#3 in a blog series of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




[1] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/29/c_134864846.htm?utm

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

[3] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/29/c_134864846.htm?utm

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Saving Tibet from the Tibetans; saving Tibetans from Tibet


Tibetans live in Tibet, to state the obvious.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Paola Virginia Gigliotti and Francesco Coscia, , The relationship between metabolism, altitude and temperature, in Mapping the vulnerability of mountain peoples to food insecurity, UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2015, 54-56 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/358065/icode/     www.fao.org/3/a-i5175e.pdf


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In the first days of the Paris global climate treaty negotiations, China had a dream run, no longer the villain obstinately undermining any agreement, as happened in 2009 in Copenhagen, the last time the world tried to agree on what to do.

China has had six years to project an image of good global citizenship. When China announced to US President Obama that its emissions would decline after 2030, everyone (starting with Obama) hailed this as a breakthrough that signalled prospects for success in Paris.

What China actually promised was that its’emissions to 2030 2 emissions will continue to rise, all the way to 2030, and then start to decline. No specific amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants were named, just a commitment to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP, a tricky yardstick which can enable China, as its economy and especially its services economy grows, to meet the target without actually reducing emissions at all, since success is to be measured not by absolute tonnages of carbon spewed skyward, only those emissions per unit of a GDP that by 2030 will include not only heavy industry but casino gambling, golf courses, mass entertainment, banking and other services expected to boom over the coming 15 years.

None of this was apparent, in the optimism of the first days of Paris COP21. Everyone badly wants an agreement to happen, even if it is not a treaty, even if there is no enforcement mechanism, even if it relies solely on each country making its own declared goal, and even if all those goals don’t add up to a planetary warming of two degrees max, as much as the planet can take.

China has become part of the solution, one of the good guys, even if few wanted to look at the fine print. The world’s biggest environmental NGOs, all with offices in Beijing and close relations with China’s official agencies, amplified this message. No-one wanted to rain on the parade. China’s diplomacy, and soft power projection, have been more adroit and more successful than India’s. India actually emerged, quite quickly in media coverage, as the likely bad guy, the “deal breaker”, since India’s stance is a blunt rejection of responsibility for historic carbon emissions, and a demand that, as a growing emerging economy, it needs to burn much more coal.

Oddly, that is actually China’s position too, only media coverage doesn’t seem to have noticed. China insists on its exceptionalism, and on being a developing country, even the leader of a bloc formally known as G77+China, which has over 130 countries who vote en bloc. In Paris, behind the scenes, China continues to insist that any form of international scrutiny or accountability is an intrusion on China’s domestic affairs. China objected on 2 December to an EU plan to monitor emissions from ships in Chinese ports, their engines running as they wait to load or unload.[1] The UN International Maritime Organisation had proposed collecting data on emissions from ships in port, but China objects.

China has reverted to its long-held position that it did not cause the change in climate; it is the responsibility of the countries that industrialised earlier. As The Guardian reported: “Su Wei, China’s head of delegation, argued that rich countries like the US, Britain and Germany should not be allowed to evade responsibility for their historical emissions. ‘The basic facts do not change. The problem has been caused by developed countries. They need to take their historical responsibility into account and take the lead in reducing greenhouse gases’, he said.”

That has been China’s position all along, and that is what wrecked the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, which tried to face up to the changed reality that certain developing countries are now major industrial powers, and major polluters. If China persists in denying responsibility, insisting in exceptionalism, declaring itself to be (in this context) the same as Botswana or Honduras, the deal will come undone. But now everyone is so utterly determined that there must be a deal, it will go through, by choosing not to notice how little China is offering the planet.

The next day, in negotiations over key issues, such as whether any agreement will be legally binding, and whether developing countries will be exempt from cutting emissions, two of the poorest countries, Sudan and Tuvalu, proposed adding a clause allowing developing countries “willing to do so” to opt into global obligations to cut emissions. China and India immediately objected to any such phrase being included.[2]

China’s plan is to grow and go on growing as fast as it can, and that growth remains the number one priority, with environment second. China in its 13th Five-Year Plan that takes it to 2020 aims to grow by seven per cent a year, enabling it to meet its target of doubling GDP in one decade, from 2011 to 2020, whereupon it will at least drop all pretence of being a “developing” country and proudly announce its arrival as a high-income country. This is all explicitly stated in the documents of the 13th Five Year Plan.

China imposes on its citizens a burden of disease, and shortened lives, because it burns more coal than the rest of the world put together. Beyond China, the carbon emitted by coal burning, the toxic metals in coal and the fine particulate matter pumping into the air by coal combustion all become a global climate heater, and a global health problem. China cannot say this is China’s internal affair: we all breathe the one global atmosphere, which, as Tibetan lamas have pointed out, is taken for granted as an immediately available dump, precisely because there is so much of it. We pollute the air because it just seems to disappear.

Tibet is now especially vulnerable to China’s coal pollution, as China moves so many industries deep inland, to Xinjiang, upwind of the Tibetan Plateau. Xinjiang now has even worse fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution than China’s east coast, because of all the new coal-fired power plants China has built there. Most of the year, the winds blow from Xinjiang towards Tibet, carrying radioactivity from the nuclear blasts of earlier years, and now the PM2.5 pollutants that are so fine they pass through lung walls and into human bloodstreams. At a Coal Cap conference in Beijing in November 2015 Dan Greenbaum of the Health Effects Institute mapped exactly where the worst air pollution now occurs:

PM particulate matter Xinjiang upwind 2015



China likes to portray Tibet as pristine and unpolluted. Not any longer. Tibet now experiences the full spectrum of costs of global warming, and none of the benefits.

And China continues to get away with its vague promise to start reducing emissions by 2030. Scientific research on exactly what that means shows us that, firstly, China’s emissions will continue to rise until 2030, and then will only decline significantly if China’s growth rate also declines from the planned seven per cent per year, down to one or two percent, which is the level of most countries worldwide in recent years.

[1] Earth Negotiations Bulletin Vol. 12 No. 654 Page 2

[2] Earth Negotiations Bulletin vol 12 #656, 4 December 2015

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When you talk with European diplomats about China and climate change, they sigh. Not only have China’s fast rising emissions negated all of Europe’s efforts at cutting emissions; China berates Europeans who raise the issue, calling them imperialists using climate as an excuse to try to hold China back from its rightful place as a rich country. To this accusation, the Europeans can only say, weakly, that their imperialist era was a long time ago.

On the other hand the Tibetans can, and ought to question China’s proclaimed right to pollute, and cannot be accused of imperialism or double standards, as the Tibetan Plateau suffers more than anywhere inhabited, from rapidly rising temperatures. The climate change that is desertifying much of Tibet most definitely was not caused by the Tibetans, which should give them a valid speaking position.

As the planetary Third Pole, the Tibetans have a direct stake in the outcome of the Paris climate negotiations, and a unique insight into China’s motives,  strategies and impacts. What can the Tibetans say?

First, they can point to China’s use of a huge portion of the Tibetan Plateau as nature reserve and national park, nominally dedicated to carbon capture, by excluding grazing animals and pastoralists. Most of the protected areas in China, which legally exclude human use, are in Tibet, giving China a positive story to tell the world about how it offsets the pollution from its factories and cities, by capturing carbon elsewhere. This claim gives China a lot of cred.

protected area China 1 map

Global databases of protected areas take China’s red lines excluding Tibetans from the best pasture lands as a big plus. China gets nothing but praise from professional conservationists who applaud the locking up of these alpine meadows of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR), and fail to notice the cost of exclusion borne by the pastoralists. A 2015 publication of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) actually swallows China’s propaganda without blinking: “In 2003, the SNNR was made a national nature preserve covering an area about the size of Germany. At the time, the central government invested 7.5 billion yuan (US$ 1.2bn) to preserve the full ecosystem with all its flora and fauna, and to maintain the livelihood of the diffuse Tibetan communities living within its borders.” Hundreds of thousands of displaced Tibetan pastoralists, herded onto distant concrete settlements on subsistence rations, in internal exile from their ancestral pastures, know that reality is different.



Tibetan pastoralists also know that grazing, grass, animals, carbon capture and sustainability go together, and are not mutually exclusive. China, failing to understand the basic dynamics of its unfamiliar grasslands, insists that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals.” This crudely Marxist dialectic formula denies the possibility of a grazing economy, anywhere worldwide. This dialectic follows a zero/sum dualistic logic: the more animals you have, the less is the grass; conversely, the fewer animals you have, the greater is the grass. You can’t have both. The Tibetans have for the past 9000 years proven you can indeed have both grass and animals: the secret is mobility, always moving on before the grass is exhausted, giving it time to grow again.

The “contradiction” between grass and animals was made official in 1987, at a National Work Conference on Livestock-Raising Areas, by Du Runsheng, who warned that the reforms of the 1980s, returning yaks, sheep and goats to pastoral families, “destroys the grasslands that are the foundation of their existence.”[1] Du Runsheng, rightly hailed as the architect of China’s rural reform program, who died in 2015, was ignorant of the basics of grassland production landscapes, as are most Han Chinese.

China calls the pastoralists displaced by conservation “ecological migrants”, who have voluntarily surrendered their food security, land tenure rights and lost their livelihoods for the sake of the planet. This positions China to call on the world to pay the displaced pastoralists, relieving China of ongoing responsibility for their survival as urban fringe dwellers. As leader of the world’s developing nations, China is keen to see the Paris negotiations embrace and finance transfer payment packages.  China promotes concepts such as payment for environmental services (PES) in which upstream communities providing pure water for those downriver get compensation for foregoing development. China is also enthusiastic about REDD+, another Paris jargon acronym, meaning reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. Both PES and REDD+ are great ideas if they establish a mechanism for rich countries to assist poor countries and communities on the frontline of climate change. But in China’s hands, PES and REDD+ become excuses for displacing ever more pastoralists from the best pastures of the Tibetan Plateau.



Tibetans in Paris can also ask the world to see the bigger picture. China still calls itself a developing country, entitled to special concessions and exemptions; yet it is also by far the world’s biggest polluter, and insists on the right to grow as fast as possible. China burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined. These are facts.  In Paris, there are many conservationists, governments and international agencies desperate for a deal, talking up the hopeful prospects, willing to overlook China’s hardball stance. After the failure of the last attempt at a global treaty on climate change, in Copenhagen in 2009, it is understandable that many now assembled in Paris are willing to overlook China’s double standards, if it helps get an agreement, even if it is not legally binding, nor is it a treaty, nor is China committing to any specific reduction in emissions.

In Tibetan operas, as the plot gets messy and complicated, a bright green parrot often appears on stage, to tell the truth. That parrot, borrowed from Indian mythology, may enter the Paris stage to remind the world of inconvenient truths when everyone is hoping any agreement is better than none.

The truth is the pledges made by China do not require any reduction in emissions at all. What China has pledged (and encouraged India to also adopt) is merely to reduce the energy intensity of its production, per unit of GDP. This will happen naturally, as the services sector grows, as China’s citizens start consuming more, retail spending more, buying more sport, entertainment, health, education and financial services. The more China becomes a consumer society, the more readily heavy manufacturing becomes a smaller proportion of GDP, and China fulfils its pledge effortlessly, without any actual reduction in carbon emissions.

When Westerners say such things, China goes on the attack: you rich folks have polluted the skies for centuries and got rich; now it is our turn. You can’t accuse us of pollution when you consume what we make. That’s a valid point.

China cannot accuse Tibetans of an imperialist double standard, of plotting to deny China what Tibet already enjoys. The Tibetans remain poor, remote, marginal and largely unindustrialised. Tibetans are on the receiving end of accelerating climate warming: not only glacier melt but permafrost shrinkage leading to wetlands drying up, with loss of habitat for migratory wild birds as the water meadows dry, exposing peatlands to fire, releasing methane to the atmosphere, a gas far more potent in exacerbating climate change than carbon dioxide.


The optimists in Paris, in the hope that any agreement is better than none, seize on China’s embrace of a “green” economy, as proof that China is now a good global citizen. They often ignore what China means by its slogan of “building an ecological environmental civilisation.” In reality, this means shifting the heaviest of polluting industries far inland, to Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. Those smelters, power plants and resource extraction enclaves increasingly rely on the rich mineral endowments of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, plus the waters of the great rivers that flow from Tibet, plus the hydropower China can generate as the rivers descend from the Tibetan Plateau. China has great plans to divert water from south to north, and send electricity from west to east. In each case, the starting point for sourcing water and hydro-electricity, is Tibet.

dam cascade to 2050 graphic

China’s “ecological civilisation” construction still ranks behind economic growth. Officially, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020: “planning objective is that by 2020, China will enter the ranks of high-income countries. Plan is to build a comprehensive well-off society by 2020, GDP and per capita income should be more than double 2010. In 13th Plan the main task ranked first is to maintain economic growth, followed by the construction of ecological civilization and alleviation of poverty.”

