Note: these blogs are adorned by classic Tibetan proverbs on poverty and wealth.[1]

“The CPC Central Committee has drawn up a plan for poverty elimination. By 2020 all impoverished people in rural areas will be guaranteed the basic needs of food and clothing as well as proper access to compulsory education, medical care and safe housing. All rural population below the current poverty line and all impoverished counties will shake off poverty, so that regional poverty as a whole, including severely impoverished areas, will be a thing of the past.“                      

-Xi Jinping 23 June 2017[2]

China’s commitment to fully eradicate all poverty, anywhere in China, by 2020, generates universal acclaim. Who could possibly be against poverty alleviation?

However,  it is worth looking under the hood, to see exactly what China means by poverty alleviation. With much help from the experts, this blog finds many questions need to be asked. For starters: Is it true, as China’s central leaders say, that only 30 million of China’s 1300 million people in 2018 are still poor? How is poverty defined? Is it solely defined by cash income? What has China been doing to improve local economies in remote areas, to link them with the booming lowland China economy? What is a “contiguous destitute area”? Are some of the poor in poverty because their actual expenditure on health care for an ill family member is really high, even if, on official definitions, their income is above the poverty line? What sort of life can be lived at the poverty line?

Poverty alleviation triggers even more questions. How do central leaders know who is poor? Who decides?  Is poverty alleviation funding available evenly across rural China? (we aren’t looking at urban poverty here). Does politics (local or national) intrude on who is classified as poor? Why does China insist many of the remaining poor are poor because they perversely choose to live in “inhospitable” districts (such as Tibet)? Does this mean the solution to this ecologically determined, territorialised, contiguous poverty concept is to relocate whole populations?  Is the existing dibao minimum income program effective, fair, good at targeting those actually poor while not delivering benefits instead to those with better connections? What about corruption, falsified statistics, rigid targets and falsification of results?


Now that China seems to be on the last leg of fully eradicating poverty, it is high on the agenda. The target is straightforward: in each of the three years, 2018, 2019 and 2020, 10 million people will be moved out of poverty, so by the end of 2020 there will be no more poor. All 30 million will be above the poverty line. China will have demonstrated to the world, to universal applause, its superior socialist system leaves no-one behind; all are included in the China miracle of the great rejuvenation. The anti-poverty effort is a reminder China is still a developing country, with an arduous struggle ahead to become rich. China is not shy about telling the world that lifting that last 30 million out of poverty is a major contribution to fulfilment of human rights, as economic rights are more important than civil or political rights.

Xi Jinping has declared poverty to be one of three “critical battles” that define the agenda of the years to 2020 (the other two are stability of the macro economy and the fight against pollution). Xi mentions the battle against poverty frequently: “Winning the battle against poverty: Seeing that poor people and poor areas will enter the moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country is a solemn promise made by our Party. We should mobilize the energies of our whole Party, our whole country, and our whole society, and continue to implement targeted poverty reduction and alleviation measures. The central government makes overall plans, provincial-level governments take overall responsibility, and city and county governments ensure implementation; and we will strengthen the system for making heads of Party committees and governments at each level assume the overall responsibility for poverty alleviation. We will continue to advance poverty reduction drawing on the joint efforts of government, society, and the market. We will pay particular attention to helping people increase confidence in their own ability to lift themselves out of poverty and see that they can access the education they need to do so. We must ensure that by the year 2020, all rural residents living below the current poverty line have been lifted out of poverty, and poverty is eliminated in all poor counties and regions. Poverty alleviation should reach those who truly need it and deliver genuine outcomes.”[3]

Thus a lot hangs on success in this three-year campaign to eradicate poverty. It is useful even in other contexts, such as rebuffing American presidential accusations that China is a direct competitor with the US in high tech, stealing intellectual property, deserving of punitive tariffs. Part of China’s answer is that China, especially in its far west, is still poor, a developing country,  with a huge job yet to be done, to develop backward areas, bring the poor into the national economy, and lift tens of millions out of poverty.


Tibet Autonomous Region Statistical Yearbook 2017


If one is too attached to illusory wealth

Worry, fear, anxiety-

These three will never cease

”China will further reduce the poor rural population by over 10 million, including 2.8 million people who are to be relocated from inhospitable areas, Premier Li Keqiang said Monday.”

Is the starting point of planning poverty alleviation the removal of people from areas deemed unredeemably poor because the entire area is too cold, too high, too lacking in oxygen, too remote, too degraded for the people ever to prosper? For their own sake, those people should be removed, relocated somewhere warmer, where there may be better cash income earning opportunities. These are key assumptions to be examined closely in this blog series.

Tibetans, of course, do not see the land of Tibet as Chinese see it, as harsh, bleak, unnaturally cold, dangerously hypoxic (low in oxygen) and irretrievably poverty-stricken.  Nor does rugged terrain bother Tibetans, even in precipitous Kham and Amdo Ngawa, but the terrain enables Chinese scientists to add a lot to the list of what is wrong with Tibet: “including elevation, slope, relief amplitude, surface incision, variance coefficient in elevation, surface roughness, distance to roads, and distance to rivers.[4] But Tibetan opinions are not sought and not heard.

The 2018 target of 10 million, with a further 10 million a year in both 2019 and 2020, means China can, by the end of 2020 declare poverty is no more, and thus proclaim itself as the world’s most exemplary developing country, and a major contributor to human rights, since China counts cash income as fulfilment of human rights. Nothing must get in the way of achieving those annual targets.

Of the 2.8 million human lives to be displaced in 2018, in the name of poverty alleviation, it is not clear how many are in Tibet. What is clear is that Tibet, especially the counties designated as poor, are officially classified as areas of “contiguous poverty”, where the natural factor endowment is seen, from a lowland Han Chinese agricultural perspective, as utterly deficient, defined by what is lacking. Put simply, China’s central planners assume no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice. So, by relocating the poor (to where?) they are actually giving them a choice. Not only is this benevolent, it is a major contribution to human rights, and a reason why China can ignore Tibetan protests.

One of the new era 2018  reorganisation of government is the creation of a completely new agency, State International Development Cooperation Agency, 国家国际发展合作署, China’s own international development agency, which plans to export to the entire developing world China’s model of success.  China has long had a modest program doing poverty alleviation projects in surrounding countries, in partnership with Asian Development Bank.



The concept of territorialised contiguous poverty has a positive aspect. It can mean recognition that poverty has specific characteristics in specific areas, and so the solutions must be local, building on the strengths, capabilities, preferences, and aspirations of local communities. When looked at this way, the outcome can not only be empowering, and embraced by the local community, it can also achieve what China, in the past 60 years, has seldom attempted in Tibet, to build on the Tibetan comparative advantage in dairy and livestock production to improve quality and quantity of output, and access to the big, booming urban Chinese markets. Worldwide, this is the standard way of raising incomes and alleviating poverty, and it has been done in China, both by the state, and by international donors. But for 60 years, this kind of investment in local communities has been absent in Tibet. As lowland Chinas has boomed, Tibet has been left further behind.

