There is so much in Chinese tradition to draw on that leading intellectuals compete by cutting and pasting as they choose, almost always from Confucian classics, as their contribution to contemporary China’s greatness, the realisation of the “China Dream” and China’s exceptionalism. Their agenda is, as it has been for generations, to save China, and to strengthen it. For a century, from late 19th to very late in the 20th century, the consensus among intellectuals, reformers, modernisers and nearly all political parties, was that Confucian tradition was at the heart of China’s backwardness and inability to stand up to the west. Then, almost overnight, the magnetic poles flipped. Confucianism suddenly went from being the root cause of China’s failures to being the secret source of its contemporary strengths.

The great game of China’s establishment intellectuals, left and right, is to pick which aspects of Confucian tradition best can be made to reframe debate, make Chinese characteristics into universals, which at the least exempt China from the universals of others, such as universal human rights, and at most proclaim China as the natural global centre of all under heaven.

It is this fixation on extracting concepts from the 2500 years old Spring and Autumn Annals for contemporary repurposing that preoccupies not only the party-state and its intellectual supporters, but also the leading critics as well. Their preoccupation with Confucian precedent, a contemporary trahison des clercs, serves the interests of the party-state even when it is critical of the inequality, corruption and excesses of the regime.

These days what used to be the consensus, that Confucian tradition is largely irrelevant to contemporary China’s problems, is voiced only by lonely, imprisoned outsiders such as the gentle Liu Xiaobo, who says ”Deep down, emotionally, the Chinese remain closed off. In their heart of hearts, they want to find some superior cultural tradition of their own that will help them create a unified system of belief. They are constantly engaged in a quest to find some source of national pride with which to console themselves. Confronted with the powerful culture of the West, the Chinese search for a spiritual crutch in the ancient culture that once made them so proud.”[1] It is for these sentiments that Liu Xiaobo is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in gaol.

These are among the deeper reasons why Tibetans make so little progress when they reach out, in Chinese, to Chinese audiences.  Wang Hui’s elaborate refusal to take seriously the anguish of the Tibetans is itself exemplary. His lengthy recitation of imperial precedent, his insistence that it was the Manchu emperor Qianlong who, in the 18th century “established the Kashag system that placed the Dalai Lama at the head of the government,” repeats familiar arguments that, since the imperial annalists regarded the Tibetans as tribute-paying outer barbarians, whose “local” government is established or disposed of by Beijing, the actual voices of actual contemporary Tibetans can be ignored.

What is truly remarkable in Wang Hui’s 90 pages on contemporary Tibet is that almost nowhere does he hear Tibetan voices, or listen to Tibetan complaints that echo his own critique of contemporary China’s state capitalism, gross inequality, rapacious resource extraction and environmental damage. Seldom does he sit and talk with actual Tibetans, although he says “I have always been deeply curious about Tibetan culture and wanted to investigate the Tibetan region more thoroughly.”[2]



Wang Hui’s elaborately contrived deafness to Tibetan pain is, unfortunately, typical of educated Chinese, including critics of the party-state. Exceptions are rare. One might expect the exceptions to be social scientists, trained in empathy, verstehen, in the classic ethnographic method of standing inside as well as outside the culture being studied. No such sympathetic reports are to be found in the writings of China’s social scientists. The few open-minded accounts of the lives, values, cultures and practices of Tibetans, and other minority nationalities, come from Chinese biodiversity scientists and human rights lawyers.

For Wang Hui, the protests by Tibetans can be explained away as the strains and contradictions of the arrival of modernization in a religious society, in which Tibetans confuse the inevitability of globalization with Sinicization. The strong global sympathy in 2008 for protests by Tibetans is explained away as the delusional fantasies of Western imperialist romanticism. Wang writes: “Most Chinese have no idea that what they are facing are Westerners saturated in several centuries of orientalist knowledge, for whom Tibet is something purely internal or, rather, a wholly fabricated internal other.”[3]

Assembling his evidence that Tibet is a phantom of Western orientalist fantasy, Wang takes a long detour through Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Herder, Madame Blavatsky, Adolf Hitler, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, James Hilton, the Central Intelligence Agency and many more; a ground already well trodden by many Western scholars[4] out to clear away projections, to enable Tibet and Tibetans to come into focus on their own terms. But for Wang Hui, this constitutes evidence that, for Westerners, “the existence of the Orient/Tibet is a necessary premise upon which their selfhood is constructed.”

Some Westerners, having repudiated the orientalist fantasies, deconstructed the Shangri-la mythos and also criticised the CIA’s use of Tibetans as Cold War pawns, have gone further, entering fully into Tibetan lifeworlds, as practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. While there may not be many Euro/Americans who have dedicated their lives to the inward journey of meditative insight into the nature of mind, under the guidance of Tibetan teachers, one might suppose their views worth noting, as an alternative to the speculations of 18th century philosophers. Wang Hui, far from ignoring such voices, includes them, as one might expect of an intellectual drawn to universals, which could include Buddhism, in that the Buddhists of Tibet say the Buddhist path of insight into the nature of mind is meaningful for anyone born human, irrespective of culture.

Wang Hui chooses to quote from Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk in the Tibetan tradition with decades of experience of the transformative inner journey: “It’s called ‘mixing your mind with the teacher’s mind,’ the teacher’s mind being wisdom and your mind being confusion. What happens then is that by means  of ‘spiritual union’ you progress from confusion to wisdom. This purely contemplative process is one of the key points of Tibetan Buddhist practice…… You can’t go and meet with Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’s feet. Yet suddenly here were these beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself: ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.” [5]

For Wang Hui, this is further proof that the West is in the grip of a deeply imprinted collective orientalist delusion about Tibet.  It does not occur to Wang to consider Ricard’s experience of decades of immersion in Buddhist practice and an attempt to find words for the deeply transformative power of Tibetan mind training, and Ricard’s unusually intense ethnographic encounter worth considering as an insider perspective. These quotes from Ricard prove to Wang Hui that the Tibetan lamas “are the creation of Westerners rather than the descendants of Tsong-kha-pa.”[6] Thus does Wang dismiss global concern about human rights in Tibet, the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet, and the pain of the contemporary Tibetans.

Wang Hui says he wants to hear more Tibetan voices, yet seems oblivious to their presence online, in Chinese and in Tibetan, despite acute dangers, obstacles and censorship. He is also unaware of the corpus of fieldwork done in Tibetan areas. For two decades, the Institute of Biology at Yunnan University in Kunming, has published careful fieldwork accounts of conservationist practices of the many minority nationalities of Yunnan, practices based on traditional indigenous knowledge. In hundreds of reports, chapters and articles, they add up to a remapping of knowledge invisible to a party-state bent on engineering modernisation on a grand scale, through massive infrastructure projects that frequently have perverse outcomes that could have been prevented, if traditional knowledge was acknowledged and respected.

The biologists take care to adopt the conventions of scientific writing, in which the observer remains unseen, not part of the story. But when Beijing based human rights defence lawyers decide to see for themselves what the Tibetans are carrying on about, the tone is straightforward reportage, remarkable only because, in China, it is so unusual.[7]

This “Investigative report into the social and economic causes of the 3.14 incident in Tibetan areas”, by the Beijing-based Gongmeng Law Research Centre in 2009, adopts the structure and stance of objectivity of the social sciences, but Tibetan voices constantly break through: “The assistance and ‘development’ brought by the Han is often accompanied by forced change and conflicts, and the wishes of the Tibetan people themselves are not respected. ‘A Tibetan’s prosperity is more about freedoms such as religious belief, a respect for people, a respect for life, the kind of prosperity you get from extending charity to others.’ (Interviewee, Norbu].) ‘Reform and opening up brought with it new values for the Tibetan people […] forcing people to accept ‘development as the last word,’ and forcing them to accept ‘consumption as the last word’. In this process […] of transforming a people who had originally based their values on faith at the same time as transforming Tibet itself by means of modernization the lives of the people there were also transformed.’ (Interviewee, Li Xiaoshan.) From the level of actual benefits, the current rapid process of modernization has not given the ordinary Tibetan people any greater developmental benefits; indeed, they are becoming increasingly marginalized. In the course of researching and interviewing, we saw on more than one occasion the schisms, bitterness and hardships being faced in Tibetan areas today.”

This frankness, and the space provided for subaltern Tibetans to speak for themselves, were quickly repressed and the authors punished. Five years later, in 2014, the Gongmeng report remains one of the few occasions Tibetan voices were heard and reported by educated Chinese who took the trouble of going to Tibet to see for themselves.



[1] Liu Xiaobo, A Spiritual Tool, in Geremie Barme ed., New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, Times Books, 1992, 385

[2] Wang Hui, Son of the Jinsha River: In Memory of Xiao Liangzhong, 181

[3] Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, Harvard, 2011, 154

[4] Peter Bishop, Donald Lopez, Martin Brauen, Frank Korom and Robert Barnett are among many who have written extensively on this

[5] Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher: A father and son discuss the meaning of life; Schocken, 1999, 5,9, quoted in Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, 150-2

[6] Politics of Imagining, 151

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Thanks to the unending flow of top secret documents  going public, we now know that every state spies on everyone, not only to monitor terrorists but also to manoeuvre for military, political and commercial advantage.

We have long known China does this, to intercept the military and commercial secrets of rivals; and to censor and disrupt the communications of its own citizens and critics. But now we know everyone who has the capability does it, because they can. Cyberwarfare has become the norm, hidden behind the vague rationale that this is nothing new; this is merely the anarchy of global international relations loosed upon the world.

Now that the extent of this each-against-all world is known, we can start to trace the lineages of this new absolutism, this Hobbesian world where the strong take full advantage of the weak. How did we come to a situation where it is regarded as fair enough, inevitable, even normal, that the nation-states of the world regard all others as competitors and/or enemies, whose weaknesses are to be exploited?

The simplest answer is that the spy agencies of all powerful nations do this because they can, because they managed for a decade or more to keep it largely secret, because both legislation and popular concern lag far behind their new technical capabilities to intercept everything and anything. We could say that the post-9/11 security state has normalised such measures; and that the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center coincided with an exploding capacity to intercept all electronic communication. We can look back on the past decade, or 13 years, as a turning point, a time when Islamic fundamentalism was answered by a security fundamentalism that has become pervasive and toxic.

As we look back over the years since 2001, Tibet looms large, as the laboratory in which these new tech advances were trialled, tested, and perfected. The Tibetans were the laboratory rats, on whom all the new technologies of interception, deception, disruption, disinformation and destruction of the enemy’s communications system, were trialled. The new weapons of cyber warfare were, as is now well known, trialled by the Chinese government, with the Tibetans, in and beyond Tibet, their front line.

As a frequent visitor to Tibetan communities in India, I often met bright young tech heads who were into helping the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans maintain some integrity and security of their computer systems, to be alert to hack attacks and secret siphoning of data to nearly untraceable addresses in China. A decade ago, as the stories slowly grew, that China was attacking not only the Tibetans, but American corporate secrets, even the US military, seeking to copy stealth fighter jets and missiles, it seemed quite obvious that the Tibetans were the front line, and successful cyber attacks on the Tibetans were then replicated on other targets in the US military and corporate worlds.

It occurred to me that the defences invented by those tech heads, young unpaid volunteers working alongside exiled Tibetan web managers and computer systems administrators,  were valuable, not only to the Tibetans, but much more widely. Naively, I asked one or two if they were able to sell their expertise to American corporations which were starting to realise they too were vulnerable to “day zero” attacks by newly invented viruses and other malware that sought to penetrate their commercial secrets. I asked a few times if they could make a little money, to keep their volunteer work at the front line going, by offering their knowledge, as consultants to the American computer industry. Well, they said, we get a few nibbles here and there, a few approaches, mostly from computer security consultancies seeking to make a reputation for themselves as being the most advanced and successful in protecting clients, but that’s all.

At first I thought it a bit odd. Maybe the Tibetans were just too obscure, too far off the radar, to be recognised as a front line. But years went by, and I kept, occasionally, wondering. The more news that came out about the extent, depth and sophistication of Chinese penetration of American defence and business secrets, the more I expected to see American cyber warfare defence experts swarming Dharamsala, the Himalayan village that is global centre for the exile Tibetan dream of regaining space, inside Tibet, for Tibetans to be themselves.

That never happened. My puzzlement remained unanswered. Only now is it clear that every state with the capacity to do so was indeed not only monitoring the Chinese intrusions, but was busily going beyond defence to offence, to scooping as much data as possible, from wherever possible. They were and are all doing it to each other, and there is now no phone or computer that is safe, no telecommunication that is private, no clear distinction between defence and offence. Data collection on a staggering scale has become so routine that the states amassing it  now struggle to make use of more than a tiny fraction of it.

I used to think the governments of the western world were reluctant to speak up for the Tibetans because they feared China’s punishment, even though China’s threats seldom amount to much more than a loss in Norwegian sales of smoked salmon.[1] Again, I was naïve. They did know, they were watching, and they were doing the same themselves, while preferring to keep it all as quiet as possible.

