A NEW COMMUNIST COSMOLOGY

RECUPERATING TIBET

China alone classifies ecology as a heroic human struggle. Does any other nation see the messy, contradictory, complex and unpredictable processes of ecological recovery as “construction of ecological civilisation”? The magnificent mission the CCP has set itself, of arduously constructing the highland ecological civilisation in Tibet, to use its official terminology, is laughable.  It’s also a long list of new regulations that come into force across Tibet Autonomous Region 1 May 2021. [1]

mapping the tracks of China’s scientific expeditions all over Tibet 1950 to 1990. Source: Qinghai-Xizang Plateau Atlas, Institute of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 1990, 16

Although these 68 new regulations are, like most Chinese laws, quite vague, long on goals, short on methods, they still weigh in at over 4300 words in English translation. The length is largely due to the many carve-outs required to allow business as usual to go ahead, unhindered by these florid assertions of control.

https://flk.npc.gov.cn/detail.html?ZmY4MDgwODE3NzRjN2EzZDAxNzc2YjMzZjUyZTEzM2U%3D

西藏自治区国家生态文明高地建设条例

(2021年1月24日西藏自治区第十一届人民代表大会

第四次会议通过)

Regulations of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Construction of National Ecological Civilization Highlands

(On January 24, 2021, the Eleventh People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region

Adopted at the fourth meeting)

目 录

Mining will still be allowed, and also the geological investigations that lead to mining. Hydro dams will still be built, with power grids to export electricity afar, also huge solar power installations in Tibet, which after all has room.

Chinese map of copper, molybdenum, lead and zinc deposits near Lhasa

Existing Chinese industries, extractions, enclaves, corridors are all exempted from having to worry if these new regulations in any way restrict them.  Article 9 exempts not only all the above, but also the military, who love to publicise their tank tracked purpose-built high-altitude vehicles chewing up the scenery along the border with India.

GRAZING WHILE TIBETAN

Not so fortunate are the Tibetans living customary productive lives, now caught up in these new regulations that claim to cover the whole Tibet Autonomous Region, which is the size of UK, Germany, Italy and Poland combined, with as much climatic and ecological variation as Scotland and Sicily. Many of these regulations prescribe what Tibetans must now do, and no longer do. Article 14 announces the TAR government shall: “implement the grazing prohibition and resting of grazing, and the balance of grass and livestock, and establish an ecological restoration mechanism for degraded grasslands.” As usual, the nomadic pastoralists are to blame, and must be removed, to grow more grass. Article 20 announces that TAR will persist with “High-altitude and ecological relocation projects in nature reserves, building model sites for nature protection.” Article 38: “Religious and folklore activities should conform to the concept of green ecology. Guide the greening of religious activities and consumption methods.”

Overall, these “regulations” are mostly operatic exhortations, charging every sector, every community with responsibility to fulfil this sacred mission. That is how the legislature of a nominally “autonomous region” displays its slavish devotion to inscribing Xi Jinping Thought onto every glacier, pasture, river and mountain.

In case anyone might think this is not about them, article after article enumerates the duties of each and all, a toccata and fugue of missionary enthusiasm, like Albert Schweitzer civilising the natives with his organ recitals in the jungle.[2] Article 36: “People’s governments at all levels should strengthen the comprehensive improvement of urban and rural human settlements, promote urban and rural sewage, garbage treatment, and toilet revolutions, protect ecological villages and towns with traditional ethnic characteristics, and build green towns, green villages, and green borders.”

Article 34: “The competent education department of the People’s Government of the Autonomous Region shall integrate the content of ecological civilization throughout the entire process of national education, compile textbooks for the construction of ecological civilization with local characteristics and develop and produce multimedia video materials.”  Article 32: “improve the ecological civilization literacy of the whole people, form an ecological civilized society, and build man and nature harmonious symbiosis demonstration site.” Somehow the harmonious symbiosis of man and nature is entirely compatible with ongoing, accelerating removals of pastoralists from the pastures they managed sustainably and productively over thousands of years, before the party-state projected its power into the grasslands. Go figure.

Some of these “regulations” are so vague, it’s hard to say what they might mean.   Article 29: “People’s governments at or above the county level and their development and reform, cultural and other related departments shall develop ecological and cultural industries with ethnic characteristics and support ethnic traditional industries that meet the requirements of ecological environment protection.” 

Or Article 23: “To build a national ecological civilization highland, we should adhere to the new development concept, insist on ecological priority to green development, establish and improve the ecological economic system with industrial ecologicalization and ecological industrialization as the main body, cultivate the public brand of the third pole region of the earth, and realize Green, low-carbon and high-quality development, and build a green development test site.”

What do “industrial ecologicalization and ecological industrialization” look like on the ground? Who can say? Sounds good.

magnesium production factory, Amdo (northern Tibet), uses highly polluting processes to separate magnesium from lithium, taken from salt lakes of Tibet

Then, inevitably, there is Article 33: “The cultivation of ecological culture shall strengthen the study, publicity and education of the following contents: (1) Xi Jinping Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, especially Xi Jinping Thoughts on Ecological Civilization and General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important expositions on Tibet work; (2) The party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era, especially “We must insist on ecological protection first, and protecting the ecology of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is the greatest contribution to the survival and development of the Chinese nation”; (3) The core values of socialism, the sense of community of the Chinese nation, the excellent traditional Chinese culture and the common ecological values of all ethnic groups on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.”

That is actually what this entire document is about: paying tribute to the emperor. Not only must Tibetans prostrate in submission, but they must also, in the name of ecological civilisation, accept “the sense of community of the Chinese nation, the excellent traditional Chinese culture.” These are key code language phrases for all Tibetans identifying as Chinese, belonging to the one Chinese race, because of the magnetic excellence of Chinese tradition. Classic imperial court rhetoric of the submission of the uncooked to the imperial throne. Ecological civilisation is just another way of establishing who is in command.

LET’S GET SERIOUS

Upriver from Lhasa is the Chulong copper/gold/silver/molybdenum mine, currently scaling up under its new corporate owner, Zijin Mining, to be one of the biggest copper mines worldwide. Blowing up, digging out, crushing and chemically concentrating those precious metals requires dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste every day, on site. So is Zijin now worried TAR is getting serious about tailings dams, toxic metals, leaching into the Kyichu Lhasa River, or lo ng term mine rehabilitation once the ore is exhausted?

Qulong/Julong or in Tibetan Chulong, upriver from Lhasa, now one of the biggest copper mines in the world

Zijin is a corporate giant exploiting Tibetan copper deposits, part of its global reach, with the blessings of the party-state at highest levels. Zijin says in its 2020 Annual report: “Copper business is the Company’s high-potential segment capable of achieving exploding growth. The Company is one of the Chinese enterprises having the largest resource reserve and production volume of copper. The Company is driving for faster monetisation of its resources advantage. It is expected that a number of world-class, super-large copper mines will soon complete construction and commence production. For example, in 2021, projects including Julong [Chulong] Copper in Tibet, the Kamoa Copper Mine in the DR Congo as well as the Timok Copper and Gold Mine in Serbia are anticipated to be ready for phase one production.”

Is Zijin worried about the compliance costs in incurs because of these new regulations? From Zijin’s perspective, do these regulations change anything? Unlikely.

Zijin is a main driver of the new Tibetan economy: “the newly acquired Julong Copper in Tibet owns the largest porphyry-type copper deposit that has ever been discovered in China, which has a copper-equivalent resources volume of 10.40 million tonnes grading 0.41% in average. There are also massive volumes of low-grade copper and molybdenum resources present in the mining zones of the project. Provided that the necessary technological and economic conditions exist, the prospective copper resource reserve within Julong Copper’s mining zones could exceed 20 million tonnes.”

Zijin has long enjoyed impunity after toxic spills, with courts throwing out environmentalists’ cases because they weren’t locals, and thus not affected, thus irrelevant.[3]

In 2020 Zijin had income of RMB 83 billion, on which it paid RMB 1.2 billion in taxes. After taxes, its net profit was RMB 3.1 billion. Zijin says it: “attaches great importance to and continues to improve the work on environmental protection. It adheres to the environmental protection concept of “green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver”, earnestly puts environmental protection and ecological restoration into practice, emphatically promotes the development of green mines, and remains highly committed to forming the eco-development model.” Zijin has mastered the necessary art of performative declamation of party-state slogans. End of story.

By comparison, in 2019 the whole Tibet Autonomous Region budget spent RMB 218.8 billion, but raised only RMB 15.75 billion in tax revenue.[4] The rest of this massive subsidy came from the central party-state in Beijing.  Zijin’s revenue is more than five times what TAR raises. So who calls the tune?

VAGUE BUT SONOROUS

The most telling of overblown rhetorics in these “Regulations” are the most triumphant but content-free. “Build a beautiful Tibet, and build Tibet into a highland of national ecological civilization…… an important national ecological security barrier. Protecting the ecology of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is related to the survival and long-term development of the Chinese nation…….. green water and green mountains are golden mountains and silver mountains, respect nature, conform to nature, protect nature, and build a national ecological security barrier to strategically and harmoniously between man and nature Symbiosis demonstration sites, green development test sites, nature protection model sites, and ecological enrichment pioneers, protect the life and trees of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, thousands of rivers and mountains, realize the modernization of harmonious coexistence between man and nature, and comprehensively build a model of beautiful Tibet in China……

……. compile national economic and social development plans, incorporate the construction of ecological civilization highlands, and integrate ecological civilization construction with economic construction, political construction, cultural construction, and social construction, coordinate implementation……. The people’s government of the autonomous region shall coordinate the promotion of the management of mountains, rivers, lakes, glaciers, forests, grasslands…….. People’s governments at all levels shall establish a glacier protection system, carry out dynamic monitoring of glaciers and periglacial areas, strictly control the production and operation activities in the surrounding areas of the glacier, and maintain the original appearance of the glacier…….. To build a national ecological civilization highland, it is necessary to establish and improve an ecological cultural system based on ecological values, cultivate ecological culture, spread the concept of ecological civilization, improve the ecological civilization literacy of the whole people, form an ecological civilized society, and build man and nature harmonious symbiosis demonstration site……. The people’s congresses at or above the county level and their standing committees should strengthen supervision and inspection of the implementation of ecological environment laws and regulations, strengthen supervision of the construction of national ecological civilization highlands, and inspect and supervise the implementation of the national ecological civilization highlands construction work……. People’s governments at all levels are responsible for the creation of national ecological civilization construction demonstration zones in their administrative regions, and the establishment of management supervision and evaluation mechanisms. Include the establishment of a national ecological civilization construction demonstration zone into the content of the evaluation and assessment of the leadership team and leading cadres.”

Some of the best educated Tibetans will have the task of translating all this into Tibetan. How?

China’s Third Pole Environment (TPE) science knows no boundary

That’s an operatic swell of oversell, but who can say what such phrases mean, if anything? Is this rampant megalomania? Is it the death of Tibet as a vast plateau beyond the gaze of the state, that governs itself naturally?

If these were regulations seriously intended for implementation, accountability, enforcement and review, they would not only be more specific, they would create mechanisms to deliver implementation. Yet these “regulations” concede the party-state, out on the rangelands, has never had a grasp of what it strains to reach, and instead relies on investigative journalism to alert Beijing to local cadres mouthing campaign slogans and pocketing the money. Article 60: “Public media such as radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet shall conduct public opinion supervision over state agencies, enterprises, institutions, and social organizations in the construction of the national ecological civilization highland. State agencies, enterprises, institutions, and social organizations shall consciously accept the supervision of public opinion, and promptly investigate, handle, and feed back the problems reported by the media.”

The weakness of the party-state in ensuring environment is taken seriously, within its own ranks, is plain. When it comes to powerful vested interests, such as the mining companies daily dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic waste upriver from Lhasa, will they take these regulations to heart?

In far western Tibet, in Ngari (Ali in Chinese), China explores “quantum teleportation.” Beam me up, Jinping!

OMNIPOTENT CHINA DISCOVERS GREEN?

One can readily take official pronouncements such as this, on a wide range of topics, such as vocational education, land consolidation or labour transfer, and despair. China’s polymorphous mania for control knows no boundaries, neither across Tibet, nor outer space, the deep ocean seabed or the Arctic, all of them new frontiers of China extending its reach, as of right.

One may despair, that this is the end for Tibet, the apocalypse is nigh, China is omnipotent, Tibetans are both invisible and helpless, China will have its way and establish absolute mastery. Despairing at imminent, urgent, irreversible crisis in Tibet was long the message of Tibetan exiles and their supporters, and perhaps a reason Tibet faded from view, after decades of announcing catastrophe is imminent. For how long can a crisis be forever urgent?

In 2020 that prophetic voice of despair has been rediscovered by Adrian Zenz, who achieved so much in drawing the world’s attention to Xinjiang. He dived deeply into Chinese sources, not only official media but into obscure websites recruiting staff and soliciting tenders for surveillance equipment and alerted the world to the systemic state violence of a party-state out to punish an entire nationality for failing to assimilate. More recently Zenz turned back to Tibet, readily assembling a list of key code phrases of China’s disdain for the Tibetans, and an official superiority complex that mandates labour transfer of displaced Tibetans. Having seen how euphemisms about vocational education and labour transfer in Xinjiang mask a punitive campaign to imprison, coerce, torture and indoctrinate Xinjiang Uighurs en masse, Zenz understandably fears the worst: that Tibet is about to be made into a Xinjiang.

The result is that global gatherings of democratic politicians and Tibet support NGOs now talk of forced labour in Tibet as established fact, even though almost no evidence has emerged in the six months since Zenz published.

Veteran climate campaigners warn against what they call doom-mongering, saying it “is a natural emotional reaction. Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes. It can be enabling and empowering as long as you don’t get stuck there. I see a perfect storm of climate opportunity.”  Can we too look for the opportunities to be found in China’s increasingly frequent announcements on Tibet policy?

DELUSIONAL SELF-IMPORTANCE

There is an alternative to frightening ourselves, and then frightening others, by lining up all the self-aggrandising cliches of power in today’s China. The alternative is laughter. China’s mapping of its control ambitions over Tibet is almost as huge as the territory it seeks to control. Mapping mania run rampant, plus a new suite of 68 regulations proclaiming governance over every blade of grass that grows in Tibet, every drop of water from a Tibetan glacier into a Tibetan river. Like Borges’ mapper whose map was as big as the territory it purported to represent, this absurdist delusion seeks to imprint human will -specifically the will of one man, named  Xi Jinping- into every rock of Tibet.

China is determined to create nothing less than a cosmology with Chinese characteristics, that controls time and space, territorialises China’s control of the Tibetan landscapes it has never understood, extends the reach of the party-state to every thought and action of all Tibetans, is in control of all that is. That’s ludicrous. The delusional self-importance of these “Regulations” is astounding. Likewise, China claiming authorship of Tibet, inventing a new Tibet and new Tibetans newly trained to enter history, climb the ladder of modernity and eventually emerge as civilised.

In 1895 Lewis Carroll published a very short story: ““What a useful thing a pocket-map is!” I remarked.