If China sincerely wants Tibetans to improve their incomes, on their customary production landscapes, it is not too late to make up for six lost decades, as it is now much easier for Tibetan wool growers or dairy producers to directly connect with customers, as online access spreads quickly into rural areas. Tibetan producers have been disadvantaged by poor roads, distance from urban markets, absence of commodity flow chain logistics, as well as lack of investment. They have also been disadvantaged by the innumerable middlemen through whose hands product must pass en route to the customer, with the many middlemen capturing the profits. Now, with modern technologies promoted by the new Ministry of Agriculture  and Rural Affairs, e-commerce simplifies the supply chain. China has taken to e-commerce very strongly, more so than in the US or Europe.

Strengthening Tibetan livestock and crop production has for decades been the obvious route to alleviating poverty, a route not taken. China’s poverty experts say: Growth [of] China’s agricultural sector is particularly important for poverty alleviation, which is four times as effective in reducing poverty as growth in the secondary and tertiary industries.” [5]

In a positive way, the contiguous poverty concept can result in the comprehensive uplifting of an entire area, as Oxfam argued in 2013:

Whereas in the past the model was simply aiming to produce enough food for everyone, now it strives to make communities richer. The approach has also changed – under the new policy set areas, not villages are targeted. This adjustment exchanges the previous, fragmented policy for more collaboration and cooperation, thereby creating a win-win situation. The new approach combines the daily life situations of different ethnic groups with government knowledge and experience accumulated over a long period of time in poverty reduction to form a local basis for continued development. Once food and clothing shortages have been overcome, the new program focuses on eliminating poverty and improving ethnic minority areas’ overall level of development in addition to increasing people’s incomes. When choosing regional development objectives, local governments in ethnic minority communities focus on solving regional poverty by focusing on areas that lag behind in terms of economic development. The contiguous poverty alleviation model, in contrast, considers both efficiency and equity. It stresses the need for a comprehensive uplifting of an area to the average regional level to fulfil the poverty reduction goals. Its main objective is to develop a strong pillar industry to accelerate the development of poverty- stricken regions with hopes of having a radiating effect on income, and as a way to improve the region’s capacity for self-development and better enabling an income increase for the impoverished community in the future. As such, this model caters to the needs of the ethnic minority. Development goals should be layered, dynamic, temporal and regional as well as capable of taking into account the specific characteristics of impoverished ethnic minority areas.”[6]

However, this approach requires listening to local communities, not mandatory displacement. Oxfam’s vision is of participatory poverty alleviation in China, not mass relocations: “Ethnic minority communities operate with unique social and economic models. The communities have their own ways of economic production and societal organization, as well as their own culture and customs. Because of this, poverty alleviation and development policy design cannot and should not be considered separately from the communities’ economic and social features. More precisely, poverty reduction policies targeting community development need to reflect the internal cultural characteristics of ethnic minorities. Policies should respect ethnic groups’ cultures and customs, in order to earn these groups’ respect and motivate them to participate. At the same time, ethnic minority communities have special needs relating to poverty reduction and development. Poverty alleviation and development should, therefore, address each community’s special needs while also responding to their respective cultural and economic settings. Ultimately, only policies that are also capable of catering to local needs can push for real change in those communities. The contiguous poverty alleviation and ethnic minority community development model itself reduces regional poverty. It has advanced poverty alleviation.”

China has tried this constructive approach to contiguous poverty in ethnic minority areas, in several provinces, but almost never in Tibet.[7] The original concept of contiguous poverty held much promise. It was better able to identify who the poor are, the nature of their poverty, and come up with a menu of options all focused on working with local communities to overcome disadvantages and build on the strengths of communities which had made a living from marginal land for generations. The contiguous poverty concept was attractive, not only to China’s government but to international aid agencies, notably the World Bank, which brought its global experience to remote areas such as the Qinba Mountains, a declared “contiguous destitute area”  集中连片特困地区  jizhong lianpian tekun diqu of north-western China, in three provinces. Between 1997 and 2004 the Qinba Mountains Poverty Reduction Project spent $360 million, half of that from the World Bank, on many strategies for alleviating poverty. [8]


The poor districts were defined by mapping together village-level data in clusters that added up to overlapping dots signifying poverty is contiguous. Successive Five-Year Plans over decades announced  “pillar industries” that would arise in Tibet, to strengthen local economies. None actually happened, except for mass domestic Chinese tourism, which employs only Chinese speakers.

Some poor areas are quite large, yet carefully delineated.  For example, in western Yunnan, the ethnic minority areas of the rugged mountain ranges and deep valleys of the three great parallel rivers (Yangtze/Dri Chu, Mekong/Za Chu and Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu) are declared “contiguous destitute areas”, but not the Tibetan prefecture of northwest Yunnan, which is now branded Shangri-la, an idyllic land of happiness and tourism, and  thus definitely not destitute.

However, as China relies ever more confidently on big data and high-tech remote monitoring of entire landscapes, the definition of “contiguous destitute areas” changed dramatically in 2011, no longer tethered to local data on specific villages laboriously collated to patch together the cartographic concept of contiguous poverty. Now new era China is more ambitious. This is literally big picture stuff.

Judge a man for himself

Not for his wealth

Judge a man for his goodness

Not for his eloquence

Now that China sees itself as being in the final stage of eradicating poverty altogether, the methods are increasingly authoritarian and the model is increasingly centralised, not in the hands of local communities.  The current target of 10 million people a year requires 28 per cent of the poor to be relocated each year. This is the opposite of what Oxfam suggested. It is an authoritarian intensification, accompanied by the propaganda rhetoric of a mass campaign, and targets that must be met, not the slow work of local community development based on the opportunities identified by the locals. “Contiguous poverty” could have been liberating, now it has become a rationale for depopulating Tibet.

According to official data, at a time when the number of poor was declining everywhere in China, the rural poor in the Tibet Autonomous Region increased from 0.52 million in 2011 to 0.61 million in 2014.[9] Officially the total 2014 TAR population, including well-remunerated Han immigrants, was 3.176 million, so almost 20 per cent of TAR population is classified poor, or, to use official language, destitute.

This map displays the original concept of “contiguous destitute areas”, a bottom-up accretion of poor villages and counties in adjoining clusters, aggregated by central planners into the 11 officially “contiguous destitute areas” suitable for investment in community development, producer co-operatives, economic strengthening, linkage to markets, and other methods of alleviating poverty by enhancing the existing strengths of remote areas.  Almost none of the Tibetan Plateau is included in this territorialisedl targeting of poverty in “contiguous destitute areas”. Only part of the Qinba Mountains destitute area (purple, in the map centre) is in the Tibetan prefecture of Gansu province. This is the map on which contiguous poverty alleviation work, including much investment by the World Bank, was based, until recently.

