As Tibet urbanises, electricity demand now greatly outstrips supply, especially in the winter and spring seasons of low water flow and little hydropower generation, when electricity is most needed.

In rural Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) there are still many counties without grid electricity, relying on small and unreliable local hydro power, or individual households using batteries, solar power or dried yak dung for heat.

Outside Tibet, people often assume China rapaciously exploits and dams all rivers, yet electricity supply has fallen so far behind that TAR is now dependent on two ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) long distance power grid lines to transmit electricity from both Qinghai and Sichuan all the way to Lhasa, but now these two have proven inadequate.[1]

The recent announcement that China would supply electricity to remote highland districts of Nepal, via Tibet, has only exacerbated the chronic shortages.

In a major 14 June 2018 policy announcement, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)has instructed TAR to establish a market-based electricity supply, with sufficient incentives for corporations to invest in hydropower. There is almost no mention of photovoltaic solar power, or of wind power, though Tibet is well capable of providing both, being both sunny and windy, especially in winter.

We will soon see many new hydropower schemes, coordinated by NDRC central planners into three grids, one centred on Lhasa, one on Chamdo in eastern TAR, and one in the far west, centred on Ngari. Construction of these grids will be financed by the state, a major subsidy for corporate electricity generators. These three could eventually become one, interconnected by China’s tech speciality, ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) power grids, which in turn could connect TAR to the rest of China, for exporting electricity down to lowland China, as has long been the plan in eastern Tibet. However, at high altitude, there are many dangers to safety of UHVDC.[2]

The NDRC official instruction acknowledges the dilemmas facing official China. While wanting electricity generation and supply to function as orderly competitive markets, the only available source of the considerable investment required is the party-state. Further, electricity generation and supply are natural monopolies, so what does it mean to require a market economy for electricity?

However, the problem has become urgent, NDRC says, and the way TAR authorities have managed it is intolerable. Electricity supply has been allocated to those with the best official status or connections, which means many miss out, holding back development and China’s ambition to provide electricity to remote areas, and alleviate poverty. The assumption is that power grids are needed if this goal is to be achieved, although decentralised solar power can be highly mobile, moving seasonally with a pastoral family on the move. Of the 74 counties comprising TAR, 12 have no access to grid electricity at all, NDRC says.

The tension between state dominance of the TAR economy, and the desire for a market economy in electricity is not officially labelled a “contradiction”, although the Marxist concept of dialectical contradiction usually defines policy debate in China. What is officially a contradiction in TAR is the relation between water and electricity. In other words, too much water flows, without being harnessed to extract electricity. This is the contradiction that must be resolved. NDRC says: “First, the problem of continuous and stable power supply has not been fully solved. The backbone of the autonomous region has insufficient power supply. The contradiction between the abundance of water and electricity is more prominent, the power transmission capacity of the Qinghai-Tibet DC is limited.”

China has in recent years prioritised water supply from Tibet, to China’s lowlands, as Tibet’s primary contribution to the Chinese economy and environment. Provision of water takes priority over pastoral production, farming, heavy industrialisation and other uses of water within Tibet. Widespread clear-cut logging of Tibetan forests was officially halted 20 years ago on the grounds that bare mountain slopes in Tibet caused flooding along the mid-Yangtze. China is willing to empty the land of Tibet or nomads, if that seems to enhance water provision, but that water must also generate electricity, according to the latest intervention from Beijing, which clearly comes with finance for grid construction, and regulatory power to fix prices sufficient to guarantee corporate investment in building hydropower is profitable.

Decades ago, when the holy Yamdrok Tso was dammed for hydropower, there was widespread anguish among Tibetans and their supporters worldwide that such a sacred lake, central to discerning portents and intimations of the rebirth of high lamas, could be so desecrated. Yamdrok Tso is what engineers call a pumped hydro dam, which feeds electricity into the grid for immediate consumption only at times of peak demand. The rest of the time, outside of peak hours, the water is pumped (from the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra)  back uphill, effectively storing further hydropower potential till the moment it is needed by consumers. Effectively, the uphill lake becomes not just a storage pond for peak power, but a giant battery. How will Tibetans feel if lakes –traditionally the abode of goddesses- become batteries?

While dam building in TAR has slowed, except for the cascade of dams under construction on the Yarlung Tsangpo at Zangmu, below Lhoka Tsetang, the dam designers have been busy. They have carefully surveyed all of TAR for locations where, like Yamdrok tso, there is an upland lake and a river below that can be paired in a daily 24 hour pumped hydro cycle, or a pair of lakes, one well above the other, for pumped hydro. The engineers have found several such locations, especially in Nyingtri county, where the pace of urbanisation is fast, as Nyingtri/Bayi becomes a luxury resort area for wealth Chinese escaping the heat and humidity of Chengdu. The engineers remind us that their neatly paired lakes are almost always a considerable distance from existing grids, so much grid construction, in remote areas, will be needed.


Tibet’s abundant sunshine would be ideal for decentralised solar power, but Chinese engineers use Tibet’s solar photovoltaic (PV) potential as a further argument for greater investment in centralised grid construction, connecting the solar arrays to the grid to then be fed, in the off-peak demand hours, to the lakes to pump water back up hill. Yet again, Tibet is where grand visions can be inscribed onto the land, in ways inconceivable in overcrowded, polluted lowland urban China. Electricity delivered through a central grid demonstrates the benevolence of the centralised state; electricity generated by a panel on the grass outside a nomad tent is not the gift of the party-state.




At Zangmu only the first of the planned six hydro dams athwart the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra has been completed, and in production early in 2016.  Built by Gezhouba, financed by the heavily indebted Huaneng, the cascade of planned dam construction has slowed, partly because of dimming prospects for long distance transmission, in the absence of an adequate grid and dwindling downstream markets. Another reason is that all of China’s major infrastructure construction projects in Tibet –railways, highways, urban construction, dams and grids- tend to squeeze construction into the summer months, as the immigrant Han Chinese workforce finds Tibet in winter far too cold to work. Gezhouba engineers even suggested intensive use of the winter sun at Zangmu, captured by solar panels, to enable construction through the winter, but little came of this suggestion, in the deep valleys where winter sun, though plentiful, seldom reaches the valley floor construction site.[3]

The directive from the NDRC is quite lengthy, yet quite lacking in specifics, other than exhorting TAR authorities to do a good job in getting more hydropower built, in conformity with national policies, including the requirement to turn farmland into forest and grazing pastures into grassy wilderness.

It is clearly up to planners in Lhasa to decide on an actual plan. So why is it necessary for NDRC to issue this public policy guidance? It is only because TAR has fallen so far behind, its regional government is so weak, passive and dependent on big brother in Beijing, and must now be instructed to make up the shortfall.

The reason this document requires eight pages is because of the complexity of ensuring Beijing’s subsidies, as they pass through the TAR government to the corporate hydro dam builders, to deliver reliable profit to the owner-operators of the new infrastructure. To ensure that, there are many things to consider. NDRC instructs TAR to allow hydro developers, for example, to be able to sell electricity beyond TAR during the summer monsoon peak electricity generating season. That will require TAR to ensure its three power grids are connected to the national power grid, by expensive ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) lines capable of transmitting electricity over vast distances without loss.


Effectively, this is an instruction to TAR to get on with making construction contracts with the state-owned dam building companies, and raise electricity prices in order to attract them, rather than persist with low prices for existing industrial consumers, piling up debt and letting the supply lag behind demand. This NDRC directive is basically a public assurance that Beijing will foot the bill for this massive upgrade.

Who is the audience for this announcement? Clearly not the Tibetans, who are mentioned only in generalities, defined by what they lack, one million in TAR with no access to grid power. No mention of displacement and resettlement by hydro dams and power grids, that’s all for local TAR government to work out.

The real audience is the dam builders, who need assurances they can make money. The huge corporations who, in China, have built thousands of dams and now do so on a global scale, and the behemoth State Grid monopoly of the network, have long been dominant, not only in remote areas but in the eyes of Beijing central planners. These corporations until very recently lived in a simple world of ever-accelerating growth, with electricity demand, with the world’s factory located in eastern China, ever expanding. As state-owned corporations, they were guaranteed priority access to loans from state banks at concessional rates, and a free hand to  roam the remotest valleys to locate the best spots for damming, irrespective of local community concerns. In the first decade of this century, most of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee were engineers.

Then, in this decade, it all changed, old certainties dissolved, a new era with very different priorities was declared. The future of hydro dams, in Tibet and around China, became questionable. That’s explored further in the second of these three blogs.


[1] T.P.G. of Qinghai Province, The brief introduction of qinghai-tibet grid interconnection project (2011-11-30). http://news.xinhuanet.com/energy/2011-11/30/c_122356686.htm

T.P.G. of Qinghai Province, Qinghai-tibet grid interconnection project makes tibet’s electric power delivery become the norm (2015-10-31). http://www.qh.gov.cn/zwgk/system/2015/10/31/010185905.shtml

T.C.G. of China, Sichuan-tibet grid interconnection will be completed to connect tibet’s isolate grid (2014-08-04).  http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2014-08/04/ content_2729497.htm

[2] HUANG Dao-chun,WEI Yuan-hang,ZHONG Lian-hong,RUAN Jiang-jun,HUANGFU Cheng, Discussion on Several Problems of Developing UHVDC Transmission in China, Power System Technology 电 网 技 术 Vol. 31 No. 8 2007

[3] ZHANG Jianhua, Utilization of Solar Heating for Winter Construction in Tibet Zangmu Hydropower Station, 水 电 与 新 能 源, HYDROPOWER AND NEW ENERGY, 2012 Number 2, 74


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China pioneered technologies for transmitting electricity at ultra-high voltages vast distances, using direct current, making it possible to dream big and plan big, to envisage criss-crossing the whole of China, connecting the remote Tibetan highlands, rich in hydropower potential with distant factory cities of coastal China. State Grid Corporation put out maps of China traversed both west to east and north to south by power grids, making the whole of China one gigantic grid.

Then it all got more complex. As China moved into the middle income bracket, and wages rose, the more labour-intensive and energy-intensive industries started shifting to lower cost countries around Asia. The central planners talked more about the need to construct “ecological civilisation” and a “circular economy” that recycles. China’s sole promised commitment to realising the Paris climate change treaty goals is to reduce energy intensity. Solar, wind and nuclear power emerged as major sources of energy, even though the grid monopolists often refused to connect solar arrays to the grid.

So now it is the giants of dam and grid building who need assurance, at the highest level, that any fresh round of construction across TAR will be well-financed, including a margin for profit. TAR remains the one province where Beijing’s diktat is not undercut by local resistance, and the TAR government has been told to get on with it. The China Dialogue website has analysed how the engineering dream derailed: China’s enthusiasm for UHV is waning. The technology is beset by conflicts of interest between grid companies and central and local governments. The lines themselves are underperforming, and more recent projects are coming online amid a period of electricity generation overcapacity. This means that approvals for new lines have slowed, and grid companies are unlikely to meet their targets for new ones. But rollouts have slowed, and few analysts expect State Grid will deliver on its 2020 target. In fact, its national UHV backbone scheme, which is the centrepiece of its UHVAC ambitions, looks unlikely to happen anytime soon. State Grid’s UHV plans suggested remarkable ambition, but did not always align with those of central and provincial policymakers. Central officials have clashed with State Grid planners on its backbone scheme, which envisions a lattice of six UHVAC lines to synchronise grids that are currently in State Grid’s territory. But officials worry about nationwide blackouts cascading across these interconnected grids. Meanwhile, the economic case for new UHVDC lines from the interior has weakened amidst slowing growth in electricity demand. Unsurprisingly, then, approvals for new UHV projects – which take 3-4 years to construct – have been slow, with just one project approved in 2016, and two in 2017. Certain regional governments targeted for UHV projects have also been sceptical. Provinces get larger boosts to gross domestic product (GDP), employment, and revenue from building their own power plants rather than importing power from other provinces. Even new lines with central government backing have sometimes failed to get provincial acceptance. For example, the UHVDC Sichuan Number Four line would take Sichuan hydropower to Jiangxi province, and was singled out for construction in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). But as NEA officials noted last autumn, Jiangxi does not want this power.”

The great exception is Tibet, which still has a command and control economy, where the central party-state can still simply allocate resources. This is the actual circular economy in operation, not an economy of reduce, reuse and recycle, but a circle of state-directed capital expenditure, from NDRC to TAR to the dam and grid builders; from the state at national level to provincial level to the corporate state.


Where will the new dams be located? Outside of TAR, in the rugged terrain of Kham, eastern Tibet, dam building, on a massive scale continues, with dams –highest in the world- above 300m of concrete across steep mountain river gorges in highly earthquake prone districts.


Within TAR, as solar power starts to become more common, where are the paired lakes designated as batteries to store solar power? Chinese engineers have this surveyed and mapped. Conveniently, this can be done from a desk in Beijing, with no need to actually visit Tibet. Satellite cameras in orbit above the earth are good at measuring the distance to the ground, so it is not hard to locate those paired lakes, one higher than the other, close enough to constitute a system for pumping up and rushing down, according to grid demand.

However, there just aren’t enough lake pairs sufficiently close to each other with sufficient height difference, so the scientists played round with identifying terrain around existing lakes where engineers could build a reservoir above the lake to pump lake water up; or below the existing lake, forming a dyad forever cycling together.

Then they mapped the various possibilities, also noting the distance of these water battery systems to the nearest grid, and the inevitability that the state would need to step in and finance the heavy infrastructure required, both the extra reservoirs and the grid connections. Another florid tech fantasy is born: Tibet is a fertile landscape onto which to project grandiose tech visions.

