TIGER LEAPING, CONCRETE DAMMING

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE THREE PARALLEL RIVERS PROTECTED AREA UNDER THREAT

Blog one of three

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

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

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

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

BACK FROM THE DEAD

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

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

 Of the 17 dams on the Jinsha, already built or planned, Tiger Leaping Gorge/ Longpan is planned to generate 4000 megwatts of electricity, a huge amount. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinsha_River

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

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

DESTINATION SHANGRI-LA

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

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

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

MEET THAT TIGER BY RAIL, BY EXPRESSWAY, BY SEDAN CHAIR

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

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

new rich tourists ride sedan chair down to Tiger Leaping Gorge

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

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

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

UNESCO PROTESTS

Given the cumulative impact of water diversion aqueducts, hydro dams, displaced populations, tourism infrastructure, road expressway and high speed rail bridges, UNESCO has responded, in 2017 expressing alarm: “Pressure on the property primarily stems from infrastructure development. Spatially separating conservation and development is not, in and of itself, an effective strategy to ‘harmonize the coexistence and relationship between development and the nature’, as the State Party puts it in one of its fundamental objectives. The highly significant modification of the river systems, which gave the property its name, amounts to a profound landscape change, with additional threats from large-scale water diversion programmes. While the projects may be located outside of the “commitment area”, the effects of disturbance, loss of connectivity, improved road access facilitating illicit activities and species invasions inevitably accompany large infrastructure projects beyond their spatial footprint. Besides, there are linkages between freshwater biodiversity and processes affected by dams and terrestrial ecosystems. Although located outside the property, the massive hydropower projects and the associated infrastructure objectively change the natural beauty and aesthetic importance of the valleys and their numerous important views, which contribute to the property’s OUV (outstanding universal value) under criterion (vii), and cannot be restricted to selected elements of a landscape. Therefore, the visual impact of these infrastructure projects is considered to exert a direct negative impact on the OUV.” https://whc.unesco.org/archive/2017/whc17-41com-7B-en.pdf  State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List

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

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

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

UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers boundaries, official map

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

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

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

CHINA’S RESPONSE TO UNESCO

UNESCO concedes it lacks any jurisdiction over areas outside the scattered jigsaw pieces under its protection, yet expresses its concern at “projects located outside of the ‘commitment area’”. In response, in late 2018, China issued a bland State of Conservation report referring vaguely to the prospect of even more dams: “One hydropower development project, so called one reservoir with eight cascades, along Jinsha River midstream has accomplished constructions of Liyuan, Ahai, Jiananqiao, Longkaikou, Ludila and Guanyinyan power stations. Two of planned stations, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations, the Ministry of Environmental Protection states, as the aspects of ecological and environmental protection, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations need to be further studied before making any decisions. The relevant construction plans and EIAs have not been completed, reported and ratified. And they are not under construction”.  2018 State of Conservation report by the State Party: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083/documents

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

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


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

http://www.hydropower.org.cn/showNewsDetail.asp?nsId=14779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LEAPING TIGERS, GREAT LEAPS FORWARD

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE THREE PARALLEL RIVERS PROTECTED AREA UNDER THREAT

Blog two of three

HOW TO UNDO A WIN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

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

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

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

anchoring Tiger Gorge expressway bridge into rock of Tibet

WATER EXTRACTION AND DIVERSION

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

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

aqueduct with tunnels 660 kms long from Dri Chu across Yunnan

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

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

draining Dri Chu to irrigate Yunnan agribusiness

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

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

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

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

VIGOROUSLY MAKING THE  CASE FOR DAMMING WORLD HERITAGE

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

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

Soul of China, CCP Party School magazine, May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

computer generated wall of Tiger Gorge dam

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

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

dam and powergrid plans

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

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

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

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

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

List of Hydropower station projects in Tibet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YALONG RIVER BASIN 雅砻江流域

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

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

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

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

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

DADU RIVER BASIN 大渡河流域

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISPLACING 100,000 TIBETAN AND NAXI FARMERS

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Asian Development Bank, Managing Water Resources for Sustainable Socioeconomic Development: A country water assessment for the People’s Republic of China, Dec 2018. https://www.adb.org/documents/country-water-assessment-peoples-republic-china

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

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

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

Shawn Steil and Duan Yuefang,  Policies and practice in Three Gorges resettlement: a field account; Forced Migration Review 12, 2002 https://www.fmreview.org/development-induced-displacement/steil-yuefang

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

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LEAPING INTO THE EARTH, LEAPING GLOBALLY

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE THREE PARALLEL RIVERS PROTECTED AREA UNDER THREAT

Blog three of three

MINING PERSISTS INSIDE WORLD HERITAGE PROTECTED AREA

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

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

In response to UNESCO’s diplomatic concerns, China’s Nov 2018 State of Conservation report lists many small mines which, on paper, are no longer licensed.  2018 State of Conservation report by the State Party: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1083/documents   

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

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

ADMIRING THE CONQUEST OF NATURE

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

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

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

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

Tiger Gorge tourist bus parking stand

GREATEST OF LEAPS

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

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

advertising hydro dams during the peak of 1960 Great Leap famine

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

WATER CAPTURE, WATER ABANDONMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by UNESCO

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

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

World Hydropower Congress 2019, sponsored by three arms of UNESCO

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

DEEPER MEANINGS OF INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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PRISTINE WILDERNESS, CHINA’S TREASURE

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

IN LOVE WITH ICONIC TIBETAN SPECIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qinghai Scitech Weekly 24 April 2019

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

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

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

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

China National Geographic website

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

Mysteries of antelope migration: Qinghai Scitech News

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

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

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

China National Geographic: Why is Tibet so Charming?

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

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

Tibetan gazelles leaping fences nomads were required to erect

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

What are we to make of this jumble of contradictions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CHINA FALLS IN LOVE

TIBET’S UNIQUE WILDLIFE ENRICHES CHINA’S UNIQUENESS

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO GOVERN HOH XIL?

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

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

Prof Lian Xinming in Qinghai Scitech News 24 April 2019

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

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

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

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

THOSE UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS

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

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

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

Ritz-Carlton hotel Jiuzhaigou

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

InterContinental Hotel, Jiuzhaigou

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

red hero Sonam Dargey

RESTORING NATURAL BALANCE

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

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

Perhaps the drogpa should have a voice?


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

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

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

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

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

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WHY DOES THE ANTELOPE CROSS THE TIBET EXPRESSWAY?

ENTER HOX IL THROUGH THE EXPRESSWAY, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

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

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

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

cover of 2017 book detailing the engineering of the Tibet expressway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tibet Expressway 2019: courtesy http://qiqi.life/show/157944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


https://www.economist.com/china/2012/12/22/get-your-kicks-on-route-g6

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

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MIGHTY DRI CHU/YANGTZE

PROTECTING THE YANGTZE, FROM TIBET TO SHANGHAI

What connects Tibet and China most immediately, most physically, is water, the flow of water from the glaciers and great meandering pastoral rivers of Tibet, which eventually reach lowland China, specifically the Ma Chu or Yellow River and the Dri Chu or Yangtze.

Tibetans, proud to be the fountainhead of most of Asia’s big rivers, have adopted China’s slogan, calling Tibet China’s Number One Water Tower and  in fact Asia’s Number One Water Tower.

The Yangtze is a mighty river, directly uniting Dritö and Shanghai, Yushu and Jiangsu, upland and coast. While water naturally flows down, in modernity there is an upriver flow of political power, the planner’s gaze, the writ of the state, concrete and steel, imposing their hydro dams, power grids, laws and official zoning policies that make vast areas into resource extraction zones, industrial zones or ecological civilisation zones.

So big is the Dri Chu/Yangtze system, 19 of China’s 31 provinces are directly involved, each with a provincial agenda, usually prioritising development, growth, industry and local vested interests. A recent effort to list everyone who has control found: “According to the existing laws and regulations, these jurisdictions belong to 15 ministries and commissions and 76 functions of the central government. They belong to 19 provincial governments with more than 100 functions.” The Yangtze River basin covers 20% of the geographical territory of China and sustains 400 million people, or 43% of the country’s population. The Yangtze River region makes up more than a third of China’s freshwater reserves, contributing 42% of China’s GDP and 73% of the country’s hydropower.

