Tibetans have a genius for timing, for seizing the moment when it arrives. Such moments are rare, even more so these days in a world distracted by each rich nation’s internal problems, deficits, austerity programs and precarious economies.

Yet there is a highly professional band of Tibetans and proTibetan organisations who never give up, and keep lobbying the politicians of the western world, and also top officials of foreign ministries and official aid agencies, in the hope of achieving something for Tibet.

In recent months, thanks to the  good connections maintained by Offices of Tibet, International campaign for Tibet, Tibet Society and Australia Tibet Council, I have had opportunity to meet politicians and senior foreign policy officials, in the British Parliament, the European Parliament and Commission, and the Australian Parliament.

In each case I have tried to pitch fresh ways of looking at Tibet, of understanding what is going on, in a fast changing area no longer remote or separate from the global economy. Each time I have provided the politicians and officials with briefings, including recommendations on practical steps they can take, that would improve Tibetan livelihoods, strengthen the traditional Tibetan economy, and give silenced and choiceless Tibetans ways to organise themselves, in pasture user groups, for example. These are all modest proposals, but doable, at a time when China increasingly gets what it demands, because no one is willing to speak up.

These are new ideas, which sometimes don’t get much response, such as when you discover that an EU official responsible for negotiating with China on environmental issues, in practice is interested only in selling European environmental equipment into the Chinese market, and neither knows nor cares about Tibet.

But, as the Dalai Lama has often reminded us, never give up, you never know when those seeds might germinate, when the right moment might come. Those loyal, highly professional staffers and lobbyists of the Offices of Tibet, ICT, ATC, Tibet Society and others, just keep showing up, keep asking that the world pay attention to a nonviolent campaign that will never die or magically go away, until the Tibetans have the cultural autonomy they need.

This short series of blogposts gives you a look, over the shoulder, of those pitches to the politicians, those folks who instinctively think like a state. We too need to learn to think like a state, in this age of competitive, exclusive states that care for little beyond national interest. So you could also read these briefings as an exercise in learning how to adopt the discourse of state language, for Tibet.




UK Parliamentary Group on Tibet, Foreign &Commonwealth Office BRIEFING



Tibetans applaud the UK for establishing a consulate in Chongqing, as did the US some years ago by establishing a Chengdu consulate, both well located as listening posts for what is happening further west.

The commercial case for the Chongqing consulate has been compelling, especially if, in an economic sense, one considers Chongqing and Chengdu together as the megalopolis of western China, a new hub of the world’s factory, already exporting hi-tech manufactures overland by rail, effectively reinventing the old silk route, and shortening delivery times dramatically, compared to sea shipping. Hewlett Packard computers now make the journey from Chongqing to Rotterdam in sealed containers on flatbed rail trucks that can be swiftly interchanged as rail gauges change at international borders on the long but smooth journey to the European logistics hub in Rotterdam. This is the way of the future, and UK businesses understand the importance of having a presence in the Chengdu-Chongqing hub, backed by a British consular presence.

Thus far, this is a straightforward story of globalisation and the benefits of trade. But the story starts, not in Chongqing but in the raw materials the Chongqing requires, to make the elaborately transformed manufactures that end up in Rotterdam, and into our lives, as our next smartphone or tablet.

Chongqing/Chengdu’s location far inland has many consequences. There are compelling reasons why central leaders excised Chongqing from Sichuan decades ago and brought under direct control from Beijing, in order to fast track its growth, as the city at the top end of the Three Gorges Dam lake, ideally positioned to prosper by sending its goods downriver and straight out into the global shipping lanes. It didn’t work out that way: Yangtze shipping remains small scale, and instead the direct rail route, only recently built, has supplanted the ocean, for the first time in 500 years, as the link between one end of Eurasia and the other.

Until now, China’s insatiable demand for raw materials, both minerals and energy, has also been heavily reliant on imports brought by ship to coastal manufacturing hubs. The inland shift, while attractive as a strategy for keeping down labour costs, cannot rely on getting Middle East oil or Brazilian iron ore up the Yangtze to Chongqing, still less to Chengdu. Instead local sourcing of both energy and minerals is necessary for the success of the Chongqing/Chengdu success story.

A major source of both minerals and energy for western (and eastern) China will very soon be the Tibetan Plateau. If one compiles a list of all the hydropower dams built or about to be built on the major rivers rushing down from the plateau uplands; and the belt of copper/gold/silver mines with extractable reserves of as much as 80 million tonnes of copper; plus the Tibetan salt lake lithium, potash, magnesium and sodium deposits; and many other mines; a picture emerges of Tibet as a major source of the Chongqing boom. If one then adds the waters of Tibet, urgently needed for parched northern China, we see the Tibetan Plateau fast shaping up as the source of the next wave of China’s prosperity.

This adds a whole new dimension to our framing of the Tibetan question, and it puts in fresh perspective issues we are used to seeing solely in a human rights framework. Take, for instance, the ongoing wave of protest suicides by Tibetans, a total sacrifice of the self to galvanise attention to not only repression of culture but also mining. The protests by Tibetans against mining have been frequent, and invariably criminalised by authorities, and violently repressed. A map of where the mines are, where the protests and self-immolations are, shows great overlap.

But, right now, the mining is still on a modest scale. However, world-scale copper/gold/silver/molybdenum mines will very soon be in full production near Shigatse, the second city of central Tibet, at Gyama just upriver of Lhasa; and in a cluster of mines around Yulong in eastern Tibet, above the headwaters of the Yangtze and Mekong. All are on or close to major rivers, and on steep slopes that make very difficult the secure containment of toxic waste tailings, which will be needed for centuries after the mines are exhausted, lest heavy metals get into Asia’s major rivers, creating a trans boundary crisis.

Also firmly on the official agenda of China’s 13th and 14th Five Year Plans, for 2016-2025, is the construction, through the mountains of eastern Tibet, of a massive canal to divert waters from the Tibetan upper tributaries of the Yangtze, across to the upper Yellow River, all at high altitude, on the Tibetan Plateau. This too will have major impacts.

A further consideration is the extraordinary increase in hydropower, and the transmission of electricity generated on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, not only upriver to the new mines and smelters, and downriver to Chongqing; but also much farther downstream, all the way across China to Shanghai and Guangzhou. In fact the ultra-high voltage power lines (a major user of copper) are already in place, built by Siemens.

This integrated, multi-decade infrastructure construction program has the full backing of the state and is about to come to fruition,  realising at last China’s long held dream that it will makes its fortune from Tibet, the western treasure house, or Xizang.

Tibetans understandably see the constant encroachment into their sacred mountains, pilgrimage routes and productive pastures as theft, and despoliation. All of these infrastructure projects are for the benefit of industries far away in the lowlands. All are capital-intensive and use construction technologies all based on a construction workforce skilled in such work, all literate in Chinese as the language of project implementation. Tibetans seldom get any employment, except as casual unskilled labourers at best. Remote areas hitherto distant from urban centres of Chinese power suddenly swarm with Chinese construction crews and technologies.

The many protests of recent years will persist, and probably intensify as the encroachments escalate. Inevitably, the British consulate in Chongqing, likewise the US consulate in Chengdu will find themselves having to deal with the many consequences of China’s routine resort to coercion and violence to quell those Tibetan protests.

A proactive response to this clearly discernible trend of worsening relations between Tibetans and lowland Chinese, is for Britain to foster an export market in British expertise in participatory resource management, community-based co-management of land and minerals. Britain is rich in such expertise. London-listed mining multinationals have learned to do what it takes to foster good relations with local host communities, and promote their standards worldwide.

Tibet is now part of the global economy, in a way not seen since the Tibet-Kalimpong-Calcutta-Halifax wool export trade was interrupted by war close to a century ago. At that time, the UK had diplomatic posts along the trade route, in Tibet.

The wheel turns. The globalisation of Tibet creates a complete commodity value chain, which starts in the mining of a remote mountain in Tibet, and ends up as a lithium-ion battery in the smartphone in your pocket. Tibetans, and their supporters worldwide, are well aware of this, and the UK can consider the ramifications.

Briefing provided by:

Gabriel Lafitte

+61407840333 (Australia)



Briefing for Mr Nicholas Hanley,

Head of International Relations Unit of the European
Commission’s Directorate General on Environment

29 October 2013


It is increasingly often said that, despite China’s intense desire to be accepted as a global player and major power, its policy settings seldom give effect to such a mature role.

China’s environmental performance continues to fall far short of its rhetoric. China promises greater energy and resource efficiency, yet coal consumption in the current Five Year Plan 2011-205 rises from 3 billion tonnes to 3.8 billion tonnes. China refuses to accept any global climate change treaty, which imposes emissions quotas on it, demanding instead exemption from mandatory carbon emission reduction amounts, on the grounds that historically Europe started emitting extra carbon centuries ago. This effectively negates Europe’s efforts to reduce emissions.

China in the Tibetan environment

When it comes to Tibet, the gap between the official narrative and ground truth is especially discordant. On paper it appears that a huge area of the Tibetan Plateau has been declared as nature reserve or protected area, in which mineral extraction is absolutely banned, and often local populations are also excluded, on the grounds of watershed preservation, grassland growth, carbon sequestration and climate mitigation.

In reality, according to the reports not only of local Tibetan communities but also high profile international visitors, and academic researchers, mining continues to expand in nominally protected areas, even though it is technically illegal. In practice such mining is sometimes quite intensive, and often conducted by the same local levels of government that technically are responsible for compliance with national environmental law. As awareness of China’s laws gradually spreads through Tibetan communities, this leads to great frustration that there is no-one who can be petitioned. Protests are met with coercion and state violence, as if all protests against mineral extraction are a threat to the very existence of China.

China now has a plausible story of how it is contributing to global climate change mitigation by imposing grazing bans, which depopulate the Tibetan countryside, undermine food security in Tibet, negate traditional pastoral economies, and  reduce the displaced nomads to utter dependence on state aid, in the name of the best of globally agreed environmental goals. It would seem, in China’s argument, that it is a scientifically objective necessity that the nomads cease their customary livestock production because the rangelands cared for by the Tibetans for 9000 years are now badly degraded. China argues that the displaced ex-nomads are all voluntary “ecological migrants” who have chosen to sacrifice their herding life for semiurban dependence on the state, because they understand this as a contribution to saving China’s rivers and the planet’s carbon.

This plausible discourse is in much need of independent evaluation, not only by technical experts focussing on narrow elements of implementation but also by social scientists capable of looking at policy results, perverse unintended outcomes, and transboundary impacts of the new, intensive extraction economy on far downstream communities below the Tibetan Plateau.


Potential EU roles

What is badly needed is fresh, evidence-based monitoring of how China’s national policies are actually implemented, across a plateau the size of Western Europe. Implementation varies greatly. Policies which  at first glance appear entirely beneficial, to reforest or reseed degraded lands and pastures, actually  exclude human populations and fail to create pasture user groups to work collaboratively with the pastoralists. China says “Tibet is China’s Number One Water Tower,” but this reframes the purpose of Tibet, no longer as self-sufficient sustainable livestock production, but purely in terms of the needs of lowland China. To call Tibet China’s water tower is not a compliment, it seals the fate of Tibet, especially in the upper watersheds of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong, as a zone whose overriding land use excludes ongoing human occupation (except for accelerating illegal mining).

Land tenure rights are another major issue in Tibet, as the policy of grazing bans, now a decade old, increasingly require pastoralists to surrender what were given as long term land tenure security. Europe has been at the forefront of increasing land tenure security for the first dwellers of China, as a policy that gives Chinese villagers in or near forests a sense of ownership and co-management. Yet in Tibet, land tenure is eroding, and land users are losing access to lands they used sustainably for millennia.

It is thus all too easy for China to pick up, as its buzz words, key concepts of global environmental governance, such as payment for environmental services. China may soon introduce PES to Tibet, as an extension of the long established twinning of downstream Chinese provinces with upstream Tibetan counties, in the name of development. That twinning has provided Chinese mining companies with access and connections to Tibetan resources, only encouraging intensive extraction and avoidance of legal compliance. PES payments intended for Tibetan communities to desist from their own indigenous path to development, only holds Tibetans back from finding a place in the global economy.

These are complex issues, requiring utmost care in designing European aid interventions, and scrupulous care in examining closely how the framing concepts of environmental governance can, in practice, disempower and dispossess traditional land users, which perversely encouraging rampant, uncontrolled extraction of Tibet’s resource endowment.

The EU’s current initiatives to create a regulatory regime to exclude conflict minerals from the commodity chain are very relevant to Tibet. The same Chinese SOE mining companies operating in Congo are now rapidly intensifying mining in Tibet, despite frequent Tibetan protests and protest suicides by Tibetans. EU initiatives to require environmental compliance as part of any agreement with China on foreign investment, and the EU conflict minerals directive, can do much to ensure that environmental concerns are mainstreamed, and global standards become applicable to remote areas in Tibet, where standards have been widely flouted.






Presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, 3 March 2014 by Gabriel Lafitte,,


This series of three briefings acknowledges that raising Tibet as a human rights issue is aggressively rejected by China. This new approach is based on Australia’s strengths and the basic human needs of the six million Tibetans of the Tibetan Plateau (2010 census data), in five Chinese provinces, where they are disadvantaged, under-invested, under-capitalised, largely illiterate, peripheral minorities facing systemic discrimination and a downshifting of human services such as health and education to poor counties unable to finance adequate service delivery.

Australia and China are the world’s two biggest grasslands.  There are many complementarities between two drylands specialising in wool and livestock production, much that Australia can contribute in the delivery of landcare, community conservation, and the provision of services to remote communities.

