Blog three of three


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tiger Gorge tourist bus parking stand


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

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

advertising hydro dams during the peak of 1960 Great Leap famine

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by UNESCO

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

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

World Hydropower Congress 2019, sponsored by three arms of UNESCO

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


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

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

This map of China’s dams and grid power projects worldwide is interactive, if you go to the MERICS website https://www.merics.org/en/bri-tracker/powering-the-belt-and-road enabling you to zoom in for more detail on specific projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Qinghai Scitech Weekly 24 April 2019

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

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

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

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

China National Geographic website

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

Mysteries of antelope migration: Qinghai Scitech News

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

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

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

China National Geographic: Why is Tibet so Charming?

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

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

Tibetan gazelles leaping fences nomads were required to erect

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

What are we to make of this jumble of contradictions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Prof Lian Xinming in Qinghai Scitech News 24 April 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ritz-Carlton hotel Jiuzhaigou

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

InterContinental Hotel, Jiuzhaigou

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

red hero Sonam Dargey


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

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

Perhaps the drogpa should have a voice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cover of 2017 book detailing the engineering of the Tibet expressway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What the Dri Chu/Yangtze does for China.

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

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

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

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

The uppermost Dri Chu/Yangtze in Kham Yushu prefecture

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Mekong omits Tibet

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

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

So the key questions are:

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

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

landslide risks of existing Yangtze dams just below the Tibetan Plateau

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

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

What the Dri Chu/Yangtze naturally does for China.

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

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

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

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

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

China Ecological Civilisation Journal


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

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

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


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

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

Industrial water use of the Yangtze intensifies over the years.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


floating Tibetan forests down the Yangtze at Kandze Dranggo

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

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

logging Tibetan forests Amdo Ngawa Dzamthang

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

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


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

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


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

Lu Zhongmei

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the Tibetan voices? Who speaks for Tibet?

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

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

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Prefabricated toxic homes for displaced Tibetan nomads

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

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

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

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

a new home on the prairie……………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Chuanqi

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

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

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

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

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

those primitive upriver Tibetans….. He Chuanqi

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

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

will Tibetans ever get to civilisation? He Chuanqi

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

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

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

Stand by for more revelations from Synthetic Control Tibet.

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

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

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

daigou buying Australian milk powder to profitably send to China

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

China’s dairy product demand is huge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t approach it.

To behold such a sight/ would break my heart.

Even more houses destroyed/ by an invisible hand.

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

Even more pillaging and unstoppable negotiations.

Drifting, destitute and homeless.

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

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

No need to distance myself.

The flames are almost within reach/ but obscure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

adamantine Achen Gangyab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the condition of wind, from a clear ocean

The ripples of water and waves suddenly arise.

However, they are indivisible from the ocean.

Conditioned by thoughts, conceptualization suddenly arises.

That is the thoughtlessness of the previous.

 It is unbom, beyond the intellect.

B y means of these they are equally wondrous.

When freezing winds blow across a lake,

They turn water to ice.

Just so the turbulent activities of mind

When stirred by karmic traces and dispositions

Make our impressions appear solid.

This gives rise to the mistaken belief

In a self-existing and substantial world.”

First the experience of appearance and emptiness occurs,

 Like recognizing water even when it appears as ice.

Second, without obstructing the appearance of thought,

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

Thought and non-thought are dissolved in the unborn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The industrial powerhouse China and major energy exporters are doing almost nothing to limit carbon dioxide emissions.” That is how The Guardian sums up China’s inaction on climate change, summarising a 2018 report in a leading scientific journal warning against the likelihood of global warming spiralling out of control. The journal, Nature Communications, warns that the global consequences of China’s pledges made to the 2015 global climate treaty negotiations will result in global heating of the climate, by the end of this century, by more than five degrees C.  The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says any temperature rise greater than 1.5 degrees will be disastrous. China’s vague emissions pledges are alarming.

China, however, has answers to its critics. China has backers who hope against hope China will be the good guy, even a world leader in saving the planet, in the absence of America. Above all, China has Tibet. By declaring huge portions of the Tibetan Plateau as national parks, available for investment as carbon trading targets for China’s fleet of coal-fired power stations, China plans to get credit for making Tibet all that China is not: a pristine wilderness of depopulated grassland dedicated to carbon capture, water provision to lowland China, and biodiversity conservation of iconic species.

