As a rapidly rich China seeks perfection, old Confucian norms slide quietly into Communist Party goals and programs of mass behavioural compliance. What could be more Confucian than the massive effort under way to enforce compliance with compulsory sincerity?

To Westerners, it might seem sincerity, undoubtedly a virtue, cannot be forced, commanded, or compelled, lest under compulsion it manifests insincerely. Confucian tradition however argues that behavioural compliance, even when not heartfelt, educates the heart to follow, so a pedagogy of behaviour modification is beneficial. If the tutelary state works consistently to modify behaviour, then the human capital of the whole society is raised to a more civilised level, and the China Dream is closer to being realised.

Honesty and sincerity flow upward, up the Confucian hierarchy, from sister to brother, from younger to older, wife to husband, villager to clan all the way up to the sovereign party-state. Sincerity is intrinsic to what in English (in a quaint 19th century locution) is called filial piety, which entails submission of the lower to the higher, manifesting as humility and sincerity. There is little expectation that those at the peak of the hierarchy should in turn manifest sincerity. Sincerity is what is expected of one’s inferiors, as they strive to win credibility by compliance with what is required of them.

China’s drive to engineer a pervasive “social credit” system has been called an experiment in Totalitarianism 2.0, a Leninist reversion to the worst of Soviet-inspired centralism, a massive experiment in social engineering; a hi-tech big data driven experiment in Orwellian thought control, but seldom a Confucian model of 24/7 surveillance, rewards and punishments for displays of sincerity.

Confucian it is, though what Confucius would have made of today’s elaborate plans to reward compliant citizens and punish the noncompliant is not at all sure. Elaborate is an understatement of the panopticon plans, the stream of State Council “Guidelines” issued, as China gears up to its 2020 goal of total surveillance and behavioural correction of all citizens all the time. Not only will this require behavioural displays of submissive sincerity by all citizens towards state authority, China’s biggest corporate generators of big data play a key role, and even foreign investors in China are expected to comply, and be rated for compliance, on an ongoing basis.

This is what the party-state proudly calls a “top-level design”, (顶层设计) an over-arching taking command, setting the categories all must dwell within, defining the universe of discourse. Top-level design is a phrase in common use in China, where it applies not only to the design of software but to designing anything modern, including education, water conservancy and land consolidation. Top-level design connotes not only superiority but above all rationality, comprehensiveness, an ability to think of everything and fit all into a framework that leaves out nothing.

This is the preeminent domain of the state, not only in relation to society, but also as distinct from the party. In the institutionalised party-state, it is undoubtedly the party that is in charge, the authorial voice of all initiative and direction; but it is the state that must have capability of effecting the will of the party. Top-level design of sincerity work is now the top task of the state, as evident in the language of China’s State Council, the top level of state power. In a “Guiding Opinion” instructing all levels of government, issued in the last days of 2016, the State Council states: “In order to carry forward the traditional virtue of sincerity, strengthen the sincerity consciousness of members of society, strengthen the construction of a personal sincerity system, praise sincerity and punish trust-breaking, raise the credit levels of the entire society and create a beneficial credit environment, with the approval of the State Council, these Opinions are hereby put forward. Guiding ideology. Comprehensively implement the spirit of the 18th Party Congress,………… forcefully carry forward a sincerity culture, accelerate the construction of personal sincerity records, perfect mechanisms for personal information security, privacy protection and credit recovery, complete incentive mechanisms for keeping trust and punitive mechanisms for breaking trust, ensure that trust keepers receive benefits and trust-breakers are subjected to restrictions, let sincerity become a common value pursuit and behavioural norm for all of society, vigorously create a benign social environment where “promise-keeping is glorious and trust-breaking shameful”.

From the outset, this is a reward-and-punishment system, along a spectrum from full behavioural compliance through to criminal non-compliance. The vision is utterly dualistic, predicated on binary opposites that constitute each other. Sincerity is defined by its’ Other: trust-breaking, and vice versa. The key Chinese term for sincerity is often translated as honesty.

This official Guiding Opinion, one of several issued by the State Council, is lengthy, so should be read in full to appreciate its insistence on shaping the thoughts of all citizens.  It states: “Let sincerity education permeate into the overall process of citizens’ morality construction and spiritual civilization construction. Strengthen education about social morality, professional ethics, household virtue and personal valour, and create a social atmosphere where “keeping promises is glorious, breaking trust is shameful, and not having trust is fearful”.

Thus is the new social contract drawn. The duties of all citizens are clear. If citizens do have rights as well as responsibilities, these are not inborn but granted by the state, and can be withdrawn when the citizen transgresses, necessitating punishment instilling fear. There are no inalienable, inborn rights, in keeping with Confucian traditionalism.


Yet this is not only a contract between the individual and the state. Capitalist China’s corporate wealth accumulation is now so well advanced that actual ability to monitor citizen behaviour rests more in corporations than in the state, especially if all citizens are to be monitored, in real time.This is the realm of big data; the corporate capture of citizen behaviour every time one makes an e-commerce transaction. Thus the State Council’s definition of promise breaking and breach of trust is skewed towards the evils of gaming the market, not paying one’s bills on time, cheating the big corporations. The key concept is social credit, to such an extent that coverage outside China of this top-level project usually calls the entire scheme “social credit”.

The State Council instructs all to: “Implement joint punishment against grave trust-breakers in focus areas. Adopt joint punishment for grave trust-breaking activities against individuals who gravely endanger the physical health and the safety of the lives of the popular masses, who gravely destroy the fair competitive order of the market and the regular order of society, who refuse to carry out legal duties and gravely influence the creditability of judicial and administrative bodies, as well as refuse to carry out national defence duties. List gravely trust-breaking individuals who maliciously avoid debts, illegally raise funds, commit telecommunications fraud or online fraud, commit traffic violations, do not pay taxes sincerely and according to the law, etc., as focus supervision targets, and adopt administrative restrictions and punitive measures according to laws and regulations. At the same time as jointly punishing trust-breaking enterprise and undertaking work units, adopt corresponding joint punishment measures against related responsible persons according to the provisions of laws, regulations and policies, and implement joint punishment down to persons. Encourage that grave trust-breaking records emerging from an individual’s economic activities in the marketplace collected by basic financial credit information databases and personal credit investigation bodies are submitted to the nationwide credit information sharing platforms, as reference to carry out credit punishment measures.”

Sinning against the market is conflated with crimes against public safety, those “who gravely destroy the fair competitive order of the market and the regular order of society” are those with most to fear once big data fulfils its potential, scheduled for 2020. The technologies enabling the state and the biggest data gatherers to work together are well-known: “Use the citizen identity number as a basis to build uniform citizen social credit coding systems. Promote citizen identification and fingerprint information registration work, and realize complete coverage of the uniform citizen social credit code. Use informatized technological means to incessantly strengthen personal identity information checking work, and ensure the uniqueness of personal identification information.”

This partnership of the state and enterprises mirrors the entrenched party-enterprise relationship of crony capitalism with Chinese characteristics. At every turn, enterprises, if they are to succeed, must obtain permissions from endless bureaucracies insisting their regulatory approval is required. Building the necessary networks, enabling the discreet payment of gifts, favours and banquets enables a corporation to function. For it to succeed, it usually needs more: special favours, access to cheap loans available only from official policy banks, access to credit, contracts to supply state organs, market access to territories under official jurisdictions, etc. For senior executives, cultivation of networks within the party-state is a full-time task, to be done with much skill and damage to the liver. In times of official party campaigns against corruption, even greater discretion is needed.

The party-state remains deeply ambivalent about corporate capitalism, which is both the engine of growth and personal wealth accumulation, but also disruptive, disorderly, corrupting and addictive. This ambivalence is no longer dealt with by favouring the state-owned corporations, leaving private enterprises to fend for themselves. That too is a recipe for disaster, and for popular mistrust to grow, both against corporate fraud and official failures to catch fraudsters in time.

This ambivalence about capitalist China has Confucian roots. There is something too anarchic, unpredictable, even dangerous about the creative destruction inherent to capitalism. Thus the need for a strongly regulative state is reinforced, albeit a state in deep partnership with corporate big data generators. Order must be maintained, stability is paramount, while wealth accumulation continues to accelerate.

This raises further dilemmas for a state ever inclined to assert its power to implement the will of the party. The state must be seen to be powerful, yet it must, in the right circumstances, waive its regulatory power if it is to reward those with the highest social credit rankings, be they citizens or corporations. In a longer State Council directive of May 2016 all levels of government in all provinces are instructed: “In the implementation of all kinds of preferential government policies for financial capital arrangements, supplementary preferential policies for attracting investment and raising funds, etc., priority consideration is to be given to sincere market subjects, and support strengthened.”  In practice, it is the state, more accurately the party-state that awards “sincere market subject” status to corporations, and then rewards them accordingly, the necessary networking having been accomplished in private. Crony capitalism is not threatened.

The gaze of the state cannot be returned, as Chinese critics point out: “’The government asks people to be honest, but it excludes itself from such scrutiny,’ says Zhu Dake, a Humanities professor at Tongji University in Shanghai. ‘The government should be watched as well, but who’s watching them?’ he adds. ‘Should we develop another app that allows the people to monitor them? If we did, they’d accuse us of breaking the law.’ Zhu says unilateral grading from a nationwide social credit system could lead to what he calls ‘credit totalitarianism.  Where will this lead? They could easily expand the criteria and start judging people on moral or ideological grounds. They’re using modern technology to create a vision of Orwell’s 1984.’”


For the entire system to operate as planned, someone must be threatened, fearful and punished. If casual urban jaywalkers and slow billpayers are to fear falling further into social deficit, there must be negative examples, further down the slide, exemplary in their utter discredit. There must be a special hell that exemplifies the fate of those utterly without credit, without sincerity, those wilful trust-breakers who flout all civilised norms and fail to show any gratitude at all for the benevolence of the state. In short, this is Tibet.

The Tibetans are utterly untrustworthy; all Han Chinese know this, having been thus instructed by state media in 2008, endlessly repeating the mantra: killing, smashing, looting, burning as the defining characteristics of all Tibetans. Anyone who, for example, sees a doco shot on the streets of Beijing, of Tibetan street vendors setting out a small rug of classic Tibetan silver jewellery for sale, being immediately chased away by an angry Han woman at her nearby street food stall, witnesses the instant racist contempt of Han for Tibetans. Just such a doco is Nowhere to Call Home, filmed by NPR correspondent Jocelyn Ford, which then takes us to a police station, where the Tibetan woman pleads for her confiscated roll of silverware to be returned, to be met by more anger, suspicion and a curt order to leave the neighbourhood.

Ninety-seven percent of all the Tibetans live under China, only three percent are in exile, scattered around the world. In China’s eyes, those six million citizens are collectively guilty of insincerity, untrustworthiness, ingratitude, wilful disobedience and treacherous disloyalty, since their hearts belong to a foreign lama. All this is so well known it needs no debating or discussion; it is self-evident.


Collective punishment for collective guilt is an old Chinese tradition of Confucian statecraft, and is much practiced today. Equally collectively guilty are the entire Uighur nation of Xinjiang province to the immediate north of Tibet. Of China’s 56 officially recognised ethnicities, only these two have failed to assimilate to the Han norm, and the very fact that only two out of 56 remain stubbornly deviant in itself counts as proof of their insincerity, and failure to respect natural hierarchy. The Tibetans and the Uighur have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and they don’t show the slightest sign of remorse.

The frequent instructions issued by the State Council and the central planners of the    National Development Reform Commission announcing the arrival of the mandatory sincerity program emphasize individual compliance. Likewise, media coverage offers stories of casual noncompliance and the shameful consequences of being caught by surveillance technology and big data doing something untrustworthy. A Wall Street Journal article sets the scene: “Gan Liping pumped her bike across a busy street, racing to beat a crossing light before it turned red. She didn’t make it. Immediately, her face popped up on two video screens above the street. “Jaywalkers will be captured using facial-recognition technology,” the screens said. Facial-recognition technology, once a specter of dystopian science fiction, is becoming a feature of daily life in China, where authorities are using it on streets, in subway stations, at airports and at border crossings in a vast experiment in social engineering. Their goal: to influence behavior and identify lawbreakers. Ms. Gan, 31 years old, had been caught on camera crossing illegally here once before, allowing the system to match her two images. Text displayed on the crosswalk screens identified her as a repeat offender. “I won’t ever run a red light again,” she said. Unfettered by privacy concerns or public debate, Beijing’s authoritarian leaders are installing iris scanners at security checkpoints in troubled regions and using sophisticated software to monitor ramblings on social media. By 2020, the government hopes to implement a national “social credit” system that would assign every citizen a rating based on how they behave at work, in public venues and in their financial dealings.”[1]

The focus is on the individual, in the hope of convincing hundreds of millions of Gan Lipings that losing social credit by biking too slowly across an intersection just isn’t worth it. The compliance of a thousand million citizens is best accomplished by their active, individual embrace of the technologies that automatically verify their compliance every time they shop online or pay a bill or get across an intersection before the lights change. Each citizen transacts such transactions many times daily, accumulating a data trail ripe for monetisation and for the state’s compulsory sincerity behaviour modification campaign.

This is a fortunate alignment of the stars, giving corporate China and the party-state ever more in common. The main beneficiary is Jack Ma, China’s richest man, friend of Donald Trump, head of Alibaba, the e-commerce big data provider whose fortune is guaranteed by the party-state’s exclusion of its American competitors entry to China. Alibaba makes money every time a consumer orders anything online. Alibaba has long had every reason to track its customers credit-worthiness; all it had to do was sell to the party-state the idea that credit worthiness is a proxy for sincerity and trust worthiness, in fact they are the same thing.

[1] Josh Chin and Liza Lin, China Tracks Faces to Shape Behavior: New technology taps camera data in vast social-engineering experiment, Wall Street Journal,  27 June 2017


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Jack Ma (R), founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, and President-elect Donald Trump pose for the media after their meeting at Trump Tower January 9, 2017. 



In China, big data already looms large. Jack Ma’s Alibaba does not face foreign competition, but he is not alone in the Chinese market. He knows, like all tech entrepreneurs, that he must at all times move disruptively fast if he is to stay ahead; and again it is the party-state that stands to benefit. Jack Ma now says his company’s future fortune depends on its embrace of big data. Knowing whether customer Gan Liping prefers her socks pink or purple is no longer enough. The data she generates each time she willingly signs on to generate more data is itself the product Jack Ma’s company sells, the socks are secondary. The best of customers for big data is the state; it is the reason the state exists, to implement party policy through a capacity to enforce, coax, cajole, incentivise and punish, to ensure everyone is sincere.

As the Financial Times explains:  “If data are the new oil, Jack Ma, former English teacher turned China’s richest man, is the new John D Rockefeller. Like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Mr Ma’s Alibaba is a lucrative and rapidly growing business. Earlier this month, it forecast annual revenues would increase 45 to 49 per cent, adding $42.25bn to its value — almost an entire Barclays bank — the following day. “Alibaba is evolving into a big data conglomerate,” enthused Jessie Guo, analyst at Jefferies. “We are at the beginning of data-driven monetisation”, added Chi Tsang, head of internet research at HSBC. Alibaba’s vertically and horizontally integrated services span shopping, movies, finance and logistics, all collecting information on people’s spending, location and viewing. Once refined, the data are fed back to merchants, who in turn can better target their goods and sell more over Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms. Alibaba has also taken its data engine to new levels. It was buying physical stores well before Amazon set its sights on Whole Foods and is collating data on people’s habits in both the online and physical world, enabling more relevant store layout and more efficient management of inventory. It is also targeting far more products than its US peers. Alibaba’s competitors, mainly peers Baidu and Tencent, which together make up China’s BAT tech trinity, are building similarly massive databanks. Tencent’s WeChat social media platform has almost 940m subscribers, while Baidu collates information from owning the country’s leading search engine. The BAT tech giants — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — are in the midst of a data land grab, trying to draw lines around as much client information as possible. The stakes are high. Whoever commands the bulk of data from China’s 730m internet users will be able to dominate the online advertising and ecommerce markets, which collectively generated $930bn in revenue in 2016. “Alibaba in particular is becoming predatory and will knock off smaller players if they don’t adhere to what they want,” says Shaun Rein, founder of consultancy China Market Research Group. “Data are the next big fight.” Big data are also the fuel that powers artificial intelligence, which has applications in everything from driverless cars to home devices, and is generally touted as the next big thing in business. Baidu and Tencent have both set up AI labs in the US and China.”[1]


The state can use any amount of big data, and willingly invest in the technologies of surveillance that generate data fed through to “convenience” police stations, a new innovation in unhappy areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, conveniently close to where people live, conveniently ready to enforce mandatory sincerity and trustworthiness. Data flows to grid management offices designed to break urban communities into atomised segments small enough for the grid captain and his chengguan community police to know everyone, and be able to pick out the untrustworthy at once, the moment technologies of surveillance pick up anything that looks noncompliant.