Tibet is the planet’s high ground. The planetary high ground is so elevated even the jetstream must deviate around it. An island in the sky as big as Western Europe, Tibet has been peripheral to the global climate agenda only because Tibetans face so many difficulties when they try to speak for themselves. It is time we heard from the people of that high ground.



[1] Du Runsheng, Reform and Development in Rural China, St.Martin’s Press, 1995, p 191

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As the global climate negotiations get under way in Paris, the planet awaits its man-made future. The Tibetan Plateau, not a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, also awaits outcomes from Paris, knowing full well it is a planetary front line, warming faster than almost any inhabited region of the Earth.

The facts of the accelerated warming of Tibet are well-known: the melting glaciers, receding permafrost, drying of the wetlands, earlier springs, advancing degradation, desiccation and even desertification, loss of habitat for migratory birds, stronger monsoon penetration into the deep interior of Tibet, poleward shift of the jetstream deviating northwards around that greatest of islands in the sky, the Tibetan Plateau.

What this means to Tibetans is the early melting and disappearance of water frozen in the subsoil, trickling away before springtime roots can reach down to it, resulting in crop failure.

Many people think that since Tibet is so cold, warming must be good. It’s not that simple. China looks at the warming as promising, in several ways. In the next few decades, higher rainfall plus melting glaciers mean greater river flows, a dividend of climate warming. Once the glaciers are gone, their capacity to magnetise all water vapour out of thin air, hold and release it steadily, will be gone, but that is decades away. In the short term, the lake levels across Tibet are rising, after centuries of slowly dropping; and the rivers flow more strongly. Chinese scientists are hopeful that eastern Tibet will warm sufficiently to be able to grow Chinese crops and trees.

Downriver from Tibet, those wild mountain rivers plunge to the lowlands of East, Southeast and South Asia, providing water drunk daily by over one billion people. As the rivers get stronger due to warming and deeper monsoon cloud entry into Tibet, those rivers will erode faster, carry a heavier sediment load, to be deposited in the cascade of dams China is building on all major Tibetan rivers; or the sediment will continue downriver, bearing with it dangerous toxic metals, including arsenic, with even more added to the natural baseload by large scale mines close to the rivers.

These are the well-known practical consequences of climate warming in Tibet; adding up to a strong case for Tibet be top of the planetary agenda, as the Third Pole of this Earth of ours, and almost two percent of the land surface of the planet.


What is less well known is that Tibet occupies a special place in China’s negotiating strategies, as a pawn in a great game China plays, with the objective of being left free, after Paris, to continue indefinitely to be the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, world’s biggest coal burner, committed to ongoing economic growth as fast as possible, without being bound by treaty to any emissions quota, or any legally binding treaty that holds China accountable.  These are China’s core interests, which it will be free to achieve only if it can deflect pressure from almost all other countries, Can China  persuade the world that in other ways, it is a good global citizen playing its part to reduce emissions? Enter Tibet, China’s great bargaining chip.

How can China, which burns more coal than the rest of the world put together, hope to get away without any international constraint on its factories? How can China avoid committing to actual emissions reductions, rather than its vague pledge to reduce the energy intensity of its GDP, which happens naturally in any economy no longer focused solely on manufacturing? As China becomes a consumer society, spending big on entertainment, sport, banking and retail, the amount of energy used per unit of GDSP inevitably reduces, as the service industries expand, and the economy is no longer dominated by mining, energy extractio0n, manufacturing and infrastructure construction. Yet while other countries pledge actual emission cuts, China has offered only to reduce emissions intensity by growing the services economy. Even though global governance is so weak that the best we can hope from Paris is that each country sets its own targets, will the world accept China’s declaration of what it is willing to do?

This is where Tibet comes in: the ace up China’s sleeve. More than half of China’s nature reserves and national parks, dedicated to carbon capture by excluding human use, are in Tibet. Those nature reserves offset China’s emissions by soaking up carbon into Tibetan grasses. Thus China shows it is a good global player, accepting its share of responsibility. The losers are the “ecological migrants”, the pastoral nomads of the Tibetan Plateau, removed from their ancestral lands, their herds sold and their land tenure rights cancelled, in the name of climate change mitigation and offsetting pollution from the world’s factory, located on China’s east coast.

China is huge, geographically as well as in population size, a world unto itself. China can well afford to zone its vast grasslands as counterweight to its industrial core. China has always focused narrowly on its arable lands as its source of food, largely ignoring the far bigger production landscapes of the grasslands, not only in Tibet but also Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and much of the cold northeast. Only arable land, suited to intensive farming, is counted as production landscape in China, leaving the vast rangelands  as a problematic periphery, often designated as waste land, but these days repurposed as land locked away from all productive use, for the sole purpose of growing more grass, proclaiming China’s green credentials.

China imagines itself as a nation of honest, hard-working peasant farmers, not as free ranging pastoralists. The more urban China becomes, the more official propaganda evokes nostalgia for peasant farming as the soul of China’s stability and identity. Here are propaganda posters from 2013:

ode to the motherland 13·中国龙腾 中华圆梦 Ò»¶Ù·¹Ã¦Ò»Äê busy all year to feed you W020130929572830566129


Although official rhetoric insists that the new wave of displaced people are voluntary “ecological migrants”, the reality is that when cadres come down to a nomad “village” with a fixed quota of how many people must leave, that quota must be fulfilled. The official slogan driving the pastoralists off their land is tuimu huancao: close pastures to grow more grass.

Grass is now fetishized as an end in itself. Chinese scientists dutifully measure the increase in grass  biomass in pastures where grazing is banned; while official planners draw red lines round huge areas designated solely and exclusively for downstream water production and grass growth, excluding all human use (at least on paper, since illegal mining flourishes even in “protected areas.”)





China can claim to be doubly virtuous. Not only is it sequestering carbon, the grazing herds are excluded, along with their herders, thus reducing the methane emissions from belching yaks, a serious source of greenhouse gases. In reality China is committed to rapidly increasing meat consumption, using up a high proportion of its corn and sorghum production to feed its rapidly growing number of pigs and cattle, fed not on the open range but in intensive feedlots close to cities, the most intensively polluting way of raising livestock. The long term plan for Tibet is also to invest heavily in feedlots, as the modern, scientific way of turning animals into meat.

But on paper it all looks good. If one looks at global databases of protected areas, China now seems to be a good global citizen, close to achieving the targets such as the UN Convention on Biodiversity target that 17 per cent of all land be set aside as natural habitat. The exclusion of the pastoralists of Tibet from the best pastures of eastern Tibet is at most a footnote, barely noticed. On the map China is playing its part:

Sanjiangyuan in China context uncluttered map

When the nomads were first told they must relocate to concrete settlements on urban fringes, they were initially told it was for 3, or 5, or at most 10 years, to ensure degrading lands recover and watersheds are thus protected from degradation. That was in 2003, when tuimu huancao implementation began. Now those “experimental” periods are over, and no-one has been allowed officially to return.

Do degrading lands recover by themselves, without human intervention, just by excluding the traditional custodians of the land?  The scientific evidence shows that areas overgrazed, due to official policies that fragment herds and crowd animals onto small allocated patches, do not recover by themselves. What does happen is that dominant grasses grow taller, overshadowing the many medicinal herbs Tibetans have always found in their alpine meadows. Biodiversity thus decreases, even when biomass increases. After a few years good grazing land reverts to shrubland, reversing the efforts of the pastoralists to keep their country open. Yet China persists in calling this policy a success.

Climate change in Tibet serves a second purpose to official China. Since climate change is global, and China gets much sympathy by blaming it on rich nations, China can claim special status as a developing country entitled to compensation, and latitude for its ongoing pollution as it catches up with the rich, as is its right. Likewise, China can fudge its role in causing the degradation of the Tibetan grasslands, through mistaken official policies and their perverse outcomes over many decades. China can argue that the degradation problems, even the desertification of Amdo, are due to global climate change, and the ignorance of the Tibetans, nothing to do with China’s improper policies and their perverse outcomes.

Global climate change masks China’s many policy failures, as it fragmented pastoral lands in the 1980s, after decades of doing the opposite: herding both people and animals into huge communes to intensify production. China’s productivist ideology is the heart of the problem, concealed by China’s climate change rhetorics.

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At the European Parliament on 16 November, at the European Union Diplomatic Corps (EU External Action) on 19 November, at the Belgian Foreign Ministry 19 Nov and the French Foreign Ministry 20 November, I had opportunity to pitch the case for Tibet, in a new way.

Europe’s diplomats and parliamentarians deserve our sympathy when they raise human rights with their bored and arrogant Chinese counterparts, who dismiss all such inquiries as European imperialist interference in China’s internal affairs.

So why not try a fresh approach, try for a reset, that also embraces a comprehesive story aboiut all the difficulties facing Tibet, the land and the people?

This is the pitch:

European Union External Action Service, Brussels, 19 November 2015

By Gabriel Lafitte  glafitte1@gmail.com   website http://rukor.org

The glacier advertising this presentation is, as we all know, fast disappearing, as the Tibetan plateau warms much faster than any inhabited area of the planet. The climate crisis may be upon us, but seldom is it depicted as a human rights crisis as well. Is there a human rights dimension?

The mountains that attract every drop of moisture out of the frigid troposphere of Tibet, and thus create those glaciers, are also sources of the raw materials essential to global commodity chains, necessary for China, the world’s factory, to maintain favourable balance of trade with almost all European countries. Those mountains may be rich in gold, copper, silver, molybdenum and much more, but does resource extraction from the snow mountains that define Tibet also have a human rights dimension?

Below the mountains is the plateau of Tibet, a vast island in the sky, its floor four to five kilometres up into the troposphere, with the mountains above that. The plateau is home to millions of pastoral nomads and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats, who, in the name of climate change mitigation and carbon capture, are being rapidly removed to urban fringes. Is there a human rights dimension to this collective displacement?

Below the mountains, meandering across an endless plateau the size of Western Europe are the great rivers of Tibet, including international transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. In addition there are China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze. All of them rise in Tibet, fed by the glaciers of the Third Pole. In a rugged landscape, mountains, rivers and now mines are often close together, and those rivers are drunk daily by over one billion people. If those rivers are polluted by mining wastes, is there a human rights dimension?

By asking this question over and over, it has become rhetorical, with the answer obvious. These are all human rights issues, and largely they invoke collective social and economic rights, as well as breaches of individual civil and political rights. So we need to understand what infractions are occurring, and how they are likely to intensify as China accelerates its developmentalist interventions in Tibet.

We could go further, and enumerate a long list of human rights transgressions, especially when we look at the protests by Tibetan communities at the mining of their sacred mountains and the pollution of the lakes in which the goddesses live, and the rivers. When we look at the pervasive loss of self-sufficient food production across rural Tibet, in areas where nomad removals are frequent, we discover a collective loss of food security, the pauperisation of entire populations of displaced people, whose displacement, ironically, is in the name of fulfilling the “China dream” of modernity, comfort and access to services.

Then we could add the consequences of the imposition of nature reserves, national parks and exclusion, in favour of growing more grass. This invokes the breach of those Articles of the Convention on Biodiversity,  which focus on the proven track record of local communities in doing a far better job of protecting biodiversity, and the right to life of myriad sentient beings. Then there is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which names free, prior and informed consent to mining and resource extraction as the necessary prerequisite for the commodity supply chain to gear up into action.

We could go further still, as UN Special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Olivier de Schutter, did a few years ago in China. He surprised and alarmed his Chinese hosts with the simple proposition that the right to food implies the right to secure land tenure to produce that food. He pointed out that the exclusion of pastoral nomads from their pastures, and the cancellation of their land tenure certificates, violates the right to food, and was much condemned by China for being so presumptuous.

Thus we quite quickly end up with an extraordinarily long list of infractions and transgressions of a wide range of rights.

But before going any further, we should stop and ask a seemingly naïve question: what is the point, in the context of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue ritual, of long lists? When we know, from years of experience, that our Chinese dialogue partners will swat aside any and all such concerns, condemning them as interference in China’s internal affairs, denying each and all breaches, no matter how well documented, what is the point? No matter how long our list, how well researched, it will all be dismissed as yet another imperialist impertinence of a Europe that actually cares far more about doing business with China.

