Is it true that in your country you can touch the clouds?

The question was composed by a Han Chinese student practicing his English, in a conversation class in Xining, to be answered by the guest for this class, a Tibetan fluent in Chinese, English and of course Tibetan.  The questioner’s English was halting, tentative, expressing a naïve Han fascination with Tibet, so near to Xining, as another country altogether, so high in the sky you brush against the clouds. Diplomatically, his Tibetan interlocutor agreed.

Now China wants to touch those clouds with toxic silver iodide, to force more rain over Tibet, collectable and usable by downstream China. If the naïve, tech-fascinated report in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post is to be believed, China is about to install not just the occasional rainmaking machine spewing silver ions at Tibetan clouds, but hundreds, probably thousands of such machines, perched high on Himalayan ridgetops, roaring with rocket fuel to melt the silver iodide and get it into the stratosphere.  The proposal, announced as certain to go ahead, is to upend military rockets, not flaming down to lift a payload up, but facing down, to flame as high as possible, aided by the winds of the Indian monsoon, up into the clouds, bearing particles of silver iodide to make the clouds cry, and yield their cloud juice.

Since Tibetan voices are so seldom heard in China, Tibet is a vast blank canvas onto which Han Chinese can project any fantasy, but the grandiosity of this one is amazing. It will cause more rain over Tibet, and China will be the beneficiary. The monsoon and the mountains will be tamed, made to serve human ends, the clouds will be conquered and yield their much needed liquid treasure, specifically for northern China, where it is most needed.

On reflection, there are a few problems with this grandest of narratives. Where to begin? For starters, the basic idea is that it will no longer be necessary to send up planes, to burn the silver iodide on their wingtips to scatter it directly into clouds and precipitate rain; now, thanks to the updraft of the Indian monsoon over the Tibetan mountains, ground-based burners can do the trick.

The boosters of this proposal assure us that this will get the silver iodide an extra kilometre higher, and presumably that’s enough to seed those clouds, since everyone knows you can touch them.

Possibly, on the southern flank of the Himalayas it might work, but the southern flank is not in China, and the rain is needed not in the Himalayas, where it would flow into the Yarlung Tsangpo and out to India and Bangladesh; but far to the north, in Amdo/Qinghai, which does have its mountain chains too, though nowhere near as steeply ascendant as the SCMP Hong Kong graphic supposes.

Cloud seeding is a technology that has been around for decades, with at best inconclusive results. Most countries, having tried it, have given it away, for the basic reason that there is very little data indicating the result is more rain than what occurs without human intervention. After all, the only time for seeding clouds is in the monsoon season, in summer, when it is going to rain or snow or hail anyway.

Then there is the problem of how to get solid rocket fuel supplies to hundreds of burners set up on remote mountain ridges, in an area, the SCMP confidently tells us “of about 1.6 million square kilometres (620,000 square miles), or three times the size of Spain.” That is two thirds of the entire area of the Tibetan Plateau, spanning five Chinese provinces.

This also ignores how those monsoon winds actually travel round the plateau. After sliding through passes in the Himalayas, the summer rain-bearing clouds are deflected towards the east, by the jet stream, and then they slowly do an anti-clockwise circumambulation around the plateau, usually exhausting their moisture well to the north, in Qinghai. That’s the natural pattern, and climate change seems to be not only rapidly warming Tibet, but also increasing the rainfall. So what guarantee is there that what will happen anyway is going to be enhanced by upside down rockets thundering at Tibetan skies?

Nonetheless, SCMP readers are assured, this is a project sure to go ahead, because prestigious Tsinghua University is involved, but above all, because the military industrial giant CASC is onto it. Nothing like a missile builder, to ensure project delivery. CASC is state-owned, starting life back in the 1950s as No.5 Research Academy of the Ministry of National Defense.

CASC’s major breakthrough, according to the excited SCMP story, is not only turning the rockets upside down, but in figuring out, in hypoxic (low oxygen) Tibetan mountainscapes, how to get solid rocket fuel to burn well.

So far, so good. Maybe a few more breakthroughs will be needed before new era China decides this old era tech is the solution to excessive water use in the Chinese lowlands. It’s just possible that something even more old-fashioned, like water demand management, even making farmers pay market rates for wasteful flood irrigation, might do just as well, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Then there is the toxicity of silver iodide falling back to Tibetan earth, with the rain. As long ago as 1970 scientists warned that: “The silver ion is among the most toxic of heavy metal ions, particularly to microorganisms and to fish. The ease with which Ag (silver) forms insoluble compounds, however, reduces its importance as an environmental contaminant. Ag is not likely to concentrate to harmful levels through either terrestrial or aquatic food chains. There is some possibility that Ag from cloud seeding will retard growth of algae, fungi, bacteria, and fish in fresh water; additional laboratory investigations are needed. Inhibition of aquatic microorganisms would interfere with the cycle that returns essential nutrients to the water. Ag in air and water should be regularly monitored.”

More recent research, in 2016, focussed specifically on repeated emissions of silver iodide, as happens with a burner in a fixed position, warns that it: “induced a significant decrease in photosynthetic activity that is primarily associated with the respiration (80% inhibition) and, to a lesser extent, the net photosynthesis (40% inhibition) in both strains of phytoplankton and a moderate decrease in soil bacteria viability. These results suggest that Agl from cloud seeding may moderately affect biota living in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems if cloud seeding is repeatedly applied in a specific area and large amounts of seeding materials accumulate in the environment.[1]

Since much of Tibet is officially to be depopulated, in order to strengthen Tibet’s designated classification as Key Ecological Function Zone, specifically for water supply uninterrupted by nomads and their pooping animals, the toxicity of repeated cloud seeding does not worry CASC, or the enthusiasts at SCMP.

But the tech bros do acknowledge some problems remain, for example, how to fire those inverted rockets at the sky at just the right moment to induce rain. That has in fact been the main reason most countries, other than China, have largely given up on rain making by seeding clouds with silver. Scientists worldwide argue that, at most, cloud seeding generates rain with the aid of the silver, when it would have rained anyway a few kilometres away. If there is reason for such precision, such as protecting a specific crop, in a specific field, from imminent hailstorm, that could be reason enough to blast the skies. But if the purpose is to make it rain across entire watersheds, over an area of 1.6 million sq kms, does it matter if that rain falls here or 10 kms away?

Put simply, who will fire up the burning chambers, knowing this is the right moment? Their location, upslope on mountain sides, will be so remote there is no question of having personnel stationed on site. It will all be done remotely. So how to know when? CASC, a major builder of satellites, has the answer: “The chambers’ daily operation will be guided by highly precise real-time data collected from a network of 30 small weather satellites monitoring monsoon activities over the Indian Ocean.”

China’s central planners are unlikely to fund such a ridiculous scheme, even if CASC has its media friends willing to fly a few kites, as do military industries in western countries, to drum up a bit of nationalist excitement.

Tibetans, especially farmers with ripening crops to protect, have a long tradition of steering rain and hail away from spoiling the harvest, and many prayers and rituals to obtain results.[2] The village ngagpa yogis who do this work need no rockets or silver iodide blasted at the sky to force it to obey human command. These ritual specialists are well known, some even famous. “One of Tibet’s most famous twentieth-century weather controllers was Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje. In 1959, having fled Tibet, he spent nine years in Darjeeling carrying out the rituals of making and stopping rain and hail.  In such ways, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, past and present, show themselves proficient in shamanic power while maintaining important distinctions between themselves and other ritual specialists.”[3] Rocket scientists need not apply.