“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”[5]

China is mapping Tibet as never before, with such obsessive detail, precisely because it never succeeded in colonising Tibet (unlike Xinjiang). So ambitious is China’s assertion of naming and numbering everything Tibetan, it is in need of a map as big as the territory. The purpose of this map is not to colonise, since that has proved impossible, but to control from afar, and assert a Chinese cosmology as controller.

Beidou satellites always passing over Tibet, constantly generating big data torrents

REMOTEST OF CONTROL

China, with its armada of satellite cameras far above Tibet feeding torrents of data to ground controllers and their data crunching algorithms, is convinced it can govern Tibet from the sky, and from control rooms in Beijing. Endless reports and scientific research articles propose ways China can switch on and off rain over the Tibetan Plateau, glacier mass measurement, control of river flow, grass growth, hydro dam water release and retention, and myriad other techno fantasies. Tibet, like a car that needs no driver, can be governed by remote control, to the greater glory of China, its “excellent traditional Chinese culture” and modern mastery of everything. The new Regulations of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Construction of National Ecological Civilization Highlands, which come into force May 1, 2021, are a major mapmaking step towards the cosmology China is building, to glorify Xi Jinping, to territorialise Tibet as part of the nation-state of China, to declaim new universals of time and space, with Chinese characteristics.

seeding the clouds with silver iodide to make it rain

In 1946 Jorge Luis Borges famously riffed on Carroll’s map the size of the territory, as a project of empire, making conquered lands subject to imperial will by mapping.[6]On Rigour in Science” reminds us China’s delusions of total knowledge and total control are ridiculous. In 1982 Umberto Eco, with a straight face, went further, explaining ways a map as big as the territory might work, but actually couldn’t. It’s in How to Travel with a Salmon.

firing silver iodide into Tibetan skies to make it rain

Why were the most original, creative, insightful minds -Carroll, Borges, Eco- drawn to this most modern of delusions of exactitude and total control? China’s new Regulations of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Construction of National Ecological Civilization Highlands is an instant classic, to be put on the shelf alongside Carroll, Borges and Eco. Don’t despair over Tibet.

In Borges’ story the preposterous map as big as the territory is not the end of the story. That map was abandoned by those meant to use it, finding it not only impractical but an obstruction to getting on with practicalities such as growing crops. Despite the enormous effort to expertly map locations and resources, corridors and enclaves of the empire, the whole effort fell apart, the map fell into disuse and tatters, occasionally sheltering beggars, but little else.

scientific cloud seeding, Mato dzong, near source of Yellow River

“There was a sense that in time one might gather sufficient intelligence to know the world and consequently to predict and forestall the outbreak of hostilities. After all, professors were there to provide knowledge about every imaginable culture and territory in the world, while journalists reported on location and undercover operatives blended like chameleons into any possible environment, all apprising the West of what the rest were really doing. Of course, with his image of the imperial map rotting over its territory, Borges exposed an ideal whose full absurdity and naïveté only appears now, in retrospect. Nor is it simply that those responsible for intelligence have become lazy or stupid or simply overtaxed.”[7]

artillery at the ready, to force Tibetan clouds to rain

LIVING MOMENT TO MOMENT ON LAND, NOT IN ALGO LABYRINTHS

China’s compulsive over-reach, to control everything imaginable, only gets in the way of Tibetans living their lives, and will end in tatters. Getting in the way, too, is the florid virtue signalling of the TAR government. Best to be clear-headed as to what the virtue-signalling is for. It has little to do with environment, still less to do with reforestation of clear-felled Kham (not even mentioned), or active regeneration of degraded grassland patches (barely mentioned). The virtue that is so elaborately signalled is the virtue of publicly conforming to Xi Jinping Thought. That’s all that counts these days. CCP gets high on its own supply, as Oliver Stone’s Scarface memorably put it. Boosterism on steroids.

And elaborate displays of loyalty to the Xi Jinping line, by party hacks in Lhasa, are the best way to get Beijing to send more cash. After all, TAR now has an ecological civilisation to arduously construct, plus industrial ecologicalization and ecological industrialization. That’s going to need heaps of cash to prop up the chronically revenue-starved TAR budget. That in turn will hire more cadres.


We can laugh at the pomposity of China’s legislative voice, and also take very seriously what this all means, on the ground, for Tibetans.

Clearly, depopulating rural Tibet, displacing nomadic pastoralists, cancelling their land rights, ignoring and denying their customary skills of sustainable ecological management, are bad. These new regulations, enforceable from 1 May 2021, add to the pressures on traditional drogpa livestock producers to cancel lifeways that for thousands of years were both sustainable and productive.

Many new jobs will be created, based on direct funding from Beijing, to make an elaborate show of how deeply the party-state cares. Starting with the Tibetans now busy translating these sloganistic regulations into Tibetan, there will be jobs for both Han immigrants and Tibetans making an elaborate show of measuring, ennumerating, monitoring, inspecting, zoning, administering and reporting China’s success in the arduous construction of the National Ecological Civilization Highlands.

China can then not only boast of its exemplary discovery of ecology, it will also be able to say GDP is rising, due to the subsidies, and lots of Tibetans have graduated through vocational education and are now mobilised into the new economy labour force. China gets its win-win. Tibetans become more and more dependent on the party-state’s iron rice bowl, more incentivised to comply with meaningless regulations, more disempowered.

These are real impacts, and deserve real responses. At the same time we can laugh at a party-state that has just re-discovered ecology, and earnestly insists on teaching it -coercively- to Tibetans who never lost touch with deeply embedded Tibetan traditions of respecting, not exploiting, nature.

[1] 西藏自治区国家生态文明高地建设条例(2021年1月24日西藏自治区第十一届人民代表大会 第四次会议通, Regulations of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Construction of National Ecological Civilization Highlands, https://flk.npc.gov.cn/detail.html?ZmY4MDgwODE3NzRjN2EzZDAxNzc2YjMzZjUyZTEzM2U%3D

[2] “Although he worked in Africa for over fifty years, Schweitzer was strangely indifferent to the continent’s culture. Unlike his fellow missionaries, he never learned native languages, and his service was primarily grounded in a Nietzschean rejection of European conventionalities.” Ruth Harris, Schweitzer and Africa, The Historical Journal , Volume 59 , Issue 4 , December 2016 , pp. 1107 – 1132

[3] Qie Jianrong, WHY DIDN’T THE MEP SUE THE ZIJIN MINING GROUP?  in Yang, Dongping. Chinese Research Perspectives on the Environment, Volume 1: Urban Challenges, Public Participation, and Natural Disasters, BRILL, 2013.

[4] TAR Statistical Yearbook 2020, table 5-1, General Public Revenue and Expenditure

[5] Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno, 西爾薇與布魯諾.

[6] Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998), 325.

Jean Baudrillard also cites Borges’s fable “On Exactitude in Science” to open his account of simulation (Simulations [New York: Semiotext(e), 1983], 1.

[7] Tani Barlow, Editor’s introduction, positions, 13:1 Spring 2005

CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE

British Raj imperial follies of a century ago, justified as empirical science, still haunt the Himalayas and divide Tibetans from each other..

The conceit of Henry McMahon was that he could draw a line right along the Himalayan glacial peaks that would demarcate British India from Tibet, which was further labelled as suzerain to China.

McMahon’s Line is still with us, still defining the tense, highly contested border between India and China, with Tibetan civilisations on both sides, cut off from each other by Sir Henry’s triumph of trigonometry.

The recent sudden catastrophic collapse of a glacier perched high above the deep river valleys of Indian Uttarakhand is also a casualty of McMahon’s logical but absurd peak-to-peak magical line. Initial reporting of the destructive surge of this outbreak flood (as scientists call it) were confused as to what could have caused it, and utterly unaware of recent similar events on the other side of McMahon’s line, thus lacking much basis for comparison.

In the inevitably confusing days after this raging flood smashed through hydro dams and tunnels under construction for river diversion and underground turbine halls, causation was widely attributed to collapse of a glacier, to earthquake, landslide and sudden breaching of a lake, as if these are all discrete phenomena, alternative explanations. A century and more since McMahon and his army of theodolite bearers turned the Himalayas into numbers, we still struggle with proliferating causes and complexity.  We still seek, as McMahon did, a single foundational basis, a fundamental truth against which all else can be assessed. We are still startled that, in landscapes as young and growing as the Tibetan Himalayas, the above causes, far from being mutually exclusive, are probably all true, in very short order.

China’s revolution teaches Tibetans how to turn Tibet into numbers

Sir Vincent Arthur Henry McMahon, Companion of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (CIE), Companion of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India (CSI), Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE), Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO), was a paragon of Gaelic rectitude, imperial hauteur and Enlightenment rationality. After India he went on the Middle East and was involved in the carve up of the Levant, as the Ottomans crumbled, between Britain and France. The partition of India and Pakistan, two years before his death, was not his work, yet follows a similar familiar logic by deeming two of India’s religious communities as natural categories that are naturally incompatible, the solution being a line on a map.

What the McMahon Line obscures by privileging peak altitudes above all else starts with the glaciers, tens of thousands of them in the Himalayas, some flowing south to north across the McMahon Line, some flowing north to south across the McMahon Line. Who rules?

McMahon’s high Victorian great arc inscribes Enlightenment reductionism onto the most complex, dynamic, constantly growing landscapes on this planet[1]. By joining the peaks in a line, he proclaimed himself a modern Euclid, yet he ignored everything below the peaks, which includes not only the glaciers and the courses of rivers powerful enough to cut right across the line of peaks, but also the lives of the Tibetans on both sides, whose livelihoods relied on being on both sides, not only to trade Tibetan salt to the sweaty Indian lowlands craving salt, but also to tarry with their pack yaks and sheep on the Indian side in the winter trading season, for the animals to find fresh green pick that in Tibetan winter is hibernating underground. Tibetan societies were sealed off from each other by McMahon’s line and, over a century later, still are, to their impoverishment. McMahon’s dissection of the Himalayas dissected the Tibetan world, isolating the Ladakhis, Zanskaris, Mustangpa, Lhopa, Monpa, Bhutanese Druk Yulpa, Demjongpa Sikkimese and Tawangpa, among many others, from their kin in Tibet, and from their customary income earning strategies as traders intermediating between lowlands and highlands. Their poverty and marginality have remained ever since, as they struggle to retain the young who can find no livelihood on the slopes, and everyone struggles to maintain lineages of Buddhist teachers who were usually replenished from the north, in Tibet.

Henry McMahon casts a long shadow. In 1947 the Tibetan government requested newly independent India to return most of these lands to Tibetan control, which Prime Minister indignantly rejected.[2]

The Yarlung Tsangpo breaks through the crash of millions of tons of rock, earth and ice, two days later, sending a flood surge far downriver, 2018

McMahon was out to naturalise the geostrategic contest of imperial powers, in this case to demarcate British India from China and also Russia. This is a distinctly European conceit, based subconsciously on European history. John Keay, author of the Great Arc case study of McMahon and his line, published in 2000, reminds us: “mountains, according to Fernand Braudel, are essentially marginal. Over the centuries they act as breakwaters to the great waves of civilization which, while spreading far and wide on the plains, ‘are powerless when faced with an obstacle of a few hundred metres’. Mountains divide and impede; ‘their history’, says Braudel, ‘is to have none’. He was writing in the context of the Mediterranean world. It’s a different story in Inner Asia. There, mountains have rather a lot of history.”[3]

The tumultuous Uttarakhand flood of February 2021 is the latest casualty of this dissection. Had the southern and northern flanks of the Himalayas been understood as contiguous, sharing a deep human history and even deeper orogenic, ongoing uplift history, we might have been better able to reach across that line, to discern very similar events.[1]


  • [1] Tina Harris, Trading places: New economic geographies across Himalayan borderlands, Political Geography 35 (2013) 60-68
  • Liv Timmermann and Carsten Smith-Hall,  Commercial Medicinal Plant Collection Is Transforming High-altitude Livelihoods in the Himalayas, Mountain Research and Development Vol 39 No 3 Aug 2019: R13–R21
  • Phurwa D. Gurung, Mountains Are Commons, Grasses Are Divided: Indigenous Environmental Governance Between Conservation And Democracy, dissertation University of Colorado, 2020
  • Corinna Wallrapp, Production networks and borderlands: Cross-border yarsagumba trade in the Kailash Landscape, Journal of Rural Studies 66 (2019) 67–76
  • Dipesh Pyakurel, Patterns of change: The dynamics of medicinal plant trade in far-western Nepal, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 224 (2018) 323–334
Yarlung Tsangpo blocked by massive ice and rock fall from four kilometres above, October 2018

The geologists, hydrologists and glaciologists do try to overcome McMahon’s line, but politics intervenes to this day. Indian scientists are seldom allowed to work in Tibet; Chinese scientists are seldom allowed to work in India. The hydrological data they collect is securitised as state secrets, not to be revealed. The Himalaya is without history, with no human backstory. The Tibetan world, rendered invisible by great power geostrategising, has paid a heavy and ongoing price.

China colludes in erasing the Tibetan histories on all sides of the Himalayas. It suits China well to have a Line of Actual Control that formally disputes McMahon’s Line as an imperial imposition China never signed onto, yet in practice closely follows. It suits China to build “border defence” villages of immaculate modern urban design, further erasing any hint that these waystations or pilgrimage dharamsalas on ancient trading routes ever had a history. It suits China to station missiles, heavy artillery, and armoured vehicles engineered for high altitudes, along this border with no history. China occupies the high ground, metaphorically and literally.

Yet happenstance intervenes. Thanks to the prevalence of drones, in even the remotest and steepest landscapes, the sudden glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Uttarakhand was captured and instantly went global. Who has not seen that dramatic footage of water so wild and violent it smashes bridges as if they were matchbox toys, slamming into hydro dams, drowning river villages and fields in seconds? If there was no drone camera in the air at the right moment on a wintry February morning, at the opposite end of the year to the monsoon season, the Uttarakhand flood may have slipped below the threshold of perceptibility. But it’s a thing.

Not much of a thing is the equally dramatic events of October 2018 that, also in the dry season, dammed and then flooded two of the world’s greatest rivers, the Yangtze and the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, within two weeks of each other, both in Tibet, where drone cameras are available only to officials of the party-state and their footage is usually state secret.[4]

All three events have much in common: steep valleys carved by rivers powerful enough to cut deep, in pace with the ongoing rise of the Himalayas; glaciers perched far above on the upper flanks of the rising mountains, with a vertical gap between glacier and riverbed of two, three or more kilometres.

how to dam one of the world’s great rivers, the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra in minutes: just start the rocks and ice rolling and sliding four kilometres above the river

If a glacier starts to slide, it pushes ahead of it millions of tons of rock, mud and earth, gathering momentum, sweeping up the moraine boulders that had marked its furthest reach downhill in the pre-climate warm era of a few decades ago, sweeping through any high perch lake that had formed inside the moraine dam, gathering, gathering a formidable tribute to the overpowering force of gravity.

When millions of tons of mixed ice, water, rock and earth plunge kilometres down to the riverbed the event is catastrophic by any measure, as we all now see. No human initiative, on any scale, is remotely comparable. The Himalayas humble us, we engineer Himalayan rivers at our peril.