As an Australian, I have watched, over many years the similarly technicised and ritualised Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue going nowhere. I can only sympathise with the diplomats assigned to ritually raise these long lists, knowing full well that there will be no meaningful response, no public accountability, no actual dialogue, and the issues raised will remain unresolved. When Katrin Kinzelbach, in her uniquely in-depth analysis of such ritual “dialogues” names them a stark failure, lacking impact, showing only the ineffectiveness of quiet diplomacy, I can only agree.[1]

So what is the point of regularly assembling yet another list of breaches and transgressions when we know, with absolute certainty, that not one of them will be taken seriously, investigated, or resolved? It is madness to try, fail, try, fail and just go on repeating those failures in the pointless hope that one day our strategy might get results.

So there is little to be gained by generating yet more lists of wrongs that will not be righted.

We need a new approach, if that is imaginable within a process that has “relegated and isolated human rights from higher level political dialogue”, to again quote Katrin Kinzelbach.

Despite the technicised ritual, the formulaic process, I suggest there are ways of bringing freshness, and Prof de Schutter showed us how to do it. With his simple and rather basic assumption that the right to food entails the right to land, he effectively ambushed his hosts. He was invited, because there is some obligation on members of the Human Rights Council to allow at least a few Special rapporteurs to investigate on the ground, and report. China, having repeatedly denied permission for many Special Rapporteurs to enter China, confidently expected that a rapporteur on food could only congratulate China on ending famine and making plenty of industrial agriculture available on the market. What confounded China was de Schutter’s insistence that agro-ecology is better than agribusiness, that pastoralists do care for the land and for production, and their removal is unnecessary and wrong. That’s an example of a fresh approach.

More importantly, it is an example of a holistic approach, which looks at the right to food as more than a quantum of product on supermarket shelf space. What we need now, if ever this dialogue is to become meaningful, is a holistic approach.

On the Tibetan Plateau, what might a holistic approach look like? What does our long list add up to?

These are the wrong two questions to pair up. We will not discover the whole by simply adding up lists. Lists may have worked, in the narrowly technical, professionalised milieu of official human rights dialogues, when the cases of individuals, arrested or tortured, imprisoned or executed, were the topic. In such circumstances, lists of prisoners can achieve much.

Now we are trying to begin again, to obtain a holistic overview of the circumstances of an entire population, through the lens of human rights. In this instance we are looking at the entire Tibetan Plateau, ignoring the fragmentation of the Plateau into units of differing “autonomous” status, so as to gain a wider perspective, taking in all six million Tibetans, the four million Han Chinese settlers, perhaps even the decimated wildlife, since sentient beings have rights too.

Taking a panoramic perspective enables us to look at the entire suite of official China’s interventions, where they are going, what effects they have, what direction they are trending. We can sketch in broad outline, for want of time, which can be amply filled in vividly by abundant evidence.

The broad picture is that China has consistently expected, required and demanded that the land and people of Tibet be more productive, yet also provide uninterrupted environmental services, especially water, to users far downstream in lowland China. China’s statist interventions have consistently pushed Tibetan pastoralists and farmers to make more meat, above all, and to commercialise their livestock production so pastoral care becomes a routine commodity chain operation, in which animals are nothing more than meat, and cash, on the hoof. Tibetan pastoralists have, for decades, resisted this commodification, not only because they respect their animals as fellow sentient beings, but also because they know they can never get a good price in markets heavily rigged against them, and because herds of the hoof are their only security, capital and insurance against disasters, in a risky environment.

Now China has altogether lost patience with this stubborn withholding of beasts from the market, and has declared a major goal of the 13th Five year Plan, operational from 2016 to 2020, is to transform rural production into a modern, intensive, feedlot meat production commodity chain. If this is development, it is disempowering development, to use the term coined by one of the few economists who closely studies Tibet, Andrew Fischer. The result will be a further depopulation of the vast Tibetan countryside, the concentration of animal production on urban fringes, in large scale Chinese owned industrial enterprises that employ only a few Tibetans. This will further intensify the existing trend of excluding rural Tibetans from their land, cancelling their land tenure security, displacing them to concrete peri-urban settlements where they are utterly dependant on official handouts of subsistence rations, and live under constant surveillance.

Another major goal of the Five-Year Plan to 2020 is a massive build-up of hydropower dams on all the major Tibetan rivers, from which one billion people drink daily. In the name of diversifying away from coal, all the wild mountain rivers are to be impounded, in endless cascades of dams. The upcoming 13th Plan period is also when an audacious canal bisecting eastern Tibet is scheduled to begin construction, to take water away from the upper Yangtze and into the Yellow River. This too will bring influxes of lowland Han Chinese workers into remote valleys where Tibetan life, identity and cultural continuity has until now been little interrupted.

Another substantive goal of the 13th Plan is the relocation of the world’s factory away from China’s east coast to new hubs far inland, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, which will draw their raw materials from Tibet rather than from imports. Tibet, Asia’s number one water tower, is to provide the water, copper, gold, silver and many other metals, plus enormous flows of hydropower to the factories of Chongqing, Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xining that make all the big brand consumer products in our pockets. This too is transforming Tibet, as China’s resource nationalism finds domestic sources to substitute for imports, primarily in Tibet and elsewhere in western China, such as the Uighur region of nominal “autonomy” in Xinjiang, and the nominally “autonomous” Inner Mongolia. If we add the lands of the Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs we are talking of half of China, an area bigger than the maximal definition of Europe, from the Urals to Portugal.

These are the announced thrusts of the 13th Plan, with much more yet to be announced in March 2016 at the session of the National People’s Congress. These policies drive Tibet further in a direction already well under way, such as the widespread exclusion of pastoralists form the best pasture lands in Tibet, in the name of conservation, repairing land degradation, and carbon capture.

These drivers drive Tibet and the entire Tibetan population in a discernible direction, their food security and land tenure lost, their future bleak since they are not provided with vocational education to enter the modern economy, and their freedom of movement is curtailed by hukou household registration rules, and by the pervasive, racist suspicions of the security state that Tibetans are generically a threat.

Due to the power of a strong state against a fragmented and impoverished society, the direction of the future is knowable. Even the 13th Plan’s emphasis on fully eradicating to poverty of the remaining 70m people across China officially classified as poor, pushes Tibetans to leave their lands, livelihoods and sacred mountains, to the miners. China argues that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet. Remote mountainous areas are by definition poor because low concentrations of scattered mobile pastoralists can never be reached by the comforts of modernity. So, in the name of poverty alleviation, the current social engineering of Tibetans away from the land, to the towns and then to cities and to lowland factories, is to intensify. When we hear that EU Special Representative on human rights Stavros Lambrinidis and “the EUSR welcomed some important developments since his last visit, including China’s commitment to lift an additional 70 million people out of poverty over the next five years”, we must urge you to look more closely at what China means by poverty alleviation, including wholesale involuntary relocation of substantial populations without prior consent.

Thus we arrive at an extraordinary picture. In the name of entirely worthy objectives such as conservation, carbon capture, efficient farming, poverty alleviation, resource nationalism, balanced energy use; the Tibetans are to leave their lands and become displaced, peripheral, useless fringe dwellers leading wasted lives, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term.

This surely is the ultimate absurdity. Taken singly, each of official China’s policies has surface validity. In principle we can all agree that carbon capture, or poverty alleviation, are worthy objectives. Only when we assemble the full suite of developmentalist governance do we see that in practice each objective actually disempowers, dispossesses and displaces the Tibetans en masse, as a people, as a nationality with nominal rights to self-determination.

How can we reveal this ultimate absurdity? The best cross-cutting tool we have, that penetrates the jargons of protected areas, reducing degradation, efficient farming, resource nationalism, renewable energy intensification etc. etc. is the discourse of human rights.

If we reframe the current direction Tibet is pushed towards from above, and add in the 13th Five Year Plan, seen now in a human rights framework, the absurdity is revealed. It will not be hard to understand that the entire project of the modern state, as it inscribes its power into Tibet, is disempowering, leads to depopulation and even for many, destitution. From the UDHR to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples we have the tools we need to understand the fate of Tibet in toto, as whole. This may be the best way available to us to puncture the self-referential insistence by official China that it is merely obeying the “laws” of development and of history, a claim often made in China’s White Papers on Tibet.

In a brief presentation such as this, you may doubt whether the evidence supports such a singular depiction of ground truth, as the Tibetans experience it.  That evidence is available, can be provided and tested.

If the modernising project is in reality marginalising and even pauperising the Tibetans, reducing them to endless dependence, we discover an absurdity that much needs to be named and exposed. This is so much more than compiling endless lists of individual cases of prisoners whose individual civil and political rights have been transgressed.

The absurdity of the Tibetans being developed to leave Tibet is not the only absurdity facing us. We also face the absurdity of technicising human rights, forcing the dialogue into a narrowly ritualised channel of sterile “exchanges” between EU External Action diplomats and their bored, haughty, dismissive Chinese counter parties. The stifling pretence that human rights, inherently political, can be squeezed into this airless format of formal “dialogue” of officials, is absurd.

So I conclude by making an audacious suggestion. By naming the absurdity of China developing the Tibetans away from Tibet, we also transcend the absurdities inherent in the ritualised EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. By speaking plainly of the big picture, we build on the enterprising Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and declare the emperor, in his own eyes adorned with all the splendours of modern statecraft, is actually naked.

Katrin Kinzelbach suggests the ritual of EU-China HR Dialogue has “relegated and isolated human rights” and “gave European politicians an excuse to hide in generalities.” The result, she says is “insincerity about the very principles it [the EU] hailed as fundamental.”

To name the pompous emperor as naked is to also liberate the EU-China HR Dialogue, and breathe life back into a stale ritual. To disclose absurdity is, of course, undiplomatic, yet it could give European diplomacy a fresh life, renewed purpose, and fulfil the “European dream” of a foreign policy that stands in solidarity rather than endless competition between the major states of Europe for China’s favour.

China takes full advantage of Europe’s increasing timidity. Shamelessly, China now accuses us of double standards, in the wake of the Paris terrorist atrocity, for failing to applaud China’s war on the fictional, non-existent “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” Is this insult, and brazen appropriation of the pain of Paris, not an affront to us all?

As Francois Godemont reminds us, China is debauching Europe’s greatest inventions, not only the concept of universal human rights, but also the entire international order. Godemont says: “What if China made us change our own perspective? Like any open tender, the search for an international order implies a choice between quality and cost. If China becomes the lowest bidder, that will surely impel other suppliers to lower the quality of their offer in order to stay competitive.  The result would be a low-cost version of the international order – less ambitious but also less demanding than the outgoing order.” Is that what Europe wants, a race to the bottom, in which human rights are invisible, having been technicised out of sight so that Volkswagen can continue to get 65% of its profits from China? Godement asks tough questions about the place of human rights in the discourse with China: “How much of a degraded or hollowed-out order are we ready to accept for the sake of general agreement? At what level can that order function acceptably? What is the trade off between the entente among large powers that a low-cost order might generate, and minimal value and content requirements?”[2]

If EU External Action were to take a holistic perspective on China, on Tibet, and on its own relegation to the technicised corner, it could signal a revival, a comeback, a renewed confidence in asserting European values.




[1] Katrin Kinzelbach,  The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits,  2015 – Routledge

[2] François Godement, China’s promotion of a low-cost international order, 06th May, 2015


also by Godemont: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_speaking_to_china_why_Europe_needs_unity_on_human_rights375


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At a time when we are preoccupied with immediate dangers, it is wonderful to find an audience willing to consider the long term. All too readily the long term danger is pushed aside by the threat before us now, and the long term fades from view.

Yet we must also accept responsibility for the long term, and that is why the world will shortly meet in Paris, to finally take meaningful action over climate change, with every country contributing, in the hope we can avert cooking the planet. We have found time for the long term, despite the immediacy of other threats.

When we consider the unique situation of Tibet, we discover we are dealing with a second long term danger; in fact the long unresolved conflict over Tibet now intersects with the long term climate warming, in disturbing ways.

Because the world has seldom found time to consider Tibet, focussing instead on violent struggles that always take priority, the Tibetan situation is known as a frozen conflict. This climatic metaphor is apt: frozen conflicts may not be hot, but they do not go away either, they remain unresolved, and there is a price to pay, as we shall see, including a climatic price. The two conflicts, of Tibet and climate, do intersect, in surprising ways.

The Tibetans are keen to contribute to the climate debate, and to participate in finding planetary solutions. The leader of Tibetans in exile, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, recently summed up the Tibetan climate situation succinctly, in an article in The Guardian. He points out that Tibet is indeed the roof of the world, is heating fast, permafrost and the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and over one billion people rely on Tibet, Asia’s water tower, for their daily water needs. He highlights China’s plan to dam all major Tibetan rivers for hydropower, and China’s policy of removing the Tibetan pastoral nomads from their pastures, pleading for these improper policies to be reconsidered.

