Two brothers set off on the River Road 2
road, the road home, leaving behind the school and its insistent rote learning of modernity. The road is the river bed, bereft of water and vegetation, a flat sandy bed along which these young boys, neither older than 12, wander with their camels. They are born cameleers, these Yugur lads, as familiar with the ways of camels as any urban preteen is familiar with jockeying a mobile phone.

Their journey upriver, in search of water, and of their wandering father, is virtually the entire River Road movie. Only at the very end do we glimpse a wider world, also at the very beginning, in the classroom, where the children are being drilled in calculating the US dollar value of RMB 600, instructed to calculate to two decimal places and then round off. Clearly we are in the present, when everyone, even in remote, arid Sunan Yugur county of deep inland Gansu province needs to know precisely how many dollars you get.

The boys are utterly at home with their camels and the sandy riverbed; this is not at all a road movie of the lost child at the mercy of indifferent nature, of the sort Australians make; nor the boy-becomes-man triumphing over nature that the Hollywood hero quest requires. Nor is it a post-apocalyptic climate change tale of Mad Max revenge, instant Ice Age or Biblical floods as nature sweeps greedy humanity away.

It’s just two boys and their two camels plodding along. The drama comes from their mutual loathing, the younger blaming the older for always getting favoured treatment, the older blaming the younger for causing mother’s loss. This is the deep-seated, implacable, absolutist enmity of the child.

The landscape is very much a character. The sandy river bed, the dry eroded banks, the deep dry gorges cut by vanished torrents, fill the screen. As the camera tracks the twisting gorge we expect at any moment to find what is so palpably missing: mother water. This is indeed a climate change movie, perhaps the best climate change movie made, more engaging than all the earnest docos, more believable than the big studio shockers, Ice Age, Waterworld, Day After Tomorrow, Lost City Raiders, Age of Stupid and so on.

This is more intimate, more real and present. Every frame asks: where has all the water gone? Set in the riverbed is a concrete cistern, Chinese modernity’s imitation of the central Asian qanat underground channels, but it too is empty. People drill ever deeper, but in vain. The water clearly was here yesterday, it has only just disappeared.

On the camels and the boys plod, ever hopeful that somewhere, far enough upstream, there must be mother water and father grass, as there always was on this pasture land. They always know what to do: to be careful with what little water they had in plastic jerrycans, to eat jerky, to sleep in the heat of day in the shadow of their camel, to walk by night. They are never lost, or at a loss, nature is not hostile or indifferent, we are reminded water is mother, grass is father.

On the road, many pasts appear, the ancient Tocharian past of Turkic ancestors, the ancient Buddhist past of meditation caves carved into the soft stone of the cliffs, still with their painted walls of sky dancers and saints, in faded colours, still with Buddha statues in their niches. They take shelter one night in another ruin, mud walls with no roof, yet this is explicitly yesterday’s past. Rummaging through the rubble one boy finds a photo of classmate Fatty: he and his family were here last year, now they are gone. This must be a new ruin, deliberately ruined to make it uninhabitable. But why? What hand has taken the water, smashed roofs, removed the people, desiccated the land?

A plaintive, questioning, elegiac score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian complements the mystery of the vanished water. Yazdanian has worked on several Chinese films, bringing a central Asian sensibility, and a distinct homage to Mongol moriin-hur horse-headed fiddle music that was at the core of that other camelid hit, The Weeping Camel, in which the music charmed a dyspeptic mother camel into accepting a baby she had rejected.

river road 4

The quarrel between the brothers climaxes in a fight that leaves the younger winded, on his back, alongside his dying camel. The older boy presses on, finding a Tibetan monastery, full of butterlamp light, and an old lama who dutifully turns the lad’s mind, instructing him to take refuge in the Buddha and in compassion, which the boy does, both by prostrating in the Buddhist way, and by holding his hands out, palms upward, in Islamic fashion. The prompt to be compassionate works, the boy retrieves his brother and they continue up the river road, with the surviving camel. Still we ache, as do they, to see water, so evidently recently present, so mysteriously gone. The lama too is under instructions to pack up the monastery and remove it to “the town.”

This is a ruined landscape, ruined by more than “drought”. It is a landscape in which the state has imposed its communes and commands, slogans and cisterns, and is now withdrawing to its citadel cities, taking the people with it.

Only towards the end is water found, and in it men washing river gravel for flecks of gold, men who include their father, no longer nomadising with his camels, caught up in this end-of-days goldrush craze, before it too collapses.

Sense prevails, the boys now with father all head off ever further upriver, still hopeful that somewhere there is still space, mother water and father grass sufficient to persist, at least for another season, with the life of the cameleer nomads. Up they trudge, rounding a dun bank, above which we see, for a moment, the most improbable sight: a tall industrial chimney, so tall it is painted with orange and white stripes as a warning to aircraft. Was that real? Round the next bend we see it all: a full-scale industrial plant, all steel and lights, chimneys and pipes. At last we know where the water went, what took all the life out of the pasture, why the Yugur ethnicity has no future, and must join those migrating to the cities “for conservation.” Father and sons walk on. Credits roll.

For those of us looking for ways to get the climate message across, this is the movie. We are not fifty years hence looking back on human foolishness. We do not need CGI to paint the picture, except for one magical moment when the grass returns, waving in the wind, carpeting the land, only to vanish again. All we need is two boys who know their camels, their river road and a land that so palpably thirsts. The conclusion, that climate change is man-made, has a nameable point source, is utterly evident onscreen as we come on the heaviest of heavy industrial footprints robbing all downstream of their mothers. This is the climate movie for our times, all the more potent because it is so clearly today’s world.

River Road is by Li Ruijun, who grew up in Gansu, in these landscapes, which feature in his other indie movies too, all of which struggle with China’s censorship regime, and official insistence on upbeat stories, to get commercial release. Li’s earlier films, Fly with the Crane, 告訴他們,我乘白鶴去了,2012; The Old Donkey, 老驢頭, 2010 and The Summer Solstice, 2007 could not get onto screens in China, being too close to realities that challenge the propaganda of a China fulfilling its dream of prosperity. Li Ruijun, still in his early thirties, has now tried again, at a time when movie-going has grown enormously in China, but martial arts blockbusters continue to crowd out indie realism.

In his earlier movies it was all too obvious that in the creative destruction of modernity much is lost, and not everyone is a winner. In Li’s earlier films the focus was on the old, who lose out as modernity advances. Fly with the Crane focuses on two elderly coffin makers whose craft is declared redundant by a state that makes cremation mandatory, emblematic of modernity, saving space that can then become available for urbanisation, free from villagers sentimentally attached to honouring the tombs of ancestors. To the old coffin makers, it is not only the loss of their livelihood, but also the loss, as they near their ends, of their own opportunity to be properly buried, with the chance that a white crane will fly the soul to heaven. So the next to die is secretly buried, breaking the law of modernity. Too much for the censors.

This time Li is more circumspect. Modernity with Chinese characteristics seldom intrudes, except for the classroom scene bookending the start and the brief goldrush and heavy industry shots at the end.  So it is up to the audience to fill in, to see what cannot be shown, not only the aching absence of water, but the cause of its disappearance. It pays to do a little homework.

Li Ruijun’s home province, Gansu, is China’s most ancient claim to have a far west stretching inland. This is where the Great Wall finally yields to the sand. The Hexi Corridor is the floor of Gansu, a finger of Chinese settlement stretching northwestwards towards the ancient Buddhist cave temples of Dunhuang. To the north are the Mongols, to the south the Tibetans, both major influences on the life, language and religion of the Yugur minority nationality, Yuguzu 裕祻族, whose homeland is just one county, Sunan, 肃南.

What saves Sunan from obscurity, its traditional blessing and contemporary curse, is its proximity to the Tibetan Plateau, whose far northern perimeter is the Chokle Namgyal mountain range, (Qilian Shan in Chinese) the edge of a land surrounded by mountains. These mountains are high enough –up to 6000 metres- to attract the last shreds of moisture in the sky from the distant monsoons, where it falls as snow onto glaciers and watersheds, drained by the Heihe, the Hei River, the lifeline of the Sunan Yugur homeland. In the mountains there is over 500 mm of rain a year, down in the Hexi Corridor as little as 100 mm.

Extending Chinese settlement of the Hexi Corridor has been a priority for China, with water availability the biggest constraint. China’s modern hydraulic economy, as long ago as the 1950s, saw in the Hexi Corridor, an outstretched finger of modernity defying the deserts to the north and west, and the intense cold of Tibet to the south. The Hexi Corridor was to be where man conquers nature, if only enough water could be captured.

Only 200 kms north of where River Road is set is China’s missile testing range, now better known as where China’s astronauts blast off from. The Hexi Corridor is now heavily industrialised, despite the chronic lack of water. To the east of the Yugurs of Sunan, 200 kms away, is the nickel mine, nickel and copper smelters of the Jinchuan Group, China’s biggest nickel producer expanding rapidly into copper, owner of the Tibetan copper deposit at Shetongmon, whose concentrates are sent by rail almost 2000 kms to the Jinchuan smelter at Jinchang.

The missile testing and launch base was built by the Soviet Union for China in 1958, in use ever since, not only for missile testing but also for launching satellites and China’s manned space program.

These mines, smelters and missile test bases are huge enterprises; the missile launch site can house as many as 20,000 people at once.

Soviet and Chinese military planners chose the site precisely because of its remoteness, in drylands bordering Inner Mongolia, classified by China as waste land. The only drawback was the lack of water, but Chinese engineers were confident the Chokle Namgyal mountain range (Qilian Shan in Chinese) could be hydro dammed in many places, as it runs parallel with the southern edge of long and narrow Gansu province.

The Jinchuan smelter was named for the “Golden River” that for decades was the primary asset of the Jinchuan Group, based on the nickel deposit discovered in the 1950s.

Those decisions of the 1950s set the course of development for the whole Hexi Corridor and consequent industrialisation, water shortage notwithstanding. Until quite recently  the hydraulic engineers always had a solution, there was always another dam that could impound the waters and snowmelt.

By the arrival of this century a full crisis had also arrived. Not only were Hexi Corridor industries extracting far more than the 40% of all available water that is internationally understood as an upper limit for sustainable use, by 2002 water use actually exceeded more than 100 per cent of all water theoretically available, including glacier and snowmelt, river flow and underground waters combined.[1] In Sunan, along the Hei River, water usage in 2002 was 111 per cent of what is actually available, including groundwater. This is climate change movie plotting made real.

