportunities to enter the global economy by being themselves.

The principles and specific codes of practice for sustainable tourism are well-known, and have been codified in detail by many intergovernmental and other agencies, including the UN World Tourism Organisation, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and by the tourism industry’s Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Under the heading of Local Control, UNWTO and UNEP define the goal: “To engage and empower local communities in planning and decision making about the management and future development of tourism in their area, in consultation with other stakeholders. Giving people responsibility and control over their lives is a fundamental principle of sustainable development. Moreover, tourism projects that engage local communities directly in their planning and implementation are much more likely to be successful in delivering local benefits and to be sustained over time. Policy in this area is not, however, just about engagement through consultation processes; it is also about empowering communities to influence decisions about the developments and activities that will affect their future while enabling the needs of other legitimate interests to be taken into account.”

An alternative direction, enabling tourists and the Tibetans to learn from meaningful encounters, is possible. There is nothing inevitable about making Lhasa a mass destination of lurid theme parks, state owned and managed iconic sites of Tibetan identity, with Tibetans sidelined into minor roles. An ancient, sophisticated, highly literate culture is capable of managing its lands and tourism futures. Many treaties to which China is a signatory, as well as China’s own laws, guarantee the cultural rights of traditional knowledge holders, enabling them to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken for. In theory, the Tibetans, as a minority nationality, also have special rights. In practice, China no longer speaks of minority nationalities, only of ethnic groups to which individuals choose to belong, or not. In reality, despite the promise of tourism, Tibetan culture is now product, in the hands of Chinese entrepreneurs and central planners, its strengths ignored, its external manifestations trivialised and sensationalised, a commodity for mass tourist consumption. This is the process of creating China’s Tibet™.

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Mining and land rights of communities directly affected by mining are fraught topics worldwide, at a time when resource extraction companies are pushing ever deeper into remote areas in their insatiable quest for minerals and energy.

In Tibet, a  proliferation of mining, from medium to world scale, encroaches and disrupts community life in many areas all over the Tibetan Plateau, since Tibet is rich in minerals. There have been many protests against mining despoiling localities which until recently had been able to live traditionally,  which also means caring for sacred mountains and lakes, and the pilgrimage circuits which regularly bring people from afar to do the practices of mental purification as an active meditation done on foot.

In addition to the direct impacts of mining on local Tibetan communities, mining also generates much climate warming emissions, to be legitimised and offset by closing pastures and banning of grazing.  Most of the area of China designated as “restricted development zone” is in Tibet, including the richest grazing lands of the plateau. If such lands are now, under PES and REDD+ designated solely as watershed protection and carbon sequestration zones, then Tibetans will be denied the right to development, as will their children and grandchildren, as carbon sequestration contracts become a new kind of legal property that will increasingly override traditional property rights. In the name of Payment for Environmental Services, Tibetans will be paid by China, which in turn is paid by global treaty arrangements, to sit and do nothing, excluded from their land, with no prospects other than migrating to distant factory cities, while their land sits idle, growing grass which is counted as successful carbon capture. This depopulated land will be designated  a long term guarantee of pure water supply services to distant downstream users, at the opportunity cost to Tibetans of foregoing any development for the coming century, or even remaining in traditional mode of production on ancestral land.

The actuality of intensive mining of the rich Tibetan endowment of mineral wealth is concealed from the wider world, and the rest of China, not only by travel restrictions, censorship and the absence of much mining from official statistics; but also through an elaborate rhetoric which incorporates the active mines into “zones of restricted development”, around which “red lines” have been firmly drawn at the highest level, in order to protect “ecological environment” by banning almost all human activity, including the customary land use of the Tibetan pastoralists. This contemporary green governance discourse not only masks the exclusion of nomads from their pastures, it proclaims them to be voluntary “ecological migrants” who choose, for the greater good, to leave their lands so they will recover without human activity, from overgrazing, degradation and even desertification.  In the name of China’s global environmental citizenship, these depopulated lands, on paper off-limits to grazing and most definitely to intensive resource extraction enclaves, certify China as a responsible contributor to the global necessity of adapting to climate change by sequestering more carbon, protecting “fragile” watersheds, and rehabilitating degraded lands. China thus qualifies for not only global approbation from environmentalists but also concessions, in climate treaty negotiations, allowing China’s industrialisation and massive coal consumption to persist. As market-based global trading mechanisms that ostensibly reduce emissions caused by deforestation and land degradation (REDD), China may attract investment for these “restricted development zones”, which will relieve China of the burden of paying subsistence rations to displaced nomads to sit and do nothing, on the urban fringes of their former pastures. Similarly, as the concept of Payment for Environmental Services becomes increasingly operational, China can rebadge its practice of reducing pastoralists to utter dependence on state rations, as PES, yet again showing the world that China participates in the latest fashions in governance, is a good global citizen, even a model for the rest of the developing world to emulate.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the displaced pastoralists, not long ago proudly independent and active agents of productive and sustainable land management, are reduced to dependence, passivity and irrelevance. They sum up their circumstances, the anthropologists say, by saying they have become penned animals themselves. Yet, on the pastures from which they are increasingly excluded, the miners move in, often at the initiative of the local governments that also bear responsibility for environmental regulation and implementation of the nationally mandated program of tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass.

To the world, which has no access to the grasslands, this is presented as part of China’s drive to repair past mistaken conversion of sloping land to agriculture, excessive deforestation, land degradation and river catchment erosion. The world applauds, unaware of ground truth. It appears on paper that China is making great strides. Of the declared “red line restricted development zones” in China, more than half the area is on the Tibetan Plateau.

The great danger is that the exclusion of Tibetan farmers from valleys now allocated to hydro dam construction, and nomads from pasturelands, is not a temporary strategy to achieve remediation, it is a permanent exclusion, which will be enforceable not only by state decree but by the legal contractual obligations inherent in REDD, PES and in what China blandly calls “grain-to-green” programs, all of which necessitate the restriction or full exclusion of traditional farming and grazing, not only for the present generation, but for generations to come. For example, the emerging regulatory regime covering carbon sequestration imposes on traditional land managers the contractual obligation to grow more biomass by restricting customary agriculture or pasturing for at least one century, and this is written into the formal contracts that then have market value, and are purchased by factories in far distant countries to offset their ongoing pollution. Once signed, these contracts effectively prohibit traditional land use for the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren yet to be born, as well as the current generation. This effectively ends any prospect that the great grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau have a future, or opportunity to develop, based on growing the traditional livestock raising productivity. The right to development is thus denied. None of this has been explained to the nomads, who often choose to take up official inducements to move to new concrete housing on urban fringes, in the expectation that the move is temporary, reversible and negotiable, allowing a return of some or all family members to their customary lands to continue herding. Needless to say, none of the long term implications of this profound long term repurposing of land use has been explained to the nomads now leaving their land, nor has prior informed consent been obtained.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that China has a grand strategy to displace the nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Inner Mongolia (and elsewhere), based on an elaborate fiction of global green governance. Far from a calculated plan, the gradual emergence of the current situation must be traced. The history of successive policies for China’s great grasslands needs careful tracking, to see how the “tragedy of the commons” discourse came to dominate.

The nomads of Tibet, when given rare opportunity to voice their perception of issues such as degradation of the rangelands, have a very different view to the official scientists and official policy makers. To the nomads, maintaining a sustainable grazing economy that is both productive and cares for the land and biodiversity, is not difficult, as long as restrictions on mobility are lifted. They see no contradiction between grass and animals, as if the situation by definition is zero/sum.

State science, and the policies that stem from alarming scientific reports that as much as 90 per cent of the rangelands are degraded, are based on the foundational proposition that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.” That formulation, phrased as a dialectic that demands a decisive solution, is found repeatedly in the basic assumptions of Chinese science on the grasslands. This denies that a grazing economy is possible, in which the long term survival of a healthy sward, and animal production. This crude formulation insists that the more animals you have, the less is the grass; and conversely, the fewer the number of grazing domestic animals, the more is the grass biomass. If this were true, then the grazing societies that have existed all over the world for thousands of years are all impossible. The corollary of this crude dialectic is that the benchmark for defining what constitutes degradation is anything less than the weight of biomass of grassland on which no grazing occurs at all. Thus any grazing, no matter how skilfully managed, is degradation. The goal of policy is now to restore pristine grassland wilderness, which, like rainforest, is in equilibrium only if humans are excluded.

Rangeland scientists around the world have been engaged with Chinese scientists, as have international anthropologists and other social scientists.  This has generated widely divergent views, so divergent it seems they are looking at different landscapes. As anthropologist and geographer Emily Yeh perceptively notes: “severe and pervasive degradation on China’s rangelands has become a kind of ‘received wisdom’, a narrative that blames local people for environmental degradation in the absence of adequate evidence, which is often used to justify certain interventions, and which is repeated so many times that it becomes common sense within certain scientific and policy communities. Discussing the ‘theory of Himalayan environmental degradation’, Blaikie and Muldavin trace the reproduction of perceived wisdom in China to disjunctures between epistemic communities of social and natural scientists, as well as between those working within the Chinese national context and other national contexts, who ‘write and read for different journals, speak different languages’, have different conceptualizations of sound research and effectively see different landscapes. Also examining the disjunctures between different epistemic communities, Williams argues that international, national and local scales of natural scientific practice work together to privilege non-local representations of nature, and that grassland science in Inner Mongolia ultimately functions to reproduce unequal social relations. Remarking on a different epistemic divide, Xu Jun (2010) makes an oblique reference to the highly politicized nature of resettlement policies implemented to remedy degradation. She notes, ‘western scholars are arguing about the various reasons or goals of China’s central government’s [policies, while] most Chinese scholars are paying more attention to the harsh living conditions of eco-immigrants’, a statement that points to the fraught politics of framing questions about rangeland management in China.”[1]

In these ways, industrial modernity is thrusting into remote communities, without any payment of royalties to those communities, investment in local education or health facilities, or training or local employment, or subcontracting of local supply to local communities. This is a familiar story worldwide, in indigenous communities unable to defend themselves effectively, even when they risk, and lose, their lives.



The accelerating depopulation of rural Tibet has been reported before, notably by Human Rights Watch, as long ago as 2007. Despite several subsequent reports, conferences and articles, there is no consensus as to whether this population movement is, as some say, entirely voluntary, or, as several assert, entirely coercive. The debate has focused narrowly on whether the nomads who move to urban fringes have provided their FPIC, free prior informed consent, which raises much debate as to whether the incentives, inducements and imposed quotas for leaving customary pastures are temporary or permanent, whether the  displaced nomads know in advance that they will seldom be legally permitted to return to livestock raising on customary lands, or whether their land tenure documents will be cancelled. Inevitably, national policy is implemented differently in the counties where the new policy of “closing pasture to grow grass” is actively implemented, so it is hard to achieve a comprehensive overview.

However, the narrow focus on FPIC neglects systemic issues common throughout China wherever rural land can become reclassified as a locus of development and modernity, whether as urban or industrial land, an enclave of resource extraction, or an area earning income for whoever controls it, by entering the global carbon trading market. Sargeson argues that the violence accompanying the frequent conversion of rural land to modern uses is systemic: “Violence authorizes development, because the rural spaces surrounding cities and towns are characterized as institutionally insecure, disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity. It comprises development, because it involves the forced urban improvement of the nation, rural property, governance, people and livelihoods. Violence as development involves many different actors, purposefully engaged in a wide array of brutal, administrative, pedagogic and practical urbanizing tasks.”[2]

This provides a wider perspective. The question is no longer FPIC, but a state discourse that valorises social engineering, the displacement of rural populations declared surplus to the requirements of modernity, whose “wasted lives” to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term, are incidental collateral damage in the onrush of modernity, best displaced into ongoing mobility that results in their arrival at the gates of the factories and mines that displaced them, as the latest wave of low-paid workers, of low human quality, ready to staff the assembly lines of the world’s factory.

It is no accident that the legal status of rural Tibetan land, and the land tenure rights of the pastoralists, are institutionally insecure, granted and withdrawn by the state, at its discretion, because the conventional view among planners has long been that the pastoralists are “disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity.”



This means the Tibetan pastoralists have common cause with villagers throughout China, whose land is forcibly appropriated, for urban and industrial use. It means violence should be understood as including more than physical intimidation; it is a systemic discourse of superior power, and the right of officials to declare local populations a hindrance to development, necessitating their removal. It is not just greedy property developers and corrupt cadres who overstep the legal ways of reclassifying rural land as urban; it is a system of disempowerment of farmers and herders, who are disadvantaged by being seen as recalcitrant, unruly, archaic obstacles to the imperative of modernity.

While the Tibetan pastoralists have much in common with China’s displaced farmers, there are major differences. Villagers can and do protest, often unsuccessfully, but sometimes they win, because they have been able to mobilise large number of people willing to face the might of the state’s repressive machine. Sometimes these protests are reported, generating sympathy within and beyond China, which may influence outcomes. Tibetan pastoralists, spread extensively across large areas, are seldom able to mobilise significant numbers. The areas from which pastoralists are excluded are now huge, and hard to defend. Current policy works incrementally, removing a few pastoralists at a time, rather than the total removal of a village in the path of development. The reasons for removing nomads are more various than for the enclosure of a farming village. While urban growth is a factor, a huge swathe of the Tibetan Plateau is now officially designated as “restricted development zone”, surrounded by “red lines” signifying permanent banning of legally permitted economic activity such as pastoralism, so that the land can be dedicated to green governance goals such as carbon capture, watershed protection and rehabilitation of land degradation.

Official statements support the necessity of coercion: “People seem to ignore the basic fact that everyone is actually a beneficiary of such policies. Without forced demolition, there is no urbanization in China; and without urbanization, there is no brand-new Chinese society. As a result, we can say that without demolition, there would be no new China.[3]  This was written by an official of a county in eastern China where three villagers had burned themselves to death in protest, generating publicity over the “Yihuang incident” of September 2010. The party paper, Global Times, then published, under the pseudonym  of Hui Chang, the argument of those county officials that nothing must get in the way of the onrush of urban modernity, as the Chinese state cannot just play the role of “nightwatchman” as the neoliberal governments of late capitalism can do, benignly watching over the workings of the market. “Hui Chang” argues that despite the Yihuang protests, self-immolations, and petitions to higher authorities, progress must go on, Yihuang GDP had doubled in five years and must continue to grow fast.  He writes: “Urban construction calls for lots of demolition, and local governments cannot afford to meet soaring compensation standards. Meanwhile, many farmers, stimulated by soaring land and house prices, dream of becoming millionaires overnight through land acquisition. Relocated households bypass the immediate leadership and appeal to higher authorities. In order to implement local development strategies, local governments find forced demolition the only choice. Yihuang’s incident will become part of the past in time. As long as local areas need development, forced demolition should be promoted.”[4]

The quest for a brand-new China now embraces not only rapid urbanization as the destiny of the rural populace, but also the construction of “ecological environment civilisation,” especially in Tibet, providing the world with proof of China’s green credentials. These emergent purposes, for which large tracts of land are officially designated, involve the creation of new kinds of value, that, by comparison, devalue traditional uses as unproductive. In the case of farmland that becomes urban land, the sharp rise in land value is often directly financed by state investment in economic stimulus and capital expenditure projects intended to accelerate urbanisation. The result is a steep jump in the value of the land in contention, a jump that justifies its expropriation as logical and necessary. The process is furthered by the reliance at local government level on revenues gained by reclassifying, expropriating and then selling newly urban land. That revenue stream not only enables the well connected to accumulate wealth, but provides much of the revenue local governments need in order to meet their obligations to provide education, health and other human services, as responsibility for such costly services has long been downshifted by central onto local government.

In Tibet, the area enclosed is far greater, the pace is slower, the opportunities for mobilising populations to resist are fewer, and media coverage is minimal. Rather than the sudden, overtly violent removal of village and villagers, a more typical sequence on the grasslands is the arrival of a team of officials who announce a quota of people, a fixed percentage of the population of what is legally a township but in practice is a scatter of nomadic households who may cluster over winter. The team announces that for the 15 per cent who are to leave, the state will provide housing, electricity, rations, perhaps even a school or a health aid post.  If the reasons for this policy are explained at all, it is presented as a temporary closure of pastures to allow the overgrazed areas to grow back. According to anthropologists who have done fieldwork in these areas, the families that opt to leave include the poor, who have too few animals to make a living, usually because of natural disaster, such as an unseasonal blizzard. Other families opting to migrate to the urban fringe have several in the family who are old and in need of access to medical care, or young children who may benefit from schooling. One the family has relocated, the able bodied adults often return to their pastures to continue livestock-raising, if official policy is not strictly enforced. Sometimes comparatively wealthy families make the move, while hiring poorer people to graze their large herds in various places. In these ways Tibetan pastoralists negotiate with the state, making provisional choices that are always open to renegotiation, much as they negotiate, and renegotiate, herd size, grazing strategies, risk management, shearing time etc.

So far, local government officials are usually willing to ignore these re negotiations. They are able to report to their superiors that they have met the quota, and that is all that is required for them to be eligible for promotion. If a head count is conducted, in the new settlement, where the residents are under the gaze of the police station that is always built, and numbers are down, there is always the explanation that some people are away, trading, or as urban construction labourers, rather than back on the range. In such ways, no-one loses face, and the state is declared to have achieved its objective of reducing grazing pressure.



Can this scenario be called violence? Compared to the screaming mothers we see, as heavy equipment trashes their village homes, clearly not. Yet the present moment on the rangeland has a wider context. If we look at the consistent trend of official policy and its implementation over several decades, it is clear what is the overall direction.

Since the state largely withdrew from the rangelands around 1980, with the collapse of the livestock production brigades and communes, the state has gradually returned, each time encroaching further on pastoralists choices; further limiting mobility; further allocating fixed, fenced, demarcated lands; further restricting herd size and family size;  further demanding that children be removed to distant boarding schools to be inculcated with the nationbullding ideology of the state. While there have been many policy announcements since the 1980s, they have had a consistent outcome, of making the pastoralists poorer, with fewer animals, less mobility, less land, more costs of production such as compulsory fencing, compulsory winter house construction, compulsory construction of winter herd shelters, compulsory fencing, ploughing, sowing and harvesting of fodder crops.

Some of these policies, in isolation, were well-meant, as ways of improving productivity, increasing the overwintering herd survival rate. But the cumulative effect was to shrink that land available for grazing, shrink herd size to or below subsistence survival level, and the result was overgrazing due to restrictions on nomadic mobility. These unintended outcomes of poorly planned policies in turn led to further restrictions, which invariably blamed overgrazing on nomad ignorance and indifference to grasslands that have always been the foundation of their entire way of life. This succession of state failures impoverished and immiserised the herders, while consistently blaming them for the negative outcomes, especially land degradation.



At the same time, in Qinghai province, senior cadres sought ways of attracting Beijing’s attention, and central financing. Qinghai, as a province, was created to separate the Tibetans and the Mongols, so its foundational mythos is that it is not really part of Tibet, even though it is topographically the northern half of the Tibetan Plateau and until quite recently populated mostly by Tibetans. In the 1950s and 1960s Qinghai served clear national purposes, for which it did receive central finance, for its role as a chain of prison camps for the regime’s enemies, and as part of the Third Front of military industrialisation, in preparation for the world war Mao expected. But by the late 1970s both of these sources of central finance dried up, and Qinghai was left behind, as coastal China surged ahead under Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up.”

The only ongoing opportunity for tapping into central fiscal largesse was dam building, capturing the waters of the Yellow River for hydro power to supply the fast industrialising cities of Xining, Qinghai’s capital, and, further downriver, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The Ministry of Water Resources grew in power in Qinghai, coming up with a winning slogan: “Qinghai is China’s number one water tower.” This became the key to winning more central money.