If only a small proportion of the hundreds of sites labelled suitable for pumped storage hydro dams all over Tibet are ever built, and connected by power grids to each other and to lowland China, how many Tibetans will be displaced? How many teams of Han Chinese immigrants will be sent to remote valleys to construct this renewed vision of engineering Tibet?  The National Development & Reform Commission, in March 2018, issued detailed instructions on how those displaced by hydro dams are to be emigrated, compensated and treated with respect. Is this about to happen in



The Tibetan Plateau has fascinated and fixated China’s hydropower planners for decades, as the resource China most needs to extract, and then export, not only to lowland China to the east but also to the south, to Nepal or beyond, all by UHVDC ultra-high voltage direct current power grids. As recently as 2009 Chinese engineers enthused: “According to the results of the national hydropower review, the theory of hydropower resources reserves in Tibet account for 29% of the country, ranking first in the country, with annual power generation developable of 576 billion kWh, second only to Sichuan Province, ranking second in the country. Tibet will become the main battlefield of China’s hydropower construction after 2020, first of all from Sichuan and Yunnan, utilising The Jinsha River, Minjiang River and Nujiang River to transfer electricity from the eastern part of Tibet.”[1]

Those dreams of overpowering Tibet remain, especially on the fast mountain rivers of Kham, in Sichuan, but dam building has been slow, and in TAR has halted, except for the Zangmu dam. Now, it seems, due to a directive from the highest level, backed by ample finance capable of overcoming the deep corporate indebtedness of some of China’s biggest energy companies,[2] central Tibet may soon see a new burst of hydro damming.

The ultra-high voltage power lines China has built in recent years, transmitting electricity from Qinghai into TAR, and from Sichuan into TAR, could flow the other way, exporting electricity from TAR. After a lull, the engineering fixation on extraction from Tibet has burst into life again.


State Grid, by any measure worldwide a massive corporation, announced in 2017 it was upgrading the existing grids in TAR, which seldom had capacity to transmit more than 110kV, to be increased to 500kV, while interconnecting the separate grid networks of eastern and southern TAR.

In announcing this upgrade, State Grid emphasized how important it was to safeguard the new rail line from Lhasa to the luxury resort district of Nyingtri, so close to India’s Arunachal Pradesh. The single track line needs electricity to fulfil its promise of reducing an eight hour bus ride to three hours on a train that stops at only a few of the 17 stations, moving at 160 kms/hr through tunnels as much as 17kms long and bridging the Yarlung Tsangpo just above the Zangmu hydro dam. With so many bridges and tunnels, and fast speed, reliable signalling is essential for safety, requiring failsafe electricity supply, as State Grid points out.


The intensification of central Tibet is regaining momentum lost in recent years as TAR fell back to its command and control default position. State Grid has not forgotten its vision for Tibet, as its boss Liu Zhenya put it in 2012: “Hydropower will be developed in Tibet and transmitted to other regions on a large scale. Power generated in the large hydropower bases will be transmitted from Sichuan to central and eastern China, and from Yunnan to Guangdong. The volume of hydropower from the southwest region will reach 54.5 GW (gigawatts), 76 GW and 120 GW by 2015, 2020 and 2030 respectively.”[3]

State Grid has been adept at keeping pace with official China’s changing priorities. Whatever problems China has, State Grid is always the solution. When the top priority in TAR was industrialisation and mineral extraction, State grid built the first power networks. Now the agenda is beefed up securitisation of the borders with India, and a tourism consumer economy, especially in the Nyingtri county, requiring the interconnection of local grids and sharply upgrading the voltage. Above all, State Grid has never lost sight of the prospect of Tibet at last paying its way for China by exporting electricity, using electricity from afar 电从远方来 the catchy State Grid slogan.

The TAR government, if it ever doubted if it really needs such a massive grid upgrade, is in no position to argue with State Grid, whose 2016 revenue of 2093 billion yuan was 13 times bigger than the total RMB 158 billion revenue of the TAR.

TAR pioneered grid management, the securitisation of Lhasa, divided by gridlines into small units of intensive hi-tech surveillance, monitored by cameras and informers to ensure behavioural compliance with CCP policy in all public, and many private spaces. Grid management is the strategy enabling the party-state to implement its “social credit” system of punishing those deemed untrustworthy by the all-seeing security state, and rewarding the compliant.

Until now grid management and State Grid seemed to have little in common. But if State Grid, funded by the National Development & Reform Commission to build high voltage power grids all over Tibet, incentivises the hydro dam builders and pumped storage battery builders, then Tibet becomes an electrified post-industrial security state like never before.


[1] ZHOU Dashan, Tentative output plans of hydropower resources in Tibet District, Hubei Water Power 湖 北 水 力 发 电 2009 #3

[2] Huaneng Power International, MarketLine SWOT Analysis, 2017

[3] Liu, Zhenya. Zhongguo dianli yu nengyuan  China Electric Power Press, 2012 in Chinese; Translated as: Electric Power and Energy in China, John Wiley, 2013, 165

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In the first years of this century electricity demand in China grew annually by as much as 15 per cent. A world record. No matter how many coal-fired, nuclear and later, gas-fired power stations were built, it was never enough. The power plant builders were in demand, and hydropower was also scheduled for major expansion, to not only keep pace with coal but actually increase its share of total supply.

Those were boom years for China’s dam builders and power grid builders, when Tibet was thoroughly mapped for its hydro potential. Tibet’s day would come.

But the boom years are over, as China now prides itself on reducing energy intensity, the amount of energy consumed per unit of economic output, which was far above the average in other manufacturing countries. Now the dam and grid builders are hungry for new markets: where better than Tibet?


Which of these potential hydro dams will actually be built? Which corporate builders will be attracted to TAR by the NDRC’s new incentives?

If NDRC’s June 2018 directive to the TAR government  does translate into action, on the ground, in TAR, with engineers and construction crews swarming to remote valleys and lakes to build hydro dams, we can readily predict who the builders will be, because this is a contract construction market restricted to a few players, all of them big state-owned corporations, used to operating worldwide.

We know their preferred mode of operation, which is no longer to build the dam, collect their contracted payment and leave. These days they prefer the BOT model, meaning build, operate and eventually transfer the ownership of the dam back to the TAR government, but only after operating the dam and collecting payments for the electricity generated, for the first two or three decades of the hydro dam’s life. Not only is that a way to increase profits in the long run, it also enables the ultimate owner of the land and the dam –the party-state- to get the dam built without having to pay upfront for all the construction costs. The BOT model means more dams get built, not delayed by governments restricted by having insufficient capital to invest, in a time when speculative investment in urban real estate is more quickly profitable for local governments.

The BOT model allows the builder to also operate the hydro dam for decades, the first decades being the most profitable, often with a price for electricity locked into the contract, at a time when the dam is at its most productive, before it later fills with silt, cracks or suffers an earthquake which may well be induced by the sheer weight of impounded water onto the faults below.

Not only are the dam builders and power grid builders some of China’s biggest corporations, but among the biggest worldwide. This makes them easy to track. Any business news website –Reuters Business, Bloomberg or CNBC for example- will quickly tell you where in the world these giant corporations are sealing their next big deal, which may well be in a country where Tibetan voices are heard.

Hydro is a global industry, with industry newsletters that tell you about the latest deals. Many of these corporations have floated shares on a Chinese stock exchange, which requires them to regularly report their plans and results, especially anything risky that might affect their stock price, and that includes investing in Tibet.

These corporations are diligently tracked by the NGO International Rivers. Here is a sketch of those big players:

PowerChina Resources and Sinohydro have merged and are now wholly owned by Power Construction Corporation of China中国电建. Sinohydro is mainly a project contractor, undertaking construction contracts, while PowerChina Resources focuses on constuction and operation, undertaking BOT contracts in other countries. During the ten-year period reviewed, Sinohydro comes out as the Chinese company that has built the most hydropower capacity (48,828 MW) and largest number of hydropower projects (118 projects). For 28 of these projects, Sinohydro collaborated with Chinese BOT developers. PowerChina Resources is involved in BOT projects. It completed Kamchay (193 MW) in Cambodia, and now is building the Nam Ou Cascade (1,156 MW) in Laos and Busanga project (240 MW) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Projects in the pipeline for PowerChina Resources include Lower Sesan 3 in Cambodia, Pak Lay in Laos, and Lasolo in Indonesia. Track Power Construction Corp here.

  1. China Gezhouba Group Corporation葛洲坝 is a member of China Energy Engineering Group Co., Ltd. Gezhouba was founded in 2006 and is a major hydropower project contractor in China. Gezhouba is second to Sinohydro in terms of its overseas hydropower development.  It has a total hydropower capacity of 30,409 MW and 42 completed projects. Gezhouba has experienced a drop in overseas projects between 2012-2015, but has gained growth again in the last two years, thanks to projects repackaged under the Belt and Road Initiative. Gezhouba built the Zangmu dam across the Yarlung Tsangpo. You can track its notifications to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.






















  1. China Three Gorges Corporation(CTG)  三峡水利 is the third largest hydropower entity. It specializes in large-scale hydropower development and operation and mainly targets large-scale BOT projects in the overseas market. China International Water & Electric Corporation (CWE) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CTG and undertakes both BOT and EPC hydropower projects. CTG has signed 12 BOT projects and 1 EPC project under the brand of CTG with a total capacity of 27,066 MW. The BOT projects CTG have signed are all mega projects, and located in Pakistan, Burma, Nepal and Russia. To date, only the Karot project (720 MW) in Pakistan has begun construction. Track its corporate reporting here.
  2. China Power Investment Corporation(CPI) was a state-owned electricity producer and is now known as the developer of the (suspended) Myitsone mega Dam (6,000MW). In 2015, CPI merged with the State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation to become State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC) which is one of the five biggest power generation enterprises in China. All the projects CPI has signed have been BOT, located in Burma and to date have not had any progress.
  3. China Guodian Corporation(Guodian) is also one of the five biggest power generation enterprises in China. Guodian operates power generation plants- mainly thermal power, hydropower and wind power. Earlier in 2017, Guodian merged with Shenhua Group Corp., China’s top coal miner. This new entity has assets of USD $271 billion, and will be the world’s second-biggest company by revenue and largest by installed capacity and the new entity will be moving towards increasing renewable energy solutions rather than coal. Guodian has signed three BOT projects, Nam Tabak and Mawlaik in Burma, and Sambor in Cambodia (recent news indicates that Guodian may have withdrawn from Sambor and that Huaneng has taken over). 
  4. China Datang Corporation(Datang) 大唐发电 was founded in 2002 and is also one of the five biggest power generation enterprises in China. Datang’s projects are BOT and are mainly located in Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The completed projects are Dapein 1 in Burma, and Stung Atay in Cambodia. The Pak Beng and Sanakham in Laos are under consideration. Track Datang here.
  5. Lastly, China National Electric Engineering CO., Ltd(CNEEC) is a state-owned professional international engineering company. Its overseas focus has been EPC contracts and other construction contracts. CNEEC has been involved in the construction of 12 hydropower projects. CNEEC undertakes relatively small projects (<100MW), but its geographical footprint covers most regions of the globe.”

Now that all these corporate giants operate globally, and increasingly get to not only build the dams but then operate the hydropower turbines for a subsequent two or three decades, generating enormous cash flow, would any of them feel tempted by much smaller hydro projects in frigid Tibet?


Everything points to the one sure winner, guaranteed in advance by the central party-state: the State Grid Corporation. NDRC has long championed State Grid, and been criticised for being too close to the corporate colossus. Those critiques, even under Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power, have sometimes been highly public, such as a televised debate in 2014 on State Grid’s advocacy for its ultra-high voltage grid technology. “What is striking about the debate was not only the uncompromising positions by both supporters and opponents but also their equally critical view of the government, especially of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a powerful macroeconomic planner in China. The opponents to the projects criticized NDRC for approving them in the first place and for supporting the construction of a synchronized UHV alternating current (AC) and UHV direct current (DC) system connecting three regions at the expense of system reliability.”[1]

Fortunately, we have a detailed insider analysis of State Grid Corporation 电从远方来, based on 15 years of fieldwork.[2] State Grid has been adept at positioning itself for China’s post-industrial transition away from coal, towards oil, gas, hydro and now solar as alternative sources of energy, as long as there is a massive, interconnected grid to juggle them all. State Grid’s slogan has been “replacing coal with electricity, replacing oil with electricity, and using electricity from afar” (以电代煤,以电代油,电从远方来). If State Grid can now electrify Tibet, and be paid handsomely to do so, it may yet get to fulfil a long-held dream of supplying electricity from Tibet to lowland China, at least in the summer.

State Grid is a powerful player, yet its vision of ultra-high grids is facing new challenges. New markets, with guaranteed returns on capital, are needed. “Central SOEs can be active actors shaping these directives. They do not have an automatic right to participate in the policy-making process, nor are their interests represented automatically by government agencies, whose interests are always in conflict among themselves anyway. To get what they want, the key SOEs, as do other players, have to be proactive, proposing new ideas and initiatives, participating in policy debates, and selling their preferred policy proposals to their industry counterparts and policy makers. This is in part because the central SOEs are by and large accountable for their own performance and must operate as corporations first and foremost. To influence and shape policy making is part of the game. Consequently, economic policy making in China is no longer the result of competition among functional bureaucracies and territorial administrations, as the initial model of fragmented authoritarianism suggests. Instead, central SOEs must be treated as independent players in a pluralized decision-making process.”[3]










[1] Xu Yi-chong,  China’s Giant State-Owned Enterprises as Policy Advocates: The Case of the State Grid Corporation of China, China Journal 79, 2017, 21-39

[2] Xu Yi-chong, Sinews of Power: Politics of the State Grid Corporation of China, Oxford, 2017

[3] China’s Giant State-Owned Enterprises as Policy Advocates, 23

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I owe you an explanation.

A year ago, I posted a blog announcing I was going to die soon.

A year later the blogs still roll out, and so do I.

The tumours are still there, though shrunk, in the lungs and elsewhere, and they will probably consume me. But no-one knows when. A year ago, the doctors told me: no more operations, no more radiation or chemo, all treatment options are exhausted, nothing more to be done. You have months.

The sudden bout of coughing blood, which triggered the CT-scan that resulted in that final diagnosis was a shock, not a surprise. All along, through the several operations, bouts of radiation and chemo, I had been told there is a high likelihood of recurrence. Even when the surgeons, after a 12-hour operation, triumphantly announced: “You’re cured”, my immediate reaction was to say: “You can’t say that.” So the spread of the tumours, from skin, to salivary glands, to nerves, to lymph glands and into the lungs was half expected.

