COMPARING MONGOLIA AND TIBET
Mongolians, on the brink of abundant mineral wealth accumulation find themselves torn between doing it with the multinational giants of global mining, and going it alone.
Mongolia’s deal with global major Rio Tinto, to exploit the massive Oyu Tolgoi deposit of copper, gold and silver is at last about to begin operation. The promise of wealth for all, to be shared by all three million Mongolians of independent Mongolia, could be about to happen.
Or the resource curse could strike yet again, the mine goes ahead, ore is extracted, and the money vanishes. Mongolia is caught between giants, not only between the enclosing Russian and Chinese giants who constitute the country’s borders, but also between the giant multinational miners and Chinese state owned smelters and metal users.
Landlocked Mongolia has no choice but to sell to the Chinese. The world’s factory is in China, and demand for raw materials, despite China’s slowdown, remains insatiable. Russia, despite Putin’s theatrics, is a shadow of the former USSR, in no way a significant customer for Mongolia’s minerals. Freighting the minerals to a (Chinese) port for export overseas is uneconomic. China is the preordained customer, a buyer keenly aware of its opportunity to be the price setter. That much is inevitable.
Far less inevitable, in Mongolian eyes, is that a global mining giant is necessary to get the ore out of the ground, processed, and onto the market. How hard can it be, they ask, to dig it up and send it off?
This is where it starts to get painful, where a national yearning for not only income but also the dignity of doing it for oneself, collides with the way the global commodities trade works. Mongolia, from the President down, is slowly coming to terms with the fact that even the digging is complex, and each stage after that is more complex still. The resource nationalist dream of self-reliance is especially dreamlike when it comes to the upfront capital expenditure cost of setting up the mining operation, the concentrator and perhaps a smelter, investing billions years before the cash flow begins.
This is where the game is tilted to favour the major players, who can readily raise money from the markets, if they don’t have sufficient accumulated profits to finance it themselves. The sovereign state of Mongolia, by comparison, appears on the radar of international investors as an unknown, a political risk, a potential borrower of uncertain provenance, with no track record of generating suitable rates of return on investment.
So Mongolia, protesting still that it didn’t ought to be this way, reluctantly agrees to honour its agreement with Rio Tinto, and the mine at last starts production in 2013.
What Tibetans would give to have such problems! From a Tibetan perspective, Mongolians may be agonising over the collision between resource nationalist yearnings and market realities, but they do have choices, and they will benefit even if the deal isn’t quite as good as many had hoped. Tibetans can only dream of having choice. At a time when devout Tibet Buddhists can be shot in the head without warning, for celebrating the birthday of the Dalai Lama, the idea of choosing whether or not to mine seems an unimaginable luxury.
Tibet and Mongolia are similar in many ways, sharing not only a common heartfelt devotion to the same religion, but also a rich patrimony of minerals beneath their wide landlocked homelands. Tibet, like Mongolia, is about to be mined intensively, for the same minerals, and the same Chinese users.
But there the parallels end. Tibetans have no say as to whether or how their minerals are mined, or who does the mining, or who benefits. The global multinationals are conspicuously absent from Tibet, partly because they understand the political risk, but primarily because China’s state owned (SOE) mining giants want it for themselves. These are corporations answerable only to the Communist Party, which retains direct control of appointing the SOE bosses.
Any Tibetan who dared to suggest, perhaps on a weibo blogpost, that local communities should have a say in whether mining goes ahead, or should receive royalties from the mine, would be immediately censored, or accused of “splittism”, a serious criminal charge leading to a long gaol sentence.
But would Tibetans really want to have to choose between leaving minerals in the ground, and mining? Surely we all know Tibetans never mined anything, and in fact spent more time saving worms from spade and plough than any other activity?
That’s the Shangri-la myth, the gospel according to Brad Pitt’s starring role in the 1997 hit, Seven Years in Tibet. This grand romance insists the saintly and wise Tibetans ensured their precious unobtainium remained unobtainable. In reality, Tibetans, and their neighbours, have long known of their mineral riches, and did mine with care, highly selectively, for iron link chain bridges across raging rivers, and for exquisite Buddha statues. Tibetans made their choices over many centuries, to mine on a modest scale.
Now the scale has escalated, and any assertion of a right to choose is criminalised. China’s geologists now estimate there is at least 20 million tonnes of recoverable copper in southern Tibet, perhaps as much as 80 million tonnes. That could keep big mines operating for decades, and further discoveries seem likely, as geologists worldwide come to Tibet to figure out how the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates led to concentrations of copper and gold in subterranean molten magma chambers.
Global science and China’s state capitalism have arrived, to exploit Tibet intensively, while silencing the Tibetans more effectively than any of the African societies where China is also hungrily mining. Choice is gone, a major underlying cause of the wave of protest suicides by Tibetans taking utmost care, even in extremis, to harm no-one but themselves to ensure they have a fleeting voice.
Under such circumstances, speculation as to whether a free Tibet would mine its resources, of its own volition, is idle.
Yet Mongolia’s yearnings are suggestive. When the Tibetans turned the minds of the Mongolian invaders centuries ago, the Mongols turned to Buddhism with a sincerity equal to that of the Tibetans. If Mongolia is now mining, it is not because it has forgotten Buddhism.
The paradox is that the shared histories of Mongolia and Tibet, brought under the Manchu Qing conquerors of China by yet another nomadic invasion, diverged sharply only in the 20th century. Until then, Mongolia was as firmly within China’s control as Tibet, actually much more so, since Chinese moneylenders ruined Mongolian aristocrats and farmers alike, while having little hold on Tibet. In the 20th century much of Mongolia broke free and was protected, by its close relationship with the USSR, from being swallowed again. What China called Outer Mongolia was and is free, although Inner Mongolia remains a province of China.
Tibet a century ago similarly considered itself free, but never had a powerful protector, and fell to the Communist Party’s Peoples Liberation Army in the 1950s. The result is that Oyu Tolgoi, only 80kms outside China’s borders, in independent Mongolia, may yet make Mongolia’s fortune; while the similar deposits of Yulong, Gyama, Chulong and Shetongmon, in Tibet, may enrich only China’s SOEs and bring ecological disaster to the great rivers of Asia, on whose headwaters they sit.
More on this in Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, out in September 2013.
Hewlett Packard is to publish a list of all the smelters worldwide which supply it with the metals used in HP products, according to the New York Times.
HP is one of the first big companies to buckle under the global push to ban the use of “conflict minerals” dug from the earth by coercion, captured by dictators, sold globally, leaving the mine workers as poor and exploited as ever. HP, acutely aware that its reputation is its capital, is “hoping the transparency helps stop the spread of ‘conflict minerals’ that finance wars.”
HP sets a precedent which other big corporate users of metals –from computers to mobile phones to cars- may follow, in the hope of staving off regulatory insistence on excluding conflict minerals, part of the package of new US laws to reform the post financial crisis corporate world. “In August, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also adopted a rule requiring all publicly traded companies to disclose their use of certain conflict minerals beginning next year,” the NY Times says.
The concept of “conflict minerals” has caught on. Everyone thinks of Africa, specifically the Congo and Zimbabwe, of tyrants and sweated labour. Spoiling Tibet, due out in September, argues that the minerals extracted from Tibet should also be classified as conflict minerals. To the Tibetans, the systematic stripping of their natural endowment is theft, a theft they are powerless to oppose.