What the Dri Chu/Yangtze does for China.

The time has at last come for a unified approach, and a single law at national level to implement that uniform approach. The drive for consistency comes from environmental concern, from acute awareness that the Dri Chu/Yangtze has been over used, polluted, taken for granted, heavily dammed for decades, and those vested provincial interests are entrenched.

There is to be a Yangtze River Protection Law, 长江保护法, by the end of 2019. The announcement was made during the March 2019 session of the National People’s Congress, with preparatory work already under way.

For Tibetans, the big question is whether the Yangtze Protection Law will actually protect the Dri Chu, especially from hydro dam plans on several major Yangtze tributaries, in Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa, all in Sichuan province. Is this a law further centralising power, for the benefit of Shanghai and Beijing, or will it benefit everyone right along a river over 6000 kms long?

What is meant by protection? Who will define it? Will the new national law have sufficient status, standing, funding and enforcement staff to actually override provincial engineers and dam builders, as well as industrial polluters downstream? Even more fundamentally, will the Yangtze Protection Law protect the entire Yangtze, or be restricted to the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) of the mid to lower river, bypassing Tibet altogether?

The uppermost Dri Chu/Yangtze in Kham Yushu prefecture

The answers to these key questions are not yet clear. In fact, the tussle over this law and the extent of its powers is just beginning to flare. China may present itself as unitary and at the direction of one man, but this is an issue of much contention, with no certain outcome, and lots of players.

MEET CHINA’S ELITE ENVIRONMENTALISTS

The idea of an overriding Yangtze protection Law has been a long time coming. The push has come from environmentalists in high places, within the official system.  There is no guarantee they will win, especially if top leaders fear, above all else, economic slowdown and respond by stimulating economic growth as the top priority.

A leading proponent of the Yangtze Protection Law is Chang Jiwen, 常纪文 deputy director of the Institute of Resources and Environmental Policy of the Development Research Centre of the State Council, who had opportunity in September 2018, in People’s Daily to explain precisely what is needed if such a law is to be meaningful. Chang Jiwen is an insider who knows how China works, what needs to be done and how, if all the talk about “constructing environmental civilisation” is to succeed.  Even in this new era, when the party is overtly above the law and overtly in command of government at all levels, the State Council, equivalent to a western cabinet, has clout. But is this really a new era, or will the Yangtze yet again be dammed, as it was at Three Gorges, displacing 1.3 million people?

Chang Jiwen regularly exercises his power to push for environmental concerns to have real power, no longer be token afterthoughts. This means pushing for the central state to override local interests, and for authoritarian disciplinary powers to enforce environmental outcomes, overriding local vested interests that pay lip service to national policy but persist in their old ways. His rise is a sign that environmentalism is newly strengthened and emboldened, and intends to get results.

None of that guarantees success. There are countless ways the 19 provinces and 15 ministries can look after their own turf.

As Tibetans have a major stake in all of this, Tibetan voices need to be heard in this debate, as they were in 2004 when the damming of the Gyalmo Ngulchu (Nujiang in Chinese) was halted by an effective coalition of Tibetan and other minority activists working with well-connected Beijing intellectuals and insiders. Tibetans are in a position to make a difference, now that this debate, long low key, is out in the open.

OMITTING TIBET

For Tibetans, a key question is whether the new law covers the whole river, or just the lowlands, from midriver, below Three Gorges, on down. Precedent isn’t good. The Mekong (Za Chu in Tibetan) rises in the same Sanjiangyuan National Park as the Dri Chu/Yangtze and Yellow rivers, that is why the park is branded the Three Rivers Source/Sanjiangyuan. Yet China excludes the Mekong in Tibet from membership of the Mekong Subregion development area, although Yunnan does belong. As a result, maps of the Mekong, its problems and prospects, routinely omit the upper Mekong, as if it doesn’t exist; shifting the focus to Yunnan, Lao, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Mekong omits Tibet

The recent inflation of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), to include a Chinese province nowhere near the Mekong, while still excluding Tibet, is a reminder the fate of the Yangtze, especially in Tibet, is far from certain. Since GMS is primarily an initiative of the Asian Development Bank, the countries and select Chinese provinces comprising GMS stand to gain a lot of investment capital, mainly to overcome geography and build infrastructure of highways, railways, hydro dams and power grids.

The upper Yangtze similarly is scheduled for huge capital expenditure by China, on hydro dams, power grids and even large scale diversion of Yangtze waters, via canals and tunnels, to the parched Yellow River to the north, the designated route being in Kham Kandze. Now that the easier dams, below the Tibetan Plateau, are largely built, many argue it is now time for the big dam builders to move upstream and turn the engineering drawings into concrete reality.

So the key questions are:

  • Is the upper Yangtze, in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, to be covered by the Yangtze Protection Law?
  • Will Sichuan province continue to argue for more hydro dams and power grids on upper Yangtze tributary valleys, as being in the national interest, providing not only Sichuan but China with renewable energy, via ultra-high voltage power grid?
  • Will Qinghai persist with arguing that Yangtze protection in the source area is best guaranteed by the creation of the Sanjiangyuan National park, due to be proclaimed in 2020, removing almost all drogpa nomads, in the name of restoring the “original ecology” of landscapes sustainable grazed by Tibetans for thousands of years?
  • Will the national government crack down on polluters on the mid and lower Yangtze, yet side with the arguments of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, that it is in the national interest to both build the tallest hydro dams in the world, and to exclude the Tibetan nomads from the uppermost Yangtze?
  • In short, how will the national interest be defined? It could go either way. This is not the first attempt at a national solution to the governance of the entire Yangtze.

At this point, nothing is certain. The State Council, with a hard-headed realist such as Chang Jiwen driving the legislative process, could recognise the contradiction between dam building and nomad clearances in the name of restoring a pristine “original” landscape. State Council could insist, as it will downstream, that national interests come first, negating the parochial interests of industrial polluters, wasteful irrigators, the cruise ship industry and other local champions. National interest could be defined as limiting the dam construction boom in seismically active, earthquake prone Kham, as too expensive and too unpopular with displaced Tibetan communities. State Council could define national interest in Qinghai as redline zoning and national park protection of the source of the Yangtze, while including the Tibetan drogpa nomads as the skilled stewards of sacred landscapes, rewarded and respected for their thousands of years of sustainable management of curated grasslands.

landslide risks of existing Yangtze dams just below the Tibetan Plateau

Alternatively, local vested interests may prove too strong, even for a highly centralised China under Xi Jinping. The current fragmentation of authority, among 15 ministries and 19 provincial governments, suggests central leaders will struggle to assert a consistent agenda for the entire river. Beijing will get its way on many aspects of Yangtze governance, but not everywhere. Both Sichuan and Qinghai provincial governments know how to pitch their plans as national in benefit.

Momentum has been building for a long time for conservation of the Yangtze, as a single watershed, beginning to end. Now is the time for the conservation argument to become law. This is why it matters that Tibetans speak, and not be spoken for. The moment has at last come, for the Yangtze in its entirety, from its Tibetan source to its meeting with the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai.

What the Dri Chu/Yangtze naturally does for China.

All the defenders of vested interests are assembling, to defend their patch of the Yangtze. They have plenty of experience of pitching their sectional interests as national interest, nowhere more so than in Qinghai, which is heavily dependent on Beijing subsidies to balance its budget and bring in sufficient funding to finance the provincial budget. It was the Qinghai government that popularised the idea that Tibet is “China’s Number One Water Tower” and “Third Pole.” Sichuan too is adept at pitching the power grids taking electricity generated from Tibetan rivers right across China to coastal industries, as the way to make Tibet, at last, pay its way and serve the nation.

Yangtze is big and, as climate warms and glaciers melt, getting bigger. Source of tables:

Navigating a path to a future that has room for Tibetans to do what they do best, caring for rivers and landscapes, will be tricky; all the more so as the State Council and its Premier Li Keqiang are clearly subservient to the Party and Xi Jinping. The Party is in command, more than ever.

