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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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





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

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

Sanjiangyuan in China context uncluttered map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the pitch:

European Union External Action Service, Brussels, 19 November 2015

By Gabriel Lafitte  glafitte1@gmail.com   website http://rukor.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


also by Godemont: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_speaking_to_china_why_Europe_needs_unity_on_human_rights375


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At a time when we are preoccupied with immediate dangers, it is wonderful to find an audience willing to consider the long term. All too readily the long term danger is pushed aside by the threat before us now, and the long term fades from view.

Yet we must also accept responsibility for the long term, and that is why the world will shortly meet in Paris, to finally take meaningful action over climate change, with every country contributing, in the hope we can avert cooking the planet. We have found time for the long term, despite the immediacy of other threats.

When we consider the unique situation of Tibet, we discover we are dealing with a second long term danger; in fact the long unresolved conflict over Tibet now intersects with the long term climate warming, in disturbing ways.

Because the world has seldom found time to consider Tibet, focussing instead on violent struggles that always take priority, the Tibetan situation is known as a frozen conflict. This climatic metaphor is apt: frozen conflicts may not be hot, but they do not go away either, they remain unresolved, and there is a price to pay, as we shall see, including a climatic price. The two conflicts, of Tibet and climate, do intersect, in surprising ways.

The Tibetans are keen to contribute to the climate debate, and to participate in finding planetary solutions. The leader of Tibetans in exile, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, recently summed up the Tibetan climate situation succinctly, in an article in The Guardian. He points out that Tibet is indeed the roof of the world, is heating fast, permafrost and the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and over one billion people rely on Tibet, Asia’s water tower, for their daily water needs. He highlights China’s plan to dam all major Tibetan rivers for hydropower, and China’s policy of removing the Tibetan pastoral nomads from their pastures, pleading for these improper policies to be reconsidered.

But how are all these issues interconnected?  How does the frozen conflict, and the silencing of Tibetan voices within Tibet, interact with global climate warming?

First, climate scientists have come to realise that all local and regional climates are interconnected, affecting each other. The climate of Tibet affects the whole planet, and cannot be thought of as a peripheral or remote question. The Tibetan Plateau is a vast island in the sky, four to five kilometres up into the troposphere, with the many mountain chains a further 3000, even 4000 metres higher still. The Tibetan Plateau is the size of Western Europe, and its bulk, its seasonal cooling and heating directly affect the atmosphere, right across the northern hemisphere. The jetstream that meanders across the planet is deflected by the sheer bulk and altitude of the Tibetan Plateau, which is close to two percent of the planetary land surface. In winter, cold polar air pushes southwards, and the Jetstream is deflected to the Himalayas, which protect India from the intense cold of continental inner Asia. In spring and summer, the Tibetan Plateau, especially the bare rock of the upper slopes, heats fast, so fast that the Jetstream switches far to the north, deflected around the northern plateau edges, thus drawing in from the far Indian Ocean the rain bearing clouds of the monsoon.

This seasonal alternation of the jetstream is a driver, an engine of the monsoons of India and of East Asia. The effects go further, as far as Europe. Climate scientists have looked along the latitude circling the northern hemisphere, from the Tibetan Plateau, across East Asia, the north Pacific, North America, the Atlantic and on to Europe, and found that air pushed into the upper troposphere by Tibet only descend when they reach Europe. So, climatically, Tibet and Europe are directly connected. What had seemed distant, long term and remote is actually in every momentary breath we take. We are truly one planet, with one atmosphere. As the Dalai Lama has said: “This blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof. The Tibetan plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans, but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world.”

When we explore these interconnections further, a remarkable picture emerges. China, having prevented Tibetans from speaking for themselves, speaks for Tibet. What China has to say about Tibet’s role in the climate debate is disturbing, a distortion of the sciences of our planetary future.

China argues that, although it is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, its actions in Tibet offset and mitigate the global climatic impacts of the world’s factory. China grounds its policy of removing nomads from their ancestral pastures on an official slogan: tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass. The more grass that grows in ungrazed pastures, the more carbon is captured, and the more China proves its global citizenship in tackling climate change. The result is that well more than half of all of China’s nature reserves and national parks are in Tibet, including the best alpine meadow pasture lands of the Tibetan Plateau, where grazing is now banned.

How did we get to this strange point, where cancelling the skilful and sustainable grazing economy of the vast Tibetan rangelands can be applauded as China’s contribution to climate change mitigation? To answer this question, we need to look overall at what China envisages as the uses, and future of the Tibetan Plateau.

Science plays a leading role, as the Tibetan Plateau had not been scientifically categorised, enumerated, measured and uploaded into global databases only two human generations ago. Until the 1950s, China had no effective, day to day control over the land or people of Tibet. Whatever one makes of the political arguments, until the 1950s, there was no Chinese presence on the ground. China, seeing itself at the forefront of scientific socialism, was determined to discover the exploitable treasures of this vast plateau, and extract them. Scientific expeditions quickly located many major mineral deposits, as well as the sources of the great rivers, hitherto mythologised.

China fuwe proudly participate in national industrialisationndamentally sees Tibet as the point sources of great mineral wealth, and extraction is now rapidly intensifying. Mineral deposits occur in specific places, enclaves of intensive investment and extraction.

The rest of Tibet, unsuitable for classic Chinese small-scale agriculture, remains in Chinese eyes a remote and useless hinterland of wandering nomads who seem unproductive given the enormous areas they roam. The future of Tibet, spelled out in one Five-Year Plan after another, is to be an archipelago of enclaves, zones of intensive extraction, with a largely urbanised population, just like the rest of China, with the rural people shifted to urban fringes, then away from the plateau altogether, since a scattered and mobile population can never enjoy modernity. Outside of the urban and extraction enclaves, the rest of Tibet has little future, will be largely depopulated, and can best earn China global credit for being rebadged as an enormous carbon capture zone, offsetting China’s ongoing combustion of more coal each year than the rest of the world combined.

So the exclusion of the silenced nomads is packaged as a positive contribution to climate change, to REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation) and to LDN (land degradation neutrality); thus qualifying China not only for the world’s approval but also financial transfers due to developing countries which forego development and in return are eligible for PES (payment for environmental services).

This is a grotesque misappropriation of the concepts of climate change and what can be done to save the planet. A rising tide of Chinese scientists openly contradicts this official narrative. Led by Prof Li Wenjun, at Peking University, this new school of environmental science fieldworkers in nomadic areas see the degradation that has occurred as a result of mistaken and improper policies that fragmented nomadic pasture lands, causing overgrazing, for which China now blames the “primitive” nomads who in fact have cared sustainably for huge rangelands for 9000 years of human use.

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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone. This is a long blog: you’ll need coffee.


Tibet entered the atomic age abruptly, and far earlier than most people realise. The Tibetan Plateau became a front line in the global confrontation between the Soviet and American blocs in the 1950s, when Mao made the strategic decision that revolutionary China must have its own submarines, equipped with Chinese-built nuclear missiles, to gain parity of deterrence, first with the US, then with the Soviet “revisionists” as well.

Tibet was literally designated a front line, officially the Third Front, precisely because of its remoteness and impregnability. The Third Front was deliberately as far from the prowling US Navy as possible, but the testing of submarines, and of submarine-launched missiles must be done in water. China’s biggest lake is Tibet’s biggest lake, the Tso Ngonpo, in Chinese Qinghai Hu.

For decades, secret military research establishments on the lake’s northeast shore, designated the Ninth Academy, built and tested China’s first generation of submarines, which only recently retired from active service. The “Atomic City” they left behind in the 1980s, when the costly Third Front was finally abandoned, is now a major tourism attraction for older Chinese domestic tourists on the patriotic, nostalgic “red tourism” circuit.

army and masses are of one heart 1966

The Ninth Academy was code for the secret Nuclear Weapons Bureau,  based in Amdo/Qinghai, on a scale akin to Los Alamos in the US, according to historians John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, chroniclers of China’s nuclear weapons program.[1] They emphasize that the location, as with Los Alamos, was chosen for its remoteness to everyone but the local Tibetan pastoralists, to whom it was home. Lewis and Xue had access to the men who ran the weapons program, who were happy to talk of their role in China’s crash program to join the nuclear superpowers. They describe the 1958 initial workforce sent to construct the weaponisation of Tibet. There were “over 2,000 soldiers, more than 7000 peasants conscripted from across the land, and some 2000 seasoned construction workers.” Later came thousands of scientists and technical specialists. Not even Mao’s great famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese citizens died, slowed the construction, as the military slaughtered the native Tibetan chiru gazelles in huge numbers for meat.[2] So great was the urgency, even the scientists worked three shifts, seven days a week.[3]space race 1994

The Nuclear Weapons Bureau was headquartered in Beijing, where the scientists did the calculations essential to ensuring a nuclear explosion. The Ninth Academy was where all these dangerous components were built, assembled and tested, with only the final actual explosion being conducted in an even more remote location just north of Tibet, in the Lop Nur desert. The deep connection between the intellectual core of the atomic bomb project in Beijing, and its factory workshop in Tibet, with personnel going back and forth, was the foundational step in creating the economy of dependence that characterises relations between Tibet and Beijing now.



When uranium was discovered in Tibet, conveniently close to the Ninth Academy, in Thewo  (Diebu in Chinese) in Kanlho (Gannan in Chinese), there was a similar intensive allocation of money and manpower, by a command and control state, to extract it.

Gansu, with its rocket launch sites, nuclear fuel cycle enrichment plants and potential, in its deserts, as a nuclear waste dump all made the Thewo uranium deposit, 200 kms south of Lanzhou, integral to China’s crash program of nuclearisation.

The story of the Thewo uranium mine #792 has been documented in remarkable detail, due to the tenacious courage of one man, the mine’s warehouse manager in the 1980s and 1990s, Sun Xiaodi, who not only saw at close quarters the corruption, exploitation of Chinese by Chinese, indifference to worker health and pollution of Tibetan environment, he insisted on reporting it.Sun Xiaodi 792 mine pic b&w

At first he lodged complaints to his superiors, who ignored them. He tried directly petitioning Beijing, only to be abducted, tortured and imprisoned. Amazingly, he never gave up and was able, a decade ago, to tell in precise detail what actually happened at a uranium mine that, on paper, had already closed. China declared the Thewo (Diebu in Chinese) deposit depleted and defunct years ago, and so it was reported by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency’s databases.


It is worth quoting this extraordinary story at length: “A mine employee who protested radioactive contamination learned first-hand the risks of environmental activism in China. Sun Xiaodi disappeared early last year (2005) after petitioning the central authorities over contamination from the No. 792 Uranium Mine in Diebu County, Gansu Province. He was finally released from Lanzhou Prison on December 27, 2005, but his freedom of movement remains greatly restricted under residential surveillance. Sun Xiaodi is not permitted to leave his home without authorization or talk to the press, and when he is allowed out, he is kept under close police surveillance.

“Previously employed as a warehouse manager at Mine No. 792, Sun was simply exercising his rights as a Chinese citizen by petitioning Beijing over corruption among the leaders of his work unit and legal infractions that resulted in serious radioactive contamination in the vicinity of the mine.

“Why should the authorities treat Sun as an enemy of the state? The reason lies in the fact that he worked at a mine engaged in uranium production, and the contamination and corruption he uncovered fit under the rubric of “state secrets,” knowledge of which is denied to ordinary people. The No. 792 Mine where Sun worked is located in Gansu’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one of China’s most important bases for uranium. Originally operated by the State Nuclear Industry Department, the mine opened for production on May 31, 1967 as a large-scale enterprise with installations that included a mine, a hydrometallurgy facility, its own medium-size hydroelectric power plant and a hospital.

“The mine produced 120 to 180 tons of enriched uranium-131 annually; some 90 tons was allocated for military use, but the disposition of the remaining uranium is unknown. The state closed the mine in 2002, allocating 2.7 hundred million yuan in compensation funds for employees. However, each person actually received only 12,000 yuan in relocation expenses; the rest of the money remains unaccounted for. After risking their health in the radioactive environment of the mine, the employees were simply told to move away. Having nowhere to go, more than 800 stayed on in their old homes near the abandoned mine, even after the local government cut off water and electricity and sent police and the fire department to drive them out with high pressure water hoses.

we proudly participate in national industrialisation

“The Gansu No. 792 Uranium Mine was closed “as a matter of policy” on the basis of the “Notice concerning further operational improvements in regard to exhausted resources and obsolete equipment,” issued jointly by the State Defense Committee, the Central Military Committee, the State Council and the General Office of the CPC Central Committee in November 2002.According to former mine employees, No. 792 was still rich in uranium; there were four segments in the mine, and only a third of the uranium in one segment had been extracted. According to mine employees, not only did production continue following the official closure notice, but the pit was extended by another 50 meters. The employees say that mine leaders colluded with officials at the provincial, department, bureau and prefectural levels to falsely report the mine as “exhausted,” then continued secretly extracting uranium from the “abandoned” mine using migrant laborers, selling the enriched uranium illegally at high prices overseas. Mine leaders said production was continuing in order to fulfill previously agreed international contracts, but press reports quote a source in the Nuclear Industry Department as saying that mine management, lured by the rich profits to be made on the international uranium market, planned all along to replace local workers with specialized technical workers and laborers brought in from Lantian County, Shaanxi Province, and to continue working the mine.