Once the human rescue hopes fade, what remains is the debate about causes and consequences. In democratic India, debate swiftly segued to arguments on the folly of hydro dams. On the silenced Tibetan side, no such debate is allowed.

So were these three catastrophes due to earthquakes, landslides or collapsing glaciers?

In landscapes as dynamic as the Himalayas, it doesn’t much matter which of these triggered the catastrophe. It could be climate change that was the trigger, as dry season cold is no longer cold enough to turn the summer rain and snowfall into solid ice that holds together the glacial mass and freezes the underlying lubricant water. It is striking that the sudden damming of both the Yarlung Tsangpo and Dri Chu/Yangtze happened in October, well after the monsoon rains receded, and the Uttarakhand outburst was in midwinter February.

In such unstable terrain riven by faults tearing in differing directions, an earthquake could have started the chain reaction. Either way, the laws of physics are at work, in the monsoonal skies, and deep in the rocks, and those forces -which Tibetan personify as local gods- need to be respected, and not ignored.

Whether glacier collapse, earthquake (big or small) or landslide came first doesn’t seem to matter much; the result escalates in minutes or seconds to something utterly beyond human comprehension.

Equally, there is much confusion, in the initial aftermath of catastrophe. whether the wall of water smashing through the canyon happened right after the landslide/glacier collapse, or a little later. When millions of tons of mud, rock, ice and water crash into a narrow river valley, what usually happens is that it dams the river, and the river’s outflow banks up behind it, until the loose rockwall gives way, and suddenly collapses, and then the flood occurs. That is what happened twice in two weeks on the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze and Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra in October 2018. That is why geologists call this sequence a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood. There may be a few days between the crash and the flood, but nowhere near long enough for human intervention to make any difference, even if access to the site was possible, which is seldom the case. The only difference is that there may be enough time to warn those downstream that an outburst flood is likely; but that assumes the crash is monitored. It says much about the power of the Himalayas, and the depth its gorges cut, that on both sides of McMahon’s ridiculous line a crash of millions of tons of ice, water and rock can occur, and no-one even notices, until the flood happens.

Scientists do try to understand such events, typically it takes years. A similarly sudden glacial collapse in Amdo, northern Tibet, in 2016 saw two sudden glacial slides, gathering such speed they thundered downslope at 200 kms/hr. In a more arid landscape, there were few casualties. [5]

Little to none of the scientific analysis of these crashes was mentioned in the aftermath of the Uttarakhand disaster. Perhaps that’s because they were published in specialist journals, perhaps because in these polarised times Chinese scientists are not so popular. McMahon’s line continues to divide who is heard from who is ignored.

It is the Yarlung Tsangpo 2018 catastrophe that is most similar to Uttarakhand 2021, in that the leading tongue of a glacier perched far above the river collapsed in both cases. According to the Chinese scientists reporting the Yarlung Tsangpo GLOF, such events have happened before. Most of the scientists were from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: “Ice-soil mixture landslide dams formed frequently in the Tibetan Plateau in response to global warming, which pose great threats to both upstream and downstream areas due to inundation and lake bursting. On 17 October 2018, a large landslide, induced by an ice-avalanche at the Sedongpu Basin of the Yarlung Tsangpo, blocked the main course of the river near Gyalha. The barrier lake level rose quickly, and the dam was overtopped naturally at 13:30 on 19 October 2018, generating a dam-breaching flood with a peak flow rate of 32,000 m3/s. This paper presents a comprehensive study of the disaster chain of landslide-barrier lake-dam breaching-river flooding in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, detailed geological and hydrological characteristics of the study region, rapid prediction of the dam breaching hydrograph using an erosion-based numerical model, and analysis of the flood routing in a 460 km canyon reach along the Yarlung Tsangpo.” It took only two days for the Yarlung Tsangpo’s post monsoon flow to build to the point of breaching a dam of millions of tons of rock, mud and ice. Is this what happened on the rivers of Uttarakhand?

On the Yarlung Tsangpo, the nearby Gyalha Peri mountain peak is well over 7000 m high, while the bed of the Yarlung Tsangpo below, at the point where the disaster occurred, is well below 3000m. The glaciers below the peak sit perched above the canyon, four kilometres above. That’s a long way to fall, an earthmoving in seconds that makes all human efforts at earthmoving puny by comparison.

The gap McMahon drew dividing the south face of the Himalayas from the north face, is a gift that keeps on gapping. In the absence of any interest or awareness of the Yarlung Tsangpo damming, journalists in India, needing to wrap this story, have focussed on the follies of hydro damming, even though the dams India builds on its Himalayan rivers (so far) are nowhere near as big as those China builds on the Yarlung Tsangpo and other rivers flowing from Tibet, including the Za Chu/Lancang/Mekong, and the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze.

Post-truth paranoia adds to the confusion, such as the story that a CIA nuclear powered monitoring device emplaced atop a nearby peak in 1965 caused the Uttarakhand catastrophe.

Indian environmentalists have been quick, as is possible in a democracy, to blame the hydro dammers; even suggesting Uttarakhand is a lesson China should heed, and not proceed with plans to build a 60MW dam in the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge.

Had the environmentalists, or the media reporting them, heard of the 2018 Yarlung Tsangpo crash, precisely in the very gorge where a 60 MW dam is mooted, the biggest dam in the world, they might have realised the 2018 crash, so similar to the 2021 crash, is the reason why such a dam can never be built. No dam, no matter how well engineered, can withstand tens of millions of tons of ice and rock falling from four or five kms above, at a speed faster than a bullet train.

forecasts for 2040 to 2050 on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Upper Brahmaputra if the world does little to limit climate change

As the glaciers wrapped round the peaks of Tibet now retreat, they protect the land of Tibet, and the Tibetan people, more than ever.

The standard metaphor of journalists and environmentalists is that the Himalayas are “fragile.” Not so. The Himalayas are powerful, and indifferent to human will. Tibetans have always known and respected this, and made frequent offerings to the local gods of place, burning smouldering juniper leaves every morning as fragrant smoke to please the gods.

predicting rain & snow fall changes over Himalayas and across the Tibetan Plateau. Maps a and b cover three decades 2036 to 2065, maps c and d even farther ahead, 2066 to 2095. Maps a and c assume the world acts effectively to limit climate change; maps b and d assume no effective climate change action.

Today, we put our faith in numbers, and the sciences that generate them; while the gods of place, the deities dwelling in the mountains are dismissed as superstition. We disseminate conspiracy theories about CIA mountain top monitoring devices, as we shelter under Henry McMahon’s great line, not keen on dispensing with fictions.


Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra predictions of future rainfall and temperature. Upper maps assume effective global action on climate; lower four maps assume nothing effective is done.

[1] Keay, John. The great arc : the dramatic tale of how India was mapped and Everest was named, HarperCollins, 2000.

[2] Sonika Gupta, Frontiers in Flux: Indo-Tibetan Border: 1946–1948, India Quarterly, Feb 2021

[3] John Keay, Home on a mountain range: A history of High Asia’s ‘snow abode’, Times Literary Supplement #6137, 13 Nov 2020

  • [4] Chen Chen et al., Barrier lake bursting and flood routing in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in October 2018, Journal of Hydrology 583 (2020) 124603
  • Limin Zhang et al., Erosion-based analysis of breaching of Baige landslide dams on the Jinsha River, China, in 2018, Landslides Journal, (2019) 16:1965–1979
  • Yu-xiang Hu et al., Numerical simulation of landslide-generated waves during the 11 October 2018 Baige landslide at the Jinsha River, Landslides, 2019, 16
  • Hongying Jia et al., Improved offset tracking for predisaster deformation monitoring of the 2018 Jinsha River landslide (Tibet, China), Remote Sensing of Environment 247 (2020) 111899
  • Wentao Yang et al., Using Sentinel-2 time series to detect slope movement before the Jinsha River landslide, Landslides, 2019.
  • Shi-lin Zhang et al., Initiation mechanism of the Baige landslide on the upper reaches of the Jinsha River, China, Landslides 2019
  • Yulong Cui et al., A big landslide on the Jinsha River, Tibet, China: geometric characteristics, causes, and future stability, Natural Hazards 20202, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04261-9
  • Hai-bo Li et al., Mass movement and formation process analysis of the two sequential landslide dam events in Jinsha River, Southwest China, Landslides 2019
  • Hai-mei Liao et al., (2020) Increase in hazard from successive landslide-dammed lakes along the Jinsha River, Southwest China, Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 11:1, 1115-1128
  • Xuanmei Fan et al., Successive landsliding and damming of the Jinsha River in eastern Tibet, China: prime investigation, early warning, and emergency response, Landslides 2019.
  • Hai-bo Li et al., Mass movement and formation process analysis of the two sequential landslide dam events in Jinsha River, Southwest China

[5] Andreas Kääb et al.,    Massive collapse of two glaciers in western Tibet in 2016 after surge-like instability, Nature Geoscience | VOL 11 | 114 FEBRUARY 2018 | 114–120

Adrien Gilbert et al., Mechanisms leading to the 2016 giant twin glacier collapses, Aru Range, Tibet, The Cryosphere, 12, 2883–2900, 2018.

PROLETARIANISING TIBET IN 2021

TIBET 2021: WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?

Blog one in a series on Tibet in 2021   1/7

Fifteen years ago one of the favourite slogans of central planners was to declare Tibet would under go “leap-style development.”[1] At the time, it wasn’t clear what this meant. The phrase had disturbing echoes of the Great Leap Forward that caused the greatest famine Tibet has ever known.

Now we do know. Tibet is in the midst of accelerating development, industrialisation, urbanisation  and globalisation. Tibet finds itself at the forefront of blockchain production, new electric vehicle lithium mining, the solar and wind power boom, even computer chip silicon manufacture. Tibetans were never asked about any of these Anthropocene accelerations, nor informed they exist in their midst.

These exploitations of Tibetan landscapes, resources and common pool resources are set to intensify further in 2021.

So this blog focuses on several Chinese plans, as the 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 is about to roll out. Among the topics explored in depth:

  1. The new proletariat of Tibet, set to be redeployed
  2. Hydropower, solar and wind power in Tibet
  3. Extraction of copper on a globalised scale
  4. The 2020 Census in Tibet
  5. 14th Five Year Plan and Goals for 2035
  6. Biodiversity and climate global conferences
  7. Disinformation and securitisation
  8. Elite debates on future directions for Tibet

LOOKING BACK TO LOOK AHEAD

This blog, a year ago, attempted to list the likeliest developments in Tibet. Two major developments we didn’t see coming: the corona virus and the August 2020 Tibetwork Forum. Months later we still don’t know much about the specific directives issued by the Tibetwork Forum as neican, for insiders only. We do know the headline, that, as with everything else, the CCP is correct, has been correct, and always will be correct.

We do know that we need to know those secret directives. We know now that China’s shift, in Xinjiang, to a strategy of total demobilisation and incarceration dates back to Xi Jinping’s tour in 2014. His directives took years to instal before the mass incarcerations began. We seem to be in that interval, akin to Xinjiang between 2014 and 2017, when the party-state mobilises all party mass organs and all government departments, to launch a full campaign to forcibly “civilise the barbarians”. The whole purpose of any central work forum is to launch a campaign, drawing in the whole of government and party, to storm the bastions of resistance. Government by campaign is hardwired into CCP history.[2]

So a lot hangs on what the secret directives issued by the 2020 Tibetwork Forum say. Right now, we don’t know. Such documents do leak.

Also we will see, in legislative sessions of the provincial assemblies of TAR, Qinghai etc, formal establishment of measures that implement Work Forum diktats. What is at stake is the core question, signalled by the deep dive into official procurement and recruitment sites, by Adrian Zenz, that China is gearing up to do in Tibet something akin to Xinjiang.

Yet lots of campaigns fizzle out. Tibet is not Xinjiang. In Xinjiang the official narrative was all about terrorism, a simple good-versus-evil story, that just doesn’t in any way apply to Tibet. The rationale for extending coercive assimilation programs to Tibet targets the growing population of displaced nomads, expelled monks and nuns, and other Tibetans marginalised by securitised interventions into their lives, including  former prisoners, and the tortured. These are the outsiders of contemporary Tibet, sometimes unable to find a place in Tibetan society because they are under intense pressure to spy and inform on fellow Tibetans, or face re-arrest.

These Tibetans are the new proletariat. Tibet historically never had a lumpen proletariat, because everyone belonged somewhere, cities were nonexistent, towns few, slums barely noticeable. In rural areas, everyone knew rich and poor can exchange places, your herd can be wiped out overnight by an unseasonal snowstorm. The poor usually would be given or loaned animals to rebuild herds after a disaster. Nomads were entrepreneurs, running businesses of modest or considerable scale, juggling seasons, grazing pressure, loans, trading caravan journeys of months, arbitraging supply here and demand there.

exnomad resettlement in Golok

China has never recognised the millions of drogpa nomads as entrepreneurs skilled in managing  unpredictable seasons. For decades, their many skills have been unrecognised, their stewardship of landscapes unnoticed. The entire rural population is officially classified as “surplus rural labourers”, as if they tramp about aimlessly, looking for work.

Given those assumptions, it was only a small step to blame the nomads for patches of black soil, and remove them to urban fringes, and badge them “ecological migrants”. From there it is but a small further step to classify them as an unskilled rural proletariat lacking vocational skills and fluency in the only language that opens the door to success: standard Chinese. The number of nomads required to relocate to towns, usually along highways leading into the growing Chinese towns and cities, has steadily grown for decades.

Something must be done with them. They have shown little interest in becoming Chinese, so the pace must be forced. The parallels with Xinjiang get stronger. For the security state it is not hard to define them as a security threat, especially in areas close to international borders.

If it took three years in Xinjiang, from 2014 to 2017, from Xi Jinping’s instruction to build “walls made of copper and steel” 铁壁铜墙   铁壁铜墙 and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to capture terrorists. We are now four years on from Xi Jinping’s 2016 inspection tour of Qinghai, including the Tibetans relocated to the outskirts of Gormo.

China needed three years, not only to build the “re-education” lockdown centres surrounded by razor wire and watch towers, but also to capture the DNA of each Uighur, and facial recognition data fed into big data algorithms, to decide who were the greatest security risks. Collecting the DNA and facial profiles of Tibetans is largely complete. Each Tibetan can be assigned a risk rating.

So Adrian Zenz’s warning that China is gearing up to do in Tibet something akin to what it does in Xinjiang is plausible.


[1] Hu Angang and Wen Jun, The Problem of Selecting the Correct Path for Tibetan Modernisation (Part 1). China Tibetology, 2001, 1, 3 – 26

Xu Min-yang ed., Tibet Autonomous Region Urban Economic Development Studies, Tibetan Economics Society, 2004

[2] Xin Sun, Campaign-Style Implementation and Affordable Housing Provision in China, China Journal  #84, July 2020

COPPER & the CIVILISING MISSION

Blog two in a series on Tibet in 2021    2/8

Xi Jinping receiving tribute, in Amdo 2016

DARKNESS TO LIGHT

In official thinking, civilisation, development and modernity all go in a straight line that travels from rural to urban, from darkness to light, from poverty to wealth, from illiteracy to reading Chinese, from proletarian precarity to factory work in the rapidly industrialising interior of China. That is the civilising mission. The Han are exemplary, everyone should model themselves on the Han.