The Tibetans were the lab rats, not only for China but for the global cyberwar machine. The Tibetans, under the Dalai Lama, have long called for “universal responsibility”, and for the west to adopt a  more unified response to China, to avoid being picked off one by one for Chinese reprisals. But in a realpolitik dog-eat-dog world, universal responsibility is a naïve, impossible dream. Reality is each against all, to the winners go the spoils.

This is not the first time the Tibetans have been used, and abandoned, by outside forces. In the 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency trained and armed the Tibetan resistance which had been steadily beaten back by China’s Liberation Army in a war which lasted years, ending with the exiled Tibetans being flown to American bases in the Pacific and the Rockies for insurgency training. A decade later, Richard Nixon, in the hope of enlisting China as an ally in containing the Soviet Union, made his historic deal with China, the Tibetans were hastily dropped, an embarrassment to the new normal.

In 1904, the British invaded Tibet, having persuaded themselves that the Tibetans were flirting with the Russian empire, and that Tsarist Russia, already overextended, had serious designs on Tibet. Having invaded, finding not only no Russians but also no Tibetan officials with whom to negotiate, the British eventually withdrew. But the damage had been done: thousands of Tibetans dead, and in the longer term, the clearest possible message to China that the entire world must join the global system of exclusive nation-states. Tibet must become China’s, or risk becoming someone else’s colony. The most remarkable consequence of the British conquest of Lhasa is not that it was pointless, but that it took China a further 45 years to create an army strong enough to make Tibet Chinese.

In all these historic moments, Tibet has been a pawn of bigger games, the Great Game as the British grandly called it. In the ascendency of the contemporary security state, Tibet yet again has been a pawn, receiving neither help nor overt sympathy from western governments as China probed, pried and destroyed Tibetan online communications. All concerned were too busy watching, learning, copying and taking their own steps to gain similar capabilities. The world is poorer, more fragmented, competitive and anarchic, as a result.

[1] Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, Paying a visit: The Dalai Lama effect on international trade; Journal of International Economics 91 (2013) 164–177


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In Mongolia, a democracy for almost 25 years, popular disappointment in the corruption of successive, elected governments has reached a point of disillusion deep enough to trigger symbolic warrior attacks on the parliament by horsemen armed with bows, arrows and rifles. The statist response has included speech stigmatising these most traditional of challengers as terrorists, demanding and succeeding in obtaining lengthy prison sentences.

As a resource extraction economy supplants the traditional mobile pastoralism as the main source of wealth, popular discontent now regards the alternating elected main parties as equally venal, with Mongolia’s parliamentarians among the richest in the world. Discontent with a democratic system and public sphere dominated by vested interests is widespread, sharpening rhetoric on all sides. Yet the challenge of the mounted warriors was an isolated incident.

A more common response to rising inequality is to try to participate in the mining boom. In Mongolia the full spectrum of mining is found: from the largest of transnational corporate world-scale extractive operations  reliant on technology rather than labour-intensive employment; through to the smallest-scale artisanal miners washing for gold specks in the rivers that flow through the pastures, often called ninjas, for the green plastic bowls they attach to their backs as they tramp between  prospecting sites.

The shift from a pastoral to an extractive economy has led some observers to call the pastoral nomads of Mongolia an oppressed minority, victims of global capitalist exploitation. Yet Mongolia only a generation ago, at most two generations ago, was largely a pastoral society, despite a high urban concentration in the capital city. A pastoral nomad, Sambuu, was President of Mongolia, from 1954 to 1972, at a time when, supposedly, Mongolia was utterly under the Soviet thumb.

How can a majority become a minority? Pastoralism is fast shrinking, both in the numbers who make a living from raising livestock and as a proportion of GDP now that the biggest of coal and copper/gold mines are in operation. But a simple dualist opposition of pastoralism and mining oversimplifies. The biggest of the mines are in the south, in the Gobi, the driest part of Mongolia most prone to climate extremes. The climatic extremes included a bitter winter (dzud in Mongolian)  at the end of 1999 and again two years later, with icy gales so severe that many subsistence graziers lost most of their herds. In the Gobi “a clear majority of placer gold miners are herder households who lost their livestock to dzud. Overall, tens of thousands of small-scale miners are engaged in placer gold mining and represent a major source of conflict with place gold mining companies. For a period, the presence of small-scale miners was tolerated…”[1]

In 2011 the Mongolian government reported: “Due to decline of animal husbandry in 2010, a number of heads of livestock fell by 11.3 million and heads of offspring by 6.4 million compared to the previous year.  Due to high natural losses production of livestock originated products, such as meat, milk, wool and cashmere, dropped significantly.”[2] The proportion of the population classified as poor rose from 29 per cent in 2007 to 39 per cent in 2010. Since then, according to the World Bank,  poverty has shrunk, but in rural areas remains at 35 per cent.[3] This is a contrast with the Soviet bloc era, when pastoralists, organised in collectives, had close to 100% literacy, guaranteed incomes, even state pension at the age of 55.

Mongolia is a big country (the size of France, Germany and Spain combined) with plenty of surface gold available, now that a centralised command and control economy is gone, replaced by weak democratic governments disinclined or unable to do much for the poor.

Disappointment with the fruits of democracy followed a deeply ambivalent response to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet bloc, into which Mongolia had been integrated as an industrial supplier of meat, wool, hides, dairy and other livestock products. Regimentation, collectivisation, government monopolies on buying and processing rural produce all collapsed, to be replaced by markets which favoured the most favoured and penalised the weak. The result was an acceleration of the peri-urban ger districts encircling the built cityscapes of Ulaan Baatar. The rural poor, escaping  the disastrous effects of dzud, erected their circular felt tents (ger) or built and fenced small timber houses, as a winter shelter and temporary refuge. As long as they believed these unserviced districts (no sewers, no piped water, often no electricity) were temporary, they were tolerated as a uniquely Mongolian adaptation, an urbanisation not to be labelled as slums or shantytowns, yet barely tolerated officially and frequently blamed for crime, violence, overgrazing, deforestation and pollution of the water table. But the ger districts, already expanding in the Soviet era, have become permanent, leaving the number of Mongolians actually making their living from mobile pastoralism a minority. Individual families in these districts may pack their ger and return to the pasture lands when seasons improve, thus maintaining the tradition of nomadic mobility, but overall, the ger districts continue to grow.

Mongolia’s official response is that: “the increased population of Ulaanbaatar resulted in shortcomings in service delivery which caused by the overload of hospitals, schools, roads, water supply, engineering facilities, as well as a shortage of housing and socio-cultural amenities. Additionally, air pollution, soil degradation and water contamination have impacted adversely on inhabitants’ health. On contrary, as the number of permanent residents of rural areas has being sharply decreased, livelihoods of rural people became stagnant. The main reasons are lack of basic services and infrastructures, absence of modern facilities, not meeting the demand and requirements of the population in rural localities, and lack of environment conducive to the human development and business opportunities. Population of the local areas and remote regions became sparse due to migration therefore cost of basic social services and commodity price have increased, which negatively affect the population livelihood.”[4]

While Mongolia’s government argues that a depopulating countryside is even harder to service, government revenues are soaring, thanks to the big mines now nearing full production , which have ready markets close by in China. But it is conventional economics that concentrated populations are more efficiently served with modern infrastructure, in contrast to the rural bias of Mongolia’s end of the Soviet bloc.

So the countryside continues to be under-invested, neglected, under-capitalised, and wealth continues to concentrate in the capital-intensive extraction zones, and in the city. The pastoralists have, in a generation, gone from being seen as the true Mongolians, heirs of Chinggis Khan; to becoming peripheral small scale producers vulnerable to fluctuating climates, too scattered to modernise efficiently.

This doesn’t mean all pastoralists are poor, far from it. Concentrations of wealth among livestock producers are not as visible as the bling of the urban new rich, the hurgan bayan, literally, the “rich lambs”, who drive round Ulaan Baatar in their Hummers and tinted glass Jeeps. Wealth in the countryside is, as ever, measured by animals on the hoof which are spread out across the pasture to even the grazing pressure. What is not obvious is who owns the remaining millions of sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels (the Mongolians define themselves as “the people of the five animals”).

Some of the rich lambs got rich through moving fast and first to commandeer land and herds in the free for all that followed the unexpected collapse of the Soviet bloc. They took possession of lands and assets that had belonged to the negdel, the nomad collectives that organised large scale livestock and meat production, invested in rigorous animal health services, quality control, meat freezing and export to the Soviets, and reliable wages to the pastoralists. All that vanished suddenly, seized by the bold and well-connected. These days, it is said by those in a position to know, that the national marketing of meat is controlled by only three families, whose political influence reaches so high they are able to arrange official subsidies at times that maximise their profits. Nomadic herding was never the egalitarian arcadia imagined by folk in the West, but these days the extremes of inequality are more extreme than ever, in a land with an egalitarian ethos promoted by the negdel.

Fortunes can be made in meat, in a country where autumn is the killing season, a tradition in a land so cold over the long winter that meat can be safely frozen in the earth by one’s ger tent, with no need for electricity. These days, with meat a highly marketable commodity sellable not only within Mongolia but to China’s People’s Liberation Army to the south, he who commands industrial freezers gets to hold onto the plentiful meat of autumn until the lean months of spring, and then make a fortune. If one has the right connections, the Ministry of Agriculture, in the name of the national interest in maintaining meat supply year-round, can be persuaded to establish a meat reserve in spring rather than autumn, buying its bulk meat supplies at premium prices, at public expense.

The great herds owned by the rich lambs are dispersed across the countryside, herded by poor nomads whose karma, in a highly risky climate, ran out and have little choice but to herd the animals of others. The rich are further favoured by the industrial logic of modern livestock production, which emphasizes division of labour and specialisation. Owners of big herds can separate them by age and gender, can concentrate on breeding programs, and sending young adult males to fattening yards close to cities prior to slaughter. To those that have shall be given. The rich get richer, the poor find their fortune as their karma ripens unpredictably.

The urban new rich and the oligarchs of rural Mongolia overlap. Mongolia is in the phase of primitive accumulation, as Marx called it, zerleg kapitalizm (wild capitalism) as it is called in Mongolia. But there are plenty of other ways of getting rich, in a land of great mineral wealth, cashmere wool production, tourist attractions, an urban real estate boom and a stock market for Mongolian companies floating their wares.

Mining is not new. Copper was one of Mongolia’s main exports to the Soviet bloc. But the scale of exploitation now is world class, so big that only the biggest of global multinationals such as Riotinto can finance and operate extraction. The Oyu Tolgoi mine, in the Gobi of southern Mongolia, with a ready Chinese market, is a colossus. It will, its owners say, become the third biggest copper mine in the world. After many delays, 2014 is the year OT (as everyone calls it) goes into full production. Oyu Tolgoi is forecast to produce 150,000 to 175,000 tons of copper in concentrates and 700,000 to 750,000 troy ounces of gold in concentrates, tripling in later years as the open cut operation goes underground. This single mine tilts the whole Mongolian economy towards extraction, making pastoralism, by comparison, seem too hard, too risky, too unrewarding. The resource curse is upon Mongolia.

It is all too easy to blame this on foreign multinationals, as if they invented capitalism and imposed it on Mongolia. But in the early 1990s, when I was president of an Australia Mongolia Society, the Mongolian government was energetically offering its mineral patrimony to Riotinto, BHP Billiton, and anyone else who might dig it up. I set up meetings for a Mongolian minister visiting Australia, at a time when Mongolia, reeling from the Soviet collapse and its entry into the hard world of hard currency, was more than keen to capitalise on its abundance of minerals. In reality, it took 20 years for those prospects to be realised, and some of the delay was due to deep ambivalence in Mongolia as to whether exploitation of the copper/gold deposit needed a foreign owner and operator. The result is that the Government of Mongolia now directly owns 34 per cent of the mine, and stands to earn not only profits but royalties revenue as well, boosting national GDP by about 30 per cent.

The protesters on horseback, traditionally dressed to emphasize their popular legitimacy, who fired at the national parliament and are now goaled, accuse all the major parties of endemic corruption. This strikes a popular note, in a land of deep pastoral tradition where fortunes are made and lost quickly and unpredictably, with the calamitous blizzards of a dzud only the most dramatic of risks a livestock herder must face. Mongolians are deeply suspicious of the new rich, and perhaps with reason. Like the oligarchs of Russia, assets were for the seizing as the Soviet bloc fell apart, and mineral wealth only adds to the opportunity to privatise wealth while socialising the costs of extending services to the dwindling nomadic countryside.

Rebecca Empson, an anthropologist, says when Mongolians look at the new rich, “the turns of fortune involved in the accumulation of this kind of wealth are frequently judged as suspect. Somebody somewhere, it is often claimed, must have been seriously cheated in order to secure these possessions.”[5] Although capitalism, in Mongolian, is called kapitalizm, it is hardly a foreign import, nor is it unique to global mining giants.