“Based on facts brought to light by Sun Xiaodi, Mine No. 792 violated the state “radioactive substances management regulation” by selling off nearly ten million tons of highly radioactive equipment and materials nationwide. According to the provisions of the regulation, contaminated equipment such as that used by Mine No. 792 was not to be resold, but rather should be encased in lead and covered in concrete to a thickness of fifty centimeters. This concrete layer should then be covered with two to three meters of earth and planted with foliage. However, Sun Xiaodi reported that highly radioactive equipment and waste iron products from Mine No. 792 were sold in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, Hunan and Hubei from 1994 to the end of 2003, with no precaution other than simple rinsing. Used in further production or melted down and refined, this equipment would continue to spread contamination. Cement and reinforced concrete produced with the ball mill and crusher bought from the mine by a cement factory in Inner Mongolia would create radioactive residences. “These officials have blood on their hands,” Sun Xiaodi said.

“Officials suspected of selling off contaminated mine and hydrometallurgy factory equipment and material include the provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau section chief, the mine director, the mine deputy director, the mine Party secretary and many middle and lower ranking cadres. Apart from the contamination spread by selling off equipment, Mine No. 792 also created a great deal of contamination during the production process. Sun Xiaodi said that when the mine opened, its uranium refinement process contravened state nuclear production safety regulations by discharging untreated contaminated water directly into the Baishui River, a main tributary of the Yangtze. Slag was also deposited on the banks of the nearby Bailong River, and during the flood season tons of uranium ore washed into the river and flowed on into the Yangtze. Sun also said that trucks hauled ore over a fifty kilometer road between the mine and the hydrometallurgy plant, spreading radioactive dust the entire way.

“Tibetan villagers often hitched rides on the trucks, sitting on top of the ore. The radiation level in shops and banks along the roadways is dozens of times higher than normal. This area was once a place of green fields and clear waters, its woodlands filled with every kind of bird. Now radioactive contamination of the air and water has caused plants and trees to wither; the land is undergoing desertification, and large numbers of oxen and sheep have died. The mine has also caused terrible illnesses to proliferate among the area’s human residents, and more than half of local deaths are attributable to leukemia, liver cancer, skin cancer or some other form of cancer. Up to the present, Mine No. 792 continues to employ migrant laborers who work the mine without adequate safety and prevention measures. Workers eat and sleep at the foot of the mine, and after work, they dive into their meals without showering or even washing their hands. Obsessed with personal profit, the provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau and corrupt officials at every level have never given a thought to whether the workers lived or died. They purchase no safety equipment, nor do they allow staff to inform the migrant laborers of the extreme dangers of uranium mining. They evade responsibility by rotating the labor force each year, and if migrant workers developed lung cancer or leukemia somewhere down the line, it is none of their affair. One local mine employee, Mr. Ding, observed, “The laborers have no understanding of health protection or prevention. Those kids sit on the uranium ore to smoke and eat their steamed buns, and at night they even set up their cots inside and sleep in the uranium caves. I’ve told them that stuff could give people lung cancer, but they don’t understand any of it.” The provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau and the leaders of Mine No. 792 have retaliated with every kind of tactic against staff who dare to expose the situation to higher authorities.

“Sun Xiaodi began reporting the illegal resale of contaminated equipment, illegal mining and careless disposal of untreated water in 1988. Over the years, he made repeated visits to provincial and central government officials reporting these infractions. But senior officials considered him a nuisance, and Sun’s complaints had no result other than his dismissal in 1994. His wife was assigned to heavy manual labor that ruined her health, and her wages and bonuses were frequently docked without reason. In 1994, mine officials forced her out of her job, leaving her with only a living allowance of 100 yuan per month. Their daughter, Sun Haiyan, suffered discrimination and beatings in school, and the family’s home was vandalized.

“Nevertheless, in April 2005, Sun Xiaodi was back in Beijing petitioning the government. At 6 p.m. on April 28, after giving an interview to an Agence France Presse reporter, he was returning by bicycle to the “Petitioners’Village,” a squatter area near Beijing’s southern train station. Near the overpass at the southern corner of Taoranting Park, Sun was intercepted by two men in civilian clothes who emerged from an unmarked car parked along the roadside; at the same time, several men jumped out of another car, and Sun was bundled inside and taken away. Many people witnessed the incident, and news of Sun’s abduction spread quickly throughout the Petitioners’Village.

“For several months, nothing more was heard of Sun. Police said that Sun was a “wanted criminal” who had committed a “very serious crime related to state secrets.” Police also produced Sun’s cellular phone, wallet, telephone diary and other personal belongings, as well as a document purportedly written by Sun, in which he acknowledged being detained.”

The legacy of hasty extraction remains. Thewo joins the many exhausted uranium mines across China, one of 24 abandoned mines listed in the UDEPO database. When I was researching Spoiling Tibet, uranium mining in Tibet seemingly had come and gone. Where Gansu and Sichuan meet, in the hills of Thewo, uranium was actively mined, leaving a toxic legacy.



Today, uranium extraction from Tibet has shifted, from Thewo to nearby Dzoge, both are Amdo Ngawa to Tibetans, but different provinces for Chinese (Gannan Diebu and Sichuan Ru’ergai in Chinese) for both military use and nuclear power generation. Extraction there seems to have been suspended, as China has built up a huge stockpile of uranium, but the Dzoge deposit (Ru’ergai) is so big there is plenty more uranium available for extraction and processing at the nearby uranium enrichment plant in Lanzhou.

Despite being kept away from the mines, Tibetans know about uranium mining, not only the secretive underground mining, but also rising burden of illness as deadly radon gas is liberated into air and water by uranium extraction.

What has been far less reported is that just south of Gansu Thewo is Sichuan Dzoge (Zoige or Ru’ergai in Chinese), a more substantial uranium deposit, actively mined. The Dzoge outcroppings of uranium occur along an east-west belt about 70 kms long, big enough to excite geologists to offer competing explanations of how it might have formed. But it is not only geologists excited at uranium discoveries in the heart of China’s military industrial complex. China is in the midst of a massive expansion in nuclear power, driven not only by an attempt to lessen reliance on coal, but also because nuclear reactor design and construction is an industry China aims to dominate worldwide. It is this global push to build everyone’s reactors, and supply them with enriched uranium fuel, that fuels the fresh demand for Tibetan uranium.


In remote Dzoge (mDzod dge) county in northern Sichuan, close to the border with Gansu province, and the new uranium mines of Amdo, Tibetans have long watched the uranium mining, as closely as possible, and in 2011 monks of Kirti monastery compiled a detailed account:

“Mining in rKyang tsha. La nges khog, on present border between mDzod dge county and Gannan, location of the rKyang tsha hot spring (Jiangzha in Chinese), a traditional place of pilgrimage and healing in southern Amdo, and now tourist attraction. In 1960 a large team of surveyors from Sichuan province land survey bureau came and discovered a large deposit of toxic material. From then on, many Chinese workers came and settled there, built many houses, and started mining. Local people guessed that this material was used to make nuclear weapons. There was a group of Tibetans among the miners at that time, who seemed to be prisoners from Khams. As they were prisoners, they were not fed, and used to come around the local sDe ba looking for the corpses of pigs and dogs. Elders say that they could not understand their language but heard them reciting Mani.

“Since the start of the mining, people were no longer allowed to visit the hot spring, and there are heavy restrictions against taking photos of the area. The number of workers sent from China grew steadily since then, and the adjoining rGyal dge thang and Ma thang fields became covered with a new Chinese town. The various sections of that worksite were given code numbers, not named after the kind of work they do, which shows the secret nature of the operation. Geology Work Units 792 and 510 were mining and processing the toxic material. 405, 407, 410 and others mined other precious metals like gold and copper. The former two units were under direct control of the central government and had better equipment. They had a permanent work force of about 3000 and lived in 2 -3 storey buildings. The others were under Sichuan province government. The town there had shops and restaurants, a hospital and school and many vehicles, and good buses to transport the workers. The other units did not have these.

“Unit 792 also had a large base in The bo (Thewo) county town, under Gannan pref., 45 km away. They had even better facilities, like school and hospital. They say this unit was for processing the toxic stuff, after the unit in rKyang tsha mined it. Others say the mining unit in rKyang tsha was 510, and the real unit 792 was in The bo. Anyway the 792 unit’s base in rKyang tsha, the mining site, was about 4 km above rGyal dge thang, beyond the hot spring. The other units mining gold were also working here and there in that valley. There was a mountain that they dug inside, making a big cavern, and many buildings were made inside. From there they extracted the toxic material, which was a black substance resembling coal. It was brought out on a rail track that went about 1500 metres into the mountain in a tunnel. The material was transported in rail cars powered by electricity, and they kept moving day and night. They filled about 10-20 trucks daily that transported the black material down to the processing facility at ’Ja’ ’ba’ lung (also in a hollowed out mountain cavern) near The bo county, every day without interruption. When the trucks approached the entrance, they changed drivers to enter the facility. Outside drivers were not allowed to enter the mountain cavern. The 792 miners worked 6 hour shifts and were transported back and forth from the town where they lived to the mining site in 9 buses running 24 hours a day.

“Mining there has seriously affected the local environment, vegetation and flowering plants have declined and the sheep kept by local villagers die from grazing or drinking the water near the mine. More seriously there are continuing occurrences of birth defects, and the young people suffer from neurological disorders and stroke. Because of this, local people made many petitions to the county and provincial governments, but far from giving compensation, they even denied that there are any harmful effects from mining. Then around 1989 the Dran pa sprul sku of rKyang tsha, a graduate of the Buddhist studies institute in Beijing presented a petition to the central government about the harmful effects of the mine on local people and environment. The central government responded by planting trees and grass there to test the effect on the environment, but nothing would grow, and all the vegetation alongside the road to the mine is withered and dry, so the effects are clear to see even without testing, so they had the transport trucks covered over. After that, locals again lost over 300 cattle suddenly (due to poisoning from the mine), and then unit 792 paid compensation of Y80 per horse, Y60 per cow and Y13 per sheep.

“Unable to put up with the situation, locals staged a protest in 1994, blocking the road to the mine for a week. Their protest was characterised as a revolt against central government, and central government sent orders to Sichuan province to arrest anyone engaging in economic sabotage and protest. A large troop of soldiers was sent to the area from Ngaba prefecture (Barkham), but petitions made to county and prefecture governments were accepted as valid, and the troops were withdrawn, but nothing more was done. Mining was finally stopped there in 1995, and the machinery returned to China. They filled two trucks with processing residues and corpses of mice and birds used in testing, and buried it all on a nearby hillside. In 2001 when local pastoralists moved into the valley of the former mine, 200 cattle died from poisoned water and grass. This was confirmed by autopsy at the local hospital. The government paid RMB300 per sheep in compensation. In around 2002 local people were paid petty wages to revive the natural environment there by planting trees, but without success.”[4]

This highly specific account matches Chinese geological science publications on the Dzoge uranium deposit, and Chinese scientific reports on the Kyangtsa/Jiangzha hot springs. The bottom-up observations of the Dzoge Tibetans can now be matched with the top-down scientific journals of Chinese geologists and radiation protect specialists.

They tell us that the Dzoge uranium deposit often comes with other commercially valuable metals, molybdenum, zinc, gold and nickel, making extraction more profitable.[5] This team of Sichuan scientists report that: “Since discovery in 1960s, these deposits in the Zoige area have been of great interest to many earth scientists and ore deposit experts for its scale, high grade and abundant associated ores. Within this uranium deposit, there is the enrichment of Mo, Ni, Zn, Au, which are concentrated up to the industrial indexes of comprehensive utilization (Mao and Min, 1989; Hao et al., 2013; Li et al., 2012). Mo, V, P, S, Co, Ni, Zi, etc., and Ni, Zn occur in the standards of economically exploitable concentrations.” Vanadium and cobalt occur in these deposits in small but commercially valuable concentrations.

The key mineral is uranium, in unusually rich concentrations: “U concentration ranges from 50 to 350 ppm, with several concentrations over 2400 ppm.” That is why mining has gone on for decades, and the biggest mine, as noted by the Kirti monks above, is #510, under direct central government control.[6]



The famous hot springs of Kyangtsa (Jiangzha in Chinese) are nearby and, according to Chinese radiation scientists, highly radioactive. Were they long so, or only after nearby uranium mining brought to the surface the radium and its deadly gas, radon? That is the crucial question, but far too sensitive for Chinese scientists to ask. An early report on the hot springs came in 2002 when Chinese scientists reported their findings to a conference in Korea, the first Asian and Oceanic Congress for Radiation Protection.[7] They hastened to assure their audience that the high levels of radium at the six hot springs was natural, and “It is unrelated to uranium mining and milling facility.”

A more recent scientific investigation, in 2010, reported more open findings: “The uranium mining and spring water polluted the surrounding environment. It is necessary to strengthen the management of abnormal high radon springs and uranium mining, and take related protection and pollution control measures.”[8]

So it seems the Tibetans of Dzoge and the Kyangtsa hot springs have reason to fear the uranium extraction from their ancestral lands, and the many Chinese extraction companies working the mines.

Conflicts arising when Tibetan communities try to protect their lands from extraction have been common. Their attempts to protect their land, and hot springs, were crushed by force, quickly labelled as separatists and therefore a threat to the security of the nation-state. The 1994 protests and the ongoing environmental damage, even in areas where mining has ceased, are stories repeated all over Tibet, many times. It is all too easy for local officials to invoke national security as justification for repression. Security fundamentalism is a shortcut to profit for many local governments across Tibet. Tibet is a zone of conflict minerals.



