What is really happening in protected areas in China


For IUCN World Parks Congress 2014


Sanjiangyuan county map in English

When a government declares an area protected that’s good.

When state power draws a red line round a large area, designating it a nature reserve, that’s good, right?

Not always. What seems on paper to b e another step in protecting the planet is actually meaningless if, within that red line, miners are allowed in, while authority looks away. That’s bad. That’s what is happening in many of the biggest protected areas in China.

What seems on paper to be protection for all sentient beings is the direct cause of poverty, immiserisation and destitution when the indigenous stewards of the land are forced to lose their livelihoods and leave their ancestral lands, without any consultation. That’s what is happening today in Tibet.

Tibetan nomadic pastoralists are being excluded, without say, en masse, from a huge area of prime pastoral land, in “the second largest nature reserve in the world”, that includes four entire prefectures, more than half the area of Qinghai, a big province, in the name of conservation. Rather than including the pastoralists in solving problems of watershed protection and land degradation, hundreds of thousands of skilful Tibetan pastoral nomads are losing their livelihoods, officially designated as “ecological migrants.”

IUCN classifies the 363,000 sq kms of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve (SNNR), on its  database as WDPA315729, home to 100 iconic species, a few of which are classified as endangered. China classifies this vast green pasture as its “number one water tower”, because both of China’s great rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow (and the Mekong of SE Asia) all rise in Tibetan glacial peaks, then meander all the way through these great grasslands. China, short of water after decades of over-use, has now decided its access to upstream sources is best guaranteed by depopulating the best grazing lands of the entire Tibetan Plateau, and IUCN seems to uncritically agree.

IUCN, on its global database of protected areas, cuts and pastes from Wikipedia: “To protect the grasslands, pastoralists are not permitted to graze their animals in designated ‘core zones’, and grazing is supervised elsewhere in the SNNR. In addition, residents have been resettled from core zones and other grassland areas of the DSCN1378smSNNR, and rangeland has been fenced and is in the process of being privatized throughout the Sanjiangyuan Area.”

The Wikipedia article provides no source for the above statement, which is not a scientific assessment but a summary of China’s official stance.

This narrative makes China look good, and the nomads problematic, irrational and backward abusers of the common pool grassland resource. In reality Tibetan nomads have cared for these lands for 9000 years, the archaeologists say, accumulating deep knowledge of sustainable grazing practices that maintain biodiversity, natural values, carbon capture and water quality.[1]

Worldwide, IUCN encouraSanjiangyuan nature reserve map tashi Tsering 09ges local community engagement with conservation, and indigenous knowledge as a primary asset in achieving conservation outcomes. Yet, on the Tibetan Plateau, where communities have no opportunity to organise their own NGOs, officials have decreed, since 2003, a policy of tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass. This shows China does not understand how grazing economies work, by balancing livestock grazing pressure with the growth cycle dynamics of indigenous grasses and sedges in the cold Tibetan climate.[2] China says: “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.”[3] The more grass, the fewer possible animals; vice versa, the more animals you have, the less is the grass. This means you cannot have both, it is a zero/sum logic. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of pastoralism, as practiced anywhere worldwide.

Since 2003, China’s steady implementation of its policy of displacing populations in the name of conservation[4] has made hundreds of thousands of nomads redundant, dependent on official handouts, leading marginal existences in peri-urban concrete settlements, often far from their pastures.[5] In most cases they are forbidden to return to livestock production, even when the grazing bans technically are for three or five year experimental periods. They are seldom given training in modern skills, and their traditional knowledge of rangeland dynamics is ignored.[6]

IUCN appears to have made a grievous mistake. IUCN elsewhere has a good record of championing indigenous knowledge and traditional community practices as beneficial for biodiversity conservation. IUCN has frequently published reports and guidelines on how to include local communities in the management of protected areas. Yet in this huge heartland of Tibetan pastoralism, bigger than the UK, nomad voices have been forcibly silenced,[7] leaving only the official voice insisting the exclusion of people is an objective scientific necessity.Sanjiangyuan in China context uncluttered map





  1. Excluding the custodians of the land who have intimate knowledge and millennia of experience in sustainable management is a net loss of successful curation of whole landscapes that can never be replaced by the current reliance on GIS satellite data and a handful of research stations.
  2. Tibetan nomads never fenced their land, allowed wildlife herds to mingle freely with domestic animals, their annual migration unhindered. Only since Tibet came under China’s active control since 1960 has biodiversity plummeted.
  3. Past policy failures are unmentionable, shifting the blame for land degradation onto nomads.[8] State failures since 1960 include communisation, compulsory fencing, allocation of land to small family units rather than larger and more flexible traditional tent-circles of many families pooling herds. Rigid stocking rates and carrying capacity regulations have restricted nomads to staying in their fenced winter pastures year-round, putting excessive pressure on small areas, with resulting degradation, which also made nomads poorer.[9]
  4. The Tibetan Plateau, traditionally highly self-sufficient in food production is now rapidly losing food security, relying instead on imports from distant Chinese cities. At a time when food insecurity is a global problem, taking such a big area out of livestock production is folly.
  5. Grazing land from which yaks, sheep and goats have been removed, along with the herders, reverts to unproductive shrubland. Biodiversity reduces as grazing pressure no longer cuts the taller grasses, allowing shorter medicinal plants to flourish in the sward.[10] Scientific research shows that China’s “close pasture to grow more grass” policy is failing to attain its stated objectives.
  6. Mining has proliferated in protected areas, often with the connivance of corrupt local officials. Far from protecting degraded land, official designation of protected areas in Tibet effectively removes the local protectors and allows illegal mining companies in, who further destroy the “fragile ecology” of Tibet. In 2014 the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption squads have many times singled out mining in Qinghai province as an epicentre of corruption. The Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve is half of Qinghai.
  7. Land tenure rights allocated by the state to nomad families in the 1990s have been abrogated. Often Tibetan families have to surrender their land tenure certificates, even though, when they were issued, they were promised long term land security, as were China’s farmers. In China, perversely, forest dwellers are now gaining better land tenure, while rangeland dwellers are losing theirs.


Is this a degraded landscape requiring exclusion of customary livestock production?

Is this a degraded landscape requiring exclusion of customary livestock production?

China buys agricultural land worldwide to meet the accelerating demand of its people for protein; while wasting the best productive Tibetan land. China has discovered a taste for milk, yet Tibet, where dairy products are the main marketable surplus, plays almost no part in meeting urban China’s demand for dairy. The potential benefit of linking the Tibetan economy to modern China has not been realised.

China has designated huge portions of the Tibetan Plateau as protected. Over half of all the protected area in China is on the Tibetan Plateau. China says 1.557 m sq kms are protected. On the Tibetan Plateau, in the 150 counties officially designated as areas of Tibetan ethnicity government, protected areas are 770,000 sq kms. Of that total, nearly half is the Sanjianyuan Nature Reserve of nomad exclusion.

China is praised worldwide for setting aside so big a protected area, offsetting criticism that China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, consuming more than half the global coal use each year. China wins points carbon capture by excluding human use and grazing, without evidence that over the long term the net carbon balance is improved.


The nomads of Tibet need not be dismissed as the ignorant source of land degradation. They can be, and want to be part of the solution. Removal of human populations should be the last resort, but in China efforts to rehabilitate degrading rangelands have been sporadic, half-hearted and inconclusive.

The methods IUCN advocates are the answer. Co-management, based on empowering pasture user groups, a partnership of government and the local communities, is the way ahead. This has been proven, many times, around the world, and IUCN has often documented such successes. Instead of fencing nomads out, employing them to re-sow native grasses and tend disturbed areas, under scientific guidance, brings together agricultural extension science, biodiversity ranger employment and poverty alleviation in one package, that results in REDD+, the reduction of degradation and deforestation through payment of local communities for the ongoing environmental services they provide, especially to China’s downstream urban masses.

Climate change makes inclusion, not exclusion, more urgent. The TibetaSanjiang nature reserve mapn Plateau, like the poles, experiences climate change at an especially rapid pace, with earlier spring melting permafrost and draining ice in the soil before plant roots can reach it as the short growing season begins, well before the monsoon rains arrive. As a result, many Tibetan wetlands have been drying and shrinking, which threatens migratory species reliant on the wetlands. Several wetlands, including those with Ramsar listing, were drained at China’s insistence in recent decades, further accelerating the desiccation of these key areas. Much work is now needed to fill the drainage ditches, which also reduces methane gas emissions and peat fires, especially in the Dzoge wetland, a 500 sq km Ramsar site on the Yellow River just east of the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve. Poor Tibetans need employment, and land rehabilitation, if done well, is often labour-intensive. IUCN can help persuade China there are better alternatives than exclusion, depopulation and the outdated “tragedy of the commons” argument.

Which human rights are infracted by China, with IUCN’s rubber stamp, depopulating the great grassland of eastern Tibet?

  • The right to food and food security
  • Right to land and secure land tenure
  • Right to livelihood, income and self-employment
  • Right to free speech and assembly, routinely abrogated when Tibetans protest displacement and invasive resource extraction, invariably suppressed violently by state power

These repeated rights violations flout the good work IUCN does worldwide and the approach to conserving the planet IUCN consistently advocates as the right path. These violations have been well known for years, despite China’s efforts to silence Tibetans and forbid external scrutiny. In 2007 Human Rights Watch published an analysis of nomad removals, telling titled No-one has the Liberty to Refuse.

The most recent fieldwork report comes from Chinese ethnologist Qi Jinyu: ”The local people reckon that their behaviour does not cause overgrazing, but although they don’t agree with the official theory of overgrazing, they nonetheless had to submit to the state’s decision to proceed with migration and create a ‘no-man’s land’ wilderness protection zone.”[11]

China has been questioned many times at the UN over the immiserisation of nomads. China’s 2014 haughty official response to UN special rapporteurs is that: “China’s nomadic pastoralists have been following a lifestyle of moving from place to place in search of water and grass for the past several thousand years; this kind of lifestyle is characterized by instability; not only does it adversely impact their productivity, but it also influences their lives. Appropriately settling them could change their lifestyle, not only benefiting the development of production but also helping these nomadic pastoralists to further develop themselves and enjoy modern civilization. The specifics of where to settle them and by what means should be scientifically designed and comprehensively arranged by the local government.”

Specifically focussing on the Sanjiangyuan protected areas, China tells the UN it is “organizing the transfer of human populations from the Sanjiangyuan core region for ecological purposes, thereby protecting and restoring the region’s ecological function, and encouraging sustainable development and harmony of humans and nature.”

The Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau is warming three times faster than the global average. Tibet is on the frontline of global climate change. This is not the time to exclude those who can replant and rehabilitate degrading areas, by including them in the design and actual work of repairing damage done by past state failure and accelerating climate change. The Tibetan Plateau, close to two percent of the land surface of our planet, needs all the help it can get. Exclosing people from protected areas should be the last resort, after all other methods have been tried. In China, it is the first resort a social engineering solution to a problem that originates in state policies that over recent decades concentrated both Tibetan nomads and their herds on smaller land allocations, removing much of their customary seasonal mobility, the key to reducing grazing pressure and preventing degradation.



[1] Georg Miehe, Sabine Miehe,  Knut Kaiser, Christoph Reudenbach, Lena Behrendes, La Duo, Frank Schlütz; How old is pastoralism in Tibet? An ecological approach to the making of a Tibetan landscape: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 276 (2009) 130–147

[2] National Research Council, Grasslands and Grassland Sciences in Northern China, Washington, National Academy Press, 1992

[3] BAO Fenglan A Study Of The Countermeasures Of Optimizing Animal Husbandry Structure Of Inner Mongolia; Journal of Inner Mongolia Normal University (Philosophy & Social Science) 2005-06

Du Xiaojuan ; Cheng Ji-min; Analysis of Formation Causes of Grassland Degradation in Damxung County of Tibet and Its Exploitation and Utilization; Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences , 2007

[4] Emily T. Yeh, Greening western China: A critical view; Geoforum 40 (2009) 884–894

[5] Jarmila Ptackova, The Great Opening of the West development strategy and its impact on the life and livelihood of Tibetan pastoralists: Sedentarisation of Tibetan pastoralists in Zeku County as a result of implementation of socioeconomic and environmental development projects in Qinghai Province, P.R. China: PhD thesis, Humboldt University, Berlin, 2013

[6] Maria E. Fernandez-Gimenez … [et al.].,Restoring community connections to the land : building resilience through community-based rangeland management in China and Mongolia, CAB International,  2012


[8] Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, Kristen Denninger Snyder & Lynette A. Hart (2014): Biodiversity Conservation and Protected Areas in China: Science, Law, and the Obdurate Party-State, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 17:3, 85-101,

[9] DEE MACK WILLIAMS, Grassland Enclosures: Catalyst of Land Degradation in Inner Mongolia, Human Organization, Vol. 55, No. 3, 1996

[10] J. Marc Foggin and Andrew T. Smith . 1996.Rangeland Utilization and Biodiversity on the Alpine Grasslands of Qinghai Province, People’s Republic of China. in: Conserving China’s Biodiversity (II) (PETER Johan Schei, WANG Sung and XIE Yan eds.). China Environmental Science Press. Beijing. 247-258p.

[11] James Miller ed., Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China, Routledge, 2014, 371

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



A gathering in Lhasa in August attracted brief headlines, generated less by its’ dry subject –the future development of Tibet- than by the intriguing announcement of a “Lhasa Consensus.” This knowing nod to the once-famous “Washington Consensus” held out the enticing prospect that the Tibet problem is now solved, consensus has now been reached.

The assembling in Lhasa of a smattering of establishment intellectuals from China’s official think tanks and universities, plus a few little-known scholars from around the world hardly justifies the issuing of a grandly-named “Lhasa Consensus.” The declaration is far less impressive than its’ title. It amounts to saying Tibet is doing just fine as China’s outpost and raw materials extraction zone for the world’s factory, and there is little else to say. The problem of Tibet is solved, Tibet is China’s, there is little more to discuss, we can revert to ignoring it altogether.

Probably the “Lhasa Consensus” will go the way of its model, the famous “Washington Consensus” of the 1990s, a brief moment, it turned out, when the US could congratulate itself on having won the Cold War, becoming the sole global superpower; neoliberal market economies were certain to forever rise, financial crashes were a thing of the distant past; and nationalism a fading force. How wrong all of that was. All of it.

At a time when both China and India have strong leaders, on whom many hopes are pinned, the “Lhasa Consensus” is a relic of a fast fading era. Tibet and “the Tibetan question” remain frozen in  stale all-or-nothing clichés, with little sign of fresh thinking anywhere. In part, this is because so few Tibetans had a speaking role in this Forum on Development of Tibet, as is evident from available online footage. As usual, the Tibetans in the room were largely sherpas, the logistic facilitators essential to all conferences worldwide, helpers of those entitled to speak.

The “Lhasa Consensus” has risen without a trace and will not be heard from again. So ephemeral is this “consensus” it may have seemed a good idea to give a conference declaration a grand moniker, but it didn’t fly.

The notion of consensus suggests finality, a settled truth, a comity of minds in harmony. But, as any MBA teacher will tell you, today’s consensual truths cause tomorrow’s problems. Today’s solutions, and their unintended consequences, create perverse outcomes and new problems. That is why the Buddhists always urge us not to take those happy moments of consensus too seriously.

But the consensus among obscure academic hacks that Tibet is doing just fine under China is far from the only complacent consensus around. In addition to the Washington and Lhasa consensualities, we could also suggest there are entrenched Beijing, Delhi and Dharamsala Consensuses, in all but catchy name.

The Beijing Consensus is perhaps the most familiar. It is embraced not only by the party-state but by Chinese critics of the dominant elite as well. There is consensus, both tacit and explicit, that China is on the right path to prosperity, which is the purpose of life. The key to not only comfort but even opulence is to persist with development and urbanisation as fast as possible, while taking greater care to ameliorate the worst of environmental impacts. Urbanisation and fast growth are the cure to all problems, applicable to all areas within China’s borders, including Tibet. If the Tibetans are unhappy, this is just the growing pains of a prehistoric and primitive folk adjusting to urban modernity and life as factory workers. Like the rest of China, they will come to realise that they can learn to become consumers, and will inevitably outgrow their anti-modern stubborn clinging to the past.

The Beijing Consensus, and its echo, the Lhasa Consensus, are deeply flawed in their assumptions, perceptions and even basic understandings of what Tibetans actually think. Like all tribal consensuses, it is self-perpetuating and self-deluding; editing out of sight all that contradicts it.

The Delhi Consensus, by comparison, seems an improbable concept. In a brawling, restless, democratic India, there seems to be little consensus on anything. It may be that only when a consensus starts to fall apart that it becomes obvious how entrenched it was, how much it defined what is normal. And, if the Modi government lives up to half of what its backers expect, that consensus may rend.

Today, on the cusp of Modi’s adoption of China’s 1980s model of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of intensive industrialisation, immune from ordinary Indian laws and rules, we can perhaps sketch the existing Delhi Consensus. Domestically, the  Consensus is that India is best ruled by its upper castes, its’ industries protected from global competition by “intra-ministerial disagreements, mystifying constraints, narrow visions and a reluctance to involve competent people, heavy handedness and restrictions imposed by bureaucrats.”  Those are the words of Tansen Sen, author of deeply reflective histories of India-China relations. He speaks from experience: “Mutually suspicious bureaucrats have hesitated to facilitate people-to-people, industry-to-industry or sub-region-to-sub-region exchanges and collaborations. This is clear by the limited educational interactions between the two countries due to the Indian Ministry of Home Affair’s reluctance to issue visas to Chinese students and instructors and the failure of the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar sub-regional collaborative initiative.”

The Delhi Consensus has long agreed on warily, even fearfully keeping China at a distance, while treating South Asia as a region India can dominate. The 1962 war with China is as if it happened yesterday, or as if China has never changed its aggressive ambitions. There is no domestic constituency within India that speaks up for China, other than The Hindu.

This is about to change, if we are to believe Modi can implement his known strategy.  By adopting the SEZ model, India will create extra-territorial enclaves where Indian norms and laws barely apply. If he succeeds in attracting Chinese investment into the SEZ, in partnership with India’s biggest corporations and best known brands, he will replicate what Deng Xiaoping did in the 1980s. Coming at a time when China’s comparative advantage of endless cheap labour is fast fading, this could be India’s big breakthrough, and India’s industrialists know it.

“What Modi plans to do, his advisers say, is end India’s reliance on procuring from China, and instead, bring Chinese companies to India to invest and manufacture locally. Doing so will fundamentally transform the nature of India-China relations. No longer merely transactional, the relationship will be driven by Chinese companies manufacturing in dedicated industrial parks in India. Now that Modi is the man at the Centre, the expectation in China is that Prime Minister Modi will not be all that different from Chief Minister Modi, who made four visits to China and travelled widely around the country, visiting Special Economic Zones (SEZs). As National Security Adviser Ajit Doval puts it, Modi has, through his travels, ‘condensed the Chinese achievement into three words: speed, scale and skill. And Prime Minister Modi believes India should benefit from that’”.

If India is about to upspeed, upscale and upskill, with SEZ in the lead, India will be transformed, both as an exporter of manufactures, and as a consumer nation in which the big corporations finally succeed in pushing aside the myriad small merchants and shopkeepers. As in 1980S China, and throughout the industrialised world, big corporations will boom, and they will have a vested interest in China as a major source of their prosperity, inheriting China’s mantle as the world’s factory. For the first time, India will have a powerful domestic pro-China lobby. Ananth Krishnan, in India Today, speculates that Chinese investment: “ will fundamentally transform the nature of India-China relations. No longer merely transactional, the relationship will be driven by Chinese companies manufacturing in dedicated industrial parks in India.”

The longstanding Delhi Consensus, preoccupied with China as a danger, sees the Tibetan presence in India as a way of maintaining leverage in dealings with China. Once the biggest of Indian corporations discover they can profit more by partnering with China’s biggest corporates, this consensus will fragment.

In the longer term, it may even be that the almost defunct vision of regional economists, of mutually complementary economies lifting each other, may revive the plans for effective linking of China’s western development thrust with the future of northeastern India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The potential for economic take-off is evident, with the electricity essential to intensive industrialisation coming from Arunachal Pradesh and, further upriver, Tibet, powering Kolkata, Kunming and everywhere in between.  This vision of a regional trading boom is almost forgotten, kept alive only by the Asian Development Bank. It is also championed by Delhi University’s Institute for Economic Growth.  Similar visions of complementarity drove Australia, in the 1980s, to integrate its economy with China. Australia boomed. This may well appeal to Modi’s liking for greater speed, scale and skill.

This economists’ dream is known only as the unmemorable BCIM Corridor, starting in Kolkata, heading east to Dhaka, Manipur, Mandalay and finally Kunming.  The Corridor will have its own hinterland from which to draw raw materials, including the rich mineral resource endowments of India’s northeast and the Tibetan Plateau. It could take decades for these potentials to be realised.

The Washington Consensus, in retrospect, seems at best an embarrassing convergence of causes and conditions that led to ridiculous assertions of an uninterrupted unipolar Americanised world. However, its doctrine, of free trade and neoliberal markets, may yet breathe life into Modi’s India and even into the BCIM Corridor.

The Delhi Consensus may fracture for the same reason. India’s biggest businesses now stand to gain more from partnering with Chinese SEZ investors than from keeping them out. India’s globalised corporations now dream of India becoming 1980s China, its’ cheap labour inexhaustible. India will for the first time have a powerful domestic lobby arguing for accommodating China.

There is another way in which the “Lhasa Consensus” truisms of a happy, harmonious and prospering Tibet do a disservice to the actual debate. On the ground, there are not only Tibetans who hope for an authentically Tibetan but also modern future, there are others who sincerely hope for development with Tibetan characteristics. One can find Han Chinese, in senior positions, even within the same State Council that sponsored the “Lhasa consensus” conference, who are unusually open to Tibetan voices. They advocate development in Tibet, by Tibetans, for Tibetans; rather than the imposition from above and afar of a new economy of resource extraction and mass tourism, all with distinctively Chinese characteristics and Chinese beneficiaries.

The Tibetans, Chinese and westerners who propose strengthening Tibetan enterprises, civil society, rural communities, growth that is from the ground up, are in a precarious middling position. They come to conferences on development in Tibet, not to sign on to spurious consensus, but to do the actual work of strengthening Tibet. They are usually misunderstood. On one side is a highly interventionist central state with a long tradition of social engineering and a model built for China, not Tibet. On the other side are Tibetan exiles and external critics, who routinely misunderstand those who seek to strengthen Tibetan schools, clinics, businesses and cultural maintenance, as traitors to the Tibetan cause. Those working the middle ground in a polarised world are liable to being mistrusted by one or both sides.

Behind the “Lhasa Consensus” headline are the few who eschew political polarities, and get on with actual development work. One day it may be their turn. There is a new participant in conferences on development in Tibet: the modest NGO trying to make a difference on the ground, by encouraging Tibetan entrepreneurs. One such attending this State Council conference and its declaratory “Lhasa Consensus” was a young German language teacher immersed in helping Tibetans create small businesses.  Otto Kolbl is one of several westerners trying to find practical empowerments for Tibetans to enter modernity on their own terms. It does not help that China’s central propaganda office cites him in its upbeat coverage of the new “Lhasa Consensus.” A middle way is hard to find in a bipolar world where everyone is deemed for or against.