These briefings are based on decades of monitoring situations on the ground in Tibet, and on past Australian successes (and failures) in technical assistance to Tibetan areas. These are constructive proposals, opening up fresh initiatives that improve the lives of Tibetans, without triggering accusations of “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

These policy proposals also offset the likely impacts on Tibet of an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement that, as expected, increases access to the Chinese market for Australian dairy products and wool, which are the two exportable surplus commodities of the Tibetan Plateau that could find markets in China’s cities.

These recommendations cover the whole Tibetan Plateau, not only the 75 legally autonomous Tibetan counties constituting the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but the further 75 autonomous Tibetan counties in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. This is in accord with China’s latest whole-of-government Work Forum on Tibet, which decided to include all Tibetan areas.

  1. How to strengthen the agricultural economy of Tibet. Australia doing something practical for Tibet: Australian aid, Tibetan sheep, dairy products and pastoral nomads.
  2. Training Tibetans: Educational disadvantage in remote regions, need for higher ed scholarships, study tours of Australia, also vocational education focussed on community landcare, river basin management, livestock production and other commonalities linking the two greatest grasslands of the world -Australia and China.
  3. Tibet’s resource extraction economy, Chinese and Australian mining corporations and their global interactions, mining standards and compliance; with specific suggestions about an Australian conflict minerals regime.

BRIEFING ONE:                       RURAL TIBET


The economy of the Tibetan Plateau is predominantly pastoral, producing a marketable surplus of dairy products, wool and other animal products. Among China’s factories and upmarket urban consumers, both wool and dairy are in demand. China’s woollen mills have ceased taking Tibetan wool, even though Tibetans are capable of producing fine fibre, low-micron wool. The booming urban demand for yoghurt and other dairy products is met from Inner Mongolia and New Zealand, with growing Chinese interest in Tasmanian dairy, and Australian hopes of competing with New Zealand if an FTA is concluded.

Genetic improvement of Tibetan sheep breeds, and assistance in sorting, cleaning and caring for fine wools, and especially in marketing, could get higher returns for Tibetan pastoralists, whose wool at present is used solely for low-price, low-quality felt making. Tasmanian carpet-wool sheep may be best suited. This would somewhat compensate Tibetan producers from their exclusion from the value added supply chain. Teaching Tibetans how to form Pasture User Groups (PUGs) and marketing cooperatives would overcome the failure, 30 years ago, of the county-level wool scouring plants set up by local governments as middlemen between Tibetan wool growers and urban woollen mills. Their failure set Tibetan producers back badly.

Australia, through ACIAR funding, has invested modestly in animal production in Tibet, but in specialist technical assistance that seldom benefit pastoralists who have long been seen, in the eyes of China’s government, as unproductive.

Australia has much to offer in models of comanagement of protected areas, and ongoing pastures threatened by land degradation. Australia has been a leader in providing pastoralists with the science and the finance to invest in rehabilitation of degrading rangelands; rather than excluding land users, nullifying their land tenure and imposing grazing bans, which are current Chinese practice. Community-based management of risk and rehabilitation is well established in Australia, in remote areas.

Australia is also a major barley producer. Barley is the staple of the Tibetan farming economy, with much scope for genetic improvement of yields.

Past experience of Australian and other international assistance suggests that such projects are not just a transfer of knowledge and/or technology; that Chinese partner agencies often discontinue such projects once foreign funding runs out. For such projects to work, they need to engage directly with Tibetan end users, who are organised in formally recognised groups, empowered to make ongoing decisions about implementation. Project design, from the start, requires a higher level of hands-on supervision by donors to ensure the intended recipients actually benefit. When successful, such projects demonstrate to official agencies that active participation by rural Tibetans generates productive and sustainable outcomes.


Literacy levels in Tibetan areas (in Tibetan or Chinese) remain low. Education budgets are the responsibility of local government, which means that poor counties have poor schools, inadequate equipment, absenteeism, poorly qualified and poorly trained teachers, and a high dropout rate. China’s recent centralisation of schooling, in Tibetan areas,  especially in junior middle (lower secondary) schooling requires boarding children in county towns, depriving families of the seasonal contribution of the young to pastoral production, and the transmission of cultural values. Tibetan parents say that if a child graduates from primary school, s/he seldom wants to go back to nomadic pastoralism, but cannot go forward into the modern market economy because the few secondary schools are distant and places are few. This leads to lives of dependence, alienation, unpredictable bursts of casual unskilled work, and a fringe-dweller existence.

Australia’s Closing the Gap programs aim at improving literacy, vocational training and employment opportunities in areas remote even by Tibetan standards, as well as health outcomes. There is much China could learn from Australia’s experience.

In Tibetan areas, the modern industries that are booming, such as urban construction, mining, and tourism, are conducted in Chinese, prefer hiring Chinese workers even at the unskilled level, and often have formal barriers such as written exams that prevent Tibetan participation in the workforce. Even though tourists naturally want to connect with Tibetans, few Tibetans can pass exams in a Chinese syllabus on approved versions of Tibetan history and gain accreditation as guides. This is further reinforced by rigid implementation of hukou household registration rules that limit the mobility of Tibetans to job markets within one province.

Australia has deep strengths in the teaching of the national language as a second language for migrants, in multicultural and bilingual education; in creating employment opportunities in remote indigenous communities, and in mining companies creating training programs to recruit indigenous employees. This is transferrable knowledge.

At a higher education level, the limited number of Tibetans at university would benefit greatly from scholarship-funded opportunities to do tertiary studies in Australia. In the US, the Fulbright scheme provides such opportunities; Norway and some German universities have much experience in working to overcome the under-resourcing and imbalances of education provision in Tibet. AusAID scholarships, despite budgetary constraints, can go a long way, as they have, over recent decades, for Mongolians and their families who come to Australia to study.




China’s manufacturing hubs are moving inland, much closer to the Tibetan Plateau, and increasingly sourcing the raw materials of the supply chain from Tibet. As the world’s top brands relocate to Chongqing and Chengdu, their copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lithium, water and hydropower increasingly come from a newly intensified exploitation of Tibetan resources. Tibet is being rapidly incorporated into the global economy, but on terms not of Tibetan making.

China’s state-owned mining companies (SOEs), at the forefront of intensive extraction of gold/copper/molybdenum deposits, and state-owned hydropower builders at the forefront of cascades of dams on all major rivers from Tibet, employ few if any Tibetans, pay no royalties to Tibetan areas, introduce huge immigrant workforces to remote areas, disrupt sacred sites and pilgrimage routes, and impose on remote local communities massive tailings dams that must hold, in steep, seismically active terrain, for centuries after mining has exhausted the deposits. Tibetan communities are deeply unhappy, seeing only pain, with no gain. This is a major driver of the protest suicides, or self-immolations that demonstrate the depth of Tibetan grief, with an equally Tibetan insistence on nonviolence towards others.

China’s miners and dam builders do not belong to global codes of conduct and organisations designed to ensure that impacted host communities are engaged, and benefit directly through subcontracting business opportunities, vocational training and corporate investment in community facilities. Mining practices, such as the landslide at the open pit Gyama mine upriver from Lhasa in April 2013, killing over 80 mine workers, show disregard for OH&S standards, and the cheapness of expendable lives, that is common throughout the mining industry in China.

DFAT says 200 Australian mining companies are involved in 700 projects in Africa. For China, too, Africa is the frontline of global sourcing of raw materials. Not only are Chinese mining companies investing heavily in Australia, but also in Africa, where deposits change ownership between Australian and Chinese hands, with increasing frequency. Chinese miners in Australia comply with Australian laws and standards, but not in Africa or in Tibet. It is in Australia’s reputational interest that Chinese extraction and dam building corporations be encouraged to invest in treating their workers and host communities well, by adopting international standards such as those of ICMM, the Ruggie Principles etc.

Already, the new owner of much of the old Caltex refinery at Kurnell, Sydney, is a major shareholder in the copper smelters of the Chinese state owned company that owns, monopolises and exclusively smelts copper concentrate from the Tibetan copper mine at Shetongmon, west of Lhasa. Trafigura now owns both the Kurnell bitumen plant and a major stake in a new copper smelter owned by Jinchuan. More such connections are likely.

With more than 120 recent Tibetan protest suicides, Tibet is becoming a conflict zone, with mining a key issue.

Globally, the concept of “conflict minerals”, to be rigorously excluded from the supply chain, is integrated into EU and US regulatory regimes. Australia too has sanctions to specifically exclude from the supply chain minerals from Congo extracted by violent warlords. The US Dodd-Frank Act provisions, and EU conflict minerals regulations go further, and may well be applicable to Tibet, if present Chinese  SOE practices are not reformed.

Lithium extraction from salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau is China’s primary domestic source of a commodity essential to making the batteries that power smartphones, tablets and electric cars.

Consumers worldwide will soon be aware that Tibet is in their pocket, that globalisation links them directly to exploitation of Tibet, in their choice of high-end brands manufactured in western Chinese factories.

This is compelling reason for Australian mining companies, with diplomatic support, to do all they can to persuade their Chinese partners to do in Tibet, and in Africa, what they already comply with in Australia.




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Many Tibetans, whether in or beyond Tibet, take whatever opportunity that arises to engage with educated Chinese, in the hope of sparking dialogue, even a meeting of minds.

The results are usually disappointing. Inside Tibet, Tibetans and Chinese seldom meet as equals, and it is extremely rare that Chinese living in Tibet have learned Tibetan. It is also rare that Tibetans feel welcome in China, in the great cities where the educated Chinese gather. Most Chinese would say they have never met a Tibetan, except perhaps as a street peddler of jewellery or traditional medicine ingredients.

Outside Tibet, in the global diasporas of modernity there are many opportunities for Chinese and Tibetans to meet, now that both peoples are scattered across the planet. Opportunity may exist, yet they usually fizzle, in mutual incomprehension, as if there is no common ground. Whether face to face, or online, the attempt usually goes nowhere and it quickly becomes clear that there is nothing more to say.

This puzzles many Tibetans, who invest much effort in reaching out, trying to imagine openings that will be fruitful. They take the initiative, rather than leaving the heavy lifting of dialogue to their leaders, in the intuitive belief that the long standing incomprehension and stalemate will never lift by itself. Each side has its own universe of discourse, repeated frequently, seldom varying, which the rest of the world has tired of, and neither listens to the other. They end up preaching only to themselves.

Some efforts at creating dialogue are pursued with vigour, flair and the resources of well-designed websites and publications, yet still fail. Tibetans appear unexpectedly, fleetingly, adventitiously in Chinese lives online, even in a restaurant run by a Tibetan family whose objective, more than money, is to talk with customers to generate understanding of Tibet. Tibetans expect to meet anyone, comfortably and without rancour, to begin the gradual process of drawing them into a world of Tibetan values. The Sherpa did this with the mountaineers who employed them, often creating lifelong friendships.[1]

Perhaps these Tibetans expect too much. Perhaps they are naïve in expecting openness. Or perhaps they focus too much on what Tibetans think Chinese ought to know, namely the pain of the Tibetans under repressive, claustrophobic control. This is definitely not what Chinese audiences are ready to face. It’s just too confronting, and there is too much baggage in the way.

It’s that baggage that puzzles frustrated Tibetans, who have tried every way they can think of to get the conversation going. Even when meeting dissidents critical of China’s government, the same blank incomprehension arises when Tibetans start speaking from the heart. This seems to be not only an obstacle arising in the minds of those who identify with the official line; it affects young and old, pro and anti the ruling regime. Something lies in the way; too many ghosts litter the path.

To an outsider, Tibetans and Chinese seem alike in many ways, one of which is a reverence for tradition, history, precedent, hierarchy and authority. Both speak of events many centuries ago as if they happened yesterday and thus explain the present moment. Both routinely use the past to serve the present.

These pasts lead in different directions, setting up different roadblocks. Getting to a common ground, a starting point that might enable connection will not be easy.

A knot of preconceptions, especially among educated Chinese, is the assumption that a Sinocentric worldview is axiomatic, that China is such a great, ancient, sophisticated and continuous civilisation lacking in nothing, has all that is needful. China has all the categories and concepts of rule, of universal benevolence, of being the centre of everything, so it is always necessary to refract experience through the lens of Chinese characteristics. So pervasive is this belief, many who deal with China, including many western diplomats and businessmen, fall under its spell when it is deftly deployed.

These are stories educated Chinese tell each other about what is so exceptional about Chineseness. Inevitably, they solidify Chineseness, giving it a continuity over thousands of years, as a force of history, even a force of nature, a framework within which everything fits.

So widespread is this move, it can be affixed to almost any topic, with the result that China can be exempted from what the rest of the world takes to be universal, such as the idea that to be born human is to be born with rights. The insistence on applying “Chinese characteristics” to anything allows for positioning China advantageously, under all circumstances. Thus China can be, according to circumstances, both a developing country entitled to concessions, subsidies and privileges; and at the same time a highly developed peak of civilisation entitled to deferential treatment.

National special pleading and exceptionalism are not of course unique to China, but in China this is an art form, confined not only to an official class accustomed to thinking like a state but more widespread, almost a popular sport. Like any new fashion, it has its celebrities. An intellectual who can make the case that China stands uniquely above universal norms becomes a hero. Zhao Tingyang’s new idea repackaging a largely-forgotten ancient concept: “made him a star in China’s intellectual circles, helping to extend his influence beyond the confines of philosophy into the realm of international relations. Four years later, he published a second volume further developing his tianxia (literally, ‘all-under-heaven’) theory [which] has had a huge impact on China’s community of international relations scholars, stirring up excitement as well as curiosity. This is due, in part, to the fact that Chinese scholars in this field have not been able to produce a theory as sophisticated as his, even though this has been on their agenda for some time.”[2]

To outsiders, Zhou Tingyang’s thesis on China’s natural world leadership may seem opaque, even obscurantist, best passed over as an embarrassment rather than a breakthrough in international relations. But he remains much admired in China.