But how are all these issues interconnected?  How does the frozen conflict, and the silencing of Tibetan voices within Tibet, interact with global climate warming?

First, climate scientists have come to realise that all local and regional climates are interconnected, affecting each other. The climate of Tibet affects the whole planet, and cannot be thought of as a peripheral or remote question. The Tibetan Plateau is a vast island in the sky, four to five kilometres up into the troposphere, with the many mountain chains a further 3000, even 4000 metres higher still. The Tibetan Plateau is the size of Western Europe, and its bulk, its seasonal cooling and heating directly affect the atmosphere, right across the northern hemisphere. The jetstream that meanders across the planet is deflected by the sheer bulk and altitude of the Tibetan Plateau, which is close to two percent of the planetary land surface. In winter, cold polar air pushes southwards, and the Jetstream is deflected to the Himalayas, which protect India from the intense cold of continental inner Asia. In spring and summer, the Tibetan Plateau, especially the bare rock of the upper slopes, heats fast, so fast that the Jetstream switches far to the north, deflected around the northern plateau edges, thus drawing in from the far Indian Ocean the rain bearing clouds of the monsoon.

This seasonal alternation of the jetstream is a driver, an engine of the monsoons of India and of East Asia. The effects go further, as far as Europe. Climate scientists have looked along the latitude circling the northern hemisphere, from the Tibetan Plateau, across East Asia, the north Pacific, North America, the Atlantic and on to Europe, and found that air pushed into the upper troposphere by Tibet only descend when they reach Europe. So, climatically, Tibet and Europe are directly connected. What had seemed distant, long term and remote is actually in every momentary breath we take. We are truly one planet, with one atmosphere. As the Dalai Lama has said: “This blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof. The Tibetan plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans, but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world.”

When we explore these interconnections further, a remarkable picture emerges. China, having prevented Tibetans from speaking for themselves, speaks for Tibet. What China has to say about Tibet’s role in the climate debate is disturbing, a distortion of the sciences of our planetary future.

China argues that, although it is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, its actions in Tibet offset and mitigate the global climatic impacts of the world’s factory. China grounds its policy of removing nomads from their ancestral pastures on an official slogan: tuimu huancao, closing pastures to grow more grass. The more grass that grows in ungrazed pastures, the more carbon is captured, and the more China proves its global citizenship in tackling climate change. The result is that well more than half of all of China’s nature reserves and national parks are in Tibet, including the best alpine meadow pasture lands of the Tibetan Plateau, where grazing is now banned.

How did we get to this strange point, where cancelling the skilful and sustainable grazing economy of the vast Tibetan rangelands can be applauded as China’s contribution to climate change mitigation? To answer this question, we need to look overall at what China envisages as the uses, and future of the Tibetan Plateau.

Science plays a leading role, as the Tibetan Plateau had not been scientifically categorised, enumerated, measured and uploaded into global databases only two human generations ago. Until the 1950s, China had no effective, day to day control over the land or people of Tibet. Whatever one makes of the political arguments, until the 1950s, there was no Chinese presence on the ground. China, seeing itself at the forefront of scientific socialism, was determined to discover the exploitable treasures of this vast plateau, and extract them. Scientific expeditions quickly located many major mineral deposits, as well as the sources of the great rivers, hitherto mythologised.

China fuwe proudly participate in national industrialisationndamentally sees Tibet as the point sources of great mineral wealth, and extraction is now rapidly intensifying. Mineral deposits occur in specific places, enclaves of intensive investment and extraction.

The rest of Tibet, unsuitable for classic Chinese small-scale agriculture, remains in Chinese eyes a remote and useless hinterland of wandering nomads who seem unproductive given the enormous areas they roam. The future of Tibet, spelled out in one Five-Year Plan after another, is to be an archipelago of enclaves, zones of intensive extraction, with a largely urbanised population, just like the rest of China, with the rural people shifted to urban fringes, then away from the plateau altogether, since a scattered and mobile population can never enjoy modernity. Outside of the urban and extraction enclaves, the rest of Tibet has little future, will be largely depopulated, and can best earn China global credit for being rebadged as an enormous carbon capture zone, offsetting China’s ongoing combustion of more coal each year than the rest of the world combined.

So the exclusion of the silenced nomads is packaged as a positive contribution to climate change, to REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation) and to LDN (land degradation neutrality); thus qualifying China not only for the world’s approval but also financial transfers due to developing countries which forego development and in return are eligible for PES (payment for environmental services).

This is a grotesque misappropriation of the concepts of climate change and what can be done to save the planet. A rising tide of Chinese scientists openly contradicts this official narrative. Led by Prof Li Wenjun, at Peking University, this new school of environmental science fieldworkers in nomadic areas see the degradation that has occurred as a result of mistaken and improper policies that fragmented nomadic pasture lands, causing overgrazing, for which China now blames the “primitive” nomads who in fact have cared sustainably for huge rangelands for 9000 years of human use.

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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone. This is a long blog: you’ll need coffee.


Tibet entered the atomic age abruptly, and far earlier than most people realise. The Tibetan Plateau became a front line in the global confrontation between the Soviet and American blocs in the 1950s, when Mao made the strategic decision that revolutionary China must have its own submarines, equipped with Chinese-built nuclear missiles, to gain parity of deterrence, first with the US, then with the Soviet “revisionists” as well.

Tibet was literally designated a front line, officially the Third Front, precisely because of its remoteness and impregnability. The Third Front was deliberately as far from the prowling US Navy as possible, but the testing of submarines, and of submarine-launched missiles must be done in water. China’s biggest lake is Tibet’s biggest lake, the Tso Ngonpo, in Chinese Qinghai Hu.

For decades, secret military research establishments on the lake’s northeast shore, designated the Ninth Academy, built and tested China’s first generation of submarines, which only recently retired from active service. The “Atomic City” they left behind in the 1980s, when the costly Third Front was finally abandoned, is now a major tourism attraction for older Chinese domestic tourists on the patriotic, nostalgic “red tourism” circuit.

army and masses are of one heart 1966

The Ninth Academy was code for the secret Nuclear Weapons Bureau,  based in Amdo/Qinghai, on a scale akin to Los Alamos in the US, according to historians John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, chroniclers of China’s nuclear weapons program.[1] They emphasize that the location, as with Los Alamos, was chosen for its remoteness to everyone but the local Tibetan pastoralists, to whom it was home. Lewis and Xue had access to the men who ran the weapons program, who were happy to talk of their role in China’s crash program to join the nuclear superpowers. They describe the 1958 initial workforce sent to construct the weaponisation of Tibet. There were “over 2,000 soldiers, more than 7000 peasants conscripted from across the land, and some 2000 seasoned construction workers.” Later came thousands of scientists and technical specialists. Not even Mao’s great famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese citizens died, slowed the construction, as the military slaughtered the native Tibetan chiru gazelles in huge numbers for meat.[2] So great was the urgency, even the scientists worked three shifts, seven days a week.[3]space race 1994

The Nuclear Weapons Bureau was headquartered in Beijing, where the scientists did the calculations essential to ensuring a nuclear explosion. The Ninth Academy was where all these dangerous components were built, assembled and tested, with only the final actual explosion being conducted in an even more remote location just north of Tibet, in the Lop Nur desert. The deep connection between the intellectual core of the atomic bomb project in Beijing, and its factory workshop in Tibet, with personnel going back and forth, was the foundational step in creating the economy of dependence that characterises relations between Tibet and Beijing now.



When uranium was discovered in Tibet, conveniently close to the Ninth Academy, in Thewo  (Diebu in Chinese) in Kanlho (Gannan in Chinese), there was a similar intensive allocation of money and manpower, by a command and control state, to extract it.

Gansu, with its rocket launch sites, nuclear fuel cycle enrichment plants and potential, in its deserts, as a nuclear waste dump all made the Thewo uranium deposit, 200 kms south of Lanzhou, integral to China’s crash program of nuclearisation.

The story of the Thewo uranium mine #792 has been documented in remarkable detail, due to the tenacious courage of one man, the mine’s warehouse manager in the 1980s and 1990s, Sun Xiaodi, who not only saw at close quarters the corruption, exploitation of Chinese by Chinese, indifference to worker health and pollution of Tibetan environment, he insisted on reporting it.Sun Xiaodi 792 mine pic b&w

At first he lodged complaints to his superiors, who ignored them. He tried directly petitioning Beijing, only to be abducted, tortured and imprisoned. Amazingly, he never gave up and was able, a decade ago, to tell in precise detail what actually happened at a uranium mine that, on paper, had already closed. China declared the Thewo (Diebu in Chinese) deposit depleted and defunct years ago, and so it was reported by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency’s databases.


It is worth quoting this extraordinary story at length: “A mine employee who protested radioactive contamination learned first-hand the risks of environmental activism in China. Sun Xiaodi disappeared early last year (2005) after petitioning the central authorities over contamination from the No. 792 Uranium Mine in Diebu County, Gansu Province. He was finally released from Lanzhou Prison on December 27, 2005, but his freedom of movement remains greatly restricted under residential surveillance. Sun Xiaodi is not permitted to leave his home without authorization or talk to the press, and when he is allowed out, he is kept under close police surveillance.

“Previously employed as a warehouse manager at Mine No. 792, Sun was simply exercising his rights as a Chinese citizen by petitioning Beijing over corruption among the leaders of his work unit and legal infractions that resulted in serious radioactive contamination in the vicinity of the mine.

“Why should the authorities treat Sun as an enemy of the state? The reason lies in the fact that he worked at a mine engaged in uranium production, and the contamination and corruption he uncovered fit under the rubric of “state secrets,” knowledge of which is denied to ordinary people. The No. 792 Mine where Sun worked is located in Gansu’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one of China’s most important bases for uranium. Originally operated by the State Nuclear Industry Department, the mine opened for production on May 31, 1967 as a large-scale enterprise with installations that included a mine, a hydrometallurgy facility, its own medium-size hydroelectric power plant and a hospital.

“The mine produced 120 to 180 tons of enriched uranium-131 annually; some 90 tons was allocated for military use, but the disposition of the remaining uranium is unknown. The state closed the mine in 2002, allocating 2.7 hundred million yuan in compensation funds for employees. However, each person actually received only 12,000 yuan in relocation expenses; the rest of the money remains unaccounted for. After risking their health in the radioactive environment of the mine, the employees were simply told to move away. Having nowhere to go, more than 800 stayed on in their old homes near the abandoned mine, even after the local government cut off water and electricity and sent police and the fire department to drive them out with high pressure water hoses.

we proudly participate in national industrialisation

“The Gansu No. 792 Uranium Mine was closed “as a matter of policy” on the basis of the “Notice concerning further operational improvements in regard to exhausted resources and obsolete equipment,” issued jointly by the State Defense Committee, the Central Military Committee, the State Council and the General Office of the CPC Central Committee in November 2002.According to former mine employees, No. 792 was still rich in uranium; there were four segments in the mine, and only a third of the uranium in one segment had been extracted. According to mine employees, not only did production continue following the official closure notice, but the pit was extended by another 50 meters. The employees say that mine leaders colluded with officials at the provincial, department, bureau and prefectural levels to falsely report the mine as “exhausted,” then continued secretly extracting uranium from the “abandoned” mine using migrant laborers, selling the enriched uranium illegally at high prices overseas. Mine leaders said production was continuing in order to fulfill previously agreed international contracts, but press reports quote a source in the Nuclear Industry Department as saying that mine management, lured by the rich profits to be made on the international uranium market, planned all along to replace local workers with specialized technical workers and laborers brought in from Lantian County, Shaanxi Province, and to continue working the mine.

“Based on facts brought to light by Sun Xiaodi, Mine No. 792 violated the state “radioactive substances management regulation” by selling off nearly ten million tons of highly radioactive equipment and materials nationwide. According to the provisions of the regulation, contaminated equipment such as that used by Mine No. 792 was not to be resold, but rather should be encased in lead and covered in concrete to a thickness of fifty centimeters. This concrete layer should then be covered with two to three meters of earth and planted with foliage. However, Sun Xiaodi reported that highly radioactive equipment and waste iron products from Mine No. 792 were sold in Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, Hunan and Hubei from 1994 to the end of 2003, with no precaution other than simple rinsing. Used in further production or melted down and refined, this equipment would continue to spread contamination. Cement and reinforced concrete produced with the ball mill and crusher bought from the mine by a cement factory in Inner Mongolia would create radioactive residences. “These officials have blood on their hands,” Sun Xiaodi said.

