#2 of a series of 3 blogs



In celebration of the heroic efforts of Tibetan guardians of the chiru antelope, China produced not only the very popular movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol but, in 2004, a handsome full-colour English language book Tracking Down Tibetan Antelopes, which reminds us that: “Within a century, the number of Tibetan antelopes plummeted sharply from about one million to fewer than 100,000, and dangerously close to extinction.”[1] The author, Wang Lei, is one of the Han Chinese who saw for themselves, in the high alpine desert, how Tibetans risked their lives to protect the last chiru. Wang Lei is a graduate of the elite Beijing Drama and Literature Academy, turned conservationist. Her writing is a screenplay, with the Tibetans of “no-man’s land” centre stage: “Once asked if he worried about his personal security, Soinam Darje said, ‘The Hoh Xil issue may not attract adequate attention without loss of life. If people have to die for this, let me be the first.’ On January 18, 1994, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees below zero in Hoh Xil. The team was on patrol and arrested the poachers. The team confiscated 2000 chiru hides. Since one poacher was suffering from pulmonary edema, a fatal illness at high altitudes, Soinam Darje assigned two colleagues to escort him and a few wounded poachers back to Golmud. He and another colleague set out later. The poachers overpowered the other guard and shot Soinam Darje dead.”

Movie director Lu Chuan, with his film Kekexili (pinyin Chinese for Hoh Xil) made his reputation as a director of action movies in remote locations, culminating in his recent return to Tibet for the Disney doco Born in China, which follows three families of chiru and snow leopards, and, in the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau, a panda family. Born in China is due for release April 21, 2017, but Disney has previews available, showing Lu Chuan’s gift for stunning landscapes.

Lu Chuan directed five movies since Kekexili made him, aged 33 in 2004, high profile both in China and around the world. Although he managed to shoot on a small budget, Kekexili is professionally made, with its $1.2 million budget supported by Columbia Pictures, Warner Entertainment and Canon.

A popular feature movie showing China unable to enforce its laws, against barbaric slaughter, leaving effective protection in the hands of a bunch of unwashed Tibetans, was an embarrassment then, and in today’s highly authoritarian China, it is unimaginable that major studios would fund a movie that could be seen as admitting China has failings and authority is inadequate. Although Hoh Xil was first declared a nature reserve in 1995, the success of Kekexili the movie ensured Hoh Xil got national regulatory attention.

Chiru depicted on a flat desert landscape constitute China’s image of Hoh Xil, and feature on the stamps China issued to celebrate its “conquest” by rail of the Hoh Xil “no-man’s land’  (无人区 wurenqu). It is all about the chiru, and not any local human communities. A cute, sentimental cartoon baby chiru was a mascot of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The chiru has achieved more than iconic status. It is a surrogate for the urban yearning for something to believe in. The rise of the chiru was accompanied, in the same Olympic year, by the demonisation of the Tibetans in China’s mass media, endlessly depicted as hating all Han Chinese, seeking only “looting, smashing, burning and killing.”



On the ground, China’s laws forbidding mining in nature reserves did not always mean that local causes of land degradation ceased. Of the many areas of the Tibetan Plateau where illegal gold mining had flourished for years, some were in Hoh Xil, notably Mato, where there was a gold rush, with swarms of poor immigrant peasants from lowland Chinese provinces seeking their fortunes in the rivers China now swears to protect. Alluvial seekers of placer gold chewed up river beds and river banks, sluicing for specks of gold, leaving much destruction, with no accountability or concern for consequences.

According to a comprehensive survey, county by county, published in 1997: In 1989 a large gold deposit was discovered in Tridu County, the largest gold reserve found in Qinghai province up to that time. The most thorough mining activities in the [Yushu] prefecture, at least in recent years, appear to have taken placed in Chumarleb County, apparently since 1988. The official publication Legal Daily reported 50,00 to 60,000 Chinese gold miners working there, resulting in damage to 86,000 acres of grazing land in the county.”[2]

In the Changtang nature reserve official geological prospecting parties in 1989 found a major gold deposit in Shentsa county, 90 kms SW of the county town, at the confluence of two seasonal rivers, the Bengna Tsangpo and Baru Tsangpo.[3] After drilling 5700 boreholes, the geologists reported a total amount of recoverable gold of 10 to 15 tons, worth $400m to $600m at 2016 prices. The geologists proudly announced: “the deposit is regarded as the largest ever found in Tibet and is also rare in the country. This, as a good beginning in Tibet’s history, made a breakthrough in the geological work of gold in Tibet.”[4]

The same volume of geological exploration success also records several deposits of boron in the Changtang, a mineral in great demand in the era of Sino-Soviet friendship, for moderating nuclear reactions in Soviet nuclear facilities.

This volume also records a substantial find of amethyst crystal in Palgon County, in the Changtang nature reserve.[5]

trigonometry of the high plains

Recently shale oil has been discovered in the heart of the Changtang nature reserve. [6]A major factor determining whether extraction is feasible is to study what toxins are released when the oil is combusted for its energy. Changtang shale been carefully tested, and found to have alarmingly high levels of toxic arsenic and cadmium. [7] Extraction of shale oil means fracking, which injects huge amounts of water deep into the oil layer, in an area that is arid.

All of these finds confirm the overall picture of the geologists, that the long west-east trend of the mountain ranges, river valleys are the result of the subduction of one plate under another, a process that, through intense pressure and heat rising from deep below, generates concentrations of minerals. Both the Changtang nature reserve and the Hoh Xil nature reserve are on this long suture zone, making it likely there will be many more mineral finds. The best known suture zone in Tibet is further south, the long valley of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, similarly west to east, also caused by subduction (of the Indian plate) and collision of continents. Most of the major mineral deposits found, and exploited in Tibet, especially the big deposits containing copper, gold, silver and molybdenum, are on this suture zone.

On paper, exploitation of mineral deposits is incompatible with nature reserve status, and is illegal. In practice, as George Schaller has noted privately, there is active mining in many of the nature reserves he helped establish in Tibet.[8]





China’s regulations can be used in a wide range of circumstances to achieve different policy objectives. When, in the early 1990s, the Changtang nature reserve was established, covering 298,000 sq. kms, all concerned could agree that protecting an alpine desert where Tibetan gazelles and antelopes migrate annually to breed, a huge area with very few human inhabitants, was good.

The Changtang, Hoh Xil and Sanjiangyuan nature reserves fit together like jigsaw pieces,[9] one continuous ribbon stretching from west to east (upper to lower) for almost the entire span of the whole Tibetan Plateau, and across two provinces: Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai. The ribbon is close to 1900 kms long, and north-to-south of varying width, between 140 and 350 kms wide.

The total area is 495,000km2, a little smaller than all of Spain. What does this enormous span have in common, marking it as a natural category for conservation, and little else? Since it stretches from the stony deserts of upper Tibet in the far west to the verdant pastures of the well-watered far east, from low to high population density, from a land of lakes which have nowhere to drain, to the headwaters of three of Asia’s greatest rivers; it is hard to think of anything all these production landscapes have in common, requiring their conservation, largely to the exclusion of human use.

At the centre of this great ribbon is Hoh Xil, with the Changtang nature reserve to its west, the Sanjiangyuan (Three River Source) nature reserve to its immediate south and east. If Hoh Xil becomes a World Heritage property, when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at its July 2017 meeting in Poland, China will be well positioned to then nominate the contiguous nature reserves on either side. In fact, the proposal now before UNESCO already includes a large portion of the Sanjiangyuan as well as the Hoh Xil nature reserves. What China is asking UNESCO to approve is not only the 45,000 km2 that comprises the Hoh Xil, but also 32,000 km2 of Sanjiangyuan, which extends Hoh Xil south as far as the banks of the upper Yangtze. The 77,000 km2 China is nominating is close to twice the size of Switzerland.

An alternative, overlapping proposal was announced officially in March 2016, covering an even greater area, which did acknowledge the presence of at least 20,000 Tibetans: “A meeting of the Central Leading Group for Reform at the end of 2015 decided to upgrade the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, established in 2000 in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, into a national park managed by the central government. The Sanjiangyuan National Park will cover 123,100 square kilometres. The Yangtze River area of the park alone will span 90,300 square kilometres including 15 villages and more than 20,000 people. Local people will remain in the park, following their traditional way of life, said Lyu Yuan, a spokesman for Yushu city’s environment protection office. The headwaters of the Yangtze River will account for about 70 percent of the national park, including the Tuotuo, the Tongtian rivers and the Hoh Xil nature reserve, through which water from the glaciers of Tanggula Mountains flows into the Yangtze River.”[10]


The three interlocked nature reserves are separate only in their administrative histories, having been made official protected areas decades apart, first Changtang (Qiangtang) in 1993, as of 2001 no longer a provincial responsibility but a national one. National prestige and national face were now at stake. Hoh Xil was first proclaimed a nature reserve in 1995 and Sanjiangyuan in 2000. Hoh Xil is a Mongolian name. Literal meaning is blue ridge, in Mongolian Cyrillic Хөх шил and in traditional Mongolian script used in Inner Mongolia ᠬᠥᠬᠡ ᠰᠢᠯ. In standard simplified Chinese 阿卿贡嘉, literally meaning Lord of ten thousand mountains.  However, in China it is usually called Kekexili, a transliteration of the Mongol name, which has more recently been made more accessible for Westerners by reverting to Hoh Xil, which is closer to the original.

These three nature reserves on the Tibetan Plateau are the biggest, but far from the only ones. A recent scientific report states: “To protect the environment, resources and biodiversity, 155 nature reserves have been created here since 1963, with a total area of approximately 8.22 × 105 km2, accounting for 32.35% of the total area of the Tibetan Plateau.”[11]


It is this political history that has resulted in three nature reserves, initially created to display modernity, then to legitimate grazing bans, nomad removals and the exclusive use of rangelands as grassland wilderness, the open range analogue of the virgin rainforest.

China’s argument for nominating Hoh Xil is full of the language of romanticism: “Magnificent scenes of mammal migration… fully preserved plateau surfaces….. Untraversed conditions make Hoh Xil the best preserved region in terms of pristine ecology….”

China’s official media routinely call these nature reserves a paradise, and a “no-man’s land.”[12] In the sharply dualistic thinking inherent in Chinese attitudes, it is the “untraversed”, uninhabited no-man’s land that makes these landscapes a paradise. Another tourism manager says: “There is also called “life forbidding zone”. Because of the bad climate and traffic conditions, human could not live here, so, there be the heaven of wild animals. Without human active, wild animals are host there. Now they are well adapted to the area. Now Qiangtang nature reserve is paradise of the wild animals.”[13]

Now this paradise is set for a new kind of human presence: tourism. Travel companies in China advertise tours.[14] For wealthy, speedy urban Chinese, there is a ready market for heavenly paradise.

sven-hedin-book-cover-leatherThe language of the tour companies, and the World Heritage promoters, could be taken directly from the 1901 expedition through Hoh Xil led by the imperious Sven Hedin, who reports that he and his many helpers “plunged into a region which was an absolute terra incognita…. Desolate as the moon…. It was a delicious feeling, to know that we were the first human beings to tread these mountains, where there existed no path, where there never had been a path… It was a no-man’s land: rivers, lakes and mountains were all nameless; their shores, banks and snow-fields had never been seen by any traveller’s eyes but mine; they were mine own kingdom of a day.”[15] Hedin chose to travel at the height of the rainy season, in August, resulting in many pack animals –horses and camels- getting bogged, and dying.

Bisecting these contiguous nature reserves is the multi-modal transit corridor connecting inland China with Tibet Autonomous Region. This old trade caravan route now carries the only railway to central Tibet, the major highway, oil and petroleum pipeline, and fibre-optic cabling, plus an ultra-high voltage power line bringing electricity from Qinghai to Lhasa. This is known to China’s central planners as the QTEC, or Qinghai Tibet Engineering Corridor.[16] For 250 kms, it cuts across the putative Hoh Xil World Heritage property. The rail line has four stations already built, according the map accompanying China’s nomination papers submitted to UNESCO. (fig. 1-e3) At present, trains seldom stop, because the altitude is high, the air thin (especially when stepping from a train pressurised like an aircraft), and there seems to be little to see or do. All this will change once UNESCO declares Hoh Xil to be World Heritage, awarded global brand equity by the United Nations.

For China, Tibet has become a mass tourism destination, with official media claiming that as many as 15 million tourists now visit TAR annually, five times the resident population. Yet mass Chinese tourism to Tibet remains heavily concentrated in Lhasa, with few other destinations known to the market. China’s planners have invested heavily in recent years in airports and transport hubs near Mt Kailash in the far west, at Nyingtri (Ningqi in Chinese) in the southeast, Chamdo further east, and in Nagchu, north of Lhasa. The plan is to make TAR a circuit, encouraging tourists to stay longer, and spend more. Having a World Heritage no-man’s land paradise halfway en route from Lanzhou and Xining, on the way to Lhasa, fits well with these diversification plans.

China frequently names tourism as the future of Hoh Xil, along with assurances that it will be monitored and regulated. It is clear from China’s nomination proposal that tourism, presently almost non-existent, is to be big. Along the 250 kms of railway running right across the Hoh Xil World Heritage property, and four stations, the tour companies will be able to offer express trains direct to Lhasa for the time-constrained; and a safari to the breeding grounds of the iconic chiru antelope –official mascot of the 2008 Olympics- for the more adventurous tourist; all without the inconvenience of encountering a local human population on their own land.



Cutting an engineering corridor right through the middle of a “no-man’s land paradise” indicates the contradictions. To be a paradise, and worthy of World Heritage listing, this “wilderness” must be pristine, yet also accessible if World Heritage listing is to be meaningfully monetised. It also highlights the quite different view Tibetans have taken of landscapes that do have human uses, seasonally and intermittently, that are entirely compatible with migratory herds of wild animals. In Tibetan eyes “wilderness” and “productive rangeland” are not mutually exclusive, as George Schaller reminds us when he quotes a Tibetan folk song:

“On the highland humans and nature coexist harmoniously!

The land where spiritual and human law reign supreme.

In the land where celestial powers are revered,

Where animals are partners in life’s struggle,

Where birds fly without fear,

Where fish swim in freedom,

Where wildlife is protected,

Where men and women cherish inner peace and outer freedom.”[17]

These attitudes have enabled sustainable human use of these arid seasonal pastures for thousands of years. China’s census unmistakably records an ongoing human presence, yet China insists: “Most areas of the nominated property are uninhabited by humans.”

In common with drylands worldwide, the pastoralists of Tibet have not only made their livelihoods despite an unpredictable climate and much uncertainty, they make their living off uncertainty, off high mobility and high adaptability.[19] UNESCO has had a drylands program for many years, headed by Han Qunli from China, who argues that: “a general lack of investment in drylands are now putting extraordinary strains on the livelihoods of dryland inhabitants and the integrity of their ecosystems. Ensuring dryland inhabitants have viable livelihoods will be key to their survival.”[20]

Far from being uninhabited, the Hoh Xil and Sanjiangyuan drylands are Tibetan production landscapes populated by pastoralists who continue to care deeply about wildlife and the environment, and continue to risk speaking up. The current campaign led by Awang Jikme in Chumarleb, in the area now proposed as World Heritage, exemplifies the ongoing concern for effective protection,[21] based on the concept of Sacred Natural Sites (SNS), which places biodiversity protection in local community hands, and because it is the cheapest and most effective way of ensuring endangered species are in reality protected.


The concept of Sacred Natural Sites was brought to this would-be World Heritage area by Conservation International, one of the world’s biggest environmental NGOs. Although CI is no longer in the Hoh Xil, its concepts took root among the Tibetan communities, who readily understood that SNS is community based, by and of local communities whose values have always respected living sentient beings, and actively cared for them, as a previous Tibetan generation did in Hoh Xil in the 1990s, even dying to protect the chiru antelopes.

SNS is a concept with wide support, as a major alternative to top-down interventions by bureaus of state power. UNESCO World Heritage should seriously consider whether, in Hoh Xil, biodiversity protective outcomes are better achieved by making Hoh Xil a Sacred Natural Site, preferably with external support.

Other Chinese environmental NGOs have worked, in Hoh Xil and nearby counties, with Tibetan communities, to strengthen biodiversity protection. This cooperation between global, Chinese and Tibetan NGOs, to improve conservation effectiveness, has been well-documented in freely available accounts of how they have worked together.[22]



The QTEC corridor for projecting modernity deep into Tibet, extending the reach of the state, is something China is proud of. There have been many technical articles extolling QTEC achievements. Yet the siting of QTEC came decades before any consideration was given to environmental protection. It was only well after the first highway construction in the 1950s, the oil pipeline from the Tsaidam Basin to Lhasa in the 1980s, and the laying of optical fibre cables in the 1990s that China noticed two competing land uses, two contradictory narratives about this corridor and its immediate environs, which include the farthest source of the Yangtze, China’s greatest river. By the time the ultimate source of the Yangtze was identified by scientific expeditions, it was already running near the highway, later joined by much other infrastructure for extending state power and thus state sovereignty.

Tibetan chiru antelope were slaughtered indiscriminately by hungry Chinese soldiers for decades, and encouraged cadres to regard them as game available to anyone with a rifle, an attitude George Schaller witnessed among cadres in Changtang in more recent times.

After the sharp decline in chiru numbers, new policies requiring Tibetan pastoralists to erect fences, killed many more migrating chiru, either by snagging on barbed wire, or because their seasonal migrations were interrupted.

The QTEC corridor, with its five infrastructure technologies of ultra-high voltage cables, oil pipeline, optical fibre cable, railway and highway, also disrupts the free movement of the chiru and other wild species, a subject studied closely by Chinese scientists. In 2011 a team of Chinese and Scottish scientists reported on the results of their research among the antelopes: “As distance from the road increased, time spent foraging and foraging duration increased while foraging frequency, time spent being vigilant and vigilance frequency decreased, indicating that there is a risk perception associated with roads. Tibetan antelopes presented more risk-avoidance behaviours during high-traffic periods compared with low traffic periods. Tibetan antelopes exhibited risk-avoidance behaviour towards roads that varied with proximity and traffic levels, which is consistent with the risk-disturbance hypothesis. The consequences of risk-avoidance behaviour should be reflected in wildlife management by considering human disturbance and road design.”[23]

Despite these cumulative assaults on the chiru population, little mentioned in China’s UNESCO proposal, the people singled out for exclusion from the protected area are the Tibetan pastoralists.


If you wish to join the campaign to make Hoh Xil a Sacred Natural Site, under Tibetan community control, please contact:

Stephan Dömpke

World Heritage Watch e.V.

Palais am Festungsgraben

10117 Berlin,  Germany

Tel. +49 (30) 2045-3975 landline



[1] Wang Lei, Tracking Down Tibetan Antelopes, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004, 95. Foreign Languages Press is a Chinese government press.

[2] Tibet Outside TAR, 1997, 2386

[3] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China: Tibet Autonomous Region, Geological Publishing House, 1996, 38-40

[4] Discovery History, 38, 40

[5] Discovery History, 61-2

[6] Fu XG, Wang J, Zeng YH, Tan FW, Feng XL (2010a) REE Geochemistry of marine oil shale from the Changshe Mountain area, northern Tibet, China. Int J Coal Geol 81(3):191–199

Fu XG, Wang J, Zeng YH, Tan FW, Feng XL (2011) Concentration and mode of occurrence of trace elements in marine oil shale from the Bilong Co area, northern Tibet, China. Int J Coal Geol 85(1):112–122

Fu X, Wang J, Zeng Y, Tan F, Feng X (2012) Trace elements in marine oil shale from the Changshe Mountain area, northern Tibet, China. Energy Sources Part A 34(24):2296–2306

[7] Xiugen Fu • Jian Wang • Yuhong Zeng •Fuwen Tan • Xinglei Feng,  Trace elements and their behaviour during the combustion of marine oil shale from Changliang Mountain, northern Tibet, China; Environ Earth Sci (2013) 70:1125–1134

[8] Verbal communication with Gabriel Lafitte, Delhi, November 2011

[9] Kekexili PA , Qiangtang PA Sanjiangyuan PA    Aerjinshan PA Xinjiang

[10] China plans national park to protect headwaters,  Xinhua   2016-03-11

[11] ZHANG Yili, HU Zhongjun et al., Assessment of effectiveness of nature reserves on the Tibetan Plateau based on net primary production and the large sample comparison method, Journal of  Geographic Science. 2016, 26(1): 27-44




[15] Sven Hedin, Central Asia and Tibet: Towards the holy city of Lhasa, vol 1, 1903, 513

[16] Hui-jun Jin , Qi-hao Yu, Shao-ling Wang, Lan-zhi Lü, Changes in permafrost environments along the Qinghai–Tibet engineering corridor induced by anthropogenic activities and climate warming; Cold Regions Science and Technology 53 (2008) 317–333

[17] Lobsang Lhalungpa, Tibet: The sacred realm, 1983; quoted in Schaller, Tibet’s Hidden Wilderness, 139

[19] Saverio Kratli, Valuing variability: New perspectives on climate resilient drylands development, International Institute for Environment & Development, 2015

[20] Foreword by Han Qunli in: Richard Thomas et al., Drylands: Sustaining Livelihoods and Conserving Ecosystem Services: A policy brief based on the Sustainable Management of Marginal Drylands (SUMAMAD) project, UNESCO/UN University 2014


phone +86 – 17708002238

wechat awang337126134

[22] Xiaoli Shen and Jiaxin Tan; Ecological Conservation, Cultural Preservation, and a Bridge between: the Journey of Shanshui Conservation Center in the Sanjiangyuan Region, Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, China; Ecology and Society, 2012, 17(4): 38


[23] Xinming Lian, Tongzuo Zhang, Yifan Cao, Jianping Su and Simon Thirgood, Road proximity and traffic flow perceived as potential predation risks: evidence from the Tibetan antelope in the Kekexili National Nature Reserve, China; Wildlife Research, 2011, 38, 141–146


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Xi Jinping’s recent tour of inspection of Qinghai province suggests all is well in the northern half of the Tibetan Plateau, which, in China’s usage has become hyphenated, as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, or QTP.