For years after the Soviet collapse, the conventional euphemism among economists was that Mongolia, and all the postSoviet nations, were in “transition”, implying both an orderly process and a predestined destination, of modern, late capitalism, complete with its orderly markets and oligopolies. Mongolia’s “transition” was disorderly, rapacious, benefiting the brazen.

Tsetsegee Mounkhbayar, leader of the protesting horsemen, is behind bars, officially guilty of a terrorist threat to the state, sentenced in early 2014 to 21 years; likewise five of his cavalry companions. But his protest is popular. Among his demands was that parliament not repeal legislation passed in 2009 to protect pasture land, popularly known as “the law with the long name.” But the messy reality is that it is not only giant mining corporations taking pasture land as their private fiefs, but also the rich lambs, the new class of former cadres who seized their moment.

Now, one of the few voices heeding the concerns of the masses is the Mongolian government’s National Human Rights Commission, which in its latest report, of November 2013, said of the district where the Oyu Tolgoi mine powers ahead: “we met with herders who lost their pastureland and so had to resettle in the soum [district] center asking another herder to take care of their cattle which survived the changes. Other herders might have left the province for another place. For others who stay in their home land, their nomadic lifestyle is being destroyed. Traditionally, it was usual for herders to move around for better pastureland four or more times a year, but now moving around for one or two times is considered ‘many’. Due to shrinking pastureland, some herders are forced to spend summer at their winter camps.”

The 2009 Law With the Long Name is officially the ‘Law to Prohibit Mineral Exploration and Mining Operations at the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas’. This well-intentioned law failed, not only because of big mining companies but also small pastoralists seeking their fortunes panning for gold in streams coming from Mongolia’s mountains, bearing flecks of gold.

Mongolia’s abrupt ejection from the command economy cocoon into the global neoliberal marketplace has been a rough ride, favouring the well-favoured rich lambs. The rough riders led by Ts. Mounkhbayar diagnose Mongolia’s acute embarrassment of riches distributed unevenly, but solutuions are at hand.


[1] Giovanna Dore and Tanvi Nagpal, Urban Transition in Mongolia, Environment, vol 48 #6 July 2006


[3] World Bank, Mongolia Economic Update, November 2013, 15


[5] Rebecca Empson, The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia;  Social Analysis, Volume 56, Issue 1, Spring 2012, 117–132

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What the global diaspora of Tibetans seldom manage to do is to look at Tibet thru Chinese eyes, not only in Beijing’s eyes but also from the perspective of Lanzhou, Chengdu, Xining and Lhasa. Things look very different if these provincial capitals are the starting point. Lhasa is showered with central money, whatever provincial leaders ask for they get, the whole world is looking. The security state flourishes. Tibet Autonomous Region cadres are adept at stoking Beijing’s conspiratorial mindset, eliciting ever more money for the grid management system that intensively monitors all human activity, ready to intervene when anything unusual happens.

For Xining the Tibetans are far too big to ignore, yet are also seen as a minority dragging on Qinghai’s progress. Tibetans are less than 20% of provincial population, yet occupy 95% of Qinghai’s area, in counties and prefectures legally designated as areas of Tibetan governance. Tibetan (and Mongolian) areas, include the mineral and energy rich Tsaidam Basin and the great Chinese river sources. Amdo/Qinghai has a coherent Tibetan intellectual class capable of holding their own, of leveraging their necessary role as teachers, translators, editors, reporters, tv show hosts, film makers into cultural capital, an uneasy modus vivendi based on a long history of living together.

For Lanzhou Tibetans are a nuisance, only one of many difficulties

For Kunming it’s the success of rebranding one remote corner Shangri-la, the hill station for display of new wealth, plus intensive mining, all that’s needed is the infrastructure of extraction, which is rapidly arriving.

Arguably, in all these four provinces -TAR, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan- there is a tacit understanding, despite the palpable tensions, that prevents situations from boiling over. The exception, among the five Chinese provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau is split, is Sichuan. Overwhelmingly, the Tibetan protest suicides, the security state’s extremes of repression, even mass shootings, have been concentrated in the Tibetan portion of Sichuan.

Why are senior cadres in Chengdu so quick to resort to violence? What is different about Sichuan (and nearby Chongqing) that leads to such intolerance, mistrust, refusal to listen to the evident pain of the Tibetans? Why is the view from Chengdu and Chongqing so different to the stance taken by the leaders in Lhasa, Xining, Lanzhou and Kunming? This is an exploratory attempt at suggesting answers, which tell us not only about frustrated expectations in Chengdu, but also about why China’s new leaders are singling out Chongqing and Chengdu as the epicentres of a rottenness that threatens the legitimacy of party rule right across China.

The Tibetan areas annexed to Sichuan are 42 per cent of the total area of Sichuan, comprising one Amdo prefecture, Ngawa; and one Kham prefecture, Kandze. For the entire 64 years of CCP rule, these areas have seemed tantalisingly close, and promising, yet the outcome has always been frustration and disappointment. For Chengdu that 42% is the next frontier, yet stubbornly resistant to incorporation. Now at last, due to massive central subventions, a railway, hydrodams, all weather  highways and major mines are in sight, maybe even earthquake engineering sufficient to populate the plateau foothills with Han. But right now it’s all a tantalising dream yet to be fulfilled, a revolution of rising but frustrated expectations. The barrier remains the Tibetans, far too many to ignore, truculent, with a long history of dogged resistance. The answer has been to invoke the full apparatus of repression, but urban grid management as in Lhasa just doesn’t work in the rugged hills of the most densely populated yet diffused part of Tibet. Step by step the security state installed itself, as township cadres proved incapable of controlling protest, or even knowing the minds of their subjects, because they don’t speak Tibetan. So higher levels took over, shaming the local cadres for their failure, determined to teach both the humiliated cadres and the Tibetans a lesson. That too literally inflamed  a highly flammable situation. It became a provincial priority, paralleling Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai’s “smash the black” campaign, lumping Tibetans as a criminal class. The only appropriate response was to strike hard.

Yet in reality, in many parts of Sichuan Tibet,  there is tacit agreement in many areas to keep everything peaceable. Local lamas skilfully get things done, communities prosper, cadres are happy, their quotas are met, they get promoted, everyone realises it is in the interests of all to keep the peace. It’s not as if all of Tibet, or all of western Sichuan is in flames. There is still a model of how to get along.

What will happen? In the inflamed areas nothing works, not even the maximal security state that mobilises every Han to stand on street corners, doing their patriotic duty to maintain China’s face by dousing the faces of the immolators. It’s hard to imagine how this could be further intensified, even with grid management.



While Sichuan’s leaders mobilise extreme security state fundamentalism in Kandze and Ngawa, they themselves are under increasing scrutiny by Beijing, led by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping.

What sort of emperor is Xi Jinping? He is clearly not the liberal reformer, proto-democrat, neo-liberaliser that so many in the west prayed for. Nor is he just a stolid do-nothing like Hu Jintao. He just may be a Bismarck: out to realise China’s emergence as a superpower, willing to do what it takes to fulfil China’s rise. Bismarck invented the welfare state, not because he passionately believed in the human dignity of labour and the rights of workers, but because a well fed, housed and healthy working class was essential to building national strength, if Germany was to catch up with UK and France. Maybe the political scientists are right to call up the ghost of Bismarck and Wilhelmine Germany, not only as a metaphor of China’s emergence as a regional power challenging US dominance, but also in domestic management.

Sichuan is not the only fault line rending China. The party-state may be a distinctively Chinese hybrid, but party and state do have separate interests, even contradictions. If there is a high-level advocate for neoliberal privatisation of the entrenched SOEs, at least partially, it is Premier Li Keqiang, who endorsed a proposal jointly issued by the State Council’s Development Reform Commission, and the World Bank, which urged privatisation lest China sclerose into anti-competitive oligopolies able to shut out new market entrants. But, like the ineffective Premier Wen Jiabao before him, such proposals may come to nothing, in the face of entrenched interests with insider access to the highest levels of the party. It is no accident that these reform proposals come from institutions of state, of regularised power operating under standardised rules that affect everyone equally. And it is no accident that the highest state position, of Premier, is routinely outranked by the General Secretary of the party, Xi Jinping, who, incidentally, is also China’s president.

While Xi, with his Don’t Speaks, has disappointed western wishful thinkers, does that mean he is bad for Tibet and the prospects for a modus vivendi? He is out to break the Sichuan-Chongqing model of crony capitalism married to Maoist populism. He has more power than Hu ever did, or Jiang Zemin, maybe only Mao had more. And he is clearly a party infighter, determined to further consolidate power and above all ensure the CCP hegemony persists. He is as much an economic reformer as Zhu Rongji, but probably not in the direction of privatising, since ownership matters less than control, and control is what he is about.

He is smart enough to realise the Sichuan security state is ruining the governmentality of Tibet everywhere, and that an alternative approach is needed, for the thoroughly conservative, anti-democratic purpose of buying time, a superficial peace and stability; to get on, uninterrupted, with the rise of China, led by its SOE national champions, whose bosses he appoints. It is now increasingly common to appoint a successful SOE boss to run a troubled province; they are comparable enterprises, requiring comparable managerial fixes, a willingness to do what it takes to restore peace and production.

A Chinese Bismarck would realise the security state barkers surrounding him are wrong in insisting the only way to deal with Tibetans is force. He wouldn’t have to look far beyond Ngawa and Kandze towns to find what he is looking for, that tacit social contract between skilful lamas and prudent cadres: you leave us space to get on with our lives, and there will be no trouble. It’s that simple. Not only is that the deal at a local level, it is all Tibetans, at the global level, have ever asked for, ever since the Dalai Lama made it clear 25 years ago that cultural autonomy is the key requirement. A Chinese Bismarck might realise China can live with this, it is doable, and achieves exactly what Xi needs. All Tibetans are asking for is room to get on with their lives without obnoxious intrusions of a security state obsessed with extracting from every educated Tibetan a statement of gratitude to the CCP, and denunciation of the Dalai Lama.

Xi is smart enough to recognise that the current strategy is not working, powerful enough to change course, ruthless enough to get rid of the entrenched security state, pragmatic enough to do the deal and get China off the hook. You don’t always need a democrat.

But what would drive him to tackle a reset, overriding and outmanoeuvring the strong vested interests of the deep security state? He has enough on his plate already, and the mass line, more than ever, is Don’t Speak of Tibet, don’t let Tibetans speak for themselves, if we can maintain a great silence in the public sphere we can maintain the fiction that that’s all that is needed.

What may provide the push is China’s slide into a lower rate of growth, at a time of higher expectations that the comfort and prosperity Deng promised to all over 30 years ago has failed to materialise.  China faces  the prospect of a property bubble collapse, a blow out in bad loans, a limit on further state finance to stimulate growth through a cash splash on infrastructure, a shift of manufacturing jobs to even cheaper labour countries, and many other challenges. There is much talk of China sliding into the doldrums, akin to Japan’s “lost decades” since 1990, decades of little growth.  That may be no bad thing. Japan was and is prosperous. A lower growth rate may at least slow major Chinese mining projects in Tibet. But the CCP rightly fears such a scenario, not only because it limits wealth accumulation for the rich, but limits opportunities for the not-so-rich who are increasingly frustrated at the monopolisation of wealth by the new rich and the well-connected. China is now the second most extremely unequal country in the world, only by South Africa is more extreme.

China’s leaders have adroitly averted similar dangers before, such as a banking system in the 1990s so laden with bad debt it should have collapsed. Over many years, those failing banks were recapitalised, only to be ordered, in 2009 and 2010, to again make huge, rash, unrepayable loans to greedy SOEs that took public finance in through the front door and out the back door as private equity in property speculation, which may yet burst as badly as did the Tokyo bubble of 25 years ago.

Xi Jinping may have several crises on his hands, including widespread popular expectations that wealth be shared more equitably, and the new consumer class be given greater say. He will also find, if he has any inclination to rein in the SOE national champions, that they are now far more powerful than when the last serious reformer, Zhu Rongji, took on major economic reform.

The likeliest scenario for Tibet to regain a bit of breathing space is that, in the midst of juggling myriad problems and crises, the iron fist is recognised for what it is: counter-productive and self-defeating.

The perceptive Francois Godemont notes that Xi Jinping has set aside the convention that party leaders speak only of “we”. Xi is entirely comfortable of speaking in the first person singular, thus speaking to and for China, enunciating the new “mass line”. Godemont says: “This is a strong leader who has an absolute sense of his individual, genealogical, and ideological legitimacy.” Xi Jinping may be China’s Bismarck. Hard men can do hard things that softer, well-intentioned men struggle to achieve. Xi Jinping has vowed to liquidate the tigers and the flies of corruption, and shows every sign of doing so, not because corruption is evil but because the basic social contract, the minimal trust necessary between the ruled and the ruling party, depends on effective action that catches not only flies but a few tigers too. A hard headed decision to haul away the attack dogs rampant in Sichuan Tibet could widen that tacit modus vivendi that already exists, even close to the most inflamed areas. A weak leader will be criticised for such a move, pandering to China’s enemies. A hard man can do it.  Xi Jinping’s top target seems to be the security apparatus boss who was at the forefront of the hardline in Tibet, Zhou Yongkang, a man likened to J Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney, the hardest of hard men.