This map is from Comparative Analysis on Poverty Degree of China′s 11 Contiguous Destitute Areas: with View of Comprehensive Development Index by Ding Jian-jun, in 2014.[10]

After 2011, this map was supplanted by a much wider territorialisation of “contiguous destitution.” This map is now no longer in use by central planners, having been replaced by a new map that dramatically expands “contiguous destitute areas” to include the entire Tibetan Plateau. For the new map, see the next blog in this series on POVERTY, IMMISERISATION and DESTITUTION in TIBET






[1] Lhamo Pemba, Tibetan Proverbs, LTWA, 1996

[2] Xi Jinping, The Governance of China vol 2, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2017, 92-3

[3] Xi Jinping, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era Delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China October 18, 2017 blog’s_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf

[4] 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, 16, free download:

[5] 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

[6] Poverty Reduction Model Research Series and Minority Community Development, Oxfam Hong Kong 2013,  22

[7] Contiguous Poverty Alleviation and Ethnic Minority Community Development, by Deping Xiang, Ling CHENG, Hong TIAN, Gang HE, Fang LV, Wen SONG, Fengshao TIAN, Nationalities Publishing House

[8] Weiwei Chen , Danmeng Feng & Xiaoyuan Chu, Study of Poverty Alleviation Effects for Chinese Fourteen Contiguous Destitute Areas Based on Entropy Method, International Journal of Economics and Finance; Vol. 7, No. 4; 2015

[9] 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, 68

[10]中国11个集中连片特困区贫困程度比较研究, 基于综合发展指数计算的视角,  地理科学Scientia Geographica Sinica, Vol.34 No.12 Dec., 2 0 1 4

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment





China’s official designation of the whole of the Tibetan Plateau as inevitably and incurably poor is grounded in a line across the map of China drawn by a geographer in 1935, still hailed today as a breakthrough.

The 1935 line creates a neat division of China into two contrasting zones, bisected by a satisfyingly straight line drawn from the southwest at the bottom of the map, up to the northeast at the top. Its’ inventor, geographer Hu Huanyong,  pointed out this neat division of China into a densely populated east and south, and the sparsely populated rangelands of the west and far north.[1]  It makes for a dramatic contrast, readily lending itself to the formulation of a Marxist “contradiction”.

The southeast half region 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.

In reality it was simply China discovering that, largely through conquest, it had acquired a vast hinterland that does not conform to the Han norm of what is normal, of densely settled, intensively farmed peasant holdings. China did not know what to do with lands not classifiable as arable, not suitable for intensive cropping, and has been struggling with this ever since.

With Hu Huanyong’s 1935 dissection as the starting point, it is then easy to attribute the allegedly abnormal low population density of the rangelands to ecological factors, including mountainous terrain, limited rainfall, cold climate and high altitude. Tibet has all these attributes. Given the inherent assumptions inbuilt to the Hu-line, it is but a short, derogatory and stigmatising step to label the west a “contiguous destitute area”, a fact of nature.

The reification of this bluntly insulting concept of “contiguous destitution” is strengthened by turning to several new sciences to provide seemingly objective definitions proving ecological determinism. A 2016 report, Coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty in contiguous destitute areas, China: Empirical analysis of 714 poverty-stricken counties, was authored by scientists from institutes of geomatics, resources, environment, tourism, 3D Information Acquisition and urban planning. [2]



A penniless pauper has more thoughts to think

A cloudless sky has more expanse to show

 Now all of Tibet is contiguously destitute. The circle of circular logic is complete. Starting with drawing on the map a dividing line between upland, western, cold, subsistence economies and lowland, eastern, farming and urban wealth accumulating economies, it is now self-evident that the contiguous destitution of Tibet, and the rest of the west, is ecologically determined. This is reinforced by scientific languages, so as to build the model to reveal the coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty. The results show that Hu-Line could act as a feasible partition label to depict the spatial distribution patterns of ecological vulnerability, economic poverty, as well as their coupling degree in contiguous destitute areas.”[3]

This derogatory attitude is not new. Marxist determinism declared Tibet backward, primitive, “green-brained” and in need of a cultural revolution that smashed everything old. Now Marxist determinism has taken on a new dimension, adding natural categories such as altitude, slope, depth of river valleys, cold and thinness of the air, to make an even stronger argument for seeing Tibet only negatively, defined by what it lacks.

Amdo Ngawa: remote sensing satellite-generated maps of altitude and slope: proof of inevitable poverty


From this circular logic, it is only a short step to declare that since the drylands/uplands west of the Hu-line are “ecologically vulnerable”, the essential first step in alleviating poverty is to protect ecologically vulnerable areas, including the whole of the Tibetan Plateau, even if protection in practice means depopulating it. The same team just cited goes on to assert: In addition, there existed a symbiotic positive correlation between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty, therefore, the strategic significance of ecological and environment protection in poverty stricken areas should be specifically emphasized to reduce economic poverty by synchronously protecting the ecological environment.”

This map, published in 2017, shows the dramatic expansion of the yellow-lined idea of “contiguous destitute areas” to include the whole of the Tibetan Plateau, designated as Zones XII and XIV. This inflation of the “contiguous destitute areas” concept makes it no longer possible to intervene skilfully with targeted poverty alleviation projects designed to raise local incomes by building on comparative advantage, traditional specialties and local strengths. By adding the whole Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of the entire land area of China- the only possible solution to contiguity stretching for thousands of kilometres is removal of the population.

Yet this map also shows poverty as having precise locations –the little black dots. On this map poverty is both more precise and more generalised, across lowland China (dots) and the Tibetan Plateau, defined not by dot locations but by political provincial boundaries.

This is the current map of the poverty planners, replacing the clustered county-level map previously used to define poverty, especially contiguous poverty.

The map (and article in English) is in the journal Social Indicators Research, 2017. [4] The colours of the map signify demographic density.


When opulence sits astride a horse

The heart of poverty freezes



As big data accumulates, China announced, in the early years of Xi Jinping’s rule, that it was moving away from defining and targeting poverty at county level, and was now able to be more precise, targeting poor villages and poor households. The era of precision poverty alleviation was heralded as yet another Chinese advance, to pinpoint and thus effectively eliminate poverty, as and where it occurs. The new precision was based on ground-level household surveys, an exhaustive accumulation of data generated by aggregating all the village level surveys, and households registering themselves as poor.