For a strong state with a Confucian urge to get stronger, to become a model tutelary state raising the human capital of all citizens,  this data bonanza opens the door to the fulfilment of the Confucian dream of correcting the behaviour of each and every citizen, each and every time they fail to display correct sincerity and trustworthiness.

All that is needed is more technology, to capture behavioural compliance everywhere outside the home. When eventually the promised internet of things arrives, with every refrigerator, toaster and microwave monitoring and reporting our domestic behaviours as well, surveillance, rewards and punishments will be not only 24/7 but all-pervasive, and automated.



These technologies of surveillance and data accumulation, now being rolled out across China, were pioneered in Tibet, and now even more intensively, in Xinjiang. New technologies promise to be more comprehensive, seeing everything, missing nothing, thus more effective than the old dang’an dossier on paper compiled by the party committee in every organisation.[2] Just as punishment of the untrustworthy is essential to seducing the compliant and trustworthy, so the technologies of always-on behavioural monitoring are essential to the obsession with big data. Tibet has led the way, now all of China follows.

In the West, there is a widespread perception that “the Tibet issue” is dead. Tibet’s moment has come and gone; the world has moved on, is now preoccupied with urgent issues closer to home, and no longer has the luxury of worrying about confusingly unclear claims to rights to self-determination, autonomy and religious freedom.

Tibetans see it differently. There is much more to “the Tibet issue” than collective and individual human rights. Tibet is China’s laboratory for a model of the meta-synthetic engineering of social compliance (to use China’s jargon) and for the technologies that enable its enforcement, that apply worldwide to all under heaven. The hubris of the systems theory wonks now in favour at the highest levels of the party-state is evident in their grandiose claims: “Along with the rapid development of China’s information network, an “Internet Chinese society” begins to take shape. How to conduct effective information collection, real-time analysis, fast and accurate large-scale dissemination and use, have become the major strategic issues connected to national security and competitiveness. Deployment in advance in those related technology issues, like Social Computing and Parallel Management Systems (PMS) is vital. Social Computing mainly makes use of open-source intelligence to do controllable and repeatable experiments on social issues, in order to achieve qualitative and quantitative assessment of the relevant decision-making plans and possible incidents. While Parallel Management Systems(PMS) makes use of the result of Social Computing to simulate and predict the occurrence and development process of real events, and form parallel artificial process, in order to achieve effective management and control of the events.”[3]

If the world fails to notice what is happening in laboratory Tibet, it too will find that the price of drawing ever closer to China is compulsory participation in the regime of endless behavioural proof of sincerity and trustworthiness.

Already, in Germany, think tanks advising German high tech companies doing business in China they need to be very careful: “The system will create strong incentives for companies to make their business decisions and operations comply not just with laws and regulations but also with the industrial and technological policy targets laid down by the Chinese government. Foreign companies active on the Chinese market are planned to be integrated into the system and treated the same way as their Chinese competitors. Foreign companies will also be subjected to the full extent of industrial policy guidance. At the heart of the Social Credit System lies massive data collection on company activities by government agencies and authorized rating entities. The system will be prone to failing technologies, data manipulation, and the politically induced, unidirectional allocation of investments. It will thus reduce the capacity for autonomous business decisions or non-standard disruptive business models and pose a constant risk to the protection of proprietary company data. Companies should take the accelerating implementation of the system and its impact on doing business in and with China very seriously.”[4]

Tibet leads China, and the world, as a testbed of not only technologies of surveillance and punishment, but also for slotting them into wider regimes of punishment and reward, which will appeal to all sovereign states worried about security risks within their borders. A primary tool for creating these wider regimes of compliance is linguistic. The scales which rank behaviour as compliant through to untrustworthy and insincere exist already in Tibetan language, as well as Chinese and English, and it is worth noting their similarities and differences as seemingly identical concepts slide between languages.

The concepts constituting the new regime are given attractive labels that make their use less objectionable and more palatable. Who could possibly be against sincerity and trustworthiness? Social credit sounds immediately like a good idea. In turn, these benign terms lend themselves to top-level design. It is only when they are observed in the field, in practice, that it becomes clear how they manifest in the daily lives of Tibetans stopped for ID checks every block, or for interrogations that invariably conclude with the demand for information on others that provides evidence of untrustworthy, insincere thoughts towards state power, expressed in private.

The lexicon of sincerity/honesty work, across three languages, reveals, especially in Tibetan, the fantasy of top-level systems design as the key to complete control.  Tibetans are left in no doubt, in practice and in words, what is meant by the state’s fixation on stability maintenance and the sincerity work needed to ensure stability. Some of the key terms are actually mnemonic slogans, readily remembered because they are wrapped in vivid metaphors. Thanks to a recent trilingual decoding of these metaphors by Human Rights Watch, we can see afresh how the state’s sincerity work actually works.

First slogan is “Nets in the Sky, Traps on the Ground, in Tibetan: gnam rgya sa rnyi གནམ་རྒྱ་ས་རྙི།, in Chinese: tiānluó dìwǎng 罗地网 Definition: This term refers to the pervasive systems of control and surveillance deployed to track, identify and capture criminals, dissidents, and fugitives. In the current Tibet context, it appears to refer to blocking foreign media broadcasts into Tibet, controlling cyberspace, and stopping Tibetans fleeing into exile or visiting India.”[5]

There are more slogans familiar to Tibetans, as the governing metaphors of the state’s agenda to “forcefully carry forward a sincerity culture, accelerate the construction of personal sincerity records, complete incentive mechanisms for keeping trust and punitive mechanisms for breaking trust, ensure that trust keepers receive benefits and trust-breakers are subjected to restrictions”, to again quote recent State Council directives.  Another slogan with deeply Chinese characteristics is “Copper Ramparts, Iron Walls, in Tibetan: zangs gyang lcags rtsigs ཟངས་གྱང་ལྕགས་རྩིགས།, in Chinese: tóngqiáng tiěbì 铜墙铁壁 Definition: The term refers to an impenetrable “public security defense network” (zhi’an lianfang wangluo) consisting of citizen patrols, border security posts, police checkposts, surveillance systems, internet controls, identity card monitoring, travel restrictions, management of “focus personnel,” grid unit offices, informant networks, and other mechanisms that aim to control or monitor movement of people and ideas into, out of, or within a region or society.

A seemingly neutral term focuses the gaze of the state on those most likely to be in a deficit of social credit: “Key Persons, in Tibetan: gtso gnad mi sna གཙོ་གནད་མི་སྣ།, in Chinese: zhòngdiǎn rényuán kòngzhì 重点人员 Definition: The full version of this phrase in Chinese means “important persons to be controlled.”This refers to individuals deemed to pose a potential threat to society, so that officials and police should monitor or “control” their movements and behavior especially closely; similar to profiling. A 2012 list in Tibet included, (1) those released from detention; (2) those returning from abroad (huiliu renyuan), such as Tibetans who have been unofficially to India; (3) “mobile” monks and nuns, meaning those who are not officially affiliated to and residing in a monastery; (4) people who were monks or nuns in the past but have been expelled from a monastery; (5) people suspected of involvement in the protests of March 2008; and (6) “other individuals who require special attention.”

Another official slogan is: “Every Village a Fortress, Everyone a Watchman, in Tibetan: grong tsho tshang ma mkhar rdzong dang mi tshang ma so dmag གྲོང་ཚོ་ཚང་མ་མཁར་རྫོང་དང་མི་ཚང་མ་སོ་དམག, in Chinese: cūn cūn chéng bǎolěi, rén rén zuò shǒuwàng 村村成堡垒,人人做守望 Definition: Requiring every community and every resident in Tibet to be active participants in “stability maintenance” work, meaning that all residents must report any threats to stability, such as the arrival of outsiders or expressions of dissent, and must participate actively in security operations. These operations include “voluntary defense teams,” “patrol teams,” and other security measures in villages, local communities, workplaces, and schools. Participation is unlikely to be optional. The phrase also describes the ideal “stability maintenance” condition, where every community is so well policed by the residents that no disturbing ideas or people can enter it undetected.”

Another common slogan expresses the state’s need for all behaviours to be made visible to official scrutiny: “Eliminate Unseen Threats, in Tibetan: mi mngon pa’i rkyen ngan med pa bzo ba མི་མངོན་པའི་རྐྱེན་ངན་མེད་པ་བཟོ་བ།, in Chinese: xiāochú yǐnhuàn 消除隐患 Definition: An overarching instruction for all “stability maintenance” work, requiring personnel to take preemptive action against any potential cause of instability, even if it does not yet appear to be a threat.  This instruction refers to the belief among Chinese officials that even an apparently minor issue or complaint can trigger underlying disaffection among the general population and lead to serious protests against the state, especially in Tibet.”

Yet another slogan, to be memorised by police empowered to do official honesty/sincerity work conveys the same fixation on making the citizenry legible to the state: “No Cracks, No Shadows, No Gaps Left, in Tibetan: srubs kha | grib cha | stong cha bcas ma lus pa སྲུབས་ཁ། གྲིབ་ཆ། སྟོང་ཆ་མ་ལུས་པ།, in Chinese: meiyou fèngxì, meiyou mángdiǎn hé meiyou kòngbái dian 没有缝子,没有盲点和没有空白点 Definition: The Chinese version of this slogan can be translated literally as “no cracks, no blind spots, no gaps unfilled.” It is an order or “guiding instruction” to police, Party officials, and others not to overlook or neglect even the most trivial location or aspect of a case when they are assessing, investigating or searching a village, home, monastery, or any other location. It instructs them to investigate a person even when there is only the slightest suspicion that they might pose a potential threat to “stability maintenance.” This instruction is repeated frequently to local officials in the TAR, ordering them to surveil all people who appear to present the slightest threat.”

These are key phrases for doing honesty/sincerity work on the ground. What do they add up to? Sincerity work and social credit rankings are comparatively new concepts, born as the era of big data dawns. Before this new top-level design to monitor, punish and correct insincerity and trust-breaking, there was already a lexicon, still common in Tibet, more euphemistic, defining the overall purpose of surveillance, reward and punishment of Tibetans. The most widely known key term is stability maintenance, in use for many years, a command from the highest levels of the party-state to the lowest of local government officials to contain dissent at all costs, prevent protest from spreading, by holding local officials ineligible for promotion if they fail.




[1] Louise Lucas, Alibaba taps user data to drive growth spurt, Financial Times, 22 June 2017

[2] William W. Moss, Dang’an: Contemporary Chinese Archives, The China Quarterly, No. 145 (Mar., 1996), pp. 112-129

[3] Twenty-two S&T Initiatives of Strategic Importance to China’s Modernization, Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050: Strategic General Report of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ed: Yongxiang L, Springer 2010

[4] Mirjam Meissner, CHINA’S SOCIAL CREDIT SYSTEM: A big-data enabled approach to market regulation with broad implications for doing business in China, Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin, May 2017,

[5] Human Rights Watch, Tibet: A glossary of repression, 19 June 2017

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As China has become richer, punishment and repression are no longer the only options for taming Tibet. The other end of the scale –rewards- are now within the budgetary capacity of local governments in Tibetan areas, long subsidised heavily by the central government.[1] So a newer, broader term has gradually replaced stability maintenance: social maintenance. That in turn has become a step towards social credit rankings. Human Rights Watch explains: “Stability maintenance” (Tibetan: brtan lhing srung skyong བརྟན་ལྷིང་སྲུང་སྐྱོང་།, Chinese: weiwen 维稳,  refers to the security measures instituted across the country from 2007 onwards to counter unrest and dissent. Since around 2013, these policies have also often been grouped under a second umbrella term, “social management,” which also refers to measures designed to achieve “stability” but implies the inclusion of measures providing services to the population. Social Management, in Tibetan: spyi tshogs do dam སྤྱི་ཚོགས་དོ་དམ།, In Chinese: shèhuì guǎnlǐ 社会管理  Definition: “Social management” refers to a system of policies, methods, institutions, and attitudes designed to prevent social unrest by improving government provision of social services while at the same time improving government capacity to suppress dissent. It refers particularly to improving the capacity of Party and government organizations both to deliver services and to eliminate dissent, especially in rural townships and villages. These services include poverty relief, employment, and skills training, the mediation of disputes and “social contradictions,” and management of the “floating” or (migrant) population. All branches of government are required to perform social management functions, including those in charge of workplace safety, food safety, emergency management, and so forth.”

The shift now under way, from stability maintenance to social management to social credit entails a shift of perspective. Under stability maintenance there was no doubt whatever who decides what stability is. It is the gaze of the party-state that defines stability, and what constitutes transgression. Under social maintenance, the society to be maintained is local, its development path invested in. Social credit defines the social more broadly, no longer locally. Implicitly basing itself on Confucian universals such as sincerity and trust, it is the whole of Chinese society that is hurt when trust is broken and citizens act insincerely. The feelings of the entire Chinese people are hurt by infractions of mandatory sincerity and trustworthiness; and the party, by definition, embodies the aspirations and values of the Chinese people.

Three top-level design phrases remain in this lexicon we now need to learn from the Tibetans. One is: “Comprehensive Rectification, in Tibetan: phyogs bsdus bcos skyong ཕྱོགས་བསྡུས་བཅོས་སྐྱོང་།, in Chinese: zònghé zhìlǐ 综合治理  Definition: The Chinese term zonghe zhili is usually translated as “comprehensive management,” but, as with “social rectification,” the Tibetan equivalent has the stronger meaning of “ongoing correction,” and so we have rendered it as “comprehensive rectification.” It usually refers to police operations designed to impose or restore order in a community or locality. These operations include police raids, investigations, detentions, prosecutions, closures, or reeducation drives. They can be in response to a particular incident or situation, or because that locality is subject to routine attention in any case. The term is often used to describe stability maintenance work in general.”

The goal now is shifting, from punitive behavioural correction after things have gone wrong, to the hope, with big data, of preventing dissent well before it manifests publicly. Thus a second key phrase is “Preventive Control, in Tibetan: sngon ’gog tshod ’dzin སྔོན་འགོག་ཚོད་འཛིན།, in Chinese: shèhuì zhì’ān fángkòng 社会治安防控  Definition: The full form of this phrase is “preventive control of social stability.” It refers to the construction and development of policing networks to detect and deal with threats to stability before they lead to actual incidents. Usually refers to the grid management system (meaning offices established within each “grid unit” of a town or village) and to “public convenience police posts,” which were set up at road junctions in many Tibetan towns after 2011. It also includes organizing ordinary people to carry out security work by recruiting security teams and organizing citizen patrols in villages, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.”

Last is a new top-level design term, a product of the age of big data: “Three-dimensional [Social Stability] Preventive Control System, in Tibetan: langs gzugs can gyi sngon ’gog tshod ’dzin ma lag ལངས་གཟུགས་ཅན་གྱི་སྔོན་འགོག་ཚོད་འཛིན་མ་ལག, in Chinese: lìtǐ huà shèhuì zhì’ān fáng kòng tǐxì 立体化社会治安防控体系  Definition: Refers to a policing system or monitoring network that includes digital surveillance; monitoring at the grassroots level carried out by cadres based in monasteries, villages, and local neighborhoods; and policing done by officials in grid management offices and by appointed representatives in “double-linked household” units. The term emphasizes the integration of multiple information systems.”

Even though very few Han Chinese speak or read Tibetan, these key concepts are now being rolled out across China, from their origin in Tibet.  All Chinese need now to learn this lexicon; so too do foreign investors whose businesses are also expected to comply with the honesty/sincerity and trust rating regime. There is much to learn from the Tibetan experience.

Right now, the hundreds of millions of Chinese customers of Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, much like the worldwide customers of Google, Amazon and Apple, are eagerly giving big corporations tasked with policing their trustworthiness as much personal data as possible. As big data accumulates, and as the computing power to find patterns in it grows, China’s state grows more ambitious. These are early days in the quest to rate and rank each citizen’s social credit score, to reward or punish accordingly. Even the most utopian/dystopian of State Council edicts sets 2020 as the date when the sincerity ratings become fully operation, at the earliest.