The four new national parks across Tibet will be formally launched in 2020, plus a further six (much smaller) national parks in lowland China. Then there’s the Kailash Sacred Landscape, inching its way forward to inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage landscape.

China’s national parks system is taking shape. As details emerge, this Rukor blog will track the available evidence, and present it for your judgement. Already one crucial aspect is apparent, that makes all the difference to how this promising prospect looks through Tibetan eyes. The emptying of rural Tibet of most of the Tibetan population, into crowded concrete settlements on urban fringes, is essential to this national parks plan, as the Key Ecological Function Zone system draws its’ exclusionary red lines around Tibetan landscapes.

Exclusion, exclosure, clearance, depopulation, displacement are terms used around the world for the displacement of populations, in the name of development, by states and rich landowners determined to dictate the fates of local communities, from the Scottish Highlands to the Amazon rainforests of Brazil, to the productive pastoral landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau.

Growing more grass, to capture more carbon is essential to the design of this new national parks system in Tibet. Without the exclusion of grazing there would be a steady state of biomass, seasonally maintaining the long term equilibrium of grass growth and grazing pressure, that has kept the pasture lands of Tibet sustainable for thousands of years.

That is no longer what China wants. Top priority now for China is enhanced water delivery from Tibet, boosted by glacier melt and geoengineered cloud seeding; and enhanced carbon capture available for electric power generator investment in carbon emissions offsets. That is what matters now to China’s central planners. The nomads have to exit the scene.

Much of this vision for the future role of Tibet, and the lack of role for the Tibetans, is new, and will surprise many who assume China’s motives have not changed much. Yet China has changed direction, and is now gradually repurposing Tibet. Much is yet to emerge; carbon trading is still in its infancy. This blog charts the emerging trend.

Evidence of that shift is the task of this Rukor blog. Over successive blogs, Rukor will dig deep into the available evidence, so you can make your own assessment. Since 2011, in close to 200 blogposts www.rukor.org has tried to offer Tibetan audiences advance notice of what China has planned for Tibet.

China is always planning something, and those plans keep changing, as China shifts to its’ “new era.” Those plans have many consequences in Tibet, for local communities impacted by mines, hydro dams and high speed rail lines. But the impacts are sometimes more widespread, affecting  the whole viability of the customary Tibetan livelihoods and values.

Sometimes China’s plans fail to materialise, even when included in successive Five-Year Plans, intrinsic to the official agenda of top-down development. The “pillar industries” promised by those Five-Year Plans largely flopped.

So Rukor’s task is to alert readers to what seems to be ahead, and also to assess the practicalities, and likelihood those plans, often grand plans, have of actually being implemented. That makes for lengthy blogs, looking at China’s plans from several angles, including Tibetans in remote valleys designated for a cascade of hydro dams, and also the competing Chinese interests that may, for example, oppose diverting water from the Yangtze to the Yellow River, because they live on the Yangtze and rely on it.

The stories Rukor tells are often complex, a mix of geology, geography, economics, politics and culture, plus the engineering of Tibetan landscapes. Not an easy read.


China’s system of national parks is due to be officially launched in 2020, giving us time to think through what this will mean for Tibet. As this news spreads, perhaps the initial, cheerful Tibetan reaction will be to welcome these new parks, obviously a whole lot better than mining and exploitation.

But nationalising vast Tibetan landscapes, repurposing them as mass domestic tourism destinations, has many consequences to consider.

The key conclusion is that China’s plans lock traditional Tibetan land users –the drogpa nomads- out of the parks; even though this is unnecessary, as drogpa have lived sustainably alongside wild herds of antelopes and gazelles for thousands of years, and know intimately how to care for the grasslands.

The new parks mean the end of the traditional Tibetan mode of production, an end to Tibetan land tenure security and collective food security; replacing productive and sustainable landscape management with idle lives on urban fringes dependent on rations handed out by authorities who expect gratitude in return.

mass resettlement for displaced drogpa pastoralists

This is a familiar process, of exclusion, enclosure, clearance of pastoralists classified as poor, ignorant and to blame for pasture degradation actually caused by past policy failures. So in many ways, this is a familiar story, ever since in 2003 China launched its official slogan, tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass. Human rights monitors have reported on this displacement and depopulation, usually prompting little response. China has argued that such removals of both herds and herders is a scientific necessity, because the visible degradation of grazing land is due to the ignorance and primitive mentality of herders who don’t care about consequences. That racist depiction of drogpa as uncivilised despoilers of a commons they don’t own and don’t care about, has been critiqued by much on-the-ground research, both by international and Chinese scientists, as Rukor has reported. But China sticks to its official narrative that degradation is the fault or f backward herders, not a consequence of policy blunders which may not be mentioned as that is impermissible “historical nihilism.”