Xi Jinping in a Ningxia mosque 2016

Although the Tibetan Plateau is one unit, in any sense –geographically, tectonically, altitudinally, culturally, linguistically, religiously- this split has enabled China to pursue very different strategies in northern and southern Tibet.

Most media coverage focuses on southern Tibet, which China calls Tibet Autonomous Region, which in area and population is only half of Tibet. Qinghai (Amdo in Tibetan) was an invention of the Manchu Qing conquerors of China, who wanted to separate the Mongols from the Tibetans by inserting, between them, a political fiction of Han Chinese control which, almost a century ago was declared to be a province in its own right.

Other than keeping the Mongols and Tibetans from being too close, Qinghai had little use for China, being remote, cold and much of it arid. In 1949 the population of the capital, Xining, was no more than 70,000, a mix of poor Muslim Chinese, Han peasant immigrants and on the upper slopes, Tibetans.Xining as a Tibetan town

Revolutionary China had big plans to make the “waste land” of Qinghai productive. The blue lake for which Qinghai is named, in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian, became the location for China’s secret military industrialisation, site for developing and testing nuclear submarines and nuclear missiles, in a lake as distant from the prowling US Navy (and Soviet revisionists) as possible.

atomic bang Chinese characteristics Atomic City Qinghai

Beyond the lake, vast pasture lands stretched, populated thinly by mobile Tibetan pastoralist and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats. Surely, the planners in Beijing thought, they could be made more productive. The first step was to populate.

Geographer Andrew Grant says: “Starting in 1956, when the PRC launched its first rustication (Ch. xiafang) campaign, inland migrants were continuously sent to or encouraged to settle frontier regions. The goals of the migrants were often land reclamation. Locals rejected the Han migrants’ entrance into the region, and the migrants, likewise, rejected the local landscape and yearned to return home. One related policy was a program that encouraged young Chinese to join military-style teams (Ch. qingnian zhiyuan kenhuang dui) to open land to agriculture in Qinghai Province. These teams toiled to increase agricultural production in the arid Plateau climate, where they filled roles that had been held by prisoners and state workers. Grossly misjudging the agricultural potential of the land and sensitivity of the environment, the projects were largely abandoned and many of the youth fled the region.”[1]

Population transfer worked in many other areas into which Han China had expended, and could be expected to work in frigid Qinghai too. University of Toronto political scientist Isabelle Côté says: “Rich in natural resources, China’s frontier regions have also attracted several million spontaneous and organized migrants over the years. With barely seven people per square kilometre, Qinghai has one of the lowest population densities in China. For this reason, the idea to increase Qinghai’s population to about ten million with the help of internal migrants from the eastern province has grown in popularity since the 1950s. The subsequent waves of organized and spontaneous migrants have drastically altered the composition of the provincial population.”[2]

The rhetoric accompanying these urgings to populate the far west initially emphasized the heroic revolutionary duty to liberate backward areas from feudalism. Historian Greg Rohlf reminds us: “the communist government explicitly recruited women for relocation to border and remote areas. In their propaganda, they promoted the idea that women’s movement to border areas was to be a liberator process. Border areas were not weighed down as much by the burdens of traditional, feudal customs that oppressed women in China’s villages and cities. Women would excel in border areas because socialism and civilization could be constructed in one gigantic step from the unrefined but “sleeping” grasslands or forests of the borderlands. Party-run newspapers, magazines, and books gave high-profile coverage to women in their publications and maintained the Party line that women were racing to equality in the special conditions of border regions. Yet, the evidence also shows that women were moved to border regions to serve in their traditional roles as wives and mothers.[3]

These efforts tried to motivate voluntary Han settlement of an area known throughout China not only for its challenging climate but as a place of exile for involuntary settlers, a Chinese Siberia, a prison with few walls as there was nowhere survivable escapees could flee to. Revolutionary enthusiasm, despite energetic propaganda, largely failed to repopulate Qinghai with Han, with two exceptions. China tried large-scale state farms, far larger than anything traditional, with workers highly regimented, copying the military model used to settle Han in Xinjiang, further north.

Sanjiangyuan county map in English


Xi Jinping inspects Qarhan salt lake: lithium, magnesium, potassium, sodium extraction


The two Qinghai areas where an influx did swell population are, not coincidentally, the two lowest in altitude on the Tibetan Plateau: the farmland surrounding the capital Xining, and the arid Tsaidam Basin (in Chinese: Qaidam or Qaidamu), far to the west. In the counties surrounding Xining, Chinese Muslims needed few inducements to resettle, as they were leaving the heavily eroded, over-used loess plateau to the east, escaping deep poverty.

The Tsaidam Basin was a different story. It had oil, salt lakes rich in the salts of useful elements: potash for fertiliser, magnesium for metal manufacturing, lithium salts for many industrial uses, and common sodium salt, an ingredient in making plastics, especially polyvinyl chloride, and for making urea chemical fertiliser. Later gas was discovered, and piped directly to Chinese markets. The Tsaidam Basin, a bit below 3000 m above sea level –low compared to the rest of Tibet- was ripe for full-scale industrialisation. Oil has been extracted at a steady rate of two million tons a year, for decades. Salt production is close to 10 million tons a year. The small town of Gormo was transformed into an industrial hub, with petrochemical refineries and crackers, lead and zinc smelters. According to the official 2015 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook, the Tsaidam Basin (Haixi Autonomous Prefecture, in Tibetan: Tsonub) now produces 13.9 m tons of coal a year, 2.2 m tons of “crude petroleum oil”,  493,000 tons of refined gasoline, 620,000 tons of diesel, 6890 million cubic metres of natural gas, 8.3 million tons of potash fertiliser, 4.8 m tons of urea fertiliser, and 6.5 tons of gold, making Tsaidam by far the most heavily industrialised area, and most profitable, not only in Qinghai but anywhere on the Tibetan Plateau.[4] Coal-fired power stations not only supply the heavy industries in Gormo but also distant Lhasa, via an ultra-high voltage power grid that transmits electricity along the same route as the railway and highway to Lhasa, also shared by an oil pipeline from Gormo. The Tsaidam Basin is the engine of the Qinghai economy, and the only portion of the Tibetan Plateau where “Chinese characteristics” have been successfully implanted.

Scientific efforts began early, in areas where oil naturally seeps to the surface. The quarterly Journal of Salt Lake Research began publishing in 1972, insulated from the raging Cultural Revolution.

scientific journals of Qinghai 1 Qinghai journals 4 Qinghai journals 3


Scientific teams are now hopeful of making a major uranium find in the Tsaidam Basin.[5] Uranium, needed for the dramatic expansion in nuclear power now under construction across China, has been found elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau, including the lithium-rich Zhabuye (in Tibetan Drangyer Tsaka) salt lake of far western upper Tibet. [6] Uranium has also been found in the medicinal hot springs of Dzoge, at Jianzha, well east of Gormo.[7] If these deposits proceed to extraction, they may be processed in Gormo.

So industrialised is the Tsaidam Basin, it may be linked by a rail connection with the even bigger heavy industrial hub of Xinjiang, as well as by the pipelines that now send gas and oil from both, to inland Chinese refineries.

Xi Jinping little red book

In 2016 it was to this area that supreme leader Xi Jinping came, on inspection tour, pronouncing everything he saw a success. Not only is heavy industry highly concentrated in the Gormo enclave, so too is the population of Tibetan pastoralists displaced by the official policy of closing pastures “to grow more grass”, or tuimu huancao. Xi Jinping was conveniently able to visit former pastoralists on the outskirts of Gormo (Golmud in Chinese), who are unable to move ahead, into urban employment, as they lack literacy in Chinese, mandatory in heavy industry; nor move back to their distant pastures in Mato county (Maduo in Chinese), source of the Yellow River, as its Tibetan name denotes.

massive drogpa barracks ICTDespite their bleak prospects, in regimented lines of concrete slab blocks along either side of the highway leading into Gormo, Xi Jinping declared himself satisfied that these “ecological migrants” are doing well, the “fragile” area from which they were removed is now well protected, and thus he had “inspected ecological projects that have benefited ethnic minority communities.”


Apart from inspecting the many heavy industries of the Tsaidam Basin, and the capital, Xining, now a city of two million people with phalanxes of apartment tower blocks, often empty shells awaiting settlers, Xi Jinping’s other destination in Qinghai was to Haidong Municipality (Tsoshar in Tibetan). Until 2013 Haidong, the easternmost part of Qinghai, between the cities of Xining and Lanzhou, low enough in altitude to support intensive irrigated farming, was not a municipality but one of the six prefectures of Qinghai. Its upgrading from prefecture to municipality reflects the success of population transfer, with immigrants occupying all the lower slopes, leaving Tibetans in the surrounding mountains, on eroding higher slopes. In 2014 the total population of this sprawling municipality was 1.7 million, just short of 30 per cent of the entire provincial population. Much of Haidong is below 2000 m altitude, only half the elevation of the high plateau stretching across Tibet.

So overpopulated is this immigrant area, denuding forests and soils, that many were reduced to poverty and even immiserisation, whereupon, in the 1990s China’s government sought to relocate a substantial number even further west, to the Tsaidam Basin. This Ninth Five-Year Plan project was accepted by the World Bank, which agreed to finance the core infrastructure, a dam to intercept the one intermittent river of this arid area, to impound sufficient water for traditional intensive small plot irrigated crop production by up to 60,000 resettlers. The “move in” area (to use a World Bank term directly translated from Chinese) was Xiangride (Panchen Zhingde in Tibetan), a traditional Tibetan and Mongolian pasture, with its own camel market, and camels used even for ploughing. When Tibetans protested that the World Bank should not abet China’s centralised population transfer engineering, the project became controversial.

The “move out” area of emigration was almost entirely in what has become Haidong Municipality. One consequence of the World Bank’s involvement is detailed documentation of both the “move out” and “move in” areas. The World Bank paints a bleak picture of the “move out” areas of Haidong in the late 1990s: “crop yields are low due to poor soil quality, low rainfall, recurrent drought and undeveloped farming techniques. There appear to be limited and possibly even no environmentally sustainable development options available in those areas.” The Tibetans, on the higher slopes, were especially poor. Following China’s state gaze perspective, the World Bank blames this on overgrazing: “Increasing cultivation and grazing pressures in mountainous areas are having devastating ecological impacts.”

However, the World Bank’s proposed solution, of moving 60,000 people to resettle in the Tsaidam Basin was not supported by the Tibetans and Mongols of the Tsaidam, and ultimately the World Bank withdrew its proposed loan, leaving China to proceed with a smaller scale project, relocating 20,000 people.

The World Bank withdrew after its Inspection Panel did its own on the ground investigation, reporting, in 2000, that the compliance of the “move out” population with voluntarily relocating was partly due to the picture they had been given of a fertile, irrigated “move in” area with schools, hospitals and electricity. “Most were not informed, however, of the desert climate, poor soils, danger of salinization, and the long start-up time needed before farms would be functioning.”

The Inspection Panel’s work, 16 years before Xi Jinping’s inspection, warned the World Bank to question China’s official rhetoric of “voluntary ecological migrants.”

Xi greeted by the massesXi blesses the tribute payers 2016

What Xi Jinping was inspecting was China’s success in moving people in, to urbanise those portions of Qinghai capable of supporting intensive settlement; and success in moving resources out. Qinghai has long defined itself as a province of immigration, its Statistical Yearbooks chronicling the annual balance of immigrants and emigrants all the way back to the first revolutionary gathering of statistics in 1952, when the population grew by an impressive 1.56 percent, boosted by exiling prisoners, a rate not exceeded since. In fact, from 1985 to 2007 the “move out rate” exceeded the “move in rate” every year as people, no longer forbidden mobility, sought to get away from the cold, and the failures of official promises of liberating feudal, backward areas.[8]

In the past decade Qinghai, like Tibet Autonomous Region, has received massive subsidies from the central government.[9] Prosperity, in the densely settled areas, is growing, leaving only small numbers of Tibetans, pushed to the upper slopes by the Muslim warlords of the early 20th century, in poverty.

A feature of Xi Jinping’s inspection was to demonstrate China’s magnanimity to these remaining poor. China Daily stated: “Poverty relief work has been a prominent feature of Xi’s domestic tours. On Tuesday morning, he visited a newly built village in Haidong, Qinghai, where the residents have just been relocated from their shanty huts in the remote mountainous region. The huts had no running water.”[10]



Thus Xi was able to celebrate the success of both urbanisation and resource extraction. Meanwhile, Qinghai remains, by area, over 90 percent Tibetan, officially designated as “autonomous” prefectures, counties and townships designated for the Tibetans; yet by population the Tibetans are fewer than 20 percent of Qinghai’s population and a tiny presence in the capital, Xining. Now that Tibetans are fewer than one in five of provincial population, they can be represented as just one of multiple nationalities populating the province, with no special claims. Everything in Qinghai is skewed towards its northeast corner, closest to inland China, lowest in altitude, densest in population, best endowed with infrastructure, and the least Tibetan.

Xi in Qinghai cartoon 2

The few Tibetans remaining in upland Haidong have now been brought down from their “shanty huts.” All over Tibet China’s cadres are relocating Tibetans from the upper slopes to the valley floors, to live, in straight lines, in new villages, usually concrete cantonments. The pastoralists taken from the Yellow River source in Mato County, inspected by Xi Jinping in their straight line rows of concrete housing along either side of the major highway to central Tibet, also experience the angularities of modernity.

Colonial regimes worldwide share this preoccupation with straight lines. In New Guinea a century ago, German and Australian colonisers brought people down from mountain-slope villages to live in “line villages”, designed to teach civilisation to the uncivilised. This fascination with straight lines has been inherent in modernity for centuries in the West, where urban rebuilders have carved straight boulevards through jumbled cities, to better display the power and rationality of the state. Revolutionary China, in imitation, built Chang’an Boulevard and Tiananmen Square, to accommodate mass spectacles of state power.[11] These grand scale straightenings now echo in even the remotest Tibetan valleys and ranges, and Xi Jinping can say, with pride, that his China Dream is taking shape everywhere.

In Haidong Municipality and in the provincial capital, Xining Municipality, one can wander the back streets and hear the high pitched songs of Hunanese opera coming, not from an opera house or formal theatre, but a make-do space between building constructions where nostalgic Hunanese can sit and drink, spit sunflower seed husks onto the floor, and remind themselves of what they miss.  Xining is  a city full of lonely strangers from someplace else, and the newly urbanised Tibetans are just among the many newcomers newly urbanised.

But the Tibetans, ever suspect in official eyes, are not allowed the mobility inherent in urban modernity. Marooned on the outskirts of Gormo, in new straight line villages in Haidong, and in the suburbs of Haidong, they are subjected to special restrictions on free movement, as Andrew Nicholas Grant’s indepth fieldwork shows in detail.

Grant shows us, through Tibetan eyes, how Xi Jinping’s visit looks. Fawning official media made much of Xi’s willingness to walk in the light rain, holding his own umbrella, headlining this as: “Walking in the rain shows concern for locals.”

peace harmony Chinese Dream Xining


Xining is decorated with official slogans boosting the China Dream, Xi’s signature project. Grant meets a young Tibetan who says:


“I have many thoughts about this. This was made by the government. We Tibetans live in harmony, but the Han won’t even think of helping others. Our Tibetan religion says a lot about helping and living in harmony.”






Astute readers will by now have noticed that Xi Jinping, and all who come into contact with him, have turned into cartoon characters.  This is not the work of cartoonists who mock, but of official media in China seeking all the better to depict Xi as the benevolent emperor, and master of all under heaven.

In China’s spectacular party-state, ordinary propaganda photos fail to fully convey the drama, or to focus the gaze on what most matters. Simplifying the pic into a toon does the trick, making Xi Jinping a superhero who also smiles and even carries his own umbrella. Official media have increasingly made Xi the lead in the toon version of the China Dream. As Big Daddy Xi rises and rises, no longer just a person, greater even than a “personage” (a favourite trope in revolutionary China for saying some are more equal than others), he becomes an avatar of himself in toon form.

His inspection of Amdo Qinghai becomes an episode in the graphic novel of his assumption of the mandate of heaven. The Tibetans so sharply depicted in the hard lines of a toon play their part properly, submitting to his benevolent blessings, bowing before him and humbly offering khatag silk scarves, properly paying tribute, which the ever-humble Xi receives with a gracious smile. If only real Tibetans in real life knew how to submit, and pay tribute, as well as in the toon versions; then the China Dream would be complete.

Spectacular China, led by its toon superhero, is what “public opinion management” is about. In the West, people think China’s massive investment in controlling the internet is all about censorship and shutting down access to the wider world. But that’s only half the story. The other half is positive manipulation of what the masses think, promoting the good news of China’s rise, and ever expanding successes, the closeness of fulfilling the China Dream. The graphic novel and the toon are ideal for focusing the gaze solely on what matters, sweeping aside all else as clutter.

The next episode of the graphic novel is the gathering in Hangzhou city of the leaders of the 20 most powerful countries, the G-20,   4 & 5 September 2016.    Again, the stage is set, as Jane Perlez of the New York Times noted in advance:  “’There will not be any policy miracles coming out of the summit,’ said Tristram Sainsbury, project director of G-20 studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. That makes the show itself even more important. ‘For China, first and last it’s about the show, and to show they can organize a major international meeting,’ said Matthew P. Goodman, a G-20 expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The party’s resilience under Mr. Xi — on display with giant flags showing the hammer and sickle at security checkpoints — is part of the meeting’s message. One of Mr. Xi’s provincial successors, the party chief, Xia Baolong, said the meeting would ‘demonstrate the great achievement of China’s opening and reform, and the immense superiority of socialism with Chinese characteristics.’” Stand by for the next ep.

It’s a pity the Tibetans don’t seem to know the script. So here at Rukor, we’ve taken the liberty of inventing a few more cartoon versions of Xi Jinping, using the cool Prisma app, that turns mere photos into art, in the brush stroke style of famous artists. As Andy Warhol might have said: let there be one, two, many Xi Jinpings.

47739 (1) 43033 37476 36415 29321 24963 87222 84085 82267 82244 70563 66175 29321 47739 (1) 82267 66175

Sanjiangyuan map in Tibetan

[1] Andrew Nicholas Grant, Belonging and Ethnicity in China’s West: Urbanizing Minorities in Xining City on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, PhD dissertation, University of California, 2016, 61

[2] Isabelle Côté,  Internal migration and the politics of place: a comparative analysis of China and Indonesia, Asian Ethnicity, 2014, Vol. 15, No. 1, 111–129

[3] GREG ROHLF,  Reproduction and State-Building along China’s Frontier, China Information, 21 #3, 2007, 425-

[4] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2015, table 14-20, Output of major Industrial products by Region

[5] LIU Lin, FENG Wei, CHEN Qing, Uranium Forming Conditions and Exploration Prospect in the Northeast Margin of Qaidamu, Journal Of East China Institute Of Technology Vol. 36 No. 3 Sep. 2013

[6]HUANG Da-you,WANG Si-li,MAO Jian-xun,XU Wei,CHEN

Yu-liang,Liu Zhi-pen,  Preliminary Study on the Uranium Source of Zabuye Salt Lake,Tibet, Uranium Geology, 31 #3, May 2015, 389-394

[7]ZHANG Yan,QI Fu-cheng,ZHANG Zi-long,LI Zhi-xing,WANG Wen-quan,YANG Zhi-qiang; Geochemical Characteristics of Hot Water Deposited Siliceous Rock inJiangzha Uranium Deposit, Uranium Geology, 31 #2, March 2015, 81-88

[8] Mechanical Changes in Population in Main Years, table 4-3, Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2011

[9] Fischer, A.M. (2015). “Subsidizing Tibet: An Interprovincial Comparison of Western China up to the End of the Hu–Wen Administration.China Quar­terly, 1-27.