“Officials suspected of selling off contaminated mine and hydrometallurgy factory equipment and material include the provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau section chief, the mine director, the mine deputy director, the mine Party secretary and many middle and lower ranking cadres. Apart from the contamination spread by selling off equipment, Mine No. 792 also created a great deal of contamination during the production process. Sun Xiaodi said that when the mine opened, its uranium refinement process contravened state nuclear production safety regulations by discharging untreated contaminated water directly into the Baishui River, a main tributary of the Yangtze. Slag was also deposited on the banks of the nearby Bailong River, and during the flood season tons of uranium ore washed into the river and flowed on into the Yangtze. Sun also said that trucks hauled ore over a fifty kilometer road between the mine and the hydrometallurgy plant, spreading radioactive dust the entire way.

“Tibetan villagers often hitched rides on the trucks, sitting on top of the ore. The radiation level in shops and banks along the roadways is dozens of times higher than normal. This area was once a place of green fields and clear waters, its woodlands filled with every kind of bird. Now radioactive contamination of the air and water has caused plants and trees to wither; the land is undergoing desertification, and large numbers of oxen and sheep have died. The mine has also caused terrible illnesses to proliferate among the area’s human residents, and more than half of local deaths are attributable to leukemia, liver cancer, skin cancer or some other form of cancer. Up to the present, Mine No. 792 continues to employ migrant laborers who work the mine without adequate safety and prevention measures. Workers eat and sleep at the foot of the mine, and after work, they dive into their meals without showering or even washing their hands. Obsessed with personal profit, the provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau and corrupt officials at every level have never given a thought to whether the workers lived or died. They purchase no safety equipment, nor do they allow staff to inform the migrant laborers of the extreme dangers of uranium mining. They evade responsibility by rotating the labor force each year, and if migrant workers developed lung cancer or leukemia somewhere down the line, it is none of their affair. One local mine employee, Mr. Ding, observed, “The laborers have no understanding of health protection or prevention. Those kids sit on the uranium ore to smoke and eat their steamed buns, and at night they even set up their cots inside and sleep in the uranium caves. I’ve told them that stuff could give people lung cancer, but they don’t understand any of it.” The provincial Mining and Metallurgy Bureau and the leaders of Mine No. 792 have retaliated with every kind of tactic against staff who dare to expose the situation to higher authorities.

“Sun Xiaodi began reporting the illegal resale of contaminated equipment, illegal mining and careless disposal of untreated water in 1988. Over the years, he made repeated visits to provincial and central government officials reporting these infractions. But senior officials considered him a nuisance, and Sun’s complaints had no result other than his dismissal in 1994. His wife was assigned to heavy manual labor that ruined her health, and her wages and bonuses were frequently docked without reason. In 1994, mine officials forced her out of her job, leaving her with only a living allowance of 100 yuan per month. Their daughter, Sun Haiyan, suffered discrimination and beatings in school, and the family’s home was vandalized.

“Nevertheless, in April 2005, Sun Xiaodi was back in Beijing petitioning the government. At 6 p.m. on April 28, after giving an interview to an Agence France Presse reporter, he was returning by bicycle to the “Petitioners’Village,” a squatter area near Beijing’s southern train station. Near the overpass at the southern corner of Taoranting Park, Sun was intercepted by two men in civilian clothes who emerged from an unmarked car parked along the roadside; at the same time, several men jumped out of another car, and Sun was bundled inside and taken away. Many people witnessed the incident, and news of Sun’s abduction spread quickly throughout the Petitioners’Village.

“For several months, nothing more was heard of Sun. Police said that Sun was a “wanted criminal” who had committed a “very serious crime related to state secrets.” Police also produced Sun’s cellular phone, wallet, telephone diary and other personal belongings, as well as a document purportedly written by Sun, in which he acknowledged being detained.”

The legacy of hasty extraction remains. Thewo joins the many exhausted uranium mines across China, one of 24 abandoned mines listed in the UDEPO database. When I was researching Spoiling Tibet, uranium mining in Tibet seemingly had come and gone. Where Gansu and Sichuan meet, in the hills of Thewo, uranium was actively mined, leaving a toxic legacy.



Today, uranium extraction from Tibet has shifted, from Thewo to nearby Dzoge, both are Amdo Ngawa to Tibetans, but different provinces for Chinese (Gannan Diebu and Sichuan Ru’ergai in Chinese) for both military use and nuclear power generation. Extraction there seems to have been suspended, as China has built up a huge stockpile of uranium, but the Dzoge deposit (Ru’ergai) is so big there is plenty more uranium available for extraction and processing at the nearby uranium enrichment plant in Lanzhou.

Despite being kept away from the mines, Tibetans know about uranium mining, not only the secretive underground mining, but also rising burden of illness as deadly radon gas is liberated into air and water by uranium extraction.

What has been far less reported is that just south of Gansu Thewo is Sichuan Dzoge (Zoige or Ru’ergai in Chinese), a more substantial uranium deposit, actively mined. The Dzoge outcroppings of uranium occur along an east-west belt about 70 kms long, big enough to excite geologists to offer competing explanations of how it might have formed. But it is not only geologists excited at uranium discoveries in the heart of China’s military industrial complex. China is in the midst of a massive expansion in nuclear power, driven not only by an attempt to lessen reliance on coal, but also because nuclear reactor design and construction is an industry China aims to dominate worldwide. It is this global push to build everyone’s reactors, and supply them with enriched uranium fuel, that fuels the fresh demand for Tibetan uranium.


In remote Dzoge (mDzod dge) county in northern Sichuan, close to the border with Gansu province, and the new uranium mines of Amdo, Tibetans have long watched the uranium mining, as closely as possible, and in 2011 monks of Kirti monastery compiled a detailed account:

“Mining in rKyang tsha. La nges khog, on present border between mDzod dge county and Gannan, location of the rKyang tsha hot spring (Jiangzha in Chinese), a traditional place of pilgrimage and healing in southern Amdo, and now tourist attraction. In 1960 a large team of surveyors from Sichuan province land survey bureau came and discovered a large deposit of toxic material. From then on, many Chinese workers came and settled there, built many houses, and started mining. Local people guessed that this material was used to make nuclear weapons. There was a group of Tibetans among the miners at that time, who seemed to be prisoners from Khams. As they were prisoners, they were not fed, and used to come around the local sDe ba looking for the corpses of pigs and dogs. Elders say that they could not understand their language but heard them reciting Mani.

“Since the start of the mining, people were no longer allowed to visit the hot spring, and there are heavy restrictions against taking photos of the area. The number of workers sent from China grew steadily since then, and the adjoining rGyal dge thang and Ma thang fields became covered with a new Chinese town. The various sections of that worksite were given code numbers, not named after the kind of work they do, which shows the secret nature of the operation. Geology Work Units 792 and 510 were mining and processing the toxic material. 405, 407, 410 and others mined other precious metals like gold and copper. The former two units were under direct control of the central government and had better equipment. They had a permanent work force of about 3000 and lived in 2 -3 storey buildings. The others were under Sichuan province government. The town there had shops and restaurants, a hospital and school and many vehicles, and good buses to transport the workers. The other units did not have these.

“Unit 792 also had a large base in The bo (Thewo) county town, under Gannan pref., 45 km away. They had even better facilities, like school and hospital. They say this unit was for processing the toxic stuff, after the unit in rKyang tsha mined it. Others say the mining unit in rKyang tsha was 510, and the real unit 792 was in The bo. Anyway the 792 unit’s base in rKyang tsha, the mining site, was about 4 km above rGyal dge thang, beyond the hot spring. The other units mining gold were also working here and there in that valley. There was a mountain that they dug inside, making a big cavern, and many buildings were made inside. From there they extracted the toxic material, which was a black substance resembling coal. It was brought out on a rail track that went about 1500 metres into the mountain in a tunnel. The material was transported in rail cars powered by electricity, and they kept moving day and night. They filled about 10-20 trucks daily that transported the black material down to the processing facility at ’Ja’ ’ba’ lung (also in a hollowed out mountain cavern) near The bo county, every day without interruption. When the trucks approached the entrance, they changed drivers to enter the facility. Outside drivers were not allowed to enter the mountain cavern. The 792 miners worked 6 hour shifts and were transported back and forth from the town where they lived to the mining site in 9 buses running 24 hours a day.

“Mining there has seriously affected the local environment, vegetation and flowering plants have declined and the sheep kept by local villagers die from grazing or drinking the water near the mine. More seriously there are continuing occurrences of birth defects, and the young people suffer from neurological disorders and stroke. Because of this, local people made many petitions to the county and provincial governments, but far from giving compensation, they even denied that there are any harmful effects from mining. Then around 1989 the Dran pa sprul sku of rKyang tsha, a graduate of the Buddhist studies institute in Beijing presented a petition to the central government about the harmful effects of the mine on local people and environment. The central government responded by planting trees and grass there to test the effect on the environment, but nothing would grow, and all the vegetation alongside the road to the mine is withered and dry, so the effects are clear to see even without testing, so they had the transport trucks covered over. After that, locals again lost over 300 cattle suddenly (due to poisoning from the mine), and then unit 792 paid compensation of Y80 per horse, Y60 per cow and Y13 per sheep.

“Unable to put up with the situation, locals staged a protest in 1994, blocking the road to the mine for a week. Their protest was characterised as a revolt against central government, and central government sent orders to Sichuan province to arrest anyone engaging in economic sabotage and protest. A large troop of soldiers was sent to the area from Ngaba prefecture (Barkham), but petitions made to county and prefecture governments were accepted as valid, and the troops were withdrawn, but nothing more was done. Mining was finally stopped there in 1995, and the machinery returned to China. They filled two trucks with processing residues and corpses of mice and birds used in testing, and buried it all on a nearby hillside. In 2001 when local pastoralists moved into the valley of the former mine, 200 cattle died from poisoned water and grass. This was confirmed by autopsy at the local hospital. The government paid RMB300 per sheep in compensation. In around 2002 local people were paid petty wages to revive the natural environment there by planting trees, but without success.”[4]

This highly specific account matches Chinese geological science publications on the Dzoge uranium deposit, and Chinese scientific reports on the Kyangtsa/Jiangzha hot springs. The bottom-up observations of the Dzoge Tibetans can now be matched with the top-down scientific journals of Chinese geologists and radiation protect specialists.

They tell us that the Dzoge uranium deposit often comes with other commercially valuable metals, molybdenum, zinc, gold and nickel, making extraction more profitable.[5] This team of Sichuan scientists report that: “Since discovery in 1960s, these deposits in the Zoige area have been of great interest to many earth scientists and ore deposit experts for its scale, high grade and abundant associated ores. Within this uranium deposit, there is the enrichment of Mo, Ni, Zn, Au, which are concentrated up to the industrial indexes of comprehensive utilization (Mao and Min, 1989; Hao et al., 2013; Li et al., 2012). Mo, V, P, S, Co, Ni, Zi, etc., and Ni, Zn occur in the standards of economically exploitable concentrations.” Vanadium and cobalt occur in these deposits in small but commercially valuable concentrations.

The key mineral is uranium, in unusually rich concentrations: “U concentration ranges from 50 to 350 ppm, with several concentrations over 2400 ppm.” That is why mining has gone on for decades, and the biggest mine, as noted by the Kirti monks above, is #510, under direct central government control.[6]



The famous hot springs of Kyangtsa (Jiangzha in Chinese) are nearby and, according to Chinese radiation scientists, highly radioactive. Were they long so, or only after nearby uranium mining brought to the surface the radium and its deadly gas, radon? That is the crucial question, but far too sensitive for Chinese scientists to ask. An early report on the hot springs came in 2002 when Chinese scientists reported their findings to a conference in Korea, the first Asian and Oceanic Congress for Radiation Protection.[7] They hastened to assure their audience that the high levels of radium at the six hot springs was natural, and “It is unrelated to uranium mining and milling facility.”

A more recent scientific investigation, in 2010, reported more open findings: “The uranium mining and spring water polluted the surrounding environment. It is necessary to strengthen the management of abnormal high radon springs and uranium mining, and take related protection and pollution control measures.”[8]

So it seems the Tibetans of Dzoge and the Kyangtsa hot springs have reason to fear the uranium extraction from their ancestral lands, and the many Chinese extraction companies working the mines.

Conflicts arising when Tibetan communities try to protect their lands from extraction have been common. Their attempts to protect their land, and hot springs, were crushed by force, quickly labelled as separatists and therefore a threat to the security of the nation-state. The 1994 protests and the ongoing environmental damage, even in areas where mining has ceased, are stories repeated all over Tibet, many times. It is all too easy for local officials to invoke national security as justification for repression. Security fundamentalism is a shortcut to profit for many local governments across Tibet. Tibet is a zone of conflict minerals.