Chang Jiwen knows how to roll with such changes, how and when to speak plainly about what must be done, and when to be patient, as this is definitely a long-haul issue. He keeps a close watch on how American citizens have legal rights to launch lawsuits against polluters.[1] He has worked with the International Federation for Animal Welfare and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as he gathered models for China’s first law against animal cruelty, tackling directly the eating of dogs and cats. He wrote that law.

Chang is adept at moving with the times, proposing effective yet inclusive solutions to long-standing problems, with the capitalist economy playing a role. He does not put economy and ecology in two, mutually exclusive camps, avoiding zero sum logic. He publishes prolifically, about a wide range of  environmental law prospects, with 40 articles in the two years of 2016 and 2017, in key journals such as Development Research 发展研究 , Green Leaf  绿叶, Chinese Journal of Environmental Management 中国环境管理, and  Chinese Ecological Civilisation 中国生态文明. If there is a legislative voice in China on environmental issues, it is Chang Jiwen.

China Ecological Civilisation Journal

ECONOMIC GROWTH, OR RIVER PROTECTION, OR BOTH?

In Xi Jinping’s new era, all that is good, all progress must be attributed to Xi’s leadership. The key question is whether there is one set of policies for the mid and lower Yangtze, and a quite different approach for the upper Yangtze, above the Three Gorges Dam, which has raised  the Yangtze as far upriver as Chongqing.  Already, that distinction between upper and lower is entrenched. The lower Yangtze has its own packaging, as the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB), attracting a lot of attention, both from China and from international development agencies such as the Asian Development Bank. Although YREB is specifically called an Economic Belt, it is meant to juggle economic growth and environment, limit pollution, mitigate flood danger and hopefully save rare iconic species endemic to the Yangtze. That’s quite a juggle, and it is ongoing.

It would not, unfortunately, be a surprise if all the focus of the forthcoming Yangtze River Protection Law was limited to YREB, as there are plenty of powerful local interests to wrestle into compliance with the national interest in constructing an ecological civilisation. Chang Jiwen published an article on the Yangtze in 2017, in which he focussed almost entirely on the downriver YREB.[2]

A protected Yangtze in future still wont leave much water for the environment. Source: Asian Development Bank.

DRI CHU TO SERVE THE LOWER YANGTZE?

If that split persists, it will become one law for the densely populated downriver, another for the upriver, with the upper reaches neglected and, by default, left in the hands of the dam builders, canal and tunnel builders, and power grid builders in Sichuan; and the exclusionary national park planners in Qinghai, despite the blatant contradiction between creating a depopulated  pristine virgin grassland wilderness in Qinghai and a highly industrialised energy extraction river in Sichuan, not only on the mainstream (Jinsha in Chinese) but on the major tributaries too.

A further contradiction, inherent in China’s emphasis on “constructing ecological civilisation” is that nature is to be left to repair itself, without construction, only through subtraction of the human presence. No investment in ecosystem rehabilitation is required. Virgin wilderness will restore itself. In reality, Tibetan pastoralists created a productive rangeland, with maximum biodiversity, by selectively clearing unpalatable shrubs and trees, over thousands of years, and by grazing regimes that favoured the growth of medicinal herbs that lose out if grazing stops and the ungrazed grasses grow so tall they block the sun, and the medicinal herbs die.

Industrial water use of the Yangtze intensifies over the years.

CHINA AS EXEMPLARY CIVILISATIONAL STATE

 China is so determined to prove to the world what a great civilisation it is, with a uniquely Chinese approach to absolutely everything, yet is  so  uninterested in investing in actual rehabilitation work in degraded pastoral lands. Today’s wealthy China could easily afford to employ people to do the work of sowing native grasses, protecting seedlings, and other labour intensive work needed to promote land degradation neutrality. So why not make that investment? Why rely solely on “ecological restoration” as a hands-off inevitability?

To invest in active repair would mean employing Tibetans, and it would expose the actual cause of the patches of degradation, which are found where official allocations of grazing land, compulsorily fenced, were too small for Tibetan drogpa nomads to make a living. Herd sizes necessary for subsistence production required more land, more seasonal mobility, more rotational grazing over extensive pasture lands, none of which China was willing to permit. The result was degradation. In China, not only is the Party always right, it has always been right, about everything. Past policy failures cannot be admitted. To speak of past policy failure is labelled “historical nihilism”, a serious, punishable deviation.

Rather than employing Tibetans to stay on their pastures, and raise them out of poverty by paying them to do the hard physical work of rehabilitating degraded areas, it is far easier to depopulate the pastoral landscape, and declare the emptied lands to be pristine wilderness.

Climate change means more rain over the Yangtze. As usual, far let -the Dri Chu in Kham Yushu- is blank, because so little data is available. China’s river gauging stations are all much further downriver.

 WHO WILL BE PROTECTED?

For all the talk of ecology, whole landscape approaches, and integrated watershed management, the signs suggest the upper Yangtze will not be protected by the Yangtze River Protection Law. In Chang Jiwen’s frequent writings, and in official discourse generally, the focus is on what most immediately concerns urban Chinese in lowland cities: water quality, pollution, dumping of wastes into rivers, potability of city water supplies, and urban air quality.

Given these Sino centric priorities, the upper Yangtze in Tibet is classified as a large area of restoration of nature, all part of the construction of ecological civilisation. That defines the Dri Chu/Yangtze in Kham Yushu and Amdo Golok, all in Qinghai. The Dri Chu, meandering through the alpine meadows, fits into the grand plans of ecological civilisation construction by being zoned ecological, bundled into a national park with an orientalist eastward gaze, as the Sanjiangyuan, and the local communities excluded by the red lines of the laws Chang Jiwen has helped draft are to be benevolently given “ecological compensation” by the central state.

This all changes when the Dri Chu and its many tributaries cross from Qinghai into Sichuan, from rolling pasture to steep mountain valleys. As the Dri Chu accelerates, its hydropower potential is to be harnessed, with the ultra-high voltage power grids China pioneered stretching from the foot of the Tibetan Plateau all the way to China’s east coast, to the endless factories making all that is made in China. Again, Chang Jiwen sees no contradiction, indeed he frequently asserts that the way to build ecological civilisation is “with industrial ecologicalization and ecological industrialization as the mainstay.” This is so vague, it could mean anything.

Thus it is entirely possible that Tibetans will be displaced and excluded, in the name of restoring nature in Qinghai, and for the sake of ecological industrialisation in Sichuan, as the hydrodammers move upriver.

The Yangtze is not only one of the world’s biggest rivers, it is also one of the longest, so long that in China it is known by many names, as the Tongtian in its uppermost reaches, as the Jinsha as it plunges through the mountain valleys it has carved, all in Tibet. Only in the lowlands is it known by its commonest name, the Chang Jiang, or long river. Chang Jiwen plans a legislative regime for the Chang Jiang that, as usual, proclaims China the exemplary ecological civilisation. Yet again, the glaring contradictions, of excluding Tibetans from their own homeland along the river, in the name of  nature restoration and ecological industrialisation, all to serve the lower Yangtze’s concentrated urban populations, go unnoticed.

China’s campaign is to be admired, as the complete civilisation, with answers for all problems, a model for developing countries worldwide, a civilizational state better able to tackle the issues of our times than the wobbly democracies.

Chang Jiwen wants a system design that is scientific and reasonable, and with strong enforcement. Strict system implementation makes the system a rigid constraint and an untouchable high-voltage line” Chang Jiwen says.

THE YANGTZE HIGHWAY FOR PLUNDERING TIBET

floating Tibetan forests down the Yangtze at Kandze Dranggo

It is now 20 years since China stopped using the Yangtze as a cost-free highway for transporting logs from Tibetan forests to the lowlands. Decades of intensive logging of Tibetan forests, on the steep slopes of precipitous Kham, often did not bother to construct logging access roads to haul fallen trees onto trucks to get them to the timber mills and China’s urban markets. Rather than cutting motorable roads, it was far cheaper to roll and slide the logs down into a Yangtze tributary, to float down to the Sichuan basin, to there be intercepted for milling. These are the forests China now proudly proclaims as “biodiversity hotspots”, in need of such high-level protection that local communities are defined as threats. It was only the heavy flooding along the lower Yangtze in 1998 that forced central leaders to step in and announce a halt to logging, for the sake of the lowlands.