But already, those who have been paying attention express alarm. The Economist magazine calls this a digital dictatorship: “In China the monitoring could result in a digital dystopia. Officials talk of creating a system that by 2020 will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” So far, the scheme is only experimental, in about 30 areas. Indeed, attempts to use the system to give the party more muscle are meeting opposition. Official media have reported misgivings about one experiment in which citizens visiting government offices to complain about miscarriages of justice were punished with poor scores. This aims to score not only the financial creditworthiness of citizens, as happens everywhere, but also their social and possibly political behaviour. The early signs are that China is starting on the most ambitious experiment in digital social control in the world.  Wholesale surveillance, increasingly of the digital sort, is a central pillar of Chinese communist rule. A system of block-by-block surveillance called “grid management” is being set up in several parts of the country: police and volunteers keep tabs on groups of a few hundred people, supposedly to ensure the rubbish is collected and disputes resolved. It is part of a tradition of self-policing that stretches back to the Song dynasty in the 11th century. At worst, the social-credit project could become a 360-degree digital-surveillance panopticon. But the government is creating the capacity for a long-tentacled regime of social control. Many of the elements are ready: the databases; the digital surveillance; the system of reward and punishment; and the we-know-best paternalism. What remains is to join the pieces together. If and when that is done, China would have the world’s first digital totalitarian state.”

If we fail to learn from Tibet, we may discover that even in the democratic West, we too now live in a surveillance state, run for the benefit of a surveillance-industrial complex that has a vested interest in scaring us about the enemies within, and without, to enhance the power and profitability of the tutelary state that punishes the untrustworthy and dishonest. A leading historian of China warns that the Chinese model of control of society that many consider to be totalitarian, over time, will be established in democratic countries. Pamela Kyle Crossley said: “the difference is that Chinese society is more prepared for integration of commercial, military and law enforcement data. As a result of tighter Chinese control through intimidation and self-censorship than will control Americans for another couple of decades.”

As surveillance state analyst Ben Hayes puts it: “The power of the private sector to influence government surveillance agendas is embodied in the surveillance-industrial complex. The consolidation of surveillance into one of the dominant organizational paradigms of contemporary governance, economies and societies does not mean that those surveillance mechanisms most closely linked with state power, control and coercion have simply developed in an ad hoc fashion as societies have reoriented themselves around the potentially infinite power of information technology to record, analyze and shape human activity. On the contrary, the surveillance-industrial complex is at the heart of many of the transformations in population control, policing and intelligence gathering.

“The very idea of the surveillance-industrial complex warns of a nexus so entrenched that it promises to deliver ever more pervasive, intrusive and effective surveillance technologies in perpetuity, just as its military counterpart continues to provide ever more high-tech means to “shock-and-awe,” to target and neutralize the enemy.

“Governments and state agencies no longer just respond to crimes, instead they try to pre-empt them by identifying and neutralizing risks before threats to security can be realized. Consequently, policing and criminal justice is now as much about managing and mitigating danger as it is about crime and punishment.

“A new logic of security is supplanting the criminal law as a primary principle from which the use of physical force and other coercive measures can proceed. This trend, which relies implicitly on new and established forms of surveillance, emerged long before the events of 9/11 and was widely anticipated within the literature on risk, policing and actuarial justice. What no-one could have foreseen, however, was the rapid expansion of corresponding executive powers under the so-called “war on terror,” including security detention (often without the prospect of trial), control orders, discretionary expulsion, “rendition” and even the outsourcing of torture, all underpinned by a plethora of public and private blacklists and databases. This has led some to argue that we are now witnessing the emergence of a new “securitarian order” predicated on the globalization of surveillance; a new means of “managing mass society” through the “religion of national security,”

“A holistic dimension to security can also be observed in the construction of new, networked, “interoperable” or “joined-up” security systems (some are going so far as to describe them as “security ecologies”).

“In practical terms this means enhanced cooperation between police, intelligence, military and other government bodies; the exchange of information among myriad public and private bodies and  across borders; and the use of a whole range of benign apparatuses for security purposes, from travel records to traffic controls. It appears that as far as surveillance is central to the (re)organization of our late modern societies, “interoperability” is emerging as its ultimate goal: seamlessly integrated, computer-aided systems designed to maximize the utility and security of local, national and international productivity and resources.”[2]


Whether Tibet is ever to be fully scrutable, visible to the gaze of state power, enabling rewards and punishments to be allocated to those deemed creditworthy or discredited, depends first on successfully urbanising the Tibetans. Even with the latest technologies keeping an eye on millions of mobile pastoralists, spread across a plateau pasture as big as Western Europe is not possible. It may be no accident that the party-state has long defined development as the long term answer to all Tibetan problems, and urbanisation as the essence of development, the necessary prerequisite for delivery of all centralised services, from electricity to health, education and employment.

“Qinghai will be home to seven new cities by 2020, as the province seeks to urbanize nearly half a million people and create a new network of transportation and communications infrastructure. As it is in China’s Tibetan areas elsewhere, urbanization is increasingly an integral fact of life for Tibetans in Qinghai. This new reality is creating anxieties around linguistic and cultural continuity, and the very survival of the Tibetan people. Urbanization is Beijing’s new model for modernizing and civilizing the country’s ethnic borderlands. It is now the centerpiece of policies for poverty alleviation and economic growth, as outlined in the state’s ambitious National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020, launched in March 2014), which aims to create more than 100 million new urbanites by 2020.”[3]

Urbanised population concentrations are also more legible and accessible to the sovereign state. It is surely no accident that since at least 2003 China has been urbanising nomads, parking them in concrete cantonments on urban fringes, utterly dependent on state ration handouts, with nothing meaningful to do. Every such resettlement is laid out in straight lines, always has a police station, and cameras capturing footage along the main street. The inscrutable thus become legible.

Tibetans have taken keenly to mobile phones, and to ecommerce, at least in urban areas where the big online corporations do deliver. But Tibetans remain poor, with limited spending power and, by China’s standards, are few. So to be born Tibetan, with ethnicity compulsorily featured on the ID card, is to be born with little credit, and a collective reputation for being untrustworthy and insincere. Tibetans start life handicapped, in any competitive ranking of each against all of social credit. Tibetans lack the networks, the guanxi of Han Chinese, monetary capital and now also social capital. If you really want a high social credit score, it’s not a good starting point. The default setting for those born Tibetan is discredit, a collective reputation for breach of trust that is instantly transferred to individuals who encounter Han.


How can a supposedly sophisticated system for monitoring and evaluating the social credit worthiness of individuals then apply to whole communities?  The promise of the ever-on social credit ranking system, as announced in many State Council instructions, is that it is driven by algorithms that monitor each individual, shifting their rankings on the basis of the digital trail they generate. How can that be transferrable to collectivities, and entire nationalities? The entire project is packaged as a sophisticated, objective, fine-grained acquisition of real-time data on each and every citizen, a scientific method for the meta-synthetic engineering of citizen behaviour, as it occurs. What appeals so strongly to central leaders at the highest level is the prospect of surveilling and correcting all behaviours, at all times, across all spheres of human activity. That means watching and correcting each individual, not crudely and prejudicially categorising entire strata or populations as good or bad.

However, this is meta-synthetic top-level design with Chinese characteristics.  A major factor in China’s social credit ranking system is who you hang out with. Your use of social media generates lots of big data as to who you associate with, and if they are of low honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness rankings, it reduces your credibility and credit worthiness too. ‘“We can assume good people are friends with good people,’ says a senior figure at a Chinese internet company, when asked to explain the credit rating algorithms, ‘and credible people are friends online with credible people’”.[4]

That is the logic of the opaque algorithms that lend a fashionable air of mathematised objectivity to this closed loop logic of assumptions and prejudice. These algorithms, all of them proprietary corporate secrets, set up self-reinforcing loops. The good hang with the good, the bad with the bad. China’s networked society of ingroups excluding outgroups, based on guanxi affiliations, has always worked that way, all that is new is the aura of objectivity when big data enters.

China’s success in wealth accumulation has been based on just these networks of insiders assisting each other, to the detriment of those outside. This forces everyone into a specific guanxi network, starting with access to capital for any entrepreneur who wants a business to grow, since access to banks is restricted to the biggest and most official of guanxi networks, operated by the party-state for the exclusive benefit of the state-owned corporations. The only source of capital is your buddies in your guanxi network, and the thick bonds within the network the best guarantee that money loaned will be money repaid.



[1] Andrew M Fischer, Fiscal Policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region under the Hu-Wen Administration: Effects of New Surge in State Subsidies after 2008, Tibet Governance Project, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, 2015

[2] Ben Hayes, The Surveillance-Industrial Complex, in Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, edited by Kevin Haggerty, et al., Taylor and Francis, 2012.

[3] Gerald Roche, Ben Hillman, James Leibold, Urbanization in Tibet and survival of the Tibetan identity, China File, June 26, 2017

[4] Charles Clover, China: When big data meets big brother Companies are using online activity to determine credit ratings, adding to fears about privacy, Financial Times,  JANUARY 20, 2016


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China is far from being a country of laws, a rules-based order, despite the insistent propaganda issued by China’s tutelary state.  Many analysts argue that in reality China remains quite anarchic, a chaotic jumble of conflicting loyalties with an anything goes attitude, especially in business. While the party-state benefits enormously from proclaiming its power to regulate, the exercise of that predatory power almost always results in rent-seeking favours granted to powerful individuals employed by the party-state, extracting their price from those doing business. If anything, the recent enormous expansion of shadow banking and proliferating “wealth management products” disguises loans made by banks and institutions that shouldn’t make such loans if they adhered to rules. This demonstrates a deepening of networked capitalism based on gifts, favours and banquets.

These entrenched realities mean that the big data generated by anyone with power is likely false, deliberately misleading, designed to conceal capital flows, often through elaborate corporate structures created for concealment.

China’s big data is highly unreliable, as Wang Zhicheng, a professor specialising in credit risk at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, says of the social credit ranking scheme: “the project is born out of a crisis in ethics in today’s China. People don’t think that credit or integrity is important. That is what the broader state system is intended to do — raise the cost of unethical behaviour. Rating people on their big data may not turn out to be easy — China’s internet is rife with fake data, profiles and transactions. China has a long way to go before it actually assigns everyone a score. If it wants to do that, it needs to work on the accuracy of the data. At the moment it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out’.”[1]

It is this prevalence of false documentation that causes much ambivalence and anxiety within the party-state, leading to the uneasy embrace of big corporations, their data and algorithms of social credit worthiness. The hope is that good, reliable, objective data will gradually accumulate, and drive out the bad data that crony capitalism generates all the time. In reality it is more likely that, as in Gresham’s law of bad money driving out good money, the same will be true of data. There is much to be gained by predatory generators of falsified data congratulating each other on their credit worthiness, both financial and moral. The algorithms take care of the rest, since they reward you for associating with those deemed credit worthy. It all becomes self-reinforcing yet again. For Tibetans and Uighur it becomes a negative feedback loop, a downward spiral in which your reputation for untrustworthiness is exacerbated by everything you do, and everyone you associate with.

Decades ago, when almost all Chinese worked in state enterprises, each enterprise work unit maintained a thick dossier on each worker, in which the danwei work unit party cell monitored and noted the behaviours, words and attitudes of each employee. The dang’an dossier was a fearsome way of ensuring conformity, enabling total control from above, making everyone legible to the scrutiny of the all-seeing party state. In today’s capitalist China the dang’an dossier has lost its panoptic power, and until now, there has been no replacement restoring the gaze of centralised power. This is why the party-state is so keen on the social credit ranking system, and is prepared to look the other way when the algorithms just reinforce widely held prejudices about entire ethnicities, notably the Tibetans and the Uighurs. When the party-state transferred the party chief of Tibet to Xinjiang, he brought with him the surveillance state pioneered in Tibet, which is now spreading further, across China.

If the party-state is to realise its dream of restoring control over each and all citizens through big data reward and punishment systems, the deepest irony is that it can do so only by relying on the biggest corporate generators and manipulators of big data and the algorithms that assign values to each data point. There are belated signs that the party state is uneasy about this, even that it worries that the big data ecommerce corporations will be the ones in actual control.[2] In such an algorithm-driven system, is the party-state the client or the patron?  This is a real question. Alibaba is so powerful, rather like Google, Facebook or Apple, that it was able to quickly squash an official Chinese regulatory attempt at holding its business practices to account. Alibaba is protected by a party-state that works hard to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google.

Nonetheless, the party state badly needs to feel it is in control, and seems willing to accept a system in which there are victims, even entire populations classified as untrustworthy, dishonest, insincere and warranting punishment.

Not only does the party-state want to monitor and correct the behaviour of citizens and corporations, it is also wrestling with the extraordinary complexity of governing a country of 1300 million humans, at a time when economic growth is inevitably slowing, and myriad social problems are emerging. The response of the party-state to complexity is not to devolve power to more local levels, where officials might have some actual experience of circumstances on the ground. Just the opposite, the response has been to centralise, which is what top-level design and meta-synthetic engineering are all about.


Since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, he has centralised power to an extraordinary extent, a concentration noted by all observers. Journalists tend to assume this has been achieved by force of personality, as if personal charisma drives historic shifts. However, observers familiar with systems theory and top-down design identify the appeal of centralisation of power, a decisive move away from the CCP’s recent decades of collective decision-making by consensus, as a way of tackling simultaneously all of China’s multiple problems, complexities and contradictions. Not only is Tibet included in this totalising design, it has a specific role to play for a tutelary state that needs a model of exemplary dishonesty/insincerity to point to, as an example to all.

Korean security and strategic analyst Sangkuk Lee alerts us to the deeper reasons China’s deep party-state has turned to top-level design, including the social credit ratings system. Based on close reading of many Chinese sources, Lee reminds us that: “CCP official theory periodical, ‘Seeking Truth’ (Qiu Shi, 求是) presented a drawback of China’s decentralized power system by citing a Chinese political scientist in August 2012. Remarkably, this journal directly criticized the system of combining ‘collective leadership’ and ‘division of work with individual policy responsibility’ among the individual members of PBSC [Politburo Standing Committee]. The journal argued that the decentralized power system had led to the ineffectiveness of government system, the corruption of government officials, their political irresponsibility, and damage to national interest.”[3]








Xi Jinping did not accrete all power by Game of Thrones ruthlessness, or by charisma, or in a crisis.  Armed with the seductive promise of systems theory and top-level design, he persuaded other central leaders that all aspects of development planning require an integrated approach embracing the economy, culture, politics and society. Lee: “In order to centralize political power and to eventually exert his influence over widespread policy areas, Xi Jinping, the Party’s General Secretary, actively publicized his new approach and reform methodologies, including ‘systemic thinking’ and ‘top-down design’. Xi’s methodology for China’s deepening reform is based on a complex systems theory, especially the open complex giant system (OCGS). The OCGS theory considers a social system as a type of OCGS, ‘where the quantity of subsystems is extremely large, the subsystems have a hierarchical structure and complex interrelations within them; finally their energy, material and information exchange are open to the outside, self-adaptive and evolutionary’. Furthermore, this systems theory regards society as an organic whole constructed by interconnections, interactions, and mutual effects between economic institutions, socio-political institutions, and ideological and cultural systems. Systems theorists perceive that the traditional reductionism of the exact sciences cannot provide an effective methodology to solve social OCGS problems effectively. Thus, the proponents of OCGS propose employing the methodology of meta-synthesis ( 综合集成法) and establishing the Department of Integrative System Design (总体设计部, DISD) to be responsible for the comprehensive analysis, design, and planning in considering an entire complex system rather than its specific subsystem.”

The promise of top-level design systems is that, by concentrating all design power in the hands of one man, all problems can be dealt with, all at once, including the intractable problem of the Tibetans, who refuse to be cooked into assimilation, remaining stubbornly raw. To Tibetans, used to analysing the delusional thinking that arises from  excessive conceptualisation, this concentration of power only exaggerates the great distance between daily realities experienced on the streets in Tibet, from the meta-syntheses within the walls of the party-state’s Zhongnanhai palace. The more top-level layers are reinforced, the greater the likelihood that ground truth will disappear from view, and systems theory will take over.