At first glance, China would seem to have little need for Tibetan uranium. China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is not growing. Its nuclear power plans are growing, but China, despite the closing of so many depleted mines, has plenty more uranium deposits, plus ready access to a global market, including neighbouring sources such as Kazakhstan. Nuclear industry publications report in 2015 that China has built a stockpile of uranium well in excess of what it will need, even if all those reactors go ahead. Why? The answer seems to be in China’s determination to dominate nuclear power globally, as it already does with solar power.

China wants to be a one-stop shop for all aspects of nuclear power, supplying the design, the construction workforce, the reactor, the fuel and even the financing if that swings the deal. China’s party-state is orchestrating this push to become the global leader, priding itself on knowing what to do, having attained dominance in solar power.

There are several facets to China’s strategy, starting with the order from above requiring China’s two giant state-owned nuclear power corporations to work together, not in competition with each other. China’s capacity to finance power station construction, and reap the profits only years later, is a major strength. China now, at official command, has a single design on offer, the Hualong One, whichever Chinese nuclear corporation gets the contract. In recent months Argentina and Kenya have signed on for a Hualong One reactor, but China is angling for a bigger prize, that would establish the Hualong One as the go-to for any country, rich or poor. Right now the prize is the UK, and the prospect of getting to erect a Hualong One in Bradwell, Essex.

Xi Jinping’s October 2015 visit to the UK highlit this deal. Britain’s Sunday Times reports: “Whitehall officials are hammering out the final details of an agreement under which two of Beijing’s state power companies, China General Nuclear and China National Nuclear Corporation, will take a large minority stake in Hinkley Point. They would also be junior partners, and cover part of the costs, for a follow-on plant at Sizewell. EDF would lead the construction and operation of both sites. In return for Beijing’s support on those plants, EDF would sell its rights to a development site it owns at Bradwell. The French would become a minority partner and assist the Chinese through Britain’s approval process for a new reactor design, a process that is among the most arduous in the world. Beijing would then use that certification as a selling point as it bids to become the world leader in nuclear technology.”

These complex corporate manoeuvres may give China entry to the British power market, because austerity Britain cannot pay in advance to build and own nuclear power plants, and the French company, EDF, is deeply in debt already because of huge cost overruns on building nuclear power in France. Enter the Chinese, with long term commercial finance backed by the Chinese government, as China’s leverage to get to build their own Hualong One in Essex, and put the Hualong One, powered by Tibetan uranium, on the global map.

Will the nuclear power reactors China hopes to build in the UK be powered by uranium enriched in China and mined in Tibet? This is one of many unanswered questions about this ambitious project to put Chinese reactors on the global market. Many other questions arise. Since the French owners of the next two UK reactors are unwilling or unable to finance construction by themselves, thus bringing on board Chinese finance and a Chinese 40% ownership of two reactors and the right to build a third, totally Chinese reactor, why does the UK feel it needs to sweeten the deal with China by offering a Treasury guarantee covering the Chinese investment? Why doesn’t the UK, which pioneered nuclear power, just finance and build these reactors itself? If it takes a Treasury guarantee of two billion pounds to get China on board to finance these expensive power sources, is it all worthwhile?



One of the attractions of Tibetan uranium in Thewo and Dzoge for China’s military and nuclear power industries is that these deposits are so close to the main uranium enrichment facilities near Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, a major centre of China’s nuclearisation since the 1960s.

But there are other uranium deposits in Tibet, as far away as the lakes of upper Tibet in the far west of the plateau. One briny lake has long attracted attention, Chabyer Tsaka  (Zhabuye in Chinese), initially for its rich concentrations of boron,[9] more recently for the lithium salts mingled with other salts, more recently still for the discovery of uranium among the extractables, so valuable that the vast distance to any industrial market may not be an obstacle.[10] Many of the dry saltpan or shallow salt lakes of upper Tibet have high concentrations of uranium in the water, but climate change and glacier melt are now, for the first time in centuries, raising water levels in these lakes, making extraction harder.

Chinese geologists have now found uranium and radium in many places along the Yarlung Tsangpo river valley that stretches right across southern Tibet, from west to east, with frequent readings of high levels of natural radioactivity, especially in granite and acidic volcanic rock. These findings are reported (in Chinese) in China’s Uranium Geology journal.[11]


[1] John Wilson Lewis, Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb, 1998, Stanford University Press, 1991, 140-1

[2] Lewis and Xue, 143

[3] Lewis and Xue, 151

[4] Kirti Monastery, Wounds of Three Generations, 2010, (in Tibetan). English translation:  http://historicaldocs.blogspot.in/

[5] SONG Hao, ZHANG Chengjiang, NI Shijun, XU Zhengqi and HUANG Changhua; New Evidence for Genesis of the Zoige Carbonate-Siliceous-Pelitic Rock Type Uranium Deposit in Southern Qinling: Discovery and Significance of the 64 Ma Intrusions; ACTA GEOLOGICA SINICA (English Edition) Vol. 88 No. 6, 1757–1769,  Dec. 2014

[6] Zhang, C.J., and Chen, Y.L., 2010. The discovery and its geological implications of the vertical zoning of 510-1 uranium deposit. Geology and Exploration, 46(3): 434–441 (in Chinese with English abstract).

[7] Zhuli; Jianping, Cheng; Junli, Li; Guilin, Liu; New survey of Jiangzha hot spring in Si Chuan province in China, Proceedings of the first Asian and Oceanic Congress for Radiation Protection(AOCRP-1)

[8] FU Xiao-hua, WEN Xiang-min, HE Liang-guo, Radio active Level of Abnormal High Radon Spring in Jiangzha; 职业卫生与病伤 2010年 4月第 25卷第 2期 Journal of Occupational Health and Damage, Apr.2010.Vol.25, No.

[9] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China – Tibet Autonomous Region( volume 25), Geology Publishing House, Beijing, 1996, 45-7

[10] Huang Dayou et al.,  Preliminary Study of the Uranium Source of Zabuye Salt Lake, Tibet;  Uranium Geology 铀矿地质 Vol 31, May 2015

[11] Qi Ling (China National Nuclear Corporation) Determination of 238U, 226 Ra and the Calculation of Equilibrium Coefficient in Rock of Gangdise tectonic belt, Tibet, Uranium Geology 铀矿地质, vol 31 #4, July 2015atomic city 2015

Posted in China, Tibet | Leave a comment





This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone.



When, in 2012, I wrote a book about mining in Tibet, it seemed China’s appetite for minerals was insatiable, having survived the great global recession of 2009 onwards with hardly a blip in demand. By then the global commodity boom had been rolling on nonstop for a decade and nothing, it seemed, could slow it, not even a global financial crisis. And all the long term predictions, based on assuming China can, must and will achieve the same  consumption levels of the richest countries, cheerfully forecast decades more of rising mineral extraction worldwide to meet China’s needs.

How wrong we all were. The unstoppable Chinese demand, in the aftermath of the global crash, was fuelled by endless stimulus money pumped in by China’s central authorities, ostensibly for infrastructure construction, which uses up lots of metals and other basic commodities. Much of that money was diverted, often by local governments, to much more profitable real estate ventures, constructing all those tower blocks and ghost cities of empty apartment blocks in the desert. They too needed lots of copper, steel and other metals.

Then the music finally stopped, just after the book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World was launched in October 2013. As well as apartment towers, all that stimulus had built many more smelters and refineries than China, or the world market, actually needed, and suddenly the big new problem was oversupply.

Now, in 2015, that problem is bigger than ever, so big that a major driver of China’s New Silk Road project is to establish expert markets in neighbouring Asian countries for all the excess supply. But prices have fallen sharply, and have now remained low for years, and show no sign in the short term of recovering, even if the long term pundits are right that there is still a long way to go before China uses copper and other metals as intensively as the US.

Until the recent over supply crisis, China’s mining companies, nearly all state-owned, pursued an aggressive strategy of mergers and acquisitions worldwide to get hold of more raw materials, as well as expanding rapidly into Tibet, notably the big copper/gold deposits at Shetongmon near Shigatse, at Kham Yulong between Chamdo and Derge, and Gyama upstream from Lhasa.

Two companies stand out in this rush: Jinchuan and Zijin. Jinchuan has long dominated nickel supply in China. Its home base is far inland, in Gansu,  close to the main rail line connecting China and Tibet, placing Jinchuan in the ideal position to be the smelter for the first big copper mine to get under way in Tibet, at Shetongmon. The Canadian company Continental, part of the Hunter Dickinson Group, did much of the work of quantifying the size of the deposit and the most profitable strategy for extracting the copper, gold and silver there. Then Jinchuan bought out not only Continental’s interest in Shetongmon, aided by China’s national rule forbidding foreign investors from actually mining molybdenum (one of Shetongmon’s minerals). Jinchuan went one further and bought Continental, which is now a subsidiary of Jinchuan.

Jinchuan also pressed ahead with constructing a big new copper smelter, just as the prices started tumbling. By April 2014, Jinchuan’s oversupply problems became so acute, they reneged on contracts with their suppliers in far away Chile, relying on the concept of force majeure, meaning uncontrollable disaster, to cancel contracts for Chilean copper concentrates. Jinchuan announced a problem with oxygen supply to the main Gansu smelter, a problem so severe it would knock out all production for as much as four months, giving Jinchuan a breather.

This occurred just as China, at great expense, completed the rail extension from Lhasa to Shigatse, well to the west, leaving only 80kms to the Shetongmon mine. So Tibetan copper, in big quantities, became available, along with supplies from Chile and elsewhere, at exactly the time demand tanked.

That’s a major reason we don’t hear so much about mining it Tibet these days. From the perspective of China’s major mining companies, access to capital isn’t a problem, especially since the stock markets are again booming, and investors are keen to get a slice of the action, despite the overall economic slowdown. The problem is where to invest, where to get the best bang for the renminbi. Tibet doesn’t cut it, compared to the available alternatives.

This brings us to the other company with a major slice of Shetongmon, Zijin Mining, based in eastern China, its fortune built on gold. In 2011 Jinchuan sold a 45 per cent stake in Shetongmon to Zijin, a big company with a strong history of going global. In May 2015 Zijin acquired half of the troubled Porgera copper/gold mine in Papua New Guinea, from a heavily indebted Canadian miner, Barrick. At the same time, Zijin also announced it had bought almost half the Kamoa copper/gold mine in Democratic Republic of Congo from another Canadian miner, Ivanhoe.

Zijin has also acquired mines in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tuva (the most Tibetan part of Russia) and Kyrgyzstan, a literal embarrassment of riches.

Why, at a time of over supply, depressed prices and force majeure, would  Chinese miners want to buy mineral deposits in difficult places like PNG and Congo? This tells us much that is relevant to Tibet. Remarkable as it may seem, mining projects ready to roll, in remote Congo and PNG are actually less remote, less difficult than mining in Tibet, building it all from scratch.  Tibet is actually harder.

Much of this is because the Tibetan Plateau is huge, and mineral deposits are often in areas difficult to access. China has spent decades building infrastructure, but there is still so much to be done, especially before the massive copper/gold deposits at Yulong, in precipitous Kham, are ever to be mined, concentrated, smelted and shipped out to lowland Chinese industries.

But there is another reason why Tibet is harder than PNG or Congo: the Tibetans. Although Tibetans feel disempowered by authorities declaring protests to be criminally splittist, they fearlessly persist in protesting against mining, often taking care to quote Xi Jinping’s environmental pronouncements in the biggest possible banner headings. As the eminent Tibetanist scholar Gray Tuttle pointed out recently in article in Foreign Affairs, it takes a state with 1.3 billion population to hold down the Tibetans. That is how Tibetans see it.

While small scale mining is rampant across Tibet, the much more publicly visible, capital-intensive large scale mines in Tibet are taking a long time to develop, longer than one might expect if all those Five-Year Plan announcements of mining as Tibet’s “pillar industry” were to be believed. It is certainly taking longer than I expected when I wrote that 2013 book on mining.

Bank of Tibet launch 2012


Longer is not never. Demand may yet rebound, mining is highly cyclical. If China is serious about adopting the American life style and American consumption, the minerals of Tibet will be in demand, especially as China’s biggest manufacturers move far inland, close to Tibet. But not just yet. However, there is one major exception. China Gold International (CGI), China’s biggest gold producer, is now in the copper mining business big time, and is dramatically increasing its extraction of copper (and gold) from Tibet, at exactly the time the world’s biggest copper producers are urgently scaling back production, to save costs, reduce debt and maybe stabilise steadily falling prices.