The Yugur are classified by China’s official ethnic classification system as one of the 55 minority nationalities, as  speakers of a Turkic language related to the Uighur of Xinjiang even though they are Buddhist, specifically Tibetan Buddhist by culture. As a separate minority, they have been energetically integrated into the pedagogies of modernity, with special schools set up to teach the Chinese language and a curriculum laden with Chinese characteristics. As a result, few young Yugur can speak the Yugur language.[2]

China film buff Yun-hua Chen  tells us: “Yugur language also becomes increasingly rare, to the extent that the two children in the film, who do not speak Yugur in real life, actually had to memorise their lines according to the recording of elderly Yugur People. Through reconstruction of the endangered culture, this unostentatious film shows unflinching determination to empower voices of the nomad, the periphery, and the unheard, and offers us an unblinking look at the ugly consequences of continuous exploitation of natural resources – for which we are all fully responsible.”

There are only 10,000 Yugur in Sunan, and a  similar number of Tibetans. Han Chinese immigrants became the majority as long ago as 1960, part of Mao’s Third Front of deep inland militarisation in preparation for war with the Americans and/or the Soviets.

The Yugur have been caught up in global tides, cold wars, revolutionary class warfare, Mao’s war against nature, and most recently, compulsory relocation to urban fringes as “ecological migrants” leaving their land forever, in the name of conservation, as River Road explains early in the movie. They are part of the human river flowing to the cities, displaced from their land by the cities, industries and missile bases capturing all their water, even the underground water, for their exclusive use. They have become redundant, wasted lives, surplus to requirements of modernity.

China has taken mother water from father grassland, decisively splitting the parents from each other, declaring water is all that matters, and the land can be abandoned. In Tibet too China has declared water availability for far downstream users to be the priority, even if it means removing nomads from the best pasturelands of the Tibetan Plateau, still green and productive.

The movie’s two Yugur boys, Bartel and Adikeer, clearly are in need of both mother and father, longing both to find water and to see the grass return. This is universal. Pope Francis, in his latest encyclical, speaks of brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. But modernity requires rigorous choices. Water trumps grass, water is mobile, grass is not as productive as a city or a missile base.

China justifies these ruthless exclusions by arguing that climate change is a vast, inexorable, global phenomenon beyond human control. All we can do is adapt, and something has to give. Invariably what has to lose out is the traditional, mobile, flexible nomadic way of life. But the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change do have point sources, and these days China is the biggest source of all.

However, the most recent scientific monitoring suggests that, for a few decades to come, China’s arid northwest, including Gansu Sunan, are benefiting from the accelerating melting of the glaciers of Tibet, that river flow, having dropped steadily over the past 50 years, has now risen, as the glaciers shrink.[3] There may be a bonanza of extra water, all captured by the dams, none left for environmental river flows, for grass to grow or even to recharge the underground water. Short-term is all that matters in today’s China.

The brothers of River Road might appear to be in a timeless land, yet they remind us frequently of who they knew, who lived along the now parched river bed only last year. The brothers may seem to have left modernity and its calculation of dollar equivalence to two decimal points, far behind, but modernity and its inexorable demands are seldom far. One boy has a toy, an inscrutableriver road 3 white hi-tech box, which turns out to be the payload of a radiosonde balloon, sent up by meteorologists in the unseen city to scour the upper skies for rain bearing clouds, or the winds that might bring them.

Along the way, the boys discover a balloon returning to earth, momentarily a playful opportunity for projecting their shadows onto its blank white surface, a shadow play within the electric shadows of this river road of mirages. In the same playful, hopeful way the brothers, now reconciled with each other and their father, walk on, up beyond the factories, cities and dams, to where there may still be pasture.

China’s indie film makers have a hard time, and little opportunity to connect with wider audiences. River Road so easily could slip back into the shadows, having had screenings only in a few film festivals. Yet it is the most compelling climate change movie yet, and it deserves to be better known. Little wonder the few who have so far seen this new film are so keen on it. It is distributed by Laurel Films International Tokyo, Japan +81 90 65213401


[1] Chao Bao and Chuang-lin Fang; Water resources constraint force on urbanization in water deficient regions: A case study of the Hexi Corridor, arid area of NW China; E C O L O G I C A L E C O N O M I C S 6 2 ( 2 0 0 7 ) 5 0 8 – 5 1 7

[2] Stephen A. BAHRY; What Constitutes Quality in Minority Education? A Multiple Embedded Case Study of Stakeholder Perspectives on Minority Linguistic and Cultural Content in School-Based Curriculum in Sunan

Yughur Autonomous County, Gansu; Frontiers of  Education in China, 2012, 7(3): 376–416

[3] LI Chang-bin, QI Jia-guo, YANG Lin-shan, YANG Wen-jin, ZHU Gao-feng and WANG Shuai-bing;The Variability of the Snow and Ice Melt in Alpine Rivers in Northwestern China; Journal of  Mountain Science,  (2014) 11(4): 884-895



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China, at official level, lacks confidence, sees dangers and conspiracies everywhere, feels compelled to control who can say what. But now a new generation, who are confident and relaxed, are reaching out for new experiences, transcending the narrow fixations of the modern consuming self. They need to experience directly. They go in increasing numbers to Tibet, encouraged by the flood of glossy magazines on the news stands, in supersaturated colour, proclaiming the beauty of Tibet, and the magnetic attractiveness of the charismatic lamas. They go on pilgrimage.

That’s what the celeb pages of China’s media say. The gossip is all about who not only likes to hang out with Tibetans, but who is a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, with a deep connection to a specific lama.

Take, for example, this chatty piece about who’s who in the Buddhist social whirl of Beijing. The name dropping is awesome, not only global stars such as Jet Li, but lots of household heroes in China, Guan Xuyi and Wang Fei, and the Taiwanese artist Aya who is big in Beijing. This is celeb A-list stuff; it’s all artists, actors and entrepreneurs, the new shapers and makers of culture and business success, the role models for everyone else.

Being gossipy, there’s plenty too on which lama has fathered whose child. But the devotion of these stars to specific lamas is clear, and that for some their turning of the mind is not recent but goes as back as far as 1992. What’s new is that all of this is now so cool. The bottom line is that in Beijing Tibetan Buddhism is seriously trending.

What this reminds me of is my experience, early in my one year living in the US, in 1997. As an Australian, usually on the periphery, I relished the opportunity to read the hallowed New York Times every day. One morning I picked up the paper, sure that a Tibetan event the previous night would have been covered. I looked in International News: nothing. I looked in National News section: nothing. I looked in Features: nothing. I pored over the Op-Ed page: nothing. Finally I came to the Society pages, the hot celeb news, and there it was: a roll call of movie stars and other celebs all dressed up and all espousing the Tibetan cause.

With a bit of hindsight, we could say 1997 was a peak year for Tibet in the western world (and a peak for print newspapers). It’s been somewhat downhill since. But in China the same phenomenon just gets bigger and bigger.

It’s so easy to be a bit snooty about these bubbles of fashionability, and say they don’t mean anything much.

Yet decades ago the Dalai Lama prophesied the rise of a relaxed and confident China able, at last, after a century of turmoil, to find space to emancipate the mind to new possibilities. The Dalai Lama prophesied all this at least 20 years ago. It made little sense then, to exile Tibetans chafing at the lack of progress of official dialogues. Tibetans are in awe of the prophetic powers of great lamas, but only after they have turned out to be right. It is the awe of hindsight; at the time, it just seemed the Dalai Lama was holding out the slender hope that some day, some how, China would transform itself from within, to a gentler, more open-minded country willing to cut the Tibetans some slack, which is what Tibetans basically seek. Now it is happening, and as with everything else in China, it is happening fast.

Emancipating the mind is a common official slogan, signifying official policy is shifting, to which cadres and officials are expected to adapt. Seldom does it mean openness, or freshness, or imagination; often what is signified is a tightening of censorship, further restricting what can be spoken of. Actual emancipation cannot be commanded from above, it arises spontaneously from below.

Cynics will say it is only a tiny urban elite who are taking to all things Tibetan, that it is just a passing fashion, that it is suffused with Shangri-la romanticism, China’s own version, ironically, of Orientalism. Maybe. The lamas, who now have millions of sincere Chinese followers (the Dalai Lama some time ago said two million) have no problem with the starting point of encounter being tinged with fantasy. From a Buddhist viewpoint, all of us are going round and round in confusion, seeking happiness here and there and seldom getting far. We latch onto things hopefully, until disappointment sets in. If we latch onto the Buddhist lamas, with delusional expectations of being saved from ourselves, the lamas then gently set us to rights, holding up a mirror, in which we see not only our delusions but the inner strength beyond the clashing emotions and projections. By definition, we start the Buddhist path deluded. That is why the path exists, and why it has so many entry points, to cater for the infinite variety of delusion.

All this is implicit in the Dalai Lama’s prophecy, which should now be recognised, as it increasingly manifests in evident ways. Far from being a forlorn hope, it is now unfolding, in Beijing, Shanghai, New York, on remote pastoral hillsides in Sichuan Serthar, and anywhere China’s highly mobile new generation go. A new China is emerging. The Communist Party will be the last to know.

I met a Tibetan man who spent 3 years in NY patiently cultivating the new generation of young Chinese studying and living in NY. He learned that it is seldom possible to get far with those Chinese of the 1989 generation in long term exile, even those who actively cultivate connections with Tibetans. They are still locked into the mission of the Confucian sage, to save China from itself. For at least a century this has been the sacred mission of China’s intellectuals, including those dissenters outside the mainstream or in opposition to those who hold power. They all want to be the One. They compete furiously.

Because they hold fast to this mission to find the sole path that will lead China to greater glory and success, all else is instrumental, including their strategic alliances with Tibetans. In other words, Tibetans need to be wary of the first wave of Chinese who approach them, declaring common cause.

The minds of these dissidents are full of the complexities of their mission, the difficulties of saving China, since, paradoxically, China must above all be saved from itself. These are anxious men and women, consumed by the perils of discerning what must be done, and exhorting everyone to act accordingly. They exhort a lot. They don’t listen. They are unable to attune themselves to Tibetan quietness, reflectiveness and straightforwardness.

The tone of the 1989 generation, whether in exile or in power in Beijing, whether communist or dissident, is shrill, harsh, urgent, exhortatory. This doesn’t make for much listening or encounter. Because there is so much exhorting going on, the target audience, of fellow intellectuals and ordinary folk, is bombarded, and inclined to tune out.  The declamatory, legislative voice is prescriptive, not dialogic.