Right now, on this trajectory of inevitable and necessary progress, the nomads displaced from their lane tenure security are stalled, able neither to go back nor forward. Their land tenure has been cancelled, they live in small concrete apartments on urban edges, forbidden to raise any animals, and with no access to urban jobs, almost all of which require literacy in Chinese. They are reduced to dependence on state handouts of rations to survive on.

whole of Tibet defined as “contiguous destitute poverty-stricken area” Source: Social Indicators Research journal, 2017, 833-857

Some folks need to be saved from themselves, and from the inherent destitution of homelands seen from afar as utterly lacking in factor endowments enabling greater productivity. It’s all rational. It’s the benevolence of the party-state. The Tibetans are the wretched of the earth, because of who they are and where they are. If China’s civilisjng mission enters a new phase of accelerating the pace of assimilation, complete with compulsory re-education/vocational education camps, the justification will be the forward momentum of development and modernity, making Tibetans job ready. It’s for their own good.

PLAUSIBLE YET NOT PROBABLE?

Plausible as this is, it may not happen. Tibet is not Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, China was able to mobilise millions of Han settlers who have made Xinjiang home over two generations, and now feel it is theirs. There are few nonTibetans with roots in Tibet, except in Xining and surrounding agricultural districts, available to be sent into Tibetan families to teach them how to become high quality, civilised Han. That’s a major difference.

Nor in Tibet  is terrorism available as a hegemonic discourse that silences all else.

In fact urban Han are discovering rural Tibet, not only for its spectacular landscapes but also for its kind, generous, trustworthy rural people. Urban Chinese unable to fly overseas because of pandemic lockdowns have been hiring SUVs to self-drive around Tibet. Han online now connect viscerally with Tibetans, whether it’s the overnight sensation of a handsome young Khampa, Tenzin instantly becoming Ding Zhen; or the tragedy of a cheerful young Tibetan woman showing her daily rural routines to millions, until her murder by an enraged husband. Both Lhamo and Tenzin bridged all distance, eliciting instant connection, strong emotional responses among millions of Han. Desire and horror transcend all racist stereotypes that stigmatise Tibetans.

Sun and Moon by An Yiru, a best seller in 2013, rhapsodising Tibet

Then there are the educated urban Han who discover the transformative insights of Tibetan Buddhism, usually in remote rural locations where undistracted, intensive practice of mind training is taught.[1]

These add up to lived experience of Tibetans as neither backward nor uncivilised, in no need of coercive, patriarchal, racist assimilation into Han norms.

If the party-state really is gearing up to compel Tibetans to declaim official slogans en masse, or remain incarcerated, such a campaign could falter and fizzle. That seems to be the big question hanging over 2021.

COPPER

Right across Tibet, from the far west all the way to Kham, Chinese geologists have identified and quantified copper deposits, usually with a bonus of gold and silver on top, plus other minerals in demand such as molybdenum, lead and zinc.[2]

As renewable energy grows, copper demand grows, and exploitation of Tibetan copper deposits will intensify. Wiring an electric car requires much more copper than a petrol or diesel. Transmitting electricity over great distances, from Tibet to east China factories, for example, requires lots of copper. Gathering electricity generated by solar and wind farms scattered about the landscape takes a lot of copper.

Rising demand for copper (and lithium, also abundant in Tibet) means not only more intensive copper mining, but also further globalisation of Tibet, tying Tibet to the volatile boom and bust cycles that chronically afflict the mining industry. This could have serious consequences in Tibet.

Mining, crushing  and concentrating the ores mined are all ramping up in Tibet, likewise the more profitable step of refining the concentrates in a smelter which, at great heat, melts and separates the metals to be separately poured off.

But that is not the only way to make money from copper. Traders play a big role in the price swings, betting on what future prices will be. Smart traders make money when they correctly anticipate copper prices will go up; and make money when they correctly forecast prices will drop, selling now and buying back later at a lower price. This exaggerates the swings. China used to complain about arbitrageurs speculating on the prices of basic commodities; now it has joined them. “Shanghai is launching a challenge to London’s dominance in metals trading by issuing a new futures contract for copper that analysts say has the potential to become a global benchmark. The Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE) will start trading monthly copper futures denominated in renminbi, in contracts based on the metal to be delivered into warehouses in China.”

A few years ago, China bought out the biggest metals speculation hub, the London Metals Exchange, and is now backing it up with massive stashes of actual copper, for those moments when a bet goes wrong, and a trader has to deliver actual copper at the agreed price. The actual tonnage of copper stored in bonded warehouses in Shanghai varies between a low of 200,000 tons to a high of almost 700,000 tons. These are further reasons for accelerating the extraction of copper deposits in Tibet. The copper deposits of Tibet are now “a play” in trader jargon. Whether copper mining in Tibet booms or busts, Shanghai copper futures traders will make money.

Right now, as demand surges, price surges and lots of hot money pours in. However, there is a big mismatch between the speed of all that hot money sloshing round the world, and the time it takes to get a copper mine into production, usually a decade’s work. That is why mining is boom and bust. In a bust, the mining company can abandon the mine and the tailings dams, claiming bankruptcy. Nothing Tibetan communities can do about it, because from the outset they are disempowered.

That’s a danger for Tibet. In boom times, mining companies are keen to get going, willing to cut corners, bribe officials and ignore environmental assessments, in order to get into production. In bust times, some go broke, and walk away from waste dumps and tailings holding dams storing millions of tons of pulverised rock containing toxic heavy metals, leaving others to do the long term work of preventing leakage into rivers.

Most copper deposits in Tibet are close to the Yarlung Tsangpo river and its tributaries, including big dams upriver from Lhasa on the Kyichu. The Yarlung Tsangpo is the collision of two continents, where part of India was pulled deep into the Earth underneath Eurasia, generating heat and pressure over long periods, melting metals, pushing them up to form ore deposits. Even the copper deposits in Kham, east of Chamdo, are high above rivers and the danger there of dam collapse releasing into the river heavy metals Tibetans knew all along had to be left alone,  deep in the earth.[3]

Those deposits have been assessed by Chinese geologists for decades, followed by economic geologists generating spectacular profit potential numbers. The mines they have planned, ready for investment, typically envisage operating for 25 or 30 years of extraction, before the deposit is exhausted and they walk away, leaving behind a mountain of toxic tailings.

The biggest mines currently are Gyama and Chulong, both on the Kyichu above Lhasa, and Shetongmon, to the west of Shigatse. But if the copper price is right, there could be dozens of mines, each with its own electricity supply, crushers, concentrators and probably smelters, all stages requiring lots of energy.

At the end of 2020 copper is at the highest price in seven years, similar to the boom years between 2006 and 2012, which were only briefly interrupted by the global financial crash of 2008. The smart money is betting it will stay high or go higher. One of the sharpest traders, Trafigura, “is forecasting a near 800,000 tonne increase in Chinese copper demand in 2021 alone as Beijing invests heavily in its grid and renewable power.” If demand exceeds supply by only a small amount, prices rise dramatically; that is how capitalism works.

communities affected by mining at the heart of mine waste disposal planning: ICMM 2020

The new owner of the Chulong deposit at Songtsen Gampo’s birthplace plan to blow up, dig out, crush and concentrate 30 million tons of rock a year, until 2037. Nearly all of that rock, crushed to powder, will forever remain on that high mountain ridge, since the amount of copper, molybdenum, gold and silver in any ton of rock adds up to less than one per cent. That’s a massive legacy to leave with Tibetans, after the mine is exhausted, as planned, by 2037.

The world’s biggest mining companies, acting together, have responded to recent disastrous failures of mine waste tailings dams, by coming up with agreed standards and principles for future mining practice. The Global Industry Standard On Tailings Management published in August 2020 by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), and the UN Environment Programme, states its first principle: “Respect the rights of project-affected people and meaningfully engage them at all phases of the tailings facility lifecycle, including closure.”

Zijin announces its takeover of the Chulong copper mine 2020

China’s miners in Tibet fail this first principle. No Chinese miner has joined ICMM. Nobody asks Tibetans for permission to mine. Still less are communities involved in the planning and management of millions of tons of mine waste, stored above ground for thousands of years after the mine has closed.

Where will the electricity for all that rock crushing, concentrate cooking and smelting come from? The existing Zhikong 直孔水电站 and Lhundrup Pondo (Pangduo 旁多水电站)hydro dams on the Kyichu Lhasa River could be supplemented by cascade dams nearby. The recently announced new dam on the Nyang Chu above Nyingtri is only 200 kms from the Chulong and Gyama copper mines. Either way, it means more damming of substantial Tibetan rivers that feed in to the Yarlung Tsangpo. Each location is risky in such geologically active districts. The 2018 massive landslides that temporarily halted both the Yangtze[4] and Yarlung Tsangpo[5] are a reminder that Tibet is a young, rising, unstable land, made much more unstable by glacier melt now so fast that massive portions of glacier can slide into rivers, bringing with them so much rock that the greatest of rivers can be stopped altogether, until the accumulating waters powerfully break through. Hydrodammers beware.

GLOBALISED TIBET

The globalisation of Tibet is now happening at an accelerating pace. The fate of Tibetan rivers, mountains, historic sites and local communities now depends on global copper price fluctuations. Hydroelectricity from dams on Tibetan rives is now used to churn out blockchain, and to make polysilicon of sufficient purity to be used in the highest of hitech, in printed circuits. Tibet has gone global. No-one has asked the Tibetans.

Xie Xiaoping, pioneer of making polysilicon for computer chips, with electricity from Tibetan hydro dams, Amdo

Using hydropower from Tibet to make polysilicon is integral to China’s urgent program to decouple from reliance on US imports for hitech, and the pioneer of making Tibet a frontline has been felicitated recently, a new hero: “Xie Xiaoping, a professor-level senior engineer, chairman of the Yellow River Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., and secretary of the party committee, Xie Xiaoping, as a leader in China’s photovoltaic industry, built the world’s largest water and solar complementary power station; led the construction of the world’s largest outdoor demonstration base with the most complete experimental equipment and the most advanced experimental methods; has promoted the healthy and sustainable development of the global photovoltaic power generation industry; leading the birth of the only domestic enterprise that produces and sells electronic grade polysilicon, breaking China Electronics Grade polysilicon  complete dependence on imports.”

This grandiose claim makes Xie Xiaoping a hero in Qinghai. But why is hitech done in Tibet? Is it something to do with a Tibetan source of silicon? Or is it the Yellow River Hydropower Development Co. dams and hydropower that go to waste because lowland China provinces refuse to connect to it, leading to huge wastage of electricity? Or is it because purifying silicon for use in solar panels and computer chips is where the money is?

latest addition to the grids transmitting electricity west to east is from Qinghai Hainanzhou/ Amdo Tsolho to Zhumadian source: pretentiouswhat

Silicon is the commonest of elements, available wherever there is sand. No need to go to Tibet. The Yellow River hydrodam cascade does produce excess electricity, but not for much longer, as a new ultra-high voltage power grid is due for completion, transmitting electricity from Tibet to central China 1300 kms to the east. The most compelling reason for Xie Xiaoping’s state owned enterprise is the money to be made from the frantic bubble economy as China races to make its own computer chips, since the US is no longer willing to export them.

Investigative reporting by China Economic Weekly reveals the frauds embedded in the race to become China’s Silicon Valley: “the current chaos in the chip industry includes some “three-nos” companies with no experience, no technology, and no talents, engaged in the integrated circuit industry, some places have insufficient knowledge of the law of integrated circuit development, blindly launching projects. Many local governments eager to “overtake” have bet on the chip industry, set up industrial investment funds and numerous subsidies and rewards, and built a large-scale chip industry park to create a “chip city”. So companies from all walks of life flocked. Since 2019, nearly 20,000 companies have switched to “integrated circuits, chips, and semiconductors”. Even in Tibet, some companies have added “integrated circuits, chips, and semiconductors” to their business scope. In further detail, many of these “changed” chip companies belong to the technology industry, and some of them come from various industries such as construction or construction engineering, human resource services, biomedicine, clothing, and cement.”

Production of extremely pure silicon is energy-intensive, often located near hydro dams, in Tibet both close to the Yellow River dam cascade and also in Amdo Ngawa in Sichuan, near dams on tributaries of the Yangtze. As with blockchain manufacture, these are at present highly seasonal industries, barely functioning in the dry months, operating at full speed in the wet months when much hydropower goes to waste, not connected to the national grid.


[1] JIN Hao, In Search of Shangri-La: The Utopian Representation of Tibet in An Yiru’s The Sun and the Moon,  Utopian Studies , Vol. 31, No. 1 (2020), pp. 1-24

[2] Zengqian Hou et al., The Miocene Gangdese porphyry copper belt generated during post-collisional extension in the Tibetan Orogen, Ore Geology Reviews, 36 (2009) 25–51

[3] Jia Chang, et al.,Geological and Chronological Constraints on the Long-Lived Eocene Yulong Porphyry Cu-Mo Deposit, Eastern Tibet: Implications for the Lifespan of Giant Porphyry Cu Deposits, Economic Geology, 2017, 1719-1746

[4] Limin Zhang, Te Xiao, Erosion-based analysis of breaching of Baige landslide dams on the Jinsha River, China, in 2018, Landslides, 2019, 1965-1979

Yu-xiang Hu, Zhi-you Yu, Jia-wen Zhou, Numerical simulation of landslide-generated waves during the 11 October 2018 Baige landslide at the Jinsha River, Landthat slides 2020, 2317-

Hai-bo Li I Shun-chao, Mass movement and formation process analysis of the two sequential landslide dam events in Jinsha River, Southwest China, Landslides, 2019,

[5] Chen Chen, Limin Zhang, Barrier lake bursting and flood routing in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in October 2018, Journal of Hydrology 583 (2020) 124603

IS THE SUN SETTING ON HYDRO?

Blog three in a series on Tibet in 2021     3/8

Tiger Leaping Gorge dam site

PROTECTING THE DRI CHU/YANGTZE

Legislation to protect the biggest river in Tibet was passed into law by a session of the National People’s Congress in the last days of 2020 and takes effect March 1, 2021. The big question is whether it will protect the river in Tibet, or only downstream in lowland China?

Nyag Chu/Yalong

At a national level, China is trying to create national governance of a massive river system in much need of protection from the provinces it flows through, and their many vested interests, which have historically seen the river as a free public good, for water extraction, and to dump wastes. Only a truly national response will be strong enough to override entrenched local interests. A whole watershed plan, from the Tibetan highlands all the way to Shanghai and the Pacific Ocean, can save the Yangtze from exploitation and pollution. Nationalising the Yangtze makes no sense unless it is the entire watershed, rising in Yushu, Kandze and Golok prefectures, that is protected, with holistic management of a singular system.

If the river is parcelled out, apportioned to various sectional interests, it will remain as fragmented as its name. English speakers call it the Yangtze, Tibetans call it the Dri Chu, in Chinese first it is the Tongtian, then (still in Tibet) the Jinsha, then the Chang Jiang. The main tributaries of this massive mountain river in Tibet are a further jumble of names, all signifying major rivers. As well as the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze main channel, the tributaries, all big rivers, are, west to east: Nyag chu/Yalong 雅砻江, Mu chu/Dadu 大渡河.