In some ways, I was glad to be definitively off the medical treadmill, a clear message that neither I nor the doctors had any further hopes. I signed on to palliative care, and tried to ready myself for the long journey into the next life. That included saying good bye to everyone, including online in that blog.

For three months, I wasted away, all my energy consumed by the voracious tumours. I ate a lot, but the tumours ate it all, leaving me grey, tired, rudderless, but somehow determined to face dying and what happens beyond.

There was a token cycle or two of chemo, as the doctors said: “to give you a little more time.” No more talk of remission, just, at most, slowing the tumours a little. It didn’t work.

What made the difference was immunotherapy, and here I am a year later, not only able to tell the tale, but with energy refound. That’s why the blogs continue.

Technically I am an HNSCC, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma patient, one of only a few thousand worldwide to get the new immunotherapy infusion that simply reminds the immune system how to recognise cancer cells and destroy them. It works the way sowa rigpa works, not by attacking, but by strengthening.

Is this luck? Is it the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas? It’s all that. It’s the biggest advance in cancer treatment in a century, and it became available at just the moment it made all the difference between life and death for one individual, me.

My wanderings through the many layers of cancer world have had such junctures before; this is only the most dramatic. Many times, causes and conditions have combined, producing moments to be seized, decisions to be made, conducive to life. Again and again such moments arise, to be recognised and acted on. I am blessed, surrounded by enlightened mind and its uncountable legacies, and potentials, for me to awaken to if I have my wits about me. I am blessed.

Now, a year on, the miraculous is humdrum, a fortnightly train trip to the city, to have that clear liquid pumped into my veins, no pain, no drama of any sort, just the routine of nurses administering drips, sitting alongside those getting chemo that same way. It might be done, for administrative convenience, in a chemo setting, but what a difference, between calculated poisoning of all fast growing cells, benign and malign alike, compared with this strengthener of the body’s innate capacity to recognise and deal with cells that don’t belong.

Now I look back on the three months when I was definitely dying, before the immunotherapy started. Being able to say my goodbyes, tidying my affairs, turning to face death and what occurs beyond, was a privilege few get. We all know we must die, but it is out of sight, over the horizon, until it suddenly happens.

I got to do a three month rehearsal, now the force of habit has locked back into place, and death again seems far. Only it’s not, those three months did remind me that trying to stay in control is a delusion, that it can’t be fixed, our entire civilizational obsession with calculating and managing risks only multiplies threat perceptions, which proliferate endlessly. I’m changed, and not much changed by those three months approaching death’s door. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once instructed someone, instead of the usual ngondro process for softening a rigidly habitual mind, to chant, one million times: “It can’t be fixed.”

Living on means living with the 24/7 consequences of radiation damage, a constantly stiffening neck and shoulder, as muscles tighten into a fibrotic clutching of the neck. The removal of salivary and lymph glands, the operation that stripped half my face of all its nerves, leaves me with dribbling mouth, swollen cheek and sagging eyelid, collateral damage of surgical skill that did save my life, for long enough to be still around when immunotherapy arrived. Managing the complications of a dry mouth, dry and irritated eye, plus the many odd side effects of a recharged immune system in combat inside my lungs, is tricky. It’s all too easy to make it a medical treadmill. I see dentists, plastic surgeons, ophthalmologists, dermatologists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, lymphoedema specialists, masseurs, rehabilitation gym coaches regularly, as well as the oncologists, CT imaging folks and the chemo infusion nurses. In the public health system of a rich country nearly all of that is without monetary cost, an extraordinary blessing.

Anyone in my circumstances in India or China could perhaps get such treatment, if they were millionaires. I would have been dead two years by now, if in Tibet. If I was American, no problem, immunotherapy is there, but I would have long mortgaged my house to pay for it, and be exhausted, at every step, arguing with health insurers refusing to pay for treatments of unproven effectiveness.

Managing all of this can so readily become full-time, blotting out the eastern sun of awakening to the bigger picture. It is my default setting to fixate on all those yoga stretches and trigger points and dry eye ointments, routines within routines, making myself a suitable case of micro-management, a miniature of the global obsession with controlling risks.

I remind myself you can’t face death like that, it will come, ready or not, control freak or not. You have to be able to let go, to remain focussed and not distracted by minutiae, awake to rediscovering the nature of mind, not compulsively swallowed up by its momentary contents. The tumours are still there, one year on. Immunotherapy can have dramatic unintended consequences, including auto-immune attacks on healthy organs by an overstimulated immune system. Courtesy of the immunotherapy manufacturer, I wear a wristband alerting hospital emergency departments that if I arrive unconscious on an ambulance trolley, it could be something they don’t recognise, immunotherapy anaphylaxis. My life is on a thread, as it is for us all, only I have the blessing of frequent reminders.

This affects my writing. It motivates me to continue delving into China’s plans for Tibet, seeing in them writ large the delusion of top level design, the central planner’s fixation on controlling everything. Am I projecting? Why can’t I just mind my own business? There’s plenty of unfinished business to attend to, to think through, to turn the mind to. That includes, having publicly said goodbye to my blog audience, to you, the embarrassment of saying, hi, I’m still here.

Having said bye and hi, it could be bye again, any time. All it would take is for those pesky side effects to become too much, I’d be taken off immunotherapy and back to dying again. The tumours would come roaring back, or (maybe) the immune system has now learned not to be outfoxed, and will by itself remember to keep zapping the tumour cells, in no further need of fortnightly reminders. No-one knows, it’s all too new. So many unknowns, as is so for us all.

So I continue to garden, and to write. There’s not much else needs doing, other than the hospital treatment visits. I get on with investigating China’s gold mines in Tibet, poverty alleviation, national parks, rigid zoning rules, reshaping the state, and more, blogging at length, knowing that a few readers, despite my dense prose, need to know the details, forewarned is forearmed.

Back here, on this patch of densely planted hillside, it is winter and at last the rains have come, the frogs remind me every night. Last winter I was withering away, now I do my weight training twice a week at the gym, despite the partially collapsed lung. Winter flowers bloom –cockies’ tongue (templetonia retusa), guichenotia, soon the first of many wattles.

Despite reverting to old habits, things have shifted. That three-month rehearsal for dying has given me more trust in enlightened mind, and in accessing it wherever and whenever, that it is ever present. I am not alone and don’t need to invent everything all over again from first principles, as if I am a random atom. I’m a bit more grounded, attentive to what’s going on, a bit more aware of how I habitually distract myself, trip up and take literally the phantoms conjured by mind.

Is that enough to maintain stable awareness when the consciousness no longer has a body foundational to the exhausting project of being me? No. Confusion in the bardo is more than likely. Am I ready to die? I did descend into the valley, felt the shadows lengthen, but now I am back up on the plateau, back on default settings. I take renewed interest in the plateau nomads. When the time comes to plunge again to the valley, it will again be no surprise, but still a shock.

Talk of death is now everyday talk in our family, practical talk, of wills and what to do with all of those books. I’d like to ask Rukor readers to also consider the future of this niche blog, not because it has any reason to live on, beyond me, but because it serves, I hope, as an early warning system for Tibetans as to what China, at the highest level, has in mind for Tibet. That is useful.

I am struck by the extent to which China, as part of its engineered transition from a resource-guzzling low cost factory for world consumption, is now refashioning itself into a consumer-driven tourism consumption middle to high income country. The transition has been years in the making, and at first just seemed to be the usual CCP sloganeering, but now momentum is growing, and the shift is happening. For Tibet, especially U-Tsang, it means a shift from mining and resource exploitation to a new, post-industrial vision, in which whole landscapes are exploited, marketed as pure, pristine, romantic wilderness, for city Chinese to see for themselves, en masse, and commune with nature/consume nature. That requires emptying the land of its people, who inconveniently get in the way of the emotional gush of witnessing no-man’s land and its iconic wildlife.

This is a new form of exploitation, which requires depopulating rural Tibet, herding the nomads and perhaps even the farmers off the land and into concrete boxes under intensive surveillance. The old economy, of intensive exploitation of resources such as water, gold, copper etc. has not disappeared, and in Amdo and Kham continues to grow, but depopulating the production landscapes of rural Tibet is also accelerating, in the name of biodiversity conservation, protection of water supply, carbon capture by growing more grass, and even poverty alleviation.

Much of this may turn out to be ideology that never becomes ground truth, just the fantasies of top level designers in charge of official ideology. China has always struggled to impose its visions onto Tibet. Yet mass domestic tourism is shaping up as the dominant industry, across Tibet, a new form of urban-based consumption that requires depopulation.

That is what is seldom the focus, among Tibetans free to look into what’s ahead. We all have our default settings, and that includes averting our gaze from China’s long term plans for Tibet. We assume China does not change that much, or that Xi Jinping Thought tells us nothing about what matters, on the ground, in Tibet.

It would also be a big mistake to assume that all of China’s plans for Tibet will be realised. Central planners love the neatness of mapping the entire Tibetan Plateau into Key Ecological Function Zones or as Key Economic Zones. In overcrowded China, they have no such freedom to allocate entire landscapes and ecosystems to accord with their exclusionary categories, but in Tibet, they love to go mapping.  Much of this may turn out to be fantasy. A consumer-driven China may no longer need all the hydropower dams planned for remote Tibetan rivers, because China’s electricity-hungry industries are shifting to Cambodia and Myanmar. But the first step is to know what a highly centralised China has in mind for Tibet. That is what this www.rukor.org blog has tried to do.

That is worth continuing, not only because Tibetans in Tibet need to know those plans, but also because the world has stopped listening to Tibet, and we need new issues, new arguments, to attract new attention. We need to connect with what the world is focused on, issues such as climate change, food security, wildlife conservation, China’s global role as importer of food and minerals, exporter of railways and surveillance technology. When these issues come up, we can insert a Tibetan angle, Tibetan viewpoints, into those ongoing debates. We can make Tibet relevant again to people who see it now as tangential, a side issue in a world struggling with more urgent things.

That means focussing on China’s ambition to dominate global manufacture of electric vehicles and the global production of lithium for car batteries. It means focussing on the new high speed rail lines constructed in Tibet, through the Dola Ri of northern Amdo and connecting Xining with Chengdu via Rebkong and Dzitsa Degu (Jiuzhaigou). Not only does high speed rail access to Tibet speed up tourism arrivals, it turns Tibet into a sales showroom for railway technology customers around the world. The same is true of surveillance technology. Come to Lhasa and see hi-tech grid management in action.

I have no way of knowing how much longer I will live, as it true for almost all of us. But those tumours (neck, shoulder, lung, pelvis) have already proven stronger than all the major operations and cycles of chemo and radiation, and must win in the end. I enjoy this plateau while it lasts, but this is not remission, still less the “breakthrough” or “miracle” that fills cancer survivor forums and media chatter. I will wither away.

The Tibet movement is withering. The world has moved on, and we can move with it. In hindsight, the peak decade for the Tibet movement was the 1990s, a decade in which, in a post-Cold War world it seemed possible that human rights became universal, transcending national sovereignty. Those days are now long gone, as ugly nationalism roars back. I need to move on to be better prepared for the confusions of the bardo, and we all need to move on to deal with the bardo of this life and its aggressive governments.

Tibetans have always been good at seizing those moments when, in that moment alone, the small may best the big. How did minister Gar Tongtsen win the Chinese princess Wencheng to marry her to the Tibetan king Songtsen? By a clear mind, wit, and an earthy groundedness. How do we reinsert Tibet into global debate? By noticing Tibet as the far end of China’s “social credit” system of punishments and rewards for people judged, by hi-tech surveillance, to be trustworthy or untrustworthy. Not only is China’s delusion of total control of each citizen a widespread concern worldwide, there is now increasing recognition that China’s reliance on Alibaba, and our reliance on Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google have much in common, and it’s scary.

We need a minister Gar to join the dots, to remind us where all that Orwellian nonsense is first trialled and implemented: in Tibet. That means Tibet is no longer an afterthought, it is central to the world we are now in, where huge high tech monopolies dominate our lives, know exactly who we are and what we want, and make their money from selling their data on you and me to product makers. There is a rapid convergence here, in which China and the rest of the world are not really different, and if anything China is the leader we are all following, with Tibet in the vanguard as laboratory for testing big data gathered from our every move. That’s a major opportunity.

Only Tibetans can make that pitch. Even if I live on a while, there is not much one old white guy in a village in peripheral Australia can do, other than watch carefully. So that is my pitch, to you, the Tibetan reader, to become a new Gedun Chophel.

I do owe you an explanation, and it morphed into an exhortation. Is this my “last will and testament?” No one knows. May we meet again online, in this world as well as the next.



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Blog two of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people


If all human activity in Tibet is harmful to biodiversity and water supply, nature and culture have been fully divorced, and exist only as antagonists. The possibility of humans living in nature, with nature, in sustainability, is swept aside, as an impossibility. Extreme dualism is now normal. Until, at last, construction of ecological civilisation brings these two competing realms together anew, thanks to the wisdom and top-level design of the Chinese Communist party.

China’s scientists, attuned to official policy,  are now able to reduce the whole of Tibet to a single number, the Human Footprint Score, proclaiming its rise as a danger signal, attributable mostly to increased impacts of livestock herd numbers rather than China’s intensive investments in enclaves of extraction and urbanisation, and the transport networks connecting them. This naturalises the dominance of a single metric, which would never be administered to the overworked, overloaded landscapes on the other side of the Hu Huanyong line. Imagine the Human Footprint Score (HFS) for the polluted, overcrowded, industrialised and highly urbanised provinces of eastern China. But the focus of Chinese science, and central planning, is on Tibet, and the HFS numbers are increasing, by as much as 32.35% (note the precision) in only the two decades from 1990 to 2010. Further, this alarming increase is due mostly to the grazing pressure of increasing herd sizes, rather than other satellite readable indicators of human impact such as the amount of streetlamp light detectable from space, which is actually one of the five metrics constituting the Human Footprint Score.

The antagonism  between nature and any human presence in the landscape, established by the Human Footprint Score, supplies the scientific rationale for depopulating Tibet, while no one has dreamt of depopulating lowland China since Han officials of the Yuan dynasty talked their newly ascendant Mongol rulers out of killing the Han peasant farmers of northern China over six centuries ago.