These days, China has moved on, and now intensively logs the forests of Myanmar, SE Asia, Pacific islands and even the Congo.

logging Tibetan forests Amdo Ngawa Dzamthang

China’s long river has a long history of treating Tibet as exceptional, beyond the frontier, a waste land to be opened up for the benefit of water short, timber short lowlanders seeking  their fortunes in the cities. A new Yangtze River protection Law could redress this imbalance, and apply the same standards that apply to the lowlands.

Do China’s laws effectively apply throughout China? Or does “security” relegate all other laws, to the point they have no use in Tibet? Put another way, is China, as it claims, a unitary state based on a great civilisation, or is Tibet still beyond the frontier, unassimilated, to be treated punitively as a rebellious, untrustworthy colony?

LEGISLATING YANGTZE PROTECTION

Now the legislative process has begun, and all stakeholders are involved. China says what is needed along the Yangtze is a new consistency, because: “existing special laws are not well connected and coordinated with each other; the institutional mechanism is not smooth, and some people have no authority, no one is willing to manage, and the inter-departmental regulatory standards and standards are inconsistent.” Officially, the Yangtze River Protection Law formulation process necessitates that: “We must emancipate our minds, seek truth from facts, and establish the principles of protection priority, green development, development in protection, and protection in development.”

These official slogans can be made to mean anything. What do Tibetans want them to mean? The law is to include a Yangtze River Basin Ecological Environment Court. Will Tibetans have standing, entitling them to press their case, or does “protection in development” mean hydro dams no one may legally object to?

MEET LU ZHONGMEI AND THE YANGTZE ENVIRONMENTAL COURT

The key question raised by a law purporting to protect the Yangtze is: protection for whom, from what? Given that the proponents of this law want both economic development and environmental protection, which of these goals is to predominate, over which section of the river?

Lu Zhongmei

A key proponent is Lu Zhongmei , who in March 2019 “submitted a complete draft of the ‘Yangtze River Protection Law’ expert proposal to the National People’s Congress Environmental Protection Committee, and proposed to establish ‘ecological restoration priority, ensure water security, equitably allocate water resources in the basin, and promote sustainable development of the basin.’”

This is an instructive list, and its order suggests the priorities for each section of the long river. Ecological restoration is to be the keyword for the uppermost Dri Chu/Yangtze in Qinghai, as well as delivering “water security”. On the lower Yangtze the key question is allocation of water extraction, and sustainable development. That is the division of labour the Dri Chu is saddled with. Lu Zhongmei is described as chief expert of the National Major Projects Group of the Yangtze River Protection Law.”  She has been a deputy elected to the National People’s Congress since 2003. Hers is the legislative voice, literally. She is president of the Hubei University of Economics, on the Yangtze in Wuhan. As a professor of environmental law, she has championed the right of Chinese citizens (with decent social credit scores) to launch legal proceedings against polluters. This is a right never extended to upriver Tibetans, who are criminalised, as a major threat, as soon as they raise their voices. Tibetans can’t even get jobs assembling iPhones, still less sufficient standing to be accepted by courts as plaintiffs.

Lu Zhongmei seals a deal with University of New England, Australia.

Yet the core idea of this Yangtze River Protection Law is that it covers the entire watershed, which means the national interest overcomes provincial interests. In theory at least the securitisation of Tibet, effectively silencing dissenting Tibetans, can be overcome, as Tibetans have on paper as much right to launch law cases in court as any citizen of China. The animating principle of the drive to build ecological civilisation is that a truly civilised approach embraces an entire watershed, as a single unit, to be governed consistently. That is the aim, and to that end, Lu Zhongmei, a world traveller, has visited other watersheds globally that similarly strive for consistency, including the Rhine and the US/Canada Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River.

What she found was that in the West it is just as difficult to reach agreement on legislation for a whole river, especially if it crosses national boundaries, so there is no certain model for river basin legislation. The Yangtze River legislation should be based on the Yangtze River Basin characteristics, according to China’s national conditions.” Since new era China demands everything display Chinese characteristics, this assessment is in tune with the times.

MAKING A RIVER WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

But what do “Chinese characteristics” mean for this long river of over 6000 kilometres? As always, the needs and biases of the lowland Han supermajority are the yardstick of Chinese characteristics. As usual, what lowland Han China needs is plentiful clean water, and plentiful electricity from renewable sources, all delivered as cheaply as possible. Tibet fits perfectly into this agenda as supplier of raw materials, of basic inputs into the lowland urban industrial economy. This is so normal in today’s China, no one even questions it, or sees a contradiction between dam building and ecological restoration.

This is true even of key influencers such as Chang Jiwen and Lu Zhongmei, who, in today’s China, are on the progressive side, arguing strongly for citizens to have a say in environmental decisions, and for the party-state to strongly enforce pollution standards. Even they seem to not notice Tibet’s twin fates, as pristine wilderness and as dammed cascade, are mutually contradictory.

The same contradiction occurs on the upper Ma Chu/Yellow River, all within a single province, Qinghai. The uppermost Ma Chu is shortly to be incorporated into the Sanjiangyuan National Park, for the high modernist project of delivering water downstream and protecting wildlife. That’s in southern Qinghai. However, northern Qinghai, immediate;y down river, is official zoned for economic production, extracting water and hydropower from the Ma Chu/Yellow River, and releasing wastes into it. No-one seems to see the contradiction.

In almost all river basins, the upper riparians have the upper hand, which is why India, downriver on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra is so nervous about what China is doing upriver, building a cascade series of hydro dams at Lhoka Gyasa. Similarly, downstream Pakistan worries about what India does on the Indus, up river. Only in Tibet, the uppermost fountainhead of all these rivers -the Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo, Yangtze and Yellow- is the upper riparian helpless.

For sixty years, Tibetan voices have been silenced, and it shows. The absence of Tibetans from the public sphere has been a constant, decade after decade, as the security state ran Tibet as an existential threat to the unity of China, decreeing “stability” as more important than anything else.

However, Tibetans and other minority ethnicities have managed in the past to build alliances with well-connected opinion leaders in Beijing, as in the 2004 campaign that halted damming on the Gyalmo Ngulchu/Nu River in Yunnan.

The legislation drafting process is now under way, including consultations, in the many provinces the Yangtze flows through, with “local legislators, entrepreneurs, experts and law enforcement officers.” The national legislators say they have “extensively listened to opinions and suggestions.”  Cheng Lifeng of the NPC Legislative Group for Legislation of the Yangtze River Protection Law “said that last year, he went to Chongqing, Hubei, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Qinghai and other places to conduct field research, and held regional seminars in 19 provinces including the upper, middle and lower reaches, and listened to 19 local people’s congresses and governments in the Yangtze River Basin.”

Where are the Tibetan voices? Who speaks for Tibet?



[1] Jiwen Chang, Issues of Chinese Legislation on Public Environmental Lawsuits and the Way Out – Latest Development of American Case Law and its Practice for Reference, 3 Frontiers of Law in China 455 (2008)

[2] Chang Jiwen 常纪文How to achieve breakthroughs in the ecological environment protection of the Yangtze River Economic Belt?  China Ecological Civilization, 2017, (04): 51-52

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Prefabricated toxic homes for displaced Tibetan nomads

In today’s new era China, every advance has to be called a system, ideally a system born of “top-level design.” Depopulating rural Tibet, to make way for virgin grassland wilderness attractive to Han tourism, is now on such a scale that a new system for mass manufacturing housing for ex-nomads is needed. Officially, this is the “plateau assembled building structure system”, specially designed for Tibet, but its marketers much prefer to liken it to Lego. And as one would expect it is indeed the product of “top-level design”.

This blog has always featured as its masthead a picture of mass housing for former nomads. Chinese cement  mixed with Tibetan water, pebbles and sand: it’s so yesterday. Meet the new steel-framed, foam concrete walled new housing for ex-nomads.

One of the leading manufacturers of the new technologies that make it possible to build prefabricated concrete walls for human housing that are lightweight yet strong, points out that the crucial ingredient is the foaming agent: “Standard protein based foaming agents, are made with protein hydrolyzate from animal proteins out of horn, blood, bones of cows, pigs and other remainders of animal carcasses. This leads on the one hand to a very intense stench of such foaming agents on the other hand to a broad range of molecular weight of the proteins because the raw materials are always changing.”