As mining of Tibet scales up, the world’s factory in China moves ever closer to Tibet. As labour costs on China’s wealthy coast rise, heavy industries are moving inland, especially to Chongqing, the far point deep inland reachable by large ships, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. This means there will soon be a real likelihood that your next mobile phone, or computer, or even car, could be made of copper, lithium, molybdenum, gold and other metals mined in Tibet. This is not a hypothetical. It gets personal.
How Tibet went from being the archetype of remoteness to integration into global commodity flows, is tracked in the forthcoming Spoiling Tibet.
“While greed and fear, trust and mistrust have an influence over the price of many assets, like houses and stocks, those ultimately produce some income, which provides a fundamental base from which markets can infer prices. Gold, on the other hand, neither toils nor spins, but just sits there looking pretty. That means gold is far more volatile, with emotion and short-term supply and demand driving sharp swings in prices. Like someone who spends too much time in bars late at night, gold has the unlikeliest things happening to it over and over again.”
So says Reuters columnist James Saft, trying to explain the latest wild gyrations in the price of gold. The Asian Argument at the core of Spoiling Tibet, due out in September, is that China’s lust for gold is so great, this is the driver of spoiling Tibet. Surface gold, easy for the poor and desperate to collect, and new finds in Tibet of subterranean gold so fine it is invisible to the naked eye, drive a gold rush that is transforming Tibet into a despoiled land.
Does the sharp fall in the price of gold mean any pause in China’s gold rush to Tibet? Unlikely. China is the world’s factory, and gold has many industrial uses. But, as Spoiling Tibet argues, industrially necessary uses of gold no longer drive China’s demand. China has, extraordinarily, overtaken India in the demand for gold as jewellery, and as a store of wealth safe from the state’s prying eyes. Gold is readily transportable, the classic way to get wealth out of one country and into a tax haven wrapped in secrecy. This is what drives the insatiable demand in China for gold, from any source, as long as the selling price is profitably higher than the cost of production.
In Tibet, the costs of production are low. The poorest of artisanal miners need only a flask of mercury and cyanide to extract gold from streambeds, a practice supposedly stopped years ago, which still persists. The biggest of China’s state-owned miners need far more capital and technology, but are profitable, especially in Tibet where gold occurs together with silver, copper, molybdenum, lead and zinc, all recoverable and profitable, even if prices have slipped recently.
While hedge funds may be piling out of gold, the long term attractions remain. Now that China is the biggest gold consumer in the world, the price boom in all minerals that China triggered in 2003, remains in place. The headlines say gold has dropped especially sharply, but that is from an amazing $1900 an ounce quite recently.
China does buy gold mines around the world, but Tibetan gold is in the backyard, attracting almost no attention or global scrutiny. Maybe Spoiling Tibet will change that.
JUST UPSTREAM FROM LHASA………
The disastrous waste of 83 human lives at China’s copper and gold mine in Tibet, at Gyama, is a reminder of China’s plans for intensive extraction of Tibetan wealth, for China’s lowland factories.
So big was the landslide down the steep terrain of Gyama, the 83 mine workers may never be found. Not only are they buried in a landslide kilometres long and up to 30 meters deep, making recovery of bodies a huge task; there may be nothing to recover. Tumbling rocks grinding against each other can obliterate human flesh so totally that nothing remains.
This gruesome reality is a reminder of the violent forces inherent in mining. Just as rocks grating against each other turn rock to flour, so too the mining process, after blasting and scooping up, requires crushing rock to flour, in a giant mechanical ball mill, so that the various metals to be extracted can be concentrated and separated.
It is a metaphor used sometimes by Tibetan Buddhist retreat masters, that retreatants rub up against each other, in the 24/7 intimacy of a group retreat, and, like freshly dug potatoes, the dirt is scrubbed off by the rubbing. But rubbing potatoes clean of dirt, and grinding rocks to flour are vastly different: one is gentle, the other extremely forceful.
The Gyama tragedy is a reminder that China, after six decades of geologising Tibet, is now able to exert maximum force on the land of Tibet and its minerals, and make its fortune. Ironically, this capacity to establish intensive extraction enclaves in Tibet comes too late to make much difference to China. The demands of the world’s factory, in China, for raw materials is now so great that even the most intensive exploitation of Tibet would do little to reduce China’s need to import minerals from all around the planet.
Gyama, just upstream of Lhasa, had seemed like the least forceful of China’s big mines in Tibet. In fact Gyama’s Vancouver-based owners, the state owned China Gold International, had invested a lot in corporate PR, sending reporters to Gyama to tell the world the mine is not only good for the economy but also for the environment, and for Tibetans. Feature stories in some of China’s mainstream international media emphasised the good news story of this wonderful mine.
China’s approach to mining was not always so forceful. In Inner Mongolia, rich in iron ore, coal and rare earths, Chinese miners long ago decided on extraction, but also knew the local people, devout practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, would object. So the Communist Party arranged for the sacredness of the mountain designated for mining, to be transferred, by Buddhist ritual, to another mountain nearby. Maybe the Buddhist ritual specialists who negotiated with the earth gods had little choice but to comply with the Party’s request. But there was at least a negotiated outcome, a three-way compromise between the Party, the lamas and the gods.
That was decades ago. Can one imagine Party leaders in Tibet working in this way with Tibetan lamas to arrange a negotiated compromise that retains the sanctity of peaks and lakes, yet still makes room for mining? In today’s Tibet, where authority regards local populations with fear and suspicion, such deals are no longer imaginable. Nor, in today’s situation of deep alienation and mistrust of authority, is it possible to imagine Tibetans willing to persuade even the most humble of earth gods to move out of the way of mining.
OUTER AND INNER, RAW AND COOKED, TIBETANS AND MONGOLS
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is well endowed with minerals, but is physically much closer to Beijing and the overcrowded plains of northern China, and the heavy industrial heartland of China until the takeoff of southern China 20 years ago. Inner Mongolia’s proximity to the north China plain is its curse. The vast quantities of coal, iron and more recently, rate earth elements, close to the surface, are its curse.
Poor Chinese peasant settlers moved into the Inner Mongolian grasslands throughout the 20th century, ploughing rangeland, getting a few good wheat crops, before the unreliable rains failed, the desert gales whipped away the thin topsoil, and a bare infertile dustbowl was created.
The communist revolution brought to power the three revolutionary classes: workers, soldiers and peasants. The nomadic pastoralists were not included. Inner Mongolia had its farmers, both Mongol and immigrant Han, and soldiers who believed in revolutionary liberation from feudalism, but it lacked an industrial proletariat.
Communist China’s highest priority was heavy industrialisation, making fullest use of the iron and coal of Inner Mongolia. The construction of iron and coal mines, and of steel mills, also enabled Communist Party cadres, both Han and Mongol, to plan for an industrial proletariat who would be the new class to carry forward the work of revolution. The mass campaigns that led socialist construction could mobilise men and minerals together, building not only the steel mills essential to military modernity, but also a new class committed to revolutionary goals. Inner Mongolia was a new frontline.
A Mongolian working class, employed in the mining of what had been a sacred mountain, did not eventuate. The slow process of converting Mongolians from pastoralists to industrial workers bound by shift hours was too slow and difficult, in a country full of unemployed poor Han Chinese, and China was in a hurry. No task so definitively embodied the goal of the revolution as steelmaking.The Bayan Obo mountain or iron was ritually and elaborately desacralised, to make way for its extraction. The deposit was huge, and was later discovered to be rich in rare earths, minor elements with increasing hi-tech uses, especially in military applications such as night vision goggles enabling soldiers to kill 24/7.