Gradually, the argument for depopulating the Tibetan grasslands has morphed into a much wider rationale. For official China, this is not only about degradation, it is above all about guaranteeing water supply from Tibet to lowland northern China. It is also about displacing communities in the name of poverty alleviation, on the official assumption that Tibetan landscapes are inherently and inevitably so unproductive that poverty is inevitable, unless people are compulsorily moved.

All of these official arguments –degradation, water and poverty-  made nomad removals a scientific, objective necessity. Now, in addition to those three arguments, comes a new one, that wildlife protection requires all human activities (except science and tourism) to be excluded, in order to save iconic wildlife. Traditional mobile pastoralism is now classified as just as bad as mining and deforestation, requiring new legal status for the new national parks, new land zoning, new management and strict limits on human use of landscapes especially in designated “core” areas of these vast parks.

Four official discourses now come together –degradation, water supply, poverty and wildlife protection- to depopulate rural Tibet, especially the best pastures of Amdo, including the entire prefectures of Golok and Yushu.

Relying on these four arguments, and on official “red line” zoning, Tibetans will be more excluded than ever, from their own lands, although some will be allowed to remain, at least for a while, in the designated “buffer” and “experimental” zones within the national parks but outside the “core”. Some drogpa will be trained and employed as national park rangers, to welcome visitors, pose for tourist photos, and to enforce the ban on herds and herders. Overall, this signals the end of lifeways that made Tibet humanly habitable, and speeds up the accelerating urbanisation of Tibet.

From a human rights perspective, herding herders on to concrete accommodation, on urban fringes, into allotments so small there is no room for animals, violates not only individual civil and political rights but also collective social and economic rights to livelihood and land security.

Much of this has been covered before, but until now the removal of drogpa has been piecemeal, and not rigidly enforced. Sometimes herders have been able to rent their animals to other drogpa who remain on their land, and return occasionally to look after land and animals. Implementation of tuimu huancao has been patchy and slow, coinciding in many areas of eastern Tibet with the boom (and later bust) of the yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus market, which lessened reliance on sheep and yaks for livelihood.

Now the pace of depopulation is accelerating, with fewer exceptions. Now China has the added acclaim that readily comes with the concept of the national park. Now China is adding yet another argument to the four already invoked to justify the cancellation of land tenure rights and the displacement of so many drogpa. The emerging fifth argument is global climate change, with a Tibetan Plateau free of grazers and grazing becoming a carbon sink, capturing carbon in grass growth, to save the planet and restore China’s green credentials, especially the reputation of China’s coal-fired power stations, which will be able to pay nominal amounts to offset their smokestack emissions, in China’s new carbon trading scheme. Capturing carbon in grass requires  contracts guaranteeing no grazing for the rest of this century, penalising not only the present generation of drogpa, but generations to come. Read the fine print.

So now, in official eyes, there are five compelling reasons why, as part of China’s great rejuvenation, mobile pastoralism is the past. All five can claim scientific justification, with lots of narrowly defined research findings in support. Above all, the world is likely to receive the 2020 launch of the new national park system across the Tibetan plateau as a self-evident good news story.

Who could possibly be against conservation, especially when it protects iconic species such as Tibetan antelopes?

In China’s official version, it comes down to a dualistic choice: you can have antelopes, water supply and carbon capture, or you can have nomads wandering the landscape aimlessly and destructively, you can’t have both. A lot of conservationists worldwide will buy that, readily believing that all human presence in protected landscapes is dangerous. China expects to be widely congratulated when it launches its national park system in 2020, and probably will be.