Nyag Chu/Yalong hydro dam site

A key issue is the balance between the upper Yangtze in Tibet and the mid to lower Yangtze. On most big rivers, it is the upper riparian that calls the shots, probably inevitably so since they get the first chance to dam or divert, or let the river run free. A current example is the Nile, where upriver Ethiopia has just built a large hydropower dam, to the intense annoyance of downriver Egypt. So upset were the Egyptians there was serious talk of sending in the air force to bomb and destroy the Grand Renaissance Dam. Likewise, India has long behaved like an unaccountable upper riparian on both the Indus (above Pakistan) and the Brahmaputra (above Bangla Desh). Only in recent years has India discovered that it too is a lower riparian on the Brahmaputra, far below the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lianghekou_Dam

The upper Dri Chu/Yangtze is entirely in Tibetan prefectures of Qinghai and Sichuan. (Confusingly, when China speaks of the “upper Yangtze” this often signifies the mid river, well below Tibet, as if upper/most Yangtze is right off the map).This totally Tibetan origin should give Tibet leverage, to determine the fate of those below. The floods of 2020 are a reminder of what is at stake, the biggest since 1998, the year China abruptly halted the clearfelling of Tibetan forests because the bare hills added so much to the torrent of floodwater. China acted decisively, if belatedly, in 1998 to halt the logging, because it had become a threat to lowland China.

The Yangtze basin is a basin, big enough to affect the climate of China and Japan further east, and the north Pacific.[1] If, as seems the case, Tibet is getting wetter as well as warmer, and climate extremes becoming more extreme, Tibet must be part of any basinwide solution.[2]

Yet in reality the Dri Chu remains an afterthought, a free public good available by downstream industries, agriculture and cities, all the way to Shanghai. Tibetan voices have not been heard, in the lengthy debates about the future of the Yangtze, even in a year of heavy flooding, in 2020. The Yangtze remains in effect two rivers, the upper half the servant, mutely providing the same services as ever, yet with the threat of being further dammed, farther up river than ever before, for electricity destined for eastern China, thousands of kilometres away.

Asian Development Bank supports Yangtze wealth accumulation and ecology: how to do both?

This is such a big deal, there are many international players involved as well. The Asian Development Bank has pledged billions of dollars to ensure the Yangtze continues to be all things to all who use it, to be both an economic engine and a green corridor. Everyone wins, there are no losers. China modernises its river governance, yet again becoming a model for rivers worldwide. Win-win.

Yet despite all the talk of economic belts and green corridors along a river that can be all things to all people, Tibetan voices and Tibetan interests are not heard. Tibet remains a provider of services, with no stakes of its own, nor rights to compensation for services provided.

The key question is whether the Yangtze River Protection Law of 2021 will indeed protect the upper Yangtze from further damming and power grid extraction of hydroelectricity. This is the crunch issue.

Nyag Chu/Yalong River Hydro Corporation struts its stuff https://www.ylhdc.com.cn/gtylj/index.htm

HYDRO DAMMING: A SUNSET INDUSTRY?

China’s fixation on damming rivers has deep roots, which explain the dominance of hydro engineering, decade after decade. However, there are early signs that China is starting to wean itself off hydro damming as the solution to just about everything, not only electricity supply for the world’s factory, but also flood control, smoothing seasonal peaks in water provisioning, preventing ice floes downriver, even flushing salt water in river mouths back out to sea.

These are the claims made by proponents of more and more damming, working farther and farther upriver on wild mountain torrents pouring off the Tibetan Plateau.

Yalong/ Nyag Chu Hydropower in action https://www.ylhdc.com.cn/gtylj/index.htm

But times are changing. China’s central power authority, in a report on the Chinese Society of Dam Engineering November 2019 conference (before corona virus hit demand further), defines the shift: “After 70 years of dam construction, as the rapid development of hydropower comes to an end, the focus of the dam industry is turning to river ecology, project operation management, and scientific dispatchWhen the total installed capacity of hydropower in our country reaches 60% of the technologically developable capacity, and with the slowdown in demand for electricity growth, hydropower investment has begun to show a downward trend year by year. In 2013, the country’s completed hydropower investment was 122.3 billion yuan, in 2014 it was 96 billion yuan, in 2015 it was 78.9 billion yuan, and after 2016 it basically remained at more than 60 billion yuan. The rapid development of hydropower in the “Eleventh Five-Year” and “Twelfth Five-Year” periods has come to an end. With the major changes in the water control policy in the new era, the dam industry has a long way to go in promoting harmony between humans and water, and further strengthening water ecological restoration and water environmental protection.”

Yalong Hydropower Corp map of the full cascade of 22 hydro dams planned for the Nyag Chu/Yalong https://www.ylhdc.com.cn/gtylj/gsgk/gszl/A370104index_1.htm Only the lowest four dam sites are below Kham Kandze

Here is a cascade of 13 reasons why the day of the hydro engineer may be eclipsed, even in China.

  1. First, newer technologies of solar and wind power are cheaper and more flexible ways of decarbonising power production; hydro by comparison is expensive, slow to build, prone to earthquakes and landslide, and is highly seasonal. Rather than building the long backlist of planned dams, China is instead building solar and wind power close to existing hydro dams, to plug into existing power grids. At a time when electricity can be generated in lots of places, the old centralised hub and spokes model of dam and grid is outdated, no longer suited to flexibility needed.
  2. Both wind and solar technologies are industries China dominates globally, or intends to. These industries attract substantial subsidies, in order to ensure they are winners, becoming national champions with global reach. The playing field is tilted towards wind and solar, although China also exports hydro damming investment, including headline projects such as Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.
  3. Second, megaprojects are capital intensive, with low rates of return and chronic wastage of the power generated because grid corporations and energy companies aren’t willing to spend much to integrate hydro fully into existing grids when the monsoon driven power is surging only a few months in a year.
  4. Hydro dams in Kham already generate more electricity in the summer monsoon season than anyone can use, and the Sichuan Ya’an municipal government encourages energy guzzling bitcoin miners to set up shop below the Tibetan dams to pay nominal amounts for access to the excess electricity.
  5. Far from limiting China’s addiction to coal fired electricity, coal is less distant from end users and costs less to build and price, compared to hydro from far away in Tibet, built at massive cost of construction and long distance ultra-high voltage grids. Tibetan hydro is uncompetitive in price, resulting in Sichuan, the province that exports most Tibetan electricity, finding other provinces unwilling to plug into it, resulting in massive dumping of generated electricity. This is the main reason why, over four years, from 2013 to 2016, China’s investment in hydro dam construction halved, from RMB122 billion to little over RMB 60 bn.  The only solution proposed by Sichuan hydro boosters is to cut costs even further.[3]
  6. China is moving on from being the energy-intensive world factory, outsourcing its heavy and polluting industries to SE and South Asia. This  slows demand for more electricity; no longer do manufacturers call for urgent investment in more energy supply.
  7. Ambitious plans to intensify hydro damming, as listed in successive Five Year Plan targets, have largely failed to build; and latest projections to 2030 show hydro sliding as a proportion of total electricity generation, from 19% in 2020 to 14% in 2030. This shift will occur whether China acts to limit carbon emissions or not.[4] In Tibet Autonomous Region, an electricity importer from neighbouring provinces, the government was ordered in mid 2018 to build many new midsize hydro dams. In more than two years since, very little has happened.
  8. Hydro is classified as green, renewable energy; but compared to wind and solar comes with numerous impacts on biodiversity, local communities, and on underlying geological faults that slip when lubricated by impounded water, with disastrous results. A party-state that worries about local protests escalating is less keen to provoke objections. Millions of people have been relocated away from rising dams, more than 23 million, with promised incomes on resettlement land usually failing to deliver. Until now hydro, wind and solar were lumped together as green/renewable energy, but in official policies this broad categorisation is now decoupling.
  9. Many locations mapped by hydro engineers as suited to hydro damming are on transboundary rivers, alarming lower riparian countries at a time China seeks to bring them into China’s sphere of influence. In Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, China’s upper riparian dams and water diversions cause widespread anxiety, constraining national elites inclined to do deals with China.
  10. China has made much effort to reduce the energy intensity of its manufacturing industries; in fact reducing energy intensity per unit of GDP is the only promise China made to global climate conference, Paris 2015.
  11. Many hydro dams have failed to live up the engineers’ promises, due to faulty design, limited power output, unpredictable flows, sedimentation and landslides. These expensive failures dampen enthusiasm for ever more dams.
  12. China is in no hurry to reduce coal burning for power generation. Despite urgings to decarbonise electricity production, and highly publicised closures of especially dirty power stations, China persist in burning more coal each year than the rest of the world combined. There is little indication that coal-fired power will be retired on a large scale. In 2020 64%  of China’s power generation comes from coal. This may decline to 53% by 2030, not because much coal burning will cease, but because of additional power generated by other means.
  13. The 2020 summer flood season was so extreme, driven by climate change, that the promise by dam builders of being able to prevent floods is no longer valid. Climate change is now changing all calculations, at a time when dam promoters evidently overpromised and underdelivered. In a time of intensifying extremes, dams are no longer the answer. During the 2020 floods, downriver fear that upriver dams were overtopping and could break was so acute, central leaders issued video showing those dams were safely gushing water torrents in controlled release.
Yalong (Nyag chu) Hydropower Corp diagram of turning this steep and wild mountain river into a cascade of dams. Only the final few dams, below 1800m altitude are beyond Tibet. Will these dams ever be built? https://www.ylhdc.com.cn/gtylj/gsgk/gszl/A370104index_1.htm

This shift away from hydro is worldwide; China has been a bit slow to catch up. Decades of community opposition to losing village lands has finally persuaded governments that hydro power lacks a social licence, which can only be overcome by force. Even in highly authoritarian China, dam planners are shifting away from seeing local communities who will be inundated as nuisances to be swept aside, to a more holistic approach, recognising the development needs of the locals. The World Bank 2019 review of China hydro history sees: “a philosophical shift regarding development objectives: Hydropower displacement increasingly has been seen as providing a development opportunity for the people potentially affected by it, whereas they previously were seen largely as obstacles in the path of construction.[5] Chinese scientists are now proposing, at last, that the displaced be considered stakeholders, with legitimate needs.[6]

Now there are alternatives, as power generation and consumption decentralise. The era of big dams and big grids increasingly looks like yesterday’s stranded assets.

While the pace of dam building is slowing, the era of big dam construction in China, and especially in Tibet is far from over. There is a backlog of partly constructed projects almost certain to be scheduled for completion in the 14th Five Year Plan period, 2021 through 2025.


[1] Shixin Wang,  Effect of the East Asian Westerly Jet’s Intensity on Summer Rainfall in the Yangtze River Valley and Its Mechanism, Journal of Climate, 29, 2016, 2395-

[2] Damming Tibet’s Rivers:  New Threats To Tibetan Area Under Unesco Protection, International Campaign for Tibet, 2019,

[3] Yue Liu, et al., Competitiveness of hydropower price and preferential policies for hydropower development in Tibet and the Sichuan-Yunnan Tibetan area of China, Water Policy, 20 (2018) 1092–1111

[4] Gang He et al., Rapid cost decrease of renewables and storage accelerates the decarbonization of China’s power system, NATURE COMMUNICATIONS, (2020)11:2486 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16184-x www.nature.com/naturecommunications 

[5] A Review Of Resettlement Management Experience In China Hydropower Projects: Identifying key lessons learned, World Bank, 2019, 11

[6] Bingqing Xia , Maoshan Qiang, Wenchao Chen et al., A benefit-sharing model for hydropower projects based on stakeholder input-output analysis: A case study of the Xiluodu Project in China, Land Use Policy, Volume 73, April 2018,341-352

PROTECTING THE MOTHER RIVER

Blog four in a series on Tibet in 2021  4/8

HYDROPOWER INDUSTRY REGAINS ITS MOJO

China is far from done with dam building, on all the major rivers of Asia that rise in Tibet. This is more than a balancing of supply and demand; the dam plans were meant to knit Tibet into the fabric of China, inextricably linked by long distance power grids; a nation building exercise by a party-state out to make Tibet a profit centre for China, linked by cables west to east, a single cloth.

If nation building remains as Beijing’s dominant narrative, central leaders may continue to allocate investment capital to build more dams, even if much of the electricity they generate is wasted, as has happened year after year on the Tibetan rivers of Kham. But the business case has collapsed. Hydro engineers in Sichuan report that: “Under existing policies, research has shown that the basic costs of electricity from the typical plants in Tibet and the Sichuan-Yunnan Tibetan area are high and uncompetitive, so that investment enthusiasm for hydropower companies will wane and water resource utilisation will be affected.[1]

So it now seems quite possible that if Tibetans can slow dam construction, the dam builders might just pack up and go home. It is now a question of whether Tibetan communities, often in remote and rugged gorges, can persist with their stubborn resistance to nationalisation and globalisation.

Nyag Chu (Yalong) rises in Golog, traverses all of Kham Kandze, plus a short section in the south, before joining the Dri Chu/Yangtze

The declaration that China has decided to live with damming a mere 60 per cent of the measured hydropower potential of all the rivers, is a turning point. Until now, especially when -in the 1980s and 90s- most of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee were engineers, it was axiomatic that China must impound as close to 100% of potential hydropower as possible. This was a strategic imperative.

Settling for 60% is a sign of an industry maturing; a recognition that the remaining 40% is in very difficult, earthquake-prone  terrain. On every major river, the easiest dams have been built first, below Tibet. Only gradually has the damming moved upriver, into the canyons, ravines and precipitous landscapes of Kham. This seems to be the cusp of something different.

Kham Kandze Nyag Chu/Yalong River

Or maybe not. If the hydrodams are solely to meet China’s electricity needs, the 13 arguments above apply. If, however, central leaders persist with their fixation on binding Tibet inextricably to China by power grids (made of copper from mining Tibet), and also exporting electricity, then the transition away from hydro may stall.

Even if China’s electricity demand can be met without damming Tibet much more than it is now, China’s ambitious Global Energy Interconnection scheme could see electricity form Tibet exported, initially to South Asia, eventually as far as Europe.[2] This is technically feasible, as a 2017 independent study by the European Commission has confirmed. By converting AC electricity to DC, China has mastered the technologies of transmitting electricity over vast distances, with little dissipation, and at extraordinarily high voltages. It can be done.

https://basecamp.iec.ch/download/iec-white-paper-global-energy-interconnection/

If the Global Energy Interconnection, built worldwide by China, were to be realised, it would rely on Tibet as the primary source, not only through hydro damming but by adding wind and solar energy generated in Tibet as well.  It sounds improbable, but according to reputable think tanks such as the Atlantic Council, it can be done.

Powering the whole of Eurasia from Tibet is technically feasible, not only according to China’s State Grid Corporation and its advocacy arm GEIDCO, the grandly named Global Energy Interconnection Development Cooperation Organisation; the European Commission also found it can technically be done. Is this really the twilight glow of an industry that once dominated China’s hydraulic economy, but is now flaming out?