This slogan, repeated at every opportunity, gradually expanded to become “Tibet is China’s number one water tower” and even “Tibet is Asia’s water tower.” In the minds of central leaders the nomads of Qinghai, and the entire Tibetan Plateau, seemed to produce very little that was sent to market, while water downstream became increasingly scarce. As access to upstream water became more important, the unruly, unproductive, over-grazing herders became more marginal. By the late 1990s, at the highest level, it seemed a decisive choice was required, an either/or, zero/sum decision that firmly set the course for the long term future, to be implemented gradually, if only to avoid any repetition of the war of the late 1950s, in Qinghai’s pastoral areas, once the nomads discovered they were to be communised, losing all control and ownership of lands, herds and even personal property. It is only very recently that violence of “peaceful liberation” has been adequately documented.[5]



This is the wider context in which the present moment sits.  The trend is towards further enclosure and exclusion, towards declaring the pastoralist mode of production irrelevant to China’s brand-new urban future; while guaranteed access to upriver water sources in Tibet is increasingly crucial. The currently intermittent enforcement of the tuimu huancao policy of closing pastures to grow more grass may well intensify. Although China publicly denies there was a war on the grasslands, and that “liberation” was “peaceful”, in the memoirs published by retired military officers, and in the official county records and gazetteers, the memory persists  of the extreme violence needed to quell nomads facing catastrophic loss of agency. Everything points to a brand-new Tibetan countryside, in which pastoral livestock production, at best, continues only to raise animals until they are adult, whereupon they will be taken to peri-urban feedlots for fattening and slaughter. Livestock production on the range will be banned altogether in the  red line restricted development zones, in the name of China’s contribution to climate change adaptation and land rehabilitation, winning for China sufficient credit for taking climate action, thus allowing the world’s factory to continue to raise emissions.

It is in this wider picture that we can consider the present moment as violence, seldom overt, but pastoralists required to relocate to urban settlements understand quite clearly they cannot refuse.[6] Violence is structural, in this situation, in the power of the state to not only dispose of land rights, cancel land tenure certificates, and remove people, but also in the prejudicial depiction of those classified only as “herders” as an itinerant rural labour force of low human quality, little awareness or care for the consequences of their actions, occupying enormous territories for little purpose. It is the state that authors the master narrative, or dominant discourse, that marginalises the pastoralists; and assigns the construction of a new China to the party-state. This is systemic violence, steadily marginalising and impoverishing people, to the point where they have no option but to leave their degraded land.

The state is in no hurry to fully depopulate the “restricted development zones” of the Sanjiangyuan Three River Source Protected Area. There is little effective opposition, and the creation of a semi-urban underclass of welfare dependants is a burden on national and county finances. There are pull factors as well as push, that encourage pastoralists to seek urban amenities.  New highways make urban life tantalisingly close. Tibetan writer Tsering Wangmo Dhompa captures this: “Five decades ago it had taken Tashi close to twenty days to reach Xining on horseback from Kyegu. When jeeps began to cover the same distance in twelve hours, she thought it was by some divine machination. ‘Now I can take a plane from Xining and be in Kyegu in the time it takes me to make bread,’ she says in wonder.…… Each winter Tibetans flock to the city leaving only a caretaker to mind their homes in snowbound towns and villages….  On cold winter days the elders spend their days in the shopping centres. The new buildings are so toasty, she sighs.

“This is the city Tibetans flock to when their small towns cannot help them: the sick come for surgeries, businessmen replenish their goods, families purchase furniture for new homes, and newlyweds spend a month’s salary to capture their union in glossy photo albums in Xining.”

“Young men wear suits and though they are ill fitting and almost certain to be in shades of blue, the suit makes them walk with a song in their gait. A suit is a statement of style, and of money. A suit proclaims that a man has tasted a little other than that of the mountains, the rivers, outside their herds. A suit is part of the world they will inevitably meet.”[7]

This is the inexorable logic of urbanization, the concentration of services in centralised spaces, to which everyone is centripetally drawn. This concentration is always justified by the market logic of efficiency in locating facilities in the best endowed places, the corollary being that remote, scattered, extensive land users can never expect modern services, as the cost of extending them to remote areas can never be justified. For anything beyond the increasingly irrelevant practice of livestock rearing, the rural hinterland is by definition inefficient, lacking in scale and concentration, forever doomed to fall further behind the new cities of new China.

[1] Emily T. Yeh (2013) The politics of conservation in contemporary rural China, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1165-1188, 1176

[2] Sally Sargeson (2013) Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1063-1085

[3] Hui, C. 2010. Forced demolition an inevitable pain in China’s urbanization. Global Times, 18 October. Available from http://www.globaltimes.cn/opinion/commentary/2010-10/582829.html

[5] Li Jianglin, When the Iron Bird flies in the Sky, Linking Publications, Taipei, 2012

Li Jianglin 2009 Do We Understand Tibet More than the Westerners? (Women bi xifang dui xizang geng liaojie ma?). Online access at http://www.renyurenquan.org/ryrq_article.adp?article_id=1151

[6] “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse”: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, Human Rights Watch, June 2007, 80p

[7] Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, A Home in Tibet, Penguin India, 2013, 161

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China is at odds with the world trend. Currently, under UN auspices, all major sectors and social forces, from big business to small NGOs, from indigenous communities to states, are engaged in defining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. One major issue in this debate, and emergent consensus, is the future of the world’s farmlands and pastures. In March 2014 the Farmers Major Group in this UN process announced its priorities for the next global SDG commitments, to be adopted by all states. Their top goal is poverty eradication, to be achieved by farmers and pastoralists not only continuing to use their land but also to gain “universal access to resources (land, water, seeds, credit, infrastructure).”

The second priority for the world’s agriculture is food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture systems.  This UN position paper calls for: “the promotion of agricultural extensification instead of intensification,” and for “adoption of food sovereignty as policy framework –farmers and their countries must be free to make agricultural policy decisions that best benefit them.”[1]

China is moving in the opposite direction, towards intensification that concentrates food production in enclaves on urban edges, while depopulating huge areas that have been managed both sustainably and productively for millennia. China is reducing Tibetan food security, generating reliance on distant sources for even basic foodstuffs, despite a long history of Tibetan self-reliance. At a time when food insecurity is a worldwide concern, exacerbated by China’s large-scale purchases of agricultural land in Africa, for monoculture crops to export to China for animal feed, China is deliberately undermining food security in Tibet. The loss of food security in Tibet is currently an issue that has attracted little attention, yet the pastoral regions of the Tibetan Plateau are actually one percent of the inhabited land area of the planet, and a loss of one per cent at a time of food insecurity and consequent poverty is a very backward step.

Extensification is a key concept. Throughout the 1990s, the European Community pushed for extensification, which deliberately seeks to make use of all land suited to food production and environmental protection, together, rather than have former agricultural land shrink as intensification of production also intensifies pollution, and leaves much land uncared for. Tibet’s traditional land use is extensive, with pastoralism actively pursued in almost all vegetated areas. China has assumed that extensive land use is a vestige of a less productive age, and that intensification, located in places of the greatest factor endowment, is the direction to go. This makes most of the Tibetan Plateau redundant.

Claude Beranger, research  director of France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research sums up the resurgence in extensification, pointing out that extensification results in lower output per unit of area, while productively occupying agricukltural land that otherwise would be abandoned. By accepting less output per hectare, without lessening total production, fewer expensive and environmentally damaging inputs are required, reducing environmental impacts. Extensified agriculture has been designed, in Europe, to include specific biodiversity conservation actions by the farmers, who qualify for assistance under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy by acting to benefit the environment while maintaining extensive food production. This restores ecosystems and landscapes, through the active engagement of farmers, on land they know best, taking initiatives to preserve and protect water quality.

Beranger says: “Extensive farming or production systems can be more beneficial for the ecological environment than  intensive systems. They require fewer chemical inputs and thereby minimise the risks of land and water pollution. They also utilise more surface area for most types of production and thus avoid fallowing or abandoning of land, and land degradation by soil erosion.”[2]



China practices precisely the opposite, and argues that it thus follows objective “laws” of development at apply worldwide. An official White Paper issued in 2013 on “Development and Progress of Tibet” argues that: “The development and progress in Tibet is in accord with the rules for the development of human society, and reflects the mutual aspirations of the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. It is the natural result of the overall development and progress of China as a whole. The development and progress of Tibet mirrors the victory of human society’ s enterprising spirit and creativity in the quest for justice and happiness, and has proved the inevitability of history. The development and progress in modern Tibet results from the innate logic of its social and historical environment, and has its roots in China’ s progress in a larger context. Its development is in line with the advance of world’ s modern civilization.”[3]

What is it that can be called a historic inevitability, obeying  the rules for development and the innate logic of social and historical environment? There is nothing inevitable about taking much of the most productive pasture of the Tibetan Plateau out of production, because a command and control economy decrees that water production supplants animal production, on the mistaken assumption that, to use a common Chinese phrase,” there is a contradiction between grass and animals.”[4]

There is nothing inevitable about an economy that is dominated by massive central subsidies designated for “leap-style development” of a province unable to raise even 10 per cent of its fiscal expenditure through its own revenues. The fast growth rate of the Tibet Autonomous Region has been driven by massive capital expenditure on industrial, extractive and urban infrastructure, while investing little in the pre-existing indigenous economy of farming grain and raising livestock. This centrally mandated force-fed fast growth is aptly defined by one of the few economists of contemporary Tibet, Andrew Fischer, as “Disempowered Development.”[5]

What China appears to mean by “the rules for the development of human society” is the  argument of economists that favour concentrating investment capital in those places best endowed with the key factors of production, notably land connected well with markets, requiring labour –a major factor of production- to move to where the capital is concentrating. That convention of economic efficiency is what Deng Xiaoping embraced when he called for some (the best endowed) to get rich first. That neoliberal orthodoxy, in sharp contrast to the Maoist redistributive command economy, is far from what has happened in Tibet. Tibet never quite abandoned the command economy, under direct control from Beijing. If anything, the decades of Deng’s “opening up” were in TAR the decades of an expensive nationbuilding infrastructure investment program that emplaced highways, railways, fuel pipelines, high voltage long distance electricity cabling, hydro power dams, extraction zones and urban construction; all financed by central leaders. This is not a “natural result”, nor “the inevitability of history.”

Fischer writes: “Subsidies have increased both in real per person values and as proportions of government expenditure and GDP. The TAR has nonetheless maintained its relatively privileged priority, to the extreme and somewhat perplexing extent that direct budgetary subsidies from the central government exceeded 100 percent of the GDP of the TAR for the first time in 2010. This was higher than even the heights of intensive subsidization during the Maoist period. The resurgent subsidies resuscitated growth in western China and especially in the TAR and Qinghai, where growth accelerated to very rapid, above national-average rates in the late 1990s. The speed of economic growth in the TAR and Qinghai over this period was phenomenal, even by Chinese standards. For instance, the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of both provinces grew at a rate about one-third faster than the national economy from 1997 to 2010, even though the national experience has been perhaps the fastest (and definitely the largest) experience of sustained rapid economic growth the world has ever seen. Indeed, from 1997 to 2007 (the year before the outbreak of large-scale protests), the GDP of the TAR quadrupled, versus a tripling of the GDP of China as a whole. The pace of change has been astonishing, as has been the extent of subsidization driving this change.”[6]

“In essence, the argument of this book is that the intensified economic integration of Tibet into regional and national development strategies on these assimilationist terms has, in turn, intensified various dynamics of subordination and marginalization faced by Tibetans of all social strata and despite the evident material improvements in their living standards. These dynamics are partly—although not entirely—reflected by rapidly rising inequalities within Tibetan areas that have accompanied different phases of rapid growth, some aspects of which had reached levels much higher than anywhere else in China in the 2000s. Most activities outside traditional farming and herding (and the booming trade in caterpillar fungus) in the TAR and, to a lesser extent, in other Tibetan areas have been by and large the construct of subsidization policies. Even changes in the Tibetan rural areas have become increasingly dependent on subsidization, such as the subsidies driving investment into chicken production in rural parts of the TAR near heavily subsidized towns and cities. Hence, privilege and polarization are driven much more by the hierarchy of position within the flow of these subsidies. State-sector employees in the TAR benefited from among the highest salaries in China since the beginning of the Open the West Campaign, neck and neck with those of Beijing and Shanghai for several years, which has had nothing to do with productivity or overall prosperity considerations in the TAR.”[7]

“The TAR economy has been changing rapidly, but the local Tibetan population has been rendered very marginal as agents causing the change at the aggregate level, even if they reap some benefits. Their contribution to the indigenous village-based economy is huge, no doubt, but this economy has shrunk rapidly as a source of value relative to the rest of the economy, and much of the surging activity within the rural economy is subsidized by the government in any case. In this sense, the agency and “ownership” of development  is located largely outside of Tibetan hands and this situation has been accentuated as the economy becomes progressively less agrarian and rural. The resulting economic structure in Tibet—including the broader political economy structure of entitlements, incentives, compulsions, and distributive conflicts—is effectively very similar to that of a colonial-type economy. Indeed, the degree of aid dependence in the TAR is far greater than even the most aid-dependent countries of Africa, and the degree of disempowerment is more or less on par with that of an occupied region.”[8]

“The more pressing question is whether the integration of Tibetans into the emerging structural and institutional patterns of development in Tibet has accentuated their disempowerment in the governance of their home-land and in the “ownership” of their development, whether or not this necessarily results in some form of deprivation. In sum, within a context of continued political disempowerment of Tibetan locals, centrally directed development strategies since the mid-1990s have channeled massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments (relative to the local economy) through Han Chinese–dominated state structures, corporations, and other entities based outside the Tibetan areas, thereby accentuating the already highly externalized orientation of wealth flows in the local economy. This has resulted in a socio-economic structure that increasingly and disproportionately rewards a small upper stratum servicing and/or operationalizing the development strategies, which have remained excessively hinged on decision making in Beijing) to a far greater extent than any other region in China. The upper stratum includes a small minority of Tibetans and a large proportion of non-Tibetan migrants, concentrated mostly in urban areas and well positioned to access the flows of wealth as they pass through the region with increasing velocity. Whether or not the ongoing outcomes are intended to be discriminatory, these structural and institutional dynamics effectively accentuate the discriminatory, assimilationist, and disempowering characteristics of development.”[9]

Nonetheless, China’s official view is that benevolent statist interventions have worked wonders. The 2013 White Paper on Development and Progress in Tibet states: “Over the past 60-odd years, Tibet has finished a course of historical journey that would normally take several centuries or even a millennium for the human society to complete. It has written a spectacular chapter in the history of mankind. At present, Tibet presents a picture mixing traditional and modern elements, featuring economic and political progress, cultural prosperity, social harmony, sound ecosystem and a happy and healthy life for the local people. We may gain valuable enlightenment from Tibet’ s extraordinary journey. Tibet’s development can’t be separated from the choosing of a right path. Over the past 60-odd years, by adhering to the path of socialism in the arms of the Chinese nation, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have become masters of their own country, society and fate, and Tibet has made the dramatic change from a place of poverty and backwardness to one of prosperity and civilization.”

These issues are seldom discussed.

A tragedy fast unfolding across Tibet. The wider world, lulled by China’s discourse of environmental good citizenship, fails to discern the crippling impacts on Tibetan communities which have a 9000-year history of sustainably managing a pastoral grazing economy.

China is doubly advantaged by the situation in Tibet; and the Tibetans doubly disadvantaged. At a national and international level China represents itself a  an exemplary global citizen, protecting fragile ecosystems with firm red lines that prohibit human activity so as to capture carbon, rehabilitate degraded lands and  protect watersheds. At a subnational level Chinese mining companies despoil Tibet with growing intensity and environmental damage, unseen, unknown to the wider world, especially in depopulated areas where there are no longer Tibetan communities to protest these illegal encroachments. China also claims the resettlement of Tibetan pastoralists will increase their (cash) incomes, succeeding in alleviating poverty, and thus fulfilling the economic and social rights of Tibetans.

The Tibetans are doubly disadvantaged. The world understands them as “ecological migrants” who have chosen to leave behind poverty and remoteness, entering history and the modern urban job market. The reality is dependence, anomie and even despair leading to public protest suicide; while the world applauds China’s commitment to PES, REDD, carbon capture etc. In reality Tibet loses self-sufficiency in producing even the most staple of foods, deepening dependence on China  and exacerbating food insecurity. Grazing bans Tibetans were told would be for a few years now turn out to be permanent, depopulating huge areas, often the best pasturelands of the plateau, creating space for miners to move in, resulting in further degradation.

[2] C Beranger, Sustainable Agriculture: Extensive systems and extensification, www.infrc.org.jp/english/KNF_Data_Base_Web/PDF%20KNF%20Conf%20Data/C4-3-117.pdf

[3] Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China; Development and Progress of Tibet, October 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/22/c_132819442.htm

[4] Du Xiaojuan and Cheng Ji-min;Analysis of Formation Causes of Grassland Degradation in Damxung County of Tibet and Its Exploitation and Utilization; Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences , 2007

BAO Fenglan A STUDY OF THE COUNTERMEASURES OF OPTIMIZING ANIMAL HUSBANDRY STRUCTURE OF INNER MONGOLIA; Journal of Inner Mongolia Normal University (Philosophy & Social Science) 2005-06

[5] Andrew Fischer, The Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: a study in the economics of marginalization, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013

[6] Fischer, 5

[7] Fischer, 11, 12

[8] Fischer, 24

[9] Fischer, 28-9

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The previous blogpost revealed the vision of the official custodians of China’s Yellow River to build a huge inland shipway, capable of allowing shiops as big as 50,000 tonnes, as far inland as 3300 kms, to the foot of the Tibetan Plateau; all made possible by diverting nearly all of Tibet’s rivers to the Yellow River.

To call this vision of planetary geo-engineering ambitious is an understatement. See the previous blogpost for the details.

But will it ever be built? Here is one preliminary analysis:


BY GABRIEL LAFITTE  #gltibet, glafitte1@gmail.com


There are grandiose projects, products of the edifice complex that so attracts politicians seeking  in posterity  fame that will long outlive them. Then there are super grandiose projects that look terrific on paper, solving all known problems plus a few more that nobody knew were problematic. Then there are the truly megalomaniac projects that, in one go, conquer nature, stamp the imprint of the engineer on the land, make the deserts bloom and dust storms that shame Beijing to magically disappear, and even more magically, turn the entire 3300 kilometres of the Yellow River from the sea up to Lanzhou into a Suez Canal plied by ships up to 50,000 tonnes.

Fortunately, this plan will never be constructed, for myriad reasons. Here are eight of them.

ONE:      The age of super mega projects in China is fortunately past, or at least passing. The engineers no longer dominate the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, as they did up to 2012. Although China’s leaders are addicted to massive infrastructure spends, as economic stimulus and a way of funnelling capital to their favourite State owned enterprises, this one is just too big. China’s central leaders do talk of growing the remote western provinces so they can catch up, but in practice, the remote provinces get left behind, and Beijing has little enthusiasm for “backward” areas which, according to economic orthodoxy, can best get rich by most folks migrating to the bigger or even mid level cities.

As China enters a period in which labour is no longer the cheapest in the world, hidden debt is rising, and governments can no longer spend as freely as they did until recently, the pressure is on to shift spending away from infrastructure, financed by state borrowings, in favour of domestic consumption, by raising incomes of ordinary folk.

TWO:                     Then there is the highly factionalised competition within China between powerful individuals and their power bases. One competition is between the southern China powerhouse of economic growth, and the water-short north, the original home of Chinese civilisation.

The staggeringly ambitious plan promoted by the Yellow River Water Conservancy (YRWC), a powerful official regulatory agency, to turn their river into a navigable canal for big ships, is a proposal that dwarfs even the Three Gorges Dam in size and expense, and even dwarfs the fantasies of the hydraulic engineers to harness the putative hydropower potential of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) of southern Tibet as it turns sharply through the Himalayas, plunging with great force through the greatest canyon on earth. That project could theoretically generate even more electricity than the Three Gorges dam, but damming the Yarlung Tsangpo great gorge (in several places), in extremely remote, precipitous jungle and raging mountain torrents, would cost far more then the disappointing Three Gorges dam. Yangtze water users will be unimpressed.

THREE:                  Amazingly, the Yellow River Conservancy’s Great Western Line project requires that all those Tibetan dams be built, solely to provide the electricity to pump water uphill, and over thousands of kilometres. Of the many audacious aspects of the Great Western Line, none is bolder than its decisive move to scrap the basis of all past mega project plans to capture and divert the rivers of Tibet, all of which relied on finding routes to let gravity take the water to where downstream China most needs it. This dependence on the law of gravity is now dismissed, with plans to pump no less than 150 billion cubic metres (m3) of water  out of Tibetan rivers and pump not only to downstream China but also all over the deserts and drylands of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia.