In 2018, a team of Chinese land resource geoscientists from prestigious research institutes in Beijing, Wuhan and Berlin published their HFS assessment of Tibet Autonomous Region in a respectable academic journal, Science of the Total Environment. [1] Their starting point is that any human activity in Tibet is harmful, a self-evident, axiomatically true baseline. They “considered five categories of human pressure (population density, land use intensity, grazing intensity, road and railways, and the electricity infrastructure) to map the human footprint for 1990 and 2010 in a spatially explicit way. These pressures were weighted according to estimates of their relative levels of influence on nature. Tibet has one of the world’s largest high-mountain grassland ecosystems and is a major pastoral area of China. Therefore, grazing intensity was considered to be a human pressure in Tibet, which was consistent with previous studies of the Tibetan Plateau.”

The scientific team weighted all their sat-cam generated data in accord with this initial assumption. Their frame was the years 1990 to 2010, both being census years which reveal the total human population of the Tibetan Plateau has increased greatly, from around six million in the 1950s to over ten million today, due mostly to the influx of Han and Hui immigrants to urban areas and farming districts in Qinghai.  This population increase, accompanied by rapid urbanisation and a massive capital expenditure on infrastructure and logistics, on highways, railways, hydro power stations, electricity grids, oil wells and pipelines somehow add up to a lesser impact than changes in nomadic grazing between 1990 and 2010.

From the outset, they make brazen assumptions: “Human activities pose severe threats to ecosystems. As the Earth’s third pole, the Tibetan Plateau (TP) provides various ecosystem services for human beings, including water resources for nearly 40% of the world’s population.  The eastern and southeastern TP and the central part of the Tibet Autonomous Region saw high HII. For 1990–2010, the 1 km scale mean HII increased by 28.43%, which is much greater than the global level of 9% for 1993–2009, suggesting that the TP and the ecosystem services it provided may face with more threats. HII increase was mainly observed in the northeastern TP. Rapid increase of human activities within valuable regions for water retention and biodiversity conservation during 1990–2010 were detected, especially for the former.[2]

The mapping of the scientists is misleading, even dishonest, for several reasons. First, by taking the years 1990, 2000 and 2010 as their benchmarks, the intensive industrialisation of parts of Tibet prior to 1990 is largely ignored, especially in the Tsaidam Basin. China has extracted around two million tons of oil a year from the Tsaidam for decades, more recently large quantities of gas have been extracted and piped to Chinese industrial centres.

Second, the watersheds rising in Tibet provide water to around 1.3 billion people, not “nearly 40% of the world’s population”, a number obtainable by adding the entire populations of the sovereign territories of all state from Pakistan through to Vietnam and China, including billions of people outside of watersheds whose upstream is in Tibet. To claim 40% of humanity drinks water from Tibet relies on political definitions of nation-states, not on scientific categories of water catchments.

Third, the map, immediately usable by policy makers, does unite the entire Tibetan Plateau as a singular entity, including all 150 counties, whether they are in TAR, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. However, their unit of reporting human impact is the county, even though what distinguishes China’s human impacts is their location in specific enclaves of intensive exploitation and intensive change of land use. By generalising impacts at county level, entire counties are branded. They also map at one sq km level, which is more precise in zeroing in on China’s interventions as the locus of human impact.

Fourth, many of the most intensively  impacted counties are in areas where Tibetans have long been outnumbered, disempowered and marginalised by decades of immigration of Hui Muslim Chinese and other Han Chinese farmers, and in recent years, industrial workers in the many factories surrounding Xining, the capital of Qinghai, now a city of well over two million, making it by far the biggest city of the Tibetan Plateau, with the biggest footprint.

Fifth, these studies fail to mention the rise in human habitation of the Tibetan Plateau, from a population of six million (by Tibetan estimates, less by Chinese census data) four or five decades ago, to a total of more than 10 million, according to the latest (2010) census. This rise of at least 65 per cent is in part due to a rise in Tibetan population, but is mostly due to push and pull immigration, as Muslim Chinese join relatives who settled in Qinghai earlier in the 20th century, and official resettlement schemes encouraged immigration, or coerced it.

Sixth, their headline finding is that human impact intensity in Tibet increased by 28.43 per cent, far faster than global human impact intensity increased.  This alarmingly precise computation, aimed at China’s policy makers, makes Tibet problematic, especially those very big areas already designated as Key Ecological Function Zones, whether for water supply (misleadingly characterised in these reports as water retention) or for conservation of (unspecified) biodiversity. The baseline for comparing Tibet to the world is a single 2016 study that self-importantly claims to reduce the entire land surface of the planet to a single number signifying the impact of humans in 2009 compared with 1993.[3]

These artifices, pretending to be objective, have been thoroughly critiqued.[4]






[1] Shicheng Li, Jianshuang Wu, Jian Gong, Shaowei Li, Human footprint in Tibet: Assessing the spatial layout and effectiveness of nature reserves, Science of the Total Environment, 621 (2018) 18–29

Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286

Fan, J., Xu, Y.,Wang, C.S., Niu, Y.F., Chen, D., Sun, W., 2015. The effects of human activities on the ecological environment of Tibet over the past half century. Chinese Science Bulletin 60, 3057–3066.

[2] Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286. The authors are from the Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences, Beijing; School of Public Administration, China University of Geosciences, Wuhan and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing.

[3]Oscar Venter et al, Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation, Nature Communications, 7, 12258, 2016,  https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12558

[4] Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton University Press. (1995)  https://muse.jhu.edu/book/36191 

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Blog three of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people.

Tibet has become human, all too human, and that is a problem. The Human Footprint Score or Human Influence Intensity (HFS or HII) has increased considerably in Tibet in recent decades, which, China’s scientists tell us, is deeply problematic. A double standard is now entrenched, with Tibet held accountable, and failing, to meet a standard of biodiversity that no longer applies to lowland China.

In an era of big data, there is now a scientistic precision suggesting an alarming increase in human impacts on Tibet which, mysteriously, are not due to China’s “leap-style” program of industrialisation and urbanisation of Tibet, but are very much the fault of ignorant, careless Tibetan nomads and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats.

Addressing central leaders the Chinese scientists who came up with a 28.43 per cent increase in human impact in Tibet, assert: “Over the past 20 years, the county-scale mean HII [human influence intensity] increased by 31.45% (28.43%), which is much greater and faster than the global level of 9% for 1993–2009, suggesting that the TP [Tibetan Plateau] may face with more threats induced by irrational human activities. More attention should be paid to this situation by scholars and decision-makers with regard to ecosystem services and biodiversity.” That’s the bottom line: what endangers nature, which is utterly separate from human culture, is not China’s self-defined “leap-style development” of Tibet, but the “irrational” activities of herders.

The 2016 global study divides the land surface of the Earth into 772 “bioregions”, assigning a number to each for 1993 and 2009, by quantifying such quantifiables as night light, as measured by satellites. That is meant as a proxy for the intensity of urbanisation.

Shicheng Li, Yili Zhang, Zhaofeng Wang, Lanhui Li, Mapping human influence intensity in the Tibetan Plateau for conservation of ecological service functions, Ecosystem Services, Volume 30, Part B, April 2018, Pages 276-286
Fan, J., Xu, Y.,Wang, C.S., Niu, Y.F., Chen, D., Sun, W., 2015. The effects of human activities on the ecological environment of Tibet over the past half century. Chinese Science Bull. 60, 3057–3066.

Since 1993 was their baseline, and their key conclusion was to compare that with a number for 16 years later, the entire industrialisation and urbanisation of the rich countries is built in to their 1993 basis of comparison. Not surprisingly, in many wealthy “bioregions” things actually improved from 1993 to 2009, while in the rapidly industrialising emerging economies, things got worse, since the whole point of the exercise was to quantify threats to biodiversity of bioregions. The main causes of a 2009 global human impact score in 2009 being worse than in 1993 was expansion of crop land, the amount of light emitted into the night sky, and human population density. Pastoralism’s global impact in 2009 was considerably less than in 1993. But, as usual, Tibet is different: it is all the fault of the nomads.

Since 1993, China has accelerated capital expenditure on urbanisation of Tibet, mineral extraction, hydropower dam construction, highways, railways, power grids and roads to all counties. Yet it is Tibetan pastoralism that the Chinese scientists singled out as the biggest threat. They assigned the highest and most threatening impact to pastoral district where human population density reaches 50 persons per sq km. Yet population density in the whole of China, including Tibet, is 151 persons per sq km.

Taken together, these six factors, all downplayed by these supposedly scientific assessments, point to a sharp increase in human influence intensity, concentrated in Tibet’s resource extraction enclaves, intensive farming zones, industrialised areas, booming urbanisation, and in the networks of highways, railways and power grids connecting them all. If human influence intensity is to be mapped, this is readily done: just follow the engineering corridors and urban boundaries. Intensification is explicitly the core of China’s productivist strategy for Tibet, and intensification by its nature is territorially specific and easily identified and mapped. The opposite of intensive land use is extensive land  use, which is what characterises the traditional Tibetan mode of production, which uses large areas lightly, grazing and then moving on to let grasses recover from controlled grazing pressure. A recent overview of all available research reports on this topic, both Chinese and international, concludes that the customary Tibetan strategy of moderate grazing, while avoiding heavy grazing, actually increases biodiversity.[1]

What if China’s scientists and the policy makers they advise applied this standard to the other side of the Hu Huanyong line, to southern and eastern China? What if they tested there to confirm that all human activity is a danger to biodiversity?

The data are readily available. One has only to look at a map of panda habitat two centuries ago, compared to now, to see how pandas are now restricted, by habitat loss as human impact accelerated, to their remaining refuges in the steep, dense bamboo thickets at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau.

The fossil record of prehistoric panda habitat shows an even wider distribution, across most of southeastern China, where hundreds of millions of people now dominate all resource use.

What if scientists quantified China as an importer of water, draining the water resources of other countries, not by direct transfer but through its reliance on crops grown in many countries, imported into China, all grown in reliance on rainfed agriculture using unpolluted naturally “green” water. Again this footprint is readily measurable. The UN estimates that, after the US, China is the world’s second biggest water importer. [2]

The Hu line slashes China into two realms, that operate on two different logics. To the west and north is the realm of nature; to the south and east the human realm of culture. The biodiversity remaining in the west must be protected by the superior civilisation of the east, precisely because  there is biodiversity remaining in the west even if this is a legacy of ethnic minority cultures that refused to privilege the human over the natural, or assign them to separate categories. It is precisely because there is so little natural left in the east that the question of assigning a Human Footprint Score there does not arise, is actually inconceivable.

The legislative voice that now declares all human activity west of the Hu line to threaten nature is the voice of the cities, high status institutes, ministries of centralised power, exercising their prescriptive discourse to reclaim the west –effectively China’s Orient- as the ultimate Other to densely packed lowland cities where wealth accumulation is the main game. Making the west the realm of nature makes the east feel it is more than the primitive stage of accumulating wealth. The concern to restrict human activity in the west makes the east a great ecological civilisation. Lands once considered to be wasteland, forbidding, inhospitable, even unnaturally cold, unnaturally hypoxic, are now to be embraced as a pure realm of biodiversity.

In some areas, everyone knows what the abstraction called biodiversity signifies, such as pandas, and implicitly a lot of other unnamed species and habitats that are incidentally protected when the last remaining panda habitat is nobly protected. In Tibet, however, biodiversity has taken on a magical status as an end in itself, without much reference. What is to be protected? Most often named are Tibetan antelopes, much less often gazelles, wild yaks, wild sheep, donkeys and horses. Rodents such as the pika (Ochotona) continue to be stigmatised as pests, or, worse, reservoirs of plague infection, to be eradicated by mass campaigns of poisoning. Behind all these mammals loom the wolf, the snow leopard, the brown bear, and other predators. The wolf is now highly popular as the model for today’s China to aspire to.

The Hu line is familiar to anyone who uses a keyboard, its shape has a familiar name: the forward slash//////////, the frontier enabling entry to our next online destination. It holds us back, then lets us rush forward, to fulfil our destiny. We must obey it, then advance. We encounter the barrier and find ourselves in an alternative universe. We press on to a more glorious future.

This insistence that all human activity is inimical claims to be the opposite of anthropocentrism, yet is an anthropocentric conceit originating in the Marxist dialectic asserting there is a contradiction between grass and animals. If such contradiction existed, all grazing systems, all dryland, extensive livestock production worldwide would be unsustainable, perhaps impossible.

The arrogant assumption that all human activity in Tibet must be stopped by the force majeure of the human activity of the party-state is a nonsense. It denies thousands of years of sustainable use of the most remote, high altitude landscapes by skilled, self-reliant, even-minded nomads who live fully in the present moment, because to let the mind wander is to not notice immediate dangers, such as falling in deep snow down a steep slope. Just watch the trailer for the quietly observant doco Shepherdess of the Glaciers. [3]

The doco maker, her brother, says: “For eleven months of the year Tsering lives at an altitude of 4,500 to 6,000 meters, in temperatures ranging from 35°C below zero, to 35°C. She is several days walk from the village. Up in the mountain, higher and higher, she walks all day long, in all weather, seeking meager pastures to feed the herd. How can she possibly survive up there? Where does she find the strength?  In fact, Tsering shepherds life – her own life as well as the life of the herd. Anticipating, nursing, protecting, delivering kids, worrying and, in the end, accepting. She and her herd engage in a daily struggle for life.  Last winter the herd lost seventy goats. The snows lasted too long, the kids died, famine threatened, the leopard struck. Tsering dealt with all these hardships. She’s not afraid of anything.

“When the possibility of marriage arose, Tsering chose to look after the herd. Denied all human company, my sister learned everything by contemplating the mountains, the elements, plants and animals. Tsering is attentive to everything, to everyone. She knows every crevasse on the glacier, all the plants that heal, the sky, the moon, the leopard. She knows every one of her goats.
All her senses go to work.