Tibetans do touch the clouds and tame the hail, through prayer that clears obstacles: Düsum sangyé guru rinpo ché /Buddha of the three times, Guru Rinpoche/ Ngödrup kündag déwa chenpo shab /You are the master of all siddhis, “Lord of Great Bliss.”/ Barché künsel düdul dragpo tsal/You dispel all obstacles, “Wrathful Tamer of Maras.”/ Solwa debso chingyi labtu sol/ I supplicate you. Please grant your blessings!/ Chinang sangwé barché zhiwa tang/ Pacify all outer, inner and secret obstacles/ Sampa lhüngyi drubpar chingyi lob/ And bless me with the spontaneous fulfillment of my wishes!”

If, as the SCMP puffery confidently predicts, there actually were tens of thousands of “burning chambers” all over Tibet, one on every ridgetop, they would uncannily mimic the Tibetan lhatse that make a ridgetop into a pass, from one valley to the next, built to proclaim: “Victory to the gods!” Those ridgetop lhatse, where travellers pause to honour the gods of earth and sky, throw paper lungta to the winds and yell “lhagyalo”, are usually filled with arrows pointed down to the earth, to subdue grumpy earth spirits.

China’s proposed tens of thousands of burning chambers, rockets turned to face down, are designed to spew skyward a toxic offering to the gods. What works best? Requesting the gods to bless us, or commanding them to deliver?


[1] ORTIZ, LUIS et al., Potential risk of acute toxicity induced by AgI cloud seeding on soil and freshwater biota, ECOTOXICOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL SAFETY; NOV 2016, 133 p433-p441, 9p.

[2] Marsha Woolf and Karen Blanc, The Rainmaker: The Life Story of Venerable Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche (Boston: Sigo Press, 1994), 50–51.

[3] Sumegi, Angela, Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism : The Third Place, State University of NY Press, 2009, 90


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When China was conquered by the Mongols, areas north of the Great Wall, close to Mongolia, were  declared imperial hunting grounds, where the new emperors of China could exercise their Mongolian passions for open space, especially  hunting. While, in order to rule, the ruling Mongols adopted many Chinese ways, they insisted on opportunities to perform their Mongolness as well. The mountains and pastures beyond Beijing served this purpose, and later emperors perpetuated this special zone as a space for manifesting imperial benevolence towards the Buddhist Mongols and Tibetans, by building elaborate scaled-down replicas of the greatest Tibetan and Mongol architecture, including a replica of the Potala of Lhasa.

Those imperial tributes to Tibetan and Mongolian difference stand today, in Chengde, in Hebei province, to the northeast of Beijing. To Beijing’s northwest, and due west from Chengde, is Zhangjiakou, with the small town of Chongli, with Yanqing Songshan National Forest Park protecting the greatest mountain close to Beijing, Yunzhou Reservoir to impound water from the mountains, lots of pasture for sheep, and a little snow.

This district of sheep herders has been chosen as the venue for staging Beijing’s double fortune, having already staged the 2008 Summer Olympics, of now hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in these mountains. The Yanqing Songshan National Forest Park has to make way for the ski runs, the forest replaced by not only ski trails but the full apparatus of a modern ski industry, with lifts, luxury resorts, helicopter landing pads, roads and the smart folks.

The preparations for 2022, already fully evident in 2018, show how little China cares about national parks when profit and national glory beckon. It is this combination of wealth creation and nation-building pride that sealed the fate of the national park, that and its convenient proximity to Beijing. The cosy partnership of China’s private corporate resort builders, spectacular event staging managers, and a party-state determined to provide nationalist spectacles, ensure massive investment.

That this district naturally has little snow, that most precipitation falls as rain in summer, not snow in winter, doesn’t matter: technology can take care of that. That a national park intended to cherish mountain habitat within reach of the capital now has to become ski runs, doesn’t matter. There are plenty of other mountains, even if they are not designated as national parks.

The public private partnership has in fact invented a new human need for China, no small achievement. Unlike the Nordic countries which dominate the Winter Olympics, China has never had a ski culture, or seen snow sports as essential to national identity. Now it does, and the central plan is for China to dominate the medal count in 2022, as well as boasting the best of facilities. Thus it has become a patriotic duty for Chinese citizens, those who can afford it, to become skiers, to patronise the slopes, and contribute to China’s great rejuvenation. Journalists visiting the new snowfields now interview skiers who announce they are doing it for patriotic purposes.

Inventing a new human need, a need no-one thought about until a new product to fulfil that need was marketed, has long been cited as the genius of capitalism. China has taken this a step further, with all the persuasive power of the party-state’s propaganda apparatus to make it not only an elite consumer preference but a patriotic display, to take to the ski slopes. The combination of hotel owners promoting their hotels, and party media extolling the virtues of nationalism on skis is already creating momentum, as well as a vast capital expenditure.

China is proud of achieving in years what took Europe centuries. The public private partnership, both in financing construction, and in generating demand, is the key. The party-state well understands the long history, in both summer and even more in winter Olympic venues, of the big event coming and passing, then the expensive facilities largely lie idle, under-used, a costly embarrassment. The preplanned answer is to make skiing an ongoing industry, with deeprooted demand as a way of patriotically displaying wealth and privilege.

When the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing, environmentalists were aghast. Not only would the city’s dwindling water supplies be further diminished to produce snow, it later emerged that some of the ski slopes to be built for the games would be carved through a nature preserve, a precedent that bodes ill for the integrity of China’s other natural parks.  But water scarcity and nature are no obstacles in a planned economy.

“President Xi Jinping is now adding his clout to China’s leap into skiing, leading efforts to create a domestic ski industry almost from scratch to ensure that the billions invested in the games do not end up creating white elephants. Beijing is ploughing Rmb76bn ($11bn) into the massive redevelopment of Chongli, the winter sports town about four hours’ drive away that will host most of the Olympic skiing events. The government is seeking to make Chongli the centre of a full-blown domestic ski industry to rival the best in Europe or North America, even though annual snowfall in the area is no more than 70cm.

“’The Winter Olympics isn’t the end goal,’ says Benny Wu, chief strategy officer for skiing at Vanke, another of the developers at Chongli. ‘By prompting Chinese to take up skiing it will be a driver for the winter sports industry.’ China has targeted 1,000 ski resorts by 2030, almost double the number today. The China Daily reported this month that the Olympics would help China reach its target of 300m skiers by 2030, up from about 5m today.. ‘We’re doing the best we can,’ one instructor explained as his five-year-old pupil threw off her skis and began building a snowman. ‘Chairman Xi cares so much about the Winter Olympics. We can’t let him lose face.’”[1]

“By the year’s end China will have 700 ski resorts — more than all of Europe — and they are developing young talent to ensure a swag of medals. The site of the next Winter Olympics at Chongli, almost a four-hour drive north of Beijing, already has top notch resorts to rival the best in Europe and America. In just two decades China has built 646 resorts and is targeting to have 1,000 by the time the Olympics begin in February 2022. The new resort of Fulong in Chongli has just opened at a cost of $5 billion. Its 37 ski runs seem to be well organised and Chinese skiers, mainly from Beijing, are flocking to the site. At the top of one of the runs one young woman with skis in hand says ‘skiing is the thing to do — it’s cool and fashionable and good exercise’. Mengying Wen, a national mogul champion and Olympic hopeful for 2022, says the sheer weight of numbers and money will ensure China gets a swag of medals. ‘China will win many medals, specially in ski trick and ski jump. There are new training programs across China at all levels and in all areas. It will get better and better,’ she said. Skiing is heavily promoted in schools around China.”[2]

Before the state-sponsored ski boom took off, journalists coming to this quiet district found sheep herders and farmers longing for access to the dammed waters channelling past them, to which they have no entitlement. The New York Times reported in 2015: “Yanqing Songshan National Forest Park, which has the only substantial mountain near Beijing, was chosen for Alpine skiing, which requires longer runs and steeper descents. Yanqing has no existing ski slopes. Studies show that ski runs increase erosion and destroy plant life beyond simply the growth that is cut down; they can also cause permanent damage to topsoil and plants beneath the surface. Artificial snow worsens this problem because it often creates an ice sheet over the ground, leading to the growth of mold underneath.”[3]

Three hundred million Chinese skiers?   Where will they all go to ski? Is it possible that “the land of snows” (a classic Tibetan self-definition of Tibet) will one day see some of those planned one thousand ski resorts catering to 300 million ski enthusiasts?