Designating an area the size of all Western Europe –the Tibetan Plateau- as a “contiguous destitute area” is the opposite of precision. Instead of identifying specific pastures that are less productive, specific villages that are off-road and off-grid and unable to access markets, specific farming districts in need of investment in new seed varieties, specific towns in need of stockyards to keep livestock in good condition during the sales process, there is now a sweeping lack of specificity. Despite China’s keenness for territorially defined precision, Tibet is generalised, swept in its entirety into a category of irredeemable destitution.

By making the entire 2.5 million sq kms of the Tibetan Plateau “contiguous destitute area”, the very idea of contiguity has been nullified. The point of the concept of contiguity was to pinpoint those local factors that cause or perpetuate poverty. Local factors, including local community skills and aspirations that, with investment, can provide local solutions to local problems.

But when the entire plateau is classified as “contiguous destitute area”, there is nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, no local solutions to be found. It is no longer possible to encourage poor villagers to move elsewhere nearby, in their familiar home on the rangeland, where opportunities may be better.  It is no longer possible to train local communities in skills they can acquire, enabling them to develop new livelihoods, in their home districts.

Once the whole Tibetan Plateau is negatively classified as “contiguous destitute area”, there is only one possible solution to poverty, which is to depopulate the entire plateau, and move the whole population from their lands, initially to urban fringe camps, nodes of global modernity in Tibet, then to cities beyond Tibet, on the grounds that labour mobility is a necessity since capital investment has never come to rural Tibet, and never will.

In an era when everything is a form of capital, every aspect of every county of Amdo Ngawa is lacking:


The original 11 “contiguous destitute areas” were a concerted effort to identify, reach and engage the poor where they live, covering a total of 505 counties in 19 provinces and cities, almost 15 per cent of China’s total area. The three new “contiguous destitute areas” added in 2011 encompass a further 25 per cent or more of China’s territory, so a total of at least 40 per cent of China by area is now officially destitute, even though the number of poor people is so few. The whole concept of “contiguous destitute areas” has been muddied by these two incompatible concepts now sitting, literally, alongside each other.

On poverty maps of today’s China, there are the little black dots signifying poor villages, many of them sufficiently scattered to not swarm in clusters, thus not qualifying as contiguous. Then there are the thicker clusters of villages sufficiently close to each other to be lumped together as “contiguous destitute areas”, a category that crosses provincial boundaries, wherever the data leads. Both the dots and the clusters arise from laborious, grounded, village by village, household by household poverty mapping. This is the basis of the 11 “contiguous destitute areas”, the focus of intensive poverty alleviation project work, until China’s new era.

Then came the 2011 expansion, at the time of Xi Jinping’s rise. There are now three more “contiguous destitute areas.” Two of the three are the entirety of Tibet Autonomous Region, including the vast northern empty plain of the Chang tang where there are almost no villages at all; and the “Tibetan ethnic areas of four provinces”, China’s clumsy circumlocution for the other half of the Tibetan Plateau, including all 75 counties in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces designated officially as Tibetan Autonomous Counties. Making up the 14th  “contiguous destitute areas” is the new addition of southern Xinjiang.

These new areas have been mapped and defined, not by village surveys and gradually accumulating ground data, but on the basis of completely different criteria, which are wholly political. The boundaries of the three new “contiguous destitute areas” are provincial and prefectural, not based on actual locations of villages. There is nothing contiguous, or ecologically predetermined, about them. They are political artefacts, no longer moored in survey data. They are declarations, at the highest level of a centralised, authoritarian party-state, that Tibet, in its entirety, and the most Uighur of Xinjiang’s prefectures, are intractably, irredeemably, incurably destitute, beyond redemption and in no way suited to targeted poverty alleviation projects.

China used to blame the backwardness of Tibet on Tibetan culture. Now the seemingly scientific concept of “contiguous destitute areas” shifts the blame onto neatly mappable data on terrain and climate. Yet the social determinants of backwardness and destitution persist, in what China counts as constituting contiguous destitution. It’s a package of loss, absence and lack, all of which define Tibet and the Tibetans, who have low human capital and high altitude, high mountains and a low “social capital index.” Everything measurable, natural and human, is all a form of capital, and Tibet scores low on all forms. All of these are rolled into the ecological determinism that makes destitution inevitable.

Amdo Ngawa prefecture mapped to show relief amplitude (ruggedness of landscape) and river incision (depth of river valleys: further proof of the inevitable poverty of Tibet:

By now, this has been repeated so often, it has been naturalised, as a self-evident truth: The CAPADs[contiguous poor areas with particular difficulties] tend to the ecologically vulnerable zones where there are poor living conditions, frequent natural disasters, weak economic foundations, poor infrastructure and lagging public service, and special social fabrics. They also feature large land acreage  and great difficulties for poverty reduction and thus are categorized as the least-developed regions in China. Covering most state-designated poverty counties and key relief recipients, these areas are home to the largest number of rural poor with the highest poverty incidence rate. The distribution of the Chinese rural poor exhibits a distinct spatial agglomeration feature. Poverty is mainly concentrated in the remote deep rocky mountainous areas, border areas and minority areas of central and western China. The lack of natural endowments, poor geographic conditions and fragile ecological environment are the main driving forces behind persistent poverty. Complex geographical environments, frequent natural disasters, poor infrastructure and minority population agglomeration may be the main reasons behind the regional disparity of poverty. Most of the key impoverished counties suffering from frequent disasters are located in China’s western regions where there is a fragile ecological environment and an agglomeration of ethnic minorities.Furthermore, a high degree of overlap exists between the national key ecological function areas and the contiguous poverty-stricken areas with special difficulties in China. Poverty-stricken families usually live in remote areas in a harsh environment under poor living conditions and suffer from a high re-poverty-stricken rate.”[5]


When looked at more closely, China not only argues that altitude and climate determine Tibetan destitution, but that “contiguous destitution” is the result of ethnic contiguity, a racist assertion reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. A 2018 article in an open-source journal is headed: Assessment of Sustainable Livelihood and Geographic Detection of Settlement Sites in Ethnically Contiguous Poverty-Stricken Areas in the Aba Prefecture, China. [6] Is it the contiguity of the Tibetan ethnos that causes the poverty, or the lack of factor endowments that causes poverty? Or are they the same thing? In short, is lowland China making the ridiculous assumption that no human would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice?

What used to be 505 counties has suddenly become 1311 counties:  “To be specific, there are 53,758 villages involved, covering 13 contiguous destitute areas, 27 provinces, 1311 counties. Overall, they are mainly distributed in Central and Western China. According to the county-scale poverty level, the counties involved here constitute 527 national poor counties, 439 provincial ones and 345 non- poverty ones; from the view of geographical division, they can be classified into 94 eastern counties, 442 central ones, and 775 western ones; In terms of the primary industry classification, they contain 83 pastoral counties, 117 agricultural-pastoral ones,and 502 agricultural ones; According to the terrain classification, there exist 598 mountainous counties, 303 hill ones, 264 plain ones.”[7] Yet Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) remains a blank on the mapping of actual poverty, contiguous or otherwise: “Tibet Area is also excluded from the study due to regional data privacy,” a polite reference to poverty data on Tibet being a state secret. TAR is routinely omitted from many reports, because its situation so embarrassingly contradicts the official narrative of new era great rejuvenation fulfilling the China Dream.