At first glance, China would seem to have little need for Tibetan uranium. China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is not growing. Its nuclear power plans are growing, but China, despite the closing of so many depleted mines, has plenty more uranium deposits, plus ready access to a global market, including neighbouring sources such as Kazakhstan. Nuclear industry publications report in 2015 that China has built a stockpile of uranium well in excess of what it will need, even if all those reactors go ahead. Why? The answer seems to be in China’s determination to dominate nuclear power globally, as it already does with solar power.

China wants to be a one-stop shop for all aspects of nuclear power, supplying the design, the construction workforce, the reactor, the fuel and even the financing if that swings the deal. China’s party-state is orchestrating this push to become the global leader, priding itself on knowing what to do, having attained dominance in solar power.

There are several facets to China’s strategy, starting with the order from above requiring China’s two giant state-owned nuclear power corporations to work together, not in competition with each other. China’s capacity to finance power station construction, and reap the profits only years later, is a major strength. China now, at official command, has a single design on offer, the Hualong One, whichever Chinese nuclear corporation gets the contract. In recent months Argentina and Kenya have signed on for a Hualong One reactor, but China is angling for a bigger prize, that would establish the Hualong One as the go-to for any country, rich or poor. Right now the prize is the UK, and the prospect of getting to erect a Hualong One in Bradwell, Essex.

Xi Jinping’s October 2015 visit to the UK highlit this deal. Britain’s Sunday Times reports: “Whitehall officials are hammering out the final details of an agreement under which two of Beijing’s state power companies, China General Nuclear and China National Nuclear Corporation, will take a large minority stake in Hinkley Point. They would also be junior partners, and cover part of the costs, for a follow-on plant at Sizewell. EDF would lead the construction and operation of both sites. In return for Beijing’s support on those plants, EDF would sell its rights to a development site it owns at Bradwell. The French would become a minority partner and assist the Chinese through Britain’s approval process for a new reactor design, a process that is among the most arduous in the world. Beijing would then use that certification as a selling point as it bids to become the world leader in nuclear technology.”

These complex corporate manoeuvres may give China entry to the British power market, because austerity Britain cannot pay in advance to build and own nuclear power plants, and the French company, EDF, is deeply in debt already because of huge cost overruns on building nuclear power in France. Enter the Chinese, with long term commercial finance backed by the Chinese government, as China’s leverage to get to build their own Hualong One in Essex, and put the Hualong One, powered by Tibetan uranium, on the global map.

Will the nuclear power reactors China hopes to build in the UK be powered by uranium enriched in China and mined in Tibet? This is one of many unanswered questions about this ambitious project to put Chinese reactors on the global market. Many other questions arise. Since the French owners of the next two UK reactors are unwilling or unable to finance construction by themselves, thus bringing on board Chinese finance and a Chinese 40% ownership of two reactors and the right to build a third, totally Chinese reactor, why does the UK feel it needs to sweeten the deal with China by offering a Treasury guarantee covering the Chinese investment? Why doesn’t the UK, which pioneered nuclear power, just finance and build these reactors itself? If it takes a Treasury guarantee of two billion pounds to get China on board to finance these expensive power sources, is it all worthwhile?



One of the attractions of Tibetan uranium in Thewo and Dzoge for China’s military and nuclear power industries is that these deposits are so close to the main uranium enrichment facilities near Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, a major centre of China’s nuclearisation since the 1960s.

But there are other uranium deposits in Tibet, as far away as the lakes of upper Tibet in the far west of the plateau. One briny lake has long attracted attention, Chabyer Tsaka  (Zhabuye in Chinese), initially for its rich concentrations of boron,[9] more recently for the lithium salts mingled with other salts, more recently still for the discovery of uranium among the extractables, so valuable that the vast distance to any industrial market may not be an obstacle.[10] Many of the dry saltpan or shallow salt lakes of upper Tibet have high concentrations of uranium in the water, but climate change and glacier melt are now, for the first time in centuries, raising water levels in these lakes, making extraction harder.

Chinese geologists have now found uranium and radium in many places along the Yarlung Tsangpo river valley that stretches right across southern Tibet, from west to east, with frequent readings of high levels of natural radioactivity, especially in granite and acidic volcanic rock. These findings are reported (in Chinese) in China’s Uranium Geology journal.[11]


[1] John Wilson Lewis, Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb, 1998, Stanford University Press, 1991, 140-1

[2] Lewis and Xue, 143

[3] Lewis and Xue, 151

[4] Kirti Monastery, Wounds of Three Generations, 2010, (in Tibetan). English translation:  http://historicaldocs.blogspot.in/

[5] SONG Hao, ZHANG Chengjiang, NI Shijun, XU Zhengqi and HUANG Changhua; New Evidence for Genesis of the Zoige Carbonate-Siliceous-Pelitic Rock Type Uranium Deposit in Southern Qinling: Discovery and Significance of the 64 Ma Intrusions; ACTA GEOLOGICA SINICA (English Edition) Vol. 88 No. 6, 1757–1769,  Dec. 2014

[6] Zhang, C.J., and Chen, Y.L., 2010. The discovery and its geological implications of the vertical zoning of 510-1 uranium deposit. Geology and Exploration, 46(3): 434–441 (in Chinese with English abstract).

[7] Zhuli; Jianping, Cheng; Junli, Li; Guilin, Liu; New survey of Jiangzha hot spring in Si Chuan province in China, Proceedings of the first Asian and Oceanic Congress for Radiation Protection(AOCRP-1)

[8] FU Xiao-hua, WEN Xiang-min, HE Liang-guo, Radio active Level of Abnormal High Radon Spring in Jiangzha; 职业卫生与病伤 2010年 4月第 25卷第 2期 Journal of Occupational Health and Damage, Apr.2010.Vol.25, No.

[9] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China – Tibet Autonomous Region( volume 25), Geology Publishing House, Beijing, 1996, 45-7

[10] Huang Dayou et al.,  Preliminary Study of the Uranium Source of Zabuye Salt Lake, Tibet;  Uranium Geology 铀矿地质 Vol 31, May 2015

[11] Qi Ling (China National Nuclear Corporation) Determination of 238U, 226 Ra and the Calculation of Equilibrium Coefficient in Rock of Gangdise tectonic belt, Tibet, Uranium Geology 铀矿地质, vol 31 #4, July 2015atomic city 2015

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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bank of Tibet launch 2012


Longer is not never. Demand may yet rebound, mining is highly cyclical. If China is serious about adopting the American life style and American consumption, the minerals of Tibet will be in demand, especially as China’s biggest manufacturers move far inland, close to Tibet. But not just yet. However, there is one major exception. China Gold International (CGI), China’s biggest gold producer, is now in the copper mining business big time, and is dramatically increasing its extraction of copper (and gold) from Tibet, at exactly the time the world’s biggest copper producers are urgently scaling back production, to save costs, reduce debt and maybe stabilise steadily falling prices.

What is going on? Why would CGI expand at exactly the moment global giants such as Freeport and Glencore are slashing extraction from their existing mines, which are among the biggest, and lowest cost, in the world?

The copper price is in steady decline, not just a temporary blip.

copper price 2013 to 2015




Copper is not like oil. The biggest oil producers, notably Saudi Arabia, can afford to gamble that even if they make little profit when prices are low, those low prices drive higher cost producers out, such as US frackers, Canadian tar sands, maybe even the Russians. It’s a long term gamble that justifies short term pain. Copper, and most metals, are different. There have been so many mergers and acquisitions in recent years that the biggest mining companies are often deep in debt, and know full well that only the fittest survive. So they are ruthless about cutting output, in the hope that supply will slip below demand and prices will rise again.

In late 2015 Glencore slashed zinc production by one third. In October 2015 Freeport, “the world’s largest listed copper producer, said it would cut half of the output from its Sierrita mine in Arizona and was considering a full shutdown. The partial curtailment will take about 100m pounds (or 45,000 tonnes) of copper out of the market annually, as well as 10m lbs of molybdenum.”

So how come CGI chose this, of all times, to announce a massive expansion, as reported in the first of this blog series? Every one of the metals in CGI’s Gyama deposit –copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, zinc and lead- is way down in price and showing no sign of recovery.  When everyone else is slashing production, Including China’s own rare earth miners, why is CGI scaling up?

The likeliest answer is simple: CGI is driven not solely by market forces, but also by political forces.

CGI appears to be a Canadian based corporation listed on stock exchanges in Toronto and Hong Kong, that raises its capital expenditure budget from shareholders, like any normal corporation. But CGI has another way of accessing cheap money, from sources more interested in political than financial dividends. CGI can get loans from China’s state owned banks, on highly concessional terms, with generous time allowed to pay back loans that, if the copper selling price stays low, may never be paid back.

CGI’s political patrons are at both national level and also in Lhasa. Both governments badly want CGI to succeed in becoming the first big mine in Tibet, bigger than its only competitor in scale, Shetongmon. To that end, Beijing can, and in October 2015 did, order several state owned banks to lend massively to CGI. These banks, known politely as “policy banks”, did as instructed, even if they had doubts they would ever see their money again. Not only did the big national banks finance this expansion, so too did Tibet Bank. The RMB 4 billion loan (US$627 million) was “led by Bank of China, which acted as the lead manager, as well as with Agricultural Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of Tibet.”

The big banks have recently been targeted by the CCP’s corruption crackdown, which has the explicit aim of bringing them more firmly under Party control. The Party has always hoped Tibet could be made to pay its way, even become a profit centre for China, living up to its reputation as a “treasure house.” That means establishing enterprises capable of generating employment for politically reliable immigrant workers, including the sons and daughters of officials stationed in Lhasa.

For some, the payoff is quick, as the Financial Times reported in 2014: “Misallocation of capital and poor investment decisions are not the only explanation for the enormous waste in China’s economy. A significant portion of China’s post-crisis stimulus binge was simply stolen by Communist Party officials with direct responsibility for boosting growth through investment, according to separate estimates by Chinese and overseas economists.”

This is where Bank of Tibet, and the government of Tibet Autonomous Region come in, the latter (despite being desperately short of locally generated revenue) having offered CGI the further sweetener of a 30 per cent rebate on royalty payments. Within one year of its 2012 opening, the Bank of Tibet’s “loans were made to major infrastructure projects in the rail, hydropower and energy sectors.” Bank of Tibet lends very little to Tibetans.

So it is hardly surprising that this Bank of Tibet would also lend to CGI, whether the loan makes commercial sense or not. But where does this Bank of Tibet get its capital from? Bank of Tibet, from the outset, was a creation of state banks, not depositors. The first announcement, in 2011, explains: “Bank of Tibet, to be registered in Lhasa, will be sponsored by 15 well-known domestic banks and good-performing companies. The bank plans to initially raise CNY 1.5 billion capital and will introduce Bank of Communications as strategic investor.”[1]

This is yet another example of the developmentalist state pumping money into Tibet, in the hope of a political payoff. This becomes obvious if one looks at the detailed business case CGI makes for its future profitability, publicly available due to regulatory filing requirements in Canada. CGI claims it will be profitable, but among the many assumptions built into this forecast are assumptions as to the long term price CGI can expect for the many metals it will produce. CGI’s 2013 business case argues that: there is potential for higher copper price with improved global growth rates expected in 2014. With this in mind, the long-term forecast copper price of USD 6,393.40/t is deemed reasonable. This value will continue to be used in the economic analysis in this report.”[2] The actual copper price in November 2015 is $5052, with China’s hedge funds continuing to bet it will decline further.

By tonnage of output, copper is by far the biggest product CGI will produce. Gold and silver are minuscule amounts by comparison, but gold will earn as much as eight percent of sales revenue. Gyama is first and foremost a copper mine, with gold and silver the icing on the cake.

CGI makes similarly dubious assumptions about the prices it will get for its other products, gold, silver and molybdenum. If this were a commercially competitive mining company, CGI would, like its global competitors, at the least be holding off investing at this inauspicious low point in the commodities cycle.

CGI’s dependence on Bank of Tibet shows they are both creatures of the developmentalist state. As official media put it, in 2012: “Bank of Tibet, the first regional bank in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, recently obtained a financial business license from the Tibet Regional Banking Regulatory Commission, People’s Daily reported. At the Fifth Central Working Conference on Tibet in 2010, the central government introduced a set of policies of helping Tibet build its own regional commercial bank, in order to ensure leapfrog social and economic development as well as maintain peace and stability in the region.”[3]

Bank of Tibet is another funnel for Beijing to pour in money to obtain its desired result: a Tibet with Chinese characteristics. CGI has happily swallowed from this funnel, knowing it could hardly ask its shareholders to finance a massive capital expenditure on upscaling Gyama, at the very time Chinese rare earth producers are scaling back production, in the hope of reviving falling prices.

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

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

Jinchuan, the owner of the Shetongmon mine near Shigatse, may also hope that its connection with Trafigura gives it (and China) entrée to the world of commodities futures, hedging, arbitraging and financialisation of minerals. China wants to get into the big league worldwide. Trafigura, however,  probably knows how much reputation affects stock prices, and how much a brand can be damaged by hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Some books age gracefully, others quickly wrinkle. When I was completing the manuscript of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World three years ago, I knew it would be out of date soon. A snapshot of mining, right across the Tibetan Plateau, is bound to fade, superseded by events. But I wasn’t ready for how fast that book, published less than two years ago, would be out of date, not only about details but about its main argument.