What is going on? Why would CGI expand at exactly the moment global giants such as Freeport and Glencore are slashing extraction from their existing mines, which are among the biggest, and lowest cost, in the world?

The copper price is in steady decline, not just a temporary blip.

copper price 2013 to 2015




Copper is not like oil. The biggest oil producers, notably Saudi Arabia, can afford to gamble that even if they make little profit when prices are low, those low prices drive higher cost producers out, such as US frackers, Canadian tar sands, maybe even the Russians. It’s a long term gamble that justifies short term pain. Copper, and most metals, are different. There have been so many mergers and acquisitions in recent years that the biggest mining companies are often deep in debt, and know full well that only the fittest survive. So they are ruthless about cutting output, in the hope that supply will slip below demand and prices will rise again.

In late 2015 Glencore slashed zinc production by one third. In October 2015 Freeport, “the world’s largest listed copper producer, said it would cut half of the output from its Sierrita mine in Arizona and was considering a full shutdown. The partial curtailment will take about 100m pounds (or 45,000 tonnes) of copper out of the market annually, as well as 10m lbs of molybdenum.”

So how come CGI chose this, of all times, to announce a massive expansion, as reported in the first of this blog series? Every one of the metals in CGI’s Gyama deposit –copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, zinc and lead- is way down in price and showing no sign of recovery.  When everyone else is slashing production, Including China’s own rare earth miners, why is CGI scaling up?

The likeliest answer is simple: CGI is driven not solely by market forces, but also by political forces.

CGI appears to be a Canadian based corporation listed on stock exchanges in Toronto and Hong Kong, that raises its capital expenditure budget from shareholders, like any normal corporation. But CGI has another way of accessing cheap money, from sources more interested in political than financial dividends. CGI can get loans from China’s state owned banks, on highly concessional terms, with generous time allowed to pay back loans that, if the copper selling price stays low, may never be paid back.

CGI’s political patrons are at both national level and also in Lhasa. Both governments badly want CGI to succeed in becoming the first big mine in Tibet, bigger than its only competitor in scale, Shetongmon. To that end, Beijing can, and in October 2015 did, order several state owned banks to lend massively to CGI. These banks, known politely as “policy banks”, did as instructed, even if they had doubts they would ever see their money again. Not only did the big national banks finance this expansion, so too did Tibet Bank. The RMB 4 billion loan (US$627 million) was “led by Bank of China, which acted as the lead manager, as well as with Agricultural Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Bank of Tibet.”

The big banks have recently been targeted by the CCP’s corruption crackdown, which has the explicit aim of bringing them more firmly under Party control. The Party has always hoped Tibet could be made to pay its way, even become a profit centre for China, living up to its reputation as a “treasure house.” That means establishing enterprises capable of generating employment for politically reliable immigrant workers, including the sons and daughters of officials stationed in Lhasa.

For some, the payoff is quick, as the Financial Times reported in 2014: “Misallocation of capital and poor investment decisions are not the only explanation for the enormous waste in China’s economy. A significant portion of China’s post-crisis stimulus binge was simply stolen by Communist Party officials with direct responsibility for boosting growth through investment, according to separate estimates by Chinese and overseas economists.”

This is where Bank of Tibet, and the government of Tibet Autonomous Region come in, the latter (despite being desperately short of locally generated revenue) having offered CGI the further sweetener of a 30 per cent rebate on royalty payments. Within one year of its 2012 opening, the Bank of Tibet’s “loans were made to major infrastructure projects in the rail, hydropower and energy sectors.” Bank of Tibet lends very little to Tibetans.

So it is hardly surprising that this Bank of Tibet would also lend to CGI, whether the loan makes commercial sense or not. But where does this Bank of Tibet get its capital from? Bank of Tibet, from the outset, was a creation of state banks, not depositors. The first announcement, in 2011, explains: “Bank of Tibet, to be registered in Lhasa, will be sponsored by 15 well-known domestic banks and good-performing companies. The bank plans to initially raise CNY 1.5 billion capital and will introduce Bank of Communications as strategic investor.”[1]

This is yet another example of the developmentalist state pumping money into Tibet, in the hope of a political payoff. This becomes obvious if one looks at the detailed business case CGI makes for its future profitability, publicly available due to regulatory filing requirements in Canada. CGI claims it will be profitable, but among the many assumptions built into this forecast are assumptions as to the long term price CGI can expect for the many metals it will produce. CGI’s 2013 business case argues that: there is potential for higher copper price with improved global growth rates expected in 2014. With this in mind, the long-term forecast copper price of USD 6,393.40/t is deemed reasonable. This value will continue to be used in the economic analysis in this report.”[2] The actual copper price in November 2015 is $5052, with China’s hedge funds continuing to bet it will decline further.

By tonnage of output, copper is by far the biggest product CGI will produce. Gold and silver are minuscule amounts by comparison, but gold will earn as much as eight percent of sales revenue. Gyama is first and foremost a copper mine, with gold and silver the icing on the cake.

CGI makes similarly dubious assumptions about the prices it will get for its other products, gold, silver and molybdenum. If this were a commercially competitive mining company, CGI would, like its global competitors, at the least be holding off investing at this inauspicious low point in the commodities cycle.

CGI’s dependence on Bank of Tibet shows they are both creatures of the developmentalist state. As official media put it, in 2012: “Bank of Tibet, the first regional bank in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, recently obtained a financial business license from the Tibet Regional Banking Regulatory Commission, People’s Daily reported. At the Fifth Central Working Conference on Tibet in 2010, the central government introduced a set of policies of helping Tibet build its own regional commercial bank, in order to ensure leapfrog social and economic development as well as maintain peace and stability in the region.”[3]

Bank of Tibet is another funnel for Beijing to pour in money to obtain its desired result: a Tibet with Chinese characteristics. CGI has happily swallowed from this funnel, knowing it could hardly ask its shareholders to finance a massive capital expenditure on upscaling Gyama, at the very time Chinese rare earth producers are scaling back production, in the hope of reviving falling prices.

When the minerals cycle ticks up again, as it will, Tibetans may need friends worldwide. But because China reserves the mining of Tibet for itself, with very little international investment, what traction do Tibet’s friends worldwide have?

Here again things have moved on since that 2013 book. Not only are Chinese and Canadian miners doing deals to take over each other’s assets, so too the global minerals commodity traders are buying into a slice of the action in China. Specifically, the Swiss commodities trader Trafigura has bought 30 per cent ownership of Jinchuan’s new copper smelter –Jinchuan’s other smelter, the one that didn’t have the oxygen problem and the four months of force majeure contract repudiation. Jinchuan would like to believe it has done Trafigura a favour by giving it access to Chinese markets, but, given chronic over supply, it is Trafigura, able to sell the new smelter’s output into other Asian countries, that is helping out Jinchuan. That new smelter, a big one, is also in a minority nationality area, in Guangxi province.

Jinchuan, the owner of the Shetongmon mine near Shigatse, may also hope that its connection with Trafigura gives it (and China) entrée to the world of commodities futures, hedging, arbitraging and financialisation of minerals. China wants to get into the big league worldwide. Trafigura, however,  probably knows how much reputation affects stock prices, and how much a brand can be damaged by hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Some books age gracefully, others quickly wrinkle. When I was completing the manuscript of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World three years ago, I knew it would be out of date soon. A snapshot of mining, right across the Tibetan Plateau, is bound to fade, superseded by events. But I wasn’t ready for how fast that book, published less than two years ago, would be out of date, not only about details but about its main argument.

Zed Books gave me the title when they commissioned me to write the book, part of their Asian Arguments series. That title meant I had to take a stand, by the last chapter, as to whether Tibet was indeed spoiled. Along the way I had collected evidence aplenty of rapacious mining, especially a rush for alluvial gold that had definitely despoiled rivers, riverbanks, pastures and even killed sheep and yaks, due to the indiscriminate use of mercury by “artisanal” miners. But Tibet is a big land, a vast island in the sky, close to two percent of the land surface of the planet, and large-scale, intensive deep mining was only just getting under way.

So I eventually declared myself, in line with the present tense of the title, saying Tibet was not yet spoiled, but soon would be. The big mines, with big impacts, were being developed fast, an archipelago of gold/silver/copper/molybdenum mines along the Yarlung Tsangpo, the Kyichu above Lhasa, and around Yulong, in Kham, between Chamdo and Derge. These were all modern, large-scale, capital-intensive mines capable of mining millions of tons of rock a year, something Tibet has never seen, except in the heavily industrialised Tsaidam basin of Amdo.

Hardline meltdowners criticised me for saying Tibet was not yet spoiled. After all the conventional exile narrative has long been that China has raped Tibet nonstop for decades. I thought that an exaggeration, but I was not hopeful. By 2015 or 2016, I reasoned, the pace of big mine construction will have peaked, and once massive capital expenditure has been sunk into mines, rock crushers, ore concentrators, smelters, hydro dams to ensure power supply and all ancillary urbanised workforce facilities, mining must go ahead, if only to service the sunk capital. If Tibet was not yet spoiled, the day would soon come.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. How different things look now. Copper demand has fallen so sharply that copper mines worldwide, including Chinese-owned ones, are being mothballed, in the hope that reduced production might drive prices back up. For Tibet, copper is the key. All the big deposits are basically copper deposits with tiny amounts of gold and silver also recoverable in the same process of crushing the rock to powder, cooking it chemically in concentrators, then finally smelting it, which separates the molten metals. All these deposits also contain the valuable metal molybdenum, or lead and zinc as well.

Back in 2013, the global “supercycle” of high prices for all commodities, especially metals, had been at full speed for over a decade. Even the global financial crisis of 2008-9 caused little more than a blip in demand. The conventional wisdom was that China still has far to go before its wealth, and intensity of resource consumption gets anywhere close to the rich countries it intends to join, so the long term picture is full steam ahead. How wrong we all were, though the resource economists still cling to their graphs showing that per capita the Chinese still use far less copper than, say, Americans. Over the long run, they may yet be right.

But for the foreseeable future, the commodities supercycle is gone, China suffers such overcapacity in smelting metals that much of the money invested in smelters is turning into bad debt.  Buying up stockpiles of metals such as copper, when prices are low, long ago ran out as a driver of demand. Copper was further tainted when it emerged that the Chinese warehouses stockpiling coper were using their holdings as collateral to borrow huge amounts to speculate on the overheated real estate market, then on an overheated stock market, often using the same quantum of copper over and over as collateral for loans from different borrowers. This massive scam resulted in a scramble by lenders to find their actual copper in actual warehouses, and make sure it was theirs and not hypothecated to others.

So the big mines that in 2013 looked like they would soon swing into full production –Shetongmon, Gyama, Yulong- slowed right down. Around the world, China is sitting on copper deposits whose deposits are fully mapped, whose mining schedule has been run through endless computer modelling, whose infrastructure is fully planned; and they sit idle. This is what has saved Tibet from being spoiled, past tense.

The pause in completing construction of the big mines may not last. CGI is a sign that China is pressing ahead, even if it makes little business sense.


[1] CBRC Gives Nod to Bank of Tibet,  SinoCast Banking Beat, 25 July 2011, www.yicai.com

[2] Ni 43-101 Technical Report – Jiama Phase 2 Expansion Project Mineral Resources & Reserves, For

China Gold International, Mining One, p 169; available online: http://www.chinagoldintl.com/_resources/feasibility_study_jiama.pdf

[3] Bank of Tibet receives business license in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, China Economic Review, 17 January 2012


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This series of blogs highlights the specific minerals extracted from the Tibetan Plateau, despite the protests of Tibetan communities determined to protect their livelihoods, sacred mountains and pilgrimage routes. This series also introduces, to Tibetan readers, the new conflict minerals regulatory regime which effectively bans the entry of conflict minerals into the global commodity supply chain that ends in your hand, in your mobile phone.


In the 1980s, while Tenzin Delek Rinpoche made skilful use of a liberal period in China’s governance of Tibet to spend six years at Drepung monastery in south India, Chinese geologists were busy in Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s home area of Nyagchu,  assessing a major find of lithium and rare earths, which China knows as the Jiajika deposit.

By 1990 the Jiajika lithium, niobium, tantalum and beryllium deposit was listed as China’s largest “superdeposit”[1] but mining did not begin. This was for three reasons. First, new technologies made it easier to extract lithium from Tibetan salt lakes, even though the lithium salts were mixed with magnesium salts and toxic solvents were needed to separate them. Scooping brine from salt lake beds is much easier than drilling and blasting the hard rock of Nyagchu, or Yajiang as it is known in Chinese, half way between Litang and Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) on the 318 Highway from Chengdu to Lhasa. Second, demand for lithium was modest, prior to the lithium-ion battery that powers our tablets and smartphones. Third, China, the world’s factory, was concentrated on the east coast, conveniently able to import lithium from the salt lakes of the Atacama desert of Chile and Bolivia. Today, these three constraints are fast disappearing.