Even Adolf Hitler, who had dreams of comprehensively reshaping the entire landscape of conquered eastern Europe to make it fit for incoming German farmers[1], never dreamt on this scale.

FOUR: THE YANGTZE FACTION:                  Fortunately, China is now unlikely to embrace this super mega project, if only because China’s factionalism and powerful vested interest will  put it on the back burner until it can be forgotten. The cluster of powerful provinces along the Yangtze increasingly resist any further diversion of water from their river to the north. Already two massive south-to-north water transfer canals have been built, in eastern and central China, draining the Yangtze to benefit the middle and lower Yellow River. These enormous canals are due to begin operating in 2014, after almost a decade of construction and a much longer period of planning and political juggling. Although the Yangtze is a much bigger river than the Yellow, powerful provinces such as Sichuan upriver, Shanghai  and Zhejiang downriver are no longer willing to see further diversions, as China’s water use further intensifies, both as an industrial/agricultural input and as a sewer for wastes.

FIVE: FLOODS AND SHIPS FLOOATING ABOVE THE LAND:                              Even the YRWC proponents of the Great Western Line resort frequently to hyperbole when faced with the absurdity of a plan to make the Yellow River a shipway. The Yellow River is yellow because of the enormous amount of silt it carries from upstream Tibet to the lowlands where, as the river slows (and is ruthlessly extracted for human use), it slows, dumping its silt, clogging the river, making it much more prone to spill and flood in the wetter months. This tendency to flood is what gave the Yellow River its classic label, of China’s Sorrow. The response, over several dynasties, was to mobilise massive human labour forces to build up the banks, to such an extent that in places the bed of the Yellow River is above the surrounding landscape, hemmed in by massive banks that need constant repair. The idea that this could now be made into a canal carrying 50,000 ton ships, when the Yangtze and Three Gorges Dam have already failed to attract heavy shipping, is ludicrous.

SIX: WHO STANDS TO BENEFIT:                  The reality is that the richer, downriver provinces that most need water and have the greatest political weight, will benefit the least; while the poorest upriver provinces will benefit most. The days are long gone when China’s central government can simply allocate a massive redistribution of wealth away from the best endowed provinces towards the poorest. Under the prevalent neoliberalism, such nation-building extravaganzas are no longer in fashion, nor is there finance for them, or the political will to command such allocations. All the YRWC can say is a flowery phrase: “it will make Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet take a giant step towards parity with central China, as if the “golden coastline” of Southeast China was extended all the way into the belly of the deep West.”

SEVEN: COST/BENEFIT;                  As for the cost of this vision of making the deserts bloom, even its boosters know that any careful cost/benefit analysis will throw it out the window: “If we can bear those operating costs, then the plan described above is feasible.” Such appeals to arduous struggle fail these days to cut much ice, especially at a time when paramount leader Xi Jinping is trying to rein in profligate spending as a relic of a bygone era. In the opulent lives of China’s elite, calls to eat bitterness and sacrifice for the long term benefit of remote desert provinces no longer gets much traction.

EIGHT: ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES FOR ASSIMILATING THE FAR WEST:                     Nor is it the case that China has only infrastructure and more infrastructure as its only strategy for assimilating remote border regions into the Chinese economy. That may have been the case until quite recently, especially in Tibet, where China struggled to find industries that could generate wealth, and lots of employment for politically reliable immigrant Chinese. But decades of massive capital expenditure on infrastructure are at last paying off, in Tibet, in massive new and highly profitable copper/gold/silver mines and in mass Chinese domestic tourism. Justifying megaprojects as essential nationbuilding is no longer as persuasive an argument as it was, when (state-subsidised) industries can also achieve the goal of integration and also make a profit, thus stimulating Han Chinese employment..

So there is a host of reasons why the pharaonic project is unlikely to ever happen. One can never definitively rule out the appeal of the edifice complex, for central leaders wanting fame in posterity; but this is a proposal whose time, if ever, was decades ago, not now. The last time China could mobilise the entire resources of the country in this way was when it designated much of the Tibetan Plateau part of the Third Front, to build China’s nuclear weapons and military industries deep in innermost China, to protect against the menacing US Navy and the Soviet revisionists. That began in the late 1950s and ran for around 20 years before fizzling.

The engineers who cooked up this project, with impressive detail on the technicalities of locks, dams and pumps, and no mention of costs, have actually rolled two projects into one. Their starting point is the possibility, at least on paper, that it is possible to intercept, dam and divert, almost every major river of eastern Tibet, and send the water north. The quantum of water that could be made available to northern China is staggering, in fact so much that it is hard to think how it could all be used, as well as how to store the highly seasonal, monsoonal influx long enough to supply water downstream round the year, especially in winter, when it is most needed in a Yellow River that sometimes dries up altogether in the cold months. Such plans have been dreamt up before.

Where this plan breaks new ground is in its disregard of the laws of gravity, using massive hydropower plants on the same Tibetan rivers, to pump their waters far away and up. Its second audacity is the vision of big ships, up to 50,000 tons, sailing up and down the Yellow River. The same rhetoric drove the Three Gorges Dam on a much bigger river, the Yangtze, which was also supposed to attract big ships deep inland. What has instead happened is a boom in rail construction, including long-haul and high-speed lines that connect inland, upland western China not only with the coast, but also with Europe. Not only is it possible for Hewlett Packard, for example, to manufacture computers far inland in Chongqing, but  they can then be despatched to European markets overland, by rail, faster than sending them downriver and across the oceans.

For the Yellow River Water Conservancy, the romance of steaming up and down China’s primal river remains eternal, but days of inland shipping, likening the Yellow River to the Rhine and the Mississippi, are beyond grasp. No doubt the YRWC will dream on, but Tibetans need not assume, as some do, that just because one influential arm of the state endorses a fantastical megaproject, it will automatically happen.

[1] David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany, Pimlico, 2007, 225, 252-3, 270-3

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A major official agency, the Yellow River Water Conservancy, has grandiose plans to dam all the major rivers of Tibet, and pump massive amounts of water (using hydropower generated in Tibet) uphill to the Yellow River of northern China.

First, here is how the officials of the Yellow River Water Conservancy (YRWC) define their latest epic plan, followed by an analysis of whether this pharaonic project will ever be built.


TITLE: Preliminary Research on the Feasibility of the “Datongdao” Project for Yellow River Shipping


Development of the Yellow River for Navigation and its Necessity


For a long time, people have been much more concerned with the exploitation of water resources than with the development of marine shipping. The Northwest of our country is dry, with little rainfall, and has a great need for water. There are vast areas of wilderness waiting for development, which really means they are waiting for large quantities of water to be brought in, because once they have water, the desert can become green, and only on that foundation can development begin. So people are very interested in projects to bring water from the South to the North. With regard to the extremely challenging idea called the “Western Line”, many tempting plans have been proposed for large-scale water relocation. People have grasped the importance of water resources, but there is another important point still missing — marine transportation and shipping. The Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) has the best conditions for marine shipping of any river in the world, and can carry a greater volume of goods than any other river, but its utilization is not up to the standard of the Mississippi and Rhine, the other 2 great shipping waterways of the world. The Three Gorges project should have provided the best opportunity for full and efficient use of the Chang Jiang’s shipping potential, but at that time, development proceeded under the principle of “power generation first, marine shipping second”, and so the project never lived up to its potential to promote marine shipping. There is a limit to what electric generation can do for our country, but the river’s capacity to carry goods can keep growing and growing as the riverbed is excavated deeper, so the potential long-term economic benefits are very great. Even under the limits imposed by the current condition of the Chang Jiang, the Chang Jiang river basin area accounts for a solid 45% of China’s GDP, and stands firmly as the main economic development axis of the entire country. If it can be said that survival and ecology are tightly linked to water resource management, then development and becoming strong and prosperous are even more tightly linked to the development of marine shipping.



The key characteristics of marine shipping are high capacity and low cost, and it is suitable for the transportation of energy sources, minerals, heavy chemical products, heavy equipment, grain, livestock, and other large goods. This is most clearly seen with ocean shipping. Since China opened up for economic development, the fast development of the Southeast coast clearly proves the advantage conferred by marine shipping. The Yellow River basin, and the Northwest provinces, which are closely linked to it, have rich energy and mineral resources, and enormous potential for production of agricultural and animal products. It is an ideal area for large-scale marine shipping of heavy goods, and has potential far exceeding the Chang Jiang. Developing Yellow River shipping, and especially opening it up to the ocean for navigation of ships exceeding 10,000 tons, is a fabulous prospect which the Yellow River basin could only dream of for centuries past. Therefore, opening up navigation of the Yellow River, and especially enabling ocean navigation for super-heavy class vessels, is of great necessity, and the day when it comes true is the day when the Yellow River basin and the Northwest will spread their wings and fly.



Continued improvements in quantity eventually result in a revolution in quality. As quantity increases, quality also improves, and qualitative improvements open the way for even greater improvements in quantity. The huge scale and vast area of the Yellow River corridor are an opportunity for a qualitative leap, and the economic and societal benefits which navigation of that corridor could bring, and what it would mean for the entire country, are of incomparable value, almost beyond words. Therefore, for continued high growth rates in China’s economy, expanding domestic demand, faster societal transformation, and sustainable development, opening up the Yellow River waterway could provide an enormous driving force forward, and is of the utmost strategic meaning.




The Necessity of Construction of the “Western Line” Water Diversion Project



As humans make ever greater use of water resources, and as the world’s climate grows ever warmer, the importance of strategic planning in water resource management is ever more prominent. In the next 30-50 years, as renewable energy sources come into widescale use, the importance of energy to societal and economic development will gradually give way to the greater importance of water resources for societal and economic development and human survival.


China has total water reserves of 2.8 trillion cubic meters, which is 4th in the world. But per capita water reserves are only 2300 cubic meters, which is 1/4 of the world average, and comes in 121th place. China is therefore among the 13 most water-poor countries in the world. Of China’s more than 600 cities, more than 400 are in short supply of water, and more than 200 have severe water shortages. More than that, China’s North-South distribution of water is severely skewed. 44.3% of the population live in the North, and 59.6% of arable land is in the North, but the North has only 14.5% of China’s water resources, with average per capita water reserves of 747 cubic meters, 1/3 of the national average. Among the North’s water supplies, the Yellow River, Huai River, and Hai Luan River are most prominent. The river basins of those 3 account for about 30% of both national agricultural output and GDP, but they possess only 7.2% of the country’s water. As water supplies become tighter each day, water quality degrades, plant ecology deteriorates, and the land is subject to desertification. This has developed into the harsh reality we now see of dust storms. Ongoing water shortages in the North have already become a great obstacle restricting economic and societal development, and severely threaten sustainable economic growth for the people.



The Great Western Line water diversion project is the groundwork for the Yellow River shipping waterway project, and without it, there is no room to even talk about opening up the Yellow River for marine shipping. That is because the Yellow River has only 50 billion cubic meters of flow per year, not even enough for human consumption and industrial use. During dry periods, the probability is great that the Yellow River could even run dry, and not have enough water flow to float ships. The Yellow River shipping waterway project can provide full utilization of the Western Line water diversion project; with it, much more efficient use can be made of the water diverted into the Yellow River basin. Without it, it will be very hard to “digest” the high capital expenses incurred by the Western Line project and its long period for break-even on investment. The Western Line project can provide a foundation, and the Yellow River shipping waterway project can make it worthwhile. The 2 projects are tied together as one; without the other, neither of them could achieve its potential.



Aside from providing the water needed for marine navigation, the Western Line project can also provide much-needed water resources. To the dry Northwest, that is highly desirable and seemingly unattainable. Only with large quantities of water, the Northwest can improve its soil, check the expansion of deserts, and finally rein in the raging dust storms. The trend of “local improvements in human habitat, but ongoing degradation as a whole” can be turned back, the poverty and backwardness of the West can be changed, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor can be shrunk, the ongoing sluggishness of domestic consumer demand can be improved, and economic development can be expedited. Therefore, the Western Line project, as challenging as it is and as long the distances which must be crossed between river basins are, is utterly imperative and must be carried out.


Overall Situation of Yellow River Navigation


The Yellow River shipping waterway, with the assistance of the Western Line water diversion project, will use the existing Yellow River riverway, and will open up navigation from the Bohai Sea to Lanzhou. The riverbed of the Yellow River will be excavated and dredged, to permit passage of 50,000-ton class vessels from the mouth of the Yellow River to Lanzhou, and with that, it will become the greatest “golden” waterway of the world. The main Yellow River shipping route will be 3300 kilometers in length, from Dongying at the mouth of the Yellow River into the Bohai Sea, all the way to the upstream area of Lanzhou. It will pass through Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu, a total of 7 provinces, providing access for 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Wei River (渭河)a tributary of the Yellow River, will extend for 388 kilometers, from Tongguan at the mouth of the Wei, to the midstream area of Xianyang, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Yiluo River, another tributary, will extend 50 kilometers, from the mouth of the Yiluo to Luoyang, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The shipping route along the Fen River, yet another tributary, will extend 600 kilometers, from Hejin at the mouth of the Fen, to the upstream area of Taiyuan, for passage of 50,000-ton class ships. The Datong shipping route, from the Qingshui River, to Datong, and on to Tongzhou, will extend for 1000 kilometers, from the upper reaches of the Qingshui River, in the middle of the Yellow River, along the Sanggan River, through the Guanting water reservoir, to Tongzhou District in Beijing. It will pass through Datong, and connect to the northern stretch of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Tongzhou, allowing passage of 1000-ton class vessels. On the lower reaches of the Yellow River, the Wei River (卫河)and Majia River secondary shipping routes on the North bank, as well as the Jialu River and Huiji River secondary shipping routes on the South bank, will all connect to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, for passage of 1000-ton class vessels. The Beijing-Hangzhou Canal is 1700 kilometers in length, and can carry 10,000-ton class vessels. At its Northern reaches, it permits passage through Tianjin and into the Bohai Sea, whereas at its Southern end, it reaches Hangzhou, and permits passage out into the East Sea. As such, the entire marine shipping network will on one hand reach up to the Bohai Sea, on the other down to the East Sea, and going inwards, all the way to the heart of the West, forming a super-network which will encompass half the country.



Overall Situation of Water Diversion Project


The Western Line water diversion project, will draw 150 billion cubic meters of water from 6 rivers: the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, the Lancang River, the Jinsha River, the Yalong River, and the Dadu River. The water will be sent to the Maqu Daguaiwan super-reservoir on the upper stretches of the Yellow River. Out of that water, 50 billion cubic meters will pass through man-made canals, sending 10 billion cubic meters to Qaidam Basin in Qinghai Province, 30 billion cubic meters to the Taklimakan Desert in Tarim Basin in Xinjiang Province, and 10 billion cubic meters to Lop Nur. The remaining 100 billion cubic meters will flow out along with the existing waterflow of the Yellow River, allowing many hydropower stations serving Lanzhou to operate at full capacity, as well as providing 50 billion cubic meters for diversion along the river branch at Qilihe District of Lanzhou. Those 50 billion will be carried by man-made canals, through the Hexi Corridor, sending 10 billion cubic meters to the Turpan Basin in Xinjiang, another 10 billion to the Junggar Basin, and 30 billion to boost the laggard waterflow of the Shiyang River, Hei River, and other rivers. The balance of 50 billion cubic meters will flow through the Yellow River to the ocean, boosting the river’s water level to permit navigation.



Construction Plan for the Shipping Waterway


The construction can be divided into 2 phases: phase 1 will include tributary river projects, discharge channel projects, tributary shipping waterway projects, shipping canal projects, and water-supply canal projects; phase 2 will include the main shipping waterway project, water locks, reservoir, widening of the Beijing-Hangzhou canal, and water-supply canals into the Northwest.



Tributary projects: These projects will start from the highest class of tributary rivers. First, simple, temporary dams will be built to shut off the entrances of the level-3 tributaries and their large and small gullies [1], and they will be drained of water. Then, the riverbed will be dredged, and the slopes on either side of the river will be graded. Since gentle slopes are advantagous for preventing soil erosion, a 15-degree slope is best. Then, simple, temporary dams will be constructed on the level-2 tributaries and their large and small gullies, and the same procedure as above will be followed. Last will be the level-1 tributaries and their large and small gullies, with the same procedure again. As these projects progress to the lower-class tributaries, the amount of water to be drained will be larger and larger, so if it proves necessary, low-lying land can be found for excavation of temporary drainage reservoirs, or the water can be discharged through canals into other rivers.



Discharge Channel projects: The Wei River (卫河)and Majia River, on the north bank of the lower reaches of the Yellow River, will be blocked off with temporary dams. Then the base of the trapezoidal cross-section of their entire riverbeds will be widened to a minimum of 100 meters, with a minimum depth of 9 meters, a normal water level of 6 meters, 15-degree slopes on each side, and an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less. The Jialu River, Huiji River, and other similar tributaries on the south bank will be dealt with in exactly the same way.



The discharge channels on the north bank will be situated at the mouth of the Fen River, and will flow through man-made channels to the Wei River (卫河), Majia River, etc. The discharge channels on the south bank will be situated at the mouth of the Qinhe, and will flow into the Jialu River, Huiji River, etc. The trapezoidal cross-section of the discharge channels will be 150 meters wide at the base, at least 9 meters in depth, with a normal water level of 6 meters, a 15-20 degree slope on either side, and an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less.



The discharge channel for the Wei River (渭河)can make use of the existing Luo River; man-made channels will conduct water from the mouth of the Wei River to the middle reaches of the Luo River, and further down, other man-made channels will connect the Luo River to the discharge channels on the south bank. The trapezoidal cross-section of these channels will be 20 meters wide at the base, at least 9 meters in depth, with a normal water level of 6 meters, and a 40 degree slope on either side. There is no need to pay special attention to the downhill slope.



The discharge channel in the upriver area of Lanzhou will conduct water through Lanzhou, along the West side of the Yellow River, through Jingtai County, and into the Hexi Corridor. At Wuwei it will flow into the Shiyang River. This channel will help in transporting water through the Hexi Corridor to Xinjiang.



Shipping Canal projects: Upstream from the temporary dams at the mouths of the Wei (渭河) and Yiluo Rivers, a large dam with water locks will be constructed, whereas upstream from Xianyang and Luoyang, dams extending down below ground level will be constructed. The trapezoidal cross-section of the riverway will be at least 400 meters at the base, with a depth of no less than 18 meters, a normal water level of 15 meters, and a slope of 20-25 degrees at the sides, as well as an average downhill slope of 0.04% or less. The trapezoidal cross-sections of other tributary rivers will be decided based on whether they will be opened for shipping, and if so, what the class of ships sailing on them will be.



Canal projects: The canal from the Qingshui River, through Datong, and on to Tongzhou will have a dam with water locks at the entrance of the Qingshui. Another dam with water locks will be located at the exit of the Guanting water reservoir. The trapezoidal cross-section and slope will be the same as the discharge channels on the north and south sides of the lower stretches of the Yellow River.



Channels for Diversion of Water for Human Use: The discharge channel upstream from Lanzhou, also known as the Northwest Channel, will have a branch which will carry water for human use, stretching from Jingtai, along the Yellow River on its Northwest side, to Hohhot.



After the phase 1 projects are completed, the temporary dams for the Wei River, Majia River, Jialu River, and Huiji River, as well as other discharge channels, will be dismantled. All the temporary dams constructed at the mouths of level-1 tributaries will remain. The discharge channel on the upstream side of Lanzhou will be opened up. At the exit of the Northwest Channel, near Lanzhou, a temporary dam will be built on the side toward the downstream side of the Yellow River. The portion of the channel cut off by the dam will be drained. The water can be used locally, or if it is too much, it can be diverted into the desert and used for irrigation.



Main Corridor project: At the mouth of the Yellow River, going out into the sea, a temporary dam will be built. On the downstream side of the temporary dam at Lanzhou, a dam extending below ground level will be built. The trapezoidal cross-section of the dry river bed will be at least 500 meters at the base, with a maximum depth of no less than 18 meters, normal water level of 15 meters, sides with slope of 20-25 degrees, and downhill slope same as the shipping channels. In the canyons of the upper and middle stretches of the Yellow River, the natural features of the terrain and its green cover can be maintained, but the depth and width of the channel must be made to reach the desired dimensions.



The entrance of the Wei River (渭河) water-supply channel will be directly across from the exit of the Lanzhou Northwest Channel.