Right now, Tibet is too far, infrastructure too basic, and slopes much closer to Beijing are the focus. But if China’s unique authoritarian state capitalism succeeds in persuading, incentivising, subsiding and propagandising 300m people onto skis, the day will come when the fun palace of modernity reaches even Tibet.

In September 2017 China announced a new national park system, to be launched in 2020, with four of the first batch in China’s new national parks to be wholly or partly in Tibet. This should be good news, but is it? What do those new national parks announced for Tibet actually mean for local Tibetan communities? Will they become the stewards, wardens, park rangers and cultural interpretation specialists in these new national parks, or will they be excluded, in the name of zoning red lines, ecological necessity and even poverty alleviation.

Coming up shortly on a series of blogs analysing in depth  each of the new national parks in Tibet; impacts, opportunities and dangers.



[1] Lucy Hornby, China’s Xi launches great jump forward into skiing: Snow sports enthusiasts needed to fill resorts after 2022 Winter Olympics , Financial Times, MARCH 4, 2017

2] Matthew Carney, China to have more ski resorts than Europe ahead of 2022 Winter Olympics, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 25 Feb 2018

[3] IAN JOHNSON, Scientists Question Environmental Impact of China’s Winter Olympics Bid, New York Times, APRIL 9, 2015

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China’s new era new ideology


Blog one of two on China’s new ideology


The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, in October 2017, not only anointed Xi Jinping as dear supreme leader, his Thought is now enshrined as the ideology governing China for the foreseeable future, and well beyond.

What did this decisive CCP Congress actually decide, especially for Tibet and the Tibetans? Is there a way of discerning clearly, despite the thicket of slogans, what has changed?

One way of analysing the significant shifts is to pay close attention to the language of the Party Congresses, held every five years, and take their emphases and omissions seriously. Fortunately, we have the close reading done by Jessica Batke, comparing 2017 with 2012, to guide us:

“The 2012 report said the party should ‘safeguard ethnic minorities’ legitimate rights and interests, consolidating and developing socialist ethnic minority relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance, and harmony’ (保障少数民族合法 权益,巩固和发展平等团结互助和谐的社会主义民族关系). The 2017 report has no mention of guaranteeing rights and interests. Instead, it says the party should ‘strengthen contact, exchanges, and blending between all ethnicities, promoting all ethnicities to be packed closely together like pomegranate seeds’ (强各民族交往交流交融,进各民族 像石榴籽一样紧紧抱在一起). Similarly, the 2012 report encouraged protection of ethnic minority culture; this notion is absent from the 2017 report. A 2012 reference to “traditional Chinese medicine and traditional medicine of ethnic minorities” was whittled down to “traditional Chinese medicine” in 2017. None of these changes are surprising if considered in the context of the ongoing and overwhelming securitization of both Tibet and Xinjiang (which the party describes in its review of the last five years as “innovations in ethnic and religious work” (民族宗教工作创新)). It appears that the PRC’s perceived security needs have finally trumped the CCP’s historical attachment to the idea that it supports and represents all the country’s ethnic groups equally. Thus this report may signal the point at which even nominal support for protecting ethnic minority culture begins to fade away, being subsumed by the notion of the “Chinese race” (华民族). Religion, separate from ethnic concerns, only receives one other mention in the 18th and 19th Party Congress work reports. In 2012, the report mandated the CCP “comprehensively implement the party’s basic policy on religious work and fully leverage to the positive role that religious figures and believers can play in promoting economic and social development” (全面贯彻党的宗教工作基本方针,发挥宗教界人士和 信教群众在促进经济社会发展中的积极作用); in other words, “impose controls on religion but allow it to work in service of the party’s goals.” In 2017, this became “comprehensively implement the party’s basic policy on religious work, persist in the direction of the Sinicization of our country’s religions, and actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society” (全面贯彻党的宗教工作基本方针,坚持我国宗教的中国化方向, 积极引导宗教与社会主义社会相适应); or, “impose controls on religion and remould it until it takes a shape the party likes.”[1]

The future of all Chinese citizens, packed together like pomegranate seeds, each one a  rhomb dodecahedron pressing against the next, is a vision of an urban high-density future which is explicitly central to China’s strategy for achieving the great rejuvenation. Urbanisation is China’s answer to most problems, from access to health care, electricity, education, culture, employment and accumulation of wealth. High-density urbanisation also happens to be ideal for grid management and intensive surveillance. The moment a citizen experiences discontent at being a rhomb dodecahedron pressed up against 12 other rhomb dodecahedrons on all sides, the cameras will notice and the grid captain can intervene.

The claustrophobia of becoming a pomegranate seed in a high rise apartment block may not appeal to Tibetans, long accustomed to the open range, making use of large tracts of marginal land, on the move so as to maintain a light touch. However, in Chinese tradition, pomegranates signify fertility, abundance, posterity, numerous and virtuous offspring, and a blessed future.[2]

These days, official ideology is seldom poetic, much less so than when Mao declared women hold up half the sky. The injunction to all ethnicities to hold together like pomegranate seeds (Xiàng shíliú zǐ像石榴籽) is memorable, an auspiciously red-coloured vision of harmony and prosperity.

This metaphor manifests in new era ideology as a culmination of its frequent use in recent years, usually directed at ethnic minority nations, urging them to move from their homelands, mingle and intermarry more often with Han, become fluent in standard Chinese Putonghua, in short, assimilate.[3]


The increased emphasis on assimilation and reduced emphasis on ethnic minority identity are the most overt aspects of China’s new era ideology impacting on Tibet. However, the whole point of an ideology is that it provides a package, wrapping the concerns of Tibetans in new clothing, reframing the debate.

The master narrative of new era ideology is that China has shifted decisively from quantity to quality, from economic growth as the sole metric of success to a much more inclusive embrace of quality of life, including quality of environment. This is the celebrated “Xi Jinping Thought.” Included in this general shift is a commitment to goals which in themselves seem reasonable, even laudable, such as poverty alleviation, environmental protection, climate change carbon sequestration, and extending health and education services to those who have experienced inequality. It is only when one drills down, to discern what each of these seemingly positive policy objectives mean in practice, on the ground, in Tibet, that one realises that every one of these objectives is a rationale for depopulating Tibet, removing Tibetans from their lands, to concentrate them, like pomegranate seeds, in cities. 