RESPECTFULLY REQUESTING THE EARTH GODS TO MAKE WAY FOR MINING
The earth gods whose home was the iron mountain could be persuaded to move, but it took all the persuasive powers of the Mongol leaders within the Communist Party to persuade the lama persuaders to do what was necessary for revolutionary access to iron. Uradyn Bulag, a Cambridge anthropologist, has told the story of how the mountain, customarily known Bayanbogd, literally the “rich holy” became Bayan Obo, the rich cairn of stones, which ultimately became the Baotou Iron & Steel Works. An obo or oboo is a cairn of stones atop a peak which is the home of local earth spirits which, if not treated with respect, can make trouble for the people. So, by negotiation, the obo had to be removed before mining could begin, and the resident earth spirit persuaded, both politely and urgently, to take up residence elsewhere, on a nearby hill, Bayanchagaan.
The ritual to usher in a revolutionary era when mountains could be removed, was based on the rituals of Tibetan lamas in claiming new territories for the Buddha, which involves taming local spirits, binding them under oath to use their subterranean powers only benignly. When the Tibetans, centuries earlier, had tamed the minds of the warrior Mongols, they also tamed the land, wrestling with the earth spirits, addressing them directly, urging, cajoling and demanding that they take an oath to be better behaved. The leading Mongolian Communist Party cadre, Ulanhu, cajoled the lamas to go further, and persuade the spirits to move 20 kms to another mountain. Ulanhu announced that everything must be done to “follow the Mongolian custom, follow the religious ritual, hold a grand obo site removal ritual”
Bulag writes: “A grand ritual was conducted, with monks reading prayers, attended by Mongol herders in ethnic costumes. Many old herders piously knelt on two sides of the road. The obo relocation ceremony was held on 3 June 1953. At the time of relocation, thirty odd lamas read prayers for several days, and a midsummer naadam festival was held, full of fun. “A leading Chinese cadre Su Qianyi, was moved to say ‘At the time of removing the obo, one thought occurred to me: the Mongolian people, in order to build the Baotou steel plant, went so far as to remove their own obo. What a great and respectful patriotic spirit! Participating in the obo removal ritual itself is equivalent to participating in the construction of the Baotou steel plant. Thus, there ought to be Mongolian people among the steel workers of Baotou steel plant. The first generation steel workers of this “nationality on horseback” should be born at this age of ours.’
Bulag says, “The relocation of the obo finally defused the Mongol opposition to the Chinese mining operation on the mountain, as Mongols’ spiritual focus was turned to another mountain. Bayanbogd, the Rich Holy Mountain, was no longer holy, and it began to be called by its less spiritual name—Bayanobo—the Rich Cairn—commensurable to its new role as provider of rich rare metal resources. The Chinese now ‘welcomed’ Mongols, as Mongols ‘welcomed’ Chinese, following Mao’s prescribed course of ‘opening two doors.’”
China had the outcome it wanted, and was able to exploit Bayanobo fully, with very few Mongols employed in mining. Ulanhu, later purged for being too Mongol and insufficiently red, had what he wanted, a middle way that respected Mongol custom and China’s industrialisation campaign. To achieve this several fictions had to be created, to conflate the intentions of the Mongols and the Chinese.
Mongolian beliefs had been turned upside down, but the pastoralists, who made offerings every morning to the earth spirits, and their lamas, knew they had little choice. When the first geological survey was undertaken by communist China, in 1952, the geologists were accompanied by two cavalry brigades. The pastoralist herders protested vigorously, but in Chinese eyes this was a plot by reactionary Mongol aristocrats to stir trouble. One Chinese account says: “When the prospecting team arrived at the Baiyun [Bayanobo] iron mine, reactionary nobles, on the one hand, spread rumours, poisoning and bewitching herders to stop the prospecting of Bayanobo, nonsensically saying that ‘if the southern barbarians (nan manzi) dig away the golden boat in the mountain, the Buddha will bring down disaster to the grassland.’ On the other hand, they secretly instigated reactionary upper echelon elements in several banners to plot rebellion to echo the bandits roaming the grassland. They threw the grassland into chaos, making the prospecting work very difficult to carry out. The government dispatched the army in time and drove away and wiped out the jackals and wolves.”
Under the circumstances, the pastoralists had no choice but to move their earth spirits on, but at least there was negotiation as well as coercion. No such negotiation has ever been done in Tibet.
RARE EARTHS, RESOURCE NATIONALISM AND TRADE WARS
Bayan Obo turned out to be a far greater prize than anyone realised in the 1950s. Not only did it yield enormous quantities of iron ore, sufficient to make Inner Mongolia a core of China’s steel industry, it also had rare earths, in fact the biggest rare earth deposit in the world. Scientists are still unsure how this deposit formed around 1300 million years ago, despite intensive research over nine decades, and hundreds of articles in scientific journals. Rare earths are rare, and such a concentration is so exceptional. Hopefully, the origins, in the breakup of the supercontinent Columbia, will be better understood before it is all mined out and consumed.
While Bayan Obo is by far the biggest rare earth deposit ever discovered, there are others. China’s ability to monopolise rare earths production is not because there are no other sources, but because China was able to extract them cheaper than anywhere else, and then fall to the resource nationalist temptation to use them as a weapon of foreign policy, shutting down supply to nonChinese users, especially Japanese manufacturers, to gain competitive advantage for Chinese manufacturers and punish Japan over ocean boundary disputes. China failed to buy competing deposits in Australia, and its rare earths monopoly will end, but it has persisted long enough to persuade many manufacturers to relocate to China, to ensure they are supplied with rare earths, and in exchange they must supply China with their advanced technologies. China has been able to leverage its window of monopoly power into a compulsory technology transfer intended to give China a lasting dominance of new industries such as solar and wind energy equipment manufacture. When the Mongol pastoralists, in 1952, protested that ‘if the southern barbarians dig away the golden boat in the mountain, the Buddha will bring down disaster to the grassland,’ they seem to have intuited the dark uses of rare earths six decades later.
China justified its restrictions on rare earths exports by invoking the rhetorics of environmental regulatory compliance, as a legitimate way of restricting supply without invoking World Trade Organisation sanctions. Although environmental compliance is not much associated with China’s miners, in this instance it enabled intensification of monopoly, and an enormous jump in rare earth prices. That attracted the rich and powerful, including relatives of supreme leader Xi Jinping who in a 2012 expose were shown to have “an 18 percent indirect stake in a rare-earths company with $1.73 billion in assets.”
China’s official policy was to consolidate the many rare earths miners clustered at Bayan Obo, back into a single national champion corporation able to present a united face to the world and maintain, for as long as possible, China’s role as price maker. At the direction of several government ministries, the official position, in mid 2011, was that there would be a speedy and compulsory amalgamation of the proliferating rare earths miners, within weeks. A Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, reported: “Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech Co.,Ltd, the largest rare earth production and processing enterprise in the world, will replace its competitors in Inner Mongolia to become the only firm running upstream operations of rare earth in northern China, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Government Office said recently, according to People.com.cn. The other 35 upstream companies in the rare earth industry in Hohhot, Baotou and Bayan Nur — cities in Inner Mongolia — will face restructuring or closure. The restructuring work will be finished by the end of June.” A year later, Xi Jinping’s relatives were still earning rents from their control of one of the rare earth ore bodies.
