China is now ruled by the “Thought” of one man.

Xi Jinping has thought about everything, as his multi-voluminous collected thoughts, translated now into many languages, weightily attest. Xi Jinping is now in charge of everything, in a position to enforce his thought on all under heaven who are under his control. Xi Jinping has an army of authoritarian personalities eager to be his enforcers, to prove their loyalty to the commander-in-chief.

What, then, is that “Thought” sixiang 思想? It might give us a clue as to why official China finds it so hard to see and hear Tibetans as human equals.

Excessive mentation is a familiar category in Tibetan Buddhist analysis of how we manage to suffer, by confusing ourselves as to what is real and substantial, and then seek who we can blame. Conceptual confusion, mistaking the external for the real, ignoring the internal currents of mood colouring our perceptions, is a classic starting point for Buddhists in diagnosing how we wander, seizing on this or that as the solution, only to finds it yet again fails us. We imprison ourselves in our ideas, habits of mind, preconceptions and misconceptions. We think we need to think our way out, only to find the more we think the more uncertain it all gets.

That one man among the largest human population on earth has the answers to everything, and was clearly predestined for that unique role, is perhaps a delusion. Eventually, this will become apparent to all, as it inevitably must. But that could take a long time, and in the meantime everyone must conform, at least outwardly, to the writ of “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Outside China, few have actually read up on their Xi Jinping Thought, attractively bound into volumes uncannily akin to the Collected Works of Mao Zedong. A plunge into the three volumes issued so far reveals not only someone who has thoughts on all topics, but also a politician’s eye for addressing the concerns of all his publics, saying much to acknowledge the many constituencies. In fact, Xi Jinping has so much to say that it is not easy to discern where he stands on many issues, beyond the obvious, overriding insistence that the Party is right about everything, in command of everything, is to be trusted for its unique capability to steer China through all problems, and is to be obeyed. Fortunately, he now has exegetes who can tell us (and him) what he actually thinks, more below.


Whatever the problem, the Party is the solution. That is axiomatic, a given, beyond dissent or discussion. However, the Party also needs China to have problems, so the Party can solve them. Without problems, there would be nothing for the Party to do, beyond getting richer. Its’ monopolisation of power and wealth would in turn become questionable, even becoming a problem.

Tibet is a classic wicked, unresolved problem for China, partly because Chinese certainties melt in the thin air of Tibet. There are willing ideologues, who routinely remind Party leaders that Tibet and Xinjiang are serious chronic problems, and coercive assimilation is the answer. Few Tibetans could name these elite intellectuals, even though they have been highly influential among central leaders always on the lookout for new threats to be managed by a disciplining, controlling, centralised party-state. We should be studying their writings.

Tibetans prefer to look within, to start with the basics, rather than point at the delusions of others. What could be more basic than discerning why we suffer? Buddhism emphasises the reality of suffering, and its causes, not out of morbid fixation, or pessimistic assumption that this is our human lot, but with great confidence that suffering (not pain) can cease, and that there is a clear path to that cessation. That path is up to each of us to implement, there is no external saviour who can do it all for us, so each of us has our work cut out for us, to cut through ideas, habits of mind, dogmas,  fixations, to dissolve our prejudices and assumptions and awaken to whatever arises and fully experience it. That’s enough to keep you busy.

That is probably why Tibetans seldom fixate on the delusions of others, still less the reigning delusions of a distant party-state, isolated from reality behind the walls of its old imperial palace headquarters, Zhongnanhai. Tibetans in Tibet know nothing is gained by critiquing the party-state’s delusory insistence on generating endless problems that only party-state leadership can then solve. Tibetans outside Tibet very seldom take ideology seriously, or bother to read Xi Jinping Thought, assuming it is at most propaganda for an unchanging agenda of oppression and exploitation in Tibet. So it remains oddly up to a nonTibetan blogger to say the new emperor has clothed himself in Thought which amounts to very little.

Where to begin?

Since we know how and when “Ideology” was first coined, we begin at the beginning, in 1796, in the midst of French revolutionary terror, with the aristocrat-cum-revolutionary Destutt de Tracy, who sought ways of discerning what is knowable, the core concern of epistemology. This is familiar territory to Buddhists, who thousands of years ago came up with the two seemingly contradictory truths, the relative truth and absolute truth, that apparent, relative reality is relatively valid but ultimately contingent and misleading; while absolute truth is that all propositions, ideas and concepts are empty of substance. From the ultimate perspective, even the Buddha, nirvana and enlightenment are empty, not to be clung to; yet from a relative perspective they are efficacious as objects to be trusted while on the path within, the path of discovering the nature of mind. So the two truths are not only not contradictory, they stand together, indispensable to each other, supportive of each other as guides on the path and expressive of the inexpressible ultimate realisation beyond language.


In the west, the question of what is truly knowable has persisted, without satisfactory answer. The revolutionary Destutt ambitiously decided it ought to be possible to at last resolve the deep-seated dualisms of western thought, the split between mind and body, matter and spirit, things and concepts. This he called “Idéologie.” Not only would this be a new science, “to analyse the process by which our minds translate material things into ideal forms”, it would be a science of sciences, the ultimate arbiter of what is true.

“The only way to avoid the sceptical position that true knowledge is impossible, so it seemed to Destutt, would be to analyse the process by which our minds translate material things into ideal forms. This modest proposal was readily adopted by authority, institutionalised in the section of the Institut de France which dealt with moral and political sciences, and it was given the name ‘Idéologie’: the science of ideas. Ideology thus originates as a ’meta-science’, a science of science. It claims to be able to explain where the other sciences come from and to give a scientific genealogy of thought. This amounted to a claim of epistemological superiority over all other disciplines. Destutt was thus able to claim that ‘Idéologie’ achieves a momentous philosophical breakthrough, by transcending the ancient oppositions between matter and spirit, things and concepts. By observing the movement by which sensations are transformed into ideas, it ought to be possible to understand, and so to avoid, the ways in which such erroneous patterns of ideas come into being. The new discipline of ‘ideology’ thus claimed to be nothing less than the science to explain all sciences.”[1]

From a Buddhist perspective, this quest for the foundational originary source is a futile exercise. The logical possibility of establishing an aetiology of ideas, a genealogy of thought, in practice gets hopelessly entangled, only generating further confusion. That was the discovery of the historic Buddha, and the subsequent experience of those who followed him. Thus the Buddhists strongly advise meditators not to follow thoughts, not to become fixated on the contents of specific thoughts, or to seek to capture the moments before or after any particular thought, as if to capture its origins or destination. To do so is to disappear down a rabbit hole, into infinite possibilities, none of which can be ascertained. In Buddhist tradition, to meditate is to avoid the extreme of ruminating on the contents of thoughts, and avoid the opposite extreme of trying to empty the mind of thoughts. The meditator allows thoughts to arise and dissipate of their own accord, without getting drawn in to specifics, and without trying to push thoughts away. This is the beginning of mindfulness, which is not necessarily about achieving a calm, thought-free mind.

That path never occurred within the western tradition, which has continued its obsession with origins, aetiologies, ideals and purity. To this day the dualisms of man and nature, mind and body, self and other continue to elude elision. China, in the name of science, now also struggles to reconcile nature and culture, having abandoned many its own traditions. Tibet may pay a heavy price, redesignated as depopulated nature counterbalancing China’s accumulative urban culture.

It is not hard to see how a party-state committed to the Thought of one man as the solution to all problems is attracted to a “science of science”, a grand narrative that promises to deliver top-level design solutions for anything and everything. The more China experiences the strains and contradictions of rapid modernisation, urbanisation and highly concentrated wealth accumulation, the greater is the search for stability, for definitive answers. Ideology, specifically Xi Jinping ideology, is the answer.

Yet the idea of ideology, proposed by a French revolutionary at a time when the revolution ate its own children, opened up the possibility that the science of discovering the source of all ideas would subvert all certainties, make all truths relative and contextual, all conclusions provisional, all finality disputable. “To ‘unmask’ the source of ideas was to deny them absolute validity. ‘Idéologie’ involved a thoroughgoing scepticism towards all authoritative knowledge, which must issue in continual chaos and [in Napoleon’s words] lead to the rule of bloodthirsty men.’

Napoleon, determined to put the revolution behind him, specifically denounced Destutt and ideology. “If the ideologues were allowed to pursue their millennial aims, he foresaw a permanent revolution, a maelstrom in which ideas were continually being unmasked, invalidated and replaced by new ones.” Napoleon, not one to shrink from the rule of bloodthirsty men as long as he was that man, was determined to impose stability, which is also the obsession of the Chinese Communist Party.

Destutt and Napoleon came up with the two, opposed meanings of “ideology” familiar to us to this day. To the idealist revolutionary, ideology could become the Supreme word that judges all ideas, explains everything. To Napoleon, and the Buddhists, ideology obscures, confuses, reifies, overdetermines everything.

Xi Jinping Thought, more fully ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ 习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想 , is basically all about maintaining stability and thus party rule, in a time of rapid change and deep social strains. Mao Zedong may have been attracted to permanent revolution, but not today’s Party. Forget class war.


Thus the paradox: ideology from the outset held the millennial promise of a definitive source and thus definitive answers to pressing problems; but also the prospect that all answers could be subverted, destabilised by the elevation of scepticism as the science of sciences. In today’s stressed China, the last thing the party-state wants is to legitimate questioning of its truth, embodied in Xi Jinping Thought.

The two truths of the Buddhists can also seem paradoxical. How can both be valid if from the ultimate perspective everything that is only relatively, conditionally, consensually, socially true is actually empty? Doesn’t ultimate truth negate and cancel relative truth? Isn’t ultimate truth all that matters and relative truth is at most a feeble fiction that glues society together, but which can’t withstand logical examination?

The Buddhists say this is a misunderstanding. Not only do the two truths not contradict, they support each other. Conventional truth may exist only by consensus, yet it shapes us powerfully. So if we can find an exemplary person, who has fully taken the inward path, transformed the self, and is a trustworthy guide, it is very efficacious to trust them, to emulate, to listen carefully to their suggestions, and believe it is indeed possible to change from being self-centred and forever anxious, to becoming more accommodating, no longer seeing others as problems to be negotiated. While it is true the teacher, the teachings, the self and indeed all phenomena are empty of substantiality, the imagination that habitually leads us to feel threatened is also an imagination enabling liberation, by imagining ourselves differently, able to accomplish all that sentient beings yearn for. Penetrating insight into the emptiness of all ideologies goes together with faith in a reliable teacher, even if that exemplary teacher is no exception to the insistence that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Those three volumes of Xi Jinping Thought include a retrospective publication of Xi Jinping’s speeches showing he was destined for greatness. In hindsight, his collected speeches are testimony to his prophesied rise.

This ascent is in turn part of a much greater narrative now retroactively forming around his ascendancy and apotheosis, in which Xi Jinping becomes the continuity of all that is great in Chinese Confucian tradition, a worthy successor to the great men of 5000 years ago, who carries China singlehandedly into a glorious future with his seamless fusion of Marxism and the best of Chinese traditional characteristics.


The most coherent encomium proclaiming Xi the essential man of these times comes from a professor of constitutional law, for whom the Party’s insistence it is above the law and the Constitution is proof of Xi Jinping’s greatness. The author of this influential intellectual juggle is Jiang Shigong, 强世功 who takes 18,000 words (in translation) to position Xi Jinping and his Thought as China’s predestined saviour, in a teleology stretching back 5000 years. Jiang makes a handsome tribute payment, in obeisance to the righteous new emperor who will realise the China Dream.

What is interesting is not his predetermined conclusion, but how he gets there, which involves smoothing out all the bumps, reverses, failures and sharp turns in party history and the whole of Chinese history. Grand narratives don’t get grander than this. Although Jiang enthusiastically embraces the Marxist idea of contradictions and their resolution, his history of governing ideas irons out all the wrinkles. Even the Cultural Revolution, the crisis of 1989, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap are all integral to China’s progress.When China’s revolution, echoing the French revolution, eats its own children, he is along for the ride.

Inevitably, much is airbrushed out in this sweep of continuity, with its repeated cycles of renewal. The foreign dynasties of Mongols and Manchus that ruled China for several centuries are mentioned only in passing. The turmoil of the civil war of the 1940s, the May Fourth generation’s repudiation of Chinese culture, the radical revolutionary class warfare against the educated and especially against Confucius are rarely alluded to. Continuity is all.

Jiang Shigong is far from the first to stitch together this kind of grand narrative proclaiming Confucianism as the root, source, fons et origo of today’s China. This has been done before by liberal intellectuals hoping to generate a backstory that propels China to not only modernity and wealth but also democracy and a state that limits itself. There has also been a new left, among Chinese intellectuals, who persist in revering Mao, who usually regret Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist turn, and the blame heaped on Mao since, not only for the violence and famines, but also for his failures of development and prosperity. To the new left, China’s embrace of Marxism with Chinese characteristics was a brilliant innovation.

What makes Jiang Shigong’s story weaving unique (so far) is that he manages to combine a New Leftist deferential tribute to Mao, including Mao’s repudiation of the Soviet repudiation of Stalin, with deep filial loyalty to the Confucian ancients. That’s quite an achievement, but in Jiang Shigong’s telling, it is all a coherent story, all culminating in the arrival of Xi Jinping.

Along the way Jiang makes lengthy detours to disown any ideas not originating in China, as superfluous, superseded by the Party’s pursuit of Chinese characteristics. Marxism with Chinese characteristics, or the Sinification of Marxism, beginning with Mao, has made such progress that Jiang declares:  “We can say that Xi Jinping’s new reading of communist concepts is a model of the Sinification of Marxism in the new era, in which Marxism must not only be integrated into China’s current situation but must also be absorbed into Chinese culture.  For this reason, communism’s highest spiritual pursuit and the realization of the great revival of the Chinese nation are mutually supporting and complementary, and together have become the spiritual pillars through which Xi Jinping has consolidated the entire Party and the peoples of the entire nation. When the Soviet path toward the modernization of socialism completely failed, due to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, China lifted the great banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics onto the world stage, and it became a powerful competitor to Western capitalism as a model of development.  Scholars have pointed out that if, at the outset, socialism saved China, now China has saved socialism.”

This is Jiang Shigong’s gift to the leader, marrying Marxism, communism, socialism, concentration of power in a party-state that is above the law, and a market economy, into a Confucian mould, “ushering in a new era in human civilisation.”

Having made Marx thoroughly Chinese, Jiang turns to a much harder task of repudiating modern western rationality as having anything to do with China’s current path.  Anyone who has looked even briefly at the massive output of Chinese scientific research might see a very familiar subject/object dualism, a fixation on problem/solution, a scientism that locates truth in objective numbers rather than in situated local knowledges of customary custodians. Jiang acknowledges that “In the past, we understood this philosophy of mastery as modern science that destroyed religious superstition and established the central importance of man, and that produced the opposition between subject and object that followed the objectification of the world through a scientific epistemology.  For this reason, the modern Western philosophy of mastery is also seen as the philosophy of epistemology.  This philosophy has an intimate link to Western political life.”

Jiang understandably connects this dualism to Christianity and to the ancient Greeks. One is either a master or a slave: “For the Chinese people, this is a basic choice between two personalities, national characters and spiritual lifestyles, a choice between being part of the Way and being someone’s tool.  It’s like when two people fight.  Some people, when they lose, give up completely.  They grovel in defeat and become submissive, like a little brother or a hired thug.  Other people, even if they lose, refuse to admit it but instead fight back and eventually defeat their opponent.  The former has an easy life but lacks dignity; the latter knows that to protect his dignity he will have to follow a difficult and painful path.  In Western philosophy, these two personalities constitute the philosophical difference between master and slave.”

Has China somehow managed to transcend this Western dualism, and instead embrace the Way? Has today’s China transcended scientism’s contempt for religion, as nothing more than superstition?

Despite Jiang’s naming of not only the ancient Greeks and Christianity as philosophies of slavery and mastery, but also Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx as masters of mastery, he then opts for mastery as the crowning achievement of the Party. “The spirit of the Chinese people has changed from passive to active means that the Chinese people have finally completely made the transition to a master’s personality, and have begun to firmly grasp their own historical fate.”

China has mastered the West, and no longer owes anything to anyone, having become fully Chinese once more. From there it is but a short step to triumphalism: “Faced with the global competitive landscape shaped by natural selection and the survival of the fittest, if the Chinese wanted to appear as masters, they had to have the courage to ‘unsheath their swords’ 剑 to confront each nation and engage in a life or death struggle. This ‘daring to unsheath one’s sword’ was what Xi Jinping’s report to the Nineteenth National Congress refers to repeatedly as the ‘spirit of struggle’.  In the face of changes in the world system unseen in a thousand years, if the Chinese people want to realize the great revival of the Chinese nation and change the Western model of modernization through which the West has dominated the world, providing late-developing countries with the ‘China solution’ to modernization, they must engage in uncompromising struggle. One of the strongest points of the report to the Nineteenth Conference is that ‘struggle’ became one of its key terms, appearing twenty-three times.  The report correctly points out that ‘realizing our great dream demands a great struggle’. This spirit of struggle is undoubtedly an expression of the master personality.  The report to the Nineteenth Conference even used a literary expression to compare two phenomena in the flow of history: ‘The wheels of history roll on; the tides of the times are vast and mighty.  History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with courage; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those who shy from a challenge’. The former is the master who achieves victory through struggle, while the latter lacks the courage to struggle, and will necessarily suffer the fate of a slave.  The description and comparison of the two encourage the members of the CCP not to forget their original intention, and to fight for the great revival of the Chinese nation with the spirit and character of a master who struggles.”

From there it is only a short step to a blood and soil nativism, a Han chauvinism that Mao might have denounced: “In Xi Jinping’s report to the Nineteenth CCP Congress, the key word ‘people’ appears 201 times, the notion that the Party and the people have established a ‘flesh and blood relationship’ appears three times, the most throughout the history of such reports. For this reason, the CCP is consistently grounded in this great native land, and its political nature, at base, is its indigenous, national nature, its authentic Chinese nature, rather than in the Party’s class nature.  The fighting character of the CCP traces its origins not only to the spirit of mastery in Marxism, but even more to the Chinese cultural spirit, as reflected in sayings like ‘all are responsible for the rise and fall of the universe’ 天下兴亡,匹夫有责, and ‘the superior man tirelessly perfects himself’ 君子自强不.  The CCP’s willingness to struggle and its talent for struggle have been bequeathed to it by the spiritual heritage of five thousand years of the history of Chinese civilization and by the fighting spirit of the more than one billion Chinese people from throughout the country.  The report to the Nineteenth Congress particularly emphasizes that ‘our Party will remain the vanguard of the times, the backbone of the nation, and a Marxist governing Party’.”


Where do the Tibetans as a people, and the lands of the Tibetan Plateau, fit into this grandest of narratives? Neither the Tibetans nor other ethnic minority peoples are mentioned. Much is omitted, that does not fit, and we must look at the omissions as well as the exclusions.

Since Xi Jinping’s new era is predicated on there being a new contradiction, which only the party-state knows how to deal with, Jiang dwells on the Marxist idea of contradiction: “The basis of the CCP’s philosophy of struggle is grounded not only in the philosophy of mastery, but also in the theory of contradictions according to which any antagonism in the world can be unified in practice.”

Jiang revives Mao’s classification of contradictions into two categories, requiring different strategies, as not all contradictions necessitate struggle, violence or mastery: “Mao Zedong put forth his ‘theory of two contradictions’, pointing out the difference between the contradictions between the enemy and us, and contradictions among the people.  In the case of contradictions among the people, struggle is not the most important thing; persuasion and education are the most important tools.”