[10] An Baijie,  Xi: Natural resources must be safeguarded, China Daily,   August 24, 2016

[11] Wu Hung, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Making of a Political Space, University of Chicago Press, 2005

[no title] 1972 Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Purchased 1984

[no title] 1972 Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Purchased 1984

Posted in China, Tibet | Leave a comment

If Development is the solution, what is the problem?


For the densely populated inland province of Sichuan, its mountainous Tibetan rump has always been an anomaly. Sichuan is a largely lowland province, stiflingly hot and humid in summer, made more fiery by a passion for the hottest of chilies in most dishes. The alpine meadows of the Tibetan uplands seem a world away, altogether another country with only tenuous connections to the basin.

On a map the Tibetan portion of Sichuan –the two prefectures of Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa- are huge, no less than 42 per cent of the area of Sichuan, yet less than two per cent of the provincial population.  The winding roads up to the plateau have been the only connection, but they too are regularly blocked by landslides and earthquakes, and by blizzards. Economically, the mountains and high plateaus beyond have barely been connected to the lowlands, except for foothill towns such as Wenchuan, where 70,000 people died suddenly in an earthquake in 2008. Even though there is demand in Sichuanese cities such as Chengdu, and in nearby boom city Chongqing, for Tibetan products such as yoghurt, milk and cheese, Sichuanese prefer to import from afar, even from New Zealand.

The lack of economic integration also means little political integration. There are enclaves in Kandze and Ngawa of intensive mining, and tourism, but the disconnect is palpable. For central leaders in Beijing, and provincial leaders in Chengdu, the absence of economic or political integration has become more and more problematic, as Khampa Kandze has, in the most unambiguous way, asserted its unhappiness at being incorporated into Sichuan and China, by public protest suicides, which strengthen the resolve of the Tibetans to remain Tibetan, and not assimilate.

The response of provincial leaders to the willingness of Tibetans to burn the flesh, to die fearlessly as a protest against Sinicisation, has been ever tighter security controls. In the towns of Kandze, and at Tibetan festive gatherings, security personnel patrol, armed not only with combat gear, but also fire extinguishers in hand, and full body reflective fireproof clothing to attempt to douse any flaming Tibetan, immediately. While the frequency of burning the body has diminished, the sense, shared both by Tibetans and immigrant Han, that Kandze is a foreign country, not in any substantial way integrally Chinese, has not diminished.

Now China has a new strategy for Kandze prefecture, in line with China’s frequently repeated policy that security crackdowns are the short term answer to Tibetan problems, and that the long term answer is development. In the 13th Five-Year Plan period to 2020, Kandze is to be developed at extraordinary speed and vast expense, to extract water from its great rivers for diversion to water-short industries far downriver, for hydro dams and power grids, for a new railway directly connecting Chengdu to Lhasa, and new lithium mines to meet imminent demand for electric car batteries.

When China announces it will spend $30 billion over five years in a single rugged, remote, mountainous prefecture, something odd is under way. The Tibetan Prefecture of Kandze (Ganzi or Garze in Chinese) has such precipitous terrain it fits China’s perception of a waste land, fit for no modern purpose. If a small (by Chinese standards) human population makes their living growing crops on valley floors and pastoral livestock production on the uplands, that’s of little interest to lowland China, bent on realising “the China Dream”. A handful of Tibetans eking their subsistence, stubbornly staying in their valleys and high plateaus, seems to most Chinese incomprehensible, when urban comfort is now an alternative. One in nine of all Tibetans lives in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, to use its official designation, an area roughly the size of New York State, but that’s still only 703,000 Tibetans (2000 Census data). In 2000 there were also 164,000 Han Chinese and a total prefectural population of 897,000.

To the north of Kandze, Amdo Ngawa (Aba in Chinese) has a similar total population -847,000 in 2000- with a greater cultural mix -455,000 Tibetans, 155,000 of the Qiang ethnicity, and 209,000 Han Chinese. About 22 per cent of all Tibetans on earth live in just these two fertile, well-watered prefectures.

But neither produces much that China needs, and have long been seen by booming Sichuan province as its remote and useless westernmost portion, a mountainous waste land.

So why, as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016 to 2020, has China announced a capital expenditure of $30 bn, or $25,000 per person if one includes not only the Tibetans but Han and other immigrants.[1] Not only does China focus our attention on that investment of $25,000 per head, but proudly announces this is ten times the revenues raised by the prefectural government. It is not uncommon for poor regions to receive subsidies to lessen inequality, alleviate poverty, create a modern economy, give remote areas access to wealthy markets. In Tibet Autonomous Region, to the west of Kandze, subsidies sent from Beijing have crept up over the years, to the point where subsidies are actually more than 100 percent of regional revenue raising.[2] The result is, as Chinese economists admit, a region utterly dependent on subsidies, with little economic take-off and a huge tertiary sector of Han immigrants securitising and administering an unhappy province, to which the sojourning immigrants come because Beijing pays such high wages, which can be saved and remitted to the folks back home in a lowland area. As the subsidies grow, the law of diminishing returns sets in, and Beijing gets little result other than deepening dependence. Yet the subsidies keep rising, the record being 107% of the province’s own revenue raising.

All that seems tame by the new standard set by the 13th Five-Year Plan for Kandze, which proudly announces not a 100% subsidy but 1000%, ten times what local authorities can raise through taxation. Far from being embarrassed at this artificial stimulus, it features proudly in China’s official story, and in how China wants journalists to report it.

So how will China manage to spend such sums? Media reporting dwells on schools, hospitals, technical colleges, tourism, even a winery. But they cannot absorb more than a small fraction of such a spend. If that $25000 over five years, or $5000 a year, were to simply be given to the local population, for them to decide what to invest in, it could work wonders, as the official data on income in minority areas of Sichuan lists RMB 24,400 as an average, and, in Kandze, it is only RMB 17,800 per person.[3] That’s US $2710. So an extra $2500 almost doubles incomes.

That’s not going to happen. China has invested very little in the Tibetan economy of livestock production and cropping, and isn’t about to start now, even though the dairy products the nomads make in abundance are in great demand in urban China, especially among the hip and health-conscious.

Overwhelmingly, this capital expenditure is for nation-state building projects that assert China’s sovereignty over its remotest landscapes and peoples. By far the biggest ticket items are railways, highways, hydro dams, power grids for long distance transmission of electricity right across China, mines and huge reservoirs to capture the rivers of Tibet, not only for hydropower but to pump it into the exhausted Yellow River, diverting several watersheds northwards.

China presents this as development, for the benefit of the Tibetans of Kandze. If, as planned, China will spend as much as $45 million per mile of road, necessary because of all the tunnels and bridges needed, no doubt many Tibetans will appreciate the opportunity to visit the thick, heavy, humid air of the Sichuan basin lowlands, a road trip cut to three hours from the present 20.

The planned expressway down also goes up, bringing the Han Chinese construction crews, the engineers and an entire economy of extraction. Water and electricity are the prime extractables. The locations best suited for cascades of dozens of hydro dams and the big reservoirs above them have long been mapped.[4] China has long expected Tibet to pay a dividend. Now, in this eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, immediately above inland China, that dividend is to manifest. The expenditure and the profits are in the hands of the biggest of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), pioneers in establishing China’s global presence. The grid corporation is 7th biggest company in the world, bigger than Volkswagen or Toyota. This is nation-building on a huge scale, financed by official finance at concessional rates available only to the biggest SOEs, in the expectation of profit.

China always needs more electricity, despite the enormous number of coal-fired power stations. North China also needs more water. That alone does not make an economic case for these dams, in the remotest locations, as profitable enterprises, especially since water and power are not only monopolised by SOEs, but pricing is directly in the hands of the party-state.

The torrent of capital expenditure scheduled for Kandze has been a possibility for a long time, but only now put into operation. We do need to ask if these projects are justifiable economically, or whether other agendas are driving this extraordinary program.

At first glance, it seems obvious that China’s biggest manufacturing centres such as Guangzhou and Shanghai need more electricity, while northern China, including Beijing, is desperately short of water. Yet, when one looks more closely, the picture shifts. The world’s factory is no longer on the Chinese coast; it is rapidly shifting inland, much closer to Tibet. The last time there was a major shortfall of electricity production was back in 2004. China’s economy is slowing, becoming more energy efficient (with German help), and shifting from heavy manufacturing to a consumer-driven economy of services, from entertainment to banking, which don’t need electricity the way smelters do. Recent research suggests the hydropower of Tibet may not be needed 2000 kms to the east, in Shanghai.[5]


Kandze and Ngawa are central to China’s 13th Five-Year Plan to make eastern Tibet, adjacent to lowland China, China’s water tower and extraction zone for massive amounts of hydropower, to be sent, with help from Siemens, all the way across China to Shanghai and Guangzhou, the coastal cities at the heart of the world’s factory.

The scale of extraction of hydropower is staggering, especially in the remote valleys, where there has been little Chinese presence, and a traditional mode of production has remained viable. The steep terrain of these high valleys and rolling pasturelands perched above China’s lowlands remain deeply meaningful to the Khampas, as recent anthropological fieldwork has found: “pastures have specific histories and meanings that allow nomads to interact as part of a particular community and to belong to particular places; stones have gender and influence the imaginary of nomads with respect to male-female relations, place and oral history; rivers and lakes are residences of water spirits and nomads understand elements of the weather in terms of the emotional state of these spirits; some mountains are residences of territorial spirits that protect local areas, and other mountains are themselves deities that are part of a kinship system that extends across the Tibetan plateau. Nomads also attribute emotions to the nonhuman guardians of waterways and mountains, such as anger and pacification of Lu, guardian water beings, and ritual offerings to territorial deities that reside in mountains. Some mountains are deities themselves and they have kinship networks that extend across the plateau, linking places of great distances through a shared imaginary.”[6]

These remote pastoral production landscapes will be encroached by the construction crews building not only the many hydro dams but also, above each cascade of dams, a huge reservoir to hold back the seasonal flow of the wild mountain rivers, to make the electricity generating turbines turn year-round. In order to achieve this, several of the dams will be the tallest in the world, with dam walls as much as 318 meters high.

Until now, China has emphasised that the dams it has built in Tibet are run-of-the-river, a term suggesting water is impounded only as long as needed to turn the turbines, with the water then immediately released back into the rivers.  Now, the plan is to deliberately disrupt the natural environmental flows of the rivers of Ngawa and Kandze prefectures, as much as possible, as the rainfall is overwhelmingly in the months of the Indian and East Asian monsoons reaching far inland, from June to October, and China wants to extract electricity year-round. This is why China has announced its’ intention, in the current Five-Year Plan, to build “big reservoirs” in Tibet.[7] The purpose of capturing water on such a scale is to disrupt natural flow to the maximum extent technically feasible.

Since electricity cannot be stored, it must be consumed and produced at almost the same moment, even if production and consumption are 2000 kms apart, connected by intrusive power cables, each carrying as much as one million volts. This means the natural river flow will be disrupted not only seasonally but daily as well, with maximum water release timed to coincide with maximum urban demand peak hours each day. The inevitable result is a river that rises and falls sharply and unpredictably, a danger to all life downstream, human or animal.

The announcement of “big reservoirs” may also signal the go-ahead for the long-planned diversion of water -20 billion cubic metres a year- from the Tibetan tributaries of the upper Yangtze, across to the Yellow River. This too is a massive project, requiring not only very high dams and canals but also long tunnels through seismically active mountains prone to earthquakes.

Why does China need the water? Is it for irrigation, or thirsty cities? According to Chinese scientists who argue for this project to go ahead, the main customer will be the coal industry, which urgently need clean water they can dirty by using water liberally in all stages of production, from dust suppression in mines, spontaneous combustion prevention in open air heaped coal, in  coal-fired power plant cooling towers, and in the latest industry favoured by central leaders, the conversion of coal to oil and to chemicals. Maybe, if China gets serious about reducing coal use and greenhouse gas emissions, it could decide it no longer needs the electricity and the water taken from Tibet.



A major driver of investment in Kandze and Ngawa is the fast rising price of lithium.

lithium eletric far demand grfic 2016The major lithium deposits of Nyagchu, or Yajiang as it is known in Chinese, half way between Litang and Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) on the 318 Highway from Chengdu to Lhasa. These deposits were discovered in 1960 by geological prospecting teams, and even during the Cultural Revolution, were extensively investigated to prove their viability for mining.[8] From a geologist’s viewpoint, the rock lithium deposit was a great find, but demand was limited, distances great, and the salt lakes of the Tsaidam Basin in arid western Amdo hold more accessible sources of lithium.

In the 1960s, even in the early years of this century nobody foresaw the lithium boom, the prospect that lithium could actually replace coal and oil as primary sources of energy to drive modernity. When that promise of a tech revolution did emerge, it was, as usual, oversold as a tech utopia in which the world would painlessly transition from fossil fuels to a low energy future, save the climate, and all would be well. The future, we were told, would be electric cars, but in reality, on the streets, very few wanted to pay a premium price for a silent electric car that also needed a petrol engine as well, or needed a lengthy recharge after travelling as little as 50 kms. Electric car sales never took off.

lithium price 2016

The dream of a tech solution never went away. Different business models were tried, including getting people used to frequent recharges by having recharge stations all over our cities or, better still, fast swapping of depleted batteries by recharged ones, to get us back on the road fast. None is this appealed much.

Now, after so many false starts, the electric car age is about to dawn. The reason we can be so definite has nothing to do with unpredictable consumer demand (or indifference), and everything to do with statist intervention that decrees demand and underwrites the costs of ensuring the new technology succeeds. The state manipulating the market, engineering demand is of course China, which sees not only a lithium battery technology it can dominate globally, but also the applause of the world for reducing auto emissions, especially from Germany after the German auto industry bet everything on diesel rather than electric, as the low-carbon future.

China is doing all it can to ensure that electric cars become popular, which means lithium demand will soar. The early investors in lithium, such as Warren Buffett, will make spectacular profits. And the lithium deposits of Tibet will be in demand as never before. Nearly all of China’s lithium comes from Tibet, from two widely differing areas, hosting quite different resources: the dry salt lake beds of the Tsaidam basin in Amdo, and the spodumene pegmatite rock deposits of Kandze. Which of these will soon be extracted more intlithium Drangyer Tsaka Tianqi extraction screenshotensively, to drive the electric car boom, is a technical question we will return to.


China’s party-state believes in not only picking winners, but in making winners, selecting both the technologies and the corporations that will dominate the post-oil age world. China’s strategy is to build up national champions, usually state-owned corporate giants made all the bigger through acquiring their rivals, by the command of a party-state that retains more than a passing resemblance to what, in East Germany, has been understood as the cause of its failure. China is serious about staying ahead, dominating key industries globally, as it transitions to a consumer-driven economy with wages that are no longer the lowest in the world. Instead of relying on cheap labour to remain the world’s factory, China now aims to be the technology leader in key industries, which happen to compete strongly with Germany. These include photovoltaic solar power, wind power and electric cars powered by lithium batteries.

lithium Drangyer Tsaka Tianqi screenshot

China’s strategy is to have access to raw materials, the technologies and the corporations with global reach, mass manufacturing capabilities and mass market consumer pricing, all in place ahead of anyone else. This is a strategy of global proportions, embracing a global supply chain for raw materials, and global reach for selling consumer products worldwide.  Very few corporations could achieve that alone. It takes the full commitment of the party-state to orchestrate this risky bet on how the world will be, and maximise the chances of success. The vehicle for co-ordinating this master strategy is the Five-Year Plan, which also is the prioritised list of massive state investments in Kandze and Ngawa, to extract water, build hydro dams and export electricity across China from Tibet to the coast.

The Five-Year Plan can be read as just a wish list, and for many who still like to believe that a richer China inevitably means a private enterprise China that may yet become democratic; the targets of the latest Five-Year Plan are read as an anachronistic echo of the bad old days of command and control. But the Five-Year Plan commands enormous resources, is a directive to the big banks (all state-owned) as to who gets priority in loans and access to capital. The power of the state to allocate to its favourites remains strong, and there is no sign of the state withering away, except when it comes to adequate spending on education and health care.

lithium Xi Jinping Cambridges on BYD bus lithium BYD Daimler JV screenshot lithium BYD cars lithium BYD bus pic

China is not the first to try, as the Financial Times reported: “the Obama administration pumped billions of dollars of stimulus money into trying to create an advanced battery industry in the US. The resulting companies were more like chemistry experiments. They might have come up with demonstrations in the lab but could not scale up in production. That has left slower- advancing lithium-ion as the default technology, particularly where lightweight batteries are needed in things like consumer electronics and transport.”[9]

But China has a coordinated strategy that only the world’s leading developmentalist state, with all its allocative powers intact, could hope to implement. In 2014 China’s State Council announced extended subsidies for drivers who purchase electric vehicles, set a 30 per cent electric vehicle quota for government car fleets and ordered an end to discrimination by regional governments, many of which have extended policy support only to alternative energy vehicles produced by local companies.”

”China will extend subsidies for new energy “green” vehicles to 2020, according to draft rules published on Tuesday, extending the current incentive scheme which expires at the end of 2015. The policy represents China’s latest effort to fight severe pollution and snarling traffic and is a boon to firms such as Warren Buffett-backed BYD Co Ltd, the country’s biggest maker of electric vehicles. Subsidies will be granted to buyers of pure electric, highly electrified plug-in hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles, with the amount of subsidies gradually scaled down during the period from 2016 to 2020, according to the draft rules posted on the Ministry of Finance’s website. Buyers of pure-electric cars will initially be able to receive subsidies of up to 55,000 yuan ($8,834) under the draft rules, while buyers of pure-electric busses will be eligible for up to 500,000 yuan.”

“Premier Li Keqiang vowed to “step up support” for the electric vehicle industry at a meeting of the State Council on Wednesday by shifting funds from supporting EV production to rewarding companies that produce new technologies and hit sales targets, according to the government website. China is keen to create home-grown champions that can compete in this crucial area. Currently most major EV producers in China are joint ventures with foreign carmakers.

 Mr Li’s statements also included a push to use public transport and institutions as a conduit for boosting EV sales, with the mandated percentage of new energy vehicles purchased by public institutions rising to 50 per cent from a previous 30 per cent. The prospect of updated public transport fleets being encouraged to use only electric vehicles also raises the possibility of an uneven playing field developing, with local manufacturers given priority in bidding for deals.” 25 Feb 2016

The amount of lithium in the salt lakes of Amdo Qinghai is enormous, officially 16.1 bn tonnes of lithium chloride, or lithium salt. The problem of its extraction is that almost always the lithium salts are mixed with ordinary salt, magnesium and potassium salts, and separating them to the high level of purity required by battery manufacturers is very difficult. Even though there are, officially, 850 people employed in extracting salt bed lithium in Qinghai, resulting in 2013 in 5.7m tonnes extracted, the sales value was only RMB 195 per tonne, with the enterprises doing the extraction recording a loss of RMB 147 m in 2013.[10]


Chengdu-based, Tianqi Lithium 天齐, its shares listed on Shenzhen Stock Exchange, boasts it is the world’s biggest producer of lithium from spodumene rock deposits, and that its main resources are a spodumene lithium Drangyer Tsaka lithium crystallisedmine in West Australia and a deposit in Ganzi (Kandze) in Tibet, featured on its Chinese language version website, naming it as the Cuola Lithium deposit, 100 per cent owned by Tianqi, containing 300,000 tonnes of lithium dioxide, with an expected mine life of 40 years. It has a production base at Ya’an, a Sichuan city right at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, directly on the route of the Chengdu to Lhasa rail route planned for the 13th Five-Year Plan construction.