The rottenness rampant in Chongqing and Chengdu may have poisoned relations between Tibetans and Han Chinese in upper Sichuan, and ruined the reputation of the CCP across China. Xi Jinping’s ruthless determination to bring down the architects of the security state and Sichuan’s corrupt cronyism might yet  clear the way for a restart. Xi Jinping may yet realise  that he, and China, can live with cultural autonomy for Tibetans, and get off his back a great weight. And he’s tough enough to cut through the entrenched resistance, within his ranks, to any fresh approach to the deeply unhappy Tibetans.


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Blog 1 of 2 on ideologies and technologies of silencing Tibetans


In a secret internal directive to all 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP has made explicit its many fears and siege mentality.

The central command is to NOT SPEAK of the seven propositions that assail the CCP on all sides. The seven Don’t Speaks, as they are known if one translates directly from Chinese, are a catalogue of what assails a thoroughly institutionalised  ruling party that is 90 years old, and has enjoyed power for the past 64 years.

At a time when China is more powerful, more wealthy and successful than it has been for many centuries, one might expect a ruling party with no organised challenger to be confident and relaxed. Not at all. Taken together, this latest list of mandatory slogans, to be memorised and implemented by party members high and low, is a catalogue of ghosts, past and present, haunting the rulers.

Document No. 9, April 2013, issued by the Communist Party  Central Committee General Office, the administrative engine room of the central leadership, is worth quoting directly.

1: Don’t speak of promoting Western constitutional democracy. That attempts to negate the contemporary leaders, deny the socialist political system with Chinese characteristics.   

Western constitutional democracy includes the separation of powers, a multiparty system, universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, the loyalty of the military to the state rather than the ruling party. This is the bourgeois state philosophy, political patterns and institutional design. 

2: Don’t speak of promoting “universal values” in an attempt to shake the ruling party’s ideological and theoretical foundation.   Some people say that Western values ​​is beyond time and space, beyond the state, ​​that Western freedom, democracy, human rights are universal, eternal.

3: Don’t speak of promoting civil society in an attempt to disintegrate the social basis of the ruling party.   Civil society is a social and political theory from the West, which says  that in the social sphere individual rights are supreme, the state must not interfere. In recent years, the concept of civil society has been packaged as a political tool by the Western anti-China forces, but also in our country some people with ulterior motives aired these wrong views..

4: Don’t promote neo-liberalism,  attempt to change our basic economic system.  Neoliberalism advocates liberalization of the economy, with absolutely, completely and fully market-oriented privatization, opposing any state intervention in the economy and regulation. 

 5: Don’t  promote Western news concept, challenging the principle of party control of the media and the press and the publication management system.   Some people call for “press freedom” as a pretext to promote Western news, negating our media party principles.

 6: Don’t promote historical nihilism, attempt to deny the Chinese Communist Party history and history of New China.   

This negates the revolution led by the Communist Party of China, saying the CCP “only plays destructive role”; deny the socialist road with Chinese historical inevitability of choice, the party’s history and the history of New China was “a continuous  series of errors “; is derogatory towards revolutionary predecessors, slanders party leaders.

7 Questioning the reform and opening up, questioning the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. 

In the incessant talk of reform, some remarks deviate significantly from socialism with Chinese characteristics. Some say “reform and opening up goes too far,” is “a departure from the direction of socialism,” that  China is now “capitalist socialism”, “state capitalism”, “new bureaucratic capitalism.” Some say “political reform lag hinders economic reform,” clamour for a so-called Western system as a standard comprehensive overhaul. These arguments, in essence, deny the Party’s line, principles and policies, thereby denying socialism with Chinese characteristics.  

This secret (neibu) list of Don’t Speaks was issued in April 2013, the clearest possible sign of the mentality of China’s new leaders, and leaked into the public sphere in August, courtesy of Mingjing, a major media outlet, then the New York Times.

Why is official China so afraid of “constitutionalism”, which simply means calls, by Chinese intellectuals, for China’s leaders to respect and obey their own constitution? What is the underlying fear that unites all these Don’t Speaks?

It is China’s public sphere, and the civil society that creates it, that the CCP fears most, even if the named enemy is the nebulous “anti-China forces” of the West. The “West” that plots and plans to undermine China is, of course, the same West that China’s elite envy, imitate, absorb and consume as much as possible. The West that exemplifies all that is desirable is simultaneously the West that is the greatest danger. This is classic cognitive dissonance, the holding of two opposing viewpoints at once.

The real enemy is closer to home, the millions of bloggers, weibo post writers, intellectuals, peasants whose land was blatantly grabbed for cadre/corporate profit taking and rent seeking, the older workers whose lifetime of work for an egalitarian society is cast aside.  The actual enemy is much closer: it is the extreme inequality of China, and the social tensions caused by extremes of wealth and poverty.

According to the best data available, from the World Bank, and Chinese economists, there is now only one country in the world more unequal than China: South Africa. Despite South Africa’s rhetoric of rainbow nation inclusiveness and black empowerment, the legacies of apartheid run deep, and the many millions crowded into the black townships still lack water, electricity and job opportunities. But at least South Africa is moving, if only slowly, towards not only a democratic sharing of political power but also greater economic equality.

The opposite is true of China. Inequality has been widening for decades, ever since Deng Xiaoping famously invited some to get rich first, meaning the best endowed, the best located and the best connected. This is the great selling proposition of capitalism: that by letting some get rich first, eventually the wealth generated will trickle down, lifting all boats. Now it is 35 years since Deng turned China in the direction  of capitalist accumulation with Chinese characteristics, and the masses see evidence everywhere that those Chinese characteristics, that enmesh entrepreneurs and party bureaucrats, effectively exclude the trickle down from trickling. What ordinary Chinese citizens see is a corrupt, self-serving elite, of enterprise bosses and cadres, who monopolize wealth accumulation, and criminalise those who attempt to hold the elite accountable. This is the deep anxiety of a ruling party that knows it is no longer trusted by the masses it supposedly represents.

This inner-party directive was meant to be secret, likewise China’s  Gini coefficient number, the standard statistical measure of inequality is obscured, fudged, denied and almost secret. Air pollution data are secret. The private lives of the rich are extremely secret, unless they choose to flaunt. The extent of corruption is secret, except for highly publicised cases meant to prove the party is serious about cracking down on its’ own princelings.

The Gini number, once of interests only to economists, is a simple way of comparing the bottom and top brackets. Hypothetically, the Gini could be as low as zero, in a society where everyone is exactly equal. Hypothetically the Gini number could be one, which means a society In which one person owns everything. Most countries have a Gini number around .3, signalling considerable inequality, but not so great that the difference between rich and poor is astronomic. China, which was committed throughout the revolutionary decades to equality, used to score well on the Gini index, but no longer. It has now reached .6 and persists in rising, as the elite persists in monopolizing wealth, and resists the customary role of government, as a redistributor of wealth.

If a national Gini reaches .4, political scientists see this as a threshold for unrest, protests, even a sign that the unthinkable could befall a revolutionary party: it could face a revolutionary revolt. China’s Gini climbed above .4 long ago, and was brushed aside as the growing pains of fast industrialisation, a phase that would right itself once the economy matures, as if an invisible market hand rather than mobilised public pressure, would magically restore balance. That didn’t happen. The Gini continued to grow, and was publicised less, and its calculation fudged. Word did leak out, as it increasingly does, despite the efforts of party central to maintain a monolithic mass line. In 2012 the Global Times, a party paper, announced: “China’s official Gini coefficient was 0.412 for both rural and urban residents in 2000. Since then only the Gini data for rural areas had been released, standing at 0.3897 in 2011. A National Bureau of Statistics report in December 2011 mentioned that the coefficient in 2010 was a bit higher than 0.412, without providing a specific number. China’s wealth gap is widening to an alarming level, a survey showed Sunday, in a report that urged the government to raise welfare and social security to narrow the gap. China’s Gini coefficient, a gauge of the wealth gap, reached 0.61 in 2010, much higher than the international warning line of 0.4, according to a report released by the China Household Finance Survey Center. The coefficient was 0.56 in urban families and 0.60 in rural families, compared with a global average of 0.44 in 2010, the survey said. China’s current income inequality is quite unusual compared with the rest of the world, said Gan Li, director of the center.”

This was not the only dissenting voice from within the elite. “China’s Gini coefficient has reached a shockingly high level as its wealth gap grows, a recent academic report said, calling attention to the equality indicator that the government has not tracked for years. The coefficient was 0.61 for 2010, the report by the Chinese Household Finance Survey Center of Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics said. China’s figure was globally rare, the report says. The National Bureau of Statistics stopped releasing Gini coefficient since 2001, saying that income data for wealthy households was incomplete.”

This means inequality in China is greater than in Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Rwanda or Zambia. In a party-state that defines itself as socialist (with Chinese characteristics) there is  much popular pressure to identify those Chinese characteristics that intensify accumulation and resist the redistribution of wealth that constitutes socialism. China’s social scientists have likewise sought to identify the dynamics and drivers of China’s current party-state system, and the pithiest phrases they have come up with are state capitalism and bureaucratic capitalism, both of which capture in two words the enmeshed connections between the business bosses and the officials who control who gets loans at concessional rates, who gets permission to prosper, who gets the government infrastructure construction contracts, and who then gets the kickbacks. These bland phrases encompass the privileged position of the state owned enterprises and private enterprises with good political connections, and the power of dictatorship to suppress dissent, outsiders, investigative reporting and popular protests which demand a fair share.

Now “state capitalism” and “bureaucratic capitalism” are officially banned, as the seventh of the seven deadly sins listed in the mandatory Don’t Speaks. No longer is it permissible to speak of what China has become, only what it is no longer: socialist.

The seven Don’t Speaks are the flip side of the Mass Line, which is what everyone is supposed to speak of, listen to, and believe. The mass line is a Maoist term for the core message, the master narrative, the dominant discourse, or, as capitalists say, the main selling proposition. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has revived the concept of the mass line, which is all about the China Dream, and how close China is to fulfilling its destiny of creating material comfort for all. The China Dream, the mass line says, is not just for the rich, but for everyone. So long as China is not disrupted by dissent and protest, the goal of comfort can be achieved, if people Don’t Speak what is now decreed unspeakable.

The seven Don’t Speaks have already been put into operation, with a sharp increase in the second quarter of 2013 in official media denunciations of democracy, constitutionalism and nihilism. But a party as entrenched at the CCP does not rely only on making the obvious unsayable. It has a long record of social engineering, especially in Tibet, where there is no organised dissent, no NGOs, no articulate elite, no public protests, and the entire public sphere is filled with official pronouncements.

The party-state in Tibet is on the offensive, launching a new campaign in 2013 to coerce Tibetans, especially monks, nuns and officials, to publicly declare their love for and gratitude to the party. The key slogan has long been “stability preservation” and stability maintenance teams now go to the villages of Tibet to “carry out political education in villages to encourage Tibetans to “feel grateful to the party,” to “feel the greatness of the party, listen to the party and follow the party,”” At village level, these exhortations take up time when villagers, both farmers and pastoralists might be relaxing, and they are seen as a minor tax to be paid. But in towns, offices and monasteries, these stability preservation teams require explicit pledges of gratitude to the party, and explicit denunciation of the Dalai Lama, the latter a requirement Tibetans find deeply offensive, more  insulting than being told to spit on your own mother.

How can Tibetans feel the greatness of the party, and feel gratitude on cue, at the command of an official team? Is it possible to make anyone grateful? Can gratitude be forced? If forced, is it gratitude, no matter how effusive the statement elicited? Such questions do not seem to trouble the stability preservation teams, whose objective is behavioural compliance that is documented, on video or on paper, not a change of heart. Those documented assurances of gratitude can then make their way up the official hierarchy, letting higher levels know that Tibetans really do love the party, that the mass campaign has succeeded, and the cycle of self-defeating delusion is completed. That Tibetans deeply love China is mandatory and a historic inevitability, an eternal truth that suoersedes inconvenient trivia like 120 Tibetans who have burned their bodies in protest at China’s heavy handed rule.

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Blog 2 0f 2


China’s agenda in Tibet explicitly requires Tibetans to state publicly, on the record, their gratefulness to the Chinese Communist Party, and all it has done for Tibet. These public statements of compliance with the official “mass line” are odious, but unavoidable for Tibetans employed as government officials, school teachers, also monks and nuns, whenever a compliance enforcement team sweeps in to demand those pledges.  Tibetans experience being bullied into compulsory statements of gratitude, and compulsory denunciation of the Dalai Lama, as alienating them further from China’s rule. But the machinery of compliance is  now highly developed, a combination of human mobilisation and high technology surveillance. The human part is the teams of stability maintenance compliance officers, generally known as chengguan, a vague term meaning local administration, who are empowered by higher levels to insist on behavioural compliance with central directives, even if their legal powers remain vague. Throughout China there are many complaints about the bullying behaviour of the chengguan, especially their readiness to lock the noncompliant up in makeshift gaols that have no legal status, to beat and intimidate those slow to comply.