The Tibetans remain stubbornly Tibetan, uncooked, unwilling to accept Han mastery and submit to pay tribute. So there is a contradiction. Thus the key question is whether the Tibetans are enemies, to be confronted; or are actually accepted as citizens, for whom persuasion and education are the most important tools? China’s treatment of the Tibetans, and the Uighurs of Xinjiang, seems to ambivalently flip-flop between these categories, sometimes treated as enemies to strike hard, sometimes as ignorant primitives to be coercively educated to accept their inevitable assimilation into the one Chinese race. By insisting the Tibetans and Uighurs are both insiders and outsiders, the contradiction is never resolved.

While the Tibetans are not named here, Buddhism is. The most explicit mention is in the final paragraph, extolling China’s great mission of the Xi Jinping era to spread Chinese civilisation globally. If the Neo Confucians centuries ago could push Buddhism to the margins, China can achieve anything: “The great revival of the Chinese nation is not only an economic and political revival. It will result in the great revival of Chinese civilization.  If we say that Chinese civilization, when confronted with the challenge of Buddhism, engineered a great revival through the efforts of Song-Ming Neo Confucians, which then spread Chinese civilization from China proper throughout East Asia, then we should also say that when confronted in more recent times with the challenge of the modern West—Protestantism and liberalism—the Chinese nation is today again undergoing a great revival. The present great revival surely means that Chinese civilization is spreading and extending itself into even more parts of the world.  This undoubtedly constitutes the greatest historical mission of the Chinese people in the Xi Jinping era.” Thus ends Jiang Shigong’s lesson.

There is another, unacknowledged, appropriation of a Buddhist term. Jiang warns of the danger that the CCP could institutionalise itself as just another party of power, swayed by vested interests or even be in danger of being captured, with results as disastrous as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus the CCP must never lose sight of its theory of contradictions, theory of struggle and theory of practice. “As a principled political Party, if the CCP loses the philosophical analytical tools and methods provided by Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought, it will lose the theoretical magic weapon 论法宝  pointing out the future direction of development and will necessarily lose the values supporting confidence in ideals and the theoretical weapon to consolidate the people’s hearts, thus opening the door to a politics of convenience.”

Mao called his mastery of contradictions a magical weapon, a term appropriated from Buddhist tradition, traditionally used to emphasise the power of the Buddha’s words and those of later Buddhist commentaries, to be effective medicine to cut through delusion and suffering. Although Mao embraced the modernist rejection of religion as poison, he readily grabbed Buddhist metaphors for his own use, and to this day the United Front is frequently called the CCP’s magic weapon.

Jiang is all for wielding the magic weapons of Sinified Marxism, complete with revived Maoist slogans: “The Chinese Communist Party has once again grasped the philosophical weapon of dialectical materialism, understanding the world through the worldview and methodology of the theory of contradiction and the theory of practice.  Once again having done this, the fighting character will necessarily return yet again to the construction of the political thought of the CCP, becoming the political soul of the CCP.  In other words, the nature of the struggle of the CCP derives from a philosophical consciousness of Marxism-Leninism. The philosophy of struggle in the philosophy of mastery and the philosophy of contradiction and practice are organically integrated.  That there are contradictions means that conflict and struggle exist, and that struggle must engage real problems in practice, which in turn resolves the existing contradiction and propels practice forward.  For this reason, Xi Jinping’s report to the Nineteenth Party Congress correctly points out that ‘the Chinese Communist Party is a great political Party that dares to struggle and dares to win’, and that ‘to realize a great dream, we must engage in great struggle’.”

There can be little doubt that the Tibetans must be struggled, as they refuse to accept the historic necessity and inevitability of becoming modern, urban, assimilated members of the Chinese race.

For Xi and Jiang, China is the most exemplary of nations, worthy of being emulated worldwide, the acme of civilisation. This is an old imperial tradition of the Chinese court, as is rule by ideology, which Xi and Jiang are now reviving.

We are indebted to Jiang’s translators, who offer this summary: “Jiang argues that Marxism must merge with traditional Confucianism and seek inspiration from its spirit of striving, of excellence, of self-perfection. All of this is combined with a defence of China’s cultural and civilizational uniqueness, the notion that, through the continual exercise of theory and practice, China has finally made socialism both uniquely Chinese and uniquely contemporary.

“The cunning of Jiang’s exposition of “Xi Jinping Thought” is that it addresses international liberal criticism without giving way to liberal political solutions.

“Ideology in China is largely a top-down affair. Ordinary people in China are not consulted and are unlikely to care about the doctrinal niceties of Marxism or “Xi Jinping Thought.” Xi’s state Marxism is an ideology that succeeds in fashioning a single narrative explaining China’s past, present, and future and—for the moment—leaves China’s chattering classes speechless and the general public quiescent. The revival of governing by ideology, which requires this single narrative, is Xi’s goal as well—a time-tested form of Chinese statecraft.”

Tibetans may be disinclined to engage with Jiang’s slippery story of how Xi Jinping is the incarnation of all that is best in Confucian tradition. Governing by ideology may be a time-tested mode of Chinese statecraft, but it leaves no space for Tibetans to be themselves, heard or even recognised as legitimately different. So why give yourself a headache tracking yet another hymn of praise to the supreme helmsman?


It is precisely because rule by ideology is such an embedded Han tradition of governing that it needs to be taken seriously, as seriously as the tenth Panchen Rinpoche did in his famous 70,000 character petition to Mao protesting starvation and famine in Tibet, using impeccable CCP jargon of the day. His mastery of Marxist jargon got him a hearing, and delayed for two years his gaoling for daring to contradict Mao. How many Tibetans today are equally adept?

Tibetans are inclined to see ideology as just dogma, as arbitrary and irrational rules imposed on others from above, to confuse the masses and to legitimate authority. Indeed, although the French inventor of ideology in 1796 saw it as a science of sciences, a radical critique of all that claims to be true; ideology, as a word and as a concept, has always had that second, pejorative meaning, always applied to the arguments of others with whom you disagree. This second meaning is almost as old as Destutt de Tracy’s first coinage, as it dates to Napoleon’s attack on Destutt as a peddler of abstract, impractical, even fanatical enthusiasms and theories.[2]

The ideologues of modernity, with or without Chinese characteristics, have long accused Buddhism, and all religions, of being irrational, useless or even poisonous dogmas and ideologies. The modernist embrace of science supposedly supplants old dogmas and ideologies with seeking truth from facts. Contemporary China, far from having left behind the dualisms of the Western tradition, fully embraces the atomistic, reductive logic of science, as the key to China’s future universal role. Jiang again: “What the CCP wants is to represent the ‘advanced productive forces’, and to strive to be in the front lines of the revolutions in science and technology, finally leading humanity’s scientific and technological development into the future.”

Jiang urges China, under Xi Jinping, to be at the forefront of all that is new, yet everything that is new is also old again: “In Xi Jinping’s report to the Nineteenth Congress, the words ‘new’ or ‘renew’ are widely used in expressions like ‘new era’, ‘new situation’, ‘new ideas’, and ‘new undertakings’.  The expression ‘to renew’ alone was used fifty-three times.  The concept of ‘new’ illustrates the ever-changing state of the entire world in its contradictory movements. This is precisely the essence of Chinese traditional philosophy. The Book of Changes, one of China’s ‘Five Classics’, took change as the starting point for understanding the whole world.  The world is driven by contradictory movements to produce developments and changes which in turn drive struggle and innovation. Marxism and Chinese traditional culture have a high degree of internal consistency on this point, which precisely constitutes the deep philosophical roots of the Sinification of Marxism.  Therefore, it is easy for the Chinese to shift from the ideal of the ‘renewal’ in morality and spirit emphasized by traditional culture to the ‘renewal’ of science, technology and material power that Marxism emphasizes.“

Tibetan Buddhism has many logical methods of exposing the flaws in this fatuous attempt at making China consistently both Marxist, and Confucian again. It is this ideological superstructure that blinds central leaders, making it impossible for them to hear what Tibetans in Tibet have been trying to tell them for decades. There is much that is good in Chinese tradition, such as crossing the river by feeling, with a bare foot, for each stone, one by one. But Jiang Shigong’s elaboration of Xi Jinping’s ideology is a heavy stone tied to the foot, dragging China down.

Tibetans do need to engage such slippery attempts at wielding a magic weapon. Tibetans inside Tibet cannot do this publicly, because they are under orders to repeat the vacuous slogans of Xi Jinping Thought and instruct others to do so. Tibetans beyond Tibet are free to penetrate Xi Jinping Thought and its acolytes, but have little inclination to engage, even though China is actually, under Xi Jinping, ruled by ideology. And there is no Panchen Lama to do it for us, as in 1962. Who will take up this challenge?








[1] David Hawkes, Ideology, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2003, 160

[2] “Ideology”, in Raymond Williams, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, 2nd ed, Flamingo Fontana, 1983, 154

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Blogging on the one human right trumping all other rights: 1 of 2

What do we think when “China” and “human rights” arise in the same sentence? A storm cloud assembles: coercion, torture, denial, repression, closure, censorship, bullying. China’s record as a member of the UN Human Rights Council is one of excluding dissenting voices, even trying to have the term “human rights defender” banned, and actual defenders stripped of credentials to speak. It’s all negative, a comprehensively negative stance. Global talk of human rights in China is denounced as illegitimate interference in China’s sovereign realm, for the ulterior motive of weakening China. In this era of nationalism, that’s potent. Not a good look, especially at a time when China is going through its Universal Periodic Review of its overall eligibility to remain a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

China’s record of denial, staging displays of fury at “interfering in internal affairs” might suggest defensiveness. Not at all. Far from being on the defensive, new era China energetically promotes other rights which have been neglected, positioning itself as upholder of these new rights, which supposedly take priority over the issues Tibetans, Uighurs and global human rights monitors constantly raise.

China these days, on the initiative, goes beyond. China finances much of the UN peacekeeping budget, and supplies a high proportion of peacekeepers. China tries to redefine human rights, in 2017 proposing a new UN General Assembly resolution making development both the most important of all human rights, and the precondition for the enjoyment of all other human rights. The resolution passed, though not without considerable dissent, and is now official UN policy. What to make of this proactive initiative?


The right to development is perhaps the least recognised human right, so China’s focus is welcome. Critiques of familiar human rights concepts emphasize the privileged status the international system gives to the civil and political rights of the individual, going all the way back to 1948, to the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights. By comparison, collective social and economic rights get little publicity, little attention. Some argue that this reflects the Euroamerican bias of human rights, which accentuates the individual and ignores the collective, refusing to see inequality and distributive justice as human rights issues. Aryeh Neier, a founder  of Human Rights Watch argued that social and economic rights simply don’t exist, are not legitimate concepts, and the whole idea is a utopian call for redistributive justice on a global scale.

Given this imbalance, China’s initiative is a corrective. Concepts of human rights were split by the ideological divide of the Cold War from 1948 on. Aryeh Neier, who denied the validity of economic and social rights says: “Because it is apparent that some countries with limited resources would be hard pressed to accord their nationals all the economic rights to which proponents of such rights consider them to be entitled, another economic right has also emerged, though it has not yet been incorporated in any global agreement: the right to development. This carries with it the implication that, as a matter of right, the resources of wealthy countries should be used to raise the standard of living of poor countries so as to enable them to meet the economic and social rights of their populations. An obvious justification for seeking such a transfer is that a significant part of the wealth of the wealthy is derived from their exploitation of the resources of the rest of the world. Hence, calling for a right to development does no more, in the view of some of its proponents, than provide a measure of redress for those who have not shared in those advances or who may have been impoverished in the process.” [1]

In today’s world of selfish nationalisms, no such right to redistribution of wealth from rich to poor countries is recognised.  Neier argues that any right to development is by definition a collective right and thus unenforceable: “It is difficult to imagine how an individual, on her own, could enjoy the right to development. It is only possible to imagine that, in common with her fellow citizens of a poor country and of other poor countries, she would benefit from the transfer of knowledge, skills, and resources that would enhance opportunities for the population as a whole to achieve greater economic and social well-being. Moreover, it is difficult to identify a particular individual or a finite group of individuals who could be held accountable in such a way as to secure someone else’s development. Enforcement of this right could take place only through the collective action of an entire society, or of many societies acting together under the direction of global authorities to bring about the necessary transfer of resources.

Thus the right to development is a Marxist utopian fantasy, meaningless in reality. Neier’s career, as an eminent human rights advocate, for many years running Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute, gave him opportunity to dismiss economic rights to development, and to focus his organisations exclusively on individual rights.

Hence China’s 2017 initiative. China, like the Soviet Union before it, long saw economic rights as primary, its’ UN resolution confirmed its’ long standing position.


Thus it is worth asking: what has China done to implement the right to development, in Tibet? 

A standard approach to development, anywhere in the underdeveloped areas of the world, is to start with comparative advantage, which means identifying the existing strengths and specialisations of the area, based on its unique circumstances. If the aim is growth, you start with what you have and build on it.  In Tibet, the obvious comparative advantage of the traditional mode of production has always been wool, dairy and other livestock products.

A century ago, Tibetan wool was traded, via yak caravans through Kalimpong to Calcutta port and onto ships to the woollen mills of England. Tibetan wool from Amdo was traded all the way down the Yellow River, changing hands many times, to the port city of Tianjin, and then to the woollen mills of New York. The Tibetan economy in the 1920s was globalised.

mules laden with wool

From the viewpoint of the upland nomads of the remote hinterland, wool buyers a century ago came from three directions. Some wool still went overland to the northwest, as it had for centuries, to Russia, boosted, in the 1930s, by Soviet railway extensions towards what is now the border of Kazakhstan with Chinese Xinjiang. But most of the surplus, especially sheep and goat wool, either went south to the British market or east to the American and German markets. Either way, there was a long haul overland before reaching Calcutta or Tianjin ports, and the trade routes were frequently disrupted by conflict, but a highly globalised trade nonetheless persisted. It took a World War to halt this trade.

As much as 90 per cent of Tibetan government revenue in Lhasa in early decades of the 20th century came from taxing the wool trade.[2] Lhasa was the market hub for wool destined for South Asian and European markets, from all over the high plateau. However, the wools produced not only in the uplands but also in the arid lowlands of Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia and Xinjiang, were all exported to New York via Tianjin, reaching a peak of 24,000 to 28,000 tons a year in the 1920s.[3]

wool carried by pack animals

“The Chinese trade is interested primarily in the export of Chinese articles to the frontier peoples, in return for which it handles wool as one of the methods of realising on investments.”[4] Rasmussen describes in detail the remote source regions and varying qualities of the wool, which Chinese traders routinely adulterated by paying to have dirt rubbed into it to increase the weight, transport costs, and selling price.

This trade was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s, by technological change in the American mills and by an American decision to admit competing Argentinian wool, but the trade had thrived for decades. For China, “wool has been among the first six or seven exports and in 1933 and 1934 moved up to fourth and third positions respectively.”[5] By the mid to late 1930s, Japanese conquest of Chinese ports and wool producing hinterlands meant that Japanese trading houses increasingly dominated the wool trade, and that Japan’s ally Nazi Germany increasingly became its destination.[6] It was only when global war erupted that inner Asia ceased being the world’s primary source of carpet wool, to be replaced eventually in the post-war world by New Zealand. Today New Zealand is so dominant that the Tibetan carpet industry of Nepal, its top export earner, is heavily reliant on sourcing much of its inputs from NZ.



In the 1950s and 1960s, this was the obvious starting point of development, to strengthen dairy and livestock production, improve breeding, veterinary care, processing, separation of the wool clip so finer grades of wool could be sold separately at higher prices. Shanghai woollen mills badly needed Tibetan wool.

A standard approach to development would give priority to constructing local roads to link remote areas to distant markets, establish animal feeding stockyards in market towns to keep animals to be sold in good condition, provision of loans to small producers to intensify production, buy a truck for greater mobility, and provide herders with weather reports warning of adverse conditions. These are all obvious ways of linking producers and consumers, adding value, enhancing existing strengths, implementing the right to development.

China did almost none of this. Although it did want herd size to rise and greater productivity, the herders were disempowered by compulsory communisation in which each herder produced their quota or starved as work points were deducted and thus rations withheld.

Not only did China fail to develop Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s, subsequent decades saw investment monopolised by urban infrastructure, highways, hydro dams, power grids, oil pipelines, railways, all designed to extend the reach of the state rather than to link primary producers to China’s markets. Investment grew greatly, but not in rural Tibet, except for enclaves of mineral extraction. For a few years, in the 1980s, local county governments set up wool processing factories which could and should have added value to nomad wool production, but these township and village enterprises all went broke, having spent too much on building wool scouring plants too big for local supply, leading to ruinous competition, mounting indebtedness as loan finance could not be repaid, desperate cheating of the woollen mill customers by weighing wool bales down with stones that damaged woollen mill machinery. It all collapsed, the woollen mills switched to synthetic substitutes for wool, or to importing their wool from Australia, and the Tibetans were on their own, poorer than ever.[7]

Since the shameful end of the 1980s “wool war”, as economists call it, China has poured money into Tibet but very little into the traditional productive economy; instead concentrating capital expenditure on the dams, highways, extraction zones and urban areas, all providing employment for speakers of standard Chinese, not Tibetans, except as casual, unskilled labourers, usually with no right to reside long term in the towns they built.

Despite China’s ideological privileging of the right to development over other rights, China failed to develop the Tibetan economy or build wealth creation opportunities for Tibetan livelihoods or intensify Tibetan comparative advantage.






China remains officially convinced it has brought development to Tibet, even if the Tibetans fail to be suitably grateful for China’s civilising mission.  How is such mutual misunderstanding possible? Maybe the most vivid answer is to reprint Emily Yeh’s 2013 ethnography of what development with Chinese characteristics actually means, on the ground:

Science and Technology Transfer Day

The transfer of science and technology by the state to Tibetan villagers is intended to be accomplished both directly, through state-sponsored efforts, and indirectly, by way of the villagers’ proximity to Han migrants. In February 2001 I had the opportunity to observe science and technology  brought to “the masses.” Called “The Three Go Down to the Countryside” ( sange xiaxiang ), this was a mandatory annual event in which Lhasa work units traveled to a rural area to promote (1) science and technology, (2) education, and (3) hygiene, with the overarching goal of alleviating poverty.

That year’s program, which was with the Tibetan medical hospital and several institutions of agriculture and animal husbandry, was held in a township seat only a short drive from Lhasa. We arrived at the township government’s courtyard to see a banner hanging across the entrance proclaiming this a day for science and technology. In front of the stage and spanning its width was a multicolored balloon arch on which “Rely on Technological Progress, Realize a Leap Forward in Development” was emblazoned in Chinese. Two balloons on either side carried a similar slogan in Tibetan.

Around the courtyard, work units had set up booths with exhibits. Staff members from the hospital and the animal husbandry bureau were dressed in white lab coats, giving them an air of knowledge and authority. The Vegetable Research Institute displayed poster boards showing a variety of flowers, vegetables, and greenhouses, as well as packets of seeds, potato cultivars, and pamphlets about vegetable cultivation. Another exhibit included small glass display cases holding varieties of barley seeds.

Some young children had come early. The villagers drifted in, and by the time the program began there were some six or seven hundred audience members. Sometime later, a group of uniformed soldiers marched in and sat to the right of the stage, followed after a few minutes by a truckload of maroon-robed nuns who sat to the left of the stage, directly facing the soldiers. Thus was created a visually striking bifurcation of space.

The event began with speeches by several work unit party secretaries. One spoke about the need to be civilized (wenmin ), the importance of education, and how modernizations could be achieved only through the use of science and technology. Others spoke of the urgent need to oppose superstition and to use science instead.

After the speeches began a program of more than twenty songs and dances by staff members from various Lhasa work units. The program was interrupted about two-thirds of the way through when TAR deputy party secretary Tenzin arrived to present gifts to the children of a nearby orphanage. A television and a video-CD player were given to the township, and a refrigerator to an impoverished household. Development and poverty relief had arrived in the form of gifts.