China’s official media made much of this event as “the first international conference themed on the development of Tibet”, or at least the first such conference held in Lhasa. This is an odd boast. As early as 1998 Brandeis University, Boston, held conferences on development of Tibet. I convened a panel on development of Tibet at the 2003 seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. China has ignored these and many other meetings on development, at which development NGOs, now largely excluded from working in Tibet, shared their practical experiences.

At least the researches of economist Andrew Fischer on Tibetan development have been translated into Chinese. Far from proudly announcing that at last a forum on Tibetan development has been held in Tibet, China might wonder why it has taken so long.

The simple idea, too simple to be noticed, is that genuinely helpful development should be based on the existing strengths and comparative advantages of the traditional Tibetan economy. Rather than imposing from above an energy-intensive, capital-intensive enclave economy from above, as China has done, Tibetans need help adding value to their wool, dairy products and livestock. Tibet needs fewer proclamations of “Lhasa Consensus” and more actual work rehabilitating degrading pastures and getting Tibetan yoghurt and butter to the booming Chinese urban market.  Hardly a headline in any of that, but it would achieve a lot.

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



The previous blog on Steve Jobs and Xi Jinping made the seemingly counter-intuitive case for likening Steve Jobs and Xi Jinping. It’s not just the sheer force of will both embody, but the capacity to proclaim new realities, a new normal that fuses a mass of contradictions into a coherent narrative that everyone can buy into, and feel part of. That magical ability satisfy yearnings lasts as long as the magician is a step ahead. Almost the moment Steve Jobs died, the magic died, we got to see behind the façade, to discover that magical tricks are just tricks, some of them tawdry.

Can the same be said of Xi Jinping? The magic is flowing and new realities are aborning. Foreign observers, focused mostly on China’s increasingly muscular stance internationally, warn of China’s emergence, under Xi, as a regional bully. But at home, Xi ticks all the boxes, among a public that long ago noticed the Chinese Communist Party’s top priority is to look after its own, and its cronies; and that Deng Xiaoping’s promise that eventually everyone gets to be rich doesn’t actually trickle far out of the sticky fingers of the elite. Now that the gap between rich and poor in China is one of the most extreme in the world, the masses have noticed that the party’s monopoly on political power is directly responsible for concentrations of wealth in a few favoured hands.

The previous leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, said as much, many times, but did little to curb the princelings. Many times they warned that extreme concentrations of wealth are a threat to the stability of the party-state regime. Now, Xi Jinping and his supporters are in “their protracted war to save the Communist Party from what they see as terminal decay.” So says John Garnaut, an acute observer with remarkable insider contacts. Garnaut reminds us of the deeply dualistic you-or-me world top party leaders inhabit: “Mr. Xi was raised in a you-die-I-live world where leaders who failed to destroy potential rivals were constantly at risk of losing far more than their jobs. Gradually, the weaker leaders who rose after the massacres and purges of 1989 extended a bargain of market opportunity and immunity to one another, as they worked to fuse the post-communist Communist Party back together following the Tiananmen crackdown. Stability prevailed but so too did corruption. Bureaucracies and state-owned companies became empires unto themselves. Leaders’ families grew fabulously rich. The compact of market opportunity and political immunity held for members of the Politburo Standing Committee for 25 years, until Mr. Xi tore it up late last month.”

Official media call the current campaign Xi’s “iron-fisted corruption crackdown that is winning the peoples’ hearts”  铁腕反腐,“拍蝇打虎”深得民心. There is a lot of winning to be done. What is at stake, as Xi Jinping clearly knows, is nothing less than the fraying of the implicit social contract between rulers and the ruled, as Professor Zheng Yongnian pointed out in May 2014. He went so far as to say that Xi realises he needs to change China’s political ecology. No longer does the legitimacy of the emperor rely on proclaiming the blessings of “heaven’s mandate”, Prof Zheng points out, yet today’s rulers do need to re-establish a source of legitimacy, if the party-state is to survive.

What happens after the purge? Will Xi Jinping then go on to build the China Dream he so often speaks of, and make it available to all, not just the well-connected? That might be a lot to ask of anyone who inhabits a you-die-I-live world, which is the most literal translation of Xi Jinping’s calls for a “life or death” struggle to cleanse the rot.

Assuming the purge succeeds in weakening entrenched resistance to major change, will Xi then launch deeper reforms that enable China’s emergence as a normal neoliberal competitor, in which the rule of law becomes more than a selective weapon to be used against those in the losing faction? Will a new reality emerge, a believable master narrative that persuades the masses to trust a party-state that has lost credibility?

For decades China accepted Mao’s master narrative, a dominant discourse of past humiliation and current renewal, a narrative of victimhood and loss. Now that China is so much wealthier and more powerful, the attractions of ongoing victimhood remain. Whenever China feels its rise is obstructed, the old cry: “Never forget national humiliation!” comes quickly to the lips of leaders, Xi Jinping included.

But the hope of the world is that China outgrows victimhood and a belief in an eternal foreign plot to keep China weak, grows genuinely confident and relaxed, and can take its place in the world. That too has long been the hope of the Dalai Lama, a scenario he has always seen as the best prospect for allowing Tibetans the cultural autonomy they yearn for. A more honest China, not captured by oligarchs, has better prospects for avoiding the “middle-income trap”, a vague term used by economists for the many ways emerging economies slow or come to a halt, their ongoing growth and widening prosperity stymied by entrenched rent seekers.

If Xi Jinping recognises this familiar capture of an entire economy by vested interests as China’s biggest challenge, then he is out to create a new reality –as Steve Jobs did- and the war on corruption is just a clearing of the decks.  Whether this is his long-term intention, and whether he can succeed, are far from clear at this point. But if he is to succeed, more of the destructive aspect of capitalism’s creative destruction is ahead.

That is the big picture Xu Gao invites us to consider. Xu, economist at a leading SOE brokerage, says: “From a longer-term perspective, fighting corruption will actually create more healthy and sustainable economic growth, and therefore its impact on the economy is positive. The reason many including middle-income countries fall into the trap, for example the Philippines, Argentina is the prevalence of crony capitalism. This leads to the allocation of resources by the powerful, and does not depend on the market, resulting in extremely unfair distribution of national income, and  economic growth potential cannot be realized. If you do not oppose corruption, the greater is the probability of the Chinese economy falling into the middle-income trap, and corruption fighting  can reduce this probability.”

That is the long term prospect, but as soon as October 2014, at the Fourth Plenum of the CCP, we may see more clearly whether the rule of law, genuine competition and a modern market economy will emerge.


But right now Xi Jinping has his hands full catching the tigers of corruption. The purge has caught many, enough to discern a pattern, making it possible to identify which sectors of the economy have been most attractive to the corrupt. Top of the list, as mentioned in the previous blog, is mining.

Mining is ideal for crooks, for lots of reasons. The profits can be massive, and if they are generated in obscure places, they are readily transferred to private hands, even literally smuggled out as bars of gold. Mining tends to be in obscure places far from effective official regulatory scrutiny, and these days Chinese mining companies are likely to be operating in Zimbabwe, Peru or Tibet. For state-owned mining companies –and most are- its gets better: the finance needed to build a mine comes from the public purse, to which SOEs have privileged access. Further, the SOE resource extraction  companies are the pioneers of China’s global reach, and have often worked closely with China’s central leaders to get the contracts to extract the oil of Angola or the copper of Congo. On top of that, the importation into China of metals mined around the world has also been a major temptation for the corrupt, who use stockpiles of metals in Chines port warehouses as collateral for financialising further borrowings, giving them access to cheap money to sink into quick money but high risk investments.

In fact, it was the widespread practice of using metal stockpiles as collateral for loans, over and over, rather like mortgaging your house four times over to four banks at once, that led to the exposure of mining, and specifically mining in northern Tibet, as an epicentre of corruption.

What is the evidence for this? The corruption at the Qingdao port is documented in dozens of reports, as the biggest of banks and other lenders, rushed to Qingdao to verify whether the  metal stockpiles, putatively exclusively theirs should the borrower default, actually exists. The biggest of global commodity traders and lenders had the capacity to send their own investigators to check. The Tibetans have no such capacity so safeguard their landscapes, their sacred mountains and lakes, from mining. When they do protest, ever so politely, quoting Xi Jinping’s own words on environmental protection, they are teargassed, forcibly dispersed, often arrested and tortured.

Mining now takes place all over Tibet, nearly all of it technically illegal since all but the biggest and most modern mining was banned, especially in Tibet Autonomous region, by decree, almost a decade ago. In today’s China, what is technically illegal often flourishes, under local government protection, while national leaders proclaim themselves good global citizens. If illegal golf courses can pop up all over China, right next to major cities; it is not hard for illegal mines in remote areas to function. A new book on the proliferation of illegal golf courses, gobbling up prime arable land needed for food production, has just been published. The only book on the new mines in Tibet is the one I wrote a year ago, before the recent revelations of corruption. So this is an update on that book, Spoiling Tibet: China and resource nationalism on the Roof of the World.

Wang Qishan, secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection singled out mining and resource extraction at the top of his list of industries prone to corruption. In mid July 2014 he”urged inspectors to watch closely over corruption in mining, natural resources, land transfers, real estate developmentconstruction projects, public and special funds” according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The metals warehouse rehypothecation scam is connected to an inner-party investigation into Western Mining, the only major Chinese mining company headquartered in Tibet, in Xining city. Western Mining, on its website, is ambitious about getting big and going global, and is in a hurry to arbitrage its base of assets in Tibet into something bigger: “WMG’s overall objective in the 12th Five Year Period [ending 2015] is to become a major force in Chinese mining sector through continued structural readjustment, better recycling and brand building in our main businesses, lead, zinc, aluminum and copper and improved our overall competitiveness and profitability. Our goal in the coming five to seven years is to make total assets and sales revenue both hit the threshold of RMB100 billion so as to build WMG into a renowned multinational corporation and offer better assistance to Qinghai province in transforming its modes of economic development and adjusting its economic structure.”


The rise and rise of Western Mining began with a zinc and lead mine in northern Tibet, on the northern edge of the mineraliferous Tsaidam Basin. Starting life in the 1980s as the Xitieshan Mining Bureau, a branch of the Ministry of Land and Resources, it later rebadged itself Western Mining, under the  adroit leadership of Mao Xiaobing who was so well-connected he eventually became mayor of Xining city, capital of Qinghai province, in which position he was arrested in April 2014, accused of widespread and long standing corruption.

Mao Xiaobing (ABOVE) pulled off many acquisitions of key mines in Tibet, and  got Western Mining into the club of major mining houses to be bulked up by the party-state to become one of China’s “national champions.” This story is told in my 2013 book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, Zed Books, London.

Now, it seems, Mao Xiaobing cut too many corners, and has come undone.














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What could Xi Jinping and Steve Jobs have in common? To liken them is surely a stretch?

Maybe not. It’s not just the personal psychologies of two alpha males driven to tightly control all aspects of their mighty enterprises. There are plenty of men who are control freaks, few of whom achieve total command of anything as big.

What these two do share is an extraordinary will to conquer all obstacles, to create new realities, invent new human needs and then establish elaborate processes for meeting needs people didn’t know they had.

Steve Jobs was famous, for as long as he lived, for creating realities, not only getting away with behaviour that in others would be deemed reprehensible or even criminal, but making it a virtue. Only after his death has it become apparent that he would stop at nothing in his quest for a machine that met needs others hadn’t even imagined. Only now is it coming to light that he struck collusive deals with competitors to avoid hiring each other’s staff,  creating an “orderly” labour market in which skilled employees lost their bargaining power. What seemed at the time to be light-bending magic now turns out to be obsessive ruthlessness. 

Xi Jinping has likewise made a seamless whole out of a mess of contradictions, and now offers his customers –the Chinese people- an exemplary model of all that is modern, advanced, civilised, and successful, the fulfilment of the China Dream. He has concentrated power in his hands personally, in order to revitalise a flagging brand, rooting out endemic corruption with a relentlessness that has surprised everyone. At the same time he has persecuted and gaoled competitors, community activists and lawyers, writers and intellectuals who had exposed corruption and rot it causes. Xi Jinping has made it clear that the only corruption that will be exposed and stopped is the corruption he and his inner party attack dogs expose.

Like a new CEO helming a failing corporate conglomerate, he wields the razor in his purge of the boyars, the fiefs and chiefs whose rackets had been untouchable. His weapon in doing so has nothing to do with the law; the courts and the law are at best an afterthought, after his own inner-party Discipline Inspection troops have detained, interrogated and obtained confessions from their targets and those who surrounded them.

The world now looks on, and marvels, as is did for Steve Jobs when Apple could do no wrong, as Xi Jinping cuts away at those who could have stood in the way of his ultimate goal of re-legitimating the Chinese Communist Party by major economic reform. Like Ivan the Awesome (or Terrible as the English say) in a Russia emerging from its Mongol servitude, the enemies close to you are the worst, and first to be purged. Ivan slaughtered the nobility and Xi is on the heels of the new nobility, the princelings of red chip stock who control the huge state owned enterprises (SOEs) that dominate the economy, monopolise the capital market, rely on subsidies, distort prices and exclude competition.

Xi Jinping, like Steve Jobs, is a master of creative destruction, of the core dynamic of capitalism that must destroy as well as create in order to be ready to catch the next great wave. Xi fully understands that China’s basic business model has reached its use-by date. China no longer has an endless supply of cheap labour as its outstanding comparative advantage. Nor can China for much longer finance extraordinary rates of growth by massive capital expenditure on infrastructure by a state that  favours its’ own, the big crony SOEs bulked up by fiat as China’s national champions. That is financed by borrowing from future generations, through the bond market.

Xi understands that China’s global reach for raw materials, and markets for the manufactures of the world’s factory, also means greater scrutiny. Some of the deals that enabled China to not only source oil and other energy supplies but also to own oil fields, for example off the Angola coast, are now being exposed as collaborations between China’s intelligence agencies and its biggest SOEs.[1] Many more such revelations seem likely.

Xi Jinping and Steve Jobs both understood that the time to prepare for the future is now, especially in good times when there are plenty of cash reserves to draw on, rather than wait for the crisis, because then it is too late. China is now post-revolutionary, post-communist and, with the looming curtailment of SOE power, China will become post-socialist; at a time when Xi Jinping has simultaneously revitalised Marxism as a compulsory learning for party cadres, and is purging the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to ensure strict adherence to Marxist orthodoxy. Only a clear head and strong will can keep this together.

We are witnessing the construction of a new reality. In Chinese, the communist party is literally the public ownership party, and now the party, to preserve its institutionalised power, proposes loosening that direct ownership of the SOE means of production, so private enterprise can dominate. Seldom has a ruling party, deeply entrenched at all levels in power, been so able to renew itself after six decades in power, and maintain its ability to set the dominant discourse. This requires a helmsman who sees beyond the horizon.

Steve Jobs was close to fanatical about Apple, as a corporation, and persuaded investors to stay on for the ride, even when it seemed the company was going nowhere. A major source of his success was his full embrace of outsourcing the actual work of construction of Apple devices to China, to underpaid, overworked staff in rigidly disciplined factory towns wrapped in secrecy. That too has since unravelled. In hindsight, it seems extraordinary that one man could have held together such a global enterprise for so long.

Renewing the legitimacy and thus the power of the Chinese Communist Party is even more extraordinary. Jim O’Neill, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, says “the Chinese Communist Party is essentially the biggest business organisation in the world.”[2] Oddly, that is seldom said outside China, even though the deep mistrust of most Chinese towards the CCP is due to more than endemic corruption, it is a result of the uniquely Chines effusion of enterprise ownership and control. Almost everyone in China knows that effective control of an enterprise is, if anything, more important than legal ownership, and control is in the hands of the party elite.

If the CCP is to remain the world’s biggest business, it must rid itself of the rent seekers whose control is grounded in their negative regulatory power to refuse necessary permits. If China, as a business, is to thrive despite rising incomes, economic slowdown and the “middle-income trap”, the fiefdoms much be rooted out, the enervating licence raj liquidated, and China Inc. must become a lot more like Apple. China must be able to foresee the next big thing, the newest disruptive technology that changes the game, and dominate it. China’s central planners, of whom there are still many, may struggle to discipline a wildly oversupplied steel production industry, but they do have their eyes on the new markets a rising China Inc. can dominate, such as solar panels, nanotech and the dozens of new industries named by the central planners as China’s best chance of staying ahead.

So the current purge of corrupt bosses is not about getting the party out of business, or standing back with a lighter neoliberal governance touch, it is about renewing the party as the greatest business conglomerate of all time. The party will continue to control and profit from what it technically does not own, no longer through franchised rent seeking, but through the more sophisticated and up to date processes of contemporary neoliberal capitalism worldwide. The party will thus remain at the heart of the state it controls, at every level, while giving rein to entrepreneurs able to catch the next disruptive wave, thus ensuring China’s growth and stability. The party-state will not only survive but thrive. The rent seeking of the present phase of primitive accumulation will give way, if Xi Jinping succeeds, to a knowledge economy, intellectual property licencing fees and mass entertainment, as China prospers. The society of the spectacle is arising, and Tibet, as China’s most exotic domestic destination, plays a major part. Tibet is available for consumption, and China’s urban masses are responding, as tourism teaches them how to be a self-made, consuming individual.

If Xi Jinping succeeds, he will be more successful than Steve Jobs, whose reputation and corporation suffered quickly after his death, in part because China found Apple a tempting target to pressure.

But Xi Jinping’s immediate task, before he can move on to making private enterprise, with Chinese characteristics, the dominant driver of the economy, is to clean out the corrupt tigers and flies. Not surprisingly, his team of investigators, the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection are focussing intensely on mining and resource extraction, which have been major opportunities for bribery.

As author of the only book on China’s mining company practices in remote areas, I never imagined the crooked deals would come to light. When my book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, (Zed Books, London) was published 10 months ago, in October 2013, the dodgy deals were clear, but getting no publicity. The book exposes, for example, how a state owned mining company got China’s central government to shift the mapped boundaries of the primary source, in Tibet, of the Yellow River, to enable it to get at the copper and gold beneath.

Now, less than a year later, story after story of resource extraction, and metals trading, as major opportunities for illicit profiteering pour out of China’s official media, as Xi Jinping proves he is serious about rebuilding the CCP brand.


Gabriel Lafitte






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Neoliberal Tibet and China’s end game



Department of Management, Faculty of Business & Economics, Monash University


Community Identity & Displacement Research Network  Victoria University, Melbourne, 8 July 2014


[this awfully long blog -apologies- builds on the previous blogpost called Milking Tibet, looking closely at how today’s neoliberal China commodifies Tibet, and how Tibetans, led by charismatic khenpos and lamas is responding. So this lengthy blog tries to make sense of the wildly popular ten virtues movement sweeping Tibet, as a way of mobilising Tibetans to stand strong and united, in the face of the seductions and disappointments of China’s hedonic promise of neoliberal wealth accumulation.

If you managed to read the previous blog, you will find some overlap, but actually the further you go, the newer the argument, and a completely different frame for viewing contemporary Tibet]



What do the lamas, khenpos and geshes of Tibet observe when they look out across the vast grassland? Although they are no longer permitted any role in the public sphere, they remain keen observers, alert to the patterns of hopes and disillusionments of the pastoralists, who continue to regard their lamas as precious and trustworthy, even when publicly silent.

To the lamas, all situations are workable, all circumstances changeable and amenable to fresh approaches. Yet everywhere they look, they see Tibetans striving, against the odds, to sustain their livelihoods, despite ever-tightening restrictions. Those who have trained deeply in transforming the mind, routinely imagining themselves as all-accomplishing deities, are undismayed by obstacles; bet everywhere they look they see fellow Tibetans best by obstacles, and defeated, both by statist social engineering from above, and their own habitual confusion, from within.

The experience of most rural Tibetans is that the promise of the market is seldom fulfilled, even though it is normal, in a neoliberal economy, that the state, at a local or higher level, subsidises the construction of infrastructure such as saleyards, feedlots, animal fattening facilities on urban fringes, while also paying for road maintenance and even broadcasting price signals to remote producers. Today’s neoliberal China heavily subsidises the big “national champion” dairy companies that control the fast growing Chinese market for dairy. “According to the central government´s ‘Number 1’ Policy Document of 2013, the government will continue to support the scaling up and consolidation of the livestock industry.  As part of that plan, subsidies will be provided to purchase improved varieties of dairy cows and livestock insurance, and for building standardized farms. Large dairy farms will also be supported through general incen­tives provided by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) for large scale farms given MOA’s general bias toward scale, standardization and consolidation as an answer to food safety problems and management of natural resources and environmental concerns.”[1]

All four central ministries with power over the dairy industry in 2014 agreed on a state-directed and financed plan of agglomeration. Caixin reported: “Beijing has vowed to form 10 strong domestic dairy companies by the end of 2018 which combined will account for more than 80 percent of the country’s total market share, according to a document jointly issued by four central government departments. The plan also includes building three to five of the big 10 into leading baby formula providers with annual revenue of more than 5 billion yuan. Both the central and local governments will contribute capital into the initiative to facilitate the consolidation of existing dairy firms, the announcement said.”[2]

The current dominance of a small number of huge corporations in China’s booming dairy industry, assisted by state subsidies, is now typical of the pattern of contemporary Chinese neoliberalism; and a major reason why it is now too late for Tibetan livestock producers to enter the market. The barriers to entry are now formidable, requiring from the outset economies of scale, and an industrialised agribusiness model unavailable, unfamiliar and unattainable by Tibetans. Even if Tibetans were to wholly embrace the prevailing model of animal production in penned feedlots on urban fringes, it would at best provide employment for only a small fraction of the current pastoral population.



When asked why they don’t participate in the market economy, Tibetan pastoralists often say they simply don’t have the surplus to sell. Their production is for subsistence. Herd sizes have shrunk, as has the size of adult yaks, as pastures degrade. Regulatory limits on herd size have been imposed and increasingly policed. In Yushu prefecture, one of the better pastoral districts of the Tibetan Plateau, in 1989 rural families had on average 8.04 yaks per person, 11.72 sheep or 51.92 sheep equivalents if each yak is counted as equivalent to five sheep. This was sufficient to live well, with the poverty line defined as 25 sheep units (SU) per person.[3] However, by 2005, according to official prefectural statistics, the number of animals per person had declined to 3.52 yaks and 7.57 sheep, adding up to 25.17 SU, right on the poverty line.[4] However, when one looks not only at the entire prefecture, a huge area much of which is semi-arid, but county by county, especially in the more densely populated counties which sustain the best quality, well-watered pastures, in Trindu, Yushu and Nangchen counties, by 2005 the number of sheep equivalents per nomadic household member had fallen well below the poverty line to 18.5 in Trindu, 15.7 in Yushu county and 18 in Nangchen. On the basis of detailed fieldwork, Gruschke says: “The 2006-2007 sample survey of Yushu households reveals that less than half of them own enough animals to live above the subsistence level (25SU per person). Between 12% and 20% of rural households did not even own livestock. Almost half of the livestock owners interviewed could not earn any cash from animal products, most of them not even producing enough for their own subsistence.”[5]

This slide into poverty, even extreme poverty and destitution, has many causes; regulatory restrictions on land allocation and herd size being one. Climate change and extreme weather is another, leading to accelerating degradation on the unduly small allocated areas to which pastoralists are restricted. A further factor is population growth. Another factor is the absence of livestock insurance enabling nomads hit by blizzards to access finance to buy new stock, to recover from natural disasters. The descent into poverty happened quickly, at the height of neoliberal China’s market embraced. On Gruschke’s figures, in 1992 the number of animals per rural person was well above the poverty line, in all counties of Yushu prefecture, with even the poorest county sustaining animals per person 30% above the poverty line.