Tianqi, despite its claims, is not a big company, and most of the lithium it extracts comes from its mine in Australia. Tianqi’s website has pictures of its portion of the Tibetan rock lithium deposit, but it shows only snowy hills with little sign of mining activity. This is what is about to change, as electric car production at last grows fast, as it has promised for more than a decade.  As electric car production scales up, there is even a race between the two Tibetan sources of lithium –the salt lake beds of Qinghai Tsaidam versus the rock lithium of Sichuan Kandze. From a Chinese perspective, this is inter-provincial competition, with each province championing its local heroes. For Qinghai, the challenge is to get its lithium salts sufficiently pure to be usable in batteries.

lithium deposits Acta geologica Sinica 2015

If the supply of battery-grade lithium does scale up to meet demand, the race is on to see which company makes the lithium powered cars and buses that will win. Globally, the headlines focus on Tesla, which is investing heavily in mass manufacturing in the US. Its main rival, backed by China Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, is BYD, a battery maker that realised it could make its fortune if it made cars as well.  BYD is in partnership with Daimler, to speed its transition to becoming a carmaker. The BYD-Daimler partnership launched its first vehicle in 2014, an awkward hybrid that still needed a petrol engine as well as battery powered electricity.[11] Now known as the Denza, a name coincidentally akin to how Chinese pronounce Benz, it has enticing advertising and sells well.[12] Since Daimler also plans to have lithium battery powered versions of its own Grade S, E and C Mercedes-Benz available, this raises questions as to whether the batteries will be made in Germany, USA or China.[13]

BYD, with its backing from China’s central leaders, aims to not only enter the auto manufacturing market but to change it dramatically, ending the dominance of engine manufacturers for a new age in which high tech companies will dominate. While the high priced BYD Denza is not BYD’s most popular model, BYD is surging ahead, as the Financial Times[14] puts it: “BYD is the world’s largest producer of hybrid and battery powered vehicles by volume. Its sales of “new energy vehicles” tripled in 2015, beating even Tesla in terms of units sold. Sales of its NEVs have continued to soar in 2016, with BYD’s Tang sport utility vehicle, launched last year, China’s most popular NEV by new sales to June.”

The BYD-Daimler enterprise is matched at government level by a project created by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and carried out by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People’s Republic of China (MIIT), with help from GiZ.[15]

BYD, having boosted its stock price by boasting of its exclusive rights to Drangyer tsaka salt lake (Zhabuye in Chinese) in far western Tibet, has now moved to boost its lithium supply by turning to the abundant lithium of the Qinghai Tsaidam basin salt lakes. BYD is taking a gamble that lithium from the salt lakes can be purified sufficiently to fully eliminate the other salts sodium, magnesium and potassium- that are mingled, in the lake bed deposits. “BYD is looking to get ahead of rivals in battery technologies and production, inking a deal in June to start mining lithium carbonate, used to make lithium batteries, in the western China province of Qinghai.”[16]

lithium & rare earth deposits of Kham 2015Qinghai competes with Sichuan to supply the lithium market, even if both sources are actually Tibetan. Qinghai’s advantage is not only a much bigger quantity of lithium, but also a substantial industrial infrastructure capable of producing a wide range of lithium products. Qinghai also boasts official German technical assistance.

Official Tibetan media report:  On 20th June 2016, Qinghai Provincial government organized International Forum on Lithium Industry and New Ecology” in Xining City. Hao Peng, the governor of Qinghai Province[17] chaired the forum and hundreds of people also participated.  Hao Peng said “Qinghai Province has tremendous and abundant solar energy, wind energy and Lithium resources which accounted for more than 80% of Lithium reserves in the country and 1/3 of the world reserves.  Qinghai Province is hosting sure treasure mineral resources geographically as well as very unique climate which is providing such natural facilitation to the development of the lithium industry.  In recent years, we rely on our unique resources advantage, efforts to enhance the level of lithium from salt water, vigorously cultivate leading enterprises to accelerate the development. The initial formation of the Lithium from salty lake, Lithium carbonates, positive and negative electrode material, Lithium battery manufacturing and other integration of the industrial chain upstream and downstream. Lithium industry to accelerate the development of cluster, scale development; it is becoming a new economic growth point”. The forum was attended by Sandra Retzer[18], Director of GiZ Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit Transport and Energy Department, and also other Experts and Entrepreneurs. ”[19]

Germany defines its purpose as “improving the security of energy supply in both countries and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change internationally. German enterprises can access the Chinese market more easily.”[20]

Lithium, the lightest of all metals, is plentiful. Its extraction has been limited by limited demand until now. Now demand is rising fast. Investment advisers are forecasting there are fortunes to be made by the wealthy putting their money into lithium extraction. The rock lithium of Kham may soon be mined.

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

rare earth mining Yalong China water Risk 2016

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

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

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

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




Lithium is not the only metal essential to China realising its official dream of becoming the globally dominant player in the manufacture and sale of lithium batteries, electric cars and other hi-tech products. High technology makes much use of elements whose use has been only recently defined.

Rare earths, a collective term for a range of elements needed, usually in small amounts, in advanced technology are mined almost entirely in China, not because rare earths are not found elsewhere, but because the huge deposit in Inner Mongolia, plus China’s low labour costs and inattention to environmental regulatory compliance add up to a cost of production no competitor can match.

If electric cars and other hi-tech take off as predicted, China will need other sources of rare earths. The other big deposits are at the extreme edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in areas populated by the Yi ethnic minority, and Tibetans, as well as Han immigrants.[21] These deposits, already mined on a modest scale, may now scale up. The closest to Tibet is the Muluozhai ore district, which contains as much as 450,000 tons of rare earths, but which will require removal and crushing of 12 million tons of rock in order to extract the rare earths.[22] This area is immediately adjacent to Gyezil Tibetan Autonomous County of Kham, very close to the Yalong River, a major Tibetan tributary of the Yangtze.



Cobalt is another metal much needed if China is to fulfil the goals it has set, but China lacks cobalt deposits. Most of global supply comes from the Congo, at enormous human cost, as militias and warlords battle for supremacy in a conflict zone where millions of people have died in recent years.  In May 2016, according to the Financial Times: “As China Molybdenum announced it was buying one of Africa’s largest copper mines earlier this month one thing was soon clear: the acquisition was about far more than the red metal. The $2.65bn deal, the biggest private investment in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history, is instead designed to secure China’s supplies of cobalt, a once niche raw material that is crucial to developing batteries for electric cars. The purchase of the Tenke mine, which contains one of the world’s largest known deposits of copper and cobalt, shows how Chinese companies are now moving to take a dominant position in battery materials as the country prepares to shift its economy from heavily polluting industries. Companies that make batteries for carmakers, from Tesla Motors to General Motors, will be increasingly reliant on Chinese-controlled supply chains as they scale up production of the electric cars western policymakers hope will help cut emissions and reliance on imported oil. ‘The majority of the cobalt is heading straight to China,’ said Edward Spencer, an analyst at metals consultancy CRU. ‘Their global hold is huge.’ If the Tenke mine deal goes through, Chinese companies will be responsible for around 62 per cent of global refined cobalt production next year, according to CRU estimates. Demand for the material is expected to soar by more than two-thirds over the next decade.”[23]

China’s mining companies are well aware that the Congo has been such a deadly conflict zone for so long that in Europe many campaigners and consumers are determined to keep these metals, obtained at such cost in human lives, out of the supply chains that produce the handyphone in your pocket. China’s miners have acted collectively and proactively to show they do not source minerals form conflict zones, by announcing they will comply with regulatory standards and codes of conduct intended to keep “blood metals” out of products sold in Europe.

Yet the very same mining companies, many state owned, that now pledge in their Memorandum of Understanding with the European Union to abstain from using conflict minerals sourced from Congo, face no such restraint, or even due diligence monitoring requirements, when it comes to their extraction of lithium, water, electricity and perhaps rare earths from Tibet. Since it is the same Chinese companies, which choose to mine in Congo or Tibet, how it is possible their Congo operations are scrutinised, reported and certified, with no scrutiny of their operations in Tibet?

The strategy is simple. Europe’s rapidly emerging regulatory regime is based on the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas; and it is with the OECD that China’s miners have signed a Memorandum pledging co-operation.[24] However, the Chinese partner is Chinese miners solely in their role as importers and exporters, into and out of China, not their roles as domestic miners. The Partnering organisation is the state-led China Chamber of Commerce for Mining, Minerals and Metals Importers and Exporters (CCCMC). Through this manoeuvre, Chinese companies exploiting Tibet escape scrutiny. At the end of 2015 CCCMC launched its own guidelines.[25]

However, the EU regulatory regime, still not quite finalised after years of debate, does not restrict itself geographically, and applies worldwide.[26] Tibetans and their supporters could apply for the inclusion of Tibet as a conflict zone, meriting the same level of scrutiny, reporting and compliance as central Africa. At present the EU regulations cover only a limited range of metals, including gold, a major component of all the big new mines in Tibet, but not yet lithium.



The impending lithium extraction boom in Tibet will be not only in Kandze, as Tulku Tenzin Delek predicted, but also in Amdo Tsaidam’s salt lakes, as demand soars. China’s investment boom is not only overwhelming Kandze but also central Tibet, or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).  China continues to pump money into its’ TAR projects: railways, urban enclaves, mines, hydro dams, ultra-high voltage power lines etc.

As in Kandze, at first glance this can look like development, yet there has been no economic take-off in TAR, only deepening dependence and disempowerment, as more Tibetans subsist on official rations. Yet on paper all that capital expenditure can be made to look like success, even benevolence. If one divides the influx of subsidies by the TAR population, one can say GDP is growing at an impressive rate: so why aren’t the Tibetans grateful? GDP is meaningless as a measure of human well-being, when it is merely capex divided by population.

As China finds its way to a “new normal” of much lower growth rates over the foreseeable longer term, TAR stands out as continuing to grow extraordinarily fast, and China’s propaganda machine makes a virtue of this.[27] The headline in official media: China’s Tibet comes on top of regional GDP growth.

How can TAR really be growing faster than anywhere in China, when it manufactures almost nothing, its rural sector is shrinking, and almost nothing leaves TAR as exports? TAR has now had decades of “leap over” infrastructure-led “development” financed by central leaders (using borrowed money). Now the same logic is about to be applied to Kandze and Ngawa.


[2] Andrew Martin Fischer, The Political Economy of Boomerang Aid in China’s Tibet, China Perspectives, 2009 #3


[3] Sichuan Statistical Yearbook 2014

[4] Jianting Cao , Yuanyuan Li , Fuxin Shen , Yiwei Chen & Jun Xia (2012)

Drawing down our resources: estimating the total appropriation of water in China, Water

International, 37:5, 512-522

[5] TOWARDS A WATER & ENERGY SECURE CHINA: Tough choices ahead in power expansion with limited water resources, China Water Risk report, Woodrow Wilson Center China Environment Forum, 2015

[6] Tan, Gillian G. 2012, Re‐examining human‐nonhuman relations among nomads of Eastern Tibet,

Deakin University : Alfred Deakin Research Institute

[7] China’s major projects to be implemented in coming five years, Xinhua’s China Economic Information Service, 7 March 2016

[8] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China, 1996, Vol 23   :Sichuan, p.132  Zhongguo kuang chuang fa xian shi 中國礦床發現史


[10] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2014, table 3-20, Utilization Situation of Mineral Resources



[13] China Li-ion Battery E-News VOL.1 Issue 12, December 29, 2014

[14] Samsung Electronics in talks to take stake in BYD: Korean group pursues Chinese electric automaker as cars go high-tech, JULY 15, 2016 FT


[16] Financial Times July 15 2016





[21] Xie Yuling, Hou Zengqian, Xu Jiuhua, Yuan Zhongxin, Bai Ge, and Li Xiaoyu (2006): Discovery of Cu-Zn, Cu-Sn intermetallic minerals and its significance for genesis of the Mianning-Dechang REE Metallogenic Belt, Sichuan Province, China. Science in China, Series D (Earth Sciences), 49(6), 597-603.

Huang, Z.L., Yan, Z.F., Xu, C., Zhang, Z.L., and Liu, C.Q. (2006): Mineralization by mantle fluids in the Miaoniuping REE deposit, Sichuan Province, China. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 89(1-3), 165-169.

[22] Zengqian Hou, Shihong Tian, Yuling Xie, Zhusen Yang, Zhongxin Yuan, Shuping Yin, Longsheng Yi, Hongcai Fei, Tianren Zou, Ge Bai, and Xiaoyu Li (2009): The Himalayan Mianning-Dechang REE belt associated with carbonatite-alkaline complexes, eastern Indo-Asian collision zone, SW China. Ore Geology Reviews 36, 90-105.

[23] Henry Sanderson, China plays long game on cobalt and electric batteries: Chinese company’s acquisition of Congo cobalt mine has repercussions for car industry, MAY 23, 2016 Financial Times






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First, we had the “Washington consensus” of the 1990s, a convergence of “well-known facts” about the inevitable triumph of capitalism, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Washington Consensus on the superiority of neoliberal capitalism coincided, not coincidentally, with the boom in billionaire wealth creation and the stagnation of the American middle class, while the poor got left further behind. Today the inequality gap is the driver of the US 2016 presidential election, and the Washington consensus, which lasted at most for a decade, seems like a silly collective hallucination.

But it also set off a fad for consensuses of all sorts. We soon got the Beijing Consensus aka the China Model, a state capitalist alternative to the Washington model. Only that was back in 2004, when China was none too keen on proclaiming its developmentalist, statist system a model for anyone else, back in the days when China was determined to keep its head down, grow as fast as possible, and maintain a low profile. China then, so unlike today, didn’t want to be seen as exemplary, or a paragon for others to emulate. So, in the absence of it being championed by China, the Beijing Consensus quickly faded from view.

Now we have the “Lhasa Consensus”, very much a Chinese invention. Like the previous Consensuses, it is all about development, growth, progress and modernity, though without any suggestion that this is a model that fits anyone but the Tibetans. Actually, it covers only half of the Tibetans, not the other half who live in nominally autonomous Tibetan prefectures in Chinese provinces outside the Tibet Autonomous Region or TAR.

Consensuses aren’t what they used to be. The Lhasa Consensus is merely 130 guests of the Chinese government who came to Lhasa for a few days and allowed their names to be used to validate the issuing of a “Lhasa Consensus” document drafted in advance by propaganda officials. The guest list included the Asia Society’s senior fundraiser, and Dan Dudek, “one of the world’s leading experts on market-based policies to reduce pollution at the least cost”, according to his employer. Another guest sitting in judgement on China’s model of development in TAR was Markus Rudolf, who, on his website, declares himself expert on Congo, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Mali and Senegal, but not China. He is also an expert in corporate customer value metrics and bank capital adequacy ratios. China has now elevated him to “China issue expert”, thus making him at once an expert also on Tibet.

These three are the most prominently featured in China’s Lhasa Consensus media coverage. Their collective judgement of Tibet, meaning TAR, was that all is well, and in line with well-known laws of history and norms of development. In the words of the Lhasa Consensus: “The new development concepts of innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development are in line with the times and the norms of development. The concepts are also of great importance in guiding Tibet’s future development. The concept of innovation will lead Tibet on a path of scientific and technological progress, and the concept of coordination will lead the region on a path of sustainable development. The concept of green development will help Tibet in environmental protection, and the concept of openness will promote modern civilization in Tibet. The concept of shared development will steer Tibet toward common prosperity. The development of Tibet is standing at a new historic starting point.”

This is exactly the line taken by successive Chinese Government White Papers on Tibet, which emphasize that Tibet, under the benevolent guidance of the Chinese Communist Party, is following the laws of development.



An alternative viewpoint comes from the in-depth fieldwork in Tibet done by Chinese economists and anthropologists, who argue that what China has done is to create deep dependence in Tibet, on central funding that endlessly subsidises a Han immigrant urban elite, while widening the gap with the overwhelmingly Tibetan rural poor. These Chinese economists and social scientists, writing their doctoral dissertations about the sonderweg development path unique to TAR,  might be considered the real experts.

Among them are Ma Rong, Sun Yong,[1] Yu Yungui,[2] Wang Luolin,[3] Lu Minglun,[4] Zhou Daming[5] and Jin Wei.

They show that, far from a “normal” approach to development economics, emphasizing comparative advantage, factor endowments and the opportunity to add value to pastoral production, China instead ignored rural Tibet and invested all its massive capital expenditure on enclaves of intensive development: mines, hydro dams, power lines, highways, railways, pipelines, urban centres. This guaranteed employment for immigrant Han Chinese, clustered in the enclaves, earning high salaries paid by the central state, to run a security state fixated on grid management and other strategies for controlling the Tibetans, who were and are largely excluded from free movement of labour and economic opportunity. Far from being a standard model of development, China has ignored DevEcon101 and imposed a new economy, dominated by the tertiary sector of administrators and security personnel. China failed to develop the production landscapes of Tibetan primary industry, or secondary industries processing and adding value to what Tibetans are so good at, which is livestock production. Tibet’s deepening dependence, with so little return to show for it, is a travesty of development.

Why does China so determinedly ignore its own economists and stick to its path dependence on endlessly repeating the same mistakes, which only further alienate the Tibetans? To try to answer that, we might first deviate, to another announcement of recent days, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling on China’s claim to historic ownership of the seas well to the south of China.

sea nomads 3Just a few days after the Lhasa Consensus came and went, international law issued its definitive arbitral decision. As The Guardian put it: “After three years of nail-biting anticipation, the Philippines has scored a historic legal victory against China in the South China Sea. An international tribunal handed the Philippines a virtual clean sweep in a landmark case that could define not only the trajectory of the maritime disputes in the area but also the broader international order. Most observers expected a favourable outcome for the Philippines, but no one knew to what extent. To the surprise of many legal experts, the tribunal not only exercised jurisdiction on the most sensitive items of the Philippines’ case but it issued favourable judgment on the merits of almost all of the south-east Asian country’s arguments. According to the tribunal, China’s doctrine of “historic rights”, which undergirds its sweeping nine-dash line claim, was incompatible with prevailing international law and “there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources”.

China has long argued that it is fully entitled to consider Tibet to be China’s, on the same grounds, of historic ownership. The debate over this has dragged on for decades, obscured by Qing dynasty edicts, ambiguous relations between Dalai Lamas and Chinese Emperors, British imperial doctrines of suzerainty, to the bafflement and boredom of all but the most committed of lawyers. Tibet’s position in international law remains unresolved.sea nomads 4

What the UNCLOS ruling achieves is to remind us that all the talk of “China’s Tibet” as a historic fact has no meaning in international law unless that claim is backed by facts on the ground, by the ongoing presence of the state, in the lives of the population. Legal disputation about ownership only gets you so far. Ruling a few islands or a few enclaves only gets you so far. What really counts is whether China has historically been the only government of Tibet, to the exclusion of all other governments, with a real day-to-day presence in Tibetan lives.

Not even the most zealous of proponents of “China’s Tibet” claim that Tibet was under administrative control of China, with a Chinese government presence in each town, village and nomad encampment, even if only to extract taxes. Not until the 1950s did China manifest any actual control, across the land. Likewise, Chinese fishermen may have come and gone fishing throughout the seas to the south of China, but that does not establish exclusive sovereignty over both the islands and the entire high seas China now claims.



Few have read much of the 501 pages of the UNCLOS ruling. For Tibetans, it is worth a closer look.

It is worth quoting key sections: “In 1962, following the Second UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, the UN Secretariat produced a memorandum on historic waters, which considered the term as equivalent to historic title. The memorandum analyses the formation of historic title as a process of acquiring a historic right—a term which is used generally—and concludes that: In determining whether or not a title to “historic waters” exists, there are three factors which have to be taken into consideration, namely, (i) The authority exercised over the area by the State claiming it as “historic waters”; (ii) The continuity of such exercise of authority; (iii) The attitude of foreign States.” 95sea nomads 9

“China has stated its view that its “relevant rights in the South China Sea, formed in the long historical course” are “protected under international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” Insofar as China’s relevant rights comprise a claim to historic rights to living and non-living resources within the ‘nine-dash line’, partially in areas that would otherwise comprise the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf of the Philippines, the Tribunal cannot agree with this position. The Convention does not include any express provisions preserving or protecting historic rights that are at variance with the Convention. On the contrary, the Convention supersedes earlier rights and agreements to the extent of any incompatibility. The Convention is comprehensive in setting out the nature of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf and the rights of other States within those zones. China’s claim to historic rights is not compatible with these provisions.” 103sea nomads 8

” According to China, its nationals have historically engaged in navigation and trade in the South China Sea and the activities of Chinese fishermen in residing, working, and living among the Spratly Islands “are all manifestly recorded in Geng Lu Bu (Manual of Sea Routes) which was passed down from generation to generation among Chinese fishermen.” 112 In the Tribunal’s view, however, much of this evidence—on both sides—has nothing to do with the question of whether China has historically had rights to living and non-living resources beyond the limits of the territorial sea in the South China Sea and therefore is irrelevant to the matters before this Tribunal.” 113

“The Tribunal recalls that the process for the formation of historic rights in international law…. requires the continuous exercise of the claimed right by the State asserting the claim and acquiescence on the part of other affected States.  113

“Accordingly, the scope of a claim to historic rights depends upon the scope of the acts that are carried out as the exercise of the claimed right. Evidence that either the Philippines or China had historically made use of the islands of the South China Sea would, at most, support a claim to historic rights to those islands. Evidence of use giving rise to historic rights with respect to the islands, however, would not establish historic rights to the waters beyond the territorial sea. The converse is also true: historic usage of the waters of the South China Sea cannot lead to rights with respect to the islands there. The two domains are distinct. 113

“The Tribunal notes that historic rights are, in most instances, exceptional rights. They accord a right that a State would not otherwise hold, were it not for the operation of the historical process giving rise to the right and the acquiescence of other States in the process.  113sea nomads ppines

Historical navigation and fishing, beyond the territorial sea, cannot therefore form the basis for the emergence of a historic right. Evidence that merely points to even very intensive Chinese navigation and fishing in the South China Sea would be insufficient. Instead, in order to establish historic rights in the waters of the South China Sea, it would be necessary to show that China had engaged in activities that deviated from what was permitted under the freedom of the high seas and that other States acquiesced in such a right. In practice, to establish the exclusive historic right to living and non-living resources within the ‘nine-dash line’, which China now appears to claim, it would be necessary to show that China had historically sought to prohibit or restrict the exploitation of such resources by the nationals of other States and that those States had acquiesced in such restrictions. In the Tribunal’s view, such a claim cannot be supported. The Tribunal is unable to identify any evidence that would suggest that China historically regulated or controlled fishing in the South China Sea, beyond the limits of the territorial sea. “ 114

China’s “historic rights” to Tibet or the South China Sea are equally flimsy, only there is no treaty or international tribunal for land, as there is for the sea. But the argument remains fundamentally identical, and it is an argument familiar to land title lawyers around the world. In Australia, for example, Aboriginal claimants to native title can succeed in court only if they can prove, despite centuries of dispossession and discrimination, their unbroken and continuous use of their lands, right up to the present, especially for productive purposes.