Is this what China’s advocates of prefab resettlement housing are using? They don’t say, but they do emphasize their smart use of other key ingredients which, like hoofs and horns, are usually considered worthless and troublesome waste products. The scientific team demonstrating their prefab foamed concrete houses in Shigatse are proud to make use of a lot of fly ash.

a new home on the prairie……………

However, there is not a lot of fly ash in Tibet, especially not in TAR or Shigatse, as fly ash is the residue left over after coal is burned to generate electricity. China, which burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, is deep in fly ash, and new uses for it are much needed. The ready availability of fly ash in lowland China is a further reason why construction of all prefab wall panels is done in lowland factories, transported to Tibet, to be bolted together on site.

China has a fly ash problem; Tibet doesn’t. Is this tech a solution to a Tibetan problem? Plenty of oil and gas comes from the Amdo Tsaidam Basin. Less well known is that Qinghai consumes eight million tons of coal a year, overwhelmingly for use in heavy industry.[1]

Prefab sounds good, even virtuous in the public version published in media such as Wen Wei Po (Hong Kong)  and Qinghai Scitech Weekly (Xining). But do Tibetans really want to live within lightweight concrete walls made of cattle blood and bones, and of fly ash containing alarming levels of mercury and other toxic substances?

Fly ash is scary stuff, containing “arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with very small concentrations of dioxins and PAH compounds.” These are good reasons why fly ash as a cheap substitute ingredient in making concrete has seldom been used in human housing.[2]

The foaming agent is the key to this new technology being trialled in Shigatse. Concrete is heavy and dense, so heavy it must be made and poured on the spot. Once in place, if it is not of good quality, it readily cracks and crumbles, a common complaint among Tibetans rehoused in substandard mass housing constructed by Chinese contractors cutting too many corners, skimping on cement powder, putting into the mix too much aggregate crushed rock.

Cement is not only expensive, it is a major cause of climate warming, and China these days uses more cement, pours more concrete, than the rest of the world put together. So it makes sense to find ways of keeping the strength of concrete, while reducing the amount of cement, sand and crushed rock aggregate needed to make it. That is how the use of fly ash and the blood and bones of slaughtered animals came about.

Years ago, engineers experimented with pumping air into liquid concrete, before it sets hard, and showed that concrete suffused with air bubbles can be as strong as the heaviest solid concrete. Only in order to maintain strength, those bubbles of air have to be small, and evenly spread throughout the concrete slurry. That was the difficulty: bubbles tend to clump together and form bigger bubbles which then escape altogether.

How to ensure that bubbles pumped into liquid concrete stay in place long enough for the concrete to set hard? That is a problem only recently solved, and the solution is all those waste organs and bones and blood of slaughtered animals, wastes that no-one wants, that can now be monetised, if you can live with the stench.

As usual, Tibet is the laboratory for Chinese solutions to Chinese problems. As China’s electricity consumption continues to soar, the amount of waste fly ash accumulates. As China’s consumption of meat soars, the amount of hoofs, horns, blood and guts accumulates. Yet again, Tibet becomes a solution for China’s problems.

As nomad relocations have become widespread across Tibet, local communities have learned how to deal assertively with construction contractors, in areas where urbanisation is happening fast, such as Amdo  Rebgong. Tibetans these days are better able to spot bad building practices, are better aware of their legal rights as consumers, and better able to speak standard Putonghua Chinese. The result is housing that is built to last.

However, concrete, especially when compared to the flexible nomad black hair woven tent, is not only rigid, it gets very cold in winter and too hot in summer. So the new foamed concrete is meant to be superior, in several ways, not only in being lighter in weight and better suited to large scale factory production.

The new tech is known as foamed concrete, both because the foaming agent enables bubbles to be pumped into the concrete mix, but also because plastic foam is wedged between the concrete outer and inner walls, which makes it lighter, and also better at insulating against extremes of cold and heat. Again, this sounds like a step forward, but the plastic foam is the same as the cladding on many modern buildings around the world which, too late, have been discovered burning all too readily and spreading fire. Foam sandwiched by concrete may be much less hazardous than foam sandwiched between aluminium panels cladding a new building, but no-one can say no hazard exists. This lightweight foamed concrete is better able to withstand earthquakes, compared to standard concrete, but nowhere near as well as the flexible woven yak hair tent.

Yet again, Tibetans are required to inhabit new technologies not in use in lowland China. No-one in Han China is being housed in prefab steel frame houses with foam concrete walls.

Just when Tibetans were getting to grips with how the home building industry with Chinese characteristics actually works, and getting vocational skills to participate in the construction workforce, the game changes. If in future, as in the Shigatse trial, all exnomad housing is made in lowland factories, transported on trucks to be quickly bolted together in Tibet, Tibetans yet again lose agency, yet again are presented with a solution to problems not of their making.

The story promoting this new tech, in Qinghai Scitech Weekly 27 Feb 2019, repeatedly calls the whole process Lego. Like Lego blocks, the appeal is uniformity, centralised mass production, standardised techniques of assembly. For county governments under instruction to fulfil fixed quotas of nomads to be removed from the pasture lands, the appeal is enormous. Housing is just another consumable, can be ordered online, wait for the truck to roll up. The skills needed to bolt together the foamed concrete panels and steel roof are basic, and also standardised.

Like Lego, extra bits can be added on to give the end result a somewhat Tibetan look, even though they no longer serve any structural purpose. A promotional story in English language China Daily is even more enthusiastic, calling it all “fabulous.”

Now that nomad displacement is accelerating, as the declaration of huge new national parks in 2020 gets closer, more and more housing is needed. Out with the old, it is too time-consuming and no Han wants to stay in Tibet through winter: “Traditional house building, cement mixing, on-site pouring, plumb bob measurement, are the norm, but Tibet’s high altitude, high cold, high intensity earthquake and ecological fragile ‘three high and one crisp’ characteristics make the construction of the project more severely restricted by the harsh natural environment.”

The new process was created by Professor Yang Jian from Birmingham University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Building Industrialization Research Team, in a city with plenty of fly ash. His research projects tackle the disadvantages of China’s reliance on concrete, even though frozen concrete is prone to chemical degradation. He notes: “Existing concrete in cold regions is attacked by chloride penetration under freeze-thaw cycles (FTCs). The combined deterioration process accelerate the damage evolution of concrete and reduces the service life of concrete structures.”

Jian Yang is expert in all things concrete, including the dams, highest in the world, planned for the steep mountain rivers of Tibet, due for construction now the lower dams on the Yangtze and Mekong are largely already built.[3]

So is the new “plateau assembled building structure system” the solution? Do Tibetan drogpa nomads want prefabricated kit homes? No-one is asking them. Will the new mass manufactured home interiors be monitored for air quality, for arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium leaching out of walls and into breathable air? Don’t hold your breath. Do tell Tibetans in Tibet of the hidden dangers.

Foaming concrete, it’s the answer to mass housing of displaced nomads, a prefab Lego solution to a problem Tibetans never knew they had, only it’s packed with toxics the promoters don’t mention:


[1] 分行业终端能源消费总量和主要能源品种消费量(2016年)Terminal consumption of energy and major variety energy consumption by sector, Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2017, table 8-6. So there is plenty of fly ash in Amdo.

[2] Rawaz Kurda, Jose D. Silvestre, Jorge de Brito. Toxicity and environmental and economic performance of fly ash and recycled concrete aggregates use in concrete: A review. Heliyon 4 (2018)

[3]紫坪铺混凝土面板堆石坝应力-应变分析 / Stress-strain Anlaysis of Zipingpu Concrete Faced Rockfill Dam By: 孙陶 / Tao Sun; 高希章 / Xi-Zhang Gao; 杨建 / Jian Yang. In: 岩土力學 / Rock and Soil Mechanics. Vol. 27 Issue 2, p247-251.