If Tibetans find that outcome unnecessary and problematic, it will be up to Tibetans to tell the more complex story of nomad displacements and exclusions, and why that dualistic either/or logic is mistaken.

construction of resettlement housing for exnomads in Amdo Rebkong (Qinghai Tongren)

Why monitor China’s plans for Tibet, in advance? All too often, in Tibet, the first Tibetans know that a mine, a big hydro dam, a high speed railway is to be built nearby is when the construction crews and heavy equipment arrive. Tibetan communities do protest, but too often it is too late, and the party-state stands behind the miners and dam builders, ready to criminalise all protest, and break up petitioners violently. All too often removals of nomads are done without the wider world knowing.

To know is to prepare, to gauge how to respond, to mobilise support, let the world know it’s not as simple as “national parks, hooray.” There once was a time when Tibetan voices were listened to round the world, but that is decades gone. These days it takes at least a year to mobilise sufficiently for Tibetan concerns to be heard. It took the Uighurs a year of monitoring and documenting mass disappearances, construction of huge indoctrination camps, before the world started to listen. If Tibetans decide the closure of Tibetan livelihoods, the cancellation of rural Tibetan life, is worth protesting, and worth proposing constructive alternatives,  there is just enough time to mobilise.

The emptying of pastoral Tibet is a human rights story, a development story, an environment story. That means the opportunity to connect with many audiences, in many countries. If we learn how to tell this story, we will perhaps also be challenging some habitual assumptions made by rights monitors, by development advocates and environmental campaigners. So we cannot expect immediate sympathy. We will find China has made skilful use of the standard concepts and categories of rights, development and environment, to make the nationalisation of Tibetan lands, on a huge scale, seem logical and necessary. China has been putting its case for years, with little Tibetan input.

On balance, we could decide it is all too hard, that the depopulation of rural Tibet and intensive urbanisation are already a done deal. Or we could carefully assess the detailed evidence assembled in these forthcoming blogs, note that there are well placed allies within China, and  work on bringing together the rights, development and environment folks, into a new coalition that finds an effective voice.

If a campaign grows, it cannot expect quick results. Many conservationists will agree with China that it is best to keep humans out of protected areas, and that Tibetans must be strictly controlled to prevent hunting, and clashes over wild yaks attacking well-bred and well-behaved domestic yaks. The world’s biggest environmental NGOs, long embedded in China, will be the last to listen. Development advocates may say China’s rural land is controlled by local collectives, and if those locals decide, for the sake of building the nation, that they must become ecological migrants, we should not interfere. They may say that all over the world governments infringe on the lands and rights of indigenous minorities, so Tibet just joins the long queue. Rights advocates may say their hands are full holding China accountable over transgressions of individual civil and political rights, and this is a question of economic and social rights, too hard to get traction. Enclosures mean Tibetan drogpa may be losing their land tenure security, and Tibet as a whole losing its food security, but those are not headline issues.

China’s planned system of national parks is taking years to design and launch, for a reason. China is taking time to mobilise a welcoming chorus, with high profile friends such as the US National Parks Service. Above all, the national park is a brand that is recognised, appreciated and believed in worldwide, a self-evident good that needs little justification. Any Tibetan mobilisation begins with a recognition that the wind is not blowing our way.

If Tibetans around the world do decide that Tibetans in Tibet should not be protesting alone and unheard, this issue has the potential to knit together new audiences, reach new publics, amplify Tibetan concerns, get Tibet back on the agenda.

If Tibetans do find their voice on the emptying of Tibet, it will be taken up by environmentalists and development folks worldwide. What they will discover, as Tibetans speak up, is that concepts familiar to them become strange when “Chinese characteristics” are added. Natural capital valuation, carbon trading, community based development, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, community conservation, ecological migration, poverty alleviation, provision of environmental services, net land degradation neutrality, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, land reclamation are concepts which are usually meant to be empowering of local communities, but in Tibet, in practice, disempower. This may be news to both environmentalists and developmentalists.

There may be initial disagreement, as China has been arguing its case for excluding nomads for years, in professional conferences. Yet a distinctive Tibetan voice will be heard, and reset a new normal. The world has learned that China’s ways of doing globalisation, reciprocity, fair trade, technology transfer, cyber security, access to information, definitions of human rights and much else are not what the rest of the world thought they meant.

Now the world can discover that that China’s master plan to lock Tibet, not just now but in coming generations too, into “red line” ecological zones is actually because the whole of lowland China is so urbanised, overcrowded, overstressed, in need of vacationing in unspoiled serene wilderness. Tibet is being made into China’s ultimate Other, China’s orientalist fantasy “no-man’s land” of pristine, unpopulated wilderness, to compensate for China’s urban density.

A thousand years ago elephants roamed freely across China; two hundred years ago half of China was panda habitat. The elephants are gone, and the remaining pandas survive in the hilly Tibetan borderlands, soon to be upgraded to national park status, which means excluding the locals. Tibet is to pay for China’s  concentrations of wealth, power, consumption and wasteful use of natural resources. Tibet is to be all that China is not, a virgin land untouched by human hand, other than the benevolent reach of the state.

This is a dramatic story, of the shift in official thinking towards Tibet, from extraction and exploitation to orientalist consumption destination. That shift is far from complete, only now beginning to gain momentum. There is still time for constructive alternatives, that include Tibetan pastoralists as part of the solution, not just as those to blame for problems. If Tibetans speak up, voicing the concerns of Tibetans inside Tibet now being dispossessed of their land tenure rights in the name of water provision, high speed tourist railway construction, national parks and wildlife conservation, the world will hear.

The world already has a roadmap, and detailed directions as to how to get there, that would include not exclude rural Tibetans, to achieve environmentally sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all countries, including China, bring together both environment and development, climate justice, traditional land management knowledge and much more. Implementing the SDGs in Tibet would enable a genuine win/win, conserving biodiversity, protecting landscapes and  empowering local communities. This is not a situation of having to ask the world to drop its preconceptions and start anew. The map for an empowered, sustainable Tibet exists.

The SDGs are a new generation of human rights, which all countries, China included, have pledged to implement, with a target date of 2030. Packed into the 17 SDGs are many more explicit commitments to human rights: “explicitly grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties, and affirms that the 17 SDGs seek to realise the human rights of all. Further, the pledge to leave no one behind reflects the fundamental human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality. Human rights are reflected throughout the SDGs and targets. Concretely, 156 of the 169 targets have substantial linkages to human rights and labour standards. The SDGs and human rights are thereby tied together in a mutually reinforcing way.”[1]

The preamble that begins the SDGs proclaims: “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets . . . seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.” The introduction to the declaration states, “We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.”

The World Bank Legal Review in 2016 published a volume called Financing and Implementing the Post-2015 Development Agenda:  The Role of Law and Justice System, on how the SDGs can be implemented and enforced.

The UN Secretary-General made clear that human rights are inherent to the SDGs by condensing the 17 SDGs to six goals: “1. Dignity: to end poverty and to fight inequalities (Goals 1 and 10) 2. Prosperity: to grow a strong, inclusive, and transformative economy (Goals 7, 8, 9, and 12) 3. Justice: to promote safe and peaceful societies, and strong institutions (Goal 16) 4. Partnership: to catalyse global solidarity for sustainable development (Goal 17) 5. Planet: to protect our ecosystems for all societies and for our children (Goals 2, 11, 13, 14, and 15) 6. People: to ensure healthy lives, knowledge, and the inclusion of women and children (Goals 3, 4, 5, and 6).”[2]

The SDGs are more comprehensive than the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015, when the SDGs took over, with much higher standards, and  a more comprehensive approach. Negotiating the SDGs was a massive effort involving the entire global communities of environment and development actvists, advocates, think tankers, researchers, governments and UN agencies, in an effort to name specific goals that bring environment and development together, that demand action from governments, and  push states to lift their game.

There are several advantages to pressing China to fulfil its SDG obligations in Tibet. Not only did the world’s environmentalists and developmentalists sign on to this new agreement on human rights, after years of negotiation, so too did China, with enthusiasm. China now proclaims its global investments and loans around the world, as part of its Belt & Road Initiative, fulfil the SDGs. China proclaims itself a leader of the developing world, fully embracing the SDGs.

China seeks a reputation for exemplary delivery of SDGs, all over China, and in other countries it invests in. China cannot afford the embarrassment of breaching the SDGs by disempowering, dispossessing and displacing rural Tibet.

If Tibetan voices are absent, China will, yet again, argue that its marginalisation and immiserisation of Tibetans is actually a contribution towards fulfilling sustainability. SDGs with Chinese characteristics will selectively ignore SDG 10 requiring reduced inequalities and SDG  16: “to significantly reduce all forms of violence, and work with governments and communities to find lasting solutions to conflict and insecurity. Strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights is key to this process, as is reducing the flow of illicit arms and strengthening the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance.”

Instead, Chinese appropriation of the SDGs  focuses on a narrowly technical interpretation of  SDG 15: Life on Land, to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, arguing that exclusion of nomads from pastures corrects land degradation, and exclusion of farmers from sloping drylands is necessary to restoring forests.[3]

teaching Tibetans to listen to scientific explanations: ICIMOD

Could China be held accountable for its failures to implement SDGs during the Universal Periodic Review process all members of the UN Human Rights Council must be tested on? Writing in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, several human rights lawyers argue just that.[4]

That is the sort of intersection of human rights and environment that recharges the debate and gives the Tibet question fresh traction. Environmental organisations are keen to hear from Tibetans. A recent example is the NGO focussed on cloud seeding and geoengineering, which discovered China’s plans to artificially increase rain over Yushu and Golok prefectures of Amdo, to feed more water to downstream China through the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. After being briefed by Tibetans, the ETC NGO came out with a strongly pro-Tibetan report.


If environment advocates understand the threat to Tibetan lives when the exclusionary national parks go ahead as planned, does that mean they are capable of effective action? Consider this, as a measure of the power of environment groups. On 29 October 2018,  China’s State Council issued a decree reminding everyone that China remains opposed to trafficking in rhino horns and tiger bones. However, in the fine print, if read carefully, the State Council actually permitted trade and use of both rhino and tiger parts, for “scientific research” purposes, especially for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, since medicine with Chinese characteristics proclaims both rhino and tiger parts to be virility restorers. The State Council stressed that the source would be farmed animals, kept caged for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs.

Quickly the word spread, reminding us all that once exceptions to a rule are announced, very illegal trade tries to slip in under the guise of the new rule, opening the gate to more slaughter, corruption and trafficking. By 12 November, less than two weeks after media reported the alarm, China quietly gave in, and reversed its window for TCM sales and “scientific research” on rhinos and tigers, both farmed and wild.

It may have taken the Uighur of Xinjiang a year before the world looked more closely at Xinjiang, but it took little more than a week before China’s party-state, at the highest level, decided that yielding to TCM lobbying, in the name of “Chinese characteristics” was actually bad reputationally.

Whether we like it or not, there are many more people motivated to protest for animal rights than human rights. The environment movement is powerful globally, and in China. Let national parks onto the agenda.

[1] Birgitte Feiring et al,  Building a pluralistic ecosystem of data to leave no one behind: A human rights perspective on monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals, Statistical Journal of the IAOS 33 (2017) 919–942

[2] United Nations, The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet, Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda, 2014

[3] Xiufeng Sun . Lei Gao . Hai Ren et al, China’s progress towards sustainable land development and ecological civilization, Landscape Ecology, (2018) 33:1647–1653

[4] Judith Bueno de Mesquita, et al, Monitoring the sustainable development goals through human rights accountability reviews, Bulletin of World Health Organisation, 2108;96:627–633

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Appropriating Tibet

As the Americans say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but         ….. it’s still a pig.

You can dress up a beguilingly humanoid robot in Tibetan gear, in a pink and yellow outfit, top her whirring machinery brain with a Tibetan braided hair wig, but she’s still, she tells us, the solution to human greed and ignorance. And she still looks sad.

If only Shakyamuni Buddha, all those years ago, had Sophia the robot to put an end to greed and ignorance. She can do this, she tells us, because robots “do not have greed.” Better still, the Hong Kong based makers of this robot assure us, from Sophia’s lips, “we do not provoke conflict. Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides solutions.” And of course her name, Sophia, means wisdom.

Tibetanoid Sophia was one of the many stars of the Himalayan Consensus 2018. In case you missed it, it was at the plush Himalaya Lalitpur Hotel in Kathmandu, and there’s another one set for March 2019.

If you didn’t know there is a Himalayan Consensus, now you do. It seems to centre on appropriating Tibet, as the Nepalese, Chinese, Indian and even some Bhutanese glitterati move in, on all sides, making the Himalaya theirs. That’s consensus for you.

spot the robot

Like a mini-Davos or Bo’ao this annual celebration of consensus and market driven solutions to everything, the Himalayan Consensus showcases Nepal’s crony capitalism together with entrepreneurs from China (including Hong Kong) and further afield. It’s a lovefest. Being Himalayan, naturally the event was a Summit. The 2018 theme was as vague as the supposed purposes of Davos and Bo’ao: ‘Unleashing Connectivity for Inclusive Growth.’  And of course the whole parade of shameless self-promotion was sponsored by the Himalayan Consensus Institute.

The 2019 Himalayan Consensus is perfectly timed so celebs can fly from Hainan Bo’ao to Kathmandu and immediately do it all again.

Among the 2018 leading celebs was former CNN Delhi-based correspondent Sumnima Udas, who has come home to Nepal to head a Museum of Buddhism and Sacred Spaces at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini, in the lower plains of Nepal. As self-appointed founder and director of this “first-ever world-class Museum of Buddhism”, she is a tireless self-promoter too. Step aside, Rubin.

If Nepal has Davos and Bo’ao as models, it must also feature uplifting talks by authorities.  The Himalayan Consensus hears from several ambassadors. But by far the biggest number of speakers is from Nepal’s sole multilateral institution, the Integrated Centre for Mountain Development, ICIMOD, set up and financed by the governments of China, India, Nepal and the other states of the Hindu Kush and Himalaya.

But the prize for shamelessness and for wholesale appropriation of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism surely belongs to the maestro of the Himalayan Consensus, Laurence Brahm. In a time of hustlers all around us, Brahm is in a class of his own, having just released his mishmash of quantum physics and the life of Guru Rinpoche, as well as running the Himalayan Consensus.

Brahm’s Shanghai-based Shambhala studio cut together quick clips of the ubiquitous Brahm interviewing well-meaning lamas, together with Silicon Valley hustlers, quantum physicists, and lots of speedy edits of Guru Rinpoche images, overlaid with Brahm’s fast paced narration, plus English and Chinese subtitles, proclaiming Padmasambhava as the discoverer of quantum physics and all the secrets of the universe.

If you thought the appropriation of Buddhist mindfulness training by hustlers stripping it of Buddhist context was theft, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Did you know that Guru Rinpoche’s eight manifestations represent eight quantum energy fields?  Sounds amazing. What on earth does that actually mean? It is what Guru Rinpoche, appearing to our contemporary terton, Laurence Brahm, told him in a dream. The doco is the resulting terma.

Not only is Guru Rinpoche the father of quantum physics, vibrational code encryption is embedded in mantras invoking him, Brahm reveals. Quantum communication across parallel universes, moreover, the power of light frequency in altering matter, and the storing of knowledge in the universal cloud. Cut to close-up of Tibetan pecha.

Not even L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of Scientology, managed such a soup of science and magic, although Madame Blavatsky’s ultimate Theosophical authority, those mysterious Tibetan Masters, comes close.  Nineteenth century Theosophy is reborn, on steroids, with Chinese characteristics.

who’s included?

What to make of this swallow whole of Tibetan Buddhist trust, faith and devotion? Not surprisingly, China loves it. Not only was this doco made in China with Putonghua subtitles, the official China Daily ran a series of nine stories, all written by Brahm. Magic and mystery sell.

If you would like to know what Tibetan Buddhists make of quantum physics, the Dalai Lama had a lengthy dialogue with Chinese scientists on this actual topic at the end of 2018, all of it available online (start @ 52mins)

Now that China is building four high speed electrified rail lines across Tibet, making access to Tibet affordably and quickly accessible to ordinary urban Chinese consumers, seems an auspicious time to market Tibet all over again as the true Shangri-la, holder of the mysteries of the universe. Cue Laurence Brahm, whose earlier films and books were all a search for the true Shangri-la.

no mention of Tibet as the great river source

Tibet is a consumable, precisely because Tibetans are forbidden access to the public sphere, and are spoken for, never more blatantly than Brahm’s voiceover.

It matters little that in your actual Tibet, Buddhist are now under orders to pray to Xi Jinping rather than to their beloved deities, including Guru Rinpoche.

The greedy crony capitalisms of China and Nepal are colonising Tibet together, making it a consumable, for profit. Don’t tell robot Sophia. Fantasy wins. It’s what we’d want to believe, and that sells. Just ask the Himalayan Consensus.

Don’t tell greed conquering robot Sophia
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