The inevitable result of poverty and destitution is that Tibetan nomad children grow up stunted, starved of adequate nutrients. One of the most recent clinical studies by Chinese scientists shows 37.5% of rural Tibetan children have stunted growth.[6]  Another study found mental retardation rates high among Tibetan rural children.[7] Another recent study found that: “women from minority groups had higher odds of anaemia in contrast with Han,” especially in northern Tibet (Qinghai).[8]



While the pastoralists slide further into poverty, neoliberal China has discovered in Tibet a high-end brand that can be used to market packaged milk to urban Chinese consumers who have adopted milk as a health food, for infants and adults, are terrified, after a succession of scandals, of poisonous milk products sold in China, and have sufficient income for a private solution. The Treasure of Plateau Yak Dairy Co., and its Feifan brand of infant milk powder and Tetrapak whole milk is a case study of how, in today’s China, fortunes can be made, aided by central subsidies, by spending far more on marketing and brand building, than is paid to Tibetans to provide the milk of their dri, sold to China as “yak milk”.

Treasure of Plateau 高原之宝 pays Tibetan pastoralists four yuan per litre[9] of “yak milk” and sells it online, on, for 128 yuan per litre, or far more as infant formula, which sells for 440 to 580 yuan per tin weighing less than a half kilo.[10] This extraordinary mark-up finances a marketing budget aimed at the fears of the urban elite who want to consume milk, safely. It also pays for lobbying central authorities to be one of the small number of companies privileged to emerge as state-financed winners of a compulsory agglomeration,  of intensive mergers and acquisitions designed to not only replace reliance on imports but also to create China’s own team of “national champions” capable of exporting dairy products worldwide. The marketing budget is huge. “Treasure of Plateau has budgeted 100 million yuan from 2008 to 2010 to explore the domestic and international markets. It also hired Shenzhen-based China Winwin Consulting to be its branding and marketing agency to make “Feifan” the name to know when it comes to fresh yak milk products.”[11]

Turning the clean air and honest folk of Tibet into private corporate brand equity, while calling this most private enterprise a blessing for Tibet, does little for Tibet beyond monetising its’ supposed other-worldliness. Far from enabling Tibetan pastoralists to gain entry to the now massive Chinese urban market for whole milk, yoghurt and infant formula, the extreme prices limit Tibetan dairy to luxury items for the super-rich, status symbols not meant for the masses, a brand which would only be cheapened if mass produced.



All of this is evident to the customary leaders of Tibet, the enlightened lamas, khenpos, geshes and wandering ngagpa yogis. Not only are they revered by Tibetans, for their clear-headedness, inspiring leadership and impartiality, if anything, they are trusted more than ever, at a time when it is hard to find Han Chinese who are compassionate towards Tibetans, and trustworthy.

The lamas, even when they must be silent in public, nonetheless see the seductive promise of neoliberal modernity, and its failure to deliver. They see the tilted playing field. They hear the stories of the frustrated pastoralists who have tried to enter the wider market economy, only to be forced to accept a pittance for animals caringly reared for years. They see for themselves the failure of either the social engineering state, or the neoliberal marketplace, to build the most basic infrastructure, such as stockyards to keep animals healthy during the sales process, which would give pastoralists a chance of getting a fair price for their animals.

The nomads who descend into poverty, whose narrowly allocated fenced in lands degrade for want of herd mobility, are the lama’s people, with their loyalty to a specific monastery or a particular lineage of reincarnate lamas that stretches back for generations. If anyone has an intimate, and panoramic understanding of the problems of the red-faced Tibetans of the grasslands (as they traditionally call themselves), it is these traditional protectors of the people and the land, the lamas.

They see all too clearly that the nomads of Tibet have no way forward, and no way back. The way forward, entry into the modern mobility of wage employment in the factories, is blocked, because very few children of nomads, in poor counties with poor schools, complete primary school and qualify to enter one of the limited number of secondary (or junior middle) schools in the towns growing all over Tibet. Even if they make it to junior middle school, they seldom graduate, and those who do then face the overwhelming reality that nearly all employment opportunities require fluency in written and spoken Chinese, which they are not as good at as their Han neighbours. Entry is blocked by the language of the master race, and by the active racism of Han and Hui kin networks originating in the home provinces of the immigrants to Tibet, seizing and monopolising opportunities for wealth accumulation.

All of this is obvious to the lamas, who are seldom unaware of the social dynamics of their people; and even more obvious to the wandering yogis, the ngagpa, who live among the people and see their frustrations every day. The pastoralist parents of children who drop out of school after a few years frequently say their kids no longer have any desire to persist with the hard working life of nomadic pastoral production. They have learned bad habits at school, including the widespread disdain, not only among educated Chinese teachers, but also among Tibetan town dwellers, that nomads are backward. So they cannot go back, and cannot go forward into neoliberal urban modernity.

This has long been known to the lamas, and has long been met with compassion. But compassion, privately expressed when encountering destitute nomads in private is not, in Tibetan tradition, enough. Compassion is traditionally depicted as an energetic, active, masculine quality of an enlightened mind that proactively changes what is changeable. Until now the realm of the changeable has been restricted to the private encounter between the lama and the devotee; because on one the defining features of China’s rule is that lamas are forbidden any role in the public sphere.



What is new is the return of the lamas to the public sphere, most assertively on the fringes of Tibet, in areas where a great revival of transformative mind training has generated a large body of religious practitioners with the skills, strength of mind and courage to publicly guide the pastoralists of Tibet on how to live in a world that offers only the worst of statist command governmentality combined with the more exploitative aspects of neoliberalism.

This is a movement led by khenpos, rather than by lamas who inherit a title and a monastic establishment that the state feels it must regulate. The khenpos are the self-made selfless, whose diligence in study and transformational practice has fruited in an expansive opening to authenticity, in which even the fixations of an obsessively jealous and fearful state can be transcended.

Tibetans are good at recognising those who have awakened to a non-referential, transpersonal, all-inclusive state of being; and rely on them for guidance. Tibetans have had plenty of experience discerning who, whether recognised by title or not, has actually awakened to the nature of reality; and then trusting the non-deceitful ones. They have also much experience of the wannabes and pretenders, discerning the personal neediness persisting behind the spiritual façade. Knowing who to trust, the bond of trust is strong. The khenpos fulfil the highest of human needs, for self-actualisation. Not only does this give them remarkable energy, capability and fluidity; it awakens the minds of others, mobilising collective energies willing to stand up the full repressiveness of the state if necessary; while more usually flowing round the obstacles generated by suspicious official minds, like water.

The result is “the largest centre of Buddhist studies in the world”[12] on a remote hillside of eastern Tibet, the epicentre of a new movement providing public guidance to the millions of Tibetan pastoralists. This is Larung Gar, or more formally the Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, of Kandze prefecture in upland Sichuan.[13] Despite its size, and success in transmitting inner realisation, and 35 year history, Larung Gar attracts little attention. A rare exception is an evocative photo essay by Frederic Lemalet in the geographical magazine of April 2012[14]. That low key may be as its’ khenpos want it, in keeping with its designation as a gar, an encampment, suggesting something provisional, rather than the institutionalised monastic Buddhism the Communist Party finds such a threat.

Larung Gar is an engine of enlightenment, inspiring and insisting on the intensive meditational practice and study that reconditions the human person. Such centres of renewal are many in Tibetan history, as famous monasteries, founded by charismatic lamas, succumb to routine; and new centres of profound insight into the nature of mind grow elsewhere. The number of practitioners, and their energy in mobilising Tibetan society, suggests it is no exaggeration to call obscure Larung Gar the largest Buddhist study and practice centre in the world.

The founder of Larung Gar, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, often simply called Khenpo Jikphun, is widely recognised across Tibet as a great reinvigorator of Buddhist practice, and its relevance to daily life, and the problems of living in a new world where the attractions of neoliberal modernity are enmeshed with Chinese characteristics. Khenpo Jikphun created his enterprise in the 1980s, a time when China, appalled by the Cultural Revolution, showed much greater respect for Tibetan language and culture than now. Premier Hu Yaobang, while touring Tibet, went as far as to order Han Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet to learn Tibetan, a command that was never implemented. It was a propitious moment for a renewal movement for Tibetans seeking to rediscover the repressed, not just as culture, tradition, doctrine and ritual, but as a deeply transformative inner journey to experience in fully embodied ways the nature of reality, of mind and of the phenomenal world. Here, Tibetans discovered, the full path to enlightenment could be practiced, under the skilful guidance of Khenpo Jikphun, who himself had spent the barren Cultural Revolution years taking the path of full awakening to its full fruition. His RigpaWiki page says: “During the time of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, starting in 1950, Khenpo withdrew increasingly from normal monastic life until in 1959 he took to the remote mountains, herding a small flock of goats and sheep. There, for the next twenty years, he secretly engaged in meditation and occasionally taught small numbers of disciples, often basing his instructions on the Seven Treasures of Longchenpa. Throughout this time, he was able, through legendary exploits and means, to elude the Chinese authorities.”[15] The Rywiki entry says: “1960-1980. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok evades the People’s Liberation Army, the Red Guard and Chinese authorities by wandering as a goat herder and nomad in the remote valleys of Serthar in eastern Tibet. During these years, he continued to practice mediation, write commentaries on Buddhist philosophical texts, as well as informally transmit teachings to students. In Kham, stories abound today of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s miraculous abilities to evade capture during this period.”[16]

Such renewals have happened many times in Tibet, perhaps the best known being the Rimé movement of the mid-19th century. After the cultural revolutionary war against everything old, including Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, many Tibetans yearned not just for the performative aspects of Buddhist ritual, but for the inward path of discovering, and experiencing, the source of consciousness. The popular biographies of great lamas and yogis constantly emphasize the value of putting all else aside, if one finds an authentic, trustworthy, undeceitful teacher, to go to wherever the teacher resides, however far it may be, whatever the hardships, to receive the whispered oral transmissions that nudge the meditation practitioner beyond concepts and into utter authenticity. Tibetans did make the journey, from all over the Tibetan Plateau, to remote Larung Gar in Serthar County, where they built simple wooden retreat huts for basic shelter while doing intensive mind training practice under the supervision of Khenpo Jikphun.

“In 1987, Khenpo led over 10,000 Tibetan monks on a pilgrimage to Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province. This particular pilgrimage created a spectacular scene. Crowds of Chinese pilgrims and onlookers tagged along. Upon returning to Serthar, Khenpo and the monks found that a large number of Han Chinese lay and monastic practitioners then followed them into the mountains of Kham.”[17]

Shortly after his death, in 2004, the current Dalai Lama wrote of him:

Even amidst the oppressive darkness of the five degenerations,

You perfected your study, contemplation and meditation on all the outer and inner pitakas, and countless scriptures,

Reached the highest experience and realization of their meaning,

And stood out, as the supreme holder of the definitive teachings.

When the fierce winds of change blew with unbearable intensity,

Your determination and resolve remained steadfast like the king of mountains,

And those in saffron robes, upholders of the three trainings,

And devoted followers in their thousands, flocked around you.”[18]

The impact on Tibetan Buddhism of the fierce winds of revolution is expressed by scholar David Germano: “The body of Tibet herself was stripped of its web of stupas, temples, and other architectural markers, and even the memories of her sacred caves, groves, and mountains were at times eradicated through the human loss. The bodies of religious Tibet were sacrificed and resacrificed on multiple fronts for a three­decade period which resulted in the literal deconstruction of an entire civilization.”[19]

Not only did the Dalai Lama deeply appreciate Khenpo Jikphun’s ceaseless successful transmission of the inner meanings of Buddhist practice; there was a strong link between the previous Dalai Lama and the previous incarnation of Khenpo Jikphun, Terton Sogyal, which is explored at length in a 2014 English language biography of the Terton, or treasure finder.[20]



The English speaking world seems to have barely noticed Khenpo Jikphun and the biggest contemporary centre of Buddhist learning and practice in the world, his creation. The nature of his achievement is evident in the large number of khenpos who graduated from Larung Gar, now revitalising Buddhist practice all over Tibet, strengthening minds and resisting the seductions of neoliberal China. What is less evident is how Khenpo Jikphun achieved what he did, and how his lasting legacy, including the campaign to refrain from sending yaks to slaughter, in the neoliberal market, originates in his decades at Larung Gar.

The only aspect of the Larung Gar story that was widely reported was the spasm of state sponsored destruction ordered by provincial authorities on belatedly discovering, to their great alarm, the number of sincere Han Chinese disciples, monks and nuns, who came to Larung Gar to pursue undistracted the 24/7 inner life of the practitioner on the path of liberation. There were bursts of repression, with the first and worst in 2001 in which most of the monastics were expelled and their retreat huts, laboriously built of timbers from nearby forests, were destroyed. Significantly, the first residential quarters to be demolished were the Han Chinese practitioners.[21]  In the eyes of officials, the feudally superstitious Tibetan religion was barely tolerable when practiced by Tibetans, but when it also infected Han Chinese the transmission of disease into the home population became intolerable. Thus put, it is hardly surprising that the wave of destruction of 2001 occurred, with further crackdowns in 2002 and 2004.

The repression fitted well with the standard Tibetan exile narrative of loss, destruction, Tibetan voicelessness and victimhood; and was widely reported. A 2014 Google search for Larung Gar mostly brings back reports from 2001.

Yet in 2014 Larung Gar is flourishing, and is as big, if not bigger than ever; a fact exile Tibetans ignore. Tibetan victimhood is at the core of the exile narrative of their homeland; inner strength is not. Larung Gar survived both the pogrom and, in 2004, the death of Khenpo Jikphun, because of its inner strengths; the same inner resources that led to its initial success. David Germano calls this re-membering the dismembered body of Tibet. Germano’s observations of Larung Gar in the early 1990s seem as true over 20 years later: “Here the sacred landscape of Tibet was being revived in the radical way that only Ter [recovered hidden treasures] can, and religious energy thus appeared centripetal in marked contrast to the alienated state in which institutionalized Buddhism finds itself in many parts of Tibet. Khenpo Jikphun has created a significant countermovement re-establishing the center of gravity within Tibet herself, thereby stemming the flow of authority and value toward Chinese modernity, on the one hand, and refugee Tibetan communities, on the other. He has constellated Tibet’s fragmented cultural energy around him, reinvested it in the Tibetan physical and imaginal landscape, directly relinked the contemporary situation with Tibet’s past, and thus in a major way reconstituted Tibetan identity within the realities of life in the contemporary People’s Republic of China, thus reinvigorating Tibetan pride, self-confidence, and sense of purpose.”[22]



A closer look at Larung Gar’s initial decades suggest that what is actually remarkable is not that the Chinese Communist Party felt threatened in 2001 and demolished most of Larung Gar, but that it took so long for the CCP’s fears to boil. By 2001, Larung Gar had run two decades of highly structured, disciplined, intensive, intimately supervised training of thousands of monks and nuns, generating a huge number of new khenpos who were spreading across Tibet, and into lowland China.

Khenpo Jikphun, in those decades, had not only led pilgrimage to Wutai Shan, deep in inland northern China, but also went very publicly to Beijing, had extensive dealings with the Panchen Lama and had his institute officially certified by the Panchen; he had been to Nepal and India, had meetings with the Dalai Lama, and toured north America, Europe and Japan. Any or all of these activities could have been considered transgressive, especially by today’s standards, which are much less tolerant than China’s stance of the 1980s. Yet Khenpo Jikphun, through forced of personality, managed to stare down nervous local officials, and always tested the limits of official restrictions on public religion.

From the outset, he ran a highly disciplined operation that gave everyone clear messages as to what was acceptable, and how to deal with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when many monastics had no choice but to denounce their fellow religious, take up lay life, marry, and earn a living irrespective of the long term consequences.

He dealt with the traumatic legacy of the chaotic Cultural Revolution decade with a clear policy of truth and reconciliation, enabling many who were burdened with regret at broken vows to decisively put the past behind them. “For those practitioners who broke their monastic and tantric vows during the Cultural Revolution (such as vows of celibacy, respect for religious structures and reverence for one’s master), if the corruption was not too severe as to be beyond restoration, he instructed the performance of appropriate rituals for renewing vows.”[23] This purified the minds of individuals burdened by post-traumatic stress, and purified Buddhism generally, to be capable of moving on. The enduring legacy was an abiding concern with discerning good and ill in the compulsions and corruptions of the times, among individuals and at the behest of the state.

From the outset, at Larung Gar it was forbidden to smoke or drink alcohol.[24] Lax students, gossips and those with grudges were also forbidden. Every student was required to have a “yellow book” in which disciplinary infractions as well as academic progress was recorded. He asked of his Chinese followers that they learn Tibetan, and Tibetans were encouraged to learn Chinese, as both are languages rich in the texts of the Buddha dharma.

The window for re-establishing the inner path was a rare moment, but much yearned for by Tibetans who wanted nothing in life but to go within, under skilful supervision. Germano reminds us: “there remains a deep, abiding cultural depression among Tibetans, from the educated youth and religious elite to nomads and villagers. In particular, one constantly encounters feelings of alienation and inadequacy among religious practitioners and communities. There is a pervasive feeling, articulated by young people with serious religious or intellectual interests, such as lay scholars educated at the Dawu Nationalities Institute in Kham, that their religious and intellectual as well as political situation is hopeless, given the continuing Chinese cultural and political onslaught.” The way out was the creation of Larung Gar.

The current popular movement to withhold yaks, sheep and goats from the abattoir; to ask lay people individually and as villages, to vow to give up fighting, drinking, whoring and other social evils, all originate in the early years of Larung Gar, when a charismatic Khenpo, in his most generative years, seized what turned out to be a unique moment for reasserting the value of intensive mind training.

In his wrathfully compassionate way, he faced both his Tibetan and Chinese critics head on. He refused to legitimate Beijing’s choice of a Tibetan boy to be declared the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama who had died in 1989; arguing “that in order to recognise a lama one must have attained a higher degree of spiritual realisation than that lama. Furthermore, he said that he was incapable of recognising any lama, and he had never recognised even a single lama in his entire life.”[25] This impeccable logic is classic Tibetan disingenuity, deftly wielding the weapons of the humble yet indomitable. Khenpo Jikphun not only refused to play the game of validating reincarnate lamas, he had a reformer’s scepticism as to the quality of many declared reincarnate tulkus, saying bluntly: “Today we have a surfeit of tulkus. Earlier, the progeny of lamas and aristocrats used to be tulkus. Today the rich and the white people are tulkus. They may recognize their robes and rosaries from previous lives, but the inner qualities have slipped their memory.”[26] Such critiques invited his audience to perceive for themselves the khenpo’s inner qualities, which were not wanting.

His advocacy for animal rights, in the face of China’s neoliberal market economy, likewise had early origins, and became a major theme of his teachings. Recent articles about “the slaughter renunciation movement” tend to treat his concern for all sentient beings as a political move to consolidate Tibetan identity in opposition to Chinese market modernity; or as a doctrinal innovation in which a progressive and a traditionalist outlook are somehow in tension.[27] But Khenpo Jikphun exhorted lay followers to abandon the wearing of furs several years before the Dalai Lama bluntly said the same; and argued not only for refraining from slaughter but actively saving the lives of animals as a daily practice. In 1997 his resolve on this issue was renewed when, in a dream, he met his teacher, who commended him for his desire to save animals, and blessed him with an intimate touching of foreheads. “From that day the Chosje [Jikphun] stepped up his call to liberate a greater number of animals through his wide retinue of disciples, spanning across the globe.”[28]

Khenpo Jikphun and his successors crystallised these concerns into ten vows that could be taken by lay Tibetans, to refrain from stealing, using knives or guns in fights, whoring, selling guns or drugs, smoking drugs or cigarettes, drinking any alcohol, gambling, hunting, and wearing animal fur. But at the head of this list of social evils was: “Not to sell for slaughter: One should not sell horses, cattle, sheep or dogs to be butchered.”[29]

This became a social movement, a popular cause in which his code of contemporary virtues became the lyrics of pop songs and videos, some graphically depicting animal slaughter. He dwelt at length on the specifics of what, on TV news worldwide, is invariably edited out or fuzzed: the specific methods in common use of taking Tibetan animals to the slaughterhouse, and the actual casual brutality of their deaths. He asked audiences accustomed to imaginatively visualising themselves as deities, to imagine the suffering of beasts treated as commodities.

None of this, or the list of ten contemporary virtues, is unique, or even unusual in Tibetan tradition. The lamas are always pushing their hearers to be more considerate, less hot-headed and quick to quarrel, more co-operative and thoughtful, less vain and acquisitive. There is always a tension between the direction the lamas nudge their people, and the abiding human desire to grab fleeting pleasures as opportunity arises. Tibetans in Tibet (in contrast to exile) revere their lamas, perhaps today more than ever, yet don’t always follow their advice.

Khenpo Jikphun’s advocacy of withholding herd animals from the abattoir, and his full list of ten nonvirtue to abstain from, and also his inclusive, non-sectarian inclusion  of all Tibetan religious schools; all have plenty of precedent. One of the most famous 19th century lamas, Shabkar, constantly urged anyone who would listen, as he travelled all over Tibet, to go vegetarian.[30] The practice of saving specific animals for life, buying them as a virtuous act so animals thus marked could live out their days on the pasture, is an old merit-making practice among Tibetans who could afford to do so. New media now make this practice universal.[31]

Khenpo Jikphun gave teachings every morning at Larung Gar, ranging widely and deeply into many topics, including the practical reasons for withholding animals from slaughter, and for his advocacy of a vegetarian diet. His reasoning, based not only on classic Buddhist logic but also on a close reading of the workings of the actual market, were later gathered in publications that circulated widely across Tibet. In these and in further publications by his successor khenpos, his exegetes, much space is given to common sense arguments, taken from direct observation of daily life, in support of taking the vows of the ten virtues. He observes the workings of the neoliberal market economy as inimically unfavourable not only to herd animals but equally to their herders. These observations underscore his alternative, which is retention of the customary moral economy, both in the sense used by James Scott, signifying a use economy of bare subsistence, in which poverty is always close; and in the sense used recently by several economists calling for a return to small-scale organic eco-agriculture to replace the large scale industrial agribusiness exchange economy that is entering Tibet, with Chinese characteristics.



Khenpo Jikphun and other khenpos now leading the renewal movement originating at Larung Gar, identify many aspects of the ways Tibetan primary producers lose by entering the neoliberal market. In 1999, noting the sudden cessation of logging of Tibetan forests,  by orders from Beijing, after disastrous flooding downstream, Khenpo Jikphun writes: “The trucks that earlier transported wood are now ferrying cattle to the abattoirs. If things go on as at present, the size of Tibet’s livestock will be reduced so drastically that the nomads will be deprived of their only source of livelihood.”[32]

This is not just an arithmetic observation on the balance between fields on the hoof versus offtake turnoff rates; it is also an argument for the use economy in which wealth is measured by how many animals remain alive on the pasture, rather than the yardstick of success being the number sold as commodities to be converted as fast as possible to meat. Not only is this an argument for the use economy rather than the modern exchange economy, it also valorises the pastoralist’s understanding that to nomadize is to live in a risky, uncertain environment, in a land of unpredictable extremes of weather, in which recovery from disaster depends on having plenty of remaining animals on the hoof, even if many die in a blizzard or starve in an exceptionally long winter.

