A new urgency about effective action on climate change is evident wherever you look, from striking school children marching on city streets, to the endless torrent of scary warnings from panels of scientists. The 2015 Paris agreement, which let each country set its own climate change targets, already looks tired and inadequate.

Loss of biodiversity worldwide has also been gaining a similar urgency, report after report tells us a million species are at risk of extinction. Human dominance of the entire planet, at the cost of all living beings, is more questionable than ever.

The build-up to each global treaty negotiation on climate is intense; likewise the build-up, now counting down, to a renewed treaty commitment by every nation on earth, to act effectively to protect life, all species, all of global biodiversity. That build-up culminates in October 2020, when all nations convene, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, in Kunming, for the Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD).

Conservation International’s Sacred Lands program


The staging of this crucial gathering in Yunnan Kunming, where China can decide who to allow in and whom to exclude, greatly complicates the issue.

Kunming, in October 2020 will be the culmination of years of advocacy for those who have no human voice, the wildlife of the world, including the millions of species almost completely unknown even to scientists. The prospect that we could almost casually, inadvertently make extinct so many species, not just the iconic mammals, in the name of efficiency, productivity and a globalised commodity food supply chain, is galvanising wildlife campaigners worldwide. Momentum is building.

Expect intense debate. Paris, an open city, had plenty of public spheres for the urgency of the climate debate to be aired in 2015. Kunming, however, although well situated in one of the world’s greatest biodiversity “hotspots”, is in China, where open debate, on anything, is tightly controlled. But, in the UN system, it was China’s turn.

Panda habitat, then and now

The last time CBD declared a target for protected areas, meant to be binding on all governments, was back in 2010, known as the Aichi Target, aiming at each country setting aside 17 per cent of its territorial area for the protection of wildlife. At Kunming 2020 that Aichi target will be hotly debated, critiqued as inadequate, with demands that it be upped to as much as half the land surface of each country.[1] No wonder many governments will resist, and instead propose no mandatory target, merely those “voluntary commitments”, in UN jargon INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

By October 2020 the high speed railway from Kunming to Shangri-la (Dechen in Tibetan, Xiang er li la in Chinese), via Dali and Lijiang will be operational, enabling delegates a quick mid conference excursion to Tibet, including a bridge over Tiger Leaping Gorge, due to soon be dammed for hydropower, despite UNESCO’s feeble objections to damaging a World Heritage property.


China plans the 2020 Kunming event as a celebration of China’s exemplary prowess as conserver of wildlife, announcing it has met the Aichi Target of 17 per cent of its territory set aside for wildlife conservation, by declaring as much as 30 per cent of the entire Tibetan Plateau to be National Parks. It will be a triumph. That national park system, with four of the ten new Chinese parks, and by far the biggest, situated in Tibet. They are due for official launch months before the Kunming conference. Yet again, China leads the world in constructing “ecological civilisation” 生态文明思想.

If ecological civilisation sounds a bit odd in English, it is. In new era Chinese usage, pristine landscapes for wildlife (and carbon capture and water provision for distant consumers and much more) don’t just happen, they must be constructed. Only the power of the state, the epitome of civilisation, can do this. That is because it is an “arduous task”, to use another CCP jargon, which only state power can allocate funding and commit all citizens to; and only a state can carefully plan with scientific precision how to make a pristine natural wilderness.

If that still sounds odd, it doesn’t in China, where concepts such as rebuilding an authentic replica Potala makes sense, as does  the strenuous state-directed project of building ecological civilisation.

Kham: eastern Tibet, Kunming just to the south


Why Kunming? It was clear in recent years it was China’s turn to stage the CBD in 2020, and it seemed Beijing was the location. The switch to Kunming, in China’s subtropical southwest, signals a new spectacular, staging the event in China’s biodiversity hub. The Pota Tso (Pudacuo in Chinese) protected area, just upgraded to National Park, is conveniently nearby to showcase pristine wetlands.

entering Pota Tso

Tibet is tantalisingly close; in fact Kham Gyalthang is now officially the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Shangri-la, comprising the upland portion of Yunnan province, featuring famous sacred sites such as the Khawa Karpo (Meili Snow Mountain) holy pilgrimage circuit, and the UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers protected area.

It is the large Tibetan prefecture of Yunnan that gives Kunming its cred as global capital of biodiversity. China expects to be congratulated as the exemplary leader of the entire developing world, a model to be emulated. China intends CBD COP15 in Kunming to be its coronation as conservation central.

The world yearns for a good news story, at a time when leadership on climate and wildlife is not coming from the US, Europe is divided, and the American presidential election is only a month after the Kunming event. China will control the narrative, alternative voices will be blocked from attending, and there will be plenty of celebs and top influencers at hand to amplify China’s pride.


Those alternative voices could tell us there is another side to the straight arrow narrative of China’s ascendancy as the greatest ecological civilisation. Mandatory amnesia is now common in today’s China, especially when it means forgetting past state failures incompatible with today’s state ambitions. China’s new era narrative rewrites recent history, in several ways, erasing living memories in order to insert the state as the sole actor, sole protector of wildlife and biodiversity.

In the interests of homage to all protectors, and the value of memory, we correct the record, with five key remembrances that add up to an alternative path for the future of Tibetan wild life and livelihoods::

  1. For years China wrestled with the actual Tibetan “hotspot” location of greatest biodiversity, only to turn elsewhere, for fear of fanning pan Tibetan unity.
  2. China remains the world’s biggest market for animal parts from around the world, providing the finance incentivising hunters, poachers, smugglers and criminal networks all focussed on the insatiable demand in China for supposedly curative animal parts accursed by the Chinese characteristics attributed to them.
  3. Kunming was for decades a centre not only of biodiversity but of the indigenous knowledges, of many minority ethnicities, which had effectively protected biodiversity for thousands of years. Today’s China, in order to make the state the sole actor and sole protector of wildlife not only shut down the hugely successful Kunming Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, but erased its remembrance.
  4. Kunming was for decades the centre of a global network of endangered species research, inclusive development projects bringing together international donors and local communities as equal partners. Not only has this effort been closed, its memory has been suppressed.
  5. Tibetans were deeply engaged in these initiatives,  in risking –and losing- their lives to protect wildlife at a time when central leaders had no concern for the wild west of upper Tibet, beyond the frontier, where cruel poachers and rapacious miners roamed at will. Those shameful decades of the 1980s and 90s are also expunged from the new story of the deep, longstanding, heartfelt and benevolent care extended by the central state to the remotest alpine deserts of Tibet. Today, when Tibetans speak up to protect local environment, they are criminalised, with heavy jail sentences.
A biodiversity “hotspot” covering all five Tibetan provinces: Conservation International 2008


First, Kunming is indeed on the fringe of a great biodiversity hotspot, so big the moniker “hotspot” is misleading understatement. This is Kham, or eastern Tibet. Politically, Kham is carved up into no less than four Chinese provinces: Yunnan Shangri-la; Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region.

spanning five provinces, an enormous “hotspot” of biodiversity
A huge biodiversity “hotspot” under threat, from the Chinse lowlands to the south
Conservation International precise mapping of greatest biodiversity 2007

 Kham is the dramatic end result of India tectonically pushing into Eurasia, a deeply crumpled, rugged landscape of endless mountain ranges dissected by the deep valleys of great wild rivers. Precipitous Kham, to use a classic Tibetan phrase, in its ranges and rivers, provides habitats from the subtropical to the alpine, on every slope. That is what makes it such a biodiversity hotspot, first named as such by the global NGO Conservation International, decades ago. They called it the Hengduan Mountains, or Southwest Mountains of China hotspot.

Kham is the wettest and warmest part of the Tibetan Plateau, able to sustain an extraordinary variety of life. The enormity of this biodiversity “hotspot” is the story China doesn’t want you to know. That is because the new National Parks spread across the Tibetan Plateau are mostly not in the hotspot, but in areas of lesser biodiversity, which happen to be the sources of lowland China’s water supply. The newly declared protected areas, and the areas of greatest diversity of life don’t match up. China doesn’t tell you this, nor does Conservation International, which discovered, after years of advocacy, that China had no interest at all in creating a pan Tibetan entity that would unite all the provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of China’s total territory- had been split.

Conservation International 2007 map of biodiversity in the sources of Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers: a very different map to China’s Sanjiangyuan National Park

To the wildlife scientists of Conservation International, it was a straightforward calculation of mapping species abundance data, collating all the accumulated transect data of sightings and trappings, to build a bigger picture. It also became clear that during the ice ages, as glaciers spread worldwide, many species had found refuge in the warm, wet, monsoon fed valleys of Kham, and later spread Eurasia-wide as the ice retreated. All of this made Kham biologically important. It was thus self-evident that it needed special protection, so Conservation International presented its case to the Chinese government. CI’s mapping of species abundance even went further north, beyond Kham, into parts of Amdo, both in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. So all five of the provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau has been carved by modern state nation-building –Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai and Gansu, are embraced in the singular concept of biodiversity “hotspot.”

Conservation International 2007


CI’s scientists had no idea their high concept was born at just the time China’s leaders were secretly committing to undermine ethnic minority identity and nominal autonomy, for fear of emulating the fall of the USSR.  While CI mapped its hotspot, central leaders were secretly considering policy proposals published by influential academics, urging dismantling the autonomy and separate identity of minorities, to be replaced by accelerated assimilation into the language and mindset of the Han supermajority. Hu Lianhe 胡联合 and Hu Angang beat a steady drum of warnings that China, following the Soviet model, had made a serious error by formalising and reinforcing ethnic difference which conceded Tibetans and Uighurs separate status and separate territory.[2]

Li Bo and other Chinese authors identified Community Conserved Areas best left under Tibetan local control, as the best way of protecting biodiversity

Central leaders decided not to formally abolish this, which would have been too overt, and caused backlash. Instead, they quietly launched systematic assimilation, shifting school curricula to emphasise standard Chinese and de-emphasize mother tongue, and other policy shifts. Those shifts, from a multi-ethnic country to a single, unitary state of a single Chinese race speaking a single standard Chinese language, culminate in Xinjiang today in compulsory, coercive assimilation en masse.


Only years later did it dawn on the conservationists that China might have its reasons for not wanting to reunite Kham and overcome its fragmentation. Kham is where the PLA decisively defeated the Tibetan army in 1950, in Chamdo.

Indepth documentation of the war in Kham, from the memoirs of Chinese commanders and official Chinese sources: Li Jianglin 2012

Kham is where the popular uprising against China’s takeover began, in 1956, the start of years of full scale warfare, with air force bombings of monasteries and aerial gunning of fleeing nomads and their slow yak herds.[3] The PLA again triumphed, but the Khampas were warriors, even when faced with death from a distance, by modern artillery and ruin from the air. China has had every reason to keep Kham as fragmented as possible; and any mention of conquest as secret as possible.

Conservation International knew better than to name this giant hotspot either Kham or Tibet, instead blandly labelling it “The Mountains of Southwest China.” Then a decade ago it dropped the entire project, eventually almost scrubbing it from its Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) website.CI wanted an ongoing presence in China, and discovered the price.

By the time CEPF left Tibet, it had accumulated massive documentation of biodiversity. The bottom line is that, if China is serious about maximising conservation coverage, its designated national parks are largely in the wrong places.

Snow leopard habitat map


Second contradiction of China’s new story of its embrace of wildlife conservation:  in practice, despite global attempts at enforcement, China remains the global destination for almost all wildlife smuggling and trafficking, as has long been the case. China’s appetite for –you name it- seahorses, shark fins, tiger bones, antelopes, bear bile, coral, monkey brains, pangolin scales, rhino horn, ivory- remains insatiable. In fact, as China gets richer, far more people can afford expensive smuggled ingredients once available only to an elite, and the Traditional Chinese Medicine market persists in its belief that all ailments, especially libidinal, are curable by medicines with Chinese characteristics, smuggled from everywhere. An exhaustive 2018 monitoring report by TRAFFIC, In Plane Sight, is exhausting reading, as all the maps point in just one direction.


China now proclaims a new found passion to protect Tibetan antelopes and gazelle, snow leopards and brown bears, the state resolutely on guard. To say the least, this is a very new passion, thousands of years after China’s elephant population was destroyed, hundreds of years since all but remnant panda habitat across most of southern China was lost.

China knows it has a reputational deficit to overcome, and CBD Kunming 2020 will showcase the new narrative.


Third, positioning the central state as the sole protector and guarantor of wildlife populations erases the long record of local Tibetan communities as stewards of wildlife, including the pastoralists herding their yaks, sheep and goats intermingled with wild antelope and gazelles, all seasonally migrating to remote upland summer pasture each spring, all returning to winter grazing with their newborns.

Now the state is the sole agent, and the embarrassing decades of the 1980s and 1990s, when Tibet was a wild west the state had no interest in, are best forgotten. Upper Tibet was beyond the frontier, a lawless land open to rapacious miners seeking gold in the river beds, and shahtoosh fur on the hoof, slaughtered en masse. State indifference is incompatible with today’s nation-building state assertiveness.

In China’s lawless, stateless 1990s wild west, the only law enforcement halting wildlife slaughter was by these Tibetans. Source: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Beijing.

Official amnesia reaches a crescendo with the erasure of the Wild Yak Brigade’s mountain patrol, which scrounged jeeps and fuel to track down and arrest Muslim Chinese hunters who mercilessly shot antelopes for a handful of underbelly fur that fetched high prices in India and Pakistan, crafted into the lightest of shawls, status symbols for offering to the woman who has it all.

1999 Xining Declaration, published by WWF and IUCN

Protecting the wildlife of Tibet became, in the 1990s, a global movement, culminating in 1999, in the Tibetan city of Siling/Xining, in a global gathering of “government representatives from China, France, India, Italy, Nepal, the UK and the USA and representatives from the CITES Secretariat, China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW),Tibetan Plateau Project (TPP), TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), as well as experts and scholars specializing in the study and protection of this species.” They mounted a transnational campaign to stop the smuggling of antelope fur to India, to disrupt the criminal networks, which gained momentum by mobilising conservationists worldwide. Their 1999 Xining Declaration is a roadmap of effective worldwide biodiversity action.

China today has somehow elevated one Tibetan, Sonam Dorje, to martyr status, sweeping his grave clean in regular remembrance; while suppressing all recollection of the antelope protection patrols he organised, and the many Tibetans risking all, at a time of official indifference, to track and arrest the ruthless poachers.

In today’s Tibet, local Tibetan community leaders and local government officials who try to protect local environments from expropriation and other threats are arrested, are yet again charged with many crimes and imprisoned for long periods.[4]

arresting a Tibetan environmentalist 2019

The most recent criminalisation of Tibetan environmental protest explicitly charges Tibetans with usurping the state monopoly of power. ”Local authorities stated that a group of village residents along with Zom Ché had founded an illegal organisation in the name of environmental protection.

“Among the 11 sentenced is Wang Ché, a former head of the villagers committee of Do Thrang. The group was charged of ‘setting up illegal organisation with evil intentions, destroying the village social management order through manipulation of village affairs.’ The charges also included ‘creating hurdles for the government policy, not accepting environmental conservation compensation, and stopping others from receiving it, and negatively influencing the regular working of the village and party committees’”.


FOURTH, Kunming for decades, brought together biodiversity researchers, and global aid donors, together with Chinese scientists and local Tibetan communities, all working together to document species abundance, traditional conservation successes, problems and prospects. This was a fruitful program, one of many examples being the 2005 A Rapid Biological Assessment of three sites in the Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot, Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China, a 174 page report on the abundance of wildlife in Kham Kandze prefecture of Sichuan. Not only did it bring together dozens of field researchers from across China and across the world, it also brought together funding and institutional support from Conservation International, The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Sichuan Academy of Forestry and Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department. Other funders of this collaborative effort to map the Kham biodiversity hotspot included World Wide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy, Ford Foundation, the World Bank, European Union and several government aid donors.