Zed Books gave me the title when they commissioned me to write the book, part of their Asian Arguments series. That title meant I had to take a stand, by the last chapter, as to whether Tibet was indeed spoiled. Along the way I had collected evidence aplenty of rapacious mining, especially a rush for alluvial gold that had definitely despoiled rivers, riverbanks, pastures and even killed sheep and yaks, due to the indiscriminate use of mercury by “artisanal” miners. But Tibet is a big land, a vast island in the sky, close to two percent of the land surface of the planet, and large-scale, intensive deep mining was only just getting under way.

So I eventually declared myself, in line with the present tense of the title, saying Tibet was not yet spoiled, but soon would be. The big mines, with big impacts, were being developed fast, an archipelago of gold/silver/copper/molybdenum mines along the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Kyichu above Lhasa, and around Yulong, in Kham, between Chamdo and Derge. These were all modern, large-scale, capital-intensive mines capable of mining millions of tons of rock a year, something Tibet has never seen, except in the heavily industrialised Tsaidam basin of Amdo.

Hardline meltdowners criticised me for saying Tibet was not yet spoiled. After all the conventional exile narrative has long been that China has raped Tibet nonstop for decades. I thought that an exaggeration, but I was not hopeful. By 2015 or 2016, I reasoned, the pace of big mine construction will have peaked, and once massive capital expenditure has been sunk into mines, rock crushers, ore concentrators, smelters, hydro dams to ensure power supply and all ancillary urbanised workforce facilities, mining must go ahead, if only to service the sunk capital. If Tibet was not yet spoiled, the day would soon come.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. How different things look now. Copper demand has fallen so sharply that copper mines worldwide, including Chinese-owned ones, are being mothballed, in the hope that reduced production might drive prices back up. For Tibet, copper is the key. All the big deposits are basically copper deposits with tiny amounts of gold and silver also recoverable in the same process of crushing the rock to powder, cooking it chemically in concentrators, then finally smelting it, which separates the molten metals. All these deposits also contain the valuable metal molybdenum, or lead and zinc as well.

Back in 2013, the global “supercycle” of high prices for all commodities, especially metals, had been at full speed for over a decade. Even the global financial crisis of 2008-9 caused little more than a blip in demand. The conventional wisdom was that China still has far to go before its wealth, and intensity of resource consumption gets anywhere close to the rich countries it intends to join, so the long term picture is full steam ahead. How wrong we all were, though the resource economists still cling to their graphs showing that per capita the Chinese still use far less copper than, say, Americans. Over the long run, they may yet be right.

But for the foreseeable future, the commodities supercycle is gone, China suffers such overcapacity in smelting metals that much of the money invested in smelters is turning into bad debt.  Buying up stockpiles of metals such as copper, when prices are low, long ago ran out as a driver of demand. Copper was further tainted when it emerged that the Chinese warehouses stockpiling coper were using their holdings as collateral to borrow huge amounts to speculate on the overheated real estate market, then on an overheated stock market, often using the same quantum of copper over and over as collateral for loans from different borrowers. This massive scam resulted in a scramble by lenders to find their actual copper in actual warehouses, and make sure it was theirs and not hypothecated to others.

So the big mines that in 2013 looked like they would soon swing into full production –Shetongmon, Gyama, Yulong- slowed right down. Around the world, China is sitting on copper deposits whose deposits are fully mapped, whose mining schedule has been run through endless computer modelling, whose infrastructure is fully planned; and they sit idle. This is what has saved Tibet from being spoiled, past tense.

The pause in completing construction of the big mines may not last. CGI is a sign that China is pressing ahead, even if it makes little business sense.


[1] CBRC Gives Nod to Bank of Tibet,  SinoCast Banking Beat, 25 July 2011, www.yicai.com

[2] Ni 43-101 Technical Report – Jiama Phase 2 Expansion Project Mineral Resources & Reserves, For

China Gold International, Mining One, p 169; available online: http://www.chinagoldintl.com/_resources/feasibility_study_jiama.pdf

[3] Bank of Tibet receives business license in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, China Economic Review, 17 January 2012


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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone.


In the 1980s, while Tenzin Delek Rinpoche made skilful use of a liberal period in China’s governance of Tibet to spend six years at Drepung monastery in south India, Chinese geologists were busy in Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s home area of Nyagchu,  assessing a major find of lithium and rare earths, which China knows as the Jiajika deposit.

By 1990 the Jiajika lithium, niobium, tantalum and beryllium deposit was listed as China’s largest “superdeposit”[1] but mining did not begin. This was for three reasons. First, new technologies made it easier to extract lithium from Tibetan salt lakes, even though the lithium salts were mixed with magnesium salts and toxic solvents were needed to separate them. Scooping brine from salt lake beds is much easier than drilling and blasting the hard rock of Nyagchu, or Yajiang as it is known in Chinese, half way between Litang and Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) on the 318 Highway from Chengdu to Lhasa. Second, demand for lithium was modest, prior to the lithium-ion battery that powers our tablets and smartphones. Third, China, the world’s factory, was concentrated on the east coast, conveniently able to import lithium from the salt lakes of the Atacama desert of Chile and Bolivia. Today, these three constraints are fast disappearing.

In the 1990s, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche “undertakes projects in the Nyagchu area, renovating and reconstructing monasteries, setting up a boarding school for orphans and nomads’ children, establishing a home for the elderly poor, and promoting forest conservation.”[2]

What were the forests Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was trying to protect? Nyagchu is named for its river, a long and wild mountain river, known to China as the Yalong, carving its way through precipitous Kham, eventually joining the Yangtze. The 1990s was the final decade of indiscriminate logging of the great forests of Kham, made easier on steep roadless slopes by simply chainsawing the trees to fall into the river, for later retrieval in downriver Sichuan. It was also in these forests that the geologists clambered to locate the outcrops of lithium and rare earths. Yajiang Jiajika may be classified as a superdeposit, but the richest ores are scattered. As the geologists of the Key Laboratory of Metallogeny and Mineral Resource Assessment, Institute of Mineral Resources, of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing point out: “In the Jiajika pegmatite field, pegmatite dikes surround the granite body in both horizontal and vertical directions. The total area of the metamorphic zones is about 500 km2. In the Jiajika deposit, a total of 498 pegmatite dikes with a size of more than 20 m2 are distributed in an area of about 80 km2. The deposits are shallowly-buried, can be easily mined, and have a low detached ratio, resulting in low extraction costs.”[3]

It is the scatter of lithium ore outcrops over hundreds of square kilometres that made the encroaching geologists so visible, and upset the Tibetans of Nyagchu, who turned to their Rinpoche for protection. Even after Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was accused of terrorist bombing and gaoled, only to die in prison in 2015, the people of Nyagchu continued to fear intensive mining.

What has prevented full scale exploitation of the Nyagchu/ Yajiang Jiajika lithium until now has been the comparative ease of extracting lithium for China’s industrial use more readily from elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau, notably the Tsaidam Basin salt lakes of Amdo in northern Tibet.

Lithium ion batteries power your mobile phone, tablet and laptop, and if you have an electric or hybrid car, those big heavy batteries are li-ion. Lithium has myriad uses, but what makes this metal fashionable is the prospect of powering the internet of things, of every device you wear or carry with you.

Lithium extraction from the salt lakes of Tibet is now a big industry, concentrated in the arid Tsaidam Basin of Amdo, but also attracting Chinese and global investors to far western Tibet as well. The ease of scooping up the salts of the dry or shallow, briny lakebeds has made lithium removal easy, and by comparison, the extraction of lithium from hard rock, as in Tulku Tenzin Delek’s home, comparatively more expensive. The latest Qinghai Statistical Yearbook (2014) says that in 2013 5.7 million tons of lithium were taken from those Tsaidam Basin lakes in Amdo.

Scraping lakes beds and dumping salt into trucks are easy. The harder part is separating the lithium salts from other metal salts intermixed. While there are new membrane technologies that force  different salts, of differing molecular weight through tiny openings, under enormous pressure, mostly the extraction of lithium is done by using highly toxic solvents. Lithium salts come mixed with common sodium salt, magnesium salt and potassium salt or potash, a fertiliser in much demand.

Total extraction of the various salts from Amdo/Qinghai in 2013 was 54.7 million tons,[1] a huge extractive industry supported by heavily polluting processing plants separating the salts, in the industrial zones of not only the Tsaidam Basin but also the sprawling industrial complex spreading in almost all directions from Xining, the provincial capital.

This sprawl has almost engulfed the famous Kumbum monastery, once quite isolated, now choked by toxic air from factories on all sides. Kumbum (Ta’er in Chinese), where the Dalai Lama was first enthroned, having been born nearby, has seen protests by monks against deteriorating air quality that shrouds the monastery, often for months, in a chemical haze. As the monastery is a major tourism destination, being so close to Xining, political control has been tight, with security personnel dressed as monks mingling with visitors. Yet protests have occurred.

Tibetan bloggers have posted petitions by monks from Kumbum: “a petition which he or she states is from all monks and laypeople in and around Kumbum (Chinese: Ta’ersi) monastery, one of the largest and most important monasteries in Tibet, in Rushar to State Council, Provincial, Municipal and County-level Leaders, dated June 30, 2011. Part of the petition, translated from Chinese, is as follows: ‘High-polluting and wanton extractive business practices have brought bitterness and disaster for the local people. Local villagers have obstructed the mining on many occasions, demanding that the sacred mountain [known as Lhamo mountain] not be mined and requesting Kumbum Monastery to act as an official protector. The monastery management committee submitted a report on the situation to the higher authorities, but there was no response. As of this year, the situation has become more serious, especially during the months of May to July, when eight villages had serious contamination in their water pipes with the water becoming muddy and foul smelling. Monks and local people became nauseous, their bodies became listless and they felt dazed and some even had to be hospitalised from drinking the water. On July 23 2011, the blogger wrote: ‘In recent years the environment at Kumbum Monastery has become awful. The local government and businesses have colluded to build a great many polluting enterprises five kilometers from Kumbum Monastery, and so every time the wind blows or it rains, smoke, dust and foul-smelling air settles down on the roofs and courtyards, and the temples’ golden tiles and wall murals are already corroding.’”

In recent years, common salt (sodium chloride) production from Qinghai, essential to petrochemical plastics manufacture but readily available from many sources, has declined somewhat from 2.94 million tons in 2009 to 1.98 million tons in 2013. Magnesium production from the salt lakes has risen somewhat from 450,000 tons to 520,000 tons. Potash (kali salt), in great demand as a fertiliser, rose sharply in the same four year period from 21.68 million tons to 46.56 m tons; while lithium production rose even faster, from 2.19 million tons to 5.69 million tons.

lithium BYD cars

The prospects of a lithium boom have attracted investors worldwide to the lithium deposits of Tibet, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, as part of their backing for a Chinese manufacturer, BYD, hoping to become a successful electric car manufacturer.  BYD claims exclusive rights to mine lithium, not from the massive salt pans of the Tsaidam Basin, but the Chabyer Tsaka far to the west, in arid upper Tibet, a big area where lakes have inlets but no outlets and were, until recent climate change, gradually shrinking, leaving behind their salts. Chabyer Tsaka (Zhabuye in Chinese), despite its extreme remoteness, was intensively investigated by Chinese geologists starting in the 1950s, initially for its  five million tons of boron, used in moderating temperatures in nuclear reactors; later for the many other minerals concentrated there, including lithium, and most recently, uranium.[2]

lithium Xi Jinping Cambridges on BYD bus

BYD started life as a battery maker that decided it would be more profitable to make cars, running on BYD lithium batteries. After much corporate hype, BYD consistently failed to deliver actual cars, and was also daunted by the  short distances cars can travel without a recharge. So BYD shifted to buses, which have room underneath for massive lithium iron phosphate batteries, and has been demonstrating them to bus companies in the US and now London.

lithium BYD bus grafic


So lithium from Tibet, whether the extremely remote Chabyer Tsaka or the more accessible Tsaidam Basin, is in demand. This demand will only grow if scientists succeed in creating a lithium-oxygen battery, which would be lighter, more rechargeable and deliver more electricity.

The lithium deposits of Tibet are in sparsely populated areas of dry bed or shallow salt lakes, where there is insufficient population to effectively protest the rapidly rising level of extraction. This is not so of the industrial processing zones where the lithium is separated from the other metal salts, such as the Ganhetan (Rushar in Tibetan) industrial zone, near Kumbum monastery, which is well-known to Chinese scientific investigators as a pollution hotspot, with both air and water contaminated.

China’s Journal of Environmental Health in 2003 reported an alarming frequency of dental fluorosis, a disease that makes teeth brittle and prone to disintegrate, due to air pollution from industrial processing in the Ganhetan zone; and in 2004 China’s Journal of Clinical Stomatology reported high levels of fluoride poisoning in air, soil, water and vegetables grown around Ganhetan, and in children.[3]

A 2014 report went into much more detail, mapping precisely the concentrations of toxic metals in the soils of Ganhetan.[4] This team from the Qinghai Bureau of geology confirmed the worst fears of the Kumbum monks, after testing both surface and deep soils, reporting that “heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium and lead in Ganhetan have formed obvious circular pollution and the pollution has reached deep soilAgricultural development is not suitable in this area. It is found that the pollution of some heavy metals such as cadmium has aggravated.”