Chinese economists, official Chinese Animal Husbandry Bureaus and Western academics all assume the pastoralists are irrational, backward and stubbornly premodern for seeing animals on the hoof as their sole nor, or wealth, capital, collateral, dowry and social security. “The state is irritated when herders don’t slaughter their yaks for spiritual reasons. It is very common for many government officials, including some Tibetans, to say that Tibetan herders are very irrational for keeping so many yaks instead of selling them to improve their living conditions and educate their children.”[33] Gayley, a religious studies scholar, perhaps unfamiliar with pastoralist survival strategies, is similarly sceptical about Khenpo Jikphun’s “premodern” concern to maintain the national herd, “whether or not his assessment holds up to scrutiny.”[34]

Khenpo Jikphun monitored all aspects of the neoliberal animal commodity economy as it operates in Tibet. In a video of his teachings, he says: “from a this-worldly perspective, the business involved with killing will never bring economic improvement. I personally have never seen any middlemen, who do the livestock trading business between Tibetan pastoral areas and nearby Chinese cities, make money from their sinful business. I saw many slaughterhouses in Tibet that have slaughtered millions of livestock for many years go bankrupt one after another.”[35]

Can this really be true, or is it the prejudice of a premodern preacher, predisposed to assume wrongdoers will come to no good? Trucking livestock, on bad roads, long distances to markets that have no infrastructure for animal welfare, still less for spelling and fattening animals prior to sale and slaughter may well debase the value of the animals thus commoditised. The logic of China’s plans for meat production all centre on intensification, which means centralising the last weeks of an animal’s life in a peri-urban feedlot, as in rich countries, fed where necessary on soybeans imported from the US, and hay imported from Australia or the US. In wealthier parts of China this is already happening, making global soybean prices soar due to Chinese demand outstripping supply.

By comparison, the kind of livestock marketing Khenpo Jikphun witnessed is small-scale, amateur, inefficient, and even deleterious to the quality of yaks as meat about to “come out” into the market. It is a primitive mode of accumulation, a step away from the moral economy of subsistence but far from a full step into the machinery of commoditised meat production that China aims for. It is the worst of both; it is ramalug, literally “neither sheep nor goat”, a common metaphor for Tibetans who compromise the purity and expressiveness of Tibetan language by sprinkling Chinese through it.



It may well be that Tibetans and Chinese Muslims (Hui) who truck livestock to market towns seldom make money and eventually go broke. That is what happened in the 1980s to the attempts to add value to the wool of China’s vast rangelands, from Inner Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau, Xinjiang and elsewhere. In that first decade of opening to neoliberalism, every pastoral county saw its opportunity to add value to the raw greasy wool produced by the pastoralists administered by the local government. County governments, free at last to establish their own Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) as part of Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the economy, rushed to build wool scouring plants, to clean and add value to wool, in the expectation of selling at a profit to the woollen mills in the boom coastal cities, especially in Shanghai.

Sheep and goat wools seemed ideal commodities for local governments to enter the market economy and get rich. But every grassland county was in competition with every other. The only business plan was to buy as much wool as possible, clean it, and sell to the Shanghai mills. There was little understanding, in remote provinces, that the Shanghai woollen mills could source wool globally, and could switch between wool and synthetics, or blends of both. The county level scouring plants were greedily built to handle more than the wool output the county could command, setting off a price competition as county scours competed to bulk up their inputs, in the short term a great deal for pastoralists who had no prior experience of their wool being competitive and in high demand.

But the over-capitalised and excessively ambitious raw wool processing plants found themselves squeezed, by rising input costs, the cost of servicing the loans they had taken to build their excessively big plants, and  by the woollen mills demanding prices (and quality) competitive with what they could buy from Australia. The scouring plants, rather than raising quality to match the standardised quality of imports, actually cut corners, to increase the weight of wool bales, by deliberately adding stones to weight them down. The woollen mills were furious, and stopped buying inland wool; a classic early case of China’s neoliberal turn creating such grasping at primitive accumulation that the county and township level TVE wool scouring plants nearly all went broke, in what economists call the “wool wars”. Local protectionism and greed led to collapse and failure. But the cadres still had their jobs and their state guaranteed wages; and could even make their debts the problem of the lending banks.  The pastoralists had no such impunity, and went quickly from being in unprecedented demand to their wool being classified as low grade, suitable only for felt making, no longer of any interest to the woollen mills, which turned to Australian, New Zealand and elsewhere instead.

Kazakh, Uighur, Mongol and Tibetan wool growers in China could find markets in Britain, the US and Germany a century ago. Today’s dynamic China could have created a world class industry by now that not only encouraged greater quantity and quality of wool production, but manufactured Chinese wool into top quality, premium priced export market garments. This is what one might expect, since China is the world’s factory, is especially dominant in textiles and clothing manufacture, even to the extent of driving many third world textile industries bankrupt in recent years. This is also what one might expect given China’s genius for nurturing industries and corporations, with state ownership and support, into national champions capable of playing on the global stage.

There has been little attempt, in the past 50 years, to improve the quality of Chinese wool, that has had lasting results. China today has the biggest number of sheep of any country in the world, is the third largest wool producer in the world,[36] yet the wool it produces is regarded as so inferior that it is used only for the coarsest fabrics. There has been no effort to consistently raise the quality of wool produced by poor herders in a primary industry which by its nature is extensive, using huge areas of land not suited to other productive use.



There is now an almost complete disconnect between Chinese wool and China’s woollen textile manufacturing industry. The woollen mills rely almost entirely on imports of fine wool, especially from Australia, rather than using domestic wool. The most value-added product made from Chinese wool was the Mao jacket, once ubiquitous, now a retro look among the fashion conscious nostalgic for a past in which there was a sense of common purpose, and a shared belief in a future socialist paradise. Mao jackets, PLA military uniforms and blankets were all made from wool produced by the upland remote poor, and woollen mills were built in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia to be close to the source of supply. Today nearly all these mills have closed, unable to compete with the more profitable coastal mills reliant on imported wool. [37]

The decline and fall of improvement to Chinese wool is a sad story of repeated state failure, market failure, misguided policy and decades of neglect of the remote upland poor, locked out of global markets since the early 1950s, who were never given the education, training and access to credit enabling them to improve the quality of their wool.

The exclusion of wool growers from the global success of China’s wool industry is dramatically illustrated by comparing the two natural fibres which are the basis of China’s global dominance of the clothing industry, as the world’s factory. If we compare wool and cotton we see a sharp divergence in the connections between domestic suppliers and manufacturers. In the decade to 2005 China’s cotton production steadily increased from around 4 million tons to the present 6 million tons. Imports have fluctuated, sometimes dropping to only 0.12 million tons in 2002, but generally were around 0.6 million tons. Thus China was over 90% self-sufficient in cotton, right up to the ending of the global multi-fibre agreement, which removed quotas that had been allocated to competing third world manufacturing countries, and China’s cotton requirements shot up. In 2005 and 2006 China used over 10 million tons of cotton a year and imported more, with a self-reliance of around 60%.[38]

By contrast, despite the size of China’s sheep herd, self-sufficiency in wool declined to 67% as early as 1982, by 1988 was as low as 52%, and by 1992 down to 43%.[39] On recent figures, Chinese domestic growers produce about half China’s consumption of wool, but imports are dominated by premium priced fine wool, and domestic production is dominated by coarse and semi-fine wool.[40] China paid US$914 million for imported raw wool in 2003.[41] If that amount had been available to domestic growers, they would have capital to invest in fine wool.

The reasons for the comparative health of China’s cotton growing, and decline of wool growing, are not hard to find. The policy of central authorities for decades was to depress the prices of agricultural inputs to industry, so as to concentrate funds within manufacturing industry, for future expansion. This was especially true in established primary industries reliant on small holders, such as wool, rather than newer industries amenable to scaling up to large state farms, such as cotton. This deliberate distortion of the market led to chronic underinvestment in grasslands and wool production, marginalisation of undercapitalised domestic growers, lack of improvement in quality despite rising expectations of woollen mills, and an increased import of fibres. The direct cause-and-effect relations between centrally planned distortions and increased imports are predicted in the modelling of economists Zhang, Lu, Sun, Findlay and Watson.[42] The tragedy of wool is that, at a time when the state was capable of investing in improving domestic wool quality, and grower incomes, it failed to do so; and now the state no longer has the capacity since control is decisively in the hands of privatised woollen mills with no interest in helping domestic growers. Now it is probably too late to improve Chinese domestic wool quality, though the World Bank still hopes to prove otherwise.

How can it be, this remarkable situation of the country with the world’s greatest sheep herd using so little of its own wool in its own woollen cloth mills? This is a story over many years, of consistent exclusion and coercive state control over growers, while the big coastal mills were given help to grow bigger. The story of the exclusion and impoverishment of China’s wool producers has many stages over the decades since they were forbidden, in the 1950s, to sell their wool on to international markets, and had no choice but to sell to the Shanghai mills.

This story has been told succinctly by Zhou Li, Zhang Cungen and Shi Zhaolin, all of the Institute of Agricultural Economics in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.[43] They list the many ways that official policy, over decades, discriminated against wool producers, while favouring the big wool manufacturers. China’s developmentalist state chose to boost manufacturers at great cost to wool growers.

First, in the early revolutionary years, all wool became state property, compulsorily acquired at prices set by the state, to be allocated to woollen mills according to plan. The price set by the state in 1952 was RMB 2080 per ton of wool, and 10 years later it was still only 2,240 RMB per ton. By 1970 the purchasing price rose to 3,000, but over the next 15 years, despite the end of the Cultural Revolution, the return of herds to herders, the introduction of a  “free market”, and great income gains by almost all other farmers, the price of wool rose only to 3730. “The relative prices of State purchased wool in the 1978-1984 period declined year by year and….. the total index of official State prices for farm produce and side-line products increased 53.7% during the 1978-1984 period, but the mixed average price of wool purchased by the State increased by only 9.7%. The real (or relative) price of wool dropped to its lowest level in 1984.”[44] At that very time other farmers, free of state price controls, were booming and leaving poverty behind, while wool growers still had no choice of buyer. As a result, in those areas where both climate and proximity to markets allowed growers to switch, wool growers did switch from wool to mutton, or to other production altogether. Since they had no voice in policy making, their only choice was to change production. But in China’s western hinterland, far from markets and in areas too cold for other production, the herders had no choice but to continue with wool.

The latter half of the 1980s was a turbulent time in China’s domestic wool production industry, with great promise for growers. China’s reform era finally reached the wool growers. Two new policies promised to improve the livelihoods of wool producers, one by increasing prices through genuine market competition through an auction system, the other being wool scouring plants near to wool producers, to add value by supplying woollen mills with clean wool ready to make into yarn.

These two new initiatives could have succeeded, but both failed, because of opposition by powerful vested interests, able to undermine the efforts of central ministries because of their tight hold on wool sales. Initially, the auction system seemed to work, as wool prices rose significantly, aided by the drop in wool production as a response top prices being held down so long. Central ministries, still structured to fulfil central plan quotas of a command economy, competed against each other.


Wool was an industry segmented into three separate layers, each controlled by a different central ministry. Wool production was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, which failed to invest in the grasslands even sufficient to maintain productivity, or arrest the degradation of the working, heavily grazed rangelands. “In Inner Mongolia, the amount invested per unit area in pasture improvement over the past 30 years [to 1989] has been less than one-seventieth of the value of animal husbandry products per unit area over the same period. As a result, pasture yields in some areas are now less than half of what they were in the 1960s.”[45] Wool manufacture was the responsibility of the Ministry of Textile Industry. Coming between the producers and the manufacturers was a third player, essential to the command economy ideal of efficient allocation of commodities according to requirements, the Ministry of Commerce and its monopolistic Native Products Corporation, and under that the Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, which were not in any sense coops set up by or for growers, but were administrative arms of the state, dictating terms of trade to growers.

The Ministry of Commerce had a monopoly on raw wool through its hierarchy of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives (SMCs) down to county level, as the only buyers in rural production areas. The Ministry of Textile Industry championed the interests of the woollen mills, at that time all state-owned, which sought more direct access to raw wool supplies without having to go through the endless layers of rent seeking administrators of the SMCs at county, then prefectural and then provincial level, each adding their own margins before releasing wool to the mills. It was the Ministry of Textile Industry that promoted auctions, but only a small proportion of China’s large wool clip was ever auctioned, as the SMCs managed to maintain their hold and thwart central plans and grower hopes.

One reason the auctions failed is that wool prices were volatile, soaring between 1985 and 1988, then crashing. 1989 was a year of political turmoil that cut China’s trade, including demand for wool, but many other factors were at work. By 1989 the expensive wool scouring plants located in wool producing areas were in serious trouble, on the brink of collapse, at great cost to growers. The scouring plants seemed like a good idea, part of the reform era, enabling not only cities to industrialise and create wealth, but also rural areas were able to capitalise on their comparative advantage by adding value to local raw commodities. This was the time of Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs), a rural industrialisation policy intended to give the countryside its chance to keep up with the booming urban centres and become rich.

In theory, this was a strategy based on real opportunity, but in practice the opportunities were seized by middlemen yet again, by county level officials who used their new permission from above to borrow money, to build wool scouring plants that were too big for the local supply. Greedily, they expected huge profits, which would be possible simply by paying wool growers a little more than the usual price, including growers beyond their own local government jurisdiction. The business plans looked good, and the state owned banks were obliged to lend, since they were directed to do so from above.

Inevitably, the good idea of some quickly became the same good idea driving all county governments in all wool producing areas. Soon there were too many wool scouring plants, with too little supply to justify the capacity of each plant, all competing against each other. This period is known in China as the “wool wars.”

The wool wars were a disaster for China’s poor wool growers. Just at the time when they had opportunity to increase incomes, and at a time of surging demand by woollen mills rapid expansion, the mills turned decisively away from domestic supply, and became big importers, because of the self-destructive greed of the wool scouring plants operated by county level cadres. In 1978, at the start of the reform period, China imported only 10,000 tons of wool. Ten years later, this had risen 15-fold to 152,000 tons, and in 2004 it was 220,000 tons.  The sudden increase in wool imports was boosted by handsome state subsidies to the woollen mills, to ease the burden of paying more for imported wool. In fact, the subsidy was as much as RMB 5000 per ton of wool in 1986.[46] In that year the average price of domestic Chinese wool was RMB 6000, so this is a massive subsidy.[47] In 1978 China’s wool growers provided 93% of all wool used in China to manufacture woollen goods, but by 1987 domestic growers produced only 59% of what manufacturers used.[48] The long term decline that has so marginalised the wool growers had begun, and gradually worsened.

The khenpos now leading the revival of Tibetan values witnessed these successive failures to include the Tibetan pastoral economy in any meaningful way in China’s fast growing globalised economy. They have understood that the fatal flaw in all Chinese plans for Tibet is the neglect, uninterest and even disdain for what is assumed to be a primitive mode of production, little better than an animal existence trailing after animals as they seek fresh grass. The khenpos have seen the full cycle of Chinese policy towards rural Tibet; from revolutionary productivist enthusiasm for bigger herds, and collectivisation, hoping for more meat production; to neoliberal enthusiasm for premium brand niche marketing of Tibetan produce by brand building Han Chinese entrepreneurs to whom Tibetan producers are at best minor aspects of brand equity. In sixty years, China’s primary lens viewing Tibet has shifted, from productivity to sustainability; yet the current dominance of sustainability narratives leads only to grazing bans, loss of Tibetan land tenure, closing of pastures and the redesignation of rangeland as watershed protection zones in which almost all human activity is officially excluded.



Throughout these successive state failures and market failures, the khenpos have seen Tibetan pastoralists, ever hopeful despite their slide into over-regulated poverty, attracted by the neoliberal promise of wealth accumulation.  Having seen the neoliberal market is rigged against Tibetan primary producers, the khenpos instead urge abstention from slaughter, presenting this as the first of ten virtues that are both traditional and attuned to the dangers of the times. While urging their people to take these vows to abstain from unwholesome activity, the khenpos at the same time urge rural Tibetans to send their children to school, even if the only schools are far, requiring not only junior middle school students to board, away from their families and family enterprises, but even primary age children too must these days leave their families, as schooling is increasingly centralised.

Some observers assume the khenpos are reactionary traditionalists, insisting on old fashioned Tibetanness reified as eternal difference, in an anti-modern rejection of the market, which will only doom rural Tibetans to ongoing poverty. Some even accuse these khenpos of being as unhelpful as the Chinese Communist Party, in sacrificing pastoralists’ market entry opportunities for the sake of a foolishly backwards-looking anti-modern agenda.

Yet the khenpos, and other enlightened leaders trusted by Tibetans, urge parents to send children to school, to gain literacy and numeracy, preferably in Tibetan as well as Chinese, which are essential to finding a place in a fast changing world. Far from being green-brained reactionaries, they read the times, and see all too clearly that China has at no point taken the interests of the Tibetan pastoralists to heart, or even identified what those interests might be.

These charismatic khenpos are realists, attuned to the times. When they sometimes urge pastoralists to not only withhold their livestock from “coming out” to slaughter, but even to renounce eating meat themselves, they do so knowing that the proliferation of Han Chinese market gardens growing vegetables make the vegetarian option viable, for the first time in Tibetan history.[49]

The slaughter renunciation movement, based on acute observation of the dynamics of China’s neoliberal economy, thus offers all Tibetans opportunity to participate in the solidarity and revival of Tibetan values that characterises the self-immolation movement. The reframed ten virtues reassert core Tibetan values as classic Buddhist values, which distinguish Tibetans, mindful of long term consequences, from Han Chinese concerned only with immediate wealth accumulation.

Outside Tibet, the 130 or more Tibetan protest suicides by burning the body have been much misunderstood, as a cry of utter desperation, or protest only at religious repression, or a doomed attempt at provoking a mass uprising. It is also misunderstood as a cry for global help, or greater effort by Tibetans in diaspora. But the primary meaning of the self-immolations, if we attend carefully to what the immolators leave as their last testaments, is none of these: it is a call to fellow Tibetans inside Tibet to remain strong, united, with a strong sense of Tibetan identity and a revalorisation of Tibetan culture, as they only way of maintaining what is valuable about Tibet, at a time of rapid encroachment of neoliberal Chinese characteristics.

The ten virtues of the khenpos, not only the abstentions from harm but also their positive embrace of modern education, are likewise aimed at maintaining Tibetan collective strength, as a people, with a clear sense of difference and purpose in life, determined to stand together. Very few can make the ultimate sacrifice of burning the body; but all can participate in the renewal of Tibetan values and identity as a nation, by taking one or more of the ten vows. The decommodification of animal lives is a revalorisation of Tibetan lives.[50]

All Tibetans now have roles in cultural maintenance, in the face of the encroaching neoliberal economy of China and its seductions. Change is now happening  at a much faster rate than ever before, but it is also piecemeal, incremental change: a new road here, a tunnel there, a comfortable housing scheme here, a milk marketing promise, a new shop handily close by. In these everyday ways mundane modernity advances, always with Chinese characteristics. These advances are usually welcomed by Tibetans, who usually have an optimistic attitude. The railway that brings millions of tourists from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa also runs from Lhasa to Beijing and Shanghai, enabling Tibetans, at least in theory, not only access to new sights but new markets.

The longer term consequences of China’s massive capital expenditures on infrastructure over two decades of “leap over” investment, only gradually unfold. A newly reconstructed all-weather highway turns an unpleasant journey of nine hours in a grinding, slow, cold, underpowered bus to the provincial capital, into a two hour, heated journey in a fast modern bus, that makes the remote village and the provincial capital within ready commuting distance.  It becomes quite easy for grandparents with an urban apartment to visit grandchildren, or to swap places, allowing the grandchildren easy access to decent schools not available in villages.

But the converse also applies. A highland town once an arduous journey up from the provincial capital is now only two comfy hours away. Thus Rebkong, a town well known for the quality of its iconographic painters, sculptors and applique thangkas, finds itself caught up in a China-wide real estate boom, with high rise apartment blocks, especially on its northern edge, which is closest to Xining, the city of the Qinghai province. Rebkong’s reputation as a town of artists is commoditised, to advertise a property developer’s plans for an “authentic replica” fantasy version of an “artist’s village” accommodating art-loving Chinese tourists who want all modern comforts.

The inconvenient reality is that just to the north of Rebkong, along the Rongwo valley, there are many old Tibetan villages, and long established small farms, some of which will be displaced for the  authentic replica version.

In some minority ethnicity areas of China, tourism is controlled by local communities, and benefits accrue to their tourism enterprises. They often build replicas of traditional villages, so as to be ready to perform traditional dances and displays when the scheduled busloads arrive, without their actual living spaces being encroached upon. But Tibetans do not have control over how they are represented, how the tourism industry is run, or who runs it. Displacing actual functioning villages for a replica village, owned and run by Han Chinese entrepreneurs for their own benefit, in which Tibetans at best are employed as casual labourers to demonstrate their skills in painting or applique, is yet another loss, in a game stacked against Tibetans.

The everyday encroachment is well captured in a recent book by a Tibetan writer in exile who went back to her family place in Nangchen, a remote and poor area of Kham. Even there neoliberal modernity is everywhere in Tibetan lives: “We have brought a tray of plums, apples and peaches with us. Yungyang pulls out a knife to skin her fruit: she says she knows how to eat it. The Chinese are so clever to make such tasty fruit, she says to me. She sinks her three good teeth into the fruit. Her pupils dilate as her tongue registers the sensation of peach.”

In A Home in Tibet, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa captures the everyday aspects of China’s new hegemonic capacity to remake lives in the image of Chinese hedonic neoliberalism:  “Five decades ago it had taken Tashi close to twenty days to reach Xining on horseback from Kyegu. When jeeps began to cover the same distance in twelve hours, she thought it was by some divine machination. ‘Now I can take a plane from Xining and be in Kyegu in the time it takes me to make bread,’ she says in wonder.”

“Each winter Tibetans flock to the city leaving only a caretaker to mind their homes in snowbound towns and villages….  On cold winter days the elders spend their days in the shopping centres. The new buildings are so toasty, she sighs.

“This is the city Tibetans flock to when their small towns cannot help them: the sick come for surgeries, businessmen replenish their goods, families purchase furniture for new homes, and newlyweds spend a month’s salary to capture their union in glossy photo albums in Xining.”

“China is present in the clothes Kunga wears, the writing on the gates of his school, the language in which he studies. He forgets why the Chinese are in Tibet. He would, he says, prefer it is the Chinese left him alone, but since that is unlikely, he doesn’t see any other recourse available to him but to resign himself to the situation and make the best of it. All afternoon, Kunga reads Don Quixote in Chinese.”[51]

These neoliberal commodifications of Tibetan peaches, milk, art, suit coats and ways of life are now met, not only by the public suicides of Tibetans demanding the solidarity of fellow Tibetans, but also the new ten virtues that aim at decommodifying Tibet, decoupling it from its subaltern position in the neoliberal economy, in which Tibetan culture is available for tourist consumption.