The proliferation of chengguan, and their obnoxious intrusions into the private lives of citizens, in many parts of China, have generated much debate. This new, lowest level of government, closest of all to the street and to the homes of ordinary citizens is in many ways a revival of the Maoist street committees, which enforced the mass line, often with revolutionary zeal, masking their joy in taking revenge on people the revolutionaries were quarrelling with.

It is no longer sufficient to obey the seven DON’T SPEAKS, remaining silent while Tibetans burn themselves in protest. As well as silent compliance with the DON”T SPEAKS, the chengguan require active compliance with behavioural norms, even in quite private places, that are acceptable in the eyes of the official gaze always monitoring Tibetan lives. The claustrophobia induced by the new grid system of surveillance is a major factor in outbursts of protest, yet it receives little publicity. The overt presence of security forces, even snipers on roofs overlooking the Barkor pilgrimage circuit, is well known; less known is the grid system of intensive surveillance.

The unconstrained and only semi-legal power of the chengguan is much enhanced by their access to the latest in hi-tech surveillance technologies, which are deployed around China, but especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where authorities fear uprisings. Technological surveillance, especially the monitoring of internet posts, attracts a lot of attention; while other surveillance technologies are seldom mentioned.

The basis of technological surveillance is to break each urban area down into very small units, enabling pinpoint accuracy in identifying anything unusual, a quick official response, and speedy isolation of the small grid units, to prevent any spread of words, ideas or actions that are prohibited. The grid system is not new, but the technologies of monitoring the lives of citizens in each small grid extend the panoptic gaze of the state into very small, discrete, spaces. Grid management dissects the city into square units as small as 100 metres by 100. To test the capacity of surveillance technologies operating on such a finely tuned scale, the system was first tested in Beijing, in 2004, before being rolled out in Tibet and in many Chinese cities.

Dr Wu Qiang, a political scientist from prestigious Tsinghua University explains how it operates: “Urban grid planning, from the very beginning, bore the marks of militarized management. Integrating high-speed internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment, the grid improved the performance of public governance and expedited electronic administration. But more important was its improvement of government’s response to contingencies, a capacity most valued by the Chinese authorities. In any given grid cell, not only were all fixed objects coded and positioned, but much more than that, any activities or contingencies, including cultural activities, public safety, criminal cases, mass protests, sensitive figures in terms of “stability maintenance” and their activities were all sorted and coded, with information about them being collected and reported all the time. Based on these data, sensors and wireless equipment such as surveillance cameras and wireless routers were deployed.



“By July 2010, 40,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, covering 3,400 buses, 200 key public transportation stops, 4,400 streets and alleyways, 270 schools and preschools, and 100 large shopping centers and supermarkets. During the same period, a staggering 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, one indication of the nature of the “crackdown on black” campaign led by its former police chief Wang Lijun.

“While in urban China grid management depends more on technology, equipment, Chengguan and the police force, the development of grid management in rural China is different and worth our thoughts. In the trial run in Xintai county, Shandong province (山东新泰), apart from surveillance cameras, landline telephones and roadside lamps were installed, and all of the casanitation workers in the county seat were “hired” as grid management “information reporters.”

“As China implements grid management for social management with the aid of the latest technology, geographic information systems and super computers, it has most likely tightened social control over the last ten years or so in the name of “stability maintenance.” Moreover, after comparing the cost and quality of grid management between cities and rural areas, the Chinese government has recognized the high efficiency of using urban grid management for social control. This in part lends confidence to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s plan of urbanization. Down the road, if China remains devoid of real democratic checks and balances, there is little doubt that the continued development of grid management will only lead to a model of a contemporary police state.”

All of these technologies, Professor Wu says, are in the hands of the local urban mass line conformity enforcers, the chengguan, all available through a single electronic device. The decision was made to “Equip urban management enforcers (Chengguan, 城管) with multi-purpose “Chengguan Tong” (城管通), a device for both information collection and mobile communication. It can make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.” In George Orwell’s vision of a police state that always knows what you are doing, and even what you are thinking, it was television cameras that collected the data. This system, fully integrated with its grid level chengguan enforcers, is much more sophisticated, and total in its capacity to capture events of interest to stability preservation.

Abuses of power by chengguan local enforcers are not only tolerated by higher levels of power, they are a necessary part of a system which requires the chengguan to raise their own salaries by predatory demands on the people they monitor. Feng Chongyi, a political economist in Sydney and Tianjin points out that: “The ‘system of stability preservation’ creates special conditions and incentives for local officials to abuse citizens and force them to take defensive actions, legally or otherwise. Local governments at the township and county levels are required to collect extrabudgetary revenue ( yusuanwai shouru) or self-raised funds ( zichou zijin) to cover part of the stability expenditure, such as salaries for casual personnel and financial settlements for disputes. The most common sources of extra-budgetary revenue are generated by undermining the rights and interests of citizens, including doling out fines for violating family-planning laws, collecting rents and income from leasing and selling collective land, and extracting fees and ‘donations’  from local enterprises. As a consequence, family planning and land seizure by local governments have become common causes of social unrest in the countryside. The ‘responsibility system’ (zeren zhuijiu zhi) to evaluate the work performance of local cadres also exacerbates social unrest. Social order is set as one of the “one-vote veto” ( yi piao foujue) targets, which can be used to nullify a cadre’s achievements in meeting other performance targets. Failure to prevent either “mass incidents” or “petitioning to higher levels” ( yueji shangfang) can cancel out positive performance in other areas and result in the loss of promotions, among other punishments (The Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission 1991; Minzner 2006).

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Spoiling Tibet: new book on mining Tibet


Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World by Gabriel Lafitte

available now from Zed Books

reviewed by Kerry Brown

A few years ago, I was seated next to a professor of geology at Oxford University. We broached the subject of China’s resource assets. “China has very little that is easily exploitable,” he said. I asked about energy resources in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. He nodded, thought for a bit and then said “Well, but they are hard to get to, and at the moment and the Chinese do not have affordable technology that could do that. Same with Tibet. Everyone thinks it is overflowing with precious metals and all the rest; but it would be very hard to get access to them.”

Gabriel Lafitte’s book, Spoiling Tibet supports this. But his conclusion is that a highly dysfunctional central state relationship with local authorities, and the greed of prospectors, is nevertheless going to make the Tibetan plateau—a region that covers almost a quarter of China’s territory—the object for intensive and potentially devastating mining and extraction projects.

Lafitte sets out his case clearly, and allows plenty of Tibetan voices—those who would be most affected by this vast project—to speak directly. For them, he argues, the Tibetan Plateau, four to five kilometers above sea level, is a place to which they have a unique spiritual and cultural link, almost as though they were inhabiting the body of a living thing. Their nomadic way of life—practiced for thousands of years—is adapted to the delicate eco-systems of the region: moving from place to place and using resources sparingly so that they are not depleted.

Lafitte stresses that the indigenous Tibetan communities are practitioners of their own form of modernity, not victims who never tried to use the land they lived on. He shows that mining and working with gold and other precious metals is something that has been ingrained in Tibetan culture for many centuries. The centralized Chinese state vision of modernity, forged on a template largely taken from developed countries and then applied across China, is simply not easily applicable to local conditions. And he also argues that while the government—especially since the uprisings in 1989 and 2008—can react angrily to local activists and try to paint them as separatists, the fact is that despoiling the Tibetan region with inappropriate resource exploitation would be a disaster for the rest of China itself. China’s critical and hugely over-exploited sources of water all come from the Tibetan plateau. Polluting these at their source or close to it would in effect be poisoning the rest of China.

Stripped of the highly contentious politics of the Tibetan issue, the environmental issue as it is presented here at least becomes a little easier to deal with. Lafitte is not attempting to parse historical documents over the sovereignty of Tibet and when and how it came into the orbit of previous Chinese imperial central states. He focuses on the ways in which the mining industry and its current practices pose an immense threat to Tibet. Now that there is considerable transportation infrastructure—railways and roads—into the area, there is even more incentive for risk-taking prospectors to become active in the area. Lafitte describes some of these, often illegal, hugely damaging and run with little if any observance of China’s national laws.

The geologist at Oxford I met a few years back was also right. None of the examinations of the main mineral and metal deposits in Tibet indicate that it would have any mines in the world’s top twenty. For this reason, Chinese state resource companies are investing heavily in Chilean, inner Asian or African mines. There the geologies and the accessibility of deposits are a little more straightforward, as are the supply chains. In Tibet on the other hand, immense amounts of rock and earth would need to be blasted away to get to the best known deposits.

Only a lingering residue of Maoist hubris towards nature would allow people to think that this would be feasible with current technology. Describing the 2010 high-level work meetings in Beijing on managing the Tibetan Autonomous Region, however, Lafitte shows how this hubris creeps into central government thinking. Tibet, to them, is an area that has to be tamed with intense road and rail building programs and the same mass urbanization projects that are sweeping the rest of the country.

This is a timely and well written book, concise and illustrated with many examples. Forward-thinking officials in both Beijing and Tibet itself must be well-aware of the issues raised here, and of the real possibility that mismanagement of the environment of this region, let alone its politics, could be disastrous for the country, region, and, as Lafitte makes clear, the whole world.

Hopefully, this book will provoke a more enlightened, less partisan debate about what to do now. Lafitte emphasizes that however bad things are now they are still manageable and reversible. If, however, they are not addressed there is every possibility that the grim scenarios alluded to here will happen sooner rather than later.

http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/new/?ID=1534#!             11 August 2013 — Kerry Brown is Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Professor of Chinese Politics, and Team Leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. His most recent book is Hu Jintao: China’s Silent Ruler. For more writings see www.kerry-brown.co.uk.


To order Spoiling Tibet: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/search?searchTerm=Spoiling+Tibet&search=Find+book  or http://zedbooks.co.uk/paperback/spoiling-tibet

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Imperialism, colonialism, orientalism, racism: these are the sins of the West. The Rest are the sinned against.

Amazingly this narrow polarity retains a tenacious hold, both on popular imaginations, and in institutions. The United Nations, for example, long ago abandoned any process for promoting decolonisation and self-determination choice by the colonised, because Europe has decolonised, so no further decolonisation is required.

But if you ask people in somewhat remote places, all over the world, dominance of the small by the big is everywhere. Ask the Tibetans, for example, if their circumstances look, feel, walk and talk like colonisation. This is more than extraction of resources for the benefit of the coloniser, or the imposition of foreign military power. Any colonisation that endures over the decades, and sets itself to persist, also launches a civilising mission to uplift the natives from their wretched state, so they may become more like advanced folks, best exemplified by the colonisers themselves. China’s civilising mission intrudes into all aspects of Tibetan life.

What about orientalism? For Tibetans these days, exoticisation  is part of the package of how they are represented in the minds of their colonisers. Orientalism, as Edward Said’s critique showed, is a potent and often contradictory mix. There is fascination with the sensuous, exotic Other, combined with repulsion towards the unwashed primitivity of the Other.

Until recently, it hardly seemed possible that China, itself acutely aware of past humiliation by imperialists, could adopt an orientalist mindset towards Tibet. Overwhelmingly, the picture of Tibet was simply negative: the land is unnaturally and dangerously cold, the air dangerously thin, the people wild, unruly, ungrateful, smelly and backward. No one would go voluntarily to Tibet except to make a quick fortune and then return to one’s home province, having had a profitable sojourn, remitting money back home. The negativity only increased in the Olympic Year 2008 after Tibetans rained on China’s parade, rising up in a spasm of protest on the eve of China’s triumph. Official media endlessly replayed videos of Tibetan rioters, heavily emphasising that all Tibetans are looting, smashing, burning and killing everything Han Chinese. After that, few Tibetans dare visit Beijing, and those who do routinely find themselves turned away from hotel rooms the moment they produce their ID card that displays their official designation as Tibetan. If this is orientalism, it is a bleak version, poles apart from the Shangri-la romantic fantasies that persist in the West.

Yet today’s China abounds in contradictions, and eagerly embraces everything Western. This now includes every Shangri-la cliché you can think of. Movies, glossy travel mags, best seller books, tv docos all extol Tibet as China’s wondrous land of pristine nature and mysterious, mystical, magical people. A major rebranding is under way, and the new rich of urban China are responding, taking vacations in Tibet in such numbers that the iconic scenic sites are overwhelmed. As the Chinese domestic tourists pour through the holy city of Lhasa, and the Tibetan scenic spots, in tens of millions annually, they discover that, by consuming Tibet, they also discover their uniquely modern individual self-identity.