Even the hydro dammers are switching to wind and solar power, in Tibet. Yulong Hydropower Corporation, which takes the entire Kham Kandze Nyagchu catchment as its fiefdom, now says it has dozens of wind and solar farms under way, many in Tibet.

hills are alive with the hum of solar: Yalong Hydropower Corp 2020

China’s hydropower potential has been calculated as 2329 terra watt hours (tWh).[3] As climate change steadily makes the Tibetan Plateau wetter, hydropower potential across Tibet is likely to grow. This is what has always driven dam building, giving it an urgency. It becomes a necessity to impound and exploit that potential; to fail to do so would be to let it go to waste, as those lazy Tibetans did.

That sense of pioneering urgency and inevitability has at last faded. After the twilight, a new dawn shows the landscape in a new light, full of solar wind potential wherever you look, but especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. Solar and wind are technologies whose time is now; the prospect that six decades from now a wetter Tibet will have greater hydropower potential is of no consequence.

International Energy Agency 2020 forecasts hydro is fading, as solar and wind power generation accelerate

REINVENTING HYDRO FOR AN ERA OF UNPREDICTABILITY

Sixty percent of China’s estimated hydropower potential is 1397 tWh per year. Maybe that’s enough, time to move on.

Yet China’s hydro engineers aren’t done yet. They now argue for new ways hydro dams could be used to help with one of the difficulties of the turn to solar and wind, which is the mismatch between when electricity demand peaks, and when the sun shines and the wind blows. Electricity can’t be stockpiled in advance of demand, production and consumption are simultaneous.  Batteries are a way of stockpiling, but battery technologies are still basic and inadequate to the scale of the task. This is where hydrodams make their renewed pitch.

New hydrodams could be built to deliver electricity to the grid only at peak demand times; the rest of the time their spinning turbines are used to pump water back up behind the dam wall. This effectively makes the hydro project a giant battery. It’s called pumped storage. Tibet has long had just such a dam, the sacred Yamdrok Yumtso lake was designed as a pumped storage dam linked to the Yarlung Tsangpo below, providing peak hour electricity to Lhasa.  Nobody asked the Tibetans.

The latest pitch by the dam promoters is to use the overabundant summer monsoon rush of water through the turbines into a different kind of battery, using excess electricity generation to make hydrogen, to be stored for making energy when the demand peaks.[4] Technically, this is barely feasible, and may perhaps one day happen, but not soon.

Neither of these dam-cum-battery ideas are likely to slow the exit from damming as the acme of “ecological civilisation with Chinese characteristics.” China is moving on to the next big thing.

Many who made their careers in dam building are yet to notice this paradigm shift, and continue to argue for even more central subsidies, concessional loans, protracted loan repayment periods and several other costly incentives, to reduce the costs of generating hydropower in Kham, as if nothing has changed. They are also adept at pressing Beijing’s buttons: “Tibet and the four-province Tibetan areas (the Tibetan autonomous areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu) are the most impoverished areas in China and have the worst poverty levels of 14 concentrated and extremely poor areas of the country, where the main factors leading to poverty are adverse natural conditions, limited power industry, weak infrastructure and underdeveloped social institutions. Maintaining the stability and development of Tibet and the four-province Tibetan areas is of great strategic importance to China. Among these areas, Tibet and the Sichuan-Yunnan Tibetan area are extremely rich in hydropower resources. Indeed, the capacity of the water resources that are technically exploitable in Tibet corresponds to 174 billion watts, meaning it ranks first in China: however, the installed capacity of the built hydropower plants is around 2.3 billion watts, i.e., just 1.3% of the exploitable amount.”[5]

Carve me a mountain: Yalong (Nyag Chu) Hydropower Corp at work 2020

Fortunately, Beijing seems deaf to these familiar special pleadings for more and more subsidies and price distortions. Or is it? The Seventh Tibetwork Forum, in Beijing in August 2020, urged accelerating development throughout all Tibetan areas. The specific directives issued by the Tibetwork Forum, the highest level of party-state coordinated campaign planning, are not immediately made public. Neican 内参 or “internal reference documents” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. Hopefully, we will know soon whether dam building  in Tibet will persist, even when other provinces have no interest in importing electricity from Tibet when they can build their own coal fired power stations, and make more money.

The dam builders do have a voice, and take every opportunity to insist the dams they designed must be built. Their professional associations promote more dams, knowing well the fame of heroic pioneering engineers who designed them, far up in the mountainous valleys of Kham, masters of the conquest of nature. Huge state owned corporations have carved out territories in Tibet, each named after the river they claim exclusive development rights to own.

paying tribute to the emperor

FATE OF A LAW, FATE OF THE MOTHER RIVER

In this complex terrain the Yangtze River Basin Protection Law has by now gone through several iterations, following many consultations, mostly with the various arms of the party-state that compete with each other. Following the tortuous path of this legislation is easy, because the NPC Observer is tracking its progress, through a first and second draft, ready for rubber stamping at the end of December 2020..

The official second draft does indeed claim to embrace the river in its entirety, including the upper third, in Tibet. By contrast, on the Za Chu/Mekong/Lancang, the Tibetan upper third is routinely omitted from consideration or voice, often not even shown on maps, such as those published by the Greater Mekong Subregion transboundary consortium of riverine countries , established by the Asian Development Bank.

Yalong (Kham Kandze Nyagchu) Hydro conquers nature by day

Speaking for the entire Dri Chu/Yangtze river, Article 20 of this second draft strongly proclaims national over sectional interests: “Article 20: The state strengthens the management of the development and utilization of hydropower resources and strictly restricts building of large and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin.”

However, reflecting the many powerful stakeholders and their vested interests, the draft law immediately reverses the direction of flow: “If construction is needed, because of the national development strategy and national economy and people’s livelihood, it shall be scientifically demonstrated and reported to the State Council for approval.” Back to square one.

What sort of law is this? Definitely not a law that can be litigated, when two consecutive sentences are so contradictory. Even if it is read as a policy statement, it is incoherent. The Dri Chu pays the price for the compulsory silence of the Tibetans.

Does this new law create new spaces for Tibetans to speak? Will Tibetans displaced from their ancestral lands within the Yangtze/Sanjiangyuan catchment be able to protect their record as custodians of sustainability and of water purity, and thus protect their land rights?

The formal process of drafting laws in China, as in other countries, includes a period of consultation, during which time Tibetans could theoretically speak up on issues affecting them, such as the future governance of the Yangtze. While the CCP insists it alone is always right, the state has quite extensive procedures for input from the whole range of stakeholders. The Yangtze Protection Law draft was issued, for consultation, in late 2019, with the explicit invitation: “for the draft revision to the Yangtze River Protection Law includes the following options: “state organs and their employees” [国家机关及其工作人], “public institutions, social groups, and their employees” [业机关、社会团体及其工作人员], “persons living in the Yangtze River basin[长江流域所在地人员]; and “other” [其他]. Comments can also be mailed to the NPCSC Legislative Affairs Commission [全国人大常委会法制工作委员会] at the following address: 北京市西城区前门西大街1 邮编: 100805; No. 1 West Qianmen Avenue, Xicheng District, Beijing 100805. Please clearly write “[BILL NAME IN CHINESE]征求意on the envelope.”

Is this just an elaborate charade? The whole process took over a year, the first draft became a second draft, which was published for further comment. That second draft included Article 20, quoted above, calling both for a winding down of hydro damming, and for damming to be done scientifically. That contradiction did not survive the second round of consultations.

Article 20 began life as a bold assertion of the national interest in a healthy river, over the provincial and local interests in extracting water, electricity and profit from the Yangtze:  “The state strengthens the management of the development and utilization of hydropower resources and strictly restricts building of large and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin.”

When this legislation was finally enacted, that crucial sentence was dropped. The hydro engineer old guard won. They lobbied hard to get the national government’s idea of national interest to back off, leaving room for more local interests, and they won the dropping of the sole clause that could have spared Kham from further damming.

Some of that lobbying was done in public. On the world’s largest online app, Weixin (Wechat) the hydro engineers stated their case, and dismissed critics of hydro damming as “People with ulterior motives at home and abroad who have been demonizing hydropower for a long time, and misled non-hydropower experts and media personnel.”

Yulong Hydropower Corp conquers nature by night 2020

The engineers had three things going for them:

  1. the compulsory silence of the Khampa Tibetans and Yi minority ethnicity further downriver,
  2. the reification of narrowly defined “science” as the sole criterion of policy,
  3. and the long history of hero worshipping hydro engineers (and geologists) as pioneer shock troops of conquering the frontiers, taming wild rivers and sacrificing for the revolution.

Of these three, the old guard spoke publicly of only one: the scientific/patriotic  case for ongoing damming. They remained silent about Tibetan silence: why draw attention to mandatory absence? They also said little about their revolutionary credentials as model workers for socialist construction, perhaps because that reputation, in today’s corporate/consumer China, is on the wane.

But they went full bore on hydro damming as science, even if it’s a science which ignores the sciences of landslides, earthquakes, fish kills, sedimentation and other dangers of dams. Hydrodamming remains, as ever, the rational way forward, the tech needed to reduce carbon emissions and Beijing’s smog. Blending science and fealty to Xi Jinping, the hydro engineers invoke the glory of the massive Wudongde dam on the Yangtze, exactly where the Jinsha/Yangtze flows from Yunnan into Sichuan, due to begin full operation by end 2021 after a decade of construction. This megadam, in the lands of the Yi minority nationality below Tibet, is in a gorge similar to the terrain in Kham, requiring one of the highest dam walls in the world, and two separate underground turbine chambers, one to send electricity to Yunnan, the other to Sichuan, as each province has invested in a 15% stake. That’s classic hydro-politics, locking in the biggest stakeholders, ensuring each gets exactly equal generating capacity.

Wudongde, on the eve of its triumphant completion, must not signal the end of the age of hydro, which is why Xi Jinping himself in June 2020 commended Wudongde for its capacity to transmit electricity across China, west to east, to the coastal factory belt. So the hydro-engineers remind us. Let there be many more Wudongdes, marching upriver into Tibet: ”bravely climb the new peak of science and technology, complete the follow-up project construction tasks with high standards and high quality, and strive to make the Wudongde Hydropower Station a high-quality project. We must adhere to ecological priority and green development, advance the development of Jinsha River hydropower resources in a scientific and orderly manner, and promote the development and protection of the Jinsha River Basin in protection, so as to better benefit the people.”

Since this is all about politics, the dammers shamelessly push patriotism.. Having invoked Xi Jinping, they expound on China’s global role as hydro dam builder, as a source of national pride: “It is the strong support of the party and the government and the joint efforts of generations of water conservancy and hydropower that we have stepped to the forefront of the world and won high recognition from developing countries and even developed countries.”

They also warn explicitly that any wording in the Yangtze Protection Law restricting hydro dam construction will make it harder to get dams built on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra: “The Yarlung Zangbo River is a cross-border river and a sensitive river that has received close attention from the international community. Regarding the wording of the Yangtze River legislation on hydropower, full consideration should be given to rigor, so as to avoid external public opinion using superficial meaning and over-interpreting it.”

Then comes a clincher. If China is to catch up to the West, as is its right, electricity consumption will continue to grow fast, but not from coal burning: “my country is still in the middle and late stages of industrialization and rapid urbanization. In order to achieve the “two centenary” goals [in 2049], it is expected that my country’s economy will maintain a medium-to-high-speed growth in the next 30 years, and the growth rate of electricity demand exceeds the growth rate of GDP. With the acceleration of urbanization and electrification, especially the improvement of people’s living standards and the overall acceleration of electric energy substitution, my country’s electricity demand will grow rapidly in the future for a long time.”  If all those hundreds of millions of urban consumers in China’s east won’t be able to get more power from Inner Mongolian coal, it must now come from hydro on the great rivers pouring from Tibet.

So the hydro dammers make their demand: “Therefore, the term “strict restriction” mentioned in Article 20 of the draft article is seriously inappropriate in the construction of large and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin. It is completely contrary to the context of “implementation of hydropower development on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River” mentioned in the14th Five-Year Plan  planning proposal.”

That public advocacy was published with perfect timing, on 21 December 2020, five days prior to the National People’s Congress legislative session. The NPC caved, the offending sentence asserting national over sectional interest was quietly deleted.

Some say there is no political debate in China. Not so. Powerful lobbies routinely outflank national legislators. But did any among the fragmented Yi or Tibetans have a say? Who can match the loud voice of the patriotic old red guard of hydro dammers, when the slightest dissent is criminalised as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”?

The Yangtze Protection Law has failed, at the last minute, to protect Tibetans and other minority nationalities whose voices and concerns are routinely silenced. China too has failed to enact a law that does what its name says, to protect the entire river, from source to mouth. The Mother river of China is to remain fragmented, one law for below, dammers’ law for upriver.

The drive for a coherent watershed-wide  policy for the Dri Chu/Jinsha/Yangtze actually began with Xi Jinping in 2016, as part of his centralisation push. In January 2016:  No more large development projects will be launched along the Yangtze River, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday at a top-level meeting to finalize guidelines for the economic belt along China’s longest river.”

It took close to five years for the hydro dammers to ensure large dam development projects on the upper Yangtze can still go ahead. They won, Xi Jinping lost that one.

Who can voice a river? Who speaks for nature? 

May be Tibetans in diaspora can speak up, since close to one billion dollars of the $15bn Wudongde budget was spent on Western suppliers of core technologies: the turbines, contracted to GE (General Electric) and the Austrian manufacturer Voith, supplier to the controversial Yamdrok Tso dam back in the 1990s. Another supplier of key technologies is Texas-based AZZ.

This seems to be a moment for superficial over-interpretation.


[1] Yue Liu et al, Competitiveness of Hydropower Price, 2018

[2] https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/54361687-0702-11e8-b8f5-01aa75ed71a1/language-en

Ardelean, M. et al., Optimal paths for electricity interconnections between Central Asia and Europe, European Commission JRC Science for Policy Report 2020

[3] Y. Zhou et al, A comprehensive view of global potential for hydro-generated electricity, Energy and Environmental Science, 2015, 8, 2622

[4] Olusola Bamisile , Jian Li , Qi Huang et al,  Environmental impact of hydrogen production from Southwest China’s hydro power water abandonment control, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Volume 45, Issue 46, 21 September 2020, 25587-25598

[5] Liu, Competitiveness of Hydropower Price, 2018

CAPITALISING SNOW LEOPARDS

Blog five in a series on Tibet in 2021                       5/8

CLIMATE CHANGE & BIODIVERSITY

2021 is set to be a big year for climate and environment, with key global conferences held over from 2020. One such conference is to be held in China 17 to 30 May 2021 in Kunming, with side trips for delegates to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CDB) up into Yunnan Dechen prefecture (Shangri-la in Chinese) to show off China’s biodiversity achievements

Whenever the CDB holds its Conference of the Parties (COP) delegates from governments are lobbied intensively by wildlife NGOs from round the world pressing for real, accountable commitments, not just vague words from ministers. Will China allow wildlife protectors to come to Kunming, or will delegates be kept from those seeking to voice the voiceless wild animals?  Will only global NGOs with Beijing offices be there, and the activists excluded?