This is far from the first time official policy has been subverted by the wealth accumulation temptations available to the families of those who publicly espouse the national interest. Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, investment advisers with close knowledge of how China works in practice, say: “With access to huge cash flows, broad patronage systems and, in many cases, significant international networks, the senior executives of the National Champions can expect to succeed in lobbying the government for beneficial policies or even to set the policy agenda from the start. The sons, daughters, and families now have institutional backing outside of the Party itself and this gives rise to questions over whether these business interests have, over the past decade, replaced the government apparatus or eroded government from within.”
China’s use of rare earths as a resource nationalist tool of geopolitics, against Japan and the US, resulting in compulsory World Trade Organisation adjudication, now also involves molybdenum. The molybdenum soon to be extracted from Tibet, along with copper and gold, is discussed in chapter five.
In a country where the greed of the new rich is everywhere apparent, Bayan Obo has been the most intensive manifestation of the triumph of greed over all else, including official policy. The disasters feared by the Mongol pastoral herders were hardly primitive superstitions. The lamas who reluctantly moved the earth spirits away from the Bayan Obo mountain, have always understood such spirits to be creatures of the human mind, not existing objectively. Yet they never denounced these preBuddhist spirits, banished or liquidated them, but instead honoured local belief. The Tibetan Buddhist response to the eruption of greed at Bayan Obo is not anger but grief, always with an eye for mining for wisdom within delusion, to use a classic phrase which in 2012 became an English book title. The metaphor describes how meditating on the nature of reality bears fruit as the dawning of nonconceptual wisdom. The ultimate attainment of intensive Buddhist mind training is to discover what is, and always has been, amid the confusions, delusions, temptations and desires of everyday life, and nowhere else.
 Uradyn Bulag, Collaborative Nationalism: The Politics of Friendship on China’s Mongolian Frontier. Rowman and Littlefield 2010, 180-1
 Bulag 177
 Kui-Feng Yang and others, Mesoproterozoic carbonatitic magmatism in the Bayan Obo deposit, Inner Mongolia, North China: Constraints for the mechanism of super accumulation of rare earth elements, Ore Geology Reviews 40 (2011) 122–131
 Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Economic and Information Technology Commission.
the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Commerce.
 Baotou Steel Rare Earth replaces rival processors in Inner Mongolia, Globaltimes.cn, June 07 2011
 Carl E Walter and Fraser J T Howie, Red Capitalism, Wiley, 2012, 194
Naming the key environmental issues in Tibet: a reflective blog on categories we use.
What would you say are the key environmental issues in Tibet?
Many say rivers: Chinese dams threatening huge populations downstream. Many would say railways that cut the earth, cause erosion and interfere with the annual migrations of wildlife. Many would say climate change, as the Tibetan Plateau gets drier, permafrost melts, and desertification creeps across Amdo. Many say nuclear dumping, although China’s nuclear activities in Tibet ceased some time ago. People used to say the cutting of the great forests of Kham, until that also stopped in 1998. Let’s call this list A.
Not many people, by comparison, would say the mass removal of nomads from their pastures is an environmental issue, even if China calls the displaced ex-nomads “ecological migrants.” Nor would many people list land degradation, or China’s concentration of investment in urban centres, transport networks and extraction zones, as a key environmental issue. Even fewer people would see any linkage between the Tibetans who burn themselves in protest, and environmental concerns. Few people would mention that the human population of the Tibetan Plateau is double its historic limit, way beyond its sustainable carrying capacity. Let’s call these list B.
Gyalwa Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, has long urged us all to emphasise more strongly and effectively the environmental problems of Tibet. Many Tibetans have tried to do this, in NGOs and in the Environment & Development Desk of the Central Tibetan Administration. But somehow the world cannot quite imagine the problem. So maybe this is a good time to reconsider how we tell the Tibet environment story to the world, how a new generation might tell the Tibetan story more effectively.
What we have done until now is stick to list A. This can achieve a lot, but it has its limits. List A works well in India, since Indian audiences, fearful and mistrusting of China, readily see Chinese dams and missiles in Tibet as a threat. The biggest drawback of list A is that it is confined to specific, observable impacts of Chinese policies that can be measured scientifically, and which contravene recognised laws and treaties. We can argue that China is breaching its own Constitution, or environmental laws, or treaties on trafficking endangered species, or biodiversity.
But China’s impacts go much deeper than this, after six decades of Chinese rule. China has reoriented Tibet to face east, not south towards India. China has transformed land use all over Tibet, from productive mobile pastoralism to urban enclaves of resource extraction and mass tourism. China has repurposed Tibet, from a local, barter economy to a cash economy reliant on external subsidies, in which urban immigrants prosper, while rural Tibetans remain poor, and with little access to good education or health care. Tibet has switched from extensive land use, lightly grazing all grassy areas in rotation, to intensive land use, with people, money and technology concentrated in small areas where minerals, energy and urban life can be concentrated. This is a fundamental transformation, which defies the basic nature of Tibet. It is unsustainable, and is the direct cause of the land degradation that is ruining Tibet.
These are confronting challenges, requiring fresh approaches. The previous three blogs were an attempt to sum up the environmental challenges facing Tibet, for an audience of young Tibetan Australians learning the complexities of a phayul homeland they have had little chance of seeing.
Rather than sticking to the usual list of Chinese insults to the integrity of Tibetan nature, that series of three blogs was an experiment, in two ways. First, each of the seven issues was described both as problem and as solution, rather than the more usual approach of cataloguing China’s mistakes, as if someone else is somehow standing by, ready to take up these issues and remedy them.
The second experimental aspect was in the naming of the seven issues, a deliberate blending of lists A and B, a combination of the usual scientific categories with a more Tibetan way of seeing. The uncommonly inclusive list:
- Exclusion of drogpa nomads from their pastures
- Damming Tibetan rivers
- Global climate change
- Poverty, inequality, land insecurity, food insecurity
- Sacred sites and pilgrimage circuits
- Wildlife conservation and biodiversity
This is a somewhat fresh way of looking at environment, not in a narrowly scientific way. All of these problems have human causes, and result in human impacts, as well as impacts on the environment. Modernity separates humans from the environment, as fundamentally different categories, but that is not how Tibetans think. Land degradation and poverty are results of policy mistakes that only worsen the environment further.
Science or spaciousness?
List B opens up much broader issues. List B also gives us opportunity to do more than endlessly list every mistake made by China, and then stop, as if someone else was going to take up the long list of complaints and do something effective to protect Tibet. The world doesn’t work like that; there is no global environmental governance. List B is an opportunity to say the problem is Tibet as a whole, not just specific impacts caused by dams or nukes or logging; it is also opportunity to propose constructive solutions which will eventually win over China’s leaders. List B is more than specific complaints, it is a way of showing the world how to look at Tibet through Tibetan eyes, how to take seriously the issues that cause Tibetans to grieve the most, even to burn themselves. List B is a starting point to talk of Tibet and the Tibetans as a whole, as a natural entity, a unique plateau with unique characteristics, special strengths and limitations that Tibetans have long understood and respected, which China has failed to understand or even consider.
List B is a starting point that allows us to talk of Tibet as a body, the body of the Sri Sinmo, the earth spirit and mother of all Tibetans, who lives in the earth and, if annoyed, causes earthquakes, landslides and other disasters. Tibetans learned 9000 years ago how to live on this land of earthquakes, a young land geologically, by living lightly, by mobile land use, always moving on before grazing pressure exhausted the grass. A mobile civilisation, with elaborate mobile courts of high lamas, is something to celebrate. It is a way of reframing the whole environmental debate, defining the terms of debate, rather than restricting ourselves to recognised international legal concepts of emissions, sequestration, protected areas, dam safety, etc. List B is an opening to showing the world how Tibetans see Tibet, the land of snows, as a unity, to be respected and cared for, not over-used by concentrating too many people or too much investment, in one place.