Mobility is inherent to modernity. The doctrine of modernity demands that, in the name of efficiency, people uproot themselves, becoming mobile factors of production. Individuals prove themselves modern by their willingness to leave ancestral land, migrate from country to city, and reinvent themselves as urban workers and citizens of the nation-state. Learning to be an urban consumer is part of this project –both individual and national- of becoming modern, of high human quality (suzhi), and an active participant in all that is defined as advanced.

Mobility, consumption and individuation come together to constitute contemporary Chinese tourism to Tibet. This is illustrated by a case study of the recent boom in Han Chinese domestic tourism to Lhasa.

In rich countries, tourism is taken for granted as a routine, indulgent, hedonic pursuit, with little social significance beyond the collective impacts on the economy and environment. But in today’s China, where mass tourism and even the concept of mandated leisure time are new, a more serious agenda exists, a discourse of the citizen’s responsibility to individuate, through consumption of the iconic scenic sites owned and scripted by the party-state.

In Lhasa 97 per cent of the 13 million tourists in 2013 are Chinese, coming from the affluent cities of China’s coast. Their numbers already make Tibet a more popular tourist destination than international arrivals in  India, Canada or Sweden, if China’s statistics are to be believed. If one adds the numbers currently touring key scenic spots of the Tibetan Plateau such as Jiuzhaigou (Dzitsa degu in Tibetan), Huanglong, Kailash (Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan), Labrang (Xiahe in Chinese) and  Kumbum (Ta’er in Chinese), the total number of nonTibetan tourists in Tibet is already close to 20 million a year, and overwhelmingly Han.

The newly rich of China can and do travel the world, to the US, Europe and tropical islands. They also go to Tibet, in extraordinary numbers. Lhasa is due, in 2015, to get 15 million tourists a year, in a city that officially has a population under 300,000. That is 50 tourists for each resident. Lhasa is now fast becoming not only a mass destination for Chinese tourists, but also a luxury destination, with a much bigger footprint. Surveys show China’s new rich rank Lhasa high on their list of desirable destinations. According to a Hurun Rich List report on its face-to-face interviews with 150 Chinese millionaires in 2012: “Sanya (Hainan Island), Hong Kong and Yunnan are the top three destinations in China, while Tibet rose to 4th place from 6th place last year.” [1]

Tibet has been successfully popularised, in the minds of urban Han Chinese, as a desirable destination, populated by fiercely loyal mastiff dogs, mysterious but benevolent monks, powerful lamas, exotic medicines that prolong life and potency, plus fun and adventure for all the family. Tibet, once seen as so lacking in oxygen that each breath may be your last, now features in urban minds as an escape from polluted city air, according to the New York Times.[2] Tibet has been given a new backstory, to make it familiarly Chinese. The astounding success of the ten-volume book series “Tibet Code” by Sichuanese author He Ma revealed a market-driven appetite for action-packed adventure stories set in Tibet, with a Chinese Tibetan hero helping rescue Buddhist treasures from their Tibetan enemies.

When the Hollywood studio Dreamworks announced in 2013 it will make a Tibet Code movie, the studio was congratulated by Han Sanping, the chairman of China Film Group Corp., the powerful state distributor and an author of China’s dominant discourse, who ascribed a broader goal to Tibet Code. He hailed it as a vehicle to portray to the world “Chinese values” and “Chinese morality” as well as its history, culture and landscape.[3]

Tibetans see in such phrasing a deliberate attempt to erase the distinctive Tibetan culture. But to Han Sanping, that which is Tibetan is by definition Chinese, just as Tibetan medicine is by definition part of the grand story of Chinese medicine.

So a contemporary Chinese fiction of medieval Tibet, owing much to Harry Potter,  Indiana Jones and the da Vinci Code, is, in Han Sanping’s words: “a vehicle to portray ‘Chinese values’ to the world as well as its history, culture and landscape. This story is about various Chinese heroes’ exploration, expedition and seeking history’s roots. The characters represent traditional Chinese culture and Chinese morality.” This conflation and confusion of Chinese and Tibetan narratives fits well the official policy of downplaying ethnicity as a legal right inherent to a collective nationality, reducing it to the cultural choices of individuals. The official slogan is jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti: speed up economic development, downplay the nationality question

When one visits Tibet in 2012, the tens of thousands of domestic tourists arriving daily by train, and more by air, make it seem inevitable that Tibet would become a major destination. Yet it is extremely recent. According to official statistics, the first year in which more than 100,000 Chinese tourists came to central Tibet was 1992, after Tibet Party Secretary Hu Jintao’s “strike hard” campaign against Tibetan expressions of discontent, and lengthy imposition of martial law. The first year in which one million came was 2004. The railway opened in mid-2006, and in that year 2.4 million domestic tourists came. In the first full year of rail arrivals, 2007, the number of domestic tourists leapt to 3.66 million, dipped in the following year of protests and crackdowns, then in 2009 grew again to 5.44 million and in 2010 to 6.62 million.[4] According to the World Bank, this makes Tibet a more popular destination for tourists than Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil or India; but has not yet caught up with Japan, South Africa or Egypt.[5]

In 2007 tourism to Tibet was far smaller than domestic tourism to other exotic, ethnic destinations within China. According to the 2008 Ethnic Statistical Yearbook, the top ethnic minority destinations for domestic tourists in 2007 were Guangxi province, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, Guizhou, Xinjiang and Sichuan.[6] Tibet and Qinghai were far down the list, together attracting only three percent of domestic tourists to minority nationality areas.

Yet by 2015 the official  target is 15 million domestic tourists arriving in central Tibet annually.[7] That is about the number of tourists visiting Canada or Greece.

Growth in tourist numbers on this scale is more than the natural workings of a market economy. This explosion in arrivals is an outcome of social engineering that required of central leaders a careful plan for not only the hard infrastructure of railways, museums, palaces and theme parks, but equal attention to the soft infrastructure of changing the image of Tibet in the minds China’s newly prosperous urban masses. Soft infrastructure also includes legislation to reschedule holidays, and the  mass campaign to persuade people to spend more on leisure and consumption generally.

The state is central to this spectacular growth in Tibet as a spectacle for mass consumption. Mobility is a central target of the Chinese state’s dominant discourse of modernization, as well as a key instrument in the reproduction of that discourse. Not only is mobility viewed as an aid to economic growth but it is also regarded as an important attribute of the kind of modern society that China aspires to become and, as such, is intimately linked to the goal of “civilizing” the nation. [8]

The price of a ticket all the way from Beijing to Lhasa –over 4000 kilometres- starts at RMB 289, rising to RMB 1262 for soft sleeper class. That’s a top price of $200, or 5 cents per kilometre of pressurised, heated, luxury. There are hundreds of millions of Chinese who can afford this, especially if the trip is designated as a “study tour” by one’s official work unit, which picks up the tab. In mid 2012 overall passenger traffic numbers since the rail track opened were announced. The line “has transported 52.76 million passengers since going into operation on July 1, 2006, said Bao Chuxiong, general manager of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company.”[9]

Three million domestic Chinese tourists to Lhasa and central Tibet in 2007, 10 million in 2012, 15 million in 2015: these official figures may be rubbery. Cadres at lower levels know their prospects for promotion depend on reporting success in achieving target numbers for what has been mooted as a “pillar industry” of the economy of China’s Tibet™ for decades. The numbers may be inflated by including the substantial “floating population” of Han and Hui Muslim Chinese who come to Tibet to make money. Not only do they go back and forth on the railway on buying trips, they return to their own provinces in the months when few tourists come, and usually return home to stay, after a few sojourning years in Tibet accumulating wealth. Neither China’s census, every ten years, nor other official statistics enumerate this substantial population of sojourners, who may be hidden from view by using their numbers to swell the tourism statistics. But no one who has been in Lhasa has any doubt that Lhasa is engulfed in tourists, and the numbers continue to rise rapidly.

The most recent and most spectacular stagung of Tibetan history and culture, specificasly intended for tourist consumption, was announced in 2013. Three mass entertainment companies combined in 2013 to turn the best selling Chinese fantasy book series, “Tibet Code” into a movie and, they announced, a theme park.

The three companies involved are a Hollywood studio and two Chinese partners with global ambitions. The partnership was put together by Dream Works, a studio keen to earn more from the booming Chinese movie market.

This planned movie, theme park and branded merchandise has the lot: not only fiercely loyal Tibetan dogs, swords, spears, mystery, pacy action, but even Hitler and Stalin play roles in exhibiting the universal fascination with Tibet. Tibet Code is preoccupied with the external artefacts of Tibetan mysticism, as power objects to be sought and fought over, much as the mysteriously powerful ritual objects of the Catholic church feature in The da Vinci Code. These sacra are both wondrous and fearsome, long dead yet still alive, with a power to confer power or wreak harm, an ambivalence deeply felt in modern life. Tibet Code does not hesitate to throw in both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, both supposedly despatching secret missions to capture that power for their evil ends, each preoccupied with Tibet as a mysterious source of power.

Lowland Chinese readers are invited to take all this as real, and conflate 9th with 21st century Tibet as a fixed identity. If this is now made into a movie and theme park, for the sake of Dream Works’ bottom line, all the high-tech computer-generated imagery deployed will heighten the viewer’s sense that this is real. Tibet will be the playground of China’s desires and fears, dungeons and dragons, wizards and spells, heroic mastiffs and evil kings, worlds of warcraft, games of thrones, rollicking adventure, romantic moments, speaking parts for Hitler and Stalin, and all of it real.

Even the most fantastical elements somehow seem possible, when given a Tibetan location. The thread holding the Tibet Code plot together is the quest for the “purple unicorn” breed of Tibetan mastiff, guardian of oracles and protector of the innermost secrets of Tibetan Buddhism across the generations.

Little wonder, then, that Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Dream Works, sees in all this a profitable franchise. “When I read the books I thought ‘Wow! This is just a blockbuster story, ‘” he said after a news conference in Beijing to announce the co-production along with the Chinese partners.  “Tibet Code,” he said, “has all the makings of a world-class, quality, blockbuster franchise.”  Whether the movie and/or theme park come to fruition is uncertain. It may be that the theme park, the inevitable materialisation of a movie as a literal space where fans can participate experientially in the fantasy, is as yet no more than a thought-bubble of maestro Katzenberg. But it may, as announced, be built.

Tibet Code first appeared in 2008 as the craze for Tibetan mastiffs peaked. The dogs bred by Tibet’s pastoral nomads to guard tents while owners were away out on the pasture, became on obsession among China’s newly rich boss class. In a society based on guanxi, on networks of connections and exclusive loyalties, on factions of insiders clustered around powerful individuals, the mastiff embodied the ideal follower of the boss. The mastiff is fiercely loyal to its owner, and fiercely hostile to outsiders. Bosses paid outrageous amounts to buy mastiffs, in a bidding war to consume mastiffs and display wealth and power. The mastiff craze led to Tibet fever. The possibility that in a remote Tibetan area lives the ultimate mastiff, the purple unicorn, seems to the reader plausible.



[1] The Chinese Luxury Traveller, Hurun Report, 2012

[2] Edward Wong, In China, Breathing Becomes a Childhood Risk, NY Times, April 22 2013

[3] Zhang Rui, DreamWorks to make bestseller Tibet Code into film, China.org.cn, April 22, 2013

[4] Tibet Statistical Yearbook 2011, table 13-3

[6] Ethnic Statistical Yearbook 2008, Economy Division of State Ethnic Affairs Commission, ISBN 978-7-105-10437-6/D.1733, table 15-7. The last year this yearbook was published was 2008.

[7] MARK JOHANSON, China: Tibet Theme Park Will Promote Harmony, International Business Times http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/361043/20120709/china-tibet-theme-park-lhasa.htm, 9 July 2012

[8]  Tim Oakes, review of Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, China Journal #66

[9] China to increase train services to Lhasa, Xinhua, July 01 2012

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TWO:                     CHINA’S TIBET FEVER


Alongside ingrained disdain for Tibet and especially the Tibetans, in today’s China there is now abundant evidence of a romantic embrace of a fantasy version of Tibet as a magical place of  eternal mystery and timeless folk living in enchanted landscapes, accompanied by their wonderfully ferocious but loyal mastiffs. If this sounds familiar, in fact a retread of every Shangri-la cliché you’ve ever heard, you are right.

On one hand, real Tibetans are feared and discriminated against across China. One recent example was the investigative expose of a manufacturer of topselling Apple products that explicitly refuses to hire Tibetans, and other minority ethnicities, into its workforce. Such stigmatisation is common; yet the romance only grows.