The buildup to Kunming CDB 2021 has been intense. Despite the virus crisis separating people, we have seen report after report on threatened species, on the growing danger of extinctions, and on China’s voracious global trafficking of wildlife into wet markets that triggered the pandemic. We have new reports on how indigenous and local communities worldwide work, in effective traditional ways, to conserve biodiversity, more effectively than top-down governments.

Pent-up demand for real action is strong, all the more so because CDB decides only once in a decade what its targets should be, and the 2010 targets (known as the Aichi targets) failed badly, with little effective action to prioritise wildlife and landscapes above economic growth. In 2021 new targets are to be negotiated and announced, the pressure is on, to get real.

Will Tibetan wildlife get a voice? Yunnan is part of a huge biodiversity “hotspot” that stretches across the Tibetan highlands of not only Yunnan but also the Tibetan uplands of Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai. However the new national parks China wants to show to CDB delegates are hardly within this four-province “hotspot”; instead they are in the uppermost basins of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers, well to the north.

Similarly, on climate, there is a gap between what China says and what China does. 2021 is scheduled to see the entire world come together in Glasgow, 1 to 12 November to decide whether to act decisively to limit climate heating, or persist in competitively waiting for others to move first. Report after report tells us if we don’t get the Glasgow UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP right, we as a planet will soon run out of time before it all gets out of hand.

Late in 2020 China announced it will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060, and the world applauded. That’s four decades away, farther ahead than anyone can envisage or plan for, and a crucial decade later than most governments. Does China have a plan for how to get there, and does it start now? Hopefully, the 14th Five-Year Plan will include specific steps to reduce emissions sooner rather than later.

Net zero emissions is not at all the same as zero emissions. Coal will still be burned, carbon will still pour into the skies. China now burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, and that is not likely to change soon. Net zero emissions means those emissions will be offset by other projects to capture carbon, the easiest being to plant more trees, probably in Tibet.

This means an intensive effort to turn Tibet into numbers, and then put a dollar value on those numbers, known as natural capital accounting, it’s all the rage among the techies who run the global COP system. The Tibetan Plateau may feature prominently in both May and November, the biodiversity and climate global meetings. China will want to show off its zoning of much of Tibet as national park, and suggest more to come, as Chinese scientists have named Tibet as a CEZ, that’s a Cost-Effective Zone, where you get the biggest bang for your buck by declaring pastoral livestock landscapes to be national parks. China wants to be acclaimed for building its “ecological civilisation” and Tibet is the quickest and cheapest path to doing so. Already 30 per cent of the Tibetan Plateau is zoned as a wildlife protection area, but these influential scientists now propose the whole of Tibet as a Cost-Effective Zone for biodiversity.

If Tibet is to be further depopulated for cost effective biodiversity protection, despite the record of Tibetan drogpa nomads knowing how to be both sustainable and productive, we can also expect more talk of eco-compensation for those displaced. That means (jargon alert) Payment for Environmental Services (PES), net degradation neutrality, Reduced Emissions from  Deforestation and Degradation, acronyms flying about. All such unnecessarily complex mechanisms, like net zero carbon emissions are elaborate, market-based capitalist ways of maintaining business as usual in the cities and factories, while poor people in remote areas get paid (not a lot) to promise to not develop or cut trees or plough their soils. Both CDB in May and UNFCCC in November will thicken the air with such jargon. So far, Tibetans have not been compensated for maintaining their rivers and pastoral landscapes, instead they have been removed. Perhaps China will now categorise its subsistence ration handouts to displaced nomads to be Payment for Environmental Services?

CENTRAL PLANNING TIBET

Blog six in a series on Tibet in 2021                         6/8

14TH FIVE YEAR PLAN plus GOALS FOR 2035

Seeing five years ahead, immediately after a global pandemic, might seem ambitious, but China’s leaders are more ambitious than that, announcing (at the CCP Fifth Plenum in October 2020) goals for 2035. Of necessity these goals are rosy but vague, such as the full achievement of socialism. Among the few specifics are technology goals, some of which do impact Tibet.

China’s long-term goals are tech-oriented. China will make “major breakthroughs in key core technologies,” become a global leader in innovation, and achieve “new industrialization, informatization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization.” The “core technologies” were not named in the communique, but likely include the same technologies emphasized in other government plans: semiconductors, telecommunications, big data, and artificial intelligence. Notably, the above technology goals are for 2035.  The list of tech solutions is uncannily like the fantasies of Chinese kids.

It might seem Tibet has a very minor role in realising these ambitions. Yet Tibet is already at the forefront of electrifying the laboratories and factories of eastern China, and is also where blockchain bitcoin mining happens, and polysilicon manufacture for computer chips, and lithium battery production for new energy vehicles. Tibet is changing fast.

China plans to double its current GDP of around 100 trillion yuan in 2035, and double current per capita GDP of $10,000. “That would require a real GDP growth of around 3.5 percent annually; it is a big target but can be done if China’s full potential is realized.”

The 2035 goal is to double average incomes, a slower rate of growth than in earlier decades, but sufficient to make China’s economy (in actual purchasing power) double the size of the US, a prospect that drives American anxieties. In personal terms, that would mean the average Chinese citizen would have an income comparable to Greece or Portugal today.

Achieving these goals requires much greater exploitation of natural resources, in a time when China, under American pressure, feels its supply routes are vulnerable and is urgently boosting the domestic economy. That means not only stimulating greater consumption, but also more self-reliance on domestic production. Since Tibet remains largely an extraction zone and supplier of raw materials (producer goods in economists’ jargon) impacts on Tibet could intensify, especially if one includes the delivery of water from Tibet as the most essential of all, from Beijing’s perspective.

As for the 14th Five-Year Plan we can assume, from the August 2020 Tibetwork Forum’s insistence that the CCP has Tibet on exactly the right track, more of the same. That means more acceleration, more intensification, including more pressure on remaining pastoralists to sell more herd animals for meat. It means more mining and more industries in Tibet processing Tibetan minerals, using hydropower generated in Tibet. Detailed specifics are in the topics of this blog series.

Around the world, plenty of folks, enthusiasts for globalisation, continue to be amazed China still has Five-Year Plans, drawn up by central planners, which sounds so like the command-and-control economy of the Maoist era, when the state could simply allocate resources wherever it chose to. So what is a Five-Year Plan these days? It’s not a Maoist allocate and distribute plan, it’s messier, more contested by vested interests. But it is not just indicative either, just a wishlist. Centralisation under Xi Jinping in many ways is a reversion to Maoism, not only in ideology but also in issuing directives that must be obeyed.

Now that China has declared itself to have achieved modest prosperity, there are many powerful players pulling and pushing those Five-Year Plans in different directions. Even though the FYP will be formally unveiled at the National People’s Congress in Feb or March 2021 for formal approval, that doesn’t mean the whole Plan is made public then, or in some areas even written by then. Chunks of the FYP will come out in subsequent months.

COUNTING TIBETANS

Blog seven in a series on Tibet in 2021                   7/8

2337 pages in three volumes, downloadable

CENSUS

How many Tibetans are there? Tibetans in exile around the world number at most 150,000, perhaps less if we base it on the enrolment of at most 80,000 exiles registered to vote in recent exile parliamentary elections.

But in Tibet, how many? For decades the exile government said six million, a stable number that never seemed to change. China’s own head count, like its categorisation of ethnicity status, has always been problematic. Early census numbers, in line with the propaganda claim that Tibetans, under the burden of serfdom and monkish celibacy, were dwindling, destined to die out, came up with improbably low numbers.

Then, under socialism, the Tibetan population grew and grew and by the 2010 census was almost six million. That was a decade ago, so what about now?

China’s Seventh Census, rolled out in November 2020, is meant to capture data on each and every citizen of China by year’s end. All data is immediately fed into the Bureau of Statistics database, with Tencent tech prominently involved.

How many Tibetans are there? How many Han? County by county, where do they all live? What is the human population of the Tibetan Plateau? How far in excess of its historic carrying capacity is it, now that so many immigrants have come?

Here is the baseline, courtesy International Campaign for Tibet, the results of the 2010 census:

Tibet Autonomous Region 2,716,389 Tibetans;

Sichuan (Kandze and Ngawa prefectures, Mili dzong) 1,495,500 Tibetans;

Qinghai 1,375,000 Tibetans;

Gansu (Kanlho prefecture and Pari dzong) 488,400 Tibetans;

Yunnan (Dechen prefecture) 129,496 Tibetans;

adding up to 5,804, 785. And more in other provinces. And separate numbers for Lhopa and Monpa.

comparing 2000 and 2010 census results

That’s the short version. When China publishes the full results, as in 2010, there is a wealth of information, dzong by dzong. For example the three volumes on Amdo (Qinghai) 2010 add up to 2337 pages, all available online via the CNKI database.

Even these days, when census questions can be answered online with a QR code, it still takes an army of data collectors, door to door. That’s a major reason this happens only once every ten years.

Despite big data aggregation, expect census results to trickle in from March 2021. Expect considerable anxiety among the Han supermajority that Han numbers are barely rising, while ethnic minorities do continue to grow. Expect further anxiety about an ageing population, as the women of China continue to prefer to have one or at most two kids.

This is the first time the population census will collect people’s ID numbers, which could raise privacy concerns, although officials have said the information will be kept confidential. Can we believe that?

Census takers will also use smart phones to collect information this time, with support from Chinese tech giant Tencent.

how many red-faced Tibetans?

We Tibetans of the snow mountains
descend from kings.
In happy times, I share heartfelt words.
In difficult times, I sing songs of sorrow.
The red-faced [Tibetans] who ride astride the horn
tips of golden yaks,

On the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, their
stallion’s hooves resound in the four directions.
On Ama’s [mother’s] face, age and distress [show]
from years, months of the joys and sorrows of the
three provinces [Tibet]
Even so, the sweet songs of the pristine land of our
fathers still reverberate across the blue sky.

sung by Dolma Kyab 2006

DISINFO TROLLING ROLLS ON

In 2021 Tibetans and their supporters worldwide will fall for calibrated online campaigns to make us panic, outraged at China’s inexorable rise in all directions. Tibetans, like Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, are targets of professional trolling intended to make us despair at China’s unstoppable mastery of all. Beware the placing in Chinese media of stories planted to trigger our anxieties, which we in turn amplify by reposting our alarm. We are being trolled.

training prisoners in Sichuan how to troll for the party-state: https://twitter.com/jenniferatntd/status/1255610443588079616?lang=en

This is a sophisticated art in China’s “war” with “anti-China” forces, sending us off in all directions rather than carefully sifting the spin from actual dangers. It’s a big industry in China, officially called public opinion guidance 思想舆论导向, with a huge staff of trollers heading off unwelcome posts, while themselves sending out heaps of disinfo intended to distract. Censorship masked as a nudge from the patriotic masses. The overall message is upbeat: China is on the rise, the situation is all good. But the submessage, aimed at Tibetans, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers is: don’t mess with us, we are coming for you.

Tibetans in Tibet know they need to be super careful not to fall for too-good-to-be-true promises that you can jump the great firewall, such as the Tuber app that got lots of Chinese netizens to register their real names and smart phone numbers on an app that was immediately cancelled. The cancelled users don’t get their privacy back.

Outside Tibet, however, we do seem to fall for disinfo too often. It’s tempting. It hits our buttons. It confirms our fears. It’s doomscrolling. It reminds us that we are indeed anti-China. The most sophisticated and successful disinfo seamlessly slides from facts to fantasy, and we readers fail to notice we are now in la-la land.

A classic case is a story in Global Times, a CCP owned specialist in provocation.

That story is a sign of what is to come. As China gets more self-righteously pugnacious in demanding the world kowtow and pay tribute, the more it sets out to intimidate those who fail to bow. We are the targets.

Picking quarrels, provoking troubles?

Blog eight in a series on Tibet in 2021                     8/8

Asian Development Bank “will provide $2billion for upper and middle reaches of Yangtze”, yet nothing for Tibet

PUTTING THESE TRENDS TOGETHER:

Two divergent trends for 2021 are evident, if one looks at Tibet from Beijing, not only through the eyes of the CCP but of the established elite more broadly, including the security state, and liberal academics who are increasingly discovering much in Tibet that is positive, to be learned from.

Which of these diverging perspectives will succeed is surely a key question for 2021 iron ox year.

2019 World Bank report now no longer available from World Bank following pressure from China

The case study, in this blog series, of legislation to protect the Yangtze, including its Tibetan upper third, from further hydro damming and other threats, is a story of popular and elite pressure, over decades, to insert legislative clauses drastically curtailing further damming.

Article  20 of the Yangtze River Protection Law will go down in history as the protection from damming that so nearly succeeded, and then at the last moment failed enactment. Decades of popular protest at the displacement of tens of millions of Chinese citizens by dams which often failed to perform as expected, aided by elite advocacy as well, produced an Article 20 that reversed the onus of proving a dam is needed. In both the first 2019 draft legislation and its 2020 second draft the text bluntly asserts national power: “The state strengthens the management of the development and utilization of hydropower resources and strictly restricts building of large and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin.”

At the very last moment, only five days before this law was enacted, the old guard of red patriotic dam builders won their lobbying campaign, and the key sentence was quietly removed. Prominent in their fightback was the accusation that any such “strict restriction” on further dams would be used to campaign against further damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

This victory of Maoist dam engineers against popular revulsion at the high human cost of megadams suggests the security state is winning. This blog looks at the evidence.

ACCELERATION, SECURITISATION, INTENSIFICATION

Seldom, anywhere worldwide, has a security state claimed China’s mandate to securitise everything.  The more power is centralised in the hands of one man, the more the security state extends its power to define all aspects of life as security threats.

The great danger for Tibet is, as in the 1960s and 1970s, everything old, everything Tibetan is classified as security risk that needs rigid and intensive controlling. China’s Minister of State Security said in 2020 that “we are faced with more and more non-traditional security threats. To deal with non-traditional security problems such as economy, culture, society, science and technology, network and biology, we need to make overall plans and comprehensive policies. 同时我们面临的非传统安全威胁越来越多,应对经济、文化、社会、科技、网络 wénhuà, shèhuì, kējì, wǎngluò、生物等非传统安全问题需要统筹兼顾、综合施策.”

The combination of “traditional” security threats and the expanding list of “non-traditional” threats covers just about everything, especially in a remote and recalcitrant frontier zone, which is how the security state has long seen Tibet. In all Tibetan areas, in five Chinese provinces, officials have always found the easiest way to get Beijing to allocate funding is to play up the security threat, while pledging to strike ever harder as long as they are well-resourced.

“Non-traditional security” is yet another concept originating in the US, which China’s massive security state has made its own. Originating in the US deep state’s 1990s post Soviet collapse search for a new mission, a slew of “non-traditional security threats” was added to their remit. Terrorism of course was top of the list, especially after 2001’s 9/11. But “non-traditional” threats could be just about anything. “The idea that everything can become a threat allowed for the inclusion of non-military threats in the field of security studies.”[1]

 China has used the concept of “non-traditional security threats” to greatly expand the scope of the security state to now cover just about everything. This heightens the sense of threat party leaders see in all directions, all of which need to be controlled by security state programs, from surveillance to incarceration. The expanding security state picks its quarrels and provokes trouble, and then accuses anyone who disagrees of criminally quarreling. That is how bullies compel compliance.