Tibet, China’s treasure house of the west, is surrounded by mountains rich in the minerals China needs, as its manufacturing industries migrate inland, closer to Tibet and further from coastal ports and global imports of raw materials. The Tibetan Plateau is contested as never before, as mining intensifies, diversifies and is driven by Chinese characteristics. Mining continues to grow in Tibet, even when it makes little sense to the multinational corporate miners who dominate the global traffic in minerals. In the global market, mines are not built unless they can show, in advance, that they will be among the lowest cost per ton of extracted minerals, anywhere worldwide. Then, when they are built, they are on a huge scale, to maximise global competitiveness. Little of this logic affects mining in Tibet, nearly all of which is done by medium-sized state-owned work units, or semi-privatised subsidiaries, with a claim to ownership of a deposit. Their competitive advantage comes not from scale and global sales, but from their relationship to the party-state, having cultivated privileged preferential access to a smelter or metals manufacturer. In remote areas, such as Tibet, it is the party-state that has the allocative command power to build infrastructure from scratch, that makes all the difference to profitability. When official China invests heavily in the roads, railways, power stations, pylons, communications, urban facilities, schools and health clinics for an immigrant workforce, then a mining company can enter, confident it can get a workforce in and a mineral product out. Connections are everything.

Connections win supply contracts, and exemptions from regulatory compliance scrutiny. Connections make mining profitable where it would be unprofitable for a high profile, high tech, capital intensive mining corporation to operate, compliant with environmental laws, paying royalties to local communities and less able to dodge tax liabilities. Small and medium Chinese mining companies fly under the radar, untroubled by costly compliance with occupational health standards, pollution controls, toxic tailings storage secure storage, and other regulatory requirements.

The massive quantities of lithium extracted from Tibet might not seem to be a conflict mineral, in the narrow sense that the dry salt beds containing lithium are arid areas where few Tibetans live. Both the Tsaidam Basin and BYD Corporation’s far western Tibetan Chabyer Tsaka are thinly populated. In the Tsaidam Basin, with its massive complex of petrochemical crackers, oil and gas processing plants and chemicals factories, Tibetans have long been outnumbered by immigrant Chinese industrial workers. In recent years, the Tibetan population has been boosted by resettling large numbers of displaced nomads removed from their pastures hundreds of kilometres away in the source region of the yellow and Yangtze rivers. Those barrack-like settlement camps now line both sides of the highway leading into the industrial core of Gormo (Ge’ermu or Golmud in Chinese). The displaced Tibetan nomads, totally dependent on state rations for their survival, are in no position to protest.

However, the separation of lithium from other salts occurs in more populous areas, including the toxic surrounds of Kumbum monastery. There is deep anxiety about chemical pollution of air, water and land in the communities living near the factories that make the purified lithium the battery manufacturers need. This is a conflict zone.

As lithium batteries become more central to daily life, from smartphones to electric cars and buses, manufacturers will demand lithium of higher purity. Using solvents to separate lithium from the other salts scooped from dry Tibetan salt lakes may no longer be good enough for the new generation of lithium batteries under development. One solution will be to turn to the hard rock lithium deposits such as Nyagchu, which Tulku Tenzin Delek tried to protect, which cost him his life.


[1] Table 3-20: Utilization Situation of Mineral Resources 2013, Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2014, 91

[2] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China – Tibet Autonomous Region( volume 25), Geology Publishing House, Beijing, 1996, 45-7

Huang Dayou et al.,  Preliminary Study of the Uranium Source of Zabuye Salt Lake, Tibet;  Uranium Geology铀矿地质 Vol 31, May 2015

[3] JI Hai -lian , XIANG Zhen,  Investigation on dental fluorides of children in Ganhetan industrial area, Journal of Clinical Stomatology, 20 #8, 2004, 485-

Xiang Zhen, Investigation on dental fluorosis among population in Ganhetan Industrial Area, Journal of Environmental Health, 20 #4, 2003, 235-7

[4] Shen X,Ji B Y,Tian X Y,et al.The evaluation of heavy metals pollution in soil of eastern Qinghai; Geophysical and Geochemical Exploration,2014,38( 6) : 1246-1251

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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone.



Officially, there is no gold mining in central Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR). Officially the highly destructive dredging of Tibetan rivers by small scale miners looking for flecks of alluvial gold was banned in 2005, and again in 2007. Meanwhile the large scale extraction of gold, along with copper, silver and usually molybdenum, in big underground deposits, although announced in successive Five Year Plans, has barely materialised yet, partly due to China’s slowdown. There is one big exception: Gyama, upriver from Lhasa, a massive mine scaling up rapidly, thanks to finance from China’s state owned banks.

So officially no gold comes from Tibet. While official statistics for Qinghai province (Amdo in Tibetan) do go into some detail about gold mining there, and gold has been found in streambeds all over Tibet for many centuries, official statistics are silent on gold from TAR. The Tibet Statistical Yearbook has for decades listed precise tonnages of chromium extracted from TAR, but is totally silent on gold.

The frequency of mining protests in many areas of Tibet is well-documented; as is the repressive heavy hand of authority. Even when protesting Tibetan communities take great care to erect Chinese style banners with pictures of Xi Jinping and quotations from his environmental speeches, protesters still get tear gassed, truncheoned, arrested, tortured and gaoled.

Perhaps the best known protests are those of the entrepreneurial brothers Karma and Rinchen Samdrup whose environmental protection protests, and subsequent gaoling is retold in an October 2015 book, an English translation of the first-hand account by journalist Liu Jianqiang. Tibetan Environmentalists in China tells many stories that make clear the swift criminalisation of Tibetans who speak out against mining, their protests instantly reframed by state power as a national security threat.

The environment movement, reporting and protesting environmental breaches, is well-established in China, and often successful; but suppressed in Tibet, subordinated to security fundamentalism. The world often hears about protests in China against mines, smelters and chemical plants, which often succeed, yet hears nothing about Tibet. This is not because all is well in Tibet, but because Tibetans have less freedom to protest, and speak up in defence of their lands and gods. Here are a few examples of what the world has barely noticed.

In Driru, a largely nomadic area north of Lhasa, Tibetan protesters tried to protect a holy mountain from mining in 2013, and were mercilessly repressed. A protest against mining in Dzogang, in eastern Tibet in 2014 resulted in at least one death. In a mining protest in Kham Yushu in 2013 armed police fired machine guns. In 2014, at the source of the Mekong River in eastern Tibet, anti-mining protesters managed to get to Beijing to remind central leaders that their county was officially a national park protected area in which mining was prohibited, and succeeded in halting the miners.

Less fortunate were the Tibetan communities of Lithang, where a large rock deposit of lithium is located, arrested en masse for protesting mining, and the gaoling of their revered lama, Tenzin Delek Rinooche, who died in prison in 2015.

The many gold extraction operations in Gansu Sangchu Tsayue prompted protests in 2014, repressed forcefully.  Near the major copper/gold/silver deposit at Shetongmon in southern Tibet a 2011 protest against mining was ruthlessly repressed.

Tibetans in remote areas are increasingly aware of national laws and policies, and not deflected from protest by assurances from miners that they have permission to mine, even in officially protected nature reserves such as Zato county, source of the Mekong. Tibetan protesters seeking to protect their sacred mountain, part of the Three River Source protected area, said they would refrain from protest only if they saw Xi Jinping on tv say the mine had permission. In Tibet Autonomous Region, small scale artisanal extraction of alluvial placer gold from river beds has been banned by official decree at least twice, in 2005 and 2007, yet continues.[1]

Tibetan communities occasionally win, when they show consistent fearlessness, even a willingness to die to protect the local gods of the mountains which have power to inflict or end droughts. In Markham, in eastern Tibet, protests against a Chinese gold mining company went on for months, with Tibetans sleeping on the road to prevent access by mining machinery, despite a massive security force arrayed against them. Not only did the mining company back down, the Tibetans insisted on commissioning an independent analysis of the toxicity of the tailings left behind by mining, rather than accept an official offer to cart the wastes all away.


How gold is smuggled, first out of Tibet, then out of China by the new rich transferring their wealth to safer places than China, is of great interest to police forces, attorneys-general, border security personnel, and money-laundering trackers worldwide; who understand that those with the drive and ability to smuggle gold out of China also have the capacity to smuggle drugs, ivory and even weapons and terrorist supplies. For the latest on gold smuggling and its links with terrorism, the blandly named inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is a surprisingly good read.

Gold is fungible, convertible, universally accepted, even in lawless areas where no one trusts anyone, gold retains its value. For example in Myanmar (Burma), Chinese loggers loot the dense forests of their most valuable trees, and pay in gold.

When gold is produced illegally, in Tibet, and never enters the chain of official statistics and monitoring, it is all the more readily available to be used illegally to buy even more profitable goods, such as drugs, rare Burmese rosewoods and teak. A 2015 investigative report by the Environment Investigations Agency says:

“From the outside looking in, the cross-border trade appears chaotic and complex. Most of the timber entering Yunnan is either cut or transported through Kachin State, a zone of conflict between ethnic political groups and the Myanmar Government and its military. Here, all sides to varying degrees profit from the logging and timber trade, from the award of rights to Chinese businesses to log whole mountains, often paid in gold bars.

“BDYA (a group of powerful Chinese loggers)  also pays off Myanmar military officials, usually in gold bars, to ensure safe passage for timber trucks moving through Government-held areas on the way to the border. Gold has become the currency of choice for larger payment in the cross-border timber trade, due to an influx of counterfeit currency being used for timber deals.

“Further payments or ‘tolls’ have to be made by the Chinese drivers inside Kachin at six checkpoints controlled by the BGF, KIO and Government, totalling about RMB2000 ($315) per truck. Chinese traders also claim they paved the way for the logging operation and timber transport by paying off local Myanmar military officers in gold bars.”



Tibet is a conflict zone. The illegal or semi-legal extraction of gold from Tibet has gone on for decades, without a single instance of miners negotiating, in advance, the free, informed prior consent (FPIC) of local Tibetan communities. Disempowered Tibetans have, whenever possible, protested against gold extraction, whether by small operators using dredges that destroy riverbeds and riverbanks; or large operations digging deep to extract millions of tons of rock.

Wherever gold is extracted, there is resistance. Tibetans have long understood that extraction is destructive, dangerous and contravenes local taboos on disturbing local spirits. These are not quaint prescientific folk beliefs to be swept aside. In scientific terms, Tibet is a young land, thrust into the sky by recent uplift which has brought to the surface, or at extractable depth, precious but toxic metals from deep within the planet’s molten mantle.

As a geologically new land, Tibet is still rising, with all the sudden violence of a young land in formation, such as powerful earthquakes and landslides, which can block rivers, leading to disastrous outburst floods. The great rivers of Tibet, drunk daily by one billion people across Asia, naturally carry a burden of dangerous metals, as a young land starts eroding. Any further burden, from mining and its vast dumps of tailings waste, would be disastrous. Yet the gold of Tibet is found either IN riverbeds (alluvial gold) or in big deposits close to rivers, especially the Yarlung Tsangpo river, whose bed is literally the collision point of India and Eurasia.

These are scientific reasons to be extremely cautious about mining Tibet. None of this was known, in scientific categories, by Tibetan villagers and nomad encampments, yet they instinctively recoiled from mining. Usually their aversion to breaking the grasslands or digging the mountains was reinforced by local lamas urging respect for the old preBuddhist gods of earth and water, still capable of causing trouble if disturbed.

There is a remarkable congruence between sacred sites, sacred forests and mountains; and areas of high biodiversity or natural values especially worth conserving.[2]

In recent years, as extraction persists and intensifies, as TAR government bans on gold extraction are ignored, Tibetan communities have lost their fear of official repression, and spoken out, despite the risks. Even though the technologies of quelling the people are intensifying, and rapid response riot squads swoop quickly to silence Tibetans, they will not be silenced. There is no doubt that Tibetan communities consistently oppose mining.


CGI expansion 2015


By far the biggest new mine is at Gyama, Tibet’s valley of the kings, in an area even older than Lhasa as the home of the kings of Tibet who predate Buddhism. Gyama is upriver from Lhasa, on the Kyichu, the river that feeds into the great Yarlung Tsangpo after passing through Lhasa. That alone makes it an area of great historic significance, and environmentally, Lhasa’s water supply come from Gyama and is compromised by any leakage from the millions of tons mined, processed and dumped annually, in the quest for gold, copper, silver and other metals.

The Gyama mine, both open pits and now underground, is owned by a Canadian company which has ignored not only  local objections, a shocking safety record, and the protests of Canadian Tibetans and their friends. Vancouver-based China Gold International (CGI) recently announced a dramatic upscaling of operations, an almost tenfold intensification of extraction, financed not by CGI’s shareholders who buy and sell its shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but by China’s big state-owned banks.

CGI has taken its time to go beyond a modest scale of operations. But in November 2015 it announced it has obtained a loan of RMB four billion, with repayments to begin only in 2019, with full repayment by 2029. The mine life has been extended to 35 years, in line with CGI’s claim that the deposit is even richer than first estimates.

Even though the price of gold remains way below the long boom years of the decade to 2014, CGI is taking the gamble that by the time the greatly expanded mine is operational, the prices of gold, copper and the other metals to be smelted from Gyama ore will have risen again. That might seem a big gamble, but in reality the RMB4bn (US$672 million) is concessional finance, at low rates, from state owned policy banks that have no choice but to lend to such operators, whether they can expect profit or not. The grace period, or loan repayment holiday, from now to mid-2019, may not be attractive to the banks, but gives CGI time to gear up and start earning big bucks.