Water-lock projects: Three dams extending below ground level, with water locks, will be constructed on the dry riverbed at Heishanxia [2], Tuoketuo, and Yumenkou. They will divide the drained riverbed into 4 sections, from Lanzhou-Heishanxia, Heishanxia-Tuoketuo, Tuoketuo-Yumenkou, and Yumenkou-Dongying. All three dams will have multiple locks, including one pair for 50,000-ton class ships, one pair for 20,000-ton class ships, one pair for 10,000-ton class ships, two pairs for 5000-ton class ships, and two pairs for 1000-ton class ships. The chamber inside the 50,000-ton class locks will have effective measurements of 300 by 50 by 12 [3]. The width of the water-lock dams will be about 800 meters laterally, and 1500 meters in the longitudinal direction [4].



Water reservoir projects: At the Maqu Daguaiwan area, there will be a water reservoir with a capacity of 150 billion cubic meters. On the inner side of the Daguaiwan area dikes will be built, and will connect with the mountains surrounding the area to form a vast reservoir 30 kilometers wide, 90 kilometers long, and 60 meters deep. The cofferdam dikes built around the reservoir will be trapezoidal in cross-section, with a 45 degree incline on the inner side, and a 30 degree incline on the outer side, running for a total length of 240 kilometers, at least 184 meters thick at the base, 60 meters tall, and at least 20 meters thick at the peak. The reservoir outlet will be on the downstream side of the Maqu Daguaiwan area. The dikes will be constructed using gabions, with geomembrane on the inner side, and filled with earth dug up on site.



Widening of the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal project: When the elevated riverbed of the Yellow River comes down to ground level [5], and connects with the Beijing-Hangzhou canal, the original capacity of the canal to carry vessels up to 1000 tons will make for a severe mismatch with the 50,000 ton vessel capacity of the Yellow River. Therefore, the capacity of the canal can be increased to carry 10,000 ton vessels, and the elevated portion of the canal in Shandong can be lowered to the same elevation as the connections with the Yellow and Yangze rivers. As the entire course is made flat and level, it will also be deepened and widened. The trapezoidal cross-section of the canal will be at least 300 meters at the base, at least 15 meters deep, with a normal water level of 12 meters, and a 20-25 degree slope on the sides. The average downhill slope of the canal will be decided by the relative elevation of the Yellow River and Yangze River riverbeds. If the slope is excessive, then the construction of water locks must be considered.



At the point where the main Yellow River shipping channel exits to the sea at Dongying, the bottom will be dredged to a depth of at least 25 meters. In the gulf port at the mouth of the Yellow River, the depth to which the mooring berths will be dredged will be decided according to the depth which the ships require.



After the phase 2 projects complete, all the tributary and main riverbed temporary dams will be dismantled. The bypass channels running along the Wei River and Yiluo River will be taken out of commission, but can be left in place in case they are useful in the future. The discharge channels on the north and south sides of the lower reaches of the Yellow River will be kept and will serve as secondary river channels. The primary river channel on the lower end of the Yellow River will become its primary shipping channel, and the secondary river channels will become secondary shipping channels. The primary and secondary Yellow River shipping channels, along with the Qingshui-Datong-Tongzhou canal and the Beijing-Hangzhou canals will all connect for passage of shipping traffic, and will form the backbone [6] of the new marine shipping network.



The discharge channels chosen for use during the Yellow River shipping channel project, are all preexisting riverways, which will greatly reduce the work to be done and the amount of movement required. The discharge channels used on the upper stretches of the Yellow River, however, do include some man-made channels for diversion of water to the Hexi Corridor. These discharge channels will not require too much work, will not occupy too much space, and will not require many people to be relocated.



Since the average downhill slope of the Yellow River riverbed is as high as 0.46%, the limited water volume available cannot maintain the required depth when descending such a steep slope. If we were to limit the average slope to no more than 0.06%, the height of each big dam with water-locks would have to be extended as high as 400 meters, or more. If that was the case, the work required to build each dam, and the technical difficulty involved, as well as the work involved in building dikes on either side of the riverway, would be greatly increased. The enormous dams and dikes, protruding hundreds of meters from the ground, would form huge barriers, as well as being a safety hazard. While our plan does involve a certain degree of height to the dams, we solve the problem primarily by making the base of the dams extend down below ground level, thus increasing the difference between water level behind and in front of the dam, and making it possible to flatten out the slope of the riverbed. The height of those huge 400-meter dams will mostly be *below* ground level, greatly mitigating the safety hazard, and reducing the technical difficulty of construction. This way, the above-ground height of both dams and dikes can be kept within reasonable limits.



Plan for the Water Diversion Project




150 billion cubic meters of water are to be drawn from the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, the Lancang River, the Jinsha River, the Yalong River, and the Dadu River, and be diverted to the upper Yellow River. Of that amount, 50 billion cubic meters will be taken from the Brahmaputra, approximately 30% of its yearly flow of 165.4 billion cubic meters; the Nu River will contribute 24 billion cubic meters, roughly 35% of its yearly flow of 74 billion cubic meters; from the Lancang River, 26 billion cubic meters, roughly 35% of its yearly flow of 74 billion cubic meters; from the Jinsha River, 28 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 143 billion cubic meters; from the Yalong River, 12 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 60.4 billion cubic meters; and from the Dadu River, 10 billion cubic meters, roughly 20% of its yearly flow of 50 billion cubic meters.



The water outlet on the Brahmaputra will be the point where the level-2 tributaries Palongzangbu and Yigongzangbu flow into the (level-1 tributary) Layue River. The diverted water will flow east along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, from Mibo to Bashe, and will join the channel for water diverted from the Nu River. The merged channel will continue flowing along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, from Xiaya to Changdu, and will merge with the channel carrying diverted water from the Lancang River. The channel, now carrying water from 3 rivers, will continue along the highway, from Jiangda to Dege, and will then merge with the channel carrying water from the Jinsha River. The merged channel will will continue along the highway, past Que’er Mountain, through Manigange to Ganmu, and will then merge with the channel carrying water from the Yalong River. Now carrying water from 5 rivers, the merged channel will continue along the same highway, through Huhuo, to Lianghekou, on the Dajin River, a tributary of the Dadu River. There, it will merge with the water diverted from the Dadu River, and will turn north, flowing along the Aba Highway, through Rangtang and Aba. It will continue flowing to the upper Yellow River, and will cross over the Yellow River and flow into the Maqu Daguaiwan reservoir.



Previous proposals for the Western Line water diversion project, have generally recommended using natural (downhill) water flow to transport the water, so as to reduce the operating costs of water diversion. However, this would make the technical difficulty of the project very great. It would mean building highly elevated reservoirs, and excavating long, deep tunnels for the water to flow through. If we take a different perspective, and abandon the idea of natural water flow, instead using external electric power to pump the water, that extreme technical difficulty can be avoided, though the operating costs will of course be much greater. If we can bear those operating costs, then the plan described above is feasible. The difference between the Datongdao water project and most other water projects, is that the economic and social benefits to be reaped are far greater. Most water projects take a long time to recoup the construction costs, or even never recoup them at all. In contrast, the Datongdao project has enormous meaning; in effect, it can turn Henan province, Shanxi province, Shaanxi province, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia province, Gansu province, and Anhui province into “coastal” provinces. At the same time, it will make Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet take a giant step towards parity with central China, as if the “golden coastline” of Southeast China was extended all the way into the belly of the deep West. So the Datongdao project can pay back all the capital expenses of the entire project, it can compensate for all the damages caused, and it can pay for the high operating expenses of electric pumping. Therefore, there is no reason why this project cannot proceed by use of electric pumping for water transport, thus easily avoiding the difficulty of building elevated reservoirs and deep, long-distance tunnels. Besides, the enormous power generation capacity which the Brahmaputra Daguaiwan power station will provide, will do much to relieve the strain on the existing power network.



If electric pumping is used all along the entire water diversion course, then there is no need to worry about altitude and levelness when choosing the route to be taken, so a route which takes the pipes along a public highway will be simplest and most convenient for construction. The volume of the reservoirs and channels for diverted water will not be an issue for water delivery, so construction of reservoirs at the water inlets and outlets will not be required. In the high mountains and deep valleys of the Southwest, there will be no need to build dams or dig long, deep tunnels, and the need to build roads for transporting construction supplies into remote areas will be greatly alleviated. Basically, all the tricky technical parts of the Datongdao and Western Line projects will disappear. With no high-altitude reservoirs, no deep tunnels, and pipes and channels running along public highways, the quantity, difficulty, and expense of construction work will be slashed. The investment capital required to set up water pipes and channels, and the high operating expenses of pumping the water, can all be carried by the enormous economic and social dividends provided by marine shipping. The electric power generated will be seasonal, which is disadvantageous for any other use; but for water diversion, it’s perfect. When the rivers are high, the hydroelectric power stations will produce at full capacity, just when the pumps need the most power. When the rivers are at moderate level, the hydroelectric stations will generate a moderate amount of power, and the power consumption of the pumps will also be moderate. When the rivers are low, water will not be diverted. Any hydroelectric power generated during the low season, as well as any excess power during the high season, will be given to Tibet.



The great canyon of the Brahmaputra forms a “U” shape facing toward the Northeast. The water reservoir which is to be built on the Brahmaputra will be toward the end of one branch of the “U”, at Paiqu town. That part of the canyon has yearly water flow of 68 billion cubic meters. The dam will be 50 meters high, and will pass 40 billion cubic meters through the generator turbines each year. The generator station itself will be located close to the other branch of the “U”, will have a capacity of 35,000 megawatts, and will connect to the reservoir through a sloped tunnel 30 meters in diameter and several kilometers long. The top and bottom of the tunnel will have a 2.2 kilometer difference in elevation, and will pass enough water to generate 150 million megawatt-hours per year.



The power used for pumping the diverted water could be brought in from elsewhere, or could be transmitted from the Brahmaputra power station. Ideally, the power generated from the diverted rivers would be used to cover the power needs of the whole diversion project, though this would increase the required investment and difficulty of construction. Even if it is deemed necessary to buy power from elsewhere, the economic benefits of the Datongdao project are still enough to pay for its operating expenses. Of course, if building the new power stations proves too difficult to do right away, the project could initially run on purchased electricity, and when the time is right, the Brahmaputra power station could be built. Or, if China’s level of engineering and construction expertise advances in the future, maybe converting the water diversion channels over to use natural water flow rather than pumps would become feasible.



Research Needed on Key Technological Questions for Shipping Channels




Through simulation and experimentation, the required downhill slope of the main shipping corridor sections, tributary shipping channels, and canals, as well as the height of the dams, and the dimensions, structure, and number of water locks can be determined.



Generally, a single set of water locks can raise a ship by 30-35 meters. To raise a ship over 400 meters, it will have to sequentially traverse more than 10 sets of locks. That will make the size of the big water-lock dams in the longitudinal direction exceed several kilometers. If we limit the number of locks to be traversed to cross a single dam to 5, then each set of locks will have to elevate ships by close to 100 meters, which would require a major breakthrough in water-lock design.



Geological analysis and experimentation will be required on the sites slated for construction of big water-lock dams. Through design modelling, the structure and dimensions of the dams can be determined (with a goal of achieving over 100 years of useable lifetime).



After calculating the steady-state water flow through the Lanzhou dam, the size of valves required and hoists for actuating the valves can be calculated. Estimates of the water level in the shipping corridors and below the Lanzhou dam will be made, and the design of the PLC programs for real-time control of water flow in and out of the water locks will be determined.



Likewise, according to the steady-state water flow through the Qingshui-Datong-Tongzhou canal dam, the size of valves and value actuators required will be calculated. Estimated water levels will inform the design of the PLC programs for control of water locks.



Likewise, calculations will be made for the Wei River (渭河) dam, the other tributary shipping channels, and the channels to Qinghai and the Hexi Corridor.



After soil study on the sites for reservoirs, the type of dike construction required to prevent leakage, and the dimensions of the dikes will be decided.



Research Needed on Key Technological Questions for Water Diversion




According to the cross-section and flow required through each of the water inlets on the source rivers, the design of the equipment for drawing water and the PLC programs for adjusting and controlling pump output will be determined.



Likewise, the cross-section and flow through the channel into the Brahmaputra hydroelectric station will determine the valves and valve actuators to be used, as well as the design of the PLC programs for controlling and adjusting water flow.



Regarding the 30-meter diameter, 40 kilometer long tunnel or pipe for sending water from the reservoir to the hydroelectric station, study is needed to see how to reduce leakage, to provide more electric power (at the cost of higher construction capital).



To control flow and reduce energy wastage, the water from each source river will go through its own set of intake pipes before flowing into the main pipe. The number and diameter of the intake pipes will be determined according to the desired volume of water to be drawn from each river. Likewise, according to the volume which each set of intake pipes adds to the flow in the main pipes, the number of main pipes and their diameter at each section will be determined.



Other Relevant Questions




The section from Lanzhou-Heishanxia is 290 kilometers long, with a drop of 280 meters, for an average slope of 0.96%. To reduce that slope to 0.06%, the drop must be reduced by 263 meters. If the dam at the bottom of this section is 150 meters high, the base of the dam at the top must be 113 meters below the ground. For Heishanxia-Tuoketuo, the distance is 950 kilometers with a drop of 250 meters, for a slope of 0.26%. To reduce that to 0.055%, the drop must be reduced by 198 meters. If the dam at the bottom is at ground level, the base of the dam at the top must be 198 meters below ground. For Tuoketuo-Yumenkou, the distance is 720 kilometers, drop is 610 meters, making a slope of 0.85%. To reduce slope to 0.045%, the drop must be reduced 578 meters. If the dam at the bottom is 150 meters tall, the base of the dam at the top must be 428 meters below ground. Yumenkou-Dongying is a distance of 1340 kilometers, with a drop of 340 meters, for a slope of 0.28%. To reduce the slope to 0.04%, the drop must be reduced by 328 meters. The outlet of this section will be at sea level, so the base of the dam at the top must extend 328 meters below ground. In these 4 sections, the greatest difference in water level across a dam is 478 meters; if that difference must be traversed through 5 sequential sets of water-locks, then each set of locks must have doors more than 100 meters tall. There is no way that such doors could be manufactured in a single piece and transported from elsewhere; they can only be built in place.



The elevation of the Qingshui River is about 500 meters, and the water level in the Guanting reservoir will be over 400 meters. So the slope of the channel leading to the reservoir will be rather shallow. At the entrance of the Qingshui from the Yellow River, a dam with water-locks, several tens of meters high, can be built. After the reservoir, the channel leading to Tongzhou is rather steeply sloped, so a dam with water-locks and 400+ meters difference in water level across the dam will be needed.



These dams which extend down into the ground, will require excavation of a vastly greater amount of earth, with a corresponding increase in construction cost. But on the other hand, those deep reservoirs will not require as much land area, reducing the number of residents who will have to be relocated.



When excavation for the dams reaches a certain depth, the earth will turn to bedrock, and further excavation will be much more difficult. To overcome this difficulty, we can do research and development of equipment for cutting away bedrock, as well as equipment for suspending and moving loads on cables drawn across the river in mid-air.



If the water level of the Fen River is too low, water can be drawn from the source of the Sanggan River (where the Datong canal is) and supplied to the Fen River. That water can flow through the Qingshui River, into the Fen River, and back into the main flow at the exit of the Fen River.



The shipping channel will pass through canyons in the Lanzhou-Heishanxia and Tuoketuo-Yumenkou sections. If the sides of the canyons are structurally sound, they can be left as is (with their green cover), and do not need to be widened. However, the base of the channel must be at least 150 meters wide.



The water-supply channel running from the Wei River (渭河) can use natural, downhill water flow. The tunnel required for this channel may be as much as 50 kilometers long.



Because the slope of the 4 sections of the main shipping channel will intersect with ground level (starting below ground level and moving above ground level), to stay out of the way of the 10,000-plus ton ships passing through, some cross-river structures can pass directly at ground level, some must cross over at a certain minimum height, and some may cross over underneath the river bottom.



Suppliers for large water locks, icebreaker ships, rock cutting equipment, and cross-river cable cars must be searched out and selected. If necessary, R&D of this equipment can be done specially for the Yellow River project.



Because the reservoir for diverted water will be on the upper Yellow River, and the volume of water to be diverted will vary with the seasons, water diversion will primarily be concentrated from May to November. This means that the required pump power and pipe capacity will be more than double what it would have been if the water diversion was evenly spread over the whole year.



Because this project will convey water at high pressure over long distances, equipment for real-time detection and reporting of water leaks will be needed. Also, in case of sudden pressure spikes caused by mechanical breakdown, real-time pressure monitoring and automatic pressure blow-off valves will be needed.



Suppliers must be selected for water pipes and pumps.



Influence on the Environment




Because of the large, high-volume reservoir on the upper Yellow River, other reservoirs will not be needed at the water inlets and outlets for water diversion. The dam at the Brahmaputra power station will be less than 50 meters high, and not excessively large, so the chances of causing a geological disaster is small. Even if a geological disaster was to occur, it would be unlikely to cause disastrous consequences. The water transmission pipes will be running along rivers and highways, not through long underground tunnels, so even if struck by a major earthquake, they would not be a threat to human life.



The limits imposed by geography on the routing of water transmission pipes, means that aside from the Brahmaputra, the water outlets and points for drawing water will mostly be at the upper reaches or the sources of the supply rivers. The water will be drawn in stages. On the condition that river ecology should kept fairly good, we will try to avoid laying excessively long pipes or using too much energy [7]. The water drawn from the Jinsha River, Yalong River, and Dadu River will be 20% of their yearly flow. On each river, water will be drawn at 2 points, one “water outlet” and one “water-drawing cross section” [8], each point taking 10% of the river’s flow. The water flow required to maintain healthy river ecology is 50% of this cross-section flow [9]. The water drawn from the Nu River and Lancang River will be 35% of their yearly flow, and will be drawn using 1 “water outlet” and 2 “water-drawing cross sections”, each point taking 11.7% of the river’s flow. The ecological water quantity will be 50% of this cross-section flow. The water drawn from the Brahmaputra will be 30% of its yearly flow. The proportion of water drawn at the Layue He water outlet, as well as the proportion diverted through the electric turbines will both be 60%, with ecological water flow of 40%. Basically, this conforms with accepted norms for ecological water flow, and will have only limited impact on the river ecology.



Building the reservoir for diverted water on the upper Yellow River will mean there is no need to build large reservoirs on the supply rivers. The technical difficulty of building a reservoir is the same no matter where you put it, but the upper Yellow River area is broad and open, and easy to access. This is much better than building a reservoir in the mountains and gorges where few people live, and where fault zones are closely concentrated.



Aside from the power station, the supply rivers will have no dams and no reservoirs, causing only limited damage to plant and animal life. This will make it possible to maintain the original ecology fairly well. The impact on ecology and the environment will be reduced to its lowest possible limit.



Benefits of the Projects




Overall Benefits of Marine Shipping




Currently, the Yangze River basin accounts for 45% of China’s GDP. The Yellow River basin’s contribution to GDP is only 20% of the Yangze River basin. But after the Yellow River shipping corridor opens up wide, the Yellow River area has room for development far exceeding that of the Yangze River area. It has rich energy and mineral resources, vast areas of arable land, ample sunshine, unique tourism resources, and the potential for a booming cruise industry. All this potential can be fully set loose by the Datongdao project. If we set 2030 as a baseline for completion, we estimate that in the first 10 years after completion, GDP would grow by 14%; in the 2nd and 3rd 10-year periods, GDP growth would slow down by 2%; and in the 4th and 5th 10-year periods, it would again slow down by 1.5%. If the project is not carried out, during the same time period, we estimate that GDP growth in the 1st 10 years would be 7%, dropping by 0.5% for each 10-year period following that. Under these 2 projections, over that 50-year period, tax revenues would differ by 20% of current GDP (social discount rate of 7%), and financial benefits would differ by 5% of current GDP [10].



If GDP growth in the Yellow River area was to drop by 1.5% in the 3rd 10-year period, and again in the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, and if we estimate GDP growth in the Yangze River area at 7%, dropping 0.5% every 10 years, then in 32 years, the Yellow River could equal the Yangze River in economic output. Each would account for 30% of GDP, forming 2 pillars of the national economy. After another 38 years, the 2 areas would differ by a ratio of 2:1. In other words, by 2062 the Yellow River basin and Yangze River basin could each account for 30% of GDP, and by 2100, the Yellow River basin could exceed the Yangze River basin by a factor of 2, accounting for 45% of GDP, and forming the greatest axis of economic development in the entire country.