How is this possible? A succinct version of new era ideology was delivered at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum, in a little-reported speech, by veteran central planner and CCP Politburo member Liu He: “In his speech, Liu also spoke of the ‘three critical battles’ China’s economy faces. The first of these, the transition from rapid growth to high quality development, he characterized as a change from ‘Is there enough?’ to ‘Is it good enough?’ China has already lifted millions of people out of poverty, and this year aims to lift 10 million more people from absolute poverty, partly through relocating 2.8 million people from areas ‘suffering from harsh condition’  to urban centres. ‘Such efforts embody the Chinese approach to human rights,’ he said.”[4]

How can “high-quality development” in practice mean depopulation, emptying the land of Tibet of its custodians? How can it be the embodiment of human rights to disempower Tibetans, compel them to relocate to urban fringes, to live peripheral lives on the margins of urban agglomerations, dependent on state rations?

This is the genius of ideology. All will be well, everything is on the right path, there is no need to re-examine the details which, in China’s case, given its size, are overwhelmingly detailed. The future beckons us. Liu He’s Davos speech hews closely to the official line new era ideology. He reminds us of the results of the 19th CCP Congress in late 2017: “It mapped out the objective to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020 and to turn China into a great modern socialist country in two steps by 2050. It also charted the course for China’s economic policy over the next couple of years. The report of the 19th Party Congress lays out the promises that will be delivered to the Chinese people. The fulfilment of this agenda will also bring about new opportunities for the development of other countries in the world.

“This top-level planning of China’s economic policy for the next few years is designed in light of the above-mentioned objectives. In a nutshell, this policy centres around a Key Necessity, a Main Task, and Three Critical Battles.

“The Key Necessity here is that China’s economy has been transitioning from a phase of rapid growth to one of high-quality development. It is in this context that China formulates its macroeconomic, structural, reform and social policies for the coming years. This transition is an inherent part of the course of economic development. China’s per capita income is moving up from the current level of US$8,000-plus to US$10,000 and even higher. At such a stage of development, China needs to put more emphasis on structural improvement rather than quantity expansion.

“Our focus needs to change from “Is there enough?” to “Is it good enough?” As we open up wider to the outside world, this transition to a new model of development will create huge opportunities for many new industries. This may well include manufacturing and service industries related to higher-quality consumption, as well as energy-efficient buildings, smart transportation, new energy and many other green and low-carbon industries in new cities.”

It is the central party-state that for decades asked: is there enough? and has now changed the question to: is it good enough? The party-state asks the question, and provides the definitive answers, and allows no dissenting voices or alternative answers into the public sphere. Whether policy and its local implementations are good enough is decided solely by the top-level design planners thinking like a state, in the name of all citizens.

What was good enough was rising GDP per capita, and this singular metric has not at all disappeared, as Liu He’s orthodox speech reminds us. Accumulating wealth is still core agenda, but China is now transitioning to a new model, expressed by the vague question: is it good enough?

The good enough concept embraces many objectives: new “green” industries, mass relocations of millions of poor from the “harsh conditions” that make poverty inevitable, and constructing the emptied lands of Tibet into a pristine ecological civilisation of wildlife roaming the ungrazed grassland wilderness.

The dream of the central planners will be realised. At every point in the 70 years since the Communist Party took power, official ideology has proclaimed the pathway to utopia, and the new era ideology perpetuates that tradition. If anyone dares say past policies often failed, that constitutes the serious crime of “historical nihilism.” No-one may now say the new era policies, especially for Tibetans, are counter-productive repetitions of past mistakes. If the attainment of utopia entails the displacement of the Tibetans, in many districts en masse, that is an incidental detail. The beneficiaries will be the Zhonghua minzu, the whole Chinese race.

Liu He uses a homely analogy, of the humble Chinese wooden bucket, made of vertical planks butted together (like pomegranate seeds): “The Three Critical Battles which China is determined to fight include: 1) preventing and resolving the major risks, 2) conducting targeted poverty reduction, and 3) controlling pollution. As we all know, if a bucket is to hold more water, its shortest plank must be made longer. Likewise, for China to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects, we must fix the shortest plank in our development through winning these battles.”

Tibet is a short plank that needs fixing, if China is to hold more water. Tibet, especially the Tibetan uppermost watersheds of both of China’s great rivers, is to be depopulated in order to provide downstream China with reliable glacier-melt water flow, unpolluted by yak droppings. Rather than regretfully depicting this loss of livelihood, food security and earnings as undevelopment, new era ideology makes this into a positive, the fulfilment of China’s commitment to constructing an ecological civilisation.

Liu He in Davos 2018: “China will continue with smarter, more targeted efforts to lift more people out of poverty. In the last five years, under President Xi’s leadership, we started an unprecedented campaign against poverty. As a result, the number of rural residents living in poverty dropped from nearly 100 million to around 30 million. We have set a target to basically eliminate absolute poverty in three years, which means no single rural resident will be living below the current poverty line. This year alone, China will lift 10 million people from absolute poverty, including 2.8 million who will be relocated from areas suffering from harsh conditions. These poverty alleviation efforts have a major impact on the distribution of national income. Such efforts embody the Chinese approach to human rights, and will contribute to the global cause of poverty reduction. Third, China will continue its fight against pollution.”

Pollution begins, on the vast rangelands of the Tibetan Plateau, the moment a sheep or goat grazes the hardy native grasses, and the moment a cowpat drops from a yak’s backside. Ideologically, this is defined as the well-known “contradiction between grass and animals.” Mao was keen on inventing contradictions which only his dictatorship could then solve. Now we have brand new contradictions, for a new era. The agenda has changed.


The core contradiction is not that the Party is above the law, as “the logic here is that since the Party is supreme merely so that it can represent the people, and it is the people who are the masters of the nation, the Party does not need to build legal structures that protect the people from something that is their own manifestation of power (the Party). This justifies constraints on individual power-holders while enabling central Party authorities in Beijing to remain unconstrained in their overall authority over key aspects of governance such as legislation, law enforcement and national security.”[5]

With the state and all official bodies now “surnamed Party”, the new contradiction can now be unveiled, as it is this that legitimates the party, placing it as the sole agent of resolving the latest contradiction, until a new one is announced. In Xi Jinping’s words: “the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved…and is now the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”[6]

Only the Party can have the wisdom to perceive this as the contradiction defining these times, and the will to resolve it. From this definition of the principal contradiction directly come the programs to dispossess the Tibetans, in the name of poverty alleviation and environmental management. The greatest good must prevail. The land of Tibet is too important to be left to Tibetans.

“From this expression [of the core contradiction] in his work report, Xi derived more strenuous efforts to eradicate completely poverty in the coming decade, which would imply more infrastructure building to link poor and remote areas to urban centres, as well as upgrades to the national education and public health systems. Solving this new contradiction also means a serious, sustained program to curtail environmental pollution and to remediate China’s degraded waters, air, and land. Over the past year, Xi has launched a precursor to a more comprehensive environmental protection program, modelled on his anticorruption campaign and punishing officials who despoil local ecologies.”[7]

The new principal contradiction is vaguely worded, and could amount to no more than belated recognition that the Chinese are discovering that wealth does not equate with happiness, that clean air really matters to citizens. Vague as it is, this formulation drives the party-state onward. Since the CCP by definition represents the people, increasingly defined as the Zhonghua minzu, the Chinese race, which includes all Tibetans, the Party will inexorably work towards the greater good of the greatest number, while lifting the poor out of their “harsh conditions” in places that are just too unnaturally cold, the air too thin, trees absent, distances too great, urban comforts too far away. If a few must be displaced for the good of the many, this is an objective necessity; and as their displacement is intended to raise their measurable monetary incomes, it is for the good of the dispossessed too. Thus does China progress towards its utopian goal.