These reports now gather dust; as China has shifted its focus north, to the river sources, which provide China with its water tower, biodiversity becoming the rationale for depopulating the watershed. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund program in Tibet is no more. Its legacy is rich documentation, in obscure online corners, of a wealth of community based conservation research results.[5]

Another example, also from 2005, is Xu, J., E. T. Ma, D. Tashi, Y. Fu, Z. Lu, and D. Melick. 2005; Integrating sacred knowledge for conservation: cultures and landscapes in southwest China; teamwork by Tibetan, Chinese and international conservationists on local community knowledge as the key to conservation success in the Kham “hotspot.”[6]  That teamwork is the reason for today’s official amnesia, because those embarrassing reports of 10 to 20 years ago point to local knowledge and local agency, in partnership with scientists and official institutions, as the best strategy for achieving actual biodiversity protection. Today’s China insists the central state alone is the guardian and guarantor of biodiversity, employing exnomads to police the clearance of Tibetan pastoralists from their pastures.

As this decade plus of global endeavour to map and conserve wildlife and entire habitats of Kham came to a halt in 2008, when China accused Tibetans of “killing, looting, burning, smashing” everything Han Chinese, Chinese  biodiversity scientists made one last attempt at gathering together everything they had learned from Tibetan communities.  They had learned a lot. China has now pivoted decisively away from community conservation in Tibet, for fear it will only strengthen Tibetan identity, embracing the sovereign state as sole actor.


Fifth, Kunming was the centre of this co-operative, bottom-up work to bring together Tibetan local communities, other Yunnan minority ethnic communities, scientists, global finance, and the state, in the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Kunming’s own institutional base for this embrace of indigenous knowledge was the Yunnan Institute of Botany’s Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK).  

Try searching for and see how far you get. For many years CBIK provided support, publication platforms and staged conferences bringing together a global collection of conservationists, all dedicated to weaving traditional conservation practices together with modern science. CBIK was closed a decade ago, its online legacy almost erased, while its parent, the Kunming Institute of Botany is now fully in line with official top-down policy, inscribing scientific categories onto Tibetan landscapes as far away as Kailash Sacred Landscape in far western upper Tibet. No Tibetans need apply.

official seal of approval, agreeing to the authority of Derge Zongsa monastery to be in charge of comunity conservation, 1996

China needs us all to forget that Kunming, a long way from Beijing, once cheerfully embraced community conservation, indigenous knowledge and bottom-up effective conservation grounded in sacred mountains, landscapes and pilgrimage. China wants us to look only ahead, to the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming, October 2020.

China once recognised Tibetan reverence for mountain gods as best protection for biodiversity:. Source: Review of CCA Studies in SW China by Li Bo 2008

China wants to be congratulated as the most capable constructor of ecological civilisation the world has ever seen. It’s not that simple.  Conservation with Chinese characteristics uses the rhetorics of biodiversity to inscribe exclusive and exclusionary state power onto vast Tibetan landscapes, while erasing memories of how it all could have been done by Tibetan communities instead of excluding them.

We regret this stifling. Where would conservation research and community based active protection could be by now if they had continued? Today there would be many Tibetan conservation NGOs, confidently working with Chinese partners, to protect wildlife, whole landscapes and Tibetan communities together. Grassroots community-based organisations would have kept growing, all over Tibet, with support from elite institutions such as Peking University, not only conserving endangered species but financing their work by running select ecotours to remote areas, with local Tibetan communities hosting visitors in their homes and earning income as well.

Tibetan drogpa nomad snow leopard monitoring team, Shan Shui NGO 2014

This is not a fantasy. It is a trajectory established during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years, which, in a low key way managed to quietly persist, even after China’s decisive turn, under Xi Jinping, to centralisation, authoritarianism and assimilation of minorities. It tells us much about Tibetan adaptability and resourcefulness that conservation NGOs such as Shan Shui manage to keep going.

In the wider world, community conservation, rather than top down statist rigid territorial zonings, grows and grows, embraced by just about everyone, including the Convention on Biodiversity (CDB), which, in its Article 8j, specifically encourages community conservation on the solid basis that historically it has been far more successful than state driven efforts, since it is grounded in sacred landscapes local communities hold dear.

The best kind of map for biodiversity protection: the pilgrimage circuit for Khawa Karpo holy mountain

Kunming 2020 CDB will be a test: which way will CDB go?


What is at stake is the future of life on earth. The issues are enormous. Here is a list, provided by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, in diplomatic language:

  • What should the new set of biodiversity targets look like? How can they maintain ambition while being specific and promote action on the ground? How should they align with other global targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
  • How can the international community finally tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss? Are biodiversity mainstreaming and cooperation among multilateral environmental conventions the only possible options?
  • What is the role of voluntary commitments for biodiversity? Should they be included in the post-2020 framework?
  • What should be the place of means of implementation? How can biodiversity commitments and targets be coupled by specific commitments on finance, capacity building and technology transfer?
  • What mechanisms, tools, and review mechanisms can support implementation at the national and local level?
  • How can the post-2020 framework integrate different worldviews, in particular those of indigenous peoples and local communities?
  • How can the broader public be engaged in biodiversity governance? What is needed to catalyse societal action for biodiversity?

This adds up to a huge agenda in Kunming, with widespread unease that leaving it all to governments, and the inter-national system, only produces fudges and diplomatic phrasings masking hollow promises that cannot be held accountable. Danger signs include the prospect that, to get things moving, the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) might have to agree to let each country set its own targets, merely voluntary commitments, with no mechanism for holding them accountable. That is just what happened in 2015 in Paris, at the climate talks, with results that fell far short of what is needed.

Will these negotiations be better for being staged in a city and a country intending to keep out the rebellious extinction protesters?

[1] E. Dinerstein, and others, A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets; Science Advances,  2019; 5 : eaaw2869 19 April 2019

[2]  Hu Lianhe, 前苏联改革失败和国家解体的再反思, Rethinking the Failure of the Reform of the Former Soviet Union and the Disintegration of the Country, 湖北行政学院学报, Journal of Hubei Administration Institute,2005 年第3 期  总第21 期 No.3 , 2005, vol 21

[3] Li Jianglin [李江琳], When the Iron Bird Flies in the Sky [当铁鸟在天空飞翔], Taipei: Lianjing Press [联经出版社], 2012),

Carole McGranahan, Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War,

Charlene Makley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, 2007

[4] Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in China: The King of Dzi, Lexington Books, 2015

[6] Ecology and Society 10(2): 7.

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 a blog about UNESCO’s inability to hold China accountable for endangering World Heritage

Sacred pilgrimage mountain Khawa Karpo overlooksThree Parallel Rivers World Heritage site in danger from hydro damming and river diversion

Will UNESCO be the first major agency of the United Nations to fall to Chinese money, patronage, soft power projection and suasion?

At first, this sounds like a slur on a venerable multilateral institution with a very wide responsibility, from a specialisation in hydrology to protecting the world’s monuments and the most exceptional landscapes as World Heritage.

Yet China is closing in on this problem child of the UN system, repeatedly shunned by the US, desperately short of cash for its Paris headquarter staff and global responsibility for culture, both tangible and intangible, monumental and natural.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Dri Chu/Yangtze in Kham Gyalthang

China’s campaign to capture UNESCO is low key, under the radar, yet increasingly obvious. In May 2019 UNESCO staged an International Water Conference in Paris, the entire event underwritten by a pushy new Chinese multilateral set up to market China’s prowess in building hydro dams and power grids worldwide. The chief sponsor was the grandly titled Global Energy Interconnection Development Cooperation Organisation (GEIDCO).


GEIDCO is a vehicle for Liu Zhenya, who has outgrown his work as head of State Grid Corporation, despite it being, by capitalisation and operational capacity, one of the very biggest  corporations worldwide. Having electrified China, making it into one national grid, having crisscrossed China with ultra-high voltage transmission lines, Liu Zhenya is out to electrify the planet, as a single global grid, all manufactured and operationalised by his State Grid ultra-long distance, ultra-high voltage power pylons and cables.  This might sound like fantasy, but it isn’t.

Here is his pitch: “Global energy network is an important platform to guarantee effective exploitation of global clean energy and ensure reliable energy supply for everybody. Global Energy Interconnection analyses the current situation and challenges of global energy development, provides the strategic thinking, overall objective, basic pattern, construction method and development mode for the development of global energy network. Based on the prediction of global energy and electricity supply and demand in the future, with the development of UHV AC/DC and smart grid technologies, this book offers new solutions to drive the safe, clean, highly efficient and sustainable development of global energy.”

Liu’s vehicle has a title as long and impressive as United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation: Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization. All the news on its website features the travels of Liu Zhenya as he deploys the classic Chinese soft power technique of jimi 羁縻, literally bridling and feeding, as in the taming of a wild animal that needs to be broken in, to accept being mastered by human will.

As Didi Kirsten Tatlow reminds us, jimi has a long lineage and GEIDCO’s website is a catalogue of where Liu Zhenya plies this trade of bridling and promising to feed those who agree to his mastery. While the rise and rise of Huawei gets the headlines, and GEIDCO is as yet influential only among tech heads and penniless UN agencies, it too is on the rise.

GEIDCO is not bashful about its ambition to hardwire the world, its’ ambition is boundless: “GEIDCO innovatively proposed a new model for the co-development of electricity, mining, metallurgy, manufacturing and trade, with the aim of transforming Africa’s resource advantages into economic strength and building pillar industries and new engines for Africa’s economic growth.”


China these days offers African countries a one-stop shop for wealth accumulation, pitched at regime elites across Africa. You guys have the minerals; you also have the rainfall and the big rivers, so here’s the package deal: we build the hydro dams and the long distance ultra-high voltage power grids that Liu Zhenya pioneered, in his previous incarnation as boss of State Grid. We also build the factories and the ports that turn the minerals into metals, using the hydropower, then ship the metals back to China, whose appetite is bottomless.

No need to negotiate endlessly with a dozen haughty foreign investors to raise the capital, plus a cohort of development assistance agencies who will impose all sorts of conditionalities on you. We can do it all for you, all you need do is establish state control over the land and clear out the villagers. We do the rest.

This is a seductive pitch, a shortcut to industrial modernity, a carrot dangled to spur the donkey, classic jimi 羁縻. The bridling comes later, when the African client realises too late they signed an unequal treaty, and are locked into paying tribute to a global accumulation engine headquartered in China.

If this seems, well, a bit megalomaniac, we now live in a world inclined to reward such corporate disruptors of boring old realities, such as painstakingly negotiating free, prior informed consent of those to be shoved out of the way of the hydro dam or mine or power grid or factory or port. Liu Zhenya is one of China’s answers to the Jobs and Zuckerbergs and Musks; nowhere near as famous as Jack Ma of Alibaba, but with UNESCO’s craven help, on the way.


UNESCO may think it staged the 2019 International Water Conference, with GEIDCO its lead sponsor, but GEIDCO sees it the other way round: “At the UNESCO International Water Conference co-held by the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris from May 13 to 14, GEIDCO rolled out…..”

The rollout is boundless, embracing not only the whole of Africa in a single power grid, but the whole world. Europe is next; to be powered by grid supplied energy across the Mediterranean from African superabundance of electricity, and from Asia:  “At the High-level Panel of the UNESCO International Water Conference on May 14 2019, GEIDCO released the Europe Energy Interconnection Planning Research Report. The goal of the report is to build an energy system dominated by clean energy and centring on electricity and further strengthen interconnection. Hence it proposed the planning scheme for Europe Energy Interconnection and 11 key interconnection projects from Africa to Europe and Asia to Europe, and also evaluated the comprehensive benefits of Europe Energy Interconnection.”

Little wonder then that UNESCO, GEIDCO’s client, in its other role as protector of World Heritage, is eager to show it has been bridled. Under the headline “UNESCO, Africa and China agree on projects to safeguard World Heritage in Africa”, UNESCO announced in June 2019, for its new patron: “Ninety-five African sites from 35 States Parties are inscribed on the World Heritage List, fewer than 9% of all the inscribed properties. Yet, African sites account for one third of the List of World Heritage in DangerChina alone has 53 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, none on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”

China now benevolently partners UNESCO in tutoring African countries how to get more prestigious World Heritage listings, and on how to ensure UNESCO does not chide World Heritage managers for bad management. That’s an attractive package.


Does Tibet have any role in all this? Well, yes. Firstly, the great wild rivers of eastern Tibet are the source of the hydropower State Grid transmits, along its ultra-high voltage power lines, all the way across China to the world’s factory, stretched out across China’s coastal provinces. Tibet is the showroom and the salesroom. Tibet is where Liu Zhenya flies African leaders to see for themselves what State Grid and GEIDCO can do for them.

Second, if the full cascade of planned and authorised dams is built in Tibet and just below, so much hydropower will be generated, some could be exported, on those ultra-high voltage grids, all the way to Europe, knitting Eurasia together. This isn’t going to happen tomorrow, nor is Elon Musk’s mission to Mars. But Liu Zhenya thinks big, and he is convinced his tech advance, upping the voltage on the power lines to well over one million volts, is the game changer, enabling electricity to be transmitted thousands of kilometres, with very little loss en route.

Kham Gyalthang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, before the expressway tollroad and high speed railway

If all those dams do get built Tibet will play a central role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, potentially transmitting electricity not only west towards Europe but also to Southeast Asia. That would fit in with China’s planned transition from a low wage, labour intensive manufacturing economy to a rich, services based economy, shifting its manufacturing (and industrial pollution) away from China to SE Asia, while retaining ownership of the factories. As China shifts its factories abroad, electricity demand will peak and decline; while growing in the relocated factories still owned by China in Vietnam or Cambodia or Bangladesh. This would take a decade, probably longer, but that is the vision of Liu Zhenya and China’s central planners.

Third, for Tibet, how is it possible that China has none of its World Heritage sites on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger? How can it be that all those dams, especially those in the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site in Kham Gyalthang, on the eastern edge of Tibet, do not flash danger signals? How can UNESCO tell Africa that China is the exemplary model to follow, because not one of China’s 53 World Heritage sites is in danger?


Three recent reports document in detail exactly how World Heritage is in danger, in Three Parallel Rivers, from dams, mines, and large scale diversion of the waters of the Dri Chu/Yangtze/Jinsha, including the displacement of 100,000 small farmers whose fertile cropland will be drowned by the dams.

  1. The NGO focused on keeping UNESCO honest, World Heritage Watch, has released its 2019 World Heritage Watch Report of case studies of the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam in Kham Gyalthang, plus many hydro dam projects around the world financed and built by China.
  2. International Campaign for Tibet’s report shows precisely where all the planned dams recently authorised by China’s National Development & Reform Commission are located.
  3. This blog also reported on the absurdity of a Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site that does not include the actual rivers themselves, only their steep valley walls, leaving China free to dam, and UNESCO speechless.
to be lost to damming………..

UNESCO World Heritage in China, specifically in Tibet, is in danger, and UNESCO must decide if it will go beyond diplomatically “strongly urging” China to actually protect its protected areas. The prospects are not promising. The crunch comes at the formal decision-making session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, held in Baku, Azerbaijan, 30 June to 10 July 2019. Already, UNESCO’s draft decision is available well in advance.

UNESCO does protest at the many threats to its Three Parallel Rivers, but limits itself to “strongly urging” China (the State Party in UN jargon) to do better. China (p14) basically insists that the rivers themselves are not strictly in the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage boundaries, so UNESCO better mind its own business. In the recent past, UNESCO did raise wider issues, in its State of Conservation reports on those rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween (Dri Chu, Za Chu and Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan), including expressing alarm at water diversion, dams and mass displacement of disempowered subsistence farmers along the rivers. Now, when it matters most, UNESCO is backing down.

UNESCO, in its draft resolution for adoption by its World Heritage Committee early July 2019 says: “The confirmation of the closure and termination of mines inside the property and its buffer zones, as a follow up to previous commitments to consider the whole area off limits, is welcomed.” Yet China’s own compliance report submitted to UNESCO, accompanied by satellite pix, says only that the mines “have not been expanding.”

Now, at crunch time, UNESCO has backed away from naming the danger. It gives up altogether on two of the rivers, the Yangtze/Jinsha and Mekong/Lancang, on the grounds that they are already heavily dammed, focussing instead on the one remaining undammed river, the Salween/Nujiang/Gyalmo Ngulchu, in the forlorn hope that it alone can be spared damming. UNESCO is now all set, if it follows the script it has written, to “note with concern”, and even “strongly urge the State Party not to consider any further development until the SEA [Strategic Environmental Assessment] for the property and buffer zone has been completed, and ensure that the last remaining free flowing river Nujiang is not altered by hydropower development.” That’s as close as UNESCO is willing to go to declaring danger.