China knows it never governed Tibet, and that remains its core dilemma. In order to assert itself as sovereign, it must deal with the unfinished business of the Qing Empire, which sent armies into Tibet but seldom established actual rule, with a manifest state presence in Tibetan lives. That has been the agenda of the past 65 years, and it remains an unfinished agenda. Turning an empire into a nation-state is not done overnight.  It requires massive investment in the infrastructure of control, huge statist projects that establish the nation-state as exercising actual daily control over both the full territory it claims and over the lives of all it claims as its citizens.sea nomads 7

Only if we understand this nation-building agenda can we understand why China failed to initiate the basics of development, which would have strengthened the wool and dairy industries of Tibet, and raised the incomes of even the most remote nomadic pastoralists. That is the last thing China wanted. Instead its agenda throughout has been to create employment for Han immigrants, by imposing an economy of tertiary industry administrators and security personnel, from above. That is why there are so few linkages between the Tibetan economy and the vast economy of lowland China, where there is great demand for Tibetans do best: dairy and wool. Right now, China gets its dairy products from huge corporate enterprises based in Inner Mongolia, New Zealand and Australia, not Tibet.



The Lhasa Consensus got it wrong. Tibet is not on a normal path of development, it is on a special path that disempowers ordinary Tibetans, herds them into fast growing concrete cantonments on urban fringes, their traditional livelihoods nullified by grazing bans, their entry into the urban economy blocked by strict limits on mobility, in the name of security.

Under the global Law of the Sea treaty, China has dramatically failed to win its “historic right” to huge areas of distant ocean. On land, in Tibet, its’ similar claim to “historic rights” to Tibet will continue to fail, and continue to alienate Tibetans reduced to dependence on state ration handouts, as long as China fails to develop Tibet with Tibetans the main beneficiaries.

To repeat: the UN Law of the Sea tribunal judgement says: “In determining whether or not a title to “historic waters” exists, there are three factors which have to be taken into consideration, namely, (i) The authority exercised over the area by the State claiming it as “historic waters”; (ii) The continuity of such exercise of authority; (iii) The attitude of foreign States.” 95sea nomads 5

When China belatedly realised it would have to prove ongoing, continuous exercise of regulatory power it issued a maritime equivalent of the grazing bans imposed on the best pasture lands of Tibet. In the words of the UNCLOS Tribunal: “China’s declaration, in May 2012, of a “Summer Ban on Marine Fishing in the South China Sea Maritime Space,” in order to “protect and rationally utilise South China Sea fishery resources.” The announcement described the ban and the area in which it would apply as follows: All productive activity types, except for using single-layer gill net and line-fishing equipment, shall be prohibited from 16 May 12:00 p.m. until 1 August 12:00 p.m. in the South China Sea areas from 12º north latitude up to the “Common Boundary Line of Fujian-Guangdong Sea Areas” (including the Gulf of Tonkin) under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China.” 88

As in Tibet, this ban, devised to prove China exercises effective control, is worded as if this is a rational, scientifically-based biodiversity conservation regulation. The intent is more basic: to show that China is in exclusive control.

There weren’t too many such environmental edicts. By 2012 China’s bulldozers, dredges, cranes and other heavy earth moving equipment were busy trashing the living coral reefs, to make land rise above the tide line. The time for making a show of environmetal protection had passed.

In order to insert the modern nation-state into traditionally stateless Tibetan regions, states can only do what states can do, which is to restrict, constrict, limit, extract, scrutinise and control that which never needed state control. At sea the invisible losers will be the Bajau Laut, the so-called nomads of the seas adjacent to the Philippines, whose pictures are throughout this blog. The losers on land are the Tibetan nomads, made scrutable to the state, only to be closed and their lands withdrawn from productive use, in order to assert the sovereignty of the nation-state.

China’s relentless insistence it is in exclusive control of Tibet reduces Tibetans to ever deeper dependence, and further strengthens Tibetan resolve to remain Tibetan, and resist assimilation. There may be no tribunal on earth to adjudicate China’s claim to Tibet, but on the ground China’s distorted version of development with Chinese characteristics is counter-productively bringing about what China most fears: ever deeper mistrust among Tibetans of becoming Chinese.

China is also triggering deepening mistrust elsewhere, by responding so truculently to the UNCLOS ruling, releasing, for example, a patriotic video warning everyone: “Don’t cause trouble in front of our house”, with missiles blazing in response.



[1]西藏:非典型二元结构下的发展改革  (孙勇等,中国藏学出版社,1991

[2]西藏产业   (俞允贵等,中国藏学出版社,1994

[3]市场化与基层公共服务 – 西藏案例研究    (王洛林等,民族出版社,2005

[4]西藏自治区发展与跨世纪产业结构调整    (吕鸣伦等,地理研究,1996〈4〉

[5]西藏经济发展两    (周大鸣,民族研究,1997[1]

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If, as the Chinese Communist Party insists, the imperialist West has never given up on its plot to dominate and humiliate China (and uses Tibet as a weapon to weaken China), then why has China Post just issued stamps featuring Mickey Mouse, to celebrate the opening of Disneyworld in Shanghai?

Mickey Mouse stamp 2016Disney worked extremely hard to cravenly apologise to China for having financed the making of Scorsese’s Kundun, telling the Dalai Lama’s life story, in 1997. The New York Times reminds us what happened next:

“By the time of the “Kundun” debacle, the demand [in China] was clearly there. Mr. Eisner just needed to undo the damage.

“Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

“Mr. Eisner said the company had learned a lesson. And he introduced Mr. Iger, then Disney’s international president, as the person who would carry on negotiations for a theme park. The Chinese prime minister responded favorably. Land in Shanghai, he said, had already been set aside.

“And just like that, the door to China started to reopen.”


Nationalist Chinese Netizens Are Already Turning on Disney Shanghai

To them, the just-opened theme park is yet another example of cultural imperialism.

After nearly two decades of negotiations, Disney’s $5.5 billion theme park in the glitzy financial capital of Shanghai finally opened on June 16. The planned grand opening featured concerts in front of the world’s largest Disneyland castle, rollout of merchandise like Disney Princess chopsticks and a Mickey Mouse hat adorned with Swarovski crystal, and princess makeovers for young Chinese girls. Disney hopes to attract 11 million visitors annually, with ticket prices ranging from $56 to $76. But the quintessential American brand has already attracted the ire of China’s top real estate tycoon — and its outspoken nationalist netizens.

Disney has bent over backwards to accommodate Chinese government demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market, including creating new rides and dropping its demands for a Disney Channel in China. Negotiations to open the park were extensive, and took decades. But the CEO of Disney’s chief domestic rival, Dalian Wanda Group, was not impressed.

“One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves — Shanghai has one Disney, while Wanda, across the nation, will open 15 to 20” parks, Wang Jianlin said during a May 24 interview with state broadcaster China Central Television.

Wang’s salvo has played well among China’s nationalist web users. Amid rising Chinese nationalism, some in China have come to see purchasing local brands instead of foreign ones as an act of patriotism. Theme parks may be the next battlefield. “No matter what, with regard to Disney, I absolutely support Wang Jianlin,” wrote a user in a popular comment on microblogging platform Weibo. “I do not plan to go to Disney.”

Some web commenters have said they resent the global dominance of American culture, often exported by the massive U.S. film and entertainment industry. “The era in which American culture commands the globe is slowly changing,” wrote one Weibo user. “Wait and see. Once China becomes strong, it will be Chinese culture that is the world’s mainstream culture.” Anotheraccused Disney of being “boring,” adding, “China also has a lot of good stories. Why has no one made a theme park based on [martial arts novelist] Jin Yong or [martial arts television drama] Chinese Paladin?”

While many in the United States believe that Chinese regulators have unfairly targeted U.S. businesses, many in China view U.S. companies as corporate behemoths exercising outsized influence over China’s economy and society. Disney’s global empire, in this view, is only the latest example. “Apple flaunts its wealth in China, but China’s Huawei and high-speed rail are blocked from the United States,” wrote one Weibo user in a June 14 comment that garnered more than 6,000 likes. Telecom giant Huawei has been blocked by U.S. officials from bidding on government contracts due to national security concerns, and a U.S. company recently canceled a contract with the Chinese to build a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The user concluded, “Why should we give Disney an opportunity? This land belongs to the Chinese!”

This is not the first time Chinese netizens have complained about the new resort. Its sky-high food prices — about $5 for a pork bun, compared to the 50 cents on the street in Shanghai — caused indignation among tourists and web users about one week before the grand opening.

For years, Disney’s entry into the Chinese market was beset by government interference, rooted in part in concerns about cultural imperialism. China banned Disney films in 1997, after Disney released a movie about the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader that Beijing insists is a “splittist.” Negotiations for the eventual opening of a theme park only began after then-CEO Michael Eisner apologized for that film. A decade of bargaining led nowhere, however, until current CEO Robert Iger reportedly made several major concessions. These included giving up hope for a Chinese entrée for the Disney Channel, long a cornerstone of the company’s branding strategy. Chinese officials also wanted the park to have its own unique rides, rather than copies of popular rides Stateside. And Disney was careful to include localized attractions, such as the Wandering Moon Teahouse, which features Chinese regional cuisines. Company spokespeople have sought to present the park as “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese.”

After making his fortune several times over in China’s booming real estate business, Wang, one of the richest men in Asia, has set his sights on the country’s burgeoning entertainment industry. Wanda is China’s largest real estate conglomerate, and under Wang’s leadership it has also become the world’s largest movie theater operator. Some project China’s box office to become the world’s largest within a few years, and Wang aims to dominate domestic entertainment as well as the swiftly growing $610 dollar tourism industry. On May 28, just under three weeks before Disney’s grand opening, Wanda opened its first theme park, the $3.2 billion Nanchang Wanda City in the southeastern province of Jiangxi. It’s the first of 15 planned projects.

To be sure, many Chinese do not share the same nationalist sentiments as some outspoken web users. According to the Los Angeles Times, tickets for the first few weeks after the park’s opening have been sold out for months. Numerous netizens reminisced about growing up with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Others seemed bullish on the U.S. company. “Disney has been around for almost 100 years,” wrote one Weibo user. “Will Wanda still exist in 100 years?”


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Old Europe, New China and those Tibetan terrorists

In the commodious grounds of the oldest of Dutch think tanks, the Clingendael Institute, the pastoral idyll abounds. Green meadows, clipped formal gardens, sheep grazing safely in their fields; and a  Japanese garden of trees artfully pruned, not for symmetry but a contorted beauty. Inside the old chateau, dark panels and paintings redolent of a lost golden age on the walls.

What better venue to discuss urgent matters of the day, such as China’s new anti-terror law, a portmanteau of illegality that can criminalise anyone, for anything? A gathering of Tibetans, Uighurs, policy specialists, security analysts, Falun Gong practitioners: nothing unusual for Clingendael, used to assessing and planning the oversized Dutch global footprint, for generations. Somehow the gravitas of the ancestors, the ghosts of the East India Company came full circle with the arrival of this gathering of the dispossessed and displaced, expelled by the Chinese empire.

If ever there was an incarnation in stone and wood of the European ideal, of prosperity with peace, of security within the calm of a natural setting, it is Clingendael. This baronial manor has trained thousands of diplomats, not only from the Netherlands but throughout the developing world. Amid a summer flush of Himalayan rhododendrons, Clingendael is all understatement, old money, old power, and utterly contemporary. Hosting the wretched of the earth is nothing new for Clingendael, nor is it new that Clingendael is fully engaged with the urgent influx of refugees to Europe, the dangers of terrorism and the necessarily vigilant security that lets in the refugees and keeps out the murderers.

What passes as sage advice in the West is never make China lose face, or the dragon will roar, and incinerate you. Nowhere has China lost more face, failed so utterly, than in Tibet. The dragon has roared, the anti-terror laws codify the roar, but the Tibetans, like the Monkey King, are irrepressible, and they choose by themselves when to incinerate, to remind each other to stay strong, and fear nothing.

Clingendael is near Delft, where Dutch potters hacked the secret of Chinese porcelain, with its translucent white glaze made of tin, and its bright blue, of Iranian cobalt. Iran is where blue and white porcelain orginates; having made it to China, it was a coup of intellectual property theft, and an early move towards globalisation, to make it available to the masses of Europe, from Delft.

Buddhism and much later Islam similarly travelled from central Asia to China, and ultimately to Europe. At much the same time, the last dynasty of Han Chinese emperors, the Ming, were also perfecting an absolutist state with the tightest control possible over the population, a premodern precursor of today’s anti-terrorist grid management.

It was the next dynasty, the nomadic warriors from Manchuria who named themselves the Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty, who gained much control over Tibet, creating an empire that to this day has not been successfully assimilated into China. While the Qing were busy conquering Tibet, they were losing control of the porcelain trade to Delft.

China today is still dealing with the consequences. These days the theft of intellectual property tends to be in reverse, as many European companies have found, to their shock, when their hi-tech suddenly becomes available from China.  While China may be adept at hacking European businesses –a skill they trialled 20 years back by hacking Tibetan exiles- they still struggle to cook the obstinately raw Tibetan barbarians, who remain foreign, perversely preferring their cold plateau to the comforts of a Chinese city life. So China has brought back the old Ming dynasty grid management of intensive policing, with neighbourhood surveillance teams on every block, alert to the slightest stirrings of dissent or discontent.

In the Ming period, all the enforcement of political correctness was in human hands, driven by block captains who knew every person they monitored, an up-close technique for quelling dissent as soon as it arises, even in a private mutter. These days such traditional methods (Americans call this humint, short for human intelligence gathering) is greatly supplemented by sigint, electronic surveillance signals intelligence. Today’s grid management, legitimated by China’s new anti-terror laws, combines restrictions on movement by Tibetans, intensive humint and sigint to clamp down immediately on any signs of unhappiness. In official eyes, this new humint/sigint grid management system works so well in Tibet, it has become the model for a China-wide rollout.

Since we all live, to some extent, in a security state that has given itself extraordinary powers to detain and interrogate people who have committed no crime other than thinking bad thoughts about the state, there may even be a danger that in the West, we too may be tempted to adopt this latest of Chinese exports: the grid management system. If we were to make the great mistake of stigmatising all Muslims as a threat, we too could be drawn to grid management in Molenbeek or the Islamic banlieux of Paris. And China would have a new export, of all that sigint surveillance equipment that, in Lhasa, has replaced the snipers visible on Tibetan rooftops. Let’s hope we don’t make that mistake.

The global trade in porcelain, in techniques of monitoring hearts and minds, in quelling the masses, in turning empires into nation-states, are global issues, in a time of mass refugee movements and terrorists in our midst. But in all the debates, Tibet is usually missing, regarded as a side issue, an also-ran, almost superfluous to the main story. Yet if we look more closely, the Tibetans are at the heart of today’s perplexity of how to deal effectively with China.

A full Tibetan analysis of the impact of China’s sweeping securitisation of Tibetan aspirations and objections to Han Chinese racism, was launched in Tokyo 15 November 2016.

On the podium was a global assortment of the displaced. A Chinese lawyer exiled to New York for frankly naming China’s existential anxiety at the prospect of state collapse because, in the holy fasting month of Ramadan, Uighurs close their restaurants by day. If you didn’t know that this is illegal, now you do. What is legal or illegal in China is entirely in the hands of the party-state: the law says exactly whatever they say it means. Having myself been deported from China for the crime of “pretending to be an official of the World Bank”, I would like to propose a competition to nominate the most bizarre definition of an actual conviction, in China, for a criminal offence.

Sharom Hom, of Human Rights in China had much to tell about this latest over-reach of the security state, its insistence that unhappy Uighurs or Tibetans are to be defined as criminal and subject to the full harshness, in the name of rule by law, of indefinite detention, disappearance, extorted confessions, 24/7 surveillance (both sigint and humint, as the Americans say, both electronic hacking and a human monitor on the block where you live, who knows you personally and knows all your moves).

Veteran Tibetan diplomat Kelsang Gyaltsen said Kissinger’s “wisdom” has long been that the West must never make China feel it has lost face. That hoary foolishness has been the consensus for so many decades, we are now reaping the result: a rapacious China that demands and demands, knowing if it sounds demanding enough it always gets its way. Now we all pay the price of endlessly accommodating China. Today’s authoritarianism is the result. The walls of Clingendael, witness to so much of the exercise of power, have heard this many times.

The question posed by our Tibetan hosts of this forum: whether  anti-terror laws protect or punish, is an old question, not so easy to answer when there are everywhere people in need of protection and a tiny number of violent terrorists who must be punished.

The irrepresssible Uighur leader Dolgun Isa, himself labelled a terrorist by China, thus unable to visit even usually accommodating India, made it clear punishment is now extended, within China and wherever China has reach, to entire populations, nationalities and peoples, a sweeping criminalisation that ultimately becomes self-fulfilling. This, he was too polite to say, now confronts every government inclined to categorise Muslims as threats. If the many to be protected are to be secure in the long term, the very few to be excluded must be few indeed, not whole peoples. The West too teeters on the verge of making China’s sweeping and self-defeating mistake.

The Tibetans have long been at the centre, even if we, on the peripheries of the one continent of Eurasia, have seldom noticed. The modern grid management of Xi Jinping’s reinvigorated absolutist party-state was trialled in the laboratory of Tibet, and in the penetration of computers of the exiled Tibetans.

China’s new anti-terror laws allow the party-state to designate anyone a terrorist, for any reason, that need not be made public, ever, on national security grounds. What is the origin of this relentless insistence on treating human unhappiness as criminal, even a threat to the very existence of China?

The security state is a world unto itself, following its own logic. It rules out, from the start, any effort to understand why citizens feel alienated from the state that demands their affections. Tibetans can tell us this is foolish, and counter-productive. It only heightens the distance between Han and Tibetans, Han and Uighur. To relentlessly punish not only behaviour but even thought, because it is deemed a priori to be “anti China”, is to deepen an already deep divide.

Tibetans understand China all too well. In a globalised world where we all need to understand China, there is much they can teach us. The Tibetans know China, without feeling drawn to become Chinese, something China  cannot understand.  But they do not hate China, either, they just want to be different.  The Tibetans have long experience of the imperial hauteur of the court in Beijing, and they have learned when to take it seriously, and when to ignore it. We could learn better not to have our buttons pressed so often by a deeply insecure, pushy, even arrogant China that believes we conspire against China’s rise,  while  they also crave our approval.

We could learn from Tibetans who have endured decades of accusations, criminalisation and grid management, how to deal with the paranoid style of the party-state. After so much repression, the torture and coerced confessions, the Tibetan public suicide protests redefined as the terrorist acts of the deranged, the Tibetans have lost their fear. Now China has lost its hold over them, and it is simply too late for the security state grid management to do more than delay the inevitable.