In practice, when exile Tibetans first meet these Chinese self-proclaimed friends of Tibet, the usual outcome is disappointment. The heart of the Tibetan wells with all the pent-up pain of his people, but the Chinese man (usually on both sides a man) is not open to that pain, especially if it comes as an emotional onrush. Tibetan heart meets strategising Chinese mind, to little purpose.

So it is good Tibetans are starting to realise there is little point in investing much energy in that 1989 generation which is far more Confucian, and elitist, than it realises, deeply imbued with classic Chinese literati values even when in opposition. In turn, that may open space for other Chinese, who do gradually open their hearts and minds to new encounters, to make friends, without feeling the Tibetan-Chinese friend-space is already crowded with the declamatory tones of the professional dissidents.

The new generation has grown up in a newly rich China that has achieved the China Dream of prosperity, at least for this urban tribe used to luxury, able to study abroad, open to wondering what else there is in life beyond consumption. My friend, one of the few exile Tibetans fluent in Chinese, knows that in China, relationship is everything, taking time to hang out, go to a restaurant, find out what really interests the other, attune yourself. It is slow, patient work, but it works. Gradually, curiosity arises as to what Tibetans think, how Tibetans respond, what is a Tibetan take not only on grand political questions but on the meaning of life, or, as Tibetans prefer to say, how to live a meaningful life. It’s not a matter of postures and positions on this and that issue, it’s a matter of friendship.

The new generation of course arrives in the west with preconceived ideas: China has been so generous to Tibet, why aren’t the Tibetans grateful? Tibet is so backward, China can modernise it. China is a great and successful civilisation, why not just join, why insist on being different? Let it pass, my friend says, no need to contradict.

Sometimes he is able to arrange for a few to visit India, to see for themselves how the Tibetans live, to immerse themselves in a Tibetan atmosphere, to encounter the common Tibetan strength of mind, emotional steadiness, sincerity and quiet way of stating truths. Sometimes they get the rare opportunity of audience with the Dalai Lama, now 80.

Thus do Chinese minds begin to turn, one by one.

All of this is deliberately low key, no press releases. Not even the exiled Tibetans of Dharamsala, who accuse their government of achieving nothing, know of this low key program. The disillusioned exiles may well retort: is that all? How long must we wait for such processes to bear fruit?

It may take a long time, far longer than the activists can bear. Yet what else holds hope of change, the groundswell of popular change that governments belatedly discover, as the ground beneath them shifts? This is the process of historic shifts, and it is now happening at an accelerating pace in China, in the cities, among the new class of confident consumers looking for greater meaning. The connections are being made not only in NY but in the upmarket Chaoyang district of Beijing, where it is now ubercool to have a Tibetan friend, even more to have a lama. This is not coming about due to a Tibetan plan, there is no such plan, it is the spontaneous curiosity of the human mind, whose basic needs are met, who turns to the higher needs, that the psychologist Maslow called self-actualisation.

China’s new brand of Tibetan Buddhist pop singers and artists may seem to be merely torch songsters, in the long tradition of women standing by their man. But the lyrics of these songs of passionate yearning are uncannily reminiscent of contemporary Tibetan pop songs, in which the love of the land, the love of the beloved, and love for the lama, are indistinguishable. Take Wang Fei. One of her songs, in translation:

oh..for you
i would do anything for you
anything for you
i am ready to forget even my name

just to stay in your arms
even for seconds only
i don’t care even if i’ll lose everything

oh..for you
i would do anything for you
anything for you
i am ready to forget even my name

These are today’s update of calling the lama from afar, invoking and receiving his blessings, and being transformed by them, self-actualised.

For the businessmen too, taking bold risks, knowing when to go all out and when to duck, leaping decisively onto the next big thing, guidance and inner strength are essential. You get it from the lamas.

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At the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in New Delhi, launching the new report on Tibetan nomads, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy Director Tsering Tsomo said:

“You cannot step onto the same pasture twice, as Heraclitus might have said if he’d been a nomad.

I come from a nomad family in Tibet. My European friends seem to see grasslands as eternal, and also terminally boring because the eye travels so fast to the horizon, unlike the rainforest,  the holy grail of the modern unchurched, which by comparison evokes awe.

Our Tibetan pastures change all the time, there is no equilibrium for scientists to find. How could it be otherwise on the highest, driest and coldest plateau of the planet? Only the nomads, with their yaks, sheep and goats, know how to make this huge land habitable, know its moods, the gales that blow out of nowhere, or blanketing blizzards even in summer, while India swelters. The alpine meadows are neither dull nor eternal but they are every bit as diverse and productive as those magical rainforests.

This comes as news to China, now in command of the Tibetan pasture lands. China has a bad habit of calling even our richest pastures waste land, because it is not arable, not suited to ploughing and farming. China sees our hardy, resourceful, skilful nomads as ignorant herders wandering aimlessly behind their animals in search of grass, almost the definitive uncivilised barbarian. This leads to a command economy which pushes and pulls the nomads who range extensively over an area the size of Western Europe, nudging them ever closer to poverty and landlessness.

First came the communes, far too large, run by cadres with no idea of rangeland dynamics, determined to prove the virtues of communism by rapidly raising herd sizes, pushing land and people too hard. Then in the 1980s China went to the opposite extreme, contracting separately with each nuclear family for land tenure over land parcels that had to be fenced, driving nomads into debt. The intention was to incentivise nomads to care for what they had always cared for, but the allocated land was too small, usable in winter only, incurring further compulsory debts for fencing, ploughing, seeding and harvesting fields for fodder, and the compulsory construction of permanent houses.

The idea was to modernise, intensify, and increase production. The outcome was perverse.

In reality the herds concentrated on officially allocated land inevitably became over grazed, because nomadic mobility, the secret of 9000 years of successful Tibetan pastoralism, was restricted, then stopped. Since 2003 the policy has been to ban grazing in ever increasing areas redefined as watershed protection zones and redline demarcated national parks, excluding all human use. This is deemed an objective scientific necessity because the nomads are to blame for the land degradation caused by privatisation and parcelling our lands. Hundreds of thousands of proud and skilful nomads now lead wasted lives in concrete cantonments on urban fringes, their bitterly cold brand new concrete barracks a holding pen for folk deemed redundant to the dream of a modern meat commodity production chain.

This is done in the name of conservation, carbon capture, restoration of environmental services. Conservationists should look a bit more closely at what that means on the ground. As the world contemplates a Paris climate accord we pose questions  whose answers may not be what you expect. How much longer can our melting Tibetan glaciers feed year round the great rivers of Asia? The thousands of kilometres glacier-fed rivers traverse the Tibetan pasture lands before plunging to the lowlands are not threatened by grazing, but sustained by intelligent, flexible, mobile light grazing herds, wild and domestic. Those pastures filter, clean and regulate the flow, as well as sustaining an extraordinary diversity of medicinal herbs and nutritious grasses.

Tse Tsomo Ilse Kohler-Rollefson GL at Foreign Correspondents club

What is achieved by grazing bans, exclusion zones, wasted lives, massive internal displacement and counterproductive policies? Chinese and international scientists now report that the biomass of grass does increase, at least in the few years immediately after grazing is banned, herds and herders removed. But most recent scientific reports tell us that carbon capture is greater when there is steady grazing,  and that ungrazed pastures, fenced off to exclude wild antelope and gazelles as well, suffer invasive species invasion, loss of biodiversity, reversion to shrubland and the crowding out of medicinal herbs.

You can’t step onto the same pasture twice because it’s not the same pasture, it keeps changing, just like Heraclitus’ river. Those who aren’t intimately connected to grassland may not notice many of those changes, but we do, and now a new generation of Chinese and Tibetan scientists does too. China wants to build an eternal, unchanging pristine grassland wilderness on those pastures. We Tibetans want a chance to show that our traditional mobility is the best kind of community-based conservation, is both sustainable and productive, and can lift us out of poverty, if the command economy can let us prove it.”

Tsering Tsomo is director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. This is her summary of TCHRD’s latest report, Wasted Lives: a critique of China’s campaign to end Tibetan pastoral lifeways. 


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NORTSE: Tibetan art amid creative destruction

Wherever you go on the streets of Hong Kong, one product is thrust under your gaze everywhere, from almost every shopfront, whatever its main line of business: tins of powdered milk.

China has discovered milk, and with it, acute anxiety as to its safety, especially infant formula. The combination of nourishment and fear is a potent driver, driving mainland Chinese to Hong Kong to buy, at incredible markups, milk that is certain to be free of fear, for the sole reason that it is not manufactured in China.

As an Australian, from dairying country, milk is such an ordinary staple, taken for granted, selling in the supermarkets for less than US$1 per litre. Fresh milk in China, from a reputable source, fetches ten times as much. Little wonder the shopkeepers are cashing in.

Even bookshops sell tins of powdered milk. And why not, when the books are by Chinese free thinkers, whose works are banned in China, but available in Hong Kong if you know where to find them. Dissident books and milk powder on the same shelves makes for a one-stop shop for Chinese seeking nourishment for their babies, and mental nourishment for themselves.

To those from ancient dairying cultures, such as India and Tibet, China’s passion for milk in its myriad forms is amazing, even bemusing. Milk is foundational to both Tibetan and Indian civilisations, one of their deepest bonds. For thousands of years the natural sweetness of milk has been concentrated, in India, by boiling it as the first step in making almost all the famous Indian desserts. For millennia, Tibetans have milked, churned and cultured the milk of dri (the female yak) and sheep, creating cheese, yoghurt and mountains of butter in such abundance that it was almost a currency, the denomination of offerings made by pastoralists to sustain the monasteries, the monks and nuns, their sons and daughters in robes.

Now China has suddenly found milk, and with it, intensive agribusiness industrial milk production, concentrated largely in Inner Mongolia. The cow milk may have entered the commodity chain from the udders of cows owned by small farmers, but it was quickly aggregated by large corporations out to maximise profit and meet the surging demand in urban China for all things modern, which includes milk, especially yoghurt, the ultimate modern packaged health food drink. Those large corporations had a single regulatory metric to conform to, in order to be certified as top quality: the protein content. And they quickly discovered how to fool the official protein count test, by adding another white powder, made from petrochemicals, as the raw ingredient in every cheap Chinese plastic cup or plate or bowl you’ve ever bought. That nasty industrial secret is melamine, hardly a household word, yet plastic utensils made of melamine are probably in your kitchen cupboard (and safe to eat from).