UNESCO’s unique intellectual property IP is its power to bestow an appellation of Outstanding Universal Value, the key to gaining World Heritage status. This is UNESCO’s legislative voice. UNESCO is about to sign away its highly valued intellectual property IP, yet again, for the benefit China’s wealth accumulation; yet again authorising a top down state driven project to dam the Yangtze/Jinsha/Dri Chu, the Mekong/Lancang/Za Chu and Salween/Nujiang/Gyalmo Ngulchu.

from the UNESCO manual on how to nominate for World Heritage status

Top down control is more than decades of dam planning followed by construction; it is also mass tourism that can be top down, not managed by local communities. Local bottom up management is more rewarding both for the locals and more meaningful for the tourists, as is shown in a recent study of two World Heritage villages in Anhui province, eastern China.[1]

Despite UNESCO/IUCN’s fears, China has swamped Kham Gyalthang with hordes of tourists at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the next dams will only bring more expressways, high speed railways and tourist masses to marvel at China’s engineering might, and wonder about the 100,000 vanished local farmers who once ploughed the deep, fertile sediments of these great rivers.

Outstanding Universal Value and sacred pilgrimage route: Tiger Leaping Gorge


UNESCO is increasingly  bridled and fed by China’s wealth and power, by China’s jimi coaxing and cajoling, bankrolling and grandstanding. UNESCO now chooses to accept China’s assurances, yet again, that mining within Three Parallel Rivers has finally ceased. Jimi works, UNESCO is bridled, compliant, willing to mouth China’s pitch to Africa for the rollout of global power grids as the universal path to fortune.

Faced with the prospect of being captured by China, UNESCO is ill-equipped to recognise that this is even possible, or imaginable. UNESCO is the one UN agency in which the developing country majority of UN members managed to set the agenda, which is why successive US administrations, Trump being only the latest, have loathed UNESCO and refused to fund it. The standard Western accusation is that UNESCO, by embracing Palestine, is anti-Semitic, but Western objections to UNESCO go much deeper than that. UNESCO has been oriented towards amplifying the voices of its Third World constituency, without any notion that China, the self-proclaimed leader of the developing bloc could actually have the muscle and money to capture UNESCO.

While UNESCO sees itself, deprived of US funding, as desperately short of money and greatly overstretched, it is rich in intellectual property (IP), a highly monetisable category of capital these days. UNESCO is the inventor and owner of the Authorised Heritage Discourse which defines heritage, based on its exclusive concept of Outstanding Universal Value, and bestows World Heritage status on sites put forward by governments for UNESCO approval.[2]

China craves that UNESCO AHD stamp of approval, and, once received, does not hesitate to monetise it, for China’s advantage. If UNESCO were to get over its self-depiction as poor, it might discover it has enormous power in dealing with China. It could learn the sort of hard headed dealmaking that China respects,  thus making many World Heritage properties live up to their appellation. 

This would not come as a shock to China, where critiquing the concept of World Heritage drew 400 participants to Hangzhou in October 2018, to a Critical Heritage Studies conference.          


If one looks back at how China got the UNESCO seal of approval for its 53 Chinese World Heritage sites, the guile of nominating the Three Parallel Rivers minus the actual rivers is not so unusual.

Three Parallel Rivers was nominated by China in 2003, at a time when China’s ascendancy as the world’s factory was in full swing. Planning far ahead, in the full knowledge that hydro dams were planned for all three rivers, China carefully on paper carved out the actual rivers from the proposed UNESCO site,  nominating only the steep valley sides that rise as much as four kilometres, abundant in medicinal herbs, from subtropical to alpine on a single slope.

UNESCO went along with this fragmentation, and repeatedly failed to pay attention to China’s vague intimations of possible future development –dams, grids, river diversion- until far too late. UNESCO has persisted with its Eurocentric patrician assumption that it is the patron, and third world countries the client state beneficiaries, even when China reversed the roles.

China’s nomination of Three Parallel Rivers is 300 pages of scientific data assembly. Buried deep in those 300 pages (at p.160) are vague references to the likelihood of being overrun by tourists, overwhelmed by earthquakes and other natural disasters, then one paragraph on Prospects: “The unfavourable factors mentioned above as well as the possible serious consequences have been taken into serious consideration by governments and competent departments at various levels.  Active measures –more legislature support, increased scientific research and more funding- have been taken to gradually control and solve these problems.” The relevant organs are in command, nothing to see here.

The words hydro, dam, electricity or grid appear nowhere in China’s Three Parallel Rivers nomination. IUCN, to whom UNESCO outsources its evaluation of natural site nominations, did note that China’s master plan for future development of Three Parallel Rivers:  “mentions increases in the use of hydro power which, at the micro level can provide clean energy, but at more extensive levels could be potentially damaging to the natural values of the main rivers. This General Plan is due to be revised over the next few years and this imbalance between development and conservation should be corrected.”


This has been a costly failure for UNESCO, which has been unable to face the reality that it was misled by China from the outset, blinkered and bridled by the State Party.

Why not now declare Three Parallel Rivers in danger? If one looks at the 54 World Heritage sites officially in danger, only three are in rich countries. Does that mean the rest are the fault of poor countries unwilling to effectively maintain World Heritage sites?  Not at all. Many listed as in danger are because both the site and its surrounds are conflict zones, and the endangered status is a symptom of much bigger problems, a cry for help. The birthplace of Jesus is on the endangered list, as are many sites in Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, Yemen and Libya, all devastated by conflict.

UNESCO’s definition of World Heritage in danger: “construction of reservoirs which flood important parts of the property.”

Three Parallel Rivers is in danger, from multiple threats. Adding to that, China now alleges that the ongoing presence of subsistence crop farmers along the river is in itself an unspecified threat to heritage.  China now says: “Rural poverty is suggested to be the main factor threatening heritage protection. Some villages have been or are going to be relocated upon consensus by the residents to improve their living conditions as well as heritage protection.”[3]

This makes the local communities and customary stewards of these great rivers enemies of heritage, in need of removal, even though the surrounding terrain is so steep there is no vacant farmland to which they could be relocated. The displaced will be officially classified as voluntary “ecological migrants.”

This makes Three Parallel Rivers a conflict zone. China is declaring the indigenous conservers of the three rivers to be the enemies of heritage protection. Three Parallel Rivers is in danger, yet UNESCO has almost nothing to say of mass displacement of local communities beyond vague approval.

Black is white, white is black; UNESCO supposedly holds China accountable; in reality China is capturing UNESCO.


learning how to critique state discourses of power and heritage

After the end of the revolutionary era of criticising Confucius, the Communist Party has decisively turned to embrace heritage as a primary source of regime legitimacy. Heritage, tangible and intangible, is booming.

A recent book on China’s embrace of UNESCO’s Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) reminds us: “The starting point for the ‘heritage turn’ in the 1990s is to be found in ideological shifts and the CCP’s search for a new form of legitimacy beyond communism. There is a growing pride in the country’s long history and rich traditions, affirmation of erstwhile condemned cultural values, huge investment in heritage protection, and promotion of a culturally based nationalistic discourse. The new vocabulary and ways to conceptualize the past in terms of cultural heritage (wenhua yichan) has changed how historical sites and cultural traditions are imagined, valued, and interpreted. But this does not mean that all aspects of the country’s past and its traditions are now embraced. There is selectivity in the choice of sites and practices elevated to heritage status, attempts to govern and control cultural and religious practices through the heritage discourse, and continuing tensions between a state-led national discourse and bottom-up celebrations of local cultures and identities.

“Heritage-making processes, however, often privilege elites and the middle class in their cultural and leisure activities, a section of the populace which has grown significantly in China over the last decade. Yet, although the state and elites have a privileged access to and voice in heritagization processes, ordinary citizens, local communities, and marginalized groups have more abilities to express their views, negotiate, appropriate, and resist the AHD or its implementation.”[4]

Now is the moment for UNESCO, and its natural heritage site verifier IUCN, both of whom frequently declare themselves in support of “ordinary citizens, local communities, and marginalized groups,” to decide whether they will speak up for the disempowered, or side with the State Party.

If UNESCO were to recognise and exercise its great power, as creator and inventor of the Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) China so badly wants, it would not only classify Three Parallel Rivers as World Heritage in Danger, it would insist that Three Parallel Rivers be renominated for UNESCO approval, this time with the actual rivers included. Since the core of AHD is UNESCO’s grand concept of Outstanding Universal Value, how could the restoration of those three actual rivers to the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage property be anything other than an enhancement of Outstanding Universal Value?

[1] Rouran Zhang, Laurajane Smith, Bonding and dissonance: Rethinking the Interrelations Among Stakeholders in Heritage Tourism, Tourism Management 74 (2019) 212–223

[2] Laurajane Smith, The Uses of Heritage, Routledge, 2006

Her naming of UNESCO’s powerful Authorised Heritage Discourse is familiar in China: 话语与过程:一种批判遗产学的视角——文化遗产研究与实践系列访谈之Laurajane Smith专访; Discourse and Process: A Perspective of Critical Heritage Studies——A Special Interview with Laurajane Smith; 百 色 学 院 学 报Journal of Baise University第27卷第5期Vol.27-No.5 2014年9月Sep.2014

[3] WHC/19/43.COM/7B.Add, p. 15

 [4] Christina Maags and Marina Svensson eds,  Chinese Heritage in the Making Experiences, Negotiations and Contestations, Amsterdam University Press, 2018, 14-15

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment


When China’s first railway line into Tibet opened in 2006, Tibetans outside Tibet, and their supporters, condemned it, for many reasons. It would only intensify Han Chinese emigration to Tibet, they warned, would disrupt migratory wild animals seeking safe, wolf-free remote pastures to give birth, would cause erosion and degradation, and other disasters as well. There were no counterbalancing benefits.

Tibetans inside Tibet took a more nuanced view, if we take the Lhasa 2006 railway art competition as a guide. With the optimism for which Tibetans are rightly famous, the artists responded to the arrival of the chaglam by immediately filling it with Tibetans, arriving and departing, on the move, using it for their own purposes, investing that single track, non-electric, medium speed line with Tibetan characteristics.

Tibetan Contemporary Art

China built not only that track but a grand station in Lhasa, its architecture a tribute to the shape of the Potala, and won prizes for its design.

In hindsight, 2006 was almost the last time exile indignation was the automatic, self-evident, default response, in the exile diaspora. If we jump 13 years forward to today, when China is spearing four or five high speed electrified double track rail lines into Tibet, both from the north (from Xining and Lanzhou to Chengdu) and from the east (Kunming to Dechen, Chengdu to Nyingtri and Lhasa) we hear nothing much from exile Tibet. The Tibetan voice has faded.

Meanwhile, inside Tibet, the elaborate dance of appropriation, replication, imitation goes on, at an accelerating pace, as China builds more infrastructure, not only railways and highways, but innumerable museums too, and substantial cities, across Tibet. Who is appropriating whom here?  Who is paying homage, who is ripping off the original, with a bad fake?

Tibet Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum

When China builds a faux Potala 布达拉宫, across the Kyichu, high on the south bank, high enough to gaze directly at the original, is this Tibetan architecture with Chinese characteristics, or Chinese architecture with Tibetan characteristics, or something else altogether? What to make of this Tibet Museum of Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Little wonder, in the face of such accelerating construction, Tibetans are increasingly speechless. The old categories, when it was clear who is the victim and who the victimiser, no longer apply so readily.


The Shenzhen based architects, keen to show off their ersatz Potala, lapse into extravagant rhetoric. The architects of the new Tibet Intangible Heritage Museum fixate on the Potala steps: “Tibet is considered to be a holy place close to the sky, with the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple being pilgrims’ destinations. So, our basic design concept of Heavenly Road is consistent with the most unique natural and cultural genes here.”

The ascent matters. The climb to the Potala, or to the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage mountains such as Emei Shan and Wu Tai Shan, are more than an exertion. They are opportunity to pause, to reflect, to contemplate why you are doing it, what expectations, what baggage you bring with you. Tibetans pray to be reborn in Potala, that hidden land, from where it is a short journey to enlightenment.

The architects fanciful “design concept” of the Potala steps as heavenly road, Tiān lù 天祿, is no accident. This is a favourite Chinese metaphor for Tibet, at an altitude so high you can touch the clouds, to invoke yet another cliché. Tianlu was also the default metaphor for that initial rail line into Tibet, and amplified by the pop songs that made love to a railway.

The architects boast to fellow architects: “After appreciating the rich intangible cultural heritage of Tibet through a hard climb, visitors will finally reach the ending point where they can overlook the Potala Palace across both time and space, establishing a dialogue as well as paying a tribute not only to Tibet’s great natural landscapes, history and culture, but also to the holy land at the bottom of everyone’s heart.”

It is easy to respond to such words with outrage, exacerbated when you look at their many pictures and design graphics, which manage to combine the exterior of the Potala with the interior of the Jokhang. A mashup of the two holiest buildings in Tibet. That could tempt us to fall back into the certainties of identity politics of the vanished decades of Tibet advocacy. Self-reinforcing outrage gets you nowhere these days, there is just too much of it about, wherever you look.

But it is hard not to be outraged, when the architects boast that: “Secondly, it means a unique experience of space. The main volume of the museum evolves from the main hall of the Jokhang Temple, forming an introverted and stable space. The touring path of the “heavenly road” put up in such a space creates a diversified spatial experience that makes people feel tall, narrow, spacious, dim, or bright in different public spaces or exhibition chambers, and indicates an reflection of a special journey of life.”

Faced with such nonsense, the habitual response is to label this new Potala a fake, reproducing a neat binary of categories, the authentic and the fake. It’s all too neat.

from one Potala to another


The fifty or more shades of grey in between suggest this burbling about Tibet as the land of magic and mystery, a re-tread of  the Western fantasies of Shangri-la a century back, are more than burble, and are increasingly heartfelt. No longer just a marketing pitch, nor simply a propaganda ploy, today’s China knows in its bones that Tibet has something China lacks, something valuable, even life-changing. Today’s new era China may lack the vocabulary for what that elusive something is, and so fall back on clichés, but the appreciation is growing, wherever you look in Chinese popular media. It was way back in 2002 that Michelle Yeoh climaxed her movie The Touch, 天脈傳奇,Tian mai zhuan qi, on the roof of the Potala, its martial arts heroes attaining mystical revelation.

No contemporary architect could be content with just mashing the Potala and Jokhang. This replica Potala might look much like the original from below, but the higher you go, the more modern, even edgy, it gets, culminating in a box on top, not deer and a dharmachakra turning of the wheel in remembrance of the Buddha’s first teachings. That box, draped in lungta windhorse colours, is set at a gravity-defying rakish angle. It signals the triumph of modernity, the capacity of engineering to cantilever structures out into open space. This is past and future somehow meshed, a melange of styles, at once Tibetan, Chinese and global anywhere, which makes it very now.

Worries that China might build an imitation Potala, in the new industrial zone south of the Kyichu, go back years. Public intellectual Woeser back in 2014 called out the first attempt at Tibetanesque design, built to stage the propaganda opera, a must-see for Han tourists, on how princess Wencheng, back in the T’ang dynasty, brought civilisation to the barbarians of Tibet.

Woeser warns, 2014

This Rukor blog, back in 2014, attempted to complexify the issue, by introducing the Chinese concept, alien to either/or Westerners, of the “authentic replica.” To the ears of most English speakers, that is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory concept. You can be authentic, you can make a replica, but you can’t be both. In Chinese, it is not odd. For example, some of China’s minority ethnicities are able to control the inrush of Han mass tourism by building replica folk villages where, when the buses roll in, they dress in replica folk costume and stage replica folk dances. That way where they actually live is separate, not submerged under the tourist tide. Everyone gets what they want, the tourists are happy with the staged authentic replica, the locals can get on with their lives, not mixing up performance with living.


Tibetans have no control over tourism, and the numbers arriving have swollen way beyond the capacity of the Potala or Lhasa generally, to accommodate the 25 million Han coming each year, on the latest official statistics (multiply the numbers in the right column by 10,000). Since almost all Han go to Lhasa, that is a huge overload, and a strong argument for a replica Potala, aka Tibet Museum of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Tibet Autonomous Region 2018 Statistical Yearbook

But handling the waves of curiously incurious Han masses is only part of the wider story of speedy urbanisation throughout Tibet, of the push and pull that magnetises Tibetans towards urban comforts and facilities; plus the objectification of Tibetan-ness as the unique selling proposition that makes urban Tibet a marketable destination.

Rapid urbanisation and a veneer of Tibetan characteristics go together. Much of inner Lhasa has been demolished and rebuilt with Tibetan finishes, external facades that nod to traditional building design, because mass urbanisation and mass tourism demand that Tibet, as an attractive destination, be both familiar and different, comfortable yet exotic, safe but also edgy, heated, airconditioned, even pressurised yet also raw, authentic and even challenging. That’s the mix, and the authentic replica, to which you go by comfy bus, fits those needs.

We could dismissively call all this fake, or, a bit more elegantly, Tibetanesque or Tibetoiserie. We could call it China’s own Orientalism, a fantasy of packaged, sanitised difference that tames Tibet, put under glass, fashioned as museum display.

However, the Tibetan artists who, in 2006, Tibetanised the railway, reminding us that it opened the way for Tibetans to go round China, tell us there is more to this. Who is taming whom? Are the Tibetans, slowly, almost imperceptibly, taming the minds of the Chinese, insisting quietly but persistently on being different, not just in architecture but in understandings of the nature of mind, the purpose of life?


The game of Tibetan-Chinese relations is an old one, both sides have accumulated innumerable strategies for dealing with each other. The question of who is appropriating whom is an old one. The Buddhisms of Tibet and China are the same and different. The traditional healing systems  overlap yet are different. The traditional architecture of monasteries is similar but different. Relations between charismatic Dalai Lamas and powerful Chinese emperors were full of projections, patronage, appropriation, subtle jostlings as to who sits highest, competing courtly chronicles, elaborate gift giving and bestowal of extravagant titles, proclamations of control without substance, the rule of men not law.

Tibetans know how to do such ambiguity. Princess Wencheng is a good example. For centuries, she was forgotten in China. It was the Tibetans who kept alive her memory, revering her not for introducing seeds, agriculture and civilisation to primitive Tibet, but because she brought the Jowo, the most sacred of all Buddha statues, to Tibet. It was through the Tibetans that China rediscovered their long forgotten princess and the power of the Tibetan empire to demand a princess to marry the king of Tibet. The opera Gyasa Belsa tells the story, with all the flourish of classic Tibetan art.

Woeser warned us, 2014

That was then reverse engineered into a vehicle for making China not the tribute payer but the civiliser, benevolently sending their princess to the outer darkness to civilise the Tibetans. To stage this revisionist Sinocentric drama, China then built the pseudo Tibetan backdrop that so horrified Woeser, to make the staging appear authentic. Is Songtsen Gampo’s Chinese bride the origin of China’s Tibet, or Tibet’s China?


Let’s look at this from a different angle. Take the China International Music Competition, a prestigious effort by China to get into the big league of Western classical music performance. China embraces the canon of European classic music, much as it now embraces Tibet as a land of mystery and revelation. There is now a massive investment in training and fostering talented young Chinese pianists, not only to attain technical mastery but to play with passion and depth, like the most celebrated of Western performers.

Canadian Tony Siqi Yun wins the China International Music Competition 2019 playing Mozart

How does that fit with China’s insistence on everything having mandatory “Chinese characteristics”? For a century, the slogan has been that anything Western must serve China, and Xi Jinping recently reminded everyone that still holds.

Yet the reality, to quote the Financial Times, is that: “China boasts over 80 orchestras, many of them new creations. Concert halls are typically full with young audiences. In particular, the nation is gripped by piano mania, with an estimated 40m children learning to play the instrument. Competitions are springing up all over China, many of them organised by conservatories. Their aim is to raise quality and prestige by drawing students hungry for solo careers. The rivalry is intense. Such events are lavishly funded by the government. ‘The government is using music to purify the souls of the people,’ Wang Liguang, an influential Chinese Communist party member explains via a translator. ‘This is the message that we send to the world: that we are nurturing our local traditions but harnessing the essence of the advanced western culture to make Chinese culture shine more brightly.’”

So who is appropriating whom? Is this imitation, or ripoff, or heartfelt homage? Is China’s romantic image of Tibet, so reminiscent of Western Shangri-la fantasies, just a mass marketing ploy to get even more than 25 million Han into Lhasa each year? Does China grasp that if Tibet becomes the same as anywhere in China, much is lost, much that will be a loss for overworked, overcompetitive urban Han? Is this a quiet reassertion of Tibetan difference, fostered wherever possible by Tibetans, attuned to the unmet higher needs of speedy Han apartment dwellers?

Is the new Potala, gazing across the Kyichu at the original, just a cynical knockoff, or also a homage?


displaying Tibetan intangible cultural heritage

Beyond the pseudo Potala façade, the interior is meant to display Tibetan intangible cultural heritage, in contrast to the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, which displays tangible cultural heritage, such as Chamdo pottery that is several thousand years old.

tangible Tibetan heritage

The odd distinction between tangible and intangible heritage is not of China’s making, but of UNESCO. When UNESCO got World Heritage under way in the 1970s, there was a Eurocentric bias towards monuments and ruins. They are tangible. Culture that merits celebration as heritage worth protecting is much more than monuments; so UNESCO came up with the vague and clumsy category of intangible heritage. Sowa rigpa disease diagnosis and treatment, for example.


The furious pace of museum construction, across Tibet and across the whole of China, is part of the making of cities, and a civilised urbanisation that keeps the past present, but under glass and under official control of interpretation.[1]

Siling (Xining), the biggest city of the Tibetan Plateau, with a Tibetan population of at least 120,000 maybe many more

It is the pace of urbanisation in Tibet that is by far the biggest transformation Tibet has experienced, in thousands of years, and yet it is little discussed. Urbanisation in Tibet has profound consequences, such as negating minority ethnicity autonomy, as geographer Emily Yeh and anthropologist Charlene Makley have recently pointed out:


“The urban today is thus privileged in China as the site of progress and modernity, the imaginative horizon of the future, and a synonym for development itself. Planners take urbanization to be the central means for continued economic growth and modernization. At the same time, urbanization is also a key process for reproducing state power. As geographer Tim Oakes notes, China appears to be taking to heart Henri Lefebvre’s argument that the ideology of urbanism has replaced that of industrialization as the medium of history and progress. Thus, as Oakes put this, “The state in China reproduces itself in urbanism, not merely by constructing cities, but in the way the state is restructured and reorganized in the form of urban institutions.”


“The significance of the urban as both the inevitable site of dreams of future prosperity as well as the locus of state power is both underpinned and reinforced by China’s territorial administrative hierarchy, which structures subnational territory and ranks administrative divisions. Five of six prefectures of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have been converted to urban prefecture-level municipalities, and two rural counties of Lhasa Municipality, the capital of the TAR, have recently been converted to urban districts, a process that involves substantial farmland expropriation and the displacement of people from rural villages to high-rise apartment blocks. The TAR government plans to raise the provincial urbanization rate from 25.7 percent in 2014 to over thirty percent by 2020. Outside of the TAR, a number of rural Tibetan counties (including Yulshul in Qinghai Province, Dartsedo and Barkham in Sichuan Province, Shangrila in Yunnan Province, and Tso in Gansu Province) have also been upgraded to county-level cities over the last decade.  Importantly, urban administrative units are ethnically unmarked; cities do not have “autonomous” status and associated cultural and political rights. Mongolian scholar Uradyn Bulag has argued that as a consequence the administrative promotion of rural counties to urban municipalities is a “shortcut to overcoming ethnic autonomy.” [2]


Accelerating urbanisation stacks Tibetans in high rise apartment blocks, under surveillance, with no land for animals or even a vegetable greenhouse.  Urban life means trips to the countryside, to collect the tangible herbal ingredients to make sowa rigpa medicines become rare. Sowa rigpa is instead under glass, at the Potalesque Tibet Intangible Heritage Museum, a feature attraction of post-autonomy urbanism. The tangible becomes intangible, autonomy fades away, urban density and grid management replace the open range.

Maybe it is time to focus on urbanisation, beyond  the Tibetan characteristics of the architecture of museums and railway stations in Lhasa.

Lhasa railway station

[1] Tami  B l u m e n f i e l d and H e l a i n e S i lverman eds, Cultural Heritage Politics in China, Springer, 2013

[2] Emily T. Yeh & Charlene Makley (2018): Urbanization, education, and the politics of space on the Tibetan Plateau, Critical Asian Studies, 50, 4, 2018

through the feature window, gaze upon the old Potala
Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



Skills training for Tibetans and their friends in Europe, in researching and analysing China’s plans for Tibet.

Have you wondered how the Rukor blog obtains information and assesses China’s plans to transform Tibet? How does Rukor find its’ stories, verify and document China’s agenda for the future of Tibet?

This European Summer School shows you how easy it is to discover China’s visions of mastery, and reframe them from a Tibetan viewpoint. Discover the secrets of delving deep, past the propaganda surface, into the documents, debates and elite think tanks that shape China’s policies. Go behind the scenes, to discern the actual drivers of official policy. Connect with local communities in Tibet to gauge likely impacts when infrastructure projects go ahead.

Expressions of interest are invited, to attend a weeklong training program led by Rukor editor, Gabriel Lafitte. Venue and date to be finalised, depending on your feedback to

civilising the barbarians

The purpose of the workshop is to encourage more research and analysis, on a wide range of environment and  development issues that impact on Tibet, using case studies as a method of unpacking what appears online as a comprehensive overview, but started out as just simple curiosity. By pulling apart past Rukor posts, or adventuring into new topics, we aim to show it is not necessary to have sophisticated search skills, just patience and persistence. We aim to demystify the process, in the hope of building a group that is alert to the complexities, contradictions, strengths and weaknesses of how Chinese and Tibetans mis/understand each other.

Depending on demand, there may be more than one workshop, in more than one European city, probably in July or August.

There are no prerequisite requirements to enrol, other than being comfortable in English, and curiosity about what is actually happening across Tibet, and in China’s official elite. If you don’t read Chinese, no problem.

back in the day, when mastiffs were a Han boss fashion accessory

Email to register your interest, with suggestions as to venues and dates, so we can plan a workable program.

Gabriel Lafitte

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Blog one of three

This 2019 moment uncannily echoes 2004, when Chinese environmentalists and an investigative newspaper revealed Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, was about to be dammed, stilling a mountain river famed for its untamed wildness and spectacular gorge. That 2004 report opened an official secret, that a planned cascade of dams on the Dri Chu (Jinsha  金沙江in Chinese, Yangtze in English) would reach upriver as far as the untouched awesome beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Environmentalists mobilised support, scientists investigated the technical obstacles. By 2007 their advocacy achieved a result. The state owned dam building corporations backed off, an iconic landscape had been spared. This was a historic win for citizen initiatives.

Fast forward 15 years to 2019. That crusading investigative newspaper, Southern Weekend is long closed by orders from above. Hu Jintao, China’s leader in the first decade of this century is long gone, and officially dismissed as a do-nothing. Xi Jinping is in sole command, and a more muscular new era is proclaimed. Damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge is back, and environmentalists are aghast. So certain these days are arrest, detention, torture and public confession, for publicly questioning official policy, they dare not speak directly. This is their plea.

locations of hydro dams, both built and scheduled for construction
locations of hydro dams, built or scheduled for construction


At the highest level Tiger Leaping Gorge dam, now rebadged Longpan dam, has been authorised for construction. In 2019, the central planners of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Bank and National Energy Board issued a long list of projects to proceed, including many dams on Tibetan rivers, the biggest being Tiger Leaping/Longpan.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is now Longpan 龙盘.  The Baidu online encyclopaedia explains why the name change: “In order to avoid public doubts, the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hydropower Station was renamed Longpan Hydropower Station.”

 Of the 17 dams on the Jinsha, already built or planned, Tiger Leaping Gorge/ Longpan is planned to generate 4000 megwatts of electricity, a huge amount.

This is a massive project. Its promoters say the installed capacity of Longpan is 4.2 million kW; the annual power generation is 17.5 billion kWh . Longpan Reservoir will have a storage capacity of 21.5 billion m3.  Behind the dam wall, the newly forming lake drowning the farmland of 100,000 villagers, will stretch upriver for 265 kms. When filled, the lake will cover 373 sq kms.[1]

China’s official map of the scattered protected areas (UNESCO World Heritage in darker green) closest to Tiger Leaping dam


Distance is vanquished, the ancient kingdoms of Gyalthang and Satham (Lijiang) united by China’s engineering spectaculars.[2] Two oversold, overloaded tourism destinations connected by dams and bridges. The road bridge is due for completion in 2019, the rail bridge later. Because rail lines need gentle gradients, there is a lot more tunnelling required. Tibet is drawn closer to China, more accessible to more people, less remote, more consumable.

Fictional Shangri-la became a defined territory, certified officially as the true location of the 1930s hit novel and movie, Lost Horizon, with the three parallel rivers crucial to turning fiction to fact. “In order to credibly identify Zhongdian as the ‘true Shangrila’, a key task of the expert group was to document similarities between the Diqing (Dechen in Tibetan) area and the setting of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. For this purpose they read the novel carefully (in several Chinese translations), taking note of geographical features such as the three rivers running through the area, the characteristics of the novel’s Valley of the Blue Moon and the snowcapped mountain towering above. The three rivers of Lost Horizon were easily identified, since the Nu (Chinese: Nujiang), Mekong (Lancang) and Golden Sand (Jinsha) all run through Diqing.”[3]

China official map of fragmented heritage protection, excluding the actual rivers, 2018


At its narrowest, the Jinsha is only 25m wide, hence the romantic story that a tiger was seen leaping it. The name makes it wholly Chinese虎跳峡;  Hǔ tiào xiá, no longer a remote divide between ethnic minority kingdoms. Being now fully Chinese, it is being bridged, its waters tamed by diversion aqueducts and dams, and the narrowest point for a leaping tiger is also the narrowest point for engineers to span a wall across the river.

The narrower the river the more it rages in tumult, especially in the summer monsoon season. From the glass bottomed viewing platform, where rich tourists are carried down by sedan chair 轎 coolies轎夫,

new rich tourists ride sedan chair down to Tiger Leaping Gorge

nature in its wildness is close, yet at a safe distance. The Dri Chu/Jinsha is narrowed by mountains on both sides. On the Tibetan (northwest) side, the engineers decided the metamorphic marble and crystalline schist rock was strong enough to anchor the suspension cables directly into the rock, requiring excavation of tunnels for the expressway lanes to plunge into Haba Gangri (Haba Snow Mountain哈巴雪山 Hābā Xǔeshān), plus tunnels directly above to hold the cables.

On the other side, in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, the slope is not quite so steep, making it possible to erect massive concrete pylons to hold up the cables, a more conventional kind of suspension. 

The bank on the Lijiang side, the Dri Chu’s right bank, is seriously unstable, having been pushed up by the tectonic advance of the Tibetan Plateau, resulting in many fractures. The entire right bank is so loose that many Chinese scientists have wondered whether it can hold, if the Tiger Leaping Gorge/Longpan hydro dam is built. There has been serious investigation of the likelihood of a massive landslide collapse of the right bank, lubricated by the impounding of water behind a dam wall 276 metres high.[4]


Given the cumulative impact of water diversion aqueducts, hydro dams, displaced populations, tourism infrastructure, road expressway and high speed rail bridges, UNESCO has responded, in 2017 expressing alarm: “Pressure on the property primarily stems from infrastructure development. Spatially separating conservation and development is not, in and of itself, an effective strategy to ‘harmonize the coexistence and relationship between development and the nature’, as the State Party puts it in one of its fundamental objectives. The highly significant modification of the river systems, which gave the property its name, amounts to a profound landscape change, with additional threats from large-scale water diversion programmes. While the projects may be located outside of the “commitment area”, the effects of disturbance, loss of connectivity, improved road access facilitating illicit activities and species invasions inevitably accompany large infrastructure projects beyond their spatial footprint. Besides, there are linkages between freshwater biodiversity and processes affected by dams and terrestrial ecosystems. Although located outside the property, the massive hydropower projects and the associated infrastructure objectively change the natural beauty and aesthetic importance of the valleys and their numerous important views, which contribute to the property’s OUV (outstanding universal value) under criterion (vii), and cannot be restricted to selected elements of a landscape. Therefore, the visual impact of these infrastructure projects is considered to exert a direct negative impact on the OUV.”  State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List

County boundaries: Tibet pale green, Lijiang Naxi pink, divided by that river

However, separating conservation and development is China’s strategy, supported by a zoning system that makes all territory either economic or ecological. This rigid separation is acute in the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site, where China, from the beginning of the nomination process, excluded the actual rivers from the protected area, including only fragmented steep valley landscapes and peaks, between the three rivers.

This is a nonsense, and UNESCO let China succeed, while  knowing the dam plans had accumulated for decades, awaiting construction. A landscape is a landscape, especially where mountain rivers incise deep valleys and microclimates conducive to the abundance of medicinal herbs found on the steep slopes above the three parallel riverbeds, precious to Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine alike. “The topographic variation in this area is remarkable. Elevations can change 4,000 meters within a span of ten kilometres. Subtropical ecosystems exist along canyon bottoms, whereas a few hours’ hike uphill brings one to temperate, boreal, and arctic-alpine life zones. Along the banks of these rivers and in the nearby mountain valleys grow more than ten thousand different plant species, making this region one of the most biodiverse in the world.”[5]

UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers boundaries, official map

China’s partitioning of the valleys and gorges from the rivers is instructive: the valleys are too steep for farming or other economic purposes, and are thus classified as waste land suited to World Heritage status; whereas the rivers rushing the gorges are economic, primarily for their hydropower, flood control and water diversion potential, long measured and assessed by Chinese engineers. A further reason the Dri Chu/Jinsha is an economic asset is that dams slow the river, leading to deposition of sediment behind dam walls, thus relieving the Three Gorges Dam, farther down the Jinsha/Yangtze, of the threat of silting up.

However, sedimentation is double-edged. The sharp turn of the Dri Chu/Jinsha is where the three rivers, all running from NNW to SSE, cease to be parallel. Suddenly the Jinsha changes course, heading NNE, making a sharp left turn where it also slows sufficiently for much sediment to settle out of the stream flow and raise the river bed. That unconsolidated sediment is in places 250 metres thick, yet the Longpan dam is to sit atop it, a hazard unfamiliar to dam builders.[6] UNESCO considers itself an expert on hydro dam sedimentation, and is holding an International Water Conference 13 and 14 May 2019 at its Paris headquarters, immediately prior to the World Hydropower Congress, also in Paris. This could be a suitable moment to ask UNESCO if it agrees with Chinese researchers who say at Tiger Leaping Gorge “it is difficult to construct a high dam large reservoir on a deep overburden.[7]

The dam is a massive project, which China’s hydraulic elite call comparable  to the Three Gorges Dam much further down the Yangtze. From an engineering perspective Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge are one single interconnecting hydraulic civilisation system, including the other 17 dams in between, with Tiger Leaping/Longpan at the crown. This is why the dam builders are so persistent in pressing for it to be built.


UNESCO concedes it lacks any jurisdiction over areas outside the scattered jigsaw pieces under its protection, yet expresses its concern at “projects located outside of the ‘commitment area’”. In response, in late 2018, China issued a bland State of Conservation report referring vaguely to the prospect of even more dams: “One hydropower development project, so called one reservoir with eight cascades, along Jinsha River midstream has accomplished constructions of Liyuan, Ahai, Jiananqiao, Longkaikou, Ludila and Guanyinyan power stations. Two of planned stations, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations, the Ministry of Environmental Protection states, as the aspects of ecological and environmental protection, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations need to be further studied before making any decisions. The relevant construction plans and EIAs have not been completed, reported and ratified. And they are not under construction”.  2018 State of Conservation report by the State Party:

UNESCO is again humiliated. Environmentalists in China are horrified to see the steady progression of the Longpan 6000 megawatt dam through the official approval process, as part of “green development”, along with investments in wind power and solar power, listed as a priority for construction.

How did this unpopular dam make a decisive comeback? That’s the story told in blog two in this series.

[1] An Shenyi, 安申义 Comprehensive Benefits of Longpan Hydropower Station in the Main Stream of the Yangtze River, China Hydropower Engineering Society, 13 Nov 2014

[2] Gyalthang (rGyal thang) is located in the easternmost foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in the northwest corner of present-day Yunnan Province in southern Kham. From 1725 until 2001, this area was referred to as Zhongdian 中甸 in Chinese, but in 2001 Zhongdian County was renamed Shangri-la County (Xianggelila xian 香格里拉县).

[3] Åshild Kolås (2017) Truth and Indigenous Cosmopolitics in Shangrila, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 18:1, 36-53,

[4] Wang M Y, et al,.A seismic study of the deformable body on the Longpan right bank of the Jinsha River .Chinese Journal of Geophysics, 2006, 49(5):1489~ 1498

XU Wen-jie  徐文杰 et al, 虎跳峡龙蟠右岸边坡稳定性的数值模拟 Numerical simulation on stability of right bank slope of Longpan in Tiger-Leaping gorge area, 岩土工程学报,  Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering 2006 #11

JIANG Shu et al, Long-term kinematics and mechanism of a deep-seated slow-moving debris slide near Wudongde hydropower station in Southwest China, Journal of Mountain Science, 2018, 15(2): 364-379

[5] Dá!a Pejchar Mortensen The History Of Gyalthang Under Chinese Rule: Memory, Identity, And Contested Control In A Tibetan Region Of Northwest Yunnan, PhD dissertation, North Carolina, 2016, 2

[6]王启国/ Qi-Guo Wang,  Causes of Riverbed Deep Sedimentation and Engineering Significance of Tiger Leaping Gorge Reach of Jinsha River, Chinese Journal Of Rock Mechanics And Engineering. Vol. 28 Issue 7, p1455-1466

[7]王启国/ Qi-Guo Wang, Causes of Riverbed Deep Sedimentation and Engineering Significance of Tiger Leaping Gorge Reach of Jinsha River, Chinese Journal Of Rock Mechanics And Engineering. Vol. 28 Issue 7, p1455-1466

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Blog two of three


What has changed since 2007? Why are the Longpan/Tiger Leaping Gorge dam construction plans now again high on the infrastructure construction agenda?

Much has changed, tilting the playing field in favour of the engineers. Above all, the political climate has worsened, with no-one permitted to question the central leader.

China’s environmentalists can no longer openly express their anguish. They find themselves in the same position Tibetan environmentalists have suffered for decades: silenced by diktat. This plea, written at the urgent request of Chinese environmentalists, is their only way of alerting the world that UNESCO must not, yet again, allow its precious heritage brand equity be trashed by overdevelopment in and around its World Heritage sites.

anchoring Tiger Gorge expressway bridge into rock of Tibet


What has also changed since 2007 is that central, lowland Yunnan has battled to cope with chronic excessive extraction of water, for heavy industry, intensive irrigation crop farming and fast growing cities. Lakes once admired for their beauty are now clogged with toxic algae, unusable. There were five years of rainfall deficit in central Yunnan, starting 2009, and calls grew stronger to solve all these problems by channelling off the Dri Chu/Jinsha exactly where it makes that sharp turn back towards the north.

In 2016 the planned “average annual water diversion is 3.403 billion cubic meters, of which 2.231 billion cubic meters are supplied to urban life and industry, 500 million cubic meters for agricultural irrigation, and 67.2 to the Dianchi Lake, Wuhu Lake and Yilong Lake.” So says Yunnan Information News.  China’s official 2018 State of Conservation report carelessly inflates the amount of water to be extracted tenfold, while insisting it is only eight per cent of the Jinsha flow at that point, despite the absence of gauging stations.[1] According to Asian Development Bank[2] the total annual flow of the Yangtze is just over 200 billion m3. China’s official report goofed.

aqueduct with tunnels 660 kms long from Dri Chu across Yunnan

To some, that is a modest water diversion, only 8 per cent of the Jinsha’s flow. However, among ecologists 10 per cent is the upper limit of water extraction before a riparian ecosystem is fundamentally changed. Further, it will be mostly withdrawn when the river is lowest, in the drier months from September to February. Subtropical lowland Yunnan grows crops year round, if irrigated. This is a threat UNESCO has so far said nothing about.

Water will be pumped from the Dri Chu/Jinsha at a rate of 486,000 cubic metres per hour, for 660 kms right across central Yunnan, to the capital Kunming, where it will be on display in an urban waterfall park currently reliant on a much smaller water diversion, with some water eventually reaching Dianchi Lake, making it swimmable again after decades of oxygen depleting green algae pollution. This ambitious scheme reaches as far as the upper watershed of the depleted Red River.

draining Dri Chu to irrigate Yunnan agribusiness

UNESCO has not remonstrated with China over this water extraction project, although it was publicly launched in 2015, with a construction phase of eight years. Officially it is the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project 滇中引水工程. It is also called Suizhong. The headline for the 2015 launch: “China initiates enormous Yangtze water diversion scheme.” Publicity emphasizes theattractions of remediating smelly, toxic lakes, but most of the extra water is for industry, as specialist publications acknowledge.[3]

Yunnan capital Kunming urban waterfall, from pumping out the Dri Chu

Yunnan has long been pushing for this low tech solution to its chronic over use of water, with first Jinsha diversion plans going back to the 1950s. Under the national  “Open up the West” campaign launched by Jiang Zemin in 1999, Yunnan is rapidly industrialising and agribusiness is intensifying, in accordance with official policy, all requiring much more water. Diversion of the Jinsha to central Yunnan, and the construction of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Longpan hydro dam go together, proponents argue: “Call for the Yangtze River leading reservoir to be launched as soon as possible. Located in the mouth of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, Longpan Reservoir is the leading reservoir of the 17 cascade hydropower stations in the Yangtze River. It is the best water source for water diversion in the central Yunnan Province. Its comprehensive social and economic benefits are outstanding and irreplaceable. It is necessary to immigrate 100,000 people. The Suizhong water transfer plan is closely related to the Longpan hydropower station. The article studies show that the Longpan hydropower station is the best solution for water transfer in Suizhong.”[4] Pumping a lot of water uphill takes a lot of energy, so what better than to have a massive hydropower dam close by?

proliferating road network within UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers, to meet tourism market requirements


What has also changed since 2007 is that the dam engineers not only never gave up on their concrete dream, they  redoubled their pitch, claiming the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam would benefit everyone, even as far as the mouth  of the Yangtze, close to Shanghai, over 4000 kms downriver, where it would hold encroaching seawater at bay.

The strongest pitch to get it built came in the 3rd year of Xi Jinping’s new era, in 2014, from senior hydro-engineer An Shenyi, 安申义 (Wang Sanyi) who was 88 that year.  An Shenyi, the former vice president of the Central South Survey and Design Institute in Hunan Changsha and the chief engineer of the plan, leaked to reporters his calculations, and case for construction. What he revealed was widely reported in official media.

Soul of China, CCP Party School magazine, May 2014

An Shenyi is a celebrated hero of pioneering dam design, and his 2014 urging that Tiger Gorge dam be built was accompanied by a glowing report in the CCP Central Committee Party School magazine, Soul of China, emphasizing his deathbed recovery from a 2010 heart attack. It became a sacred mission to fulfil this last wish of a heroic red exemplary model. An Shenyi will be immortalised in the 276 metres high dam wall at Tiger Gorge/Longpan.

With highly specific numbers, he argues that this massive dam –big even by Chinese standards- will deliver massive and multiple benefits. Not only will it hold a vast amount of water, becoming a pleasure lake, it will release water, after passing through the electricity generating turbines, well into the dry season, lifting the level of the Yangtze far downstream, sufficiently for ships as big as 10,000 tones weight to use the Yangtze reliably as a logistics transport highway far inland. That prospect of making the Yangtze navigable for ships was one of the promises of the Three Gorges Dam, which failed to materialise. Thus Tiger Gorge’s fate is inextricably bound up with fulfilling the Three Gorges promise, remediating Li Peng’s legacy, something he can be fondly remembered for rather than the unmentionable Tiananmen events of 1989.

Elderly red hero An Shenyi makes the case for damming Tiger Gorge. Source: Soul of China, CCP Party School, May 2014

These arguments, backed by An Shenyi’s calculations, give powerful players reasons to want Tiger Gorge dammed, from Shanghai on the coast, saved by Tiger Gorge dam from encroaching seawater, upriver to Hunan province, An Shenyi’s base, and further up all the way to Chongqing, at the farthest inland end of the Three Gorges dam. An Shenyi packages Tiger Gorge/Longpan as the start of the entire Gezhouba cascade of 17 dams serially located, and already built, further down the Dri Chu/Jinsha, below Three Gorges. This one crowning dam is to be bigger than the other 16 combined:

The Longpan Dam is 276m high , the total head of the Gezhouba Cascade is about 1800m , and the storage capacity is 90.8 billion kWh at the time of full storage . It is equivalent to the annual power generation of the Three Gorges Reservoir, and can generate 4 kWh per cubic metre of water. In the largest energy storage reservoir in foreign countries, the storage of electricity is only 48 billion degrees, only 53% of Longpan . The storage capacity of the Longpan is equivalent to three times the energy of the downstream 16 cascades , which is very beneficial to ensure the power supply quality and power supply safety of the cascade and the combined power grid.”

computer generated wall of Tiger Gorge dam

This is more than a mega-project. It is a vision uniting provinces thousands of kms apart, linked by one river visualised as a single pipeline to be sluiced shut and selectively opened, a system of hydraulic civilisation construction in which, as always, Tibet is a solution to China’s problems.

Longpan is the one with the lot: flood control, drought relief, huge power output, including power pumping water uphill to central Yunnan, a green alternative to coal fired power,  tourism enhanced, ship lifting: An Shenyi’s list of benefits is long, and seductively precise in its quantification.

dam and powergrid plans

Our singular focus here is on Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it is one of many dams long planned, both up and downstream on the steep margins of the Tibetan Plateau.

As recently as January 2019 the joint directive of China’s Green Development Catalogue of Approved Projects listed the many dams scheduled for construction (if not already built), nominally within the 13th Five-Year Plan period that goes to 2020. Most of these dams have been in planning for decades, awaiting central finance. Sites further downriver, in less difficult terrain, usually got priority. China is now moving upriver, on the various branches of the upper Yangtze in Tibet (Dadu, Yalong, Jinsha) and the list is a long one. Those not built under the 13th Five-Year Plan will be rolled into the 14th Plan, for 2021 to 2026.

Here is the full list of what is officially scheduled, now branded as “green development”, from the joint announcement of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Bank and National Energy Board:

Section title translation: 3.2.4 Mega Hydraulic power Generating Facility Construction and Operation.

Key mega hydropower Base Constructions which are definitely included in 13th Five-Year Plan Renewable Energy Project:

List of Hydropower station projects in Tibet

Ye Ba Tan hydropower Station叶巴滩水电站 in Palyul County (Chinese: Bai Yu), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Construction of Yebatan dam began in April 2019. 

Lawa Hydropower Station拉哇水电站 is at the boundary of Markham County (Chinese: Mang Kang), TAR and Bathang County (Chinese: Ba tang) Kardze TAP, Sichuan province.

Ba tang Hydropower Station巴塘水电站  is at the boundary of Markham County (Chinese: Mang Kang), TAR and Bathang County( Chinese: Ba tang) Kardze TAP, Sichuan province.

Chang bo Hydropower Station昌波水电站is at the boundary of TAR and Kardze TAP, Sichuan 

Bo Luo Hydropower Station波罗水电站 is at the boundary of Jomda (Chinese: Jiang da) County, TAR and Palyul (Chinese: Bai Yu) County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. 

Gang tuo Hydropower station岗托水电站 is at the boundary of TAR and Sichuan Province.

All six above hydropower stations are at boundary of Tibetan Autonomous Region( TAR) and Sichuan Province. They are located along Drichu River(Chinese: Jin sha jiang/Yangtze) runs through Jomda County( Chinese: Jiang da), Gojo County( Chinese: Gong jue) and Markham County (Chinese: Mang kang) of TAR and Dege County, Palyul County (Chinese: Bai yu) and Bathang Coutny (Chinese: Ba tang) of Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture(TAP) in Sichuan Province.

Xu long Hydropower Station旭龙水电站 is located at the boundary of Derong County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province and Dechen County( Chinese: Di qing), Dechen( Chinese: Di qing) TAP, Yun nan Province.

Ben zi lan Hydropower Station奔子栏水电站 is at boundary of  Dechen County, Dechen TAP, Yunnan Province and Markham County( Chinese: Mang kang), TAR.

Tiger Leaping Gorge/ Long pan Hydropower station龙盘水电 is at boundary of  Shang ge Li la/Shangrila (Tibetan: Sem kyi Nyida means Sun and Moon of Heart) County, Dechen(Chinese: De qing) TAP and Yu long County of Li jiang City, Yun nan Province


Ya gen First Level Hydropower Station牙根一级水电站 is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

Meng di gou Hydropower孟底沟水电站 station is at the boundary of Gyazur (Chinese: Jiu long) County, Kardze TAP and Mu li Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province.

Ka la hydropower station卡拉水电站 is in Mu li Tibetan Autonomous County, Sichuan Province.

Ya gen Hydropower Station牙根二级水电站is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

Leng gu Hydropower Station楞古水电站 is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.


Jin chuan Hydropower Station金川水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Ba di Hydropower Station巴底水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Ying liang Hydropower Station硬梁水电站 is in Chagzamka County(Chinese: Lu ding), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

An Ning Hydropower Station安宁水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Dan ba Hydropower Station丹巴水电站 is in Rongdrak(Chinese: Dan ba) County, Kardze TAP,Sichuan Province.

Ma er dang Hydropower Station玛尔挡水电站  is at the boundary of Ba Dzong( Chinese: Tong de) County, Tsolho(Chinese: Hai Nan) TAP and Machen(Chinese: Ma qin) County, Golok(Chinese: Guo luo) TAP, Qing hai Province.

Yang Qu Hydropower羊曲水电站 Station is at the boundary of Drakar( Chinese: Xing hai) County and Gaba Sumdo(Chinese: Gui nan) County, Qinghai Province.

Ci ha Xia Hydropower Station茨 哈峡水电站  is at the boundary of Drakar (Chinese: Xing hai) County and Ba Dzong(Chinese: Tong de) County, Qinghai Province.

Ning mu te Hydropower Station宁木特水电站 is in He Nan(Tibetan: Ma lho) County, Huang Nan(Tibetan: Malho) TAP, Qing hai Provice.

A qing Hydropower Station 阿青水电站is Tsada(Chinese: Zha da) County, Ngari(Chinese: A Li) Prefecture, TAR.

Yu Zhong Hydropower Station 忠玉水电站 is in Lhari (Chinese: Jia li) County, Nakchu Prefecture(Chinese: Na qu) TAR.

Zha La Hydropower Station扎拉水电站 is in Dzogang(Chinese: Zuo gong) County, Chamdo(Chinese:Chang du) Prefecture, TAR

On top of all that, the same central planners have also instructed Tibet Autonomous Region to invest much more in hydropower construction. Altogether, the damming of the upper Yangtze is to be on an extraordinary scale, requiring further analysis.


An Shenyi’s clincher argument is that the 100,000 people to be displaced by the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam will be better off elsewhere. In 2000 An Shenyi published a book on how to manage the environmental and resettlement issues, proposing the kind of win-win Xi Jinping loves to embrace.

For Tibetans and the smaller population of Bonpo Naxi (Jang to Tibetans), 100,000 people is a lot, and their farmland is precious in the rugged terrain of precipitous Kham (eastern Tibetan Plateau). Although Tiger Leaping Gorge is narrow, below it, along the 265 kms of future man-made lake the river often widens, enabling farmers to grow the glowing gold canola/rapeseed crops that feature on the splash page of the dam building corporation.

Where can those 100,000 Naxi and Tibetan shingpa farmers go? An Shenyi offers few specifics, yet he is sure their income will increase, and the economy of the future is in tourism.

This is not reassuring, as China has built thousands of hydro dams in recent decades, displacing many millions of people, and there are many research reports documenting the ongoing poverty of the relocated, despite official promises.[5]

China is chronically short of arable land, especially in rugged Yunnan. Chinese as well as international researchers find displaced villagers required to emigrate are seldom paid the actual value of their land.[6]

The displaced can do aquaculture, An Shenyi assures us, or pick shitake mushrooms in the forest. A gourmet future awaits. Meanwhile a global future awaits China’s dam builders and power grid builders. Blog three in this series explains.

[1] China’s official response to UNESCO’s concerns, issued late 2018, gives much higher figure as to the extraction of Jinsha flow: Based on monitoring information, the annual average flow at this segment of Jinsha River is 426 billion m3.The planned annual average water intake is 34.2 billion m3, account for 8% of the flow at this segment. The impact on downstream water flow is low.” State of Conservation Report, November 2018,  11. Their ratio, of 8% still holds.

[2] Asian Development Bank, Managing Water Resources for Sustainable Socioeconomic Development: A country water assessment for the People’s Republic of China, Dec 2018.

[3] Progress of the water diversion project in Yuzhong, Pump Technology, 2012, (03): 53

[4] An Shenyi, Working together to promote the Yangtze River leading reservoir as soon as possible In: Hongshui River,  红水河 2014, 33 (04): 1-2

[5] Sabrina Habich, Strategies of Soft Coercion in Chinese Dam Resettlement, Issues & Studies, 51, no. 1 (March 2015): 165-199

Shawn Steil and Duan Yuefang,  Policies and practice in Three Gorges resettlement: a field account; Forced Migration Review 12, 2002

[6] Wang Xu,  Promote resettlement work based on comprehensive land price and value-added income distribution, Yunnan Hydropower Journal, vol35 #5, 2018, 王旭,孔元刚,杨海青; 基于综合地价和增值收益分配推动移民安置工作, 云南水力发电

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Blog three of three


Other industries, within UNESCO’s World Heritage protected area, have drawn expressions of concern from UNESCO, notably mining. Yunnan is known for its copper deposits, for which demand grows as the power grids sending hydropower far to coastal eastern China grow. For centuries, copper was extracted from many locations in Yunnan from open pits, damaging wide areas. Today, China is part of a global mining industry, owning modern copper mines in Africa and Latin America, largely underground. However, in spite of repeated UNESCO protests and Greenpeace exposés, open cut surface scratching mining of copper, also molybdenum, still persists.

Source: China’s official response to UNESCO concerns, Nov 2018

In response to UNESCO’s diplomatic concerns, China’s Nov 2018 State of Conservation report lists many small mines which, on paper, are no longer licensed.  2018 State of Conservation report by the State Party:   

China has given such assurances before, only to be proven wrong by evidence on the ground. Now in its latest report China provides evidence, not on the ground but in photos taken from hundreds of kilometres away, that in recent years mining at specified sites has not grown. Reliance on satellite camera pictures, supplied by the Chinese government agency in charge on the ground, the State Forests and Grasslands Administration, is not a convincing proof of effective control of a World Heritage. More convincing would be fieldwork proof, on the ground, from the folks in charge.

China’s list of officially approved mining in World Heritage, Dechen/Diqing Tibetan Autonomous County, Nov 2018


Altogether, ongoing copper and molybdenum mining, water diversion and the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam at the head of 17 to 25 dams further down the Dri Chu/Jinsha add up to major impacts on World Heritage. The Longpan dam will require emigrating 100,000 people to be relocated elsewhere.

But there are further impacts: two high suspension bridges spanning Tiger Leaping Gorge, one for an expressway road, another for high speed rail. 丽香铁路

A full 27 mins animated doco on the engineering wonders of punching an expressway into Tibet at Tiger Leaping Gorge This expressway is a tollroad, built by a private company which has  a guaranteed 35 years of exclusive operation to make its profits, according to the World Bank.

The rail bridge next to the expressway is taking shape more slowly, but also has its enthusiasts for the short version and stirring music, or a more lyrical 15 min version of the conquest of nature, or a 7min nerd’s eye view, or the official celebration of  the high speed rail trip from Lijiang to Dechen (Xiang er li la/Shangrila in Chinese). This website has dozens of stories on the progress and prospects of this most beautiful of rail journeys, as it is called, and on the heroic efforts of young communists in picking up garbage left by tourists, emulating the eternal Lei Feng, heroic model worker.

Tiger Gorge tourist bus parking stand


China’s developmentalist state is back in full strength, with simultaneous construction of hydropower dams, aqueducts and tunnels to divert much of the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze across 660 kms of Yunnan farmland, expressway road bridge and high speed rail bridge, all concentrated in a small area of deep gorge and raging mountain river far below the dam wall, 260 m below the expressway suspension bridge.

Taken together, the water diversion, hydro dam cascade, mandatory resettlement of 100,000 people, power grids, expressway and high speed railway, all in an area of World Heritage, add up to a comprehensive program to conquer nature and assert human mastery. Wild rivers must be tamed. Under Mao, China attempted its Great Leap Forward to prove human will can remove mountains. At that time, in the late 1950s, China was poor and had little more than mass mobilisation of human labour available. The Great Leap Forward crashed, a famine that starved 30 million to death ensued.

advertising hydro dams during the peak of 1960 Great Leap famine

Today’s great leap, under Xi Jinping, is undertaken by a China that has finally fulfilled the Great Leap’s 1950s goal of catching up with the wealthiest nations, capable of permanently spanning, damming, taming  and diverting the wildest of natural rivers, far outpacing that mythical tiger who only leapt the river once.


However, the engineering of nature turns out to be easier than the politics. All that hydropower, generated in the cascade of up to 25 dams on the Jinsha , often has nowhere to go beyond the two big hydro generating provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, both reliant on their Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures  as the dam locations. The massive investment in power grids to carry that electricity far eastwards, all the way to the world’s factory on China’s east coast, is an engineering solution, but the political problem remains.  The energy importing provinces don’t want all that hydro-electricity; they preference their own provincial coal-fired power stations. This interprovincial squabble remains unresolved; and much hydro generating capacity goes to waste, despite the massive investment.

So serious is this problem of “water abandonment”, as China calls it, especially in the summer monsoon season when rivers are in full spate, that it has become one of China’s many “overcapacity” problems, along with excessive investment in steel mills, aluminium refineries etc.

Sichuan, higher up the Dri Chu/Yangtze than Yunnan, is attempting market-based incentives to, including carbon taxes, to make renewable energy hydro more attractive than coal, but official media are openly sceptical. People’s Daily says: “A hydropower industry analyst analyzed that relying on the delivery of hydropower is the most difficult to absorb: ‘For the receiving provinces, the hydropower from Sichuan province is not superior to the province’s own thermal power.  It has formed a situation of overcapacity in the country’s power generation, and the thermal power unit has also been in trouble.’ The above-mentioned hydropower industry source said, ‘At the same time that coal-fired power is under tremendous pressure, inter-provincial hydropower has lost corresponding encouragement and support, eventually causing serious water abandonment in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.’”

 Damming World Heritage could be for naught. China’s hydropower industry, built and operated by huge state owned corporations, likes to present itself as part of the renewable energy, green development way of the future, along with solar and wind energy. Unlike wind and solar, hydro has huge downsides.

Nonetheless, Sichuan and Yunnan are pressing ahead with dam construction and ultra-high voltage power grid construction transmitting their energy surplus east. The 2019 official Work Report of Sichuan Provincial Government states: “In 2019, Sichuan Province will accelerate the fourth round of UHV grid routes for hydropower delivery.”

What could be more pointless than impounding rivers, only to “abandon” their waters without generating electricity? This is a classic problem of state socialism, which enables dam builders access to cheap finance, with soft budget constraints, for projects which will never be profitable if their generating capacity is not utilised, due to interprovincial protectionism. Those soft budget constraints undid the USSR.

This chronic overcapacity and underperformance are far from the rosy picture the global hydropower industry hopes to project at the 2019 World Hydropower Congress in Paris in mid-May. The big players globally are multinational corporations.  The upbeat message of the Congress is modernisation, and sustainable energy solutions. China’s hydro behemoths hardly fit. There is nothing sustainable about mastering the wildest and most beautiful river in China, then letting its energy go to waste.

Sponsored by UNESCO

This is of little concern to China’s central leaders, whose ambition is to become the energy infrastructure builder and ultra-high voltage interconnector worldwide. Building more dams on the edge of Tibet, even if their waters are impounded and then abandoned, provides a showcase for China’s engineers and dam builders globally. Given such incentives, and the global ambitions of China’s GEIDCO, or Global Energy Interconnection Development Cooperation Organisation, water abandonment is a minor problem.

Similarly, UNESCO’s anxiety over China’s monetisation of its World Heritage brand is also a minor irritant at most. After all, GEIDCO is the major sponsor of the UNESCO International Water Conference.  UNESCO staff, acutely aware that China is capturing an agency of the UN, are shocked but powerless. The sinews of Chinese power reach well  beyond the Belt and Road, to the heart of Paris.

World Hydropower Congress 2019, sponsored by three arms of UNESCO

Is the world at last able to deal with China’s drive to conquer?


The construction of hydro dams is usually debated in a narrow way, focussing on socialist central planning, energy demand and supply, alternative technologies, the claim of hydropower to be a green equivalent to solar and wind power. These are debates worth having, especially when China is planning dozens of dams reaching further and further up the upper Yangtze, deep into Tibet.

Yet there are wider considerations. China invests so much in hydro dam construction and the infrastructure associated with dams, such as highway and railway bridges spanning the dammed rivers, for nation building reasons beyond the economics of electricity generation. Consider also the dams, the massive workforce needed to construct them, the technologies deployed in construction draw in to peripheral locations few Han Chinese could find on a map into China’s consciousness, and make the periphery Chinese.

This map of China’s dams and grid power projects worldwide is interactive, if you go to the MERICS website enabling you to zoom in for more detail on specific projects

For decades, China has been learning how to “go out” into the world, which now includes Chinese construction of dams, bridges, highways and railways worldwide. Where did China learn this expertise in “going out”, now embedded in the grand Eurasian vision of China’s Belt and Road Initiative? China’s training ground was in its peripheries, in Tibet and Xinjiang and other minority ethnicity areas.

Infrastructure investment makes these frontier lands of uncertain identification with distant Beijing into accessible, consumable portions of China as a unitary territorialised sovereign, both exotically different and thus attractive as tourist destinations, yet fully integrated in China’s nationwide network of highways, railways and power grids.

The package, of dams, expressway highways and high speed railways we see at Tiger Leaping Gorge and at other dams on the upper Yangtze, enable China to redefine itself, by looking out in order to look in. In the first decade of this century, there was an openness to a more fluid understanding of China’s borderlands, a willingness to go beyond Han chauvinist identity politics, to see China as the product of many cultures interacting.

With Xi Jinping’s new era, that openness is ended; assimilation of nonHan ethnicities is now the norm, while maintaining sufficient façade of difference to make the peripheries attractive to Han tourism, even if this involves large scale construction of ethnic “old towns”, in Lijiang and Dechen/Diqing/Xiang er li la/Shangri-la, the two towns at the ends of the Tiger Leaping Gorge expressway and high-speed railway.

So we conclude this blog series with a reflection on the deeper meanings of all that infrastructure, by Timothy Oakes, contemplating the uses of the borderland in today’s China:

“’Peripheralization’ can be viewed as a process of state territorialization in China’s Borderland regions, involving the various administrative strategies, development projects, governmental technologies, civilizational discourses, and narratives by which the periphery is reproduced as a periphery. In the single-origin myth, peripheralization has served to reproduce the frontier as a space of assimilation and transformation toward a unitary idea of Chinese culture and ethnicity, emanating from the centre outward.

“Peripheralization projects reproduce the periphery in these terms by masking and marginalizing the more complex histories of frontier exchange and mixture. China’s borderlands continue to be peripheralized as spaces of otherness by which notions of Chinese cultural, national, and territorial purity and sovereignty are reproduced. China’s borderland narratives, in other words, increasingly recognize a history of hybridity and cross-cultural connection, but nevertheless manage to enroll that history into the ‘deeply territorialized vision’ of a singular Chinese geo-body. The ongoing and fundamental role of peripheries in constituting the singular Chinese culture and identity continues, but in re-imagined and reworked ways.

“Frontiers are, in short, paradoxical spaces. They are both peripheral and central, both pure and hybrid, the source of national spirit and the distant ‘Other’ requiring transformation into the national spirit, backward spaces that also serve as conduits for technological innovation, new ideas, and invigorating cultural influences. Frontiers are sites of raw indigenes and processes of transforming those raw indigenes into cooked Chinese. Frontiers are borderlands and bordered lands.

“The frontier has become an antidote to our technological lives filled with calculation and traffic jams. The frontier remains central to constructions of Chineseness in terms of purity as well. And of course, for the state, tight control over frontier narratives remains essential. For the state, the frontier is still a bordered land, and thus particularly important as a site of national purification, where the ordered space of the nation must be performed and displayed without ambiguity.” [1]

[1] Tim Oakes (2012) Looking Out to Look In: The Use of the Periphery in China’s Geopolitical Narratives, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 53:3, 315-326

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Blog one of three updating Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil: problematic UNESCO World Heritage


Now that UNESCO has bestowed its prestigious World Heritage badging to a remote portion of the Tibetan Plateau, China is figuring out what to do with this jewel of alpine desert, even though very few lowland Han Chinese have seen it, maybe few ever will.

This is the remote upland summer pasture of Achen Gangyab, its Tibetan name, or in Mongolian Hoh Xil, the name China prefers. China sometimes calls it Aqing Gongjia 阿青公加, a pinyin garble of the Tibetan. It is way too far west to have ever had a Chinese name, other than a pinyinisation from the Mongolian: Kekexili 可可西里.

When China nominated Hoh Xil for UNESCO status, Rukor posted blogs analysing China’s proposal, and the failure of the IUCN team sent by UNESCO to verify it, to challenge China’s nonsensical claim that Hoh Xil is “no-man’s land”, empty of people. Now, over two years later, with Hoh Xil under the UNESCO umbrella, what’s new?

Two UN Special Rapporteurs in 2018 expressed their dismay at how China and UNESCO completely ignored the Tibetans of Hoh Xil, as if they don’t exist.

There is now a lot going on, and a new expressway runs through it. To celebrate Hoh Xil’s arrival in its new Chinese incarnation, the weekly newspaper Qinghai Scitech News has published a special eight-page supplement dedicated to Hoh Xil World Heritage. Eight tabloid pages are enough for many articles, some years old, as the editors hunted around for anything that fits their popular science remit. A close look at those articles tells us much about how China now argues with itself over what meanings to ascribe to the unfamiliar Hoh Xil landscape, as it debuts in China’s consciousness.

China in this new era of highly centralised messaging management usually seems to speak in only one voice. Yet this miscellany on Hoh Xil has many voices and viewpoints, which reveal the difficulties inbuilt to the attempt to manage pristine wilderness. So it’s worth a careful look.

Qinghai Scitech Weekly 24 April 2019

The overall tone is celebratory, lyrically evoking not only the beauty of this mostly frozen landscape, but insisting this has to be China’s greatest wilderness. The language is effusive: “From small animals such as pika, plateau rabbit, to ungulates such as Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, and Tibetan wild ass, to predators, donkeys, wolves, etc., the animals have obviously become the masters of the wilderness. This is Hoh Xil, China’s greatest wilderness! And what we have to do is to make the wilderness always wild!”

This rapturous language embodies several agendas. Above all, Hoh Xil is China’s. The sacred task ahead is to maintain nature in all its inherent wildness, a task other articles problematize as anything but straightforward. Agency and ownership are attributed to the animals, no mention of the Tibetan drogpa nomads who herd their yaks, sheep and goats to this pasture each summer, travelling peaceably alongside the iconic wild Tibetan antelopes (one of the 2008 Beijing Olympics mascots) and Tibetan gazelles.

So cute… the Tibetan antelope, official mascot of 2008 Beijing Olympics

In this dominant telling, sharply contradicted by other articles, the animals have become the masters, a phrase familiar to anyone growing up in China, as the CCP insists its monopoly on power is proof the masses have become the masters. Hoh Xil belongs to the animals, or at least the iconic species that evoke human admiration. Past human use is amnesically erased, secure in the knowledge that the past is no longer present, as livestock production is now, under UNESCO World Heritage protection, banned.

China National Geographic website

The enchantment has an operatic repetitiveness: “Because Hoh Xil has not only Tibetan antelopes, but also hundreds of birds and animals, and everything grows, it is the greatest wilderness in China. The groundwater is also heated, at an altitude of 5,000 meters, creating the highest temperature spa in the world. Under the strong desire of mankind to transform nature, the vast area is not enough to keep Hoh Xil in the wild, and it needs its own capabilities. The primary skill is cold. Permafrost covers more than 90% of the land. The thickness of the frozen soil is 80-120 meters. There are huge glaciers on the high mountains, and the ice tongues are pouring down for dozens of kilometres. Walking in it the tall ice bodies dwarf you, like facing an ice wall. The second skill/capability of Hoh Xil to maintain the wilderness is also the result of the lake. The snow and ice on the mountains continue to flow into the Hoh Xil Basin. The terrain in the basin is gentle and the drainage is not smooth. In addition, permafrost prevents the water from seeping into the ground, so it accumulates water into a lake. At the famous Sun Lake, in the evening, the golden light shines, the snow peaks stretch, and the lake is like a dream. More places outside the lake are swampy wetlands, and even with modern means of transportation, entering Hoh Xil is not an easy task. The third skill of Hoh Xil to maintain the wilderness is related to its location in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Hoh Xil has not been eroded by the river on a large scale. Its terrain is gentle and undulating, with a relative altitude of only 300 to 600 meters. It is the most intact plateau platform on the roof of the world. Due to the three skills of Hoh Xil, there are few traces of artificial transformation.”

Mysteries of antelope migration: Qinghai Scitech News

This passionate representation is so anthropocentric, it attributes agency, even mastery, not only to the iconic mammals but to the qualities of the landscape itself. Clearly the descriptions all originate from scientific quantification of temperature, permafrost depth etc., yet the discourse is one of rapturous nature worship.

Even in this transcendental embrace of eternal wildness, a note of anxiety emerges. “The strong desire of mankind to transform nature”, the danger of “artificial transformation” is always on the horizon. So the message is a double movement: let’s celebrate this wilderness, because it is China’s even if you’ve never before heard of it; but, please, celebrate it at a distance. A note of tension is introduced, a tension which in other articles takes centre stage.

Next up is an article abounding in contradictions, reprinted from the prestige full-colour China National Geographic, whose resemblance to National Geographic is no accident, both in layout and design, and in its hero worship of explorers able to penetrate the most dangerous wildernesses. On one hand, we are told in pictures and words: “This is the last virgin land on earth. This is the last piece of nature in our country that retains its original state and the largest unmanned area: Hoh Xil. Glaciers and frozen soils have created a vast expanse of wetlands, making the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau “China’s largest water tower”.

China National Geographic: Why is Tibet so Charming?

But there are also warnings: “Hoh Xil is the most desolate area on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It is the “best of the plateau” and is extremely dangerous. The vast terrain is high, about 5,000 meters or higher, the air is thin, the climate is extremely cold, and the natural environment is extremely harsh. It is difficult for people to enter, only in the east and west. In the summer, there are individual herders grazing activities, and the vast areas are uninhabited areas.” The editor-in-chief of China National Geographic, Shan Zhijun, has entered the Hoh Xil with the expedition team. Hoh Xil is not an absolute no man’s land. Shan Zhijun pointed out: ‘Not to mention the gold digger who has lived in Hoh Xil for many years, the people who have been fishing for Artemisia, and there have been pastoralists grazing from the past to the present. Ancient archaeological sites are still in Wulanwula [Ulan Ula] Lake and Isuma River. I found evidence that early humans lived there.’”

This is deeply ambivalent about the human presence, unless it is tens of thousands of years ago, leaving only archaeological traces. Although ”original” and “unmanned”, Hoh Xil is also “not an absolute no man’s land” even though China’s UNESCO nomination dossier repeatedly defines it as no-man’s land, and UNESCO’s IUCN team sent to the area to test China’s claims never spoke to a single nomad.

Tibetan gazelles leaping fences nomads were required to erect

Having acknowledged a human presence shaping the virgin land, it turns out to be motley bunch: gatherers of Artemisia plants much used in sowa rigpa traditional Tibetan medicine; pastoralists past and present, with their livestock herds; and nefarious gold diggers resident in Hoh Xil “for many years.”

What are we to make of this jumble of contradictions?

All is explained, in an article reprinted from a 2009 exposé, of facts carefully concealed from UNESCO and IUCN. The villains are explicitly Hui, Chinese Muslims now classified as a minority ethnicity, whose mother tongue is standard Chinese, having no mother tongue of their own; in other words, Han Chinese who happen to be Muslim. They featured strongly in the 2004 movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, as murderous and rapacious.

We are now reminded: “An article in “An Anthropology Case Study of Hui Rural Residents” describes the past of Shangtung Village. It is said that there are two kinds of people, the poorest and the richest, who have participated in the gold rush before liberation. Large wealthy households hired “Shawa” to enter mining areas such as Qumalai and Dachang for gold mining. Many years of gold rushing have allowed the shallow sands of the earth to be washed away, and mechanical power has become a tool of the new gold rush era. Mechanical operations have expanded the scale of gold rushing, changed interpersonal relationships, and formed a complex chain of interests. “Investigation” wrote: “The gold rushing activities originally relied mainly on family members need to supplement more non-family members to participate. Borrowing loans for expanding capital. Only those large families with large populations and good economic conditions can raise a large amount of money, and divide the contracted gold field into small pieces and contract them to other people in the village’ Shangzhao Village is not an isolated “island” of four gold rushes. It exists in a region of secret or semi-public gold trading chain. In the Haidong area of ​​Qinghai, in the farmland of Yuzhong County, Datong County, and Minhe County, the men in the village went to the gold rush as a sideline, which is a kind of “tradition”.At the department store at the intersection of Suizhong County, there is a small counter for collecting gold sand. It is co-located with the glass counters of the latest mobile phones, as part of everyday life. Haidong men, every year when the frozen soil of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau melts, follow the gold-rushing boss to enter the barren hills and mountains, doing what seem to be “no cost to buy and sell.” As for whether to come back, each is resigned. These gold-rushing bosses have both locals and “cross-river dragons” from Sichuan, Hubei. The most powerful boss will carry a large number of stalls with a large fleet of people, horses and guns.”

This is systematic plunder, by men from the easternmost counties of Qinghai, where Hui Muslim populations are concentrated, having displaced Tibetans from the lowlands, by force, a century ago. It began “before liberation” and flourishes in the era of mobile phones. This ethnographic account makes it clear that the gangs have their “dragon heads”, criminals higher up the hierarchy, to whom they sell their black market gold in far Sichuan and Hubei. This is highly organised crime; we are suddenly far from virgin wilderness.

Yet in the next article, the biggest feature in this Hoh Xil miscellany, we are back in virgin wilderness, with not even a hint of any messy, complex, human past or present Hoh Xil. Who are the owners of Hoh Xil? 谁是可可西里真正的主人 This is the headline, answered immediately by thumbnails of the most iconic mammals of Hoh Xil. The Han embrace of the wondrous fauna of Hoh Xil is consummated; a union of man and beast, a triumphal celebration of what is solely China’s. Any human backstory in Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil is erased.

China’s Communist Party instructed the masses that the revolution means that in a people’s republic, the people are now the owners. The gazelles, antelopes, argali big horned wild sheep, brown bears, wild yaks, vultures and eagles are the owners. All trace of a human past vanishes. Each photo is of an animal rampant, erect, proud, the yak charging at the camera.

Since almost no-one in distant lowland China had ever heard of Hoh Xil until very recently, this is an introduction, hence the need for a praise singer to extol the masculine virtues of the true owners of China’s back of beyond. The unique Han gaze salutes the unique fauna of China’s Hoh Xil. In British India, the Raj did the same, saluting the tigers and elephants.

Since the few Han who do actually venture into Hoh Xil are scientists, and China’s nomination of Hoh Xil as World Heritage was done entirely, even exhaustively, in the name of science, it is wildlife science that frames this salute. Each species is defined scientifically, even when the biologists know little about them.

What is known makes for musical prose: “In July, almost overnight, countless flowers and plants suddenly emerge from the ground and compete. In August, the seeds of the plant have matured and fall in the wind of the blue sky of Hoh Xil. During this period, even though ice and snow suddenly fall, many plants will still bear fruit stubbornly. The luxuriance of plants makes Hoh Xil lively, but the real protagonist will belong to the beasts. Larger animals are hoofed, and the unique species of white-lipped deer on the Tibetan Plateau is huge and strong. The antlers can be as long as one metre and have multiple splits at the top. Argali sheep, known for the male spiral curved horns, the female’s angle is much shorter, and the curvature is not large. Tibetan gazelle, with two striking white buttocks, runs extremely fast and is light. Snow mountains and wilderness are the perfect match for Tibetan gazelle life. Tibetan wild ass like herd activities, tall and healthy. Its coat colour is shades of reddish brown, white under the body and limbs, very recognizable. It runs very well and has a strong heart. When running, the tail fluttered in the wind, and the dust brought up was far behind. The most dazzling star animal, the Tibetan antelope, has now recovered to more than 60,000 in Hoh Xil. The adult male Tibetan antelope has a dark face. The length of the horn can reach 60~70 cm. The black hair is bright. It is almost vertical from the top of the head. It is very prominent under the snow mountain and the afterglow. People call it the snowy elf, which is worthy of the name. They opened the last migration of ungulates in China, crossing the valley, crossing the human railway line, and finally reaching the dreamy Lake of Donna. Thousands of female Tibetan antelopes gather here, giving births, and then leading the calves back to the winter habitat.”

What are we to make of this earthly paradise, and why does a new expressway run through it? Please try blog two in this series.

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Blog two of three updating Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil: problematic UNESCO World Heritage

China embraced science a century ago, as the way out of China’s weakness and vulnerability.

Mister Science (and Mister Democracy) will save China: May Fourth 1919

Now China is strong, and more convinced than ever that science is the key. All aspects of life must have “Chinese characteristics”, and that includes science, which even now refuses the idea that the Han, like all other peoples, migrated out of Africa, spreading across the planet. A century of archaeology in China was driven by an insistence on Han uniqueness, that the Han Chinese originated in China, in the floodplain of the Yellow River. So when the Han honour the animals of Hoh Xil, it is a unique race of humans embracing the unique owners of Hoh Xil; the Han protagonists of human social evolution honouring the noble mammals of Hoh Xil as fellow protagonists.

Han uniqueness, as scientific fact, was invented by Li Chi, China’s first archaeologist, in the 1920s: “Whereas revolutionaries had earlier coupled literate civilization with the Han, the new science of archaeology enabled the search for continuity to move beyond textual histories into material remains. Therefore when Li and the state appropriated and mobilized vestiges of the Shang for a national narrative it was to compose the biography of the Han; contemporary minorities could only claim connections to the barbarians who surrounded Shang civilization. It is no coincidence that Anyang lies in the valley of the Yellow River—just as the Central Plains represented the geographical heart of China, so Han remained the human focus of Li’s work. His excavation at Anyang not only established the Shang as Han progenitors, it also allowed elites to push Han origins backward into prehistoric times, to the Yangshao and Longshan civilizations and even to Peking Man. This discrete, linear descent group constituted what Li called the “Chinese race,” beginning with native hominids that evolved in the Central Plains to become China’s great civilization. The advent of archaeology thus replaced the popular but questionable belief in a Yellow Emperor as Han progenitor with more scientifically plausible, but no less nationalistic, origins.”[1]


Qinghai Scitech Weekly’s hymn to the flagship species of Hoh Xil surely is the climax; but no, the Hoh Xil stories keep coming if we turn the page, and yet another perspective opens up. Now we see the practicalities of governing Hoh Xil, for wildlife conservation, through the eyes of those who manage this World Heritage property day by day.

Suddenly the glorious fusion of the Han race and the awesome animals of Hoh Xil becomes messy, complex, confusing, indeterminate, an agony of managerial choices imposed by circumstances, and China’s decision to be in charge.

Prof Lian Xinming in Qinghai Scitech News 24 April 2019

Reporter: How to deal with the relationship between the development and protection of Hoh Xil? Lian Xinming (Associate Research Fellow, Northwest Plateau Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences): Protection and development and utilization should be combined. Absolute protection is unrealistic. First, the investment is too large. Second, the population of protected species is rapidly expanded, which will cause instability in the ecosystem. It’s like a rodent on the grassland. It’s not right to kill the rats. How can the animals survive? The ecosystem has a self-regulating process. Similarly, mapping to wildlife conservation, blindly protecting, the number of wild animals growing too fast, the destruction of the grassland will be more and more, especially in the place of Hoh Xil, once the turf is destroyed, it is very difficult to recover.”

Suddenly, we must find a balance between protection, development and utilisation of the resources of Hoh Xil. We must worry about a population explosion among protected species. How many is too many? How to balance biomass and biodiversity? The questions proliferate, and answers are hard to find. Why? Because so little is known, in ways admissible as scientific.

Understandably, it is the scientists doing the actual research on animal populations who know best that they know little. This is more than the usual request by researchers for more research and more research finance. In the absence of the Tibetan nomads, in their removal and silencing, in the loss of generations of herders walking their yaks, sheep and goats into the Hoh Xil summer pastures alongside the migrating antelopes and gazelles, who knows anything much?

Central leaders have long insisted that removal of the nomads is the essential step required to grow more grass, and that emptied landscapes will naturally repair degradation, with no further human intervention required. But the scientists on the ground have more questions than answers, and are discovering that China’s dominion over the animals of Hoh Xil makes for agonising over management decisions, in the absence of much data. Far from being a simple triumph of anthropomorphised animal icons embraced as treasures of new era China, actual management is full of tensions, contradictions and above all, unknowns.


At last, we are done with Qinghai Scitech News on Hoh Xil. Why spend so much time on an obscure weekly for science nerds in a remote inland province of China?

Our rollercoaster ride leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How come there are so many ways of looking at Hoh Xil, all pulling in different directions? Is this collection a rehearsal for the emergence of an official line? Which of the competing narratives of Hoh Xil will emerge as China’s master narrative, repeated in official propaganda throughout China, and beyond? Has the love of animals triumphed, and we can now all relax? How hard is it to be in charge of nature? How to let pristine nature just be natural? Why are the Chinese conservation scientists on the ground in Hoh Xil worried about an unsustainable population explosion of Tibetan antelopes and gazelles? Could that happen? Could it mean, at worst, they actually have to start shooting animals to keep wild herds from destroying the grasslands? Could the removal of Tibetan drogpa nomads, and their herds, from Hoh Xil, have anything to do with the scientists’ fears of a new imbalance? Is China’s takeover of Achen Gangyab an end, or a messy beginning?

Trying to find answers is where it gets interesting. The diversity of views is revealing. China doesn’t quite know what to make of Hoh Xil. The overall tone is a simplistic, reductive, triumphal love of iconic wild animals, an embrace of the wild, so what next? Does this mean Hoh Xil is to be admired from afar, through words, docos, and glossy spreads in China National Geographic; or does it mean mass tourism? Clearly the scientists are worried that a swarm of tourists with cameras could be as destructive as hunters with guns. Yet the tourism potential is obvious, since China’s railway and highway to Lhasa slice right through Hoh Xil, forcing the migrating antelopes and gazelles to navigate across them.

Ritz-Carlton hotel Jiuzhaigou

Will the temptation to monetise China’s discovery of cute animals prevail? Could this be the start of a Chinese safari tourism industry, comparable to touring South Africa’s Kruger Park? China has other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Tibet –Dzitsa Degu/Jiuzhaigou for example- overrun by millions of tourists a year.

InterContinental Hotel, Jiuzhaigou

So the nationalisation of Hoh Xil and the introduction of its lovable wild animals to the mass market is not the happy ending, but a new beginning. Now the protected area managers face new responsibilities, facing up to the shocks of the recent past, when China cared naught about this remote alpine desert, letting rapacious gold diggers and vicious hunters run rampant. They juggle the erasure of Tibetan stewardship, while enshrining one lone Tibetan, Sonam Dargye, as a Chinese martyr who died to save those iconic antelopes. The history of Tibetans patrolling Hoh Xil in the 1980s and 1990s, confronting the hunters, confiscating their hauls of antelope down, is erased, yet their leader is now a red hero, his name pinyinised in a dozen different ways, one man who stood up to gangs of human predators. The contradictions keep coming.

red hero Sonam Dargey


If the past is problematic, even more so the future. The displacement of the Tibetan nomads, who used to take their herds into Hoh Xil each summer, means the clearance of grazers and herders, and no more their grazing pressure on the summer herbage. In their absence, the number of Tibetan antelopes and gazelles is rising rapidly, after so much slaughter, but where is the point of equilibrium? If there are no longer any yaks or goats eating alongside the antelopes, China’s conservation scientists have reason to worry the protected antelopes will not only recover but become too big for the summer pastures to sustain them. Underlying this fear is a huge absence of data, a bypassing of drogpa knowledge, and a growing recognition that from year to year the climate is very variable in this farthest tail end of the reach of the Indian and East Asian monsoons. 2018 was an uncommonly wet year. What next? Does it even make sense to hypothesise equilibrium as the optimal point, in an environment so uncertain?

Science as the driver of policy is, in practice, messy anywhere worldwide, if one looks closely.[2] The dynamics of Hoh Xil are especially unknown to the scientific gaze, since scientific observations are all so recent.

Perhaps the drogpa should have a voice?

[1] Clayton D. Brown, Making The Majority: Defining Han Identity In Chinese Ethnology And Archaeology, PhD dissertation, Pittsburgh, 2008, 54-5

Li Chi, The Beginnings of Chinese Civilization, University of Washington Press, 1957, 5-11

Sigrid Schmalzer The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth Century China, University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[2] John Law, Organising Modernity: Social Ordering and Social Theory, Wiley, 1994

John Law, After Method, Mess in Social Science Research by John Law, Routledge, 2004

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Blog three of three updating Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil: problematic UNESCO World Heritage

G6 Expressway Beijing to Lhasa: purple section crossing Hoh Xil yet to be constructed

As the conservation biologists on the ground in Hoh Xil well know, the most pressing managerial decisions are to do with the new human presence, the Han presence, in the form of mass tourism, as the market responds to the prevailing romanticisation of Hoh Xil. The other looming issue, on which the field biologists in Hoh Xil want a say, is QTEC, the Qinghai-Tibet Engineering Corridor, as China has proudly named its parallel highway, railway, optical fibre cabling, power grid and oil pipeline, all of which cut across the migration path of the antelopes and gazelles. The animals head westwards, led by the pregnant females, to their birthing ground in Hoh Xil, safe from wolves, and then return eastwards with their young, a few months later. This west-east seasonal migration is bisected by QTEC, which runs north-south.

cover of 2017 book detailing the engineering of the Tibet expressway

In Hoh Xil the Qinghai-Tibet Railway 青藏铁路  and Qinghai-Tibet Highway  藏公路在 are as little as 67 metres apart, as Lian Xinming reminds us, formidable barriers for the pregnant antelopes to cross, and then, months later cross again with their young at foot. Now that this highway is about to go through a major upgrade into an Expressway, Lian Xinming takes this opportunity, in his interview with Qinghai Scitech News, to plead for the reconstruction to be at least five kilometres away from the single track rail line, to give those charismatic animals a chance.

G6 Expressway Gormo to Lhasa, transecting Hoh Xil UNESCO World Heritage

Now China is planning a massive upgrade of the highway bringing all manufactures into Tibet, from Lanzhou and Xining, en route to Lhasa. The highway is to become the G6 Expressway, the usual model being construction by a private corporation with exclusive rights to operate it as a tollway for as long as 35 years. In areas where traffic is heavy, this is highly profitable, which is why the World Bank is keen on such Public-Private Infrastructure Partnerships, as China’s path out of a state owned economy.

Who will design and who will build and operate the Tibet Expressway? How will the wild animals react to even faster traffic thundering down the expressway? This is a major project, probably centrally financed rather than contracted privately as most of China’s expressways are. Officially it is the Beijing-Tibet Expressway 青藏高速公路 . Construction began in 2014, and will soon reach Hoh Xil and beyond, all the way to Lhasa.

Officials closely engaged in its design are not reassuring. They insist the Expressway must be a completely new road, not a repair or upgrade of the existing highway, but that the old highway will still remain in use as well. So the antelopes will now have an extra road to cross.

“From a technical point of view, can the Qinghai-Tibet Highway be used to repair the Qinghai- Tibet Highway? We believe that objective conditions do not allow this because the existing Qinghai-Tibet Highway has been damaged and reuse will not save construction costs. The Qinghai-Tibet Highway will not be abandoned, and it can continue to exist as a national road, taking on necessary local passages, transportation turnover and tourism.” So said Wang Shuangjie, secretary of the Party Committee of China Communications Office and national survey and design master, in 2014.

The G6 Beijing-Tibet Expressway toll road has already reached across northern Tibet as far as Gormo, at lower altitudes. So impressive is this achievement, dashcam footage is online, at 120 kms/hr, so smooth you might mistake it for an animation, but it’s your actual Tibet sliding past.

Tibet Expressway 2019: courtesy

However, China has found it difficult to build roads in Tibet, at altitudes where permafrost mysteriously comes and goes. It is hard to make an all-weather, all-season road that doesn’t slump or heave up, breaking the surface, causing traffic hazards. If you build a road in the Tibetan summer, when winter comes, and water in the soil freezes, it expands, pushing up the flat blacktop, engineers call this heaving. If road construction is done in the colder months, laying bitumen over the permafrost, the ice will melt away in spring, boosted by the heat the blacktop collects, and the road slumps. For six decades, since the first highways in the 1950s, this problem has not been solved, and a four-lane expressway is harder to construct on ephemeral permafrost than a single track rail line.

The Hoh Xil section of the Tibet Expressway is also harder to design and build than the lower altitude, permafrost-free Lhasa to Nagchu section, which is designed, ready for construction, and already has a virtual incarnation online.

Patriotic media in 2019 insist that: “Even after thousands of hardships, to build a beautiful home for 1.4 billion people and consolidate the vision of national defence construction, we must also conquer the plateau frozen soil. . With the accumulation of time, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is difficult to support, and we cannot independently complete our mission to conquer the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. From Golmud to Lhasa, the road has a high altitude and there are 500 km of plateau permafrost regions. To lay the Qinghai-Tibet Expressway, we must overcome this world-class problem. Although we have the Qinghai-Tibet Railway’s experience in overcoming the construction of plateau frozen soil, the two projects cannot be compared. The highway is difficult to overcome the permafrost and is technically more difficult than the railway. The road is different from the railway. It is a whole structure with a wider roadbed. The materials and railways are completely different. The static load is too large. The road surface is easily affected by the frozen soil layer, causing the road to fall and rise, and there are high and low fluctuations.”

Since the trucks bringing manufactures of all kinds to Lhasa generally return empty, why is construction of the remaining sections of the Tibet Expressway scheduled for a start in 2019? Because they can. “The Qinghai-Tibet Expressway is another perfect embodiment of China’s infrastructure capacity. It is unique to the world, with such rich experience and technology. What other country on the planet is comparable in terms of infrastructure strength to China?”

Is this another example of over-investment in transport infrastructure, driven by a nation-building agenda to clasp Tibet more tightly to China, and a statist willingness to finance excessive infrastructure construction, even though the actual economic return on investment is poor? Does the actual freight tonnage leaving Lhasa, bound for inland China, justify such massive expenditure? Not at all, because Tibet Autonomous Region exports almost nothing, especially by road. So why an expensive expressway tollroad?

How does this fit with China’s love of animals in Hoh Xil?

These contradictions are not unique to China. Worldwide, conservation science is messy and full of contradictions.[1] Nonetheless, wildlife conservation science and biodiversity governance are heading strongly in one direction, which may in the near future impact on Tibet. There is a growing push for as much as half the planet being officially designated as exclusively for nature.

Given the pace of urbanisation and industrialisation worldwide, in recent decades led by China, it is understandable that biodiversity conservationists are increasingly demanding more and more of the Earth be set aside as entirely natural, no longer in any way human. A recent, much-cited scientific report calls for 30 per cent of all land on earth to be “protected” from human use, a target China will achieve in Tibet. Famous biologist E.O. Wilson has called for 50 per cent of all lands to be “protected”, a call now echoed by many.

Of course no-one expects Shanghai to demolish itself and revert to wetland, nor Manhattan, nor London. Inevitably the landscapes where reversion to a pristine, pre-human landscape is even imaginable, are those areas least developed, where biodiversity remains strong, if threatened. Tibet, for example.

This is a movement growing in strength, modelling itself on the global climate change campaign, striving to advocate more vigorously on behalf of wildlife.

The problem with this approach is that it is usually dualistic, unreflectively reliant on either/or logic, with a salvific narrative of dedicated environmentalists returning an imperilled planet back to its pristine pre-human natural state, for the sake of all that lives. Nature and culture remain opposites. Human nature is inherently greedy, needy, and even sinful. The situation is urgent, there is no longer time for slow negotiations with indigenous communities to set up complex projects to dissuade them from sneakily hunting endangered species, all human presence is problematic.

The drive and urgency to save wildlife by making 50per cent of the earth out of bounds to humans usually comes from New York, London, Shanghai and other metropoles. It has been called elitist, colonialist and above all, rapt in awe at the concepts of wilderness and the pristine. The idea of winding back the clock, restoring whole landscapes to their “original” pre-human state, is seductively powerful, even if, in practice, it turns out to be an extraordinarily complex and elusive goal, just as governing the antelopes of Hoh Xil turns out to be messy and complex.

The more we all live in urban density, the more the call of the wild resonates. This vision splendid, of virgin nature, is uncannily akin to the Christian idea of the “fallen” state of human nature, stained forever by the original sin of disobeying the almighty. This is a movement likely to grow stronger, and may yet succeed in shifting the goal posts. Currently, the official goal of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is that each country should set aside 17 per cent of its lands, lakes and rivers, as officially protected for biodiversity conservation. By making so much of the Tibetan Plateau into national parks, China is on track to meet this goal, usually called the Aichi Target, after the Japanese city where CBD met and set that goal, in 2010.

But in 2020 CBD will meet again, in Beijing, to review its biodiversity protection target for the next decade or more, amid widespread consternation that extinctions of endangered species are continuing, and the 2010 target did not achieve its aim. The push will be to hike the 17 per cent to 30 or even 50 per cent.

As with climate change, this push, even if strong, will meet strong resistance from vested interests and may well fail. But, for China, keen to claim global leadership of “green” development, it is relatively easy to assign more and more of the Tibetan Plateau as pristine wilderness devoid of humans, and, as a result, gain state control over the landscapes of Tibet that China has long sought but never achieved by its historic strategy of Han migration.

The push for closure of human use of landscapes inhabited by wildlife, as it grows louder, deafens it to its own oversimplifications, its exclusive oppositions of nature versus culture. Along with local communities in remote areas worldwide, Tibetans are caught in this growing deafness, unable to make themselves heard. Not many people want to acknowledge that there are hardly any “pristine” landscapes anywhere, or that traditional landscape managers, such as Tibetan drogpa nomads, actually curated their lands skilfully and sustainably for thousands of years, without jeopardising wild species.

The world’s governments, assembled in Beijing in 2020 at the CBD COP 15, may resist the pressure from animal-lovers worldwide to increase the target of area to be protected for biodiversity from 17to 30 per cent of the Earth. Yet, if the global climate campaign is the model the biodiversity campaign emulates, political rejection will only make the campaigners work harder to win the popular imagination, and gain momentum.

In the process, the message gets simplified; the complex negotiations with local communities to mutually protect wildlife get edited out. The message is reduced to a bumper sticker size: save wildlife or it’s mass extinction. If the wildlife is gone, we humans too are gone.

The wilderness movement and the climate movement may merge. They are both focussed on extinction as an imminent prospect, unless the world collectively mends its wicked ways. Urgency sweeps away complexity. We are all doomed if we don’t act decisively now. Anyone with memories of the 60s, 70s or 80s will recall the pervasive understanding that, in a flash, we could all be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. That sense of pervasive dread is now returning.

Meanwhile, Beijing could emerge from the 2020 Convention on Biodiversity negotiations as the world’s exemplary protector of wildlife, thanks almost entirely to its redlining of Tibet, especially the big new national parks including the Panda National Park, Sanjiangyuan National Park and Qilian Mountains National Park.

Already on display is Hoh Xil/Achen Gangyab 阿青公加, now eternally wild, thanks to China’s success in pitching it to UNESCO. Hoh Xil is the first in a suite of protected areas across the Tibetan Plateau, a menu of opportunities for tourists to commune with nature.

This is not the only expressway tollroad into Tibet under construction. For example, there is the Shangri-la expressway punching tunnels through Gyalthang. More on that soon, on

[1] Charis Thompson, When Elephants Stand for Competing Philosophies of Nature: Amboseli National Park, Kenya; 166-190 in John Law & Annemarie Mol eds, Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices, Duke University Press, 2002

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