But for Xi Jinping, systems theory seems to deal with everything. Sangkuk Lee again: “The kernel of top-down design is setting strategic goals on whole (整体性), comprehensive (全面性), long-term (长远性), and overall (全局性) ways. Notably, the top-down design cannot do without an architect, like Deng Xiaoping, who is officially recognized as ‘the chief architect of China’s economic reforms and socialist modernization’. As People’s Daily suggests, the concept of top-down design intrinsically takes a positive view of the emergence of a powerful leader. After being elected as the helmsman of the CCP in November 2012, Xi Jinping assertively prioritized applying his new approaches and methods, developed from systems theory, to deal with a whole slate of reforms beyond just economic reform. According to the Party Central Document Research Bureau, the first and best examples of Xi’s reform approach and methodology were his remarks during a tour in Guangdong province in December 2012. During this tour, Xi Jinping warned that China had entered a period of overcoming major difficulties, a deep-water zone (深水区) in its drive to break through barriers to reform presented by ideological differences and vested interests. Xi asked the Party and the people to adhere to the path of reform and opening up and to put greater focus on pursuing reform in a more systematic (统性), whole (整体性) and coordinated way (协调性). Xi added that deepening reform and opening up requires firm confidence, consensus, top-down design (顶层设计), an overall plan (总体规划), and coordinated steps (协调推进), outlining comprehensively deepening reforms (全面深化改革) involving the organic combination of political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological reforms as a type of complex systems engineering.”


This also explains why Xi Jinping took over personal control of economy and society, but also of security and stability, by imposing a new top-level National Security Commission, with himself in charge, empowered to intervene in all aspects of human life, in the name of national security. It is this conflation of development and security, of economy and security, indeed the securitisation of all aspects of life, that reinforces the ingrained habit of party-state leaders to see Tibet first and foremost as a security problem. Systems theory has the answer to all problems, and in its Chinese version, even includes “contradiction theory”, which explains away Tibetan unhappiness and protests as just the teething pains of the contradictions inherent in modernising a traditionalist, religious society in which the clerics cling to their historic role. According to “contradiction theory”, as Tibet gets richer, with more consumption options, the power of the clerisy will fade, and the contradictions will be resolved by a new synthesis, as Tibet urbanises.

To quote Sangkuk Lee again: “‘Modern Marxist’ theories regarding systemic thinking (统思维), strategic thinking (战略思维), creative thinking (创新思维), and contradiction theory (矛盾论), which are based on the various remarks and speeches of Xi Jinping as well as the words of other prominent Marxist and Chinese leaders, including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. The efforts of Xi Jinping himself eventually led to a consensus of China’s political elites not only to apply the top-down design and overall plan, but also to establish coordination organizations to do so at the central party level. Specifically, the third plenary session of the 18th Party Central Committee decided that the Party would establish the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CDR) and the National Security Commission in November 2013. When expounding this Central Party’s decision in explanatory notes, Xi Jinping stressed that ‘comprehensively deepening reform is a complicated systems engineering project, which requires more than one or several departments to carry out. Therefore, leadership at a higher level should be established for this purpose’. This concept of overall national security outlook originated from systems theory in terms of its emphasis on not only the nation’s comprehensiveness of security (全面 性), wholeness (整体性), and systematicity (统性). Moreover, the concept has been influenced by systemic security theory, which was developed by Chinese scholars, as seen from Xi Jinping’s prioritizing the building of a national security system for covering the spheres of politics, territory, military, economy, culture, society, science and technology, information, ecology, nuclear, and natural resources.”

This centralisation of power, and framing of all aspects of Tibet as security problem, to be dealt with by low social credit rankings, and punishment, is perhaps the ultimate reification of Tibet in the remote gaze of China’s party-state. It is a hardening of the heart, a failure to recognise the deep unhappiness of the Tibetans for what it is. Top-level design only adds yet another superordinate level to an already complex hierarchy of concepts, preconceptions, judgements, labels that box the Tibetans into deviant status, making it ever harder for central leaders, with their Confucian dream of perfect control, to actually see Tibetans as they are. In Tibetan, this conceptual proliferation is kündzop, usually translated as relative truth. However, as Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche reminds us, kündzop “literally means ‘fake truth.’ Relative truth is fake truth because, when it is viewed by an undeluded cognition, it is seen to be unreal, to not truly exist. It is a process of bewilderment and bewildered appearances, and it is continuous in the sense that it is beginningless and has never stopped. It is constantly gaining momentum, and its power is constantly increasing, causing your bewilderment to grow over time. Through bewilderment you experience relative truth, or fake reality, as real. What is this like? It is like being in the audience of a skilled illusionist. Any form of bewilderment, any form of hallucination, can occur just as an illusionist can cause you to see just about anything.”[4]


The current moment has striking parallels with the moment, in 1871, when the British Raj in India legislated to declare specific minority nationalities to be inherently criminal. If today’s China can be modelled as an Open Complex Giant System, so too, if we wind back 160 years, the British found India bewilderingly complex. The British thought they knew their Indians, and were shocked when revolts occurred in 1857, in what the British even now call a mutiny, and India calls its first war of independence.

This account of what led to the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act draws on analysis of historians such as Mark Brown, in which India after 1857 and China after the Tibetan uprising of 2008 appear remarkably similar; likewise Britain’s hardening of the categories in response to India’s first war of independence in 1857, so readily juxtaposable with China’s hardening of contempt for Tibetans and Uighurs for their refusal to be cooked into assimilated Chinese citizens.  Britain justified its categorisation of entire communities as inherently criminal by relying on new sciences of anthropometry and caste classification. China now justifies its turn to regimes of constant punishment of the untrustworthy and dishonest by turning to scientific algorithms measuring big data on social credit worthiness.

Evidence of this repeat of history is worth quoting at length:  “It was after the events of 1857 that British imperial authority was asserted with renewed vigour and that colonial development turned more explicitly towards the establishment of a modern productive economy. In this context, colonial administration was itself re-visioned and science recruited to the task of creating a rational scientific-administrative state. The meshing of racially based frameworks of social classification with administrative/mercantilist with stable and productive labour produced, almost as an aside, new conceptions of native criminality, deviance and marginality.  Ideas about native criminality emerged as part of a much larger exercise to classify and stratify Indian society, and the native criminal held a key role within that broader strategy. Far from being a marginal figure, the category of ‘native criminal’ seemed to function instead as an archetype, anchoring the lower end of India’s social hierarchy. The production of this dichotomy, contrasting the manly warrior of the Punjab with the inadequate and morally debased criminal, produced a set of parameters within which a whole range of intermediate social classifications could then be located.”

Before the 1860s, classifying Indians as manly warriors or debased criminals was the work of the Thagi (origin of the word thug) and Dacaity Department: “The further that officers of the Thagi and Dakaiti Department penetrated the fabric of native society the more disturbing the picture appeared. Not only was crime widespread and connected into the upper echelons of native social and political orders, but it could also be of the most fearful character. Race theory provided the key to explaining and understanding how such practices could occur in a society that, elsewhere, was characterized by great cultural sophistication. In response to the threat of moral relativism implied by Darwinian evolutionary theory, ethnologists had patched together a reprise, namely, the idea of evolutionary moral progress. Mirroring the precepts of race theory, moral evolutionists claimed that higher and lower moral states could be observed both between and within racial groups. Progress in civilisation would thus be reflected in an aggregate progress in moral as well as physical development. It was because of these hierarchies of moral evolution that the British were able to equate with their own lower classes and criminals with the savages to be found abroad.”


“The categories of race and caste were remarkably complementary due to their generality and porosity. Given the right conditions, each term could effortlessly absorb the assumptions or implied characteristics of the other. The taxonomic schemes of race theory and caste association therefore provided colonial administrators and their administrator/scholar counter-parts with a seemingly endless array of negative racial and social markers that could be deployed against suspect groups or communities. The scientific task of classifying criminals into taxonomic groups that began in the 1860s provided immense scope for the play of the colonial imagination.”

“A major determinant of whether a criminal was thought to be of the ordinary variety or not was his level of attachment to land or to a settled community. If such attachment could be shown, then crimes could be understood in much the same way as they were in England. On the other hand, evidence of a nomadic or wandering existence would beg the question of how else, other than by crime, either the individual or the wandering community could regularly sustain itself. This sort of distinction was drawn throughout the British territories.”

“As British authority increasingly reinforced the ideal of a ‘modern’ and productive India, and as technological advances in the form of railways, irrigation schemes and the like displaced a range of traditional service roles, nomadism itself was gently but surely recoded as a marker of both economic marginality and social threat. Over time the label of Criminal tribe came to be applied increasingly on grounds that weighed vagrancy –and the threats this posed both to the new economic order of settled agricultural commodity production and to traditional policing techniques- as much as any verifiable record of criminal conduct.”

“The ascription of gypsy racial identity removed the need for colonial administrators to delve into these groups’ history. In this way the wandering tribes came to be both with and without history. On the one hand, they belonged to an ancient racial line; on the other, the presumed permanence of Indian social relations obviated the need to know what function they had played in pre-colonial native society and, indeed, how British incursions into native politics and society might have affected their means of livelihood. Knowledge of their gypsy racial stock was principally of value for the assistance it might provide administrators now developing anthropometric systems for identification of hereditary criminals and working on strategies for the suppression of their criminal activity. In discussions of these suppression activities, debate turned upon whether hereditary criminal behaviour was best met with repression or with attempts at reclamation.”

“While the penal code provided an exclusively penal response to habitual offending, the Criminal tribes Act provided measures for the registration, surveillance and reformation of difficult groups: none of these measures was classically penal in nature. The internment of notified criminal tribes was surely a measure of incapacitation, but the goal of such colonies was promotion of alternative economic skills –notably settled agriculture- and in many cases ‘reform’ was rewarded with the allocation of land and release from the grip of colonial surveillance and control.”[5]

“By the time notions of habituation to crime or hereditary criminality emerged in British domestic discourse in the 1860s more than half a century of historical, ethnological and biological enquiry into the status and ordering of humankind in India had firmly located and described the hereditary criminal type. Ethnological investigations of native criminality were central to understanding the phenomenon of thuggee and were later recruited to support policies directed towards the so-called ‘ criminal tribes ’ of northern India. The idea of evolution itself provided the heuristic key that race theory had to that point been lacking. Suddenly the practical significance of race became apparent. If humankind had evolved in a process of progressively more successful adaptations, race could explain the progress of civilization and, thus, of forms of social organization, political consciousness and government. In 1856 the Punjab Government issued an executive order providing for the internment of three ‘criminal ’ tribes, the Sansis, Harnis and Baurias. Ostensibly the internment settlements aimed to restrict these tribes’ movement, provide for more constant surveillance of their activities and wean them from criminal to agricultural activity. As a number of writers noted at the time, however, these communities were strongly averse to agriculture and to sedentary life generally, meaning that many settlements failed to provide sufficient food for their own needs and came to depend upon food aid. The sort of data recruited in 1870 to support the criminalization of entire communities marks a period of transformation in the bureaucratic use of ethnographic data on native crime and criminals. At this stage, data both gathered in support of the bill and presented in responses made by governments and interested parties, such as police inspectors general, magistrates or justices, tended to a kind of narrative historicization of criminal conduct and recounting of notorious crimes. By the late 1860s, with the development of more elaborate ‘ scientific’ taxonomies of criminal behaviour, the presumption that Indian society harboured hereditary criminal communities was widespread. Administrative rules were thus produced that covered procedures like the roll call of registered tribes, the system of passports, the engagement of village headmen in notifying police of absences and, importantly, the strategies of surveillance that would be maintained over the tribes. V. T. P. Vivian drew this knowledge together in the Punjab in A Handbook of the Criminal Tribes of the Punjab. This handbook, and those like it, produced in other jurisdictions, was a compilation of the extensive research undertaken by police, district officers and ethnologists into criminal tribes’ culture and social habits. Vivian’s aim, as Assistant Superintendent of Police in the Punjab, was to produce ‘an elementary hand-book for the use of district officers, whereby they may gain a passing knowledge of the castes which are held responsible for the greater part of organized crime in the Punjab and elsewhere’.  In each case, the focus of the text is upon how these socio-cultural data would allow police and district officers more effectively to identify, interrogate, monitor or pursue members of the Bawaria tribe. Vivian advised the district officer or policeman that groups of Bawarias on criminal expeditions had also been found to communicate through marks and signs left upon roads and upon the walls of their camping places. The ability to interpret these cryptograms would surely aid the pursuit of a gang or potentially head off a raid. The signs ranged from directional markers to more complex diagrams communicating where a gang was camped, whether it had split into separate parties, the value of property in its possession, whether or not such property was secured, and so on. The question of exactly what sorts of intervention might be most successful in achieving transformations in conduct was pointed to, but the issue of reform constituted a rather larger policy issue and was clearly beyond the remit of this sort of manual. In fact, a committee established to consider just this issue began meeting shortly after the publication of the Handbook, in November 1913. Its findings, published in 1914 as a Report on Questions Relating to the Administration of Criminal and Wandering Tribes in the Punjab, presented for government consideration a series of proposals for resolving the problem posed by these criminal communities.  A brand of socio-cultural ethnology emerged as the dominant form of bureaucratic knowledge concerning native criminality. Indeed, as Vivian describes at a number of points in the Punjab Handbook, administrators perceived ethnological profiles of tribes to be a far more reliable tool than simple criminal statistics, for the latter were felt to be subject to many errors produced, in the main, by the very characteristics of tribes – mobility, disguise, evasion – that the ethnologies sought to describe.” [6]

For those Indian communities designated as criminal tribes in 1871, the consequences were and still are devastating. The British Raj removed, displaced, interned, gaoled, killed and sequestered huge numbers of people. Then newly independent India did away with the Criminal Tribes Act, yet treatment of these outcasts remains highly prejudicial and discriminatory. Independent India also declared those decreed unclean and beneath the acceptable castes to be children of God –harijans–  but in practice, the discrimination against them persists even now. Officially, the Criminal Tribes became the De-notified Tribes, but this re-designation did little to undo their stigmatisation. As recently as 2009, two respected social scientists, one the head of the Department of Tribal Studies at the National Institute of Research and Social Action, could publish a booklength analysis of “Tribes under Stigma”, noting: “They are very backward in matters such as development. Many of them live in tents, on vacant lands on the out-skirts of villages or in the flimsiest of shanties in urban areas. Basic amenities are unknown to them. They lack permanent address. They don’t have ration cards. They have no official documents. They face many difficulties to obtain caste certificates. Their names are not included in the voters list. They are officially non-existing. They are not eligible for any government benefits. Traditionally, these tribes were pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and nomads… They are treated as the real causes of threat to the neighbouring places. These yerukalas are commonly stigmatised as dacoits, burglars, pilferers, thieves and railway-wagon breakers………. These tribes lead a vagrant life in jungles, hills and deserts with no fixed abodes. They wander about with their bag and baggage and pitch their tents on the out-skirts of a village or a city or in some secluded and out-of-the-way place. Gradually with the advance of civilisation in the country the struggle for existence became more and more acute for these nomadic people and they had to face increasing hardships in their ‘criminal’ career.”[7]


[1] Clover, When big data meets big brother

[2] Lucy Hornby, Beijing delays licensing tech groups to give consumers credit scores: Pilot schemes basing ratings on online activity provoke fear of conflicts of interest, FT 4 July 2017

[3] Sangkuk Lee (2017): An Institutional Analysis of Xi Jinping’s Centralization of Power, Journal of Contemporary China.

[4] Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Bardo: Interval of possibility, KTD Publications, 2007, 12-13

[5] Mark Brown, Race, science and the construction of native criminality in colonial India, Theoretical Criminology, vol 5 #3, 2001, 345-368

[6] Mark Brown, Ethnology and colonial administration in nineteenth-century British India: the question of native crime and criminality, British Journal for the History of Science, 36(2) : 201–219, June 2003.

[7] Malli Gandhi and Vakulabharanam Lalitha, Tribes under Stigma: Problem of identity, Serials Publications, New Delhi, 2009, 6, 25-27

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UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has dutifully rubber-stamped China’s application to declare a further 60,000 sq. kms of the Tibetan Plateau to be branded with World Heritage status.

Politics has trumped facts on the ground, inconvenient facts such as China’s removal of most of the Tibetan nomad guardians of the Koko Shili landscape to remote concrete settlements on industrial urban fringes, with nothing to do, dependent on state handout rations.

Inconvenient ground truths, like a long history of Tibetan wildlife rangers risking (and losing) their lives to protect Koko Shili endangered antelopes, don’t stand much chance of prevailing, as the basis of making decisions, in today’s world.