CGI bosses 2015Gyama (Jiama in Chinese) is to go from blasting, digging, crushing and concentrating 6000 tons of rock per day, up to 50,000 tons per day.  This is by far the biggest extraction project in Tibet, although the Shetongmon mine, near Shigatse is similar. To extract and pulverise and chemically cook that much rock each day, year-round, requires a large immigrant workforce, a huge and reliable electricity supply, a town, and access to a railway to get the concentrate out on rail wagons to a distant smelter. Only at the smelter will the copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lead and zinc pour off separately, as pure metals.

You can track the stock price of CGI, on both the Toronto and Hong Kong Stock Exchanges, with a click. This looks, to the average investor, like just another commodity play.  CGI’s corporate PR estimates that over the life time of the mine, it will earn US$5.8 billion. CGI says its production costs are remarkably low, perhaps not surprising in a remote location where environmental regulations are seldom enforced and already dozens of Gyama workers have died in pit wall collapses.

One advantage of seeming like a normal mine is that CGI is obliged to file reports outlining its business model, in detail, and these are publicly available. CGI has an indepth report on its underground expansion plan is on its website, in compliance with regulatory requirements. This voluminous report lists cash flow, tonnages to be mined, royalties and profits for each year between now and 2050, the year the mine will be exhausted.

But Gyama is not a normal mine. It is literally the first enterprise in Tibet to make a profit for its Chinese owners, after decades of state-subsidised infrastructure construction that has only created an economy of dependence and disempowerment. Gyama will be the first profitable enterprise of central Tibet, capable of employing and sustaining a large immigrant workforce. That fulfils what China has always sought: a Tibet populated by politically reliable immigrants who will no longer need massive subsidies and official incentives to stay there. That is one reason the tax rate is so low: only 10%, a result of a special discount offered by the TAR government: “A company tax rate of 15% tax is payable on all after tax earnings, China Gold receive a 30% rebate on this tax from the Tibetan Government.”

In August 2015 CGI announced that: “The 2015 gold production from the Jiama Mine is expected to be approximately 16,000 ounces.” Much more is to come. CGI, at Gyama, in its Inner Mongolia mine and through acquisitions, has set itself a target of producing 500,000 ounces of gold a year.CGI corporate citizenship 2015








Statistics for the Tibet Autonomous Region don’t reveal none of this. The TAR 2014 Statistical Yearbook says that in 2013, in mineraliferous TAR, there was one smelter of nonferrous metals, and one for smelting and/or rolling ferrous metals.[3] There were 44 enterprises mining and/or processing nonferrous metals, and a further 17 doing “ferrous metals mining and dressing.” The total value of sales was RMB 25.55 bn for nonferrous metals (including copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, gold and silver), a sharp increase from RMB 20.9 bn in 2012, and RMB 10.36 in 2010. In a small economy, that is a major industry rising fast. Yet, as is typical of remote locations, the “dressing” of ores is basic, concentrating the crushed rock just enough to make it economic, on heavily subsidised rail lines, to get the concentrated, “dressed” ores out to a distant smelter outside Tibet. The amount of smelter sales from Tibet is minimal: RMB 0.88 million for nonferrous metals, RMB 120 m for ferrous metals.

So what are the metals actually produced in Tibet Autonomous Region? The official statistical yearbook has a table for “Output of Main Industrial Products.” The first listed is chromium ore, in 2013 133,000 tons, an amount that has not grown in years, well down on peak years of 1998 to 2004, which averaged 160,000 tons a year. After chromium, the next columns list output of electricity, cement, beer, mineral water, sowa rigpa medicines, flour, cooking oil, knitting wool, carpet and garments. No other mineral is listed. No mention of gold, copper, lead, zinc, silver, molybdenum etc. Is their production a state secret? Or is there no production, despite decades of the plans for “pillar industries?”

A few clues emerge from these statistics, which distinguish between big, state-owned enterprises and smaller ones, also often state owned, at a more local level. In keeping with China’s embrace of state capitalism, all these enterprises report their assets, liabilities, taxes paid, cost of production and profitability. Of the 11 big companies in the nonferrous metals mining and dressing industry, three are loss-making; while 3 or 4 ferrous mining/dressing bigger companies are loss makers. This is not uncommon across China, where inefficient enterprises are kept going by endless bank loans from state banks, because they employ people who feel entitled to an iron rice bowl. In the nonferrous big companies their accumulated non-current liabilities have now reached RMB 4.43 bn, well above half the accumulated liabilities of all big companies in TAR. The total profits of these big mining companies was RMB 912 m in 2013, and they employed 3310 people. In the whole of TAR, mining (and quarrying) employed only 5380 people.[4] They were paid RMB 319 m in wages, or 59,300 per worker, a high wage for miners anywhere in China, but not so unusual in the state sector iron rice bowl of Tibet. They were paid more than health care workers, much more than construction workers.[5] TAR remains, on paper, a backwater, producing little, and often at a loss.

By contrast, Qinghai statistics are much more revealing. The 2014 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook is remarkably thorough in listing known mineral deposits, in fact it lists 86 different kinds of deposit, with a tonnage of “reserves” inventoried for each. This is the kind of list that makes Beijing sit up and pay attention to Qinghai, a province which, by area, is 95 per cent designated as Tibetan. The list is so thorough that rock gold, alluvial placer gold and “associated gold” are categorised separately. Qinghai is massively endowed with minerals, its 979 mining enterprises, which employ 71,825 workers, only beginning to exploit this earthly wealth.

When it comes to actual production the 2014 Qinghai Yearbook gives figures for 2013, with by far the biggest tonnage extracted being potash (kali salt) with production of 46.6 million tons. This is followed by coal (15.4 million tons) and lithium (5.7 million tons). Both potash and lithium, along with magnesium, are extracted from dry or briny salt lake beds, and are raw ingredients in a wide range of industrial uses.

Tonnages are not all that is measured in this detailed compilation, which also itemises total sales value of what was extracted, and profitability of extraction. By sales (gross industrial output value) it is the extraction of oil and natural gas, from the Tsaidam Basin of Tibet’s north, that was number one, worth RMB 15.85 bn, almost half the provincial total for all minerals combined. Next in value was potash, with sales of RMB 8.8 bn; then coal, worth RMB 6.4 bn; then copper, worth RMB 1.7 bn; lead RMB 1.19bn; and lithium, RMB 1.1 bn. With the exception of much of the coal, all the rest comes from Tibetan areas of Qinghai, designated officially as areas of  autonomous Tibetan (and in some areas also Mongolian) governance. This is demonstrated by a table which divides all mineral output geographically, by prefecture. Haixi Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Tsonub in Tibetan), which includes the Tsaidam Basin, contributes by tonnage 79.7 per cent of all Qinghai mineral extraction; by total sales revenue 89.5 per cent; and by profitability RMB 7.95 bn of the total RMB 8.78 bn profits of resource extraction from the whole province, which is 90.47 per cent.

These statistics do include gold mining. Qinghai has 40 deposits of rock gold, 16 of alluvial placer gold and a further 10 of “associated gold”. In 2013 the actual number of gold mining enterprises was 19, employing 1801 workers, who extracted 1.785 million tons of rock, with a sales value of RMB 1.06 bn, an amount very close to the sales of lithium, lead and iron. But no absolute amount of gold extracted is listed. What we do know, however, is that China is now the world’s number one producer and consumer of gold, and a lot comes from Tibet.

The one metal that is extracted in Tibet, by all miners, big and small, over many decades, without cease, is gold. On that, the 2013 book Spoiling Tibet was on the money, emphasizing gold as the great prize China finds all over the western treasure house.



[1] Follow example set by gold mine ban, China Daily, 10 October 2005;

Xinhua, 13 June 2007

[2] Luo, Y., Liu, J., Zhang, D., 2009. Role of traditional beliefs of Baima Tibetans in biodiversity conservation in China. Forest Ecology and Management,  257, pp1995–2001.

Shengji, P., 2012. The Road to the Future? The Biocultural Values of the Holy Hills Forest of Yunnan Province, China. In: Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. Routledge, pp. 98–106.

Anderson, D.M., Salick, J., Moseley, R.K., Xiaokun, O., 2005. Conserving the sacred medicine mountains: a vegetation analysis of Tibetan sacred sites in northwest Yunnan. Biodiversity Conservation. 14, 3065–3091.

Teri D. Allendorf, Jodi S. Brandt, Jian M. Yang; Local perceptions of Tibetan village sacred forests in northwest Yunnan; Biological Conservation 169 (2014) 303–310


[3] Table 9-1, 188-9

[4] Table 3-7

[5] Table 3-10

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The Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Work Forum on Tibet has just wrapped. Like the previous high-level conclaves, it will take time to find out what its real significance is, such as new policies or strategies. These filter out slowly, often as neibu (insider-only) documents strictly for senior party members.

We may discover sooner rather than later, if there are any dramatic departures from long-standing policy, for example, vigorous encouragement of marriage between Han Chinese and Tibetans, or a mass influx of lowland staffers, or an acceleration of the program to depopulate rural pastoral districts by shifting former nomads to concrete settlements on urban fringes. Such moves, already well under way in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, may be tried (again) in Tibet.

All the indications are that neither Xi Jinping nor his circle have fresh ideas, still less the somewhat more liberal approaches that make a decade ago, or three decades ago in Tibet seem a much more relaxed time.

What we do know is the official version, which, as with the Fifth Work Forum in 2010, embraced all Tibetan areas, whether in Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu or Yunnan. The party’s ongoing recognition that a unified policy is needed towards all Tibetan areas, irrespective of provincial boundaries, is in many ways the highlight. This is a strategic decision, in no way a recognition of the 150 counties designated as Tibetan in those five provinces as constituting in any way a legal entity. Such strategic choices are easier to make in a meeting convened not by the government but by the party.

What has been released so far is entirely predictable: earnest commitments to development and to stability, the latter meaning unrelenting struggle against the Dalai Lama, who is to blame for any backwardness and underdevelopment in Tibet, despite China’s best efforts.

The language is familiar, and standard: “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The region has witnessed rapid development during the half century.” 

Yet such language perhaps reveals more than it intends to. Saying that Tibet “has witnessed rapid development” is not just  slightly roundabout English. To witness is to be on the sidelines, observing what is going on. Tibetans have indeed witnessed the rapid development of a Chinese economy, with many Chinese characteristics, imposed from above, with very few linkages to the existing rural Tibetan economy of crop farming and pastoral livestock production. The farmers and nomads have witnessed a new economy of administrators, security staff, surveillance monitors, infrastructure constructors, hotel builders, contractors, miners and real estate developers all descend on Tibet; while the economy of rural Tibet has been neglected.

Official media, sticking to standard phrasing, make it seem as if the development Tibetans have witnessed is of, by and for Tibetans: “The central government has attached great importance to the work related to Tibet and adopted numerous policies and measures targeted at this region to promote its development and stability. In particular, a series of significant initiatives taken over the past decades have led to profound changes to the region, with local people’s living conditions improved considerably.”

Now two economies sit alongside, but unconnected: a largely urban economy of immigrants financed by bottomless central subsidies enjoying incomes comparable to Beijing and Shanghai; and a neglected, under-invested rural Tibetan population whose comparative advantage in producing huge surpluses of wool and dairy products has never been plugged into the Chinese economy.

A simple way of illustrating this is to turn to another announcement of 26 August 2015, the same day the party Work Forum on Tibet wound up. The 5100 Corporation, marketer of bottled water from Tibet (taken from a spring at 5100 meters) announced its profits for the first half of this year, in a detailed announcement released by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where 5100 shares are listed.

Trading on Tibet’s reputation for purity, 5100 products –not only water but now also beer- appeal to the new rich who are understandably concerned at China’s food safety, and want nothing but the best for their one child. 5100 says: “Consumer recognition of the high quality and purity of mineral water from Tibet has become increasingly prominent both in and outside China and this trend is expected to gain further pace in future. The Group, through establishment of state of the art manufacturing plants in Tibet and through development of a strong product portfolio combined with execution of its sales and marketing strategies, has succeeded in leveraging on the “Tibet Water Trend” and has succeeded in establishing its brand in a leading position in this segment in China, with continued strong growth. The Group continues its development of new products and new sales channels and markets.”

One of those sales channels is China Rail: if you have taken the train to Lhasa, you have drunk 5100 water. This is but one of the profitable franchises 5100 has built. This is exactly the “development” that Tibetan have witnessed, since the “state of the art manufacturing plants in Tibet” employ almost no Tibetans, the resource is free, and the profits accrue to management and shareholders.

The company’s six-month sales were RMB 427 million, of which RMB 141 million was profit. Most of the company’s spending is not on production but on marketing and brand building. Looking ahead, the company says it will focus on elite outlets: “six major distribution channels, namely (i) department stores and supermarkets; (ii) hotels; (iii) high-end restaurants; (iv) entertainment venues such as night clubs and bars; (v) golf clubs and private clubs; and (vi) others, including cinemas, specialty shops at airport and tourist attractions etc., across different regions in the PRC to promote 5100 Glacial Water and the highland barley beer.”

From China’s perspective, this is definitely development, but it does nothing for Tibetans. Even though Tibet is famous for its barley varieties bred over many centuries by Tibetan farmers for plateau conditions, the barley used to make factory beer is an imported Chinese variety.