Beyond Tibet, some of the mapped black dots signifying poor villages are in areas to which the fleeing People’s Liberation Army retreated in the 1930s. These “old revolutionary areas”, though still poor, inspire a special place in CCP history, and Xi Jinping has visited many of them (none in Tibet) to express his care and concern. On one such visit, he focussed on what the local economy is good at, emphasizing his pledge to help them build on their local strengths: “Yanchuan County Party Committee Secretary Liu Jingtang focused on the practice of realizing the rapid growth of farmers’ income through the development of specialty products such as red dates and apples. The general secretary Xi Jinping asked, how are the red dates selling now? What do people eat when they buy it? Liu Jingtang made an answer. The general secretary must strengthen market research and master market conditions. Zhitan County Party Secretary Yang Dongping also talked about the use of local resources to develop agricultural and sideline products. The general secretary knows in detail the situation of their production of wolfberry wine and asks whether the production and sales are in the right direction. They must pay attention to opening the market.” 

 China still talks of local solutions to local problems, as does the World Bank, in its poverty alleviation work in China (but not Tibet).  In reality, now that poverty alleviation has become a “critical battle” of national and international importance, China is in a hurry, and in no mood for the slow and patient work of engaging and encouraging local communities to organise themselves into water user groups, farmer groups, marketing co-operatives and gradually evolve local solutions.

In 2018 Xi Jinping addressed senior poverty work officials from Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou provinces (but not Tibet), reminding them to: effectively strengthen grassroots organizations. To do a good job in poverty alleviation and development, the grassroots level is the foundation. We must organically combine poverty alleviation and grass-roots organization construction, do a good job of building village-level organizations with village party organizations at the core, and encourage and select outstanding young cadres and veterans who have good ideas, good work style, and strong abilities to serve the people. Every poverty-stricken village must have a village work team, and each poverty-stricken household has its own help. The task forces and cadres in villages must concentrate on poverty alleviation and development and play an effective role.”

Yet Tibet remains the exception, with almost no grassroots village organisations designing their own poverty alleviation, with help from central leaders. A decade ago, and two decades ago, there were many NGOs, from China and the world, working in Tibet, building and staffing schools, health clinics, improving farming, alleviating poverty. Now nearly all have been pushed out, excluded by a state that wants to be the sole author of all interventions in Tibet.

Xi Jinping is a politician, indeed, as many argue, the only politician in a dictatorship where all other voices are silenced. Like any politician, he says many things, addresses many audiences, tries to be all things to all people. He talks at length about local solutions to local problems: “Severely impoverished areas should improve their growth models and give priority to the development of business activities that benefit the impoverished, such as agriculture based on local features, labour-intensive processing industries, and the service industry.”[8]  This is exactly what Tibet needs, and has needed for the past 60 years, without success. Xi Jinping, in the same speech, says:  “We should relocate more impoverished people living under adverse natural conditions.”

These are two mutually incompatible models of what is meant by poverty alleviation, so which strategy is scheduled for implementation in Tibet? Everything points to the six decades of failure to invest in rural production, value adding and marketing persisting. It all points to further displacement of Tibetans from their land, now not only in the name of water provision and wildlife protection, but also poverty alleviation.

How common is poverty in Tibet? Has grassroots bottom-up poverty alleviation been tried in Tibet? That’s in the next in this blog series on POVERTY, IMMISERISATION and DESTITUTION in TIBET




[1] QI Wei et al, China’s different spatial patterns of population growth based on the “Hu Line”, J. Geogaphical Science,  2016, 26(11): 1611-1625

[2] Coupling between ecological vulnerability and economic poverty in contiguous destitute areas, China: Empirical analysis of 714 poverty-stricken counties, 中国贫困地区生态环境脆弱性与经济贫困的耦合关系——基于连片特困区714个贫困县的实证分析, Chinese Journal of Applied Ecology, 应用生态学报, Aug. 2016, 27(8): 2614-2622

[3] China’s different spatial patterns

[4] Yanhui Wang and Yefeng Chen, Using VPI to Measure Poverty-Stricken Villages in China, Social Indicators Research, 133, 2017, 833–857

[5] 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

[6] 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, 16, free download:

[7] Using VPI to Measure Poverty-Stricken Villages in China, 2017

[8] Xi Jinping, Governance of China, vol 2, Foreign Languages Press, 2017, 94

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



Top seven relaunched ministries, and their new era of impacts on Tibet

How does the 2018 reorganisation of China’s government affect Tibet?

Although the reorganisation is the biggest in decades, with hardly any ministry unaffected, there has been no commentary on how this impacts on Tibet. Further, the commentaries so far available, looking more generally across China, have been superficial, focussed mostly on picking winners and losers.

In reality, the March 2018 reorganisation announced at the National People’s Congress session must be seen in the context of the recentralisation of power, which has been vigorously pushed by Xi Jinping for some time. The wider context is that the party-state’s centre is regaining the command-and-control powers it relinquished back in the early 1980s, after the centralised economy of the Cultural Revolution decade almost collapsed. Deng Xiaoping returned much power to provincial, prefectural and county governments, and attempts in the 1990s to recentralise largely went nowhere.

The announced restructuring is based on a seemingly impeccable logic: each ministry now has a single function, rather than a clutter of functions pulling it in various directions, made worse by many official bodies sharing core functions better done by a single arm of the party-state. The appeal to rationality, efficiency, productivity and clarity is great.

The new era approach, we are told, is all about service delivery, as if it is a new social media platform. The core argument is efficiency: “The main idea of this reform, says Wang Manchuan 满传 National School of Administration, is to ‘transfer one matter to one agency’. Each one is supposed to do one thing, and do it well. They are assigned core missions (‘functions’ 功能 in CCP jargon).”[1]


For Tibetans, key questions are to do with how the key functions are defined. Are key functions framed wholly by China’s new era emphasis on production and consumption, including consumption of a cleaner environment? Is there any acknowledgement in the new structure that the Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of China’s total area- and the six million Tibetans are exceptional, whose circumstances are quite different to the lowland norm?

This is a whole-of-government approach, without exceptions. It comes at a time when the party-state has insisted, more forcefully than ever, that it is the party that is in command. In fact, many of the reorganisations now explicitly position the party as the driver of official state policy, fully institutionalising the party as the permanent arbiter of policy and its implementation. If Tibetan concerns are marginalised by this reorganisation, there is no recourse to another branch of the party-state for redress, or a hearing of concerns. If Tibetan concerns are not only marginalised but defined out of existence altogether, by the functional categories now constituting the party-state, not only is there no-one to appeal to, the language of appeal, petition and grievance is immediately illegitimate, impossible to hear, and can only be classified as a matter for the security apparatus.