Tibetan civilisation was light on the land; China is heavy. A light touch is suitable for a land so cold that organic life takes centuries to establish itself, and does not recover when cut for railways, highways, mines, towns etc. China is creating a manufactured landscape, remaking Tibet in its own industrial image, and it won’t work. It may take a long time before this is realised. By then, it will be too late, the damage will be irreversible, the nomads will have been long removed, the land depopulated, the Tibetans remade into factory workers, migrant minorities in Chinese cities. Only then will it become obvious that the modern project of making the land of Tibet submit to human will was mistaken, unworkable, even disastrous. That’s what happened in Siberia.
But why bring Sri Sinmo into this? Tibetans of a new generation have barely heard of her, and may be somewhat embarrassed to invoke such a “primitive” ancestral spirit. Yet her limbs remain pinned down by the greatest of Tibetan temples, and rituals to renew their power to subdue (but never destroy) her are led by high lamas. Why rake up a half forgotten past, in this scientific age? The reason is that Tibet is a body, a geo-body, a coherent whole, a plateau thrust into the sky, a land surrounded by mountains, and Tibetans have always understood this. China cannot bring itself to accept, even for scientific purposes, that the plateau is one. Officially, it is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau or QTP. Officially, Tibet is fragmented, and not a whole.
Who will speak for the wholeness of Tibet, if not Tibetans? Inside Tibet, the anger of the earth spirits at mining, railway construction, tunnelling and dam building, is obvious to all. No one is embarrassed to speak of this. Some even willingly die to protect and defend the gods of the high peaks, the spirits of the pure earth, the goddesses of the lakes. This is not Shangri-la romanticism; it is the voice of the land.
Lists A and B have their place in this wider picture, instances of the modernist assault on the integrity and viability of the entire Tibetan Plateau. China’s dams, railways, nuclear weapons laboratories, clearfelled forests and nomad displacement are all examples of a wrong-headed agenda to industrialise a land not suited to the ideology of productivism. But do we need to invoke those spirits? If we want Tibet to find its voice, to ground the debate in the ways Tibetans understand their land, yes, it helps if the preBuddhist and Buddhist connections between humans, animals and land are our starting point. In future, let’s debate environment in Tibet, on Tibetan terms.
SACRED SITES, WILDLIFE & BIODIVERSITY
Blogpost 3 of 3
PRESENTATION TO TIBETAN YOUTH WORKSHOP ORGANISED BY TIBET INFORMATION OFFICE, AUSTRALIA, JANUARY 2013
Each of the seven key challenges facing Tibet is a major problem, but solutions are possible. While the ultimate solution would be to restore actual autonomy, agency, and permission for Tibetans to form their own community associations to speak up for Tibetan tradition, culture and civilisation, there are also technical solutions that could ease the tensions. Each issue is presented both as problem, and its solution.
SIX: SACRED SITES and PILGRIMAGE CIRCUITS
Problem: China maps Tibet according to its factor endowments. Certain areas are exceptionally well endowed with minerals, rivers, dam sites, lakes suitable for nuclear weapons testing, forests suitable for easy logging by rolling tree trunks into rivers which carry them down to China’s lowlands. Other areas are endowed with farmland suitable for intensified production, or are well located on transport maps as hubs, for tourism, airports, rail lines and highways. Other areas are to be classified as waste land, especially the high mountains which scatter population and make it uneconomic to extend urban services to areas which will always be remote and the people poor, unless they can be persuaded, or induced, to migrate to cities to get factory work. If some Tibetans, in the grip of superstitious thinking, still walk around certain mountains, this is of no importance, unless they can be made an object of the mass tourist gaze. If the mountains hold copper and gold, they must be mined, to provide China with resource security, much needed supplies for the world’s factory. Development will come to Tibet only by focussing investment on those special places favourably endowed with minerals, extractable water or other advantages. Tibet must climb the ladder of industrialisation, starting at the bottom, as a quarry.
Many historic sites, such as Songtsen Gampo’s birthplace at Gyama, upstream of Lhasa, are about to become huge copper and gold mines. Holy mountains swarm with geologists and drill rigs. Wild mountain rivers are dammed to provide hydro power for copper smelters high in the mountains of Kham, between the steep gorges of the Mekong and Yangtze.
Solution: The entire Tibetan Plateau was used sustainably, lightly and extensively for 9000 years. Only in recent years has intensive, excessive land use threatened sustainability. Tibet has been understood by its people as a sacred landscape, to be used with care and respect, in moderation, by a mobile civilisation that always moves on to ensure natural resources are not used up. This is still appropriate. Seeing the land as a whole, with its endless pastures, farming valleys, high peaks and pure earth, with caves for meditators to purify their minds, and pilgrimage routes that also purify within, helps overcome the fragmentation that modernity requires. There is no waste land. The life cycle requires some to withdraw from daily life, to seek solitude in the mountains, to go deep within, and then, having gained great clarity of mind, return to society to help others. Other people, as they get older, undertake a pilgrimage, to prepare for the next life. These are uses of the land that remain invisible to China and to the modern world. Yet the remote places of Tibet and the pilgrimage circuits have produced some of the most remarkable saints, leaders, poets and artists of Tibet.
China has also turned the holy city of Lhasa into a museum, with fifteen million Chinese domestic tourists flooding in each year. This makes Tibet a more popular destination for tourists than Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil or India. The holy places of Lhasa, which can transform the mind, are overrun with tourists seeking photo ops. The solution is to make Tibetan culture central to the tourism experience, with Tibetan guides speaking for the holy places. This requires a code of conduct that favours Tibetan employees, Tibetan stories and Tibetan ways of understanding.
SEVEN: WILDLIFE & BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
Problem: Tibet, and especially Kham, is a global biodiversity hotspot, a remarkable concentration of species, many of them unique to Tibet, others a unique fusion of the flora and fauna of widely differing areas that manage to live together in eastern Tibet. Not only does Kham receive plenty of monsoon rain, its steep terrain supports a full range of habitats, from tropical to alpine, on a single mountain slope. Yet these special landscapes are now rapidly industrialising, with dozens of hydro dams planned for the fast rivers, and massive power pylons carrying ultra high voltage electricity far to the east, to China’s biggest cities and factories. At Jomda Yulong, between Derge and Chamdo, many big copper/gold mines, with smelters, are under construction.
Although China has signed the global treaty on biodiversity and the Ramsar treaty to protect wetlands, and has asked UNESCO to declare many World Heritage sites in Tibet, such sites do little to conserve wildlife, have few staff to protect the supposedly protected species, including panda, chiru antelope, black necked crane and many others. Excluding nomads from the green pastures of Golok and Yushu is meant to grow more grass and protect watersheds, but in reality grazing maintains biodiversity, while closing the pastures diminishes biodiversity, according to scientific research. Everywhere fences are compulsory, although Tibet was an unfenced land in which wild herds mixed with domestic yaks, sheep and goats. Now the annual migration of wild animals is disrupted by fences and railway embankments. Wetlands are drying, and migratory birds have no place to rest or make nests safely, as the reeds die.
When China declares a nature reserve or protected area, the local people are often fenced out or removed. If they stay, they are not employed as rangers on patrol against poachers, or as conservation rehabilitation staff.