My sister is a doctor, herbalist, weather forecaster, veterinarian, botanist, Himalayan guide, economist, philosopher, and goatherd – she’s all of them rolled into one.
Every day Tsering has to cope with limits – her own physical limits, environmental limits. She knows the world is competitive, but that her only real adversary is herself. Tsering is strong.”[4]

Metropolitan China has no idea this is what it is losing, or that there is anything in Tibet to be lost by depopulating its open rangelands. Overcrowded China sees solitude as abhorrent, at the mercy of the vast and indifferent forces of nature, an existence barely above that of the animals. Tibetans know differently. There is no need whatever of invoking shangri-la romanticism, just of remembering the connection in Tibetan tradition between solitude and inner growth.

Those who do know what stands to be lost remind us that Tsering Palmo, in her solitude amid the glaciers and vastness of Ladakh, is someone we can recognise. The literary historian of Tibet, Roberto Vitali says: “Loneliness is her companion. Her father handed over the work of shepherd to Tsering Palmo. She was ten when she set out with him into the wild for the first time. He told her that a shepherd must have a head of steel. She talks about the wilderness as a friend she has known all her life.

They are not places for suffering if one’s mind is as light as the air one breathes. Tsering Palmo negotiates the harshness of nature with a confidence that comes from her empathy with the environment. The camera moves in the landscape and focuses on the sister in a way that communicates a sense of unity and belonging. I thought of the great hermit masters of ancient Tibet, who, in pursuit of a spiritual life, left all attachment behind. I wondered whether Tsering Palmo Zemskhang should be considered a special breed of human being. I think her traits are typical of a khandroma, a dakini or ‘fairy of the sky’. But she claims she has no knowledge, only a stick in her hand and a basket on her shoulders. Her attitude is a sign that she doesn’t miss an iota of this insight. She stays away from everything else to meet her world -rich and intense.”

(Tibet Journal, LTWA, vol 42 #2 Autumn 2017)



[1] Xuyang Lu, Kathy C. Kelsey, Yan Yan, Jian Sun, Xiaodan Wang, Genwei Cheng, Jason C. Neff, Effects of grazing on ecosystem structure and function of alpine grasslands in Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau: a synthesis, Ecosphere, January 2017  Volume 8(1)

[2] UN Water, Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation, 2018, 169 http://dialogue.unwater.org/resources/

[3] https://filmfreeway.com/938500

[4] https://filmfreeway.com/938500

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Blog four of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people


In several Rukor blogs, we have explored the nationalisation of the Tibetan Plateau by a party-state keen to inscribe its ownership, active management and its sovereignty over vast lands it has never had much use for, or understanding of.

Nationalisation is a word summing up this assertion of exclusive sovereignty, China’s solution to the inherited problem of conquest, almost three centuries ago, of huge areas of inner Asia which today include not only Tibet but the new realm of Xinjiang as well. As all contiguous empires discover, conquest is the easy part, even if it took many attempts before succeeding. Then what?

When a vast empire, ruled by a distant capital, filled with conquered subjects who do not identify with their conquerors, what to do? This is the core dilemma of the conqueror, a long-term problem which academics who have taught in China have also considered in depth. [1]

The globally scattered empires of the European powers had different problems, limited to strategies for maximum extraction of commodities and wealth, from lands they conquered but had no need to settle, unless settlement of migrants from the metropole suited imperial interests. For the Europeans maximising extraction means installing the conquerors as apex predators, positioned by force at the top of the food chain, supported by an indigenous hierarchy of local rulers and rent seekers, clients of the new elite. Not much more is needed, other than a rationale making it all seem like a civilising mission that is all for the welfare of the natives.

Conquerors of contiguous empires connected overland to the metropole don’t have it so easy. The conquered must become nationals, alien rule must become acceptable, identities must shift from local loyalty to ethnos towards loyalty to the nation-state as primary. This is a massive task and a multi-generational one. Social engineering of identity formation takes time and strategic skills. The transfer of loyalty, from clan and tribe and nation to the modern nation-state requires an ability conquerors seldom have, to acknowledge and respect difference, to accept that the conquered do not share the same values as the conquerors, nor do they see their conquered lands the way the conquerors do. Those lands are home, not a distant outpost of frontier land of unknown potential.

If that distinguishes conquest from rule, China has failed to effectively rule Tibet. This is for many reasons. The conquests of the Qing dynasty three centuries ago were not followed by a program of sinification, of imposing Chinese characteristics, beyond imperial patronage of high lamas, and much imperial show of favour to hierarchs of Tibetan Buddhism. On the ground, in Tibet, Qing power faded and, by the early 20th century, was barely felt. When revolutionary China fought its way in, in the 1950s, it had to begin again, and took at first the route taken by the East India Company, of patronising the Tibetan aristocracy, keeping them well supplied with silver dollars, buying their loyalty for most of the 1950s.

That classic colonial strategy failed eventually, as more Tibetans in central Tibet became aware that in both Kham and Amdo the people’s republic waged full-scale war against Tibetans, sending waves of (disliked) refugees fleeing to Lhasa for shelter.

In hindsight, the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, which ended the tacit pact between the occupying People’s Liberation Army and the Tibetan aristocracy, could not have been at a worse time. Mao’s insistence that human will –especially his will- would overcome all obstacles, human and natural, was peaking, and he ruthlessly dispatched any who dared question him. The whole of China, and Tibet, were about to experience famine as a result. Tibet went overnight from “feudal serfdom” to what Tibetans experienced as a deeper slavery, their lives at the whim of commune cadres awarding work points redeemable as survival rations, granted to those who not only worked hard but chanted the right class warfare slogans and denounced all they had held dear. By 1959 Mao had crushed all flowerings of dissent, was fixated on a crash program to attain nuclear parity with both the US and USSR by insisting that human will overcomes all obstacles. Mao was the helmsman, able to inscribe his beautiful thoughts onto the blank minds of the masses, without interference from anyone.

The Tibetans had been exempted until 1959 from the rapidly accelerating great leap into heavy industrialisation by squeezing the peasants in who name the revolution had been fought. Mao had a high Stalinist dream of military industrialisation which required mobilising the entire population, without exception, to  surrender their few possessions and small plots of land to the command-and-control communes, which were to be the short cut to attaining a full suite of nuclear missiles fast.

After 1959 Tibetans were no longer exceptional, and went immediately into the promised new heaven on earth, which required class warfare, struggle sessions, denunciations, liquidations and smashing everything old. The entirety of Tibetan history, culture, identity, mind training and mode of production were all classified as the four olds, to be swept away to make room for the new.

New China, dismounting from the conqueror’s horse in order to rule, never made any serious attempt to understand the conquered, nor to apprehend the pastoral mode of production that was uniquely suited to dryland, upland landscapes. Revolutionary iconoclasm had nowhere any space for Tibetans to both be themselves and negotiate their entry into modernity.

Once the revolution so nearly bankrupted China, and Mao had died, a new beginning was possible. Replacing Mao’s grand narrative with feeling for the next stone in order to cross the river was a step towards not only opening up private economic enterprise but also opening minds to the messy business of making life up, according to whatever arises. The early 1980s was a time when China made moves to inculturate. CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang acknowledged the party had made many mistakes, and urged Han Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet to learn Tibetan.

It never happened. The new class had nothing to gain by seeing the world through Tibetan eyes. Cadre promotion was determined by success in fulfilling production quotas, or at the least producing plausible statistics announcing greater production, and the introduction of new pillar industries such as intensive logging of Tibetan forests. The regional autonomy law of 1984 was a high point. By 1987 it was clear Hu Yaobang’s reforms were going nowhere. In Lhasa, Tibetans revolted and were crushed by the garrisons of PLA troops dug into every Tibetan town. The liberal moment had passed and, by 1989, had vanished across China when the tanks smashed their way into Tiananmen. The space, in which China might learn something about the nature of Tibet, from Tibetans, closed.

Tibetans were acknowledged as different but their convergence with the Han norm was also deemed a historic necessity, indeed an inevitability.  Republican China under Sun Yat-sen had declared the Tibetans one of the five great families that together constitute the Chinese nation, a way of accommodating and encompassing difference within a wider sameness.

Communist China repudiated this formula, and the coloured five stripe flag that went with it, while eventually adopting something similar. By the beginning of this century, driven by high-level fears that the Soviet collapse was due to ethnic minority separatism, the regional autonomy guaranteed by the 194 law was deliberately and systematically downgraded, with minzu redefined no longer as nationality, becoming merely the personal choice of individuals of cultural preferences.

At no point since the reconquest of the 1950s has China shown much curiosity about Tibetan language, culture, lifeways, modes of production as the foundations for modernity. With the exception of a few liberal years in the early 1980s, Tibet has been consistently seen as barren, harsh, unnaturally and dangerous cold and with life-threateningly thin air, a backward, poverty-stricken land that is unproductive, the Tibetans wasteful of its vast area and mineral treasures, indifferent to wealth accumulation, lacking in almost all attributes of civilisation.

Yet the task of the rulers of contiguous empires persists: how to make alien rule acceptable? The CCP not only wants the Tibetan and Uighur masses to love the party, they have made such love mandatory. This is self-defeating.

Despite the enormous differences between China in 1949 and now, there are continuities. When CCP Secretary Hu Yaobang toured Tibet in 1982, and instructed cadres to learn Tibetan, he was ignored. To this day, few Han have learned Tibetan, which only heightens Han fears that even Tibetans who dutifully profess their love for the party-state, in private deny it. For sixty years –the six decades in which China has vigorously attempted to actually govern Tibet- the starting point has always been that there is nothing to learn from Tibetans, not even how to manage landscapes so different to lowland China, in ways that are both productive and sustainable.

Much has also changed in those six decades. Revolutionary enthusiasm to sweep away all that is old may have caused contempt for all things Tibetan , backed by certainty that history is with the necessity of revolution, and any Tibetans who demur are victims of false consciousness. Today, faith in revolutions that can level mountains by sheer will are a faint memory best forgotten; yet certainty remains that Tibet is backward, lacking in all endowments conducive to progress, and is objectively, if left to persist with its traditional mode of production, a drag on delivery of environmental services. The new objective necessity for ignoring or even excluding customary lifeways is scientific, not revolutionary, but the conclusion is the same: for the good of Tibet, customary land use must end. Reducing human activity across the Tibetan Plateau is necessary to ensure provision of water to lowland China, to conserve biodiversity, to resolve the contradiction between grass and animals.

[1] Michael Hechter , Containing Nationalism, Oxford, 2001

Michael Hechter, Alien Rule And Its Discontents, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 53, Issue 3, 2009

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Blog one of four on splitting the land of Tibet from the Tibetans as a people

China’s frequently repeated Marxist dialectic proposition, that there is a contradiction between grass and animals simply means what is obvious: the more grass the animals graze, the less grass is left, until the next growing season; conversely, the fewer the grazing animals, the more grass there is.

On that simple observation an entire ideological edifice rests, of Chinese superiority and Tibetan inferiority, culminating in China’s new era mission to construct ecological civilisation. What makes this a contradiction, a serious problem requiring decisive intervention by the sovereign nation-state to govern the grasslands?  Why does this lead to the official policy of tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass, in effect for the past 15 years?

Not only in Tibet, but in rangeland livestock production landscapes worldwide, mobile pastoralists have managed this contradiction simply by moving on, taking their herd to the next pasture, lifting grazing pressure well before the grass plants are grazed to the point where they cannot recover. In Tibet, where the hardy grasses and sedges of the grasslands keep most of their biomass underground, as protection not only from grazing but also from fierce gales, hail and snowstorms, it takes a lot to kill the living biomass. The grasses and the grazers have evolved together.

China has never understood or appreciated this, nor bothered to ask Tibetan drogpa nomads to explain. China has steadily moved in the opposite direction, of seeing the grazing animal herds and their herders as illiterate, ignorant, careless, destructive, to blame for degradation of the grasslands.

It is not only the centralised state that sees all nomadic land use as inherently problematic, so too do most Chinese scientists who do research on the grasslands. In a public sphere where only those who agree with the state have a voice, this sets up a circle of reinforcing rationales, a self-fulfilling dynamic, in which the scientists follow the mass line of the centre, and the centre justifies its animus against wandering nomads by citing scientific findings.

In this closed loop, it is worth taking a closer look at what China’s scientists now say about Tibet, starting with what has become, in China, a naturalised, self-evident truth. All human activity anywhere in Tibet –from urban infrastructure construction to mobile rural herding of ruminants- is now defined as a loss of what Tibet is defined by, the provision of environmental services to lowland China. All human activity is a threat, a danger. So purist is this opposition of ecology and society, so absolute are its categories, so mutually exclusive are its realms of life, anything human is immediately problematic. This is the science of ecology taken to extremes, a vision of unspoiled pristine wilderness so pure no human hand has compromised it. The assumption that all human action is a degradation was long implicit in Chinese research reports on Tibet, now it is explicit.

For the party-state, this intolerance for all human use of landscape, even the most skilfully sustainable, is a major opportunity. This new imaginary, making not only Tibet but other rangelands into virgin grassland wildernesses, is opportunity for the nation-state to fully assert its sovereignty over territory, while reducing the customary land managers to irrelevance, ignominy and even amnesiac oblivion.

The separation of land from people, ingrained in ecology as a science, now gives the recentralised authoritarians command and control over the remotest plateau rangelands, without any need to win the hearts and minds of the population, or to resettle new immigrant populations in the cryosphere.

The cryosphere, the cold realm, stands now as the opposite, the ultimate Other, to the ecological civilisation construction that is the declared mission of the CCP. It is not possible to construct an ecological civilisation unless ecology and civilisation are separate, and thus need to be brought together. This entrenched dualism renews the mandate of the CCP, as the only force capable of  bringing nature and culture together. This conveniently ignores the historic reality that for thousands of years nature and culture commingled, co-existed in Tibet, and were never conceived of as competing realms, one to be subjected to the other, or laboriously welded back together.