Since Tibetans have long struggled to be heard, any further erasure of Tibetan livelihood and cultural concerns, can only lead to greater deafness and greater securitisation. From a Tibetan point of view, however, “doing one things well” turns out to be the one things the party-state wants, mainly water supply and a new tourism-based post-industrial economy. There is not one ministry whose “one thing” includes any concern for the welfare of Tibetans, especially rural Tibetans, on their lands, maintaining their customary livelihoods as skilled land, wildlife, grass and livestock managers and farmers. The logic of “one thing” to the exclusion of all else is likely to further exclude Tibetans, all in the name of entering a wonderful new era.



Bearing in mind these dangers, what are the actual reorganisation specifics?

1 We begin by identifying the most powerful of the restructured ministries affecting most directly the lives of Tibetans. First and most obvious is the security state, not only because of its size, massive central financing, predominance in provincial budgets and intrusive grid management surveillance, but also because it is the biggest employer of Tibetan graduates, since so few Han Chinese have learned Tibetan.[2] The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is little changed, having already been instructed on many occasions, as with the armed forces, that they are directly under the party, and their loyalty is to the party. MPS is no longer required to participate in emergency management, such as earthquake relief, nor will it administer immigration, as there is now a new bureaucracy to control who enters China.

2 The second most powerful ministry for Tibetans is the highly restructured Ministry of Water Resources (MWR). For Tibetans all over the plateau, who still have to carry water on their backs to their village, from the nearest stream, it might seem odd to say this is the second most powerful.  Yet the entire usefulness of Tibet to China is redefined in this new era as, primarily, the supply of water to lowland China, requiring the removal of any obstacles to reliable delivery of clean water. China increasingly classifies Tibet as a “strategic reserve of natural resources” available to meet future demand, but the one resource urgently needed right now is water, and the two major rivers of China rise in Amdo and Kham.

MWR is further strengthened by now having direct control of the biggest of hydraulic megaprojects that are now built and running: the Three Gorges Dam athwart the Yangtze, and the South-to-North water diversion canals sending Yangtze water north. Until now both Three Gorges and South-to-North were directly under the State Council. But are they all built? The one south-to-north mega-diversion project yet to begin is in Tibet, requiring many dams across upper tributaries of the Yangtze, to be tunnelled through mountain ranges and pumped uphill to get to the parched Yellow River. Although this huge project, which would deeply impact the Tibetans of Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa, remains on the to-do list of the current 13th Five-Year Plan, there is as yet no sign the many blueprints are actually breaking ground.

MWR is all about provisioning of water for lowland China, ensuring glacier melt reaches its downriver urban users, damming and hydro-electrifying those rivers as needed, also exporting China’s hydraulic engineering expertise, for which Tibet serves as a useful showroom demonstrating MWR capabilities. However, flood control is not under MWR, but the newly created Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) 应急管理部 . Removing pollutants from water is the responsibility of another ministry, the newly upgraded Ministry of Ecological Environment  ⽣态环境部. Despite the idea of “one function, one ministry”, water provision and water quality are separate. In order to ensure water supply from Tibet is of good quantity and quality, all that is needed is to remove the nomads, and their animals which do their droppings in rivers and streams. That is how official China sees it.

The minister of water resources (and party secretary of MWR) is E Jingping, a professional dam builder and hydraulic engineer since the 1970s. But will dam building in Tibet, a high priority in each successive Five-Year Plan be the job of MWR or those in charge of energy, or economic development, or the renewables industry?

3 For Tibet, an obvious candidate for third most important is the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). This is no longer the same as the Ministry of Land and Resources. MNR in many ways is more powerful than Land and Resources was. It has many new responsibilities: it is to administer urban and rural planning, administer the rights registration and investigation of water resources, administer the rights registration and investigation of grassland resources which has until now been in the hands of the State Forestry Administration, and administer the rights registration and investigation of forest and wetland resources. The Grassland Law will be the responsibility of MNR, a law filled with responsibilities of grassland users, with little on rights. If there is deemed to be any clash, or contradiction, between water and grassland, the grassland users will lose; and it has long been official policy that there is a contradiction between grassland and grazing animal herds.

Everyone knows Tibet is a treasure house of minerals, and Chinese geologists keep finding more. MNR will have the power to co-ordinate extraction of those resources, not only because that is its core responsibility but because it has new powers over urban and rural development, including the construction of infrastructure to enable resource extraction, plus it has the new power, taken from the National Development & Reform Commission to organize the drafting of the plan for main functional areas. This is a major central planning power, delegated from the NDRC to MNR.

However, China’s new era emphasis on designating much of Tibet as Key Ecological Function Zone does limit the extent of resource extraction, instead giving priority to mass tourism. China has not found much enthusiasm among mining companies, even among those directly state-owned, for the direct investment of capital in large-scale resource extraction in Tibet. Those companies have the choice of mineral deposits worldwide, and usually prefer to invest in Africa or Latin America rather than Tibet, and keep their profits abroad too. So MNR, despite its many new powers, may yet find it hard to have much impact.

4 Fourth is the new Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT). This innovation brings together two bureaucracies hitherto quite separate, united by the single core function of fostering a consumer culture capable, in Tibet, of bringing tens of millions of Han Chinese tourists to quite remote areas, which thus provides employment for immigrant Han Chinese who provide all services to the tourists and speak their language. This marriage of culture and tourism tells us much about the future direction for Tibet, where already around 40 per cent of the total area of the Tibetan Plateau has been designated as Key Ecological Function Zone, making these protected areas into destinations for tourism, with the promise of pristine wilderness landscapes.

The previous Ministry of Culture already had a big role in tourism, being the owner and operator of many scenic spots, monuments, old palaces and temples, which gave it revenue and power to control the story told to visitors. However the previous National Tourism Administration regulated all other destinations, and the hospitality industry. Now they are fused. Will this new, bigger ministry have a role in running the new national parks in Tibet, due to be launched in 2020? Despite the emphasis on each ministry doing one key function, this is not yet clear.

Huang Kunming, China’s head of all propaganda work told the Ministry of Culture & Tourism: “establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a major decision made by the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core based on the overall cause of the party and the country, and strengthening the overall leadership of the party in cultural and tourism work. It is of practical significance and far-reaching historical significance to promote the integration of cultural undertakings, cultural industries and tourism, meet people’s needs for a better life, and increase national cultural soft power and Chinese cultural influence.”