Tibetans can tell us that the anti-terror laws and the entire security state apparatus imposed on them originates in China’s paranoia about the dissolution of the USSR, lest China fail similarly. The party-state made its decisive turn around 15 years ago, after deciding that designating “autonomous regions” for “minority nationalities” was a grave mistake, borrowed from the Soviet model, that only led to heightened minority nationality nationalism, and distinctively separate identities. One can argue forever if that is what sundered the Soviet Union, but even if it did, China’s turn towards downplaying its own official territorialisation of nationalities, turning instead to the fiction of a single Chinese nationality embracing all 55 minorities, has simply come too late. Fifty years of “autonomy” have done their work, and did make Tibetans feel much more Tibetan, once they saw the extreme violence China can and did deploy. China created the nationalism of the Tibetans, and that cannot now be undone by assimilationism and anti-terror laws. As Kelsang Gyaltsen told us, “the spirit of resistance among Tibetans is stronger than ever.”

China now wants to wash those red-faced, uncouth Tibetans to an even yellow, but it ain’t gonna happen.

This is what Tibetans teach all of us: if you always accommodate China, you get more demands to accommodate more. If you quietly remain true to your own values, can endure the bluster, threats and racist arrogance, you do finally create your own space, which can never be taken away.

We are so used to seeing Tibetans as victims, we have failed to notice their strengths. One of many strengths is the insistence you find everywhere in Tibet on speaking pure Tibetan, not mixing it in with Chinese. Each to their own sphere. To make a mixture is to become ramalug, neither sheep nor goat. On the manicured grounds of old European Clingendael, the sheep and the goats are indeed kept separately, even if the ducks are everywhere. We do need those Tibetans, to tell us how to deal with China.


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“L’exploitation minière intensive profite aux Chinois, pas aux Tibétains”

Published in the Belgian media La Libre:

“L’exploitation minière intensive du Toit du monde profite aux Chinois, pas aux Tibétains”

VERHEST SABINE Publié le lundi 30 mai 2016

Du cuivre, de l’or, de l’argent et bien d’autres minerais : si l’exploitation minière se révélait plutôt artisanale jusqu’ici sur le haut plateau tibétain, il en ira tout autrement à l’avenir puisque le plan quinquennal chinois, actuellement en vigueur, y prévoit des investissements massifs dans le secteur. “La Chine a identifié deux secteurs piliers de l’économie permettant de transformer le Tibet, source de coûts, en une source de revenus : le tourisme de masse et l’exploitation minière.” Non sans “conséquences sociales et environnementales dévastatrices”, soulève le chercheur australien Gabriel Lafitte, auteur de l’ouvrage “Spoiling Tibet. China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World” (Zedbooks Asia Arguments). Entretien.

Quelles en sont les richesses principales et le coût de l’extraction en fait-il une activité rentable

La Chine sait de longue date que le Tibet est riche en minerais, mais ce n’est que récemment que les géologues chinois ont pu établir exactement l’ampleur des gisements et l’exploitation qu’on pouvait en faire. Il y a 80 millions de tonnes de cuivre et 2000 tonnes d’or à extraire du plateau tibétain, ce qui représente 750 milliards de dollars aux prix actuels du marché. L’exploitation pourra prendre vingt ou trente ans, mais ce sera une industrie très rentable. Le moment est décisif pour le Tibet.


L’exploitation des ressources se fait pourtant déjà. Les Tibétains ont d’ailleurs eux-mêmes une tradition en la matière…

En effet, mais leur exploitation se fait de manière prudente et à une échelle très modeste. Ces trente dernières années, l’exploitation était surtout le fait de mineurs chinois, des paysans pauvres venant de la province du Sichuan, qui opéraient de manière artisanale. On peut assimiler ce phénomène à une ruée vers l’or, complètement hors de contrôle, techniquement illégale, mais très répandue. Les méthodes d’extraction se sont révélées ravageuses pour l’environnement et, en particulier, les rivières. Car ils utilisent des explosifs, du mercure, des tractopelles pour littéralement “mâcher” le terrain, au détriment des pâturages. Et les Tibétains ne peuvent rien dire : dès qu’ils manifestent, quelles que soient leurs raisons, c’est immédiatement vu comme une menace contre la souveraineté nationale et l’intégrité territoriale de la Chine. Si nous sommes actuellement à un tournant – depuis trois, quatre ans -, c’est parce qu’on est désormais passé à une industrie d’une ampleur complètement différente.

Quelles sources d’énergie peut-on trouver au Tibet ?

Du pétrole et du gaz. Le pétrole a été extrait et exporté vers le centre de la Chine ces 25 dernières années. Plus récemment, les Chinois ont découvert du gaz, qu’ils acheminent par pipelines.

De l’uranium ?

Il y a des gisements d’uranium, que la Chine a exploités par le passé de manière très malpropre, laissant beaucoup de déchets radioactifs. Mais si l’on s’intéresse à l’énergie, on doit aussi mentionner le potentiel hydroélectrique. La Chine planifie la construction d’un nombre extraordinaire de barrages et de centrales. Ce qui est d’ailleurs directement lié à l’exploitation minière : pour extraire une tonne de cuivre, vous devez excaver cent tonnes de roche, les réduire en poudre, les cuire et les traiter chimiquement; ce processus est particulièrement énergivore.
La population tibétaine profite-t-elle des retombées de l’exploitation minière ?

C’est l’aspect triste de la situation : les Tibétains ne prennent part ni à la ruée vers l’or à petite échelle de ces trente dernières années, ni à une exploitation industrielle telle qu’on la voit se développer depuis peu. Le langage de l’exploitation est chinois, les compagnies sont chinoises, la main-d’œuvre qualifiée est chinoise. Les Tibétains ne jouent aucun rôle, ils ne touchent pas de royalties ni de compensations pour la perte de leurs terres. Ils n’ont pas de formation, pas d’emploi. Mais ils doivent supporter les coûts environnementaux de l’exploitation, qui est réellement dangereuse, notamment parce que les gisements se trouvent très près des rivières. À partir du moment où vous devez pelleter cent tonnes de roche pour obtenir une tonne de cuivre, cela signifie que nonante-neuf tonnes, qui plus est traitées chimiquement, resteront sur place pour toujours. Qui va en porter la responsabilité ? Il existe, sur papier, de bonnes lois environnementales mais elles ne sont pas mises en œuvre comme elles le devraient. Les mines sont gérées par des intérêts puissants et interconnectés. Certaines, de plus petite taille, le sont par les autorités locales. Dès lors, si vous rencontrez un problème, où allez-vous vous plaindre ?


Le titre de votre livre, “Spoiling Tibet”, évoque la détérioration du toit du monde. Qu’est-ce qui, outre l’exploitation minière intensive, vous inquiète ?

Le Tibet n’est pas encore détérioré jusqu’à avoir atteint un point de non-retour. Mais la politique chinoise sur plusieurs décennies a complètement modifié la logique de la terre. Il était possible pour des êtres humains de vivre au Tibet parce que ces êtres humains ont compris qu’il était essentiel d’être mobiles. C’est ce que la Chine, qui n’avait historiquement aucune expérience dans l’administration des prairies des hauts plateaux, n’a jamais compris. Elle entretient le préjugé selon lequel les nomades sont juste en train de vagabonder, d’errer avec des animaux, de vivre comme des animaux. Mais c’est elle qui amène les nomades à devoir vivre comme des animaux, entourés de clôtures, sans liberté de circuler, obligés d’aller où on leur enjoint d’aller. Ceux qui ont été réinstallés, sédentarisés, se sont appauvris et se retrouvent maintenant complètement dépendants de l’État. C’est pathétique. Il ne s’agit pas pour moi d’entretenir le cliché d’un Shangri-La, d’avoir une vision romantique sur les nomades, de les considérer comme les dernières personnes libres sur terre. Le fait est que, traditionnellement, les nomades étaient considérés comme de vrais Tibétains, ils étaient les mieux nantis. Maintenant, ce sont les plus pauvres, considérés comme ignorants, arriérés, analphabètes – même par les Tibétains. C’est un changement complet de perception.
Les communistes chinois prétendent que c’est précisément pour leur permettre l’accès à la santé, à l’éducation qu’ils les amènent à se fixer aux abords des villes…

Tout Etat moderne se doit d’offrir ces services importants à ses populations. Mais il n’y a, pour cela, aucune raison de les centraliser et d’obliger tout le monde à vivre en ville. On peut donner accès à l’éducation en utilisant les technologies et moyens de télécommunications modernes, comme cela se fait en Australie. Or, au Tibet, on ferme de nombreuses écoles primaires des zones reculées pour centraliser l’enseignement dans de grands établissements urbains. En un certain sens, la Chine revient sur une politique passée qui était plus progressiste.


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#1 in a series of 8 blog posts on Tibetan rivers


China can and does import every natural resource it needs, with one exception. China can afford to source its raw materials globally because it then exports the products manufactured from them. China now so dominates global commodity markets that a surge of Chinese speculators chased out of the stock exchanges and into commodity futures price gambling can, as at the moment, send iron ore prices soaring for reasons no-one else can understand.

Only one natural resource, or raw material, or commodity stands out: water. It is not as though China, especially urban, industrial China has enough water; on the contrary there is such an acute water shortage in lowland north China that some even call it a threat to regime survival.

Even though all industrial and agricultural production uses water lavishly, resulting in the current shortage, water cannot be imported. Not only is it too heavy to keep ships afloat in the oceans of salt water, China simply needs far too much of it for shipping it in to work. The quantities are unimaginable: tens of billions of cubic metres of pure water urgently needed to keep northern China in the industries to which it is accustomed.

The one source of water that is available to China is Tibet. Cadres in charge of Qinghai province (Amdo in Tibetan) decades ago coined the slogan: Qinghai is China’s Number One Water Tower, and this is now the catchy slogan in command in Beijing too, usually inflated to: Tibet is China’s (or Asia’s) Number One Water Tower.


rain & snow reaching Tibet from west








Everyone now knows that Tibet is full of water, and what’s better, it is upriver, waiting to slide down to the wheat fields of northern China, ready to grow more dumplings.

Much water does come from Tibet, flowing west, south, east and southeast, watering most of Asia. Tibet’s flowing waters incise into the Tibetan Plateau, eroding the rising plateau. That is why the Yellow River is yellow, why China’s loess plateau is hundreds of metres deeply filled with silt, and why yellow is the colour special to the emperor, starting thousands of years ago with the mythical Yellow Emperor. The iconic colour China takes as definitive, is Tibetan.

Yet in reality, on any precipitation map of China, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the more arid regions, receiving only the tail end of the monsoon rains the Plateau generates. It is lowland China, especially in the south, that receives far more of the monsoon bounty of plum rains.

rain & snow reaching Tibet from transHimalaya Indian monsoon

But eastern Tibet, both in Kham and much of Amdo, does receive good rain, and the high peaks capture every drop of passing moisture, holding it in glaciers which release steadily year-round.  So the official water tower slogan, both boon and bane for the future of Tibet, has a basis.

For sixty years China’s leaders, scientists and hydraulic engineers have looked for ways of getting more water to northern China, by draining water from the mighty upper Yangtze (Chang Jiang in Chinese, Dri Chu in Tibetan) and sending it north to the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese, Ma Chu in Tibetan) or direct to thirsty cities of the north, including Beijing.  Many maps have been issued, over many years.[1]


rain & snow reaching Tibet from East Asian monsoon

The solution so far has been canals, dug at great expense, and at great human cost to the many displaced by them. This is part of a long tradition of imperial hydraulic engineering, that has long legitimated the rule of emperors who succeeded in controlling the rivers; and upending their rule when they failed. The two huge canals that began operation recently do much to alleviate the shortages in the north, but not enough.

Officially these two canals were the first two of a three-stage grand scheme announced at the start of this century, the third being a canal across eastern Tibet to take water from tributaries of the upper Yangtze and send it to the upper Yellow River, all within the Tibetan Plateau. The package of three canals were collectively called the South-to-North Water Diversion project, abbreviated here to S2N. The three canals were the Eastern Route, the Central Route and the Western Route. All along, the plan was that first the eastern and central canals would be built; then the team of engineers would start on the western route, through Kandze and Ngawa Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, in Sichuan. The two lowland canals were completed by the time the 12th Five-Year Plan ended in 2015, a triumph of supply-side solutions to problems of unchecked demand.

rain & snow reaching Tibet from Bayof Bengal Indian monsoon



Would the 13th Five-Year Plan announce the start of the S2N western route through Tibet? That is a question this blog has focussed on before, and the answer is now clear. In March 2016 came the official announcement of “Big reservoirs in Tibet and other areas” on a long list of “Major Projects to be Implemented in coming five years.”[2]

This is new, the first time reservoirs and Tibet have been put into a single policy sentence. There are plenty of dams in Tibet, and plenty more planned, but almost none are reservoirs. These dams are officially “run-of-the-river” dams, designed to impound only as much water as required to build up pressure for its release back to the river via hydropower electricity generating turbines. Although many in downstream India are worried these dams on transboundary rivers will impact on water flow downriver, China is adamant that until now the sole purpose of all dams built in Tibet is to make electricity.[3]

Reservoirs are a quite different category, deliberately designed from the ground up to hold as much water as possible. This can be for two primary purposes. Both require holding water for many months, until it is most needed. Both thus impose a heavy load on the surrounding landscape, which, in Tibet, is full of fault lines straining against each other until the suddenly slip, in an earthquake. There is now much evidence that the sheer weight of impounded water in big reservoirs can induce earthquakes, both because of the weight pressing from above, and because water seeping through cracks directly lubricates the fault line.

Longyangxia Ma Chu dam from above pic

One major purpose for building big reservoirs is to divert water away from the river, to some distant destination, by canal and/or tunnel. The other major purpose, in Tibet, is to store water in the rainy summer months until it is needed in the drier winter further downstream, to reliably turn hydropower turbines and reliably generate electricity.

Both purposes necessitate greatly interfering with the natural environmental flow of rivers, disrupting the life cycles of all animals of the watershed. Both  require holding water back in huge volumes until distant users need it. Both exist for exporting a commodity to distant users, whether it is commoditised water sent via other rivers; or the hydropower generated downstream on the same river below the big reservoir, which is ultimately consumed by cities 1000 or even 2000 kms away.

The construction of reservoirs to boost hydropower generation will be considered more closely in a later blog in this series, here we look more closely at reservoirs for water diversion.


where the water tower gets its water from


Will these new reservoirs serve the Tibetan people, providing water for fast growing cities, or for farmers and their crops? Are Tibetans the intended beneficiaries?

Irrigation is an ancient practice in Tibetan cropping villages. Even in far western Tibet, now too dry to support crop growing, archaeologists find ancient stone lined irrigation channels that once kept village fields well-watered.[4]

There is scope today for improving irrigation in the food bowl of central Tibet between Lhasa and Shigatse, and several projects, such as the European Union financed Panam project of the 1990s, have done so.[5] However what is needed is not “big reservoirs”, but many much smaller dams, on tributaries of the big rivers, for local water supply, especially in spring, as plants begin to grow well before the summer monsoon rains arrive. Big reservoirs are not required to improve the productivity of Tibetan farming. Climate change is bringing more rain in spring, but still not early enough, on a high plateau with a very short growing season.

Likewise, the booming cities of Tibet generally have ample water supply from the rivers they are built on, with no requirement for “big reservoirs.”[6] Villages in Tibet often lack access to drinkable water, and benefit greatly from the laying of plastic piping uphill to reliable sources, which may also require construction, in the hills, of a small dam, but not a “big reservoir.”[7]



The new “big reservoirs in Tibet and other areas” (that are not usually considered by China to be Tibet, yet very much on the Tibetan Plateau) are quite different, starting with the actual design of the dams. These are big dams, not only because they must hold much more water than electricity generating dams, but they are much taller, for a very specific reason. One is so high it will be the second tallest dam in the world.

Despite decades of engineering research and planning, one major problem has always gotten in the way of realising the dream of capturing Tibetan waters and diverting them to northern China. The inescapable reality is that, at those points on upper Yangtze tributaries closest to the Yellow River, the Yellow riverbed is at the least 80 metres higher. At other temptingly close distances, it is as much as 450 metres higher.

Water can be pumped up hill, but it takes enormous amounts of energy to do so, a cost both to construct and operate, which greatly alters the economics of the entire project, as the ultimate users of the diverted water will certainly have to pay for it. Unlike the railway from Chengdu to Lhasa, now under construction,[8] which makes no business case, there must be water users downstream with both the capacity and motivation to repay the costs of construction, as water is a saleable commodity once it has been impounded.



What has delayed this Tibetan water diversion project for so long, and may yet see it again shelved, is not engineering problems, but cost. Even when upper Yangtze tributaries are separated from the upper Yellow by a mountain range, there is no longer great technical difficulty in boring a tunnel right through the mountains; in fact almost all of the three “canals” of the three Tibetan routes of S2N water diversion will be tunnels. China has shown recently that tunnelling through a Tibetan mountain range, despite the seismic risk, can be done, when it tunnelled the Chokle Namgyal Range (Qilian in Chinese) that separates northern Amdo from Gansu, for the new high speed rail line from Lanzhou via Xining, under the Qilian and into Gansu, then on to Xinjiang. Tunnelling may be costly, but technically China can do it, even, in the 13th Five-Year Plan, proposing a long undersea tunnel to connect China to Taiwan.

The problem is cost, exacerbated by water’s unwillingness to defy gravity, and  the impossibility of finding tunnel routes that aren’t uphill. The simplest solution is to build the dam walls so high that gravity can be utilised, and pumping costs minimised, or in at least one of the three routes, no longer needed at all.

waterstreessed map of China Greenpeace 2016







The three Tibet water diversion routes can be built as three separate projects, over a long period if need be, but the official website of the project insists they must be done in a certain order. First, and at a high altitude, is the Yalong River Water Diversion Line, requiring a tunnel 131 kms long.

The project promoters state: “Bayankala Mountain lies between Huanghe River and Changjiang River. The elevation of the bed of the Huanghe [Yellow] River is higher than that of the correspondent section of Changjiang [Yangtze] by 80-450 m. It is necessary for the water transfer project that a high dam will be constructed for damming water or some pumping stations be set up for lifting water, and some long tunnels will be driven through Bayankala Mountain. Two methods of water diversion, flowing by gravity and by pumping were considered. But for each of them, a high dam in height of 200 m or so will have to be constructed and some long tunnels over 100 km in length to be driven.”

This remains the primary obstacle, greatly increasing cost. It is the reason China is now emphasizing “big reservoirs.”

Northern China’s chronic water shortage is well known, so one might suppose that diversion upstream of Tibetan headwaters will firstly benefit urban consumers now reliant on ever-deeper wells chasing an ever-sinking water table. However, the flow to be diverted to the yellow River, even if it all works according to plan, is insufficient to reach the long last section of the Yellow River, where the water shortage is most acute.

The diverted water will at best flow to the mid-section of the Yellow River, to provinces such as Gansu, Ningxia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and to industrialised districts of Qinghai. These are provinces with less political weight than the richer downriver provinces where water is most acutely deficient, but they are the source of most of China’s coal, thus supplying most of China’s energy, whether through burning coal for power generation close to the coal deposits, or sending the coal by rail to coastal China for burning there.


[1] Water Resources and Hydropower Development in China, Scientific & Technical Information Institute, Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, Beijing, 1986, 36

[2] China’s major projects to be implemented in coming five years, Xinhua’s China Economic Information Service, 7 March 2016


[4] Mark Aldenderfer,  The Prehistory of the Tibetan Plateau to the Seventh Century A.D.: Perspectives and Research From China and the West Since 1950, Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2004

[5] PIRDP – Final Report 2005, EU-China Programme for the Panam Integrated Rural Development Project (PIRDP), April 2006

Water and Primary Health Care for Tibetan Villagers, AusAID, 2002

[6] Basic Data of China’s 288 Cities at and above Prefecture Level in 2011, in The State of China’s Cities 2014/2015, China Science Center of International Eurasian Academy of Sciences,




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south to north western route 2015 map



#2 in a series of 8 blog posts on China’s latest plans for Tibetan rivers



All stages of coal production require water. At the coal face, if workers are to avoid black lung disease, dust is suppressed with water. Coal stored above ground is susceptible to catching fire, and is washed with coal, for dust and fire suppression. When coal is burned to generate electricity massive cooling towers must be installed, emitting constant clouds of steam, as water is the cheapest coolant. When coal is converted to coke, for steel making, water is needed. When coal is gasified to make a new fuel to be piped to cities, water is needed. When coal is converted into a wide range of chemicals -a major goal of the 13th Five-Year Plan- much water is used and of course dirtied.

So the diverted waters of Tibet will not be used to grow  lowland China’s crops or provide potable drinking water for urban folk; its main use will be in the coal industry. That is the argument made by advocates of the south-to-north S2N Western Route, based on who can pay sufficient prices to justify the project. It seems especially sad that the rivers of Tibet are to be captured and diverted only to perpetuate China’s addiction to coal.