Another 26 August announcement revealed the creation, by a consortium of investors from Chongqing, Xinjiang and elsewhere, of a new property insurance corporation to be based in Lhasa: “State-owned Tibet Autonomous Region Investment Co. Ltd and other investors have gained approval to set up a nonlife insurance company in Tibet, according to the China Insurance Regulatory Commission. The new company, to be named Everest Property Insurance, will have registered capital of 1 billion yuan (US$144 million), said the CIRC in a statement. It will be based in Lhasa, and be set up in one year. A total of 11 companies from Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing and Xinjiang are investing in the establishment of Everest Property Insurance.”

What does Everest Property Insurance do? It collects premiums and occasionally pays out if one of the endless new apartment blocks springing up in Tibetan cities such as Lhasa, Xining, Shigatse, even Rebkong and Yushu, never find tenants, crumble and fall. Everest Property Insurance assures the new rich rentier landlords their investments are risk free, or at least hedged against risk.

Again, does any of this benefit ordinary Tibetans? Or even employ any Tibetans? Yet it all counts as part of the magnificent “development” that Tibetans witness.




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Why were 700 tons of sodium cyanide sitting in a Tianjin warehouse waiting to explode? What was all that cyanide for?

Tianjin is a very long way from Tibet, yet they are historically connected, and the cyanide, primarily used in gold extraction, adds another link.

Tianjin is China’s  entry point for imported sodium cyanide, but its main use is well inland, as far upriver as Tibet. Tianjin also stores sodium cyanide made in China, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. The use of cyanide to extract rock  gold has long been regarded as a nasty, highly dangerous but cheap, labour-saving way of aggregating gold  from rock  deposits.

The twin banes of gold extraction are mercury and cyanide. Mercury is associated with poor miners standing in streambeds panning for flecks of gold which adheres to the mercury. This is such a dangerous practice, to both the panhandlers and to rivers, that the world now has a treaty specifically banning mercury, while attempting to transition poor, or artisanal miners, into the slower but simpler and safer method of just relying on gravity, as gold is so heavy.

There is no such treaty banning cyanide, which is used more by large scale miners working the rocks that may hold gold invisible to the human eye, but which can be crushed and then the gold leached out with cyanide.

Artisanal miners are worldwide, and swarmed across Tibet in the 1980s and 1990s, while helpless Tibetan communities faced the wrath of the security state if they protested against widespread use of cyanide, mercury and dredging machines that all trashed river banks, river beds and with frequent toxic spills that poisoned livestock.

Those were the bad decades for Tibet, as China’s “opening up” opened Tibet to immigrants seeking quick fortunes, with no concern for long term consequences, or for Tibetan livelihoods and land. Those days are supposedly over, as the TAR regional government has announced, on more than one occasion, a ban on such small-scale mineral extraction.

Small-scale artisanal mining goes on, despite the official ban; most readily in depopulated areas where Tibetan pastoralists have been removed –in the name of conservation, growing more grass and repairing the damage done by past rapacious mining.

Officially, we are now in an era of large-scale mining, done by modern corporations using scientific methods, with sufficient capital to invest in technologies of extraction that do away with cheap and crude methods such as cyanide (and mercury).

Yet one of the biggest corporations owning major deposits of the Tibetan Plateau is Zijin, which boasts of being China’s biggest gold miner. Zijin keeps its costs down by continuing to use cyanide, at its main mine in Fujian province, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2010: Use of leaching at the Zijinshan mine enables Zijin to achieve gold extraction costs of Yuan 60/g compared to Yuan 110/g for rival firms, but the downside is the generation of cyanide waste.”[1]

Cyanide, as a method of leaching gold from crushed rock, remains common, although there are many alternative technologies for extracting gold. The cyanide industry worldwide has its own voluntary code of conduct for the safe use of cyanide, but no Chinese mining companies have signed onto it.

Zijin hit the headlines in 2010 because of a major toxic spill: “The July 3 discharge of more than 9,000 tonnes of wastewater killed thousands of fish and polluted the Ting river in Fujian province, on which 60,000 people depend for drinking water. Tailings reservoirs are supposed to be lined so that water seeping out of waste ore, which may contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, does not enter the local water supply. But it has run into trouble with tailings dams before. Late in 2006, a dam breach at Zijin’s Shuiyindong mine in Guizhou province dumped cyanide-laced residue into a stream.”[2]

The reason Zijin was able to get away with cutting corners and reliance on cyanide will sound familiar to those following how a Tianjin warehousing company got away with storing hundreds of tons of cyanide so close to city residents. An investigative report by South China Morning Post said: “The scandal of Zijin Mining’s toxic spill has shocked the nation, not only because of its devastating consequences for the environment, but also because the incident once again exposed collusion between big business and local authorities.

“We’ve seen many examples of collusion between government officials and businesses, but the scale of the local government’s involvement in the Zijin case is still shocking,” said Zhu Lijia, a professor at the National School of Administration.

“The company’s deputy Communist Party chief, Wen Wenbiao, is chairman of the county branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the mainland’s top political advisory body. Zijin also employs one of the county’s top graft busters. The company’s deputy chairman, Liu Xiaochu, is a retired senior official who used to be in charge of economic planning for the provincial government. Its independent directors include Chen Yuchuan, a former chief engineer of the now-defunct ministry of geology and mineral resources, and Lin Yingjing, a former bureau head of the provincial state-owned assets administration.

“Lin Shuiqing, a former chief of the county’s United Front Work Office – a Communist Party unit – and Lin Xinxi, one of the county’s top graft busters both joined the company’s supervisory committee in November, according to the company’s annual report. “Apparently, laws and regulations are rendered useless in Shanghang as the company has clearly stayed above the law,” said Zhu. Professor Wang Jianxun , a law expert at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said government officials routinely traded their power for kickbacks and handsome economic returns. “This is especially commonplace in resource-intensive industries that are mostly controlled by monopolised enterprises,” he said.

“The China Business Journal said many of the officials responsible had yet to be punished, with authorities fearful that investigations by mainland media would deal a further blow to the county’s biggest cash cow and one of the province’s biggest cash cows. Zijin Mining contributed over 60 per cent of the county’s taxation income last year.

“The fact that the probe was wrapped up so quickly signals that the provincial government wants to contain the implications on the business operations of Zijin Mining, the top enterprise in Fujian,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed local cadre as saying.

“County party chief Lai Jiqiu was quoted as pledging at a recent closed-door meeting that no other officials would be implicated, including those incumbent and retired officials who work for the company. Fisherman Xue Tianfa says he now understands why the villagers’ repeated protests against pollution have been ignored over the years and why the polluter has managed to escape scrutiny, despite several accidents. Villagers recalled authorities’ cover-up of an accident a few years ago in which a truckload of sodium cyanide was dumped into the Ting River, where it caused severe contamination.

“The county government has covered up pollution for Zijin and turned a deaf ear to our huge losses and suffering so far,” he said. Zijin Mining has earned notoriety among its competitors for its use of the highly toxic sodium cyanide in its gold refining, according to China Business News. The method may have cut costs, but it is very dangerous and has enormous environmental risks.”[3]

But the spill was too big, especially after almost 2000 tons of dead fish washed up downstream of the spill. For a while it became a top story, even an issue for a government wanting to be seen to be tough on polluters. As lawyer Christine Loh said; “Zijin’s story follows a well-trodden path. It first tried to hide and fudge, then claimed its silence was for good reason. Only when the problem was too big to disappear did it capitulate. A number of its executives have been detained, and three local government officials have been sacked. Zijin has a history of environmental violations, according to official records. Yet, it was lauded by Forbes magazine last year as a candidate to enter its “Fab 50” list of Asia’s top private companies with the best long-term prospects. Only since the spill are investment analysts starting to report that the company’s low-cost and old mining methods pose significant environmental risks to investors. Before its fall, such inappropriate practices boosted profits, and investors and analysts didn’t seem to care. Now it is fashionable for them to talk about the importance of environmental protection and corporate social responsibility. Zijin’s scandalous behaviour is not unusual on the mainland. Well-connected companies often ignore environmental and safety rules. How many similar accidents are waiting to happen?”[4]

Zijin owns and operates a major copper mine in Xinjiang called Ashele, and in Inner Mongolia its Bayin Nur non ferrous mine is a major revenue earner. Around the world, Zijin owns mines in Peru, Africa and Australia. The company boasts: “From 2003 to 2012, the company’s profit ranked No.1 for 9 consecutive years in China gold industry, and its total assets, sales revenue and profit increased dozens of times, the annual compound growth rate of its main economic figures was 60%.”[5]



Almost a century ago the wool of Tibet, especially from Amdo, made its way down the Yellow River to global markets –chiefly New York- via the port city of Tianjin. In those days, when Tibet was plugged into the global economy more than now, the wool of central Tibet went south, via Kalimpong and Calcutta to English woollen mills, while Amdowa wool went slowly downriver to Tianjin. To this day, if you look at the label inside the brim of a Tibetan nomad cowboy felt hat, you’ll see: made in Tianjin. Why Tibetan wool has to go all the way to Tianjin to be beaten into felt for hatting is a mystery, one of many mysteries of contemporary market capitalism with Chinese characteristics.



In Tibet, Zijin’s most recent venture is joint ownership, with Jinchuan Nickel, of the Shetongmon Xiongcun 雄村铜(金)矿, 谢通门县 (བཞད་མཐོང་སྨོན་རྫོང་), 日喀则地区 (གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་ས་ཁུལ།), 西藏自治区, 中国 copper, gold and zinc deposit 60 kms west of Shigatse, and only 3 kms from the Yarlung Tsangpo river. Geologists are confident that as much as three million tons of copper can be extracted, and 100 tons of gold from this deposit,[6] which is often called the Shetongmon mine, after the county name. It is conveniently  close to the Shigatse railhead available to take copper concentrates all the way to Jinchuan Nickel’s smelters in Gansu.

In Tibet Zijin also owns Qinghai West Copper Mining Company, a substantial contributor to parent company profitability.

According to Zijin’s own publicity: “Zijin produced less than 10%  of China’s gold production while achieving over one third of total profits in the industry. It is evident that Zijin’s profitability is quite outstanding among the industry”.



Zijin’s biggest global acquisition of 2015 has been in Papua New Guinea, buying the Porgera mine. This copper mine, high in the mountains, dumps all of its wastes into a nearby river, its successive owners arguing that building an effective tailings dam to forever secure the waste, in steep terrain and a high rainfall area, is impossible, or at the least far too expensive.[7]  Zijin’s 2014 annual report says: “The Group has managed to bring important construction projects within and outside the country including Inner Mongolia Sanguikou zinc and multi-metals 10,000 tonnes/day mining and processing project, Xinjiang Wulagen lead and zinc mine 10,000 tonnes/day technological innovation project, Russian Tuva zinc and multi-metals mine 5,000 tonnes/day project, Kyrgyzstan Zuoan gold mine 2,500 tonnes/day mining, processing and refining project, and Tajikistan Jilau gold mine 10,000 tonnes/day mining and processing project, etc., overcame all levels of difficulties, basically completed the constructions and the projects were put into production.”

Zijin’s partner, Jinchuan, based in Gansu has been physically closer to Tibet, but has global reach, several mines in Congo and Zambia. Shares in both Zijin and Jinchuan are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which requires detailed reporting of corporate activities.



The gold China extracts from Tibet is a lot, and extraction has persisted for decades, initially by local enterprises controlled by local cadres; these days by big corporations as well. Yet China has never published statistics on how much gold is extracted from Tibet Autonomous Region; it is missing from all statistical yearbooks.

Qinghai is a little less reticent, listing 18 gold mining companies in the province, with a combined income of RMB 1.06 billion in 2013, of which RMB 240 million was profit.[8] But there is no figure for the actual amount of gold metal produced.

When China’s real estate prices boom, or the stock market booms, gold loses its attraction, and in recent times the gold price has slumped, encouraging China’s central bank to buy more gold, while prices are cheap. Now the gold price seems to be on the rise again, after the collapse of the stock market bubble and a slump in real estate.

The slide in gold prices has delayed the exploitation of Tibet on a more intensive scale, but maybe not for much longer. As uncertainty rises, many newly rich Chinese want to get their wealth out of the country, to somewhere safer, and gold, physical bricks of gold, are a highly portable way of transferring capital abroad. The flight of capital from China seems to be accelerating, as nervous investors seek to protect their wealth.



Tibet is geologically a young land, its rocks uplifted recently, exposing much that usually is well hidden. This includes heavy metals and the arsenic found in the rocks of western or upper Tibet.  Tibetan rivers naturally carry a noticeable burden of toxic metals, from wearing away at the rock the rivers flow over. Any additional burden, from mining, has serious consequences far downstream. To add to this natural burden the cyanide and mercury used by gold miners small and big, is an insult to the health of rivers that directly water one billion people across Asia.


[1] Mining: a China miner in a heap of trouble, Bloomberg Businessweek, 26 July 2010

[2] Second Zijin mine spill in China hits export hub, Reuters 20 July 2010

[3]Shi Jiangtao in Shanghang, Fujian:  Sludge, sludge, wink, wink: how collusion abets pollution, South China Morning Post, 27 July 2010

[4] Christine Loh, Toxic Fallout, August 2, 2010,

[5] Zijin Mining Group Co., Ltd Top 10 Events in 2013, Zijin corporate press release, 18 January 2014

[6] Fuwei XIE, Juxing TANG and Xinghai LANG, The Genetic Types of Mineral Deposits of Xiongcun District, Gangdese Porphyry Copper Belt, Tibet, PRC; Acta Geologica Sinica, Volume 88, Issue s2, pages 629–630, December 2014

[7] Stuart Kirsch, Mining Capitalism: The relationship between corporations and their critics, U California Press, 2014, 47

[8] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2014, table 3-20: Utilization situation of mineral resources.