At the conclusion of the performances, the audience, who had sat patiently throughout the day, converged on the display booths around the courtyard. The largest crowd, pushing and shoving, formed around the Tibetan hospital’s table, where doctors read pulses and gave out medicine. Villagers mobbed the other tables as well. Far too many bodies crowded chaotically around the small spaces for any actual conversation or dissemination of information to take place.

Instead, this was an occasion for the sport of free sample collection. At each table were hundreds of pamphlets about greenhouse vegetable production—only a small number of which were in Tibetan and so were useless to most of the villagers— which the visiting technical experts from Lhasa threw to the crowd.

The Vegetable Research Institute had brought several cartons of its newly developed brand of spicy fries. Two staff members climbed onto the table and threw their packets of greasy potatoes and Chinese-only pamphlets into the crowd, and the villagers fought over them eagerly.

This was “technology transfer” Chinese-Tibetan style: the great science giveaway. The villagers then sat in circles for the highlight of the day, a picnic of dried meat, vegetables, baskets of bread, and jugs of chang . During the feast, the agricultural experts recruited audience members to sing.

After two more hours of merriment, the event was over and the villagers returned home with their free samples. Staff members from Lhasa’s work units were also free to go, having fulfilled their annual duty to disseminate science and technology to the “ignorant masses.” The villagers had fulfilled their duty as well, to attend the day of performance, food, and drink, and to bear witness to the presentation of gifts.

Emily T. Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Cornell University Press. (2013), 161-2









[1] Aryeh Neier, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, Princeton University Press. (2012), 62-3

[2] Wim van Spengen.  Tibetan border worlds : a geohistorical analysis of trade and traders, Kegan Paul International, 2000, 107-119

[3] A. H. Rasmussen, The wool trade of Northern China, Pacific Affairs, 9 #1, 1936, 60-68.

H Lee Shuttleworth, A wool mart of the Indo-Tibetan borderland,  Geographical Review, 13 #4, 1923, 552-558 Downloadable via JSTOR.

H.D. Baker, British India, US Department of Commerce, 1915

C.E.D. Black, The trade and resources of Tibet, Journal of the East India Association 41 (48), 1908, 1-26

W.S. Hamilton, Notes on Tibetan trade, Government of Punjab, 1910

Luc Kwanten, Indian trade marts in Tibet, Courrier de l’Extreme Orient, Brussels, 3 (29), 1969, 45-53

Trade with Tibet, Indian trade journal, 6, 1907, 610-12 and 728-9; and 8, 1908, 344-5

[4] Rasmussen, The wool trade, 68

[5] Frederick V. Field, China’s foreign trade, Far Eastern Survey, 4 #5, March 1935, 33-40

[6] Kurt Bloch, Germany replaces U.S. as outlet for north China wool, Far Eastern Survey, 7 #25 December 1938, 300-01

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

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

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Blogging on the one human right trumping all other rights: 2 of 2

China says it has developed Tibet, and uses its statistics on economic development of Tibet as justification for its repression of civil and political rights, as they are officially secondary, in China’s hierarchy of rights. China has issued official White Papers on its successes in Tibet, to rebut critics of human rights abuses. One example, from 2015, is highly detailed, yet the statistics are all about consumption, not production: “Optical cables have now reached 668 townships and towns in 74 counties, or 97.8 percent of all townships and towns in Tibet, and mobile phone signals cover 5,261 administrative villages. The number of Internet user households has reached 2.177 million, with an Internet penetration of 70.7 percent, and mobile Internet coverage in farming and pastoral areas has surpassed 65 percent.

“People’s happiness quotient has been greatly improved. People in both urban and rural areas are living a richer and fuller life as their incomes increase rapidly. In 2014 the per capita disposable income of urban residents reached 22,016 yuan, a 38-fold increase, or an average annual increase of 10.7 percent compared with 565 yuan in 1978; and that of farmers and herdsmen was 7,359 yuan, representing an average annual increase of 10.9 percent. The level of urbanization has also steadily risen. Along with improvements to the people’s livelihood, diversified consumption patterns have appeared, and such consumer goods as refrigerators, colour TV sets, computers, washing machines, motorcycles, and mobile phones have entered ordinary households. Many farmers and herdsmen have become well-off and built new houses; some have even bought automobiles. Radio, television, telecommunications, the Internet and other modern information transmission means, which are at the same level as that of the country and the rest of the world, arenow part of Tibetans’ daily life.”

In these enumerated ways, China has, it says, fulfilled the human rights of the Tibetans. Consumption is fulfilment of human rights. But what of production? According to this lengthy White Paper –over 14,000 words in English- China has embarked Tibet on “the road to development”, China has built hydropower dams and power grids, railways, highways and urban infrastructure, and there is now an influx of tourists. None of these provide secure employment for Tibetans, or boost rural production, or add value to primary produce, or link Tibetan livestock producers to lowland Chinese markets.

Geographer and ethnographer Emily Yeh provides us with vivid accounts of how China’s development projects impact on the lives of Tibetans. Drawing on first hand fieldwork, she concludes that what China calls development is more accurately called territorialisation. China’s starting point is that: “The Han ethnicity and the industrialized, urban eastern seaboard as the site of developed, modern, high- suzhi citizens, who must lead the way as models for the rural, western, low-quality, backward minorities, of whom Tibetans are the most extreme case. If China is constituted by difference from the West, then Tibet is a difference within that difference. As a periphery in the making, it provides a distinctive and revealing view of the state. As an internal other, Tibetans are positioned as backward and lagging behind, in need of the guidance and benevolence of the Han and the state. Their backwardness must be ameliorated through a series of gifts, first socialist liberation, then development in the form of market rationality, a spirit of hard work and entrepreneurship, urbanization, and civilized housing. Their constant lack and their permanent failure to measure up, whether in their suzhi, scientific knowledge, technical skills, willingness and ability to labor diligently, or desire for capital accumulation, legitimates state development intervention, which enables them to be included in the broader Chinese nation-state. This inclusion is compulsory, as Tibetan belonging to the spatial container of PRC territory is naturalized. Their simultaneous exclusion from the nation-state, as an internal other always in need of improvement, and their compulsory inclusion into the nation-state and its space, marks the topology of the exception that characterizes Tibetan life in the PRC.[1]

UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Development

“Migrants [to Tibet from Sichuan] do not act as the bearers of development in the form of technology transfer that state officials claim them to be. The reproduction of socio-spatial distance between Han migrants and local villagers not only precludes the transfer of vegetable cultivation skills, but also makes it easier for the migrants to pass on the risk of vegetable farming to local villagers through unenforceable contracts and the option of simply running away. The migrant farmers also do not act as vectors of development since the income they earn does not stay in the TAR: it is almost entirely sent home as remittances. While in Tibet, the migrants live frugally and build their own mud brick houses, adding little to the circulation of value within the region. Yet they see themselves as contributing significantly to the development of Tibet, drawing on a spatial imaginary of suzhi that posits the east as the direction from which development comes; people from more “developed” areas are assumed to absorb this quality of place, making them more developed subjects. The Han see Tibet as underdeveloped and underurbanized. Even as they are convinced of their own contribution to Tibet’s development, they believe that the state has bypassed their own hometowns, and thus resent state largesse in the form of subsidies poured into Tibet, not recognizing the extent to which these subsidies flow out almost as quickly as they stream in. Instead, they wonder why the Tibetans are not more grateful for development.

“As present and poison, the gift captures the contradictions of housing in particular and development more generally as both desirable and frightening for the relationships and obligations it entails. For Tibetans in Lhasa, the gift of development has brought both access to more commodities and a growing sense of themselves as ra ma lug, “neither goat nor sheep,” no longer known, in a sense, to themselves. The gift of development housing is accompanied by a monetary debt that is transmuted into a deeper debt of loyalty, one that must be constantly performed at the articulation point of sovereign power and biopower. Moreover, any reluctance to perform appreciation and indebtedness becomes a sign of ingratitude; thus Tibetans speak about fearing monetary indebtedness, even when they clearly have the financial means to pay for their new houses.

“Rather than dismiss claims of development as gift, we should take them seriously. The analytic of the gift is useful for interrogating development beyond interstate relations and foreign aid. The grammar of the gift posits an intersubjective relationship between the state as giver and its citizens as recipients; it thus works to produce the effect of the state as a reified, unitary actor with an ontological presence. This reification of the state calls into being the recognition of a relationship of belonging and thus works to consolidate state space as territory. 

 “Development produces contradictory subjects and complex subject positions. Finally, I have argued that development and landscape transformation are central to processes of state territorialization. Migrant vegetable farming and Comfortable Houses form a trajectory of state incorporation and territorialization that, beginning with the establishment of the state farms in the 1950s, transformed nature in part through the recruitment of Tibetan participants. The transformation of the material landscape has helped advance the project of making the current boundaries of the PRC seem the proper and naturalized geographical container for Tibet and Tibetans.”

[1] Emily T. Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Cornell University Press. (2013), 264-8

Thus we find ourselves in the present day, where Tibet remains largely underdeveloped and under-invested, and so available to be reimagined, as natural capital, more valuable to China than as production landscape. Although China has urbanised and prospered, with soaring demand for dairy products, wool and other livestock products, little of what is produced in Tibet reaches China’s urban markets, even after six decades of Chinese control.

China has notably failed to develop the Tibetan economy, instead boosting incomes and consumption by transfer payments from the central budget, which is how consumption can rise without a rise in production. The right to development has not, over six decades, been implemented in Tibet, except in the extraction enclaves, where Tibetans are seldom beneficiaries.

China is now testing handheld sat nav devices for pastoralists, linked to the new network of Beidou remote sensing military and civilian use satellites floating above Tibet. These enable pastoralists to track their animals without having to go see for themselves, excited media stories now say. What they don’t say is this tech also requires each animal to be electronically tagged, and of course the sat nav traffic is two-way, enabling the watchful eye of authority know where the herder is and what he is up to. This is known in Chinese  as “the intelligentisation of grazing”.

Most Tibetan landscapes are much as they were 60 or 600 years ago, a thousand green plateaus now ripe for redesignation as a common pool resource for the planet, their primary function being carbon capture, achieved by excluding the nomads and their animals, thus growing more grass, thus sequestering more carbon. Tibet’s emergence as a massive store of carbon, made possible by six decades of underdevelopment, also makes Tibet global, part of the global carbon economy, a major part of China’s green credentials. It means the path of development is closed.

Messi promotes Inner Mongolia milk

For a bigger baby, feed him milk powder from Inner Mongolia!


Can we, for a moment, indulge in a fantasy, of what Tibet could have been today, if China had sincerely wanted development, for Tibetans to prosper, by taking full advantage of Tibet’s comparative advantages? The sad part of this fantasy is that not only did this not happen, now it can never happen, as China is shifting to completely different purposes for Tibet, making this fantasy even more impossible.

Across Tibet, on well-made local roads, shiny stainless steel milk tanker trucks rumble through the verdant pasture lands, taking the morning milkings to dairy processing factories, one in almost every county town. There the fresh milk from dzomo hybrids is processed into yoghurt, whey for fitness folk, cheese for those contemporary tastes, infant formula powder for young mothers, and fresh whole milk packaged on the spot with logos proudly labelling Tibet as the source of purity and vitality. From the dairy factories, owned by pastoralist co-operatives, refrigerated trucks pick up the many products, taking them to rail logistic hubs, to be loaded onto refrigerated rail cars, which reach major Chinese cities in less than 24 hours. In the cities, urban hipsters are proud to drink Tibetan yoghurt as a health food, spurning the slickly packaged competing products imported from New Zealand and Australia. Tibet has such a good reputation for quality control, in its producer-owned co-operatives, that consumers trust Tibetan dairy products as the freshest and most pure, while avoiding the dairy products from Inner Mongolia, produced by huge Chinese corporations with deservedly bad reputations for cheating customers by adulterating dairy products with dangerous chemicals.

Meanwhile, back in Tibet, it is shearing time for the famous semi-fine wool sheep, whose genetics were improved by crossbreeding with carpet wool and fine wool sheep from colder climates such as New Zealand and Tasmania. The moment a sheep is shorn, its fleece never touches the ground, but is immediately flung across a table, where Tibetan women, with expert eyes, separate the finer wool from the rest, reserving the fine wool of 16 micron diameter or less, for special bales, since they attract much higher prices.  Similarly the angora wool goats get their wool treated with great care, because it is so valuable. All wools, having been graded, are baled and sent off by rail across China to woollen mills in Shanghai, as it was in the 1950s, for blending with imported fine wools, to make high quality woollen cloth which will be snapped up by Italian buyers who manufacture high fashion, for women and men, from this prized cloth.

Back in Tibet, the pastures are green; flock sizes are managed by co-operatives that grew out of the early land user groups formed by official policy to encourage productivity. Since land is controlled collectively, by effective, elected local collectives, those collectives have the finance to ensure veterinary care. Both traditional herbs and modern medicines are available, and pastoral mobility is maintained, both for productivity and to ensure no pasture is overgrazed. Collectives own trucks capable of carrying livestock considerable distances, in case of local snowstorm disasters, even snow ploughs and bulldozers capable of clearing high passes to rescue animals trapped by an unexpected snowstorm.

The only fences on the vast grasslands enclose fields where fodder crops are grown to help livestock survive the hard winters. When spring arrives, all herders can access local weather forecasts on phone apps, and decide when is the right time to move the herd to fresh green pick, or further, to summer pastures, mingling their yaks,


























sheep and goats with wild migrating herds of gazelles and antelopes.

The collective keeps an eye on overall herd size and grazing pressure, pooling herds, each animal tagged by owner, to reduce labour costs and boost efficiency. The collective incentivises each herding family to not keep too many animals, by providing livestock insurance that pays out if there is a snowstorm disaster, enabling herds to be quickly rebuilt. The collective further encourages all herders to take care not to overstock or overstay on any pasture, by operating their own fleet of trucks to take stock to urban saleyards equipped with feedlot grain to keep animals in top condition, and to humane slaughter with the best technology that first makes the animals unconscious.

In many parts of Tibet, in spring, there is a seasonal flush of caterpillar fungus gathering, again controlled by collectives to ensure the gatherers, mostly women, get a fair price. The collectives also educate people to not rely on yartsa gumbu solely for income, and neglect the traditional animal husbandry, because the Chinese craze for yartsa could fizzle any time, as in fact it did in 2015.

Collectives invest heavily in quality control and brand management, including inspection of distributors, wholesalers and retailers, to ensure there is no adulteration. Tibet maintains a high reputation for being clean and green, attracting premium prices for its products.

State Forest Administration protects secure land tenure of forest dwellers

When Chinese miners or dam builders seek access to sites for Chinese projects, they must negotiate with the collectives, and with local governments, staffed by well-educated Tibetans familiar with environmental law, land tenure security law, food security and genetic diversity policies, and constitutional guarantees that the cultivator is the owner, and this applies to pastoralists. Megaprojects can only go ahead if local communities agree, because they are paid royalties, and given vocational training to participate in new employment opportunities.

Because of secure land tenure and the demand for Tibetan wool and dairy products, prospering collectives have no difficulty borrowing money to finance new ventures, upscaling production to keep pace with global competition. Tibet has become part of the global economy, on its own terms.

Land rights of forest folk guaranteed by law.

As a result of this rural prosperity, local governments collect sufficient revenues to finance good local schools, health clinics, and health insurance, and inspections of pasture health to ensure there is no overgrazing. Many Tibetan prefectures have strong connections with Chinese forest communities who pioneered local self-management of community resources, with good records in poverty alleviation, resource management and conservation of biodiversity. A prosperous countryside and availability of schooling nearby encourages children and parents to see a future on the land, as was so over so many generations. Monasteries flourish because local communities are prospering, and there is little need for the lamas to seek wealthy patrons from afar.

Rural prosperity gives muscle to nominal regional autonomy, giving a strong revenue base to regional governments, and less dependence on subsidies and transfer payments from Beijing.  Strong county, prefectural and regional governments, staffed by well-educated Tibetans, defend language status, education and health funding, culture maintenance and development priorities.

Lhasa becomes a high fashion hub, with Tibetan designers featuring catwalk displays of high end wool fashions, using latest wool technologies making wool comfortably wearable next to the skin, a full-circle return to Tibet’s traditional outside-in custom of wearing sheepskins fleece in, skin out.

On the catwalk, a must see for fashionistas worldwide, the latest in wool athleisure wear is on parade, even wool as the must-have textile, in a climate changing world, even for firefighters in need of high performance textiles on the firefront that breathe. Wool is so cool.  Seriously cool.

Adidas knitted wool sneaker


That’s our fantasy of where Tibet could be right now. Maybe we got a bit carried away, but it’s all based on reality, just not in Tibet. And the fantasy also tells us why China never took that route. It would make Tibet altogether too autonomous.

Not only did very little of this actually happen in Tibet, it now never could, because China now gazes on Tibet as a post-industrial wilderness, where ecological civilisation is to be arduously constructed by the party-state, a new destiny made possible only by the failure to develop Tibet in line with classic economics, and the idea of comparative advantage. Tibet as ecological civilisation frontier is the topic of further Rukor blogs.

While this fantasy never was and never will be, it is based on what has actually happened elsewhere. Urban China has taken to dairy products, especially yoghurt and infant formula, in a big way; a demand satisfied by imports, and by giant agribusiness corporations based in Inner Mongolia with bad reputations for contaminating their products. Tibet, meanwhile, has gained a reputation among Chinese consumers, as a place of purity. Tibet does produce semi-fine wool but it is never separated from coarser wool, all of which makes only low grade, low priced products, beaten into felt for hats, some woven into carpets. Margaret Atwood reminds us her Handmaid’s Tale is based on what has actually happened, in various places. Same here. Every aspect of our fantasy is based on what actually does happen elsewhere, in China and other countries.

That is what happened to the right to development in Tibet. The failure of development throughout Tibet now leaves it open to new uses, even a new kind of post-industrial economy, converting most of Tibet into national parks for tourism consumption. That major shift would not be possible if Tibet had developed.


A remarkable aspect of the widespread Tibetan loss of secure land tenure, loss of food security, biodiversity and genetic diversity, all without generating production, economic integration and development, is the contrast between grassland and the remaining forests of China.

While China’s grassland citizens have been disempowered, displaced and unable to exercise their nominal right to collectively decide on land use, in the forests there is a very different story.  Forest communities across China have been encouraged to see themselves as the owners, users and guardians of the forests, entitled to make economic use of forest resources but also to work with the party-state to achieve biodiversity conservation goals. The contrast is acute. In the forests, China recognises that if human settlements in or close to forests are excluded, fenced out, the disconnect only motivates people to bend the rules and exploit what no longer belongs to them, whenever possible.

The party-state now treats them with dignity, recognising their rights. Under the Collective Forest Tenure System Reform, jiti linquan zhidu gaige 集体林权制度改革, or linquan gaige 林权改革 everyone works together, productively and sustainably. In short, forest folk are treated like farmers. “Between 2003 and 2013, forestry personnel mobilized in rural communities across the country to survey forest boundaries and facilitate community decision-making processes. Residents in each community would vote on whether to divide collective forests among individual households, adopt a shareholding arrangement, or undertake other forms of collective management.”[1]

Oddly, it is China’s National Forests and Grasslands Administration (NFGA) in charge of both, yet the policies are far apart. The National Forests and Grasslands Administration (until 2018 called the State Forests Administration) is in charge of all lands that are not urban or agricultural. This also includes national parks, as the NFGA  is also in charge of the National Park Administration.