As the khenpos fan out across Tibet, urging pastoralist families and whole villages to take the vows of abstention from the quick pleasures of consumption, there is an increasing felt urgency, in a situation where Tibetan language and culture seem to lack agency and efficacy, while standard Chinese Putonghua becomes the highway to access all that modernity promises. This urgency puts the social pressure of the whole village, and the special status of the khenpos, onto those who struggle to maintain these vows of abstention.

Tibetans now complain, on online chat platforms, that group pressure condemns backsliders who fail to keep vows, and khenpos have been known to bluntly warn that those who infract these lay vows are destined in the next life for the hell realms.

The ten virtues movement expounded by the khenpos has been called traditionalist, anti-modern and even a betrayal of the slender opportunities to pastoralists to gain extra income and enter the modern economy. Now, as coercive social pressures are exerted, taking a whole village to raise the abstemious hedonist, the khenpos are now accused of fascism, of imposing their will on the reluctant masses, in the name of abstract Buddhist versions of the good life, denying individual rights to have fun here and now. The khenpos are seen, often from afar, as anti-modern, anti-development and even as fascist. In the west, with its deep history of suspicion of church as a reactionary presence in the public sphere, dark echoes abound.

In Tibet, there is a sense that the endgame is close. Revolutionary China made war on Tibet, starting in the 1950s, which Tibetans resisted as best they could though ill equipped for modern ruin from aerial bombardment. To the many lay and religious of Tibet who have taken the opportunity of postrevolutionary reform to rebuild traditional inner strengths of Tibetans, and thus the collective strength of the Tibetans as a people, neoliberal China is now far more a threat than the forced marches and artillery of the People’s Liberation Army once were.

Once again, this is now new, especially in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands along the eastern rim of the plateau. Traditionally, these border regions were dotted with massive monasteries, capable of mobilising large number of monks to withstand the pressures of encroaching lowland Chinese armies, Mongol invaders, Muslim warlords and ambitious Qing emperors. Just as the new ten virtues are  new only in the superficial sense of naming contemporary vices, the cultural solidarity movement, embodied by the self-immolators and the vow giving khenpos are not new. Within any Tibetan monastic establishment, solidarity is expected, with a high degree of loyalty to the lama or khenpo. Now the widespread popular trust in those who manifest the inner transformation of realisation of the path within is put to the test, as the endgame draws nigh.






[1] Shefali Sharma and Zhang Rou; China’s Dairy Dilemma: The Evolution and Future Trends

of China’s Dairy Industry; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, February 2014, 17


[3] Daniel Miller, Poverty among Tibetan Nomads in Western China: Profiles of Poverty and Strategies for Poverty Reduction, Paper Prepared for the Tibet Development Symposium: Brandeis University. May 4-6,


[4] Andreas Gruschke;  Tibetan Pastoralists in Transition: Political change and state interventions, in Hermann Kreuzmann ed., Pastoral Practices in High Asia, Springer, 2012, 279

[5] Gruschke 279-80

[6].Dang S1, Yan H, Wang D; Implication of World Health Organization growth standards on estimation of malnutrition in young Chinese children: Two examples from rural western China and the Tibet region. Journal of Child Health Care. 2013 Aug 1

[7] Liu SM1, Wei G, Zhang W, Xiang Y, Huang XQ, Yang C, Huang WJ, Xie WJ, He X, Su XF, Wang J, Ciren P, Bima Z, Ci P, Za S, Liu XH.; Epidemiological survey on neuropsychiatric disorders in Tibet of China: neuroses, alcohol-related disorders, mental retardation and epilepsy; Sichuan Da Xue Xue Bao Yi Xue Ban. 2012 Mar;43(2):210-3, 225.

[8] Pei L1, Ren L, Wang D, Yan H.Assessment of maternal anemia in rural Western China between 2001 and 2005: a two-level logistic regression approach. BMC Public Health. 2013 Apr 19;13:366.

[9]  Profits of yak milk business, China Daily, 4 August 2008,


[11] Profits of yak milk business, China Daily, 4 August 2008,

[12] Matteo Pistono, Fearless in Tibet: The life of the mystic Terton Sogyal, Hay House, 2014, 260

[13] Dan Smyer Yu, The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, money, enlightenment; Routledge, 2011, 1-3

[14] Vol 88 #4



[17] Dan Smyer Yu, The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, money, enlightenment; Routledge, 2011, 1-3


[19] David Germano, Re-membering the Dismembered Body of Tibet, in  Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (editors Melvyn Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein);  U California Press, 1998

[20] Matteo Pistono, Fearless in Tibet: The life of the mystic Terton Sogyal, Hay House, 2014

[21] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy: A brief history of Chosje Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok and Serta La-rung Buddhist Institute, Kawa Kharpo Tibet Culture Centre, India, 2009, 79

[22] David Germano, Re-membering the Dismembered Body of Tibet

[23] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 97

[24] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 42

[25] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 125

[26] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 127

[27] Holly Gayley, Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20, 2013, 247-86

[28] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 120

[29] Gayley, Reimagining Buddhist Ethics, 272

[30] Shabkar, Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, Shambhala, 2010


[32] Serta Tsultrim, The Glowing Legacy, 121

Kabzung, 122

[33] Kabzung, Alternative Development on the Tibetan Plateau: The case of the slaughter renunciation movement, PhD dissertation, University of Colorado, 2012, 90

[34] Gayley, Reimagining Buddhist Ethics,257

[35]  Kabzung, Alternative Development, 122

[36] 2006 wool profile, Economist Intelligence Unit, 23 June 2006

[37] John Longworth, Colin Brown and Scott Waldron, Chinese domestic wool production, China Agricultural Economics Group, University of Queensland, 2004, 35

[38] USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, China Cotton and products annual 2006, GAIN Report CH6021

[39] Zhang Xiaohe, Lu Weihguo, Sun Keliang, Christopher Findlay and Andrew Watson, The ‘wool war’ and the ‘cotton chaos’: fibre marketing,  120-143 in Ross Garnaut et al eds., The third revolution in the Chinese countryside, Cambridge University Press, 1996, table 10.10, 136

[40] Longworth, Brown and  Waldron, Chinese domestic wool production, table 2

[41] ITS Global, Economic benefits for Australian wool trade from a China free trade agreement, Australian Wool Innovation, 2005, 11

[42] The ‘wool war’ and the ‘cotton chaos’  125-7 in Garnaut ed., The third revolution in the Chinese countryside.

[43] Zhou Li, Economic development in China’s pastoral regions: Problems and solutions, 43-56 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990

Zhang Cungen, Review of wool production and wool requirements in China, 8-23 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990

Zhang Cungen, An overview of the Chinese wool textile industry,  31-42 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990

Shi Zhaolin, Wool marketing problems in China, 24-30 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990

[44] Zhang Cungen, Review of wool production, 16

[45] Watson, Who won the wool war? 226

[46] Ai Yunhang, Major issues in wool supply and demand in China and the appropriate policies (Wo guo wangmao gong qiu fangmian de zhuyao wenti ji qi duice), Problems of Agricultural Economics (Nongye jingji wenti) #7, 188, 30-34, translated in Watson, Who won the wool war?

[47] Zhang Cungen, Review of wool production, table 7

[48] Andrew Watson, Christopher Findlay and  Du Yintang, Who won the ‘wool war”?: A case study of rural product marketing in China, China Quarterly #118, June 1989, 213-241

[49] Kabzung, 140-1

[50] Emily Yeh, (2013). Blazing Pelts and Burning Passions: Nationalism, Cultural Politics, and Spectacular Decommodification in Tibet. The Journal of Asian Studies, 72, pp 319-344

[51] Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, A Home in Tibet, Penguin India, 2013, 270

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China’s failure to make constructive use of Tibet’s traditional economy is a major tragedy. For decades there was opportunity to build linkages with the Tibetan livestock raising economy and the growing Chinese demand for dairy and animal products. There was ample opportunity, if the Tibetan nomads had been treated as respected actual partners, for a steady growth in production, in value adding, and integration into the wider Chinese economy.

Now that opportunity has passed, and China has declared the nomads redundant, no longer needed for any purpose on their ancestral pastures, neither for conservation of biodiversity, sustainability and watershed protection; nor for their production of butter, wool, skins and meat. The time has passed for such a mutually beneficial integration, which could have demonstrated to the nomads that China did actually care about their welfare, incomes and opportunities, and to provide China with what it now sources from around the world, notably from New Zealand and Australia.

It is now too late, in every sense. No longer would the big global lenders such as World Bank or Asian Development Bank consider lending to enhance China’s domestic supply of animal products from its deep inland. No longer does China wish to be considered as a poor country with poor people in need of special assistance. No longer does China imagine its far interior as a source of protein or productivity. China has decisively passed the Lewis inflection point, its economy growing out of reliance on cheap and plentiful labour, turning instead to imports to meet the demand for urban high fashion products such as yoghurt. China now concentrates its domestic animal protein production on national champions, huge corporations made bigger by central subsidies, that feed their dairy and beef cattle in industrial feedlots, on American soybeans. In every possible way, the vast lands of Tibet remain a relic, China’s past, a premodern, unproductive hinterland of raw nomads roaming with their animals, which were seldom brought out into the market economy.

Industrial strength agribusiness is China’s future, leaving Tibet far behind, surplus to requirements. It matters little whether those agribusiness giants are global multinationals selling to China, or Chinese multinationals operating increasingly on a global scale; because that is no longer a meaningful distinction. The biggest Chinese dairy companies now have global companies as major shareholders, and China’s emerging national champion agribusinesses have global reach, not only in sourcing meat worldwide, but in buying the farms, owning the land worldwide on which China’s food is grown.

Anyone suggesting today that the pastoralists of Tibet could benefit by greater access to China’s urban markets will be laughed at, as three decades too late. If there was a time when Tibet’s comparative advantage as a specialist livestock producer could have been beneficial to both Tibetan producers and Chinese consumers it was in the 1980s and 1990s. In those two decades the market economy boomed, Chinese farmers had their land restored to them, long term land tenure guaranteed, and economic decentralisation gave local governments, at prefectural level and below, greater latitude to experiment with new industries and enterprises based on local specialities. This was the time of the Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs), usually owned and operated by county level officials to add value to local products, finding new markets and greater returns for local communities and their surpluses. While the return of animals and land took longer in Tibet than in lowland China, and the issuing of secure land tenure documents was slow, the conditions were right for mutually beneficial integration of the specialist upland Tibetan economy with the lowland demand for greater consumption.

The 1980s is considered, throughout China, a great turning point, away from the revolutionary command economy, to be driven instead by capitalist opportunity to get rich, led, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, by those best situated to get rich first. Deng opened the economy to capitalist competition, embracing the ideology of neoliberalism, along with its inevitable consequence of today’s extremes of inequality. That has long been a standard narrative, uniting proponents of the market economy and its critics.

Identifying the arrival of neoliberalism in Tibet in the 1980s, Kabzung’s ethnography of Rakhor, one village in eastern Tibet, looks not only at the individual Household Responsibility System that contractually connected the state and the pastoralists, he goes further and identifies the psychological shift in the mentality of the pastoralists under neoliberalism. Kabzung (or Ga’errang, to use the name he is known by among the Han Chinese) names the mental changes inherent in the neoliberal market economy: “It means a complete transformation of their lives internally and externally, a historic transformation of primitive and backward nomads who subsisted on livestock production into market-oriented entrepreneurs.”

Kabzung depicts this as a state-driven project of “reshaping the western regions into a specific cultural landscape, instilling people with certain beliefs, desires and behaviours, replacing traditional spiritual culture with market-oriented, materialized and secularized culture.” He argues that the state persisted in intervening in the nomadic mode of production in “an effort to transfer labourers from pastures to secondary and tertiary industries, encouraging herders to be settled in towns and making their living by other means; at the same time the project encourages the remaining herders to increase their livestock production by modernizing and intensifying the system through grass cultivation, building shelters for livestock and grass storage, constructing roads between the pastures, improving yak breeding, and so forth.”

This is not at all neoliberal governance by markets. The above list of statist interventions in the pastoralists’ mode of production is long, to which Kabzung adds the construction of permanent housing, for which the nomads had to pay half the construction costs, even if it meant going into debt. These interventions were seldom just a menu of options on offer from above, which nomads could choose or ignore. They were mandatory, although implementation was often patchy. This is far from what is usually defined as neoliberalism. The state retains its dirigiste regulatory authority to require pastoralists, in the busiest time of year, the summer production season, to fence, sow, reap, dry and store fodder crops for winter feed, to build overwintering animal shelters etc. Even the road building and road mending which often gave nomads their first off-farm cash income, was usually done in summer.

Yet Kabzung rightly emphasizes the desire of the state to kindle desire in the hearts/minds of its pastoralist subjects, “the production of culturally governable subjects who are materialistic and secular.” This, he argues, is a project of self-fashioning and self-ownership.

yak milk infant formula 1

Yet the state, far from retreating, remains highly interventionist, its Animal Husbandry Bureaux active in social engineering projects all aimed at intensifying livestock production. This can be considered neoliberal, but the command and control economy of the 1960s and 1970s was equally productvist in its ideology, although its methods were different.
The highly centralised pastoral productivism of the 1960s and 1970s, and the decentralised individual pastoral household productivism of the 1980s and beyond both largely failed. Neither the revolutionary coercive model, nor the post-revolutionary incentivised model succeeded in intensifying the raising and slaughter of animals to a rate China wants. Based on modern agribusiness operating procedures, China aims to have half of all sheep and goats driven to market each year, and one quarter of all yaks. If the annual statistical yearbooks of the several pastoral provinces of China are to be believed, slaughter rates have gradually risen, but nowhere near the rates defined as modern and efficient.

In the late 1990s Dan Miller did detailed fieldwork in Nagchu, a nomadic area north of Lhasa. He found that: “Many nomads interviewed indicated that an ideal herd for an average nomad family (about 5 people) would be 40 yaks and 200 sheep/goats. On average, nomads in Taking and Dingo only have about 30 yaks and 50-75 sheep/goats. Much of the nomads’ production is for home consumption. There is little excess for sale.”

Nonetheless, the “come out rate” did gradually increase, to use the term China’s statistical yearbooks use, a direct translation from the Chinese, for what in other countries is called offtake or turnoff, in developed country markets where the exchange economy has become so normalised that the sale of animals for slaughter is naturalised by language suggesting a routine process. Not so in the vast pastoral regions of China, where the desire of the state, both in its revolutionary and neoliberal phases, for intensified production has largely been thwarted by pastoralists for whom animals on the hoof are the only wealth, social security, and insurance against disaster. Animals on the hoof are beyond the scrutiny of the state, hidden by the pastoralists up winding valleys whenever the state seeks to inspect, to make pastoralism scrutable, visible, legible and accountable.

Ever since the communes failed, in the late 1970s, China lost the capacity to enumerate each animal and impose a quota for slaughter. Kabzung, who grew up in Rakhor, the pastoral community that is the focus of his dissertation, says: “The slaughter rate during the commune system was very high. When I was young I observed that the local slaughterhouse had been slaughtering several hundred yaks per day in the fall of every year.” The collapse of the coercive communes meant a new system, with neoliberal incentives for animals to “come out” to market, coupled with command economy directives on mandatory herd size, stocking rates, carrying capacity, fixed land allocation, compulsory fencing and much urging to invest in fodder crop planting and harvesting.
This mix of inducements and incentives, command and market, failed to address the most basic human needs of the pastoralists; especially their need, in a risky environment, to retain capacity to recover herd size after extreme weather events. The combined carrot and stick approach was, as the pastoralists often said, ramalug, meaning neither sheep nor goat, a hybrid that promised individual choice but compelled nomads to plough, far, fence and store crops, at a time of year when all hands are needed to maximise animal production.

yak milk infant formula 2

So the nomads remained, in the eyes of cadres sent from urban Animal Husbandry Bureaux, stubbornly irrational, refusing to adopt a neoliberal market mentality. As Kabzung says: “It is very common for many government officials, including some Tibetans, to say that Tibetan herders are very irrational for keeping so many yaks on their pastures instead of selling them to improve their living conditions and educate their children.” In Tibetan, this is known as being “green-brained”; having a brain so little used that moss grows over it.

However, the pastoralists who did accept the urgings of the state that more animals “come out” quickly discovered that the terms of trade were stacked against therm. A functional neoliberal market requires, at the least, several market access technologies, usually provided by the state, to enable a market economy to operate, starting with roads connecting pastoral sellers with animal buyers. Even when roads exist, Tibet’s pastoralists quickly discovered that if you sell to the Chinese Muslim (Hui) trader who comes to you, you have no choice but to accept his minimal price for animals you have spent years rearing. So the nomads realised they needed trucks of their own, to take their stock to the urban markets, where there are many buyers. Under the neoliberal Household Responsibility System few pastoralist families could afford a truck, but in many areas money was pooled, or one enterprising individual set up a trucking business for the whole community. In these ways, the “green-brained” nomads turned out to be highly adaptable, taking to motorbikes and then trucks, treating them much like horses.

What deterred these entries into the market economy was the actual outcome. Across rural Tibet, few county towns bothered to build stockyards where animals, after transport, could be watered, fed and rested to recover from the journey to market on bad roads. No orderly marketing system was created, nor was animal welfare considered to be part of local government responsibility. So the nomads found themselves in town, with a highly perishable commodity and no facilities for them, facing cartels of Hui buyers who agreed among themselves to offer one low price, and not negotiate. The herders found themselves helpless, again and again, in the face of price fixing collusion and the lack of any sustenance for their animals. They could only sell as price takers, never as price makers. This is what has happened in town after town, repeatedly, all over Tibet.

Ironically, the failure of livestock intensification of slaughter rates to meet China’s expectations has been due not to some stubborn green-brained irrationality, but by state failure to emplace basic market infrastructure, or to understand the need of nomads for maximum herd size as insurance against climate disasters. Far from being irrational, Tibet’s nomads, with their customary flexibility, tried to realise the promise of the neoliberal market economy, and withdrew when it became clear the system was rigged. Kabzung tells of nomads who did intensify production, and were praised in the prefectural official media as exemplary. Kabzung translates these stories, originally published in Chinese, for example the story of Konchog Tashi, who invested the money from selling animals to “enjoy a comfortable way of life” in a new house, plus he bought a van, then “he boldly sold most of his 100 yaks and kept only a dozen female yaks” and now plans to build a second house to serve as the basis of a new enterprise: “His plan with this new house is to run a home-stay hotel, and with the advantage of its location near the provincial road, the future hotel is expected to earn over a hundred thousand RMB a year.” There is no information on whether this rosy picture, published in 2011, worked out well.


Official media frequently run cheery stories, featuring Tibetan role models who opt for the market economy and prosper. Seldom do such stories bother with crucial details, such as how Konchog Tashi is going to advertise his “home-stay hotel”, or how nomads close to the rail line connecting Lhasa to inland China can use it to get their dairy products or wool to distant urban markets.

The experience of most rural Tibetans is that the promise of the market is seldom fulfilled, even though it is normal, in a neoliberal economy, that the state, at a local or higher level, subsidises the construction of infrastructure such as saleyards, feedlots, animal fattening facilities on urban fringes, while also paying for road maintenance and even broadcasting price signals to remote producers. Today’s neoliberal China heavily subsidises the big “national champion” dairy companies that control the fast growing Chinese market for dairy. “According to the central government´s ‘Number 1’ Policy Document of 2013, the government will continue to support the scaling up and consolidation of the livestock industry. As part of that plan, subsidies will be provided to purchase improved varieties of dairy cows and livestock insurance, and for building standardized farms.Large dairy farms will also be supported through general incen¬tives provided by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) for large scale farms given MOA’s general bias toward scale, standardization and consolidation as an answer to food safety problems and management of natural resources and environmental concerns.”

All four central ministries with power over the dairy industry in 2014 agreed on a state-directed and financed plan of agglomeration. Caixin reported: “Beijing has vowed to form 10 strong domestic dairy companies by the end of 2018 which combined will account for more than 80 percent of the country’s total market share, according to a document jointly issued by four central government departments. The plan also includes building three to five of the big 10 into leading baby formula providers with annual revenue of more than 5 billion yuan. Both the central and local governments will contribute capital into the initiative to facilitate the consolidation of existing dairy firms, the announcement said.”

The current dominance of a small number of huge corporations in China’s booming dairy industry, assisted by state subsidies, is now typical of the pattern of contemporary Chinese neoliberalism; and a major reason why it is now too late for Tibetan livestock producers to enter the market. The barriers to entry are now formidable, requiring from the outset economies of scale, and an industrialised agribusiness model unavailable, unfamiliar and unattainable by Tibetans. Even if Tibetans were to wholly embrace the prevailing model of animal production in penned feedlots on urban fringes, it would at best provide employment for only a small fraction of the current pastoral population.


yak milk 4

None of this has dimmed the attractions of getting rich by entering the market, especially for rural Tibetans whose land grows not only grasses, sheep, goats and yaks but also the ingredients of traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines, notably yartsa gumbu (ophiocordyceps sinensis), a much prized fungal infection of caterpillars of the Tibetan turf. Not all Tibetans are bound to be losers in the neoliberal market. Yartsa gumbu is in such demand that many fortunes have been made, not only by collectors on their knees in the sward, but by pastoralists able to seek rents for entry by collectors onto their land, and by Tibetan middlemen able to compete with Chinese dealers in the urban supply chain.

Some pastoralists have made so much money collecting rental for seasonal access to their pastures that they no longer bother with the hard work of rearing animals. They often spend their money on mansions filled with modern furniture and electronics, seldom entering fully into the chain of capital accumulation neoliberalism requires in order to build a corporation with a life of its own, in competition with similar corporations to become the biggest and most successful.

There are areas in Tibet, especially where the plateau land is vast, uninterrupted by mountains, where pastoralism can also succeed by following the logic of neoliberal accumulation, agglomeration, upscaling, consolidating land holdings into a much bigger enterprise, and herds into specialised, segregated flocks grown for specific markets, some for their milk, some for meat, some for wool, and some for breeding. This is the global logic of “get big or get out”, of economies of scale, of specialist ranching strategies in use throughout the rangelands of rich countries such as US, Australia or Canada. In Tibet, such operations cannot formally incorporate, nor (yet) legally agglomerate land holdings, yet they do occur. The inevitable result is wealth accumulation for the few owners of big, specialised herds, and, at best, wage labour for the poorer Tibetans who do the actual herd management for the newly rich. As in the ranching economies of the US or Australia, a few prosper, and the rest must leave the land, because neoliberal logic declares them inefficient and redundant.

China’s official policies for rural Tibet clearly see this as the direction for the future; with peri-urban feedlots fattening animals prior to slaughter. Official statements present this as inevitable, a law of efficiency that implicitly makes most pastoralists redundant, and most of Tibetan pasture land irrelevant to producing penned, feedlot-fattened beasts ready for slaughter, of the body conformation best suited to butchering into fashionable cuts displayed on the supermarket shelf.