The thrust of the new contradiction is that the land of Tibet, especially in Qinghai, is physically separate from the lives of the Tibetan people, whose future is urban, and seldom on the land, except perhaps as park rangers enforcing the exclusion of graziers and grazers. This is a much more profound separation than that at Larung Gar Five Sciences Academy, where lay and monastic Buddhists must live now separate lives.  The separation of lay and robed Buddhist meditators attempts to impose Durkheim’s sharp separation of the sacred and profane, even though the whole point of Buddhist transformative practice is to discover that what is merely profane (samsara in Sanskrit) is discovered to be unsullied, unclouded, pristine, clear and luminous. Buddhism collapses this separation.

The new era agenda greatly expands the role of the party-state. It is now in the business of providing not only stability, security and economic growth, but the good life, even a better life. This places the party-state, in its own analysis, in competition with the Buddhists, whose whole purpose is how to live a better life. This is an old imperial stance, with deep roots in the dynastic state, long before the CCP. Fearing Buddhism, especially monastic Buddhism, as a competitor goes all the way back to the mid T’ang dynasty seizure of Buddhist monasteries, not only to appropriate their assets but to liquidate the competition for hearts and minds.

Buddhists of course do not see this as a competition, since all people, whatever their nationality or social status, seek happiness and experience confusion, repetition, anxiety and wandering. If there is to be an inner transformation, realising that samsara is nirvana, nirvana is not separate from samsara, the practitioner must separate from society in order to do meditation practice with enough consistency to be effective. To separate from ingrained habits and subconscious path dependencies is required; otherwise one is forever trapped in chasing the contents of the mind, as if they are real. This, however, is a temporary separation, essential to realising the nature of the mind, whereupon in the Buddhist tradition the transformed meditator rejoins society, to help others.

From a Buddhist perspective, there is little to separate the rich from the poor, except that the rich man may well be more anxious, the more he has to protect. There is little difference between Han and Tibetans too, in this all-inclusive perspective, even if cultural differences suggest different entry points onto the path of Buddhist practice. Nothing is solved by separations. To assign separate domains to the lay and monastic, Han and Tibetan, is delusional, ineffective, not how people actually live.

To separate Tibetans from the land is more impactful, because it removes the stewards and their accumulated indigenous knowledge of land dynamics, seasonal cycles, wild herd migrations, climate uncertainty and how to live a good life while maintaining long term sustainability. Urbanising rural Tibetans reduces them to a marginal precariat, separated not only from their productive past lifeworlds but also from meaningful participation in the industrial economy China is building in Tibet, based on infrastructure construction and mineral extraction, all of which require of their workers literacy in written and spoken Putonghua Chinese.

China’s separations will fail, as they have in the past. Take Larung Gar Five Buddhist Sciences Academy as an example, and its periodic spasms of state imposed destruction, in 2001 and again in 2017. That’s the next blog in this series of two.



[1] Jessica Batke, Party All the Time: Governance and Society in the New Era, China Leadership Monitor #55 Winter 2018,

[2] British Medical Journal, 2000 Nov 4; 321(7269): 1153–1154.

[3] 留学生(Overseas Students) 2011 #8,  像石榴籽那样紧紧抱在一起’——一四三团民族团结纪实, : 林东风,  兵团工运 (BING TUAN GONG YUN), 2014, 10: 36-36

[4]   26 Jan 2018

[5] Susan Trevaskes, China’s party-led rule-of-law regime, 2 October 2017 

[6] Work Report to the 19th CCP Congress, October 2017

[7] William C. McCahill Jr.,  China’s “New Era” and “Xi Jinping Thought”, National Bureau of Asian Research October 2017,

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Blinded by ideology



Blog #2 of 2 on China’s new ideology for a new era


Unfashionably, we need to take ideology seriously.

These days, we seldom consider ideology,  beyond sketching a thumbnail of the belief system of the enemy, only to prove how crazy bad Trumpism, or Islamic fundamentalism are, so we can rest securely in our own unexamined package of beliefs.

Does ideology matter in China? There has for decades been every reason to declare China’s explicitly Marxist ideology an anachronism that died in 1990, if not earlier, yet the Party still needs Marxian camo no-one believes in, including its authors, for product differentiation. After all, the bottom line is China wants to do business, we want to do business, and ideology is irrelevant.

The few old-fashioned analysts who parse the slogans and mnemonics that package China’s ideology tell us more about where China is heading, than the wishful thinkers in the chambers of commerce who want to see China only as a source of mutual enrichment, a bastion of rules-based globalisation and a good global citizen on the rise, that is now committed to saving the world from carbon emissions.

Tibetans know China’s ideology matters, because it is the ideology that blinds central leaders, hemming them in with top-level packaged generalisations that obscure any possibility of recognising and appreciating difference.

Tibetans need to know in advance what China has in mind, what obstacles persist in clouding recognition of common humanity, what plans and budgeted commitments follow from adhering to the ideology. Not only does China’s ideology obscure actual Tibetan lives and aspirations from view, it dictates what interventions China must make to realise its dream of a unitary, powerful, modern nation-state in which all citizens identify as belonging to the one (newly invented) race of Zhonghua minzu, the Chinese race.

To say that China is ruled by ideology is in no way to say this is a simple totalitarianism, wherein one man commands and all others salute and obey.  To take ideology seriously does not require determinism, or dialectical materialism, or the trap of fascination with China as master strategist innumerable moves ahead of everyone else. This does not mean ideology in China is mechanistic or inexorable, or that the relationship between top-level design and local implementation is anything other than messy, complex, contradictory and often absurd.

In a country as vast as China, even under a highly centralised authoritarian regime mastered by one man, there are still plenty of slips, as the system led by that Thought is gamed, deflected, captured and skewed down the line of command. In the many steps between China’s mandatory Xi Jinping Thought and local exercise of state power are many contestations, distortions capture, skews and deflections. Vested interests, lower level officials, and rentier cadres mouth the official slogans as required and get on with accumulating wealth for themselves.

For decades, in the Deng era of reform and opening up, the old metaphor of crossing the murky waters of the river by feeling with the naked foot for the next stone, and the next, was a trope China was comfortable with. It almost became an antidote to the delusions of central planning, an open embrace of making it up at each step, doing whatever it takes to get to the other shore. Interestingly, in the new ideology for the officially declared new era, the metaphor of feeling for the next stone is officially repudiated, no longer befitting a great power on the march. In reality, many economists say, feeling for the next stone is exactly how China came to be so successful. For Tibetans, used to living with uncertainty, feeling for the next stone is the way to live life authentically.

Ideology, any belief system packaged into an –ism, has always, to English speakers, had somewhat negative connotations, as if it is only they who have ideologies, not we. We of course are the pragmatists, the realists, the authors of the global rules-based system that inexplicably concentrates unimaginable wealth in so few hands.

Tibetans see us all as victims of our own meta-level ideas, when they harden into ideologies, be they tacit or overt. Tibetan culture critiques all ideologies, all accreted mental habits that shortcut reality and edit experience so quickly and routinely we fail to notice what has been edited out.

Tibetans may be as prone to the seductions of ideology as any other humans, but the culture undercuts the claims of ideology as master narrative, as the transhistorical uniting of past and future that validates the present as a track towards attaining the ideal, which is always just over the horizon.