When it came to the crunch, the 21 ambassadors of the 21 countries currently on the World Heritage Committee decided not riling China matters more than anything Tibetans might say. That’s how it is these days. The Tibetans might have truth on their side, but that is all they have.


Tibetans and International Campaign for Tibet did get to speak up, while there was still time to hope for an outcome based on the actual needs of the Tibetan Plateau landscapes, the decimated antelope herds, and the Tibetan rangers who fought the poachers during the decades when China’s party-state showed no interest in the wild west beyond the frontier.

Tibetans did vigorously put the case that protection should mean actual protection, both for the iconic antelope, and for the Tibetans whose pastoral landscapes included Koko Shili every summer, and for the entire habitat and all species who use it. Both in private and formally, before the World Heritage Committee, a skilful Tibetan advocate,  professional environmentalist Tenzin Choekyi, spoke up for Tibetan curatorship, stewardship, skilful land use, sustainable ways of mingling wild and domestic herds, and Tibetan values that have done more, over far longer, to conserve wildlife than any official branding and administration from above.

That lobbying got results, behind the scenes, if not at crunch time in the actual vote. In private, there were admissions that UNESCO and its IUCN eyes and ears on the ground in Koko Shili do know there are many problems inherent in China’s nomination, and with its’ insistence that Koko Shili is “no-man’s land” devoid of human presence, a virgin landscape awaiting the arrival of modernity with Chinese characteristics.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to whom the cash-strapped UNESCO outsources the scientific verification of nominations, is now perhaps embarrassed by its willingness to sign off, despite many misgivings. Bureaucrats indicated a weary familiarity with China throwing its weight around, and with World Heritage Committee decisions being little more than a rubber stamping of agendas served up by officials.

Even if individual officials did have reservations, did understand that China had airbrushed away  the decades of Tibetan care for Koko Shili and the antelopes, they still had to take their instructions from the foreign ministries that appointed them.

Which government these days would stand up to China, on an issue that is not even in the headlines, which has only truth on its side? If any of those ambassadors went to the trouble of briefing head office back in Luanda or Warsaw, Helsinki or Jakarta, Ankara, Dar-es-Salaam, Hanoi or Almaty, the instruction would come back: if we have to publicly contradict China, we do so extremely selectively, on issues that deeply matter to our own domestic audience, so don’t get ideas about bucking the system.

So does it matter that Tibetans got to speak for Tibet? If might is right, China’s rise and rise is endless, is there any point in speaking up?  If even the mighty US of A must accommodate China’s rise, how can Tibetan voices expect to be heard? When China can hound a Nobel peace prize winner to death, and governments barely mutter in protest, how do Tibetans get traction?

On the day, what world attention was focussed on was the first meeting of Trump and Putin, how to press China to rein in North Korea, and whether the G20 club of the world’s most powerful countries could agree on anything beyond platitudes. If politics trumps truth, geopolitics is nakedly open about being about power, nothing to do with ground truth.

In such a world, what can Tibetans do? Actually, the world has always been thus, no matter how much certain vested interests now talk of a rules-based order. It’s just more obvious now that might is right, winning is all, nobody likes a loser. This is the modern world, into which China ejected the Tibetans back in the 1950s, three human generations ago. Tibetans have learned not just to survive, but to be at home, anywhere in the world, to adapt to modernity and thrive. As the Dalai Lama has often said, this is a long process, spanning generations. In a violent world, foregoing violence inevitably means the Tibetan cause is a long one, frequently gasping for oxygen when conflicts suck it all.

Long term nonviolent conflicts need long term approaches. Too many in the Tibet movement repeat the strategies learned one or two decades ago, when the world did listen, as if little has changed. We can no longer expect anyone to listen when we show our pain over repression, torture, prisoners, injustice and repression. The audience has faded away. We now need to recognise what issues people do focus on, what does motivate them, what does activate their values, and introduce Tibet as one aspect of that issue. That way we gradually gain new audiences, new allies, brought together by shared interests.

Perhaps the most famous of all slogans of the Dalai Lama is: Never Give Up. One might add: never follow the same sun beaten path out of habit, when it no longer works. Try a fresh direction, fresh approach, fresh audience, without expecting quick results.

The decision by the World Heritage Committee says much about what we may grieve for on our paths old and new. The rubber stamp of anything proposed by China is axiomatic, and has little to do with heritage. It would be great to believe that official protection, by a UN agency, actually means protection, for wildlife, for whole habitats and landscapes, and for the human guardians of those wild animals. What could be more self-evidently a good thing than world heritage?

In reality, as Tibetans discovered while lobbying at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Krakow, the United Nations strength is also its’ weakness: it is a club of nations, of sovereign states with a shared agenda of aggrandising state sovereignty, reputation and brand equity; using the agencies of the UN to burnish their credentials. UNESCO World Heritage status used to mean the most precious places –both cultural and natural- would actually get international help to maintain the values that make them special. As the world has become more selfish and violent, so too has the UN become powerless, its agencies starved of funds, its reputation all that is left of what  once embodied the hopes of the world. UNESCO has been especially hard hit, over a long period, by the deep suspicion of western donor states that it became an agency beholden to its third world majority rather than to its funders.

We now find ourselves in a world where China regularly nominates Tibetan landscapes for World Heritage listing, which is automatically granted, whereupon China’s new rich monetise World heritage status for their own wealth accumulation, as happened first at Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan. China nominated the Three Parallel Rivers of the Tibetan portion of Yunnan, while taking care to define the World Heritage boundary to exclude the actual rivers, leaving China free to dam the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers, and install power grids carrying ultra-high voltage electricity to distant Chinese factory cities, leaving UNESCO World Heritage Committee helpless to object.

.China has announced it will next year nominate the whole Lhasa old town to become World Heritage, even though there is hardly an old building left intact in old Lhasa. Almost all have been demolished or gutted and renovated, fitted out as upmarket boutiques with new Tibetanesque exteriors, part of the Lhasa master plan to sell premium priced Tibetiana (sourced from Kathmandu), sold by Chinese businesses presenting a Tibetan face to the tourist customers. Almost every aspect of this rebranding exercise offends UNESCO World Heritage standards for properties designated as cultural heritage, which emphasises repair and preservation of old buildings, and is strongly against knocking down the old to be replaced by “authentic replicas”, as they are called in Chinese.

In 1992, when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee accepted Jiuzhaigou into world heritage status, and in 2003 when its inscribed the Three Parallel Rivers minus the actual rivers, and now in 2017 in accepting China’s nomination of Koko Shili “no-man’s land”, UNESCO has shown a willingness to let China dictate how Tibetan lands are framed, defined, what is excluded and included, leaving China free to accumulate wealth and power from Tibet, while UNESCO’s experts privately fume and splutter helplessly.

Crunch time is 2018, if, as announced, China proceeds with nominating “old” Lhasa. Architectural heritage motivates many more people than natural landscapes and nomadic populations. Will the experts speak up? Will Tibetans be able to mobilise support? Will UNESCO at last realise that its foundational premise, of the first world benignly preserving the monuments and pristine landscapes of the impoverished third world, is thoroughly out of date, nowhere more so than in China?

As China steadily advances its goal of capturing UN agencies, if only to silence them, as in the Human Rights Council, when will we decide, in a violent, thuggish world, that there is more to being right than might?

Sometimes all it takes to reframe the issue, to make the remote suddenly familiar, is a sentence, even a couple of words that cut through. Staying with remote Koko Shili –so remote most Tibetans aren’t sure where it is- the killer app that made the unfamiliar familiar turned out to be two well-chosen words found by the Glasgow-based  Herald Scotland, that resonated with its Scottish readers. Seeking to explain not only China’s plans for Koko Shili but for most of the Tibetan Plateau to be declared national park, the Herald said it is like the Highland clearances.


In an instant, Scottish readers could not only get it, connect with far Tibet, but also sympathise, drawing on the living memories of past generations of Highland Scots evicted from their lands, farms and crofter way of life by alien English landlords following the final conquest of Scotland in 1745.

Those memories of displacement and dispossession, of impoverishment and migration to all corners of empire, of loss of all that was dear, to please English aristocrats who fancied castles surrounded by unpeopled windswept heathlands suitable for stag hunting. This is the root of today’s Scottish nationalism.

Even if you aren’t of Scottish heritage, don’t have the Highland enclosures imprinted in race memory, it takes only a sentence or two to evoke the pain of families ruined and pushed asunder by what we would today call the inexorable forces of globalisation.

In a moment, such is the power of memory and imagination, we know what Tibetan nomads of Drito, Chumarleb and Koko Shili, herded off their pastures like animals, are going through. In an instant we hear their laments, like the dirges of those ancestral Highlanders. This cuts through not only time and distance, but also the hyperscientistic language of China’s claim to Koko Shili as a bright new scientific object.

One telling metaphor can reframe everything, regaining a human perspective on an issue presented as a policy project of state power plans to attain an objective of biodiversity conservation. Those two words cut through all the jargon, the hundreds of pages of Chinese official reports on the geology, hydrology, ecology, species dynamics etc. etc. of Koko Shili.

Not only can the right metaphor reset the terms of debate, our understanding of what is at stake, it rehumanises the abstract, brings home    the lifeworlds of those afar.

More than that, the apt word app brings fresh, deeper understanding. This goes beyond sympathy, into fitting us with a fresh frame of reference, that explains to us our contemporary world. How so?

The depopulation of the Scottish Highlands, more recently the tundra of Siberia, or the pasturelands of the Tibetan Plateau are all examples of the new economy displacing the old economies of productivism, of farming and livestock production. The new economy has the uncanny knack of monetising the end of productivism, replacing the self-sufficient farms, herds of yaks, gangs of timber cutters with tourism, romantic vistas, consumption of landscape as object of desire and projection, by a monied class motivated by wanting to make a lifestyle statement. This is the genius of the post-industrial, post-productivist economy: consumption has become the new production. The ruins of the Highlands crofters’ cottages only make those highlands more romantic. Even Donald Trump might decide to build an upmarket golf course there, if only the view is not unromantically blighted by hitech windmills.

In a moment, we recognise not only that the remote is near, but that the problem is globalisation, and the accumulation of wealth by a small elite, who have been telling us for decades that this will benefit all, only we no longer believe them. Of a sudden, the rebranding of Koko Shili as ecotour packaged wildlife adventure land becomes legible, familiar, just another epic scaled theme park for the new class of new rich to make money, by persuading us to consume.

Quite often, I am contacted by journalists based in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, puzzled by the latest Chinese propaganda boasting how much of Tibet is officially declared to be national park, even world heritage. Their puzzlement is because they know the picture presented by exiled Tibetans is that China’s 60 years in command of Tibet has been 60 years of rape of the land and its resources. As author of a book on mining in Tibet, they turn to me, to clarify their thinking. How come China is now boasting of how much of Tibet is locked up, thus excluding the miners, in the name of wildlife protection? What are we to make of the ever expanding nature reserves? Is it no longer true that China is stripping Tibet of its mineral treasures?

Actually, there is no incompatibility. Mining happens in specific, smallish enclaves where the mineral concentrations are exceptional.  Traditional pastoral production is the opposite, making best use of vast, extensive pastoral lands that are sustainably productive as long as the nomads are mobile, moving on before the grasses are exhausted. Likewise, the new economy of tourist consumption of wilderness landscapes requires huge areas that maintain the illusion of pristine “no-man’s land”, to use China’s repetitive cliché. Whether the product for consumption is highland whisky made from pure highland water, or a glimpse of the highland grouse or stag at bay, or a glimpse of Tibetan antelopes on their way to their Koko Shili birthing grounds, it is the same new global economy of mass consumption, and wealth accumulation for the powerful.  The foreign correspondents based in Beijing do see all around them the new economy of consumption alongside the old factory economy,  but somehow the old image of Tibet as a resource extraction zone, and the new image of depopulated Tibetan wildscapes repurposed for iconic snaps of iconic wildlife, still need reconciling.

Now we find ourselves right at the heart of what matters most in today’s world, what drives the popular rejection of the same old politics of centre-left and centre-right neoliberal domination of democratic countries. The new populism, whether of the right or left, that is sweeping aside the old parties, and support for globalisation, took decades to emerge, but ordinary folks have awoken.

We do live in a violent, thuggish and unpredictable world. Might is right, until it is wrong, and we see through the lies and the promises that are never fulfilled. Tibet might seem very far away, yet it illuminates what is close to home. Those who speak for Tibet need to find those new metaphors that wake us up.




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Well, maybe not.

But I do want to introduce myself, the author of all the blogs, if only to say hello and goodbye.

When I started this blog a few years ago, it seemed to me that debate on Tibet was restricted to a narrow range of essential  issues: civil and political rights, religious freedom, hopes for negotiations with China, autonomy. To me, that left much, on which there was at best intermittent focus. Among the issues that seemed to need more sustained attention, analysis and then action were:

  • China’s development plans for Tibet, and their impacts on remote Tibetan communities;
  • environmental and social impacts of mineral extraction, industrial and urban growth in Tibet;
  • hydro dams and Tibetan rivers;
  • the new economy of protected areas designed to make money through carbon capture and ecotourism;
  • displacement of nomads from their pastures, settling them as fringe dwellers on the outskirts of towns in Tibet, dependent on state handout rations.

As an Australian, the nomad question had lots of resonances. White Australia made Aborigines live on missions and government settlements. The story was that this was for their own good. Aborigines, used to caring for country actively and energetically, called this “sit down money.” They were paid in flour, sugar, tea and tobacco to do nothing, or become servants of the white settlers. Sedentarised Aborigines developed the diseases of the sit down life: overweight, diabetes, dust diseases including ear infections and blindness. Even now, although Australia has at last largely learned to value and respect  Aboriginal understanding of how to care for country, the legacy of “sit down money” is hard to shake.


So the exclusion of Tibetan drogpa nomads from their pastoral production landscapes, in the name of modernity, progress, development, poverty alleviation, access to modern services, and carbon capture seemed familiar. It seemed like official China was  committed to making every mistake Australia had made, without noticing that, after 200 years of European settlement frequently ruining Australian lands, we have finally learned how to learn from the Aboriginal stewards and guardians of the bush, the wildlife and the arid landscapes, how we all can and must care for country.

That’s why, six years ago, I chose an obscure Tibetan word, rukor, to frame this blogspot. It literally means a circle of tents, an encampment in which several families get together, pooling herds and labour, making collective decisions by combining intimate landscape knowledge of several experienced pastoralists.

I chose rukor because it names something China has never understood: that on the grasslands, the risk management decisions essential to the sustainability of wildlife and rangelands, and to the livelihoods of the mobile nomads, are best made by a modest sized group who know the land intimately.

China, by comparison, has swung between extremes. In the revolutionary Maoist years, extreme communes were forcibly created, on far too big a scale, with the drogpa disempowered, herded like animals into barrack-style compounds where even cooking pots belonged to the commune. People got rations according to how much work they did. People starved.

By the late 1970s it was painfully obvious the communes had failed , except in one key metric: building up yak, sheep and goat herd size to unsustainable numbers. As the communes collapsed, China went to the opposite extreme, of making each individual family contractually responsible to the state to limit herding to allocated land, to fence it and build housing on it. This household responsibility system fragmented lands and families, fragmented the major risk management decisions that the rukor had done so skilfully, and reduced nomadic mobility, resulting inevitably in overgrazing, for which the nomads were then blamed. Between the extreme of large-scale communes and small-scale household contracts is the middle way of the rukor.

Six years and 160 long, hard-to-read blogs on, perhaps 350,000 words in all, what is the upshot?

That’s not really for me, the author, to judge. All I can say is that, while academics seldom read this blog, and give academic cred only to journal articles, Tibetans do read, in a steadily increasing number, which says a lot about the confidence and curiosity of the new generation of young Tibetan professionals who  want to understand Tibet in greater depth, and are willing to persevere with my dense, difficult English. That, in turn, gives me great satisfaction.


But this is both hello and goodbye. I kept this blog anonymous so readers could focus on the issues raised, without distraction, and test for themselves whether the arguments put forward are founded in careful research, with links wherever possible to further, deeper data. The disadvantage of an anonymous blog, however, is that is discourages dialogue, as there seems to be no-one for readers to talk to. So it’s time to come out. Gabriel Lafitte is rukor.