To sum up, Tibetan pastoralists are attracted by the opportunities presented by China’s embrace of neoliberal markets. Yet ongoing regulatory restrictions severely restrict the creation of surpluses that could “come out” into the market. Tibetan wool is no longer used by China’s woollen mills; Tibetan dairy products have barely entered the dairy commodity chains of China, except for very local consumption. China has instead turned to imports, both of fine wool for manufacture into woven cloth, and of dairy products, to meet the booming urban demand for hip health foods such as yoghurt. The demand for imports is so great that the biggest global multinationals all have a major presence in China’s dairy industry. These industries are now so dominated by big players that new entrants face enormous barriers, and no longer have opportunity to scale up gradually, growing incrementally by ploughing profits back to grow their business. Any new entrant would now need from the outset a high end brand name and a national distribution chain, and a capacity to produce high volumes with the low transaction costs that only a concentrated enclave operation can create. Scattered pastoral nomads across a vast landscape will never be able to compete: there are too many hands the product must go through, the costs of establishing, maintaining and quality controlling a network of dairy collectors and aggregators are now too great.

Yak dairy pure land of saintly Tibetans

When asked why they don’t participate in the market economy, Tibetan pastoralists often say they simply don’t have the surplus to sell. Their production is for subsistence. Herd sizes have shrunk, as has the size of adult yaks, as pastures degrade. Regulatory limits on herd size have been imposed and increasingly policed. In Yushu prefecture, one of the better pastoral districts of the Tibetan Plateau, in 1989 rural families had on average 8.04 yaks per person, 11.72 sheep or 51.92 sheep equivalents if each yak is counted as equivalent to five sheep. This was sufficient to live well, with the poverty line defined as 25 sheep units (SU) per person. However, by 2005, according to official prefectural statistics, the number of animals per person had declined to 3.52 yaks and 7.57 sheep, adding up to 25.17 SU, right on the poverty line. However, when one looks not only at the entire prefecture, a huge area much of which is semi-arid, but county by county, especially in the more densely populated counties which sustain the best quality, well-watered pastures, in Trindu, Yushu and Nangchen counties, by 2005 the number of sheep equivalents per nomadic household member had fallen well below the poverty line to 18.5 in Trindu, 15.7 in Yushu county and 18 in Nangchen. On the basis of detailed fieldwork, Gruschke says: “The 2006-2007 sample survey of Yushu households reveals that less than half of them own enough animals to live above the subsistence level (25SU per person). Between 12% and 20% of rural households did not even own livestock. Almost half of the livestock owners interviewed could not earn any cash from animal products, most of them not even producing enough for their own subsistence.”

This slide into poverty, even extreme poverty and destitution, has many causes; regulatory restrictions on land allocation and herd size being one. Climate change and extreme weather is another, leading to accelerating degradation on the unduly small allocated areas to which pastoralists are restricted. A further factor is population growth. Another factor is the absence of livestock insurance enabling nomads hit by blizzards to access finance to buy new stock, to recover from natural disasters. The descent into poverty happened quickly, at the height of neoliberal China’s market embraced. On Gruschke’s figures, in 1992 the number of animals per rural person was well above the poverty line, in all counties of Yushu prefecture, with even the poorest county sustaining animals per person 30% above the poverty line.

While the pastoralists slide further into poverty, neoliberal China has discovered in Tibet a high-end brand that can be used to market packaged milk to urban Chinese consumers who have adopted milk as a health food, for infants and adults, are terrified, after a succession of scandals, of poisonous milk products sold in China, and have sufficient income for a private solution. The Treasure of Plateau Yak Dairy Co., and its Feifan brand of infant milk powder and Tetrapak whole milk is a case study of how, in today’s China, fortunes can be made, aided by central subsidies, by spending far more on marketing and brand building, than is paid to Tibetans to provide the milk of their dri, sold to China as “yak milk”.

Treasure of Plateau 高原之宝 pays Tibetan pastoralists four yuan per litre of “yak milk” and sells it online, on, for 128 yuan per litre, or far more as infant formula, which sells for 440 to 580 yuan per tin weighing less than a half kilo. This extraordinary mark-up finances a marketing budget aimed at the fears of the urban elite who want to consume milk, safely. It also pays for lobbying central authorities to be one of the small number of companies privileged to emerge as state-financed winners of a compulsory agglomeration, of intensive mergers and acquisitions designed to not only replace reliance on imports but also to create China’s own team of “national champions” capable of exporting dairy products worldwide. The marketing budget is huge. “Treasure of Plateau has budgeted 100 million yuan from 2008 to 2010 to explore the domestic and international markets. It also hired Shenzhen-based China Winwin Consulting to be its branding and marketing agency to make “Feifan” the name to know when it comes to fresh yak milk products.”

This effort paid off for the private company, not listed on any stock exchange, in 2014, when China finally announced which companies would be the beneficiaries of the state-driven campaign to substitute domestic production for imports running at over one million tons of milk powder a year. The announcement was delayed by several months, as many ministries were involved, and the whole “national champion” approach of officials picking winners goes against Xi Jinping’s emphasis on letting market forces play the decisive role.

Treasure of Plateau Yak Dairy Corporation is a winner because of its unique selling proposition: the milk of the dri (or yak, as it insists on naming the male of the bos grunniens species as the milk provider), to the great amusement of Tibetans. Even though its tonnage of product is small, it has a favoured slot in the government’s compulsory merger and acquisition program, because China hopes “yak milk” will be a winner globally, and China’s Tibet gives China control of 80 per cent of all yaks in the world.

From a Tibetan viewpoint, “yak milk” sold at exorbitant prices will always be a niche product, and can never get to market significant quantities of Tibetan milk. It will not popularise Tibetan milk as an everyday health food, instead taking the much more profitable role of niche player to an exclusive elite proud to pay premium prices.

Wang Shiquan, boss of Treasure of Plateau, is a shrewd operator, taking full advantage of the lingering fears of the urban new rich after China’s big domestic milk companies were caught up in the scandal of poisoning the kidneys of millions of pampered urban babies, with infant formula to which melamine plastic powder had been illegally added. Many other Chinese entrepreneurs also saw the opportunity, after the 2008 melamine scandal, to create new brands, often in New Zealand, a major dairy exporter, producing a range of brands specifically for the Chinese market, utterly unfamiliar to New Zealand consumers. A professor of farm management and agribusiness in New Zealand comments that: “Most of these new brands are custom manufactured in two Auckland factories. The owners of the brands are a mix of Chinese immigrants and New Zealand born Kiwis. These small New Zealand brands have been developed by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to make good profits. Chinese consumers have been paying extremely high prices for infant formula, including extra-large premiums for anything of foreign origin. The profit margins have been so great that there was good money to be made.”

The Chinese operating from New Zealand were smart, trading on New Zealand’s reputation as a clean and safe source of milk products; but Wang Shiquan was even smarter, foreseeing that the allure of the foreign source enables a huge mark-up, but China’s government would tire of the import bill and seek to boost domestic production. In Treasure of Plateau Yak Dairy Corporation, the sales pitch combines everything that sells not only to consumers but to government as well. Treasure of Plateau emphasizes how hygienic and scientific and health-giving its product is, and also how foreign and exotic it is as well, coming from Tibet, where the pure Tibetan people are guardians of milk purity, according to the company’s publicity: “For Tibetans, the friendliness and honesty is golden quality. Their eyes, a little shy, but pure. They smile, a little shy, but sincere. Their words, and perhaps not much, but no hypocrisy and no deception. They still regard honesty as a virtue, and fraud and treacherous, will provoke the gods punishment. Perhaps, they are God’s chosen guards of Tibet – the world’s last piece of pure land of the people.”

Trading on the Tibetan reputation for saintly, unworldly honesty as a brand guarantee, enabling profit margins as fat as any New Zealand infant formula pitched to the Chinese market, is a new move for neoliberal China. This is marketing genius, making Tibet as exotic as New Zealand, yet also domestic, but different to the China familiar to urban consumers, where rip-offs are often considered smart.

This could be considered a new kind of exploitation, in which real Tibetans, and Tibetan livelihoods have at most a peripheral role, as highly disciplined producers of modest quantities of raw material, namely milk. Treasure of Plateau makes it clear, on its website, that it does not hesitate to discipline its Tibetan milk suppliers, as part of a publicity campaign aimed at overcoming the popular Han Chinese depiction of Tibetans as dirty. A 2008 China Daily article commending Treasure of Plateau quoted boss Wang: “Wang remembers that yak milk sent to the factory had some too-natural ingredients in it – insects and yak hair among them. ‘I told them if you don’t clean it up, you will be forbidden to send milk to us,’ he says. New stainless-steel pails were given to yak herders, along with instructions on how to keep the milk clean.”

Turning the clean air and honest folk of Tibet into private corporate brand equity, while calling this most private enterprise a blessing for Tibet, does little for Tibet beyond monetising its’ supposed other-worldliness. Far from enabling Tibetan pastoralists to gain entry to the now massive Chinese urban market for whole milk, yoghurt and infant formula, the extreme prices limit Tibetan dairy to luxury items for the super-rich, status symbols not meant for the masses, a brand which would only be cheapened if mass produced.

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Ever since the ascendancy of Xi Jinping as China’s new helmsman, at the end of 2012, Tibetans have looked for signs of fresh thinking on ethnic relations. With the optimism so characteristic of Tibetans, they scanned the media for the slightest sign in China of a shift, away from stigmatising the Tibetans and their neighbours to the north, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, as, first and foremost, a security threat.

The slightest of signs were pored over. An academic in a high level official think tank, the Party School, suggested China could make fresh overtures to the Dalai Lama, such as allowing him into Hong Kong. Nothing further was heard of her, or her ideas, but it seemed a hopeful sign.

Now, 18 months after Xi’s rise to full control of all organs of the party-state, something more definitive is on the record, coming out of the May 2014 Work Conference on Xinjiang, a whole-of-government gathering of all the agencies of party and state to come up with a coherent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the arrival of terrorism as a regular occurrence.

Xi Jinping’s speech to the second work conference (the first was in 2010) named many initiatives to crush the car bombers and train station killers afflicting Xinjiang and several Chinese cities. Many are short term: heightened security, preventing minority nationals from travelling abroad, deeper cooperation with security agencies abroad, further restricting internet access. Xi has also praised the militarised Xinjiang Production Corps which pioneered the large scale exploitation of Xinjiang cropland and cotton plantations, using demobilised soldiers to build the dams to irrigate a dry land and make it suitable for high-yield farming, oil, gas and mineral extraction. Far from being a relic of the Maoist command economy, the Xinjiang Production Corps, Xi says, “is absolutely not an temporary improvisation but a long-term strategy. Under the new situation, the work of the corps can only be strengthened, not weakened.”

None of this is new, only an intensification of repressive policies, long in place, all intended, as Xi says, to establish ‘‘correct views about the motherland and the nation’’ among all ethnicities so that people from all the groups would recognize the ‘‘great motherland,’’ the ‘‘Chinese nation,’’ ‘‘Chinese culture,’’ and ‘‘the socialist path with Chinese characteristics.’’ These counter-productive policies, in Xinjiang and in Tibet, have long bred resentment at the relentless insistence on (Han) Chinese, put on a pedestal as the exemplary nationality, the peak of human social evolution, the model all others should emulate.

What is new is the rhetoric. Xi’s speech to the Work Conference demanded “nets spreading from the earth to the sky,” to defend against terrorist threats in northwestern region of Xinjiang. Is this just hyperbole, as exaggerated as Mao’s bold claim that “women hold up half the sky”, when all that meant was that women had to do the same work as men?

Xi went further with his metaphors, calling for “copper walls and iron barriers” as well as “nets spread from the earth to the sky.” This is interesting usage. China long had its Great Wall to keep out marauding foreigners from the north and the west, which never achieved its purpose. But China also has its natural walls, of desert, both to the west, in Xinjiang, and to the north, in the Gobi that separates China’s Inner Mongolia from the independent nation of Mongolia. In fact the –bi in Gobi is Chinese for wall.

Now it seems none of these walls, man-made or natural, suffice to keep out the knife-wielding Uighur slashers, and an impregnable copper wall is promised. Further, there is to be an iron barrier as well, an echo of the iron curtain the Second World drew around itself, around China and the entire Soviet bloc, to keep out the First World. Actually, Xi Jinping meant one barrier, not two, his classic phrase “铜墙铁壁(Tóngqiángtiěbì) can be translated into “wall of bronze”, instead of “wall of copper and iron”.

That’s still being literal: the everyday meaning is impregnable. China may, even must, impregnate backward peoples with modern ideas, but must itself remain impregnable.

But Xi Jinping has new and quite specific policies too. He talks of moving more ethnic Uighurs to inland areas of China where they can be educated and work among the ethnic Han, becoming acculturated to Han values. According to the NY Times, Xi called “for moving more ethnic Uighurs to inland areas of China where they can be educated and work among the ethnic Han.” This is new: a population redistribution according to an assimilationist masterplan that would erect the net stretching to the heavens, yet situate Uighurs on both sides, sterilizing the good Uighur learning to become Chinese from the bad Uighur remaining in the net, in their suffocating homeland.

If serious, this suggests a social engineering experiment on a larger scale than anything before, though the idea is not all that new. The neidi schools set up specifically to assimilate young Uighur into Han ways and values, were established in major Chinese cities far from Xinjiang in recent decades, a copy of the neidi school model established earlier for taking young Tibetans from their families and inculcating Chinese values . For both Tibetans and Uighurs, the attraction of these schools is that they are better than anything China offers in their homelands, with better prospects for passing the gruelling gaokao exams that open the door to university and high incomes. The price of getting a good education is a strong emphasis on Chinese language, Chinese values and patriotic education in loyalty to the party.

But how to extend to adults the socialisation of adolescent Uighurs into Chinese normality? How to get Uighurs to become factory workers in the cities of the world’s factory, at a time when most Han have learned to fear and loathe the Uighurs?

“Uighurs frequently say they’re made to feel like second-class citizens, facing difficulties obtaining passports or even travelling outside Xinjiang. Hotels and airlines are reported to have floating unofficial bans on catering to Uighurs, and many employers refuse to hire them,” said an Associated Press report in October 2013.

“Hotels won’t take us and you can’t rent if your ID shows a Xinjiang residence. People look at us with a lot of prejudice,” said Yusuf Mahmati, 33, a fur trader plying his wares on a busy sidewalk opposite the Panijayuan market, a gathering place for traders from several regional ethnic groups.”

It may be too late already, for Xi Jinping to make the Uighurs into an industrial proletariat, scattered across many provinces, wherever the factories are. The hatred, amplified until quite recently by official media, will not be easily undone; and Uighurs will be deeply unhappy if it takes force to scatter them across China. They may remain inside Xi Jinping’s net reaching to the heavens, cut off from accessing the world by internet firewall restrictions that deny them an online presence in an internet that has long reached the sky.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping, a promising reformer in many ways, has now shown himself utterly bereft of new ideas when it comes to imagining ethnicity as anything other than a security problem. Not only does the Xinjiang Production Corps remain at the forefront of making Xinjiang Chinese, the grand strategy is more of the same old. . ‘‘Practice has proved that our party’s ruling strategy in Xinjiang is correct and must be maintained in the long run,’’ Mr. Xi said.

China’s policy in Tibet is equally sclerotic and counter-productive. As in Xinjiang, social engineering remains a tempting option for central planners, who definitely see the removal of nomads from their pastures as a first step in creating a new class of mobile workers who will be drawn to the factories, of distant lowland China, as they realise there will be no returning to their rangelands once the supposedly temporary grazing bans expire. So far, this social engineering has relied on inducements rather than coercion, and is not at all like Stalin’s ethnic social engineering, which deported entire nationalities from frontier zones to Siberia and Central Asia. So far, Tibetan resistance to China’s insistence that modernity –with Chinese characteristics- is compulsory, has been to burn themselves to death, not harming others.

Seldom have the contradictions inherent in China’s policies towards its unassimilated minorities been more obvious. In order to assimilate, or cook, the raw minorities outside the heartland of China, they must be brought in, to learn from the exemplary Han, even made to mingle, not only in special schools but in the factories and great cities of China. Yet at the same time they are to be kept out by an impregnable shield of copper and iron reaching to the sky, because roving bands of knife wielding Uighurs have succeeded in terrifying a billion ordinary Han Chinese that nowhere public is safe, no train station in any province is immune from the whirling assassins.

The same is true of Tibet, where 130 people have taken their own lives in protest against suffocation by “Chinese characteristics.” Those who burn the body, making the ultimate sacrificial offering, have chosen a decisively different path to that of the Uighurs, yet the cause is the same: a stubborn refusal of the raw barbarians, as China has always seen these peoples, to be cooked into loyal Chinese citizens. The contradictions of an assimilationist agenda imposed by force are the same, in Xinjiang and Tibet. There can be no hope of assimilation, or of mutual respect, as long as the overriding policy imperative is to build impregnable walls of copper and iron reaching to the sky, to keep the foreigners foreign.

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Have you ever wondered at the persistent coupling of Tibet with the possessive prefix China’s? China’s Tibet is obsessively used to claim possession, since that claim is so clearly contested.

China never talks of China’s Xinjiang, or China’s Sichuan. Let’s unpack that oithy two-word slogan, and look at what it signifies.

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs. So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. The agenda of this logo is that Tibet must be different, but not too different. It must be exotic, a mirror of otherness held to the visage of the visitor, yet also safe, familiar, domestic, with the reassurance that in China’s Tibet™ all Tibetans love China, and as a destination Tibet is not only safe but even comfortable.
In these ways central authorities achieve a “narrative uniformity that is enforced upon and over lead tourism sites [which] constitutes a form of cultural grammar by and through which the state defines travel itineraries and controls the meaning held over landscape, space, and place.” Cheng Yan received a PhD in recreation, sport and tourism from University of Illinois, pointing out that: “the pursuit of collective and monolithic national imagery has caused a representational violence –one that is committed by the nation-state ideology operated through the organisation of tourism language.”

China's consumerism Hulme book cover

This book, due out in July 2014, looks in depth at China’s tourism boom in Tibet.

How is it possible that Tibetan culture, history and identity can be turned inside out in this way? How can it be that an articulate and profound culture cannot speak for itself? How could it happen that Tibetans have only minor, walk-on roles in a massive Tibetan tourism industry in which Tibetan history, culture and scenic spots are the core attractions?
Elsewhere in China, other minority nationalities have succeeded in controlling the tourism industry that brings many visitors to their villages. They are not bit players but actively build, manage and operate their own tourist village, their own cultural displays. This has been documented by several anthropologists.

Yet there are several iconic scenic spots in the lands of minority nationalities that are now utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Han Chinese domestic tourists, and have become marginalised in their own land. Tourism notoriously “spoils” destinations, swamping the original, authentic and local with kitsch replicas, mechanical reproduction, endless hotels and bars, until it becomes hard to find what drew people to come. While this greatly worries the discerning international traveller, it is much less of a concern to Han Chinese, who have no problem accepting, and enjoying, the “authentic replica.” To westerners, the phrase seems paradoxical, even self-contradictory. Chinese tourists are more relaxed about spectacles staged for them, less troubled about whether they are witnessing something pure, original, authentic, unspoiled.

In the lowlands close to the Tibetan Plateau, Lijiang, Dali and Xishuangbanna are case studies in the marketisation of ethnic difference as a profitable commodity packaged by a tourism industry that dominates the lives of the ethnic minority who were the original attraction. These places first got on the radar of tourists as funky, offbeat, quaint and charming destinations known only to intrepid backpackers. Then they were officially designated as scenic spots, fitting them into China’s long tradition of iconic scenic spots one must visit if one is to be considered civilised. Tourism at these paces scaled up and up. Mass tourism flourished, and also elite tourism with its luxury villas, upmarket hotels and resorts, taking more land and resources. The minority nationalities still sing and dance, at times that suit tour organisers, only the singers, dancers, ethnic artefact sellers, even the sex workers, are increasingly Han Chinese in ethnic costume. This does not trouble China’s tourist masses, who enjoy the spectacle, accepting the authentic replica.

One of the case studies in this anthropological fieldwork is of three performances staged daily for tourists in Lijiang. The oldest, conceived at a time when all the tourists were international backpackers seeking unspoiled authenticity, is deliberately staged in a rundown hall with dim lighting of a ramshackle stage, in a dilapidated mansion down a winding alley. All this reeks of authenticity, the pure, unspoiled, actual original that has somehow survived intact.

The newest of the daily spectacular performances, geared for the mass Chinese domestic tourism market, features pyrotechnic lighting, an outdoor setting that makes dramatic use of a snow mountain as backdrop, a fast pace, a romantic story of tragically doomed love, inviting tourists to escape their ordinary stressful urban lives and participate in various forms of transgressions, and it enables their secret selves to be displayed while pursuing an unrestrained hedonic experience. The latest product, specifically aimed at the Chinese domestic market is a re-enactment of traditional Naxi minority nationality wedding ritual, cut down from the customary three days to a five minute performance, conducted by a Naxi wedding ritual specialist, in which Han couples don’t merely watch, but dress as Naxi, and are actually married. This is what today’s China calls the “authentic replica”, a term that is not, to Han Chinese, in any way paradoxical or contradictory. English speakers, by contrast, habitually go to the other extreme, making sharp distinctions between “the real” and “the fake.”

The tourism boom in Tibet follows this authentic replica pattern. The focus now is on Lhasa, with global brand hotel chains in a race to get a branded property on the map in Lhasa, to get market share as tourist numbers swell and China’s new rich readily pay for the Tibetan décor and personalised butler service that are features of the newest hotels. But Lhasa is not the first major tourist destination in Tibet, only the latest. The first places in Tibet to become popular tourist destinations were on the peripheries of the Tibetan Plateau, some in places so remote and obscure few Tibetans had heard of them. Jiuzhaigou (Dzitsa Degu in Tibetan) and nearby Huanglong, now world famous for their scenery, became major destinations because peripherality could be turned into proximity. The further they were from the centre of Tibet, the closer they were to lowland China, accessible to backpackers by local bus, then to mass tourism on improved highways, then to the rich by air, even by helicopter from Chengdu, Sichuan’s hot and humid capital city. Chengdu now had its hill station, much as the British Raj in India built hill stations to escape the summer on the plains below. The deep valleys and their Tibetan farming villages were no longer associated, in tourists’ minds, with the adjacent nomad pastures above. They became China’s newest iconic scenic spots, magical places of exquisite beauty, jewels in China’s crown, with the special status of UNESCO World Heritage listing. In both Tibetan and Chinese, Dzitsa Degu and Jiuzhaigou means the nine stockaded villages of the Tibetans, but this meaning is lost, the Tibetans forbidden to farm or to host visitors overnight. The remaining villagers depend solely on their menial roles in the mass tourism industry, holding a docile yak for a Han Chinese tourist to bestride for a photo op.
Other peripheral places, many of them close to China, also boomed as tourist destinations, including Labrang monastery in Gansu; and Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, (Ta’er in Chinese) not far from Xining, the capital, and now surrounded by polluting industries. Another remote area, in the far west of upper Tibet, is the holy mountain of Gang Rinpoche, known worldwide as Mt Kailash. What all these locations share is not only remoteness but also that they were “discovered” first by nonChinese visitors, by backpackers and, in the case of Kailash, by Indian pilgrims. It was only later that the backpacker guidebooks, and China’s enthusiastic culture fever for all things foreign, led to a Chinese fascination with such places. China belatedly “discovered” these jewels in its own back yard, and built them up as destinations attracting millions of tourists a year. UNESCO’s scientific advisors long ago expressed alarm that World Heritage listing was achieving the opposite of what inscription on this select list was intended to do. Instead of ensuring preservation, World Heritage became a brand to be monetised by a growing Chinese tourism industry, a magnet to visitors guaranteeing a quality scenic experience.