Solution: Tibetans respect all sentient beings and do not share the modern idea of conquering nature. In 2006, Gyalwa Rinpoche reminded Tibetans not to hunt, and thousands of Khampa warriors burned their furs. This saved the lives of many Indian tigers, Himalayan snow leopards, and other rare animals. Where there is a clash between wild animals such as drong and domestic yaks, NGOs have shown Tibetans can learn how to conserve wild animals, if there is a strategy to compensate them when problems arise. The hit movie Mountain Patrol showed Tibetans of Chumarleb risking even their lives to protect wild chiru from poachers.
The best way to allow wild populations to recover is to train and pay rural Tibetans to be stewards, rangers and guardians for the wildlife. This accords with article 8j of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) which acknowledges traditional communities as the best protectors of biodiversity.
CLIMATE CHANGE, MINING, POVERTY & INEQUALITY
PRESENTATION TO TIBETAN YOUTH WORKSHOP ORGANISED BY TIBET INFORMATION OFFICE, AUSTRALIA, JANUARY 2013
blog #2 of 3
Each of the seven key challenges facing Tibet is a major problem, but solutions are possible. These ideas were discussed by a new generation of Tibetan Australians gathered at a Tibetan retreat centre in the forested hills above Healesville, Victoria, in early 2013. Each issue is presented both as problem, and its solution.
These issues and the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet are not separate. The underlying causes of the protest burnings of the body, sacrificing the self to make clear the urgent need for a fresh approach, are to be found here. Self-immolation is often reported as a question of religious freedom, but the concerns of the Tibetans are many, including the seven issues identified in these three blog posts.
THREE: GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE
Problem: The land of snows, surrounded by mountains, is melting, drying and heating fast. Only the Arctic and Antarctic are warming quicker. Much of the plateau soil is in a region of permafrost, which holds frozen water in cold months, which then melts in warmer months. Not only does the seasonal thawing and freezing make is difficult to build railways and highways, as ice expands and contracts, but the early melt in spring, before plant roots can reach down to the icemelt, means plants wither, and wetlands dry up in April, May and June, lacking the water they need before the monsoon rains come. The death of Tibetan wetlands is now major, even desertification of many areas in Amdo. This is well documented in scientific research reports. There are many wetlands in Tibet, home to migratory waterbirds, now disappearing, and releasing to the atmosphere the carbon they had long stored. The new trend of early spring is also hard for farmers, whose crops find no water near the surface.
Global climate change causes many local problems, but China, the world’s biggest emitter of climate warming greenhouse gases, refuses to accept any global treaty that would require it to accept an emissions quota. The only existing treaty, the Kyoto Convention, imposes no requirements on China, nor on the US, which refused to join. China argues for an indefinite extension of the Kyoto treaty, rather than a more inclusive treaty that requires all polluters to reduce emissions. Tibet is paying a heavy price, in melting glaciers, extreme weather, early spring and widespread drying, for a problem Tibetans did not cause.
Solution: The Dalai Lama has for decades called for an attitude of global responsibility, rather than waiting till everyone else acts responsibly before accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. Like the small island states of the Pacific, like the Arctic and Antarctic, Tibet is on the frontline of global climate change consequences, and this story needs to be told more effectively. Tibet can be part of the solution if its global role in climate is understood. Not only is Tibet intensely cold in winter, it gets so warm in spring and summer, especially the bare rock of the upper mountains, that the heating plateau energises the summer monsoon, pulling the clouds to India from across the ocean. Unusually heavy winter or spring snow on the Tibetan Plateau means a late or even a failed monsoon in India. This is a story that is not yet well known.
Problem: For decades Tibet swarmed with illegal immigrant goldminers using cyanide, mercury and machinery to dig up rivers and streams seeking surface gold. Tibetans were powerless to stop them, and were declared criminals if they protested. Some Tibetan communities, with strong mutual support, have stopped miners, but successful resistance is uncommon. Now a new kind of mine is fast coming to Tibet: large scale, high tech, capital intensive pit mines and underground mines, extracting copper, gold and silver together. One of the biggest is not far upriver from Lhasa, at the birthplace of king Songtsen Gampo. These new mines will start operating soon, and will operate for decades, making billions of dollars in profits for the state owned mining companies that own them. Most are close to major rivers, especially the Yarlung Tsangpo, and plan to dump enormous quantities of crushed waste rock in huge dams that must never leak water into the rivers below, because there are toxic heavy metals in the waste. Those tailings dams holding the powdered waste must hold for centuries, long after mining has finished. The new mines are so big they require chemical processing on the spot, and smelters to produce pure metal, which in turn requires much electricity, so the new mines are a major reason for the new hydropower dams under construction. Mines also mean an immigrant workforce, since most Tibetans don’t speak or read Chinese. More mining means more immigrants towns, highways, railways, power stations, power pylons and a transport network connecting to Chinese markets.
Solution: Around the world it has been common for mining companies to brush aside the concerns of local communities. But in recent years the biggest mining corporations have realised that bad relations with neighbouring communities looks bad to shareholders, drags down corporate reputation and share price, which increases the cost of money mining corporations borrow to finance the next mine. So, for the biggest miners, it is good business to have good relations with the locals, and that sets a new global standard of corporate responsibility for miners everywhere, including China’s state owned giants that own the major Tibetan deposits.
In China, the factories that make what we consume are moving inland, to the west, closer to Tibet, making more use of metals and electricity coming from Tibet. Your next mobile phone, or computer, is increasingly likely to use raw materials from Tibet. The makers of these brand name products are also sensitive to loss of reputation through looking uncool. Once we can follow the commodity chain, and prove, for example, that the lithium in the lithium-ion battery powering your iPad came from Tibet, we can shame the manufacturers into becoming more responsible.
There are several codes of conduct we can ask miners and manufacturers to comply with: ICMM, EITI, GOXI, Equator Principles, Kimberley Process, South Africa’s Mining Charter are among the initiatives embraced by the biggest corporate players, that require codes of conduct, backed by independent monitoring to ensure standards are adhered to in practice and not just on paper. http://www.icmm.com/our-work http://eiti.org/eiti/principles http://goxi.org/page/vision-1 http://www.equator-principles.com/resources/equator_principles_chinese.pdf
FIVE: POVERTY, INEQUALITY, LAND INSECURITY, FOOD INSECURITY
Problem: Two generations ago the nomads of Tibet were regarded as having the best of lifestyles. People looked up to them. Now the nomads are regarded as ignorant, dirty and poor, in danger of having their land tenure rights cancelled, forced to move away from their ancestral pastures, in the name of watershed conservation. The nomads are becoming irrelevant, useless, illiterate and untrained for work in the cash economy of today. Regulations restricting land size, herd size, family size and how much nomad families must spend on fencing and housing, have all made nomads poor, dependent on relatives or meagre state support.
Most of the Tibetan Plateau is becoming a poor, neglected hinterland which receives little investment or improvement. Investment is concentrated in small areas favoured for mines, power stations, urban centres, highways and railways. Immigrant incomes in Lhasa are among the highest in China, comparable with Shanghai and Beijing; while most Tibetans are poor, and falling further behind, with little prospect of ever catching up, since poor counties can only afford poor schools. The inequality gap is widening, between country and city, the rich east and the poor west.