The big Chinese dairying companies added melamine powder to powdered milk for years before the truth finally emerged. By China’s standards, few babies died of it, but hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of infants have kidney damage, for life.

Nortse dolls on white tablecloth 2008The very babies, so precious to families permitted only one child, born to newly rich urban couples anxious to give their baby nothing but the best, were poisoned every day by their loving mother.

The pain of being duped so callously was intense. The mistrust of “Made in China” goes deep. It is now seven years since the melamine scandal was exposed and supposedly rectified but still the mothers of China, wherever possible, buy infant formula imported from New Zealand or elsewhere worldwide, rather than China.

I was in Hong Kong not for milk but books. Every time I visit my Tibetan friends I stopover in Hong Kong and get for them the latest books in Chinese, not only the dissident books and the corruption scandal books, but also the latest of worldwide scholarship on history, anthropology, anything serious, all freshly translated into Chinese.

Nortse.Group photo 2007My Tibetan friends in India, many of them new to exile, often are literate in Tibetan and Chinese, not English. Their access to the whole spectrum of modernity, from art to medicine, economics to fiction, all comes via the Chinese language. They take their nourishment in Chinese medium.

So if you are perhaps planning a trip to India, may I suggest a Hong Kong stopover, so easily built in on the way from the US? The airlines don’t seem to mind the extra kilos you lug on board, after all, a shopping stopover in Hong Kong is good for business. A list of the best bookshops is at the tail of this blog. If you don’t read Chinese (I don’t) you needn’t worry about making an idiot of yourself selecting titles you aren’t sure of. Westerners with little or no Chinese are not unknown in such bookshops, staff are ever helpful, and the books are displayed thematically, making it easy to find the Tibet section, and the Chinese Communist Party section, and there are other cues, such as the name of a nonChinese author, in English, on the cover. Nortse big red flower 2008

You could introduce the latest in French intellectual theory to a Tibetan audience, or whatever appeals to you. Compared to the prices of books in western countries, these books are inexpensive too. I give those books to Dhondup Wangyal, librarian of the Chinese section at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives.

Having filled my book bags, I lit out for my other rendezvous in Hong Kong, in a grimy industrial warehouse district I’d never been to, to see an exhibition of the latest art from Lhasa by Nortse, a Tibetan painter and photographer of his installations.

Nortse white mask 2014There too I was immediately confronted by melamine, fashioned industrially into utensils, refashioned by Nortse to make his own statement on the contemporary Tibetan condition.

Melamine is Nortse’s latest medium, the cheaper, kitschier and more ordinary the better. s3951Male_lrHe bought long handled spoons, probably hundreds of them, snapped off and discarded the spoons, leaving only the handles. s3952Female_lrThese in turn have become skeletal ribs and bones, dancing Tibetan memento mori, evocative of the skeleton dancers in the cham monastic dance rituals, and the skull necklaces of Tibetan wrathful protector deities. There, on the walls of a bright white gallery they hang, frozen in the perpetual motion of bones in bardo.


Nortse, short for Norbu Tsering, knows his melamine. He explains: “The porcelain-like tableware I used were very cheap, made from some illegal workshops. It will do harm to people’s health if they use these unqualified products every day.” The catalogue of the exhibition begins with an essay, titled A Toxic Vision, by Emma Martin, ethnologist and museologist in Liverpool. She explains that melamine “has given him the tools to explore objects that were once integral to the act of nourishing the body, and whose purpose is now seemingly reversed. Through the usually unacknowledged detritus of life, bought in the market stalls of Lhasa, Nortse draws our attention to the harm that mass-produced consumer culture is inflicting on people’s physical well-being. These substandard materials also reflect on the damage that such large-scale production wreaks on the Tibetan cultural body as a whole.” Nourishment and fear confront me again, in the newly chic, barely gentrified Hong Kong backlot of Yip Fat Street in downmarket Wang Chuk Hang district, on the cusp of reinvention as the new uber cool.s3946Group_Photo_lr

Nortse’s dancing melamine skeletons, lords of the charnel ground, may be toxic. Even the US Food & Drug Administration, while playing down the dangers of melamine plastic-ware, does warn: “Foods and drinks should not be heated on melamine-based dinnerware in microwave ovens.”

Even though Nortse has snapped each plastic ladle, exposing me, the viewer, to the toxin, he is much too playful, too much the artist, way too Tibetan, to just stop there. What does not kill you makes you stronger.

Nortse release from suffering 2008The realised bodhisattva is the peacock which thrives in the jungle of poisonous plants. As the Tibetan tantrikas remind us, by fire is fire extinguished. There is much more to Nortse than toxic vision, or the pointedly political.

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2015-05-29 12.35.57
2015-05-29 12.35.46 2015-05-29 12.35.35 2015-05-29 12.35.26 2015-05-29 12.35.17 2015-05-29 12.35.10 2015-05-29 12.35.02 The centrepiece of the exhibition is on the floor, a large number of charred pieces of wood, each in its own rectangular sand box, neatly laid out.  It has similarities to an earlier installation, of the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, on the floor, also encased in sand and a metal frame as well, haunting images of the undying power of the Tibetan language as a chthonic force, coming up from the earth, uniquely able to express the deepest insights humanity has had into the nature of mind.

Nortse ashes 2014

The new installation of blackened wood is simply called Book of Ashes. Are these the ashes of finality, or rebirth? Only when you bend, closer to the ground, do the small flashes of colour in the overwhelming blackness come into focus. Fragments of Tibetan pecha texts, shreds of thangka paintings, a small but brightly painted Buddha have somehow survived the inferno, sometimes as a palimpsest underneath the text that has partly burned, revealing the baseline of truth.

Are these tiny images gleaming within the charcoal all that remains of Tibet? Are they old or new? Are they the rebirth of Tibetan culture, the renaissance of an undying insight into the nature of existence that nothing can destroy?

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2015-05-29 12.36.56 2015-05-29 12.36.29 2015-05-29 12.36.17

Maybe it’s because I’m Australian, used to seeing whole forests consumed by fire, charred everywhere you look, yet within weeks fresh green shoots burst from blackened trunks. These are optimistic works, signs of fresh life. The colours are vivid, the paint barely dry. Tibet will bounce back. As Tibetans say, it takes a nation of more than a billion people to hold them back.

Tibet is being reborn because it now circulates globally in the flows of global modernity, participating fully in the market economy’s cycles of creative destruction. Norste 2008The location of Nortse’s Hong Kong show tells us much. In the Yally Industrial Building in  Wang Chuk Hang the creaky old goods lifts still lumber up and down, their lattice work steel doors screech open and shut, the lifts driven by old men who have seen the whole cycle, from the days when Hong Kong was the sweatshop of the world, to today’s gallerista-led renaissance. Right now, gleaming new hotels and office blocks rise next to the old factories and public urinals. Tomorrow it will be gentrified. Nortse is right at home here, in the Rossi Rossi gallery.

Nortse is at home everywhere. While based in Lhasa, he has been exhibited in Mayfair in London’s West End, in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, you name it. He has exhibited in Lhasa and, yes, in Beijing. He is far from the only contemporary Tibetan artist to be at home anywhere, just like the lamas who bend minds worldwide. This is global circulation, capitalist creative destruction on a planetary scale.

Nortse often paints himself, not out of vanity but because he is Tibetan everyman. He nortse in action pwcontemporary galleryphotographs himself swathed in bandages, in uniform, his story the common story.


Bild 087He worked his way up in Lhasa, as a wedding photographer, a Xizang TV set designer, a billboard painter. He knows what people respond to. These days he sometimes uses his adult son, bandaged, to embody the same universals.

2008Nortse_ReleasefromSuffering_205x151cmNothing can hold the Tibetans back.s3947Music_Note_lr









lord of charnel ground Chitipati


Chitipati wisdom protecftor Musee Guimet









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LAUNCH OF Wasted Lives: China’s campaign to end Tibetan nomadic


New voices out of Tibet and China, converging on a new understanding of why nomadic pastoralism is what suits the Tibetan Plateau best, feature in a new report, launched globally on 30 May 2015 in Delhi.

Stories about Tibet usually feature predictable language. Seldom are Tibetan voices heard. This report is fresh, and full of new ideas, new facts, new voices and an original synthesis of a wide range of sources. Far from being only a story of loss, Chinese and Tibetan scientists now agree on a new paradigm, restoring pastoral mobility as the key to success, conservation and productivity across a vast rangeland in the sky, the Tibetan Plateau.

In this report, Tibetan nomadic pastoralists speak up, about China’s policy of removing them to concrete block settlements on urban fringes, where thousands of years of accumulated knowledge of rangeland and livestock breeding becomes useless, redundant and wasted.

The pastoralists of the Tibetan Plateau, though we so seldom hear their voices, have much to say in defence of their skills, lands and livelihoods, having learned to make habitable a huge plateau now being depopulated.

This copublication, by Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Development (TCHRD), and the League for Pastoral Peoples (LPP) is a call for China to reconsider the current policy of “close pasture to grow more grass” (tuimu huancao in Chinese)which is removing productive pastoralists from the production landscapes of Tibet.

The Tibetan Plateau, 79% the size of the whole of India, is the source of the great rivers of Asia. Those rivers flow from their glacial sources across the pastures and alpine meadows, their purity and environmental services sustained by millions of pastoralists. Now the pastoralists are blamed for degradation which is actually due to mistaken policies of constricting herds and herders to small plots, that are compulsorily fenced, and policies of encouraging mobile pastoralists to settle permanently. Tibet is now losing its food security, and its pastoralists are now welfare dependants leading meaningless lives, with no entry into modern income sources.

This report presents detailed evidence that China fails to understand its grasslands, and has made successive policy mistakes over decades, culminating in the current crisis.

Neighbouring countries, including India, are at risk. Where there are no longer local populations to defend their land, miners move in, legal and illegal, to strip Tibet of its many minerals, usually unaccountably and with no concern for environmental impacts. When mineral wastes get into the rivers, they flow towards India and Bangladesh down the Brahmaputra and its many Tibetan tributaries. These rivers naturally carry a tolerable baseload of metals, any increase is dangerous.

Tibet and India are not only immediate neighbours; both are milk cultures, civilisations based on a shared intimacy and respect for the cow (in Tibetan dri, the female yak) and dairy civilisations share a respect for nature not always found elsewhere.

This is a pro-pastoralist book. India is used to debating whether public policy succeeds in being pro-farmer. Beyond the farmland is the dryland, upland pastoral land, which is surprisingly productive, and sustainable, in the right, skilled hands. The pastoralists of the Tibetan Plateau, and India, have bred animals specifically suited to local conditions, creating a bank of genetic resources, local specialty products and a global trade in luxury fine wools. Yet China persists in treating its pastoralists as ignorant, backward and primitive, to be blamed for rangeland degradation that originates in top-down policies created in distant cities. China needs policies that are pro-pastoralist, instead of blaming the victims of policies that have driven herders into poverty and now widespread exclusion and displacement from their ancestral lands and livelihoods.

This report was compiled by Gabriel Lafitte, who drew together all available information, and testimony of Tibetan pastoralists, in a thoroughly referenced, comprehensive account of how this tragedy originated, and what alternatives are available. Gabriel Lafitte is editor of a blog on the nomads of Tibet,  and author of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource nationalism on the Roof of the World (Zed Books, 2013).

Keynote speaker at the launch is Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, of the League for Pastoral Peoples, who is deeply familiar with the pastoralists of India and elsewhere, and their indigenous knowledge as keepers of genetic diversity the world may well need in a time of accelerating climate change.

This report was commissioned by the only human rights monitoring agency set up and run by Tibetans, and TCHRD Director Tsering Tsomo will be available to media at the launch.

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Dancing the Canadian Chinese mining two-step

Tibet, Congo or Papua New Guinea

When, in 2012, I wrote a book about mining in Tibet, it seemed China’s appetite for minerals was insatiable, having survived the great global recession of 2009 onwards with hardly a blip in demand. By then the global commodity boom had been rolling on nonstop for a decade and nothing, it seemed, could slow it, not even a global financial crisis. And all the long term predictions, based on assuming China can, must and will achieve the same  consumption levels of the richest countries, cheerfully forecast decades more of rising mineral extraction worldwide to meet China’s needs.

How wrong we all were. The unstoppable Chinese demand, in the aftermath of the global crash, was fuelled by endless stimulus money pumped in by China’s central authorities, ostensibly for infrastructure construction, which uses up lots of metals and other basic commodities. Much of that money was diverted, often by local governments, to much more profitable real estate ventures, constructing all those tower blocks and ghost cities of empty apartment blocks in the desert. They too needed lots of copper, steel and other metals.

Then the music finally stopped, just after the book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World was launched in October 2013. As well as empty apartment towers, all that stimulus had built many more smelters and refineries than China, or the world market, actually needed, and suddenly the big new problem was oversupply.

Now, in mid-2015, that problem is bigger than ever, so big that a major driver of China’s New Silk Road project is to establish export markets in neighbouring Asian countries for all the excess supply. But prices have fallen sharply, and have now remained low for years, and show no sign in the short term of recovering, even if the long term pundits are right that there is still a long way to go before China uses copper and other metals as intensively as the US.

Until the recent over supply crisis, China’s mining companies, nearly all state-owned, pursued an aggressive strategy of mergers and acquisitions worldwide to get hold of more raw materials, as well as expanding rapidly into Tibet, notably the big copper/gold deposits at Shetongmon near Shigatse, at Kham Yulong between Chamdo and Derge, and Gyama upstream from Lhasa.

Two companies stand out in this rush: Jinchuan and Zijin. Jinchuan has long dominated nickel supply in China. Its home base is far inland, in Gansu,  close to the main rail line connecting China and Tibet, placing Jinchuan in the ideal position to be the smelter for the first big copper mine to get under way in Tibet, at Shetongmon. The Canadian company Continental, part of the Hunter Dickinson Group, did much of the work of quantifying the size of the deposit and the most profitable strategy for extracting the copper, gold and silver there. Then Jinchuan bought out not only Continental’s interest in Shetongmon, aided by China’s national rule forbidding foreign investors from actually mining molybdenum (one of Shetongmon’s minerals). Jinchuan went one further and bought Continental, which is now a subsidiary of Jinchuan.

Jinchuan also pressed ahead with constructing a big new copper smelter, just as the prices started tumbling. By April 2014, Jinchuan’s  oversupply problems became so acute, they reneged on contracts with their suppliers in far away Chile, relying on the concept of force majeure, meaning uncontrollable disaster, to cancel contracts for Chilean copper concentrates. Jinchuan announced a problem with oxygen supply to the main Gansu smelter, a problem so severe it would knock out all production for as much as four months, giving Jinchuan a breather.

This occurred just as China, at great expense, completed the rail extension from Lhasa to Shigatse, well to the west, leaving only 80kms to the Shetongmon mine. So Tibetan copper, in big quantities, became available, along with supplies from Chile and elsewhere, at exactly the time demand tanked.

That’s a major reason we don’t hear so much about mining it Tibet these days. From the perspective of China’s major mining companies, access to capital isn’t a problem, especially since the stock markets are again booming, and investors are keen to get a slice of the action, despite the overall economic slowdown. The problem is where to invest, where to get the best bang for the renminbi. Tibet doesn’t cut it, compared to the available alternatives.

This brings us to the other company with a major slice of Shetongmon, Zijin Mining, based in eastern China, its fortune built on gold. In 2011 Jinchuan sold a 45 per cent stake in Shetongmon to Zijin, a big company with a strong history of going global. In May 2015 Zijin acquired half of the troubled Porgera copper/gold mine in Papua New Guinea, from a heavily indebted Canadian miner, Barrick. At the same time, Zijin also announced it had bought almost half the Kamoa copper/gold mine in Democratic Republic of Congo from another Canadian miner, Ivanhoe.

Zijin has also acquired mines in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tuva (the most Tibetan part of Russia) and Kyrgyzstan, a literal embarrassment of riches.

Why, at a time of over supply, depressed prices and force majeure, would  Chinese miners want to buy mineral deposits in difficult places like PNG and Congo? This tells us much that is relevant to Tibet. Remarkable as it may seem, mining projects ready to roll, in remote Congo and PNG are actually less remote, less difficult than mining in Tibet, building it all from scratch.  Tibet is actually harder.

Much of this is because the Tibetan Plateau is huge, and mineral deposits are often in areas difficult to access. China has spent decades building infrastructure, but there is still so much to be done, especially before the massive copper/gold deposits at Yulong, in precipitous Kham, are ever to be mined, concentrated, smelted and shipped out to lowland Chinese industries.

But there is another reason why Tibet is harder than PNG or Congo: the Tibetans. Although Tibetans feel disempowered by authorities declaring protests to be criminally splittist, they persist in protesting against mining, often taking care to quote Xi Jinping’s environmental pronouncements in the biggest possible banner headings. As the eminent Tibetanist scholar Gray Tuttle pointed out recently in article in Foreign Affairs, it takes a state with 1.3 billion population to hold down the Tibetans. That is how Tibetans see it.

While small scale mining is rampant across Tibet, the much more publicly visible, capital-intensive large scale mines in Tibet are taking a long time to develop, longer than one might expect if all those Five-Year Plan announcements of mining as Tibet’s “pillar industry” were to be believed. It is certainly taking longer than I expected when I wrote that 2013 book on mining.

Longer is not never. Demand may yet rebound, mining is highly cyclical. If China is serious about adopting the American life style and American consumption, the minerals of Tibet will be in demand, especially as China’s biggest manufacturers move far inland, close to Tibet. But not just yet.

When the minerals cycle ticks up again, as it will, Tibetans may need friends worldwide. But because China reserves the mining of Tibet for itself, with very little international investment, what traction do Tibet’s friends worldwide have?

Here again things have moved on since that 2013 book. Not only are Chinese and Canadian miners doing deals to take over each other’s assets, so too the global minerals commodity traders are buying into a slice of the action in China. Specifically, the Swiss commodities trader Trafigura has bought 30 per cent ownership of Jinchuan’s new copper smelter –Jinchuan’s other smelter, the one that didn’t have the oxygen problem and the four months of force majeure repudiation of contracts. Jinchuan would like to believe it has done Trafigura a favour by giving it access to Chinese markets, but, given chronic over supply, it is Trafigura, able to sell the new smelter’s output into other Asian countries, that is helping out Jinchuan. That new smelter, a big one, is also in a minority nationality area, in Guangxi province.

Jinchuan, the owner of the Shetongmon mine near Shigatse, may also hope that its connection with Trafigura gives it (and China) entrée to the world of commodities futures, hedging, arbitraging and financialisation of minerals. China wants to get into the big league worldwide.

Trafigura, however,  probably knows how much reputation affects stock prices, and how much a brand can be damaged by hanging out with the wrong crowd.

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The mastiff guard dogs of the Tibetan pastoralists preceded their owners into modernity. Early this century China discovered an utterly modern fashion for Tibetan mastiffs, traditionally used to guard the black yak hair tents, and the few possessions of pastoralists, while the herders were out with their herds.

These fearsome dogs are utterly loyal to their owner, and ferocious towards anyone else, kept from attacking by rope and a stake driven into the ground. This attribute perfectly displayed the worldview of the new class of urban Chinese bosses, the laoban, who dominate modernity with Chinese characteristics. The laoban’s mastiff exemplified the qualities the boss required of his staff: total loyalty to the boss and a predatory attitude to everyone else.

The mastiff craze reached extraordinary heights, and Tibetans who knew their dogs went into business to supply the trade, investing in this new market. In 2006, at the peak, China’s Foreign Language Press published in English a glossy 98 page paean to the mastiff, opening with this poem: “The Tibetan mastiff lives in Tibet,/ the most mysterious snowy plateau in the world./ Boasting ferocity rivalling that of lions and tigers,/ aristocratic aloofness and elegance,/ unquestionable loyalty,/ and an amazingly high degree of intelligence,/ the Tibetan Mastiff deserves/ the honour of being titled ‘the Holy Dog.’”[1]

In Xi Jinping’s China, ostentatious laoban displays of wealth and power are now frowned on, and the bottom has dropped out of the mastiff market. The New York Times reports: “Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of the International Center for Veterinary Services, said ‘Ten years ago, it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies. But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck.

“At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during face-lift surgery. ‘If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when they want to mate their dog with mine,’ the owner told the state-run Global Times newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien. Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs, said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market. But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers.

“These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity, as it were. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a small fraction of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing to go far lower. ‘If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business,’ said Gombo, a veteran breeder in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai. ‘The pressure we’re under is huge,’ he said. Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.  In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon.”[2]

Those who live in modernity know well this boom and bust cycle. It is new to Tibetan pastoralists who see at first the promise of a better life, aided by propaganda posters on the grasslands depicting the promised new resettlement housing looking like apartments on a village green. But the peri-urban cinderblock is not the destination. From there, China expects the exnomads to reinvent themselves as factory workers or as feedlot ranch hands forking barley and soybean meal into troughs for cattle fattening prior to industrialised slaughter. This is the plan.

Mastiff Rock Dog book cover

Can you believe, in today’s China, the biggest hit movie is based on the writings of a Tiananmen dissident gaoled for years for his views; the movie version directed by the Frenchman who directed Seven Years in Tibet?

On the face of it, Wolf Totem, 狼图腾,first the book and now the hit movie, would seem to contradict everything we know about Xi Jinping’s China, especially the insistence on rigid ideological conformity and the strict, swift machinery of censorship.

This movie will no doubt be championed in the west as an environmental pic showing how the Chinese can learn to love nature, notably the wolves of Inner Mongolia, and maybe the Mongols too. Given western yearnings, we’d like to believe China can embrace wild nature and ethnic minorities, so that approach will be good marketing.

But in China, both the book and the movie have quite different meanings. The book, by “Jian Rong”, pseudonym for political scientist and former Tiananmen protester Lu Jiamin, was an enormous hit when it first came out, selling in China an amazing 25 million copies. Only Mao’s Little Red Book beats that.

Lu Jiamin has reinvented himself more than once, as one must in today’s China. A profile of him in The Guardian in 2007, when the English translation of the 2004 Chinese original won the Man Asian Literary Prize, starts with Lu as a fervent revolutionary Red Guard: “ In the fervid early months of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966-67, Jiang Rong was in a Red Guard gang that ransacked homes in Beijing, confiscating and burning any books deemed counter-revolutionary. Western novels and Chinese classics were condemned as equally evil. These works were seen as promoting bourgeois decadence, imperialism and old thinking. Like all good Maoists, Jiang knew his duty: he should turn the words into ashes.”

Lu Jiamin/Jiang Rong embraced Mao’s slogan that “It is Right to  Rebel,” have been born to a family of rebels who took power. The Guardian says: “He was born in 1946 in Jiangsu province to a politically red-blooded family. His parents were former Red Army soldiers, heroes of the war against Japan. The author’s biggest influence was his mother. In the 1920s and 30s, she had been an underground member of the communist party in Shanghai. After Mao took power in 1949, she moved into education, working for the women’s federation and running the Jiangsu provincial nursery school. Jiang’s father – a bureau chief in the ministry of health – was denounced [in the Cultural Revolution] as a ‘black gang capitalist-roader’. Even though he was a disabled veteran who had fought the Japanese, his persecutors beat him so badly that he nearly died.” The former rebels had become the new class, the power elite, and were in turn rebelled against by the Red Guard. Lu’s response was to join the Red Guards himself: “He rounded on his accusers, joined the student Red Guard and rose to become deputy head of the revolutionary core group in his college. Didn’t he feel torn, after what happened to his father? ‘Yes, there was a confusion in my mind. But I thought things would improve,’ he says. ‘There was a conflict within me between Mao’s theories and western liberal theories. There were plenty of bad things. I was against the beatings, the arson and seizures of possessions,’ Jiang recalls. ‘I took part in some of them. But in the depths of my heart I was against violence and mob activity. It was against my character.’”

He obeyed Mao’s call for educated youth to go live in the countryside with the masses. Rather than waiting to be sent down, he went voluntarily, to Inner Mongolia and it was in his years there that he met the Mongols, who were fast being outnumbered by waves of poor Han Chinese peasants ploughing the grasslands –the direct cause of today’s dust storms that envelop Beijing. In Inner Mongolia he also learned about wolves, and they became his central metaphor, for what is wrong with China, and how China can save itself, by becoming more wolfish.

Twenty years later, in neoliberal capitalist China he joined the Tiananmen protesters voicing their patriotic dismay at the corruption that came with China’s opening and reform. He was gaoled for at least a year –some reports say two years- for again being seen as a rebel.

Then Lu Jiamin turned to writing, in the vein of so many Chinese intellectuals, fixated on the endless mission of saving China, not only from outside threats, but from itself. Wolf Totem was written as a polemic, an exhortation to the Han nation of sheep, as he calls them, to learn to become wolves.

What Lu means by this is made plain in a 64-page afterlude to the Chinese original, omitted in the translations into 30 other languages.  Just in case Han Chinese readers didn’t get this autobiographical novel’s message, Lu’s “Rational Exploration: A Lecture and Dialogue on the Wolf Totem” unrolls a fullscale ideological program for saving China in a hostile world. William A. Callahan, professor of international relations at London School of Economics explains:

“While Chinese people generally fear wolves as forces of savage violence, Wolf Totem praises their ferocity, strength, and violence. Rather than seeing wolves as a problem that needs to be exterminated from the Mongolian grasslands, Jiang examines –in detail- how cultivating ‘wolf nature’ can aid China’s future development. Jiang tells us that the Chinese people have been weakened over the centuries by a Confucian culture that only teaches them to be followers. He argues that the nomads’ wolf-nature is the best model for China’s national character. China risks being a ‘plump lamb’ that militant countries might gobble up. Because Han are soft and weak, Jiang explains, outsiders prey on them –just as wolves prey on sheep.”

This is the rant of a man of almost 70, still a rebel. Far from being an environmentalist, or liberal rebellion, Chinese writers have accused him of being a fascist. He is certainly a racist, not only about the wolfish nature of the Mongols, but the Europeans too are descended from wolves, which is how they were able to humiliate China. Prof Callahan again: “What Jiang calls the ‘Western race’ was able to dominate China and become the most advanced civilisation in the world. Europeans are ferocious, he explains, because they have wolves’ blood from the same Inner Asian sources: Huns, Turks and Mongols also attacked Europe. The Europeans wolf-nature was then used to conquer Asia. He argues that mixing wolf’s and sheep’s blood will produce the ‘modern Chinese civilised wolf’. In this racial struggle for the survival of the fittest, wolf-nature is worshipped for its strength, ferocity and violence. The story’s popularity in China comes from more than its nostalgic description of an exotic past; businesses and the military use Wolf Totem to train managers and officers in strategies for success in today’s world of life-or-death struggles, and the Politburo has studied the book as a ‘significant work.’”

So making it into a movie seemed a good move, bringing the super-patriotic rebel Lu Jiamin’s racist imaginary to an even wider audience. But who could make such a movie? That turned out to be difficult, not least because the plot requires the young hero, Lu Jiamin’s alter ego central character to befriend a young wolf, with lots of intimate close-ups.

If the movie was ever to be made, it needed a director who knows how to work with animals, and how to film them lyrically. Peter Jackson was meant to do a Lord of the Rings meets wolfman version, but nothing happened. The Chinese state-owned China Film Group finally settled on Jean-Jacques Annaud, maker of The Bear, but also maker of the 1997 hit Seven Years in Tibet, in which the saintly, other-worldly Tibetans seem to spend more time saving worms from the spade than anything else. With Brad Pitt in the lead it did much to make 1997 the peak year of the Tibet movement. Yet 10 years later, according to The Economist, “representatives of the Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation visited him in Paris to ask him to make the film. Chinese producers wanted a foreign director for the project. Mr Annaud was an Academy Award winner with successful experience of working with animals (in his film “The Bear”). What about his Tibet film, he asked? They said the past was the past, he says. No apology would be necessary. In late December 2009, however, months after his hiring had been announced, Mr Annaud did apologise.”

Even a renowned bear-wrangler such as Annaud had much difficulty making the movie, not least because many in China were unimpressed by Lu Jiamin, and by the hiring of a Frenchman to make a movie meant to be quintessentially Chinese. Then there was the problem of actually training a young wolf to be camera-ready.

And there was the problem of trying to find a romantically unspoiled corner of Inner Mongolia where there is still grassland, since almost anywhere in this heavily industrialised province there are coal mines, petrochemical plants, power pylons, big cities, and tens of millions of Han Chinese settlers. They did finally find a filmshoot location in a remote corner of Xilingol.

So is Wolf Totem, the book and/or the movie, a lyrical pastorale, a paean to nature and an elegy for the Mongol nomads who have lost their pastures and livelihoods? Certainly the Man Prize committee thought so. You be the judge: thanks to Alibaba, it will soon be on a screen near you.

Lu himself, when talking to the wolfish westerners, including the Financial Times, seems to know what we want to hear: “’I never thought this movie could be made,’ said Jiang Rong, the author, who spent 11 years in the open grasslands of Xilin Gol during the Cultural Revolution as a ‘sent down youth’ and fell in love with the romance of nomadic Mongols and the wolves they worshipped and fought. Like the main character, he tried to raise a captive wolf cub that becomes a metaphor for a free spirit unwilling to submit to captivity. ‘I cried and cried writing about him. I soaked two towels,’ he said. Wolf Totem documents the end of both nomads and wolves due to China’s policies of converting open pastureland into farms for settlers — policies that have proven disastrous in Inner Mongolia as the region’s thin soil gives way to desert.”

Han man bonds with nature and the oppressed ethnic minorities?  Or a fascist vision for a wolfish China in the making? Go see for yourself, it should be on soon, and of course the trailer is up now.


[1] China’s Tibetan Mastiff, Foreign Languages Press, 2006

[2] Andrew Jacobs, As China’s mastiff mania dims, dogs are discarded, International New York Times Asia Edition, April 20, 2015

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It is 18 months since my book on mining in Tibet came out, over two years since I finished writing. What a lot has changed, in directions I did not foresee. Those changes mean a lot for the future of Tibet.

While writing Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, China’s insatiable demand for raw materials seemed inexorable, and forever escalating into a worldwide search to source just about any commodity you could think of. Not even the sharp global recession of 2008 dented China’s global demand for raw feedstocks of minerals, oil, gas, and many food crops. Just about the only commodity that couldn’t be shipped to China was water, but it too was (and is) in short supply in the industrial provinces and the major manufacturing cities.

Not surprisingly, Tibet loomed large in China’s plans for access to raw materials, especially minerals, electricity and water. That all of these would be exploited for lowland China’s industrial hubs seemed obvious. If anything, what needed explanation was why it was taking China so long to fully exploit the  massive Tibetan deposits of copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lead, zinc, salt and other minerals; and dam all the rivers, both to export electricity to the coast, and divert the rivers to dry northern China.

Only two years ago China’s demand for every natural resource had run nonstop for a decade, a decade that had come to be known as the supercycle of high prices that just kept going up and up, seemingly immune from the usual boom and crash cycles that have always afflicted mining. Several analysts, confident that China still has far to go before it is as rich as those it aims to emulate, confidently predicted a new law of economics, in which demand and prices ever rise, and not fall back.

How things have changed. The supercycle was unusually long, but it did end. As we all know, just about any commodity, from oil and gas and coal to copper and almost any metal, is now at far lower prices, and look to stay that way for the foreseeable future. In part, this is because the wheels on China’s developmentalist state model are wobbling, and there is no longer any way this can be fixed, as in 2009, by pouring massive stimulus funding into the economy to build yet more railways, tollways, cities and megaprojects.

The collapse of prices for the raw inputs of manufacturing –economists call them producer goods- at first seemed just a blip. Sure, it was obvious China was producing much more steel than Chinese buyers wanted to buy; and provincial governments, protective of their local champion corporations, resisted Beijing’s demand that the bloated state-owned steel furnaces merge, which also meant closing the more polluting and least efficient ones. But few foresaw that the weakening of demand would ripple right through the economy, at a time when global demand for China’s manufactured stuff remains weak.

Many causes and conditions have ripened at once. Europe’s austerity-driven weakness has affected China’s export industries; likewise America’s gradual recovery. The willingness of the Saudis to keep pumping oil to the max, despite low prices, was a surprise, a long term gamble to drive out of business the newer players, such as American shale oil producers and the Russians, whose energy industries remain profitable only if prices stay high.

But what the Saudis did, other big players have now done, in other key raw resource industries. Iron ore, the primary ingredient of steel making, is dominated by a few giant global corporations who made a similar calculation to the Saudis, that they could remain profitable even on low iron ore prices, while newer entrants to the global iron ore traffic, with loan finance to service, had higher costs, and would be driven out. We are in a different world, where the powerful are willing to endure a period of pain to maintain their oligopolies.

Is China an onlooker in all this? Not so. China has been playing the same game, in which there are only two options: get big or get out. China took full advantage of its near-monopoly in production of rare earths, a range of elemental metals that have innumerable high-tech uses. China worked especially hard to dominate the global market in manufacturing aluminium, building huge smelters dependant on massive amounts of electricity, usually provided by coal-fired power stations. In recent years, as coastal city citizens get fed up with smelter pollution, the new smelters are being built far inland, in Xinjiang, which also makes a troubled frontier region more Chinese, with more employment for standard Chinese speaking industrial workers.

China has taken advantage of low prices to increase its stockpiles of strategic metals, enabling smart warehouse managers to use the assets under their management as leverage to finance access to capital, sometimes using the same piled ingots over and over as collateral on multiple loans. Many have benefited from the collapse of the supercycle, and the end of the mining boom.

But in the longer term, the Chinese model is in trouble. There is too much hot money, concentrated in real estate, often money creamed off from urgent stimulus spending that was meant to build productive infrastructure. There is too much bad debt, to be rolled over and over in the hope that eventually, as the next up cycle ramps up, it will pay itself off out of new profits. Maybe.

China is no longer the lowest cost factory, with the cheapest labour. China is now a middle income country. Manufacturers are shifting to Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and of course, far inland to Xinjiang and the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, in Sichuan and Chongqing. That move was gathering momentum as I wrote the mining book, and has gathered pace. I predicted that this would increase demand for the minerals, water and hydroelectricity of Tibet, because it makes little sense to buy minerals from overseas and then get them far inland, largely because the grand vision of the Three Gorges Dam as a new inland waterway for big ships, as far in as Chongqing, never worked and probably never will. So the global brands that now manufacture their high tech in Chengdu and Chongqing will increasingly need Tibet as a source of raw materials. That part of my argument may yet turn out to be true, but it is taking time.

A major reason for my counter-intuitive argument, in the 2013 book, that Tibet is not yet spoiled, was that the mining and damming are exclusively done by state-owned corporations that are restricted in how much profit they can make, by their party-state owner, which deliberately discriminates in favour of manufacturers, and uses its political power to hold down the prices of raw materials, water and electricity. That is still so today. Large scale exploitation of Tibet seems imminent, but it has seemed imminent for as long as China’s central planners have announced mining Tibet as a “pillar industry”, which is decades.


That’s the backstory. Then along came Xi Jinping.

Xi’s extraordinary centralisation of power came with announcements that private enterprise would be allowed to play the “decisive” role in the economy, and that rigid price controls on water, electricity and minerals would be relaxed. There would be reforms of the state-owned enterprises, a crackdown on corruption and the “China Dream” would materialise.

Much of this came to pass, and much is turning out to be not at all what was expected. The corruption crackdown has exposed the oil, gas and minerals industries as major corruption opportunities, including in Qinghai (Amdo in Tibetan) where the Western Mining Corporation, which was involved in almost every major mine in Tibet, became a special focus of the party’s corruption inspections.

But the relaxation of commodity price controls is moving slowly, and there is less sign than ever of private corporations playing a decisive role. In March 2015 came an announcement that took everyone by surprise: far from downsizing the state-owned corporations (SOEs), they are to be upsized, by a state-driven policy of mergers and acquisitions, to become even bigger. This is what economists call agglomeration, an unlovely word that means what it says.

Not so long ago, when reformist premier Zhu Rongji was inclined to listen to the World Bank and neoliberal orthodoxy, the SOEs were trimmed, downsized, demerged, forced to compete with each other. It began to look like China might follow the prescribed path of market economics.

That is now decisively over.  Once again, in today’s world, big is better, biggest is best. China is determined to be globally competitive, notably in what it sells to the world, but also in what it buys. The agglomerations are initially concentrated in industries where China can sell its heavy manufactures, such as railway construction and nuclear power stations. Shipbuilding is another industry due for a shotgun wedding, and maybe even the oil industry, which has for decades extracted two million tons a year of Tibetan oil from Amdo Tsaidam.

For Tibet, it’s a mixed picture, at least in the short term. So far, there has been no announcement of compulsory state-driven mergers in the mineral extraction industry, or in the hydroelectric dam builders who jointly dominate the new economy of the Tibetan Plateau. Competition may be narrowing, behemoths building.  Will the dam builders, all state-owned, also be agglomerated? If export competitiveness is to be the trigger for industry consolidation, they do qualify, as dam building expertise, hard won in the steep valleys of Tibet, is a highly exportable capability.

The logic of this new policy of agglomeration is to make China more competitive in foreign markets. For China, operating in Tibet is very much like operating in a foreign market: the distances are great, infrastructure is not there, supply lines are long, markets are far away, everything is different. The SOE mineral extraction corporations, and hydropower SOEs are already used to operating worldwide, and, in the boardroom, the real world decision is whether the next copper mine will be in Peru or Congo or Tibet.

Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power, agglomeration of SOEs and (so far) reluctance to allow the metals and water extractors the freedom to set prices, add up to a centralisation of exploitation of Tibet. Xi’s regime is clearly out to do what it takes to revitalise the profitability and export success of China’s manufacturers. If that means bigger and more powerful SOEs, that is a familiar formula, that takes us back to the 1970s and 1980s. If bigger profits for the world’s factory, now relocating to Chongqing and Chengdu, also mean suppressing prices of the raw materials Tibet provides, so be it.

Official control over the price miners and  electricity generators can charge for what they produce may lead the big SOEs in these sectors to look for better places than Tibet for their capital. Yet it is part of the new official policy that newly agglomerated SOEs must become more profitable, and hand over a bigger proportion of those profits to the central government, which, in turn, keeps the centre supplied with the fiscal means to invest in more infrastructure in Tibet.

So in the immediate future, the SOE mining companies have few prospects for making much money from exploiting Tibet, but as demand picks up, and agglomeration grows, they will be in a stronger position, especially if, as is the case at the Shetongmon copper  and gold mine near Shigatse, the SOE mine owner is itself a major smelter company, eligible for much official favouritism.

This may mean the exploitation of Tibet will continue to intensify, as predicted in Spoiling Tibet in 2013. It also means the electricity producers, miners and dam builders will have to put up with slender margins, an incentive for them to ignore frivolous expenses such as compliance with environmental laws, or worker health and safety.

The Saudi oil producers, the Brazilian and Australian iron ore miners, the coal diggers all remain confident that China, even if it slows, will still need their raw materials, in huge quantities, for a long time to come, to make manifest the China Dream of a city apartment for all.

This period of low prices, low profits and suppressed environmental compliance will end, and we will be back to the world of Spoiling Tibet, a world where demand once more exceeds supply. By the time the next cycle kicks in, incentivising the SOEs to accelerate extraction from Tibet, China and the world will be dominated even more than now by the biggest of multinational corporations, and China will have its national champion SOEs in the big league.

All of the above affects the big state owned corporations that, with high visibility, and maximum propaganda coverage, build and extract on a big scale. Almost none of the above affects the smaller mining companies proliferating all over Tibet, who have a single, simple agenda: to make as much money, as fast as possible, ripping out of the ground as much stuff as they can, with no heed for environmental consequences or impact on nearby Tibetan communities. Because they operate outside the gaze of the state –usually because local governments are paid to look the other way- none of the above complex and contradictory agenda applies to them.  They  do not have to invest but keep profits low. They do not have to be concerned about occupational health and safety, or environmental impacts.

But if they are too successful in their singular pursuit of profit, they may become big enough to get caught up in the coming compulsory round of mergers. And they do, for the time being, have to accept prices that are lower than a few years ago. However, the primary attraction of resource exploitation, all over Tibet, remains gold. The price of gold does fluctuate, but not as sharply as other minerals.

The reason is simple. Eminent China-watcher David Shambaugh recently predicted: “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think.” How did he reach this  conclusion?  “Consider five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability and the party’s systemic weaknesses. First, China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en masse if the system really begins to crumble. In 2014, Shanghai’s Hurun Research Institute, which studies China’s wealthy, found that 64% of the “high net worth individuals” whom it polled—393 millionaires and billionaires—were either emigrating or planning to do so.  Meanwhile, Beijing is trying to extradite back to China a large number of alleged financial fugitives living abroad. When a country’s elites—many of them party members—flee in such large numbers, it is a telling sign of lack of confidence in the regime and the country’s future.”

The discreet fungibility and portability of gold is at the heart of this flight of capital. This is what drives mining in Tibet, much more than high level pronouncements of agglomerations.





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Butter Lamp


Tibetans in exile, and their supporters, chronically politicise everything they learn about what is happening inside Tibet; maybe they forget there are other lenses.

However, there are other ways of approaching reality, and in today’s China those approaches can occasionally come from Chinese film-makers taking a fresh look at situations that usually seem mired in right vs wrong, good vs bad.

That’s the case with the wry, surprising, confronting, gentle and humorous mocko-doco Butter Lamp, that got as far as an Oscar nomination.

When National Public Radio in the US discovered this whimsical play on China’s visual clichés of Tibet, and of China’s modernity, it could only see politics, leaving until the very last line a gentle warning from its French producer Jean Feret: “’It’s a tricky subject,’ Feret admits. ‘And we always have to fight for the idea that this is a non-political film and that it’s artistic.’”

This isn’t just a producer playing dumb, denying the political message so as to avoid censorship in China, where it was shot by a Beijing-based director Hu Wei, and has already collected 70 awards around the world for its playful sensibility.

All we see initially is groups of ordinary Tibetans, against various iconic backdrops, being bundled into frame by an unseen photographer, just as in today’s world of mass tourism Tibet, with its Chinese characteristics, folks get their pictures done with Tiananmen, or a busy Hong Kong shopping street, or the Potala as backdrop. Or the sort of European mansion China’s new rich love to build; or the Great Wall. Clearly these are regular Tibetan villagers, unused to composing themselves for the camera. Only at the end do we see what is beyond the backcloth, what Tibetans see every day. To say more would be a spoiler. See the trailer for yourself.

When Feret insists this is art, he is right. It is our categories, in the minds of the audience, that are being played with, our buttons that are being pressed. That’s more than just politics.

This short film has won awards in China, and that tells us that China is no longer such a cut-and-dried, right-and-wrong place, that new perceptions of Tibet and the Tibetans are emerging; as the Dalai Lama has long said would happen.

Director Hu Wei is a face of the new China. He told South China Morning Post:  I majored in film at Beijing Normal University. While I was a student, I travelled to Tibet. When I got to Litang (in western Sichuan province), I stayed with a nomad family on the grasslands. There were about 20 families living there. That was 2004. I had a camera with me so I took lots of photos of them and promised the families I would send them the pictures. The following year I went back to those grasslands, but only 10 of the families were still there. The others had been relocated by a government programme.

“Changes are very stark in Tibet. That’s why I made Butter Lamp in Tibet, and not in Peru, for example. I don’t know if these changes are good or bad, but I wanted to use this film to get people thinking about these changes, and how they are changing us. Where are we headed? I chose to feature a picture of the controversial Panchen Lama in Butter Lamp because I don’t want us to forget him as our world changes. I’m trying to record facts, objective truths, that may one day be forgotten in the stream of history. I won an award (for Butter Lamp) last year in Shenzhen at the China International New Media Short Film Festival, which is run by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.”

Yes, it is indeed remarkable that the only photo of the disappeared child Panchen Lama appears, in the hands of an elderly Tibetan, in this Butter Lamp film. Yes, that does make it political.

But that’s one moment in a film that, by its structure, confronts us, the viewers worldwide, with our preconceptions about what Tibet is, and can be. And the prize it won in China tells us much we need to know about how China is changing. To see this charmer as only political reduces it to either/or: the disappeared Panchen appears, so that’s a slap in the face for China, a win for the Tibetan cause. To reduce everything to simplistic dualisms is puerile, as the Buddhists have always said.

And if you think this is just a random accident, see if your nearest Chinatown bookshop still stocks a copy of the October 2014 issue of Chinese National Geography magazine.

For less than $4, you get 400 pages of the glossiest supersaturated colour pix of central Tibet, not only the marvellous landscapes, but also the same ordinary Tibetans who file into shot in Butter Lamp, in everyday dress, not just decked in traditional costume like ethnic dolls. Every romantic trope of Tibet as a magical Shangri-la, originating in the projections of the European gaze, is lavishly reproduced in this Chinese language publication for Chinese consumers. This is a glossy devoted entirely to the sumptuously colourful landscapes, architecture, ordinary people and charismatic lamas of Tibet. There are respectful photo-essays on seven “living Buddhas” scattered through the  volume.  In the entire magazine, the only other content is the ads, full-colour double page spreads for the latest models of Mercedes,  BMW, Jeep, Cadillac etc.  Audi and Landrover each has an eight-page spread. Yaks drinking at a lake shore adorn the cover.[1]

China, especially the urban new rich, is starting to recognise Tibet in new ways. That’s what Chinese readers now want: high-end consumption and the fantasy of a pure land where you can get away from the ratrace. They want pure air and a quiet mind, a reminder of what life is for, just like we do.


[1] Chinese National Geography #10, 2014 ISSN 1009-6377

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from a small book of essays, poetry and art on the Soil and the Earth, edited by  Vandana Shiva, celebrating the International Year of Soils, 2015


That the soils of the Tibetan Plateau exist at all is remarkable. This vast island in the sky is, in planetary history, so new, so high and still rising skyward, so unconsolidated and prone to quake, so raked by gales and blizzards, it is a miracle that soil exists.

Yet the soils of the Tibetan Plateau sustain huge herds of migrating gazelles and antelopes, millions of yaks, sheep and goats cared for by nomadic pastoralists, and an entire Tibetan civilisation. Not only does a rich soil sustain life, the hardy grasses and sedges of the vast plateau pasture lands in turn protect the soils from the powerfully erosive forces of wind, snowstorms and intense cold. Neither permafrost below nor the sudden hailstorms from above disturb those soils, aerated by burrowing mammals, held together by the biomass of living plants, most of which is underground.

Tibetans have long known and respected the earth, and its innumerable local gods and spirits, which can cause earthquakes, landslides and floods if not treated with respect. Offerings are made daily to these local protectors, starting with a sprig of juniper put onto the morning fire to produce fragrant smoke.

The entire plateau is at an average altitude of 5000 metres in upper Tibet, in the arid west, and 4000 metres in the forested and wetter east; with the mountain ranges that enclose the plateau soaring far above. It is only on the mountain slopes that there is little or no soil, above the snowline. In Tibet the snowline is at 5000 metres, sometimes as much as 6000 metres, much higher than elsewhere, because Lhasa is no further from the equator than Shanghai, Mecca, Johannesburg, Tehran or Houston. Intense sun, intense inner continental winds, intense summer heating and winter cooling make for intensive erosion, so great that the entire yellow earths and Yellow River of northern China are the result of a Tibetan Plateau that erodes as fast as it uplifts. Yet despite these elemental forces, the soils sustain verdant alpine meadows for wild and domestic herds alike, and the millions of nomadic pastoralists who annually gather what nature provides.

Those soils regulate the flow of the great rivers of Asia, from Pakistan’s Indus, through Southeast Asia’s Mekong, to the Yangtze and Yellow of China. They absorb the summer monsoons and the icemelt from the glaciers in the snowmountain  peaks, acting as a sponge that both soaks up and releases water through the year.

Across northernTibet there are no big rivers. This is a land of lakes, abodes of goddesses, slowly shrinking over recent millennia as the entire plateau becomes drier, only to start rising again very recently, due to climate change accelerating the melting of the glaciers.

Wetland soils are common, great peaty marshlands where migratory birds nest and feed, reeds grow thickly and yaks tread delicately tussock to tussock, fattening on the rich herbage. Hard ungulate hoofs seldom compact these springy soils, because the nomadic pastoralists know well that grazing must be done with a light touch, always moving the herd on well before the grass is exhausted. A mobile civilisation was guarantor of healthy soil and the protective plant cover.

Why the switch to past tense? The encroachment of modernity onto the Tibetan Plateau, over the past 65 years, has failed to understand any of the above. The modernisers, from intensively-cultivated lowland China, insisted the Tibetan Plateau could be made more productive, and that started with making the nomads build walls, of soil, of upturned sod, cutting the living turf to make fences running up and down hillsides, for “scientific management” of livestock. Further cutting into the soil was required to build highways, cities, hydro dams, power pylons, pipelines, railways, and to experiment with ploughing the grassland for crops. Herd sizes grew greatly, beyond the capacity of the soil to sustain them, while the pastoralists were allocated fixed lands, restricting their mobility, intensifying the impact of hooves and teeth on tightly fenced plots.

The result is widespread land degradation and even desertification. When the soil is stripped bare, Chinese scientists call it “black beach”, for which there is no cure, short of waiting thousands of years for soil to form naturally all over again. Bare rock is the final stage of a tragedy that need not have happened, a tragedy intensified by blaming the pastoralists themselves for recklessly overstocking and overgrazing, as if they are ignorant, unskilled herdsmen with no knowledge and no concern for the consequences of their actions. The victims of foolish policies designed in distant cities take the blame, and now must leave their ancestral lands and soils, to live in concrete peri-urban dependence on official handouts.

Scientists also declared war on the burrowing rodents of the grasslands, the pika and marmots which aerate the soil, keystone species which in turn feed many predators of the air and land. They have been poisoned en masse, blamed for soil degradation, although their population explosions are more the result than the cause of degradation.

Now China faces a major decision, whether to drown the water meadows of Dzoge, where the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu meet, under a torrent of water diverted from the upper Yangtze River, in a grand canal scheme intended to deliver water to northern China. The Dzoge wetland is on the great bend of the Yellow River as it rounds the sacred Amnye Machen mountain range. It is at last recovering from  misguided attempts to modernise it by digging drainage ditches everywhere, drying wetland into fire-prone peatland that starves the grasses of the water they need. It was these water meadows that gave the People’s Liberation Army its worst moments, in the Long March of 1935, as soldiers, unfamiliar with the marshy soils, failed to step only on tussocks, got mired and died. Ever since, Dzoge (Ru’ergai in Chinese) has been seen as treacherous, to be tamed, initially by drying it out. Now the plan is to blast tunnels and canals across eastern Tibet, capturing several major tributaries of the Yangtze River (Dri Chu in Tibetan) to be poured into the Yellow River at Dzoge, inundating the water meadows. As the International Year of Soils ends, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan is due to begin, in 2016. It is during the Year of Soils that the decision on this megaproject will be finalised.

Tibet’s soils have sustained the barley farmers of the valleys and the pastoralists of the open grasslands for thousands of years, because the Tibetans practiced eco-agriculture, with a light touch. They understood that highland soils are readily disturbed, and once the steppe is broken, the soils quickly erode. They always moved on, not lingering. That customary wisdom has been supplanted by a modern insistence on extremes: firstly on intensive meat production that overused the land and soil; now on grazing bans to somehow conserve watersheds.

Modernist intensive land use is unsuitable for the soils and the livelihoods of Tibet; while the traditional extensive land use, spread out across the landscape, respected the upland soils and the local gods.


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