In this way, Tibet was colonised by tourism from the outside in. Lhasa, the heart of Tibet, joined this accelerating process only this century. Prior to the arrival of fast, cheap, heated and pressurised rail services in 2006, Lhasa was too far, too expensive, too difficult, too lacking in infrastructure and dangerously lacking in oxygen. That was the prevalent attitude in lowland China: no-one would choose to go to Tibet unless they had to.

As the tourism industry expanded its palette to include Lhasa, some of the expansion was led by the same entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes on Tibet’s peripheries. This is especially so of Deng Hong who made good use of his connections, and his father’s military reputation, to gain exclusive access to much of the land surrounding the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage area. There he built luxury villas, hotels and resorts, in partnership with the InterContinental hotel chain; then did the same in Chengdu, and now Lhasa. In 2002, he was indiscreet enough to boast to a Washington Post reporter of his Party connections, and that they were the secret of his success. Now, in 2013, as China’s new leaders pursue their pledge to crack down on corruption, he is one of the first to be investigated and interrogated.

Private entrepreneurs such as Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan of the Mangrove Tree Resort chain, also planning to build in Lhasa, got into the lists of the richest in China by speculative real estate deals, and building luxury resorts on some of the land they dealt in. But the state was never far, or merely a regulator. In China’s Five-Year Plans, tourism has long been identified as a “pillar industry” or “backbone industry” that can ignite economic take-off in Tibet, holding up the entire economy. Earlier Five-Year Plans, such as the 9th, in 1996, named targets of visitor numbers far ahead, but the reality was that the infrastructure, hard and soft, was not there. It was the state that engineered the urban construction boom of the 1990s and since, building the power stations, hydro dams, highways, railways, oil pipelines, airports and urban facilities, museums and exhibition halls that got Lhasa and central Tibet ready for mass tourism, and ready for entrepreneurs to create profitable businesses. In the past two decades, billions of dollars have been spent by central authorities to create the necessary preconditions for as tourism boom.

The hard infrastructure is obvious. Less obvious is the shift in popular attitudes essential to attracting the tens of millions of lowland Chinese now travelling to Tibet’s iconic spots. This too was engineered by the state, again working closely with private entrepreneurs, especially documentary film makers and glossy magazine editors. Tibet got a makeover. Lhasa became a place of comfort, inviting women and families, not just desperately poor men out for a quick fortune. Taking their cue from centuries of western fascination with Tibet as a land of mystery, Chinese movies, docos and tourism magazines represented Tibet as a land of great beauty, and the people as simple, timeless folk, always dressed traditionally, always smiling. China’s new orientalism remade the image of Tibet, editing out anything modern, including the massive military and paramilitary presence in all Tibetan towns. Tibet became an intriguing, exotic other that was at the same time safely domestic, where Chinese is the common language, where Chinese money works, where extra oxygen is reassuringly ever at hand for altitude sickness, where all the comforts and luxuries of global resorts are now available. It is this combination of the exotic and the domestic, the thrilling and the safe, the scenic and the familiar, the photo op and the hotel room, that makes Tibet especially appealing.

As a result, ten times as many Chinese visit Tibet as visit the US. Although the US is the leading nonAsian destination for Chinese tourists, 1.5 million came in 2012, while Lhasa alone receives 12 million Han Chinese tourists a year, Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong a further four million, and many more at other iconic Tibetan scenic spots.

The footprint of these visitor numbers is great, since almost anything manufactured must be brought to Tibet, to meet the expectations of visitors, from soy sauce to computers, steel to fresh prawns and plastic palm trees. The historic population of the entire Tibetan Plateau was never more than six million. According to China’s 2000 Census, the resident population had swelled to 10 million, not counting the floating population of immigrant fortune seekers, or the military stationed in Tibet. Since then, the tourism boom has further overloaded the carrying capacity of the Tibetan Plateau, which historically sustained a low density population willing to maintain a mobile way of life so as to not exhaust the alpine ecosystems of Tibet.

The guiding hand of the state is directly responsible for the emergence of tourism as a pillar industry. Not only did the state finance and engineer the physical infrastructure and reshape the popular image of Tibet, the state owns all the iconic scenic spots and controls the message given to tourists. The state trains and licences the tour guides permitted to interpret Tibetan history and culture, who must pass exams, in Chinese, in accredited tourism academies, which teach a syllabus written by the state. While insisting tour guides attain a high level of proficiency in the official line, tour guiding pays very little, and guides must detour their clients to Chinese enterprises and persuade them to buy, and receive their commission. This all makes for minimal connection between Tibetans and tourists.

The iconic sites of Lhasa such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple are no longer big enough to handle the tourist rush, and so many of Lhasa’s old buildings have been knocked down. The solution is to build a brand new city across the Kyichu river from Lhasa, on the south bank, as a major industrial expansion area, featuring a $4.75 billion investment in staging a daily spectacular enactment of the marriage, 14 centuries ago, of a Tibetan king and a Chinese princess. Yet again, the money is coming from the state.
A separate theme park is proposed to make the “Tibet Code” fantasy Chinese adventure books and movie into a literalised stage production enacted daily for tourists. This will appropriate a slightly later slice of Tibetan history, the reign of the preBuddhist Bonpo king Langdarma, who attempted to suppress the early adoption of Buddhism by Songtsen Gampo, his predecessor. The threat to Buddhism enables the Han Chinese hero in Tibet in the 9th century, and his trusty Tibetan mastiff, to come to the aid of the Buddhists and their treasures.

Now that two of China’s richest and best-connected men, Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan, are building their Lhasa resorts, with InterContinental already locked in as operator of one, and smaller Starwood St Regis, Shangrila and Taj hotels in Lhasa either open, under construction or announced, the race is on among the big brands to get market share, to get the best locations, to be seen to have a full range of properties across China, including Lhasa. The new rich of China, despite recent requests from China’s new leaders that they be less ostentatious, continue to consume Tibet, and expect luxury. Across China, the number of star-rated hotel rooms is due to double between 2010 and 2017, from 2.25 million rooms to 4.16 million rooms. In 2012 China had 18,200 hotels of international standard. By 2017 that will increase by 50% to 27,300 hotels.

Throughout these major state initiatives, there have been tempting opportunities for official land managers and private developers to make massive profits, often by using borrowed money loaned by state owned banks, to finance the buying and selling of land for private profit. Throughout China, local governments used readily available central funds intended as economic stimulus, to speculate in land and run up massive debts when deals went wrong. Few cities have grown as fast as Lhasa, which may by now have its share of nonperforming loans weighing on local government, and on the banks that were instructed by the state to lend to them. Those loans have, for the time being, been rolled over, but must eventually be repaid, or written off. Land has become a valuable commodity in Lhasa Municipality, which covers a very large area far beyond the city, in which urban land can be bought and sold. Even before a building goes up, and before an international brand name operates a functioning hotel, there are fortunes to be made. Both in China and worldwide, there is increasing anxiety at these unrepayable loans, and at the secrecy surrounding them. Nowhere is more secretive than Lhasa, where the hotel boom guarantees property speculators with insider connections can make fortunes. Increasingly, the danger of a real estate speculative bubble burst looms over the Chinese economy. The rush to build luxury brand hotels in Lhasa, well ahead of international demand and perhaps ahead of domestic demand, may contribute to what is recognised, in China, as “a China style subprime mortgage crisis.”

Urban construction, in the small historic heart of an increasingly sprawling city, necessitates destruction. Prime sites are few and the 1990s decision by Lhasa Municipality to conserve remaining manors of Tibetan families is now swept aside in the urban construction boom, and speculative property bubble. With big brand hotels scrambling for market share, and other sites in demand catering to the mass domestic tourism boom, there is now intense pressure to further demolish traditional Tibetan buildings, which are too small to accommodate contemporary commercial uses.

A shopping mall under construction in Lhasa, with excavated space for 1000 car parking spaces underneath, has prompted a shocked cry of protest from Tibetan blogger Woeser, who is seldom allowed to see Lhasa for herself, and this blogpst on the shopping mall promptly censored. After her blogpost was removed, she told South China Morning Post: “I therefore plead to Unesco and other international organisations, Tibetan scholars and experts, and all of you, please stop this horrible modernisation from committing unforgettable crimes to Lhasa’s old town environment, culture and architecture. Lhasa is being destroyed by excessive commercial development. Lhasa doesn’t exist for only tourists. There are real people who live here and it’s also a religious place. You can’t just turn it into a Sanlitun village.” Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping mall complex in Beijing favoured by wealthy Chinese and international shoppers.

The mall alarms her for several reasons. The above ground loss of streetscape, the underground pumping lowering the water table of a river city, the huge scale of shops with 150,000 sq m of floor space, the relocation of residents to the edge of the city, and the danger of land subsidence as the water table recedes. The provision of 1000 car parking spaces is a sign of who the shopping mall sees as its customers. China is now the biggest automobile market worldwide, and sales of SUVs –large cars looming high above ordinary sedans- are especially booming. SUV sales have been energetically promoted by glossy advertising in travel magazines featuring Tibet as a self-drive destination. Chrysler Jeep and Tata Range Rovers have been particularly keen to sponsor rallies traversing Tibet, which set up photo shoots enabling them to insert ads into upmarket magazines, appealing to wealthy masculine Chinese drivers to personally conquer Tibet. The self-drivers need shopping malls to restock before photogenically splashing through more Tibetan rivers.


Tourism in Tibet should be in Tibetan hands. This is what visitors, especially international visitors expect. If the tourism experience fails to be built around real encounter, across cultures, between Tibetans and visitors, tourists leave disappointed and Tibetans miss out on opportunities to enter the global economy by being themselves.

The principles and specific codes of practice for sustainable tourism are well-known, and have been codified in detail by many intergovernmental and other agencies, including the UN World Tourism Organisation, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and by the tourism industry’s Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Under the heading of Local Control, UNWTO and UNEP define the goal: “To engage and empower local communities in planning and decision making about the management and future development of tourism in their area, in consultation with other stakeholders. Giving people responsibility and control over their lives is a fundamental principle of sustainable development. Moreover, tourism projects that engage local communities directly in their planning and implementation are much more likely to be successful in delivering local benefits and to be sustained over time. Policy in this area is not, however, just about engagement through consultation processes; it is also about empowering communities to influence decisions about the developments and activities that will affect their future while enabling the needs of other legitimate interests to be taken into account.”

An alternative direction, enabling tourists and the Tibetans to learn from meaningful encounters, is possible. There is nothing inevitable about making Lhasa a mass destination of lurid theme parks, state owned and managed iconic sites of Tibetan identity, with Tibetans sidelined into minor roles. An ancient, sophisticated, highly literate culture is capable of managing its lands and tourism futures. Many treaties to which China is a signatory, as well as China’s own laws, guarantee the cultural rights of traditional knowledge holders, enabling them to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken for. In theory, the Tibetans, as a minority nationality, also have special rights. In practice, China no longer speaks of minority nationalities, only of ethnic groups to which individuals choose to belong, or not. In reality, despite the promise of tourism, Tibetan culture is now product, in the hands of Chinese entrepreneurs and central planners, its strengths ignored, its external manifestations trivialised and sensationalised, a commodity for mass tourist consumption. This is the process of creating China’s Tibet™.

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Mining and land rights of communities directly affected by mining are fraught topics worldwide, at a time when resource extraction companies are pushing ever deeper into remote areas in their insatiable quest for minerals and energy.

In Tibet, a  proliferation of mining, from medium to world scale, encroaches and disrupts community life in many areas all over the Tibetan Plateau, since Tibet is rich in minerals. There have been many protests against mining despoiling localities which until recently had been able to live traditionally,  which also means caring for sacred mountains and lakes, and the pilgrimage circuits which regularly bring people from afar to do the practices of mental purification as an active meditation done on foot.

In addition to the direct impacts of mining on local Tibetan communities, mining also generates much climate warming emissions, to be legitimised and offset by closing pastures and banning of grazing.  Most of the area of China designated as “restricted development zone” is in Tibet, including the richest grazing lands of the plateau. If such lands are now, under PES and REDD+ designated solely as watershed protection and carbon sequestration zones, then Tibetans will be denied the right to development, as will their children and grandchildren, as carbon sequestration contracts become a new kind of legal property that will increasingly override traditional property rights. In the name of Payment for Environmental Services, Tibetans will be paid by China, which in turn is paid by global treaty arrangements, to sit and do nothing, excluded from their land, with no prospects other than migrating to distant factory cities, while their land sits idle, growing grass which is counted as successful carbon capture. This depopulated land will be designated  a long term guarantee of pure water supply services to distant downstream users, at the opportunity cost to Tibetans of foregoing any development for the coming century, or even remaining in traditional mode of production on ancestral land.

The actuality of intensive mining of the rich Tibetan endowment of mineral wealth is concealed from the wider world, and the rest of China, not only by travel restrictions, censorship and the absence of much mining from official statistics; but also through an elaborate rhetoric which incorporates the active mines into “zones of restricted development”, around which “red lines” have been firmly drawn at the highest level, in order to protect “ecological environment” by banning almost all human activity, including the customary land use of the Tibetan pastoralists. This contemporary green governance discourse not only masks the exclusion of nomads from their pastures, it proclaims them to be voluntary “ecological migrants” who choose, for the greater good, to leave their lands so they will recover without human activity, from overgrazing, degradation and even desertification.  In the name of China’s global environmental citizenship, these depopulated lands, on paper off-limits to grazing and most definitely to intensive resource extraction enclaves, certify China as a responsible contributor to the global necessity of adapting to climate change by sequestering more carbon, protecting “fragile” watersheds, and rehabilitating degraded lands. China thus qualifies for not only global approbation from environmentalists but also concessions, in climate treaty negotiations, allowing China’s industrialisation and massive coal consumption to persist. As market-based global trading mechanisms that ostensibly reduce emissions caused by deforestation and land degradation (REDD), China may attract investment for these “restricted development zones”, which will relieve China of the burden of paying subsistence rations to displaced nomads to sit and do nothing, on the urban fringes of their former pastures. Similarly, as the concept of Payment for Environmental Services becomes increasingly operational, China can rebadge its practice of reducing pastoralists to utter dependence on state rations, as PES, yet again showing the world that China participates in the latest fashions in governance, is a good global citizen, even a model for the rest of the developing world to emulate.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the displaced pastoralists, not long ago proudly independent and active agents of productive and sustainable land management, are reduced to dependence, passivity and irrelevance. They sum up their circumstances, the anthropologists say, by saying they have become penned animals themselves. Yet, on the pastures from which they are increasingly excluded, the miners move in, often at the initiative of the local governments that also bear responsibility for environmental regulation and implementation of the nationally mandated program of tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass.

To the world, which has no access to the grasslands, this is presented as part of China’s drive to repair past mistaken conversion of sloping land to agriculture, excessive deforestation, land degradation and river catchment erosion. The world applauds, unaware of ground truth. It appears on paper that China is making great strides. Of the declared “red line restricted development zones” in China, more than half the area is on the Tibetan Plateau.

The great danger is that the exclusion of Tibetan farmers from valleys now allocated to hydro dam construction, and nomads from pasturelands, is not a temporary strategy to achieve remediation, it is a permanent exclusion, which will be enforceable not only by state decree but by the legal contractual obligations inherent in REDD, PES and in what China blandly calls “grain-to-green” programs, all of which necessitate the restriction or full exclusion of traditional farming and grazing, not only for the present generation, but for generations to come. For example, the emerging regulatory regime covering carbon sequestration imposes on traditional land managers the contractual obligation to grow more biomass by restricting customary agriculture or pasturing for at least one century, and this is written into the formal contracts that then have market value, and are purchased by factories in far distant countries to offset their ongoing pollution. Once signed, these contracts effectively prohibit traditional land use for the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren yet to be born, as well as the current generation. This effectively ends any prospect that the great grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau have a future, or opportunity to develop, based on growing the traditional livestock raising productivity. The right to development is thus denied. None of this has been explained to the nomads, who often choose to take up official inducements to move to new concrete housing on urban fringes, in the expectation that the move is temporary, reversible and negotiable, allowing a return of some or all family members to their customary lands to continue herding. Needless to say, none of the long term implications of this profound long term repurposing of land use has been explained to the nomads now leaving their land, nor has prior informed consent been obtained.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that China has a grand strategy to displace the nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Inner Mongolia (and elsewhere), based on an elaborate fiction of global green governance. Far from a calculated plan, the gradual emergence of the current situation must be traced. The history of successive policies for China’s great grasslands needs careful tracking, to see how the “tragedy of the commons” discourse came to dominate.

The nomads of Tibet, when given rare opportunity to voice their perception of issues such as degradation of the rangelands, have a very different view to the official scientists and official policy makers. To the nomads, maintaining a sustainable grazing economy that is both productive and cares for the land and biodiversity, is not difficult, as long as restrictions on mobility are lifted. They see no contradiction between grass and animals, as if the situation by definition is zero/sum.

State science, and the policies that stem from alarming scientific reports that as much as 90 per cent of the rangelands are degraded, are based on the foundational proposition that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.” That formulation, phrased as a dialectic that demands a decisive solution, is found repeatedly in the basic assumptions of Chinese science on the grasslands. This denies that a grazing economy is possible, in which the long term survival of a healthy sward, and animal production. This crude formulation insists that the more animals you have, the less is the grass; and conversely, the fewer the number of grazing domestic animals, the more is the grass biomass. If this were true, then the grazing societies that have existed all over the world for thousands of years are all impossible. The corollary of this crude dialectic is that the benchmark for defining what constitutes degradation is anything less than the weight of biomass of grassland on which no grazing occurs at all. Thus any grazing, no matter how skilfully managed, is degradation. The goal of policy is now to restore pristine grassland wilderness, which, like rainforest, is in equilibrium only if humans are excluded.

Rangeland scientists around the world have been engaged with Chinese scientists, as have international anthropologists and other social scientists.  This has generated widely divergent views, so divergent it seems they are looking at different landscapes. As anthropologist and geographer Emily Yeh perceptively notes: “severe and pervasive degradation on China’s rangelands has become a kind of ‘received wisdom’, a narrative that blames local people for environmental degradation in the absence of adequate evidence, which is often used to justify certain interventions, and which is repeated so many times that it becomes common sense within certain scientific and policy communities. Discussing the ‘theory of Himalayan environmental degradation’, Blaikie and Muldavin trace the reproduction of perceived wisdom in China to disjunctures between epistemic communities of social and natural scientists, as well as between those working within the Chinese national context and other national contexts, who ‘write and read for different journals, speak different languages’, have different conceptualizations of sound research and effectively see different landscapes. Also examining the disjunctures between different epistemic communities, Williams argues that international, national and local scales of natural scientific practice work together to privilege non-local representations of nature, and that grassland science in Inner Mongolia ultimately functions to reproduce unequal social relations. Remarking on a different epistemic divide, Xu Jun (2010) makes an oblique reference to the highly politicized nature of resettlement policies implemented to remedy degradation. She notes, ‘western scholars are arguing about the various reasons or goals of China’s central government’s [policies, while] most Chinese scholars are paying more attention to the harsh living conditions of eco-immigrants’, a statement that points to the fraught politics of framing questions about rangeland management in China.”[1]

In these ways, industrial modernity is thrusting into remote communities, without any payment of royalties to those communities, investment in local education or health facilities, or training or local employment, or subcontracting of local supply to local communities. This is a familiar story worldwide, in indigenous communities unable to defend themselves effectively, even when they risk, and lose, their lives.



The accelerating depopulation of rural Tibet has been reported before, notably by Human Rights Watch, as long ago as 2007. Despite several subsequent reports, conferences and articles, there is no consensus as to whether this population movement is, as some say, entirely voluntary, or, as several assert, entirely coercive. The debate has focused narrowly on whether the nomads who move to urban fringes have provided their FPIC, free prior informed consent, which raises much debate as to whether the incentives, inducements and imposed quotas for leaving customary pastures are temporary or permanent, whether the  displaced nomads know in advance that they will seldom be legally permitted to return to livestock raising on customary lands, or whether their land tenure documents will be cancelled. Inevitably, national policy is implemented differently in the counties where the new policy of “closing pasture to grow grass” is actively implemented, so it is hard to achieve a comprehensive overview.

However, the narrow focus on FPIC neglects systemic issues common throughout China wherever rural land can become reclassified as a locus of development and modernity, whether as urban or industrial land, an enclave of resource extraction, or an area earning income for whoever controls it, by entering the global carbon trading market. Sargeson argues that the violence accompanying the frequent conversion of rural land to modern uses is systemic: “Violence authorizes development, because the rural spaces surrounding cities and towns are characterized as institutionally insecure, disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity. It comprises development, because it involves the forced urban improvement of the nation, rural property, governance, people and livelihoods. Violence as development involves many different actors, purposefully engaged in a wide array of brutal, administrative, pedagogic and practical urbanizing tasks.”[2]

This provides a wider perspective. The question is no longer FPIC, but a state discourse that valorises social engineering, the displacement of rural populations declared surplus to the requirements of modernity, whose “wasted lives” to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term, are incidental collateral damage in the onrush of modernity, best displaced into ongoing mobility that results in their arrival at the gates of the factories and mines that displaced them, as the latest wave of low-paid workers, of low human quality, ready to staff the assembly lines of the world’s factory.

It is no accident that the legal status of rural Tibetan land, and the land tenure rights of the pastoralists, are institutionally insecure, granted and withdrawn by the state, at its discretion, because the conventional view among planners has long been that the pastoralists are “disorderly, economically under-productive and incompatible with modernity.”



This means the Tibetan pastoralists have common cause with villagers throughout China, whose land is forcibly appropriated, for urban and industrial use. It means violence should be understood as including more than physical intimidation; it is a systemic discourse of superior power, and the right of officials to declare local populations a hindrance to development, necessitating their removal. It is not just greedy property developers and corrupt cadres who overstep the legal ways of reclassifying rural land as urban; it is a system of disempowerment of farmers and herders, who are disadvantaged by being seen as recalcitrant, unruly, archaic obstacles to the imperative of modernity.

While the Tibetan pastoralists have much in common with China’s displaced farmers, there are major differences. Villagers can and do protest, often unsuccessfully, but sometimes they win, because they have been able to mobilise large number of people willing to face the might of the state’s repressive machine. Sometimes these protests are reported, generating sympathy within and beyond China, which may influence outcomes. Tibetan pastoralists, spread extensively across large areas, are seldom able to mobilise significant numbers. The areas from which pastoralists are excluded are now huge, and hard to defend. Current policy works incrementally, removing a few pastoralists at a time, rather than the total removal of a village in the path of development. The reasons for removing nomads are more various than for the enclosure of a farming village. While urban growth is a factor, a huge swathe of the Tibetan Plateau is now officially designated as “restricted development zone”, surrounded by “red lines” signifying permanent banning of legally permitted economic activity such as pastoralism, so that the land can be dedicated to green governance goals such as carbon capture, watershed protection and rehabilitation of land degradation.