Although many philosophers such as Lyotard declared master narratives dead, although the totalising ideologies of high Stalinism and Nazism are long gone, although the Soviet collapse supposedly heralded “the end of history”, ideology is still with us. While few would credit Putin’s Russia or Trump’s America with a coherent ideology beyond a nostalgic yearning to return to past superpower greatness, China is a different story.

China’s mandatory ideology, studied and reproduced endlessly in all institutions now “surnamed Party”, in universities, media, the military and in corporations, insists it is a system of systems, an objective, logical distillation of all empirical knowledge on how to forge time’s arrow ever ahead, so China can attain utopia.

A core contention of the latest ideology is that China has now entered a new era. The goals of the previous era are now redundant, even though it is far from clear to anyone whether those goals were achieved. The rules have shifted. A new era is defined by a new dialectic, a problematic imposed from above which in turn defines China’s mission, from now to well beyond the foreseeable future, officially to 2050.

This matters worldwide because grand ideologies seldom last, but do much damage while they dominate, and curtail what is possible or even imaginable. It matters especially to the Tibetans, who see how the dominant ideology obscures them, excludes, relegates, disempowers and marginalises them, while at the same time awarding a major role to territorialised but depopulated Tibetan landscapes in the fulfilment of China’s new era ideology.

China’s new era ideology positions Tibetans only as delinquent, recalcitrant, stubbornly and irrationally denying the manifest benefits of merging into the Chinese race (Zhonghua minzu). At best, the Tibetans are peripheral, a minor nuisance; at worst, an existential threat to the unitary state of common purpose, common identity and destiny. This is not new, but new era ideology is more insistent than the ideology it supersedes that a single identity, in which every citizen is loyal to the Chinese race and its incarnation, the Party, is essential to realising “the great rejuvenation”.

The Tibetans are long used to being written out of imperial court histories, or relegated in court annals to subservient tributary roles.  So the Tibetans have their own subtly but thoroughly subversive response, analysing and deflating not only official ideologies but also the packaged habits of thought we all live by, usually subconsciously. The Tibetan critique applies universally, as we all have accreted habits of mind that impose interpretations onto whatever arises, so fast we don’t notice. Both the Tibetans and the official new era ideology claim to be universally applicable, at individual and social levels. In a time when staking out an individual identity seems more than ever to be what life is about, this has relevance, not only to Tibetans but anyone who finds themselves repeating the same mistakes.

It has relevance also in a world where we are now, according to the 2018 US National Defense Strategy, back in the pre-1990 era of superpower competition. We are back in the 1980s or earlier, back to a binary world of right and wrong, but this time without the Cold War master narrative of communism versus capitalism.

Again, the exception is China.  The new era ideology manages to be both communist and capitalist, to position China as the exemplar for all developing countries, the model globalist bringing prosperity worldwide, while insisting (in one keynote speech 67 times) on everything being accomplished “with Chinese characteristics.” This may not seem a coherent ideology to nonChinese, or anything worth taking seriously, yet it is taken very seriously in China, as internally coherent, and a masterly Thought of penetrating insight into the nature of our times. It justifies rigid centralised control of all aspects of life, punishing and rewarding bad and good behaviours from jaywalking to entrenched corruption. It governs not only how nonChinese minorities are treated, but also how they are gazed upon by the eye of the party-state. The Tibetans are percepts, not perceivers, seen but not heard. It would seem China’s new era ideology has no rejoinder, no critique, no response beyond those required to salute.

Yet the CCP and the Tibetan lamas both seek human happiness for all, and both have prescriptions for how it is best attained. Both claim universal relevance. The new era ideology is a shift from economic development as the sole goal, to a much wider definition of the Party’s central role in authoring the happiness of all Chinese citizens, even when it requires uprooting them for their own good. It is possible to take the teachings of the lamas, past and present, and set them alongside the new era ideology as partners in unacknowledged dialogue, a dialogue heard clearly by millions of Han now turning to Tibetan Buddhism for a meaningful life, yet utterly invisible to everyone else, not only the central leaders but also the global community and even Tibetans in exile, who all fail to watch this subtle long game as it unfolds.

The CCP is in no doubt that it is in a competition with the lamas for the hearts and minds of the Tibetans, a competition that is hard to win because it is so diffuse, addressed to all human minds, of any culture, to anyone who experiences confusion, anxiety, conflicting emotions.

The party-state response to a competition is cannot comprehend is to securitise, segment and separate into exclusive categories those drawn to the existential insights of the lamas. The actual regulations imposed on the Larung Gar Five Sciences Academy, in Kham Serthar, after its 2017 second destruction, give highest priority to separating the nuns and monks, overwhelmingly Tibetan, from the lay practitioners, many of whom are Han Chinese. This is standard grid management, the administrative immobilisation of populations, as practiced throughout Tibet and Xinjiang, atomising the minority ethnicity nation into discrete, tightly bounded fractions, under the constant supervision of cell managers aided by the latest surveillance technologies.

Educated urban Chinese in search of a meaningful life beyond consumption venture to Tibet to listen to the lamas, and test in their lived experience the Tibetan methods of mental transformation. The party-state worries about loss of loyalty and identification with the party-state.

The response, as it has been for decades, is to intensify the coercive demolitions, expulsions and regulatory regime dictating who may associate with whom.  The official order of August 2017 makes it clear separation of students from their teachers, avoiding cross-infection of minds, is the whole purpose:
A Simplified Program for the Separation of the Institute and Monastery at Larung Monastery Five Sciences Buddhist Institute. One: Why separate the Monastery and the Institute? [1.] The separation project is in line with the Central Government’s rule-by-law and administer-monasteries-by-law policies, and is the wish of the Central and Provincial Party Committees. 2. The separation project is being undertaken for the long-term development of both, for a proper study environment for monastics, and for the interests of both the Monastery and monastic students. The project of separating the Institute and the Monastery is to [enable] the Monastery to conduct its primary function of religious activities and the Institute to conduct its primary function of education, without overlap, the Monastery propagating Buddhist religion and the Institute promoting a serene learning environment.”[1]

This separation is further elaborated in a blizzard of regulations: “the Serta Institute Management Regulations and Organizational Agencies”, “the Serta Institute Study Regulations”, “the Serta Institute’s Institute Committee Work Provisional Regulations”, “the Serta Institute Teaching Principles”, “the Serta Institute Textbook Organization Plan”, “Regulations Concerning Religion Work.”

The official decree, signed by all departments assigned administrative control, goes to great lengths to specify the minutiae of separation, including “separation of activity centres, separate establishment of related offices, separation of organization, management and financial management, pushing forward the work of the four separations of personnel, jurisdiction, functions and management between the Five Sciences Buddhist Institute and Larung Monastery, making the Institute a standardized, law-abiding and modern Buddhist institute.” Not only will party-state authorities certify compliance, they wield direct administrative power to implement these many separations, with standard-setting and measurement of outcomes solely in the hands of the party-state, which becomes the arbiter of what constitutes a good Buddhist academy.

Since compliance must be measured and certified, Buddhist practice is reduced to what is testable: reproducible knowledge of Buddhism as doctrine. Buddhist practices of inner transformation disappear from view. The transformations the lamas speak of eloquently, in several languages, in several media, are mind-to-mind transmissions of insight into the nature of mind, all of which remain invisible to the separators. What once was considered a secret transmission known only to the most intimate associates of the lamas, is now openly explained on YouTube, in books and Chinese social media, yet remains incomprehensible to official minds.