The widespread grazing bans mean Tibet is no longer self-sufficient in food, and now relies on importing food, and all manufactured goods, from lowland China. Land use certificates issued to nomads, to encourage them to look after land, have been cancelled. Tibet now faces widespread poverty, inequality, land and food insecurity. Poor people, restricted to small parcels of land, have no choice but to overgraze the land, causing degradation. Officials then blame them for the deterioration of the land. This is a self-fulfilling vicious circle.
Solution: China, aware of the danger of social unrest due to extreme inequality, now invests in rural housing, but usually Tibetans have to borrow much of the cost of a new house, creating debts that are hard to repay, and a new house that may be far from the family’s land. Restoring real negotiating power to Tibetans is essential to making any progress on all of the environmental problems of Tibet.
The key is to restore mobility. When nomads are free to move, seasonally, they take their animals up to high pasture in summer, and down again before winter, when the grass has had time to recover from the grazing pressure, and grow again. Mobility has for thousands of years been the key to sustainablility, but China has viewed nomadic mobility with suspicion.
Chinese and international scientists are starting to realise that traditional knowledge, and mobility, offer solutions, but much encouragement is needed before cadre officials learn to listen. Nomads need secure, guaranteed access to land. Reform of land tenure policy should follow the example of China’s forest dwellers, who have been given guaranteed land tenure rights in recent years, even as pasture dwellers in Tibet have lost their secure land tenure.
EXCLUDING NOMADS, DAMMING RIVERS
PRESENTATION TO TIBETAN YOUTH WORKSHOP ORGANISED BY TIBET INFORMATION OFFICE, AUSTRALIA, JANUARY 2013
blogpost 1 of 3
Each of the seven key challenges facing Tibet is a major problem, but solutions are possible.
These issues and the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet are not separate. The underlying causes of the protest burnings of the body, sacrificing the self to make clear the urgent need for a fresh approach, are to be found here. Self-immolation is often reported as a question of religious freedom, but the concerns of the Tibetans are many, including the seven issues identified in these three blog posts.
While the ultimate solution would be to restore actual autonomy, agency, and permission for Tibetans to form their own community associations to speak up for Tibetan tradition, culture and civilisation, there are also technical solutions that could ease the tensions. Each issue is presented both as problem, and its solution.
ONE: EXCLUSION OF DROGPA NOMADS FROM THEIR PASTURES
Problem: Official bans on grazing or even living, and keeping herds, on traditional pasture land are enforced throughout eastern Tibet, in Amdo and Kham, across several of China’s provinces. This is done as an environmental measure to control grassland degradation, which the nomads are blamed for. Officially, the nomads excluded from land and livelihood are “ecological migrants”, who have voluntarily sacrificed their herds and land for the greater good of downstream China’s access to water from its upriver glacial sources in Tibet. There is no evidence that nomads carelessly ruin the land they have used sustainably for 9000 years.
Hundreds of thousands of nomads have been removed, to concrete block ghettoes on the edge of towns, with nothing to do, no training in job skills, where they depend on minimal government handouts. Meanwhile, environmentalists worldwide generally support China’s moves to safeguard water sources and convert farmland to conservation land use. China argues that displacing nomads will grow more grass, which captures more carbon, and contributes to a greener world, thus excusing China from doing more to restrict its factory emissions of polluting gases.
Solution: The livelihoods of Tibet’s two million nomads need strengthening, not banning. Nomads need new markets for their dairy products and wool. Australia is a major producer of dairy and wool, in fact Australian wool has totally replaced Tibetan wool in the woollen mills of China, that produce fine woollen cloth for men’s suits and women’s fashion. China now relies on New Zealand and Australia for dairy products, since yoghurt is now fashionable in urban China. Tibet could supply much of China’s needs, and Australian aid, on a small scale, has been helping to improve Tibetan milk production:
and wool production http://www.uq.edu.au/agriculture/sheep-wool-sheep-meat
Australia has learned to listen to Aboriginal land users, to discover how to manage the landscape sustainably. China has not learned to listen to Tibetan nomads, or to respect their traditional knowledge. Australia could train China in how to work co-operatively with local landowners. Chinese scientists and NGOs are starting to respect traditional Tibetan knowledge, and bridge the great gap between arrogant Chinese officials and nomads who are treated as ignorant:
TWO: DAMMING TIBETAN RIVERS
Problem: China has big plans for damming the major rivers of the Tibetan Plateau, which water most of Asia, from Pakistan, through India, Bangladesh, South East Asia to northern China. Not only will the dams provide hydropower for China’s cities, towns, mines and smelters in Tibet, electricity will also be exported, on ultra-high voltage power lines from the foot of the Tibetan Plateau to major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Downstream India is alarmed already, but the Mekong, of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, will also be much affected. So far the dams are for electricity production rather than to capture water for diversion to other places, but northern China is short of water, and China is officially committed to divert the upper tributaries of the Dri Chu (Yangtze River) to the Ma Chu (Yellow River), along canals in Ngawa and Kandze, the areas of so many self-immolations. This canal is scheduled for construction next decade.
The number of dams constructed, under construction or planned, is extraordinary, and downstream countries of these international rivers are greatly worried, so too the fishing villages, and conservationists worried the dams will prevent fish from migrating annually upstream to breed.
Solution: When the political atmosphere was not so repressive, back in 2004-2007, people worried about a dam planned to drown a beautiful, small Tibetan lake, Megoe Tso, did succeed in lobbying senior Communist party leaders, and the dam was scrapped. http://tibetanplateau.blogspot.com.au/ One of the key campaigners was Tashi Tsering, who later summed up the campaign: “Although protests and campaigns against dam projects in China are often met with the iron hand of the government, in recent years there have been some remarkable developments in the extent to which Chinese civil society leaders have been able to work with the State Environmental Protection Agency and the media to publicise the social and environmental costs of dam projects. Scientists, journalists, environmental activists, and other citizens have worked together to provide information on the adverse costs of dam development and to advocate for a reversal of government-approved projects. Premier Wen Jiabao’s direct intervention on 1 April 2004, to suspend construction on a series of 13 dams on the Salween River was the most notable result of these campaigns. One of these dams, the Songta, was planned in Tibetan-inhabited areas. The premier made his decision in response to efforts by civil society leaders and media to educate local peoples, media, and the government about the social and environmental costs of these dams. One of the activists’ most important demands was to subject these projects to a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as required by the 2003 IEA Law. After the premier’s intervention, all 13 projects had to go through EIA, and the review committee decided that nine of them, including the Songta Dam, should not be built as planned to avoid disastrous environmental and social consequences. Following this success, Chinese environmentalists and reporters turned their attention towards another dam project in Yunnan Province, the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The proposed dam would also displace about 100,000 people. The project was scrapped in 2007 following widespread Chinese opposition. What is remarkable about the campaigns against the Salween and the Tiger Leaping Gorge dams is not only the unprecedented level of participation and support from Chinese civil society leaders but also the fact that the government tolerated the protests.
“During the same time, a smaller and more subtle campaign was being brewed to stop a dam project on a lake on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan Plateau called Megoe Tso. I was a key member of a coalition of Chinese, Tibetan, and international activists who decided to work together in a low-profile manner and use subtle campaign strategies to stop this dam project. The Megoe Tso campaign is significant because it is the first and only one to successfully stop a dam project on the Tibetan Plateau. The success of the Megoe Tso campaign also provides an important lesson for international environmental and human rights activists. The context and ways in which Western activist groups work is not only different from those in politically sensitive regions like Tibet, but they can also be counterproductive to local efforts. The Megoe Tso example shows that in order to be successful in places like Tibet, activist groups must work in unconventional ways, such as being discreet about their involvement.”