300 m级超高面板堆石坝变形规律的研究 / Deformation Behavior of 300 m high-concrete Face Rockfill Dams: 郦能惠 / Neng-Hui Li; 孙大伟 / Da-Wei Sun; 李登华 / Deng-Hua Li; 邓毅国 / Yi-Guo Degn; 杨键 / Jian Yang. In: 岩土工程學報 / Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering. Vol. 31 Issue 2, p155-160

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SYNTHETIC CONTROL TIBET

A spectre is haunting Tibet (as Marx used to say), a spectre of itself. A Tibet double, invented by clever Chinese agricultural economists, now walks alongside actual Tibet, every step of the way. It is officially known as Synthetic Control Tibet. This ghost, if you look closely, is actually made up of Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Liaoning, all pretending to be Tibet. And the ghost is doing better than the real Tibet, the Chinese inventors tell us. Now read on.

Economists envy laboratory scientists, for their ability to run experiments over and over, altering just one variable, in order to isolate cause and effect. Economists cannot rewind events, or control the variables, or treat human populations like lab rats.

Yet economists badly want to be taken seriously as scientists, who generate empirical findings based on objective evidence, just like the lab coats do.

They try to sound as scientific as possible, often obscure their work in equations written in Greek symbols, and deploy the impersonal, legislative voice of science wherever possible. Thus we come to Synthetic Control Tibet, a statistical fiction of what Tibet Autonomous Region might have become economically had history been different. Inevitably, it takes math to get there.

This involves taking GDP stats for other provinces, especially the poorer peripheral provinces supposedly similar to Tibet, as substitute lab mice, to see if they run faster before or after 1987. That’s how economists mimic laboratory trials.

The rolang zombie they create in their math lab is Synthetic Control Tibet, a creature that lurches about, not only wanting to live but to grow, thwarted by the terrible affliction of separatism. “Given the 1987-89 unrests in Tibet which were the violent manifestation of separatism, it offered a good social experiment for us to investigate the economic consequence of ethnic separatism. This article fills the gap in the current literature by estimating the economic impact of the 1987-89 Tibetan unrests with use of the Synthetic Control Method. We find that if there were no such unrests, Tibet may enjoy around 27% higher GDP per capita during 1988-2007.”

How was Synthetic Control Tibet synthesised? “Yu and Sun set up and researched two “synthetic” Tibet models. If there had been no unrest in Tibet between 1987 and 1989, the region’s economic development should have followed the weighted average GDP of the “synthetic” Tibet. ‘If the real Tibet’s GDP growth diverges from the number of ‘synthetic’ Tibet, the finding could be treated as the ‘economic cost of separatism’,’ Yu said.  One “synthetic” Tibet model is composed of Northwest China’s Qinghai Province, Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Another model is a combination of Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Shaanxi Province and Northeast China’s Liaoning Province. It is notable that before 1987, the GDP growth trend of the two models were almost the same as that of the real Tibet. However, after the unrest in 1987, the weighted average of GDP per capita of the two “synthetic” Tibet was 26.98 percent higher than the GDP number of real Tibet.”[1]

That makes for a headline, scientific proof that Tibetans are their own worst enemy, and need to realise Han benevolence is for their own good. The Global Times headlines were prompt. None of this would matter much, just a couple of obscure academics bending numbers to prove a predetermined hypothesis. However, CCP media jumped on this story, gave it oxygen.

Before the journal Defence and Peace Economics first 2019 issue was out, Global Times ran with it:  “Cost of Sepratism: If there had been no unrest from 1987 to 1989, the Tibet Autonomous Region may have enjoyed around 27 percent higher GDP per capita from 1988 to 2007, said Chinese researchers at the University of Goettingen in Germany.  ‘We attribute the long-term effects of separatism on economic performance to the distortion in resource allocation induced by ethnic hostility and distrust,’ said the research paper written by Professor Yu Xiaohua and research fellow Sun Feifei, from the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the University of Goettingen.”

The same 30 January 2019 edition of Global Times, a party outlet sometimes described as “the CCP’s id”, for its blunt language, carried another story on Tibet, repeating the official line: Tibet leads China’s GDP growth as tourism, infrastructure drive economic expansion. Among the 31 provincial-level regions that had revealed their 2018 economic achievements as of Wednesday, Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region ranked first with 10 percent GDP growth on a year-on-year basis.  It was the only region that achieved double-digit growth last year amid a nationwide economic slowdown. Last year was also the 26th consecutive year of double-digit growth for Tibet. In 2018, Tibet’s GDP reached 140 billion yuan ($20.84 billion), up 10 percent from 2017. That was well above the national rate of 6.6 percent, the regional government’s work report said on January 10.”

The invention of Synthetic Control Tibet may be just a blip, soon forgotten. However, it is symptomatic of something much bigger, as is evident in the diagrams scattered through this blog, all from China’s master text on “modernization science.”

China’s leaders are obsessed with proving themselves to be masters of modernity, development, prosperity, civilisation (including “ecological civilisation) and much more. Thus they have firstly to show they have mastered the dynamics of modernisation, which Tibetans so churlishly rejected in 1987.

Here we enter into strange territory, in fact what Marxists usually call a contradiction. On one hand, China insists it does not have a development model of its own, it is simply following universal laws of development, the same laws followed by countries already rich, not only in the West but in Japan, S Korea, Taiwan etc. To say China has its own unique development model would only enrage the Trumpists, because that is exactly what they accuse China of.

Yet China, at official level, also insists that everything it does, every policy, must have “Chinese characteristics.” China is instructing Tibet in socialism with Chinese characteristics, stability with Chinese characteristics, development with Chinese characteristics, and cannot understand why Tibetans fail to see much benefit.

So when it comes to “modernisation science”, China slavishly adopts a deeply biased Eurocentric model, with all the categories and timelines, and supposed laws, wholly taken from European and US history. That’s a contradiction.

In fact, no-one in Euro-America talks (as they did in the 1950s and 1960s) of “laws of development” or “modernisation science.” To say the least, development theory has been vigorously debated around the world, over several decades, except in China.

He Chuanqi

So who to believe? Is TAR still suffering for having spurned Beijing’s generosity back in 1987? Or is it now more than ever a securitised, skewed, lopsided economy with a fast growing security state sector financed by Beijing? In Nepal, TAR is portrayed as a new paradise of modernity and development, to be envied and emulated.

What these economists have done is to invent a proxy Tibet made up of Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Liaoning; then hold up the synthetic proxy against the official statistics of Tibet Autonomous Region. For Xinjiang read TAR throughout. Not so sophisticated after all.

This is a ludicrous admixture of reified categories, insistence that all official statistics are real and objectively true, that provincial development trajectories are directly comparable, and, above all, the strange assumption that development and growth are natural phenomena according with natural laws.

If ever there was an artificial economy, it is TAR, designed to showcase China’s civilising mission. Capital inflows into Tibet are overwhelmingly directly from Beijing, driven by policy, not growth opportunities. As Andrew Fischer has shown in a long booklength, the TAR economy is pumped up with capital expenditures commanded by Beijing, as China attempts to construct a showcase laboratory in TAR, designed and controlled from Beijing.[2]

The core argument of the inventors of Synthetic Control Tibet is that: “Tibetan separatist activities make Chinese government take a hardline attitude towards Dalai Lama. It hence exacerbates feelings of distrust and further deepens ethnic antagonism, which in turn threatens social stability and restricts local economic development.” This formulation locates agency, and the engine of growth, entirely in China’s hands. The Tibetans can behave badly and thus inhibit growth, but on their own they cannot accelerate growth. It all comes down to a question of Chinese investment, the implication being that once the Tibetans in 1987 articulated their grief, China instituted a capital strike, and recoiled from investing, setting up a chain of cause and effect now over 30 years old, with trackable economic consequences.

those primitive upriver Tibetans….. He Chuanqi

In reality,  China was shocked to discover in 1987 that its propaganda was believed only by the propagandists, and that Tibetans were deeply unhappy that Premier Hu Yaobang’s promise to send back to China any Han cadres who failed to learn Tibetan had come to naught. China’s response was to securitize Tibet, to criminalise all efforts by Tibetans to be heard in the public sphere, to build more gaols and barracks.