The new order makes education and religious activity two separate categories, separated both spatially and administratively, with no overlap. The separation is explicitly designed for grid management: “both Institute and Larung Monastery must have clear boundaries on all four sides, and after separating the Institute from the [rest of the] area, capacity for grid management and service provision must be strengthened.  Separation of functions: With the separation of the Institute from places of religious activity, separation of functions must be actualized, their interrelations properly arranged, and their powers properly specified, thus solving the core issue of their overlap.”

The reduction of Buddhism to dogma is rooted in the late 19th century invention of a Chinese term for religion, borrowed from a Japanese neologism, both a response to the incursions of 19th century Christianity. Until then religion was not a category separate from life. It then became a separate entity, reduced to dogma and study of dogma. “It is very well known that in Chinese, as in many other languages, there is no precise equivalent for the modern western concept ‘religion’. In China a neologism, zongjiao, was formed, or rather adopted from Japanese, to translate the western concept of ‘religion’ as a structured system of beliefs and practices, separate from society, which organizes believers in a church-like organization. It quickly became part of usage from 1901, and since then has retained that sense, which is now outmoded in the social science of religions in the West.”[2]

Dogma can be bundled into a syllabus, and once students have completed the syllabus, they can be ordered to leave.

Today, if Tibetans, preferably only Tibetans registered as residents of Sichuan province, wish to waste their time studying Buddhist dogma, the Institute serves that purpose; but it is clearly only for “locals”. Tibetans from other provinces are permitted only under strict quotas, and nonTibetans clearly no longer qualify at all. “Larung Monastery is a place for religious activity and for providing religious services to the masses of local believers. The study period of monastic students at the Five Sciences Buddhist Institute must be clarified and those who have completed it must be able to return home. The number of new recruits per year should not exceed that year’s quota. Also, the work of grid management and door keeping, divider fencing, red tags for monks, yellow tags for nuns and green tags for lay devotees must be done properly, and the real-name registration and management of the visitor population must be strengthened.”

“Student recruitment standards: First, those who have a firm political stand, accepting the Great Motherland, the Chinese [Zhonghua] people, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics; second, the number of recruits entering cannot exceed the number of graduates, with each year’s batch not exceeding the quota; third, candidates taking examinations must have an identity card, a religious personnel permit, or an reincarnated lama permit; fourth, students must be recruited from within the Tibetan areas of Sichuan province.”

These restrictions and separations will be as ineffective as the last bout of official destruction at Larung Gar in 2001. While the regulatory detail this time is much greater, and the grid management surveillance technologies more intrusive, the leaders of Larung Gar, used to playing a long game, have not publicly protested, taken the blows as adversities to be expected on the path of purifying the mind, and continue to travel the world teaching inner transformation.

Reducing Larung Gar to a curriculum-bound trainer and certifier of professional Buddhists, as if training motor mechanics or park rangers, may hold during official hours, but for sincere Buddhist practitioners the practice is round the clock, with every incentive to persist, as before, in the quiet of one’s own wooden hut, entering and re-entering the pristine nature of mind, untroubled by obstructions and regulatory separations.












[2] Vincent Goossaert The Concept of Religion in China and the West, Diogenes, 205: 13–20, 2005


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Zombies rise again in Tibet

River diversion, on a grander scale than ever

The possibility of extracting water from Tibet on a truly staggering scale, to make China’s deserts bloom, is a daft fantasy that never goes away. Like a rolang (Tibetan for zombie) it comes back from the dead, no matter how often it is dismissed, for its impracticality, stupendous cost and unmanageable seismic risks.

The rolang is blundering about yet again, this time in a long speculative piece in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, media more associated with the hi-tech of its owner, Jack Ma of Alibaba and the surveillance society. The story was posted on Halloween.

The SCMP story not only sketches the lo-tech dream of diverting the great Transhimalayan river of southern Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra sharply northward to the Yellow River of northern China, but even further north, all the way to the Taklamakan desert of Xinjiang.

This is a vision on a grand scale: a desert for which China has found no use beyond exploding its nuclear weapon experiments will now bloom, thus attracting Chinese peasant farmers in their millions, as the Taklamakan becomes China’s California.

As Californian dreams go, this one checks in but doesn’t check out. It is ridiculously impractical for many reasons. The most one can say for it is that it’s a fantasy, appealing mostly to middle aged Han male engineers, whose day has already passed.

How so? Here are ten reasons:

  1. Han hate it in Xinjiang, they find it utterly foreign, unwelcoming, even threatening.
  2. The days of mass migration of destitute peasants to pioneer virgin lands are over. Poor peasants these days flock to cities, leaving only old folks and young children behind, who are not allowed to accompany the young adults who earn much more in urban factories.
  3. China currently gains a dividend of increased runoff into its rivers and lakes from the melting glaciers of Xinjiang and Tibet, and this dividend will go on paying for decades yet, before the glaciers are all gone, in the latter decades of this century, when disaster will strike.
  4. Even if the Taklamakan, especially the areas not radioactive, can be made to bloom, China, with its massive trade surpluses, is happy importing food rather than making more arable land. China, for example, imports tens of millions of tons of soybeans, mostly from the US, every year, almost all of it to feed to cattle penned in feedlots to fatten them before slaughter.
  5. The only reach of the Yarlung Tsangpo where water offtake on this scale is possible is in Sangri, below Tsethang but above the just-built Zangmu hydrodam at Gyatsa. Only there is the terrain suitable, and the altitude sufficient for the canal diverting water to the northeast sufficiently high to be able to make use of gravity, although pumping would also be needed. It all looks good on paper. But once one looks more closely, awkward realities intrude. Zangmu is meant to be one in a cascade series of six hydro dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, in succession, all downriver not far below Lhoka Sangri. Can the Zangmu dam cluster of electricity generating dams survive an upriver water diversion dam that eats their lunch? China is committed to the Zangmu cascade, a far less ambitious project than pumping Tibetan water thousands of kilometres to the Taklamakan desert. Not only would water extraction at Sangri rob the Zangmu cascade of water to turn turbines, it is only in the summer monsoon months that the Yarlung Tsangpo, a highly seasonal river, flows strongly enough to fulfil both uses at once. That means either that water diversion gets top priority and the Zangmu dams make little electricity most of the year; or the Zangmu turbines turn all year, while water diversion has to channel a year’s supply for the Taklamakan in just the few summer months. That would make the whole project much bigger and even more expensive, and would also necessitate using Tso Ngonpo/Koko Nor/Qinghai Hu/Qinghai lake as a giant holding reservoir, even though climate change already means extra water floods into this great lake, swallowing prime pasture land.
  6. The grand vision, all along, has been to take not only the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo but also the key tributaries that become the Yangtze, along the way. The canals and tunnels would capture two major watersheds as they drive water northeast, against the lie of the land, through the troubled Tibetan prefecture of Kandze, requiring the highest dams ever built worldwide, athwart the Yangtze tributaries. These dams need walls 300 metres high or more, not only to capture sufficient water, but because they may, on a map, run close to the Yellow River, but at the closest points (a mere 100 kms apart, with mountains in between), the Yangtze is lower than the Yellow River, requiring pumping uphill, using electricity that, in remote areas, can come only from even more hydro dams.
  7. Almost the entire route traverses seismically active uplifting terrain that is deeply faulted and folded, where earthquakes and landslides are common,[1] and the sheer weight of impounded water can readily trigger further debris flows and even earthquakes. Chinese engineers have worked hard for decades to understand the risks, and are far from being able to chart them, still less are they able to mitigate the risks.[2]
  8. On top of all this are the international and domestic political risks. The SCMP article does mention that if the Yarlung Tsangpo, an international transboundary river flowing on into India and Bangladesh, is diverted, both India and Bangladesh will scream. Those who predict that 21st century waters will be fought over water point to this as the choke point.
  9. What isn’t mentioned is that within China, the hundreds of millions of wealthy Chinese downriver along the Yangtze, all the way to Shanghai, don’t want more dams on the upper Yangtze. Even though the Yangtze is a big river, the lower Yangtze has lost most of its sand, extracted to make the concrete cities China has built, and now relies on the upper Yangtze in Tibet to continue cutting through the steep valleys uninterrupted, bringing fresh sand with it. If there are more dams on the Tibetan upper Yangtze, it is the dams that will silt up with sand and fine particles, while the scoured lower Yangtze speeds up dangerously in the rainy season, heightening the risk of floods. One of the reasons Chinese environmentalists in the big lowland cities care about Tibet is because they know they rely on Tibet for river health, for both water and sand. Upstream Tibetans and downstream Han share common interests.
  10. China’s focus is on northern Xinjiang, not the poorer folk and sparsely populated deserts of southern Xinjiang. The north is where the cities, smelters, coal mines and power plants are, and the base of the bingtuan, formally the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state within the state that controls businesses across the spectrum, with little interest in the south. The one major Chinese state project in southern Xinjiang, due to cost at least $60 billion is a road, rail and gas pipeline linking Kashgar in southern Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Pakistan, enabling China to import Mideastern natural gas overland. That big project has far higher priority.