The ten volume best selling novel series shrewdly packagedasTibet Code is the prime example of the “Tibet fever” that swept China. So many books by Chinese authors are set in Tibet, past or present, giving the author licence to make improbably exaggerated plot moves seem believable. Anything can happen in Tibet. One of the latest “Tibet fever” novels is the saucy story of a Tibetan man at the command of his Chinese lover. The Ethnic China Lit blogger Bruce Humes describes it: “Chan Koonchung, the Beijing-based, HK-born author of the  apocalyptic and unsubtle Fat Years (盛世) has just launched his new, sure-to-be-controversial novel in Chinese, entitled 裸命 (The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver). The tale is written from the point of view of a young Tibetan man who is a volunteer for an animal protection NGO and also serves as a security guard at a hotel enigmatically named after the CCP’s key “maintain stability” policy (维稳宾馆), not to mention his other “identity”—as lover to a Han woman.”

Chan Koonchung’s Champa the Driver is the new erotica, featuring the dream lover as a masculine, heroic Tibetan dedicated to saving wildlife, when he is not servicing his Han mistress. This is no more odd, as a fantasy, than the rollicking plot of Tibet Code, which, as translator Joel Martinsen says: “revolves around a grand quest for the wonders of Tibet’s legendary past: the treasures of a lost temple, the race of mystics who guarded it, and a massive, ferocious variety of Tibetan Mastiff, known in the historical records as the Purple Qilin.” This is China’s grand new orientalist fantasy, Shangri-la reborn.

Tibet is a perfect blank canvas on which to project all of China’s current anxieties, fears, hopes and contradictions. And why not? After all, until quite recently, very few Han Chinese have been to Tibet, fewer still have had any meaningful contact with actual Tibetans, and Tibetans cannot speak up and critique what is published and filmed.

Not long ago Tibet was popularly seen by Han Chinese lowlanders as unnaturally cold, so lacking in oxygen as to threaten life, a remote and barren place no-one would choose to go to voluntarily. The people were known to be dirty, superstitious, stagnant, and violently ungrateful for everything China has done for them. As recently as 2008 official media endlessly repeated that Tibetans kill, loot, smash and burn everything Chinese. Surely the “Tibet fever” that Tibet Daily reporter Gao Yujie writes about has to be an improvement?

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs. So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. The agenda of this logo is that Tibet must be different, but not too different. It must be exotic, a mirror of otherness held to the visage of the visitor, yet also safe, familiar, domestic, with the reassurance that in China’s Tibet™ all Tibetans love China, and as a destination Tibet is not only safe but even comfortable.

In these ways central authorities achieve a “narrative uniformity that is enforced upon and over lead tourism sites [which] constitutes a form of cultural grammar by and through which the state defines travel itineraries and controls the meaning held over landscape, space, and place.”[1] Cheng Yan points out that: “the pursuit of collective and monolithic national imagery has caused a representational violence –one that is committed by the nation-state ideology operated through the organisation of tourism language.”[2]

In order to stage a daily spectacle in Lhasa, a story 14 centuries old, cherished by Tibetans and long forgotten by China, has been turned inside out. Princess Wencheng is loved in Tibet for bringing a precious statue of the Buddha, which survives today, in the central Jokhang temple, still blessing pilgrims who pray, with great devotion. This is no longer the crux of the story, since China is at best ambivalent about Buddhism, and hostile towards Tibetan Buddhism. The central message now is of a brave young woman daring to traverse the wilds of Tibet to go as far as Lhasa, in order to spread the seeds of Chinese agriculture, civilisation and benevolence towards the backward.

The deepest irony is that, throughout, China’s stance towards Tibet has taken its cues from the west. The ideas that most shaped modern Tibet were those of Karl Marx and Lewis Henry Morgan. China’s embrace of Marx, to save China from humiliation by imperialism, led to compulsory class war in Tibet, the violent denunciation and liquidation of the educated class. China’s embrace of Morgan, a largely forgotten pioneer anthropologist of American Indian tribes, is far well known. It was Morgan who insisted that all human societies can be ranked in order of the stage of human evolutionary progress they have made. At the bottom and at the very top are communist societies of complete equality, so the path of human evolution requires ascending the ladder, from primitive communism to post-bourgeois communism. In between are slave societies, feudal societies and capitalist societies.  Anthropology, even in the 19th century, moved on from this rigid typology, which insisted that the evolutionary ladder is a law of nature. But Morgan’s “law” was woven into the communism of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, which has never repudiated it. Tibet, classified as a feudal society bedevilled by superstition and parasitical lamas, had to be liberated from itself. These were the European ideas that destroyed Tibet.

Enmeshed market forces and state control combine, in Tibet, to rapidly make Tibet such a major tourism destination. Directive state slogans, plus the wealth-creating energy of tourism enterprises, combine to impose fixed roles on the people who are the magnet for the entire tourism experience: the Tibetans.

The most powerful  driver of the tourist flood is the modern quest for a unique, essential, individual self. This quest has been embraced by the newly wealthy urban middle class of China, and Tibet is its foil. Tibet has become a polymorphous space wherein a modern, civilised, cosmopolitan unique identity as an advanced Chinese citizen can emerge. But this quest for a fixed identity requires that Tibetans also occupy a fixed position, opposite to the modern. Tibetans must be happy, always smiling, dancing, simple premodern folk, children of nature, timeless and exotic, outside of history.

Fifteen years after the 1996 Ninth Tibet Autonomous Region Five-Year-Plan announced tourism as a “pillar industry”, all is changed. Fast, comfortable long-haul trains leave China’s key metropolitan cities daily for Lhasa, the ticket prices heavily subsidised. Air travel, in order to compete, has become cheaper. Endless TV documentaries, and soap operas of Chinese heroes selflessly serving the Tibetan masses have familiarised mass Chinese audiences with Tibet. New prosperity and the pace of city life encourage Chinese to holiday in Tibet. Tour companies, hotels, taxis, brothels, karaoke bars, nightclubs have multiplied. Prawns and other seafood delicacies are flown in from coastal provinces daily. Lhasa is booming.

Tibet, Lhasa, the Potala and other iconic places are, in marketing terms, long established famous brands with a high level of recognition; which are only now able to monetise the value inherent in those brands. Thus the visitors to the new upmarket hotels in Lhasa will be international tourists, who want both exotic sights and comfort. Yet most visitors to Tibet will, as now, be Han Chinese, even in the upmarket hotels. Many of the new hotel chains investing in Lhasa specialise in business and convention travellers; and are also experienced in the construction of in-house shopping malls featuring exclusive boutique stores selling luxuries at high prices. Such facilities will appeal to Chinese enterprises, Party organs, professional organisations, trade conferences and the new rich of China generally. What makes such venues so attractive is their combination of luxury banqueting options, luxury accommodation and leisure facilities, the latest communications technologies, boutique shops selling not only global luxury brands but also Tibetan aphrodisiacs, furs and guaranteed cures for the ailments of age. Add in nightclubs, business centres, conference halls and discreet meeting rooms for private business, and the mix is right, for a party-state with many ministries, bureaus, think-tanks, and official leading groups, all wanting new venues to network, conduct their work reports, and conspicuously consume.

The hotel chains now building in Lhasa already have properties in China’s big cities, often several, and the addition of Lhasa enables them to offer international tourists, including business travellers, a complete package, complete with incentives such as introductory pricing and special rates to ensure Lhasa quickly takes its place as a profit centre. The emerging hotel economy in Tibet does more to integrate Tibet into the Chinese economy than any other private investment ever has. It further exaggerates the role of the tertiary services sector as the source of urban Tibetan employment and wealth creation. For decades, as Beijing poured money into Tibet, employment was dominated to an extraordinary extent for a poor region, by administrative, logistics, freight handling and security personnel, all in the service industries. While primary producers -the Tibetan pastoral nomads and farmers in the countryside- were neglected and attracted little finance; and secondary manufacturing industry in TAR developed slowly, tertiary employment raced ahead. The split between primary, secondary and tertiary in TAR is more like that of a big, modern, highly developed city such as Beijing or Shanghai. Now hospitality and retail are set to boom in Lhasa as well.

But it is not only the construction of the new luxury resorts and hotels, even casinos, that make Tibet Chinese. The party-state, as we shall see, also achieves its objective by controlling the master narrative told to visitors as they stroll the iconic sites, accompanied everywhere by guides who have graduated in a master discourse taught formally in provincial and national tour guiding academies according to a strictly governed syllabus. The message is that Tibetans and Han Chinese are friends, eternal friends, necessary friends and indeed lovers whose destinies are entwined, ever since Kongjo (Princess) Wencheng of the Tang dynasty, married Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo 14 centuries ago.

The party-state may be paying a high price, in capital expenditure on infrastructure –roads, airports, urban facilities, telecommunications- to make mass tourism possible; but the pay-off is also big. The party-state gets to tell its version of Tibetanness, not only to the millions of Han Chinese visitors, but also to Tibetans. This dominant discourse, the only one allowed in the public sphere, eventually becomes absorbed, and Tibetans gradually start to believe they are lazy and backward, and in need of China’s vigour and advanced approach. There is plenty of ethnographic evidence, from anthropologists such as Emily Yeh that Tibetans do internalise this hegemonic discourse, and start to believe themselves inferior to the entrepreneurial Han.[3]

Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s conquest of Tibet, is best remembered for a pithy slogan China took to heart: To get rich is glorious. To get rich is to have choices, if rich enough, infinite choices. For poor people, in a poor country in which revolutionary ideology made everyone equal, but equally poor, the prospect of choice was delicious. Choice is individual, that is its’ point. Choice individuates me from you. I like this, you like that.  In the great democracy of relativism and consumption, we each make our choices. To have choice is to become a self, an individual, a unique person. To have choice is to become modern.

Deng’s famous slogan decisively defined the end of statist domination of the economy, and opened China to the world, to enterprise and wealth creation. The command economy, in which everything is owned, allocated and directed by the state, was officially buried by Deng’s new slogan. That remains the dominant story, of China’s endless rise ever since Deng spoke.

If the state was yielding to the natural, inborn human desire to accumulate, the last thing one might expect is that the state would have to instruct the masses how to consume. Surely the core attraction of consumer choice is that I can experiment, buying this and that, making mistakes, discovering by doing, finding what gives me the greatest satisfaction? Yet in China the ingrained Confucian statist tradition did find it necessary to establish a pedagogy of consumption, teaching the newly rich how to consume properly.  Learning how to consume was part of learning how to be modern, civilised, of high human quality (suzhi). It is the new form of the Confucian tradition of self-cultivation. However, the self to be cultivated is the modern self, a uniquely individual subjective self that seeks to express itself through its desires, choices and through consumption of goods and services.

Education in consumption focused on the novel concept of consumer rights. Consumers should learn to discriminate between good and bad quality goods, to understand the responsibilities of manufacturers for their products, especially foreign companies in China, which can be held accountable by consumer campaigns. After all, in the rich countries consumers are vocal, confident they can return shoddy goods and expect a refund, or in more serious cases, demand bad corporate actors be prosecuted. Mobilising consumers would seem to be just part of the withdrawal of the state, making room for individuals to assert their rights.

But in China rights are not inborn; they are granted by the state, and what is granted can always be withdrawn. Rights extended by the state to individuals must be properly exercised in order that China, collectively as a nation-state, prospers, proves to the world it is an advanced civilisation, with educated consumers ensuring product quality control. To China, this is all so obvious, it does not need stating Consumption is patriotic, it makes money go round, it visibly raises living standards, it sets new benchmarks for others to aspire to. It is the modern alternative to the peasant mentality of saving, hiding money under the mattress as the only insurance against hardship, illness or accident.

There has been intense pressure on China from abroad to increase consumption, elevating consumption to a solution to China’s problems, key to enduring prosperity and an end to reliance on exports in a world of capitalist crises that destroy as well as create demand and consumption. This global discourse, led by economists and governments, and most of all by global corporations keen to sell to Chinese consumers, considers as unnatural China’s ongoing reliance on state investment to boost growth. To a remarkable extent China’s GDP and growth rate are driven by massive state spending on infrastructure, with consumption being only one third of the total economy. This, the economists say, is unsustainable, unbalanced and vulnerable to collapses in global demand for the products of the world’s factory. More consumption is the answer. In any “normal” rich country, consumption is at least two thirds of the total economy, so China has far to go. This global pressure on China to foster greater consumption has made consumption another mission of the state, built into official Five-Year Plans, almost an ideology, another benchmark of China’s success.

Economists have been urging China to promote consumption for decades, and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, with its faltering of international demand for China’s manufactured goods, saw decisive state intervention to boost domestic consumption. In 1998 a new official slogan, guomin jingji xin zenzhangdian, declared tourism a new key growth area of the national economy. In 1999 the state proclaimed mandatory provision by work units of three weeks of holiday time, at the lunar new year in early spring, the national day celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic in October, and the annual May Day festivities. These three “golden weeks” of paid leave, as everyone calls them, put in place the preconditions for making China itself an object of consumption. This would seem to be a step towards making China a “normal” modern country, since tourist mobility is so central to global modernity.