The securitization of Tibet has steadily intensified over the decades since 1987. Far from a Chinese capital strike, the unrest of 1987 sparked an investment boom in intensifying both human intelligence obtained through informers and through torture, and signals intelligence through technologies of surveillance. Both humint and sigint required major capital expenditure. This has been documented in depth by Andrew Fischer and Adrian Zenz, barely acknowledged in this paper.

will Tibetans ever get to civilisation? He Chuanqi

The authors of this conjured “synthetic control Tibet” fiction actually acknowledge the party-state’s investment in response to the protests, “sending well educated non-Tibetan personnel to Tibet, educating young Tibetan cadre, reinvigorating the party structure at all levels, and building more intensive economic and political partnerships with other regions. Additionally, the martial law was lifted on May 1, 1990, and the security was substantially improved by increasing the number of plainclothes officers and police substations.”

“After the conflict, Beijing deployed more armed officers in Tibet and continuously increased the expenditure on public security and armed police troops in Tibet, sent well educated non-Tibetan personnel to Tibet, and gave massive amounts of subsidies to attract more Chinese corporations to operate in Tibet.”

Notwithstanding all of that, they stick with their task of proving what they wanted to discover all along, that Tibet Autonomous Region has paid a high price, of slowed growth, due to the 1987 events. Their research paper concludes with a promise of more to come: “Consequently, we attribute the long-run effects of separatism on economic performance to the distortion in resource allocation induced by ethnic hostilities and distrust. Specifically, the ethnic separatism may impact regional economic development through (1) increasing public security expenditures, (2) crowding out foreign investment, (3) harming tourism industry, (4) creating a temporary “Brain Drain”, and (5) reducing both domestic and international trade activities which we will study in the future.”

Stand by for more revelations from Synthetic Control Tibet.

The inventors of Synthetic Control Tibet are agricultural economists, the classic team of middle aged (male) professor out to make a name as a commentator on many topics, and a young (female) postgrad who has already moved on, after doing all the work.

If they had stuck to agricultural economics, they would have noticed that a major reason the TAR economy is so skewed, with such a predominant services sector (mainly security services), and such a small agricultural primary sector, is because China failed to invest in agriculture, throughout the decades of China’s Tibet.

These authors explicitly subscribe to the foundational concept that economic growth is natural. In this they closely follow official ideology, which speaks of a universal law of development: “As long as we always adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping’s new era of socialist economic thought with Chinese characteristics, conforming to the general trend of development, grasping the law of development, and defying difficulties facing our steadfast advancement, we will certainly win greater initiative in development.[3]

daigou buying Australian milk powder to profitably send to China

If there is any such law of development, it would have sent China’s agricultural economists into Tibet, six, five, four, three decades ago to investigate the comparative advantages of Tibetan agriculture and livestock production sectors. Those agricultural economists would have quickly recognised a natural path to increase Tibetan incomes could be achieved by investing in the sorting, cleaning and marketing of Tibetan wool, especially the semi-fine wool suitable for making expensive garments. The agricultural economists would have recommended increasing the fineness and value of Tibetan wool by crossbreeding Tibetan sheep with hardy cold climate carpet wool sheep from New Zealand or Tasmania. They would have recommended investing in barley varieties suited to manufacture of bulk beer.

China’s dairy product demand is huge

They would have recommended state investment in supply chains to get Tibetan dairy products to Chinese cities where urban demand for yoghurt has boomed. They would have set up farmer co-operatives able to pool their common pool land resources, be eligible for micro-finance to invest in technology and trucks to get their many dairy products to market in hygienic, temperature-controlled value chains. In reality almost none of this happened.

There have been several small-scale attempts at adding value to what Tibet produces in abundance. One such, in 2018, sent Chinese technicians from Xining all the way to remote Kham Nangchen to teach drogpa pastoralists how to make yoghurt and ice cream: “Recently, the [Qinghai]Provincial Animal Husbandry Institute of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Sciences department held a “Dairy Processing Technology Enhancement Training Course”, which processed 10 dairy products from 9 professional cooperatives. The technicians trained in dairy processing technology. Researchers of dairy products processing from the Animal Products Research Office of the Animal Husbandry Institute of the Provincial Academy of Animal Science, focusing on the importance of health care of dairy sources, the importance of environmental hygiene in dairy products processing, the requirements for sterilization of milk buses, and the fermentation of yogurt. The technology, the principle of cheese drawing, the key points of processing ice cream, the main points of processing skim milk, the measures to extend the shelf life of the product, and the trial production of yogurt, cheese, skim milk, ice cream products, etc., were taught and carefully guided. The training has benefited a lot.”

The best one can say of such efforts is too little, too late. Nangchen is 800 kms from Xining and the cold chain logistics enabling market access simply don’t exist, even though newly upgraded highways are reducing transit time. Highways alone don’t create a network of Tibetan businesses able to sell to hip urban Chinese consumers who love their healthfood yoghurt, imported from New Zealand, a much longer supply chain. A Nangchen and Yushu workshop may explain the capital investment required to get nomad products hygienically to distant markets, but does nothing to finance the capital investment required.

China wants its development model to be a model emulated worldwide in developing countries, while insisting its development model is the scientific, objective, universal model. China wants to be the exemplary moderniser, master of the global logic of development as a rational process. Yet China’s ambition to be the acme of civilisation requires others to be the primitives, badly in need of modernisation. The Tibetans are the primitives. Han chauvinist racism is so embedded it just seems self-evident that the Tibetans are not only backward, but stubbornly ungrateful for China’s big brotherly efforts at modernisation, so it is no surprise Tibet’s development has supposedly lagged, ever since the 1987 protests in Lhasa.

The model of development exemplified in the diagrams embellishing this blog has been adopted by China, even though it is a totally Eurocentric model, with almost no Chinese characteristics, completely ignoring the scathing critiques from the global South, ridiculing the plodding literalism of China’s slavish replication of a European model.

Racist arrogance reinforced by scientistic mimesis of rationality is an impenetrable mix. Little wonder China’s rulers, isolated from reality by the walls of the old Zhongnanhai Palace headquarters of the CCP, are so sure they are leading not only China but the world to a new era. Delusion begets delusion.

China has absorbed all the textbooks written by Eurocentric development enthusiasts, turned it all into certainty, with Chinese characteristics, full of neat formulae and categories that sound scientific.  Little wonder Tibetans, such as the poet Woeser, sometimes despair at the destruction, repression and denial done in the name of development and modernisation:
March is peculiar.

The sweeping winds are long in coming,/ and dust-filled air obscures a flame/ in my homeland.

From where I sit, my view is limited,/ the flame bright then dark. But even if I were nearby

I couldn’t approach it.

To behold such a sight/ would break my heart.

Even more houses destroyed/ by an invisible hand.

Even more prayers disappeared/ in the din of harsh and alien accents.

Even more pillaging and unstoppable negotiations.

Drifting, destitute and homeless.

This world of dust, a story/ full of grief.

From where I sit/ at the window/ on the twenty-first floor of a highrise,/ it is as though I’ve placed myself/ in a perilous frame/ of the twenty-first century.

No need to distance myself.

The flames are almost within reach/ but obscure.

Outside the window, the poison air/ seethes and boils.

No wonder all the living creatures/ of this country rot/ one after another.

I bow my head to record/ my homeland’s flames/ that spark suddenly and extinguish suddenly. 

One by one by one, one hundred fifty-two flames and counting, unstoppable./ But there’s not a sound to be heard.

I think of the poet Pasternak,/ who wrote “dipping my pen into ink,/ I can not help/ but cry.”

And I also see this:/in the ashes,/a reborn soul/beautiful beyond compare.

Btw: the diagrams in this blog are taken from Prof He Chuanqi’s textbook on modernisation, published by Springer 2012,  Modernization Science: The Principles and Methods of National Advancement.  He Chuanqi’s China Center for Modernization Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, is not fringe academic but core elite.

That book says: “He is the author or coauthor of over 20 books on the study of modernization and innovation and over 100 articles in academic journals. Since 2000, he has taken charge of the research on China modernization strategies and guided the completion of the China Modernization Report each year from 2001 to 2011. In 2002, he established the China Center for Modernization Research, CAS, and has since served as the director of the center.”