Ecological Benefits




The diverted water combined with the natural water flow of the Yellow River will total about 105 billion cubic meters per year. The water will be allocated as follows: To satisfy the needs of marine navigation on the Wei River (渭河), 10 billion cubic meters will be divided off and sent to the source of the Wei River; 5 billion cubic meters will go to the Jilantai desert lake; 20 billion cubic meters will be used to promote the growth of plant cover on the Loess Plateau, 10 billion of that going to the Ansaiwangyao Reservoir, and the other 10 billion to both Haotongyinchagan Nur (desert lake) in the Maowusu drylands, and Hongjiannao (desert lake) in the Kubuqi Desert; 10 billion cubic meters will go to areas along the Yellow River itself, 5 billion of that to Wuliangsuhai in the Hetao area, 3 billion to Liangchengdaihai, and 2 billion to Huangqihai in the area of Chahar Right Front Banner Tugui Town [11]; 5 billion cubic meters will flow into the Qingshui He-Datong-Tongzhou canal; and the original 30 billion cubic meters plus 50 billion more will be available for domestic and industrial use for residents of the Yellow River basin. The remaining 5 billion cubic meters, plus 10 billion more which will flow from the Wei River back into the Yellow River, will promote the ecological health of the Yellow River delta, and will finally flow out into the Bohai Sea. The amount of water available for human consumption and industrial use along the Yellow River will be increased by 20 billion cubic meters, and that for ecological use will be increased by 30 billion cubic meters.



The Datongdao is not only a massive shipping corridor, but also a huge ecological protection area. The ecological protection plan will be formed alongside the marine shipping corridor project plan, and will be carried out in parallel, harmoniously, with a goal of ensuring that the positive environmental impact will far outstrip any negative effects. Central China will benefit from a new and impregnable “green wall” [12]. A new “Great Wall of water” will be built, and for all of China, the trend of “localized improvements in living environment, but ongoing degradation as a whole” will be completely turned around.



20 billion cubic meters of the diverted water will be used for large-scale expansion of the grasslands and forests of the Loess Plateau. After several decades, the Loess Plateau will return to the warm and rainy climate, lush vegetation, and vast primeval forests of 6000 years ago.



100 billion cubic meters of diverted water will be used for large-scale conversion of deserts to healthy land, effectively arresting the ongoing spread of dust and sand storms. The areas which give rise to sand storms will be both shrunk and surrounded, and the deserts will turn into an oasis, until the source of sand storms has been completely rooted out.



In China, the cost of environmental pollution and ecological damage was calculated in the mid-90′s as 8% of GDP. The World Bank proposed a figure of 13% instead, whereas the whitepaper “Environmental Protection in China (1995-2005)” took it to be 10%. According to calculations by the China Academy of Science, the cost of environmental damage has already risen to 15% of GDP. If we take 10% of GDP as an estimate, and further estimate that the environmental improvements brought by the Datongdao project will reduce those damages by 1/3, the environmental value of the project will be 3.3% of GDP. If we use China’s 2010 GDP of 40 trillion RMB for the purpose of estimation, the environmental value of the project works out to 1.3 trillion RMB.



Power Generation Benefits




In areas, the project will increase power generation capacity. After water diversion, 100 billion cubic meters of water will be available for hydroelectric stations from Maqu all the way to Lanzhou, including those already built, those under construction, and those yet to come.



In other areas, the project will reduce generation capacity. Power stations already built, under construction, and yet to come on the Nu River and Lancang River will suffer a 35% reduction in capacity, and 20% for those on the Yalong River, Dadu River, and Jinsha River. The total loss in power generation will equal that produced by stations on the main riverway of the Yellow River, below Lanzhou, before water diversion.



With 2030 as a baseline year for completion, 20% of the difference between the increases and decreases, when projected over a 50-year period, will go to increasing national tax revenues (social discount rate of 7%). The 10% of pure profit will go to financial benefits. Of course, if the decreases exceed the increases, then the power generation benefits will turn into power generation losses.



Tourism Benefits




Tourism benefits will mainly come from 2 sources; first will be increased tourism in the Yellow River basin, especially a booming leisure cruise industry, and second will be increased tourism in the great Northwest. Right now, the yearly rate of growth in the Chinese tourism industry is 10%. With 2030 as a baseline year for completion, if the project is not carried out, tourism growth in the 1st 10-year period will be 8%, decreasing by 0.5% each 10 years after that; whereas if the project is carried out, tourism growth in the 1st 10 years will be 14%, decreasing by 1% each 10 years after that. Projecting through a 50-year period, 20% of the difference will go to increasing national tax revenues (7% social discount rate), and 8% pure profit will go to financial benefits.



Exploration of Related Questions




Regarding the citizens displced by the project, either their land can be bought out, new towns can be built for them in other locations, or they can be encouraged to immigrate to other areas, etc. Some can work in the new shipping and tourist industries, can be employed to work on ecological improvement projects along the river, or can share in the ongoing development of the Northwest and the Yellow River basin.



The discharge channels will mostly run along the course of existing rivers, and will take up little land and result in the displacement of only a few people. Resettling those people will not pose a problem. Those employed as farmers can continue working in the agricultural sector, which will experience great growth from the Datongdao project. They will become modern agricultural workers. In the aftermath of the project, rapid economic development will ensue in both the Yellow River basin and the Northwest, opening up plenty of work opportunities for all who work in other industries.



As large quantities of water are diverted into the Tibetan and Qinghai plateau, including the Three Rivers Conservation Area, the Norgay Conservation Area, and the Mount Hengduan Biodiversity Protection Area, the whole area will become much more suitable for human habitation, and will become a good place for displaced citizens to move in to.



The water diversion project involves 3 rivers which cross national borders, namely, the Brahmaputra, the Nu River, and the Lancang River. Development and exploitation of these rivers will raise the question of environmental impact on other countries. Because these rivers experience a heavy flow of water during the wet season, the countries downstream are often struck by floods. And water diversion will be carried out during the wet season. During the dry season, water will not be diverted. This will help to alleviate flooding in the downstream countries during the wet season, and during the dry season, the water available for their use will not be reduced. Actually, with such a great disparity between the wet and dry seasons, exploitation of the rivers for water diversion or for hydroelectric generation will produce very different effects on the downstream nations. If the water flow was even year-round, it would remain even under both water diversion and hydroelectric generation; it’s just that the flow would be less under water diversion. With variable flow, the hydroelectric dams could store water up to a certain point in the wet season, but after that, they would have to open up the watergates and let the water flow past, resulting in floods downstream. Conversely, during the dry season, the dams would have to hold back the water flow to maintain their reservoir level, resulting in a conflict of interest with the people downstream who need that water. In contrast, water diversion does not conflict with the interests of others in any way; when the water levels are high, water will be diverted, evening out the flow downstream, and when water levels are low, water will not be diverted, so if there are droughts downstream, that will have nothing to do with the water diversion project. The greater the variability in water flow, the better water diversion looks. Regarding the downstream countries, often beset by floods, not only will water diversion not cause a loss of water in the dry season, but it will alleviate or even put an end to the damage inflicted on them by floods.



The environmental benefits the project will bring to the Yellow River and other recipients of water, will far outstrip any environmental damage caused to the supply rivers and the Yangze. According to the principle of diminishing marginal utility [13], when the supply of some good increases, the utility derived from its use will also increase, but after a certain level of supply is surpassed, the marginal increase in utility derived from further increases in supply will diminish. If 50 billion cubic meters of water was added to the Yangze, which already possesses 1 trillion, it wouldn’t do much good, or if 50 billion were taken away, it wouldn’t cause any great loss either. In contrast, adding 50 billion cubic meters to the Yellow River, which only had 50 billion cubic meters of flow to start with, will result in huge benefits. Besides, because the water will be drawn in stages, along with other innovative measures designed to reduce the impact on the supply waterways, any damage caused will be very limited. The value of that water to the Yellow River basin, will be orders of magnitude greater than its value in the Yangze River basin.



Posted in Tibet | 1 Comment



China says it is doing the Earth a service by banning grazing, and the Tibetan nomads who graze their herds on the grasslands of eastern Tibet, the most fertile pasturelands of the Tibetan Plateau.

The ending of nomadic livelihoods is justified, China says, as the best, and only, way of rehabilitating rangelands that are degrading. The science of ecology is used to justify widespread removal and nullification of land rights, and the closing down of a way of life that sustained the whole Tibetan civilisation for thousands of years.

This use of ecology as justification for social engineering and exclusion, largely goes unchallenged. Environmentalists generally applaud China for increasing the size of its protected areas, nature reserves, rehabilitation zones, carbon sequestration areas; without looking a bit more closely at what actually happens on the ground, in the name of these lofty goals.






Presentation by Gabriel Lafitte

glafitte1@gmail.com,         #gltibet    +613 59623434


Ecology is a relatively new science, an attempt at encompassing and uniting the many narrowly specialised sciences that proceed by isolating atomistic fragments of complex realities, to identify their nature, causes and effects. The driving idea behind the new science of ecology was that we must be able to integrate all the atomistic knowledge into a whole, a big picture, if we are to act skilfully in the world, to maintain biodiversity, respect nature and yet maintain productivity for human use.

Ecology is focussed on ecosystems. By definition, an ecosystem is an enduring assemblage of plants, animals, soils, climate and many other factors, that over time is in equilibrium. The fact that a definable associated population of plants and animals exists in a specified area is itself a priori proof of equilibrium. Thus, also by definition, disequilibrium threatens that ecosystem. These days the disequilibrium that most immediately comes to mind is global climate warming.

When ecology took off, in the 1960s, these assumptions were necessary, if there was ever to be a science of wholes and parts, not just of isolated units that might or might not add up. As man’s mastery over nature accelerated, it seemed essential that we have some way of capturing, in words and numbers, what nature is, how it all hangs together. But those assumptions turn out to be unworkable; and hard to  make useful, since the amount of data required to capture the dynamics of even a simple ecosystem is so huge that there has hardly ever been the resources, time and money, to do it. So the promise of ecology remains largely unfulfilled. Sixty years of the science of ecology has led only to frustration that no ecosystem has been meaningfully mapped; the dynamics of a living, interdependent system are just too great to capture numerically or comprehend.

The impulse to seeing the environment as a connected whole with interlinked parts drove the introduction of ecology and still does. But in practice it has never been effected—the reductionist simplification of looking for ‘causes’ is too deeply embedded in sciences’ knowledge practices.

This doesn’t mean ecology has fallen. As an idea, and an ideal, it remains potent, perhaps more so now than ever, again because we now grapple with the human power to change the planetary climate, and every ecosystem on the planet. This seems especially so for Tibet, where warming is happening faster than anywhere except at the poles.

Ecology, and Tibet as part of China, are the same age, both created after WWII. It was only when the Tibetan Plateau was incorporated into China in the late 1950s that modern scientific categories and concepts were applied to Tibet. Until then, the traditional Tibetan sciences, of the medicinal properties of plants and ores, metallurgy and of experimental investigation of the nature of the mind, sufficed.



The entry of modern science, including the science of ecology, was part of China’s proof to the world of its claim to Tibet. China was civilising Tibet, erasing a blank spot on the scientific map, bringing to the world of science one of the last untaxonomised, uncategorised of inhabited lands. This was part of Tibet entering history, entering the path of development and progress, leaving behind its feudal darkness, isolation, stagnation and ignorance. The figure of Mr.Science had been depicted as China’s saviour, China’s entry into modernity, for generations, and now China would introduce Mr. Science to Tibet too.

By far the most important scientists who crisscrossed Tibet, sometimes in large expeditions, starting in the 1950s, were the geologists. To this day, if one looks up scientific publications on the Tibetan Plateau, whether in Chinese or other languages, most of it is geology. This is understandable, since Tibet is the most dramatic of continental collisions, still ongoing. But China’s geologists were mainly interested in locating economic deposits of minerals, confirming China’s long-held belief that the ores of Tibet could enrich a revolutionary China determined to overtake the UK in steel production, as fast as possible.

The geologists were praised as exemplary, model workers, sacrificing lives of comfort to work in the badlands of China’s far west, as guerrillas of the era of socialist construction, to definitively locate those deposits. So exemplary were these warriors of socialist construction, so willing to eat bitterness and endure hardship, they became idealised role models held up to the youth of the Cultural Revolution as the fearless pioneers to emulate.

It took decades, but the geological guerrillas did find those ores, firstly chromite and oil, then massive deposits of copper, gold and silver together, right on the continental collision lines, on the banks of Tibet’s great rivers, which were formed by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continents. Gradually they proved the Tibetan Plateau is indeed a mineraliferous province, to be exploited just at the time the world’s factory relocated inland, to the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, needing raw materials not so readily sourced from abroad.

While geology flourished, so did other sciences, all of them basic to creating a new economy of intensified productivity. In the first 52 years of China’s Tibet, to 1991, not one book was published by Chinese scientists about ecology in Tibet, but there were many books of taxonomy, identifying and categorising the thousands of unfamiliar species of Tibet. The first volume on vegetation of Tibet was published in 1966, supplanting the traditional materia medica texts identifying Tibetan plants of medicinal use. Nothing further was published while China’s Cultural Revolution focused instead on denouncing everything old and educated, speaking bitterness against all old knowledge. But in 1983 a volume on the fungi of Tibet was published, and the first of the five volumes of the Tibetan Flora. The Linnean task of categorising the plants of Tibet had been basically conquered. Further, in 1985 Tibetan Bryophytes was published, and next year Tibetan Lichens, with Tibetan Diatoms in 1990, also Tibetan Economic Plants.  For fauna, there was a similar emphasis on economic animals, specifically on the insects that might attack new crops and scientific agriculture. As early as 1981 the first volume of Tibetan Insects was published, followed in 1984 by Locusts in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibetan Aquatic Invertebrates in 1983, as well as Records of Tibetan Birds. In 1986 came Tibetan Mammals and in 1987 Tibetan Amphibians and Reptiles. In all of these, the emphasis was on how to recognise each species. The assignation of Greek and Latin names for all that lives in this Tibetan terra incognita remained paramount.

By the 1990s, it became possible to start thinking ecologically, as well as taxonomically; to consider the wholes made up of the taxonomised parts. 1995, for example, saw not only the publication of Tibet’s Fish and Fish Resources, but also Study on Tibet Plateau’s Forest Ecology. This first title on ecology focused on the readily identifiable vegetation classes and communities of eastern Tibet, stratified by altitude into distinct zones, a phenomenon noted a century and a half earlier by Joseph Hooker, who chose to botanise the Himalayas precisely because all vegetation classes, from tropical to arctic, could be conveniently found on a single ascent. The availability of Tibet’s forests, in catchments above the headwaters of the Yangtze, was convenient also for China’s loggers, so much so that Study on Tibet Plateau’s Forest Ecology came out only after three or more decades of ruthless exploitation of Tibetan forests, and only three years before exploitation was officially halted, by decree, to conserve watersheds and protect downstream Yangtze users from floods.

These books, all in Chinese, pioneered the insertion of global science into Tibet, and laid the foundations for today’s intensive extractive economy, but also today’s concern with the Tibetan Plateau as a unit, as a unique island in the sky, so big and high that even the jetstream diverts around it, differently in summer and winter. The Tibetan Plateau gradually emerges from the torrent of detail, as a singularity, standing out in every way from its surrounds, as a spectrum of ecosystems ranging from remnants of subtropical forest to alpine desert, from humid southeast to arid northwest.

Yet even now, in 2014, it is hard to speak of the ecology of Tibet, because knowledge of Tibet, which is close to two percent of the planetary land surface, remains fundamentally fragmented, patchy, skewed towards economic payoffs, neglectful  of the human uses and stewardship of the vast plateau and its millennia of sustainable human curation. The number of scientific reports of Tibet continues to grow, but mostly they are narrower and narrower in focus.



At the same time, efforts to synthesize available data into much bigger pictures are having remarkable results. Climate science is a prime example. Only quite recently was it possible to connect knowledge of regional climate systems, generating a dawning awareness that the entire planet has a single climate system, of great complexity, still not well understood, with many variables, interdependencies and forcings. But the bottom line is that the planetary climate should be understood as a system, and moreover, a system that can be changed by human interventions. That’s ecology on a grand scale.

Likewise, it has only recently dawned on biogeographers that the collision of India with Eurasia, and the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, happening at a particular phase in the evolution of life, had a profound effect on the biodiversity of the entire northern hemisphere, including even North America. There is growing evidence that the creation of the Tibetan Plateau not only initiated the monsoonal climate of Asia, and widespread warming;  but also initiated much later a global cooling, which led to the dispersal of Tibet’s cold climate plants and animals across a much colder Eurasia. So Tibet, known today as the source of Asia’s rivers, is also the source of Asia’s climate, and of the biota, plants and animals, of much of the northern hemisphere.

If the Tibetan Plateau was scientifically unknown until the middle of the 20th century, this cannot be said of the surrounding lands, of both India and China. The prior scientising of both China and India has had a profound impact on how Tibet, the blank canvas to be filled, was conceived as a scientific object. In India, long before the science of ecology was born, the British took great interest in forests and mountains, rivers and jungles, beasts and birds, and proceeded to survey this jewel in their crown. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India went on to surreptitiously triangulate Tibet as well, setting the scene quite literally for the British invasion of 1904.

British categories, later to become foundational to the science of ecology, were inscribed as hard, exclusive concepts. Forests were to be preserved, by excluding the natives, who were to be fenced out and punished if caught inside the fence. The idea of inhabited forests best protected by their inhabitants was alien to British scientific thinking, a basic mistake now being repeated by China, as it excludes forest dwellers from rehabilitating decimated forests, and closes pastures in the name of protecting watersheds.



Thus we come, inevitably, from the state of ecology to an ecology of the state. India under the British Raj, revolutionary China embracing Mr. Science, and contemporary Tibet would seem to have little in common, separated not only in space but by two or more centuries of scientific change. Yet all share some basics, including a panoptic, urban, imperial gaze that, everywhere it gazes upon, sees lack, stress, disequilibrium, threat, danger, and crisis.

This remote gaze justifies strong statist interventions, and the creation of regulatory regimes single-mindedly focused on rectifying the dangerous disequilibrium identified by the scientific gaze. Thus villagers are locked out of their forests, and today Tibetan pastoralists en masse are excluded from their pastures and officially designated as “ecological migrants”, as if the nullification of their land tenure security and livelihoods is voluntary. Although the science of ecology aims at holistic inclusiveness, this has eluded both the ecologists and the policymakers, who revert to exclusive, narrowly focused policies that attempt to solve one narrowly defined problem by creating others.

Just as the British Raj knew little and cared little about the lives of India’s forest villagers, so China today knows little about the lives, practices, biodiversity conservation work and sustainable land management strategies of the Tibetan pastoral nomads. What China doesn’t see is nine thousand years of skilful nomadic use of pastures with a light touch, always moving on well before the grasses are overgrazed. What China does see, often by satellite observations from 400 kms up in space, is that the rangelands are degrading, which may (in largely unspecified ways) threaten downstream China’s water supplies. Hence the sedentarization policy, since 2003, of tuimu huancao,  closing pastures to grow more grass. Implementation of this policy, ostensibly for ecological rehabilitation, has resulted in the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of nomads, who now lead useless, dependent lives on urban fringes, with no skills for entry into the modern cash wage economy.

The exclusive, either/or logic that so often drives administrators to solve problems by further exclusions might seem a betrayal of the holistic vision of ecology. Yet ecology, as a science, from its beginnings, has treated the human presence as external to the natural ecosystem. This is the fatal flaw of ecology. At the heart of ecology is the romantic assumption that a “natural ecosystem” is wild, free, uncontaminated by human presence. This has tainted China’s perception of the vast grasslands it has struggled to govern since mid 20th century. China’s grassland scientists continue to speak of “the contradiction between grass and animals.” Taking the form of a classic Marxist dialectic that demands resolution, this utterly simplistic proposition asserts the inevitable incompatibility of ecosystem health and grazing by domestic animals. The more animals, the less grass; and vice versa, the fewer animals, the more the grass grows. As a proposition, this moronic oversimplification denies the very possibility of a grazing economy, even though pastoralism is a major rural way of life on every continent.