[1] Keith Hollinshead and Chun Xiao Hou, The Seduction of “Soft Power”, Journal of China Tourism Research, 8, 2012, 227-247

[2] Cheng Yan, Tourism media Dynamics: Narratives of the nation-state, University of Illinois, 2010

[3] Emily T. Yeh, Tropes of Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development in Lhasa, Tibet; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 2007, pp. 593–612


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China’s statisticians say 13 million Han Chinese tourists now come to Lhasa annually, plus many more through the scenic sites and sacred places of Tibet, totalling at least 20 million a year.

What do they come for? What do they expect? What does tourism achieve?

Apart from the economic and ecological impacts, mass tourism, ironically, is central to creating individual selves, especially in China, where the concept of a uniquely individuated, modern, consuming self, with cultivated tastes, preferences and desires, is now fast spreading beyond the elite. Tibet is now part of the great, state-sponsored  program of training the middle class Chinese masses in how to become a discriminating individual.

Tourism usually means individual hedonism, and a hedonic economy based on satiating individual desires, fantasies and expectations. The individual pursuit of happiness through mobility is inherent in modernity, as is the assumption by economists that the purpose of economic activity is hedonic consumption. Individuals individuate themselves, discovering their unique identity and chosen life style, experimenting with various selves by travel, sometimes to highly predictable places where fantasies of sophisticated consumption are acted out. Resorts and cruises magnetise customers with the promise that even ordinary folk can pretend to be aristocrats waited on by servants. Sometimes the travel is to unpredictable places where tourists have licence to behave in ways unacceptable at home, discovering new boundaries of the self by gorging on drugs, sex, food or other sensual pleasures. Modern tourism is about me, discovering me, being me. It is about freedom, mobility, a carefree break from the responsibilities of being a law abiding citizen. Tourism and the state are poles apart.

Not so in China. The revolutionary era under Mao had a puritan suspicion of tourism as bourgeois, unproductive and wasteful. Mobility was tightly restricted by the hukou system which designated everyone as resident of a specific rural or urban area, with limited permission to travel. When people did travel, it was en masse, in disciplined cohorts coming, for example, to be present at a mass rally in Tiananmen Square. The prerevolutionary tradition of travel was part of the Confucian tradition of self-cultivation, by which the literati could manifest their high quality and good taste by visiting iconic scenic spots, soaking in the famous view, perhaps even taking up the calligraphic brush to pen a few poetic lines inspired by nature or an old temple.

Postrevolutionary China has reverted to the Confucian model of tourism as self-improvement and cultivation of patriotic sentiment, combined with technologies of mass transit enabling the masses to become exemplary too. Everyone could become a model tourist, improving  their civilised human quality, contributing to the national level of spiritual civilisation by patriotically learning “to express the infinity of one’s feelings towards the rivers and mountains of the Fatherland”, to quote a 1988 tourism manual.[1] This is emotion-work, a category of labour required to harmonise the self with the patriotic agenda of the state. The self must learn to become an individuated self, yet in harmony the party-state.

Anthropologist Pal Nyiri describes the invention of modern tourism in China as somewhat like Sanskritisation in India, a learning to copy the ways of the upper class, “All of a sudden, tourism gained prominence as a lifestyle attribute of the higher-income, urban population and began spreading. The state’s role, both administrative and pedagogical, in engineering this change cannot be overestimated. While the crucial 1998 decision to promote tourism was justified in terms of economic development, it coincided with the appearance of the term ‘leisure culture’ (xiuxian wenhua) in the government’s ‘civilisation campaigns’ as an attribute of the ‘modern and civilised citizen/bourgeois (shimin).’ Tourism in China is understood by its managers as the consumption of bounded and controlled zones.”[2]

The manager of tourism is the state, at national and lower levels, since tourism is defined (and statistically monitored) as visitation to famous scenic spots, places symbolic of the Communist Party’s road to power, re-enactments of historic ceremonies and the quaint customs of ethnic groups. “As far as the state and the tourism business are concerned, the map of China consists of a network of scenic spots ranging from imperial palaces and revolutionary memorials to nature reserves and fenced villages. The desire to travel could once again be the desire to validate one’s knowledge of canonical representations. New catalogues and encyclopaedias of scenic spots expanded the list from traditional landscapes of literati travel (reconfigured as proof of a rich national culture) to landscapes symbolic of the Communist victory and the birth of New China.” [3]

´By the late 1980s, one could not visit or live in China without encountering an abundance of museum displays, television programs, dance extravaganzas, and theme parks displaying images of the charming and distinctive dances, clothing, dwellings, and customs of China’s 55 “minority nationalities.”‘[4]

China’s domestic tourism surge into Tibet began the year the rail line to Lhasa opened for traffic in 2006. That was the year domestic tourism took off all over China, especially for urban Chinese to visit the countryside, and ethnic minority regions. Not only was there a groundswell of demand, from newly rich urban dwellers, there was also a recognition, in rural areas, that tourism could be effective in poverty alleviation. At local, provincial and national levels, tourism was promoted as a way of enhancing consumption, wealth accumulation, off-farm incomes, and of becoming civilised and modern. The concept of civilised tourism (wenming luyou) was the centrepiece of a mass campaign instructing the newly rich city dwellers how to differentiate themselves behaviourally from the lower quality rural folk.[5] “Planners specifically invoked tourism as a viable means of promoting economic and social progress in rural areas.”[6] The official slogans of this campaign emphasised what is missing from hectic urban lives lived among strangers. They key word was nongjiale, which can be translated as “joyous peasant life, or “happy farmers’ home” or “peasant family happiness.” “The concentration on domestic tourism and tourists in 2006 effectively directed the focus of tourism onto discourses of progress through personal effort and continued central state contributions to the betterment of national unity and rural livelihoods.”[7]

Only a few years earlier, Tibet was a hardship posting for Han Chinese, inconceivable as a tourist destination. According to the statistics of the Tibet Tourism Bureau the number of  Chinese citizens coming to Tibet as tourists i9n 1985 was 241 people. By 1988 this had risen to 386, then as martial law was imposed, in official response to Tibetan unhappiness, the number in 1989 dropped to 247. However the number of Han Chinese on official business trips to Tibet, for Tibet-work forums, inspection tours and party conferences was put at 12,000 a year and likely to rise.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation 1990 master plan for the future development of tourism in Tibet –a document of hundreds of pages- scarcely mentions domestic Chinese tourism. That Tibet would become a desirable destination for domestic travellers was inconceivable. On the basis of available figures, the UN WTO forecast the future of tourism in Tibet lay with international arrivals.  Tibet in 1990 was a command economy. Government hostels were built for official visitors, sparing the expense of hotels, while keeping them under surveillance. Tourism throughout China in 1990 was still an official oligopoly run by just three nationwide, state-owned travel services, CITS, CTS and CYTS, so much so that the 1990 Yearbook of China Tourism Statistics numbers on international arrivals consists of three tables, enumerating the tourists received by each of these three official hosting agencies.

That Tibet could become a desirable object for consumption within China’s tourism market was then inconceivable. The UN WTO’s growth strategy forecast that by 2010 Chinese domestic tourist arrivals in Tibet might rise to 3400. The actual number was more than 2000 times that. That the UN’s expert consultants got it so utterly wrong is instructive. This is a failure not only of statistics and the way they are trending, but of imagination. That Tibet might be engineered to occupy a new position in the popular rich urban Han Chinese imaginary was, in 1990, to Hong Kong based consultants, unimaginable.

A major aspect of becoming a nation of consumers is turning China itself into a product for consumption. Learning to be a tourist in China has been a state-driven pedagogy in itself, with many new meanings to be taught. For a start, people had to learn to take holidays, and for long enough to reach distant places. The state was responsible for mandating sufficient holiday time to stimulate consumption, and for providing affordable high speed mass transport by rail, to reach distant destinations within the holiday time allotted by the state. But the responsibilities of the state do not end there. Many destinations are managed by the state, and the tourist experience in historic places is carefully staged, to ensure the right patriotic message is transmitted. This is especially true in Tibet.

While the centre tried to shape domestic tourism, the drive to build it came from below, from local initiatives to grow rich, and it was only later that the state caught up. Throughout China, with one exception, domestic tourism is in the hands of local communities and local leaders, who decide what to build, what to stage, where and how to represent themselves, maximise benefits, minimise downsides, and control the tourism experience.[8] That one exception is Tibet, where the state superimposes its compulsory narrative, owns the iconic scenic spots and directs the tourist experience.

The many millions now sufficiently wealthy to have both time and money for a “golden week” holiday need training, especially if they are to be encouraged to go to Tibet, a destination Chinese people have tended to regard with trepidation, because it seems unnaturally cold, the air thin, and very remote.

The tourism industry is developing fast, but still relies heavily on state infrastructure and state tutelage of citizens to get across the message that travel to Tibet is no longer a hazardous frontier plunge for unattached men, but is now a safely tamed destination for families. The eternal love theme of the Princess Wencheng theme park makes a brave Chinese young woman the central character in a romance that binds two peoples forever together, a romance that feminises Tibet and makes Lhasa a honeymoon destination, a fast growing category of China’s domestic tourism. More on that later.

Overcoming ingrained distaste for Tibet has been a major achievement, involving market forces and state exhortations to model exemplary behaviour. Now it is a manifestation of having a civilised attitude, and high human quality, if one takes the trouble to visit the key tourist sights of Tibet, all of them owned and operated by the state, ingesting the state discourse. The state has invested heavily in not only the hard infrastructure of a train capable of getting people from Beijing (or Shanghai)  to Lhasa in 48 hours, but also the soft infrastructure of staging spectacles on site at the key scenic spots. China has been understandably proud of the engineering achievement, building a single track south to Lhasa from the heavy industrial extraction enclave of Gormo in northern Tibet. But, in order to reach Lhasa as quickly as possible, there are almost no stops. In the almost 2000 km traverse of the Tibetan Plateau, there are only two brief stops.

Similarly, the soft infrastructure of iconic sights in Lhasa is also carefully staged, especially for the 10 million Chinese domestic visitors now arriving in Lhasa each year. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, firstly of logistics, but also of persuasion, instruction, branding, master narrative construction, social and mechanical engineering.

In the 1990s, and earlier, Han Chinese in Tibet were posted there, often against their own preferences, or came seeking their fortunes when peasant farming or village enterprises in their own provinces became uneconomic. Tibet was an unappealing destination, not only for cultural reasons of strangeness and difference, but for the most visceral of reasons: one might well die there of the extreme, unnatural cold; or of altitude sickness in the dangerously thin air. Deeply ingrained traditional Chinese beliefs attach great importance to maintaining essential life energy in balance by avoiding extremes of heat or cold. Intense and persistently cold places are viewed as unnatural and life-threatening. Those who do live in such places can only be imagined to lead brutal lives lacking choice. Who would not escape to more congenial climates if they could?

Tibet came under effective, actual Chinese governance from the 1950s onward. These inbuilt Chinese cultural settings made Tibet a highly masculine place for the pioneering Han, brave and bold, the ideologically-driven, the fortune hunter and even the revolutionary martyr. They ate bitterness, to instruct Tibetans in how to speak bitterness by denouncing landlords as class enemies to be liquidated.

In today’s China, this is an ancient memory, barely believable and seldom mentioned. The embedded imaginary of Tibet was turned around, in this century, by a major campaign to reposition Tibet in Chinese minds, especially in the imaginaries of the newly rich urban Chinese who had money and time for leisure. The Tibetan Plateau became an object of curiosity and even wonder, an exotic jewel at the remotest reaches of inland China, an antithesis of everything familiar. The mountains, verdant pastures, the profuse flowering of the alpine meadows in summer, became favourite topics for photographers, and for a proliferation of popular magazines that gave special emphasis to Tibet or were dedicated specifically to representing Tibet. In the 20th century, only a few Chinese went to Tibet by choice, notably artists, writers and film makers. One of the best known was the short story writer Ma Jian, whose 1987 Stick Out Your Tongue projected his alienation from communist ideology onto a Tibetan landscape which he populated with bizarre and surreal events that readers took as largely factual. Landscapes more familiar to Chinese readers would not have worked: Ma Jian’s blurring of realism and hallucination, the mundane and the fantastic, required a Tibetan location.[9]


l[1]  Luyou xiaobaike, Shandong Youyi Shushi 1988

[2] Pal Nyiri, Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, University of Washington Press, 2010, 62

[3] Pal, 62-3

[4] Erik Mueggler, Dancing Fools: Politics of Culture and Place in a “Traditional Nationality Festival”

Modern China, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 3-38

[5] Jenny Chio, Landscape of Travel: Tourism, Media and Identity in Southwest China, PhD dissertation UC Berkeley 2009, 54

[6] Chio 46

[7] Chio 47

[8] Tim Oakes, The village as theme park, in Oakes ed., Translocal China, Routledge 2006

Tim Oakes, Tourism and Modernity in China, Routledge 1998

Krishna Ghimire, The Economic Role of National Tourism in China, in Ghimire ed., The Native Tourist, Earthscan 2001

Xu Gang, Tourism and Local Development in China, Curzon, 1999

[9] An English translation was published in 2006 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

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