5 Fifth, in terms of impact on Tibet, is the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA). Hopefully, this is the ministry for Tibetan livelihoods, for improving the productivity of Tibetan livestock and crop farming production landscapes, the one ministry that could help Tibet link to the booming urban Chinese demand for dairy products. In reality the old Ministry of Agriculture took no interest in the rangelands and had no understanding of the ways Tibetan nomads made flexible use of extensive lands. This is unlikely to change. The addition of Rural Affairs means more focus on the incomes of farmers, and programs to turn many small farms into a small number of big agribusiness farm enterprises, in the name of efficiency. Specifically, MARA takes over several functions previously administered by other departments:  agricultural investment projects, no longer under the central planners of NDRC;  agricultural comprehensive development projects, no longer arranged by Ministry of Finance; farmland renovation projects, no longer under Ministry of Land and Resources;  farmland water conservancy construction projects, a function taken away from the Ministry of Water Resources.  This will perpetuate the wasteful use of water by farmers, who will continue to expect plentiful water supply at extraordinarily cheap prices, which encourages wasteful use. Far from the new Ministry of Water Resources having power to control water demand and restrict wasteful water use, MWR is limited solely to supplying water, not regulating demand or cleaning up polluted rivers and lakes.


These five key ministries will do much to shape the future of Tibet, plus the armed forces, stationed in permanent garrisons in every Tibetan town. What is striking about all five is that none of them have human welfare of existing rural Tibetan communities as their core mission. Indeed, each new ministry has its own powerful reasons to ignore Tibetan lives and livelihoods, in pursuit of their single function, be it security of the party-state, guaranteed water supply from Tibetan glaciers, a rapid growth in mass domestic Han tourism into Tibet, and consolidation of customary lands into industrialised large-scale agribusinesses. Each of these missions makes traditional Tibetan modes of production irrelevant or problematic, or an obstacle to achieving the new era goal.

If the top five ministries (plus the armed forces) all tend to assume Tibetans are obstacles to achieving the ministerial new era mission, rather than citizens to be served, perhaps we need to look to other ministries to find the caring side. There are many more ministries, some old, some new, with a hand in governing Tibet.

We could start with the National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC), the central planners who write the Five-Year Plans and supervise their implementation. Commentary on the latest reorganisation has branded NDRC as one of the big losers, on the grounds that many of its roles have been transferred to many of the “one function, one ministry” departments. Far from weakening central planning, it has been extended, with each of the powerful ministries now doing a lot more social engineering, to realise the “great rejuvenation.” Centralising power away from local and provincial government, concentrating power in the national party-state, means more central planning, not less. Command-and-control is back, even though the centralisers will find, in a country as huge as China, that it is far easier to issue commands than to exercise actual control.

Much of the commentary has focused on the new Ministry of Ecological Environment (MEE) ⽣态环境部, which builds on the old Ministry of Environment Protection.

Why not put MEE in the top five, since there is a lot of environment to protect in Tibet? China is getting quite serious about urban air pollution, although its methods of ensuring compliance are highly authoritarian. The reason MEE, despite its enhanced powers to investigate and fine noncompliant projects and enterprises, is not high on our list for impact on Tibet, is simple: it is focussed almost wholly on eastern China. It is in the big, polluted cities of the east that populations of distressed citizens are mobilised, and the party-state faces deep discontent.

In China’s west, including Tibet, the securitization of Tibetan concerns makes Tibetan protests immediately criminal, matters solely for the security organs. MEE is unlikely to exercise its new powers in Tibet any time soon. On paper, Tibetans, and all of China’s citizens, have new powers, for example the right to obtain official disclosure of information, in advance, on major construction projects, such as the building of hydro dams. [3] In practice, the security state overrides MEE, and many other Tibetan rights.

A further sign that the central party-state struggles to get environmental compliance realised is that the revenues MEE earns when it does impose fines and penalties on polluting factories, is to be returned to local governments[4]. Centralisation goes only so far.

MEE now speaks boldly, naming and shaming polluters,, even if they have official backing: “The illegal production of enterprises and the implicit support of local governments have sounded unbelievable. However, they appeared in Luotian County, Hubei Province. This is a very typical act of chaos. It seriously deviated from the decision-making and enforcement of the central government, seriously decimated the expectations of the people, and seriously affected the improvement of environmental quality. Providing quality ecological products for the masses is the statutory duty of the local government and the internal affairs. However, Luotian County and its Economic Development Zone Administrative Committee, is willing to act as an umbrella for illegal companies. Compared with ordinary inactivity and slowness, this type of chaos is more serious and has a worse influence. In fact, the reason why the local government chose “hidden” instead of “bright face” to support illegal activities is because they know that their actions are contrary to the central government’s policy. While shouting that environmental protection is important, they connived, acquiesced, and even supported environmental violations, knowingly committing crimes, engaging in small tricks, and playing abacus.”

The offending county is far from Tibet, and close to Beijing, so it is being held accountable. Maybe the day will one day come when pollution protecting county governments in Tibet will also be publicly shamed.


6 That brings us to continue this list of newly centralised party-state power. Number six is a familiar name to Tibetans, a CCP mass organisation that has now swallowed several agencies of the state: “The day after the NPC closed on March 20, party authorities announced a further series of administrative restructuring geared toward subsuming State Council departments or functions under party organs. One notable example is the party’s United Front Work Department, which absorbed three State Council units—the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and the Overseas Chinese Work Department. The abolition of the three State Council departments testifies to President Xi’s instructions about “the party running state organs.” This also portends more vigorous oversight over China’s ethnic minorities, Christians (including worshippers in house churches) and the activities of ethnic Chinese domiciled abroad. The head of the expanded UFWD is You Quan, another Xi protégé with connections to Fujian Province (, March 21;, March 21). And looming above the much-changed landscape of Chinese governance is Xi, the hands-on supreme leader who is determined to run this huge nation as if it were his personal fiefdom.[5]

This fusion of party and state fully institutionalises the party as the driver of policy, the state merely the implementer. “The mask has come off,” said Jude Blanchette, a senior adviser and China analyst at Crumpton Group, an advisory firm based in Arlington, Va. “What was for a time a convenient fiction that the government was separate from the party is, apparently, no longer needed.”

Regulations which came into effect in February 2018 give the implementing authorities sweeping power. The new regulations codify religious compliance with party ideology: “Article 3 Religious affairs shall be administered under the principles of protecting legitimacy, stopping illegitimacy, containing the extreme, resisting penetration, and cracking down on criminals.

“Article 4. Religious groups, religious institutions, premises for religious activities and religious citizens shall comply with the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules, practice the core socialist values, and maintain national integrity, ethnic solidarity, religious harmony and social stability. No organization or individual may make advantage of religion to endanger national security, destroy the social order, harm the health of citizens, obstruct the educational system of the state, or carry out other activities that harm the national interest, public benefits, or lawful rights and interests of citizens.