Official statements support the necessity of coercion: “People seem to ignore the basic fact that everyone is actually a beneficiary of such policies. Without forced demolition, there is no urbanization in China; and without urbanization, there is no brand-new Chinese society. As a result, we can say that without demolition, there would be no new China.[3]  This was written by an official of a county in eastern China where three villagers had burned themselves to death in protest, generating publicity over the “Yihuang incident” of September 2010. The party paper, Global Times, then published, under the pseudonym  of Hui Chang, the argument of those county officials that nothing must get in the way of the onrush of urban modernity, as the Chinese state cannot just play the role of “nightwatchman” as the neoliberal governments of late capitalism can do, benignly watching over the workings of the market. “Hui Chang” argues that despite the Yihuang protests, self-immolations, and petitions to higher authorities, progress must go on, Yihuang GDP had doubled in five years and must continue to grow fast.  He writes: “Urban construction calls for lots of demolition, and local governments cannot afford to meet soaring compensation standards. Meanwhile, many farmers, stimulated by soaring land and house prices, dream of becoming millionaires overnight through land acquisition. Relocated households bypass the immediate leadership and appeal to higher authorities. In order to implement local development strategies, local governments find forced demolition the only choice. Yihuang’s incident will become part of the past in time. As long as local areas need development, forced demolition should be promoted.”[4]

The quest for a brand-new China now embraces not only rapid urbanization as the destiny of the rural populace, but also the construction of “ecological environment civilisation,” especially in Tibet, providing the world with proof of China’s green credentials. These emergent purposes, for which large tracts of land are officially designated, involve the creation of new kinds of value, that, by comparison, devalue traditional uses as unproductive. In the case of farmland that becomes urban land, the sharp rise in land value is often directly financed by state investment in economic stimulus and capital expenditure projects intended to accelerate urbanisation. The result is a steep jump in the value of the land in contention, a jump that justifies its expropriation as logical and necessary. The process is furthered by the reliance at local government level on revenues gained by reclassifying, expropriating and then selling newly urban land. That revenue stream not only enables the well connected to accumulate wealth, but provides much of the revenue local governments need in order to meet their obligations to provide education, health and other human services, as responsibility for such costly services has long been downshifted by central onto local government.

In Tibet, the area enclosed is far greater, the pace is slower, the opportunities for mobilising populations to resist are fewer, and media coverage is minimal. Rather than the sudden, overtly violent removal of village and villagers, a more typical sequence on the grasslands is the arrival of a team of officials who announce a quota of people, a fixed percentage of the population of what is legally a township but in practice is a scatter of nomadic households who may cluster over winter. The team announces that for the 15 per cent who are to leave, the state will provide housing, electricity, rations, perhaps even a school or a health aid post.  If the reasons for this policy are explained at all, it is presented as a temporary closure of pastures to allow the overgrazed areas to grow back. According to anthropologists who have done fieldwork in these areas, the families that opt to leave include the poor, who have too few animals to make a living, usually because of natural disaster, such as an unseasonal blizzard. Other families opting to migrate to the urban fringe have several in the family who are old and in need of access to medical care, or young children who may benefit from schooling. One the family has relocated, the able bodied adults often return to their pastures to continue livestock-raising, if official policy is not strictly enforced. Sometimes comparatively wealthy families make the move, while hiring poorer people to graze their large herds in various places. In these ways Tibetan pastoralists negotiate with the state, making provisional choices that are always open to renegotiation, much as they negotiate, and renegotiate, herd size, grazing strategies, risk management, shearing time etc.

So far, local government officials are usually willing to ignore these re negotiations. They are able to report to their superiors that they have met the quota, and that is all that is required for them to be eligible for promotion. If a head count is conducted, in the new settlement, where the residents are under the gaze of the police station that is always built, and numbers are down, there is always the explanation that some people are away, trading, or as urban construction labourers, rather than back on the range. In such ways, no-one loses face, and the state is declared to have achieved its objective of reducing grazing pressure.



Can this scenario be called violence? Compared to the screaming mothers we see, as heavy equipment trashes their village homes, clearly not. Yet the present moment on the rangeland has a wider context. If we look at the consistent trend of official policy and its implementation over several decades, it is clear what is the overall direction.

Since the state largely withdrew from the rangelands around 1980, with the collapse of the livestock production brigades and communes, the state has gradually returned, each time encroaching further on pastoralists choices; further limiting mobility; further allocating fixed, fenced, demarcated lands; further restricting herd size and family size;  further demanding that children be removed to distant boarding schools to be inculcated with the nationbullding ideology of the state. While there have been many policy announcements since the 1980s, they have had a consistent outcome, of making the pastoralists poorer, with fewer animals, less mobility, less land, more costs of production such as compulsory fencing, compulsory winter house construction, compulsory construction of winter herd shelters, compulsory fencing, ploughing, sowing and harvesting of fodder crops.

Some of these policies, in isolation, were well-meant, as ways of improving productivity, increasing the overwintering herd survival rate. But the cumulative effect was to shrink that land available for grazing, shrink herd size to or below subsistence survival level, and the result was overgrazing due to restrictions on nomadic mobility. These unintended outcomes of poorly planned policies in turn led to further restrictions, which invariably blamed overgrazing on nomad ignorance and indifference to grasslands that have always been the foundation of their entire way of life. This succession of state failures impoverished and immiserised the herders, while consistently blaming them for the negative outcomes, especially land degradation.



At the same time, in Qinghai province, senior cadres sought ways of attracting Beijing’s attention, and central financing. Qinghai, as a province, was created to separate the Tibetans and the Mongols, so its foundational mythos is that it is not really part of Tibet, even though it is topographically the northern half of the Tibetan Plateau and until quite recently populated mostly by Tibetans. In the 1950s and 1960s Qinghai served clear national purposes, for which it did receive central finance, for its role as a chain of prison camps for the regime’s enemies, and as part of the Third Front of military industrialisation, in preparation for the world war Mao expected. But by the late 1970s both of these sources of central finance dried up, and Qinghai was left behind, as coastal China surged ahead under Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up.”

The only ongoing opportunity for tapping into central fiscal largesse was dam building, capturing the waters of the Yellow River for hydro power to supply the fast industrialising cities of Xining, Qinghai’s capital, and, further downriver, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The Ministry of Water Resources grew in power in Qinghai, coming up with a winning slogan: “Qinghai is China’s number one water tower.” This became the key to winning more central money.

This slogan, repeated at every opportunity, gradually expanded to become “Tibet is China’s number one water tower” and even “Tibet is Asia’s water tower.” In the minds of central leaders the nomads of Qinghai, and the entire Tibetan Plateau, seemed to produce very little that was sent to market, while water downstream became increasingly scarce. As access to upstream water became more important, the unruly, unproductive, over-grazing herders became more marginal. By the late 1990s, at the highest level, it seemed a decisive choice was required, an either/or, zero/sum decision that firmly set the course for the long term future, to be implemented gradually, if only to avoid any repetition of the war of the late 1950s, in Qinghai’s pastoral areas, once the nomads discovered they were to be communised, losing all control and ownership of lands, herds and even personal property. It is only very recently that violence of “peaceful liberation” has been adequately documented.[5]



This is the wider context in which the present moment sits.  The trend is towards further enclosure and exclusion, towards declaring the pastoralist mode of production irrelevant to China’s brand-new urban future; while guaranteed access to upriver water sources in Tibet is increasingly crucial. The currently intermittent enforcement of the tuimu huancao policy of closing pastures to grow more grass may well intensify. Although China publicly denies there was a war on the grasslands, and that “liberation” was “peaceful”, in the memoirs published by retired military officers, and in the official county records and gazetteers, the memory persists  of the extreme violence needed to quell nomads facing catastrophic loss of agency. Everything points to a brand-new Tibetan countryside, in which pastoral livestock production, at best, continues only to raise animals until they are adult, whereupon they will be taken to peri-urban feedlots for fattening and slaughter. Livestock production on the range will be banned altogether in the  red line restricted development zones, in the name of China’s contribution to climate change adaptation and land rehabilitation, winning for China sufficient credit for taking climate action, thus allowing the world’s factory to continue to raise emissions.

It is in this wider picture that we can consider the present moment as violence, seldom overt, but pastoralists required to relocate to urban settlements understand quite clearly they cannot refuse.[6] Violence is structural, in this situation, in the power of the state to not only dispose of land rights, cancel land tenure certificates, and remove people, but also in the prejudicial depiction of those classified only as “herders” as an itinerant rural labour force of low human quality, little awareness or care for the consequences of their actions, occupying enormous territories for little purpose. It is the state that authors the master narrative, or dominant discourse, that marginalises the pastoralists; and assigns the construction of a new China to the party-state. This is systemic violence, steadily marginalising and impoverishing people, to the point where they have no option but to leave their degraded land.

The state is in no hurry to fully depopulate the “restricted development zones” of the Sanjiangyuan Three River Source Protected Area. There is little effective opposition, and the creation of a semi-urban underclass of welfare dependants is a burden on national and county finances. There are pull factors as well as push, that encourage pastoralists to seek urban amenities.  New highways make urban life tantalisingly close. Tibetan writer Tsering Wangmo Dhompa captures this: “Five decades ago it had taken Tashi close to twenty days to reach Xining on horseback from Kyegu. When jeeps began to cover the same distance in twelve hours, she thought it was by some divine machination. ‘Now I can take a plane from Xining and be in Kyegu in the time it takes me to make bread,’ she says in wonder.…… Each winter Tibetans flock to the city leaving only a caretaker to mind their homes in snowbound towns and villages….  On cold winter days the elders spend their days in the shopping centres. The new buildings are so toasty, she sighs.

“This is the city Tibetans flock to when their small towns cannot help them: the sick come for surgeries, businessmen replenish their goods, families purchase furniture for new homes, and newlyweds spend a month’s salary to capture their union in glossy photo albums in Xining.”

“Young men wear suits and though they are ill fitting and almost certain to be in shades of blue, the suit makes them walk with a song in their gait. A suit is a statement of style, and of money. A suit proclaims that a man has tasted a little other than that of the mountains, the rivers, outside their herds. A suit is part of the world they will inevitably meet.”[7]

This is the inexorable logic of urbanization, the concentration of services in centralised spaces, to which everyone is centripetally drawn. This concentration is always justified by the market logic of efficiency in locating facilities in the best endowed places, the corollary being that remote, scattered, extensive land users can never expect modern services, as the cost of extending them to remote areas can never be justified. For anything beyond the increasingly irrelevant practice of livestock rearing, the rural hinterland is by definition inefficient, lacking in scale and concentration, forever doomed to fall further behind the new cities of new China.

[1] Emily T. Yeh (2013) The politics of conservation in contemporary rural China, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1165-1188, 1176

[2] Sally Sargeson (2013) Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:6, 1063-1085

[3] Hui, C. 2010. Forced demolition an inevitable pain in China’s urbanization. Global Times, 18 October. Available from

[5] Li Jianglin, When the Iron Bird flies in the Sky, Linking Publications, Taipei, 2012

Li Jianglin 2009 Do We Understand Tibet More than the Westerners? (Women bi xifang dui xizang geng liaojie ma?). Online access at

[6] “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse”: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, Human Rights Watch, June 2007, 80p

[7] Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, A Home in Tibet, Penguin India, 2013, 161

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China is at odds with the world trend. Currently, under UN auspices, all major sectors and social forces, from big business to small NGOs, from indigenous communities to states, are engaged in defining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. One major issue in this debate, and emergent consensus, is the future of the world’s farmlands and pastures. In March 2014 the Farmers Major Group in this UN process announced its priorities for the next global SDG commitments, to be adopted by all states. Their top goal is poverty eradication, to be achieved by farmers and pastoralists not only continuing to use their land but also to gain “universal access to resources (land, water, seeds, credit, infrastructure).”

The second priority for the world’s agriculture is food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture systems.  This UN position paper calls for: “the promotion of agricultural extensification instead of intensification,” and for “adoption of food sovereignty as policy framework –farmers and their countries must be free to make agricultural policy decisions that best benefit them.”[1]

China is moving in the opposite direction, towards intensification that concentrates food production in enclaves on urban edges, while depopulating huge areas that have been managed both sustainably and productively for millennia. China is reducing Tibetan food security, generating reliance on distant sources for even basic foodstuffs, despite a long history of Tibetan self-reliance. At a time when food insecurity is a worldwide concern, exacerbated by China’s large-scale purchases of agricultural land in Africa, for monoculture crops to export to China for animal feed, China is deliberately undermining food security in Tibet. The loss of food security in Tibet is currently an issue that has attracted little attention, yet the pastoral regions of the Tibetan Plateau are actually one percent of the inhabited land area of the planet, and a loss of one per cent at a time of food insecurity and consequent poverty is a very backward step.

Extensification is a key concept. Throughout the 1990s, the European Community pushed for extensification, which deliberately seeks to make use of all land suited to food production and environmental protection, together, rather than have former agricultural land shrink as intensification of production also intensifies pollution, and leaves much land uncared for. Tibet’s traditional land use is extensive, with pastoralism actively pursued in almost all vegetated areas. China has assumed that extensive land use is a vestige of a less productive age, and that intensification, located in places of the greatest factor endowment, is the direction to go. This makes most of the Tibetan Plateau redundant.

Claude Beranger, research  director of France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research sums up the resurgence in extensification, pointing out that extensification results in lower output per unit of area, while productively occupying agricukltural land that otherwise would be abandoned. By accepting less output per hectare, without lessening total production, fewer expensive and environmentally damaging inputs are required, reducing environmental impacts. Extensified agriculture has been designed, in Europe, to include specific biodiversity conservation actions by the farmers, who qualify for assistance under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy by acting to benefit the environment while maintaining extensive food production. This restores ecosystems and landscapes, through the active engagement of farmers, on land they know best, taking initiatives to preserve and protect water quality.

Beranger says: “Extensive farming or production systems can be more beneficial for the ecological environment than  intensive systems. They require fewer chemical inputs and thereby minimise the risks of land and water pollution. They also utilise more surface area for most types of production and thus avoid fallowing or abandoning of land, and land degradation by soil erosion.”[2]



China practices precisely the opposite, and argues that it thus follows objective “laws” of development at apply worldwide. An official White Paper issued in 2013 on “Development and Progress of Tibet” argues that: “The development and progress in Tibet is in accord with the rules for the development of human society, and reflects the mutual aspirations of the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet. It is the natural result of the overall development and progress of China as a whole. The development and progress of Tibet mirrors the victory of human society’ s enterprising spirit and creativity in the quest for justice and happiness, and has proved the inevitability of history. The development and progress in modern Tibet results from the innate logic of its social and historical environment, and has its roots in China’ s progress in a larger context. Its development is in line with the advance of world’ s modern civilization.”[3]

What is it that can be called a historic inevitability, obeying  the rules for development and the innate logic of social and historical environment? There is nothing inevitable about taking much of the most productive pasture of the Tibetan Plateau out of production, because a command and control economy decrees that water production supplants animal production, on the mistaken assumption that, to use a common Chinese phrase,” there is a contradiction between grass and animals.”[4]

There is nothing inevitable about an economy that is dominated by massive central subsidies designated for “leap-style development” of a province unable to raise even 10 per cent of its fiscal expenditure through its own revenues. The fast growth rate of the Tibet Autonomous Region has been driven by massive capital expenditure on industrial, extractive and urban infrastructure, while investing little in the pre-existing indigenous economy of farming grain and raising livestock. This centrally mandated force-fed fast growth is aptly defined by one of the few economists of contemporary Tibet, Andrew Fischer, as “Disempowered Development.”[5]

What China appears to mean by “the rules for the development of human society” is the  argument of economists that favour concentrating investment capital in those places best endowed with the key factors of production, notably land connected well with markets, requiring labour –a major factor of production- to move to where the capital is concentrating. That convention of economic efficiency is what Deng Xiaoping embraced when he called for some (the best endowed) to get rich first. That neoliberal orthodoxy, in sharp contrast to the Maoist redistributive command economy, is far from what has happened in Tibet. Tibet never quite abandoned the command economy, under direct control from Beijing. If anything, the decades of Deng’s “opening up” were in TAR the decades of an expensive nationbuilding infrastructure investment program that emplaced highways, railways, fuel pipelines, high voltage long distance electricity cabling, hydro power dams, extraction zones and urban construction; all financed by central leaders. This is not a “natural result”, nor “the inevitability of history.”

Fischer writes: “Subsidies have increased both in real per person values and as proportions of government expenditure and GDP. The TAR has nonetheless maintained its relatively privileged priority, to the extreme and somewhat perplexing extent that direct budgetary subsidies from the central government exceeded 100 percent of the GDP of the TAR for the first time in 2010. This was higher than even the heights of intensive subsidization during the Maoist period. The resurgent subsidies resuscitated growth in western China and especially in the TAR and Qinghai, where growth accelerated to very rapid, above national-average rates in the late 1990s. The speed of economic growth in the TAR and Qinghai over this period was phenomenal, even by Chinese standards. For instance, the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of both provinces grew at a rate about one-third faster than the national economy from 1997 to 2010, even though the national experience has been perhaps the fastest (and definitely the largest) experience of sustained rapid economic growth the world has ever seen. Indeed, from 1997 to 2007 (the year before the outbreak of large-scale protests), the GDP of the TAR quadrupled, versus a tripling of the GDP of China as a whole. The pace of change has been astonishing, as has been the extent of subsidization driving this change.”[6]

“In essence, the argument of this book is that the intensified economic integration of Tibet into regional and national development strategies on these assimilationist terms has, in turn, intensified various dynamics of subordination and marginalization faced by Tibetans of all social strata and despite the evident material improvements in their living standards. These dynamics are partly—although not entirely—reflected by rapidly rising inequalities within Tibetan areas that have accompanied different phases of rapid growth, some aspects of which had reached levels much higher than anywhere else in China in the 2000s. Most activities outside traditional farming and herding (and the booming trade in caterpillar fungus) in the TAR and, to a lesser extent, in other Tibetan areas have been by and large the construct of subsidization policies. Even changes in the Tibetan rural areas have become increasingly dependent on subsidization, such as the subsidies driving investment into chicken production in rural parts of the TAR near heavily subsidized towns and cities. Hence, privilege and polarization are driven much more by the hierarchy of position within the flow of these subsidies. State-sector employees in the TAR benefited from among the highest salaries in China since the beginning of the Open the West Campaign, neck and neck with those of Beijing and Shanghai for several years, which has had nothing to do with productivity or overall prosperity considerations in the TAR.”[7]

“The TAR economy has been changing rapidly, but the local Tibetan population has been rendered very marginal as agents causing the change at the aggregate level, even if they reap some benefits. Their contribution to the indigenous village-based economy is huge, no doubt, but this economy has shrunk rapidly as a source of value relative to the rest of the economy, and much of the surging activity within the rural economy is subsidized by the government in any case. In this sense, the agency and “ownership” of development  is located largely outside of Tibetan hands and this situation has been accentuated as the economy becomes progressively less agrarian and rural. The resulting economic structure in Tibet—including the broader political economy structure of entitlements, incentives, compulsions, and distributive conflicts—is effectively very similar to that of a colonial-type economy. Indeed, the degree of aid dependence in the TAR is far greater than even the most aid-dependent countries of Africa, and the degree of disempowerment is more or less on par with that of an occupied region.”[8]

“The more pressing question is whether the integration of Tibetans into the emerging structural and institutional patterns of development in Tibet has accentuated their disempowerment in the governance of their home-land and in the “ownership” of their development, whether or not this necessarily results in some form of deprivation. In sum, within a context of continued political disempowerment of Tibetan locals, centrally directed development strategies since the mid-1990s have channeled massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments (relative to the local economy) through Han Chinese–dominated state structures, corporations, and other entities based outside the Tibetan areas, thereby accentuating the already highly externalized orientation of wealth flows in the local economy. This has resulted in a socio-economic structure that increasingly and disproportionately rewards a small upper stratum servicing and/or operationalizing the development strategies, which have remained excessively hinged on decision making in Beijing) to a far greater extent than any other region in China. The upper stratum includes a small minority of Tibetans and a large proportion of non-Tibetan migrants, concentrated mostly in urban areas and well positioned to access the flows of wealth as they pass through the region with increasing velocity. Whether or not the ongoing outcomes are intended to be discriminatory, these structural and institutional dynamics effectively accentuate the discriminatory, assimilationist, and disempowering characteristics of development.”[9]

Nonetheless, China’s official view is that benevolent statist interventions have worked wonders. The 2013 White Paper on Development and Progress in Tibet states: “Over the past 60-odd years, Tibet has finished a course of historical journey that would normally take several centuries or even a millennium for the human society to complete. It has written a spectacular chapter in the history of mankind. At present, Tibet presents a picture mixing traditional and modern elements, featuring economic and political progress, cultural prosperity, social harmony, sound ecosystem and a happy and healthy life for the local people. We may gain valuable enlightenment from Tibet’ s extraordinary journey. Tibet’s development can’t be separated from the choosing of a right path. Over the past 60-odd years, by adhering to the path of socialism in the arms of the Chinese nation, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have become masters of their own country, society and fate, and Tibet has made the dramatic change from a place of poverty and backwardness to one of prosperity and civilization.”

These issues are seldom discussed.

A tragedy fast unfolding across Tibet. The wider world, lulled by China’s discourse of environmental good citizenship, fails to discern the crippling impacts on Tibetan communities which have a 9000-year history of sustainably managing a pastoral grazing economy.

China is doubly advantaged by the situation in Tibet; and the Tibetans doubly disadvantaged. At a national and international level China represents itself a  an exemplary global citizen, protecting fragile ecosystems with firm red lines that prohibit human activity so as to capture carbon, rehabilitate degraded lands and  protect watersheds. At a subnational level Chinese mining companies despoil Tibet with growing intensity and environmental damage, unseen, unknown to the wider world, especially in depopulated areas where there are no longer Tibetan communities to protest these illegal encroachments. China also claims the resettlement of Tibetan pastoralists will increase their (cash) incomes, succeeding in alleviating poverty, and thus fulfilling the economic and social rights of Tibetans.

The Tibetans are doubly disadvantaged. The world understands them as “ecological migrants” who have chosen to leave behind poverty and remoteness, entering history and the modern urban job market. The reality is dependence, anomie and even despair leading to public protest suicide; while the world applauds China’s commitment to PES, REDD, carbon capture etc. In reality Tibet loses self-sufficiency in producing even the most staple of foods, deepening dependence on China  and exacerbating food insecurity. Grazing bans Tibetans were told would be for a few years now turn out to be permanent, depopulating huge areas, often the best pasturelands of the plateau, creating space for miners to move in, resulting in further degradation.

[2] C Beranger, Sustainable Agriculture: Extensive systems and extensification,

[3] Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China; Development and Progress of Tibet, October 2013,

[4] Du Xiaojuan and Cheng Ji-min;Analysis of Formation Causes of Grassland Degradation in Damxung County of Tibet and Its Exploitation and Utilization; Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences , 2007

BAO Fenglan A STUDY OF THE COUNTERMEASURES OF OPTIMIZING ANIMAL HUSBANDRY STRUCTURE OF INNER MONGOLIA; Journal of Inner Mongolia Normal University (Philosophy & Social Science) 2005-06

[5] Andrew Fischer, The Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: a study in the economics of marginalization, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013

[6] Fischer, 5

[7] Fischer, 11, 12

[8] Fischer, 24

[9] Fischer, 28-9

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