As one would expect, NFGA is in favour of forests, wetlands, biodiversity and national parks; while against desertification, all of which are NFGA responsibilities. A glance at NFGA’s splash page is all you need to know that. But what is NFGA’s stance on grasslands, in the country with the biggest grasslands in the world? That’s not so clear. NFGA administers the Grassland Law of China, which is all about controls, permissions and prohibitions, with almost nothing to say about productive, ongoing pastoralist use. Is there a grassland policy statement, akin to NFGA’s policies, clearly tabbed, for forests, wetlands, parks and deserts? There is nothing much on the website.

In practice, over many decades China has gone from seeing its pastoralists as unproductive, to seeing them as both unproductive and unsustainable. They are problematic, not a solution to anything.

There are now worrying signs that official China feels it went too far in permitting individual forest users rights to effectively own and use forests, and is now looking for ways to disempower forest owners, by persuading them to sell their forest rights so forests can be made into carbon sinks, attracting new players, not only Chinese industries seeking carbon emissions offsets, but also international investors. Once sold, those investors will want guarantees that carbon sequestered in forests will stay in the wood for many decades, locking local forest communities out of ever regaining control. In the name of mobilising resources, opening up markets, encouraging flexibility, forest folk are now pushed to sign away the rights they gained not so long ago, as China, working with the EU and many international donors, learned to respect local communities.

Official policy, for decades, has encouraged grasslands to revert to forest wherever possible, commonly known as the sloping land conversion program, and also “grain-to-green.” Now, it seems the forests are to behave like grasslands, available to global capital as locations for carbon emitters to avoid reducing their emissions. More on this in further blogs.









[1] John Aloysius Zinda and Zhiming Zhang, Stabilizing Forests and Communities: Accommodative Buffering within China’s Collective Forest Tenure Reform, China Quarterly, 235, September 2018, pp. 828–848


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BLOG ONE OF TWO ON RISK MANAGEMENT:  Chinese style, Tibetan style

When a corporation decides to float its shares on a stock exchange, potential investors have one simple question in mind: will I make money?

Answering that question these days brings in an entire industry of risk analysts, financial advisers and their impressive graphs rating and extrapolating risks based on past events. The massive enumeration of all conceivable risks starts with the corporation floating its shares in an IPO (initial public offering) declaring its own risk analysis. Any reputable stock exchange makes this disclosure of risks mandatory, requiring the IPO applicant to file a voluminous compendium of all conceivable, imaginable risks, thus shielding the corporation from later lawsuits alleging investors weren’t warned. So the stock exchange enhances its reputation as something more reputable than a casino, and the newly listed company protects itself against being sued. You were warned.

As a result, the risk disclosure list gets longer and longer, with each corporate filing. Take, for example, the recent risk disclosure of Tianqi Lithium, seeking a share price trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Tianqi basically has just three assets. Two are deposits of rock lithium (spodumene) in two very different locations, in anticipation, much shared by investors and their advises, of a boom in lithium prices as global demand soars to keep pace with soaring production of lithium battery powered electric cars. Tianqi’s other major asset is in Chile, where it now owns salt lakes brimming with lithium, recently acquired from Chilean state-owned SQM.

Tianqi’s three assets are in Chile, Western Australia and Tibet. It’s not every day that a lithium deposit in Tibet floats on a stock exchange as a desirable investment, magnetising capital. It’s a first. Tibetans have more than one simple question to seek answers to.

Tianqi’s prospectus, available online from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is a massive 690 pages, and the “Risk factors” section is 43 pages, yet nowhere does it identify the Tibetan location, deeply distressing to nearby Tibetan communities, as inherently risky.

This is remarkable, given the overwhelming thoroughness of listing all conceivable risks. So comprehensive is the risk analysis it becomes eye-glazing, with no way of telling the possible from the probable, the far-fetched from the plausible. Maybe that is the point: a blizzard of information is as effective as disclosing nothing, there’s just too much to take in.

The Tibetans of Kham Lhagang know all about spodumene lithium mining, as there are active lithium mines close by the Tianqi deposit, which is yet to be exploited. There have been protests, and much anguish in Tibetan communities about mining transgressing nearby sacred mountains, releasing toxic heavy metals into waste storage dams that must securely prevent dangerous tailings from entering water catchments for many decades to come, long after mining has ceased extraction. A beloved leader of these communities, Tulku Tenzin Delek was arrested, charged with inciting terrorism, convicted and died in a Chinese prison, for protesting these assaults on the environment. He is revered today more than ever, despite his official status in China as a criminal terrorist.

How could Tianqi have failed to notice it is not liked, by the population around its Tibetan asset? They do mention as risks climate change, rising sea levels, and the Tibetan climate: “We operate in areas that are under threat of ice storms, floods, earthquakes, landslides, mudslides, sandstorms or drought.

Even more remarkably, Tianqi acknowledges that in Western Australia nearby Aboriginal communities, under Australian legislation, have lodged unresolved claims to Native Title over the lands that include the Tianqi Greenbushes lithium mine. Far from being risky, this is a well-established process in Australian law for acknowledging the rights of indigenous communities to recognition of prior possession, long before white men and geologists arrived only two centuries ago. If, after lengthy court proceedings, native title is granted, which seldom happens in settled areas where white migrants were granted freehold title to land, the end result is that the local Aboriginal community is awarded nominal rights to use their land for traditional purposes, and to lease it back to the state, if it’s a national park, or to the mine owners. At most, a successful Native Title claim would necessitate Tianqi to train and employ more local Aborigines, pay a little more in royalties, and develop a workable ongoing relationship with the Aboriginal community. One could even argue that this legal requirement that a corporation get involved in local welfare and governance might become a learning Tianqi could, to everyone’s benefit, apply to its Tibetan mine.


This is more than a footnote to a corporate IPO disclosure filing. Risk analysis is a major global industry; we live in a risk-obsessed world.  The delusion that risks are in advance knowable and quantifiable powers a charade of foreknowing that in practice privileges quantifiable, nameable risks, while ignoring the unnamed, unforeseen risks that do the most damage.

Tianqi’s filing of its IPO prospectus in an HKEx application is one of the first times a Tibetan treasure has become a globally traded commodity attracting investors worldwide, although Warren Buffett was, as usual, far ahead of other investors, in buying a stake in a Tibetan lithium lake back in 2008, right in the midst of the unforeseen risk of a global capitalism meltdown eventuating.

If Tibetan lithium is now, as wealth management advisers say, a “play”, is the right response to append it to the endless list of risks inherent in any investment in the boom and bust cycles of mining especially, and capitalism more generally?

Tianqi’s Tibetan lithium play may indeed be risky, but there is a bigger point to be made. For starters, traditional Tibetan attitudes to risk shift us to a very different reality. The risks of everyday life on the vast pasture lands of the Tibetan Plateau go well beyond the ice storms and mudslides listed by Tianqi.  Livestock producers on an enormous island in the sky, at least 4kms up into the troposphere, face the laws of physics full frontal. In Tibet, a snowfall can manifest almost out of nowhere, even in summer.

The list of risks is so long, Chinese have long assumed as self-evident that no-one, including Tibetans, would live in Tibet, if they had a choice. By sedentarising and urbanising Tibetans, removing them from pastoral production, China is doing the pastoralists a favour, making them enter history and the calculus of modern risk management. Compulsorily urbanised Tibetans live in comfort, even if in reality concrete housing, built by contractors out to skimp on materials wherever possible, is both hotter in summer and much colder in winter than traditional nomadic yak hair woven tents.


Lowland Han Chinese routinely look on daily life out on the range in Tibet with horror. It is everything modern urban China has escaped, and not so long ago that rural toil has been forgotten.

So risky is Tibetan life, protecting sheep from wolves, rounding up cattle on horseback amid the burrows of rodents, broken bones are common, likewise frostbite and sunburn, sometimes both at once. If Tibetans lived in accordance with contemporary risk management assessments, they would die of fright or never leave home.

The Tibetan attitude instead is one of insouciant, understated, stoic acceptance of risk as inherent to everyday life.  That attitude is fast vanishing, now that urban China offers much more seductive alternatives, including the prospect of getting rich quickly by digging the pastures in spring for yartsa gumbu, the caterpillar fungus (ophiocordyceps sinensis) in great demand in China as tonic and aphrodisiac. Why bother with sheep if your land is right for yartsa gathering?

The hardiness of rural Tibetan life, of the people, the yaks, horses, goats and sheep, all hardy breeds, is worth considering, while it is still (just) with us, as an alternative, even an antidote, to the contemporary fixation on nailing down every conceivable risk, which only opens us to the inconceivable, such as a Great Recession generated by cleverly masking risks of subprime mortgages.

Ethnographer Robert Ekvall, in 1968 summed up a lifetime among the nomads of Tibet, depicting vividly the many risks drogpa nomads must take. Ekvall tells us: “The high-risk emergency life which they lead places premiums on aggressive personal decision making, quick and drastic responses to exigencies, and willingness to take calculated risks. There are no weather reports to forecast storms, or heavy snow, no market reports to show price trends in wool, no road reports to give trail conditions and tell whether passes are blocked or streams are in spate. Loss and gain are equally unpredictable.  With acceptance of risk as the basic factor, the subsistence routine becomes a successive taking of chances, and when risk taking becomes a habit, the habit may well leave a mark on personality.

“There is a common greeting, in the form of a question, to which I have never heard an affirmative answer. E dKaa THal? Has there been difficulty? Is the question asked of the guest as he enters the tent, is shouted to riders coming within earshot from every form of venture, trade, hunting, raiding, pilgrimage, or long-range herding. The invariable answer is Ma dKaa THal, There has been no difficulty.”[1]

It could just be that the Tibetans have much to offer, that we have seldom noticed. Acceptance of risk is one such; calmly acknowledging contingency and uncertainty. Another is a penchant for solitude, going off alone into the wilderness, up into the mountains, to face one’s own mind without the distractions of society. In a world filled more than ever by endless distractions, that too is worth considering as an asset of a different sort to a tradable spodumene deposit.

Rather than adding Tibet to the endless list of the world’s risks, let’s try subtracting. Looking at the world through Tibetan eyes deflates the pretensions of risk management, the hubris of pretending the future is knowable, even an essential of prudential business management. Foreseeing risks and threats becomes a self-sustaining narrative, because, as Tibetan lamas often remind us, risks, contingencies, uncertainties, possible failures and collapses are endless.


This matters because there is nowhere more hooked on risk management than today’s new era China. Risk management is what the ruling Communist Party is all about, positioning itself as uniquely capable of foretelling and averting risks, because it is so scientific and far sighted, capable of steering 1.3 billion humans to fulfil the China Dream. Risk management gives the CCP’s party-state its purpose, a teleology destined to result not only in China’s greatness but the rejuvenation of China as it navigates its way through the middle income trap to ever growing economic growth, while also pivoting from a low cost manufacturing base to a high income services based consumer led economy.

The party-state’s legitimacy rests on risk management, on being able to discern the key contradictions of our time, act decisively to resolve them, and steer China through all dangers to make it great again. Put simply, the party-state invents risks, then claims the credit for solving them.

One could argue that China’s current detention and compulsory re-education of as many as one million Uighurs in their Xinjiang homeland, is risk management taken to extremes. The well-documented detention and forcible slogan chanting of CCP campaign mnemonics is a massive investment in remoulding human minds en masse, in the belief that this is essential risk management.

To the rest of the world, the scale of incarcerations and coerced compliance with party songs, party slogans, party formulations, is counter-productive, generative not of freshly washed minds but of bitterness and hatred. The few Uighurs and Kazakhs who escape, and can speak, say just that.

This is a classic negative feedback loop, a vicious spiral. The more official China is convinced Xinjiang is a risk, a nest of terrorists in the springboard of China’s Eurasian Belt & Road Initiative, the more punitive it gets; and the more punitive the treatment of Uighurs, the more inclined they are to turn to extremes.

Official China is delusional not only in driving millions of Xinjiang Uighur Muslims to extreme alienation, despair and anger, but in its tech-driven assumption that all risks can be controlled. All it takes is sufficient investment in the technologies of surveillance, and stationing police posts everywhere, demanding Uighurs routinely hand over their phones for scrutiny of content, widespread use of facial recognition tech to identify and re-educate the dissidents, even when they rapidly become a high proportion of the entire Uighur population.

China does not know how to get out of this whirlpool of risk management sucking it down, nor do the Uighurs. The rest of the world looks on, mostly indifferently. Decades of depicting the Uighurs as Islamic terrorists, or at least sympathetic to Islamic terror, has paid off, and the world looks away.


China is also taking many risks it does not want to acknowledge as risky, or face. Since it is axiomatic that the CCP alone has mastery of the (Marxist) contradictions that define these new era times, by definition the CCP alone also has the answers, the master strategy for achieving, simultaneously, China’s continuing growth, the construction of “ecological civilisation”, successful outreach across Eurasia linking  all Eurasian economies (and beyond) to China’s co-prosperity sphere, while also spending big on competing, in all war-fighting spaces, with a massive US investment in weaponising the US-China rivalry. China’s capacity to achieve all of this, while also investing hugely in an elaborate social credit system of punishments and rewards for each heavily surveilled Chinese citizen –Xinjiang is just the beginning- also depends on deeply entwined connections with China’s online giants and other corporates. That too is hugely risky, as China’s equivalents of Facebook, Google, Amazon etc. may at some point find, no matter how much they benefit from China’s firewall, they need to distance themselves from an increasingly centralised, authoritarian, punitive state. These are among the major risks China does not want to even think about.

The CCP loudly congratulates itself for its mastery of the “laws” of history, economics, power projection, sovereignty assertion, development and now pollution control and biodiversity protection. That’s a tall order, a high self-rating fraught with risk.

The party-state is hugely ambitious, in order to persist in its claim to be uniquely capable of steering China past all risks and dangers, into ever greater accumulations of wealth and world leadership and global; dominance of several emerging hi-tech industries, all at the same time. This is high wire, high stakes juggling, and risk management of an extraordinary intensity. Since there are so many barely acknowledged risks looming, whether they can be named and debated or not, an increasingly centralised and authoritarian China is all the more determined to crack down on well-known risks, such as Islamic discontent in Xinjiang.


When official China extends its gaze to Xinjiang, it deploys all the standard metaphors of risk management, and the imperative of control. Uighurs must learn Chinese, study the laws they are required to obey and acquire job skills in the casual wage economy rather than rely on traditional farming and livestock raising skills. They must cut off beards, uncover heads, present shaven and unconcealed faces to the endlessly repetitive video and human police surveillance, proving several times a day they are not a risk to the party-state. If for any reason they fail this intrusive scrutiny and are 00 judged a potential risk, they are detained indefinitely in “re-education centres” where, behind bars, they cease all acts of piety and devotion, and loudly sing songs of praise of the benevolent Chinese Communist Party.  They attend compulsory lectures on the wisdom and historical inevitability of rule by the party-state, and must repeat official slogans over and over. This is behavioural therapy on a mass scale. They are required to overtly renounce their past way of life, and write essays of self-criticism showing they understand the error of their ways. They are corrected, and corrected again, until they master the key slogans of Xi’s new era and its aspirations.

Eventually, when detention without charge or trial ends, and people can go home, they remain under close surveillance and under pressure to inform on their intimates, to prove their loyalty to the party-state. Cameras may be placed inside the home, so there is nowhere space to be beyond the panoptic gaze of the state. Cadres may be sent to live with your family and conduct round the clock corrections of behaviour lacking in quality or sufficient overt loyalty to the sovereign state. Allocation of party activists to embed within family life is now common, and one cannot refuse.

Nominal regional ethnic autonomy notwithstanding, the Uighur language and culture are now treated as pathologies, to be eradicated, likened to a virus that could infect a whole society if not rigorously exterminated. “Local officials sometimes liken inmates to patients requiring isolation and emergency intervention. Anyone infected with an ideological ‘virus’ must be swiftly sent for the ‘residential care’ of transformation-through-education classes before illness arises,” a document issued by party authorities in Hotan said.”

China naturalises its self-defeating cleansing of the scourge of wrong loyalties by medicalising the dominant tropes, building a hegemonic discourse of pathology, plague, infection, pandemic, hence an objective need for sweeping and intrusive sanitation strategies to purify the body of society, lest contagion spread disastrously.  Vectors of disease transmission are immediately identifiable by their beards and head scarves.

An official Chinese message to Uighurs: “Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. … The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumour.”

Tibet and China have taken different paths to the current moment, embodied in their differing attitudes to risk. The wealthier China gets, the more anxious it gets. For China the risks grow and grow, requiring more aggressive, intrusive, strike hard methods.

How will this all turn out? Is it significant that repression in Tibet is not as heavy as in Xinjiang? Can we learn something from the ways Tibetans do risk? Those are the questions addressed in the second of these two blogs


[1] Robert Ekvall, Fields on the Hoof: Nexus of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism, Holt, Rinehart, 1968, 75, 83, 91-2

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China’s enthusiasm for controlling risks is not the Tibetan way. What is most striking about contemporary Tibetans is that they deal with risks, including the risk of the party state’s force majeure, neither with zealous fixation on control, nor the bitterness of the Uighur resistance. Tibetans, taking their cue from customary light touch, flexible risk management instead manage the intrusiveness of the party state with a close and intuitive reading of when and how to push back, and when to yield, in the interests of the long term.

Instead of matching obsession with obsession, tribal loyalty to the party-state with tribal loyalty to an exclusive minority nation, Tibetans tackle the everyday tasks of managing the risks of surveillance, grid management, compulsory slogan chanting, criminalisation of dissent, the social credit regime of algorithmically assigned punishments and rewards, with some aplomb. They know when to stage ritual displays of fealty to the party-state and its well salaried job opportunities. They also know when and where it is possible, even if only in private, among trusted intimates, it is possible to relax and be heartfelt.

There’s nothing like seeing a young Tibetan cadre hectoring a visiting high lama, based far from China, demanding aggressively that he obey all directives, not assemble crowds, in no way deviate from the official line, almost shouting in his face, a pantomime of official arrogance. Then, staged performance done, to the satisfaction of a hidden Han superior, the same cadre, as the lama leaves, grabs her baby and holds it up for the lama to touch on the head, in blessing, away from the official gaze. Two performances, moments apart, with little doubt as to which one came from the heart. That’s risk management with aplomb.

Such stories abound. Tibetans know how to make ritual displays of fealty to a hegemonic party-state that demands primary loyalty to the fiction of a unitary, sovereign nation-state that all Tibetans experience as an arrogant, racist conflation of the Zhonghua Han race with the Chinese state. They know when and where such ritual tribute must be paid, and then get on with their lives. They are not conflicted by their official identity as Zhonghua minzu citizens clashing with a secretly nursed alt-identity.

It is not only in risk management that Tibetans are flexible, accommodating whatever arises, making necessary adjustments, and carrying on. Flexibility is more generally a Tibetan stance towards contingency, the coincidence of causes and conditions arising, that thwart or facilitate. Tibetans generally flow like water, around obstacles, moving on, not troubled by the strain of maintaining an essentialised identity that is breached by the demands of the party-state. This is a legacy of the pervasiveness of Buddhism, even among the many who have no overt Buddhist training. To perform loyalty is not to betray an inner self. To perform is to perform, as circumstances require.

If circumstances are adverse, this is to be accepted, not as a personal blow but as the maturing of inscrutable past karma from past lives long lost to conscious remembrance, not worth agonising: why me? It’s not all about me. When, in 2001, the Dalai Lama was asked what is the saddest thing that happened in his life, he said: “Some occasions now when newly arrived Tibetans explain about their life stories, and tortures, and there are a lot of tears. Sometimes I also cry. But I think sadness is comparatively manageable. From a wider Buddhist perspective, the whole of existence is by nature suffering. So, suffering is some symptom of samsara. That also is quite useful. That’s why I sustain peace of mind”[1]

This situational fluidity is not only a way of individually coping with the jealous gods of the party; it is a social response too. Tibetans are good at thinking through the consequences of behaving this way or that. If they aren’t good at it, they listen to those who are.