This zombie rerun was actually killed off quickly by an official Chinese state denial that any such plan exists. Since the zombie awoke in English, the kill was also delivered in English, in the nationalistic Party organ Global Times only four days after the Hong Kong balloon went up. By then even China’s  Foreign Ministry had officially denied it.  Not only was there no such plan to make the Xinjiang deserts bloom, there was no ongoing investigation of its feasibility either.

The zombie was truly dead, perhaps, yet in its short afterlife it managed to excite the president of the Tibetan government in exile and be reposted many times by Tibet supporters and environmental historians. The subsequent repudiation, in the Global Times, was ignored. So the zombie may yet lurch about.

Of the ten reasons listed above why this megaproject ain’t gonna happen, Global Times steered clear of nearly all of them, instead giving as its decisive refutation an argument suited to these times: Xinjiang could never pay for it. The knockout punchline: “The estimated cost of diverting water from Tibet to Xinjiang would be five times that of Xinjiang’s annual GDP.”

If the beneficiaries of diverting the Yarlung Tsangpo would be just the poor Uighurs of southern Xinjiang, it is true, they couldn’t finance it. Implicit in this reasoning is that this project would not be classified as a nation builder, capable of populating an arid area with politically reliable poor Han settlers. Nation-building projects, that stamp remote territories with state power, have been a feature of development “with Chinese characteristics” for many decades. It is only quite recently that such grand projects have failed to attract funding from central leaders, although many have been endlessly postponed because of expense, and the technical difficulties, for example, of building mega dams on the fractured rock of steep earthquake-prone Tibetan river valleys.

Is China moving away from nation-building mega-projects that establish the party-state’s power over remote landscapes? Not at all. What is changing is the industrial preferences of the nation-builders. On the way out are the long-planned ultra-high voltage power grids carrying electricity from Tibet to Guangzhou and Shanghai, because coastal China no longer needs massive increases in electricity use. The world’s factory is moving away from the coast to the inland, and as China rapidly shifts from a manufacturing economy to a services-based consumer economy, electricity demand is not rising as fast as the planners had expected.

The same logic applies to diverting not only the Yarlung Tsangpo but also the upper Yangtze tributaries away to northern China, not for Xinjiang, but for the heavy industries of downriver  Inner Mongolia, especially coal, coal chemicals and steel mills. Those too have peaked, as the economy is transitioning to a less energy-intense model. For years it did look as though demand for water, for industrial, urban and agricultural users across northern China, especially in Inner Mongolia, would be capable of paying for the construction of the highest dams in the world –each over 300m high- in Tibet, to intercept and divert the Yangtze to the Yellow. Now that moment too seems to be passing, even though the water shortage in northern China remains a major constraint.

Whenever such mega projects could not justify themselves on coast benefit analysis, the clinching argument, seldom made publicly, was that such projects are nation-building. They give the state an overpowering presence in troubled Tibetan areas such as Kandze prefecture, where the dams and canals and tunnels taking Yangtze water to the Yellow River would have to be.

None of this means the nation-building mega-project is dead, just that it is morphing into a form better suited to today’s well-off consumption-led China. The closure of the livestock production landscapes of eastern Tibet, across Amdo, is very much on track, so the Sanjiangyuan National Park can replace it. Mass tourism will follow, with few visitors noticing that nomads no longer ride their horses through the alpine meadows, except for photo opps. Yaks will be for sitting on, for the iconic photo shot, not for subsistence production. Fierce nomad mastiffs will pose, toothless, for tourists to mimic.

This is the future. China does not hesitate to close the most fertile pastures in Tibet, losing food security, in order to tell the world a glorious post-industrial story about growing a new wilderness of luxuriant ungrazed grass, wildlife conservation, carbon capture and world leadership in climate change. That’s the new economy.

The old economy championed by the old engineers fantasizing the rush of Tibetan water down to the deserts of southern Xinjiang, is fast fading. Too many such projects were far more expensive than planned, and delivered meagre results. China has moved on, the lure of creating a “California” in the deserts of Xinjiang no longer magnetises the planners and investors.

The rolang zombie of the Yarlung Tsangpo-to-Xinjiang canal is just one of many old China, heavy industry engineering dreams clung to only by sentimental nostalgics pining for the days when red engineers were  the heroes of building  “Chinese characteristics.”

The new economy is just as sentimental, this time about wildlife and pristine wilderness landscapes manufactured by official decrees that demobilise the nomadic herders, remove the yaks, sheep and goats, and reduce the remaining Tibetans to jobs as casual state employees enforcing the enclosures, exclusions, land clearances, rebranded as  park rangers. The new economy, for Tibetans, may be as disempowering as the old; and explaining why disempowerment is wrong may be much harder.

Why were China ’s Foreign Ministry and party propaganda media so quick to despatch this rolang? The Yarlung Tsangpo becomes the Brahmaputra of India and Bangladesh. Massive water diversion would greatly anger both. At a time when the US and Japan are wooing India to join in containing China, China too is out to woo, not confront India. Yet again, Tibetans are pawns in the game.

For the new economy of rejuvenated China, population transfer, adding Han settlers to remote districts, is no longer cost effective. Instead of adding Han, it is much easier to subtract the Tibetans, reducing them to dependence on state rations and casual employment as national park wardens. In their concrete camps on urban outskirts, the exnomads can lurch about uselessly, like rolangs.















[1] Yuan Jianxin, Consideration on the Geological Hazards in Hydropower Station Site  Selection from the Experiences of Wenchuan Earthquake, 从汶川地震特点谈水电站选址中 地震地质灾害问题, Hydroelectric Power Journal, VOL 35 #10, 2009

[2] Zhao Weihua, Distribution and quantitative zonation of unloading cracks at a proposed large hydropower station dam Site, Journal of Mountain Science. (2017) 14(10): 2106-2121

Hu Gui-sheng, Debris flow susceptibility analysis based on the combined impacts of antecedent earthquakes and droughts: a case study for cascade hydropower stations in the upper Yangtze River, China; Journal of Mountain Science, (2017) 14(9): 1712-1727



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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








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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Clover, When big data meets big brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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