But not for much longer. The doctors tell me I am almost certain to die soon, cancers are everywhere, despite my good fortune, as an Australian, to avail of operations, radiation, chemotherapy, the best of treatments, and in a country where treatment is free. Partly due to Rukor and your responses, I can die without regret.

That is actually why I decided to say hello, in the hope of finding, among the wonderful new generation of Tibetans, a few who might care to pick up what I shortly must leave. Whether continues is not the point. What does matter is that we develop a capacity to do what rukor has tried to do: to be an early warning system for Tibetans in Tibet, alerting them as to China’s plans, tracking China’s policy announcements, not just their propaganda. We want to do what we can to help remote communities know in advance what China’s plans are, what the strengths and weaknesses of those policies and plans are, how they will impact.

That means focussing more closely on China than Tibetans usually do. When you do shift focus, you will be surprised to find how much information is out there, on official websites, in statistical yearbooks, in academic databases, in English and Chinese. Over the years I have collected at least 30,000 electronic publications relevant to Tibet, covering a wide range of topics, and donated the collection to young Tibetans in various countries, as a Tibet-focused database including entire books, chapters, dissertations, statistics, journal articles and official reports. If more copies of this database are needed, let me know and I will copy it to 32Gb memory stick and send it to you.

The hard part is shaping all that data, often not written with Tibetans in mind, into a shape that makes sense, and is useful from a Tibetan perspective.

Engaging with China, watching closely the many contradictions in China’s policy debates and political decisions, also means learning to write with Chinese readers in mind. The more I delve deeper and deeper into China’s elite debates, the more I find senior Beijing academics who quietly but firmly disagree with official policy, and say so at every opportunity. We need to not only use their research but to engage with them, build bridges, write in ways that pull no punches but could communicate, based on shared common ground.

I don’t read or speak Tibetan or Chinese, beyond a very small vocabulary of nouns. Yet I have somehow found ways of accessing information indepth, sometimes starting off with machine translation. I could explain more, if you want.

This year is for me the 40th since first meeting with Tibetans, starting (as journalists can) at the top, with an interview with Gyalwa Rinpoche in Bodhgaya in 1977. I asked him a whole bunch of dumb questions which he took seriously, thought about them for a while, and gave me such fresh answers I knew I needed to know more. I was hooked.

Over those 40 years I slowly learned how to become useful. I witnessed the Tibet movement grow and grow for 20 years, and then, over the past 20 years slowly dwindle, as many supporters grew disillusioned with an issue that never seemed to progress. Twenty years ago information gathering was much easier. British intelligence routinely intercepted and translated key Chinese broadcasts, including internal provincial broadcasts and BBC Monitoring published them. Likewise in the US the CIA did the same, published as World News Connection. Keeping close watch on China was easy.

Now there are no such central feeds, but hundreds of online sources to monitor. If you remain focused, a picture does emerge. The posts to rukor do show it is possible to grow a comprehensive picture of China’s policies, from multiple perspectives, enabling a detailed representation to emerge.


I may yet have time for a few more posts to, but before long I must depart for the next life.  I feel strongly that Tibetans have given me as much as I have tried to give in return. I have learned how to live and how to die, now I must turn to practicing those good habits, so I am fully ready for dying, bardo and the next life. I have learned from great lama, also from not particularly religious Tibetans, close colleagues and friends over the years, who simply have a quiet, undramatic focus on what needs to be done, with little of the emotional roller coaster that afflicts us injis. I thank many Tibetans, who may never have thought of themselves as my teacher, yet I learned a lot just by hanging with them.

So now it is over to you, my readers, in the hope that this kind of assessment and analysis can continue. One Tibetan friend made the very practical suggestion that if we can find a dozen or 15 Tibetans, each of whom pledges to write a minimum of one blogpost a year, then we have enough to maintain the output of rukor (or whatever it may morph into). That way the burden on any individual researcher/writer is not too great. Good idea.

Over to you,


Gabriel Lafitte                         +613407840333

btw: the artwork illuminating this blog is by the famous Taiwanese artist Chuang Che, who was inspired by the classic Chinese Buddhist concept of the 16 arhat/lohan/ bodhisattavas; this is his modern take on an old trope that has inspired so many artists over many centuries.

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June 2017:  One month before the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is due to decide the fate of a large portion of the Tibetan Plateau, documentation has been released giving us a detailed picture of what China proposes, what WHC must decide at its July 2017 meeting in Krakow, Poland, and what is at stake.

China’s nomination of Koko Shili (Hoh Xil in China’s spelling) is, on paper, all about one iconic species: the Tibetan antelope, although nowhere is it given its’ Tibetan name: tsö. Other species are mentioned too, but the Tibetan livestock producers who for decades protected the tsö from hunters are mentioned largely in passing, as a vague presence who are to be blamed for overgrazing, even in a landscape UNESCO experts call pristine.

In order to independently assess China’s voluminous (but secret) nomination papers, UNESCO WHC sent a mission to Koko Shili as the 2016 winter approached, and their lengthy reports are now online. The fine print of what they found is worth close attention, as it tells a different story to China’s master narrative. These two blogs delve into the fine print that the WHC ambassadors, assembled in Krakow 2 to 12 July 2017, will never bother to read. Unless Tibetan voices now give them reason to look beyond the bottom line recommendations.


Rukor readers may recall from previous blogs on Koko Shili in October 2016 and May 2017 that China has carefully defined the boundaries of the proposed World Heritage area with a railway/highway/ultra-high voltage grid/optical fibre cabling and oil pipeline running right through the middle of it, for the full 250 kms north to south traverse.

This is no accident. If China was solely concerned with protection of the Tibetan antelopes, it would have included their full migratory range, for a species whose pregnant females travel great distances to give birth safe from predators, across provincial boundaries beyond Qinghai, in both Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Region. However, many of those birthing grounds are not part of this plan, even though the UNESCO experts rather wish they were included, but aren’t about to insist.

The rail/highway/power grid/telecoms/oil pipeline is proudly known in China as the Qinghai-Tibet Engineering Corridor (QTEC), a triumph of man over nature. Now, from a close reading of UNESCO documentation, we discover that QTEC is not technically part of the proposed World Heritage area, except as vaguely designated “buffer zone.”  This exemption has not been disclosed before. To be precise, the entire 250 kms of QTEC as it slices across Koko Shili is now defined as being four kilometres wide, probably two kms either side, excluding UNESCO from any power to limit human use, as the huge trucks en route to Lhasa thunder by. The migrating female antelopes will have to navigate across QTEC without protection.

This is not the first time China has cleverly excluded economic production zones from the heart of “protected areas” in Tibet given UNESCO’s approval and brand equity. In the Three Parallel Rivers protected area of Yunnan, the actual rivers are excluded from the defined protected area, allowing China to now proceed with hydro dam construction, power grid construction and other development. UNESCO made that mistake in 2002, and has regretted it ever since. But whenever UNESCO protests about dam and power grid construction, China says: none of your business.


Anyone who has taken the train to Lhasa knows the entire route is elevated, on high embankments and bridges, essential to maintaining a steady temperature in a land of seasonal permafrost. This engineering necessity succeeds in keeping frozen earth frozen, and the rail track safe from slumping dangerously in the intense Tibetan sunshine. It took China’s railway engineers decades to design those embankments and bridges, a great achievement they boast about in dozens of articles in obscure journals such as Cold Regions Engineering.

Those high embankments and to an extent the many bridges are a barrier to the free migration of the pregnant tsö antelopes seeking their safe calving ground. The antelopes have learned, from the intrusion of Chinese gold rush miners in the 1980s, to fear humans, even though wild antelope herds historically mingled unhindered with Tibetan nomad domestic herds. So now we have a 4km wide QTEC corridor right in the heart of a World Heritage protected area, over which UNESCO, if they rubber-stamp China’s nomination, will have no control over.

The experts UNESCO sent to Koko Shili make clear they aren’t happy with this 4 kms wide zone of exemption, but the bottom line is they don’t insist on making UNESCO approval conditional on the inclusion of QTEC. Once China implements its plans for a massive domestic safari tourism industry in QTEC –as has happened in other UNESCO World Heritage sites in Tibet, notably Jiuzhaigou, UNESCO will be helpless to protest.

The UNESCO experts restrict their critique to the fine print. The actual recommendations for decision impose no such conditions. Very few people will ever read the fine print, including the ambassadors from the 21 states currently on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, who need only to know what decision is recommended, and vote for it. The nearest the experts come to dismay is to state: “These buffer areas that are internal to the property are covered by the same legislation as the rest of the Nature Reserves, and in principle IUCN considers it would benefit the protection of the property if these areas were eventually to be added to be part of the inscribed property, rather than remaining as buffer zones. Whilst noting both scopes to further improve buffer arrangements, and to also consider future extensions to the area currently nominated, IUCN considers that the boundaries of the nominated property meet the requirements of the Operational Guidelines.”

“No monitoring of the animal mortality due to the highway (and other corridor infrastructure) is in place to assess this impact, and no management response is currently being undertaken for other species. The traffic on the highway is growing due to development occurring in the Tibet Province, and the road will remain a conflict in the future if relevant management responses are not met.”

In many ways, the experts sent by UNESCO did a great job, mindful that both UNESCO and its science partner the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) express great concern for indigenous communities, local conservation, participation, joint management of protected areas, and all the jargon of cultural inclusion. Even though china repeatedly insists that Koko Shili is “no-man’s land”, the UNESCO experts did identify precisely how many Tibetans remain in the area scheduled for World Heritage status.


The IUCN TECHNICAL EVALUATION QINGHAI HOH XIL (CHINA) – ID N° 1540, as it is formally called, is the result of ten days in Koko Shili, by the former director of the WWF Mongolia office, Chimed-Ochir Bazarsad, and a Swiss-based scientist, Carlo Ossola. Bazarsad and Ossola investigated in depth, even if they stop short of requiring China’s compliance with IUCN and UNESCO’s professed standards.

They met not only with officials responsible for running wildlife protection programs, but “a wide range of stakeholders including national level officials from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.” This is crucial, since the entire Koko Shili proposal, located in alpine wilderness “no-man’s land” is owned by the Beijing-based Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD), not by a conservation or environmental protection agency. In remote areas MHURD owns and runs scenic spots suitable for development as tourism destinations, a clear sign of what China has in mind. MHURD’s main job is in the cities, worrying about real estate booms, property speculators, and the danger of the bubble bursting. However, MHURD will remain in charge in “no-man’s land”. UNESCO tells us: “According to the Conservation Regulation of the Hoh Xil Natural Heritage Area in Qinghai Province, adopted by the Standing Committee of Qinghai Provincial People’s Congress, valid from October 2016, an administrative authority for the nominated property will be set up under the Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of Qinghai Province to assume protection and management responsibility for the property.”

“No-man’s land” notwithstanding, this huge area is populated by those Tibetans not already removed to a distant urban fate, by decree. The evaluation report states: “According to the nomination, there are 35 households of 156 herders within the nominated property, and 222 households of 985 herders and 250 other residents in the buffer zone. The activities of nomadic herders are a long-standing and traditional use in the property, and has coexisted with the nature conservation values. The level of involvement of the local communities and users in the preparation of the nomination proposal seems limited and unstructured. The management plan elaborates a section on community involvement and development, including a pilot programme for participative management approaches in Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, and there is involvement of local communities in monitoring activities. The nomination refers to overgrazing, and the introduction of new grazing activities as threats and notes that grassland deterioration and desertification is observed as a result of overgrazing in some parts of the Soja-Qumar sub-zone.”


This immediate slide, from population numbers to accusations of overgrazing, is standard rhetoric of a Chinese state that has never understood the logic of pastoralism, and defines any and all grazing as a loss of biomass, and therefore a danger. In almost the same breath, the remaining human population of Tibetans is introduced, and labelled criminal.

Many conservationists worldwide are willing to believe this, despite the lack of evidence; and the new evidence that climate change is making this land wetter, warmer and more productive. It has long been inbuilt to the science of ecology that humans are not part of the ecosystem, are additional, and by definition a threat. This is classic dualistic thinking, either/or, zero/sum approach in contrast to the productive Tibetan assumption that out on the rangelands there is plenty of room for wild animals, domestic animals, grass and water.

UNESCO’s expert evaluation mission is somewhat worried about China’s approach: “Currently the nature reserves are responsible for controlling grazing activities, and the nomination notes that across the large part of the property, the management agency will ‘gradually impose a ban on herding among sparse residences in the resettlement area and further consider specific voluntary resettlement policies, locations, compensation mechanisms and other measures that can promote the wellbeing of the resettlements.’ Herders in the buffer zone are being engaged in grassland conservation and livestock reduction policies, and local herders have been organized to participate in the conservation practices. The evaluation mission heard concern within the local population regarding being displaced or resettled as a result of the nomination process and outcomes, and several reviewers raised the issue as of concern. IUCN considers that it is imperative that questions of rights, access and traditional use are addressed rigorously and carefully by the State Party [China], in full consultation, and the World Heritage nomination must not be used to justify any deprivation of traditional land use rights of the concerned communities.  In response to concerns raised, the State Party has stated unequivocally that there will be no forced relocation or exclusion of the traditional users of the nominated site, whether before or after succeeding in the application for World Heritage site.”


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What the World Heritage experts have failed to notice is that most of the Tibetans were removed well before the World Heritage nomination process began, specifically to the Chinese petrochemical industrial city of Gormo, hundreds of kms to the north.

Nomad removals have been implemented since the start of this century, in the name of tuimu huancao, watershed protection for China’s great rivers. It is already too late for worrying about “deprivation of traditional land use rights of the concerned communities.” Most of the nomads, who worked so hard to protect antelopes from slaughter, have already been removed, and officially inspected by core leader Xi Jinping on his 2016 inspection tour of Qinghai province and the city of Gormo.

Xi Jinping declared their resettlement, in concrete blocks on either side of the highway into Gormo, a success. He was photographed being greeted by smiling Tibetans who are now utterly dependent on state handouts, having totally lost their livelihoods.

The experts did notice that grazing pressure has reduced, especially in the eastern portion of the proposed World heritage area, in what China calls the Sanjiangyuan, or Three River Source area, which has long supported Tibetan populations. The experts, however, tend to see this through China’s gaze: “Intensive grazing and human-wildlife conflict is also a current threat in part of the property, within Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve. Sheep and cattle compete with wildlife for food and heavy grazing can cause the degradation of the grassland ecosystem. The government has an effective policy for reducing animal husbandry offering incentives and compensation to not graze the land to the relevant households. The IUCN mission understood that grazing intensity has fallen substantially in the last years, and thus it is recommended that this present policy is continued.” Yet again, the assumption that humans and grass are in contradiction is inbuilt in China’s approach, and often in the science of ecology.


The IUCN/UNESCO experts focus almost entirely on the “natural values” of this pristine “no-man’s land”, as that is the basic category of classification for which China has applied. UNESCO sharply divides its World Heritage sites in two categories, natural and cultural. Seldom is a protected property classified as both, though there is no reason why a protected area cannot be both. Indeed, the major Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage mountains of China are classified as both natural and cultural World Heritage, at China’s request.

After many thousands of words, the experts sent by UNESCO do get around to briefly considering the culture of this depopulated but huge chunk of the Tibetan Plateau, the size of Denmark and Netherlands combined. “The IUCN mission noted that, in addition to the traditional grazing practices, there are tangible and intangible cultural attributes within the nominated property, including sacred mountains and sites, of local and national significance. Every village has its sacred places and some of them are inside the property and the buffer zone, mainly prayer sites linked to natural features like caves, hills or mountains.”

Because Kokoshili and the Sanjiangyuan are traditionally sacred, local Tibetan environmentalists, inspired by their experience working with global NGO Conservation International, have been calling for the area to be declared a Sacred Natural Site, under community control. That way they would have an ongoing role as guardians and stewards of land and animals, able to continue what an earlier Tibetan generation died for, to protect the antelopes. That story is movingly told both in film and print, in the 2015 book Tibetan Environmentalists in China, and in the 2004 hit movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. Both come from Chinese writers who fully entered into a Tibetan worldview, enabling audiences to understand Tibetan sacred natural sites through Tibetan eyes.

When it comes to the crunch, having raised Tibetan culture as inherent to wildlife conservation, UNESCO’s experts merely say: “IUCN notes that the cultural and spiritual values of the area should be recognized and included in planning management strategies for the nominated property, noting the intimate linkage they have with the nature conservation values that are the basis for the nomination.”  China has much experience in brushing aside such vague suggestions.