China has always seen Tibet as inherently risky, even life-threatening, in ways that are almost unmanageable, in these times of risk management. The contrast between Chinese and Tibetan attitudes to risk is a lens that tells us much. Take a look at China’s Journal of Catastrophology (yes, there is such a word in Chinese English). 

China routinely classifies Tibet as risky because of its thin air, extreme cold, proneness to earthquake and much more, and in recent years has developed many maps of the inherent riskiness of Tibet, for example, to snowstorms that are a hazard to pastoralists caught with herds that in autumn need to descend to lower altitude winter pasture but are trapped at the pass by deep snow, that even hardy yaks cannot paw through. Mapping such risks, familiar to drogpa nomads for thousands of years, does not mean risk mapping leads to risk management of risk abatement or risk compensation.  It does not provide drogpa with weather risk reports, or an indexed snowstorm herd loss insurance program, of the sort successfully implemented in Mongolia, enabling herds to be quickly rebuilt after losses.

Yet China now invests heavily in risk management, making it is sign of the party-state’s mastery of nature, and capability for quick and effective response to disaster. One of the biggest restructurings of government in the 2018 rearrangement of ministries was to create a new Ministry of Emergency Management, which takes powers and staff from several other ministries to comprise a brand new agency.  Official China has made it clear that its response to earthquakes, floods and other disasters is to be a measure of regime legitimacy, and party members are expected to be first on the scene when disaster strikes.[2]

Tibetans, by contrast, live with risk, as the coming together of causes and conditions that can arise at any time. This applies to natural disasters and unnatural ones such as the imposition of class warfare on the whole of Tibet, because that was consuming revolutionary China, and the  never ending official fear of “splittists”, whose dislike of Han arrogance is seen as an existential threat to the whole of China. Tibetans see these bouts of persecution come in waves. They sometimes resist, and sometimes decide, for the sake of the long term, to roll with the punches.


Sometimes it is all about the long game, about what it takes to survive the cruelties of this moment, in order to work gradually towards the ongoing saliency of Tibetan culture, including Buddhist insight that keeps minds supple. The eminent historian of Tibet Prof. Tsering Shakya suggests: “The Chinese state has been successful in projecting Tibetan and Uyghur people as backward populations resisting development. So there is a growing backlash in China against what might be best termed religion-based identity politics. China has successfully used this to its advantage, portraying the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang as part of the fight against the global rise of religious fundamentalism. However, there is a big difference in how the two communities are treated: Beijing is relatively soft on Tibetan Buddhists compared to Xinjiang Muslims. This is because Tibetans are not seen as the same kind of security threat as Uyghurs are and because of the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.”

How did it come to pass that any Tibetan can call today’s punitive approach “relatively soft on Tibetan Buddhists”, only months after major Buddhist practice centres such as Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar were literally torn apart by bulldozers?

Tsering Shakya has a point, if one looks at the long term. For Buddhist insight into the nature of reality to survive meaningfully it must be realised, fully lived by its practitioners, at least enough of them to maintain a cohort of teachers who can transmit inner meanings to the next generation. The Tibetan Buddhists have managed to survive far greater persecution than current spasms, when for almost two decades all manifestations and organisations for Buddhist practice were violently suppressed, in the name of revolution and class war. In the hills, in mountain caves and other classic retreat places, practitioners persisted in realising in wholly embodied ways the insights of the Buddhist texts and teachers, then returned to society to exemplify them. As early as 1962, in his petition to Mao, the Tenth Panchen lama identified what was at stake: “Those who have religious knowledge will slowly die out, and religious affairs are stagnating, knowledge is not being passed on, and so we see the elimination of Buddhism, which was flourishing in Tibet and which transmitted teachings and enlightenment. This is something which I and more than ninety per cent of Tibetans cannot endure.”

The unbroken transmission of lineages of Buddhist insight, through invasion, the Great Leap, famine, the Cultural Revolution and beyond, is a remarkable achievement, barely noticed by an outside world that does not believe that transformative retraining of the mind is possible, or that continuity of transmission means more than institutional survival.

Not only has the inward path continued, unbroken, exile spread it worldwide, and the vacuity of newly wealthy China created a market for it in the biggest cities across China.[3] This strongly suggests flexible Tibetan risk management has been central to taking adversity as opportunity, a core proposition of the tantric path. The classic analogy is the peacock in the jungle, devouring poisonous plants; thriving and giving its resplendent tail a more iridescent glow.

Tsering Shakya is surely right about the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, among urban Chinese finding out that wealth is not happiness. They open to the Buddhist insight that the rich man is often the most anxious, because he has more to nervously protect from risks and to make his money always grow. Whether Tibetan Buddhism appeals to young Tibetans, in exile or in Tibet, is moot, but Chinese flock to the lamas, seeking a meaningful life, beyond mere accumulation.

This is no small achievement. It could not have happened if Buddhism had been branded a foreign religion, like Islam and Christianity, quintessentially unChinese, which was the official position during the revolutionary decades.

The inculturation of Buddhism as a Chinese religion with Chinese characteristics, originally achieved 17 centuries ago, had to be renegotiated anew, with a party-state preconditioned to view all religion as poison. There is nothing inevitable, in a China that persists in insisting everything has to exhibit nebulous “Chinese characteristics”, about Buddhism regaining its standing as home-grown. This is especially true of Tibetan Buddhism, which appears superficially dissimilar to the Chan/Zen tradition, populated by different gods and demons, rituals and ritual masters nothing like the institutional Buddhism of Chinese monasteries. For decades, revolutionary China classified Buddhism as alien, Tibetan Buddhism as doubly foreign, and even today the sight of wealthy urban Chinese devotees prostrating before Tibetan lamas provokes deep unease among party officials. Hence the spasmodic outbreaks of state violence to separate teachers from students, policing the artificial distinction between laity and clerisy with walls and regulations, as if dealing with a contagion. Inevitably, the tools of risk management, of quarantining danger, are deployed.

The growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism took great skill, patience, forbearance, fluidity and forgiveness, even an openness to the barren lives of one’s tormentors and torturers.

It took decades. It was accomplished without co-ordination or an overt strategy, as even now there is little room in the public sphere for Buddhist voices. Yet the transition occurred, a populist, nativist revival of Buddhism as a practice of mind training transcending race, class, gender and any other conventional identity. That could only be achieved by exemplary teachers leading exemplary lives, even if there were (and are) both Han and Tibetans tempted to cash in on widespread naïveté about how to choose a good teacher.

These are matters seldom spoken of, acknowledged or even recognised in the global diaspora of Tibetan exiles. As Tsering Shakya reminds us: “Unfortunately, much of Tibetan diaspora has become formulaic, and lacks ingenuity and creativity. Their rhetoric is confined to social media and the personality politics of a small, non-representative group of the population.” The self-appointed task of exile is to be voice of the voiceless, which requires the 97 per cent of all Tibetans, who continue to inhabit Tibet, to be voiceless victims, occasional heroic resisters, and little more.

This constricted view occludes recognition that in daily life Tibetans manage the obnoxious, racist Han Chinese presence, not just to survive the day, but to maintain Tibetan culture by focusing on long term risk management. Tibetans push back against official China’s demand for loud displays of loyalty, by manifesting behavioural compliance, and getting on with their lives. Tibetans push against Han centric racist depictions of Tibetans as backward, uncommercial, uncompetitive and unproductive, with subtlety and insistence on expanding the use of Tibetan language in public media, in public signage, in education curricula up to and including college degree courses taught in Tibetan.

Tibetans know exactly what triggers neuralgic twitch in the party-state, where the red lines are, how to push right up to the red lines, but not cross. They know full well the party-state long ago lost heart for genuine brain washing, for an inner conversion among Tibetans to seeing the world as Han see it. Official China has settled instead for a self-deluding ritual performance of “loving the party” which deludes only those who demand it. To Tibetans it is just another tax, a new wulag.

The worst part of those mandatory performances of Chineseness is that they are time consuming, but they do not threaten core identity, since Tibetans are light on core identity. All those hours of cadres earnestly explaining how kind the party is to the masses, how many benefits it has brought, all those slogans to be memorised and reproduced, all take time better spent at home with the family, or, if you are a monastic bedevilled by a “democratic management committee” of ideological enforcers, time better spent meditating.

Performative Chineseness is a punitive tax, but the result is you get to keep your state financed secure job, or to stay on in the monastery, and get on with the inner path of transformative mind training. Those may be individual benefits, but they are also prudent investments in the long term continuity of Tibetan culture and values, and in managing over the long term the corrosive aspects of alien rule.

At Yarchen Gar, in 2018, only months after the bulldozers ceased demolitions of the meditation practice huts of thousands of nuns and monks, international tourists were being shown around a peaceful contemplative community at work on inner transformation, with no mention of the turmoil, no hint as to the upheavals as officials demolished, expelled, trashed, demarcated Yarchen Gar and nearby Larung Gar into separated lay and monastic zones in the name of cross-infection control. On paper, official China had asserted itself, contriving a zone of ritual practice with no guidance from teachers, and a monastic professionals zone with no students. Having asserted state sovereignty, the bulldozers left, and oral transmission of inner realisations resumed across the walled divide between amateur and professional, lay and monastic, decreed by official intervention. Life goes on.

Serthar Larung Gar was first destroyed by methodical official vandalism two decades ago, for the same reasons: “The growing popularity and international recognition of the institute however acted as a catalyst for very real Chinese concern. The devotion Khenpo inspires among Chinese Buddhists had been of concern to the Beijing authorities for some time. One reason was explained by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher living in the West: ‘Most of the monks studying at Serthar from China are well-educated and from urban rather than rural areas, just the sort of people that the authorities would not wish to be influenced by Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan views.’”[4]

Not only is this Tibetan long game invisible to China’s enforcers, it remains invisible to Tibetan exiles, who have little idea what these new religious movements, popular both among Tibetans seeking a meaningful life, and among Han from all over China, signify. The daily practices of discovering the full powers of the mind remain as opaque to young exiles as to the enforcers of the party-state, all of them sharing the modernist insistence that religion is nothing more than a jumble of arbitrary dogmas. Exiled Tibetans ceased being drawn to monastic life decades ago.

Yet this rigorous mind training tradition is the source of Tibetan inner strength, resourcefulness, flexibility, ability to consider consequences and manage risks without being defined by them. Most Rukor blogs are also exercises in risk assessment. Each post tries to balance news of new risks with careful assessment of which of China’s master narratives actually mean much, on the ground.

The devotion of the Tibetans to Buddhist insight, and now the devotion of millions of Han Chinese as well, are gradually turning minds at the highest levels in China. Not only does this protect Tibet from the yanda  “strike hard” disaster of Xinjiang, as Tsering Shakya says, it also means the Tibetans are slowly taming China, spasmodic outbursts of official destructiveness notwithstanding. Tibetan Buddhism is now not only normal, and acceptably Chinese, it ensures on all sides that situations do not spiral into a vortex as they have in Xinjiang. Both sides, Tibetan society and the party-state, know the limits, the tacit boundaries not to be crossed.

The khenpos of Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar are willing to stand back when China’s cycles of risk control and suspicion peak, let the destruction play itself out, and when it is spent, rebuild anew. This cycle has repeated. China is slow to learn that punitive correction of suspicious behaviour is counter-productive; or that meditation practitioners will always seek reliable spiritual guides and follow those they find, despite regulatory separations. Compared to the Cultural Revolution these statist “rectifications” are brief and useless. The connection between meditator and Vajra master is heart to heart, mind to mind direct transmission, transcending bureaucratic divisions of labour.

Tibetans worldwide should recognise, acknowledge and celebrate the strengths of Tibetans in Tibet, rather than focussing exclusively on overt and costly resistance. Unfortunately, innovative reinventers of Buddhist insight such as Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar are noticed by exiles only when persecuted. As soon as they cease being human rights headlines, they cease to be of interest.

So Tsering Shakya is surely right in saying Tibet has been spared the fate of Xinjiang, and this is an achievement of the Tibetans, who ought to be hailed for their skilfulness in crossing the great rivers of modernity with Chinese characteristics, feeling for each stone footing, one by one. It was in Tibet that China first learned the techniques of grid management, mass surveillance, disappearances, detention and torture. It was specifically Chen Quanguo, Party Secretary of Xinjiang, who spent years running Tibet Autonomous Region before transferring to Xinjiang, bringing his armamentarium of repression technologies with him.

Now, compared to the agonies of Xinjiang ripped asunder by mass incarceration and indoctrination, Tibet has been spared the worst, yet Tibetans persist, at every opportunity, in asserting the Tibetan difference, and not accept being classified as inferior Han. This, on a national scale, is risk management with aplomb.

Tibet perhaps has been spared the worst also because it is not on the road to anywhere much for China’s belt and road expansion, other than Nepal and a suspicious India. Xinjiang, however, is the heart of all of China’s Eurasian sphere of influence plans. Tibet, land of snows surrounded by mountains, has yet again been spared, because of its special topography.

While Tibet barely figures in China’s grandiose Belt & Road Initiative plans, remaining an exceptional outlier, it figures prominently in China’s new era planning for a consumption services economy, part of China’s transition from manufacturing as the path of wealth accumulation, to a demand-driven consumer society.  Tibet’s place in new era China is as a destination, for Han tourists in their tens of millions, exercising their leisure consumption rights.

China markets Tibet as a wonderland. This has its hazards, not only objectification of Tibetans as exotic Other, but also the emptying of rural Tibet to pander to Han fantasies of pristine wilderness no-man’s land depopulated to superimpose Han fantasies of primal discovery. The official plan to make almost half of Tibet national park runs the risk of depopulating prime pastoral landscapes, in the name of not only tourism but also water provision for lowland China.

If that is to be the fate of Tibet, it’s still far from the agonies of Xinjiang and Tibetans may even find the transition from rural to urban life manageable. It seems the urbanisation trend these days is as much pull as push. Tibetans feel drawn to urban comforts, as do folks just about anywhere in a globalised world, and less coercion is needed.

How are Tibetans managing the risks and rewards of urbanising? Many Tibetans now say as much as 10 per cent of the two million population of Xining is now Tibetan, while only a few years back Xining, although in Tibet, was in no way Tibetan, not even a Tibetan senior school.

Tibetans now consider the consequences of city life, and the possibilities of families living both on the pasture and in the city, depending on the needs and opportunities of both. When you are young, and in need of good schooling, you live in the city, because China closed so many local schools. When you are old and in regular need of medical care, you go to the city. If you are adult, young and healthy, you stay on the land. These are the everyday risk management decisions Tibetans make, aware that despite the seductions of city life, there is also the cost of speediness, distraction, crowding, the loss of quiet and even the solitude the lamas have always exhorted us to seek, to explore the mind. The recent pop ballad hit by Lobsang Nyima reminds us Tibetans do know how to do that urban/rural risk management process, embracing the new while mindful of the value of spaciousness, upland on the high plateau.[5]

The Tibetans have survived risks and disasters, of natural and human origin, with inner strength, flexibility, enormous resilience and an eye on the long term. They will deal with rapid urbanisation with those strengths available.


[1] Pico Iyer, Over tea with the Dalai Lama, Shambhala Sun, November 2001

[2] Christian Sorace,  Party Spirit Made Flesh: The Production of Legitimacy in the Aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, China Journal, 76, 201

[3] Gareth Fisher, From Comrades to Bodhisattvas: Moral dimensions of lay Buddhist practice in contemporary China, U Hawaii Press, 2014

[4] Destruction of Serthar Institute: A special report, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, 2001, 28


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment


The Tibet lithium moment

If there’s one topic this blog has come back to again and again, it is lithium.

We have been told many times that, as electric vehicles become a big market, demand for this lightest of metals will boom, and Tibet is at the forefront of lithium deposits, both as brines collecting naturally on the beds of salt lakes, and as rock deposits, called spodumene.

If lithium finally booms, to power the batteries of the electric cars, does that mean extraction of Tibetan lithium will intensify? That boom has been a long time coming; lots of excited tech investors on the lookout for the next big thing may regret plunging into lithium stock too early, or too late.

During those many false dawns of the “lithium boom” there was a lot happening under the hood. Specifically, when very few car buyers showed much interest in all-electric cars, the manufacturers discovered no-one much wants a small car that putters round the city for an hour or two, then needs to be plugged in to recharge. No sir. What early adopters, trend setters, influencers want is a car that looks cool, accelerates fast, turns heads, and runs for several hours before needing to recharge. All of those premium market specs make for very heavy batteries, requiring as much as 10,000 times the amount of lithium needed to keep your mobile phone alive.

So when electric car sales do finally take off, demand for lithium will be strong. For this reason, and in keeping with China’s state-directed high tech ambitions, Chinese companies are seeking to dominate lithium production not only in Tibet but worldwide.

At a time when investor interest is strong the Sichuan based Tianqi Lithium 天齐锂业股份有限公司 is emerging as the dominant player, in China and worldwide, after its audacious takeover of the biggest lithium producer in Chile, raking in its lithium from high, dry salt lakes, very similar to the main Tibetan lithium source, the salt lakes of the Amdo Tsaidam Basin.

Tianqi is paying billions of dollars to buy out the Chilean lithium producer SQM, and as a result is heavily in debt, at a time when China, facing a trade war with the US, is increasingly nervous about its big corporations taking on so much debt. The party-state has stepped in and bluntly ordered some big Chinese investors (in Hollywood, for example) to pull back and pull out.

Since this promised lithium boom has taken many years to materialise, China’s government isn’t the only one getting a bit nervous. The price of lithium has actually fallen in 2018, not because anyone doubts the intensification of demand is at last happening, but because twitchy investors now worry that there are so many new mines and extraction projects coming into production, there could be oversupply, and they will not make the fortune they are gambling on.

If you aren’t an anxious fortune hunter, the bottom line is lithium demand is now growing, and that means fresh pressure on the salt lakes of both Qinghai and the Chang Tang of far western upper Tibet, and also Tianqi’s spodumene deposit, which Tulku Tenzin Delek was so concerned about, in Kham Kandze Lhagang, costing him his life after years of prison.

That’s a recap of the backstory told more than once on this Rukor blog.



What is truly new, making this moment actionable for Tibetans and their friends, is that China’s biggest lithium producers in China and around the world have judged this to be the time to launch their IPO listing, selling shares to investors in the hope of reducing that debt, raising capital, spreading the risk.

When a company launches its IPO it is acutely vulnerable to getting a bad reputation. If investors decide a particular stock is radioactive, stay away at all costs, the hoped-for share price tanks, the float raises only a fraction of what the owners hoped for, and everyone learns a hard lesson. This can make a difference of billions of dollars. It puts Tibet back on the map.

This is also a moment in which, in keeping with stock exchange rules, the company floating its shares is obliged to issue a comprehensive prospectus, informing investors of all the risks they are taking. This is an unparalleled moment of compulsory disclosure, and in the case of Tianqi Lithium’s prospectus, the downloadble disclosure document is hundreds of pages long, giving us insight into their assets and plans, so much so that we can usefully mine the disclosures of this miner.

New data on what is happening in Tibet

We learn a lot from this pitch to investors, more than is usually available to Tibetans, who are never consulted about mining their lands, and figure only fleetingly in the 690 pages of data Tianqi has disclosed to the Hong Kong Stock exchange (which also owns the venerable London Metals Exchange). Despite the absence of the Tibetans of Kham Kandze Lhagang from the Tianqi prospectus, Tibet is far from absent.

What Tianqi brings to the market is two spodumene lithium deposits, one in Western Australia, well south of the city of Perth, the other in Kandze. A third deposit, not rock lithium but a remote briny salt lake in Tibet, is also partly owned by Tianqi but does not feature much in Tianqi’s declared plans.