The stars who champion China’s uniqueness are inventors of tradition, so popular their novelties can travel from exciting novelty to core interest of the nation-state within a few years, embedded in China’s incessant claim to be sui generis, unique, beyond compare and without equal. This is a surprisingly popular sport, not confined to the few whose profession is to think like a state, and make the national interest their embodied stance.

This goes back to the uneasy compromise China made in the late 19th century when confronted with the military power of the west. The literati elite coalesced round the broad principle that China must take from the west all those technologies that are useful, while holding fast to Chineseness as the core principle. This famous formula has held ever since, no matter how hard it is in practice to distinguish what is usefully modern, and what is eternally Chinese as the guiding principle guiding all applications of modernity.

The appeal of foundational Chineseness for those prospering in today’s China is obvious. The party-state has energetically promoted this Sinocentric mythos, which can be introduced as a trump card into almost any negotiation. Beyond the party-state are the many whose fortunes are being made, in a time of rapid wealth accumulation, who have every reason to make use of this all-purpose shield deflecting all expectations that China abide by the rule of law, or universal norms of environmental responsibility. It is not hard to see why this appeals to the military, to angry young nationalist bloggers with no hope of ever finding a wife, and those who hope to make a fortune by conforming.


[1] Vincanne Adams, Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas,

[2] Zhang Feng; The Tianxia System: World Order in a Chinese Utopia, China Heritage Quarterly #21, 2010


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Not all Chinese intellectuals belong to the party-state establishment, or toe the mass line. Although open dissent in Tibet is not tolerated, in Beijing there is open debate on many matters, and polite but persistent disagreement with official policies on many issues. Yet, when it comes to Tibet, even the dissident intellectuals, who critique contemporary China, fall back into conventional views.

Bold voices in Beijing continue to dissent from the compulsory mass line of a party that once championed the revolts of the masses as legitimating its’ own revolutionary uprising. Having succeeded in seizing power, the revolutionary party thereafter insisted that its “mass line” is forever after the embodiment of the will of the masses, including the Tibetan masses. Uprisings such as that of the villagers of the Jinsha River just below Tibet are the nightmare of a deeply institutionalised party-state that above all fears “mass incidents” that portend a threat to the stability required for the elite to continue, uninterrupted, with their wealth accumulation.

A star of new leftish thinking is Wang Hui, who also has a global audience, since he has read all the theorists of globalisation, the social theorists famous worldwide, whose writings are these days all available in Chinese translation. Enormously erudite, Wang Hui himself is on the global lecture circuit, offering a distinctively Chinese perspective on the debates on capitalism, and how the contemporary world works. A harbinger of things to come, Wang Hui is a global intellectual celebrity, welcome in  seminar rooms everywhere for offering a challenging fresh take on familiar debates on topics such a modernity, globalisation, capitalism and the nation-state. His 2014 lectures during his visiting professorship at Goldmsiths College, London, are livestreamed, a sure sign that China can produce its own brands of intellectual star.

Wang Hui is interesting, too, because he has not simply ignored Tibet, as many Chinese intellectuals do. He has written much about Tibet, both a sympathetic reflection on Tibetan environmentalists campaigning against hydro dams, and a lengthy dismissal of the Tibetan protests since 2008. That essay, 90 pages long in English translation, has attracted little attention from Tibetans, but does much to explain the deep seated obstacles to any meaningful dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese.

Like so many of China’s leading intellectuals, seeking, through their guoxue or “national  learning” to save China by reviving concepts that Confucius himself thought of as antique, Wang Hui’s voluminous rereadings of ancient texts unsettle familiar dualisms without advancing new alternatives. Wang is a textual scholar, a professor of language and literature. The present moment in China is his overriding concern, yet there is no investigation of it, only the grandest of generalisations, and a selective light of the past directed onto the present.

In a party-state which in 2013 made a point of officially banning all discussion of past mistakes of the party,[1] it is understandable that Wang Hui, for all his researches and writings, has only achieved one half of the task he set himself, to investigate the origins, in China and the west, and likely futures of two key modern concepts: science and democracy. Wang’s work on China’s embrace of “Mr. Science” as one of its saviours is deeply illuminating. Understandably, he has not yet felt the time is right to explore with equal depth China’s need for “Mr. Democracy.”

But the external pressure to avoid critiquing the absence, in China, of a self-conscious, mobilised, organised, articulate, citizenry and civil society –the key elements of actual democracy; added to Wang’s reticence and inconclusiveness, leave a big gap, which the social sciences could be expected to fill. Wang fruitfully hints at what might be discovered. He suggests that China today is creating modernisation without modernity. This is a cryptic suggestion, which could readily become a research agenda for both political science and economics, both of which struggle –in places beyond China where such open struggle is possible- to depict the dynamics of today’s China.

The dilemma is readily expressed. On one hand, China is booming, wealth accumulation is accelerating, entrepreneurs have unparalleled opportunity, and the Market-friendly reforms announced by Xi Jinping late in 2013 are intended to allow market forces to become the drivers. Yet on the other hand China remains highly repressive, the party-state fixated on command and control, ruthlessly quelling dissent, and with state-owned enterprises dominant, and given favoured treatment. Neoliberal orthodoxy suggests private enterprise is the engine of growth and prosperity, not a heavy governmental hand addicted to social engineering, the agglomeration of favoured SOEs into national champions, the state picking and choosing its favoured winners. Today’s China seems to be both neoliberal and a profound contradiction of neoliberalism. Equally, China cannot be dismissed as totalitarian, dirigiste, a monolith of state control. So what is it?

Wang Hui has a simple answer, characteristic of his usual move, when faced with a seeming dichotomy, which is to exclude neither and lean to including them both. The repressive regime clamping down on “mass incidents” and popular protest is the essential precondition, he suggests, for the primitive accumulation of wealth by an elite of bureaucratically well-connected entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurial bureaucrats. In this sense, China achieves modernisation: fast rates of growth and wealth accumulation monopolised by an elite, massive state-led investment in the infrastructure of modernisation, while the masses remain poor, and without an adequate welfare system or social safety net. Political repression holds back modernity, an active participant citizenry advocating their interests, and renegotiating their identities, as modernity steps the individual out of the shadows of the ancestors. Thus we have modernisation without modernity. This could be a substantive research agenda for the social sciences, but that is not politically possible. Wang himself has little opportunity to develop this further, and no inclination to do so by fieldwork.

To proponents of the vaguely defined “China Dream”, the party-state’s mass line insists that this is the best of times, wherein China comes to realise its dream of modernity, prosperity and global eminence. However there is in China a liberal new left, highly critical of China’s embrace of state capitalism, with its corruption, monopolies, primitive accumulation, concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, bloating inequality and contempt for the masses silenced by the coercive power of the state. Despite the censorship and repression, these leftish intellectuals continue to speak up, and critique the obscene rush to get rich, while exploiting the excluded. Yet on the new left, a patriotic insistence that global norms do not apply to China is as strong as among the insiders of the party-state who are busily getting rich.

Wang Hui is not a leftist in the sense of nostalgia for the good old revolutionary days under Mao. But his skepticism about today’s China extends only so far: in many ways he remains a conventional patriot, with conventional views about the inviolably sovereign Chinese nation-state, China’s transition from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, and the role of minority nationalities. Not only does he follow convention, as a renowned historian of philosophy, he has come up with lengthy and ingenious new arguments for closing Chinese minds to Tibetan calls for breathing space.

To achieve this, Wang Hui takes his usual roundabout route, displaying at length that he has read and digested everything ever written, before gradually arriving at the present. In the case of the Tibetans, this requires a lengthy excavation of what European philosophers said about Tibetan Buddhism centuries ago, which of course was largely nonsense. This excursus through the history of European ideas might seem entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the pain of today’s Tibetans, yet the Tibetan uprising of 2008 and how China should respond is Wang Hui’s ultimate objective, in an essay of 90 pages.

Wang selectively overlooks the ways the greatest of European philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries mistook Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism generally, as a gloomy, other-worldly faith emphasising only the suffering of existence and the bliss of non-existence. He instead accentuates the positive. Gradually Wang Hui moves forward, always looking at Tibet through western eyes, filled with romantic fantasies, arriving, in Zurich at the turn of this millennium, at an exhibition of the fantastic western imaginary of Tibet, painstakingly assembled by leading contemporary European deconstructionists seeking to debunk the Shangri-la romanticism.

But to Wang Hui this is final proof that Tibet is a figment of western imagination, as are western concerns about contemporary human rights in Tibet. Dreamworld Tibet, the 2000-01  Zurich exhibition of utopian and dystopian fantasies of Tibet, western and Chinese, was assembled in order to clear space for Tibetans to represent themselves, but Wang Hui takes it as an opportunity dismiss all nonChinese voices, leaving the way open for an exhaustive reprise of Chinese imperial annalists on Tibet as a tributary of China.

This is Wang Hui’s characteristic move, surveying comprehensively what the west has said on any topic, only to dismiss it all as Eurocentric,  in favour of the unique contribution available from Chinese tradition, as interpreted by Wang, with ingenious novelty. Wang dismisses the idea that China’s 20th and 21st century tasks in Tibet are to turn an 18th century empire into a modern nation-state in which everyone identifies as a citizen of a unitary state that transcends ethnicity. The dichotomy of empire and nation-state he dismisses as just another western dualism that does not apply to China, which has for a thousand years shown every sign of being a nation-state, since the times of the Song dynasty. Drawing on Japanese analyses done at the height of Japan’s imperial advance, Wang suggests that the Song dynasty “uses economic rule as the base of centralized authority and was the first dynasty in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner. The results of this economic centralization would be an extremely solid legacy for later dynasties. The decline of an aristocratic culture and its replacement with a mature prefectural system, namely a system of absolute centralization and a bureaucracy, which greatly influenced political culture and made it different from that of the Han and Tang dynasties because the Song government standardized the imperial examinations, which gave rise to a new class of gentry and bureaucrats.”[2]

To Wang Hui, the distinction made between empire and nation-state is meaningless, just another Eurocentric claim to superiority that has no basis. “The dichotomy formed within the narrative of European world and political history between the so-called ‘empires’ and ‘nation-states’ was in reality a theory to legitimize the European nation-state. What I really wish to do is to break down this dualism, and to negate the dualistic relation. Neither do I see the transition between empire and nation-state as a necessary condition for the transformation into political modernity; I would not describe the problem in this way.”[3]

China’s leaders over the past century and more have all felt it was essential to adopt the western model of the nation-state, as a way of regaining national strength and a sovereign place in the world for China. Yet to Wang those Chinese Republicans and Marxists were pursuing a goal that required only reasserting the achievements of Song China 1000 years ago, since “the seeds of modernity already existed”, under the Song “system built around a core of imperial authority, the prime minister, and the civil service [which] was a highly rationalized state system.” The Japanese too felt the need to build a strong state, and so did the Japanese scholars of the 1930s on whom Wang relies for discovering the modern state in China a millennium ago. So Wang then quickly parts ways with the Japanese, critiquing “the opposition they constructed between empire and nation-state according to the framework of European world history.” This European idea, Wang says, is to be repudiated because empires fail to accord formal equal sovereign relations to other nations, “instead being characterized by relations of tribute and a hierarchical structure of social relations.” By contrast, the nation-state, at least legally, “is formally defined by relations of equality within the nation-state system.” It is this dualism Wang is keen to dismantle as yet another European imposition on the world, but he refuses to categorise China as either.

To Tibetans, the distinction matters. China, at its fullest imperial stretch, under the Manchu nomad rulers, the Qing dynasty, in the 18th century, controlled Tibet, which had to pay tribute. But during the 18th, and 19th centuries, up until the mid 20th century, there was no attempt by China to actually govern, to change or intervene in ground realities in Tibet, to establish the modern system of  “economic rule as the base of centralized authority in which a ruler governs the myriad people in a unified manner.” That is exclusively the project of the Chinese Communist Party.  China under the CCP was determined to achieve was the assimilation of Tibet into a unified nation-state with secure borders, a loyal population and all imperial influence driven out.

Converting an empire into a nation-state was of the highest importance to the party-state, and remains an unfinished agenda, especially in Tibet. To Tibetans, the distinction between empire and nation-state is crucial. Wang Hui dismisses the drive to create the modern, unitary nation-state as a Eurocentric teleology, but it remains a teleology, a destiny prescribed for Tibet, that has driven CCP policy for its 65 years in power.

China felt it must become a recognisable nation-state, recognised by the other nation-states, in order to stand up and regain sovereignty. The nation-state, by the time China grew determined to repulse the western imperialists, at the end of the 19th century, had become a necessity, and in its strongest form, the unitary nation-state with no concessions made to federalism or autonomous minority ethnicities. It took a century to realise the vision of the unitary state, in which ethnicity is no longer a collectivity, a nation with collective claims, within the nation-state, but is merely an individual choice of identity, as a member of a chosen ethnic group.

Empires make no such claims. Empires contain the raw and the cooked, a jumble of ethnicities, the conquered, unassimilated peoples who often have quite different legal systems and gods of their own. China has often accommodated such difference, and often been itself ruled by outsiders, notably the nomads of the north, the Mongols for a century, and later the Manchu for two and half centuries. As Wang Hui says, “empires understand both sides of borders or the various frontiers as their own”. They are fluid, opportunistic, expanding when circumstances are favourable.