When China says the rangelands are degrading, it means that anything less than the amount of grass that would grow in the absence of domestic animal grazing. As soon as cattle or sheep appear, by definition the rangeland is degrading. This implicit assumption is seldom made clear. It is a romantic, either/or assumption, that grassland must be similar to a rainforest wilderness, untouched by human hand or the animals of the herders, lest its pristine purity be degraded.

This toxic assumption now justifies China’s civilising mission as protector of Tibet’s ecological environment; protecting the pristine watersheds of China’s great rivers against the degrading, ignorant, greedy grazing practices of Tibetan herders, who are blamed for the degradation caused by concentrating herds behind compulsorily fenced winter pastures, with no guaranteed access to summer pastures, nomadic mobility much reduced by decree.

The ecology of the state takes us away from the specifics of China in Tibet, or Britain in India, to a wider consideration of how the modern state, with its claims to exclusive sovereign jurisdiction within its defined territory, insists on problematizing its domain, then solving those problems administratively. The project cycle begins with identifying and defining the problem, and concludes with independent certification that the official solution was indeed effective. This elaborate process of policy making and implementation has become so familiar we no longer imagine how it could be otherwise. The ecology of the state includes a wide array of diagnostic technologies to define problems, with a preference for remote generation of data collected by geostationary satellites, uncluttered by local contested knowledges. Having objectively diagnosed the problem, the state these days has a huge menu of interventions, ranging from direct state action through to state financing of market based solutions of such complexity that tracking outcomes is increasingly difficult.

Tibet will soon become part of this new world of Payment for Environmental Services (PES), with compulsorily retired nomads dependent on officially supplied subsistence rations now deemed to be recipients of PES and/or REDD+[1] compensation payments that, in turn, legitimate China’s ongoing consumption of more polluting coal than the rest of the world put together. Tibet will be integrated into the global mechanisms of offsets, compensation and payments that, for a modest fee, enable the most heavily polluting and resource intensive of industries to keep going.

China is keen to embrace these market-based mechanisms that get the heaviest of industries off the hook, and enable business as usual, while climate globally continues to warm, nowhere more so, in the inhabited world, than in Tibet. China is also keen to claim moral leadership in global ecological responsibility by excluding pastoralists from their pastures because of the officially designated “fragile ecology” of the most productive pasturelands of eastern Tibet.  The ecology of the state is the mindset of an official class that thinks like a state, classifying eastern Tibet exclusively as a “fragile ecology” which has no purpose now other than as a region for growing grass. In such ways the ecology of the state trumps the state of the ecology.

It wasn’t always thus, nor need it be so. Those who think like a state have so normalised the exclusion of the nomads, as the inevitable solution to a problem of the state’s making; that we easily forget there are other ways of looking at the grasslands, ways that are much more local, richly detailed, intimate and specific.



Once we start looking through the eyes of Tibetan pastoralists, everything changes. Their holistic perspective includes the human presence, from the start, as benign or malign, depending on good or bad motivations, skilful or unskilful grazing practices. The traditional way of preventing degradation was mobility. In pastoral societies worldwide, mobility is essential to both productivity and sustainability. However mobility was quickly curtailed by those who, in China, think like a state which must be able to enumerate, locate and at all times keep under observation its citizens. Mobile pastoralists evade visibility and scrutiny, making the task of the state much more difficult. Civilisation begins, in a classic Chinese formulation, with penning the animals, bringing feed to them; while the uncivilised wander hither and thither with their animals, effectively leading lives little better than that of the animals they herd. This core distinction, and the “contradiction between grass and animals” continue to afflict the ecology of the Chinese state.

Ecology, as a science, does have a place for the instrumental indigenous knowledge of ethnobotany, grazing strategies, risk management and land use practices, as adjuncts to the scientific generation of data and models of ecosystems. But the Tibetans have a more profoundly holistic approach, arising out of millennia of extensive land use, primarily as gatherers of whatever nature provides. It is time we heard more from those Tibetan voices, if we are to better understand the state of the ecology of Tibet, and come to grips with the hold the ecology of the state has on what we define as possible and desirable.

Those Tibetan voices are now speaking up more than ever, telling us that traditional pastoralism was sustainable, not so much by maintaining Tibetan grassland ecosystems in equilibrium, but by accepting the reality of disequilibrium on a plateau so high, cold, arid and unpredictable that the genius of the nomads was their ability to live, not despite uncertainty, but because of it. Their flexibility, moving herds only short distances seasonally in good years, but great distances in bad years, was a way of living off uncertainty, making extensive use of the entire plateau with a light touch.

If we are ever to fulfil the promise of the science of ecology, we need a more robust holisitic approach, that is not grounded in the scientific quest for singular, data-defined causes. It is the scientific preoccupation with causes that has made ecology a disappointingly unfruitful science, fixated on the ideal that singular causes can and must be found and defined.

The robust holism of the Tibetan pastoral nomads is an obvious alternative to the impoverished state of ecology, and the punitive ecologies of the state that result from simplistic science. The nomads of Tibet look upon the pasture, the animals and themselves, knowing what goes with what, what can be done, and what the limits are, when to move on, without being obsessed with causes, drivers, dynamics, models of equilibrium, etc. The nomads share with the lamas an emphasis on skilful action in the present, based on mindful inclusiveness, without separating subject and object. Like the lamas, their emphasis is on motivation, acting with a good heart, and on being alive to the constantly shifting realities of the moment. Like the lamas, they are far less interested in aetiology, origins, causes, drivers that remain hidden from view and extremely difficult to discern with any confidence.  The lamas always say that good causes lead to good results; bad causes to bad results, and that’s as far as we need to take it. They tell us it is fruitless to dwell on finding specific causes for the problems of this moment, what matters is to respond to problems constructively.

The robust holism of Tibet’s traditional land managers –the nomads and farmers- is a major topic, for another time.




[1] REDD+ is the abbreviation for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, now with a plus sign added to signify an ever widening scope. It is a UN program. http://www.un-redd.org/



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China and Australia, after years of delay, are now moving to finalise a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). There is a silent partner at the table. Both countries are confident a deal can and will be done, with a wide range of beneficiaries. On the Australian side, it is wool, dairy and meat producers who hope to gain the most.

The invisible presence at the negotiating table is the indigenous wool and dairy producers of China’s far inland, whose traditional pastoral livestock economy is being wound down and excluded, at the very time urban China’s demand for dairy, wool and meat is booming.

Not so long ago, it seemed improbable that China would take to dairy products. It was often said the Chinese are lactose intolerant. Not so. The hippest health food of the new rich in China’s cities is yoghurt. Dairy demand is booming so much that supply struggles to keep pace, especially in Inner Mongolia’s China’s main domestic source, its industrial reputation badly damaged by the deliberate addition of melamine powdered plastic to powdered infant formula, ruining the kidneys of hundreds of thousands of Chinese babies. China’s new middle class want not only milk, but safe milk, and Australia looks on while New Zealand exports boom. Hence the urgency of an FTA.

Australia rode to prosperity over the past 30 years on the back of a simple concept: complementarity. What China needs is what Australia has, in abundance. They can’t get enough of our coal, iron and many other minerals, wool, cotton, maybe soon natural gas. Our prosperity is the result, almost the only developed economy to have avoided a recession for over two decades.

But the neatness of complementarity isn’t the whole story. In some ways, Australian and China are competitors, not at all complementary, especially when it comes to the economies of the poor provinces of far inland China. Australia and China are the world’s two biggest grasslands, and in China, that means the grasslands are in troubled minority ethnicity areas including Inner Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. These are the pastoral regions, vast pasture lands where sheep, cattle, yaks, goats and sturdy horses thrive. For thousands of years they have produced wool, butter and much more, in abundance, while maintaining sustainable grasslands by always moving on well before exhausting the grasses.

In 2006 the first railway line across the Tibetan Plateau opened for business. China’s official media featured stories of the opportunities for Tibetan nomads to make their fortunes selling their surpluses to distant urban markets. It didn’t happen. No entrepreneurs came forward to process, value add, package and market Tibetan dairy products, not even after the Inner Mongolia dairy factories ruined their reputations in 2008 by adding melamine to milk powder. To this day Chinese mothers anxious for the health of their babies try to source tins of safe infant formula in Hong Kong, even in London or on visits to Australia. Little wonder the dairy industry, in Tasmania and Victoria, are keen on an FTA, as soon as possible.

Even though long life milk could easily get from Tibet to the urban markets of China, many of the most productive Tibetan pastures are actually being depopulated, by official decree, of both people and animals. Since 2003 a policy of “closing pastures to grow more grass” has been in place in the Tibetan upper watersheds of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.  Hundreds of thousands of skilled pastoralists are now semi-urban fringe dwellers, their livelihoods and rangeland management expertise made redundant by the grazing bans. For China, watershed protection for downstream lowlanders comes first; the pastoral nomads are surplus to requirements.

This is not the first time Tibetans have missed out on adding value to their traditional economy. Back in the 1980s, when China first opened up, wool scouring plants were built by every county government in China’s vast grassland. The idea was good. Instead of greasy, unsorted wool going to market, with semifine fibres mixed in with coarser grades, wool would be treated with respect, as in Australia, to be sorted, washed, carded and combed, a new industry that could supply China’s coastal woollen mills with a high grade product.

But the local government cadres who built and ran the wool scours were greedy, too keen to get rich quick. They built too big, borrowed too much, competed with each other for raw materials, drove profit margins down and down and finally went broke after trying to fool the woollen mills into paying for heavier bales by adding stones. Not only did the local governments lose the wool war they started, but ever since Tibetan wool has languished, deemed irredeemably low grade, suitable only for beating into felt.

The integration of Tibet into the Chinese economy could be highly beneficial for all concerned, as the Dalai Lama has said. The complementarities exist. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Development in Tibet has ignored the traditional pastoral economy, failed to invest in it, focussing instead on enclaves of mineral extraction, urban hubs, highways, power stations and now a mass tourism industry, none of which do much for Tibetan employment, incomes, poverty alleviation, or even creating much by way of linkages between the Tibetan economy and the infrastructure-driven modern economy imposed from above.

All of this is known to Australian agricultural economists who have worked in China over several decades. Although Australia  has provided some technical assistance to Tibetan pastoralism, it is Australia that has benefitted enormously as the source of almost all of China’s wool. Any qualms about Australia trumping the under-invested Tibetans is set aside by claiming that the fine wool Australia produces, and the coarse wool Tibet produces are two quite separate industries, that don’t compete. Complementarity yet again.

And yet again, that’s a tad too simplistic. Even with almost no assistance in breeding low-micron fine wool sheep, Tibet has plenty if semi-fine wool. As the World Bank said a decade ago: “China’s past initiatives to develop a fine wool industry have succeeded in developing a livestock resource and advancing skills in animal husbandry. However, the product has not been able to compete with imported wool because herders have had no proper incentive to present the product for sale correctly. Therefore, the incentives faced by herders needs to be made the central focus of fine wool activities….. Wool of medium fineness (23-25 microns), is often referred to in China as “unsellable”, but in fact makes up a large proportion of Chinese wool imports. Similarly, China has a well established carpet industry that needs supplies of white strong (27-40 micron) wools: several Chinese breeds can and do produce such wools, for which prices are currently very low…..  The current wool prices received by herders are so far below national and international levels (adjusted for transport and quality considerations) due to the shearing, grading and baling practices.”[1]

Tibetans wish the China-Australia FTA well. But not everything is win-win. The excluded Tibetans fall further behind. Australian  dairy exports will boom, as Australian wool into China did decades ago. At the same time, there is much Australia could do to help the pastoralists of Tibet.

It might seem strange that the dairy farmers of Australia and New Zealand compete with the pastoral nomads of Tibet for the health-food fashionistas of China’s cities. That is no more strange than recognizing that Tibetan depoits of copper, gold, silver, lithium and many other metals compete with Australian mines to supply the world’s factory, now shifting inland from coastal China, moving closer to Tibet. Since Tibetans gain nothing from mining other than toxic environmental legacies, that’s a competition Tibetans are happy to lose. But Tibetans do want a chance to enter the modern economy, on their own terms, making maximum use of their comparative advantage in livestock production. They have not been given that chance, and are now excluded not only from urban markets but from their own pasture lands, deemed surplus to China’s requirements.

Yet China is not always insensitive to minority ethnicities.  China’s resistance, in the current FTA negotiations, to increasing access to the Chinese market for Australian sugar, is on the grounds that sugar in China is grown in minority areas, and they deserve special protection. So far, no-one is helping the Tibetans, who are being integrated into the global economy, but in ways that make their traditional strengths redundant. When the Dalai Lama speaks of the potential for Tibet to benefit from integration with China, it’s not what is actually happening that he had in mind. We can all do better.

Do the Tibetan pastoralists, starved of investment and marketing help, shut out of China’s domestic markets, now want a say in the terms of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement? No. But now we know this FTA disadvantages Tibetans further, Australia could invest modestly in exporting our successful Landcare model to China, so Tibetan pastoralists can work, with government help, on their pasture lands, to repair degrading areas. In Australia we don’t impose grazing bans and put graziers on the dole if the land they lease deteriorates. We work together to solve problems of watershed protection and land management. Let’s help China regain the trust of the Tibetans, by helping them all to be more productive.



[1] World Bank, Gansu and Xinjiang Pastoral Development Project Appraisal Document, Report #25703-CHA, 2003, 23, 42, 44

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Tibetans have a genius for timing, for seizing the moment when it arrives. Such moments are rare, even more so these days in a world distracted by each rich nation’s internal problems, deficits, austerity programs and precarious economies.

Yet there is a highly professional band of Tibetans and proTibetan organisations who never give up, and keep lobbying the politicians of the western world, and also top officials of foreign ministries and official aid agencies, in the hope of achieving something for Tibet.

In recent months, thanks to the  good connections maintained by Offices of Tibet, International campaign for Tibet, Tibet Society and Australia Tibet Council, I have had opportunity to meet politicians and senior foreign policy officials, in the British Parliament, the European Parliament and Commission, and the Australian Parliament.

In each case I have tried to pitch fresh ways of looking at Tibet, of understanding what is going on, in a fast changing area no longer remote or separate from the global economy. Each time I have provided the politicians and officials with briefings, including recommendations on practical steps they can take, that would improve Tibetan livelihoods, strengthen the traditional Tibetan economy, and give silenced and choiceless Tibetans ways to organise themselves, in pasture user groups, for example. These are all modest proposals, but doable, at a time when China increasingly gets what it demands, because no one is willing to speak up.

These are new ideas, which sometimes don’t get much response, such as when you discover that an EU official responsible for negotiating with China on environmental issues, in practice is interested only in selling European environmental equipment into the Chinese market, and neither knows nor cares about Tibet.

But, as the Dalai Lama has often reminded us, never give up, you never know when those seeds might germinate, when the right moment might come. Those loyal, highly professional staffers and lobbyists of the Offices of Tibet, ICT, ATC, Tibet Society and others, just keep showing up, keep asking that the world pay attention to a nonviolent campaign that will never die or magically go away, until the Tibetans have the cultural autonomy they need.

This short series of blogposts gives you a look, over the shoulder, of those pitches to the politicians, those folks who instinctively think like a state. We too need to learn to think like a state, in this age of competitive, exclusive states that care for little beyond national interest. So you could also read these briefings as an exercise in learning how to adopt the discourse of state language, for Tibet.




UK Parliamentary Group on Tibet, Foreign &Commonwealth Office BRIEFING



Tibetans applaud the UK for establishing a consulate in Chongqing, as did the US some years ago by establishing a Chengdu consulate, both well located as listening posts for what is happening further west.

The commercial case for the Chongqing consulate has been compelling, especially if, in an economic sense, one considers Chongqing and Chengdu together as the megalopolis of western China, a new hub of the world’s factory, already exporting hi-tech manufactures overland by rail, effectively reinventing the old silk route, and shortening delivery times dramatically, compared to sea shipping. Hewlett Packard computers now make the journey from Chongqing to Rotterdam in sealed containers on flatbed rail trucks that can be swiftly interchanged as rail gauges change at international borders on the long but smooth journey to the European logistics hub in Rotterdam. This is the way of the future, and UK businesses understand the importance of having a presence in the Chengdu-Chongqing hub, backed by a British consular presence.

Thus far, this is a straightforward story of globalisation and the benefits of trade. But the story starts, not in Chongqing but in the raw materials the Chongqing requires, to make the elaborately transformed manufactures that end up in Rotterdam, and into our lives, as our next smartphone or tablet.

Chongqing/Chengdu’s location far inland has many consequences. There are compelling reasons why central leaders excised Chongqing from Sichuan decades ago and brought under direct control from Beijing, in order to fast track its growth, as the city at the top end of the Three Gorges Dam lake, ideally positioned to prosper by sending its goods downriver and straight out into the global shipping lanes. It didn’t work out that way: Yangtze shipping remains small scale, and instead the direct rail route, only recently built, has supplanted the ocean, for the first time in 500 years, as the link between one end of Eurasia and the other.

Until now, China’s insatiable demand for raw materials, both minerals and energy, has also been heavily reliant on imports brought by ship to coastal manufacturing hubs. The inland shift, while attractive as a strategy for keeping down labour costs, cannot rely on getting Middle East oil or Brazilian iron ore up the Yangtze to Chongqing, still less to Chengdu. Instead local sourcing of both energy and minerals is necessary for the success of the Chongqing/Chengdu success story.

A major source of both minerals and energy for western (and eastern) China will very soon be the Tibetan Plateau. If one compiles a list of all the hydropower dams built or about to be built on the major rivers rushing down from the plateau uplands; and the belt of copper/gold/silver mines with extractable reserves of as much as 80 million tonnes of copper; plus the Tibetan salt lake lithium, potash, magnesium and sodium deposits; and many other mines; a picture emerges of Tibet as a major source of the Chongqing boom. If one then adds the waters of Tibet, urgently needed for parched northern China, we see the Tibetan Plateau fast shaping up as the source of the next wave of China’s prosperity.

This adds a whole new dimension to our framing of the Tibetan question, and it puts in fresh perspective issues we are used to seeing solely in a human rights framework. Take, for instance, the ongoing wave of protest suicides by Tibetans, a total sacrifice of the self to galvanise attention to not only repression of culture but also mining. The protests by Tibetans against mining have been frequent, and invariably criminalised by authorities, and violently repressed. A map of where the mines are, where the protests and self-immolations are, shows great overlap.

But, right now, the mining is still on a modest scale. However, world-scale copper/gold/silver/molybdenum mines will very soon be in full production near Shigatse, the second city of central Tibet, at Gyama just upriver of Lhasa; and in a cluster of mines around Yulong in eastern Tibet, above the headwaters of the Yangtze and Mekong. All are on or close to major rivers, and on steep slopes that make very difficult the secure containment of toxic waste tailings, which will be needed for centuries after the mines are exhausted, lest heavy metals get into Asia’s major rivers, creating a trans boundary crisis.

Also firmly on the official agenda of China’s 13th and 14th Five Year Plans, for 2016-2025, is the construction, through the mountains of eastern Tibet, of a massive canal to divert waters from the Tibetan upper tributaries of the Yangtze, across to the upper Yellow River, all at high altitude, on the Tibetan Plateau. This too will have major impacts.

A further consideration is the extraordinary increase in hydropower, and the transmission of electricity generated on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, not only upriver to the new mines and smelters, and downriver to Chongqing; but also much farther downstream, all the way across China to Shanghai and Guangzhou. In fact the ultra-high voltage power lines (a major user of copper) are already in place, built by Siemens.

This integrated, multi-decade infrastructure construction program has the full backing of the state and is about to come to fruition,  realising at last China’s long held dream that it will makes its fortune from Tibet, the western treasure house, or Xizang.

Tibetans understandably see the constant encroachment into their sacred mountains, pilgrimage routes and productive pastures as theft, and despoliation. All of these infrastructure projects are for the benefit of industries far away in the lowlands. All are capital-intensive and use construction technologies all based on a construction workforce skilled in such work, all literate in Chinese as the language of project implementation. Tibetans seldom get any employment, except as casual unskilled labourers at best. Remote areas hitherto distant from urban centres of Chinese power suddenly swarm with Chinese construction crews and technologies.