Tianqi’s two prized assets, the active Greenbushes mine in Australia and the proposed mine at Kandze Lhagang (Jiajika) emerge, in Tianqi’s voluminous documentation, in contrasting ways.

First (p.157) is Tianqi’s map of where its’ Tibetan lithium deposit is:

Tianqi (pages 438 and 519) describes its ownership of this Tibetan lithium deposit, in a district of Kandze Lhagang where there are other lithium deposits, owned and extracted by other companies, causing much distress to the Tibetan community. Rukor published photos of those mines in 2017.


Since Tibetans find industrial scale mining so distressing and offensive, surely Tianqi, as part of due diligence and full disclosure, must name Tibetan opposition as a risk factor? The Tianqi prospectus devotes no less than 43 pages to itemising all the risks investors are taking when they buy Tianqi shares, yet the grief of the Tibetans of Lhagang is nowhere mentioned.

However, Tianqi does name other risks, and that’s where its’ two spodumene lithium deposits, in Australia and Tibet, geologically similar but worlds apart socially, reveal sharp contrasts. Tianqi warns investors that Aboriginal native title holders have outstanding claims to the Greenbushes mine, which are yet to be resolved. There is no such mention of indigenous Tibetan claims.

Then there’s a minor problem with environmental compliance, which has halted lithium extraction in Kandze Lhagang for years, although Tianqi insists it is all to do with a competing miner, not them:

Then there is the very issue that most distresses Tibetans: the toxic chemicals and buried heavy metals exposed by mining and the processing of the ores:

Finally, there is the danger of ice storms and terrorist attacks, probably not in West Australia, so maybe this is an indirect reference to Tibet?

On top of all this, there is Tianqi’s part ownership of Drangyer Tsaka, a salt lake with an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts, in the far west of upper Tibet, technically part of Shigatse prefecture, but so remote there is little incentive to fully industrialise lithium extraction when the Tsaidam Basin in Amdo is much more convenient, and China now has ample access to lithium from Chile, Australia and around the world. Nonetheless Tianqi does boast of its stake in Drangyer Tsaka (Zabuye in Chinese), not surprising because other stakeholders include the battery maker-cum-car manufacturer BYD and the canny Warren Buffett, who knows a winner ahead of the pack. See Warren Buffett in action, and yes, that’s Bill Gates with him.


As a result, we now have financials on Zabuye for the first time:

So is there anything Tibetans can do? All too often, as threats to the land and people of Tibet arise, Tibetans look on, unable to intervene effectively. That’s why an IPO is a special moment. Both Tianqi and its financial adviser, Morgan Stanley, have a lot at stake, at a time when reputation is everything. Morgan Stanley’s reputation was tarnished by its role in causing the global financial crisis a decade ago, resulting in a penalty payment of over # billion paid to regulators in 2016.


The protests in Kandze, including many self-immolations, were unable to halt the exploitation of Tibetan minerals. It is not often that Tibetans have real leverage, and opportunity to hold mining companies accountable. Such a moment has now arrived.

This is where another backstory comes in. Way back in 1999 the police procedural drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired a thriller in which Tibetan activists persuaded American investors not to put their money into an IPO float of a Chinese state-owned oil company, with oil fields in Tibet, seeking to list shares on the NY Stock Exchange. The result of this short, focussed, professional advocacy was that investors stayed away from the stock offering, its price sank, the company raised many billions of dollars less than they hoped, and China decided it’s just too damn difficult raising capital in the US.

What is truly remarkable about this almost forgotten ep from two decades ago is that it’s true. It actually happened. The company was China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Tibetans seized the moment of opportunity, wrote to potential investors warning them stockholders would face a divestment campaign by Tibetans that would drive down share prices, so better not get in, in the first place. It worked. CNPC lost billions.

The Law & Order script writers did take a few liberties to make it more dramatic. On TV the Tibetan activist who triggered the IPO collapse was a young Tibetan woman, murdered by China in revenge. In reality, this whole story was discovered, written up and pitched to Tibetans in DC by some old geezer in Australia, not even a Tibetan.

Seldom do Tibetans have opportunity to ride the dynamics of global capitalism to make a difference, in the lives of Tibetans in Kham Kandze. It can be done. Watch that old Law & Order ep for yourself, be inspired. This is the moment.

What is took, over 20 years ago, to hold CNPC accountable was one carefully crafted lawyers letter to prospective investors, and a brief alliance between Tibetans and what today would be called the Trump evangelical base, whose concern over CNPC was its involvement in war in oil-rich Sudan, costing many Christian lives.

The DC based Tibetans assessed the controversial IPO was pitching not for day traders, short term investors, but for long term investors looking for reliable returns from a big corporation sure to deliver. The letter they wrote was shaped by that astute judgement. It was pitched at professional fund managers, in the superannuation insurance industry, who manage the accumulated savings of others on a big scale.

Those professionals have an obligation to invest wisely, not in volatile stocks likely to fall as well as rise. By warning them in advance that the IPO was controversial, and stockholders would be under pressure to sell, to free themselves of taint, there would be more sellers than buyers, and the price would fall, and those professional managers would be blamed, by everyone who lost money on their bad decision to buy in the first place. better not to buy at all, just let this IPO go.

In its 43 pages of listed risks, Tianqi nowhere mentions those Tibetans, despite its obligation to disclose to potential investors all foreseeable risks. This is the moment of transparency to make Tibetan concerns heard.



In this lithium boomtime moment, Tianqi Lithium is not the only Chinese lithium miner to launch an IPO in the hope of raising one billion dollars from investors wanting a slice of the action, in the expectation of big profits ahead.

The other company, also floating its shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is Ganfeng, and its prospectus is similarly full of useful disclosures. Such moments of transparency are rare for Chinese mining companies, on their march to global domination of lithium supply.

Ganfeng is of less immediate concern to Tibetans in that it has its lithium deposits and mines around the world, and in coastal China, but not in Tibet. Not yet. In May 2018 it hedged its bets by buying Qinghai Liangcheng, with access to the salt lakes of Qinghai Tsaidam, not for immediate exploitation but for the day, as demand accelerates, when technologies of separation of salts keeps pace with demand.

The Ganfeng prospectus reveals why Chinese lithium miners, Tianqi and Ganfeng included, are buying lithium deposits in south America, Canada, Australia, as well as Tibet, despite the abundance of lithium in the Tsaidam salt lakes.

It’s all to do with purity. There are many metals mixed together in the Tibetan salt lakes, mainly magnesium, potassium, lithium and sodium salts. Traditional uses for lithium did not require absolute separation, but lithium batteries do, especially if they are to discharge energy quickly while driving a heavy electric car, then recharge quickly. As electric cars have gone upmarket, the level of purity of lithium required has gone up. The biggest fear is fire, of an overheating battery struggling with impurities bursting into flame.

Is it this tech glitch that at the moment saves Tibetan salt lake lithium from intensive exploitation? If so, that protection may not last. So the last word goes to Ganfeng (p.92) from their IPO prospectus:

As China, and its lithium corporations, are close to their goal of global domination of supply, their current pattern of buying lithium deposits around the world may yet swing back to Tibet, if the demand forecast above, with a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) forecast from Ganfeng, happens.

Ganfeng may have little need of Tibetan lithium right now, and Tianqi may for some time rely mostly on West Australia, but the boom has finally arrived, demand is accelerating, and the Tibetan salt lakes, long a source of magnesium, sodium and potassium (potash) salts for Chinese industry, may also be exploited profitably for lithium.











Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



Official China is fixated on controlling everything, including the weather, even when science struggles to provide methods for doing so. China boasts of doing weather modification in Tibet, having spent six decades trying to seed rain over water catchments to compensate for lowland China’s wasteful overuse of water.[1]

It’s a classic case of policy overshooting science, as there is precious little scientific evidence that cloud seeding works. [2] This is especially true given the vast size and low population density of the Tibetan Plateau: does it really matter if cloud seeding causes the rain to fall here or five kms away?[3] And what if the fall becomes destructive hail, common enough in Tibet without cloud seeding artillery making it worse?

China does not, however, boast of its far bigger impact on Tibetan skies, threatening the health of all living organisms in Tibet: its’ persistent production of illegal chemicals that destroy the protective ozone layer of the upper atmosphere.

The Tibetan Plateau, as Chinese scientists have reminded us for decades, is our planet’s Third Pole. It is like the Arctic and Antarctic not only in being a polar extreme of frigidity but in other ways too. That includes having an ozone hole in the upper atmosphere, which ruins the capacity of this ocean of air above us to protect us from damaging radiation coming at us from outer space, especially from the Sun.[4]

While the ozone holes above the North, South and Tibetan Poles has been well known to science for decades, it seemed a cure was in place. Unlike the climate change treaty negotiations which faltered in Paris in 2015, after crashing in Copenhagen in 2009 due to China’s intransigence, the world has rightly celebrated the 1988 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer as a great success. That treaty, banning the industrial production and use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), was universally accepted, and observed. It became a model for how the world could manage to unite to deal effectively with a threat common to us all, the only one of the environmental conventions that actually works.

Because ODS remain active in the upper atmosphere for a long time, there has been so far very little shrinkage in the polar ozone holes, but the world was on the right track, all countries working together, and Tibetans, vulnerable to high levels of damaging ultra -violet (UV) rays, could look forward to a gradual diminution of the danger.

Attention turned to more urgent issues, including global climate change, confident that one major problem was solved, and we could move on. Little has been heard of the ozone holes, for many years, least of all the ozone hole over Tibet. However, the story is far from over.

Now, thanks to remarkable investigative reporting within China, it turns out that levels of ozone-depleting chemicals are again rising, and the culprits are Chinese companies making the same polyurethane foam that turned Grenfell Tower in London into a funeral pyre. Innumerable buildings in China are coated in that foam insulation, and its manufacture is cheapest when the industrial process releases to the air the ozone depleters, stripping the planet, especially at its poles, of its protective outer layer.

Polyurethane foam is a miracle of modern science. It is easily manufactured and readily compressed to be transported to where it will be used. When squirted out of its container it instantly foams and hardens, expanding to a size far greater than when it is inside a pressurised canister. It effortlessly fills all the space it can expand into, such as awkward spaces between the outermost shell of a building and its newly installed rigid polyurethane cladding, thus sealing the gap, trapping air and heat, shutting out cold and drafty air, making it effective as an insulator. It can be applied without need for an expensive, skilled operator: just point and squirt.

There are just two downsides. First, as those incinerated in Grenfell Tower discovered, it is not only flammable but burns fiercely, ascending a building, trapping those on upper floors in a fire started far below. Secondly, it needs a propellant, to carry it from its canister to where it is supposed to stay rigid, in place, an instant filler of space. That propellant, having done its job, becomes part of the atmosphere, slowly wafts upward into the stratosphere, where it persists for five decades, destroying ozone molecules wherever it bumps into them.

So destructive are these propellants, especially CFC-11, they make a hole in the protective ozone layer shielding life on earth from the harm of ultraviolet radiation. Not only do these CFC propellants ascend, they congregate at the three poles, and do maximum damage there, seasonally, in the spring and summer. These are powerful reasons why those propellants were banned by the Montreal Protocol of 1988, with China’s industries paid handsomely to reduce their use and replace the CFC propellants with less damaging alternatives.

Despite such concerns, the use of polyurethane foam to make space disappear, to fill gaps, seal buildings from the weather and reduce the skills required for builders (and their pay), the use of foam has continued to expand.[5] This is specially so in China, which has had an urban construction real estate boom lasting decades. Everyone with access to capital, whether their own or that of others, has poured it into real estate speculation, into the urban construction of endless apartment tower blocks, in the sure expectation that no other investment of capital gains so  constantly in value, without ever falling, like real estate. There is every incentive to take as many shortcuts as possible, in the rush to erect towers that will be bought by others, and maybe occupied eventually, by strangers. One shortcut is the widespread use of foam, inside walls, and outside a building’s walls to seal the gap with the added cladding.

Officially, these urban construction shortcuts can be and are now manufactured without production of ozone depleting substances. Not only did China pledge to eliminate their production, and require substitutes to be used, China demanded, as a developing economy, to be financed globally to compensate its manufacturers to switch production to the less ozone-depleting alternatives.

The global Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was made for this purpose, to finance switching to alternative manufacturing processes less harmful to the environment, in emerging economies that have only recently industrialised. China fitted the bill better than anywhere.

The core weakness of CDM was that it was intended to achieve change in circumstances where, without CDM finance, that change would not have happened. But how does the donor determine whether an applicant would have made the change anyway, incentivisation or not? In a command and control economy, in China, a strong state has the power and ability to order entire factories to close, corporations to merge, whole industries to shut down for months, in the high pollution season, and it routinely exercises those powers.

All official statistics showed China had drastically reduced its ODS production as promised under the terms of the 1988 Montreal Protocol, and was widely congratulated.

Even if the world had –through the World Bank and the Montreal Protocol- paid much more than necessary, ODS manufacture had officially almost ceased, and China proclaimed its credentials as a good global citizen. Too late, after several years of CDM grants, the international community realised, in 2011, that CDM had been systematically abused by China, with the production of ozone depleting substances (ODS) at the heart of the scam.


It was only in 2018 that the US government agency monitoring the actual measurable level of ODS in the upper atmosphere concluded that the ozone holes were not diminishing as expected, and that more ODS were being manufactured and released into the atmosphere, finding their way to the poles. For years, the scientific monitors had waited patiently for any sign that the polar springtime ozone holes were diminishing, but they knew ODS last for decades, and that even a single chlorine atom can pull apart hundreds of ozone molecules.

What they weren’t expecting was that in 2018 ODS production was rising again, despite all the official reports, and had probably been rising, unnoticed, for years.

The monitoring team at the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the capability to detect where the ODS originated, by satellite-based measurement. The NOAA announcement diplomatically identified this only as “East Asia.” This was a diplomatic blurring, perhaps necessary given the many tensions between the US and China, and also between President Trump and NOAA, which he ordered to stay out of anything to do with climate change. Despite its vagueness as to source, NOAA’s May 2018 announcement took the world by surprise, and made news.

The NOAA report, led by Stephen Montzka, based in Boulder, Colorado, is from a team capable of discerning global atmospheric flows and patterns, understanding the planetary atmosphere as one whole system. They understand interdependence, རྟེན་ཅིང་འབྲེ ལ་བར་འབྱུང་བ་.

The sources of those ozone depleting gases were revealed with pinpoint precision a month later, not by any official pollution monitoring agency, or remote sensing satellite operator, but by old-fashioned on the ground sleuthing by environmental activists, in China. The London-based Environmental Investigations Agency, an NGO collective which has repeatedly exposed environmental wrongs worldwide, released a detailed and specific report, a follow through of its earlier reporting of China’s predatory  extortions over ODS manufacture.

EIA’s July 2018 report named names. Blowing It details who, how and where illegal ODS production is happening in several Chinese cities, with photos of stacked pressurised barrels holding compressed CFC-11, and of its use in blowing foam onto the walls of a Chinese warehouse to insulate it.

The Environmental Investigation Agency’s 2018 report on the new polluters is detailed and specific. EIA reports that: “EIA has evidence from eighteen companies in ten provinces that they use CFC-11. Detailed discussions with company executives make clear that these are not isolated incidents but instead represent common practice across the industry.

EIA’s calculations show that emission estimates associated with the level of use reported by these companies can explain the majority of emissions identified in the atmospheric study. In addition there is significant potential for illegal international trade in CFC-11 containing pre-formulated polyols for foam manufacturing in other countries.

“EIA has uncovered shocking new evidence that explains at least the majority of the mystery of the unaccounted CFC-11 emissions. Information collected from foam production companies in China confirms that CFC-11 continues to be extensively produced and used illegally in China’s PU [polyurethane] foam industry.”

“China has a growing PU foam market, estimated to represent about 34 per cent of the global market in2011. According to documents submitted to the Executive Committee of the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund (ExCom MLF) the industry sector comprises about 3,500 small and medium-size enterprises.

“Producers and traders of PU foam blowing agent told EIA sources that the majority of China’s foam industry continues to use CFC-11 due to its better quality and lower price. One seller of CFC-11 gas, Yantai Jinpei International Trade Co., Ltd estimated that 70 per cent of domestic blowing agent used CFC-11 and explicitly discussed exports in addition to his domestic sales.

“He stated that if CFC-11 was mixed with ‘white agent’ it could be exported without a license and that, unlike CFC-11 gas, it could not be tested. When questioned about the use of environmentally friendly blowing agents, the seller stated “BASF and Bayer have their own blowing system. But if you go with their environmental-friendly blowing agent, you’d have to purchase other ingredients from them too. And it’s a price fixing system. Very different from what you can get from us pricewise.” Large stacks of drums containing the banned CFC-11 were shown to EIA sources and their use demonstrated in the production of foam. Several factory representatives acknowledged the illegality of their actions; one factory confirmed keeping a stockpile of the legal alternative to CFC-11, HCFC-141b, as “just for show” when inspections occurred.

“With respect to exporting foam blowing agents containing CFC-11, the company representative stated “Do you know how we deal with strict export custom inspection? We get those big lumber core boards, build up a container for four barrels of [white agent] and seal it carefully. Nobody at the custom would open it up. Seriously, how can anyone do inspections on that? We also spread putty on those containers to make it really messy. No one cares to take a look.” The representative also claimed to hold a CFC-11 stockpile of hundreds of tonnes.

“The company representative stated that 70-90 per cent of their production used CFC-11 and that HCFC-141b represented just a small amount of use. He also stated “We purchase CFC-11 and mix it up. You see, nobody comes to inspect on our processing work…How do I explain this…in times of frequent environmental policy enforcements, we get inspected too. But the truth is we don’t have any pollution! We have connections with the local environment administration. When the municipal environmental bureau runs a check, our local officers would call me and tell me to shut down my factory. Our workers just gather and hide together. It’s pointless… government is going too far in these environmental protection efforts.”

Of the ten provinces (of China’s 33) where illegal ozone depleters are deliberately manufactured, most are in the east, but one is in the northwest, one in the southwest, much closer to Tibet: Xi’an Lvjianbao Construction Materials, Shanxi Province, and Chongqing Chuduan Insulation Materials, Chongqing.

EIA timed its release of this global setback to the eve of a Montreal Protocol workshop in Vienna, which quickly made this new danger to the poles its top agenda item. EIA, and NGO which knows how to work with states, released its report to China before going public.

The result was that: “The Government of China stated it would cooperate and use the mechanism of the Montreal Protocol to discuss the matter in an ‘open, transparent and active’ manner, use science to understand the sources of the emissions and take action to ensure the continued success of the treaty. In a bilateral meeting, the Government of China assured our climate campaigners it was already taking steps to follow up on the information we had provided to China several weeks before the public launch of the report. The Government has yet to be convinced, however, that illegal use and production of CFC-11 is occurring in China on a scale large enough to account for the unexpected rise in emissions reported in Nature.”

Is this crisis now over? The next global gathering of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is larger, more formal and more binding on all signatory states, and is in November 2018, in UN jargon MOP30, meaning the 30th annual meeting of all parties to the 1988 Montreal Protocol. The world’s most successful environmental treaty is now at stake, and this time the global system is unlikely to again pay China hundreds of millions of dollars to close factories that should have long ago closed, or never opened.

The official UN Ozone Secretariat report from the Vienna meeting takes the new evidence very seriously, and says it will be included in the key document for adoption by MOP30, the Executive Summary, with many recommendations, which fulfils the four-year cycle built into the Montreal Protocol, of a comprehensive assessment every four years of all available scientific evidence of where we are at, as a planet, on ozone depleting emissions, and what is to be done next.