That is the argument of one of China’s leading water engineering analysts, Prof. Jia Shoufeng, Deputy Director of the Center for Water Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Chair of the Department of Water & Land Resources Research at the CAS Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, and Vice Chair of the Special Committee for Water Resources under the Hydraulic Engineering Society of China. Prof Jia argues that if S2N Western Route is implemented, at least in part, there will be enough water for China’s many coal mines, coal-fired power stations and coal chemical factories to obtain the water they badly need. He calls these coal-based industries based in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai China’s primary energy supply base, now and well into the future.

shovelling coal Linfen Shanxi 07


Citing Ministry of Water Resources estimates, he says the energy supply base needs no more than three billion cubic metres  (3bn m3 ) of extra water, to enable them to not only keep functioning but to expand and fulfil a 13th Five-Year Plan goal of large scale conversion of coal to gas to be piped to users.[1]

China’s use of coal has become globally controversial because of the resulting climate warming emissions. There is much confusion around actual coal use, with China and environmentalists worldwide reporting hopefully not only a peak in coal consumption but even a decline in coal use. [2] However, China officially does plan to increase its coal use, well beyond the current level of 3.8 billion tons a year, already more than half the global total, and China has approved the construction of many more coal-fired power stations. All China agreed to at the Paris global climate treaty negotiations in 2015 was that coal use would peak in 2030 and then start to decline. The actual 13th Five-Year Plan specific target for coal consumption in 2020 is 4.3 bn tonnes.[3]


西安-2月2日。2007年2月2日,一名工人在西安焦化厂的炼焦炉上工作。 据西安的环保部门的消息,西安西郊工业集中区大气污染专项整治已经启动,期间将完成对西安焦化厂的关闭工作。西安焦化厂关闭后,将年削减3亿立方米废气,减排烟尘、粉尘1500吨。


Since coal is mostly found in the arid north, and electricity demand is mostly far to the south and east, the energy base contains many industrial complexes with dozens of uses for coal. All need water. Prof Jia disagrees with the international NGOs working in China, which have generated much higher estimates of how much water the coal industrial complex needs.[4] He reanalyses the concerns expressed by Choke Point China, a project of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the NGO Circle of Blue; also the estimates of Greenpeace,  and Hong Kong based China Water Risk. According to Prof Jia they all greatly exaggerate how much water the coal industries need.

His own estimate, of 3bn m3 dovetails well with the planned pumping of water, in the third of the three S2N Western Route plans, the diversion of the Dadu River. He advocates that some or all of S2N Western Route goes ahead, because the coal industry can and will pay a sufficiently high price for Tibetan water: “Building the Western Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project can be considered. The key to the success of inter-basin water transfer projects is whether there are water users that could afford the relatively higher cost of ‘transferred water’. The reason why some water diversion projects haven’t commenced as planned is mainly because high project costs result in high water prices and there are currently not enough users who can afford to pay the price. For the Western Route, the energy industry will be the main user and these users can afford to pay the higher water prices. It is clear that energy companies can afford the relatively higher price of ‘transferred water’.

“Moreover, the Western Route actually comprises several smaller-scale water transfer projects which can be implemented through several phases. The water sources of the Western Route include three rivers with total annual runoff of 22.1 billion m3: the Dadu River at an altitude of 2,900m, and the Yalong River & Tongtian River at 3,500-3,600m. According to the preliminary plan, the annual average transferable water from these three rivers is 12-17 billion m3: 3-5 billion m3 from Dadu, 3.5-4 billion m3 from Yalong and 5.5-8 billion m3 from Tongtian.

“The first phase of the project can be implemented in the three tributaries of the Dadu River, namely Ake River, Ma’er River and Duke River as these lie closer to the Yellow River; about 3-5 billion m3 can be transferred. If the development of the energy bases is really suffering from water shortage, water transfer from the Dadu River of around 4 billion m3 to the Yellow River can be implemented first. Once implemented, it will not only meet water demand from energy bases, but also supply water for industrial and municipal use.”[5]

coking factory Xián 2007 coal miner 2006 Shanxi



Prof Jia favours the Dadu River diversion being built first, even though, of the three S2N Western Route big reservoirs, it is the one that defies the laws of gravity, and requires the pumping of billions of cubic metres of water uphill, by 458 m up, to be precise. That enormous burden of pumping will, in turn, necessitate more hydro dam building in Tibet as well, to generate sufficient electricity. For Prof Jia this is not a problem. His focus is on finding a way to get the S2N Western Route built, and he is cheerfully confident he has found the clincher, in the coal industries: “Perhaps together, the development of energy bases along the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River and the construction of the Western Route, can achieve a win-win!”

Jia Shoufeng and other advocates of capturing Tibet’s rivers make light of the water demands of the coal industries, but other sources suggest China’s ongoing reliance on coal will need not only one but all three of the S2N Western Route big reservoirs and tunnels. China Water Risk evaluates the energy industry’s demand for water: “Power generation is heavily reliant on water for cooling purposes as well as driving steam turbines. The power sector is the 2nd largest user of water in China after agriculture, making it the No.1 industrial user of water. Coal generates over 16 per cent of China’s GDP, making it the biggest of China’s industries.[6]Wangjialing coal mine Shanxi

Not everyone is so optimistic. A 2015 report by China Water Risk, of 200 pages, Towards A Water & Energy Secure China: Tough Choices Ahead In Power Expansion With Limited Water Resources, suggests access to water remains a severe constraint on China’s many coal-based industries.[7]

 “Electricity consumption in China has almost quadrupled over the past decade from 1,347TWh in 2000 to 4,976TWh in 2012. Industry drives the nation’s hunger for power, with 85% share of electricity consumption.  China is still hungry for thirsty power and could add 2TW by 2050. This is more than the current total installed capacity of the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and Japan combined. Concerns over China’s power expansion are not whether the build out can be achieved but whether China has enough water resources to fuel this expansion. The power sector’s water risk exposure is great.”

China’s coal industry, manufacturers using coal coal-fired electricity to turn raw commodities into marketable metals or chemicals, and the transport network that hauls coal from mines to industrial consumers are all subsidised, encouraging further coal use.[8] Contrary to popular rhetoric of a green China, perverse incentives persist, that add to fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the need to capture Tibetan rivers.

In 2015 Lord Nicholas Stern issued a plea for China to start to at least scale back approvals for new coal-fired power stations, and in the 13th Five-Year Plan to not promote conversion of coal to gas, as other sources of cleaner gas are readily and cheaply available. Professor Stern’s plea got nowhere and coal gasification is now a priority of the 13FYP. Stern proposed: “strictly limiting approvals for, and investments in, new coal plants— unless these are strictly necessary to replace older and less efficient capacity — will be needed to curtail these economically inefficient expansions. Such action is strongly warranted for economic and financial reasons, let alone environmental, public health and climate reasons. In the case of coal bases and coal-to-gas plants, a strategic decision, reflected in the 13th Five-Year Plan, not to prioritise and support such developments, along with specific regulatory controls, would be consistent with achieving the kind of structural change, better growth and early peaking of emissions at the core of China’s new development model.”[9]

Greenpeace reported that provincial authorities in China, in 2015 have issued permits for 210 new coal-fired power stations to be built, and of these: “49% of the power plants are in areas with extremely high water stress, 5% in high water stress areas and 6% in arid areas. The power plants in these very water stressed areas would consume at least 310-370 million cubic meters of water every year, equivalent to the needs of roughly 5-6 million urban dwellers, exacerbating the conflict between urban, agricultural and industrial water use.”[10]

If China persists in relying so heavily on coal, the alternative strategy would be to strictly regulate the use of water by the coal industry, and the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), in 2013, attempted to do so.[11] The political reality is that MWR has no real power over a coal industry that often defies Beijing altogether, with innumerable illegal (and highly dangerous) coal mines. MWR in practice has been largely ignored. Rather than managing water demand, the solution is, as usual, to increase supply, this time from Tibet.



The first route officially due to be constructed is a dam 175 metres high intercepting the Dza Chu (Yalong) river at Throshul Gongma (~32°10’N, 98° E). The tunnel is mapped as a straight line heading northeast, under the Bayan Har range (巴颜喀拉山脉, Bāyánkālā shānmài, in Tibetan: Mardza Gang), then continuing underground, to debouch in Amdo Golok (Qinghai Guoluo in Chinese) near the villages of Barshi, Palyul, Darhang and Menkarhang, (~32°50’ N, 99°45’ E) on a minor tributary which flows north into the Yellow River. The outlet will be in Pema Dzong (Banma Xian [county] in Chinese) or in Darlag Dzong (Dari Xian in Chinese), both remote pastoral districts with, until now, very few immigrant Chinese and by census count 93% and 96% Tibetan respectively, populated almost solely by Tibetans. The added dam wall height of 175 m just overcomes the 80m height increase of the end point over the start point, but will greatly limit how much water can be released from the big reservoir, if gravity is the sole flow driver. The tunnelling for the entire 131 kms, will have to be remarkably accurate.

dam sites Dadu

This is well upriver, before the Ma Chu (Yellow) skirts the flanks of the sacred Amnye Machen range and then slows greatly, fanning out across the Dzoge wetland and water meadow lands now recovering from modernist projects to separate water and land into mutually exclusive categories by draining the  “swamp” with ditches. How these peatlands and wetlands will cope with many billions of cubic metres of extra flow is not clear.

The extra flow will be a maximum of five bn cubic metres, only one quarter of what the entire project of three reservoirs and three tunnels are meant to deliver. Thus the second stage, even further up the Yalong river, is to boost the Yalong with a further 10 bn cubic metres of water to be withdrawn from the main channel of the Dri Chu (Yangtze), not long after the Dri Chu exits Qinghai below Yushu and enters the northwesternmost end of Sichuan.

This project cannot be built until the first project, that actually delivers water flow into the Yellow River, is operational. If the second project existed by itself, all it would achieve would be to send water from one tributary of the Yangtze to another, eventually returning to the same outflow. But the second stage is supposed to deliver as much as half of all the water of the three projects combined, a total of 10 bn m3 , even though most rain falls in the summer monsoon season, and north China’s water shortage is worst in winter –another reason for big reservoirs retaining vast amounts of impounded water (and sediment).



Yalong planned cascade 2014

The second project is even more ambitious than the first, with a tunnel length of 158 kms, and a dam wall height of 302 m, a very high dam, second highest in the world. The Dza Chu/Yalong is actually closer, approximately 70 kms, but the length of the tunnel is much greater. Of the many problems China’s planners have had to grapple with is the basic reality that even in the uppermost reaches, the Yangtze is a bigger river than the Yellow, and has, over millions of years,  therefore cut deeper, incising itself into the Tibetan Plateau, so  even when the rivers run parallel, the Yangtze is lower. Extremely long tunnels are the engineering answer. In order to find an entry point into the Yalong that is  below the intake on the Tongtian/Yangtze/Dri Chu, 90 extra kms of tunnelling will be needed just to achieve a gravity drop and avoid pumping.

The second reservoir, with its 302 m high dam wall,  is in a deep valley just below the confluence of the Dri Chu/Yangtze and the Chumarleb river (32°40’, 96°E). The area receives only 400mm of rain (or snow) a year, the catchment further upstream less still.[12] It is not far below the new national park proposed for Drito county (Zhiduo in Chinese), the proclaimed source of the Yangtze, its Tibetan name signifying that Tibetans have long known it at the source of the Dri Chu/Yangtze. Does a national park, ostensibly dedicated to honouring the source of the Yangtze, and to carbon capture by excluding nomadic pastoralists to grow more grass, fit well, immediately downstream, with a massive dam to capture the waters of the Yangtze and send them to northern China? Protection and extraction in one landscape?

The third of the three big reservoirs in the package listed officially under the South-to-North Western Route Water Diversion scheme is quite different, in location, and in its disregard for the law of gravity. On the Dadu River (Chinese) another “big reservoir” is planned. The official description states: “The Hydraulic Project will be constructed on Xierga Reach of Zumuzu River, a tributary of the upper reach of Daduhe, the height of the dam is 296 m. The water by pumping will be diverted from Xierga Hydraulic Project to Jiaqu River, a tributary of Huanghe, total length of the diversion route is 3O km, including a 28.5 km tunnel. The lifting height of the pumping station is 458 m, the mean annual power consumption is 7.1 billion kwh.”

The plan is for four hydropower stations, known in Chinese as Xiaerga, Bala, Dawei and Busigou, on this tributary of the Dadu River, with the big reservoir at Xiaerga above them. All the power they generate by capturing the energy of this mountain river will be needed to pump water uphill, through almost 30kms of tunnel.

The great attraction of this project is that at this point the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers are remarkably close, though separated by the Bayan Har (Mardza Gang in Tibetan) mountain range. Yet along the planned tunnel alignment Chinese geophysicists have found five fractures, five faults and one abnormal zone in the eastern portion of the tunnel, and a further two fractures, three faults and four abnormal zones in the western section of the tunnel.[13] The dam wall height, of 296m, will make it the third highest dam worldwide. But the distance is only 30 kms, from a tributary of the Dadu to a tributary of the Yellow River.

“Bala power station, with a maximum height of 138 m, is a high-dam hydropower station that is to be constructed on the Zumuzu River, source of the Daduhe River. The backwater length of Bala Reservoir under normal water level is 26 km. At the upstream end of Bala Reservoir, a controlled cascade, Xiaerga Dam, is in the planning stages. The maximum height is 242 m. The main discharge structure is a spillway. The dissipater of the spillway is designed as a ski-jump type model.”[14]

Another recent definition of what is to be built lists more dams: “The South-to-North Water Transfer Project is an extremely important infrastructure project to ease water shortage and meet the development requirements of northwestern and northern China. An earlier study on the project began in the 1950s. The Western Route Project (WRP) can control the water distribution to northwestern and northern China and meet the water demand of six provinces and their neighboring regions in the next 50 years. Furthermore, the WRP will improve the management of the Yellow River and promote the development of the cities in the Yellow River basin. The WRP may bring enormous social, environmental, and economic benefits. The WRP will be completed in two stages and in the first stage 8 x109 m3 [8 bn cubic metres] water will be transferred from the upper reaches of the Dadu and Yalong Rivers, in which Dadu River contributes to 2.35 x109 m3 [2.35 bn cubic metres] , accounting for 5% of the annual runoff of the river. According to the layout of the WRP, four dams will be built in the four tributaries of Dadu River: Keke dam in Ake River, Huona dam in Make River, Zhuanda dam in Duke River, and Luoruo dam in Sequ River. The annual diverted water amount in the four tributaries are 0.35 billion m3 , 0.75 billion m3 , 1 billion m3 , and 0.25 billion m3 , respectively.”[15]

What China’s planners and engineers call the Ake River is to Tibetans the Nga-chu, a tributary of the Mar-chu. The Nga-chu in turn creates the name of the county and its town, Ngawa, in Chinese Aba, which under China has become the name of the entire prefecture, traditionally part of Amdo, now the northernmost portion of Sichuan. The Chinese names for the dams are sometimes taken directly from the Tibetan, such as Bala, a monastery of the Jonangpa school of Buddhism.[16] From China’s perspective the area is at the junction of three provinces: Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, remote from the distant lowland capital cities of each. For urban elites based in Beijing, Chengdu, Xining or Lanzhou, these are mountain waste lands that have never produced anything entered into national accounts.


It is not possible to tip as much as 20 billion cubic metres of water into a tributary of the Yellow River, far upstream, without consequences. This is especially so because rainfall is concentrated in a few summer months, and even with the planned “big reservoirs” holding back water as long as possible, outflow will still not be spread evenly.

For the Yellow River, an extra 20bn m3 effectively doubles the size of the river, at the point of entry. This in turn has major consequences further downstream. The Ma Chu/Yellow River/Huang He, a little further down, is pushed towards the southeast by the sacred Amnye Machen range, all the way along the southern flank, to its end. Eventually the river then loops back to flow along the north side of the Amnye Machen range before heading further north. But once it is no longer hemmed in by the south side of the Amnye Machen mountains, the Yellow River does something remarkable: it fans out into a vast water meadow, a cold but fertile pasture of rich tussock grasses and water, fed not only by the main stream of the Yellow River but by other tributaries coming in from the east.

This is the great Dzoge wetland, one of the biggest and highest wetlands in the world, partly protected by the Ramsar global wetland protection treaty, and listing on the World Database of Protected Areas, and now recovering from China’s campaign to drain it.

The developmentalist state, from the north German plain in the 19th century to modern China, abhors this mixing of land and water. While Tibetan pastoralists and their yaks knew how to walk from tussock to tussock without bogging, modernisers feel compelled to separate earth and water, each in their separate domain, as a prerequisite for intensifying production. China dug innumerable channels and ditches to drain Dzoge, exposing to the air organic matter accumulated over thousands of years as the sedges and grasses flourished, died and were compressed into peatland. Once exposed, the peat is susceptible to fire, to slow, smoky, ineradicable burning.

In recent years, China has recognised that draining the Dzoge wetland was a mistake, and has started filling in the ditches, in the hope of repurposing the area as a major ecotourism attraction.

If 20bn m3 of water comes down the Yellow River, this will transition the drying wetland in the opposite direction, inundating it.

The Ramsar convention lists what is at stake: “Sichuan Ruoergai Wetland National Nature Reserve. 02/02/08; Sichuan; 166,570 ha; 33°43’N 102°44’E. Nature Reserve. Said to be the largest alpine peat marsh in the world as well as tundra wetland located in the upstream area of the Yellow River and the northeast of Qinghai Tibet Plateau at 3,422m-3,704m altitude. A marsh meadow vegetation provides habitat for 137 bird species including IUCN Red-List species Chai (Cuon alpinus),Yudaihaidiao (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), and Heijinghe or Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), as well as 38 animal species, 3 amphibian species,15 fish species, 3 amphibian species and 362 wild plant species. The site is also referred to as the water tower of China, as it serves the important water supply area of upper Yangtze River and Yellow River. The site stores peat of 7 billion m3 and has water-holding capability of nearly 10 billion m3. It contributes to local climate regulation, water and soil conservation, and aids in reducing green house effects. A high touristic place with a unique ecosystem, panoramic plateau landscape, and colorful Tibetan culture with great aesthetic value. Desertification and decrease in marsh area have occurred due to global warming and rainfall reduction.”


[2] Coal Cap Policy Can Help China Achieve an Earlier Peak in Carbon Emissions



[5] Jia Shaofeng , Will Energy Bases Drain the Yellow River? China Water Risk, February 10, 2015,

[6]申宝宏 Shen Baohong, Scientific mining capacity and sustainable development for coal sector, 4 Nov 2015


[8] Doug Koplow et al., Untold Billions: Fossil-Fuel Subsidies, Their Impacts And The Path To Reform: Mapping The Characteristics Of Producer Subsidies: The Global Subsidies Initiative, IISD, 2010, 31-36

[9] Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern,  China’s “new normal”: structural change, better growth, and peak emissions, Grantham research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, Policy brief July 2015,

[10] Lauri Myllyvirta, Xinyi Shen, Harri Lammi; Is China doubling down on its coal power bubble? Over 150 new coal-fired power plant projects being permitted in China. Greenpeace


[12] Annual precipitation of China, map 30 in Geographic Atlas of China, (Zhongguo di li tu ji) Beijing 2009

[13] DI Qing-Yun WANG Guang-Jie GONG Fei et al.,   Geophysical Exploration Of A Long Deep Tunnel On The West Route Of South-To-North Water Diversion Project, Chinese Journal Of Geophysics’地球物理学报 Vol.49, No.6, 2006, Pp: 1676∼1683

[14] J. Feng, R. Li, R. Liang, and X. Shen, Eco-environmentally friendly operational regulation: an effective strategy to diminish the TDG supersaturation of reservoirs, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, vol 18, 1213–1223, 2014

[15] Shimin Tian , Zhaoyin Wang,  Bimodal Sediment Distribution And Its Relation With The River Ecology In The Dadu River Basin, Proceedings of 16th IAHR-APD Congress and 3rd Symposium of IAHR-ISHS, Springer, 2009, vol 2, 1049-1054

[16] Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook, 787

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#3 in a series of 8 blog posts on China’s latest plans for Tibetan rivers


China has long planned to channel billions of cubic metres of water from the Tibetan upper Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan) in order to pump water into the depleted Yellow River.

The three specific routes officially planned are now poised to begin construction, if the recent announcement of “big reservoirs in Tibet”, on the list of 13th Five-Year Plan targets is implemented.

Tibetan river waters have become, to China, even more desirable than its forests, grasslands, livestock or minerals, most of which fail to “come out” to China’s satisfaction, or are in decline, due to official bans.


Za Chu Mekong Jinghong dam

What will be the impact on Tibet if these three south-to-north (S2N) water diversion projects, with their big reservoirs, tunnels and canals, are built, across the most troubled regions of the Tibetan Plateau?