The source cited by He Chuanqi  何传启 hechuanqi@263.net  for the diagrams in this blog is RGCMS (Research Group for China Modernization Strategies et al) (2010) China Modernization Report 2010: world modernization outline 1700–2100. Peking University Press, Beijing, one in an annual series He Chuanqi and colleagues produced. The 2012 book in English distils the Peking University Press multi-volume series in Chinese. He continues to be influential, in 2018 publishing his “roadmap, model and priorities of China’s modernization in the coming 30 years,” in World Sci-tech R&D Journal, 世界科技研究与 Vol. 40 Feb 2018, No. 1, 5 - 16

何 传 启. 现 代 化 科 学: 国家发达的科学原理. 北京: 科学出版社,2010. HE Chuanqi. Modernization Science: the Principles of National Advance. Beijing: Peking University Press 2010

中国现代化战略研究课题组,中国科学院中国 现代化研究中心. 中国现代化报告 2006: 社会现 代化研究. 北京: 北京大学出版社,2006. Research Group for China Modernization Strategy, China Center for Modernization Research,Chinese Academy of Sciences. China Modernization Report 2006: Social Modernization[M]. Beijing: Peking University Press,2006

何传启主编. 第六次科技革命的战略机遇( 第二 版). 北京: 科学出版社,2012. HE Chuanqi ( ed. ) . Strategic Opportunity of the Sixth Revolution of Science and Technology ( 2nd edition). Beijing: Science Press,2012.

何传启主编. 中国现代化报告 2017: 健康现代化 研究. 北京: 北京大学出版社,2017. HE Chuanqi ( ed. ) . China Modernization Report 2017: Health Modernization[M]. Beijing: Peking University Press,2017.


[1] Bai Yunyi and Zhang Dan, Tibetan unrest took 27% off GDP per capita in 1988-2007: researchers, Global Times  2019/1/30

[2] Andrew Martin Fischer, The Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: A study in the economics of marginalisation, Lexington, 2014

[3] Jingji Ribao (Economic Daily) 9 January 2019 http://paper.ce.cn/jjrb/html/2019-01/09/content_381135.htm

What would Karl Marx have to say about Synthetic Control Tibet, and a “modernisation science” that positions Tibet as primitive, remote, backward and upriver? Actually, all we need to know these days is Karl found true love with Jenny.

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DAMMING A DESERT

Whatever becomes a scientific object becomes a problem, which in turn requires management, human intervention. No thing can be left as is, because that is risky. If it can be measured, it can be managed, as they say in business schools worldwide.

China, or rather the Chinese Communist Party, is obsessed with risk, in fact just held a four day meeting, at the highest party-state level, addressed by Xi Jinping, entirely on risk.

In case you didn’t know, risks are everywhere you look, and the further the scientific gaze extends, the more risks are found.

Take the remote landscapes of Achen Gangyab, known in China as Hoh Xil, in the arid far northwest of the Tibetan Plateau, an alpine desert so frigid, its permafrost soils so hard frozen most of the year, not even the hardiest Tibetan nomads had much use for it outside of the summer months of pasture growth.

adamantine Achen Gangyab

Despite aridity and frigidity, this huge landscape is a land of lakes, as the plateau floor is quite flat, and summer rains/snows come down from the bare mountain slopes above, filling the lakes, which have no outlet. None of this was problematic, for thousands of years. Seasonally migrating gazelles and antelopes headed there each year to safely give birth, in landscapes that wolves cannot live in year round. Drogpa nomads brought their herds to graze on the fresh green pick, alongside the wild animals.

Not only was this not a problem, but clever scientists came up with ways of calculating a monetary value of the environmental services provided to China by all those Hoh Xil lakes that annually swell in summer rains and evaporate in autumn and spring, maintaining a balance all on their own. So even though China has no access to the many lakes for lowland water supply, they show up in Natural Capital Valuation calculations as quite valuable, just by doing their annual rising and dropping, all by themselves.

Now, Beijing, we have a problem. Actually many problems. First, climate change increases the rain and snowfall, and a few lakes now sometimes brim over. One lake spilled so badly onto the plain that the lake is almost empty, its floor is visible, and when gales blow, as they often do, sand is airborne.

Now, have we got a problem? Actually, it adds up to an impressive list of problems, each carefully packaged to hit that neuralgic party-state nerve right where it hurts. According to recent coverage in official media, we now have a desertification problem in the middle of a desert so arid China, in its application to UNESCO for World Heritage listing, repeatedly called “no-man’s land.” Not only do we now have desertification, “after bursting its bank in 2011, the lake has bared much of its floor, which later became a major source of sandstorms wreaking havoc on the region’s vulnerable ecology, Lu Shanlong, a professor at the Aerospace Information Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences said.”

Further, there is now an urgent need to “reduce the water flow to the lakes’ downstream, whose rising levels threaten to flood the Qinghai-Tibet railway lines, roads, and inhabitants further down.” As if all that wasn’t bad enough, there is also the feelgood sentimental factor, of all those antelopes and gazelles giving birth: “It is also the delivery room of the Tibetan antelope, and we cannot afford to let it develop on its own.”

In today’s new era, where development is the solution to all problems, the obvious answer, the scientists say, is a dam wall to contain the incontinent lake. Does China know how to build dams? Is the party-state a hydraulic civilisation?

So there you have it: urgency, the plight of baby antelopes taking their first unsteady steps, sandstorms, ungoverned waters, desertification and a threat to wash away the distant rail line to Lhasa as it heads south, traversing this alpine desert.

That’s modernity, let’s do it.“In our present era, China stands out as the paradigmatic infrastructural state: a state produced by and through infrastructure as a modern project.”

One further detail: this message of the urgent need for technological intervention comes not from anyone remotely near Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil, but from Lu Shanlong, a professor in Beijing, at the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications.

A bit odd? Not in today’s China, where the fantasy is that Tibet can be governed by remote sensing instrumentation on board satellites orbiting the earth, and Lu Shanlong happens to have made his career mapping Tibetan lakes by satellite.[1]

Does this mean Beijing will send in the bulldozers and cement mixers? Maybe central leaders recognise when their buttons are being pressed. But Lu Shanlong has gotten his name into national official media, a good career move. Let’s get out there and save that delivery room, from itself.

Is there anything Tibetans can say, in response to this fear-mongering?    Maybe we could quote the mahasiddha Saraha:

With the condition of wind, from a clear ocean

The ripples of water and waves suddenly arise.

However, they are indivisible from the ocean.

Conditioned by thoughts, conceptualization suddenly arises.

That is the thoughtlessness of the previous.

 It is unbom, beyond the intellect.

B y means of these they are equally wondrous.

When freezing winds blow across a lake,

They turn water to ice.

Just so the turbulent activities of mind

When stirred by karmic traces and dispositions

Make our impressions appear solid.

This gives rise to the mistaken belief

In a self-existing and substantial world.”

First the experience of appearance and emptiness occurs,

 Like recognizing water even when it appears as ice.

Second, without obstructing the appearance of thought,

Emptiness arises as non-dual from the bliss. Like the state of ice melting into water,

Thought and non-thought are dissolved in the unborn.

Since everything is not distinguished, it is one in the great bliss.

This is like the ice being melted into water. [2]



Saraha’s arrow doesn’t aggressively kill arising problems, it dissolves them. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:

You needn’t constantly micromanage your life. Part of compassion is
trust. If something positive is happening, you don’t have to check up on it all the time. The more you check up, the more possibilities there are of
interrupting the growth. It requires fearlessness to let things be.
 
Excerpted from:
Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awarenessby Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

[1] Lu, S., Xiao, G., Jia, L., Zhang, W., & Luo, H. (2016). Extraction of the spatial-temporal lake water surface dataset in the Tibetan Plateau over the past 10 years [in Chinese with English abstract]. Remote Sensing for Land and Resources, 28(3), 181–187, 2016

Qunhui Zhang, Jiming Jin, Lingjing Zhu & Shanlong Lu, Modelling of Water Surface Temperature of Three Lakes on the Tibetan Plateau using a Physically Based Lake Model, Atmosphere-Ocean,2018,  56:4, 289-295

[2] Lara Braitstein, Saraha’s Adamantine Songs: Texts, Contexts, Translations and Traditions of the Great Seal,  PhD dissertation, McGill 2004  , 76, 201

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