Xi Jinping, in a major speech in May 2018, says China must:  “push ecological civilization to a new level ,during a tone-setting meeting on environmental protection ending Saturday. Xi said the country will channel more energy into promoting ecological civilization and resolving environmental problems, backed by the political advantages of the centralized and unified leadership of the CPC and the socialist system. Building an ecological civilization is of fundamental importance for the sustainable development of the Chinese nation, Xi said. The building of ecological civilization has entered a critical period.  Xi said ecology and environment are closely connected with people’s well-being, urging works to be done to meet public expectations by stepping up the building of ecological civilization and providing more quality ecological products. Xi said China must abide by the following principles to push forward ecological civilization in a new era:

— Ensuring harmony between human and nature. China must stick to the policy of putting conservation and protection first, and mainly relying on the natural recovery of the environment.

— Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets.

— Mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands are a life community. The building of ecological civilization must take all factors into consideration with good overall plans and multiple measures.

“The nation must speed up the construction of the ecological civilization system, to ensure that by 2035, there will be a fundamental improvement in the quality of the environment, and the goal of building a Beautiful China will be basically attained.”







China has found a solution to the long term problematic of turning an empire into a nation-state, not by winning the loyalty of the conquered to their alien rulers, but by removing the people from the vacated land, which is thereby renamed as biodiverse protected area. It is the party-state in charge of official protection, giving the party a role and a legitimacy it has struggled for six decades to find.

This bold move requires us to believe that the party-state cares so deeply for wildlife it is willing to forego food security, production landscape uses, mineral extraction uses and all other modes of production and revenue raising, for the sake of wildlife and water provision. Yet China has not at all abandoned its passion for economic growth, for maximal utilisation of arable land, its intensification of urbanisation, its wealth accumulation and transition to a high income economy dominated by high technology and high consumption. Nor has China abandoned its global dominance of wildlife trafficking, its destruction of migratory bird flyways by robbing shorebirds of shores, replacing them with industrial land reclamation and intensive aquaculture.

What has been abandoned, and is nowhere mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech praising mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands is the people of the grasslands who, in course of daily productive life, managed to sustainably maintain those grasslands and mountains, and the wildlife, without ever separating ecology from civilisation. There now seems to be literally no place for those Tibetans once the ecological civilisation is constructed.

This is not a question of double standards or hypocrisy, but of double geography, with a double logic. The decisive diremption of China, invented by geographer Hu Huanyong in 1935, is the key. By slicing one straight line across China, from the far southwest to the northeast border with Siberia, Hu elegantly dissected China into a southeast half that only accounted for 36% of the land but housed 96% of the population while the northwest half accounted for 64% of the land area but only 4% of the population. This had to be problematic.

This imbalance seemed, to Mao’s revolutionary China, to require emigrating millions of settlers to boost the thinly populated rangelands, a strategy backed by coercion and revolutionary pioneering enthusiasm, that in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Xinjiang often succeeded, but not in Tibet. If only four per cent of the total population of overcrowded China lives beyond the arable lowlands, move the masses, plough the virgin grasslands, dam the rivers, drill the oil. This old strategy had, over a thousand years, made southern China Chinese, then Sichuan and Yunnan. What was revolutionary about the revolution was not its goal, but its speeding up of well-rehearsed methods for pushing and pulling the poor and vulnerable from landless penury in their home provinces, to resettle the frontiers.

In Tibet alone, this strategy did not work. Tibet was too high, too cold, for immigrant farmers to farm anything, to produce crops sufficient to generate a new economic dynamic, and the Tibetans were too suspicious. Unlike Inner Mongolia, there had been very few Tibetan communists, and it took a full-scale modern war, won by PLA artillery and aerial bombardment in the late 1950s, to subdue the Tibetans of Kham and Amdo.

Thereafter, central planners, in one Five-Year Plan after another, announced many new pillar industries that would launch Tibet into production of surpluses, and nearly all failed to materialise, or destroyed their resource. Productivist ideology did succeed in increasing livestock herd size, but without creating an export commodity chain comparable to what Soviet aid set up in pastoral Mongolia for Russian consumption.

Productivism reigned for four decades or more in revolutionary China with little to show for it, other than the oil, gas and mineral extraction zones of Qinghai. By the start of this century logging of the forests of eastern Tibet had to be halted because summer monsoon rains on the stripped hillslopes of Kham went straight into the upper Yangtze, causing the massive 1998 floods downriver. Productivism had run its course.

The new approach is post-industrial and post-productivist, repurposing the whole of Tibet as natural, virgin, pristine wilderness, supplying environmental services, notably water and tourism destinations, to lowland China, and the world. In many ways, this is a repositioning in keeping with China’s transition from a centrally planned command and control economy in which Tibet is at most a supplier of raw materials, producer goods of high volume but low price, shipped off for value adding by smelters and timber mills elsewhere. China as a whole is transitioning from reliance on heavy manufacturing –the world’s factory- to more high priced high tech, and a services-based economy led by consumer demand. Tibet’s role in this transition is to become a destination for mass domestic tourism, which requires it to be a pure no-man’s land, largely devoid of inhabitants, providing glimpses of thrilling wild animals, China’s own safari land.

This turns the old problematic on its head. Since Hu Huanyong in 1935 identified northern and western China as having 64 per cent of China’s territory but only four per cent of its population, the policy imperative was to find ways of making the vast northwest produce more, and house more.



Now with the aid of ecology as a science of the non-human, a simpler solution beckons. Simply remove the four per cent from the land, park them in settlements of the expelled on the fringes of the new urbs, and the depopulated land immediately becomes the exclusive domain of the sovereign party-state, with no counter claim. As the pastoral production landscapes become national parks, a few of the former nomads can be retrained and employed as park rangers, displaying the magnanimity of the party-state in benevolently lifting the destitute out of poverty.

Removing the four per cent is far easier than doubling the plateau population. The entire Tibetan population of six millions (2010 Census count) is only one in 200 of the total population of China, a tiny fraction to move out of the way of fulfilling a grand consumer culture narrative of access to virgin lands.

This leaves a depopulated land unequivocally in the hands of the sovereign nation-state, in ways never achieved while those lands were the pastures of mobile livestock producers and Tibetan crop farmers. The loss of food production, and of food security in Tibet, are small prices to pay for allocating Tibet its part in the great rejuvenation of new era China’s ecological civilisation. Modern managerialism means the surplus Tibetans need not be removed too far, many staying on the land, trained and employed as national park ranger staff, to enforce livestock exclusions, greet the tourist masses, dress colourfully, dance and pose with visitors alongside yaks and mastiffs. Thus China achieves multiple goals the world yearns for: carbon capture, enhanced water supply, poverty alleviation, protection of wildlife, education in new vocational skills for illiterate herders, and education in individual tastes for the tourist masses learning to become individual consumers. That’s a six-fold win.

A further benefit, for a centralised authoritarian system is that authority is concentrated in the gaze of the state, while the aspirations, experience and values of the pastoralists fade from view. In order to ascertain the human footprint in Tibet, remote sensing satellites can do it all. Geoinformatics readily turns satellite sourced data into maps, resulting in visible, mapped,  objective truth fit for policy makers.

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Chinese announcements of mineral bonanzas under the Tibetan surface have been made for decades, but in only a few areas has this led to mining.

Now, in remote Lhuntse county, well to the southeast of Lhasa, we are told of the latest treasure, although the South China Morning Post story is remarkably vague as to what the metals are.

Why does Lhuntse suddenly burst into the news; in turn prompting a swift rebuttal, also in English, from the punchy CCP mouthpiece Global Times? Location, location, location. There are only two places where the borders of India, Bhutan and China meet. One is Doklam in Bhutan’s mountainous west, scene of a protracted and tense standoff between Chinese and Indian forces, now seemingly defused but with none of the underlying issues resolved. The other trilateral intersection is Lhuntse, on Bhutan’s mountainous eastern border with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet Lhoka Lhuntse.

To Tibetans, Lhuntse is special for very different reasons, as the entry to the sacred pilgrimage of the crystal mountain of Tsari, not as well known globally as Kailash/Gang Rinpoche or Amnye Machen, but just as revered for its ability to bestow blessings and deep insights into the nature of reality.[1] Traditionally, many Bhutanese did the Tsari pilgrimage too.

Now, we are told, there are billions of dollars of valuable minerals awaiting imminent extraction in this remote, mountainous county of southern Tibet. We might just as well say there are billions of dollars’ worth of valuable minerals below the street where you live; both statements are equally true yet utterly meaningless.

Such claims rest on basic misunderstandings of the intersections of geology and economics. The entire planet is made of valuable minerals, which occur everywhere. Some are naturally rare, such as the well-named family of rare earths, meaning that even in a highly concentrated deposits, only a tiny fraction is the sought after elements.  Other elements, such as lithium or silicon are very common.

What distinguishes a mineral deposit is an unusual concentration, usually due to unusual circumstances that arose many millions of years ago, deep underground. But a deposit is not a mine. Even if a deposit is laboriously mapped in all three dimensions, so its shape and mineral concentrations are known with some precision, there are still innumerable hurdles before a deposit (or more basically, a reserve) becomes a mine. It is easy for geologists to claim to have found great riches, to elicit congratulations. But in a globalised commodity chain economy, any deposit must then pass several more tests.

If one looks at where mining actually happens, especially large-scale mining, huge sums of capital were poured into that specific location on the basis of careful calculations that the mine will steadily produce a certain tonnage, at a certain cost of extraction, which must be considerably lower than the assumed selling price to those who generate demand for that mineral after it has not only been extracted but concentrated and smelted into something pure, for industrial use.

The business case for any mine must weigh many variables, and many assumptions, some of which usually turn out wrong, because who can tell what will be the price of oil, or iron ore, or lithium ten years from now? But a big underground mine can easily swallow capital expenditure by investors for a decade before it starts producing ores and profits. That is a major reason why mining has such booms and busts: the lead time is beyond our ability to calculate risk.

A mineral deposit in Tibet must add other considerations that make mining expensive. Roads and railways are few, prone to landslides, earthquakes, permafrost heaving and slumping, with vast distances to haul in equipment and haul out the minerals. It’s a long way to market, especially for minerals used mostly by industries in coastal China, which have as a ready alternative buying the same minerals from abroad, or buying a mine in Peru or Congo or Australia, even cornering the global market.

These are among the obstacles facing any proposal to extract from Tibet. Further obstacles arise if the commercially valuable mineral, even in a highly concentrated deposit, is still only a small proportion of the total rock. That means it must be processed on the spot; it makes no sense to haul raw ores thousands of kilometres to a distant smelter. This may not matter in the case of oil, coal, iron ore or chromium, which may be pure enough as they come out of the ground to just haul away for distant processing. It doesn’t apply to alluvial gold, sitting as specks or nuggets in riverbeds, already pure. But most of the big deposits discovered in Tibet, across a very wide area, in the last three decades are polymetallic, containing several metals, usually copper, molybdenum, gold and silver, which at least need concentration if not smelting before shipment. That in turn means a substantial investment in the equipment needed to crush rock to powder and then cook it chemically to get rid of most of the waste. That requires a lot of expensive equipment, a substantial workforce skilled in industrial methods, urban infrastructure, a reliable power supply, and heavy freight transport to a smelter. None of these can be assumed to exist in the usually remote districts where the minerals are found, as Tibet is the size of Western Europe. A newly discovered deposit on the German border with Poland would not readily be considered economic just because there is already a smelter in Spain.

To this day, the only mineral extracted from Tibet Autonomous Region that is recorded in official statistical year books is chromium, an industry now in steady decline, with production for 2016 listed as 67,000 tons, which is a return to the levels of the late 1980s, from a 2010 peak of 201,000 tons.

Perhaps it is no surprise that gold is nowhere mentioned officially since much of the production was small-scale, artisanal, and highly destructive of pastoral and riverine landscapes. It may be that the copper, gold and silver extracted from Shetongmon, near Shigatse, are recorded (if anywhere) in Gansu statistics, as the concentrate is sent by rail to a smelter in Gansu. But what about the other copper mines, for example, upstream from Lhasa? Deposits are many, mines are routinely announced, then very little happens. When mining does occur, deposits are often parcelled out to various competing local interests all with claims as stakeholders, restricting mining to low tech extraction on a modest scale. Time after time, the headline announcements of massive deposits result in very little.

But very little, in terms of tonnage extracted, can be highly damaging environmentally, and Tibetan communities are usually quite upset at the intrusion by immigrants who care naught for local habitat or community. However this is far from the bonanza in the Himalayas that predictably presses the buttons of India’s geostrategists, ever alert for the latest Chinese threat.

In the most recent available official statistics, Lhuntse county is listed as having a rural population of farmers and pastoralists (rural labourers in official classification) of 18,000 in 2016, counting those officially registered as resident, not immigrant. Of those, 6490 were registered as agriculture and livestock producers, while only 250 worked in industry, including mining, suggesting an economy that employs very few Tibetans. A further 9560 –half the entire work force- were registered as working in construction, suggesting an economy based on recruiting much manual labour for urban construction.[2] In the 2000 Census, Lhuntse dzong had a population of just over 32,000, of whom 98.7 per cent were Tibetan. That, of course, does not include the garrison of PLA troops on border duty.

All this, the SCMP excitedly tells us, has changed dramatically since 2016, with an immigrant rush that has set up restaurants, “a hair salon, laundry service, supermarket, cosmetics store, Western-style bakery, confectionery shop and bars. After nightfall, the bars and barbecue stands are filled with the sound of people speaking dialects from across China. They are miners and labourers, but they are also sleek salesmen and investors dressed in suits and shiny shoes. A woman who runs a laundry service said she had about 30 to 40 customers a day, and although dry cleaning was expensive, that did not seem to bother her regulars.”

But what is actually being mined? “Enormous, deep tunnels have been dug into the mountains along the military confrontation line, allowing thousands of tonnes of ore to be loaded and transported out by trucks daily, along roads built through every village. Extensive power lines and communication networks have been established, while construction is under way on an airport that can handle passenger jets.”

Ok, but what are those ores? What is it that will make Lhuntse’s fortune? This lengthy story does not quite say. It does name the mining company, Tibet Huayu, which in its filings with Shanghai Stock Exchange, where its shares are traded, defines itself as focused on lead, zinc and antimony, metals found abundantly in many Tibetan areas, metals  which are seldom worth recovering unless they are classified as incidental by-products of mines with more valuable metals, usually copper, gold and silver. Even then, the on-site processing extracts only concentrates of copper, silver and gold, and usually dumps the lead and zinc in the mine waste tailings, along with a massive tonnage of uneconomic rock. This is both wasteful and toxic, as lead is highly poisonous and if it leaches into rivers causes serious damage to animals and people.