The American security state has similarly embraced the idea that just about anything can be a security threat, requiring securitisation, with security agencies in charge of the official response. A prime example is viral pandemics originating in Asia, which Western security agencies have had on their radar for at least the past two decades.[2]

When that prediction came true in 2020, the security state -especially in China- was commended for its foresight, and for its ruthless methods of suppression. The security state is strengthened further. In Tibet securitising anything and everything routinely defines any Tibetan dissent as a security threat. The solution is thus to further disempower and silence Tibetans, resulting in ever greater distress among the people, and so the spiral perpetuates itself.

It didn’t have to be this way. The concept of “non-traditional security” can be used to empower marginalised communities, bringing their voices into centre stage by “including health, food, water, natural disasters, internal conflict, forced migration, energy, transnational crime, and cyber security. This inclusive framework ensures that all voices are heard including those oftentimes under-represented and marginalized in society to ensure that academic and policy debates are well informed about the often complex and nuanced nature of these non-traditional security challenges.”[3]

a massive “traditional” security threat: a massive collapse of a glacier crashing three kms downslope into the Yarlung Tsangpo, completely blocking a big river, Oct 2018

While the security state expands its reach and its grasp, there are other trends in Beijing quietly but steadily pushing in a different direction. There is a growing awareness that hydropower dams are no longer the solution to energy security, compared to investing in the cheaper, safer and more flexible wind and solar power. With hydropower comes coercive resettlement of displaced local communities, and heightened risk of earthquakes and disastrous landslides. In 2018, only a few days apart, massive landslides completely blocked both the upper Yangtze and the Yarlung Tsangpo, until accumulating river flow burst through, greatly alarming downstream communities. Earthquakes and landslides are traditional security threats that can’t be ignored, especially in Tibet. Yet the security state is helpless against such natural forces. [4] Millions of tons of ice, rock and earth avalanched from a mountain peak at 6600 m altitude down into the Yarlung Tsangpo bed over 3 kms below. No security state can stop that; nor can dam builders dare build dams in the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge, when such catastrophic blockages of the Yarlung Tsangpo have happened not only in this time of rapid glacier retreat, but altogether 12 times since 1950.[5]

The era of expensive hydro dams that take many years to build may be starting to fade, at the moment when most sites below the Tibetan Plateau scheduled for damming have been built, and the dam engineers were itching to go upriver. The steepness of wild Tibetan mountain rivers in Kham require the tallest dams ever built, often planned to be over 300m high, if they are to hold enough water to operate beyond the wet summer months. Increasingly, the costs, lead times, expense and risk of collapse add up to risks central leaders are disinclined to do, when wind and solar are cheaper, and the leading manufacturers are national champions that export their tech worldwide.

China’s official December 2020 White Paper on Energy does, in its 50 pages mention hydropower, and the prospects of further damming on the rivers of SW China, meaning Kham. Over decades, Five-Year Plan after Plan announced many such dams, and some were built. But in this White Paper there are no targets, no specifics. By comparison, the 2020 White Paper glows with enthusiasm for solar, wind, nuclear, shale oil, gas, extracting gas from coal, etc. Gradually a shift is under way.

glacier collapses suddenly into Yarlung Tsangpo gorge, bringing with it millions of tons of rock and earth, sufficient to completely block the entire river, Oct 2018, and not for the first time.

Around the world some governments are reluctant to move away from coal fired electricity generation, on the grounds that coal delivers round the clock and round the year, unlike solar and wind, which are variable. The same is true of hydro, which generates electricity only in the wet season, so much so that predatory industries like blockchain mining and polysilicon production choose to locate close to Tibetan hydro dams that routinely have to abandon much of the electricity they generate, for want of a grid willing to transmit it to distant provinces.

So the old earth gods of Tibet, rumbling their annoyance at being dammed, having to bear the vast weight of concrete and dammed water, may yet shrug aside the dams, and the rivers may yet run free.

Dralas are elements of reality-water of water, fire of fire, earth of earth. Anything that connects you with the elemental quality of reality, anything that reminds you or the depth of perception.  Dralas [are] in the rocks…trees…mountains… a snowflake or a clod of dirt. Whatever is there…those are the Dralas of reality.  When you make that connection…you are meeting the Dralas on the spot.

Same goes for the standard official narrative that requires removing nomads from their pastures, in the name of landscape degradation repair, biodiversity conservation and carbon capture. For decades there was a solid consistency of blaming the drogpa nomads for erosion, and declaring erosion a threat to China’s water security. For decades the only solution was to limit or ban grazing, cancel nomad land rights and relocate many to settlements on urban edges, banished from their ancestral landscapes, yet not admitted to the urban economy.

Now that narrative package is coming apart. Grasslands are grasslands because they aren’t wet enough to support forest, or dry enough to be desert. Grasslands can’t be made into big stores of carbon because there is a limit to how much grass can grow, even if grazing is removed. There is almost no evidence that patches of eroding grassland threatens China’s water supply. Above all, Chinese scientists have discovered that the skilful grazing strategies of drogpa actually increase biodiversity, and are good for wild animals too. Slowly it is dawning on official China that moderate grazing, the presence on the land of herds and herders, can go with national parks, protected areas and water security. It is no longer either/or.

Occasionally the contradictions between the propaganda version and ground reality emerge, sometimes because investigative journalism in remote Tibetan areas lives on, when done by official media, with surprising results.

DEEP ELITE POLICY CONFLICTS

At a high level among established elites in Beijing, policies suitable for the Tibetan Plateau are (discreetly) more widely debated than we have seen in quite a while.

In a system where huge landscapes are zoned either ecological or economic, those two competing, mutually exclusive categories are increasingly clashing.

On one hand, China’s renewed emphasis on domestic production (and consumption) means Tibet too is expected to pull its weight by producing what China needs, also feeding Han China’s consumption cravings by offering vast depopulated pastoral landscapes as virgin, pristine wilderness for mass tourism. Looked at that way, both the prefectures and counties zoned economic and those zoned ecological end up serving economic growth, whether in primary industry (pastoralism), secondary industry (mineral extraction and processing) or tertiary (tourism management).

However rigidity of the zoning system creates tensions, most notably in Amdo and Kham. Elite debate is divided on the potential for Tibetan pastoral landscapes to satisfy newly wealthy China’s craving for meat, especially as pig populations struggle to recover after a devastating virus pandemic. In Golok and Yushu prefectures the future could be implementation of the plan to intensify meat production; or the zoning, as planned, of the entire prefectures (and beyond) as national park, with water production for lowland use prioritised above all else.

Either way, the Tibetan Plateau is seen as a producer, that must at last pay its way, whether the product is water and hydroelectricity; or meat. The number of nomads displaced from their pastures depends on the outcome of this elite contention.

Until very recently it seemed clear rewilding Tibet into pristine wilderness, largely devoid of livestock producers, was winning the debate. China submitted to the global ProtectedPlanet database its map of the whole of Yushu and Golog, and several more counties too, as the Sanjiangyuan (Three River Source) National Park, covering 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany. Three years ago that map disappeared from the UN ProtectedPlanet maps, and it now seems the Sanjiangyuan National Park has been dramatically downscaled to 121,000 sq kms.

is this what China now wants from Tibet?

These lands are prime pasture, as well as headwaters of the Yellow (Ma Chu), Yangtze (Dri Chu) and Mekong (Za Chu). Until very recently the abundance of the alpine meadows was that the consequence of bounteous summer monsoon rains, land and water went together, interwoven. But at the highest level, at least 20 years ago, China decided water was by far the most important environmental service Tibet provides to China, and nomads were a threat to it.

Now that consensus is crumbling, as evidence mounts that nomads are sustainable stewards of their landscapes, and that their customary grazing regimes, based on nomadic mobility, were good for biodiversity. The blame game, attributing pasture degradation to stupid, uncaring, ignorant nomads is at last fading. Official policy is at last starting to shift. The blame game is fading. China is belatedly discovering Tibetan nomads are skilful curators of huge landscapes. China seems to be discovering it wants Tibetan water, livestock products and carbon capture and national parks, all in the same (vast) Tibetan landscapes. Until now, on the simplistic Marxist dialectic assumption that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals”, those choices have been mutually exclusive.

Now China seems to be gradually discovering it can actually have water, livestock, carbon capture and protected areas, all without widespread removal of nomads, except in the most degraded areas. Signs of a relaxation in stigmatising the drogpa nomads are emerging, notably in the dramatic scaling back of the Sanjiangyuan to only one third of its original size, leaving plenty of room for herds and herders. Skilful grazing does not, after all, cause degradation, and is good for biodiversity, flourishing herbal medicines and wildlife.[6] For China, these are new awakenings to what Tibetans have always known.

In part this is a groundswell, as Han tourists discover, to their surprise, most Tibetans are nice, considerate folks who do care a lot about long term consequences of what they do. In part this is elite debate among scientists who are discovering the complexity of pastoral landscapes curated by mobile herds and herders, seldom to be blamed for areas of black soil.

While there are promising indications of an elite rethink, everything (as usual) depends on whether the securitisation of everything will override these considerations. If Tibet is securitised, yet again, then we are back to intensive surveillance, institutionalised suspicious mindsets, grid management or, even worse, mass incarceration of a newly created rural proletariat of displaced nomads, trained Xinjiang style to become factory workers.

All of these outcomes are possible. If the security state sweeps aside all dawning recognitions of the skills of rural Tibetans, it won’t be the first time.

ELITE ENERGY CONTENTION

The other big elite debate is about China’s future energy supply, and Tibet’s role in it. What Tibetans most fear is more hydrodams and high voltage power grids to transmit the electricity thousands of kms far to the east. The easier dams below Tibet, on the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong are largely built, and the engineers have plans ready for dams upriver, in the rugged terrain of Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa. But will they be built? Until quite recently, this seemed inevitable, it was just a matter of time. But now it is cheaper, quicker and more flexible to instead build solar and wind power, often in Tibet, often connecting to existing ultra high voltage grids. So will the 14th Five-Year Plan name the dams to be built?

Hydro is increasingly looking like a sunset industry, despite its political power as a nation-builder. Not only are solar and hydro competing with hydro in construction costs, these are sunrise industries with central subsidies and support as national champions for global export and global manufacturing domination.

Securitisation cannot bring back hydro, even if it manages to redefine Tibet as a high security risk. Hydro power is itself insecure, in two ways. First it is highly seasonal in Tibet, peaking in summer, barely able to generate electricity in the cold of winter. Second, so many dams, especially in geologically active areas such as Tibet, have been insecure, triggering earthquakes and landslides, collapses and cracking walls almost impossible to repair without draining the dam and starting again. Then there is the problem of siltation filling dams with sediment instead of water. Gradually, China’s enthusiasm for dams is dissipating, as solar and wind take over.

Gradual is key. The dam builders are a powerful lobby. They are big state-owned corporations with high level connections. They were for years praised as model workers, heroes of socialist construction, pioneers of planting China’s flag on remote landscapes, back in the day when most of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee were trained as hydro engineers. Their clout going forward is considerable, as many ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) power grids to transmit electricity across China, from Tibet to the east coast, are already built, in anticipation of further hydro dam construction.

Yet, in the 13th Five-Year Plan period now ending, hydro dam construction investment stalled, at a time just about any other energy source (including coal as well as renewables) surged ahead. When the hydro engineers get together with their buddies, it still sounds like the old days, full of confident rhetoric that hydro solves everything, but the megaproject era is dwindling.

Some more dams may yet be built in Tibet, but not many. This does not at all mean Tibet can escape becoming a massive energy extraction zone. What it means is that central planners are moving on, now reimagining the Tibetan Plateau as a boundless source of solar and wind power, often plugged into the same UHVDC power grids meant to bind Tibet to lowland China. Nor has China forgotten its even grander plans to generate so much electricity from Tibet to export not only eastward but also westward, possibly as far as Europe.

TIBET AS LABORATORY

A favourite word of central planners is “demonstration”. Building the biggest demonstration base showcasing hydro and/or wind and solar; always the biggest. Mega hydro projects may be fading, but the mega mentality persists, not only as a way of getting Beijing to allocate funding, but as a way of demonstrating China’s technical capabilities to client states around the world. Sales ensue.

UHVDC power grids are also part of China’s global sales pitch, and new long distance grids continue to be constructed. It took two decades for China to build nine medium and big hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River in Amdo, essential to the many industries processing Tibetan oil, gas, lithium and other minerals. Those nine dams produce more than local demand requires, and there is now a UHVDC grid from the Amdo dams stretching 1600 kms to Henan province in central China 青海-河. The cost to central leaders is well over USD$3 billion, with construction starting late 2018, due for completion early 2021. From Henan Zhumadian, electricity from Amdo may well be transmitted even further, to the 10 million people of Henan Nanyang. Tibet is being woven inextricably into the fabric of China. Nobody asked the Tibetans.

As usual, this is a project of State Grid, one of the biggest of global corporations. In 2012 the Fortune 500 ranking of the world’s biggest corporations rated State Grid as #7 worldwide, and by 2017 #3. Late in 2020 State Grid boss Mao Weiming was promoted to Governor of Hunan province.

 As usual, it relies on the Swiss/Swedish company ABB for the crucial specialist transformers that convert AC alternating current to DC for long distance transmission, and at the other end, back to AC. Taking the most direct route, the power pylons march across protected panda habitat in the Qinling Mountains, after passing over supposedly uninhabited parts of Gansu. The electricity delivered to Henan is sufficient for eight million people, more than the total number of Tibetans. Tibet has become  a major energy exporter, of oil and gas from the Tsaidam basin for several decades, now hydroelectricity.  Nobody asked the Tibetans.

As the challenging 2020 rat year fades and a wood iron ox year beckons, China, in its own best interests, could try some nyi-shu-gu purification of old securitisation thinking, to drop the suspicious mindset typical of securitism, opening up room for taming and enlightening the mind of the ox and oxherder.


drala protector of Tibetan mountains

[1] Andrea Ghiselli, Diplomatic Opportunities and Rising Threats: The Expanding Role of Non-Traditional Security in Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, Journal of Contemporary China, 2018 VOL. 27, NO . 112, 611–625

[2] Satoko Otsu, An Overview of Pandemic Preparedness in the Western Pacific Region, in PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS IN ASIA, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (2009) Singapore.

[3] Caballero-Anthony, Mely and Cook, Alistair D.B., Non-Traditional Security in Asia : Issues, Challenges and Framework for Action. Yusof Ishak Institute, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2013.

[4] Chen Chen et al., Barrier lake bursting and flood routing in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in October 2018, Journal of Hydrology, 583 (2020) 124603

[5] Barrier lake bursting and flood routing, 2020, table 2

[6] Zi-Qiang Yuan, et al., Vegetation and soil covariation, not grazing exclusion, control soil organic carbon and nitrogen in density fractions of alpine meadows in a Tibetan permafrost region, Catena, 196 (2021) 104832

Wang, Luolin Zhu Ling,. Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap : Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu, edited by Ling Zhu, World Century Publishing Corporation, 2013.