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Climate change campaigners understandably yearn for good news, for signs that governments worldwide will get real, in Paris in December, about real action to stop baking the planet. After the utter failure of the last round, in Copenhagen in 2009, to produce substantial commitment to effective earth negotiations, there have been few signs that the biggest greenhouse gas emitters are serious about curtailing their entrenched habit of regarding the air we breathe as a dump. Despite all the dire reports on the likely effects of climate change on just about everything, governments continue to insist they will not do anything substantial until everyone else does too, and at the same time. No one wants to be first.

So maybe it is understandable that the prophets of climate change seize on the slightest signs that states, addicted to polluting the skies, are now changing their ways. Yearning for good news makes the good news happen.

Nowhere is that yearning more intense than over China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. China, in the run up to the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has released its formal statement of intent. It is, as one might expect, quite carefully crafted, especially since China was widely recognised as the wrecker of the failed 2009 UNFCC COP in Copenhagen.

This time China seems to have got it right, to be on the side of the angels, on the path to clean air and a cleaner, survivable planet spared the worst of global warming. Here is a quite typical example of how China’s June 2015 climate change policy statement is received: “China’s new pledge to curb carbon emissions is credible and decisive, an encouraging sign that the country is ready and able to accept global responsibilities, at least in some cases. Despite Beijing’s far-from-spotless record in environmental management, last month’s promise looks serious, detailed and substantial.”

So let’s look at the facts. We might not reach the same rosy conclusions.


First, China’s action plan on climate change allows it to continue to  increase the burning of coal, which is already at 3800 million tons a year, as much as the rest of the planet put together. Coal burning, the greatest source of climate heating, as well as seriously toxic chemicals, is to rise, on China’s best case scenario, to 4200 million tons by 2020 and continue rising until 2030.

China remains committed to growing as fast as it can, with a goal that by 2050 Gross Domestic product (GDP) will be 11 times greater than in 2005. This official goal necessitates a staggering consumption of resources from around the world, and from the remotest areas in China. At the same time, as China shifts gradually from being the world’s factory to a service economy, it is also committed to greater efficiency in resource exploitation, to maximise profitability. Greater efficiency means less resource extraction and less greenhouse gas emissions per RMB unit of GDP. But in an economy that is still growing, overall actual resource extraction continues to rise.

This means that greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning electric power stations, currently at 158% of 2005 levels, are officially due to rise to 182 percent by 2020 and 201 per cent by 2030.[1] Thereafter, hopefully, emissions will start to reduce. This is hardly serious, detailed and substantial environmental management. This is China insisting it remains a developing country with no obligations to work as hard as rich nations to cut emissions any time soon.

The result will be that the Tibetan Plateau warms fast, faster than anywhere on earth other than the Arctic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013 published its Atlas of Global and Regional Climate  Projections, which map what Tibet can expect in the rest of this century:

IPCC scenarios for summer temperatures Tibet end 21C

IPCC scenarios of summer temperature increases across Tibet. Top row: projections for 2046 to 2065; bottom row: projections for final two decades of 21st century.

IPCC winter temperature scenarios end 21CIPCC scenarios of winter temperature increases across Tibet. Top row: projections for 2046 to 2065; bottom row: projections for final two decades of 21st century.



China’s ongoing addiction to coal is offset by several other initiatives that, at first glance, greatly improve its climate change commitment. First, as well as stepping up coal use, China is also increasing the use of renewable energy, not only wind and solar but also hydro power. Most of that hydropower increase is to come from the mountain rivers of the Tibetan Plateau as they rush towards lowland China. There are so many dams built, under construction and planned that nearly all the great rivers –the upper Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra- rising in Tibet will becomes a cascade series of stepped dams ruinous for migrating fish and aquatic ecosystems; the dams so big and heavy they are prone to trigger (and lubricate) earthquakes. Dam construction, in remote valleys of precipitous Kham, in eastern Tibet, bring huge immigrant workforces that overwhelm local communities, economies, ecologies and sacred mountain pilgrimage circuits. Once all the dams are built, the power generated will be carried across China, by ultra-high voltage power lines, all the way to coastal megacities including Shanghai and Guangdong.



Another way China is now credited for its new seriousness about tackling climate change is the map of nature reserves and national parks which on paper exclude human use, dedicated instead to restoring forest and pristine grassland wilderness, thus capturing more of the carbon emitted by those coal fired power stations. A glance at a www.protectedplanet.net  map of China’s officially protected areas shows most are on the Tibetan Plateau, some in arid areas of alpine desert, but much in the best pasture lands of Tibet, including the entire prefectures of Golok, Yushu and more, a rolling green sward 50 per cent bigger than the UK.

Sanjiangyuan in China context uncluttered map


China’s protected areas, with the prime pastures of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve of eastern Tibet highlighted. Source: www.protectedplanet.net, a database of the UN Environment Programme.

The best production landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau are now officially zones of human exclusion, all in the name of conservation and climate change mitigation. On a map, this looks like an impressive commitment to grow more grass and sequester more carbon, offsetting all those coal fired emissions. On the ground, for hundreds of thousands of pastoral nomads, it means total loss of livelihood, herded off their land into concrete barracks often far from their lands, their herds compulsorily sold, with no training to enter the modern cash economy of wage labour. China’s justification is rangeland degradation, a problem best dealt with by including the pastoralists as part of the solution, implementing the reseeding of bare areas, the best people to care for the rehabilitation of areas where, due to official policy, animals were concentrated more than the land could bear. There are now many Chinese scientists who identify the cause of overgrazing and degradation as a succession of “improper” official policies that forced nomads onto small allocated plots.


Why is China in no hurry to curtail its coal consumption, clean its skies, mitigate climate change and pull its considerable weight in global efforts to prevent disastrous planetary warming?

China is huge, and the pressure for change comes from the east coast cities, where articulate citizens, including plenty of party members, demand clean air. The simplest solution is to shift the dirtiest factories inland, far inland, as far as the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, to megacities including Chengdu and Chongqing. Elizabeth Economy, of the Council on Foreign Relations,  notes that: “as China shuts down power plants and coal mining in the eastern provinces, they are planning to move the plants and mines to the country’s western regions. Thus, while some of China’s major coal-related initiatives will do much to improve domestic air pollution in the coastal provinces, they won’t produce the same benefits for climate change.”

This is where Tibetans get hit with a double whammy. On one hand, in the name of conservation, Tibetans are excluded from ancestral pastures. On the other hand the miners move in to lands no longer protected by living Tibetan communities, and the minerals extracted feed the new factories of the Fortune 500 relocated to Chongqing and Chengdu. On paper, China looks good: committed to protecting huge dryland areas from degradation; while in practice, off the books and out of sight of international scrutiny the miners move in.


It is not only minerals that Tibet provides to the world’s factory as it moves to Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Tibet’s number one purpose is to provide water and hydro-electricity to downstream lowland China. Climate change is already producing a dividend for China, in the form of increased river flows and rising lake levels across the Tibetan Plateau, as glaciers melt and rain increases.[2] According to the scientists who study paleoclimate, the Tibetan Plateau has been slowly desiccating for thousands of years, with lake shorelines gradually dropping for millennia. But in the past few years this trend has reversed.  This dividend will continue to pay out for several decades of climate warming to come, until eventually the glaciers are all gone. Why jeopardise such a dividend?

China’s scientists are now intensively monitoring the effects of climate change on Tibetan rivers due to be dammed and diverted, to feed extra water into the upper Yellow River in the hope of alleviating the drying out of the river that gave China’s civilisation its start. Recent research sponsored by the China Meteorological Data Sharing Service System, and the Bureau of Hydrology and Water Resources of Sichuan Province, has found that this massive project, officially the south-to-north water diversion western route, will be of greater benefit in coming decades as accelerating climate change will mean less seasonal synchrony between the heavily monsoonal upper Yangtze and the much drier upper Yellow River.[3] By factoring in the likely effects of climate change, scientists from the State Key Laboratory of Hydraulics and Mountain River Engineering, and the College of Water Resource & Hydropower, both part of Sichuan University, make the strongest possible case for going ahead with a project they call “the most magnificent trans-basin water diversion project in the world.”

south to north western route 2015 map

The canal to be constructed runs across the most troubled areas of the Tibetan Plateau, across Kandze and Ngawa (Aba in Chinese) prefectures, where most of the public protest suicides by Tibetans have occurred in recent years

Planned route of dams and canal to divert Dri Chu (Yangtze) to Ma Chu (Yellow River).

Source: HUANG Xiao-rong, ZHAO Jing-wei and YANG Peng-peng; Wet-Dry Runoff Correlation in Western Route of South-to-North Water Diversion Project, China; Journal of Mountain Science, (2015) 12(3): 592-603



One further reason China sees itself as due for a payoff from accelerating climate change is the prospect of growing more temperate climate crops on the eastern Tibetan Plateau in coming years, as the climate heats. A major reason China has found it difficult to populate the Tibetan Plateau with politically reliable immigrants is that the frigidity of Tibet prevents the farming of grassland, especially the labour-intensive small plot traditional Chinese peasant farming that can employ lots of people. But if the climate warms, in coming decades it may be possible to grow more forest in eastern Tibet, and also open up new cropland.[4]

The official Geographic Atlas of China published in 2010 maps the likely effects of a 4°C temperature rise –double the redline danger zone of 2 degrees- on the productivity of the Tibetan Plateau, under two scenarios: no rainfall change,  and a 10% rainfall increase. Both maps show a strong westward shift of forest into Tibet, the greatest being for the likeliest scenario, of increased rain accompanying increased temperature.

plant zones of China 2010

Plant growth zones of China 2010. Source: Geographic Atlas of China, Sinomaps, 2010 p 72




plant zones China with 4 degree warming

Plant growth zones of China after global warming adds 4 degrees C.


Plant growth zones if warming reaches extra 4 degrees C, plus 10% more rain


plant zones map key

热带森林 Tropical Forest

亚热带森林 Subtropical Forest

亚热带型山地森林mountainous forest with Subtropical type

暖温带森林 Temperate zone forest

暖温带型山地森林 Mountainous forest shaped with temperate zone

温带森林 Temperate zone forest

温带型山地森林 Mountainous Forest shaped with temperate zone

北方森林 Northern Forest

北方型山地森林 Mountainous forest with type of northern forest

温带草原 Temperate zone grassland

温带型山地草原 Mountainous grassland with type of Temperate zone

北方型山地草原 Mountainous grassland with type of north

暖温带荒漠 Temperate zone Desert

温带荒漠 Temperate Zone Desert

北方型山地荒漠 Mountainous desert with type of north

高寒草原 Altitude Cold Grassland

高寒草甸 Altitude Cold Grassy Marshland

高寒荒漠 Altitude Cold Desert

冻原 Tundra

冻荒漠 Cold desert

冰雪带 Ice-snow belt

冰原带 Ice Sheet zone

The entire plant growth zones of China will move more than 300 kms westward in coming decades. For example, mountain forest with subtropical species on the lower slopes will, on these maps,  spread to the Nyenchen Tanglha range of central Tibet, and the shores of Lake Namtso.

That is what China expects. The science of such forecasts is far from exact, the reality on the ground 35 or more years from now may be quite different. But China’s policies are based on such expectations.

Such expectations are not based on ground truths of actual climate change already happening fast in Tibet, which is shrinking permafrost, lowering water tables, drying out wetlands and robbing young crops of soil moisture that melts away in spring long before the summer rains arrive. The rosy expectation of a climate dividend for China in Tibet is based on extrapolating remote sensing data gathered by satellite, not on ground observation.

Taken together, these are the many reasons China knows it must talk the talk on climate change, but is reluctant to fulfil the hopes of the world as it looks to the UNFCC Paris COP in December 2015. China has so far successfully resisted all calls that it specify emissions reductions. China has bought time, and credibility with conservationists, by declaring half of the Tibetan Plateau to be nature reserves, and by talking about growing more grass on those depopulated pastures as China’s great contribution to capturing carbon.

Little wonder then that Tibetans coming to the Paris climate change negotiations ask the world’s conservationists to see beyond the plausible but vacuous slogans of China’s announcements.




[1] An Analysis of China’s INDC , Fu Sha, Zou Ji, Liu Linwei, China National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, http://www.chinacarbon.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Comments-on-Chinas-INDC.pdf

[2] Climate change, glacier melting and streamflow in the Niyang River Basin, Southeast Tibet, China.
Zhang MingFang; Ren QingShan et al;  Ecohydrology, 2011, 4, 2, 288-298

[3] HUANG Xiao-rong, ZHAO Jing-wei and YANG Peng-peng; Wet-Dry Runoff Correlation in Western Route of South-to-North Water Diversion Project, China; Journal of Mountain Science, (2015) 12(3): 592-603

[4] XU Huajun, YANG Xiao鄄guang, et al; Changes of China agricultural climate resources under the background of climate change. VII. Change characteristics of agricultural climate resources in arid and semi arid region of Tibet Plateau. Chinese Journal of Applied Ecoogy,2011,22(7): 1817-1824.


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