If all three S2N western river diversion projects are built, and work as well as planned, sending 20 bn m3 more water  into the Yellow River, this will be a major boost to an exhausted Ma Chu/Huang He/Yellow River, which, at Lanzhou, not far beyond the Tibetan Plateau, has a mean annual runoff of around 35 bn m3. On paper, the extra water from Tibet, taken from the upper Yangtze, could boost the yellow River by 50 per cent or more. However, even this boost would do nothing for the lower Yellow River, as all the benefits will have been captured by midriver users.



There are cogent reasons to suppose that since the 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016 to 2020 has announced big reservoirs will be built “in Tibet and other areas” which China no longer thinks of as Tibetan, that the go-ahead signals their inevitability. Some observers suppose that an official announcement is in itself proof that the project will proceed as planned. However, China is not monolithic, and it is not the case that central leaders have only to snap their fingers and their command is implemented.

The official announcement, part of a long wishlist of official projects, has been long on the drawing board, and may yet fail to eventuate, for reasons of technical difficulty, expense, insufficient return, or lack of customers willing to  pay for the construction cost recovery. So it is worth looking more closely at the reasons, for and against, to reach some estimation of whether it will happen.

China’s first plan to intercept the upper Yangtze was in 1932, in a report that six decades later led to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.[1] The Three Gorges Dam, intended to provide not only a massive boost to hydropower generation but also add hundreds of kms of navigability, remains the most decisive human intervention on the Yangtze, also the most contested. Since its completion, the grand vision of the Yangtze becoming a shipping highway extending China’s coast thousands of kms inland, has not been realised. That is the focus of another 13th Five-Year Plan project.[2] That it took eight decades of planning and construction is an indication of the size and complexity of major hydraulic engineering schemes. Here are seven reasons why S2N Western Route may already be past its’ sell-by date.

Lijiaxia Ma Chu dam pic from above


There are many reasons to suppose S2N Western Route will not be built, or not for a long time. Three Gorges required a powerful patron at the very highest level to push it through, and in its wake, enthusiasm for huge projects has waned.

1 CLIMATE CHANGE:                      The stripping of the forests of eastern Tibet has increased the inflow of water to the many Tibetan tributaries of the upper Yangtze, and the climate change trend also increases rainfall, while climate warming is melting the glaciers at the source of many Yangtze sources in Tibet. While this increases overall flow, it also concentrates that flow more in the summer months, exacerbates the danger of flooding (one of the key arguments for building Three Gorges) and also increases sedimentation which may greatly reduce dam water retention capacity, as sediment load carried along by fast flowing mountain rivers is slowed and stopped by big reservoirs. These combined impacts suggest that even though the Yangtze is a massive river, far bigger than the Yellow River, it will be very difficult to capture sufficient water to make much difference on the Yellow River at the times of year when water is most needed.

However, when one takes a more long-term view, as climate scientists do, towards the end of this century, the trend is for rainfall in the upper Yangtze (UYRB) to gradually decline, especially in summer. Scientists warn that climate change could “reduce runoff in the UYRB and exacerbate water supply problems in the region.”[3] Runoff in summer months could reduce by as much as 15 per cent, and in autumn by 10 per cent.

Great Western Water Diversion

2 COST/BENEFIT:                              Unlike statist nation-building projects in Tibet such as railways and highways, paid for by central party-state funds with no expectation of recouping costs, water users throughout China do pay and are expected to pay sufficiently to recover the costs of S2N Western Route construction, even if repayment is over a longish period. The cost of water has historically been kept low, both to encourage its (wasteful) use in agriculture and as a low cost industrial input. Even if farmers are incentivised to use water more carefully, by increasing its cost, there is no way peasant farmers will be able to bear the costs of S2N Western Route, and this is acknowledged by advocates of the project.


3 COMPETING USES:                      Water diversion competes with hydropower generation. China is committed to increasing renewable energy as a proportion of total energy consumption, to make its annual burning of more coal than the rest of the world combined more acceptable internationally. Hydropower is the oldest renewable energy technology, but in the mountains of eastern Tibet, the steep valleys are to be used for both eater diversion and electricity generation, but not in the same spot. Meeting China’s renewable energy target  requires investment not only in hitech wind and solar power, attracting great interest from investors, but much less fashionable hydropower. Dams can be designed to provide both hydropower and for diversion of water elsewhere, but in most situations it is one or the other. For example, on the Tibetan Plateau so far, water impoundment for diversion to farmers or distant users has not been done, and all dams have been to hold water only as long as is needed to turn turbines and generate electricity, a design usually known as run-of-the-river.

Even on long rivers in the mountains, with steep valleys well suited to dams, there is still only a limited number of sites suitable for dam construction. On Tibetan rivers, endless cascades of dams have long been planned, with many built and many more due for construction; all of them until now being for hydropower. On the Yarlung Tsangpo a series of six dams below Tsethang in southern Tibet is planned with one, the Zangmu dam, in operation. This area is on the same stretch of river once proposed, by retired PLA officers, as the best location for a massive water diversion scheme, far bigger than S2N Western Route, that would eventually reach the Yellow River. The fact that a string of six hydro dams is under way in this district means there can be no water diversion. Doing both is not possible.

Hydropower from the planned dams in eastern Tibet does have customers, far away in coastal China, in major cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, willing to pay for the electricity generated on Tibetan rivers and transmitted by ultra-high voltage cables (with little wastage) right across China from west to east. By comparison, the main beneficiaries of S2N Western Route water diversion will be in poorer and more remote areas, with less political clout. Fully 33 percent of China’s population lives in the Yangtze catchment.

State Council official map of western route water trnsfer


At the Three Gorges Dam, and all the way to the coast, is another competing use: a Yangtze with enough water for sizeable ships to ply up and down. This was always one of the promised benefits of the map of west to east ultra high voltage routes Wilson CEFThree Gorges Dam, which created a lake hundreds of kms long, stretching all the way to the boom city of Chongqing. While the main Three Gorges Dam was completed a decade ago, it was only at the end of 2015 that the final stage, of completing the lock enabling biggish ships into and out of the Three Gorges lake finally came into operation. Now Chongqing industries expect access to global markets for their manufactures, down the Yangtze. The central party-state has responded by announcing the Yangtze River Economic Belt project, a major investment in bringing prosperity to the middle and upper Yangtze, but not to Tibet.

4 ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS:                               The amount of water to be withdrawn from the Yangtze by S2N Western Route, even the full 20 bn m3, as planned, will make little difference in the midst of the summer rainy season, but at other times of the year it could be more problematic.

As popular Chinese worries about environmental damage grow, with fears about the purity and safety of food, air and water, there is widespread concern about water diversion in an upstream area officially represented as pure and even pristine.

Large dams –whether for hydropower or water diversion-  disrupt environmental flows, interrupt the paths of breeding fish and other fauna, and in Tibet may trigger earthquakes and massive debris flows, as eastern Tibet is a highly active seismic activity zone, and dams are often on fault lines, unable to bear the extra load of impounded water, which seeps down a long way, lubricating faults straining against each other.

Officially, the planners of the central party-state make light of such dangers, as they do of the concerns of local populations who, by Chinese standards, are small. But the concept of environmental flow, of a river maintaining its natural seasonal rhythm, is growing, and there have been several popular mobilisation campaigns to protest at dam builds, some successful.

Chinese scientists have identified rare fish species in these upper Yangtze rivers, whose lifecycles will not only be blocked by the many dams planned, but also, below the hydro dams required to generate the electricity to pump water uphill, the water that spills out after turning the turbines, has  a higher level of atmospheric gases in it than the fish can take.[4]

As evidence accumulates, at a time when urban Chinese strongly want conservation of pristine landscapes, if only as authentic tourism destinations, the concerns of scientists can become popular concerns.


5 AN INVESTMENT CAPITAL SHORTAGE:                               China has bankrolled any number of massively expensive infrastructure construction projects in Tibet, so it might seem strange to suggest the flow of subsidies and capital expenditure on grand projects could ever end, or even slow. China has been committed to “leap-over” development in Tibet Autonomous Region for nearly two decades, and seems ever willing to pump in more money. The result is that, on paper, GDP is growing fast, even if ordinary rural Tibetans remain poor, and benefit little from the capex spend. This all looks good on paper, China can boast that the TAR economy continues to grow rapidly and all is well. In the first quarter of 2016, many provinces grew only minimally, while Liaoning, reliant on yesterday’s heavy industries, actually fell. Only two provinces reported ongoing fast growth: Chongqing and TAR. Both reported 10.7 per cent growth.[5]

What drives the Chongqing economy to grow so fast is not hard to explain. But TAR? As Andrew Fischer has explored in great depth, the TAR rate of growth is almost entirely artificial, driven by central subsidies with very little rate of return if judged purely economically. The payoff is not monetary, but in extending the reach of the state, the establishment of sovereignty over all of Tibet. These are the expenses of nation-building, and are set to persist whether they make economic sense or not.

Yet China could find itself constrained, in ways that are barely imaginable at present, by the consequences of the huge accumulation of debt, and investment in projects that fail to generate a return. One to three years from now, some predict, the crunch will come, and China will have to settle for a period of no growth, until the mess caused by excessive credit, excessive stimulus and excessive investment in unproductive assets all get painfully sorted.

“Many are now concerned that China’s debt could lead to a so-called balance-sheet recession — a term coined by Richard Koo of Nomura to describe Japan’s stagnation in the 1990s and 2000s. When corporate debt reaches very high levels, he observed, conventional monetary policy loses its effectiveness because companies focus on paying down debt and refuse to borrow even at rock-bottom interest rates.

“A financial crisis is by no means preordained but in our view, if losses don’t manifest on financial institution balance sheets, they will do so via slowing growth and deflation, à la Japan, a path China arguably already is on,” Charlene Chu, senior partner at Autonomous Research Asia, wrote recently.

“Every major country with a rapid increase in debt has experienced either a financial crisis or a prolonged slowdown in GDP growth,” Ha Jiming, Goldman Sachs chief investment strategist, wrote in a report this year.”[6]

In such constrained circumstances, there may be greater financial discipline and less occasion to splash money on grand projects that may have a political payoff, but no economic justification. However, China’s determination to remake Tibet, with Chinese characteristics, suggests politics will always trump economics, at least in Tibet Autonomous Region.

6 REDUCED COAL INDUSTRY DEMAND FOR WATER                                          Coal remains highly contentious in China, primarily because it is irremediably dirty, polluting the air of most Chinese cities, and also because the coal industry has an appalling safety record. It may yet be that, despite delegating decision-making to subnational governments, China gets serious about reducing coal use, if only to avoid chronic problems of over-capacity in many industries that rely heavily on coal, notably steel. The Ministry of Water Resources may finally succeed in regulating coal industry water use.



Prof Wang quoted above, and the scientists who found rare fish in the specific area to be dammed[7] are among the familiar Chinese pattern of scientists at the forefront of familiarising Chinese audiences with remote locations in Tibet, and what is special about them if untouched. Sometimes these scientific reports and the scientists themselves, who increasingly feel protective of the areas they have studied, gather momentum, and a movement gathers energy to politely but persistently argue against official plans for big dams and reservoirs. Such campaigns, if done skilfully, and with good inside channel connections to high-level decision makes, are sometimes successful, even in the current highly authoritarian situation.

Another example of scientists complicating the narrative of the hydro engineers is the study of the earthquake history of planned dam locations, highlighting the risks that dam advocates brush aside. One example is the Suwalong Dam in Kham, on the Jinsha, one of China’s names for the upper Yangtze, where, between the Tibetan towns of Batang and Markham, it cuts a deep valley. The valley walls are actually so steep, and the valley so deep that it receives little rain and has little vegetation to bind the soil, so there have been massive landslides that in turn have dammed the upper Yangtze, only to have these huge natural dams later burst disastrously.  Careful scientific work recently has shown that 1900 years ago and again 1355 years ago enormous landslides blocked the Jinsha, then, 200 years later, a major earthquake liquefied the water-laden earth holding back the Jinsha, leading to a catastrophic collapse of the lake. [8] Such scientific rediscovery of earthquake histories might make planners pause.

LAST REPORT China's rivers in Chinese

When it became clear, in 2013, that under Xi Jinjping accelerated construction of big dams on Tibetan rivers was to resume, a coalition of environmental NGOs formed, to collectively issue a detailed argument for sparing the Tibetan rivers from intensive extraction of both water and hydropower. The 19 NGOs, with long experience of campaigning to save Tibetan rivers, issued a detailed 88 page report in Chinese and in 2014, a 17 page summary in English. [9] These NGOs have much experience in calmly speaking up for nature, even in repressive times, as they know from experience what can be said, and how to say it, within the bounds of acceptable discourse. This small constituency of advocates for nature, and for the indigenous communities who have long protected nature, are in many ways the only Chinese who have become familiar with remote Tibetan landscapes, other than the Chinese surveyors and engineers who went to Tibet to plan its exploitation.


LAST REPORT China's rivers in English

In keeping with past successful campaigns to save rivers from dams, such as the Nu River campaign of 2004, the environmental NGOs, and their well-connected and respected scientists, arranged to meet with senior decision makers to put their case. “In Novem­ber 2013, we were invited to two internal consulta­tion meetings on Yangtze River Basin’s planning and management, held by the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute.” Diplomatically, they state: “These meetings provided us with valuable insights into the new Administration’s efforts to balance basin development and conservation. We left the meetings with new ideas and more optimism on better water governance in China. The health of China’s people and economy is tightly linked to the health of the country’s rivers. We hope this report will help stimulate new efforts and dia­logues on balancing river development and conserva­tion, new institutions enforcing public participation, new emphasis on implementing “ecological redlines.” We also hope to ensure that the pursuit of renewable energy and pressures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions does not sacrifice the multiple values of rivers.”

Nonetheless, as the 13th Five-Year Plan is rolled out, it seems the dams and reservoirs are to go ahead. The environment movement did succeed, largely through the 2004 campaign over the Nu river, to obtain (in hindsight) a decade-long moratorium on dam building. But, if the 13th Plan is implemented, massive infrastructure spending on dams and reservoirs is back on the agenda.

China’s environmentalists, in the longer term, have time in their side, as more Chinese, often well educated, get to see remote areas for themselves, and speak up for nature, for Tibet, and implicitly for the Tibetans who may not form their own NGOs. When these skilful and experienced NGOs remind everyone that “the health of China’s people and economy is tightly linked to the health of the country’s rivers,” this quiet expression of obvious truth reminds a much wider audience what matters in the longer term.

More than a decade ago Chinese environment scientists, NGOs and Tibetan communities created a mass mobilisation campaign that successfully stopped official plans to hydro dam the Gyalmo Ngulchu/Nu/Salween river. That story is told in a later blog in this series. Can such a coalition of ethnic minorities and Beijing intellectuals happen again, in today’s more repressive circumstances?



While China is no longer totalitarian, and official plans are often delayed, or even fail to materialise, there are many vested interests pushing for the capture of Tibetan rivers, none more so than the official Yellow River Conservancy Commission. Many arguments are made for pressing ahead with all the planned dams and reservoirs, not only to benefit mid-Yellow River industries, notably coal, but even to deal with the dangerous build-up of silt in the bed of the Yellow River further downstream, on the North China Plain, cradle f China’s civilisation.


S2N Western Route has been on the wishlists of central planners for decades.

A 2015 book by a leading hydrologist, Zhao-Yin Wang, puts the debate over the future of the lower Yellow River into wider context of dealing with the opposite danger  to the absence of water: the danger of floods, which has long been the reason why this river, with its huge burden of yellowish sediment from incising its way across the Tibetan Plateau, has for so long been known as “China’s Sorrow.” Prof Wang shows that the flooding danger is now less than before, but the sediment load, now captured in the reservoirs where water stops moving and drops its load, is still problematic. He looks at the prospect of flushing the lower Yellow River with seawater to scour out the accumulated sediments. The idea has been considered for the past 20 years, and would involve pumping seawater uphill, though nowhere near as high as in the Nga Chu/Dadu S2N Western Route proposal. Prof. Wang looks at deliberately engineering a “hyperconcentrated flood” to flush out sediments that in places make the river bed higher than the surrounding land.

Finally he looks at “Interbasin Water Transfer Projects”, which means the S2N Western Route. He is optimistic that it will not only provide more water but also sufficient water, even in the lower Yellow River, to flush out to sea the dangerous accumulation of sediment. He writes: “The water shortage in the Yellow River basin was estimated to be around 7 billion m3 in 2010 and 15 billion m3 in 2030 (Chen, 1991). The main strategies to solve or ease the water shortage and save the river from dying out are reallocation of water resources and interbasin water transfer projects. Three routes of South–to–North Water Transfer Projects have been proposed and will be implemented. The West Route will transfer water from the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The west route of water transfer project will transfer water from the Jinsha River (the Yangtze River), Yalong River, and the Dadu River to the upper Yellow River. About 1.95 billion m3 water can flow to the Yellow River by building dams and tunnels. The water shortage problem of the Yellow River basin can be solved and the clear water may carry sediment into the sea, thence the siltation of the river channel can be stopped. Nevertheless, the ambitious project needs a lot of investment. The Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu Rivers are only 100–200 km from the upper Yellow River. The total annual runoff of three rivers is 120 billion m3. The project can divert 19.5 billion m3 water from the three rivers to the Yellow River.”

Prof Wang acknowledges that the plan is to intercept high mountain tributaries of the Dadu/Nga Chu, which in turn is a tributary of the Yangtze, in order that the water diversion tunnels start as close as possible to tributaries of the Yellow River. On the tributaries due to be captured and diverted, as much as half their stream flow will be lost, and this “will impact the local ecology. It is necessary to study the impacts of water diversion on the local ecology and take measures to mitigate the impacts as the water diversion is implemented.”[10]


  1. THE TIBET DIVIDEND There is a widespread perception in China, cultivated by official media, that Tibet has been generously supported by richer provinces, which have poured money and manpower into lifting the backward Tibetans up, but without much payoff. In this view, not only does Tibet remain backward and unproductive, little comes out of Tibet, and it is time China’s huge investment in Tibet paid a dividend.

Although China long expected the profit-making “pillar industries” of Tibetan economic take-off would be minerals, mass tourism, meat and timber, most have failed to materialise, or are already exhausted. It turns out that the most precious commodity Tibet has in super abundance (in this lowland view from below) is water, that just goes to waste unless it is dammed, captured, channelled and tunnelled for use in northern China, or to turn hydropower turbines (or both).

Now that then army of water canal construction engineers have completed the south-to-north canals and tunnels across eastern and central China, it is time to turn to the S2N Western Route. That was the plan all along.  It has taken three successive Five-Year Plans to build those lowland canals, now is the turn of the Tibetan prefectures of Kandze and Ngawa, in eastern Tibet.

So valuable is the water of the upper Yangtze and upper Yellow Rivers, that all else can be sacrificed to ensure watershed protection. Even if that means shutting down the pastoral production landscapes, cancelling nomadic herder land tenure entitlements, displacing hundreds of thousands of nomads, it is worth it if the result is that more grass grows, thus protecting what really matters most to northern China, the degrading watersheds far above.


[1] Yang Guishan et al., Yangtze Conservation and Development Report 2007, Science Press, Beijing, 7

[2] Political Bureau of CPC Central Committee passes two documents, Xinhua | 2016-03-26

[3]  Jialan Sun, Xiaohui Lei, Yu Tian, Weihong Liao, Yuhui Wang; Hydrological impacts of climate change in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River Basin, Quaternary International 304 (2013) 62-74

[4] J. Feng, R. Li, R. Liang, and X. Shen,  Eco-environmentally friendly operational regulation: an effective strategy to diminish the TDG supersaturation of reservoirs, Hydrology and earth System Sciences, 18, 1213–1223, 2014

[5] Lucy Hornby China province falls into negative growth: Liaoning is first regional economy to shrink in seven years, Financial Times 28 April 2016

China’s Provinces Take Aim at Moving GDP Target, Wall Street Journal, Jan 29, 2016

[6] Gabriel Wildau and Don Weinland, China debt load reaches record high as risk to economy mounts: US-style credit crunch or Japan-style grinding malaise seen as increasingly likely, Financial Times, APRIL 24, 2016

[7] J. Feng, R. Li, R. Liang, and X. Shen,  Eco-environmentally friendly operational regulation: an effective strategy to diminish the TDG supersaturation of reservoirs, Hydrology and earth System Sciences, 18, 1213–1223, 2014

[8] Pengfei Wang , Jian Chen, Fuchu Dai et al., Chronology of relict lake deposits around the Suwalong paleolandslide in the upper Jinsha River, SE Tibetan Plateau: Implications to Holocene tectonic perturbations, Geomorphology 217 (2014) 193–203


[10] Zhao-Yin Wang, Joseph H. W. Lee and Charles S. Melching, River Dynamics and Integrated River Management, Tsinghua University Press, Springer, 2015, 392

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