China’s bad actors are again on the agenda. If China remains “yet to be convinced that illegal use and production of CFC-11 is occurring in China on a scale large enough to account for the unexpected rise in emissions,” it will need to produce evidence pointing elsewhere. 

The polyurethane manufacturers who told EIA investigators they regularly use illegal CFC-11 rather than the alternatives which don’t damage the ozone layer, are big companies with lots of local government connections and support, but they aren’t the biggest. Biggest of all is state-owned ChemChina, which now owns a German subsidiary that makes polyurethane making equipment. For ChemChina, a high priority is to research ways of getting rid of chemical smells in brand new cars, which are off-putting to eager buyers. That chemical smell constrains China’s ambition to become a world leader in car making, not only on Chinese roads but worldwide, so the leakage of odorous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the polyurethane used all over a vehicle interior is a national project attracting state subsidies.

Research to rid new cars of a fishy “new car smell” is in the hands of a ChemChina subsidiary, Liming Research and Design Institute, an institute that began life in Tibet, in 1965. Liming’s website says it was originally based in Datong, a grimy industrial city north of Xining, in the Tibetan province of Amdo, Qinghai in Chinese.

Why would a chemical industry research lab set up in Tibet, way back in 1965? Qinghai 53 years ago was at the heart of China’s military industrialisation program, with nuclear weapons research and testing not far away on the shores of Qinghai Lake (Tso Ngonpo in Tibetan).

Polyurethane is a petrochemical, made from oil (and more recently from coal). China hoped Qinghai would provide not only a secure location for heavy military industrialisation, but also supply the raw feedstocks to support a large scale petrochemical industry.  An oil field was discovered in the Qinghai Tsaidam Basin as early as 1955, and “by the end of 1956, there were more than 14,000 workers and staff on 106 teams doing petroleum prospecting work, including former People’s Liberation Army officers and soldiers.”[6]

Extraction of oil from the Tsaidam Basin has continued ever since, at a rate of up to two million tons a year, enough for a petrochemical industry to be established in Gormo (Golmud in Chinese), with salt lakes handily nearby providing another raw material essential to petrochemicals. However, the Tsaidam oilfield was not big enough for revolutionary China’s ambitions, and was decisively eclipsed by the discovery in 1959 of Daqing, a much bigger oil field, in China’s far northeast.

Not only did the oil industry shift its focus, so too did Liming Institute, but it remains proud of its origins in Tibet, at the height of the Third Front campaign to militarise China to become a nuclear equal of the US and USSR.


Polyurethane is a multibillion dollar industry in China, and no-one seems much fussed if the manufacturers take cost cutting but illegal shortcuts to pump it out, as long as treating the global atmosphere as a waste dump attracts little attention.

China says it is committed to long term climate warming mitigation, but manufacture of illegal CFC-11 is far more damaging than carbon dioxide emissions. China’s focus is not on climate but on weather, because a centralised, authoritarian party-state has persuaded itself weather –where and when it next rains- is controllable. Climate is too big, too globally interconnected, too long-term, and in the short-term there are profits to be made. But what is at stake is the cost to human health, and the health of all sentient beings, and plant life, especially in Tibet, of an ozone hole that will persist for decades to come.

The health threat up close is the next blog in this series.


1] Committee of Weather Modification of China Meteorological Science Association (zhongguo qixiang xuehui rengong yingxiang tianqi weiyuanhui). 2009. Festschrift for 50 Anniversary of China Weather Modification Industry (Zhongguo Rengong Yingxiang Tianqi Shiye 50 Zhounian Jinian Wenji). China Meteorological Press (Qixiang chuban she), Beijing.

GUO Xueliang and ZHENG Guoguang, Advances in Weather Modification from 1997 to 2007 in China, Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, VOL. 26, NO. 2, 2009, 240–252

[2] Shiuh-Shen Chien, Dong-Li Hong, Po-Hsiung Lin, Ideological and volume politics behind cloud water resource governance – Weather modification in China, Geoforum 85 (2017) 225–233 [Three Taiwanese scientists critique of China’s compulsion to make clouds water on command]

[3] WANG Lijun, YIN Yan, YAO Zhanyu, et al., Microphysical Responses to Catalysis During a Stratocumulus Aircraft Seeding Experiment over the Sanjiangyuan Region of China, ACTA METEOROLOGICA SINICA VOL.27, #6, 2013, 849-

[4] China: Experts warn of ozone hole over Qinghai-Tibet plateau, Xinhua News Agency , August 12, 1999

[5] Zhifang Li, Pengju Bie, et al., Estimated HCFC-22 emissions for 1990-2050 in China and the increasing contribution to global emissions, Atmospheric Environment 132 (2016) 77-84

[6] Gregory C Rohlf, Agricultural Settlement to the Sino-Tibetan frontier 1950-1962, PhD dissertation, U Iowa, 1999, 387

Gregory Rohlf. “Dreams of Oil and Fertile Fields: The Rush to Qinghai in the 1950s” Modern China: An International Quarterly of History and Social Science Vol. 29. 4 (2003) p. 455 – 489

Posted in Tibet | 1 Comment



What is at stake is the viability of human life, all sentient life, indeed all life in Tibet, right across the Tibetan Plateau.

Life on earth exists because life created the atmosphere of the planet, generating the benign environment for the flourishing of all forms of life. A planetary envelope of air with enough oxygen for animals, enough nitrogen and carbon dioxide for plant and aquatic growth, enough CO2 to keep the planet warm but not too hot, and enough ozone to keep out ultraviolet radiation from causing skin cancers and cataracts, is not the outcome of  just physics. It is the collective exhalation of all life on earth.

China has gathered data on ultraviolet radiation since 1961, but paid little attention to it. However, in 2017, all available data were assembled, generating a map showing how much sharper ultraviolet radiation is across the Tibetan Plateau than in lowland China.[1]

That ozone is generated in the tropics, and global atmospheric circulation takes it to shield the poles. That is one insight learned by the scientists who discern the single planetary system that is our collective atmosphere. We are all intimately connected by the air we breathe, as the Tibetan lamas have always reminded us, so to pollute the air where I live is to spit in your face.

Nowhere is more vulnerable than Tibet. Of the three poles, only the Tibetan Plateau is fully inhabited, by the six million Tibetans plus, these days, four million immigrants from lowland China, on 2010 Census figures.

The Arctic experiences worrisome drops in protective ozone levels only intermittently. The Antarctic, uninhabited except by scientists, gets nearly all the ozone attention, precisely because it is a science research hub, and ozone remains a core scientific focus of research, even when public interest in ozone peaked and faded. Further, the ozone hole extends occasionally into Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and even, sometimes, into southern Brazil.

Although it is Antarctica that gets by far the most attention, it is the Tibetan Plateau that is most worrisome. If the world largely forgot about ozone, it has totally forgotten the ozone hole that appears every spring above the Tibetan Plateau. Even Tibetans don’t know much about it.

Scientific focus is overwhelmingly on Antarctica, whether one searches ozone on Google or academic databases, to such an extent one might think Tibet is a minor sideshow. This is not so. There is much, in obscure academic journals, such as the journal Plateau Meteorology, 高原气象,   that comes six times a year, since 1982, which has published 13 articles on ozone starting in 1991. Ozone levels over Tibet have been measured since 1958.

Most such research findings are only in Chinese, and China has done almost nothing to educate Tibetans about the dangers of the ozone holes letting in toxic ultraviolet radiation, so ordinary Tibetans know little, even though scientific research on the Tibet ozone hole (or ozone valley as Chinese scientists call it) abounds.


To be born in Tibet is to experience the precariousness of life, with few modern interventions. As The Lancet said in 2016: “China can in fact be divided into five distinct so-called nations based on the epidemiological characteristics of each. In Shanghai, Tianjin, Zhejiang, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Macao, mortality rates are low and life expectancy is high even compared with high-income countries. In Jiangsu, Hainan, Guangdong, Fujian, Hubei, and Hunan, life expectancy is relatively high because of low rates of ischaemic heart disease and stroke mortality, but rates of cancer and COPD mortality are high. In a third group of mainly north-eastern provinces (Shandong, Jilin, Liaoning, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan, Anhui, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Ningxia), life expectancy is in the mid-range of all provinces, with high levels of mortality due to ischaemic heart disease, stroke, and cancers.

“In the fourth group of provinces, mostly in southwestern China (Jiangxi, Chongqing, Yunnan, Gansu, and Sichuan), life expectancy is lower than average and rates of COPD mortality are relatively high (although with relatively low ischaemic heart disease and stroke mortality). Finally, Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Guangxi, and Guizhou have life expectancies which are more characteristic of low-income countries. For men life expectancy in 1990 ranged from 55·2 years in Tibet to 74·1 years in Shanghai, a gap of nearly 19 years. By 2013 the range was from 68·4 years in Tibet to 80·2 years in Shanghai, a gap of 11·8 years.”[2]

Although many Tibetans don’t live long enough to get cancer, it is increasingly common, especially as China does little to discourage smoking. Despite the many barriers to accessing health care, Tibetans are gradually living longer, and cancers become more common.



Shigatse People’s Hospital has emerged as a key centre for evaluating the new immunotherapy treatments for cancer, even though the only Tibetans who could pay for such treatment are the yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus millionaire traders.[3] Who else could finance treatments costing $100,000 or more a year?

This is not an auspicious time to discover an intractable, recalcitrant ozone hole above Tibet.


Scientists have found two ozone holes above Tibet, one at 10 to 18 kms above sea level, and another above it, at 45 kms above sea level, in the outer atmosphere. The uppermost ozone hole seems to be strongly influenced by the 11 year cycle of solar activity.[4]

Since the Tibetan Plateau floor is itself four to five kms above sea level, it reaches so far into the sky it is naturally half way up to the lower, and bigger, ozone hole. The altitude of Tibet makes its naturally prone to ultraviolet radiation that is more intense than elsewhere on earth. It was only in this century that the prevalence of blindness among Tibetans was surveyed, and its causes. The result of a large scale survey near Lhasa of Tibetans 40 or older showed 8.43% are blind, and cataracts, exacerbated by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, was the cause of 55% of blindness, even though cataracts are readilyremediated surgically.[5]

Tibetans are also bombarded with ultraviolet rays to the skin, a primary cause of skin cancer. Traditionally, Tibetans are outdoors a lot, especially pastoralists. In 2009 a team of Tibetan and Norwegian scientists, building on research in the 1990s by a Tibetan researcher Phurbu Tsering[6] (in Chinese Pu Bu C R) reported: “Because of the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau, most UV-controlling parameters are favourable for transferring UV radiation to the surface, making the UV environment on the plateau quite unique. In this paper, the main focus is on presenting results from three and a half years of measurements of UV-B radiation in Lhasa, Tibet. Thus, during spring and early summer relatively large values are recorded. The high level of the UV-B radiation during the growing season may be harmful to living organisms. The UV-B dose rates during the summer on the Tibetan plateau are among the highest at any habituated place in the world. But the amount of harmful UV-B radiation received in Lhasa during the growth season is higher than that received in equatorial regions in Africa.”[7]

They point out that a cloudy day does not shield sentient beings from UV radiation, and may actually increase exposure. In 2009, another Tibetan and Norwegian science team reported that Tibetans, knowing excessive exposure to the sun is damaging, limit direct sunlight on skin, though it is essential to creating needed vitamin D in the body, and those nomads are the most careful.[8] Nomads are well aware of the damage to skin the sun can do, and have long used the whey that separates itself from sho, Tibetan yoghurt to protect themselves.

How can Tibetans now protect against the ozone hole? What can Tibetans in exile around the world, and their friends, do ensure the Third Pole ozone hole attracts the attention it deserves?

The third in this series of three blogs discovers an opportune moment, amid the trade wars, to protect Tibet.



[1] Liu, H., and Co-authors, 2017: Two ultraviolet radiation datasets that cover China. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences., 34(7), 805–815,  free download from:

[2] Maigeng Zhou, Haidong Wang et al, Cause-specific mortality for 240 causes in China during 1990–2013: a systematic subnational analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study,  2016, Lancet, Volume 387, Issue 10015James Milner, Paul Wilkinson, Trends in cause-specific mortality in Chinese provinces, 2016, Lancet, Volume 387, Issue 10015, 204-205

[3] Pasang Tsering (BaSang CiRen), Xinhua Wang, Ziwen Long, The evaluation of immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatment on melanoma: a network meta-analysis, Oncotarget, 2016, Vol. 7, (No. 49), pp: 81493-81511,

[4] Huang Fu-Xiang, Liu Nian-Qing, Zhao Ming-Xian, Solar Cycle Signal Of Tropospheric Ozone

Over The Tibetan Plateau, Chinese Journal Of Geophysics Vol.52, No.5, 2009, Pp: 913∼921

Jiao Boyang Su Yucheng Guo, Shengl,i Guo, Dong Shi, Chunhua Li, Jingyuan Cang, Zhongya, Fu Shuai

Distribution of Ozone Valley and Its Relationship with Solar Radiation over Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau,

焦铂洋 苏昱丞 郭胜利 郭栋 施春华 李婧媛 苍中亚 傅帅,青藏高原臭氧谷的分布及其与太阳辐射的关系, Journal of Tibetan Plateau Weather, 高原气象 2017,36(05),1201-1208

[5] Gui-Qin Wang et al,  Prevalence and risk factors for eye diseases, blindness, and low vision in Lhasa, Tibet,  陨灶贼允韵责澡贼澡葬造皂燥造熏灾燥造援6熏晕燥援2熏Apr.18, 圆园13, International Journal of Ophthalmology, 2013

[6] Pu Bu, C.R.(Phurbu Tsering), Sigernes, F., Gjessing, Y., 1997. Ground-based measurements of solar ultraviolet radiation in Tibet: preliminary results. Geophysics. Res. Lett. 24, 1359–1362.

Pu Bu, C.R., 1998. Solar Ultraviolet Radiation on the Tibetan Plateau: Measurement and Modelling. Ph.D. thesis. ISSNL: 0800-6369, ISBN: 82-90569-71-86-98.

[7] Gelsor Norsang , Ladislav Kocbach, Wangmu Tsoja , Jakob J. Stamnes , Arne Dahlback, Pingcuo Nema (Phuntsog Nyima, Ground-based measurements and modeling of solar UV-B radiation in Lhasa, Tibet, Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009) 1498–1502

[8] Gelsor Norsang , LiWei M, Arne Dahlback, Ciren Zhuoma (Tsering Dolma), Wangmo Tsoja et al., The Vitamin D Status Among Tibetans, Photochemistry and Photobiology, 2009, 85: 1028–1031

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



Chinese scientists have shown considerable interest in the effects of UV radiation in Tibet on plant growth, less interest in human impacts.

Yet international travellers to Tibet are warned to take great care to avoid sunburn, and to make use of the many traditional Tibetan preventive strategies, such as spreading yoghurt whey over exposed skin.

The German pilgrim Anagarika Govinda, in Tibet 60 years ago, told a worldwide audience: “Tibet is a country where one is ever up against the unexpected and where all accepted rules of nature seem to be changed. The contrast between sunshine and shade is such that if for any length of time one part of one’s body would be exposed to the sun, while the other remained in the shade, one could develop simultaneously blisters, due to severe sunburn, and chilblains due to the icy air in the shade. The air is too rarefied to absorb the sun’s heat and thus to create a medium shadow temperature, nor is it able to protect one from the fierceness of the sun and its ultra-violet rays. When riding, I often found my feet getting numb with cold, while the backs of my hands, which were exposed to the sun while holding the reins, got blistered as if I had poured boiling water over them, and the skin of my face came off in flakes, before I got sufficiently acclimatised. In spite of applying various ointments, my lips cracked open, so that eating and drinking became difficul

t and painful.”[1]

Han Chinese assigned to Tibet felt similarly. China’s interest in understanding short-term weather and long-term climate in Tibet was an early priority. LIPAP, the Lanzhou Institute for Plateau Atmospheric Physics, headquartered well below and beyond the plateau, was the first base for recording ultra violet radiation, starting 1958, when there was no talk of an ozone hole, merely of “oscillations.” China’s meteorologists consistently downplay the dangers of the ozone hole, preferring bland descriptors such as “ozone valley.”

The Institute of Meteorological Sciences of Qinghai was created in the late 1970s and in 1981 formed a special research group planning to map an Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. The team took three years, travelling 40,000 kms on rough roads, usually spending one month in each spot to capture the cycles of clouded formation, transit and dispersal. The result, published in Chinese and English, in Beijing and San Diego, in 1986 was the Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Platea, 212 pages with hundreds of colour photos.[2]

Why was China so focussed on the meteorology of Tibet (Xizang in Chinese)? One reason is that measurements and data published for use by scientists around the world established China as a modernising country that valued science, thus adding legitimacy to China’s alien rule. But the main reason is that the Tibetan Plateau, being due west of lowland China, deeply influences the climate of the lowlands, right across China and into the Pacific as well. China needed to know what was coming, from Tibet.

Tibetan vulnerability to ultra violet radiation would not be problematic if it kept to the levels first recorded in the late 1970s, but as early as 1994 Chinese scientists warned that ozone levels over Tibet were falling, and an ozone hole seasonally appearing.[3] By 2003, the processes forming that ozone hole in May each year were well understood.[4]

Even though that ozone hole has persisted for three decades, the prospects for it to heal have seemed good. In fact, Chinese scientists in 2016 predicted ozone levels over Tibet right to the end of this 21st century, based on known current trends.[5] Their conclusion is that the ozone hole will heal, and once more provide greater protection for Tibetans from cancer-causing UV. This cheery conclusion, of course, is based on the assumption that the manufacture and release of ozone-depleting substances has been stopped, an assumption that turns out to be false.

The Chinese scientists, from key research institutes in Nanjing, also warn of another factor limiting the extent of ozone hole repair, even if foam propellant manufacture is halted. This is the South Asian High, a dominant upper atmosphere feature of the Tibetan Plateau each summer, at approximately 16 kms above sea level, which is 11 kms above the Tibet plateau floor, or 8kms above the highest Tibetan peaks of the Himalayas.

The South Asia High is a major driver of the Indian monsoon, essential to drawing heavy Indian Ocean clouds deep inland. The South Asia High is over the Bay of Bengal in May, pulling in cloud. It then crosses the Himalayas, well above even the highest peaks, and settles over Tibet. At the height of summer it is so big it extends beyond Tibet far to the west, as far as Iran. As summer fades, it fades. The South Asia High causes ozone to mix vertically, up and down, so it is no longer at altitudes maximally effective to protect sentient beings.[6]

The scientists warn: “In the three emissions scenarios, total ozone over the Tibetan Plateau area (26-38°N,75-105°E) shows an increasing trend, but the speed of recovery is slower than that of the global total ozone; that is, the ozone valley over the Tibetan Plateau will significantly deepen.”


Now the Tibetans face a double threat, from global monsoon drivers which no-one can alter, and from man-made ozone depleters manufactured secretly and illegally in China.

Urbanisation is the core of China’s strategy of “great rejuvenation.” Market analysts estimate that China now consumes as much as 55 per cent of all global production of polyurethane foam, and has a substantial export market as well.

Polyurethane is at the heart of Xi Jinping’s “new era”, whether sprayed as insulating foam onto buildings, or in prefabricated rigid sheets to clad apartment towers, or in a thousand familiar uses such as car-door armrests, or to hold the cold inside a refrigerator, sofas, mattresses, car and bus seats, dashboards, refrigerators, insulating heating pipelines, memory-foam pillows, artificial leather, to name a few. The pipeline pumping oil from Gormo to Lhasa is mostly underground, alongside the highway, but where it is exposed, it is coated with polyurethane spray to prevent the pipe from freezing, and the oil get too sluggish to pump.[7]


Polyurethane is made from oil and is now caught up in the trade war between the US and China. China’s chemical manufacturers may experience many difficulties, tempting them to turn even more to the cheapest sources of foam spraying chemicals, even if they harm the entire planetary upper atmosphere, especially at the poles.