“No organization or individual may create contradictions or conflicts between different religions, in a same religion, or between religious and non-religious citizens, preach, support or subsidize religious extremism, or take advantage of religion to destroy ethnic solidarity, split the state or carry out terrorist activities.

“Article 5 All religions shall adhere to the principles of maintaining their independence, relying on themselves respectively, and holding their respective religions on their own. No religious group, religious institution, premise for religious activities or religious affair shall be dominated by foreign force.

“Article 6 The people’s governments at all levels shall strengthen their religious work, establish and improve the mechanism of religious work, and guarantee the strength of work and the necessary working conditions.

“Article 8 A religious group shall have the following functions: (1) assisting the people’s government in implementing the laws, regulations, rules and policies and protecting the lawful rights and interests of the religious citizens.”[6]

7 Seventh in our listing of newly empowered party-state departments with big impacts on Tibetan life is State Forestry and Grassland Administration (aka National Park Administration 国家公园管理局) {MNR} 国家林业和草原局. The State Forestry Administration is not new, nor is its governance of the vast rangelands of Tibet and thus the drogpa nomads. But SFA is now reshaped. It now explicitly includes grasslands in its official title, making clear that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs is out of the picture. Since MARA is focussed on income and welfare of farmers, there is no similar emphasis on the welfare of customary rangeland users.  In fact, as China gears up to launch many new national parks in 2020, four of them in Tibet, SFA is explicitly now the National Park Administration. That means its primary responsibility is the maintenance of landscapes deemed wilderness, for tourist use, not ongoing pastoral production.

SFA has lost some of its former powers, but it has also gained powers previously scattered among several ministries, that effectively nationalise under central control the common pool resources of the herders. Until now nature reserves, protected areas and national parks had overlapping masters, including Ministry of Land & Resources, Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture and even the State Oceanic Administration; all of which are now transferred to SFA. This makes SFA more powerful, but its focus is not on livelihoods and customary landscape stewardship, but on creating a new consumer economy designed for mass domestic tourism, in the grasslands and forests it now exclusively governs.

China’s central leaders are responding to complaints by farmers of having been left behind, in the rush to get rich, with little investment in the basic amenities such as sanitary toilets and a sewer system, in villages across China. Now, the central party-state has announced a vigorous program to provide these basic facilities in rural settlements.[1] But now that China’s grasslands are no longer the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, nor the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, does the official support for constructing village toilets and sewers extend to Tibet? It seems not. The State Forestry Administration is all about closing farmland, insisting on planting trees on farm fields and on grassland, in programs that have been running for decades. In addition, many Tibetan herders do not live in villages, other than the “administrative villages” deemed into existence by bureaucrats who can’t cope with pastoral mobility. So the new restructuring of powers appears to have, again, excluded Tibetans.

[1] National Development and Reform Commission: Push forward the actions to improve the rural human settlement environment in a down-to-earth manner, 26 Feb 2018,



The party-state is serious about having entered a new era. It is serious about averting the “middle-income trap”, a concept invented by economists to describe the complexity and contradictions of countries that are no longer poor, but still well short of becoming rich, which often slow down. China is determined to create a consumer-driven economy, and Tibet is to be consumed, primarily by mass tourism, and the employment tourism creates for Han hospitality service providers.

In new era China, huge portions of the Tibetan Plateau are now designated as natural resource strategic reserves, not for immediate exploitation, leaving many landscapes designated instead for tourism, and for water supply to lowland China.

This new era reorganisation of the party-state says it is all about rationality, efficiency, logic, and a move away from the revolutionary era emphasis on production, production, production. “Former finance minister Lou Jiwei 继伟 joked ‘frogs in the river are governed by the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA); frogs on the shore are governed by the State Forestry Administration”’. But this is more than a rationalisation of functions; it is also a recatgorisation of what government is and does. Does government serve the masses? On paper, yes. In practiced, in Tibet, it is hard to find a ministry that fosters, promotes, enhances, supports, strengthens or empowers Tibetan livelihoods; while almost all of the new ministries are instructed to restrict, exclude and exclose Tibetans, for a wide range of official reasons, including poverty alleviation, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and water supply.

Those who support this new centralisation use the language of disruption and innovation, to sweep aside the old and usher in the new:  The 17 March plan, and simultaneous national rollouts of pilot programs, break out many offices of local government—including revenue, environmental enforcement and the courts—from city and county budgets and place them under direct authority of central agencies, via local branches. This means mayors and county chiefs will be less able to ignore environmental and budget rules in pursuit of their interests. The new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEEN) will take over a national network. Local environmental protection offices, formerly subordinate to mayors and county chiefs, will receive independent funding and will be placed under the joint oversight of local governments and MEEN.”[7]

Logic, as Buddhist logicians have always said, has its limits, and must be transcended. Logic can unravel delusions, but it can’t bring us to discover how to live. China’s new era government looks exciting, until you look closely.


[1] A Revolutionary Government Overhaul, , 19 March 2018

[2] Adrian Zenz, China’s Ticking Time Bomb – Finding Jobs for Soaring Numbers of Graduates From Tibetan Higher Education Will Pose an Increasing Challenge to the Regime, European School of Culture and Theology, Korntal, Germany, 2017

[3] Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Advancing Public Disclosure of Government Information in the Field of Approval and Implementation of Major Construction Projects,  国务院办公厅关于推进重大建设项目批准和实施领域政府信息公开的意见 [现行有效],【法宝引证码】Issuing authority: General Office of the State Council•Document Number: No. 94 [2017] of the General Office of the State Council, Date issued: 12-04-2017

[4]   Notice of the State Council on Issues concerning the Ownership of Revenues from Environmental Protection Tax 国务院关于环境保护税收入归属问题的通知 [现行有效], 【法宝引证码】CLI.2.307419, Document Number: No. 56 [2017] of the State Council, Date issued: 12-22-2017

[5] Willy Wo-lap Lam, At China’s ‘Two Sessions’, Xi Jinping Restructures Party-state to Further Consolidate Power, March 26, 2018, China Brief

[6] Regulation on Religious Affairs (2017 Revision) 宗教事务条例(2017修订) [尚未生效], 【法宝引证码】CLI.2.301551(EN), Issuing authority: State Council, Order No. 686 of the State Council,•               Effective date: 02-01-2018

[7] A Revolutionary Government Overhaul, , 19 March 2018


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment

China’s new era new ideology


Blog one of two on China’s new ideology


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

[4]   26 Jan 2018

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

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

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

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment

Blinded by ideology



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


Unfashionably, we need to take ideology seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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












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


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment

Zombies rise again in Tibet

River diversion, on a grander scale than ever

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

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

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

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

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

How so? Here are ten reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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















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

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

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



Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment








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



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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment