a case study in the meanings of dependence

#2 of 2 blogs


From Chengdu and the Sichuan basin the new railway climbs to the Tibetan Plateau from Chaksam (in Chinese Luding), at the crossing of the Dadu River at the foot of the high plateau. Chaksam in Tibetan means iron bridge, after the old forged iron chain link bridge, a technology mastered many centuries ago both in Tibet and China. In Tibet there are many chaksam. In Tibetan, a railway is a chaglam, literally iron path.

The chaglam entering Tibet at Chaksam recapitulates the entry of Chinese Communist Party troops into Tibet, escaping their KMT Nationalist pursuers in 1935 on the famous Long March.Luding bridge Long March Once the PLA soldiers were across the bridge, an exploit endlessly mythologised in later revolutionary propaganda, they had escaped only to find themselves even more unwelcome among the Tibetans whose monasteries and food stores the PLA looted. It was not an auspicious start to CCP-Tibetan relations.

Decades of preparatory work have preceded the decision to proceed with this new transTibetan chaglam; as was the case a decade ago with the Lanzhou-Xining-Gormo-Lhasa line traversing Tibet’s northern alpine desert. That line required much scientific research, primarily because so much of the line is over permafrost, which proves to be anything but permanent when rail bed ballast, soaking up the heat of the sun, is laid across the high plateau, resulting in not only permafrost melt, but dangerous slumping as meltwater melts away, very dangerous for a fast moving train. In the case of the Nyingtri line, the problems are only intermittently the technical fixes needed to stabilise permafrost, and are more to do with the precipitous terrain.[1]

Kham is often, in Tibetan, poetically and accurately defined as “precipitous Kham.” Dadu bridge Long MarchThe massif of eastern Tibet thrust into lowland China by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continents, is deeply dissected by the great rivers that rise in Tibet and water both China and Southeast Asia. The railway must traverse both the massif and the deep valleys cut by wild mountain rivers over millions of years, the gorges of the Yangtze, Mekong and the Salween of Myanmar.

The new lines will have to cross two major tributaries of the Yangtze, the Dadu (Mu Chu in Tibetan) and Yalong (Nyak Chu in Tibetan) rivers, before crossing the main channel of the Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan). The Yangtze is the actual boundary between Sichuan to the east and Tibet Autonomous Region to the west. The line then has to cross the Nu river, (Myanmar’s Salween, Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan) and skirt major tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). Between these many river crossings, the rail line has again and again to climb to the Tibetan Plateau floor, which varies between 4000 and 5000m. Only after reaching Nyingtri is there a naturally available manageable gradient, where the line can ascend the Nyang Chu, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, in those stretches where the banks can accommodate both a highway and a railway.

The mountain most sacred of all to Bonpo practitioners is near Nyingtri. Kongpo Bonri is a pilgrimage circuit (walked by all anti-clockwise) very much alive today, despite the close proximity of the 318 Highway. “What makes Bonri holy? In the thirteenth century a lama called Ripa Drugse visited the mountain. Seeing that he was a magus of the Bon religion, the indigenous spirits of the place attacked him, but his spiritual training prevailed, and he succeeded in subduing them. In his meditation on the forested slopes of the mountain the lama saw that he was merely completing a mission that had been initiated by the founder of the Bon religion, Tonpa Shenrab himself, thousands of years earlier. Bonri pilgrims picRipa Drugse recorded his exploits and visions in his writings, and “opened” Bonri as a pilgrimage place for adherents of his faith. Over the centuries other lamas followed him, writing down their own achievements and visions. The creation of Bonri as a holy mountain was thus a cumulative process, and all these accounts were later compiled, in the eighteenth century, in a neyig, a sacred “guidebook” to the area. These compilations are not merely descriptive, but prescriptive: they tell pilgrims what to do and how they should perceive the sites they visit.”[2]

Trains cannot handle steep gradients as well as trucks do on highways. The alternation of altitudes across Kham is a great challenge, requiring much tunnelling and bridging to even out the gradient, especially if the train is to manage the 1600 kms from Chengdu to Lhasa in 15 hours, including stops.

The speed of the trains will be enhanced by keeping stops to a minimum. On the 1776 kms of the new high-speed line to Urumqi in Xinjiang, there are only 31 stations, on average 57 kms apart, but actually clustered in populated areas with long stretches in between; and high-speed trains stop at only a  few of those stations.



The construction of the Chengdu to Lhasa line should not be seen in isolation; it is only one of many new lines, and only part of a huge debt-funded capital expenditure. In China, more attention is focused on the rapid expansion of high-speed rail, which is greatly shrinking the entire People’s Republic, enabling those who can afford it fast access to any lowland market. The expansion of high-speed rail, even if Tibet is not included, will also mean reaching Tibet from Shanghai or Beijing or Guangzhou will be much faster, even if it entails changing to a slower train at Lanzhou or Chengdu.

The RMB 3.8 trillion budget allocated for 13th Five-Year Plan rail projects, to 2020, should include finalising the grid of high-speed lines. In English, this is known as a series of four east-west lines, and a series of four north-south lines. In Chinese, this vision of intersecting rail lines is simply known as the vertical and horizontal lines, as if China’s geobody can be inscribed, just like the writing of a Chinese character, the ultimate in ensuring China is ultra-modern, yet with Chinese characteristics. The four vertical and four horizontal brush strokes were completed in 2015, leaving rail engineers free to move on.

four vertical four horizontal hi-speed

The high-speed construction boom has been in the most densely populated provinces, until now. The high speed line across northern Tibet, linking Lanzhou to Urumqi, which began operation in 2014, promises to cover 1776 kms in as little as eight hours, and extends high-speed rail far to the west. But Xinjiang offers wealth accumulation opportunities quite unlike Tibet. Xinjiang these days is a major industrial hub, with oil, gas, coal-fired electricity generators enabling a shift of aluminium smelting westward, as well as Xinjiang’s position as China’s entry portal to the energy resources of Central Asia. Inner Mongolia likewise is a major source of wealth accumulation for China, with its rare earths, coal, oil, gas and steel mills. Two high-speed lines into Inner Mongolia are planned, due for completion by the end of this Five-Year Plan in 2020.[3]

While there is little economic justification for a new rail line into Tibet, and still less for a high-speed line, there are high-speed lines and other upgraded rail lines just below the Tibetan Plateau, which make Tibet more accessible. A high-speed (up to 250 kmh) line will soon link X’ian and Chengdu.[4] Other rail lines connecting China’s northwest with its southwest have also been built recently, but not for high speed. Some ascend the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau, some stay in the lowlands, but all bring Tibet closer.Yak Tseten slef portrait trip to China

”The Cheng-Lan railway, with a length of 457.59 km starts from Chengdu to get connected with Lan-Yu Railway (linking Lanzhou and Chongqing). This railway line together with the finished Bao- Cheng (Baoji-Chengdu) railway, the under-constructed Lan-Yu [Lanzhou to Chongqing] line will form a developed railway network connecting the northwest to southwest of China. The Cheng-Lan railway discussed in the paper will work as an important branch of the national traffic network.  This railway starts at an elevation of about 500 m above sea level, runs northwards through the Longmenshan mountain, and climbs up to the east of the Tibetan Plateau at an elevation of 3,500 m. After that, it crosses watershed mountains between the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, and finally reaches Lanzhou City at an elevation of 1,500 m. The railway line passes through three fault zones, i.e., the Longmanshan, Minjiang, and Dongkunlun.  Landslides induced by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake make the above-mentioned geological environment even worse. The region where the railway stretches over is classified as active geological area with high georisk.”[5]

Despite the earthquake and landslide risks, these projects are going ahead. The availability of high speed rail is rapidly changing how Chinese travel. Although many Chinese complain that high speed rail is expensive, attracting only those who can afford it, there are plenty of rich and aspirant rich, and plenty of first tier and second tier cities across China that need personal visits from entrepreneurs. The latest high speed rolling stock features not only ultramodern design, but also carriages with few seats for the poor, and many beds for the rich. High speed, on long haul routes such as Lanzhou to Urumqi, Xinjiang in eight hours, is an overnight journey, comfortably asleep in luxury.

This new way to travel, competitive with flying, even over long distances, promises to be highly profitable for the train manufacturers, especially Bombardier. “China Railways Corporation (CRC) has awarded Bombardier Sifang Transportation (BST), a joint venture of Bombardier and CRRC’s CSR Sifang Rolling Stock, a Yuan 1.1bn ($US 169.8m) contract to supply five 16-car high-speed sleeper trains. The 250km/h stainless-steel bodied trains are specially designed for overnight services and are fitted with sleeping berths. Manufacture of the 430m-long trains will take place at BST’s production facility in Qingdao, China and the sets will be powered by Bombardier’s Mitrac propulsion system, supplied by Bombardier’s CPC Propulsion System subsidiary. A prototype of the train presented to CRC in July included 532 soft-class berths and 110 second-class seats. The prototype was intended to gauge reaction to the overnight concept which CRC hopes will help it make better use of the high-speed network for passengers who face long journeys due to the great distances between cities.” [6]

Tenzin Jigme Three emotionsThe Chengdu to Lhasa rail line will similarly be highly profitable for Bombardier and its quarrelling Chinese partners, since Bombardier invented the pressurised train carriages used in Tibet to protect lowlanders from exposure to the thin air of Tibet until they step out onto the platform in Lhasa. Bombardier invented what it calls the Local Tibet car, and the Tibet tourist car which has Coach/Sleeper/Restaurant.[7] These designs will be available for the Chengdu to Lhasa line, and there is no competition, no other product designed for high altitudes.

The combination of widespread high speed throughout China’s lowlands, and the Bombardier Local Tibet pressurised car in the uplands will make Tibet much closer and more accessible. Currently, the train timetable allows 41 hours for trains departing Beijing to reach Lhasa, over 46 hours Shanghai to Lhasa and nearly 53 hours Guangzhou to Lhasa. [8] For passengers embarking in Shanghai or Guangzhou, the combination of high-speed and the Chengdu to Lhasa rail makes for a much shorter journey, avoiding a long northward detour. The result will be that the 46 hours from Shanghai to Lhasa should be reduced to only 25.[9] When the high-speed line from Guangzhou to Chengdu is completed, the current 53 hours will be halved.

These timings matter, not only to business people, but to tourists too, who have limited holiday time.

topography Chengdu to Lhasa rail









Unlike the Urumqi line and the alpine desert lines across northern Tibet, the Chengdu to Lhasa line traverses some of the most densely populated Tibetan counties, and China will argue that the rationale for its construction is poverty alleviation. In the census of 2000, the total Tibetan population in the counties directly on this new rail line was 444,000, out of a total Tibetan population of over 5,000,000. By Chinese standards, this is not a big population but around one in twelve of all Tibetans will be directly impacted by this railway.

Around the world, it is a standard argument that enabling poor people to access distant, wealthy, urban markets is a way of alleviating poverty. This is a standard argument for railway construction across areas inhabited by the poor, and is routinely invoked by, for example, the World Bank. Similarly, China argued that poor Tibetans would be enriched by the trading opportunities opened by the 2006 rail line from Lanzhou and Xining to Lhasa; and no doubt will argue that the Chengdu to Lhasa line will benefit the poor.

In reality China has done almost nothing in the past 60 years to integrate the natural advantages of Tibet, in livestock production, dairy and wool, into the Chinese economy. It takes much more than a railway line to get Tibetan produce to Chinese markets. It also requires a commodity chain, investment in logistics and marketing, the construction of stock yards, cold chains, factories for processing and value adding, and a distribution system that returns value to producers, rather than monopolising the increase in price every time a commodity changes hands. Almost none of these preconditions exist in Tibet, or in the Chinese cities closest to Tibet, including Chengdu.

Tsering Nyndak Pissing on the tracks

At much lower altitudes, the Asian Development Bank reluctantly rated the impact on poverty of the $800m spent on building the Dali to Lijiang railway as “significant.”[10] The Chengdu to Lhasa rail line is to traverse heartlands of Tibetan pastoral production, but without any plans for enabling pastoral producers to access markets, even though dairy products are now highly fashionable health foods sold at premium prices in China’s cities.

The rail line will largely follow the existing highway, which has been greatly upgraded in recent years, at great expense, yet without doing much to enable poor Tibetans effective access to China’s urban markets, consuming milk powder, ice cream and yoghurt imported from New Zealand instead. The poverty argument is propaganda, with no substance behind it.


If Tibetans are unlikely to benefit, who will? One certainty is that Bombardier is positioned to supply the rolling stock. Montreal-based Bombardier sold 361 pressurised carriages specifically designed for the thin air of Tibet, for the first rail line into Tibet, a proud moment.

Bombardier went on to invest heavily in China, with a joint venture factory to produce railcars. But Bombardier today is overstretched, in debt, close to collapse. Above all, it badly needs to make sales, and get cash flow through the door.

Bombardier remains in a delicate and vulnerable situation, brought on by a huge accumulation of debt in its aircraft manufacturing business, due to delays in creating a saleable aircraft, and making actual sales. The family owned company, built by the inventors of the Skidoo snowmobile, invested heavily in designing aircraft that could compete with giants Boeing and Airbus, only to have their fuel-efficient C Series arrive at a time when fuel costs are no longer of much concern to airlines. So deep is Bombardier’s debt, leaving it bereft of working capital, it urgently needed to raise fresh capital to stay in business, after reporting a massive loss due to writing off much of the costs of developing the new aircraft.

Bombardier in late 2015 considered selling its railcar manufacturing wing to its Chinese partners, even though the whole idea of the 50/50 joint venture was to not only give Bombardier the connections and inside track on getting Chinese orders, but also joining the Chinese in competing worldwide for orders. To lose its rail arm, headquartered in Germany, would be the loss of core assets. Bombardier’s unique business model of manufacturing both railway rolling stock and aeroplanes had long been able to balance the regular income of the rail sales with the much more volatile cash flow of aircraft. To lose the rail business, especially to its own Chinese partners, would be humiliating, and so alarmed the Quebec provincial government that it stepped in, arguing that it is normal that governments protect their aircraft manufacturers.

At the time of this crisis, China’s two big state-owned rail construction corporations were, at Beijing’s insistence, merging into one giant, and were preoccupied with how this shotgun wedding would be done. Perhaps it is only this accident of timing that enabled Bombardier to escape receiving a formal takeover offer from China.

Bombardier explored every possible source of fresh capital, including launching an IPO to bring money and new shareholders on board, even though the family owners insist on maintaining control, through giving themselves shares with 10 times the voting rights of other shareholders. The IPO fell through, as Bombardier’s shares slid over 70%, as news of the aircraft design and manufacture losses was revealed, leaving Bombardier with a reputation among investors of a chronic under-performer.

More generous in approach was the Quebec provincial government, which invested $1 billion in Bombardier, a protective, mercantilist investment for its Montreal-based hometown hero, followed swiftly by a major capital injection from Quebec’s public employee pension fund, which in return gets to appoint 30% of the Bombardier board. The pension fund, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec purchased 30 per cent of Bombardier’s rail division in November 2015 for C$2 billion.[11]

It looked, by early 2016, that Bombardier had recapitalised itself, and was on the verge, at last, of selling a substantial number of its new aircraft to Delta Airlines. The crisis, however, was not over. Bombardier has now had a falling-out with its Chinese partner, which bid against Bombardier for a contract to build trains for Chicago.  China Sifang’s bid was not only cheaper than Bombardier’s. What clinched the deal was Sifang’s promise to build its factory on Chicago’s poor and black South Sid; while Bombardier already has a factory in upstate New York. Bombardier’s response to being outflanked by its own partner was outrage, calling the Chicago decision “rigged” and “Illegal.”[12]

Bombardier, having suffered the indignity of its Chinese tech transfer partners hoping to buy out their senior partner, is in a tense and unstable relationship with its train builder partners, and the train builders are all quarrelling with the train operators over who is to blame for China’s poor record of train smashes.



The greatest beneficiary, rather obviously, is China’s party-state. But, less obviously, the benefit of the vast expenditure needed to construct the Chengdu to Lhasa rail is not economic. There is no economic justification for this line, no business case to be made, no cost/benefit analysis showing any return on investment. It may well accelerate the tourism boom, as China’s mass domestic tourists find east coast China to Lhasa in 25 comfy train hours a unique selling proposition hard to resist, and they get to discover Bayi, and entirely Chinese city in southern Tibet, surrounded by “virgin forest”. While the party-state controls all major scenic sites, and controls their interpretation, mass tourism seldom returns substantial revenue to the state.

The other potential economic pay-off of a rail line across Kham is access to the biggest copper province of Tibet, around Jomda, between Derge and Chamdo, in a district usually called Yulong. Here the biggest deposits of copper, gold, silver and other valuable metals have been found, and carefully evaluated by teams of geologists over decades. However, these remain stranded assets unless they can connect with markets and initially with smelters that can convert the concentrates produced on site into separate, pure metals. The size and scale of the Yulong deposits, and their remoteness, and China’s acute reliance on imported copper and gold, all suggest the necessity for a rail line.

There are two highways linking Chengdu to Kham and central Tibet. The more northerly route, highway G317, passes close to the copper deposits. The planned railway takes the more southerly of these two routes, along highway G318, 200 kms south of the copper deposits, in terrain so rugged there is barely a dirt road connecting the two highways. The intrepid Gyurme Dorje, in his Tibet Handbook devotes pages to this remote area and its monasteries.[13]

There could be no greater evidence that there will be very little economic return  on the capital invested to build the Chengdu to Lhasa line than the bypassing of the copper of Yulong. Yulong is just within Tibet Autonomous Region, on the west side of the Dri Chu (Yangtze), and thus potentially a contributor to the revenues of a government utterly reliant on subsidies from Beijing, so short is local revenue.

China’s party-state says development is the answer to all Tibetan problems, and that economic growth across China remains its top priority. Yet, in Tibet, it is dependence on Beijing that constantly grows, with no sign of effective economic take-off in central Tibet (TAR). As economist Andrew Fischer has shown in depth, the dependence only deepens, while plans to integrate the actual Tibetan pastoral livestock economy along the new rail line, into China’s economy, do not exist. Peking University sociology professor Ma Rong first characterised central Tibet as a dependent economy in 1993, and dependence has since only intensified.[14]

The pay-off, for the party-state, is dependence, control, inscribing the presence of the sovereign state across the land, and in the lives of the Tibetans. Sociologist Ma Rong has long argued that “the TAR has not been integrated into the ‘core’ economically. An entirely new economic and administrative formation was established; radically different from the old [Tibetan] regime. This new setup was imported from outside and did not emerge from the native soil. Nor was it an attempt to add new elements that could be grafted onto the old foundation.”[15]

The inscription of a railway, through Kandze, the most unhappy of all Tibetan prefectures, and on to Lhasa, could in theory reverse this trend, strengthen the rural Tibetan economy, add value to pastoral livestock production, and open up access to urban markets, much as Inner Mongolia has become a major base for dairy production distributed throughout China.[16] In reality, this railway, as with all major projects of the party-state in Tibet, is intended only to manifest the presence of the state on the land, and in the lives of the masses, while providing the world with images of sleek, modern trains speeding through the Tibetan countryside.

This chaglam, Tibetan for railway, literally iron path,  could yet become a boost, lifting poor Tibetans out of remoteness and inability to access markets, if only Beijing would pay as much attention to the soft infrastructure of development: vocational training, micro-credit, agricultural extension, livestock insurance, logistics at a local and regional level. But Beijing remains fixated on hard infrastructure, on mega-projects, all of which establish state authority, where traditionally no state had authority. Such projects make local populations visible and legible to the security state.



If one looks at the official list of the 13th Five-Year Plan projects specifically targeting Tibet, one could argue that none, except for the railway, have much potential to become integral to the Tibetan economy, embedded in Tibet’s pastoral production landscapes. A rail line in Tibet, with Tibetan characteristics, could do much for Tibet, as the Tibetan artists featured in this blog, showed clearly in 2006, when invited to consider the arrival of the chaglam.

Tibetan Contemporary Art

Tibetan Contemporary Art

Gade railway train reclining Buddha

Tibetan Contemporary Art

Tibetan Contemporary Art

The five key projects of the 13th Plan that most directly impact Tibet are, in China’s priority order,  the Sichuan-Tibet railway, new hydro power plants with an aggregate capacity of 60,000 mw, Big reservoirs in Tibet and other area,  urbanization of 100 million people in central and west China, ecological restoration of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and other ecologically important areas. What is remarkable is that none strengthen the Tibetan economy, in fact most are designed torequire removal, relocation and displacement of Tibetan communities, whether in the name of ecological restoration, poverty alleviation, dam or railway building. Far from keeping folks on their land, enhancing their productivity and access to markets, all of these big projects, with their big budgets, and big immigrant construction workforces, all further reduce Tibet to more extreme dependence, on the fringes of a modern economy superimposed onto Tibet.

This is not development, even though China justifies its interventions in the name of development. This is nation-building, the centuries-long process of turning an empire into a nation-state under a sovereign power that manifestly exercises power throughout all its territories, imposing its tangible presence in even the remotest lands that have not historically been administered by any distant central sovereign authority. This is the legacy of Qing dynasty conquest centuries ago, the unfinished agenda of proclaiming a unitary sovereign state, not with Tibetans as equal citizens, but despite them. “Sovereignty does not accrue naturally to a state”, as historians of China have pointed out.[17] Sovereignty is a performance, they remind us, within located and bounded territory, established only by imposing uniform biopower in all areas, so that territory and authority coincide. In Tibet, this remains China’s unfinished agenda.

This nation-building has been the pattern for decades. The new iron path into Tibet is not the only path governing Tibet; and the dependence of Tibet on Beijing subsidies is not the only form of dependence.

Central leaders in Beijing are in a pattern of path dependence, a polite social science term for addiction to repeating the same folly over and over, even when it consistently fails to get results. This is the fate of Tibet.


[1] HUANG Run-qiu, LI Yan-ron2, QU Ke and, WANG Ke, Engineering Geological Assessment for Route Selection of Railway Line in Geologically Active Area: A Case Study in China, Journal of Mountain Science, (2013) 10(4): 495–508

[2] Samten Karmay ed., Bon: the Magic Word: the Indigenous Religion of Tibet, Rubin Museum of Art, 2008, 137

[3] Keith Barrow, Go-ahead for high-speed lines to Inner Mongolia, International Railway Journal,  January 06, 2016

[4] Kevin Smith, China steps up railway diplomacy in east Asia,  International Railway Journal, February 03, 2016

[5] HUANG Run-qiu, LI Yan-ron2, QU Ke and, WANG Ke, Engineering Geological Assessment for Route Selection of Railway Line in Geologically Active Area: A Case Study in China, Journal of Mountain Science, (2013) 10(4): 495–508

[6] Kevin Smith, China orders more high-speed sleeper trains, International Railway Journal, December 18, 2015




[10] Asian Development Bank, Validation Report, Dali–Lijiang Railway Project, January 2015, 8

[11] Ross Marowits, Chairman Beaudoin’s future clouds certification of CSeries; Two new deals for Bombardier rail division, Montreal Gazette, 19 December 2015

[12] Kristine Owram, Chicago Transit ‘rigged’ bidding process: Bombardier; Protest over Chinese firm’s vow to build plant on poverty-ridden south side, Montreal gazette 14 April 2016

Bertrand Marotte, Bombardier says Chicago ‘rigged’ rail contract, The Globe and Mail, 14 April 2016

[13] Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook 4th edition, Footprint, 2009, 570-576

[14] Ma Rong, Economic Patterns, Migration and Ethnic Relationships in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, China, in Calvin Goldscheider ed., Population, Ethnicity and Nation-Building, Westview 1995

[15] Ma Rong, Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet, Hong Kong University Press, 2011, 180-183

[16] Julia A. Klein, Maria E. Fernandez-Gimenez, Han Wei et al., A Participatory Framework for Building

Resilient Social-Ecological Pastoral Systems, in: Restoring Community Connections to the Land: Building Resilience through Community-based Rangeland Management in China and Mongolia, CABI, 2012

[17] Douglas Howland and Luise White,The State of Sovereignty, Indiana University Press,  2009, 1-6

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#1 of 2 blogposts

“China is considering establishing a national park in the Sanjiangyuan (Sources of Three Rivers) Area to protect the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang (Mekong) rivers. A meeting of the Central Leading Group for Reform at the end of 2015 decided to upgrade the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, established in 2000 in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, into a national park managed by the central government.

“The Sanjiangyuan National Park will cover 123,100 square kilometers. The Yangtze River area of the park alone will span 90,300 square kilometers including 15 villages and more than 20,000 people. Local people will remain in the park, following their traditional way of life, said Lyu Yuan, a spokesman for Yushu city’s environment protection office. The park will also be rich in wildlife, including some endangered species such as Tibetan antelope and snow leopard. The park is mostly a mechanism of zoning and management. There will not be much visible barriers other than a few signs to separate the buffer zones and core conservation areas.

“President Xi Jinping spoke about the park to lawmakers from Qinghai on Thursday. The government plans to hire at least one member of each family as salaried ranger. Some tourism and educational projects will be allowed on the edges of the park. The buffer zone allows only approved scientific research. The core area strictly bans any activities, Lyu said. About 1,000 herders will be hired as rangers, a key measure to improve the environment in the new parks. Each ranger will be paid 1,800 yuan a month to watch out for miners, polluters and hunters; monitor wildlife and take care of injured animals, said Zheng Guiyun, a spokeswoman with the provincial wetland office.”

Source: China plans national park to protect headwaters,  Xinhua   2016-March-11


#1 of 2 blogposts

Why in 2016 did China decide, for the first time, to establish national parks and choose a remote part of Tibet as the location?

China has many nature reserves, officially designated as  Guójiājí Fēngjǐng Míngshèngqū, (国家级风景名胜区) meaning nature reserve or more literally national scenic area, but until 2016 no national parks,  Guójiā Gōngyuán (国家公园 ). Most of China’s area of nature reserves is on the Tibetan Plateau. The distinction between these categories is significant: a national park not only has a higher status but greater protection and greater investment in staff and programs to protect the natural values for which the area is famous. Why is China now committed to upgrading many of its nature reserves into national parks, and why the focus on Tibet?

During the many centuries in which Tibet was to lowland China a far and foreign land, the  source of China’s great rivers remained a welcome mystery, shrouded in mythology linking them to the heavens. Until modern times and the imposition of a territorialised nation-state, there were no expeditions, no mapping parties exhaustively measuring every last tributary to determine which is longest of all and therefore deserves the label of ultimate source. The origins of the Huang He (Yellow River), Chang Jiang (Yangtze) and also the Lancang (Mekong) that exits China via Yunnan, were all mysterious, as one might expect of a culture that did not measure its greatness by territorialised data sets. One need only look at the rich mythology of the Kunlun mountains, queen mother of the West. Likewise the Tian Shan, north of Tibet, the mountains of heaven.


All that changed when China became the People’s Republic, on a modernising mission, determined to stamp its authority on a territorialised nation-state built on the heritage of empire and conquest. In the name of modernity and science, expeditions were sent out into lands that had never been governed in any meaningful way from China, up into the Tibetan Plateau, up to the land surrounded by mountains and glaciers, to locate the one true source of each river, to map its coordinates onto the global grid, thus validating new China’s claim to Tibet and to China’s place in the world system.

Eventually the expeditions sent by the Chinese Academy of Sciences mapped the blank spaces of Tibet and established precise glacial points of origin, all a thousand kilometres or more upriver from the familiar lands of lowland China. Even as the Cultural Revolution raged, China published books on the extreme weather of Tibet[1], and, in 1986, a Cloud Atlas on the strange cloud formations over Tibet, so unfamiliar to China. An English version, with hundreds of colour photos of clouds, was published the same year.[2]

Yet perhaps the spell of mythology lingered, despite the proliferation of scientific jargon, of geomorphology and hydrology, cryospheres and mass balances. New China was keen to establish governmental power over all under heaven, yet the celestial mountains on the northern fringes of Tibet, the Tian Shan, kept their mystique. New China was reassured that its’ rivers actually began in timeless, eternal glaciers, on peaks far from people, pristine and forever frozen. Science had but enhanced the old beliefs.

But everything changes, the more it is observed. As the measurements piled up, over decades, what seemed eternal began to seem variable, fluctuating, even ephemeral. The glaciers were retreating; the endless grassland between the glaciers and the lowlands degrading. Every where the scientists measured, they found problems, earthquakes, massive landslides, watershed degradation, even desertification, climate change, loss of permafrost, dropping lake levels. Could it be that China’s rivers were under threat, right from their newly found sources? The price of numbering is incessant anxiety.

China’s top priority was to establish the felt presence of the state, even in areas of the Tibetan Plateau where no state had ever had an active presence, so much so that anthropologists argue whether the many “stateless societies” of Tibet repudiated state control deliberately, as a societal repudiation of hierarchy.

In the Maoist era the presence of the state was most immediately and evidently the military presence, followed by state campaigns to make the land more productive. Making the rivers rising in Tibet more productive meant damming them, in Qinghai (Amdo in Tibetan), in a series of large dams to generate hydro electricity on the Yellow River, largely sent to heavy industry in Gansu, a hub for Mao’s campaign of military industrialisation.



In recent years, as China’s singular enthusiasm for the ideology of productivism has waned, at least in Tibet, where crops familiar to Chinese farmers cannot be grown, a new ideology has arisen, intended to inscribe state power, for a new purpose. While China has never lost its productivist agenda, and a highly visible program of interventions to maximise production, the new ideology prioritises protection. The new ideology arose from the concern that China’s water supply was threatened by degradation across the pasture lands of Tibet, in the upper reaches of both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The government of Qinghai province, with little else that might attract Beijing’s attention, assiduously cultivated the slogan of “China’s Number One Water Tower” to define Qinghai’s importance to downriver China. In remote provinces, local cadres are adept at generating alarm in Beijing, to loosen purse strings and claim extra subsidies. In central Tibet, this is achieved by constantly depicting the Tibetans as a danger to national unity. In Qinghai, where Tibetans are but one of several nationalities, the rivers, both at their glacial sources and as they meander across the grasslands, became Qinghai’s entrée to special funding. Qinghai adopted a key trope of ecologists, which had been taken up by exiled Tibetans, that “the ecology of Tibet is fragile”, and investment in protection of watersheds is essential.

These two ideologies, of productivism and protection, co-exist within both party and state, competing for predominance, and for territory. Until now productivism ( in Chinese发展主义, fazhan zhuyi) has prevailed, for the obvious reason that it generates cash flow and thus rewards for its supporters and official enablers; while taking land out of production, in the name of protection, has no matching capacity for accumulations of wealth. But in a party-state, wealth is not the only driver. Party cadre promotion remains highly centralised, with elaborate rules defining what counts as success in implementing directives from above, the primary qualification for promotion. Now the protectionists have managed to build into the cadre promotion rules new categories of official success that specify territorialisation of protected areas, locked away behind red lines on maps, as new criteria enabling local cadres to gain promotion. There are now incentives for cadres who have posted to remote areas, especially areas where local populations are disempowered and unable to defend their productive lands, to declare protected areas that are permanently locked away from productive use. In some remote but special areas now under direct control from Beijing, local cadres implementing the new central ideology of protection can expect to be rewarded by Beijing, starting with a next posting in an area where wealth accumulation is more readily available.

In a territorialised nation-state with strong central government the tension between contending ideologies, and the powerful ministries in charge of those competing policy agendas, is resolved through staking exclusive claims to territory. Economic ministries have many ways of creating industrial enclaves and free trade zones. Natural resource ministries in charge of protecting water supply or China’s response to climate change, are now empowered, as never before, to declare exclusive Main Function Zoning of areas they seek to control.  In a centralised, top-down system of competing silos the key for ministries responsible for environmental programs is to gain exclusive, demarcated, territorialised control; and to rewrite the cadre promotion rules. This has now been achieved, for implementation in the 13th Five-Year Plan period of 2016 to 2020.

The cost of this internal competition within the party-state apparatus is that customary multiple uses of land are no longer allowed. Land is designated for one specific purpose exclusively, and the metric for defining successful implementation is reduced to a single measure.



The concept of Main Functional Zoning, popularly known as “red lines” has grown greatly in recent years, as a primary mechanism of the turf wars within the party-state for exclusive territory. It was central to the 11th Five-Year Plan of 2006. As a 2012 semi-official report states: “Main Functional Zoning was proposed in the 11th FYP as a tool of planned regional sustainable development designed to zone lands at national and provincial scales: for economic development and urbanization, and for protection of land with high ecological and food production capabilities. Zones are identified based on nine quantitative indicators (for example, cultivable land, ecosystem fragility and importance, economic development, natural disaster risk, etc.) and strategic choice, a qualitative consideration. Western China is predominately zoned as Restricted Development with limited Key Development areas. Nearly 80 per cent of territories in W. China are identified in the Main Functional Zoning Plan of China as either ‘restricted’ or ‘prohibited development’ zones . This acknowledges the fragility and ecosystem values of Western China, with the intention of retaining ecosystem functions during economic and social development processes. Distinct environment and development strategy and policies are needed for W. China. W. China plays a key role for the whole of the nation. This has been recognised in China’s Main Functional Zoning, in particular by designating large areas of restricted development along with a large number of national nature reserves in the region. China’s central government has committed significant financial resources and established nature reserves (1100 in the region, comprising 85% of the national total). Main Functional Zoning identifies restricted development areas and has imposed ecological migration on many small communities. The very large scale of the zones, lack of local government capacity and the limited policy guidance and enforcement over the application of Restricted Development, constrains the practical utility of the current system as a tool for green development.”[3]

Main Functional Zoning has been a key method of China’s central planners since 2006, when the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), formerly the State Planning Commission, introduced it a primary tool for categorising and controlling territory. Nine years later, China’s State Council, in recommitting to Main Functional Zoning, defined it as : “a new initiative involving the status and level of each region’s natural resources and environmental conditions involved in economic and social development of the country’s population distribution and urbanization, land use patterns.”[4] Such sweeping powers of categorisation were soon matched by the assembling, under the auspices of the NDRC, of the entire spectrum of ministries whose work is encroached on by the NDRC’s Main Functional Zoning system. This whole-of-government Leading Group was brought together in 2007, involving the Ministry of Construction, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Land, Minsitry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science and Environmental Protection Administration, Chinese Academy of Forestry, Earthquake, Bureau of Meteorology, Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, Bureau Of Oceanography, all instructed to follow the lead of the NDRC.[5]

It may be an oversimplification to suggest that the fundamental categories of Main Functional Zoning are landscapes deemed useful and those declared useless, differentiating territory with factor endowments conducive to wealth creation, from territory of little utilitarian value, areas traditionally depicted in China as “waste land.” Yet such a basic dualism does seem to drive the basic mapping of Main Functional Zones, especially in Western China, where low population concentrations and systemic disempowerment of local communities give central planners scope for broad brush and bold designations of large areas, areas too large to actually be functional. The opportunity, for newly empowered Beijing-based super ministries, notably the central planners of the National Development and Reform Commission, to paint broad swathes of western China in the singular colours of single definitive functions, is tempting. It stakes the claim of the NDRC to supervene, overriding the usual economic development ministries and the state owned enterprises under them to maintain as usual their business of mining, resource extraction, deforestation, dam building etc.

These classifications of so much of Tibet as a Main Functional Zone for carbon capture and watershed rehabilitation puts  climate change and water supply as the key, even the sole, functions of the best pasture lands of Tibet, to the exclusion of all else, including the livelihoods of the pastoralists of these Tibetan heartlands.



Yet these key Main Functions, of climate mitigation and downstream water security, although taken in today’s new normal to be self-evidently good and achievable goals, are actually the responsibilities, in China’s rigid system, of competing bureaucracies held in check by central planners.

“The portfolios of climate change, environment, and energy are split between various Chinese agencies and ministries. The main department in charge of climate related matters is the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). This ‘super-ministry’ sets out China’s main economic directions. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) covers only environmental issues, and has no mandate to deal with climate-related matters. Overall, the institutional apparatus governing energy, climate, and environmental policies is highly fragmented and compartmentalised. This can make coordination and cooperation difficult.”[6]

The NDRC was, until 1998, the State Planning Commission, creator of the Five-Year Plans, and it remains powerful, with an expanded remit that now includes climate adaptation as well as development, giving it the ability, especially in western China, where popular opinion is suppressed, to declare Main Functional Zoning that prioritises territorialised climate services over economic functions.

Cornell Professor of Government Andrew Mertha in 2008 published a book length analysis of how water policy is made in China, especially policy on hydro power dams. Mertha, who interviewed many senior Chinese water policy officials, argues that China’s system persists in being one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” Recent crackdowns on NGOs and environmental “policy entrepreneurs” are, in Mertha’s words, chilling and disheartening. Throughout, the NDRC has remained central. If anything, the rise of climate change as an external and domestic pressure on China’s leaders, as well as a host of pollution and environmental issues, resulting in the new ideology of protection, has given the NDRC a new goal, in addition to its abiding productivist goal of promoting development and growth. Thus, within the one super-ministry, there are now two contending goals: economic growth and protection of landscapes for climate change mitigation. Under these circumstances Main Functional Zoning is now entrenched as the mechanism for making the zero/sum decision, as to which ideology prevails, in which landscape.

Mertha calls the NDRC the “economic helmsman”, which “has in fact retained its authoritative position within the Chinese government. Indeed, the NDRC, in the parlance of national officials, is often referred to as the ‘small State Council’ (xiao guowuyuan) because of its tremendous power and administrative range. The NDRC enjoys a degree of power that many other commissions can only dream of. There is a more substantive reason for the NDRC’s enormous power –its immensely broad functional jurisdiction and policy area.”[7] The remit of the NDRC has only grown further, now that pollution and climate have become urgent issues both within China, and as external pressure from the global community, resulting in the new ideology of protection, and Main Functional Zoning as the central planners’ method of choosing which ideology applies where.

When reading NDRC reports and plans, the distinction between production and protection is not always clear, as both goals share a language of targets fulfilled and objectives reached, usually expressed numerically. In some ways NDRC’s usual language of productivist achievement has simply been extended to speak of protection as a numerical achievement too. For example, the NDRC report on its 2014 work and plans for 2015 states: “We made enhanced efforts to protect and restore major ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, and areas of biological diversity and richness; and continued to carry out ecological projects to convert marginal farmland back to forest, turn grazing land back into grassland, protect virgin forests, and build key forest shelterbelts. We will issue and implement guidelines on accelerating ecological advancement and on the basis of research, formulate a plan for implementing the structural reform for promoting ecological progress and a system for setting targets for ecological improvement. We will launch a new group of projects to return marginal cultivated land to forests or grasslands and major projects to develop forests for ecological conservation. 1n 2015, we will return an additional 667 thousand hectares of cultivated land to forests or grasslands, and afforest six million hectares of land.”[8] The rhetoric is no different to other sections of the same report, itemising success in production of grain, hydropower, oil or coal. This is the language of mastery.




China’s routinized amnesia and erasure of land uses other than primal ungrazed grassland makes invisible the loss of grazing, rangeland, pastoralist livelihoods and Tibetan food security. Instead, China’s National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) represents its’ plans as progressive forward momentum towards achieving the new goal of more grassland. Every year the NDRC’s language is upbeat, in legislative voice, highly prescriptive, a measure of success, erasing complexity and the multiple uses of landscapes. One year after the above report, the NDRC in 2016 stated: As much as 54% of livestock and poultry farming is now carried out on a large scale; trials to replace grain crop cultivation with feed crop cultivation and to rotate crops between grain and soybean were launched across the board. The overall level of mechanization in plowing, sowing, and harvesting reached 63%, and advances in agricultural science and technology contributed to 56% of agricultural production. We expanded the scope of a new round of projects to return marginal farmland to forest or grassland and afforested 6.32 million hectares of land, and the national vegetation fractional coverage of grasslands reached 54%.”[9] The increase of intensive agribusiness and the decrease in pastoral grazing land all appear similarly positive, progressive, modern and rational.

From its first adoption in 2006, Main Functional Zoning has been based on remote sensing imagery generated by satellites in orbit above the planet. This may have its uses, in familiar lands where there is value in generalising land use patterns beyond the particulars of local places. But in unfamiliar landscapes, such as Tibet, which few Chinese planners have personal knowledge of, the ability of satellite-based GIS technologies to discern through infrared signals the “carrying capacity” of the land is dubious. Yet that is exactly what NDRC has done, insisting that its calculations of “carrying capacity” are objective, scientific and accurate. Reliance on remote sensing is remote control of Tibet, in an extreme form.




[1] Catalogue of Chinese Publications in Tibetan Studies 1949-1991, Foreign Languages Press, 1994, 304

[2] Atlas of Clouds Over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, Science Press & Academic Press, 1986

[3] CCICED Task Force Summary Report: Strategy and Policies on Environment and Development

in Western China, CCICED, 2012

[4] State Council notice on National Main Function Zoning plan, No. scs 200685  6 March 2015


[5] State Council notice on National Main Function Zoning plan 2015

[6] Pierre Nabé, A review of recent developments in China’s climate and environmental policy, China Analysis, Sept 2015

[7] Andrew C Mertha, China’s Water Warriors, Cornell, 2nd ed., 2010, 43-4

[8]National Development & Reform Commission,  Report On The Implementation Of The 2014 Plan For National Economic And Social Development And On The 2015 Draft Plan For National Economic And Social Development, Delivered at the Third Session of the National People’s Congress on March 5, 2015

[9] National Development & Reform Commission, Report On The Implementation Of The 2015 Plan For

National Economic And Social Development And On The 2016 Draft Plan For National Economic

And Social Development, Delivered at the Fourth Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 5, 2016


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#2 of 2 blogposts


Western China, especially the Tibetan Plateau , has become China’s primary contribution to the global effort to mitigate or at least adapt to inevitable climate change, until China’s promises of actual emissions reductions become effective. Officially, that is to happen starting in 2030.

Whether the promise of “growing more grass” across much of western China, on lands from which grazing is now banned, will succeed in capturing significantly more carbon, is far from clear. Not only is it not clear, on the ground, that short-term increases in biomass on ungrazed areas contribute meaningfully to planetary long-term carbon sequestration, bureaucratic conflict persists. The conflicts are both horizontal –between competing ministries at national level- an vertical, between officials at local, provincial and national levels, even within one ministry.

“Indeed, whether the government’s [climate]plans and policies can be successfully implemented mostly depends on China’s governance structure. The institutional framework is characterised by a discrepancy between local and national levels: policies and targets are elaborated at national level but implemented by provincial and municipal governments. In this top-down system, implementation tasks are devolved to local officials. They are evaluated on the basis of their results both in achieving GDP growth and in meeting environmental standards. And the absence of a single ministry responsible for all issues related to climate change and energy may constrain the implementation of stronger governance on these issues.

“Different provinces have different targets, which do not take into account carbon emissions that are “outsourced” through interprovincial trade. A study by the Tsinghua-MIT China energy and climate project found that China’s eastern provinces outsourced 14 percent of their territorial emissions to central and western provinces in 2007. Hence, provincial targets should be adjusted, which would mean that eastern provinces would have to make more reductions, alleviating the burden on central and western provinces.”[1]

The burden on western provinces, to do much more than their share of climate remediation, falls especially heavily on the Tibetan Plateau, which is where most of China’s nature reserves and protected areas are.  This is for the obvious reason that the Tibetans are disempowered, routinely branded a threat to national unity if they speak up for their livelihoods and landscapes. It is comparatively easy for central authorities to impose Main Functional Zoning on Tibet, as a definitive national response to a national issue such as climate change or pollution. If anything, the popular debate about smog and urban pollution has only strengthened the key institutions of China’s authoritarianism, such as the NDRC. Alarm at smog levels has led many Chinese opinion leaders to demand stronger government, stricter enforcement of environmental laws, and national government overriding vested local interests and their local government protectors. This has suited a national government which, under Xi Jinping’s leadership since 2012, has sought to position the party and the state as the sole source of effective action against polluters (and corruption); while coercively silencing many of the NGOs and protesters who named the polluters (and the corrupt) and demanded action.

This recentralisation of power leaves the party in command, but in need of showing an anxious international community it is willing to act on climate change, and an anxious domestic constituency that it acts effectively on pollution and smog; while still pushing for economic growth. This is the deepest source, within the party-state, for the awkwardly competing ideologies of productivism and protection, for a mechanism for allocating territories to each, and for committing so much of Tibet to the provision of environmental services: water flow and biomass carbon capture.

Until recently, the highly centralised cadre promotion system (ganbu yu renshi guanli zhidu) did not reflect the weighting of both ideologies as roughly equal. Cadres were able to gain promotion by fulfilling production targets, but were only nominally eligible for rewards for meeting environmental goals. Gradually, the incentives for cadres to withstand local pressures to maintain impunity for polluters have grown, and calls for substantial incentivisation have grown. For example a senior party official in Heilongjiang province in 2015 called for the inclusion of environmental protection standards in the evaluation system for local officials and cadres. [2]

However this is not the first attempt at including performance on environmental targets as cadre promotion criteria. In 2013 cadres were told of a long list of targets they are expected to fulfil: “Quality, profitable, sustainable economic development, livelihood improvement, social harmony and progress, ecological progress, and Party building should be included in as important content; resource consumption, environmental protection, excess capacity digestion, safe production should be given heavier weight; technological innovation, education and culture, employment, income, social security, and health conditions should be more highlighted.”[3]

Not only is this an impossibly long list impossible to fulfil, it is full of contradictions, and in practice cadres have usually paid more attention to local, and locally deliverable incentives, including illegal ones. The centre has responded with not only incentives but disincentives, the “hold-to-account” system, or wenzezhi (问责制), which punishes disobedient cadres, again ineffectively.[4]

Gradually, over three successive Five-Year Plan periods, including the just-begun 13th Plan, Main Functional Zoning has become a powerful tool of central planning, a reinforcement of the NDRC as “helmsman” of China’s development, and a tool backed by incentives for cadres at all levels to deliver implementation of the land uses prescribed by Main Functional Zoning. This is especially true in western China, where, due to the impossibility of local opposition, cadres have a freer hand to impose MFZ.



Although MFZ so often reduces a complex production landscape to a single function, China’s government has to pursue multiple objectives, if the “China Dream” is to be realised. Not only is climate change to be mitigated and water security downriver to be protected, there are many other official goals inherent in the great project of modernising China and its vast hinterlands. Among the national goals most affecting Tibet are rural policy, poverty alleviation, food security policy, energy and resource extraction policy, and state-owned enterprise reform. As one would expect, NDRC annual work reports and plans for the year ahead cover these issues as well, always in the same prescriptive, legislative voice evident in the extracts quoted earlier.

Yet, on the ground, in the lives of Tibetan pastoralists,  land use, climate adaptation, livelihoods, income generation and overcoming poverty (especially after climate disasters that decimate herds) are all part of daily life, part of  the land management decisions mobile herders have always made seasonally. In no way are these issues separable territorially, occupying discrete terrains, separable by administrative diktat into different landscapes for different purposes. However, that is exactly what Main Functional Zoning does, and its inscription onto Tibetan lands is only intensifying.

It might seem obvious that if China genuinely seeks to alleviate, in fact completely end, all poverty among Tibetans by 2020, which is the official 13th Five-Year Plan goal, then achieving it is only hampered by banning grazing, which reduces Tibetan pastoralists to dependence on official handouts on subsistence rations as they live out useless lives in concrete cantonments on the fringes of towns across the Tibetan Plateau. Why dispossess and displace pastoralist livestock producers from their ancestral production landscapes if the official objective is food security, and poverty alleviation?

The NDRC Plan for implementation during 2016 explicitly addresses all of these goals, often with precise targets, sometimes backed by promises to utilise Main Functional Zoning to ensure success, for example, in maintaining food security in each of China’s provinces: “We will guarantee food security in China. We will hold provincial governors responsible for food security across the board and improve the mechanism under which the central and local authorities work together to ensure food security. In order to ensure that grain production, cultivated land acreage, and production capacity all remain stable, we will make explorations into establishing functional zones for grain production and protective areas for the production of major agricultural products.”[5]

Likewise, the modernisation and industrialisation of rural production is also a priority: “We will promote the integrated development of the primary, secondary, and tertiary industries in rural areas. We will coordinate the production of food, cash, and feed crops and the development of the farming, forestry, livestock, and fishing industries, and promote integrated planting, breeding, and processing operations; at the same time, we will nurture new types of agribusiness and fully engage the multiple functions of agriculture. Pilot demonstration projects for rural industrial integration will be carried out in about 100 counties, 1,000 townships and 100,000 villages. We will improve the mechanism for integrating farmers’ interests into agricultural industry chains so that farmers can receive more benefits as rural industrial integration produces more value.”[6]



In Tibet, rural industrialisation and intensification of production usually means shifting the traditional extensive livestock production into peri-urban feedlots. In central Tibet this means less mobility, a more sedentary mode of livestock production reliant on purchasing fodder and forage to feed to penned animals. A recent research report by Chinese authors from Beijing found that: “sedentary grazing can increase the cost of livestock production because herders have to purchase forage to provide supplementary fodder. Therefore, governmental policies about grazing sedentarisation and market incentives for increasing livestock production can undermine adaptive capacity of the Tibetan herder communities. From this perspective, institutional change has made the Tibetan grassland social ecological systems less resilient to climate variability and change. Although the present livelihood adaption strategies related to sedentary grazing have improved grassland productivity and economic profitability of the herding livelihood, they have led to continuous deterioration of pastures. The local grazing system has become more and more dependent on artificial feeding and inputs coming from outside the grazing system.”[7]

On poverty alleviation, the 13th Plan and the NDRC Plan for 2016 are ambitious and highly specific as to targets. NDRC says: “We will move forward with targeted measures to fight poverty across the board. We will support development and poverty reduction in contiguous poor areas. We will also boost support for alleviating poverty in border areas and areas with concentrations of ethnic minorities.  We will continue to support the development of Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan ethnic areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces, increasing central government support for these areas, and scaling up one-to-one assistance programs.

 “Key Poverty Alleviation Programs:             Relocation from Inhospitable Areas: people living in inhospitable conditions who have registered for government poverty assistance will be relocated and provided with housing. We have set a target to relocate over two million people this year. In order to eradicate poverty in local areas, all resources available in poor regions will be utilized to support the development of industries, such as speciallzed farming and forestry, rural sightseeing, and solar power. This year we have set the target of lifting more than six million people out of poverty through industry-led initiatives.”[8]

On the Tibetan Plateau, these key objectives for official intervention in Tibetan lives and land management are to be achieved separately, in separate areas, on the basis of Main Functional Zoning. These three key objectives are three of the four goals that drive official policy and in turn establish the state as the author, architect and biopower in charge of Tibet. The fourth official objective actually comes first, in the remapping of Tibet on the basis of Main Functional Zoning. That is the objective of taking much of Tibet’s pastoral production landscapes out of production, in the name of xibu da kaifa, literally closing pastures to grow more grass, the dominant official slogan since 2003. This is the rising ideology of protection. On this the NDRC is explicit and specific:  “We will launch a new round of efforts to return marginal cultivated land to forest or grassland, and intensify efforts to carry out the national afforestation project. We will move steadily forward with the establishment of a system of national parks. We will continue to advance the comprehensive governance of the water environment in key water basins and the environment in key areas, such as those at the source of dust storms affecting Beijing and Tianjin, areas afflicted by the spread of stony deserts, and areas where grazing land has been returned to grassland. A major biodiversity protection project will be launched. We will step up the ecological conservation of lakes and wetlands and establish ecological red lines for forests, grasslands, wetlands and the ocean.”[9]

These four key goals could be mutually interdependent and supportive of each other: to maintain or enhance food security also increases incomes of the poor; likewise protection of fragile landscapes around the world enlists local populations as guardians, rangers, stewards of the programs of replanting and rehabilitation that enhance water supply and biodiversity conservation. But if all four key goals were to be achieved together, the human and animal populations would remain on the land, actively engaged in its restoration and productive use. The yaks would continue to graze, n the herders continue to herd, while also employed to replant grass seeds where there is degradation. There is much scientific evidence that this is the best strategy, not only for human livelihoods, but also for biodiversity.[10]

But China’s central planners have separated territorially the attainment of these four key goals. Poverty alleviation is to be achieved explicitly by relocating people en masse, because, in official eyes, Tibetans remain poor because they live in Tibet, a land so frigid and harsh that poverty is inevitable, spatially contiguous, and ineradicable. It is not yet clear where they are to be removed to, whether to the urban fringes of towns and cities within Tibet, or further away. Food security, insofar as it is an official concern in Tibet, is to be achieved by scaling up industrialised agriculture, again on urban fringes, in ranches and feedlots close to the urban market demand. Main Functional Zoning will, as in all areas of China, promote urbanisation as the growth pole, with a ring around each town for industrialised food production and for poverty alleviation. As Main Functional Zoning spreads further, that will leave the vast plateau as a hinterland designated as nature reserve and national park, in the name of climate mitigation and water supply. By area, MFZ has already apportioned  the biggest area for xibu da kaifa,  grass growing uninterrupted by grazing, and this area will grow.



It may seem an expensive, inefficient, even clumsy way of achieving these four objectives of the party-state, to implement each separately, in separate territories. Is there an internal logic uniting all four? Despite the appearance of cognitive dissonance, is there a coherent thread?

These policies all share certain characteristics. All fragment the Tibetan population, having long fragmented the land under the Household Responsibility System for rural land users decades ago. All reduce Tibetans to dependence on the state, either as welfare recipients who are supposed to be grateful for the benevolence of central leaders. All establish the party-state as being fully in charge on the grasslands, as never before. All enable the state to dispense favours, such as allocating land tenure rights, employment, vocational training or access to urban markets, to those who, by their deferential behaviour, show the right attitude; while cancelling such favours if people fail to show the right attitude. In short, all of these policies will make Tibetans more visible, legible to official scrutiny, more vulnerable, a new precariat under the constant surveillance of security grid management, seldom off camera. In these ways, what seem at first to be four policies, with four different rationales, all pulling in differing directions, share a common basis.

Tibetans, especially in exile, will readily hasten to go a step further, and accuse China of a master strategy of weakening, or even destroying Tibetan culture, identity and viability as an ongoing civilisation. If it were that simple, China could have achieved this decades ago, especially in the revolutionary Maoist era when the official slogan of smashing the four olds meant, in Tibet, smashing everything Tibetan.

The more likely reality is that, having never understood the land or people of Tibet, China, in its quest for modernity with Chinese characteristics, has over decades fumbled towards this seemingly coherent suite of policies, all of them wrapped in the rhetorics of scientific objectivity, historic inevitability, logical necessity, responsible global climate change citizenship,  benevolent poverty alleviation, resource and food security and maintenance of environmental services. Growing out of China’s abiding perception of Tibet as a foreign and unfamiliar land, it was all too easy to take up a modern global planning tool, of main functional zoning, and give it Chinese characteristics, resulting in the territorialised split of the Tibetan Plateau, into zones for water supply, grass growth and carbon capture, with other zones for intensive food production and poverty relief. On paper, it all looks good, the sort of energetic and decisive statist interventions that have won China praise as the exemplary model developing society, celebrated worldwide as having lifted more out of poverty than any country ever. That accolade, repeated endlessly, accepts the fundamental premise of China’s party-state propaganda, which proclaims official China as the source of all that is good, the author of all progress.

China’s planners have fully taken on the modernist argument that specialised division of labour is the key to raising productivity, growth and wealth accumulation. On the Tibetan Plateau those divisions of labour, if the current 13th Five-Year Plan is implemented according to plan (a big if), those divisions of labour will be territorialised. The livestock production zone will surround the towns and cities, likewise the poverty alleviation zone of relocated pastoralists will also be close to towns, yet not within them, for security reasons. Meanwhile the vast land of a thousand plateaus, designated as national parks and nature reserves will become a zone of human exclusion, as well as the exclusion of grazing animals, policed by Tibetan rangers employed to enforce the scientific regulations that value grass production, for carbon capture and China’s global climate mitigation credentials, as the highest goal, that trumps all other legal land use.

China’s Main Functional Zoning is the fundamental premise driving these policies that are depopulating rural Tibet and concentrating the Tibetan population on urban fringes, while, in the name of security grid management, restricting their right to become fully urban. What unites all of these policies, and earlier productivist policies now nullified by the rise of Main Functional Zoning and the classification of most of Tibet as “fragile ecology”, is the desire of the state to be manifestly in charge throughout Tibet.

Put another way, what is intolerable to China’s party-state is that the Tibetan people go on in their customary self-sufficient and sustainable way, with little need for the constant presence in their lives of an intrusive, directive party-state that delivers urban modernity, demands gratitude and disempowers those made to depend on it.


[1] Pierre Nabé, A review of recent developments in China’s climate and environmental policy, 2015, China Analysis Sept 2015, European Council on Foreign Relations,

[2] Jin Weike, China’s environmental pollution has already entered a stage of ‘normalisation’, Gongshi Wang, 27 April 2015


[4] Ciqi Mei and Margaret M. Pearson, Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys? Deterrence Failure and Local Defiance In China, The China Journal, No. 72 (July 2014), pp. 75-97

[5] p33


[7] Wang, J., Y. Wang, S. Li, and D. Qin. 2016. Climate adaptation, institutional change, and sustainable livelihoods of herder communities in northern Tibet. Ecology and Society 21(1):5.

[8] P41

[9] P39

[10] Li Wenjun and Kongpo Tsering (Gongbozuren), Pastoralism: the custodian of China’s grasslands, International Institute of Environment & Development 2013,      also: and

Julia A. Klein, John Harte, and Xin-Quan Zhao; Experimental Warming, Not Grazing, Decreases Rangeland Quality On The Tibetan Plateau, Ecological Applications, 17(2), 2007, pp. 541–557

Julia A. Klein, John Harte, and Xin-Quan Zhao, Decline in Medicinal and Forage Species with Warming is Mediated by Plant Traits on the Tibetan Plateau, Ecosystems (2008) 11: 775–789


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As China’s parliament officially endorses the latest Five-Year Plan, announcements are made, confirming the determination of central planners to do all that is possible to fully eliminate poverty and backwardness, even in remote Tibetan counties.

On the same day, in early March 2016, came two announcements from the National Peoples’ Congress session, both affecting Tibet, but otherwise unrelated. One reiterated the plan to build a completely new rail line, from lowland Chengdu, all the way through Kham, to Lhasa. Although the rail line has been announced before, this is the first time it has guaranteed funding, as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016 to 2020. Given the precipitous terrain of Kham, with its many wild mountain rivers in deep gorges, separated by spines of upthrust mountains, this will be a huge engineering project, which may take two full Five-Year Plans to complete.

The other announcement of March 5 repeated China’s determination to utterly eradicate all poverty, even in areas where it is deemed endemic, due to the terrain and extreme cold of the Tibetan Plateau. The National Development Reform Commission, responsible for all central planning, said: “We will move forward with targeted measures to fight poverty across the board. We will support development and poverty reduction in contiguous poor areas. We will also boost support for alleviating poverty in border areas and areas with concentrations of ethnic minorities. We will work hard to improve infrastructure and basic public services in poor areas, with a priority on roads, water supply, power, and Internet access. A great deal of effort will be devoted to ensuring key poverty alleviation programs are implemented. We will continue to support the development of Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan ethnic areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces, increasing central government support for these areas, and scaling up one-to-one assistance programs.  Key Poverty Alleviation Program: Relocation from Inhospitable Areas: people living in inhospitable conditions who have registered for government poverty assistance will be relocated and provided with housing. We have set a target to relocate over two million people this year.”[1]

This is an authoritative announcement, signalling both the will and capacity to implement it. This is literally China’s legislative voice.



Other than the coincidence of dates, is there any connection between the new rail line to be driven through the most populous countiess of Tibet, and the relocation of poor Tibetans far from their “inhospitable” homeland?

Underlying both announcements is a common vision, of Tibet’s urban future, and the necessity of abandoning the vast pasture lands, relocating the poor, and letting in those who can make better use of Tibetan lands, who will arrive from China’s lowlands by rail. The Tibetan Plateau, in official eyes, has no future as a production landscape, as a specialist livestock production zone enjoying considerable comparative advantage over crowded lowland China. That is the past, so far as central planners are concerned, a past best left behind, a past dominated by harsh climate, unnatural cold, scattered populations who led lives little different to animals, wandering the great plateau pastures in search of grass. The future, as for the rest of China, is to be urban apartment dwellers, and Tibet already (like most of China) already has a huge overhang of empty apartment towers, in almost all major towns, awaiting human resettlers. In Xining, Rebkong (Tongren in Chinese), even in distant Yushu the real estate boom and bust has resulted in standing armies of empty apartment tower blocks, ghost towns without inhabitants, threatening to send the speculators who built them broke. Is this where the poor, for their own good of course, are to be relocated en masse?

This idea has already occurred to cadres in Inner Mongolia, where one of the best known ghost towns is located. Documentary maker Wade Shepard interviewed poor Mongols as they were being urged to relocate to high-rise apartments, with official finance to assist the end of their groundedness. Will something similar soon happen in Tibet?

Tibet is to urbanise. It is the only future officials can imagine, the solution to all Tibetan problems, starting with, in Chinese eyes, the appalling conditions Tibetans endure, buffeted by nature.

The glut of unsold apartments in the towns and cities of eastern Tibet weighs heavily on immigrant Chinese businesses that invested heavily on the gamble that real estate prices can only ever go up. The developers were often connected closely to local governments taking full advantage of their power to reclassify rural land as urban, making massive profits by doing so. Now those property developers, and local governments in Tibetan areas, as throughout China, are deep in debt, and with increasingly poor prospects of paying those loans.

The solution is to sell, as fast as possible, the empy apartments, and local governments are offering many inducements to buy. From the viewpoint of officials, this offers a win/win: it gets real estate and construction industriesback  in action again; and it gets rural Tibetans, farmers and pastoralists off the land and into high surveillance concentrations that are ideal for China’s grid management security apparatus.

Between 2016 and 2020 China plans to “relocate” 10 million people as the solution to their poverty. How many of those 10 million will be Tibetans? How many will be relocated far from home, perhaps no longer in Tibet? How is it possible that, after at least 9000 years of successful, productive and sustainable Tibetan use of Tibet, it is now necessary, in the name of eliminating poverty, to remove Tibetans from the land of Tibet? How is poverty ended by depriving people of their land, and official land tenure rights?

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan includes a drive to eliminate poverty altogether, officially defined as cash income of RMB2300, or US$376 per person per year, just above one dollar a day. Officially there are precisely 70.17 million such people in China. Of these, according to a 2015 central Work Forum on Poverty Alleviation, 10 million are to be relocated, as the only solution to their poverty.[2] This is to be an all-out struggle to root out and fully eliminate poverty in China, the official media headlines say.

The wider context is China’s official “planning objective that by 2020, China will enter the ranks of high-income countries. Plan is to build a comprehensive well-off society by 2020, GDP and per capita income should be more than double 2010. In 13th Plan the main task ranked first is to maintain economic growth, followed by the construction of ecological civilization and alleviation of poverty.” Having 70 million poor would be a drag on entering the ranks of high-income countries, and is incompatible with the “China Dream” of central leaders.

The 70 million people officially defined as poor are disproportionately in Tibet, and Chinese central planners have long argued that they are poor precisely because they live in Tibet, and as long as they live in Tibet they will remain poor.

The argument, borrowed from mainstream market economics, is that Tibetans have low measurable cash incomes because they live in areas no-one would live in by choice, areas that are frigid, where little grows, the air is dangerously thin, the people are extensively scattered across the landscape, living lives little better than the beasts they follow around. Under such circumstances modern services and comforts, such as access to electricity, health, education and urban consumer society, cannot be efficiently provided to a thin scatter of people across a vast area. So the people must, of necessity, come to where the factor endowments are greatest: the towns, cities and lowlands of China, so they too can lead comfortable lives, thus fulfilling their human rights.

One of many examples of this approach is the ambitious “Roadmap to 2050” published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2010.  This series of volumes on China’s long term future is blunt when it comes to mountainous areas such as Tibet: “The mountainous areas in China, where ethnic minorities are concentrated, are characterized by sharp regional differences, strong complexity, lagging infrastructure, underdeveloped social economy and intense man-earth conflicts. There have long been intensive man-earth conflicts in the mountainous areas of China.”[3]

The central metaphor is of a violent battle between people and nature, “man” and “earth”, because their relationship is fundamentally contradictory. This drives China’s policy decisions. China defines Tibet, and mountainous regions generally, by what they lack. By definition they are remote, difficult to access, isolated, lacking linkage to the lowland economic hubs, backward and poor.

Han Chinese often identify Tibetan religion as a further factor fostering backwardness and resistance to modernity. An official eastern Tibet county poverty report in 2005 describes the task facing the cadres in charge of modernising Tibet: “Under the dominance of the natural economy, most of the farmers and herders are old-fashioned in their thinking, conservative, agrarian, unaware of the market economy, and unproductive. It is therefore hard to improve their living standards. Some of them are satisfied with their current situation and reluctant to strive for something better. They are unable or unwilling to properly schedule their daily life and remain idle despite their ability to work. With poor education, a lack of health-related knowledge, as well as the negative influence of their religious beliefs, these individuals raise too many children, causing a reduction in the available labour force, an increase in the dependency ratio, a decline in per capita resources, which results in the population exceeding the natural capacity of their immediate environment. This is a particularly serious problem in Meiyu Township, where animal husbandry is the only industry. Under the influence of their religious beliefs, the local people are reluctant to kill and sell livestock. As a result of their desire to have an excessive number of livestock, the pastures have been degraded. Moreover, they are unaware or unwilling to comply with and even flatly reject family planning. This has caused the township’s population to increase rapidly, whilst per capita livestock and resources are declining, keeping the population in poverty.”[4]

These attitudes are common among local government officials, and at higher levels which rely on local reports to formulate policy. Such attitudes, blaming skilful pastoralists for their poverty, thoroughly misunderstand rangeland dynamics and the importance of pastoral mobility as the primary strategy that avoids overgrazing and degradation. Official policies have curbed the customary mobility of herds and herders, fragmented herds onto small allocated blocks of compulsorily fenced land, then blamed the herders for the inevitable degradation.



None of this means the land of Tibet will be empty, only that a new class will take over the land, no longer for productive purposes, but as enclaves of luxury villas for the newly rich of the lowlands, notably the crowded, smoggy, hot and humid megacities of Chengdu and Chongqing. The wealth being accumulated by the new rich is staggering: China now has more billionaires than the US. Much of that wealth is now generated far inland, in Chengdu and Chongqing, primary beneficiaries of China’s drive to “open up the west.” Chengdu advertises on airport hoardings across the world that if you are one of the few remaining global top 500 companies yet to relocate to Chengdu, you’d better get in quick. You name the brand; chances are their factories are in Chongqing or Chengdu.

But the climate of these super cities in summer is stiflingly hot, humid and polluted. Think of the British in India, who similarly hated the Indian summer, its heat and monsoon downpours. The 19th century solution was the hill stations, mostly in the Himalayan foothills. Every summer, the entire British Raj ruled India from Shimla, relocating for the season from Calcutta. Dharamsala likewise was built as an idyll of Englishness, for the annual exodus from the plains, away from the press of sweaty Indians.

All stories about the new rail line from Sichuan to Lhasa emphasize Nyingtri, (in Chinese Linzhi) already a magnet for the lowland new rich. Nyingtri, roughly halfway across the plateau, well east of Lhasa, enjoys the most benign climate, warmer and wetter than Lhasa, able to grow many fruits, nuts, vegetables and with plentiful rivers. Already the luxury villas dominate the prime locations, even though technically the land remains in public ownership. Those villas are on the market, and accessible online. On Airbnb it looks almost tropical.  Then there are the luxury hotels, especially in nearby Bayi, a brand new town, long a ghost town but now populated. Some are just cinderblock and reflective plate glass; others are more upmarket and feature token Tibetan embellishments.

Bayi is not a Tibetan town. Even its name is Chinese for August first, the date the People’s Liberation Army celebrates its anniversaries. Nyingtri and Bayi are most definitely open for business, and the rail station will bring tourists by the millions. That may still be a decade way yet, but it confirms that Tibet is destined to be urban, peopled by the relocated poor, employed casually as a new proletariat, by the Han  tuhao new rich enjoying their summers far from the grime of the lowlands.

[1] NDRC, Report On The Implementation Of The 2015 Plan For National Economic And Social Development And On The 2016 Draft Plan For National Economic And Social Development, Delivered at the Fourth Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 5, 2016,

[2] China pledges resolute measures to root out poverty by 2020,, 2015-11-29

[3] Dadao Lu and Jie Fan eds., Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Science Press and Springer, 2010, 163-4

[4] Zuogong County Poverty Relief Office, 2005, 8. Zuogong (Dzogang in Tibetan) is a county in Kham, close to the borders of Myanmar and Yunnan, on the banks of the upper Salween.

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Panchen Rinpoche’s Australian Visit April May 1986

30 years ago: Panchen Rinpoche comes to Australia

#1 of 2 blogs

When we first heard, improbably, that the Panchen Lama was coming to Australia, we didn’t really know what to do. It was 30 years ago, early 1986, and we were a small group, calling ourselves the Tibet Information Service (TIS), based largely in just one of Australia’s cities, trying since 1982 to help Australians hear the concerns of the Tibetans. As far as average Australians were concerned we might as well have been lobbying for the little green men of the planet Mars; that’s how far Tibet was from popular consciousness back then.

Remarkably, we somehow managed to arrange for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to speak directly to each other by phone, during that visit, for over an hour, with no minders present. At the time, we had no idea how historic that was. Only four years later, when HH Dalai Lama published a volume of autobiography, did we discover this had been a unique moment. It was the only time they ever managed to speak freely, according to the Dalai Lama’s 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, though they did have two closely monitored conversations when the Panchen Lama was in Beijing. The Dalai Lama says: “However, while he was in Australia, he managed to give his escort the slip at a prearranged time and I spoke to him from West Germany. We were not able to speak for long, but it was enough to assure me that in his heart the Panchen Lama remained true to his religion, to his people and to his country.” (p.287)

How did a small group of Australians manage to do this? We didn’t really know what we were doing, but, as we discovered, nor did his Chinese minders, nor the Australian Parliament, the official host of his visit. If we succeeded, it is because they all bumbled as much, or more than we did. In hindsight, the only person who knew exactly what to do was the tenth Panchen Rinpoche himself.

So this is a story, not before told, of the only time China allowed the Panchen Lama out of China, apart from one visit to Nepal. The story is told now, exactly 30 years later, at the request of former Tibetan exile minister Kalon Tashi Wangdi, who, in retirement, is gathering documentation for future generations, and has graciously agreed that this can now be published here.

What should we do? All we knew was that a delegation of Chinese “parliamentarians”, members of the National People’s Congress, would tour Australia, as guests of the Australian Parliament, as a reciprocal follow up to a visit to China by Australian members of parliament. We knew only that one of the delegates was named Bainqen Erdeni, and we recognised this as Chokyi Gyaltsen, the tenth Panchen Rinpoche. No-one in the parliamentary protocol section had a clue who this unpronounceably pinyinised fellow was.

Should we draw attention to who he really was, not just the second-in-charge of an NPC delegation, but the highest lama remaining in Tibet? Should we ignore it, for fear of embarrassing him, playing it all down to give him quiet space to do his skilful negotiating work? Should we accuse China of using him to publicly legitimate China’s control over Tibet? Should we criticise Australian leaders for allowing Australia to be a platform for Chinese propaganda?

The itinerary of the tour, decided months in advance and published by the Australian Parliament as a pocketbook guide, was even more baffling. The NPC delegation was to spend almost two weeks in Australia, with only short periods in the major cities of Sydney, the capital Canberra, and Melbourne. The rest was to be spent sightseeing the coral reefs of tropical Queensland, inspecting sheep and cattle ranches and mid-sized factories making tools. It seemed more like a tour put together for a visiting chamber of commerce deputation.

Fortunately we had months to think it all through and prepare for various possibilities, enough time too for Nyima Sengpo, Chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies to write to the Speaker of the Australian Parliament, and for Tibet supporters from Sydney to have audience with HH Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and receive his guidance.



Was the Panchen Lama himself, as some exile Tibetans unkindly put it, “just a fat businessman”? So little was known about him, especially about what he had been doing in the years since his release in 1978 from 14 years in prison for daring to criticise Mao’s great famine. We knew nothing about his courageous efforts to rebuild ruined monasteries and ensure that young reincarnate lamas got a proper education. Maybe he was coming to Australia to buy sheep? Or simply to eat them?

Those 14 years in prison and home detention were well known, but not the petition he sent to Mao in 1962, plainly listing the sufferings of the Tibetans at the hands of leftist zealots who caused famine. It was not until 1997 that this 70,000 character petition, escaped suppression and was published, in Chinese and English, in London.

We did know this was the first time he had been permitted to travel to a Western country, though not that it would be also his last, and that in three years he would have passed away. We also guessed that he and the Dalai Lama had few opportunities to talk directly to each other, without intermediaries and surveillance. So it seemed like a moment for us to set up a direct phone call. Luckily, in those days before the Internet, TIS had time to write an airmail letter to Gyalwa Rinpoche’s secretary, and in due course, weeks later, receive an airmail reply confirming it was a good idea, and that His Holiness would be in Germany on the day, with much more reliable phone lines.  Our chance to do so was in Melbourne, during a reception for the small Tibetan community, but it was at the end of the NPC’s 12 day Australian tour, and much could happen beforehand.

The decision TIS took was that above all, we should show respect for Panchen Rinpoche, as for any great lama, rather than confront him with demands that he denounce China; and that we would educate media to understand that he was not free to speak his mind. This was our attempt at some sort of middle way.

It was an uneasy middle path, separating religion from politics, avoiding speaking up too loudly for the suffering Tibetans, and there were Tibetans in Australia, and their supporters, who thought we were too low key.

TIS tried to ready itself for a wide range of eventualities, such as the prospect that China would parade the Panchen Lama as proof of freedom of religion in Tibet; even that Australian leaders, keen to get closer to China, might assist such a propaganda effort. Even back then Australia knew it had the full range of raw materials China needed, and was actively seeking to integrate the two economies.

So we prepared a Backgrounder information kit, explaining to Australians the delicate situation of the Panchen Lama, “who may not articulate the wishes of the six million Tibetans. That is the price he must pay for remaining in China, subject to the closest scrutiny. He is not free to speak of the continued sufferings of his people under an alien, deeply resented occupation.”

Whether any politicians found time to read four pages of background information is unclear, plus pages more of the most recent March 10 statement by the Dalai Lama,  and documentation on the actual situation in Tibet as Hu Yaobang’s reforms were fizzling out, and Tibetan frustration growing. All of this was unfamiliar to Australians, just getting used to the idea that Australia might be part of Asia. And the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was due to go to Beijing one week after the NPC delegation returned.

More pointed was a one-page TIS press release for distribution the day the NPC delegation arrived in Canberra on 5 May. Its headline was: “Who’s a Cat’s Paw Now?” This alluded to an accusation China had made that Australia was being duped by Vietnam, after Australia urged the Vietnamese who had overthrown the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime to help make a lasting peace in Cambodia. China, hostile to Vietnam and close to the Khmer Rouge, made use of a metaphor from an old European folk tale to accuse Australia of being gullible, doing the dirty work of others.

The TIS press release reminded Australian leaders that China has no real parliament, and if both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader welcome this group, they might be a cat’s paw for China. In Australia’s robust democracy, this would be considered a low key, even a polite criticism.



As the visit grew closer we wondered what China’s approach would be. Gradually this became clearer. On 22 April Australia’s most serious newspaper, the Financial Review, reported that “the Chinese are making the point that they want equal treatment to the Dalai Lama, who visited Australia in 1982.” The Australian government had no difficulty in deflecting that, as the Dalai Lama came to Australia at the invitation of lamas and Australian Buddhists, not as a guest of state; a distinction China found hard to understand.

By then, Tibetans had briefed Australian officials well, and the Financial Review reported that “the visit has placed Federal parliamentary officials in a quandary. There is no apparent precedent for such a visit being used for what appears to be strong propaganda purposes. Pressure is understood to have been applied from the Dalai Lama’s supporters for a lukewarm response.”

That article was almost the only media coverage of the entire visit,  which was indeed publicly neutral or lukewarm.

What China actually wanted was that Panchen Rinpoche be received by what China would call “personages of Australian religious circles”, with lots of photos taken, which could be used in China to show China’s liberal attitude. The Chinese government made little serious attempt to highlight the Panchen Lama’s standing, and left it up to the Australian parliament to make the arrangements. This included an approach to the Buddhist Studies Department at the Australian National University in Canberra, which, on being told China expected Panchen Rinpoche would be accorded parallel status to the Dalai Lama, politely refused to assist. Likewise the Buddhist Society in Canberra declined to get involved.

In Sydney, Panchen Rinpoche, billed as “a leader of Tibetan Lamaism”, was due to address the Australian Council of Churches on 30 April, the most public of his talks. He spoke there in general terms about the need for peace, equality, compassion and fraternity. Australian media found nothing to report. Media were interested only in a scandal over whether a judge of the High Court had been corrupt.



Australian lack of interest, our refusal to play a simple back/white, bad/good dualism, and the awkwardness of Chinese diplomats all combined to ensure Panchen Rinpoche seldom had to publicly embrace positions he did not believe in. After it was all over, David Templeman, of the TIS, noted “our almost free hand in most situations as they arose. It was almost within our power to completely muzzle the statements of the delegation (e.g. the speech of Panchen Rinpoche to the Australian Council of Churches). The score was always well in our favour and at no stage in the visit did we feel that it was out of our hands. Our confidence grew as we realised how thorough we had been in laying the preparatory groundwork, the wide range of valuable contacts in places of influence we had and how good the media were to us.”

In hindsight, the help and sympathy TIS elicited at every turn reflects well on a simpler Australia, less obsessive about security and border protection, more inclined to side with community voices against powerful governments. Australia was not yet earning billions from selling raw materials to China, and sympathy for the small against the big was an Australian tradition, much less so today.

Thus, on the last of the three days the delegation had in Canberra, a lunch with Panchen Rinpoche had been arranged for key Australian political reporters, normally preoccupied with domestic scandals, and TIS wanted to find out who was attending, to ensure they had the TIS information pack, complete with appropriate questions to ask. Trying, through the front door, to find out who had been invited got us nowhere, but through a back door we got their names and made sure they were briefed on the sensitivities of the situation

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#2 of two blogs on the 30TH anniversary of the Panchen Lama’s 1986 tour of Australian sheep ranches, with time for a phone call from the Dalai Lama.

When the Panchen Lama arrived in Australia, as guest of the Australian Parliament, he was, on paper, just one of a large delegation of members of China’s National People’s Congress, officially just the deputy leader of the delegation.

The delegation was large, with not only NPC members but plenty of minders and handlers as well, plus Canberra-based Chinese Embassy staff, plus Australian security personnel, official drivers with official cars, in the entourage. Everywhere the delegation went official photographers took the appropriate images, which are now available in the Australian government archives.

Only two events were off the record, and not for public consumption: the private receptions in Sydney and then Melbourne for the Panchen Rinpoche to bless the small Tibetan communities, then a fraction of today’s 1700 Tibetan Australians.

Sydney, at the start of the tour, did a press release, issued by organisations that mostly focused on charitable fund raising for refugees, the Australian Tibetan Society, and Tibetan Friendship Group. Their press release stressed the need to understand that, whatever Panchen Rinpoche might feel obliged to say publicly, there is much more to be said.

When the event happened, the sadness of many Tibetans at the manipulative situation was expressed vigorously, alarming some of the Chinese minders, who seemed to find it unruly, even insulting.

So when the time got close, at the end of the tour, for the Melbourne Tibetan community reception, when the delegation flew in, they said the event had been cancelled, or, at most, would be confined to a few Tibetans coming to Panchen Rinpoche’s hotel suite to privately pay their respects.

The Tibetan community in Melbourne had done much work to prepare a suitable event. A wealthy Indian couple, Zarna and Anil Somaia, had kindly made available their spacious house in the outer suburb of Ringwood as the venue, and it had been decorated with thangkas, auspicious symbols and a throne flanked on either side by large posters of HH Dalai Lama.

Since the delegation reached Melbourne 24 hours before the community reception, TIS members persuaded delegation officials to meet, at their hotel. We tried to persuade them that the event was harmless, but they remained suspicious, without being sure what to be suspicious of. So we suggested they inspect the venue for themselves, there and then, even though it was already late in the evening.

Zarna and the Tibetans had made not only a throne room but also an inviting dining room, and downstairs a carpark had been made into an inviting space for the many who would not fit into the intimate dinner for Panchen Rinpoche and the two Tibetan teachers resident in Melbourne.

The plan was that Panchen Rinpoche would first give a teaching, bestow blessings, photos would be taken; then in the next room he would be served dinner, with the rest of the entourage downstairs. That way the phone call with the Dalai Lama could take place without third parties monitoring every word.

Zarna liaised with the official Tibetan Representative in Switzerland, the closest Tibetan office to Germany, where the Dalai Lama would be teaching. Zarna recalls that two days before the scheduled date she got a call from Switzerland, politely asking if hers was an Indian household, and if she was indeed able to connect the two great lamas. The Dalai Lama, she was told, would like to speak to Panchen Rinpoche.

Everything now depended on suspicious Chinese officials. Fortunately, they agreed to go and see Zarna’s house for themselves. Sonam Rigzin and Gabriel Lafitte drove them all the way through the endless dark suburbs, having rung Zarna first to say that what was off may all be on again, so take down the posters of the Dalai Lama, and get ready to receive visitors. Zarna, by then already in pyjamas, hastily dressed, and got her mother-in-law up too.

What greeted the Chinese minders was a picture of serene piety. They were greeted at the door by a sweet old lady, the embodiment of devotion. She greeted them with palms together in a namaste. It was indeed a beautiful shrine room, and all the lights were on, inside and out, everything beamed welcome.

Carefully they inspected everything, looking thoroughly for anything unusual. They even searched the grounds. Were they worried Tibetans might kidnap the Panchen Lama? But all was impeccable, upstairs and down. So they agreed the reception could go ahead.

Next day Zarna phoned Switzerland to confirm the arrangement, and at 7pm the official Australian government cars arrived, to be greeted by Tibetans in their best chubas, and the Indian hosts. Panchen Rinpoche was in a simple brown brocade robe. Everything about him emanated power.

He took the throne, and gave a teaching, flanked by portraits of the Dalai Lama. He presented many gifts in response to the offerings made to him, such as pictures of lamas of his lineage. Everyone assembled for photos with him.

Then it was time for the evening meal. Panchen Rinpoche was ushered into the dining room, with only two Tibetan Buddhist teachers resident in Melbourne with him, and his personal attendant. Zarna slipped away and placed the call, as arranged, to Germany. Everyone else was ushered downstairs, where there was plenty of food, and Melbourne Buddhists to serve, and keep the group happy.

One burly Chinese made a big show of having to closely inspect the fire, but he too went down. The door connecting up and downstairs was closed, with Gabriel standing guard. The phone rang, just as the meal was starting, and handed to Panchen Rinpoche.

The call lasted 80 minutes.

As the call went on, some in the party downstairs wanted to go up. Anil Somaia, a prospering textile manufacturer, knowing the delegation had been looking at Australian wool and sheep farms, engaged them in an animated discussion about wool. Eventually, one did get up the stairs and tried to enter, but the doorkeeper refused entry.

Did anyone downstairs realise what was happening above? If so, by the time the call was done, the doors opened and everyone together again, it was the Chinese who decided to save face, rather than make accusations. The man who had tried to push back in apologised, explaining that he had accidentally left his camera upstairs and had wished only to retrieve it. Honour was satisfied. By the blessings of the lamas, what began as a  simple idea nine weeks earlier had come to fruition. Even the phone company seemed part of the blessings. Zarna hadplaced the call, and had to pay the bill, and at that time international calls were not cheap. The Tibetans, overjoyed at the result, offered to pay, but Zarna insisted. However when the bill later came, she recalls, she was charged for only 20 minutes, not one hour and twenty minutes.

In hindsight, though we all bumbled, behind it all was the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We may have been quite unsure of what to do, but so were the suspicious Chinese officials, and to the protocol staff of the Australian Parliament it was not quite your average tour of sheep stations. Yet the result, despite confusion all round, was clarity. For that we can thank the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama.

One year later, the patience of Tibetans ran out. Lhasa was in flames. Suddenly Tibet was on the map, and we were ready to create a national organisation in all Australian states to speak up for Tibet.

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Planetary climate agreement: what does it mean for Tibet?


#1 in a blog series of 3

Around the world, everyone was relieved that the negotiations in Paris in December 2015 finally produced agreement on what, as a planet sharing a common fate, we can do to mitigate rapid climate warming. After decades of climate science, warnings, alarms, denial, failed negotiations, recriminations and fresh attempts at consensus, finally an agreement was reached. The Paris cop21 agreement was all about reducing emissions, in the hope of limiting the warming of the planet to only two degrees above preindustrial levels.

Now, climate is suddenly off the agenda, and may not return until the next major negotiation due in five years. But on the ground, and in the air we breathe, the climate continues to warm, and the Tibetan Plateau is affected.

Everyone knows about the melting glaciers of Tibet. Many know that climate warming is especially rapid in Tibet, is already drying out the many wetlands, shrinking permafrost and, for the first time in centuries (maybe millennia) lake levels are no longer dropping but rising.

What few people know is that the agreement in Paris may at last establish a global carbon market. This will also impact Tibet, in ways Tibetans have never before seen, bringing new players to Tibet, proclaiming their corporate virtue by investing in carbon capture in Tibet that, incidentally, locks pastoralists out of their pastures.

The new global agreement will be in effect for a long time, shaping policy towards planetary warming, desertification, land degradation, and much more.

But when we consider the impacts, over coming years, of these agreements on Tibet, they intersect in many ways, and are likely to generate perverse outcomes, unforeseen by the negotiators who earnestly hoped to move the world in a positive direction. There is reason to suppose that the cop21 national commitments will, ironically, be used by China  to further disempower, marginalise and depopulate the Tibetan Plateau, and further sideline or displace the Tibetan people from their own lands.



Some global treaties or conventions require all governments that have signed on to the treaty to meet regularly, to review progress in implementation and propose further steps to be agreed on. These meetings are known in UN jargon as a Conference of the Parties, or cop.  Since the first agreement that something must be done to prevent disastrous climate warming, there had been 20 such annual meetings, so the 2015 gathering in Paris was the 21st., hence COP21.


Implementation of COP21 will only gradually pick up momentum, and impact on the land and people of the Tibetan Plateau. A new architecture of key concepts and acronyms was created and formally adopted worldwide, in 2015. How does China see those new concepts will be implemented? China has long insisted that all key concepts and policies must be formulated to conform to “Chinese characteristics”, as defined by the ruling party-state. The Paris agreement creates no governing body, very little supervision, everything is up to each government to set its own targets, and implement them in its own way. Implementation is totally in the hands of China’s government. The insistence on implementing global policy with Chinese characteristics is especially true of the cop21 outcome. The cop21 did not result in a new treaty, still less any accountability of nation-states to some higher order empowered to monitor compliance and enforce emissions reductions.

The most the world system was capable of achieving in 2015, despite decades of climate science alarm, was that each nation sets its own goals, with little monitoring and no mechanism for enforcement. China did manage to announce a goal that promises no reduction in climate warming emissions at all until 2030, and this was not challenged, as everyone wanted to at last have an agreement in which, for the first time, every nation-state is a participant.

China did promise to start reducing its emissions, by unspecified amounts, starting in 2030. Between 2015 and 2030, emissions by the world’s biggest emitter, will continue to rise. In the intervening 15 years, China will continue to increase its coal consumption by at least four thousand million tons (4bn t) a year. China already consumes more coal than every other country in the world combined. Despite this, China has all along insisted this is its right: to catch up with the richest countries, by developing fast. Economic growth continues explicitly to be the number one goal of the 13th Five-Year Plan covering the years 2016 to 2020. The environment is a secondary goal. The only way China may reduce emissions earlier is if it is unable to meet its own goals, due to economic difficulties, especially excessive investment in factories that can produce more than China or the world need, and may be closed.

Instead of committing to actual emissions reductions, China got away with promising only to reduce the energy intensity of its economy, rather than committing to actual emissions reductions. Since China is fast growing its services sector, it can reduce energy intensity per unit of gdp without reducing emissions at all. As services become a bigger percentage of the Chinese economy, as Chinese do more banking, retail, wealth management, property speculation, gambling, entertainment, sport, education and health care spending, manufacturing becomes a smaller portion of the total economy, and China will achieve its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (indcs), UN jargon for each country’s pledge for what it promises to do to save the planet from overheating. China has succeeded in promising the world nothing by way of actual reduction in emissions.

A major aspect of China’s pledge to the cop21 was that, while coal use will continue to increase, China will also invest heavily in hydro power. Nearly all the dams due to be built in the near future are on Tibetan rivers, especially at the edges of the Tibetan Plateau, where the great rivers of Asia plunge into deep gorges, their wild mountain flows tempting China’s state-owned dam builders and electricity generators. An intensification of dam construction, in remote areas of Tibet previously left alone by the Chinese state, will have major impacts, both social and environmental.

The cascades of hydro dams have long been announced, and many are scheduled for construction during the 2016 to 2020 period of the 13th Five-Year Plan. But on the horizon are other players entering Tibet for the first time, among them the world’s biggest brand names,  attracted by the prospect of becoming pioneers in saving the land of Tibet from the  grazing practices of the Tibetans, thus saving the planet from climate warming.



While China has not yet enlisted new corporate allies to invest in carbon capture in Tibet, the emerging global carbon market already has  a full suite of fashionable concepts that make Tibet attractive, and which obscure the impact of single-minded carbon capture, to the exclusion of all else, on Tibetan livelihoods. Not only are there fashionable concepts, familiar to environmentalists worldwide, they are packaged as acronyms, a new jargon language that Tibetans will need to learn, if they are to unpack what at first looks positive, and without downsides.

Such schemes are still in their infancy, but momentum is growing and cop21 gave corporate investors greater confidence that all the world’s governments are now more serious and determined to create a price for carbon emitted. At cop21 in Paris many big corporations played major roles, because they can see the day coming soon when  the cost of carbon emitted must be included routinely in calculating the total costs of their production, and they are now pro-actively planning to build those costs into their internal accounting process.

Key concepts which may magnetise global brands to come to Tibet are PES, REDD+ and LDN: payment for environmental services, reducing emissions from degradation and deforestation, and land degradation neutrality. A detailed guide to these new jargons, and other environment policy jargon in use in China, is no. 2 in this blog series.

Their impact on Tibet will depend on how new, more distant financial partners working with China to finance REDD+ and PES and China’s continued insistence that global policies be applied with “Chinese characteristics” will change the implementation of the new policies. The new players who will emerge in the next few years will be not only rich countries directing their aid budget to implementing redd+, ldn and pes in Tibet, but also the major corporations of the developed world, using in Tibet ways to offset greenhouse gas emissions by buying up and locking away Tibetan opportunities for development and growth.

These new mechanisms have the potential to disempower Tibetans in many ways. These new acronyms, unfamiliar to Tibetans, have been embraced by new players, attracted by the prospect of corporate reputational marketing opportunities to be achieved by advertising how they are “saving” Tibet. A new dynamic will gradually emerge, as some of the biggest corporations worldwide look to Tibet as a cheap way of repairing corporate reputations damaged over many years by their record as polluters, including massive emissions of greenhouse gases that heat the entire planet.

Because they are “market-based”, PES and REDD+ projects tend to be amazingly complex, and hard to understand. They are complex contracts for several reasons. First, there are many parties to such a contract, whose responsibilities have to be specified. For example, an oil palm plantation owner and commodity trader based in Singapore can now offset the emissions caused by chopping down tropical rainforest in Indonesia for oil palm tree plantations by investing in growing grass in Tibet. The investor in Singapore is primarily concerned with the offset rather than the actual impact on Tibetans and the Tibetan environment. As such, questions about who will do the actual work of growing more grass; who receives the payment; how to prove that the removal of grazing, and the growing of grass has succeeded in capturing carbon; and how long must the captured carbon, now in the soil, remain in the soil, before Tibetans can return with their yaks, sheep and goats and start grazing again are unanswered and considered irrelevant.

For the oil palm plantation owner, such a contract is attractive. For a modest investment, far less than he would have to spend on directly curtailing his carbon footprint, he gets to offset his pollution by locking up pasture land in distant Tibet, and gets to advertise to the world what a good job of saving Tibet, and the planet, he is doing.

But such a contract will always have “Chinese characteristics,” and China will almost certainly be among the contracting parties. It will not be a simple agreement negotiated directly by a Tibetan community and an oil palm factory owner. China may argue that it is already saving in Tibet from the Tibetans by removing much pasture from grazing, and has been paying the cost of their relocation, and subsistence rations. If the oil palm plantation owner wants to use Tibet as an offset, China may demand that he bear those costs and excuse China from further responsibility. Already we have three contracting parties: a Tibetan community unable to provide free, prior and informed consent; China, and a Singapore entrepreneur. There may well be more contracting parties complicating things further. For example, the biggest environmental ngos working in Tibetan areas in recent years, such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International may wish to be partners to such contracts, as it may enhance their reputations as well as the reputation (and share price) of the oil palm magnate. It is also quite likely that a European government’s aid agency might join in, perhaps to finance those aspects that China has usually neglected, such as paying for vocational education for the Tibetan community to train them to enter China’s urban labour market and get off welfare.

So there could be five or six parties to such a contract, each with their own agenda, acronyms, reporting regimes, all proclaiming themselves saviours of Tibet. In such circumstances, will Tibetan communities have time and opportunity to understand that they are signing away their right to development, their economic right to growth?  Will they realise that new parties will now have a big say, not only in this generation, but, because some of these contracts can last for 100 years, their children and grandchildren as well, in how Tibetan land is used, and what may be done with that land?

These are complex negotiations, which should happen between parties equal in power, in access to information, and time to consider carefully the consequences of such a long term binding contract. In theory, according to China’s Constitution, rural land is owned by collectives, but in Tibet do those collectives function in any way outside the control of the local Communist Party apparatus? Will the village chief, or county cadres or prefectural head of the State Forestry Administration speak for and on behalf of the Tibetans, who will effectively have no say, nor even realise that their land has been designated as non-productive for the coming century? These are probable scenarios given the disempowerment of the Tibetans and the concentration of power in official hands.

The example of the oil palm plantation operator is not exactly hypothetical. If one looks at major events at the Paris cop21, one of the biggest was the Global Landscapes Forum,[1] a high-profile event over two days giving corporate partners opportunity to improve their reputations. One such corporation is Wilmar,[2] hardly a household name but big in providing the ingredients used in a thousand consumer products, notably palm oil. Another corporation promoting itself as a backer of COP21 is Mars,[3] the manufacturer of big brand chocolate sweets and packaged pet foods. Mars, under pressure for selling junk foods and for the global obesity epidemic, needs green credentials, and knows it. Other sponsors of the Global landscapes Forum include the big Swiss bank Credit Suisse, and the global food commodity trader Cargill. Both face reputational risk problems, finding themselves caught in controversies about secretive banks enabling the rich to avoid taxes, or grabbing the lands of the poor for cash crops, lands no longer useful to poor peasants displaced by corporate power. Another corporation with a questionable environmental record,[4] Asia Pulp and Paper, is also keen to invest in landscapes that will compensate for its record in its base, in the forests of Indonesia.

As a global carbon market gradually develops momentum, as a direct outcome of the Paris cop21, it is not hard to imagine such corporations investing in saving the land of Tibet from degradation by growing more grass or forest. The publicity will be good for the investors, the world’s biggest environmental organisations will applaud, and no one will notice that growing more grass with “Chinese characteristics” means displacing pastoral nomads from their pastures, to lead wasted lives as fringe dwellers. In May 2015, TCHRD published a detailed report on the disempowering impacts China’s grassland policies on nomads.[5] Corporate investors will be credited with creating the global carbon market, pioneers in implementing ldn, redd+ and pes.

Another organisation strongly promoting redd+ is cifor,[6] which as a result of Paris COP21, hopes for a scaling up of the many small-scale REDD+ projects around the world. Technically, REDD+ is limited to forests, but can readily be extended to the growing of grass on the vast rangelands of the world.

All these market-based schemes promise that everyone will benefit. In reality, such a universally beneficial outcome is extremely hard to achieve. The most powerful participants with the loudest voices can see how they will benefit and will use their power to ensure they do. In Tibet these actors are international investors and China. The key question is whether Tibetans will also benefit, or be sidelined and largely ignored or even excluded, in the name of carbon capture and remediating land degradation. There is no reason why Tibetans need to be disempowered or marginalised by such projects, but their criminalisation, whenever they speak up for local landscapes, puts them at enormous disadvantage.



All such schemes begin by turning Tibet into numbers, which become objective truths that take on a life of their own, no longer under Tibetan control. The numbers initially are scientific estimates of the amount of carbon sequestered by ceasing grazing, or planting grass, or planting trees, in specific landscapes, measurement work Chinese scientists have been done intensively in Tibet.  Those numbers, for extra carbon in the soil, or in the roots and leaves of ungrazed plants, are then formulaically converted into dollar numbers, part of the growing financialisation of nature, the translation of nature into capital.[7] All of this is done without Tibetan input. If anything, Tibetans pastoralists start at a disadvantage, as livestock production is regarded as a substantial source of greenhouse gases, due to the methane belched by cattle as they digest the grasses.

Despite much scientific research, there is very little evidence that traditional pastoralism is a net source of carbon emissions, but among scientists and policy makers, there is an inbuilt assumption that all pastoral livestock production is a heavy source of methane, a climate warming gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. The scientific evidence actually suggests that the Tibetan Plateau is in danger of sending huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as temperatures rise, because permafrost locks up much carbon, and so do the many wetlands of Tibet, and now the permafrost is shrinking fast, and also the wetlands are drying out, partly due to China’s program of deliberately draining the water meadows, partly due to earlier arrival of spring which melts away subsoil water, leaving plants at the start of the growing season without water. As the Tibetan wetlands dry, they become dry peatland, releasing methane to the air.

These are among the reasons why Tibetans may welcome international investment, if it can restore wetlands, or assist Tibetans to improve their pastures, sow more native grasses and be paid to work as stewards of recovery from degradation. These could all have positive results, both for landscapes and people of Tibet. But this would require Tibetans to be free to make their own decisions about how to best achieve outcomes that actually cut carbon emissions, capture carbon, and enhance Tibetan livelihoods. Under the current situation, with ccp officials speaking for all Tibetans in all public spheres, it is hard to imagine how Tibetans might be allowed a speaking position.

Meanwhile, China is not a spectator, but an active participant in the growing financialisation of nature. China has many well-established avenues to connect and participate in these new steps towards a global carbon market that provides finance to remote, under-developed areas such as Tibet, in the name of mitigating climate change. Included in the many consortia of promoters of the new market based “solutions” to climate warming, are many government aid agencies, international organisations with global reach on environmental issues, major ngos, scientific research organisations, academics specialising in different disciplines, universities, charities and advocacy groups; many of which have strong connections with their Chinese colleagues, who are now part of these coalitions clustered around their common cause.

As a result of China’s embrace of cop21, with Chinese characteristics added, these trends are rapidly intensifying. In the name of carbon capture, the provision of environmental services to downriver lowland China, net land degradation neutrality and reducing emissions from degradation, Tibet is being emptied of its people, always on scientific grounds that seem entirely plausible to the architects of cop21, lnd, pes, redd+ and other fashionable concepts now at the forefront of environmental and developmental governance.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy.











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#2 in a blog series of 3


If the world arrives in Tibet, announcing corporate investment in carbon capture on the Tibetan Plateau, it will arrive wrapped in jargon. We might soon find we need to learn that jargon, and learn to decode what it conceals as well as what it reveals.

Jargon serves a purpose. It is not just a shorthand abbreviation, it is insider language, empowering its users as people with specialist knowledge. Jargon privileges those able to use it, proclaiming them to be experts, people who have mastered scientific rationality.

In reality, jargon technicises debate, narrows debate to the seemingly rational concepts enclosed by acronyms, excluding human realities that are deemed extraneous externalities. Technicisation narrows the focus so that the only question is whether the package identified by its acronym achieves its narrowly defined goal, such as capturing carbon. Human impacts on people’s livelihoods are secondary, incidental, unintended consequences, unforeseen and unforeseeable side effects at most.

Today’s China loves to be up to date with the latest concepts and intellectual fashions, to prove yet again it is a great and advanced civilisation with high human capital, and much investment in technicisation.  The advocates of technical solutions, by sticking to their jargon, can avoid any suggestion that they are straying into political questions, which, in China, is strictly the prerogative of the party-state, and no-one else.

This section is a guide to all the new jargon: INDCs, Five-Year Plans (FYPs), and many more. There are plenty of people fluent in these jargon terms, which then take on a life of their own, becoming well-known, naturalised concepts, the building blocks of new regimes of global policy towards environment and human development. Once the jargon sets in, those who use it seldom step back to question the package that the acronym summarises. Thus they fail to notice, that in China’s hands, these jargons mutate, acquire “Chinese characteristics” and in practice, on the ground, in the farmlands and pasture lands of western China, they end up meaning something quite different to what was originally intended.

A.   Payment for Environmental Services

Payment for environmental services (PES) is an idea that’s been around for a while. It focuses on the lands and peoples who are providers of environmental services such as clean water supply, carbon capture or biodiversity, especially when those who benefit from those services live elsewhere, downstream, or in cities that make much use the resources and services provided by others. The basic idea is simple: beneficiaries should pay providers, to ensure the providers continue to provide. In Tibet, it would mean no longer taking for granted that Tibet provides China and Asia with pure water, clean air and much else; and if Tibetans are to continue to do so they must forego the opportunity to industrialise. So the Tibetans deserve pes payment, to compensate for the opportunity costs incurred by remaining under-developed.

In principle pes is widely accepted, but operationalising it in practice is difficult. Who pays whom? For how long? Who decides what services are measured? How can environmental services be monetised, given a dollar value? Can industries, used to getting air and water and much else as a free public good, be persuaded to pay?

Due to such difficulties, much effort has gone into coming up with new concepts that build on pes, which are more measurable and doable, such as redd+.

B.   Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and degradation

Reducing carbon emissions caused by deforestation and (forest) degradation (REDD) is an idea intended to help achieve the key aim[1] of climate change action. The focus of redd is on the forests of the developing countries, because historically they have always captured huge amounts of carbon from the air, and because they are now threatened by logging, plantations, burning and clearing for cattle ranching. Although redd is focussed on forests, there is growing recognition that the vast grasslands of the world also have the capacity to capture carbon. The idea of REDD+ indicates an expansion of REDD beyond the forests.

The REDD+ idea usually involves a market-based scheme in which an industrial polluter pays a distant forested community to capture more carbon. For the polluter, this is much cheaper than reducing emissions. But if, in a remote corner of Tibet, for example, people plant more trees, how much carbon is thus sequestered? How long must it be sequestered? What is the monetary value of taking carbon out of the air, and into the soil, trees, grasses and herbs? Who receives the payment?  What are the responsibilities of beneficiary communities to ensure that carbon captured is not released to the atmosphere again?

These are difficult questions to resolve, even if all the parties are free to speak up; even harder in Tibet where local communities are not allowed to negotiate their free, prior and informed consent to a contract which may bind them for a century. redd+ is an idea with problems.

C.   The Sloping Land Conversion Program and the Natural Forest Protection Program

These are specifically Chinese slogans and concepts. Two decades ago China’s planners realised that much forest and grassland had been mistakenly cleared, or “reclaimed”, according to China’s propaganda, for farming.  The farmers spreading into the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and elsewhere ploughed up the grasses, exposing the soil to gales and blizzards, which even today cause Beijing to be blanketed in dust storms as the ex-grassland erodes. The farmers lose soil and livelihoods. In hilly country, including Tibet, land far above any river was cleared for agriculture, creating many dryland farmers barely making a living.

In the 1990s, China started to reverse these policy mistakes. The Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) and the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP) both aimed to reforest, or regrass, large areas and restore natural landscapes in which ecologically suitable trees, shrubs and grasses were planted, while compensating poor farmers for their loss of income. The overall slogan was: “grain to green”, or g2g.

In practice, nfpp and sclp succeeded in some areas, but did not work well in others. Despite massive investment in reforestation, China still struggles to halt desertification and degradation of land that once supported grassland or forest.

D.   Land Degradation Neutrality

The newest jargon is LDN: land degradation neutrality. It is a simple idea that is hard to implement. If degradation occurs in one area, it should be compensated for by restoration and rehabilitation of degraded land in other areas, so there is no net loss. That is a bottom line, if the world is to arrest the current slide backwards into worsening desertification and degradation. LDN is sometimes called NLDN: net land degradation neutrality.

The problem is that, as with all market-based solutions, it introduces trade-offs. Degradation in one area may be cheaper to remediate than in another area. In Tibet, because of the cold climate, rehabilitation of degrading grassland takes a long time, is often not very successful, and requires labour-intensive employment of local pastoralists to look after the freshly sown native grasses, herbs and sedges. The danger is that China will persist in removing rather than employing pastoralists to do the work of repairing degradation, because China persists in blaming pastoralist as the cause of the degradation, and because repairing degrading loess soils below Tibet is cheaper and easier.

Private investors are now being invited to see ldn as a profitable opportunity.[2]  This could become another way for third parties to improve both profit and reputation, while disempowered parties such as Tibetan communities find themselves yet again excluded from their own pastures, in the name of ldn. The United Nations says LDN should not work that way. The UN poses the key question[3] and supplies its answer: “ Is LDN an offset or compensation scheme that could result in a license to degrade? No. The focus and aim of LDN is to maintain and improve the productivity of land resources by sustainably managing and restoring soil, water and biodiversity assets, while at the same time contributing to poverty reduction, food and water security, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.  The key principle of LDN is that the people at a grassroots level, whose everyday decisions and actions affect the condition of land and water resources, have to be involved in designing and implementing measures to halt and reverse land degradation.”[4]

However, in practice, ideas such as LDN do result in tradeoffs, and profit for a few, often at the expense of the disadvantaged. Tibetans should monitor all these new jargons closely, to see how they are actually implemented in practice. Tibetans will find many environmentalists worldwide share their concerns that REDD+ and LDN achieve little by way of actual emissions reduction, confuse everyone with their deliberate complexity, and disempower indigenous “beneficiaries.”[5] There are many REDD projects in Nepal, which Tibetans could check out to see what actually happens on the ground. A recent investigation of those projects says: “REDD+ policy making is dominated by a ‘development triangle’, a tripartite coalition of key government actors, external organizations (international NGOs and donors), and select civil society organizations. As a result, the views and interests of other important stakeholders have been marginalized, threatening recentralized forest governance and hampering the effective implementation of REDD+ in Nepal.”[6]


E.    Using jargon in Tibet: SLCP and NFPP

Not only do these jargon concepts guide policy from above, dictated by Beijing for implementation across China, irrespective of local differences, the jargons collide with each other, or are implemented serially over time, amplifying the impacts. One of the policy fashions of the 1990s was the sclp. As usual, the starting point that crystallised into an acronym was well intentioned. It began with a recognition that too much land in China had been converted to farmland, even in hilly areas where irrigation is impossible, and the dryland farmers struggle to grow enough crops to sustain themselves or keep the land, in dry years, from eroding badly. The slcp was a program requiring farmers on land that slopes to return a portion of their land to plantings of species that serve an ecological purpose, above all, holding remaining soil in place, preventing erosion, restoring habitat. At a national level, this was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) facing up to its revolutionary pledge to forever banish the danger of famine; a recognition that policies requiring each province to be self-sufficient in grain production had wrongly cleared for farming much land that should never have been farmed. China was learning to become a national market, no longer placing local self-sufficiency as the highest of goals. The initial impulse was good, and the policy was popularised by a simple slogan, grain to green, g2g. The policy recognised, at national level, that farmers on marginal drylands struggling to make a living would not want to lose part of their farmland for ecological plantings that produce nothing edible or saleable. So the national government accepted responsibility for compensating farmers by providing them with subsistence rations, to enable them to survive on a smaller land allocation. In theory, it was a complete package that made sense.

Likewise, China’s recognition in the late 1990s that it had exploited its forests, including those in Tibet, far beyond any sustainable capacity to grow back, led to the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP), mandating that much cleared land be reforested. Again, a commendable aim, but everything depends on how, at a local level, such policies are implemented.

Local government officials and party cadres at local level are meant, in theory, to transmit down the line the will of the central leaders, and ensure implementation.  But China is huge; policies suited to one area may not be suitable in another. When the people and the cadres are of the same nationality, and share sympathy for each other, national policies are often bent to accommodate local needs. For example, in the 1990s, monitoring of slcp and nfpp programs showed how much difference local government attitudes make. In areas where local officials sympathised with the loss of income of farmers ordered to replant ecologically useful species on their farmland, they widened the definition of “ecological” trees to include many trees that also bear commercially valuable fruits, which can be cropped and income gained. Strictly speaking, from a national viewpoint, this distorts policy implementation, and does not show up in national statistics that aggregate how big an area has been replanted.

In areas where the senior cadres are not of the same ethnicity as the local population, lack understanding of traditional lifeways, and do not care much whether they are liked locally or not, implementation is stricter. The cadres know their best chance of promotion, and a reposting to a town or a wealthier area depends on implementing national policies strictly according to orders from above.

In a country as big as China, national policy can only define goals, and the extent of official support, such as compensation or punishment, for local implementation, or resistance. How the policy is implemented may vary greatly. For example, in Kham, in the heavily forested, precipitous landscapes of eastern Tibet, nfpp, starting in 1998, was meant to reforest the steep slopes denuded by decades of Chinese logging. How reforestation was to be accomplished was not made clear and delegated to local officials.

Experience of successful reforestation worldwide shows that local communities are the best people to do the work, of gathering seeds, planting them, caring for vulnerable seedlings until they can look after themselves. However, China’s top priority was maintaining economic growth, not the environment. As a result, the main concern in implementing the nfpp was to maintain employment for the state forestry workers who had been cutting trees down, redeploying them in the unfamiliar role of forest guardianship. The workers put down their chainsaws and took to aeroplanes and helicopters to scatter tree seeds from the air. This method did not take into account the steep slopes of the rugged ranges that separate the wild mountain rivers of Kham. Not surprisingly, it was not very successful. Even when seeds strike roots, they must survive the hard winter without a surrounding shelterbelt of mature trees providing a protective microclimate. On many slopes, at differing altitudes, complex habitats exist, in which different species grow together, and such complexity is not readily reproduced, especially from the air.

Far from employing local Tibetan communities to do the work of reforestation, in many areas NFPP meant declaring areas designated for reforestation to be officially Protected Areas (PAs), within which human activity was banned, especially pastoralism, which was becoming possible as grasses naturally replaced trees. Tibetans, who could have been made part of the solution, were instead declared to be part of the problem.

The acronyms, and the thinking behind them, are seldom explained to Tibetan communities, still less in Tibetan. So there is a disconnect between Beijing policy and local engagement. Policy is often transmitted via simplistic slogans, which instruct people as to what is to be done, without explaining the policy goals.

Perhaps the slogan with the biggest impact has been tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass. This slogan, introduced in 2003, has led to more and more Tibetans pastoralists losing all or some of their pasture, officially removed from production for a temporary period of three or five or at most ten years, to see if the removal of grazing is sufficient, without any other intervention, to restore degrading lands. In reality, these temporary bans are not reversed, and Chinese scientists increasingly question whether degradation has been caused by overgrazing or by past policy mistakes that fragmented pastoral land, reduced seasonal mobility, forced pastoralists to invest much time and money in fencing, house building, winter fodder crop production and storage and other measures that had perverse outcomes, notably exacerbating poverty and squeezing herds year-round on lands allocated to nuclear families, depriving them of the flexibility of many families pooling lands and herds, to minimise over-grazing.

So Tibetans experience the simplistic slogans, such as “close pasture, grow more grass” as incomprehensible, and a threat to their ongoing livelihoods. There is a disconnect between official policy and the needs of the land and the people.

NFPP, SCLP, tuimu huancao and the other policies of the 1990s and first decade of this century are the background to 2015’s SDGs and COP21, bringing in pes, redd+, and ldn. All these policies result, for rural Tibetans, in disempowerment, restriction, exclusion, exclosure, poverty, dependence on official rations, relocation and resettlement to new concrete towns, while denied access to their traditional pastures and valleys. A 2015 review of the enthusiasm for REDD in Nepal concluded that: “Nepal’s institutional REDD+ planning structure is highly dominated by techno-bureaucratic topdown practices representing government interests and international donors’ requirements, while subnational and non-governmental stakeholders often find themselves to be merely used to legitimize the policy process rather than to actively shape it.”[7]


Since Tibetans had no opportunity, in the lengthy negotiations leading to the COP21 programs such as LDN, REDD+ and PES, to speak up for themselves, it will not be surprising, in coming years, if China implements LDN, REDD+ and PES in ways that further disempower, fragment, displace and depopulate the land of Tibet, separating the land and the people from each other. This is true also of theSustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), such as poverty alleviation, which sound commendable, but when given “Chinese characteristics” end up as a further rationale for removing Tibetans from Tibet, on the grounds that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, because Tibet by definition is so high, and cold, so remote and lacking in factor endowments, so vast and scattered, that there is no way Tibetans can ever get out of poverty as long as they remain rural. According to this paternalistic logic, Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, since no one would choose to live in Tibet if they had a comfortable urban alternative. Earlier projects, such as NFPP in Kham Dechen, failed to help poor Tibetan farmers.[8]


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy





[5] See, for example, a 2010 report by Friends of the Earth: redd: the realities in black and white; Global Witness also monitors REDD implementation, including Honest Engagement – Transparency And Civil Society Participation In Redd, 2009. A Nepalese NGO, Forest Action, in 2015 published several critiques of REDD and its impact on ethnic minorities:

[6] Bryan R. Bushley,  REDD+ policy making in Nepal: toward state-centric, polycentric, or market-oriented governance? Ecology and Society 19(3), 2014: 34., available at

[7] Rishi R. Bastakoti and Conny Davidsen; Nepal’s REDD+ Readiness Preparation and Multi-Stakeholder Consultation Challenges; Journal of Forest and Livelihood 13(1) May, 2015 30

[8] Horst Weyerhaeuser, Andreas Wilkes, Fredrich Kahrl, Local impacts and responses to regional forest conservation and rehabilitation programs in China’s northwest Yunnan province, Agricultural Systems 85 (2005) 234–253


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#3 in a blog series of 3

The world now has a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a UN session in September 2015, all governments, including China, formally adopted these SDGs as their target for improving the quality of all human lives.

How do these new Sustainable Development Goals impact on Tibet? Surely Tibetans have more immediate concerns to worry about than a long list of worthy development goals, such as eliminating poverty?

The SDGs were adopted in 2015 and like Paris COP21 were negotiated over several years, mobilising the energetic participation of a wide range of official and NGO institutions, often with Chinese partners. The SDGs are a long list of goals, objectives and yardsticks for quantifying progress, on a wide range of issues such as health, education, literacy, women’s participation, children, poverty and much more. Implementation of the SDGs is firmly in the hands of national governments, and China is determined to maintain its reputation as exemplary leader of the developing world by following up its much-acclaimed success in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), between 2000 and 2015. In a complex world, with many weak states lacking capacity to intervene helpfully in the lives of the poor, China has been hailed as the great success story, an example to the rest of the developing world.

Since China is huge, its national statistics hide enormous regional variation. Few observers have noticed that in Tibetan areas in China has struggled to fulfil key mdgs. In Tibet illiteracy remains high, and maternal mortality shockingly common. Only if national numbers are disaggregated are such problems apparent.

Because China can hide its failures in Tibet with national statistics, it remains the favourite of the global sustainable development community, and is determined to maintain its reputation. When it comes to poverty alleviation, China has announced that in the 13th Five-Year Plan period, 2016 to 2020: “China’s top leadership pledged resolute measures to help the remaining 70 million poor people shake off poverty and enjoy essential social services by 2020. President Xi Jinping told the conference that ‘no single poor region nor an individual living in poverty will be left behind’ when the country accomplishes the goal of ‘building a moderately prosperous society’ by 2020.”[1]

In counting its’ poor, China ignores hundreds of millions of poor peasants reliant on the urban factory incomes of their adult children while the ancestral land, for lack of available labour, withers. China denies that the poor are many, despite China’s  urban boom, and focuses narrowly on the 70 million officially designated as poor, by official criteria. China’s definition of poverty is low, only RMB2300 per person per year or US$376 (at 2010 prices). In Beijing one meal in an upscale restaurant can cost that much. The World Bank says the poor in China are many more than China acknowledges.[2]

A high proportion of China’s official tally of 70 million intractable poor are Tibetans. China has dramatic plans for them: “The conference laid out concrete and diversified measures in poverty relief. Industrial development is key to poverty alleviation, Xi Jinping said. Local resources should be well utilized to develop industries and ensure employment for the jobless peasants. Relocation is also highlighted. Premier Li Keqiang urged to lift about 10 million people out of poverty by 2020 through relocation, and local governments should make sure the relocated people have stable jobs to make a living.”[3]

China will not only persist in being the exemplary developmentalist state, fulfilling the new sdgs, it will go beyond its quota and physically relocate ten million human beings, to save them from the lands that doom them to poverty. The Tibetans are to be saved from Tibet.

China views the Tibetan Plateau as unnaturally cold, its air terrifyingly thin, growing little more than grass, forcing its helpless inhabitants to wander like animals that follow the grass. For Chinese planners, it is inconceivable that anyone with a choice would choose to live in such a harsh place. Now China, will graciously relocate 10 million poor people by 2020. It is not clear how how many of them will be Tibetans, but what is clear is the Chinese view that it is Tibet that makes Tibetans poor, and this can be remedied only by removal, at the least to the comfort of towns and cities, enclaves of modernity in Tibet, or away from Tibet altogether.

Other official policy announcements made in early 2016 speak of relocating as many as 50 million poor people. The annual No.1 Document issued jointly by the Communist Party and the state is always about rural policy. The January 2016 Document No. 1 names the ex situ relocation of 50 million poor as the set goal of the party-state:


The key phrase above can be translated as:  “measures to address ex situ relocation of about 50 million people out of poverty.”



Emptying rural Tibet of human use will profoundly change the landscape, which, even in the decade of pastoralist removals in the name of growing more grass to capture carbon, has resulted in grassland becoming shrubland no longer useful for livestock production. Locking up the innumerable plateaus of Tibet, in the name of cop21 carbon capture and sdg poverty alleviation, may win China much acclaim from the many environmental and developmental institutions worldwide that argued for the cop21 and sdg achievements of 2015. Yet the consequences will be profound. A depopulated Tibetan Plateau, with its human populations concentrated in cities and urban fringe resettlement camps, will have lost its food security, land tenure rights, opportunity to fulfil economic and social rights, and thus have to live under enforceable contracts written by global investors that require productive land to remain unproductive of anything but grass and water, for as much as the coming 100 years.

The Tibetan Plateau was made humanly habitable by basing the whole Tibetan civilisation on extensive land use, spread out across a vast plateau, operationalised by the strategy of mobility.  Extensive land use made skilful use of all the resources nature provides for the pastoralists, without overgrazing, due to regular mobility, moving on with herds and homes.

This pattern of extensive land use is in contrast to China’s  intensive concentration of populations, both animal and human, in specific enclaves, such as towns and their surrounds, that is typical of modernity. China has brought modernity to Tibet, in the form of intensive enclaves of development that require huge external inputs, of fuel, electricity, hydropower, financial subsidies, even food trucked in from great distances.

China has repudiated the extensive land use pattern of Tibetan production landscapes, substituting in its stead the urban enclave pattern that is ever more heavily reliant on external sources of energy and material support.

It seems extraordinary that, in the name of poverty alleviation, Tibetans can be removed from ancestral pastures and moved to urban fringes or to a fully urban existence. Yet to China’s planners, this makes perfect sense, given the premise that Tibet is altogether too high, the air too thin, the climate too cold for any human being to want to stay there. It is time for Tibetans to explain, loud and clear, why Tibetans actually prefer to live in Tibet.

This series of three blogs looks ahead to looming threats that could accelerate the depopulation of the Tibetan Plateau, clustering the entire Tibetan population in the booming cities, leaving the land empty –until new settlers move in to productive landscapes that have supported human land use for 9000 years.

Taken together, these three blogs demonstrate an underside to seemingly innocent, or beneficial policies: halting degradation of land, capturing more carbon and alleviating poverty. In principle, these are all commendable aims. But when the compulsory “Chinese characteristics” are added, even the most benign of policies can in practice become a rationale for separating Tibetans from Tibet.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy





[2] Xiuqing Wang, Juan Liu et al.,China’s rural poverty line and the determinants of rural poverty;  China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 1 No. 3, 2009, pp. 283-300


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Saving Tibet from the Tibetans; saving Tibetans from Tibet


Tibetans live in Tibet, to state the obvious.

NonTibetans struggle with the altitude and extreme cold of the Tibetan Plateau, and a diet that has little to offer beyond fatty meat, dairy products and barley, surely conducive to heart disease.

Han Chinese struggle to survive in Tibet, and struggle even harder to not only survive but thrive, and live productive lives, in air so thin that each breath seems fearfully to be one’s last. At least ten percent of lowland Han Chinese sent to Tibet, or migrating to seek their fortune, never adapt to the altitude, suffer severe mountain sickness, for which the only remedy is to return to a lower altitude. This is true of Han soldiers too, meant to be fighting fit, not exhausted by just taking a few steps. For foreigners visiting Tibet, it’s a similar story. Even when people take care to gradually acclimatize to air one third thinner than at sea level, with one third less oxygen and everything else, many still get altitude sickness so strongly that they cannot stay.

So it’s not quite so obvious that Tibetans live and thrive in Tibet, daily doing the heavy work of milking, churning, spinning, weaving, cooking, caring for children, piling up the yak dung patties into mounds, energetically mixing and drying them to provide the only combustible fuel available on the treeless high plains. Nomad women especially work all the time, without a break, from the first milking of tethered animals before dawn, through into the next night.

The men get more periods of relaxation, but also intense bursts of activity, rounding up wandering animals, herding them back to camp, hunting  prowling wolves, riding to distant market towns, with no food other than dried meat, roasted barley flour and maybe a ball of butter to sustain them when far from the home tent.

Tibetan nomads like hard work. They know it is good for them. On the few occasions that nomads get to speak directly to the wider world, they make it clear that being a pastoral livestock producer is indeed hard work, and that’s good.



So how Tibetans manage to live energetically in Tibet is not at all obvious. What’s the trick? This is a question that has nagged at Chinese scientists for decades, resulting in dozens, probably hundreds of scientific research publications trying to identify the secrets of Tibetan physiology and metabolism. For China, this research program served the obvious political need to make Tibet habitable, for politically reliable lowland Han, to balance or even outnumber the natives, just as China has done in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

It has taken decades of experimenting and testing, but now a picture has emerged, of how the Tibetans have, not only as individuals but as a people, adapted to active life at 4000 to 5000 metres above sea level.

This new understanding, of Tibetan energy physiology, is not at all what China hoped to find. That may be why, even among educated Tibetans, there is as yet little awareness of the fruits of all that research (mostly in Chinese). China did not find a way to make the Tibetan Plateau habitable for lowlanders, other than to throw money at creating urban enclaves of mechanised comfort that require little physical exertion. China never found the “trick” enabling mass Han colonisation; and it still eludes them, which is why the four million nonTibetans living on the Tibetan Plateau are so heavily clustered in and around Xining, the boom city of Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese), at the much more manageable altitude of 3200 metres.

Not only did the scientists not find some magical solution enabling Han to live long in Tibet, they actually found what they least wanted to know: that over thousands of years Tibetan physiology has adapted, in complex ways, to the cold and the thin air, so much so that the landscapes shaped by the nomads and farmers, and the hearts of the Tibetans evolved over time together, in ways that are unique to Tibet. The only other people able to live at such high altitude, in the Andes, took a very different route of adaptation.

Far from extracting from those thousands of Tibetan blood samples a scientific magic bullet enabling lowlanders entry to all areas of Tibet, the research adds up to the strongest of arguments for the collective rights of populations, as peoples, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. The biological argument about the unique Tibetan energy metabolism is equally an argument about the co-evolution of place and people, belonging to each other.



This is an argument  of crucial importance, coming at a time when Tibetans are increasingly being removed from their lands and pastures, in the name of carbon capture, remediating degraded landscapes, biodiversity conservation, and even poverty alleviation.

In the 13th Five Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020, China has announced it will “relocate” at least 10 million people of the 70 million officially deemed to remain poor, arguing that relocation is the only solution to the chronic, endemic poverty inherent in having to live in terrible places such as Tibet. To Chinese central leaders it is self-evident that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet, scattered over vast areas, suffering unnatural cold and life threateningly thin air. No-one in their right mind would choose to live in Tibet if there is any other choice. Thus the solution is obvious: the Tibetans must be saved from Tibet, by relocating them. It is for their own welfare.

Economists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences define Tibet solely in terms of what is lacking: “The border areas lie at the bottom of the economic system in China, where the poverty pressure is huge. Border areas are mostly characterized by poor natural conditions, vast territories with a sparse population or huge mountains, high traffic cost, lagging infrastructures, and backward economy. These areas are also the major regions where the impoverished population in China is concentrated with a high occurring frequency of poverty and harsh natural environment.”[1]

“These areas have a cold climate, high mountains, deep valleys and poor infrastructure. The Tibetan-inhabited regions have also historically lagged behind the national average, in terms of social and economic development. This gap has still not been bridged. In the Tibetan inhabited regions, about 70% to 80% of labourers make a living through planting crops, undertaking pastoral activity, collecting and other temporary jobs. The incidence of poverty among the farmers and herdsmen is noticeably higher than the national average.”[2]

The latest research on Tibetan energy metabolism shows that the energetic, hard work of pastoralism and farming is not only humanly possible but in fact essential to human health. Hard work, and the aerobic exercise generated by working hard, are central to the health of the Tibetans. To sedentarise Tibetans in urban fringe concrete settlements, with nothing to do beyond subsisting on rations, no longer active, reliant on sugary drinks from the local store, is a death sentence.



These are not the conclusions of the Chinese scientists, instructed to stay well clear of politics. But European scientists, summing up all the available evidence, paint a complex picture of how the Tibetans do thrive, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) marked international mountain day in December 2015 by publishing their report.  In an article called Metabolic processes in populations living at high altitudes, Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, of the Laboratory of Physiology of Sport, at the University of Perugia explain:

 “Elevation, slope and temperature do affect the productivity of the soils and their nutrient supply and, thus, the nutrient properties of harvested food. As a consequence, mountain people have adapted over the centuries and developed unique metabolic processes.

“People who are born and raised in villages at high elevations, up to about 5 100 m, have adapted to the altitudes over generations. They are genetically able to carry out normal daily activities in conditions that would not be amenable to the health of lowland people.

“The environmental characteristics of mountains – namely dry air, low temperatures and reduced oxygen pressure – are key factors to human adaptation to life in mountains. In fact, the genetic adaptation patterns of the two“highest” populations of the world, the Tibetans and the Andeans, cannot be found in any other populations.”

To create and sustain an entire civilisation at such extreme altitude is to adapt, in profoundly embodied ways, to the evolutionary pressures –dry air, intense cold, low oxygen pressure- inherent to the circumstances of the Tibetan Plateau. Those pressures cause physiological and biochemical effects, and the entire human organism must find ways of dealing with those effects, which could be toxic.

“Adaptation to mountainous environments means the optimization of oxygen use under the conditions of chronic hypoxia (low levels of blood oxygen). Oxygen is used in metabolic processes, both to maintain the basal metabolic rate and body temperature and for the oxidation reactions of the energy substrates that are needed for physical activity.

“Hypoxia also affects protein synthesis and thus the maintenance of muscle mass. Protein synthesis at high elevation is, in fact, reduced by the action of hypoxia on enzymes. This results in a need for meat and milk proteins, enzymes from various vitamins, and amino acids such as arginine, the substrate that allows for the synthesis of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts on vascular walls, causing decreases in peripheral resistance and thus vasodilation, better tissue oxygenation and a decrease in blood pressure. An increase in blood pressure in the pulmonary artery, on the contrary, would lead to pulmonary edema.

“Tibetans who live at high altitudes have a greater amount of nitric oxide in their muscle tissue than other mountain populations. They have less mitochondria than usually required for normal activities, and they remain very active.”

Mitochondria are subcellular structures that contain the energy metabolism machinery. Remaining very active while having lower capacity for generating energy, implies Tibetans have extreme efficiency in energy metabolism. Tibetans are uniquely able to make full use of all of the oxygen that is available to them.

“All the metabolic activities described above require catalysts, i.e. vitamins, for the redox (oxidation-reduction) reactions of the energy substrates (proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates). People living at high altitudes practice mainly aerobic activities. This helps to optimize the exchange of oxygen for the tissues and lungs. Aerobic activity can use substrates glucose, fatty acids and amino acids as energy, the latter also being essential to maintain protein mass.

“Fatty acids have higher energetic potential than an equal amount of glucose. During a maximal exercise performed at high altitude by local mountain people – people chronically exposed to hypoxia – lactate concentration progressively decreases. This phenomenon is known as “lactate paradox”.

Aerobic activity generates energy for the muscles, for example, when you push yourself, in a gym workout, to the point where you start puffing. Anaerobic activity is comparatively slower. It too generates energy for the muscles, but also produces lactate, which is eventually excreted, thus wasting some of the food energy supplied by the diet. Lactate buildup is why you may experience sore muscles after a gym workout. Because oxygen is so limited in Tibet this results, in most visitors to Tibet, in a lactate buildup, but this does not happen to Tibetans: that is the “lactate paradox.” This is because Tibetans make full and efficient use of all the limited oxygen available, so there is never oxygen to spare that becomes lactate.

“Altitude usually increases oxidative stress with related substance degradation. However, the Tibetan populations have proven to be an exception. Their muscles show low accumulation of lipofuscin, a substance that reflects the damage caused by free radicals to the body cellular structures, and a significant increase in protein with high antioxidant action. This feature is only present in the native Tibetan populations, living at altitudes up to 4 800 m. Tibetans also have a higher concentration of nitric oxide.”

Oxidative stress is the damage caused by half-degraded energy substrate remaining in muscle tissue. Tibetans are uniquely able to neutralise these damaging molecules.

 “While Tibetans adapted by developing these genetic protection factors, this is not the case for other populations, such as those living in the Andes. Their adaptation happens through ventilation mechanisms and through an increase in hemoglobin concentration and oxygen transportation.

“Tibetan women during pregnancy have an increased blood flow to the placenta due to the protective effect of nitric oxide. Andean women’s bodies ensure oxygenation to the fetus through an increase of haemoglobin concentration and ventilation.

“These scientific observations are consistent with the centuries-old history of survival of these populations, which is directly linked to the history of their agricultural and livestock production. Agricultural production in Tibet has always been based on a combination of agriculture, especially wheat and barley, as they are very resistant to cold, and animal husbandry. Their pastoralism activities include yak, sheep and Tibetan goat breeding. The yaks provide abundant milk and meat.”

Yak herding, milking and all the daily activities of a pastoral production landscape require prolonged aerobic activity, even to be able to walk at the pace of a yak. Tibetan civilisation, based on the yak,  provides exactly the specific food requirements needed for living at altitude. The Tibetan mode of production likewise requires particular forms of physical activity, and muscular contraction rates, resulting in a distinctively Tibetan metabolism that has co-evolved with the pastoral land use of Tibet.

“Tibetan monasteries and, in more recent times, small Tibetan schools have ensured protein availability with their small herds. Tea with yak butter is in fact the national drink of Tibet.”

High altitude dwellers in the Andes have physiological responses that adapt them to living at such a height. Tibetans, however, have evolved a metabolic response to the pressures of altitude; requiring hundreds of human generations of evolution, at the most profound level of embodiment. This is a genetic evolution, unique to Tibetans.

“Historically, Andean peoples have always had a diet comprising corn, potatoes, tubers and a special meat, the “cuy” (guinea pig), which is high in protein and low in fat, plus river fish. In the pre-Columbian era, the central Peruvian Andes were the largest cultivation centre of the ancient world for grasses, legumes, many types of fruit and aromatic herbs.

“Both scientific and historical anthropological studies have supported the assumption that for populations living at high altitudes, food quality is more important than food quantity. Unfortunately, migration and “food globalization” often meet the quantitative but not the qualitative criterion.”[3]

The Tibetans are not a people who happen to occupy a place which, for want of a more comfy alternative, is all they have. The Tibetan Plateau is a co-evolved people-place. The Tibetans belong to the land, in the most profound way, at the deepest possible level of human body forms.

To now remove Tibetans from the land, in the name of carbon capture, poverty alleviation, land degradation neutrality, payment for environmental services, or other current intellectual fashions, is to deprive Tibetans of life.

Tibet does not have to be saved from Tibetans by pasture closure; nor do Tibetans have to be saved from Tibet, by relocation in the name of “poverty alleviation.” To resettle Tibetans in concrete cantonments on urban fringes, condemned to inactivity, is to condemn them to wasted lives, in the name of realising “the China dream.” Tibetans have a right, as a people, to access the places with which they have co-evolved. This is a collective right of the entire six million Tibetans.

[1] Dadao Lu and Jie Fan eds., Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Science Press and Springer, 2010, 173

[2] Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap: Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu

Edited by: Luolin Wang (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), Ling Zhu (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China), World Scientific, 2013, 2

[3] Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, , The relationship between metabolism, altitude and temperature, in Mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity, UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2015, 54-56


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