The many protests of recent years will persist, and probably intensify as the encroachments escalate. Inevitably, the British consulate in Chongqing, likewise the US consulate in Chengdu will find themselves having to deal with the many consequences of China’s routine resort to coercion and violence to quell those Tibetan protests.

A proactive response to this clearly discernible trend of worsening relations between Tibetans and lowland Chinese, is for Britain to foster an export market in British expertise in participatory resource management, community-based co-management of land and minerals. Britain is rich in such expertise. London-listed mining multinationals have learned to do what it takes to foster good relations with local host communities, and promote their standards worldwide.

Tibet is now part of the global economy, in a way not seen since the Tibet-Kalimpong-Calcutta-Halifax wool export trade was interrupted by war close to a century ago. At that time, the UK had diplomatic posts along the trade route, in Tibet.

The wheel turns. The globalisation of Tibet creates a complete commodity value chain, which starts in the mining of a remote mountain in Tibet, and ends up as a lithium-ion battery in the smartphone in your pocket. Tibetans, and their supporters worldwide, are well aware of this, and the UK can consider the ramifications.

Briefing provided by:

Gabriel Lafitte



+61407840333 (Australia)



Briefing for Mr Nicholas Hanley,

Head of International Relations Unit of the European
Commission’s Directorate General on Environment

29 October 2013


It is increasingly often said that, despite China’s intense desire to be accepted as a global player and major power, its policy settings seldom give effect to such a mature role.

China’s environmental performance continues to fall far short of its rhetoric. China promises greater energy and resource efficiency, yet coal consumption in the current Five Year Plan 2011-205 rises from 3 billion tonnes to 3.8 billion tonnes. China refuses to accept any global climate change treaty, which imposes emissions quotas on it, demanding instead exemption from mandatory carbon emission reduction amounts, on the grounds that historically Europe started emitting extra carbon centuries ago. This effectively negates Europe’s efforts to reduce emissions.

China in the Tibetan environment

When it comes to Tibet, the gap between the official narrative and ground truth is especially discordant. On paper it appears that a huge area of the Tibetan Plateau has been declared as nature reserve or protected area, in which mineral extraction is absolutely banned, and often local populations are also excluded, on the grounds of watershed preservation, grassland growth, carbon sequestration and climate mitigation.

In reality, according to the reports not only of local Tibetan communities but also high profile international visitors, and academic researchers, mining continues to expand in nominally protected areas, even though it is technically illegal. In practice such mining is sometimes quite intensive, and often conducted by the same local levels of government that technically are responsible for compliance with national environmental law. As awareness of China’s laws gradually spreads through Tibetan communities, this leads to great frustration that there is no-one who can be petitioned. Protests are met with coercion and state violence, as if all protests against mineral extraction are a threat to the very existence of China.

China now has a plausible story of how it is contributing to global climate change mitigation by imposing grazing bans, which depopulate the Tibetan countryside, undermine food security in Tibet, negate traditional pastoral economies, and  reduce the displaced nomads to utter dependence on state aid, in the name of the best of globally agreed environmental goals. It would seem, in China’s argument, that it is a scientifically objective necessity that the nomads cease their customary livestock production because the rangelands cared for by the Tibetans for 9000 years are now badly degraded. China argues that the displaced ex-nomads are all voluntary “ecological migrants” who have chosen to sacrifice their herding life for semiurban dependence on the state, because they understand this as a contribution to saving China’s rivers and the planet’s carbon.

This plausible discourse is in much need of independent evaluation, not only by technical experts focussing on narrow elements of implementation but also by social scientists capable of looking at policy results, perverse unintended outcomes, and transboundary impacts of the new, intensive extraction economy on far downstream communities below the Tibetan Plateau.


Potential EU roles

What is badly needed is fresh, evidence-based monitoring of how China’s national policies are actually implemented, across a plateau the size of Western Europe. Implementation varies greatly. Policies which  at first glance appear entirely beneficial, to reforest or reseed degraded lands and pastures, actually  exclude human populations and fail to create pasture user groups to work collaboratively with the pastoralists. China says “Tibet is China’s Number One Water Tower,” but this reframes the purpose of Tibet, no longer as self-sufficient sustainable livestock production, but purely in terms of the needs of lowland China. To call Tibet China’s water tower is not a compliment, it seals the fate of Tibet, especially in the upper watersheds of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong, as a zone whose overriding land use excludes ongoing human occupation (except for accelerating illegal mining).

Land tenure rights are another major issue in Tibet, as the policy of grazing bans, now a decade old, increasingly require pastoralists to surrender what were given as long term land tenure security. Europe has been at the forefront of increasing land tenure security for the first dwellers of China, as a policy that gives Chinese villagers in or near forests a sense of ownership and co-management. Yet in Tibet, land tenure is eroding, and land users are losing access to lands they used sustainably for millennia.

It is thus all too easy for China to pick up, as its buzz words, key concepts of global environmental governance, such as payment for environmental services. China may soon introduce PES to Tibet, as an extension of the long established twinning of downstream Chinese provinces with upstream Tibetan counties, in the name of development. That twinning has provided Chinese mining companies with access and connections to Tibetan resources, only encouraging intensive extraction and avoidance of legal compliance. PES payments intended for Tibetan communities to desist from their own indigenous path to development, only holds Tibetans back from finding a place in the global economy.

These are complex issues, requiring utmost care in designing European aid interventions, and scrupulous care in examining closely how the framing concepts of environmental governance can, in practice, disempower and dispossess traditional land users, which perversely encouraging rampant, uncontrolled extraction of Tibet’s resource endowment.

The EU’s current initiatives to create a regulatory regime to exclude conflict minerals from the commodity chain are very relevant to Tibet. The same Chinese SOE mining companies operating in Congo are now rapidly intensifying mining in Tibet, despite frequent Tibetan protests and protest suicides by Tibetans. EU initiatives to require environmental compliance as part of any agreement with China on foreign investment, and the EU conflict minerals directive, can do much to ensure that environmental concerns are mainstreamed, and global standards become applicable to remote areas in Tibet, where standards have been widely flouted.






Presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, 3 March 2014 by Gabriel Lafitte, glafitte1@gmail.com, www.rukor.org


This series of three briefings acknowledges that raising Tibet as a human rights issue is aggressively rejected by China. This new approach is based on Australia’s strengths and the basic human needs of the six million Tibetans of the Tibetan Plateau (2010 census data), in five Chinese provinces, where they are disadvantaged, under-invested, under-capitalised, largely illiterate, peripheral minorities facing systemic discrimination and a downshifting of human services such as health and education to poor counties unable to finance adequate service delivery.

Australia and China are the world’s two biggest grasslands.  There are many complementarities between two drylands specialising in wool and livestock production, much that Australia can contribute in the delivery of landcare, community conservation, and the provision of services to remote communities.

These briefings are based on decades of monitoring situations on the ground in Tibet, and on past Australian successes (and failures) in technical assistance to Tibetan areas. These are constructive proposals, opening up fresh initiatives that improve the lives of Tibetans, without triggering accusations of “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

These policy proposals also offset the likely impacts on Tibet of an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement that, as expected, increases access to the Chinese market for Australian dairy products and wool, which are the two exportable surplus commodities of the Tibetan Plateau that could find markets in China’s cities.

These recommendations cover the whole Tibetan Plateau, not only the 75 legally autonomous Tibetan counties constituting the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but the further 75 autonomous Tibetan counties in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. This is in accord with China’s latest whole-of-government Work Forum on Tibet, which decided to include all Tibetan areas.

  1. How to strengthen the agricultural economy of Tibet. Australia doing something practical for Tibet: Australian aid, Tibetan sheep, dairy products and pastoral nomads.
  2. Training Tibetans: Educational disadvantage in remote regions, need for higher ed scholarships, study tours of Australia, also vocational education focussed on community landcare, river basin management, livestock production and other commonalities linking the two greatest grasslands of the world -Australia and China.
  3. Tibet’s resource extraction economy, Chinese and Australian mining corporations and their global interactions, mining standards and compliance; with specific suggestions about an Australian conflict minerals regime.

BRIEFING ONE:                       RURAL TIBET


The economy of the Tibetan Plateau is predominantly pastoral, producing a marketable surplus of dairy products, wool and other animal products. Among China’s factories and upmarket urban consumers, both wool and dairy are in demand. China’s woollen mills have ceased taking Tibetan wool, even though Tibetans are capable of producing fine fibre, low-micron wool. The booming urban demand for yoghurt and other dairy products is met from Inner Mongolia and New Zealand, with growing Chinese interest in Tasmanian dairy, and Australian hopes of competing with New Zealand if an FTA is concluded.

Genetic improvement of Tibetan sheep breeds, and assistance in sorting, cleaning and caring for fine wools, and especially in marketing, could get higher returns for Tibetan pastoralists, whose wool at present is used solely for low-price, low-quality felt making. Tasmanian carpet-wool sheep may be best suited. This would somewhat compensate Tibetan producers from their exclusion from the value added supply chain. Teaching Tibetans how to form Pasture User Groups (PUGs) and marketing cooperatives would overcome the failure, 30 years ago, of the county-level wool scouring plants set up by local governments as middlemen between Tibetan wool growers and urban woollen mills. Their failure set Tibetan producers back badly.

Australia, through ACIAR funding, has invested modestly in animal production in Tibet, but in specialist technical assistance that seldom benefit pastoralists who have long been seen, in the eyes of China’s government, as unproductive.

Australia has much to offer in models of comanagement of protected areas, and ongoing pastures threatened by land degradation. Australia has been a leader in providing pastoralists with the science and the finance to invest in rehabilitation of degrading rangelands; rather than excluding land users, nullifying their land tenure and imposing grazing bans, which are current Chinese practice. Community-based management of risk and rehabilitation is well established in Australia, in remote areas.

Australia is also a major barley producer. Barley is the staple of the Tibetan farming economy, with much scope for genetic improvement of yields.

Past experience of Australian and other international assistance suggests that such projects are not just a transfer of knowledge and/or technology; that Chinese partner agencies often discontinue such projects once foreign funding runs out. For such projects to work, they need to engage directly with Tibetan end users, who are organised in formally recognised groups, empowered to make ongoing decisions about implementation. Project design, from the start, requires a higher level of hands-on supervision by donors to ensure the intended recipients actually benefit. When successful, such projects demonstrate to official agencies that active participation by rural Tibetans generates productive and sustainable outcomes.


Literacy levels in Tibetan areas (in Tibetan or Chinese) remain low. Education budgets are the responsibility of local government, which means that poor counties have poor schools, inadequate equipment, absenteeism, poorly qualified and poorly trained teachers, and a high dropout rate. China’s recent centralisation of schooling, in Tibetan areas,  especially in junior middle (lower secondary) schooling requires boarding children in county towns, depriving families of the seasonal contribution of the young to pastoral production, and the transmission of cultural values. Tibetan parents say that if a child graduates from primary school, s/he seldom wants to go back to nomadic pastoralism, but cannot go forward into the modern market economy because the few secondary schools are distant and places are few. This leads to lives of dependence, alienation, unpredictable bursts of casual unskilled work, and a fringe-dweller existence.

Australia’s Closing the Gap programs aim at improving literacy, vocational training and employment opportunities in areas remote even by Tibetan standards, as well as health outcomes. There is much China could learn from Australia’s experience.

In Tibetan areas, the modern industries that are booming, such as urban construction, mining, and tourism, are conducted in Chinese, prefer hiring Chinese workers even at the unskilled level, and often have formal barriers such as written exams that prevent Tibetan participation in the workforce. Even though tourists naturally want to connect with Tibetans, few Tibetans can pass exams in a Chinese syllabus on approved versions of Tibetan history and gain accreditation as guides. This is further reinforced by rigid implementation of hukou household registration rules that limit the mobility of Tibetans to job markets within one province.

Australia has deep strengths in the teaching of the national language as a second language for migrants, in multicultural and bilingual education; in creating employment opportunities in remote indigenous communities, and in mining companies creating training programs to recruit indigenous employees. This is transferrable knowledge.

At a higher education level, the limited number of Tibetans at university would benefit greatly from scholarship-funded opportunities to do tertiary studies in Australia. In the US, the Fulbright scheme provides such opportunities; Norway and some German universities have much experience in working to overcome the under-resourcing and imbalances of education provision in Tibet. AusAID scholarships, despite budgetary constraints, can go a long way, as they have, over recent decades, for Mongolians and their families who come to Australia to study.




China’s manufacturing hubs are moving inland, much closer to the Tibetan Plateau, and increasingly sourcing the raw materials of the supply chain from Tibet. As the world’s top brands relocate to Chongqing and Chengdu, their copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lithium, water and hydropower increasingly come from a newly intensified exploitation of Tibetan resources. Tibet is being rapidly incorporated into the global economy, but on terms not of Tibetan making.

China’s state-owned mining companies (SOEs), at the forefront of intensive extraction of gold/copper/molybdenum deposits, and state-owned hydropower builders at the forefront of cascades of dams on all major rivers from Tibet, employ few if any Tibetans, pay no royalties to Tibetan areas, introduce huge immigrant workforces to remote areas, disrupt sacred sites and pilgrimage routes, and impose on remote local communities massive tailings dams that must hold, in steep, seismically active terrain, for centuries after mining has exhausted the deposits. Tibetan communities are deeply unhappy, seeing only pain, with no gain. This is a major driver of the protest suicides, or self-immolations that demonstrate the depth of Tibetan grief, with an equally Tibetan insistence on nonviolence towards others.

China’s miners and dam builders do not belong to global codes of conduct and organisations designed to ensure that impacted host communities are engaged, and benefit directly through subcontracting business opportunities, vocational training and corporate investment in community facilities. Mining practices, such as the landslide at the open pit Gyama mine upriver from Lhasa in April 2013, killing over 80 mine workers, show disregard for OH&S standards, and the cheapness of expendable lives, that is common throughout the mining industry in China.

DFAT says 200 Australian mining companies are involved in 700 projects in Africa. For China, too, Africa is the frontline of global sourcing of raw materials. Not only are Chinese mining companies investing heavily in Australia, but also in Africa, where deposits change ownership between Australian and Chinese hands, with increasing frequency. Chinese miners in Australia comply with Australian laws and standards, but not in Africa or in Tibet. It is in Australia’s reputational interest that Chinese extraction and dam building corporations be encouraged to invest in treating their workers and host communities well, by adopting international standards such as those of ICMM, the Ruggie Principles etc.

Already, the new owner of much of the old Caltex refinery at Kurnell, Sydney, is a major shareholder in the copper smelters of the Chinese state owned company that owns, monopolises and exclusively smelts copper concentrate from the Tibetan copper mine at Shetongmon, west of Lhasa. Trafigura now owns both the Kurnell bitumen plant and a major stake in a new copper smelter owned by Jinchuan. More such connections are likely.

With more than 120 recent Tibetan protest suicides, Tibet is becoming a conflict zone, with mining a key issue.

Globally, the concept of “conflict minerals”, to be rigorously excluded from the supply chain, is integrated into EU and US regulatory regimes. Australia too has sanctions to specifically exclude from the supply chain minerals from Congo extracted by violent warlords. The US Dodd-Frank Act provisions, and EU conflict minerals regulations go further, and may well be applicable to Tibet, if present Chinese  SOE practices are not reformed.

Lithium extraction from salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau is China’s primary domestic source of a commodity essential to making the batteries that power smartphones, tablets and electric cars.

Consumers worldwide will soon be aware that Tibet is in their pocket, that globalisation links them directly to exploitation of Tibet, in their choice of high-end brands manufactured in western Chinese factories.

This is compelling reason for Australian mining companies, with diplomatic support, to do all they can to persuade their Chinese partners to do in Tibet, and in Africa, what they already comply with in Australia.




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Many Tibetans, whether in or beyond Tibet, take whatever opportunity that arises to engage with educated Chinese, in the hope of sparking dialogue, even a meeting of minds.

The results are usually disappointing. Inside Tibet, Tibetans and Chinese seldom meet as equals, and it is extremely rare that Chinese living in Tibet have learned Tibetan. It is also rare that Tibetans feel welcome in China, in the great cities where the educated Chinese gather. Most Chinese would say they have never met a Tibetan, except perhaps as a street peddler of jewellery or traditional medicine ingredients.

Outside Tibet, in the global diasporas of modernity there are many opportunities for Chinese and Tibetans to meet, now that both peoples are scattered across the planet. Opportunity may exist, yet they usually fizzle, in mutual incomprehension, as if there is no common ground. Whether face to face, or online, the attempt usually goes nowhere and it quickly becomes clear that there is nothing more to say.

This puzzles many Tibetans, who invest much effort in reaching out, trying to imagine openings that will be fruitful. They take the initiative, rather than leaving the heavy lifting of dialogue to their leaders, in the intuitive belief that the long standing incomprehension and stalemate will never lift by itself. Each side has its own universe of discourse, repeated frequently, seldom varying, which the rest of the world has tired of, and neither listens to the other. They end up preaching only to themselves.

Some efforts at creating dialogue are pursued with vigour, flair and the resources of well-designed websites and publications, yet still fail. Tibetans appear unexpectedly, fleetingly, adventitiously in Chinese lives online, even in a restaurant run by a Tibetan family whose objective, more than money, is to talk with customers to generate understanding of Tibet. Tibetans expect to meet anyone, comfortably and without rancour, to begin the gradual process of drawing them into a world of Tibetan values. The Sherpa did this with the mountaineers who employed them, often creating lifelong friendships.[1]

Perhaps these Tibetans expect too much. Perhaps they are naïve in expecting openness. Or perhaps they focus too much on what Tibetans think Chinese ought to know, namely the pain of the Tibetans under repressive, claustrophobic control. This is definitely not what Chinese audiences are ready to face. It’s just too confronting, and there is too much baggage in the way.

It’s that baggage that puzzles frustrated Tibetans, who have tried every way they can think of to get the conversation going. Even when meeting dissidents critical of China’s government, the same blank incomprehension arises when Tibetans start speaking from the heart. This seems to be not only an obstacle arising in the minds of those who identify with the official line; it affects young and old, pro and anti the ruling regime. Something lies in the way; too many ghosts litter the path.

To an outsider, Tibetans and Chinese seem alike in many ways, one of which is a reverence for tradition, history, precedent, hierarchy and authority. Both speak of events many centuries ago as if they happened yesterday and thus explain the present moment. Both routinely use the past to serve the present.

These pasts lead in different directions, setting up different roadblocks. Getting to a common ground, a starting point that might enable connection will not be easy.

A knot of preconceptions, especially among educated Chinese, is the assumption that a Sinocentric worldview is axiomatic, that China is such a great, ancient, sophisticated and continuous civilisation lacking in nothing, has all that is needful. China has all the categories and concepts of rule, of universal benevolence, of being the centre of everything, so it is always necessary to refract experience through the lens of Chinese characteristics. So pervasive is this belief, many who deal with China, including many western diplomats and businessmen, fall under its spell when it is deftly deployed.

These are stories educated Chinese tell each other about what is so exceptional about Chineseness. Inevitably, they solidify Chineseness, giving it a continuity over thousands of years, as a force of history, even a force of nature, a framework within which everything fits.

So widespread is this move, it can be affixed to almost any topic, with the result that China can be exempted from what the rest of the world takes to be universal, such as the idea that to be born human is to be born with rights. The insistence on applying “Chinese characteristics” to anything allows for positioning China advantageously, under all circumstances. Thus China can be, according to circumstances, both a developing country entitled to concessions, subsidies and privileges; and at the same time a highly developed peak of civilisation entitled to deferential treatment.

National special pleading and exceptionalism are not of course unique to China, but in China this is an art form, confined not only to an official class accustomed to thinking like a state but more widespread, almost a popular sport. Like any new fashion, it has its celebrities. An intellectual who can make the case that China stands uniquely above universal norms becomes a hero. Zhao Tingyang’s new idea repackaging a largely-forgotten ancient concept: “made him a star in China’s intellectual circles, helping to extend his influence beyond the confines of philosophy into the realm of international relations. Four years later, he published a second volume further developing his tianxia (literally, ‘all-under-heaven’) theory [which] has had a huge impact on China’s community of international relations scholars, stirring up excitement as well as curiosity. This is due, in part, to the fact that Chinese scholars in this field have not been able to produce a theory as sophisticated as his, even though this has been on their agenda for some time.”[2]

To outsiders, Zhou Tingyang’s thesis on China’s natural world leadership may seem opaque, even obscurantist, best passed over as an embarrassment rather than a breakthrough in international relations. But he remains much admired in China.