The photos accompanying the article give us some clues. We don’t see the “enormous, deep tunnels”, just drill rigs dotting a hillside, and the interior of a large shed, with machinery whirring away, driven by rubber belts, suggesting a small stamping mill to crush rock. Not much to get excited about.

There are a few clues in the SCMP story as to what this is all about. “Weng Qingzhen, who owns a Sichuan restaurant in the county, said she moved there less than two months ago after friends and relatives told her about the mining boom. “We came here for the gold rush, but this place is not as wild as I thought,” she said.”

A vein of gold explains a lot. Many Tibetan deposits of copper, lead and zinc, or copper and molybdenum also have gold and silver, and sometimes the gold is concentrated in a skarn cap on the top of the deposit, as it slowly formed over millions of years as molten magma deep underground very slowly cooled, and in the presence of superheated water, gradually separated the elements.

A vein of gold atop a deposit of lead and zinc explains the small-scale stamping mill, the underground tunnels, the trucks taking ores to some distant place where the gold can be smelted. This is not gold rush as metaphor, the gold is there.

Gold rushes usually are quickly exhausted, and the hair salons and bars (euphemisms for brothels) move on. What is left behind is the dumps of rock waste, on sloping land above the rivers that form the Subansiri River of northeastern India. That’s a real concern.

Lhuntse’s many rivers are transboundary, flowing into India and eventually into the Brahmaputra. The Nyel Chu, Jar Chu, Tsari Chu and Loro Chu all rise within the hook of the great bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra to the north, comprising the headwaters of India’s Subansiri. The hydropower potential of the upper Subansiri has been plotted and planned for decades, plans which would be seriously compromised if toxic heavy metals come down river from abandoned tailings dams in Lhuntse.

The SCMP story predicably got India’s security state pundits wagging. It stoked, yet again, Tibetan fears of the Chinese juggernaut. Unlike the SCMP’s blander print headline, its’ online headline no doubt intended this:  How Chinese mining in the Himalayas may create a new military flashpoint with India.

Is this patriotic fervour just the overexcited imagination of a reporter? Unlikely. Is it SCMP, now owned by Jack Ma’s Alibaba, out to prove its loyalty to Xi Jinping’s new era? Perhaps. The likeliest explanation for this flimsy provocation is that it was engineered by Tibet Huayu Mining, seeking to place itself on the frontline of China’s reconquest of Arunachal, fortified by Huayu’s success in bringing Chinese enterprise and Chinese immigrants to a remote border town. A key line in the SCMP story: “The new mining activities would lead to a rapid and significant increase in the Chinese population in the Himalayas, which would provide stable, long-term support for any diplomatic or military operations aimed at gradually driving Indian forces out of territory claimed by China.”

Why would Huayu place such a story? Is it because, in an authoritarian system, conspicuous obedience to the official line is the key to success? Of course, but that’s not the whole story. Huayu has specific reasons to be super patriotic. Huayu was incorporated in 2002, with its’ head office at Huayu Building, Gesang Road, Lhasa. It is highly profitable, even though it does little mining, and the minerals it specialises in –zinc and lead- are regarded by bigger miners as not worth bothering with in Tibet. In 2018 Huayu entered into a business deal with an exploration company to do work an experienced miner with 16 years’ experience would normally have in-house. How come a mining company does not have its own exploration division?

The answer appears to be that what Huayu does mine is not only minerals but subsidies. It all starts with making Lhasa the corporate headquarters, and putting Tibet in the company’s name. That alone entitles it to lots of incentives, subsidies and tax breaks, just for setting up shop on Gesang Road.

Early in 2018 Huayu forecast that its 2017 profit would be sharply up from 2016, explaining that: “The reasons for the forecast are sharply increased main product and contribution from government subsidy.”[3]

The choice of a frontier county which has never, until very recently, had many Chinese immigrants, was an investment in patriotism. That attracted state support, including installation of power grid extensions, road building and other urban services. An airport is under construction.

But Tibet Huayu has bigger plans, and bigger subsidies to attract. It has recently bought half ownership of a Tajikistan gold mine from  a state-owned Tajik Aluminium corporation,TALCO.[4] This places Huayu at the forefront of China’s Eurasian Belt and Road, a mix of patriotism and profit, and Huayu is not shy about it. It reminds its shareholders that: As the national “One Belt and One Road” policy continues to advance in Central Asia, the company is located in countries along it.”[5]

Being based in Lhasa, the TAR government has provided support for Huayu’s westward thrust into Tajikistan: “the company has actively promoted the overseas equity investment projects and successively obtained the Ministry of Commerce of the Tibet Autonomous Region Certificate of Overseas Investment of an Enterprise and “Project Filing Notice” issued by Tibet Development and Reform Commission.” That is what Huayu filed in one of its regular updates for its investors on the Shanghai Stock exchange.[6] This entitles it to further incentives and tax breaks.

Patriotism is good for business. Huayu –its name means Chinese language- is adroit in positioning itself at the forefront of China’s great rejuvenation, be it in Lhoka Lhuntse or Tajikistan. It is equally adroit at assuring central leaders that its intensive exploitation of gold at Lhuntse in no way contradicts the wider policy of classifying Tibet as a strategic reserve of mineral resources to be mined not now but some time in the future. The rhetoric has changed. SCMP: “The Lhunze mining boom would not be expanded to other areas. In other parts of Tibet, mining activities have been prohibited or strictly limited because large-scale excavation and processing of minerals could produce excessive waste chemicals and debris, posing a threat to the fragile Himalayan environment and potentially causing irreparable damage to the natural landscape.

With remarkable promptness, the SCMP Lhuntse story was repudiated one day later by party organ Global Times, a medium seldom outdone in loud patriotism. What Global Times repudiated was not anything about Huayu’s Lhuntse operation, but that this constitutes a springboard for retaking Arunachal from India. That, Global Times assured us, is “groundless hype.”[7]

Thus the news cycle completed, only to be taken up in India, and by Tibetan exiles.

What we find in these two stories is sophisticated PR and news management, from Huayu in placing the SCMP story, wrapping themselves in patriotic hype, and in Global Times prompt quashing of the slightest suggestion that China is aiming at repeating its 1962 conquest of Arunachal, at a time when China does not want to drive India into the arms of a Quadrilateral of countries aiming to contain China. What starts in English, on SCMP, stays in English, on Global Times. The last thing central leaders want is a patriotic wave within China demanding the reconquest of Arunachal.

We must learn to read between the lines. These days, the lines are written by authoritarians. We all know that in an authoritarian system, those in authority bark orders are subordinates. We sometimes forget that those who bark also submit to higher authority, and an authoritarian system rewards those who know both how to bark and how to submit. Huayu is a corporation for such times.





[1] Toni Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet, Oxford, 1999

[2] TAR Statistical Yearbook 2017, Table 17-1: Main economic indicators by county.

[3] Tibet Huayu Mining sees FY 2017 net profit up 52.27 pct to 70.97 pct, Reuters, 25 Jan 2018

[4] Tibet Huayu Mining Co Ltd: Says It Signs Jv Agreement With State Unitary Enterprise Tajik Aluminium Co Tajikistan Regarding Talco Gold Mine, Reuters, 18 December 2017

[5] Tibet Huayu Mining, Announcement on the Progress of Overseas Equity Investment Projects http://static.sse.com.cn/disclosure/listedinfo/announcement/c/2018-05-19/601020_20180519_12.pdf

[6] Tibet Huayu Mining, Announcement on the Progress of Overseas Equity Investment Projects http://static.sse.com.cn/disclosure/listedinfo/announcement/c/2018-05-19/601020_20180519_12.pdf

[7] Deng Xiaoci, Himalayan mining reports groundless hype: analysts:Global Times 2018/5/21  http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1103380.shtml

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China has for many years insisted that Tibet, usually meaning only Tibet Autonomous Region, is in fact progressing in great leaps, everyone benefits from China’s massive investment in Tibet, and incomes are rising rapidly, even if they lag far behind anywhere else in China, because Tibet by its nature lacks everything required for prosperity.  Yet despite the massive capital expenditure, Tibetans remain poor. This paradox, of poverty amid huge capital inflow, has been analysed in depth by economists.[1]

Official statistics that are publicly available, such as the provincial Statistical Yearbooks for 2017, suggest Tibetans, especially rural Tibetans, may be poor, but on average they are above the official poverty line. The TAR and Qinghai 2017 Statistical Yearbooks provide various ways of defining both incomes and consumption, based not only on calculating GDP per capita, but also on household surveys itemising how rural Tibetans spend their money. On official data, in 2016, per capita consumption expenditure of rural households  in Qinghai was RMB 5619 and in  TAR  5952, equivalent to  USD 945, above the World Bank poverty line of USD693 per person per year.

Wealth is now accumulating in Tibet, after 40 years of rapid wealth accumulation across China. Readers of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s vivid Coming Home to Tibet see through Tibetan eyes the seductive pull of the shiny new motorbike or the warmth of a heated shopping mall, even in the remotest rangeland.   https://www.shambhala.com/videos/tsering-wangmo-dhompa-on-coming-home-to-tibet/



There is poverty in Tibet.  This is not new. In a vast land where pastoral livelihoods are made from an unpredictable climate, where it can snow heavily and suddenly even in summer, Tibetans are expert at not only living despite uncertainty, but from it.[2] Out on the open rangelands, pastoralists know from daily experience that anything can happen, and do not have the modern compulsion to control every risk.


Life is risky, today’s rich man can quickly become poor, and vice versa. When that eventuates, the lamas remind Tibetans not to dwell on changes in fortune, or demand to know: why me? Sudden shifts are not a sign of divine providence, virtuous morals or divine punishment, but are to be attributed to accumulated past karma of previous lives, unknowable and not worth speculating about.

Adversity can reduce a prospering pastoralist to destitution as quickly as an unexpected snowstorm can block a pass, and animals die, not only of cold but lack of feed as they were about to be led down in autumn, from high summer slopes to lower winter pastures. When a herd is devastated by a blizzard, usually relatives and friends will lend animals, if they can, to help rebuild the herd. But destitution does occur.

When disaster strikes, nomads may become beggars, lining the streets of the nearest town, seeking alms. Around the world, beggars are stigmatised, denounced as fakes and wasters, undeserving of charity; but in Tibet there is little shame in eliciting the kindness of strangers. In a land prone to earthquakes, landslides, glacial lake outbursts, blizzards and howling storms, everyone knows that beggar could well be themselves.

This is what poverty experts call transient poverty, the low point in cycling through ups and downs of the human condition. Transient poverty is not the permanent state of entire populations, caused by an environment so harsh Tibetans are forever on the brink of immiserisation. Transient poverty needs special solutions, not wholesale removals of entire populations based on categorising the entire plateau as “contiguous destitute area.”


The king upon his golden throne

Can know hunger

The beggar with his begging bag

Can know fullness


What is new to Tibet is relative poverty, the juxtaposition of enormous wealth alongside deep destitution. China defines poverty in absolute, monetised terms, but in the wider world, the relative poverty of inequality is recognised as the measure of poverty, even though this means that, as long as inequality persists, poverty persists. In Europe, poverty is defined as relative, which puts an end to the fantasy that poverty can be eliminated, like an infectious disease, once and forever.

Tibetans now see, among fellow Tibetans, millionaires who made fortunes dealing in yartsa gumbu (cordyceps sinensis) trade; or earning high salaries on the official payroll. They see nonTibetans immigrating to Tibet as sojourners routinely remitting savings and profits to relatives back home. By comparison the hard and risky work of raising animals, through bitter winters and brief summers, is relatively less and less attractive. Not so long ago the Tibetan concept of wealth –nor– was synonymous with the herd on the hoof, the sight of grazing animals on the green sward, the bounty of nature needing only to be collected for human use. Pastoralists considered themselves wealthy; not so now.



One of the simplest solutions, tailored to the risks of the rangelands, is an insurance scheme that, when a snow disaster occurs, pays nomads to rebuild their herd quickly. There is such a scheme in neighbouring Mongolia, which shares with Tibet not only a mobile pastoralist economy but also extreme weather. The Mongolians have devised a scheme that costs neither the pastoralists nor the insurance industry, yet pays promptly and reliably as needed, without time consuming and expensive wrangling over how much snow fell over exactly what area, and how many animals each nomad family lost, and did they hide some animals from the inspectors to boost the payout? Rather than parsing the specifics of each adverse event, on each pastoral property, this insurance scheme simply uses official meteorological data for a whole district, and the average herd loss, and pays accordingly. This works well, except in the most catastrophic circumstances, which can be too devastating for this deliberately modest

Is this a degraded landscape requiring exclusion of customary livestock production?

scheme to handle. In a real catastrophe, the state steps in with compensation.


In Ulaan Baatar, in 2013 I met with Mongolian officials in charge of this indexed livestock insurance scheme, who explained it to me in detail. I also met with international aid agencies that had been much involved in designing the scheme and in encouraging nomads to enrol in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-w7iht20nw&list=PLCLZXIdq9v2RBlzJtuIR4CqRPvDVcaGBX They wanted to know why an Australian, from a country with plenty of rangeland but no traditional herders, was interested to understand their creation. When I explained that my focus was on whether such a scheme would be helpful for Tibetans, they expressed amazement. Such a scheme, they said, works only where there is trust, between the insurers and the insured. To persuade herders to enrol, and pay their annual premium, they must believe the insurers will pay, when disaster strikes. Between Han Chinese, city-based, often state-owned insurance companies and remote, disempowered herders there is no trust that contracts will be honoured. They thought I was wasting my time.

In many ways, an indexed livestock insurance scheme would serve China’s interests, as well as guaranteeing the social security of nomadic pastoralists. China’s insistence that Tibetan herders cause land degradation arises from the Tibetan preference to maintain as big as possible a herd on the hoof, rather than selling for slaughter as many animals as possible as soon as they reach adult size, which is global modern agribusiness practice. One reason Tibetans keep their wealth sentient and not on abattoir meat hooks is that, in the absence of any insurance, when snow disasters strike, a bigger herd provides a bigger base for recovery. An indexed livestock insurance scheme would incentivise Tibetans to reduce herd size, thus reducing grazing pressure, knowing they will be compensated when they most need it, when many animals have been lost.