Part of China’s new era is a new concern for pollution control, and polluting factories are increasingly inspected by the national party-state monitors, and increasingly the penalties for transgression are high, sufficient to enforce use of the slightly more expensive spray propellants that don’t cause holes in the ozone layer.

China often denies the existence of well-documented problems, such as detaining Uighurs en masse for mandatory recitation of party-state slogans in re-education camps. Only when the number of detainees reached into the millions, and documentation piled up for months, did China minimally acknowledge the issue.

The loss of ozone kilometres into the sky above Tibet is even less visible, it’s not a thing, it’s an absence, and no-one has educated Tibetans to be aware of this danger to skin and eyes, to protect themselves from cancer and cataracts.

China may yet crack down on the polluters, who have for years silently flouted the global rules of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; or, at a time of trade turmoil, it may back its manufacturers and shield them from scrutiny. Only consistent publicity about the problem will make China do the right thing, if Tibetans speak up for the skies of Tibet.

Expect to hear more as this global effort to rein in China’s rogue foam chemical makers, regains momentum. Just as global science produces every few years a comprehensive synthesis of all that is known about climate change, to establish a fresh consensus on what needs to be done, so too with the ozone holes. Every four years two UN agencies, the World Meteorological Organisation and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) jointly publish the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion. The next is due at the end of 2018, to be launched at the MOP 30 meeting of all signatory governments in Ecuador, November 2018. This issue won’t go away.

In a world in turmoil, no-one wants yet another worry. But someone has to speak up. UNEP administers the Montreal Protocol, but is not a strong and effective UN agency, its headquarters are in Kenya, and its next, decisive move on ozone holes is in Ecuador. Who will speak for Tibet?


Seeking justice, Tibetans have long hoped the UN could deliver it. The UN today is weaker than ever, its authority undermined at every turn by its most powerful members, its organs captured by abusers and polluters. What does get results these days is a swelling wave campaign on social media that focuses attention.

China needs compelling reasons to enforce its own environmental laws, to override local governments protecting local polluters. China is very publicly committed to “constructing ecological civilisation”, and be a world leader in good environmental citizenship.

The gap between rhetoric and reality, between promise and performance, needs to be better known. Despite China’s campaign slogans, it is in reality more focussed on weather than climate, on making more rain over Tibet by blasting Tibetan skies with silver iodide, than the long haul of reducing emissions and halting CFC-11 production. China’s industries and their local government protectors are more focussed on getting crazy rich than on the ozone threat hanging over Tibet.

How to get traction? The omnipresence of polyurethane may be the key. The seats and dashboards of Volvos made in Chengdu are made of polyurethane and exported to the US, unless Trump’s tariffs squash transPacific trade. Where does Volvo get its polyurethane? Can it prove it does not destroy ozone above Tibet as part of its supply chain? This is true of all cars made in China.  There are hundreds of such stories, of global corporations to whom reputation is everything, the key to commanding premium prices for their products, key to raising capital, key to maintaining stock price.

Volvo’s Chinese owner Geely plans to make a massive profit by floating shares in Volvo cars on the Stockholm Stock Exchange late 2018, to nostalgic Swedes who recall the good old days when Volvo was a Swedish company. Auspicious moment for a popular campaign to ensure Volvo polyurethane doesn’t destroy Tibetan skies, or its use of lithium in its advanced electric vehicle plans don’t source lithium from Tibet Tsaidam Basin.

Polyurethane is a global industry, and now attracts much foreign investment in new factories in China making both polyurethane (PU) and its chemical precursor, methyl di-p-phenylene isocyanate (MDI). In a globally integrated commodity chain, at a time the globalised order is already challenged on national security grounds, an environmental challenge may be very timely.

China’s biggest polyurethane manufacturer, Wanhua Chemical Group 万华化学, is also the world’s biggest. Its shares are traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, and its biggest nonChinese shareholder is from Quebec. The second biggest manufacturer is the German giant BASF which, in China, is in a joint venture making MDI for polyurethane on a large scale. Polyurethane is one of the most globalised industries, in which the biggest companies worldwide also manufacture in China, or provide technology for China’s manufacturers. US President Trump has singled out polyurethane exported from China to the US for punitive tariffs. The last thing China’s polyurethane industry needs right now is for environmentalists to call attention to the ways polyurethane made in China destroys life in Tibet.



As a child of European migrants to Australia I stayed out in the sun far too often, in the 1950s and 1960s, before white Australians got serious about sun protection. I had my first skin cancer diagnosis when I was 38, and the cancers gradually proliferated, getting more seriously invasive and life-threatening. Now, aged 69, I have had many long and complex operations, repeated cycles of radiation and chemotherapy, with immunotherapy becoming available just when all options seemed exhausted and the doctors telling me I had months left.

I also developed cataracts in both eyes, both dealt with effectively by operations.

The dangers of exposure to ultra violet radiation are to human skin and eyes. Excessive exposure to UV is a primary cause of skin cancers which can gradually metastasize, invading the body, spreading through the lymphatic system, nervous system or into the blood, causing further cancers in other organs, and kill.

Ultra violet in the eyes causes cataracts, a clouding of vision amenable to surgical repair, in countries where surgery is non-infectious and affordable.

Both skin cancers and cataracts are treatable, especially now, with new immunotherapy infusions that remind the immune system to recognise cancer cells and deal with them. However, these treatments are very seldom available to Tibetans, both because of very high upfront costs, and remoteness from hospitals.

Even when the full range of treatments is available, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy, they are complex, expensive and may result in a prolonged life, but at a price of impairment, disfigurement and ongoing disability.

For all these reasons, prevention is far better than cure. At sea level, protection is easy: not too much direct sun exposure, use sun protection creams, wear a hat. In Tibet, four or five kilometres into the sky, in thinner air, the danger is greater.

With a persistent ozone hole over Tibet, the danger is even stronger, as ozone is uniquely able to block ultra violet radiation, just one way the planetary atmosphere nurtures all sentient life. Tibetans face an added burden of dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

The ongoing consequences of all those medical interventions, available only in a rich country with a taxpayer-funded public health system, are, for me, cloudy vision in one eye, chronic and irreparable radiation damage to shoulder and neck muscles, constant muscular spasm and tightness, dry mouth, a droopy eye that cannot fully close, and lots more. I need to do exercises frequently to loosen up a bit.

And I am one of the luckiest. If I was in Tibet, I’d have died years ago. Even in Australia, as I sit routinely waiting to see a doctor, in line in a public hospital, I meet people whose cancer history is very similar to mine, but their skin cancer got to a major organ –eye, tongue, throat, brain- and they are more surgically mutilated than me.

So this story of the ozone hole over Tibet is for me personal.

Gabriel Lafitte


[1] Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, 1968,  61

[2] Science Press, Beijing and Academic Press, San Diego

[3] Zhou, Xiuji and Chao Luo, Ozone valley over Tibetan Plateau, Acta Meteorologica Sinica, 8(4), 505-506, 1994.

[4] Liu Yu, Li Weiliang, ZHOU Xiuji, and HE Jinhai, Mechanism of Formation of the Ozone Valley over the Tibetan Plateau in Summer-Transport and Chemical Process of Ozone, Advances In Atmospheric Sciences, VOL. 20, NO.1, 2003, PP. 103- 109

[5] Su Wei; Guo Dong; Guo Shengli; Shi Chunhua; Liu Renqiang et al,  苏昱丞; 郭栋; 郭胜利; 施春华; 刘仁强; 刘煜; 宋刘明; 徐建军, Ozone change trend and possible mechanism in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the summer of the next 100 years, Transactions of Atmospheric Sciences 2016 vol 39 #3  309- 未来百年夏季青藏高原臭氧变化趋势及可能机制

[6] 覃皓,郭栋,施春华,等. 2018. 南亚高压与邻近地区臭氧变化的相互作用 [J]. 大气科学, 42 (2): 421–434. Qin Hao, Guo Dong, Shi Chunhua, et al. 2018. The interaction between variations of South Asia high and ozone in the adjacent regions [J]. Chinese Journal of Atmospheric Sciences (in Chinese), 42 (2):421–434

[7] Ruixia He, Huijun Jin, Permafrost and cold-region environmental problems of the oil product pipeline from Golmud to Lhasa on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau and their mitigation, Cold Regions Science and Technology 64 (2010) 279–288

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Have we all been so busy disliking Donald Trump we have failed to notice how deeply he has rattled China?

We are so sure we have it right that Trump is an idiot, a self-obsessed, clueless blunderer and serial liar, we have failed to notice China sees him very differently, and is quailing.

How could anybody not get that Trump crashes about, without strategy, attacking America’s oldest allies, cosying up to odious dictators, trash talking everything we hold dear?  If that’s what we tell ourselves, we are missing a much bigger perspective. Even if the stories we tell ourselves are true, that’s not all, and the parts add up to a quite different whole. That’s the conclusion reached in China, at the highest elite levels of the Communist Party and its think tanks.

What we take as Trump’s erratic, unpredictable lashing out in all directions to divert attention from his mistakes and failings, China sees as a masterful tactician exerting maximum pressure to the point where no further concessions can be made, who then shifts his demands elsewhere, while declaring all is well.


What we take to be crude bullying, China sees as concerted bullying by a bully who is willing to take big risks, including short term losses, in order to get his way on a range of fronts, economic and military. Official China recognises that Trump’s bullying can succeed, since the global economy is denominated in US dollars, and China does have to give ground. Above all, China has to stop its adolescent swagger about rising and rising. China has to stop its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, and tack to minimise the damage. The tone of China’s public face has to become bland and neutral, just like Deng Xiaoping used to urge, not brash and boastful, as it has become.

China is very used to picking its quarrels with care, to bilaterally bully smaller countries into compliance. When Norway gave Liu Xiaobo a Nobel Prize, China stopped buying Norwegian salmon as punishment. There are many such examples.

China’s willingness to finance infrastructure construction in poor countries also came with a nationalistic arrogance that required Chinese workers to do the construction, Chinese finance to be repaid even if the project went sour, and ceding of sovereignty to China of troubled ports if the project went bankrupt.

China was getting a bad name, not only for theft of intellectual property but for its global buying of farmland, mines, factories and hitech; and it didn’t much care. As long as those who resisted were small, or even big corporate airlines flying to Taiwan, they could be bullied, and China was enjoying throwing its weight around.


But facing off against the US, not just about trade but about currencies, corporate takeovers, intellectual property, hi tech plans to make national champions, and regional security, that’s a lot to defend all at once. “Tactically, nearly all scholars concur with Tu’s recommendation that China “seek peace through war” (战争换和平 yi zhanzheng huan heping) in the face of pressure from the Trump administration.”[1]

When Trump made North Korea the issue trumping all others, China gave ground, went along with the demand that sanctions pinching the North Korean economy be applied in earnest. Trump’s bullying may not have extracted anything meaningful from Kim Jong-un, but it did make Xi Jinping yield, and then yield some more, and then more. That is what has led to this rethink, at the top.

The head of the European Council on Foreign Relations told his Financial Times readers: “In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of ‘creative destruction’. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong. My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can.

“They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. ‘Look at how he handled North Korea,’ one says. ‘He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.’ But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front. For the Chinese, even Mr Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki had a strategic purpose. They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China. In the short term, China is talking tough in response to Mr Trump’s trade assault. At the same time they are trying to develop a multiplayer front against him by reaching out to the EU, Japan and South Korea.”[2]

The CCP directive to turn the boastful  volume right down was issued publicly, in early July 2018, in three sharply worded articles in the CCP official mouthpiece the People’s Daily, aimed squarely at intra-party blowhards who have had free rein to throw China’s weight around, including the People’s Daily’s own inhouse sibling, Global Times.[3] For once, this was not a secret inner party neibu directive the rest of the world only hears of much later, or never. The urgency of the situation, the size and complexity of the party-state required a public shot across the bows of the nationalist boosters, warning them to shut up.

Many who do watch China may not have noticed those People’s Daily diktats, which weren’t translated into the English edition. Thus we may not have noticed how much China’s tone has changed, the sudden absence of hubris.


That change did happen. Donald Trump is responsible.

Fortunately, we have a thorough English translation, by Geremie Barmé, at the tail end of his long post about literary allusions. People’s Daily launched its sibling rivalry: “In order to set right a trend in media writing that favours exaggeration and braggadocio, one that values style over substance, while at the same time taking advantage of this moment to continue our support for writing that is ‘concise, grounded and salutary’ — as articulated by General Secretary Xi Jinping — we champion a vibrant writing style that celebrates shimmering clarity of expression. It is to that end, that starting today the People’s Network is publishing a series of opinion pieces under the title ‘Three Critiques of Writing in a Hyperbolic and Boastful Style.’”

The articles attacked: “Works written in a hyperbolic style with headlines contrived to be sensationalistic, work that presents arrant fabrication as reality, not only are a disservice to the reader, they fail the basic requirements of effective communication while at the same time polluting our media eco-system.”

Signalling the need for a change of tone: ”People must realise that such overblown writing and media reports do not add value; just because a nation trumpets its achievements does not necessarily make it strong. By flaming extreme emotions and erroneously spreading biased ideas you are doing nothing more than encouraging a false sense of reality, reinforcing among your readers purblind smugness and unsubstantiated self-aggrandisement. In fact, articles written in this hyperbolic style reveal nothing particularly new and are actually a cause for concern. For instance, some offer blatant exaggerations and make broad claims on the basis of scant evidence. They trumpet that: ‘It is universally acknowledged that in such-and-such a field China has created a series of “World Firsts”. They declaim: ‘Don’t Worry, China’s real scientific and technical knowhow has already surpassed that of the USA to become Number One in the World’.  Then there are various one-sided fantasies that demand you accept their claims lock-stock-and-barrel; even though they are merely based on a few scant pieces of information from overseas they magnify reality and make such claims as: ‘China is already centre stage in world affairs’; or, ‘China is now the Leading Global Economy.”

We could dismiss this as just a tactical shift that does nothing to deflect China from being tyrannous to its own citizens and obnoxious abroad. Yet the shift is based on a reading of President Trump as a highly recognisable type, familiar not only to China but to anyone who did an MBA in any business school. China has concluded that Trump embodies the art of war, is the ideal general who wins all his battles not by actually waging war but by bluff and bullying, by feints and manoeuvres, by exerting maximum pressure, and by knowing when to step back and declare success, before swiftly moving on the exert maximum pressure on another front.


The same Trump we excoriate for ignorantly following his gut instinct, for not listening to advice, for scrapping the “rules-based order” is Sun Tzu’s ideal type, the warrior who wins by instinct, guts, flexibility and a willingness to stage surprises.

Chinese international relations analysts:  “emphasise Trump’s qualities as a strategist and a negotiator. His ability to hide his intentions and manipulate his opponents’ emotions makes him a skilled negotiator, they argue. They believe that Trump’s upbringing and his education at New York Military Academy have made him a strong, wilful, and efficient leader – a master strategist. His keen sense for the domestic and international political scene allows him to seize opportunities and adapt to changes.”[4]

That China looks at Trump and sees Sun Tzu isn’t because the party-state elite are struggling, and reaching for something familiar; it’s because they see deeper than we do, that in the long run Trump really is aiming at tearing up the “rules-based order” to revert to a 1920s world where might is simply right, those with the gunboats dictate to everyone else, where the US is a mighty fortress, a new creation, a world unto itself, and it can and must dominate everyone by picking quarrels with each and all, as it chooses, in one-on-one contests the US can win. No more multilateralism, no more “rules-based order”, no more diplomatic niceties, no more being world policeman.

China invested a lot in that rules-based order, profiting greatly from accession to the World Trade Organisation and the lowering of tariffs, and the relocation of entire commodity chains to China as the world’s factory. China managed to still find ways of keeping US capital from dominating its industries, inventing lots of new rules and selectively applied regulations to prevent the WTO from working as intended. Having grown fast, for decades, by entering the ranks of middle income countries, China is now poised to shift much its corporate investment, and the factories and mines and agribusinesses, to poorer third world countries, all under the “rules-based order” that many anti-Trumps mourn.


China does not misread Trump, even if they slot him too readily into the Sun Tzu mould. China is used to playing a long game, and recognises in Trump someone who also has long standing ambitions to revert the US to 1920s isolationism, armed with such overwhelming military power it can bestride the world without boots on the ground in endless foreign wars.

Trump in fact has been remarkably consistent in his backward looking vision of great America, and consistent in blaming the multilateral architecture of “rules-based order” that the US wrote and now has to more or less abide by. Elite China rightly sees the pattern that emerges from what we see as chaotic and idiotic. Back to the gilded age, back to the Monroe doctrine, back to might is right, back to bullying, back to all relations being bilateral and thus winnable by the most powerful. Trump has been saying this for decades, to anyone who would listen.

China is listening. Are we?

China now thinks it has Donald Trump’s measure, and knows how to win this kind of war. “Generally, Chinese analysts are optimistic about Beijing’s ability to manage such shifts, for three reasons. Firstly, they view China as increasingly powerful and thus able to exert its influence on US policy and Sino-American relations regardless of Washington’s decisions. Wu argues that Beijing has never had greater resources and experience with which to manage its relationship with the US. Song contends that China has more “strategic determination and execution ability” than Trump’s America. Ruan asserts that China should leverage these advantages to “proactively” mould the relationship. Wu agrees, adding that the relative stability of Chinese foreign policy allows Beijing to “consistently shape positive and constructive” relations with Washington. Many Chinese scholars believe that Beijing is already successfully constraining the US – as seen in, for example, the western Pacific.”[5]

Are we ready for the yangsi rebirth of Sun Tzu?

If China thinks Trump is Sun Tzu reborn, it is deeply convinced it knows all about winning contestation, in the manner of Sun Tzu. It is hard baked into the DNA of the elite that this is how China got to be so great. The historical reality, of course, is that when China was strong and its neighbours weak, it attacked in full force. Tibetans know this all too well, both from the 1950s and the early 18th century. Likewise, the historians know the Sun Tzu (more properly Sunzi) war as an art is an ideal, not historic reality.[6] Sunzi himself urged fully exploiting auspicious moments of military opportunity.[7] But China prefers to believe its own myths.



[1] Tu Xinquan, “Tu Xinquan: In response to Trump’s high-pressure policy, China should ‘seek peace through war’”, Cai­jing Magazine, 28 March 2018,

[2] Mark Leonard, The Chinese are wary of Donald Trump’s creative destruction, Financial Times, 24 July 2018

[3] 人民网三评浮夸自大文风之一:文章不会写了吗?



[4] Yin Jiwu, Zheng Jianjun, Li Hongzhou 尹继武,郑建君,李宏洲: “特朗普的政治人格特质及其政策偏好分析”, 现代国际关系, 2017, 2, “Analysis of Trump’s political personality traits and policy preferences”, Modern International Relations, no. 2, 2017. English translation:   Yin is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University’s School of International Studies, and Zheng Jianjun is an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Political Science.

[5]  Ruan Zongze, “Trump’s New Vision and China’s Diplomatic Options”, International Issues Research, volume 2, 2017,­tent_9406209.htm

Song Guoyou, “Change of Interests, Role Shifting, and Relationship Balancing – Development Trends of Trump Era US-China Relations”, Contemporary International Relations, volume 8, 2017, pp. 31-36

Wu Xinbo, “The Trump Administration and Sino-US Relations Trends”, New Model of China-US Major-Country Re­lationship Report, volume 19, 2017, Fudan University

[6] Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural realism: Strategic culture and grand strategy in Chinese history, Princeton, 1995

[7] Ralph D. Sawyer, Martial Prognostication, in Nicola di Cosmo, Military Culture in Imperial China, Harvard, 2009, 54

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