The stars who champion China’s uniqueness are inventors of tradition, so popular their novelties can travel from exciting novelty to core interest of the nation-state within a few years, embedded in China’s incessant claim to be sui generis, unique, beyond compare and without equal. This is a surprisingly popular sport, not confined to the few whose profession is to think like a state, and make the national interest their embodied stance.

This goes back to the uneasy compromise China made in the late 19th century when confronted with the military power of the west. The literati elite coalesced round the broad principle that China must take from the west all those technologies that are useful, while holding fast to Chineseness as the core principle. This famous formula has held ever since, no matter how hard it is in practice to distinguish what is usefully modern, and what is eternally Chinese as the guiding principle guiding all applications of modernity.

The appeal of foundational Chineseness for those prospering in today’s China is obvious. The party-state has energetically promoted this Sinocentric mythos, which can be introduced as a trump card into almost any negotiation. Beyond the party-state are the many whose fortunes are being made, in a time of rapid wealth accumulation, who have every reason to make use of this all-purpose shield deflecting all expectations that China abide by the rule of law, or universal norms of environmental responsibility. It is not hard to see why this appeals to the military, to angry young nationalist bloggers with no hope of ever finding a wife, and those who hope to make a fortune by conforming.


[1] Vincanne Adams, Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas,

[2] Zhang Feng; The Tianxia System: World Order in a Chinese Utopia, China Heritage Quarterly #21, 2010


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Not all Chinese intellectuals belong to the party-state establishment, or toe the mass line. Although open dissent in Tibet is not tolerated, in Beijing there is open debate on many matters, and polite but persistent disagreement with official policies on many issues. Yet, when it comes to Tibet, even the dissident intellectuals, who critique contemporary China, fall back into conventional views.

Bold voices in Beijing continue to dissent from the compulsory mass line of a party that once championed the revolts of the masses as legitimating its’ own revolutionary uprising. Having succeeded in seizing power, the revolutionary party thereafter insisted that its “mass line” is forever after the embodiment of the will of the masses, including the Tibetan masses. Uprisings such as that of the villagers of the Jinsha River just below Tibet are the nightmare of a deeply institutionalised party-state that above all fears “mass incidents” that portend a threat to the stability required for the elite to continue, uninterrupted, with their wealth accumulation.

A star of new leftish thinking is Wang Hui, who also has a global audience, since he has read all the theorists of globalisation, the social theorists famous worldwide, whose writings are these days all available in Chinese translation. Enormously erudite, Wang Hui himself is on the global lecture circuit, offering a distinctively Chinese perspective on the debates on capitalism, and how the contemporary world works. A harbinger of things to come, Wang Hui is a global intellectual celebrity, welcome in  seminar rooms everywhere for offering a challenging fresh take on familiar debates on topics such a modernity, globalisation, capitalism and the nation-state. His 2014 lectures during his visiting professorship at Goldmsiths College, London, are livestreamed, a sure sign that China can produce its own brands of intellectual star.

Wang Hui is interesting, too, because he has not simply ignored Tibet, as many Chinese intellectuals do. He has written much about Tibet, both a sympathetic reflection on Tibetan environmentalists campaigning against hydro dams, and a lengthy dismissal of the Tibetan protests since 2008. That essay, 90 pages long in English translation, has attracted little attention from Tibetans, but does much to explain the deep seated obstacles to any meaningful dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese.

Like so many of China’s leading intellectuals, seeking, through their guoxue or “national  learning” to save China by reviving concepts that Confucius himself thought of as antique, Wang Hui’s voluminous rereadings of ancient texts unsettle familiar dualisms without advancing new alternatives. Wang is a textual scholar, a professor of language and literature. The present moment in China is his overriding concern, yet there is no investigation of it, only the grandest of generalisations, and a selective light of the past directed onto the present.

In a party-state which in 2013 made a point of officially banning all discussion of past mistakes of the party,[1] it is understandable that Wang Hui, for all his researches and writings, has only achieved one half of the task he set himself, to investigate the origins, in China and the west, and likely futures of two key modern concepts: science and democracy. Wang’s work on China’s embrace of “Mr. Science” as one of its saviours is deeply illuminating. Understandably, he has not yet felt the time is right to explore with equal depth China’s need for “Mr. Democracy.”

But the external pressure to avoid critiquing the absence, in China, of a self-conscious, mobilised, organised, articulate, citizenry and civil society –the key elements of actual democracy; added to Wang’s reticence and inconclusiveness, leave a big gap, which the social sciences could be expected to fill. Wang fruitfully hints at what might be discovered. He suggests that China today is creating modernisation without modernity. This is a cryptic suggestion, which could readily become a research agenda for both political science and economics, both of which struggle –in places beyond China where such open struggle is possible- to depict the dynamics of today’s China.

The dilemma is readily expressed. On one hand, China is booming, wealth accumulation is accelerating, entrepreneurs have unparalleled opportunity, and the Market-friendly reforms announced by Xi Jinping late in 2013 are intended to allow market forces to become the drivers. Yet on the other hand China remains highly repressive, the party-state fixated on command and control, ruthlessly quelling dissent, and with state-owned enterprises dominant, and given favoured treatment. Neoliberal orthodoxy suggests private enterprise is the engine of growth and prosperity, not a heavy governmental hand addicted to social engineering, the agglomeration of favoured SOEs into national champions, the state picking and choosing its favoured winners. Today’s China seems to be both neoliberal and a profound contradiction of neoliberalism. Equally, China cannot be dismissed as totalitarian, dirigiste, a monolith of state control. So what is it?

Wang Hui has a simple answer, characteristic of his usual move, when faced with a seeming dichotomy, which is to exclude neither and lean to including them both. The repressive regime clamping down on “mass incidents” and popular protest is the essential precondition, he suggests, for the primitive accumulation of wealth by an elite of bureaucratically well-connected entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial bureaucrats. In this sense, China achieves modernisation: fast rates of growth and wealth accumulation monopolised by an elite, massive state-led investment in the infrastructure of modernisation, while the masses remain poor, and without an adequate welfare system or social safety net. Political repression holds back modernity, an active participant citizenry advocating their interests, and renegotiating their identities, as modernity steps the individual out of the shadows of the ancestors. Thus we have modernisation without modernity. This could be a substantive research agenda for the social sciences, but that is not politically possible. Wang himself has little opportunity to develop this further, and no inclination to do so by fieldwork.

To proponents of the vaguely defined “China Dream”, the party-state’s mass line insists that this is the best of times, wherein China comes to realise its dream of modernity, prosperity and global eminence. However there is in China a liberal new left, highly critical of China’s embrace of state capitalism, with its corruption, monopolies, primitive accumulation, concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, bloating inequality and contempt for the masses silenced by the coercive power of the state. Despite the censorship and repression, these leftish intellectuals continue to speak up, and critique the obscene rush to get rich, while exploiting the excluded. Yet on the new left, a patriotic insistence that global norms do not apply to China is as strong as among the insiders of the party-state who are busily getting rich.

Wang Hui is not a leftist in the sense of nostalgia for the good old revolutionary days under Mao. But his skepticism about today’s China extends only so far: in many ways he remains a conventional patriot, with conventional views about the inviolably sovereign Chinese nation-state, China’s transition from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, and the role of minority nationalities. Not only does he follow convention, as a renowned historian of philosophy, he has come up with lengthy and ingenious new arguments for closing Chinese minds to Tibetan calls for breathing space.

To achieve this, Wang Hui takes his usual roundabout route, displaying at length that he has read and digested everything ever written, before gradually arriving at the present. In the case of the Tibetans, this requires a lengthy excavation of what European philosophers said about Tibetan Buddhism centuries ago, which of course was largely nonsense. This excursus through the history of European ideas might seem entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the pain of today’s Tibetans, yet the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and how China should respond is Wang Hui’s ultimate objective, in an essay of 90 pages.

Wang selectively overlooks the ways the greatest of European philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries mistook Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism generally, as a gloomy, other-worldly faith emphasising only the suffering of existence and the bliss of non-existence. He instead accentuates the positive. Gradually Wang Hui moves forward, always looking at Tibet through western eyes, filled with romantic fantasies, arriving, in Zurich at the turn of this millennium, at an exhibition of the fantastic western imaginary of Tibet, painstakingly assembled by leading contemporary European deconstructionists seeking to debunk the Shangri-la romanticism.

But to Wang Hui this is final proof that Tibet is a figment of western imagination, as are western concerns about contemporary human rights in Tibet. Dreamworld Tibet, the 2000-01  Zurich exhibition of utopian and dystopian fantasies of Tibet, western and Chinese, was assembled in order to clear space for Tibetans to represent themselves, but Wang Hui takes it as an opportunity dismiss all nonChinese voices, leaving the way open for an exhaustive reprise of Chinese imperial annalists on Tibet as a tributary of China.

This is Wang Hui’s characteristic move, surveying comprehensively what the west has said on any topic, only to dismiss it all as Eurocentric,  in favour of the unique contribution available from Chinese tradition, as interpreted by Wang, with ingenious novelty. Wang dismisses the idea that China’s 20th and 21st century tasks in Tibet are to turn an 18th century empire into a modern nation-state in which everyone identifies as a citizen of a unitary state that transcends ethnicity. The dichotomy of empire and nation-state he dismisses as just another western dualism that does not apply to China, which has for a thousand years shown every sign of being a nation-state, since the times of the Song dynasty. Drawing on Japanese analyses done at the height of Japan’s imperial advance, Wang suggests that the Song dynasty “uses economic rule as the base of centralized authority and was the first dynasty in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner. The results of this economic centralization would be an extremely solid legacy for later dynasties. The decline of an aristocratic culture and its replacement with a mature prefectural system, namely a system of absolute centralization and a bureaucracy, which greatly influenced political culture and made it different from that of the Han and Tang dynasties because the Song government standardized the imperial examinations, which gave rise to a new class of gentry and bureaucrats.”[2]

To Wang Hui, the distinction made between empire and nation-state is meaningless, just another Eurocentric claim to superiority that has no basis. “The dichotomy formed within the narrative of European world and political history between the so-called ‘empires’ and ‘nation-states’ was in reality a theory to legitimize the European nation-state. What I really wish to do is to break down this dualism, and to negate the dualistic relation. Neither do I see the transition between empire and nation-state as a necessary condition for the transformation into political modernity; I would not describe the problem in this way.”[3]

China’s leaders over the past century and more have all felt it was essential to adopt the western model of the nation-state, as a way of regaining national strength and a sovereign place in the world for China. Yet to Wang those Chinese Republicans and Marxists were pursuing a goal that required only reasserting the achievements of Song China 1000 years ago, since “the seeds of modernity already existed”, under the Song “system built around a core of imperial authority, the prime minister, and the civil service [which] was a highly rationalized state system.” The Japanese too felt the need to build a strong state, and so did the Japanese scholars of the 1930s on whom Wang relies for discovering the modern state in China a millennium ago. So Wang then quickly parts ways with the Japanese, critiquing “the opposition they constructed between empire and nation-state according to the framework of European world history.” This European idea, Wang says, is to be repudiated because empires fail to accord formal equal sovereign relations to other nations, “instead being characterized by relations of tribute and a hierarchical structure of social relations.” By contrast, the nation-state, at least legally, “is formally defined by relations of equality within the nation-state system.” It is this dualism Wang is keen to dismantle as yet another European imposition on the world, but he refuses to categorise China as either.

To Tibetans, the distinction matters. China, at its fullest imperial stretch, under the Manchu nomad rulers, the Qing dynasty, in the 18th century, controlled Tibet, which had to pay tribute. But during the 18th, and 19th centuries, up until the mid 20th century, there was no attempt by China to actually govern, to change or intervene in ground realities in Tibet, to establish the modern system of  “economic rule as the base of centralized authority in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner.” That is exclusively the project of the Chinese Communist Party.  China under the CCP was determined to achieve was the assimilation of Tibet into a unified nation-state with secure borders, a loyal population and all imperial influence driven out.

Converting an empire into a nation-state was of the highest importance to the party-state, and remains an unfinished agenda, especially in Tibet. To Tibetans, the distinction between empire and nation-state is crucial. Wang Hui dismisses the drive to create the modern, unitary nation-state as a Eurocentric teleology, but it remains a teleology, a destiny prescribed for Tibet, that has driven CCP policy for its 65 years in power.

China felt it must become a recognisable nation-state, recognised by the other nation-states, in order to stand up and regain sovereignty. The nation-state, by the time China grew determined to repulse the western imperialists, at the end of the 19th century, had become a necessity, and in its strongest form, the unitary nation-state with no concessions made to federalism or autonomous minority ethnicities. It took a century to realise the vision of the unitary state, in which ethnicity is no longer a collectivity, a nation with collective claims, within the nation-state, but is merely an individual choice of identity, as a member of a chosen ethnic group.

Empires make no such claims. Empires contain the raw and the cooked, a jumble of ethnicities, the conquered, unassimilated peoples who often have quite different legal systems and gods of their own. China has often accommodated such difference, and often been itself ruled by outsiders, notably the nomads of the north, the Mongols for a century, and later the Manchu for two and half centuries. As Wang Hui says, “empires understand both sides of borders or the various frontiers as their own”. They are fluid, opportunistic, expanding when circumstances are favourable.

Why does Wang Hui dismiss this highly useful distinction between empire and nation-state? Because it is a western invention, and some western theorists have added a teleology, in which the nation-state becomes the highest form of government, a melding of territory and culture, thus the highest stage of human social evolution.  Hence it is to be rejected. The idea of empire is a manifestation of western imperialism.


But there is more to Wang Hui than nativist reprise of versions of Confucianism. He did not come out with his elaborate insistence on Tibet as a tributary of China, and Tibetan protest as a phenomenon of western romanticism, until the events of 2008, months before the Beijing Olympics, forced him to declare his patriotism. Prior to that, he wrote an unusually warm, uncomplicated story celebrating his friendship with young  Bai and Tibetan minzu intellectuals, and his involvement in their successful  campaign to persuade China’s highest leaders to cancel a plan to hydro dam one of the most beautiful rivers, within a UNESCO World Heritage area. This essay appears in English in a collection of his 2004-08 writings, and seems to have not had publication in Chinese.[4]

The essay is a tribute to the “Son of the Jinsha River”, the activist Xiao Liangzhong, who died young, exhausting himself in his round the clock campaigning to mobilise communities against the construction of a hydro dam across the Jinsha (upper Yangtze)  at  Hutiao Xia or Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2004, not far below the areas designated officially as Tibetan Autonomous Counties.

Wang Hui, then editor of the liberal Dushu journal, had published  a 2001 ethnographic piece by Xiao, and they had met. Wang published more by the energetic young anthropologist, but, he says, never found time to take a look at a novel Xiao wrote. As the campaign against the dam gathered strength, a Tibetan scholar Ma Jianzhong, recruited Xiao to join, and they organised a symposium in the prefectural capital of the Tibetan portion of Yunnan province, Zhongdian, later renamed Shangri-la (Shang-er-li-la) to attract tourists. The symposium, an attempt at framing the hydro debate on Tibetan terms, was called “Tibetan Cultural and Ecological Diversity.”

Xiang recruited the famous editor into his world, persuading him to stay, in Zhongdian, in Xiao’s family home, during the symposium. There Wang discovered the modern Tibetan academy, authors of encyclopaedic Tibetan histories, erudite Tibetan monks who had come from Qinghai, and, from Beijing, “Mr Zhambei Gyaltsho, a colleague of mine from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who as in the Institute of Ethnic Literature. I was part of the Institute of Literature, and purely due to this separation, we had never met.”

In this region of many nationalities, with Han Chinese the newcomers, the Tibetans of the upriver  uplands made a strong, inclusive case for “ecological and cultural diversity as being very closely linked, and that any attempts to differentiate groups within a community based upon ethnicity and religion would rapidly erode its cultural multiplicity and any other of its organic relations, producing new inequalities. Xiao Liangzhong’s interest in his hometown did not arise from his interest in a particular ethnic or cultural group, but rather in the social networks woven together through history and their multiplicity.”

Seeing this Tibetan move to include all, Wang Hui became involved in the drafting of a proposal calling for the dam project to be halted. Wang was able to appreciate that the Tibetans were not chauvinists, and skilfully included everyone, and he got further involved.

This essay in praise of a few activists of Tibetan, Bai and other minority ethnicities displays Wang Hui’s Confucian piety, but it also precedes his rejection of the Tibetans as a people and their call for breathing space. The essay opens with Wang Hui arriving in a remote village to pay his respects to the young man’s grave, on Tomb-Sweeping Day, a scene he evokes in detail, without explaining that, as others have since said,  Xiao’s death galvanised the villagers, who “believed he died to protect his homeland, and his death motivated them to protect it, too. Some if the villagers thought of him as a river spirit who could bless and protect their home. The death of Xiao Liangzhong caused an upsurge in local sentiment against the dam project.”[5] When the community put up the memorial declaring Xiao “The Son of Jinsha River”, an old farmer said: “Rivers on the earth are like veins in the human body. If you were to block off your own veins, you would die. The earth is the same.” An old woman said of the young man who died that he “was just 32 years old when he left us. I’m more than 60 –I’ve lived long enough. If I could exchange my body of flesh and blood for the long-term peace and stability of this land, so that the Tiger Leaping Gorge Damn wouldn’t be built, I would be willing today to have my body smashed to pieces and my bones ground to powder.”

It was this mobilisation that succeeded in pressuring the Yunnan provincial government to cancel the dam, as long as the protesters dispersed quickly, which they did. This account, more detailed than Wang Hui’s, makes it clear that the climax, well after Wang’s Tomb-Sweeping Day homage to his young friend, was achieved by 10,000 angry villagers surrounding government buildings, demanding justice, holding officials hostage, and refusing to disperse despite the threat of the ruthless armed police quelling them. Only when it was clear that both the Tibetan prefectural officials and the Yunnan provincial officials accepted their demands did they save everyone’s face by going home.

The skill of the Bai and Tibetan intellectuals in the Confucian arts of recruiting Wang Hui as protector and patron did much to give the social movement momentum, but it was won by mass protest, the courage of people who have been lied to too often. That’s not how Wang Hui tells it, but in Liu Jianqiang’s retelling of a long personal involvement with reporting the issue.

The villagers, victorious until a renewed hydro damming push by Beijing in 2012, drew deeply on Chinese tradition, as does Wang Hui, both in his Tomb-Sweeping Day homage and his rejection of the Tibetan demand for cultural space, on the grounds that it was the nation-state of China that has long ruled Tibet, and Tibetan protests are western fantasies.

Chinese tradition, Confucian but also Buddhist and Taoist, is rich in precedents, exemplary stories and concepts of propriety, enabling everyone to pick and choose. The old woman, offering her body to be smashed to pieces and her bones ground to powder, succinctly summarises a classic Tibetan meditation practice, called Chöd, in which the meditator cuts clinging to existence by imagining, as vividly as possible, exactly the old woman’s scenario. For the meditation practice to work, transforming the inborn subjective attachment to “I”, it must be done with total sincerity and conviction, as the old woman demonstrates.

This old woman, spontaneously offering, in specific detail, that her body be smashed and ground to dust, is clearly familiar, through long practice, with imagining just that experience, as her offering of the self, of all attachment to existence,  the core of self-ish-ness.[6] This is beyond the comprehension of Chinese people today. The willingness of Tibetans to die, in order to perpetuate the inner strengths of Tibetan culture, in the face of Chinese ignorance, indifference and persecution is equally inexplicable, as Wang Hui demonstrates, at length, in his long essay on the 2008 Tibetan uprising.

That’s the focus of the next blog in this series.


[2] Viren Murthy,  Modernity Against Modernity: Wang Hui’s critical history of Chinese thought; Modern Intellectual History,3,1(2006), pp. 137–165

[3] Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the limits of Modernity, Verso, 2011, 126

[4] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 173-190 in Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Verso, 2009

[5] Liu Jianqiang, Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge, 203-235 in Sam Geall ed., China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, Zed Books, 2013

[6] Edou, Jerome. Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chod. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1996.

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