Everyone likes a win-win, even if, in reality, they are hard to find. This is a genuine win-win, an inexpensive way of sparing livestock producers from poverty, while at the same time reducing herd size and grazing pressure. China has shown interest in this, but little has been achieved.

Much the same applies to Tibetan farmers, whose ripening barley fields in the summer monsoon season can be destroyed in minutes by a sudden hailstorm. Again, an indexed crop insurance scheme would prevent poverty.




The world does not look closely at what China means by poverty alleviation. Little attention is paid to 60 years of Chinese failure to invest in the rangelands, in pastoral livelihoods, to improve herds, to enable access by pastoralists to China’s urban markets, even though affluent Chinese now eat lots of dairy products.

One of the few who took action to help Tibetans get out of poverty was Arthur Holcombe, who set up the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund (TPAF) almost two decades ago. On a modest scale, he did the work China has been reluctant to do, and in 2017 he published his reflections on what he learned.

TPAF microcredit loans helped to enable many poor Tibetan households to invest in supplemental small household income-generating activities. For women and their husbands, this often included small investments in the establishment of village dry goods stores, tea houses, barley beer bars, and the weaving of nambu woollen cloth for sale in urban markets. For men, who would access funds from the microloans being managed by their wives, this included funding for the purchase of carpentry tools for commercial woodworking and furniture-making, and for the acquisition of small tractors with trailers to provide marketing services for fellow villagers and to work in local building and road construction projects.  

“The second project involved poor nomad households in two townships and provided them with price incentives to sell their surplus yak milk to two small milk-processing plants that were located on a main highway providing easy access to an urban area. The project established rural milk-collection centres and provided vehicles that could then transport the fresh milk to the milk-processing plants that had a capacity to make high-quality yogurt, butter, and cheese prior to their sale in a main urban area. The scheme was intended to reduce the wastage of fresh milk at the household level, stimulate a demand for increased milk production and sales, and to provide nomad households with steady income for their surplus milk made possible with the steady demand for processed milk products in urban areas. “[3]


Greater wealth, greater suffering

Lesser wealth, lesser suffering


In extravagance

No virtue is accumulated

It has become a matter of national pride that “no-one is left behind” as China works towards becoming a consumer-driven middle income country. It is thus the patriotic duty of those currently “left behind” on their customary pastures, to surrender their land tenure rights, sell their yaks, sheep and goats, leave their ancestral pastures and live, on state rations, in closely monitored settlements close to Chinese towns in Tibet. These largely self-sufficient, professional land managers and livestock producers are reduced to dependence, treated, they tell us, like cattle. Yet on paper their incomes will look better in cash terms, as their self-sufficient barter economy is replaced by handouts.

In the name of

  • guaranteeing provision of Tibetan glacier-melt water to lowland China,
  • improving security and stability,
  • poverty alleviation
  • reforestation,
  • carbon capture,
  • grassland rehabilitation,
  • biodiversity protection,
  • national park management
  • and rational zoning plans, these policy categories will, in coming years, work to separate the land and the people of Tibet, replacing the classic extensive and skilful land use pattern with intensive urban concentrations kept going by endless subsidies.

China expects to be applauded for this depopulation, as its unique contribution to human rights, wildlife protection, water conservation and poverty alleviation. The payoff for new era China is that it is acclaimed worldwide, as the greatest of civilisations, able to not only aspire to “ecological civilisation” (to use a standard Chinese official phrase), but to exemplary poverty alleviation as well, thus fulfilling human rights and thereby negating critics of China’s human rights record. The ambition is to be acknowledged as the greatest civilisation ever, a model for all others, both developed and developing, to emulate.


The goal of the party-state is grand, but the components constituting this utopian vision of exemplary Confucian righteousness bear closer inspection.

Poverty alleviation, like clean rivers and skies, is so self-evidently good that few look more closely at what China defines as poverty, how it measures it, what programs it has to alleviate it, how they are administered, how effective they are, who misses out, how implementation is distorted by vested interests, how the poor are stigmatised and humiliated by the poverty assessment procedures. Few examine the assumptions built in to definitions of poor areas, and the reasons poverty is geographically concentrated.

China now has that mandatory quota of 10 million poor people, each year for three years, being compulsorily moved out of poverty. China thus becomes the most exemplary of developing states, a leader among the third world, able to overcome all obstacles.

Which of the newly redefined ministries of new era China is driving the poverty alleviation agenda? None of the seven ministries with the biggest impact on Tibet focus on the welfare, social security, income support or livelihoods of Tibetans, so who will carry out the ambitious 2018 target of reducing poverty across China by a further 10 million people?

While China does have a Ministry of Civil Affairs, as well as health and education ministries, poverty alleviation is now highly centralised, and under the direct control of Xi Jinping. The agenda is in fact driven by the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, which has wide responsibilities for the whole economy, and specifically to push the poverty alleviation agenda.

What is remarkable is that not one of the top ministries has any interest in helping Tibetans stay on their land, enhance their incomes from traditional productive work, or link the traditional economy, with its distinctive comparative advantages, to the modern economy. In fact, every one of the key ministries affecting Tibet has, for differing reasons, an emphasis on removing Tibetans, depopulating the Tibetan Plateau, concentrating the Tibetan populations in towns.



Before rushing to congratulate China for its drive to remove 10 million people from poverty in each of the years 2018, 2019 and 2020, we need to actually do due diligence. Fortunately, we have Chinese guides to help us, such as Prof Gao Qin, Director, of the China Centre for Social Policy at Columbia University whose 2018 book, Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China deals with our questions, in depth.

First, in order to claim that there are only 30 million poor left in China, poverty is defined solely in monetary terms, as income of RMB 3000 per person per year, about USD500. This rural poverty definition is extremely low, missing out on including tens of millions of people a little above this cut-off. This cash income definition also accounts patchily for subsistence producers with little need for cash, because they grow and make most of what they need, as Tibetans have long done. Nor does this monetised definition of poverty attend to other dimensions of being poor, such as access to education and health, electricity, insurance or secure land tenure. It ignores the slide into poverty that accompanies ill health and disability.  It is a narrow definition that ignores inequality, the relative poverty of those with little compared to those whose wealth is vast and concentrated.

Rural Tibetans make their livelihoods by taking risks. If you fall and break a bone, it’s a long way to a health clinic, where, even today, staff make most of their money selling the most expensive treatments, whether needed or not, for cash upfront. China’s poverty experts say: Furthermore, further investigations indicated that suffering from illness is the greatest contributor to current individual or transient poverty in rural China.”[4]

Then there is the process of identifying and targeting the poor. Sometimes this is geographic, designating an entire county as a “poverty county”, with geographic factors, including climate, aridity, soil degradation, absence of infrastructure and remoteness blamed. These are the intractably poor, whose poverty is caused, officially, by their perverse choice to remain in areas of poor factor endowments. This is officially called contiguous poverty, and is thus best remedied by depopulation, and removal of people to be rehoused where there may be better economies. For China’s scientists, the concept of contiguity lends itself to territorialised geospatial cartography, generating maps purporting to show the ecologically determined inevitability of poverty in rugged landscapes such as Amdo Ngawa. Because the headwaters of the Yangtze have cut deep valleys (surface incision, handily measurable by satellite remote imagery) poverty is inevitable, China’s geographers tell us.[5]

In recent years, China has moved somewhat from designating entire counties as “poverty counties” eligible for county-wide central support to “precision poverty alleviation”, in which specific families are designated as poor. However, each family not only has to answer many questions in detail, their declaration of income (or lack of it) is public, affixed to their door for all to see, to their shame. Moreover, a specific official is in charge of their case, responsible for delivery of whatever they are entitled to. However, those officials, even when their promotion is formally tied to success, have incentives to keep the central funding flowing, leading to both families, and entire counties redeclared poor, year after year, to keep the fiscal flow in place, and available for diversion by rent seeking officials.

As a result of these many perverse incentives, fraud, mismanagement and corruption have been widespread, as Xi Jinping acknowledges, and those who actually are poor invariably lose out, as they are at the end of a long line of official gatekeepers who must certify poverty alleviation delivery, through whose hands funds flow.


During the day

No cattle to milk and feed

During the night

No wealth to keep the mind attached

Until the new era reorganisation of the entire machinery of government, poverty alleviation was administered by the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), which has now lost many of its powers to the National Health Commission, Ministry of Veterans Affairs, the completely new Ministry of Emergency Management to manage disaster relief, State Medical Security Administration, and State Grain and Reserves Administration, which takes over organizing and carrying out the storage, rotation, and daily management of national strategic and emergency reserves which supply not cash but grain that had been held in storage for years, distributed to exherdsmen in their new concrete settlements, in lieu of a guaranteed cash income. This, as the former nomads themselves say, reduces them to cattle, dependent on handouts.

In line with the “one function, one ministry” idea, this could leave MCA more focused on poverty alleviation as its core function. However, China defines poverty as income, not consumption expenditure. Poor families are often poor because a family member is ill, or disabled, and the whole family bears the cost of treatment, which can be very expensive. In business terms, MCA is a cost centre, earning nothing, and it is now many decades since the revolutionary ideology of equality, barefoot doctors and “serving the masses”. MCA has been a weak department, and is now weaker yet. For a decade, from 1993 to 2003, a loyal Tibetan communist Dorje Tsering, 多吉才让, was Minister for Civil Affairs, the highest position any Tibetan has reached in modern China. He is an Amdowa from Labrang, and turns 80 in 2019.

The 2018 newly appointed deputy minister for Civil Affairs, Tang Chengpei, is a Han hydropower engineer by training.



On paper, poverty alleviation has shot up in priority, is now in the hands of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, directed by Xi Jinping. Does this mean poverty alleviation is no longer the arduous duty of an obscure ministry, and is now a high-level priority? Not so. CCFEA, 中央财经委员会, is a Party organ, a subcommittee of the Politburo. It sets policy; it does not administer or deliver policy. Several Ministers are members of CCFEA, but not the minister directly responsible for poverty alleviation, the Minister for Civil Affairs.

Official policy, in Xi Jinping’s own words, is full of commands, and threats directed at officials who distort policy delivery.  At the end of March 2018 the CCP Politburo held a meeting to review poverty work and issued stark warnings against “failure in policy implementation and mismanagement of poverty relief funds, as well as misconduct such as ‘formality for formality’s sake, bureaucratism, and falsification,’ the statement said. China has adopted the strictest evaluations and assessments of poverty alleviation, which is an important guarantee in its victory in the battle against poverty and should be further improved to ensure that poverty reduction work is carried out in a pragmatic, solid and truthful way.”

This blunt language repeats warnings issued early in March 2018 by Premier Li Keqiang, on behalf of the state, who “promised targeted measures against corruption and misconduct in poverty alleviation.”

In reality, the centre can thunder but implementation remains in the hands of local government officials of many ministries, including the depleted Ministry of Civil Affairs. They persist in going through the motions of doing as instructed from far above, formality for formality’s sake, while retaining power over the poor, who must beg, as if entitlements are personal favours. In many Tibetan areas, officials, especially at county and prefectural levels, are not Tibetan, consider their job a hardship posting, and feel entitlements belong to them, whenever possible, to compensate. They have little sympathy and frequent contempt for the poor they administer. Prof Gao in her 2018 book: “the decentralized implementation of Dibao [guaranteed minimum income] allows rural officials at the county, township, and village levels considerable discretionary power, leading to several types of targeting errors such as allocating Dibao on the basis of personal connections or relationships (guanxi bao or renqing bao), cheating (pian bao), and mistakes (cuo bao). These errors also exist in urban China, but they are more widespread in rural areas given the greater challenges in checks and balances in the rural setting and more discretionary power bestowed to rural Dibao officials than to their urban peers. Rural Dibao applicants tend to be less well-informed about Dibao policies, procedures, and standards than their urban peers. They may also be less willing to complain and have fewer channels for filing grievances about injustice in Dibao implementation.”[6] Prof Gao makes these points in a 2018 podcast too.

When the poor are also landless, because, in the name of national park construction, water supply, carbon capture and wildlife conservation, landholders have been required to surrender their land tenure documents, they are even more at the mercy of nonTibetan officials. Once they have lost their lands, they are concentrated in intensive settlements, under constant surveillance, regarded officially as both indolent and indigent. Corruption among local officials who are Tibetan, and follow the example of their Han colleagues, is also not uncommon.

Despite China’s push to fully abolish all poverty by 2020, one of China’s top three “critical battles”, poverty alleviation on the ground remains messy, contradictory, and patchy in its implementation, riddled with contradictions and opportunities for corruption. Yet China is determined to succeed, and at an accelerating pace, as helmsman Xi Jinping’s standing now depends on it.

A major tool in eradicating poverty is the shift to a guaranteed minimum income for each poor household, the dibao. In the last of this series of four blogs on poverty, we look more closely at this new wave of poverty alleviation




[1] Andrew M Fischer, Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: A Study in the Economics of Marginalization, Lexington, 2013

[2] Saverio Kratli and Nikolaus Schareika, Living Off Uncertainty: The Intelligent Animal Production of Dryland Pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research (2010) 22, 605–622

[3] Arthur N. Holcombe, Can China Reduce Entrenched Poverty in Remote Ethnic Minority Regions?Lessons from Successful Poverty Alleviation in Tibetan Areas of China during 1998–2016, Ash Center, Kennedy School Harvard, 2017, https://ash.harvard.edu/files/ash/files/271837ash_tibetv4.pdf

[4] Yansui Liu, Jilai Liu, Yang Zhou, Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies, Journal of Rural Studies 52 (2017) 66-75

[5] Yanguo Liu, Chengmin Huang et al, Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China; ISPRS International J. Geo-Information,  2018, 7,   free download: http://www.mdpi.com/2220-9964/7/1/16

[6] Gao Qin,  Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China,  Oxford U P, 2018, 51-2

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