#1 in a series of three blogs on self-immolation and the roots of the blindness of China’s central leaders
Three existential questions gnaw at Tibetans and their friends worldwide.
Why do so many Tibetans carefully and premeditatedly flame themselves publicly to death?
Why does the world barely notice this unending chain of protest suicides?
Why are China’s new leaders so utterly deaf to the unmistakable deep unhappiness of the six million Tibetans?
The first question is at least answerable. The 100 or more Tibetans who have burned themselves to death over the past two years have all called for freedom, an end to repression, and for cultural space for Tibetan civilisation to breathe, and retain its strengths. Tibetans, mostly young, have discovered a distinctive, non-violent, deeply Tibetan way of confronting China’s leaders with the disastrous failure of China’s arrogant civilising mission in Tibet. Burning the body, while hurting no-one else, is not a Tibetan discovery, still less a Tibetan tradition, but it has become the defining way of rallying fellow Tibetans to resist, at any price, China’s assimilationist agenda.
Because the question is answerable, the questions that then arise are much harder to answer. Why do China’s leaders, and the wider world, ignore this utterly unambiguous, almost daily cry of protest?
The rest of the world cannot bear to look. The available footage of men and women deliberately dousing themselves with kerosene, even swallowing it before applying the match, are too much reality for the evening news viewer to bear. Even where free media are not subject to official censorship, the news channels self-censor, for fear of upsetting viewers. Since the self-immolation is usually the only footage of a meaningful life and death, there is nothing to show, which means it is not news. No picture, no story. So the second question also has an answer.
The third question seems unanswerable. China’s official response is that these deliberate deaths by burning are terrorism, and a plot instigated by evil external forces led by the Dalai Lama. This stubbornly denies the obvious, that the Tibetans who burn themselves are heroes whose courage and resolve is deeply admired by almost all Tibetans. These deaths speak a language beyond language, unmistakably telling China that its modernising project in Tibet transgresses the purpose of life, as Tibetans know it.
If China’s leaders were to hear these cries for freedom, they would have to question official policy, contemplate state failure, question their own sinicising, civilising, colonising purposes. The utter denial of the obvious is a denial of a ground truth that questions China’s great rise to comprehensive national power. Denial becomes necessary when the alternative is so subversive.
Ordinary Chinese with their eyes open, such as Xu Zhiyong, went to the homes of Tibetans who burned themselves, to see the evident truth, and pay their respects. Lawyer Xu wrote: “I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance.”
But official China can make no such human response, for fear that the entire edifice of Chinese modernity, the China model of state capitalism, the assimilationist pedagogy of “civilising” the primitive Tibetans, will unravel. In order to answer the third question requires a deep dive into Chinese history, into mental maps, the framing of China’s problems and their solutions. China’s official incapacity to hear a cry for freedom has, it seems, a long lineage. It is a long and complex story of buried assumptions, naturalised categories, embedded mindsets, national trajectories, dominant discourses, master narratives and silenced subalterns. By the end of this long journey we might actually undo the ready answers to the first two questions, or reconsider them afresh.
We go back to Japan in the 19th century to find the roots of official China’s blindness today, to the invention of religion as a category that means the opposite of everything scientific, rational, modern and progressive. We must detour into long-forgotten debates about the meaning of revolution, the direction of history, the identity of nations, the dis/continuities of Chinese culture, and even to the meaning of life, as understood by Tibetans and today’s Chinese. Only after taking this winding road do we arrive back in the here and now, with eyes open.
This could get quite personal, telling us anew who we global moderns are, why we hanker after spirituality but want to stay away from religion; how we relish the material world but want to transcend it; why we yearn to be unique, but to belong. It is not all about them, as if the China model is anything other than our own hopes and fears, sped up and in our faces.
This starts way back, when Japan discovered it needed a word for “religion”, to deal with the demands of the intrusive West, backed by warships. Japan had never conceptualised “religion” as a realm of human activity separate from the rest of life, still less that there could be many “religions”, each with equal claim to headspace.
The way religion was defined as the antithesis of progress, science and reason, continues to resonate today. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, in almost all his speeches, refers to China’s rise, China’s renaissance, China’s rejuvenation, both as the national mission and his mission. Nothing can stand in the way of fulfilling this destiny. Social forces that by definition are opposed to progress, that hold productive forces in green-brained superstition, must be resolutely opposed at every turn. China’s mission has been the overarching goal for a century and a half, ever since the Western powers revealed the powerlessness of old China. The struggle to rejuvenate China’s strength is a continuity that includes the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Republican Kuomintang era, the revolutionary quarter century under Mao, and state capitalist China of today. This is not about communism’s hostility to religion. It goes deeper, is more persistent. A mission is a mission, a concept taken from both the military and the militant Christian churches, to define the core purpose for the existence of the state. A state that succeeds in fulfilling its mission to make the country strong cannot tolerate a religion that regards the national mission as a trivial distraction from the deeper purpose of life, to understand the mind.
Xi Jinping says: “The Chinese dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation; and for the military, it is the dream of a strong military. We must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, and we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military, striving to build and consolidate national defense and a powerful military.” China is now getting close to fulfilling a mission that united dynastic reformers, republicans, intellectuals, war lords, revolutionaries, bureaucrats and business leaders for more than a century. With success in sight, nothing must be allowed to drag China backwards. These are the best of times that China has experienced in thousands of years, as is often said in China, and nothing must halt China’s rise.
It is not only the religion of the Tibetans, but the stubborn religiosity of the Tibetan people that threatens to tear apart this tumultuous and fragile rise. The Tibetans as a nation have been singularly resistant to the assimilationist agenda of the rise of a unified, harmonious China under the natural leadership of the Han Chinese.
That is the grand narrative of the party-state, which has steadily solidified in recent decades, becoming self-evident, naturalised, taken for granted as obviously successful. Yet the roots of this master discourse are grounded in a series of binary opposites that define themselves by what they are not. Science, as a major engine of prosperity and national strength, defines itself as the opposite of superstition. The modernising state has every right and reason to sweep away and repress superstitions, because they hold back productivity. Superstition and religion, in China, are separate categories that largely negate each other. Religion is defined as a coherent body of doctrines, a systematic set of teachings, in Japanese shukyo, which, in the 19th century became the Chinese zongjiao. This definition suited the Christian missionaries planning to proselytise the Japanese and Chinese, because the definition is modelled on Christianity and creates a marketplace of competing doctrines to choose from. Muscular Christianity knew how to compete.
Shukyo/zongjiao repackages Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, as an –ism, an institutionalised package of doctrines enshrined in massive monasteries whose existence challenges the state, offering the masses an alternative centre of loyalty and identity. The very existence of institutional Buddhism is a threat to state power, a perception nursed by China’s emperors all the way back to the mid T’ang dynasty in 845 AD. The Buddhists of China and Tibet, whose focus is on the experimental discovery of the nature of mind, not on adherence to prepackaged doctrine, have struggled ever since to be understood. Even now, people worldwide who are born into material prosperity and seek a transcendent spirituality, are adamant that they want nothing to do with organised religion and its doctrines. That religion and spirituality are opposites is self-evident to such seekers, who have swallowed whole the modernist message that organised religion is the cause of most of the conflict in the world.
Thus it seems China’s animosity to the religion of Tibet is deepseated. Yet everything changes, even the blind awaken. In the next blog in this series of three, we take a fresh look at contemporary Chinese modernity as a project for providing meaning in life.
 New York Times 14 December 2012