Why does Wang Hui dismiss this highly useful distinction between empire and nation-state? Because it is a western invention, and some western theorists have added a teleology, in which the nation-state becomes the highest form of government, a melding of territory and culture, thus the highest stage of human social evolution.  Hence it is to be rejected. The idea of empire is a manifestation of western imperialism.


But there is more to Wang Hui than nativist reprise of versions of Confucianism. He did not come out with his elaborate insistence on Tibet as a tributary of China, and Tibetan protest as a phenomenon of western romanticism, until the events of 2008, months before the Beijing Olympics, forced him to declare his patriotism. Prior to that, he wrote an unusually warm, uncomplicated story celebrating his friendship with young  Bai and Tibetan minzu intellectuals, and his involvement in their successful  campaign to persuade China’s highest leaders to cancel a plan to hydro dam one of the most beautiful rivers, within a UNESCO World Heritage area. This essay appears in English in a collection of his 2004-08 writings, and seems to have not had publication in Chinese.[4]

The essay is a tribute to the “Son of the Jinsha River”, the activist Xiao Liangzhong, who died young, exhausting himself in his round the clock campaigning to mobilise communities against the construction of a hydro dam across the Jinsha (upper Yangtze)  at  Hutiao Xia or Tiger Leaping Gorge in 2004, not far below the areas designated officially as Tibetan Autonomous Counties.

Wang Hui, then editor of the liberal Dushu journal, had published  a 2001 ethnographic piece by Xiao, and they had met. Wang published more by the energetic young anthropologist, but, he says, never found time to take a look at a novel Xiao wrote. As the campaign against the dam gathered strength, a Tibetan scholar Ma Jianzhong, recruited Xiao to join, and they organised a symposium in the prefectural capital of the Tibetan portion of Yunnan province, Zhongdian, later renamed Shangri-la (Shang-er-li-la) to attract tourists. The symposium, an attempt at framing the hydro debate on Tibetan terms, was called “Tibetan Cultural and Ecological Diversity.”

Xiang recruited the famous editor into his world, persuading him to stay, in Zhongdian, in Xiao’s family home, during the symposium. There Wang discovered the modern Tibetan academy, authors of encyclopaedic Tibetan histories, erudite Tibetan monks who had come from Qinghai, and, from Beijing, “Mr Zhambei Gyaltsho, a colleague of mine from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who as in the Institute of Ethnic Literature. I was part of the Institute of Literature, and purely due to this separation, we had never met.”

In this region of many nationalities, with Han Chinese the newcomers, the Tibetans of the upriver  uplands made a strong, inclusive case for “ecological and cultural diversity as being very closely linked, and that any attempts to differentiate groups within a community based upon ethnicity and religion would rapidly erode its cultural multiplicity and any other of its organic relations, producing new inequalities. Xiao Liangzhong’s interest in his hometown did not arise from his interest in a particular ethnic or cultural group, but rather in the social networks woven together through history and their multiplicity.”

Seeing this Tibetan move to include all, Wang Hui became involved in the drafting of a proposal calling for the dam project to be halted. Wang was able to appreciate that the Tibetans were not chauvinists, and skilfully included everyone, and he got further involved.

This essay in praise of a few activists of Tibetan, Bai and other minority ethnicities displays Wang Hui’s Confucian piety, but it also precedes his rejection of the Tibetans as a people and their call for breathing space. The essay opens with Wang Hui arriving in a remote village to pay his respects to the young man’s grave, on Tomb-Sweeping Day, a scene he evokes in detail, without explaining that, as others have since said,  Xiao’s death galvanised the villagers, who “believed he died to protect his homeland, and his death motivated them to protect it, too. Some if the villagers thought of him as a river spirit who could bless and protect their home. The death of Xiao Liangzhong caused an upsurge in local sentiment against the dam project.”[5] When the community put up the memorial declaring Xiao “The Son of Jinsha River”, an old farmer said: “Rivers on the earth are like veins in the human body. If you were to block off your own veins, you would die. The earth is the same.” An old woman said of the young man who died that he “was just 32 years old when he left us. I’m more than 60 –I’ve lived long enough. If I could exchange my body of flesh and blood for the long-term peace and stability of this land, so that the Tiger Leaping Gorge Damn wouldn’t be built, I would be willing today to have my body smashed to pieces and my bones ground to powder.”

It was this mobilisation that succeeded in pressuring the Yunnan provincial government to cancel the dam, as long as the protesters dispersed quickly, which they did. This account, more detailed than Wang Hui’s, makes it clear that the climax, well after Wang’s Tomb-Sweeping Day homage to his young friend, was achieved by 10,000 angry villagers surrounding government buildings, demanding justice, holding officials hostage, and refusing to disperse despite the threat of the ruthless armed police quelling them. Only when it was clear that both the Tibetan prefectural officials and the Yunnan provincial officials accepted their demands did they save everyone’s face by going home.

The skill of the Bai and Tibetan intellectuals in the Confucian arts of recruiting Wang Hui as protector and patron did much to give the social movement momentum, but it was won by mass protest, the courage of people who have been lied to too often. That’s not how Wang Hui tells it, but in Liu Jianqiang’s retelling of a long personal involvement with reporting the issue.

The villagers, victorious until a renewed hydro damming push by Beijing in 2012, drew deeply on Chinese tradition, as does Wang Hui, both in his Tomb-Sweeping Day homage and his rejection of the Tibetan demand for cultural space, on the grounds that it was the nation-state of China that has long ruled Tibet, and Tibetan protests are western fantasies.

Chinese tradition, Confucian but also Buddhist and Taoist, is rich in precedents, exemplary stories and concepts of propriety, enabling everyone to pick and choose. The old woman, offering her body to be smashed to pieces and her bones ground to powder, succinctly summarises a classic Tibetan meditation practice, called Chöd, in which the meditator cuts clinging to existence by imagining, as vividly as possible, exactly the old woman’s scenario. For the meditation practice to work, transforming the inborn subjective attachment to “I”, it must be done with total sincerity and conviction, as the old woman demonstrates.

This old woman, spontaneously offering, in specific detail, that her body be smashed and ground to dust, is clearly familiar, through long practice, with imagining just that experience, as her offering of the self, of all attachment to existence,  the core of self-ish-ness.[6] This is beyond the comprehension of Chinese people today. The willingness of Tibetans to die, in order to perpetuate the inner strengths of Tibetan culture, in the face of Chinese ignorance, indifference and persecution is equally inexplicable, as Wang Hui demonstrates, at length, in his long essay on the 2008 Tibetan uprising.

That’s the focus of the next blog in this series.


[2] Viren Murthy,  Modernity Against Modernity: Wang Hui’s critical history of Chinese thought; Modern Intellectual History,3,1(2006), pp. 137–165

[3] Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the limits of Modernity, Verso, 2011, 126

[4] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 173-190 in Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Verso, 2009

[5] Liu Jianqiang, Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge, 203-235 in Sam Geall ed., China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, Zed Books, 2013

[6] Edou, Jerome. Machig Labdron and the Foundations of Chod. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1996.

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There is so much in Chinese tradition to draw on that leading intellectuals compete by cutting and pasting as they choose, almost always from Confucian classics, as their contribution to contemporary China’s greatness, the realisation of the “China Dream” and China’s exceptionalism. Their agenda is, as it has been for generations, to save China, and to strengthen it. For a century, from late 19th to very late in the 20th century, the consensus among intellectuals, reformers, modernisers and nearly all political parties, was that Confucian tradition was at the heart of China’s backwardness and inability to stand up to the west. Then, almost overnight, the magnetic poles flipped. Confucianism suddenly went from being the root cause of China’s failures to being the secret source of its contemporary strengths.

The great game of China’s establishment intellectuals, left and right, is to pick which aspects of Confucian tradition best can be made to reframe debate, make Chinese characteristics into universals, which at the least exempt China from the universals of others, such as universal human rights, and at most proclaim China as the natural global centre of all under heaven.

It is this fixation on extracting concepts from the 2500 years old Spring and Autumn Annals for contemporary repurposing that preoccupies not only the party-state and its intellectual supporters, but also the leading critics as well. Their preoccupation with Confucian precedent, a contemporary trahison des clercs, serves the interests of the party-state even when it is critical of the inequality, corruption and excesses of the regime.

These days what used to be the consensus, that Confucian tradition is largely irrelevant to contemporary China’s problems, is voiced only by lonely, imprisoned outsiders such as the gentle Liu Xiaobo, who says ”Deep down, emotionally, the Chinese remain closed off. In their heart of hearts, they want to find some superior cultural tradition of their own that will help them create a unified system of belief. They are constantly engaged in a quest to find some source of national pride with which to console themselves. Confronted with the powerful culture of the West, the Chinese search for a spiritual crutch in the ancient culture that once made them so proud.”[1] It is for these sentiments that Liu Xiaobo is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in gaol.

These are among the deeper reasons why Tibetans make so little progress when they reach out, in Chinese, to Chinese audiences.  Wang Hui’s elaborate refusal to take seriously the anguish of the Tibetans is itself exemplary. His lengthy recitation of imperial precedent, his insistence that it was the Manchu emperor Qianlong who, in the 18th century “established the Kashag system that placed the Dalai Lama at the head of the government,” repeats familiar arguments that, since the imperial annalists regarded the Tibetans as tribute-paying outer barbarians, whose “local” government is established or disposed of by Beijing, the actual voices of actual contemporary Tibetans can be ignored.

What is truly remarkable in Wang Hui’s 90 pages on contemporary Tibet is that almost nowhere does he hear Tibetan voices, or listen to Tibetan complaints that echo his own critique of contemporary China’s state capitalism, gross inequality, rapacious resource extraction and environmental damage. Seldom does he sit and talk with actual Tibetans, although he says “I have always been deeply curious about Tibetan culture and wanted to investigate the Tibetan region more thoroughly.”[2]



Wang Hui’s elaborately contrived deafness to Tibetan pain is, unfortunately, typical of educated Chinese, including critics of the party-state. Exceptions are rare. One might expect the exceptions to be social scientists, trained in empathy, verstehen, in the classic ethnographic method of standing inside as well as outside the culture being studied. No such sympathetic reports are to be found in the writings of China’s social scientists. The few open-minded accounts of the lives, values, cultures and practices of Tibetans, and other minority nationalities, come from Chinese biodiversity scientists and human rights lawyers.

For Wang Hui, the protests by Tibetans can be explained away as the strains and contradictions of the arrival of modernization in a religious society, in which Tibetans confuse the inevitability of globalization with Sinicization. The strong global sympathy in 2008 for protests by Tibetans is explained away as the delusional fantasies of Western imperialist romanticism. Wang writes: “Most Chinese have no idea that what they are facing are Westerners saturated in several centuries of orientalist knowledge, for whom Tibet is something purely internal or, rather, a wholly fabricated internal other.”[3]

Assembling his evidence that Tibet is a phantom of Western orientalist fantasy, Wang takes a long detour through Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Herder, Madame Blavatsky, Adolf Hitler, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, James Hilton, the Central Intelligence Agency and many more; a ground already well trodden by many Western scholars[4] out to clear away projections, to enable Tibet and Tibetans to come into focus on their own terms. But for Wang Hui, this constitutes evidence that, for Westerners, “the existence of the Orient/Tibet is a necessary premise upon which their selfhood is constructed.”

Some Westerners, having repudiated the orientalist fantasies, deconstructed the Shangri-la mythos and also criticised the CIA’s use of Tibetans as Cold War pawns, have gone further, entering fully into Tibetan lifeworlds, as practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. While there may not be many Euro/Americans who have dedicated their lives to the inward journey of meditative insight into the nature of mind, under the guidance of Tibetan teachers, one might suppose their views worth noting, as an alternative to the speculations of 18th century philosophers. Wang Hui, far from ignoring such voices, includes them, as one might expect of an intellectual drawn to universals, which could include Buddhism, in that the Buddhists of Tibet say the Buddhist path of insight into the nature of mind is meaningful for anyone born human, irrespective of culture.

Wang Hui chooses to quote from Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk in the Tibetan tradition with decades of experience of the transformative inner journey: “It’s called ‘mixing your mind with the teacher’s mind,’ the teacher’s mind being wisdom and your mind being confusion. What happens then is that by means  of ‘spiritual union’ you progress from confusion to wisdom. This purely contemplative process is one of the key points of Tibetan Buddhist practice…… You can’t go and meet with Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’s feet. Yet suddenly here were these beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself: ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.” [5]

For Wang Hui, this is further proof that the West is in the grip of a deeply imprinted collective orientalist delusion about Tibet.  It does not occur to Wang to consider Ricard’s experience of decades of immersion in Buddhist practice and an attempt to find words for the deeply transformative power of Tibetan mind training, and Ricard’s unusually intense ethnographic encounter worth considering as an insider perspective. These quotes from Ricard prove to Wang Hui that the Tibetan lamas “are the creation of Westerners rather than the descendants of Tsong-kha-pa.”[6] Thus does Wang dismiss global concern about human rights in Tibet, the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet, and the pain of the contemporary Tibetans.

Wang Hui says he wants to hear more Tibetan voices, yet seems oblivious to their presence online, in Chinese and in Tibetan, despite acute dangers, obstacles and censorship. He is also unaware of the corpus of fieldwork done in Tibetan areas. For two decades, the Institute of Biology at Yunnan University in Kunming, has published careful fieldwork accounts of conservationist practices of the many minority nationalities of Yunnan, practices based on traditional indigenous knowledge. In hundreds of reports, chapters and articles, they add up to a remapping of knowledge invisible to a party-state bent on engineering modernisation on a grand scale, through massive infrastructure projects that frequently have perverse outcomes that could have been prevented, if traditional knowledge was acknowledged and respected.

The biologists take care to adopt the conventions of scientific writing, in which the observer remains unseen, not part of the story. But when Beijing based human rights defence lawyers decide to see for themselves what the Tibetans are carrying on about, the tone is straightforward reportage, remarkable only because, in China, it is so unusual.[7]

This “Investigative report into the social and economic causes of the 3.14 incident in Tibetan areas”, by the Beijing-based Gongmeng Law Research Centre in 2009, adopts the structure and stance of objectivity of the social sciences, but Tibetan voices constantly break through: “The assistance and ‘development’ brought by the Han is often accompanied by forced change and conflicts, and the wishes of the Tibetan people themselves are not respected. ‘A Tibetan’s prosperity is more about freedoms such as religious belief, a respect for people, a respect for life, the kind of prosperity you get from extending charity to others.’ (Interviewee, Norbu].) ‘Reform and opening up brought with it new values for the Tibetan people […] forcing people to accept ‘development as the last word,’ and forcing them to accept ‘consumption as the last word’. In this process […] of transforming a people who had originally based their values on faith at the same time as transforming Tibet itself by means of modernization the lives of the people there were also transformed.’ (Interviewee, Li Xiaoshan.) From the level of actual benefits, the current rapid process of modernization has not given the ordinary Tibetan people any greater developmental benefits; indeed, they are becoming increasingly marginalized. In the course of researching and interviewing, we saw on more than one occasion the schisms, bitterness and hardships being faced in Tibetan areas today.”

This frankness, and the space provided for subaltern Tibetans to speak for themselves, were quickly repressed and the authors punished. Five years later, in 2014, the Gongmeng report remains one of the few occasions Tibetan voices were heard and reported by educated Chinese who took the trouble of going to Tibet to see for themselves.



[1] Liu Xiaobo, A Spiritual Tool, in Geremie Barme ed., New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, Times Books, 1992, 385

[2] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 181

[3] Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, Harvard, 2011, 154

[4] Peter Bishop, Donald Lopez, Martin Brauen, Frank Korom and Robert Barnett are among many who have written extensively on this

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher: A father and son discuss the meaning of life; Schocken, 1999, 5,9, quoted in Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, 150-2

[6] Politics of Imagining, 151

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Thanks to the unending flow of top secret documents  going public, we now know that every state spies on everyone, not only to monitor terrorists but also to manoeuvre for military, political and commercial advantage.

We have long known China does this, to intercept the military and commercial secrets of rivals; and to censor and disrupt the communications of its own citizens and critics. But now we know everyone who has the capability does it, because they can. Cyberwarfare has become the norm, hidden behind the vague rationale that this is nothing new; this is merely the anarchy of global international relations loosed upon the world.

Now that the extent of this each-against-all world is known, we can start to trace the lineages of this new absolutism, this Hobbesian world where the strong take full advantage of the weak. How did we come to a situation where it is regarded as fair enough, inevitable, even normal, that the nation-states of the world regard all others as competitors and/or enemies, whose weaknesses are to be exploited?

The simplest answer is that the spy agencies of all powerful nations do this because they can, because they managed for a decade or more to keep it largely secret, because both legislation and popular concern lag far behind their new technical capabilities to intercept everything and anything. We could say that the post-9/11 security state has normalised such measures; and that the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center coincided with an exploding capacity to intercept all electronic communication. We can look back on the past decade, or 13 years, as a turning point, a time when Islamic fundamentalism was answered by a security fundamentalism that has become pervasive and toxic.

As we look back over the years since 2001, Tibet looms large, as the laboratory in which these new tech advances were trialled, tested, and perfected. The Tibetans were the laboratory rats, on whom all the new technologies of interception, deception, disruption, disinformation and destruction of the enemy’s communications system, were trialled. The new weapons of cyber warfare were, as is now well known, trialled by the Chinese government, with the Tibetans, in and beyond Tibet, their front line.

As a frequent visitor to Tibetan communities in India, I often met bright young tech heads who were into helping the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans maintain some integrity and security of their computer systems, to be alert to hack attacks and secret siphoning of data to nearly untraceable addresses in China. A decade ago, as the stories slowly grew, that China was attacking not only the Tibetans, but American corporate secrets, even the US military, seeking to copy stealth fighter jets and missiles, it seemed quite obvious that the Tibetans were the front line, and successful cyber attacks on the Tibetans were then replicated on other targets in the US military and corporate worlds.

It occurred to me that the defences invented by those tech heads, young unpaid volunteers working alongside exiled Tibetan web managers and computer systems administrators,  were valuable, not only to the Tibetans, but much more widely. Naively, I asked one or two if they were able to sell their expertise to American corporations which were starting to realise they too were vulnerable to “day zero” attacks by newly invented viruses and other malware that sought to penetrate their commercial secrets. I asked a few times if they could make a little money, to keep their volunteer work at the front line going, by offering their knowledge, as consultants to the American computer industry. Well, they said, we get a few nibbles here and there, a few approaches, mostly from computer security consultancies seeking to make a reputation for themselves as being the most advanced and successful in protecting clients, but that’s all.

At first I thought it a bit odd. Maybe the Tibetans were just too obscure, too far off the radar, to be recognised as a front line. But years went by, and I kept, occasionally, wondering. The more news that came out about the extent, depth and sophistication of Chinese penetration of American defence and business secrets, the more I expected to see American cyber warfare defence experts swarming Dharamsala, the Himalayan village that is global centre for the exile Tibetan dream of regaining space, inside Tibet, for Tibetans to be themselves.

That never happened. My puzzlement remained unanswered. Only now is it clear that every state with the capacity to do so was indeed not only monitoring the Chinese intrusions, but was busily going beyond defence to offence, to scooping as much data as possible, from wherever possible. They were and are all doing it to each other, and there is now no phone or computer that is safe, no telecommunication that is private, no clear distinction between defence and offence. Data collection on a staggering scale has become so routine that the states amassing it  now struggle to make use of more than a tiny fraction of it.

I used to think the governments of the western world were reluctant to speak up for the Tibetans because they feared China’s punishment, even though China’s threats seldom amount to much more than a loss in Norwegian sales of smoked salmon.[1] Again, I was naïve. They did know, they were watching, and they were doing the same themselves, while preferring to keep it all as quiet as possible.

The Tibetans were the lab rats, not only for China but for the global cyberwar machine. The Tibetans, under the Dalai Lama, have long called for “universal responsibility”, and for the west to adopt a  more unified response to China, to avoid being picked off one by one for Chinese reprisals. But in a realpolitik dog-eat-dog world, universal responsibility is a naïve, impossible dream. Reality is each against all, to the winners go the spoils.

This is not the first time the Tibetans have been used, and abandoned, by outside forces. In the 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency trained and armed the Tibetan resistance which had been steadily beaten back by China’s Liberation Army in a war which lasted years, ending with the exiled Tibetans being flown to American bases in the Pacific and the Rockies for insurgency training. A decade later, Richard Nixon, in the hope of enlisting China as an ally in containing the Soviet Union, made his historic deal with China, the Tibetans were hastily dropped, an embarrassment to the new normal.

In 1904, the British invaded Tibet, having persuaded themselves that the Tibetans were flirting with the Russian empire, and that Tsarist Russia, already overextended, had serious designs on Tibet. Having invaded, finding not only no Russians but also no Tibetan officials with whom to negotiate, the British eventually withdrew. But the damage had been done: thousands of Tibetans dead, and in the longer term, the clearest possible message to China that the entire world must join the global system of exclusive nation-states. Tibet must become China’s, or risk becoming someone else’s colony. The most remarkable consequence of the British conquest of Lhasa is not that it was pointless, but that it took China a further 45 years to create an army strong enough to make Tibet Chinese.

In all these historic moments, Tibet has been a pawn of bigger games, the Great Game as the British grandly called it. In the ascendency of the contemporary security state, Tibet yet again has been a pawn, receiving neither help nor overt sympathy from western governments as China probed, pried and destroyed Tibetan online communications. All concerned were too busy watching, learning, copying and taking their own steps to gain similar capabilities. The world is poorer, more fragmented, competitive and anarchic, as a result.

[1] Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, Paying a visit: The Dalai Lama effect on international trade; Journal of International Economics 91 (2013) 164–177


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In Mongolia, a democracy for almost 25 years, popular disappointment in the corruption of successive, elected governments has reached a point of disillusion deep enough to trigger symbolic warrior attacks on the parliament by horsemen armed with bows, arrows and rifles. The statist response has included speech stigmatising these most traditional of challengers as terrorists, demanding and succeeding in obtaining lengthy prison sentences.

As a resource extraction economy supplants the traditional mobile pastoralism as the main source of wealth, popular discontent now regards the alternating elected main parties as equally venal, with Mongolia’s parliamentarians among the richest in the world. Discontent with a democratic system and public sphere dominated by vested interests is widespread, sharpening rhetoric on all sides. Yet the challenge of the mounted warriors was an isolated incident.

A more common response to rising inequality is to try to participate in the mining boom. In Mongolia the full spectrum of mining is found: from the largest of transnational corporate world-scale extractive operations  reliant on technology rather than labour-intensive employment; through to the smallest-scale artisanal miners washing for gold specks in the rivers that flow through the pastures, often called ninjas, for the green plastic bowls they attach to their backs as they tramp between  prospecting sites.

The shift from a pastoral to an extractive economy has led some observers to call the pastoral nomads of Mongolia an oppressed minority, victims of global capitalist exploitation. Yet Mongolia only a generation ago, at most two generations ago, was largely a pastoral society, despite a high urban concentration in the capital city. A pastoral nomad, Sambuu, was President of Mongolia, from 1954 to 1972, at a time when, supposedly, Mongolia was utterly under the Soviet thumb.

How can a majority become a minority? Pastoralism is fast shrinking, both in the numbers who make a living from raising livestock and as a proportion of GDP now that the biggest of coal and copper/gold mines are in operation. But a simple dualist opposition of pastoralism and mining oversimplifies. The biggest of the mines are in the south, in the Gobi, the driest part of Mongolia most prone to climate extremes. The climatic extremes included a bitter winter (dzud in Mongolian)  at the end of 1999 and again two years later, with icy gales so severe that many subsistence graziers lost most of their herds. In the Gobi “a clear majority of placer gold miners are herder households who lost their livestock to dzud. Overall, tens of thousands of small-scale miners are engaged in placer gold mining and represent a major source of conflict with place gold mining companies. For a period, the presence of small-scale miners was tolerated…”[1]

In 2011 the Mongolian government reported: “Due to decline of animal husbandry in 2010, a number of heads of livestock fell by 11.3 million and heads of offspring by 6.4 million compared to the previous year.  Due to high natural losses production of livestock originated products, such as meat, milk, wool and cashmere, dropped significantly.”[2] The proportion of the population classified as poor rose from 29 per cent in 2007 to 39 per cent in 2010. Since then, according to the World Bank,  poverty has shrunk, but in rural areas remains at 35 per cent.[3] This is a contrast with the Soviet bloc era, when pastoralists, organised in collectives, had close to 100% literacy, guaranteed incomes, even state pension at the age of 55.

Mongolia is a big country (the size of France, Germany and Spain combined) with plenty of surface gold available, now that a centralised command and control economy is gone, replaced by weak democratic governments disinclined or unable to do much for the poor.

Disappointment with the fruits of democracy followed a deeply ambivalent response to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet bloc, into which Mongolia had been integrated as an industrial supplier of meat, wool, hides, dairy and other livestock products. Regimentation, collectivisation, government monopolies on buying and processing rural produce all collapsed, to be replaced by markets which favoured the most favoured and penalised the weak. The result was an acceleration of the peri-urban ger districts encircling the built cityscapes of Ulaan Baatar. The rural poor, escaping  the disastrous effects of dzud, erected their circular felt tents (ger) or built and fenced small timber houses, as a winter shelter and temporary refuge. As long as they believed these unserviced districts (no sewers, no piped water, often no electricity) were temporary, they were tolerated as a uniquely Mongolian adaptation, an urbanisation not to be labelled as slums or shantytowns, yet barely tolerated officially and frequently blamed for crime, violence, overgrazing, deforestation and pollution of the water table. But the ger districts, already expanding in the Soviet era, have become permanent, leaving the number of Mongolians actually making their living from mobile pastoralism a minority. Individual families in these districts may pack their ger and return to the pasture lands when seasons improve, thus maintaining the tradition of nomadic mobility, but overall, the ger districts continue to grow.

Mongolia’s official response is that: “the increased population of Ulaanbaatar resulted in shortcomings in service delivery which caused by the overload of hospitals, schools, roads, water supply, engineering facilities, as well as a shortage of housing and socio-cultural amenities. Additionally, air pollution, soil degradation and water contamination have impacted adversely on inhabitants’ health. On contrary, as the number of permanent residents of rural areas has being sharply decreased, livelihoods of rural people became stagnant. The main reasons are lack of basic services and infrastructures, absence of modern facilities, not meeting the demand and requirements of the population in rural localities, and lack of environment conducive to the human development and business opportunities. Population of the local areas and remote regions became sparse due to migration therefore cost of basic social services and commodity price have increased, which negatively affect the population livelihood.”[4]

While Mongolia’s government argues that a depopulating countryside is even harder to service, government revenues are soaring, thanks to the big mines now nearing full production , which have ready markets close by in China. But it is conventional economics that concentrated populations are more efficiently served with modern infrastructure, in contrast to the rural bias of Mongolia’s end of the Soviet bloc.

So the countryside continues to be under-invested, neglected, under-capitalised, and wealth continues to concentrate in the capital-intensive extraction zones, and in the city. The pastoralists have, in a generation, gone from being seen as the true Mongolians, heirs of Chinggis Khan; to becoming peripheral small scale producers vulnerable to fluctuating climates, too scattered to modernise efficiently.

This doesn’t mean all pastoralists are poor, far from it. Concentrations of wealth among livestock producers are not as visible as the bling of the urban new rich, the hurgan bayan, literally, the “rich lambs”, who drive round Ulaan Baatar in their Hummers and tinted glass Jeeps. Wealth in the countryside is, as ever, measured by animals on the hoof which are spread out across the pasture to even the grazing pressure. What is not obvious is who owns the remaining millions of sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels (the Mongolians define themselves as “the people of the five animals”).

Some of the rich lambs got rich through moving fast and first to commandeer land and herds in the free for all that followed the unexpected collapse of the Soviet bloc. They took possession of lands and assets that had belonged to the negdel, the nomad collectives that organised large scale livestock and meat production, invested in rigorous animal health services, quality control, meat freezing and export to the Soviets, and reliable wages to the pastoralists. All that vanished suddenly, seized by the bold and well-connected. These days, it is said by those in a position to know, that the national marketing of meat is controlled by only three families, whose political influence reaches so high they are able to arrange official subsidies at times that maximise their profits. Nomadic herding was never the egalitarian arcadia imagined by folk in the West, but these days the extremes of inequality are more extreme than ever, in a land with an egalitarian ethos promoted by the negdel.

Fortunes can be made in meat, in a country where autumn is the killing season, a tradition in a land so cold over the long winter that meat can be safely frozen in the earth by one’s ger tent, with no need for electricity. These days, with meat a highly marketable commodity sellable not only within Mongolia but to China’s People’s Liberation Army to the south, he who commands industrial freezers gets to hold onto the plentiful meat of autumn until the lean months of spring, and then make a fortune. If one has the right connections, the Ministry of Agriculture, in the name of the national interest in maintaining meat supply year-round, can be persuaded to establish a meat reserve in spring rather than autumn, buying its bulk meat supplies at premium prices, at public expense.

The great herds owned by the rich lambs are dispersed across the countryside, herded by poor nomads whose karma, in a highly risky climate, ran out and have little choice but to herd the animals of others. The rich are further favoured by the industrial logic of modern livestock production, which emphasizes division of labour and specialisation. Owners of big herds can separate them by age and gender, can concentrate on breeding programs, and sending young adult males to fattening yards close to cities prior to slaughter. To those that have shall be given. The rich get richer, the poor find their fortune as their karma ripens unpredictably.

The urban new rich and the oligarchs of rural Mongolia overlap. Mongolia is in the phase of primitive accumulation, as Marx called it, zerleg kapitalizm (wild capitalism) as it is called in Mongolia. But there are plenty of other ways of getting rich, in a land of great mineral wealth, cashmere wool production, tourist attractions, an urban real estate boom and a stock market for Mongolian companies floating their wares.

Mining is not new. Copper was one of Mongolia’s main exports to the Soviet bloc. But the scale of exploitation now is world class, so big that only the biggest of global multinationals such as Riotinto can finance and operate extraction. The Oyu Tolgoi mine, in the Gobi of southern Mongolia, with a ready Chinese market, is a colossus. It will, its owners say, become the third biggest copper mine in the world. After many delays, 2014 is the year OT (as everyone calls it) goes into full production. Oyu Tolgoi is forecast to produce 150,000 to 175,000 tons of copper in concentrates and 700,000 to 750,000 troy ounces of gold in concentrates, tripling in later years as the open cut operation goes underground. This single mine tilts the whole Mongolian economy towards extraction, making pastoralism, by comparison, seem too hard, too risky, too unrewarding. The resource curse is upon Mongolia.

It is all too easy to blame this on foreign multinationals, as if they invented capitalism and imposed it on Mongolia. But in the early 1990s, when I was president of an Australia Mongolia Society, the Mongolian government was energetically offering its mineral patrimony to Riotinto, BHP Billiton, and anyone else who might dig it up. I set up meetings for a Mongolian minister visiting Australia, at a time when Mongolia, reeling from the Soviet collapse and its entry into the hard world of hard currency, was more than keen to capitalise on its abundance of minerals. In reality, it took 20 years for those prospects to be realised, and some of the delay was due to deep ambivalence in Mongolia as to whether exploitation of the copper/gold deposit needed a foreign owner and operator. The result is that the Government of Mongolia now directly owns 34 per cent of the mine, and stands to earn not only profits but royalties revenue as well, boosting national GDP by about 30 per cent.

The protesters on horseback, traditionally dressed to emphasize their popular legitimacy, who fired at the national parliament and are now goaled, accuse all the major parties of endemic corruption. This strikes a popular note, in a land of deep pastoral tradition where fortunes are made and lost quickly and unpredictably, with the calamitous blizzards of a dzud only the most dramatic of risks a livestock herder must face. Mongolians are deeply suspicious of the new rich, and perhaps with reason. Like the oligarchs of Russia, assets were for the seizing as the Soviet bloc fell apart, and mineral wealth only adds to the opportunity to privatise wealth while socialising the costs of extending services to the dwindling nomadic countryside.

Rebecca Empson, an anthropologist, says when Mongolians look at the new rich, “the turns of fortune involved in the accumulation of this kind of wealth are frequently judged as suspect. Somebody somewhere, it is often claimed, must have been seriously cheated in order to secure these possessions.”[5] Although capitalism, in Mongolian, is called kapitalizm, it is hardly a foreign import, nor is it unique to global mining giants.

For years after the Soviet collapse, the conventional euphemism among economists was that Mongolia, and all the postSoviet nations, were in “transition”, implying both an orderly process and a predestined destination, of modern, late capitalism, complete with its orderly markets and oligopolies. Mongolia’s “transition” was disorderly, rapacious, benefiting the brazen.

Tsetsegee Mounkhbayar, leader of the protesting horsemen, is behind bars, officially guilty of a terrorist threat to the state, sentenced in early 2014 to 21 years; likewise five of his cavalry companions. But his protest is popular. Among his demands was that parliament not repeal legislation passed in 2009 to protect pasture land, popularly known as “the law with the long name.” But the messy reality is that it is not only giant mining corporations taking pasture land as their private fiefs, but also the rich lambs, the new class of former cadres who seized their moment.

Now, one of the few voices heeding the concerns of the masses is the Mongolian government’s National Human Rights Commission, which in its latest report, of November 2013, said of the district where the Oyu Tolgoi mine powers ahead: “we met with herders who lost their pastureland and so had to resettle in the soum [district] center asking another herder to take care of their cattle which survived the changes. Other herders might have left the province for another place. For others who stay in their home land, their nomadic lifestyle is being destroyed. Traditionally, it was usual for herders to move around for better pastureland four or more times a year, but now moving around for one or two times is considered ‘many’. Due to shrinking pastureland, some herders are forced to spend summer at their winter camps.”

The 2009 Law With the Long Name is officially the ‘Law to Prohibit Mineral Exploration and Mining Operations at the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas’. This well-intentioned law failed, not only because of big mining companies but also small pastoralists seeking their fortunes panning for gold in streams coming from Mongolia’s mountains, bearing flecks of gold.

Mongolia’s abrupt ejection from the command economy cocoon into the global neoliberal marketplace has been a rough ride, favouring the well-favoured rich lambs. The rough riders led by Ts. Mounkhbayar diagnose Mongolia’s acute embarrassment of riches distributed unevenly, but solutuions are at hand.


[1] Giovanna Dore and Tanvi Nagpal, Urban Transition in Mongolia, Environment, vol 48 #6 July 2006


[3] World Bank, Mongolia Economic Update, November 2013, 15


[5] Rebecca Empson, The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia;  Social Analysis, Volume 56, Issue 1, Spring 2012, 117–132

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What the global diaspora of Tibetans seldom manage to do is to look at Tibet thru Chinese eyes, not only in Beijing’s eyes but also from the perspective of Lanzhou, Chengdu, Xining and Lhasa. Things look very different if these provincial capitals are the starting point. Lhasa is showered with central money, whatever provincial leaders ask for they get, the whole world is looking. The security state flourishes. Tibet Autonomous Region cadres are adept at stoking Beijing’s conspiratorial mindset, eliciting ever more money for the grid management system that intensively monitors all human activity, ready to intervene when anything unusual happens.

For Xining the Tibetans are far too big to ignore, yet are also seen as a minority dragging on Qinghai’s progress. Tibetans are less than 20% of provincial population, yet occupy 95% of Qinghai’s area, in counties and prefectures legally designated as areas of Tibetan governance. Tibetan (and Mongolian) areas, include the mineral and energy rich Tsaidam Basin and the great Chinese river sources. Amdo/Qinghai has a coherent Tibetan intellectual class capable of holding their own, of leveraging their necessary role as teachers, translators, editors, reporters, tv show hosts, film makers into cultural capital, an uneasy modus vivendi based on a long history of living together.

For Lanzhou Tibetans are a nuisance, only one of many difficulties

For Kunming it’s the success of rebranding one remote corner Shangri-la, the hill station for display of new wealth, plus intensive mining, all that’s needed is the infrastructure of extraction, which is rapidly arriving.

Arguably, in all these four provinces -TAR, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan- there is a tacit understanding, despite the palpable tensions, that prevents situations from boiling over. The exception, among the five Chinese provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau is split, is Sichuan. Overwhelmingly, the Tibetan protest suicides, the security state’s extremes of repression, even mass shootings, have been concentrated in the Tibetan portion of Sichuan.

Why are senior cadres in Chengdu so quick to resort to violence? What is different about Sichuan (and nearby Chongqing) that leads to such intolerance, mistrust, refusal to listen to the evident pain of the Tibetans? Why is the view from Chengdu and Chongqing so different to the stance taken by the leaders in Lhasa, Xining, Lanzhou and Kunming? This is an exploratory attempt at suggesting answers, which tell us not only about frustrated expectations in Chengdu, but also about why China’s new leaders are singling out Chongqing and Chengdu as the epicentres of a rottenness that threatens the legitimacy of party rule right across China.

The Tibetan areas annexed to Sichuan are 42 per cent of the total area of Sichuan, comprising one Amdo prefecture, Ngawa; and one Kham prefecture, Kandze. For the entire 64 years of CCP rule, these areas have seemed tantalisingly close, and promising, yet the outcome has always been frustration and disappointment. For Chengdu that 42% is the next frontier, yet stubbornly resistant to incorporation. Now at last, due to massive central subventions, a railway, hydrodams, all weather  highways and major mines are in sight, maybe even earthquake engineering sufficient to populate the plateau foothills with Han. But right now it’s all a tantalising dream yet to be fulfilled, a revolution of rising but frustrated expectations. The barrier remains the Tibetans, far too many to ignore, truculent, with a long history of dogged resistance. The answer has been to invoke the full apparatus of repression, but urban grid management as in Lhasa just doesn’t work in the rugged hills of the most densely populated yet diffused part of Tibet. Step by step the security state installed itself, as township cadres proved incapable of controlling protest, or even knowing the minds of their subjects, because they don’t speak Tibetan. So higher levels took over, shaming the local cadres for their failure, determined to teach both the humiliated cadres and the Tibetans a lesson. That too literally inflamed  a highly flammable situation. It became a provincial priority, paralleling Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai’s “smash the black” campaign, lumping Tibetans as a criminal class. The only appropriate response was to strike hard.

Yet in reality, in many parts of Sichuan Tibet,  there is tacit agreement in many areas to keep everything peaceable. Local lamas skilfully get things done, communities prosper, cadres are happy, their quotas are met, they get promoted, everyone realises it is in the interests of all to keep the peace. It’s not as if all of Tibet, or all of western Sichuan is in flames. There is still a model of how to get along.

What will happen? In the inflamed areas nothing works, not even the maximal security state that mobilises every Han to stand on street corners, doing their patriotic duty to maintain China’s face by dousing the faces of the immolators. It’s hard to imagine how this could be further intensified, even with grid management.



While Sichuan’s leaders mobilise extreme security state fundamentalism in Kandze and Ngawa, they themselves are under increasing scrutiny by Beijing, led by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping.

What sort of emperor is Xi Jinping? He is clearly not the liberal reformer, proto-democrat, neo-liberaliser that so many in the west prayed for. Nor is he just a stolid do-nothing like Hu Jintao. He just may be a Bismarck: out to realise China’s emergence as a superpower, willing to do what it takes to fulfil China’s rise. Bismarck invented the welfare state, not because he passionately believed in the human dignity of labour and the rights of workers, but because a well fed, housed and healthy working class was essential to building national strength, if Germany was to catch up with UK and France. Maybe the political scientists are right to call up the ghost of Bismarck and Wilhelmine Germany, not only as a metaphor of China’s emergence as a regional power challenging US dominance, but also in domestic management.

Sichuan is not the only fault line rending China. The party-state may be a distinctively Chinese hybrid, but party and state do have separate interests, even contradictions. If there is a high-level advocate for neoliberal privatisation of the entrenched SOEs, at least partially, it is Premier Li Keqiang, who endorsed a proposal jointly issued by the State Council’s Development Reform Commission, and the World Bank, which urged privatisation lest China sclerose into anti-competitive oligopolies able to shut out new market entrants. But, like the ineffective Premier Wen Jiabao before him, such proposals may come to nothing, in the face of entrenched interests with insider access to the highest levels of the party. It is no accident that these reform proposals come from institutions of state, of regularised power operating under standardised rules that affect everyone equally. And it is no accident that the highest state position, of Premier, is routinely outranked by the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping, who, incidentally, is also China’s president.