In the 1990s, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche “undertakes projects in the Nyagchu area, renovating and reconstructing monasteries, setting up a boarding school for orphans and nomads’ children, establishing a home for the elderly poor, and promoting forest conservation.”[2]

What were the forests Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was trying to protect? Nyagchu is named for its river, a long and wild mountain river, known to China as the Yalong, carving its way through precipitous Kham, eventually joining the Yangtze. The 1990s was the final decade of indiscriminate logging of the great forests of Kham, made easier on steep roadless slopes by simply chainsawing the trees to fall into the river, for later retrieval in downriver Sichuan. It was also in these forests that the geologists clambered to locate the outcrops of lithium and rare earths. Yajiang Jiajika may be classified as a superdeposit, but the richest ores are scattered. As the geologists of the Key Laboratory of Metallogeny and Mineral Resource Assessment, Institute of Mineral Resources, of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing point out: “In the Jiajika pegmatite field, pegmatite dikes surround the granite body in both horizontal and vertical directions. The total area of the metamorphic zones is about 500 km2. In the Jiajika deposit, a total of 498 pegmatite dikes with a size of more than 20 m2 are distributed in an area of about 80 km2. The deposits are shallowly-buried, can be easily mined, and have a low detached ratio, resulting in low extraction costs.”[3]

It is the scatter of lithium ore outcrops over hundreds of square kilometres that made the encroaching geologists so visible, and upset the Tibetans of Nyagchu, who turned to their Rinpoche for protection. Even after Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was accused of terrorist bombing and gaoled, only to die in prison in 2015, the people of Nyagchu continued to fear intensive mining.

What has prevented full scale exploitation of the Nyagchu/ Yajiang Jiajika lithium until now has been the comparative ease of extracting lithium for China’s industrial use more readily from elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau, notably the Tsaidam Basin salt lakes of Amdo in northern Tibet.

Lithium ion batteries power your mobile phone, tablet and laptop, and if you have an electric or hybrid car, those big heavy batteries are li-ion. Lithium has myriad uses, but what makes this metal fashionable is the prospect of powering the internet of things, of every device you wear or carry with you.

Lithium extraction from the salt lakes of Tibet is now a big industry, concentrated in the arid Tsaidam Basin of Amdo, but also attracting Chinese and global investors to far western Tibet as well. The ease of scooping up the salts of the dry or shallow, briny lakebeds has made lithium removal easy, and by comparison, the extraction of lithium from hard rock, as in Tulku Tenzin Delek’s home, comparatively more expensive. The latest Qinghai Statistical Yearbook (2014) says that in 2013 5.7 million tons of lithium were taken from those Tsaidam Basin lakes in Amdo.

Scraping lakes beds and dumping salt into trucks are easy. The harder part is separating the lithium salts from other metal salts intermixed. While there are new membrane technologies that force  different salts, of differing molecular weight through tiny openings, under enormous pressure, mostly the extraction of lithium is done by using highly toxic solvents. Lithium salts come mixed with common sodium salt, magnesium salt and potassium salt or potash, a fertiliser in much demand.

Total extraction of the various salts from Amdo/Qinghai in 2013 was 54.7 million tons,[1] a huge extractive industry supported by heavily polluting processing plants separating the salts, in the industrial zones of not only the Tsaidam Basin but also the sprawling industrial complex spreading in almost all directions from Xining, the provincial capital.

This sprawl has almost engulfed the famous Kumbum monastery, once quite isolated, now choked by toxic air from factories on all sides. Kumbum (Ta’er in Chinese), where the Dalai Lama was first enthroned, having been born nearby, has seen protests by monks against deteriorating air quality that shrouds the monastery, often for months, in a chemical haze. As the monastery is a major tourism destination, being so close to Xining, political control has been tight, with security personnel dressed as monks mingling with visitors. Yet protests have occurred.

Tibetan bloggers have posted petitions by monks from Kumbum: “a petition which he or she states is from all monks and laypeople in and around Kumbum (Chinese: Ta’ersi) monastery, one of the largest and most important monasteries in Tibet, in Rushar to State Council, Provincial, Municipal and County-level Leaders, dated June 30, 2011. Part of the petition, translated from Chinese, is as follows: ‘High-polluting and wanton extractive business practices have brought bitterness and disaster for the local people. Local villagers have obstructed the mining on many occasions, demanding that the sacred mountain [known as Lhamo mountain] not be mined and requesting Kumbum Monastery to act as an official protector. The monastery management committee submitted a report on the situation to the higher authorities, but there was no response. As of this year, the situation has become more serious, especially during the months of May to July, when eight villages had serious contamination in their water pipes with the water becoming muddy and foul smelling. Monks and local people became nauseous, their bodies became listless and they felt dazed and some even had to be hospitalised from drinking the water. On July 23 2011, the blogger wrote: ‘In recent years the environment at Kumbum Monastery has become awful. The local government and businesses have colluded to build a great many polluting enterprises five kilometers from Kumbum Monastery, and so every time the wind blows or it rains, smoke, dust and foul-smelling air settles down on the roofs and courtyards, and the temples’ golden tiles and wall murals are already corroding.’”

In recent years, common salt (sodium chloride) production from Qinghai, essential to petrochemical plastics manufacture but readily available from many sources, has declined somewhat from 2.94 million tons in 2009 to 1.98 million tons in 2013. Magnesium production from the salt lakes has risen somewhat from 450,000 tons to 520,000 tons. Potash (kali salt), in great demand as a fertiliser, rose sharply in the same four year period from 21.68 million tons to 46.56 m tons; while lithium production rose even faster, from 2.19 million tons to 5.69 million tons.

lithium BYD cars

The prospects of a lithium boom have attracted investors worldwide to the lithium deposits of Tibet, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, as part of their backing for a Chinese manufacturer, BYD, hoping to become a successful electric car manufacturer.  BYD claims exclusive rights to mine lithium, not from the massive salt pans of the Tsaidam Basin, but the Chabyer Tsaka far to the west, in arid upper Tibet, a big area where lakes have inlets but no outlets and were, until recent climate change, gradually shrinking, leaving behind their salts. Chabyer Tsaka (Zhabuye in Chinese), despite its extreme remoteness, was intensively investigated by Chinese geologists starting in the 1950s, initially for its  five million tons of boron, used in moderating temperatures in nuclear reactors; later for the many other minerals concentrated there, including lithium, and most recently, uranium.[2]

lithium Xi Jinping Cambridges on BYD bus

BYD started life as a battery maker that decided it would be more profitable to make cars, running on BYD lithium batteries. After much corporate hype, BYD consistently failed to deliver actual cars, and was also daunted by the  short distances cars can travel without a recharge. So BYD shifted to buses, which have room underneath for massive lithium iron phosphate batteries, and has been demonstrating them to bus companies in the US and now London.

lithium BYD bus grafic


So lithium from Tibet, whether the extremely remote Chabyer Tsaka or the more accessible Tsaidam Basin, is in demand. This demand will only grow if scientists succeed in creating a lithium-oxygen battery, which would be lighter, more rechargeable and deliver more electricity.

The lithium deposits of Tibet are in sparsely populated areas of dry bed or shallow salt lakes, where there is insufficient population to effectively protest the rapidly rising level of extraction. This is not so of the industrial processing zones where the lithium is separated from the other metal salts, such as the Ganhetan (Rushar in Tibetan) industrial zone, near Kumbum monastery, which is well-known to Chinese scientific investigators as a pollution hotspot, with both air and water contaminated.

China’s Journal of Environmental Health in 2003 reported an alarming frequency of dental fluorosis, a disease that makes teeth brittle and prone to disintegrate, due to air pollution from industrial processing in the Ganhetan zone; and in 2004 China’s Journal of Clinical Stomatology reported high levels of fluoride poisoning in air, soil, water and vegetables grown around Ganhetan, and in children.[3]

A 2014 report went into much more detail, mapping precisely the concentrations of toxic metals in the soils of Ganhetan.[4] This team from the Qinghai Bureau of geology confirmed the worst fears of the Kumbum monks, after testing both surface and deep soils, reporting that “heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium and lead in Ganhetan have formed obvious circular pollution and the pollution has reached deep soilAgricultural development is not suitable in this area. It is found that the pollution of some heavy metals such as cadmium has aggravated.”

Tibet, China’s treasure house of the west, is surrounded by mountains rich in the minerals China needs, as its manufacturing industries migrate inland, closer to Tibet and further from coastal ports and global imports of raw materials. The Tibetan Plateau is contested as never before, as mining intensifies, diversifies and is driven by Chinese characteristics. Mining continues to grow in Tibet, even when it makes little sense to the multinational corporate miners who dominate the global traffic in minerals. In the global market, mines are not built unless they can show, in advance, that they will be among the lowest cost per ton of extracted minerals, anywhere worldwide. Then, when they are built, they are on a huge scale, to maximise global competitiveness. Little of this logic affects mining in Tibet, nearly all of which is done by medium-sized state-owned work units, or semi-privatised subsidiaries, with a claim to ownership of a deposit. Their competitive advantage comes not from scale and global sales, but from their relationship to the party-state, having cultivated privileged preferential access to a smelter or metals manufacturer. In remote areas, such as Tibet, it is the party-state that has the allocative command power to build infrastructure from scratch, that makes all the difference to profitability. When official China invests heavily in the roads, railways, power stations, pylons, communications, urban facilities, schools and health clinics for an immigrant workforce, then a mining company can enter, confident it can get a workforce in and a mineral product out. Connections are everything.

Connections win supply contracts, and exemptions from regulatory compliance scrutiny. Connections make mining profitable where it would be unprofitable for a high profile, high tech, capital intensive mining corporation to operate, compliant with environmental laws, paying royalties to local communities and less able to dodge tax liabilities. Small and medium Chinese mining companies fly under the radar, untroubled by costly compliance with occupational health standards, pollution controls, toxic tailings storage secure storage, and other regulatory requirements.

The massive quantities of lithium extracted from Tibet might not seem to be a conflict mineral, in the narrow sense that the dry salt beds containing lithium are arid areas where few Tibetans live. Both the Tsaidam Basin and BYD Corporation’s far western Tibetan Chabyer Tsaka are thinly populated. In the Tsaidam Basin, with its massive complex of petrochemical crackers, oil and gas processing plants and chemicals factories, Tibetans have long been outnumbered by immigrant Chinese industrial workers. In recent years, the Tibetan population has been boosted by resettling large numbers of displaced nomads removed from their pastures hundreds of kilometres away in the source region of the yellow and Yangtze rivers. Those barrack-like settlement camps now line both sides of the highway leading into the industrial core of Gormo (Ge’ermu or Golmud in Chinese). The displaced Tibetan nomads, totally dependent on state rations for their survival, are in no position to protest.

However, the separation of lithium from other salts occurs in more populous areas, including the toxic surrounds of Kumbum monastery. There is deep anxiety about chemical pollution of air, water and land in the communities living near the factories that make the purified lithium the battery manufacturers need. This is a conflict zone.

As lithium batteries become more central to daily life, from smartphones to electric cars and buses, manufacturers will demand lithium of higher purity. Using solvents to separate lithium from the other salts scooped from dry Tibetan salt lakes may no longer be good enough for the new generation of lithium batteries under development. One solution will be to turn to the hard rock lithium deposits such as Nyagchu, which Tulku Tenzin Delek tried to protect, which cost him his life.


[1] Table 3-20: Utilization Situation of Mineral Resources 2013, Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2014, 91

[2] The Discovery History of Mineral Deposits of China – Tibet Autonomous Region( volume 25), Geology Publishing House, Beijing, 1996, 45-7

Huang Dayou et al.,  Preliminary Study of the Uranium Source of Zabuye Salt Lake, Tibet;  Uranium Geology铀矿地质 Vol 31, May 2015

[3] JI Hai -lian , XIANG Zhen,  Investigation on dental fluorides of children in Ganhetan industrial area, Journal of Clinical Stomatology, 20 #8, 2004, 485-

Xiang Zhen, Investigation on dental fluorosis among population in Ganhetan Industrial Area, Journal of Environmental Health, 20 #4, 2003, 235-7

[4] Shen X,Ji B Y,Tian X Y,et al.The evaluation of heavy metals pollution in soil of eastern Qinghai; Geophysical and Geochemical Exploration,2014,38( 6) : 1246-1251

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