China now brushes aside its own history of community conservation, with Tibetans at the forefront.  If we turn the clock back less than 15 years, it was a very different story, with Tibetan rangers celebrated as heroes of China’s lawless wild west, by Chinese citizens all over China. The movement to save the Tibetan antelopes from slaughter by immigrant Chinese miners/poachers was a citizens movement, led by Tibetans, celebrated throughout China, a highpoint of popular solidarity uniting Tibetans and Han Chinese alike, in common cause.

This is best captured in the 2004 hit movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, and in a book published in English, also in 2004, by the Chinese government’s Foreign Languages Publishing House, Tracking down Tibetan Antelopes. In 160 pages of glossy colour photos, both the antelopes and the Tibetans are lyrically embraced as China’s darlings. In the last words of the book: “No animal has ever aroused as much attention among the Chinese people as the Tibetan antelope. Numerous people are concerned about this endangered species, and offer to help in various forms. Some have even died for this cause. The efforts to protect the Tibetan antelope form the most heroic and stirring page in China’s history of wild animal protection.”

This citizens’ movement showed up the state as missing in action, a deep embarrassment for a state determined, above all, to stamp its sovereignty on lands it had conquered centuries ago but had never effectively ruled. Even as this century began, China had yet to make its empire into a nation. That had to be rectified, by bringing the state back in, as sole actor, sole agent, sole authority, disempowering everyone else.

China’s nomination of Koko Shili as exclusive property of the state, with the blessings of UNESCO World Heritage, is the culmination of more than a decade of placing the state in command, displacing everyone else, starting with the disbanding of the Tibetan Wild Yak Team of ranger patrols.

Only one year after the antelopes and their Tibetan protectors were celebrated across China as heroes, the tone changed. In 2005, Beijing Youth Daily, an organ of the Communist Party’s youth league, announced that national interest was at stake. Koko Shili is the source of China’s greatest river, the Yangtze, and that water source must be fully protected from all threats, especially nomadic Tibetans, who were depicted solely in negative terms: “The no-man’s land of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, known to Chinese and foreign scholars as “the world’s highest natural zoo”, has more than 40 national grade-1 and grade-2 protected animals, including the Tibetan donkey, wild yak, snow leopards and black-necked cranes, and at present it has some of the fewest developed areas in the world. It is also an important environmental protection area and water source for our country, with numerous rivers and lakes. The Mother River of the Chinese Peoples – The Yangtze – also rises in this area.”

Having invoked the national interest, it was a short step to depict Tibetans as an irrational, mobile, unpredictable danger: “Liu Wulin, Principal of the TAR Forestry Research Institute and an expert in wildlife, said that aside from the large numbers encroaching on the two nature preservation areas of the Qiangtang and Kekexili, another 100,000 km2 of “no-man’s land” outside of the two protection areas also has nomads in residence or human activity. The latest survey shows: 392 people, 7200 head of cattle and more than 40,000 sheep have moved into the protection area. As was seen during a visit to this area, there are already nomads living around the 5000m-high Fenghuo Mountain pass, with more than 1000 sheep and more than 200 yaks put out to graze on the mountain slopes. At a place along the 3146 km Qinghai-Tibet Highway, there were also nomads who had put out more than a thousand head of livestock. Buqiong said that at present there are already more than 400 nomad families living within the protected area, primarily concentrated around the Nuola, Mayi and Qiangma Cuo areas. The population of the Twin Lakes Office is already more than 10,000 people, and there is human activity in more than 100,000 km2 of the uninhabited area.”[1]

For the sake of China as a nation-state, what is pristine “no-man’s land” must remain pristine, not contaminated by the presence of Tibetans. From 2005 to China’s 2016  nomination of Koko Shili as World heritage, in a 200 page nomination document using the term “no-man’s land” countless times, is a direct line.

In this new narrative, inconvenient truths were ignored. It mattered little that some of the nomads who moved into Koko Shili had done so at the directive of officials, implementing policies to spread grazing pressure and enhance pastoral production. It mattered little that the nomads had been required to build fences, which now impede wildlife migrations. It was not only the celebration of Tibetan rangers that was swept aside, so too were earlier official policies.

Today, in 2017, amnesia reigns. Mandatory amnesia (known in Chinese communist jargon as avoiding historical nihilism) is common in today’s China. The patriotic Chinese students who flocked to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protest corruption and make China great again, may not be mentioned. The Tibetans of Koko Shili and Drito who, in the absence of the state, confronted and captured the antelope poachers, are similarly erased from memory.

There is however, a single exception. Of the Tibetans whose ranger patrolling saved the antelopes from extinction, one name stands out, the martyr Sonam Dargye. In classic Chinese fashion, his image has been appropriated, his memorial made a shrine, his memory a tourist magnet. In his death, he magically became Chinese, a hero of China’s determination to save the antelopes, which the state now inherits, with the blessing of World Heritage branding. Sonam Dargyey (Soinam Darje in Chinese) lives eternally as a feature of China’s Hoh Xil World Heritage. If conquering Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan can be made into Chinese emperors, it is not too hard to make Sonam Dargyey a hero of state protection of “no-man’s land.”


Although UNESCO has sent its own IUCN mission to Koko Shili, and in June issued a further 11,000 words reporting their findings and recommendations, UNESCO’s biggest failing is in not noticing that, well before China nominated Koko Shili, most of the nomads had been removed to the outskirts of industrial Gormo city. There is not much point in now talking (vaguely) of indigenous rights when most of the Tibetan population of the whole area, in compliance with explicit policies announced in 2003, has already been removed.

Can we know how many Tibetan pastoral nomads have been excluded from their pastures, to lead aimless lives on the urban fringes of Gormo? Administratively, the nominated World Heritage area is largely to the east of Koko Shili, and includes the counties of Drito (Zhiduo in Chinese) and Chumarleb (Qumalai in Chinese) as well as Koko Xili (Hoh Xil or Kekexili in Chinese). This administrative spread is noted by the UNESCO evaluation mission, which enumerates the staff numbers designated as wildlife protection officers as 49 in Drito, 49 in Chumarleb and 37 in Koko Shili. We also have current population figures for “no-man’s land” revealed in China’s nomination: “According to the nomination, there are 35 households of 156 herders within the nominated property, and 222 households of 985 herders and 250 other residents in the buffer zone.”

That is a total of 1391 humans, all Tibetan, living in the 75,000 sq kms designated for World Heritage status. If we consult China’s official Year 2000 Census, we discover the Tibetan population of Drito county was then 23,407; in Chumarleb county 23,601. This strongly suggests China first removed most of the Tibetan nomads, and only then initiated the UNESCO World Heritage nomination process.

Touchingly, China (the State Party in UN jargon) has  reassured the IUCN Hoh Xil evaluation mission that the few remaining nomads will not be coercively removed: “In response to concerns raised, the State Party has stated unequivocally that there will be no forced relocation or exclusion of the traditional users of the nominated site, whether before or after succeeding in the application for World Heritage site.”


[1]      可可西里保护区被大量侵占 青藏高原无人区锐减   Kekexili protection area encroached by large numbers, no-man’s land of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau falling   2005年09月06日 08:21:00  来源:北京青年报  September 6, 2005. Source: Beijing   Youth Daily

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Blog 1 of 2 on the decision facing UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the first week of July 2017

A remote, high, frigid land of lakes on the Tibetan Plateau is about to become news, thrust forward by China’s nomination of Kokoshili to be made UNESCO World Heritage.

Surely global protection is good? Unfortunately, that common sense response doesn’t always match well with how things turn out. If the iconic wild animals of Kokoshili are protected, while the human protectors are excluded, that’s not good. But that is what China proposes.f

What is this unknown “empty quarter” of Tibet? Why has China singled out what it calls “no-man’s land” for global prominence? China depicts it as alpine desert, yet it teems with lakes, wetlands and wildlife, including the iconic Tibetan antelopes, snow leopards, bears and wild yaks. China proclaims itself the protector of these iconic species, yet under China’s control the number of antelopes plunged from one million to as few as 65,000. They were protected only by the Tibetan nomads of Kokoshili and nearby pastures risking –and losing- their lives to protect the nimble tsö antelopes from the slaughter of hunters making fortunes from their downy underfur.


Tibetan communities of the arid pastoral landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau urge the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, its scientific advisers and member states to reconsider China’s nomination of what it calls Hoh Xil (in Tibetan: Kokoshili), to become a World Heritage natural landscape property. A decision on China’s nomination is due early July, on the agenda of a World Heritage Committee meeting in Krakow, Poland.

Classifying this huge seasonal pasture land solely as natural landscape, with no cultural value, betrays the heroic efforts of Tibetans to protect the endangered wildlife of Kokoshili and the adjacent counties of Drito, Chumarleb and Zato, much of which China has mapped into the proposed Kokoshili World Heritage site.

For the past 30 years the Tibetans of these remote areas have worked to protect both landscapes and iconic wildlife species, while seasonally grazing their herds of sheep and yaks, which have always intermingled freely with the wild antelopes and gazelles. In three decades of campaigning for the animals, sacred mountains and innumerable lakes of this land of frigid lakes, Tibetans have risked their lives to detain poachers, and lost lives to violent hunters and gold miners. The poachers were mostly poor Chinese Muslims. When the central state did little or nothing to protect natural resources, the Tibetans risked all. Yet now China insists the area nominated is “no-man’s land”, with no human presence at all, and so no local communities as stakeholders. This is a tragic misrepresentation.



The nominated area is as big as Denmark and Netherlands combined, 75,000 sq. kms used as seasonal pasture by Tibetan livestock producers for millennia, their ongoing, skilful, sustainable and productive land use ending only in very recent years, due to their compulsory removal by state power relocating them to lead useless lives in concrete camps positioned along the highway to Lhasa, just outside of the petrochemical city of Gormo, far north of their ancestral pastures.

The Tibetan communities who seasonally pasture their yaks and sheep, alongside the migratory tsö, the Tibetan antelope (pantholops hodgsonii, widely called chiru), move their herds in summer, when monsoon rains bring grasses to flourish, know this land intimately. Back in 1898 a Canadian missionary traversing Kokoshili en route to Lhasa described how she found her way through snowstorms by looking for the lhatse cairns of stones at each pass across the hills, sacred sites dedicated to the local deity protectors of the land, to whom Tibetan travellers always make offerings. What Dr. Susie Rijnhart experienced in 1896 is true today, but many of the nomads have now been relocated, without choice, north to the heavy industrial city of Gormo, where they were inspected by Xi Jinping in August 2016.

Canadian missionary Susie Rijnhart found Tibetan drogpa nomads, with their yak herds, living in Kokoshili, as in all other areas of Tibet, pasturing their animals: “Suddenly we saw some white tents, and on nearer approach discovered there were fourteen of them, having about 1500 yak and many horses. We were received in a very friendly manner by the travellers, most of them knowing us. Though they wanted us to camp beside them, we went on to ford the waters. The sensation of camping across the river from friends was peculiar. The tents on the opposite bank looked like a town, but in the morning every vestige of the recent inhabitants with dwellings was gone, and we were again alone.” [1] Kokoshili –and all Tibet- was a land without fences, in which wild and domestic herds mingled unhindered, and wild animals seldom feared human presence.



Now, the antelopes are starting to come back, but many of the nomads are gone. The state has taken over, erasing almost all memory of community conservation effort, other than ritually honouring  the martyr Sonam Dargye, who, in death has become China’s Soinam or Suonam Darje. All else is veiled by official amnesia, as if it never happened.

The Tibetans foresaw what would happen. In a debate almost 20 years ago, in the remote village of Sokya (Suojia in Chinese), inside the proposed Kokoshili World Heritage site the local pastoralists debated the future with Tador,  the first son of Sokya to get a university education, who had returned to his village as local party secretary. As journalist Liu Jianqiang tells it: “There was no medical service, no highways nor electricity. Suojia was caught in the middle of a net formed by  the four big rivers of Mochu, Yamchu, Damchu and Jichu. Half the year, water isolated it from the outside world. ‘Wild ass and marmot are our specialities’ Tador replied. ‘We’ve got no minerals and no caterpillar fungus [for income]. Our cattle can’t be shipped out. Therefore in Suojia  -including Kokoshili- our only specialty is wild animals.’ Wild and rare animals are abundant in Suojia: Tibetan antelopes, snow leopards, Tibetan wild ass, black-necked cranes. Tador said, ‘We can establish wild animal zoos here just like in Africa. Our country may not care for us, but may care for the animals. When it’s time to care for the animals, they will have to care for us. If we successfully protect Suojia, they will invest to solve our livelihood issues when the government establishes nature reserves. Party Secretary Sonam [Dargye] was sacrificed for the protection of Tibetan antelopes. We’ll continue his work.’” [2]

Successive Tibetans persisted in this difficult work, sometimes as local government officials, sometimes by setting up the first ever Tibetan environmental NGOs, sometimes with support from international NGOs from Hong Kong, Europe and the US, including Conservation International.

What these farsighted Tibetans did not expect was that, in the name of watershed management and growing more grass, many would be resettled far from home on the fringes of an industrial city, with no vocational education enabling entry into the industrial economy, no access to ancestral land, no mobility and no use for their deep understanding of how to live and thrive in a water meadow land of lakes ideal for yaks, sheep and horses, in which jeeps only bog. While the displaced nomads are reduced to dependence on state rations, in new concrete settlements, their lands  are now solely governed by a sovereign state that has never understood or appreciated this vast landscape of frozen lakes in winter and permafrost summer melt into wetland and water meadow.


China argues that this is a wilderness, a “no-man’s land” ripe for modernity, specifically for mass domestic tourism based on the romance of being the first humans to conquer “no-man’s land”.

This “untouched” wilderness in fact has running right through it, for 250 kms, the Qinghai-Tibet Engineering Corridor (QTEC), as China proudly calls it, a corridor of highways, railways, oil pipelines, optical fibre cabling and ultra-high voltage power grid, from north to south. The portion designated to become World Heritage, far from being remote, has not only a 250 kms engineering corridor through it,  but also 13 railway stations built solely as viewing platforms to take iconic shots of iconic species, if the train stops for a photo opportunity. As the antelopes flee, the train seldom stops at these desolate platforms.

The boundaries drawn by China’s nomination to UNESCO place this QTEC in the middle of the designated property. China has no wildlife adventure safari trekking tourism yet, but that is the plan.

The wild migratory antelope herds must cross QTEC, especially the pregnant females seeking the safety of remote birthing grounds where there are few predators. The high embankments built to keep the railway line temperature stable are a major barrier.

While China’s nomination denies all human presence, it focuses strongly on the tsö antelopes, as if the biodiversity conservation of this iconic species was the entire purpose of seeking World Heritage status. Some key questions: what is China’s record so far on conserving this highly migratory species? What has been the role of Tibetan communities of livestock herders in protecting the tsö over the centuries, and right up to this century? Who has stronger motivation to conserve both biodiversity and habitat: the state or the communities?


The logic of China’s mapping, placing the engineering corridor front and centre, has nothing to do with effective habitat protection, which would require a bigger area, in three provinces.

The habitat of the tsö/chiru/pantholops hodgsonii covers a much bigger area than China’s proposal, which is restricted to the province of Qinghai. The antelopes know no provincial boundaries, ranging freely, by season, across three provinces, wintering in Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region, migrating north into the Arjin Shan mountains of Xinjiang each summer to give birth and care for their young, far from wolves and snow leopards. The birthing grounds are so remote that wildlife biologists only discovered their location this century.

The mapping of the proposed World Heritage area excludes a massive cobalt deposit.[3]


The decline from one million of the agile, highly mobile tsö antelopes,  down to as few as 65,000 in the 1990s, happened entirely in the years of China’s rule, since the 1950s. Chinese soldiers, stationed across Tibet to quell uprisings, bored, underfed and isolated, shot antelopes from their jeeps. Tibetans were powerless to stop them.

In the 1980s, with the opening up of China, this frontier zone experienced a gold rush, as thousands of poor Chinese Muslims poured across the river beds of this “no-man’s land” seeking flecks of alluvial gold. Again, there was little the Tibetans could do to stop them, as local county governments encouraged them, or were paid off to look away.