While Xi, with his Don’t Speaks, has disappointed western wishful thinkers, does that mean he is bad for Tibet and the prospects for a modus vivendi? He is out to break the Sichuan-Chongqing model of crony capitalism married to Maoist populism. He has more power than Hu ever did, or Jiang Zemin, maybe only Mao had more. And he is clearly a party infighter, determined to further consolidate power and above all ensure the CCP hegemony persists. He is as much an economic reformer as Zhu Rongji, but probably not in the direction of privatising, since ownership matters less than control, and control is what he is about.

He is smart enough to realise the Sichuan security state is ruining the governmentality of Tibet everywhere, and that an alternative approach is needed, for the thoroughly conservative, anti-democratic purpose of buying time, a superficial peace and stability; to get on, uninterrupted, with the rise of China, led by its SOE national champions, whose bosses he appoints. It is now increasingly common to appoint a successful SOE boss to run a troubled province; they are comparable enterprises, requiring comparable managerial fixes, a willingness to do what it takes to restore peace and production.

A Chinese Bismarck would realise the security state barkers surrounding him are wrong in insisting the only way to deal with Tibetans is force. He wouldn’t have to look far beyond Ngawa and Kandze towns to find what he is looking for, that tacit social contract between skilful lamas and prudent cadres: you leave us space to get on with our lives, and there will be no trouble. It’s that simple. Not only is that the deal at a local level, it is all Tibetans, at the global level, have ever asked for, ever since the Dalai Lama made it clear 25 years ago that cultural autonomy is the key requirement. A Chinese Bismarck might realise China can live with this, it is doable, and achieves exactly what Xi needs. All Tibetans are asking for is room to get on with their lives without obnoxious intrusions of a security state obsessed with extracting from every educated Tibetan a statement of gratitude to the CCP, and denunciation of the Dalai Lama.

Xi is smart enough to recognise that the current strategy is not working, powerful enough to change course, ruthless enough to get rid of the entrenched security state, pragmatic enough to do the deal and get China off the hook. You don’t always need a democrat.

But what would drive him to tackle a reset, overriding and outmanoeuvring the strong vested interests of the deep security state? He has enough on his plate already, and the mass line, more than ever, is Don’t Speak of Tibet, don’t let Tibetans speak for themselves, if we can maintain a great silence in the public sphere we can maintain the fiction that that’s all that is needed.

What may provide the push is China’s slide into a lower rate of growth, at a time of higher expectations that the comfort and prosperity Deng promised to all over 30 years ago has failed to materialise.  China faces  the prospect of a property bubble collapse, a blow out in bad loans, a limit on further state finance to stimulate growth through a cash splash on infrastructure, a shift of manufacturing jobs to even cheaper labour countries, and many other challenges. There is much talk of China sliding into the doldrums, akin to Japan’s “lost decades” since 1990, decades of little growth.  That may be no bad thing. Japan was and is prosperous. A lower growth rate may at least slow major Chinese mining projects in Tibet. But the CCP rightly fears such a scenario, not only because it limits wealth accumulation for the rich, but limits opportunities for the not-so-rich who are increasingly frustrated at the monopolisation of wealth by the new rich and the well-connected. China is now the second most extremely unequal country in the world, only by South Africa is more extreme.

China’s leaders have adroitly averted similar dangers before, such as a banking system in the 1990s so laden with bad debt it should have collapsed. Over many years, those failing banks were recapitalised, only to be ordered, in 2009 and 2010, to again make huge, rash, unrepayable loans to greedy SOEs that took public finance in through the front door and out the back door as private equity in property speculation, which may yet burst as badly as did the Tokyo bubble of 25 years ago.

Xi Jinping may have several crises on his hands, including widespread popular expectations that wealth be shared more equitably, and the new consumer class be given greater say. He will also find, if he has any inclination to rein in the SOE national champions, that they are now far more powerful than when the last serious reformer, Zhu Rongji, took on major economic reform.

The likeliest scenario for Tibet to regain a bit of breathing space is that, in the midst of juggling myriad problems and crises, the iron fist is recognised for what it is: counter-productive and self-defeating.

The perceptive Francois Godemont notes that Xi Jinping has set aside the convention that party leaders speak only of “we”. Xi is entirely comfortable of speaking in the first person singular, thus speaking to and for China, enunciating the new “mass line”. Godemont says: “This is a strong leader who has an absolute sense of his individual, genealogical, and ideological legitimacy.” Xi Jinping may be China’s Bismarck. Hard men can do hard things that softer, well-intentioned men struggle to achieve. Xi Jinping has vowed to liquidate the tigers and the flies of corruption, and shows every sign of doing so, not because corruption is evil but because the basic social contract, the minimal trust necessary between the ruled and the ruling party, depends on effective action that catches not only flies but a few tigers too. A hard headed decision to haul away the attack dogs rampant in Sichuan Tibet could widen that tacit modus vivendi that already exists, even close to the most inflamed areas. A weak leader will be criticised for such a move, pandering to China’s enemies. A hard man can do it.  Xi Jinping’s top target seems to be the security apparatus boss who was at the forefront of the hardline in Tibet, Zhou Yongkang, a man likened to J Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney, the hardest of hard men.

The rottenness rampant in Chongqing and Chengdu may have poisoned relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese in upper Sichuan, and ruined the reputation of the CCP across China. Xi Jinping’s ruthless determination to bring down the architects of the security state and Sichuan’s corrupt cronyism might yet  clear the way for a restart. Xi Jinping may yet realise  that he, and China, can live with cultural autonomy for Tibetans, and get off his back a great weight. And he’s tough enough to cut through the entrenched resistance, within his ranks, to any fresh approach to the deeply unhappy Tibetans.


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Blog 1 of 2 on ideologies and technologies of silencing Tibetans


In a secret internal directive to all 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP has made explicit its many fears and siege mentality.

The central command is to NOT SPEAK of the seven propositions that assail the CCP on all sides. The seven Don’t Speaks, as they are known if one translates directly from Chinese, are a catalogue of what assails a thoroughly institutionalised  ruling party that is 90 years old, and has enjoyed power for the past 64 years.

At a time when China is more powerful, more wealthy and successful than it has been for many centuries, one might expect a ruling party with no organised challenger to be confident and relaxed. Not at all. Taken together, this latest list of mandatory slogans, to be memorised and implemented by party members high and low, is a catalogue of ghosts, past and present, haunting the rulers.

Document No. 9, April 2013, issued by the Communist Party  Central Committee General Office, the administrative engine room of the central leadership, is worth quoting directly.

1: Don’t speak of promoting Western constitutional democracy. That attempts to negate the contemporary leaders, deny the socialist political system with Chinese characteristics.   

Western constitutional democracy includes the separation of powers, a multiparty system, universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, the loyalty of the military to the state rather than the ruling party. This is the bourgeois state philosophy, political patterns and institutional design. 

2: Don’t speak of promoting “universal values” in an attempt to shake the ruling party’s ideological and theoretical foundation.   Some people say that Western values ​​is beyond time and space, beyond the state, ​​that Western freedom, democracy, human rights are universal, eternal.

3: Don’t speak of promoting civil society in an attempt to disintegrate the social basis of the ruling party.   Civil society is a social and political theory from the West, which says  that in the social sphere individual rights are supreme, the state must not interfere. In recent years, the concept of civil society has been packaged as a political tool by the Western anti-China forces, but also in our country some people with ulterior motives aired these wrong views..

4: Don’t promote neo-liberalism,  attempt to change our basic economic system.  Neoliberalism advocates liberalization of the economy, with absolutely, completely and fully market-oriented privatization, opposing any state intervention in the economy and regulation. 

 5: Don’t  promote Western news concept, challenging the principle of party control of the media and the press and the publication management system.   Some people call for “press freedom” as a pretext to promote Western news, negating our media party principles.

 6: Don’t promote historical nihilism, attempt to deny the Chinese Communist Party history and history of New China.   

This negates the revolution led by the Communist Party of China, saying the CCP “only plays destructive role”; deny the socialist road with Chinese historical inevitability of choice, the party’s history and the history of New China was “a continuous  series of errors “; is derogatory towards revolutionary predecessors, slanders party leaders.

7 Questioning the reform and opening up, questioning the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. 

In the incessant talk of reform, some remarks deviate significantly from socialism with Chinese characteristics. Some say “reform and opening up goes too far,” is “a departure from the direction of socialism,” that  China is now “capitalist socialism”, “state capitalism”, “new bureaucratic capitalism.” Some say “political reform lag hinders economic reform,” clamour for a so-called Western system as a standard comprehensive overhaul. These arguments, in essence, deny the Party’s line, principles and policies, thereby denying socialism with Chinese characteristics.  

This secret (neibu) list of Don’t Speaks was issued in April 2013, the clearest possible sign of the mentality of China’s new leaders, and leaked into the public sphere in August, courtesy of Mingjing, a major media outlet, then the New York Times.

Why is official China so afraid of “constitutionalism”, which simply means calls, by Chinese intellectuals, for China’s leaders to respect and obey their own constitution? What is the underlying fear that unites all these Don’t Speaks?

It is China’s public sphere, and the civil society that creates it, that the CCP fears most, even if the named enemy is the nebulous “anti-China forces” of the West. The “West” that plots and plans to undermine China is, of course, the same West that China’s elite envy, imitate, absorb and consume as much as possible. The West that exemplifies all that is desirable is simultaneously the West that is the greatest danger. This is classic cognitive dissonance, the holding of two opposing viewpoints at once.

The real enemy is closer to home, the millions of bloggers, weibo post writers, intellectuals, peasants whose land was blatantly grabbed for cadre/corporate profit taking and rent seeking, the older workers whose lifetime of work for an egalitarian society is cast aside.  The actual enemy is much closer: it is the extreme inequality of China, and the social tensions caused by extremes of wealth and poverty.

According to the best data available, from the World Bank, and Chinese economists, there is now only one country in the world more unequal than China: South Africa. Despite South Africa’s rhetoric of rainbow nation inclusiveness and black empowerment, the legacies of apartheid run deep, and the many millions crowded into the black townships still lack water, electricity and job opportunities. But at least South Africa is moving, if only slowly, towards not only a democratic sharing of political power but also greater economic equality.

The opposite is true of China. Inequality has been widening for decades, ever since Deng Xiaoping famously invited some to get rich first, meaning the best endowed, the best located and the best connected. This is the great selling proposition of capitalism: that by letting some get rich first, eventually the wealth generated will trickle down, lifting all boats. Now it is 35 years since Deng turned China in the direction  of capitalist accumulation with Chinese characteristics, and the masses see evidence everywhere that those Chinese characteristics, that enmesh entrepreneurs and party bureaucrats, effectively exclude the trickle down from trickling. What ordinary Chinese citizens see is a corrupt, self-serving elite, of enterprise bosses and cadres, who monopolize wealth accumulation, and criminalise those who attempt to hold the elite accountable. This is the deep anxiety of a ruling party that knows it is no longer trusted by the masses it supposedly represents.

This inner-party directive was meant to be secret, likewise China’s  Gini coefficient number, the standard statistical measure of inequality is obscured, fudged, denied and almost secret. Air pollution data are secret. The private lives of the rich are extremely secret, unless they choose to flaunt. The extent of corruption is secret, except for highly publicised cases meant to prove the party is serious about cracking down on its’ own princelings.

The Gini number, once of interests only to economists, is a simple way of comparing the bottom and top brackets. Hypothetically, the Gini could be as low as zero, in a society where everyone is exactly equal. Hypothetically the Gini number could be one, which means a society In which one person owns everything. Most countries have a Gini number around .3, signalling considerable inequality, but not so great that the difference between rich and poor is astronomic. China, which was committed throughout the revolutionary decades to equality, used to score well on the Gini index, but no longer. It has now reached .6 and persists in rising, as the elite persists in monopolizing wealth, and resists the customary role of government, as a redistributor of wealth.

If a national Gini reaches .4, political scientists see this as a threshold for unrest, protests, even a sign that the unthinkable could befall a revolutionary party: it could face a revolutionary revolt. China’s Gini climbed above .4 long ago, and was brushed aside as the growing pains of fast industrialisation, a phase that would right itself once the economy matures, as if an invisible market hand rather than mobilised public pressure, would magically restore balance. That didn’t happen. The Gini continued to grow, and was publicised less, and its calculation fudged. Word did leak out, as it increasingly does, despite the efforts of party central to maintain a monolithic mass line. In 2012 the Global Times, a party paper, announced: “China’s official Gini coefficient was 0.412 for both rural and urban residents in 2000. Since then only the Gini data for rural areas had been released, standing at 0.3897 in 2011. A National Bureau of Statistics report in December 2011 mentioned that the coefficient in 2010 was a bit higher than 0.412, without providing a specific number. China’s wealth gap is widening to an alarming level, a survey showed Sunday, in a report that urged the government to raise welfare and social security to narrow the gap. China’s Gini coefficient, a gauge of the wealth gap, reached 0.61 in 2010, much higher than the international warning line of 0.4, according to a report released by the China Household Finance Survey Center. The coefficient was 0.56 in urban families and 0.60 in rural families, compared with a global average of 0.44 in 2010, the survey said. China’s current income inequality is quite unusual compared with the rest of the world, said Gan Li, director of the center.”

This was not the only dissenting voice from within the elite. “China’s Gini coefficient has reached a shockingly high level as its wealth gap grows, a recent academic report said, calling attention to the equality indicator that the government has not tracked for years. The coefficient was 0.61 for 2010, the report by the Chinese Household Finance Survey Center of Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics said. China’s figure was globally rare, the report says. The National Bureau of Statistics stopped releasing Gini coefficient since 2001, saying that income data for wealthy households was incomplete.”

This means inequality in China is greater than in Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Rwanda or Zambia. In a party-state that defines itself as socialist (with Chinese characteristics) there is  much popular pressure to identify those Chinese characteristics that intensify accumulation and resist the redistribution of wealth that constitutes socialism. China’s social scientists have likewise sought to identify the dynamics and drivers of China’s current party-state system, and the pithiest phrases they have come up with are state capitalism and bureaucratic capitalism, both of which capture in two words the enmeshed connections between the business bosses and the officials who control who gets loans at concessional rates, who gets permission to prosper, who gets the government infrastructure construction contracts, and who then gets the kickbacks. These bland phrases encompass the privileged position of the state owned enterprises and private enterprises with good political connections, and the power of dictatorship to suppress dissent, outsiders, investigative reporting and popular protests which demand a fair share.

Now “state capitalism” and “bureaucratic capitalism” are officially banned, as the seventh of the seven deadly sins listed in the mandatory Don’t Speaks. No longer is it permissible to speak of what China has become, only what it is no longer: socialist.

The seven Don’t Speaks are the flip side of the Mass Line, which is what everyone is supposed to speak of, listen to, and believe. The mass line is a Maoist term for the core message, the master narrative, the dominant discourse, or, as capitalists say, the main selling proposition. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has revived the concept of the mass line, which is all about the China Dream, and how close China is to fulfilling its destiny of creating material comfort for all. The China Dream, the mass line says, is not just for the rich, but for everyone. So long as China is not disrupted by dissent and protest, the goal of comfort can be achieved, if people Don’t Speak what is now decreed unspeakable.

The seven Don’t Speaks have already been put into operation, with a sharp increase in the second quarter of 2013 in official media denunciations of democracy, constitutionalism and nihilism. But a party as entrenched at the CCP does not rely only on making the obvious unsayable. It has a long record of social engineering, especially in Tibet, where there is no organised dissent, no NGOs, no articulate elite, no public protests, and the entire public sphere is filled with official pronouncements.

The party-state in Tibet is on the offensive, launching a new campaign in 2013 to coerce Tibetans, especially monks, nuns and officials, to publicly declare their love for and gratitude to the party. The key slogan has long been “stability preservation” and stability maintenance teams now go to the villages of Tibet to “carry out political education in villages to encourage Tibetans to “feel grateful to the party,” to “feel the greatness of the party, listen to the party and follow the party,”” At village level, these exhortations take up time when villagers, both farmers and pastoralists might be relaxing, and they are seen as a minor tax to be paid. But in towns, offices and monasteries, these stability preservation teams require explicit pledges of gratitude to the party, and explicit denunciation of the Dalai Lama, the latter a requirement Tibetans find deeply offensive, more  insulting than being told to spit on your own mother.

How can Tibetans feel the greatness of the party, and feel gratitude on cue, at the command of an official team? Is it possible to make anyone grateful? Can gratitude be forced? If forced, is it gratitude, no matter how effusive the statement elicited? Such questions do not seem to trouble the stability preservation teams, whose objective is behavioural compliance that is documented, on video or on paper, not a change of heart. Those documented assurances of gratitude can then make their way up the official hierarchy, letting higher levels know that Tibetans really do love the party, that the mass campaign has succeeded, and the cycle of self-defeating delusion is completed. That Tibetans deeply love China is mandatory and a historic inevitability, an eternal truth that suoersedes inconvenient trivia like 120 Tibetans who have burned their bodies in protest at China’s heavy handed rule.

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Blog 2 0f 2


China’s agenda in Tibet explicitly requires Tibetans to state publicly, on the record, their gratefulness to the Chinese Communist Party, and all it has done for Tibet. These public statements of compliance with the official “mass line” are odious, but unavoidable for Tibetans employed as government officials, school teachers, also monks and nuns, whenever a compliance enforcement team sweeps in to demand those pledges.  Tibetans experience being bullied into compulsory statements of gratitude, and compulsory denunciation of the Dalai Lama, as alienating them further from China’s rule. But the machinery of compliance is  now highly developed, a combination of human mobilisation and high technology surveillance. The human part is the teams of stability maintenance compliance officers, generally known as chengguan, a vague term meaning local administration, who are empowered by higher levels to insist on behavioural compliance with central directives, even if their legal powers remain vague. Throughout China there are many complaints about the bullying behaviour of the chengguan, especially their readiness to lock the noncompliant up in makeshift gaols that have no legal status, to beat and intimidate those slow to comply.

The proliferation of chengguan, and their obnoxious intrusions into the private lives of citizens, in many parts of China, have generated much debate. This new, lowest level of government, closest of all to the street and to the homes of ordinary citizens is in many ways a revival of the Maoist street committees, which enforced the mass line, often with revolutionary zeal, masking their joy in taking revenge on people the revolutionaries were quarrelling with.

It is no longer sufficient to obey the seven DON’T SPEAKS, remaining silent while Tibetans burn themselves in protest. As well as silent compliance with the DON”T SPEAKS, the chengguan require active compliance with behavioural norms, even in quite private places, that are acceptable in the eyes of the official gaze always monitoring Tibetan lives. The claustrophobia induced by the new grid system of surveillance is a major factor in outbursts of protest, yet it receives little publicity. The overt presence of security forces, even snipers on roofs overlooking the Barkor pilgrimage circuit, is well known; less known is the grid system of intensive surveillance.

The unconstrained and only semi-legal power of the chengguan is much enhanced by their access to the latest in hi-tech surveillance technologies, which are deployed around China, but especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where authorities fear uprisings. Technological surveillance, especially the monitoring of internet posts, attracts a lot of attention; while other surveillance technologies are seldom mentioned.

The basis of technological surveillance is to break each urban area down into very small units, enabling pinpoint accuracy in identifying anything unusual, a quick official response, and speedy isolation of the small grid units, to prevent any spread of words, ideas or actions that are prohibited. The grid system is not new, but the technologies of monitoring the lives of citizens in each small grid extend the panoptic gaze of the state into very small, discrete, spaces. Grid management dissects the city into square units as small as 100 metres by 100. To test the capacity of surveillance technologies operating on such a finely tuned scale, the system was first tested in Beijing, in 2004, before being rolled out in Tibet and in many Chinese cities.

Dr Wu Qiang, a political scientist from prestigious Tsinghua University explains how it operates: “Urban grid planning, from the very beginning, bore the marks of militarized management. Integrating high-speed internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment, the grid improved the performance of public governance and expedited electronic administration. But more important was its improvement of government’s response to contingencies, a capacity most valued by the Chinese authorities. In any given grid cell, not only were all fixed objects coded and positioned, but much more than that, any activities or contingencies, including cultural activities, public safety, criminal cases, mass protests, sensitive figures in terms of “stability maintenance” and their activities were all sorted and coded, with information about them being collected and reported all the time. Based on these data, sensors and wireless equipment such as surveillance cameras and wireless routers were deployed.



“By July 2010, 40,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, covering 3,400 buses, 200 key public transportation stops, 4,400 streets and alleyways, 270 schools and preschools, and 100 large shopping centers and supermarkets. During the same period, a staggering 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, one indication of the nature of the “crackdown on black” campaign led by its former police chief Wang Lijun.

“While in urban China grid management depends more on technology, equipment, Chengguan and the police force, the development of grid management in rural China is different and worth our thoughts. In the trial run in Xintai county, Shandong province (山东新泰), apart from surveillance cameras, landline telephones and roadside lamps were installed, and all of the casanitation workers in the county seat were “hired” as grid management “information reporters.”

“As China implements grid management for social management with the aid of the latest technology, geographic information systems and super computers, it has most likely tightened social control over the last ten years or so in the name of “stability maintenance.” Moreover, after comparing the cost and quality of grid management between cities and rural areas, the Chinese government has recognized the high efficiency of using urban grid management for social control. This in part lends confidence to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s plan of urbanization. Down the road, if China remains devoid of real democratic checks and balances, there is little doubt that the continued development of grid management will only lead to a model of a contemporary police state.”

All of these technologies, Professor Wu says, are in the hands of the local urban mass line conformity enforcers, the chengguan, all available through a single electronic device. The decision was made to “Equip urban management enforcers (Chengguan, 城管) with multi-purpose “Chengguan Tong” (城管通), a device for both information collection and mobile communication. It can make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.” In George Orwell’s vision of a police state that always knows what you are doing, and even what you are thinking, it was television cameras that collected the data. This system, fully integrated with its grid level chengguan enforcers, is much more sophisticated, and total in its capacity to capture events of interest to stability preservation.

Abuses of power by chengguan local enforcers are not only tolerated by higher levels of power, they are a necessary part of a system which requires the chengguan to raise their own salaries by predatory demands on the people they monitor. Feng Chongyi, a political economist in Sydney and Tianjin points out that: “The ‘system of stability preservation’ creates special conditions and incentives for local officials to abuse citizens and force them to take defensive actions, legally or otherwise. Local governments at the township and county levels are required to collect extrabudgetary revenue ( yusuanwai shouru) or self-raised funds ( zichou zijin) to cover part of the stability expenditure, such as salaries for casual personnel and financial settlements for disputes. The most common sources of extra-budgetary revenue are generated by undermining the rights and interests of citizens, including doling out fines for violating family-planning laws, collecting rents and income from leasing and selling collective land, and extracting fees and ‘donations’  from local enterprises. As a consequence, family planning and land seizure by local governments have become common causes of social unrest in the countryside. The ‘responsibility system’ (zeren zhuijiu zhi) to evaluate the work performance of local cadres also exacerbates social unrest. Social order is set as one of the “one-vote veto” ( yi piao foujue) targets, which can be used to nullify a cadre’s achievements in meeting other performance targets. Failure to prevent either “mass incidents” or “petitioning to higher levels” ( yueji shangfang) can cancel out positive performance in other areas and result in the loss of promotions, among other punishments (The Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission 1991; Minzner 2006).

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Spoiling Tibet: new book on mining Tibet


Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World by Gabriel Lafitte

available now from Zed Books

reviewed by Kerry Brown

A few years ago, I was seated next to a professor of geology at Oxford University. We broached the subject of China’s resource assets. “China has very little that is easily exploitable,” he said. I asked about energy resources in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. He nodded, thought for a bit and then said “Well, but they are hard to get to, and at the moment and the Chinese do not have affordable technology that could do that. Same with Tibet. Everyone thinks it is overflowing with precious metals and all the rest; but it would be very hard to get access to them.”

Gabriel Lafitte’s book, Spoiling Tibet supports this. But his conclusion is that a highly dysfunctional central state relationship with local authorities, and the greed of prospectors, is nevertheless going to make the Tibetan plateau—a region that covers almost a quarter of China’s territory—the object for intensive and potentially devastating mining and extraction projects.

Lafitte sets out his case clearly, and allows plenty of Tibetan voices—those who would be most affected by this vast project—to speak directly. For them, he argues, the Tibetan Plateau, four to five kilometers above sea level, is a place to which they have a unique spiritual and cultural link, almost as though they were inhabiting the body of a living thing. Their nomadic way of life—practiced for thousands of years—is adapted to the delicate eco-systems of the region: moving from place to place and using resources sparingly so that they are not depleted.

Lafitte stresses that the indigenous Tibetan communities are practitioners of their own form of modernity, not victims who never tried to use the land they lived on. He shows that mining and working with gold and other precious metals is something that has been ingrained in Tibetan culture for many centuries. The centralized Chinese state vision of modernity, forged on a template largely taken from developed countries and then applied across China, is simply not easily applicable to local conditions. And he also argues that while the government—especially since the uprisings in 1989 and 2008—can react angrily to local activists and try to paint them as separatists, the fact is that despoiling the Tibetan region with inappropriate resource exploitation would be a disaster for the rest of China itself. China’s critical and hugely over-exploited sources of water all come from the Tibetan plateau. Polluting these at their source or close to it would in effect be poisoning the rest of China.

Stripped of the highly contentious politics of the Tibetan issue, the environmental issue as it is presented here at least becomes a little easier to deal with. Lafitte is not attempting to parse historical documents over the sovereignty of Tibet and when and how it came into the orbit of previous Chinese imperial central states. He focuses on the ways in which the mining industry and its current practices pose an immense threat to Tibet. Now that there is considerable transportation infrastructure—railways and roads—into the area, there is even more incentive for risk-taking prospectors to become active in the area. Lafitte describes some of these, often illegal, hugely damaging and run with little if any observance of China’s national laws.

The geologist at Oxford I met a few years back was also right. None of the examinations of the main mineral and metal deposits in Tibet indicate that it would have any mines in the world’s top twenty. For this reason, Chinese state resource companies are investing heavily in Chilean, inner Asian or African mines. There the geologies and the accessibility of deposits are a little more straightforward, as are the supply chains. In Tibet on the other hand, immense amounts of rock and earth would need to be blasted away to get to the best known deposits.

Only a lingering residue of Maoist hubris towards nature would allow people to think that this would be feasible with current technology. Describing the 2010 high-level work meetings in Beijing on managing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, however, Lafitte shows how this hubris creeps into central government thinking. Tibet, to them, is an area that has to be tamed with intense road and rail building programs and the same mass urbanization projects that are sweeping the rest of the country.

This is a timely and well written book, concise and illustrated with many examples. Forward-thinking officials in both Beijing and Tibet itself must be well-aware of the issues raised here, and of the real possibility that mismanagement of the environment of this region, let alone its politics, could be disastrous for the country, region, and, as Lafitte makes clear, the whole world.

Hopefully, this book will provoke a more enlightened, less partisan debate about what to do now. Lafitte emphasizes that however bad things are now they are still manageable and reversible. If, however, they are not addressed there is every possibility that the grim scenarios alluded to here will happen sooner rather than later.!             11 August 2013 — Kerry Brown is Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Professor of Chinese Politics, and Team Leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. His most recent book is Hu Jintao: China’s Silent Ruler. For more writings see


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