The gold miners hunted the antelopes, just for their downy underbelly fur, to be sold illegally for the manufacture of superlight shahtoosh luxury shawls.  Kokoshili was a wild west, beyond the frontier, where the desperate and the ruthless could take what they wanted, and the rule of law was absent. Kokoshili had become “the playing field of bandits, ruffians and gangsters. Gangsters illegally occupied large tracts of land. Then they sent out rumours the land was full of gold, selling fake licences to the peasants, charging each five hundred yuan. If anyone refused to pay, they would be killed to set an example for the others.”[4]

It was only in the 1990s that a small bunch of Tibetans based in Drito, distressed at the slaughter, formed a posse to hunt the hunters. Although they were determined to confront the Chinese Muslim miner/hunters, what legal authority did they have? The rangers were based in Drito just east of Kokoshili, a county (and town) whose Tibetan name means source of the Yangtze River (Dri Chu in Tibetan). Kokoshili, to the west, was where they had always taken their herds in summer, when the rains filled the many lakes and rivers, grass grows abundantly, and the nomads know how to live skilfully off uncertainty in a marginal environment. For most of the year, Kokoshili is not only dry but very cold, with permafrost freezing what moisture remains in the soils of this land of lakes and riverheads. Summer brings not only monsoon rains, but melts the permafrost, making many areas boggy. Only the skilled, experienced nomads can navigate this land.

Kokoshili is so remote and, in Chinese eyes, so unattractive, it was not even designated as a county, despite its size.  By default it was technically administered by the distant industrial city of Gormo and the even further distant provincial capital of Xining. In the official gaze of the state, it was a blank, a lacuna, where jeeps sink into bogs, conquerable only by massive investments, such as a railway raised high above the plain on embankments and bridges for its entire transit.

The antelopes faced a short path to extinction, which local Tibetan communities were helpless to prevent, despite thousands of years of wild and domestic herds intermingling, as nomads took their sheep, goats and yaks into Kokoshili every summer to graze. Then in the 1990s, a miracle happened: the Tibetans on the eastern fringes of Kokoshili mobilised, inspiring a worldwide movement of environmentalists inspired by the heroism of the Tibetan rangers, successfully halting and reversing the slide to extinction. That is the story of the next blog.




[1] Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in tent and temple,1904, 241 online via:

[2] Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in China, Lexington, 2015, 222

[3] Chengyou Feng,, Wenjun Qu, Dequan Zhang, Re–Os dating of pyrite from the Tuolugou stratabound Co(Au) deposit, eastern Kunlun Orogenic Belt, northwestern China, Ore Geology Reviews 36 (2009) 213–220

[4] Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in China, Lexington, 2015, 96

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Blog 2 of 2 on the decision facing UNESCO World Heritage Committee in the first week of July 2017


The inspiring example of Tibetans determined to protect wildlife as fellow sentient beings created a worldwide movement to stop animal slaughter. It is that Tibetan campaign to save the tsö antelopes that China now wants us to forget, denying even that Kokoshili is a human landscape. China demands amnesia about the brave Tibetans who 25 years ago halted the massacre, insisting that Kokoshili is a “no-man’s land” with no human presence, a wildlife wilderness untouched by human hand, awaiting discovery by today’s railway tourists.

Fortunately, despite official amnesia, there is a rich record of how Tibetans led a campaign to save the antelopes, and inspired a global civil society movement, with almost no government involvement.

We are also fortunate that this popular movement inspired ordinary Chinese people, resulting in rich documentation, telling the story of the Tibetan Wild Yak Brigade of wildlife rangers, from a Tibetan viewpoint. Two Chinese storytellers, movie director Lu Chuan and journalist Liu Jianqiang both moved fully into seeing the world, including Kokoshili, through Tibetan eyes, and gave us deeply moving accounts, from a Tibetan viewpoint.

Lu Chuan’s movie Kekexili: Mountain patrol came out in 2004, the same year a Chinese government publisher put out a deeply sympathetic photojournalism book by wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong.[1] Liu Jianqiiang’s story of the Tibetan wildlife rangers was published in Chinese in 2010 and in English in 2015. Through them, we can know so much about a China that was able to deeply connect and respect Tibetans. This blog draws on those insider narratives.



In the early 1990s it was official policy to encourage even remote areas to take whatever opportunity there might be to get rich, to set up small enterprises based on local strengths; and  a Western Working Commission was announced, for the development of Kokoshili. The Tibetans determined to risk their lives protecting the antelopes saw a slim chance, and took it. In 1993 they became the Western Working Commission, a job no-one else wanted, headed by local Communist Party secretary Sonam Dargye.

He was ahead of his time. Today we do talk of markets and payments for environmental services, but not then. Officially the Western Working Commission was to somehow bring development to Kokoshili. Party secretary Sonam Dargye, one of the first generation of Tibetans with a modern education, was keen on development. But first the resources of Kokoshili being plundered had to be protected, and an Office of Wildlife Protection became part of the work of the Western Working Commission. For the first time, Tibetans had legal authority to arrest poachers and hand them over to police, but almost no budget, and a contract with Drito county providing minimal funding for just one year, after which they were on their own.

That was a slender legal basis to deal with 30,000 gold feverish immigrants, armed and used to slaughter. Yet ranger Sonam Dargye and his Tibetan colleagues did stop the massacre, and became national heroes, known across China for their courage in standing up to violence.  Chinese photographers, journalists and film makers came to document their efforts, sparking a popular movement. Chinese and international environmental NGOs became involved.

On the ground, the long and dangerous patrols of the Wild Yak Brigade, as they called themselves, succeeded in slowing the slaughter of the antelopes, and capturing the popular imagination. All over China, people wanted to help them succeed. In distant Tianjin, on the coast beyond Beijing, a TV station held a telethon fund raiser to buy jeeps and fuel for the Wild Yak Brigade. Dancers in costume inspired by antelopes staged dance performances.

Global NGOs campaigned to stop the shahtoosh shawl trade based on the massacre of Tibetan antelopes.

These successes were an embarrassment to China’s government, a shameful admission that the rule of law, of a sovereign state, did not reach the badlands. Until the Wild Yak Brigade Kokoshili was a lawless frontier.

The more widely ordinary Chinese people celebrated the heroism of the Wild Yak Brigade, the more the state lost face. In 2001, the Brigade was abruptly terminated, its powers transferred to the Administration Bureau of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, which on paper was created in 1995, the bureaucratic source of the current World Heritage nomination. By then Sonam Dargye was seven years dead, shot by a poacher. Other Tibetans stepped in to persist with the dangerous frontier work.

By the time the Wild Yak Brigade/Western Working Commission was abolished, urban China had been mobilised in support, a conference on trade in endangered species had been held, movie maker Le Chuan was making his re-enactment of the rangers’exploits, which became the 2004 hit movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. [2]

Wildlife conservationists worldwide took up the cause. In India, in order to outlaw the luxury shahtoosh shawl industry, Wildlife Trust of India first proved Tibetan antelopes also live in Ladakh, in India’s far north, making it an Indian animal entitled to legal protection. Celebrities were mobilised to post videos calling on their followers to refrain from buying shahtoosh shawls.

The decline in the number of antelopes slaughtered was achieved not by governments, treaties and formal ascription of World Heritage status; but by a global mobilisation of civil society, uniting Tibetan rangers on the frontline with European celebs warning that shahtoosh shawls, once cool, are now toxic. It was this ad hoc coalition of NGOs, wildlife campaigners and frontline Tibetan rangers that made shahtoosh the shawl of shame, and halted the extinction of the tsö antelopes. The turning point was the 1999 gathering of all parties, in the Qinghai capital, Xining. The resulting Xining Declaration insists on local community involvement in all future antelope protection programs.[3] By 2016 the Tibetan antelope was taken off the IUCN Red List of endangered species, though it is still listed as near threatened. Community based conservation, connecting high end fashionistas and Tibetan badlands rangers, had saved the tsö from extinction.[4]

Chinese and Tibetans had joined in partnership, and the slaughter came to almost a complete end. In 2010 Liu Jianqiang published in Chinese  a booklength insider account of the heroism of the rangers, with an English translation in 2015. [5] The full story is available to all. It is full of the voices of the Tibetans of this “no-man’s land”, passionately debating how best to protect it.

Since then, the state has taken over. On paper it is committed not only to rebuilding the Tibetan antelope herd, but to protecting the entire habitat, and the many other endemic species, including snow leopards, brown bears and wild yaks. The state alone is in charge. This does not mean, however, the state has coherent or consistent policies for achieving its goals of human poverty alleviation for Tibetan nomads, and effective conservation of endangered species. In fact, in much of the antelope habitat, China persists in requiring nomads to construct fences, which interrupt antelope migrations.[6]

How is the state doing? Tibetan antelope numbers continue to gradually recover. The tsö continue to be very wary of crossing the QTEC engineering corridor, which they must, in order to reach their safe birthing grounds. Chinese scientists in 2011 reported: “Tibetan antelopes exhibited risk-avoidance behaviour towards roads that varied with proximity and traffic levels, which is consistent with the risk-disturbance hypothesis.”  The trains headed for Lhasa seldom stop at any of the 13 scenic viewing platforms erected along the rail traverse of Kokoshili, because the antelopes, the iconic sight to be photographed, flee approaching trains.[7]



Antelope habitat is much more than the area designated by China for World Heritage. China’s focus is almost entirely on just one species, the antelope, rather than on habitats, ecosystems and whole landscapes.

A holistic approach is needed, rather than publicising a single iconic species, used by China as a symbol of its 2008 Olympics in Beijing, as the sole attraction. A comprehensive approach would give local Tibetan communities, both within the designated World Heritage area, and in their traditional nomadic wintering grounds to the east, ongoing roles as stakeholders. These nomads have for thousands of years taken their herds into Kokoshili for summer pasture, moving alongside the antelopes and gazelles. The Tibetans have proven, by taking the lead in conservation in the 1990s, that they are part of any long term solution, not part of the problem. Yet China persists in labelling them problematic, removing many to Gormo, to live in the shadow of petrochemical factories.

Much of the proposed World Heritage area is the uppermost reaches of two great rivers, the Yangtze and the Mekong, which makes whole landscape protection essential for hundreds of millions of people downriver. The rest of Kokoshili does not drain to rivers, but is a land of lakes, on a flat plain, collecting but not releasing inflows of water, which freezes over in winter and melts in summer, creating water meadows that can be navigated by animals, but badly bogs jeeps, a major reason China calls it “no-man’s land.” Due to climate change, recent data shows an increase in summer rain, increase in grasses for both antelopes and nomad herders, and increase in the area of lakes.[8] This is one of the few places where global climate change, at least in the short-term, has beneficial effects. Kokoshili is rapidly recovering, after decades of rapacious mining, and antelope slaughter. There is summer grass for both wild and domestic animals, if managed skilfully by those who know the land, as Tibetans do. In the past human use and wildlife existed together, in future this could expand.


World Heritage status transforms areas inscribed, not always for the better.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee need only look at the record of its earlier acceptances of China’s nominations of natural landscapes in the Tibetan Plateau. In 1992 the spectacularly beautiful Jiuzhaigou valley, in Sichuan, directly north of Chengdu, became World Heritage, its inscription partly as panda conservation habitat. No panda has been seen there for 20 years. This valley, named for its nine Tibetan fenced villages, has been surrounded by luxury resorts, millionaire villas, conference centres and a high-speed railway is under construction. The resort operators on their website proudly proclaim it the eastern Davos. Meanwhile, under a deluge of tens of millions of domestic Chinese tourists, UNESCO has increasingly worried that the values for which it was accepted are seriously threatened. But the response has been to  make the Tibetan villagers, who cared for this land for millennia, to limit their land use, by forbidding farming, then forbidding them to earn a little by offering homestays to a few of the tourists. Both of these restrictions were proposed by IUCN missions sent by UNESCO to find solutions to the extreme over-use of the Jiuzhaigou valley by China’s tourism accommodation industry.

In 2002 the World Heritage Committee accepted China’s nomination of a bigger area, customary home of Tibetans and other minority nationalities nearby, as the Three Parallel Rivers site of Yunnan province. Three of the world’s great rivers –the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween- flow there in parallel, only 20kms apart, separated by high ridges, which are rich grasslands, ideal for dairy and livestock production. None of the actual rivers, after which the site is named, are actually inside the World Heritage boundaries, which were carefully mapped by China to exclude the riverbeds, so as to allow for the construction of hydro dams and power grids to carry the electricity generated there far away to China’s coastal factories. The dams and power grids are now under construction, and the World heritage Committee, despite protests, has been firmly told by China to mind its own business, as the dams, mines and grids are outside the World Heritage area, in the steep valleys below.


Far from proposing an inclusive World Heritage property that embraces nature and culture, conservers and conserved, human protectors and endangered species together, China’s nomination comes from the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MHURD). As urbanisation is at the core of China’s development model, this is a powerful ministry, but what has a housing department got to do with wildlife in a remote “no-man’s land”?

The answer is that MHURD runs zoos in urban areas.

It also has some responsibility for scenic spots, and the 13 bare railway platforms on the rail line to Lhasa, as it traverses Kokoshili, are classified as scenic spots, designated by the state as vantage points from which to take the iconic photos which qualify the photographer as an individual, with educated tastes and personal accomplishments, a consumer of the wild with proof of having been there.

China’s most recent report to the UN Convention on Biodiversity states: “Scenic spots are important areas for biodiversity conservation. Since 2002, MHURD has established a system of information for monitoring and managing national-level scenic spots, using remote-sensing and GIS technologies to monitor natural resources conservation and implementation of relevant plans in scenic spots.”[9]

How can MHURD make those windswept platforms to nowhere into scenic spots where antelopes are photogenically available? Only by impeding the migratory flow of herds of female antelopes seeking their birthing grounds, fencing them in to be available to the camera. In short, a zoo.




After twice finding itself powerless to limit the impacts of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, in two key World Heritage natural landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetans now hope UNESCO has learned from experience that China uses World Heritage listing directly as a brand equity boost to promote mass tourism, while also arguing vigorously that it is China’s business alone if it also industrialises World Heritage landscapes with dams, grids and resorts.

What is the lesson to be learned?  World Heritage status can be a blessing, ensuring effective protection of landscapes, habitats and local human livelihoods. The problem is in defining Kokoshili, like Jiuzhaigou and Three Parallel Rivers, from the outset, purely as natural landscapes, omitting the human cultures that in all three areas have protected lands and animals, wildlife and domestic herds, sustainably for thousands of years.

The alternative facing the World Heritage Committee is to make Kokoshili a landscape protected as both natural and cultural. There is plenty of precedent for this, in China and elsewhere. The mountains sacred to China’s Buddhists are World Heritage sites classified as both natural and cultural hybrids. In order to qualify as cultural heritage, monumental buildings are not necessary, as director of the World Heritage Centre, Dr Mechtild Rössler pointed out in 2016: “The inclusion of such landscapes on the World Heritage List is justifiable by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent. This type is exemplified by Uluru Kata Tjuta in Australia, Sukur in Nigeria and Tongariro National Park in New Zealand.”[10]


[1] Tracking Down Tibetan Antelopes, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004

[2] Lu Chuan’s hit 2004 movie Kekexili  in nine online episodes

[3] International Declaration for the Conservation of and Control of Trade in the Tibetan Antelope, TRAFFIC Bulletin Vol. 18 No. 2 (2000)


[5] Liu Jianqiang, Tianzhu, Xizang Renmin Chubanshe, Lhasa, 2010

Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in in China, Lexington, 2015

[6] Joseph L. F o x , Kelsang Dhondup and Tsechoe Dorji,  Tibetan antelope Pantholops hodgsonii conservation and new rangeland management policies in the western Chang Tang Nature Reserve, Tibet: is fencing creating an impasse? Oryx, 2009, 43 #2, 183-190

[7] Lin Xia, Qisen Yang, Zengchao Li, Yonghua Wu, Zuojian Feng, The effect of the Qinghai-Tibet railway on the migration of Tibetan antelope Pantholops hodgsonii in Hoh-xil National Nature Reserve, China,Oryx / Volume 41 / Issue 3 / July 2007

[8] Zhao Qian, Wu Weiwei, Wu Yunlong, Variations in China’s terrestrial water storage over the past decade using GRACE data, Geodesy and Geodynamics 2 0 1 5 , v o l 6 no 3 , 1 8 7-1 9 3

[9]China’s Fifth National Report on the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity,The Ministry of Environmental Protection of China March, 2014 p 65

[10] Dr Mechtild Rössler  World Heritage cultural landscapes: A UNESCO flagship programme 1992 – 2006, Landscape Research, 31:4, 333-353

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