CIVILISING THOSE GREEN-BRAINED TIBETANS

Blog one of two on China’s latest plans for upscaling poverty alleviation in rural Tibet towards urbanisation, industrial agribusiness, commercialisation and accelerating the speed of life.

how China saved Tibetans from life in Tibet: screenshot from 2021 documentary series Up and Out of Poverty https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwP-A2gpmag&ab_channel=CCTVVideoNewsAgency

Apparently, China is shunting Tibetans out of their pastures and into the global economy of factory workers, a planetary underclass of underpaid, insecure assembly line workers; so China tells us.

In official Chinese eyes, that’s progress, the march of modernity, entry of the timeless Tibetans into history and the relentless speeding up of production, consumption, life and death. Although Tibetans are inclined to see this as a degenerate age, of reduced attention spans and innumerable distractions, the world has repeatedly congratulated China on “lifting” hundreds of millions, including Tibetans, out of poverty.

training Tibetan nurses in Sichuan 2011

Although, by decree, poverty is now at an end throughout China, the party-state now wants more applause, and is embarking on a massive program of “rural rejuvenation” which shunts not only Tibetans but rural Chinese about the landscape, to fit them into new lifeways in cities and factories.

This is the new post-poverty agenda, officially revealed 22 March 2021 in a joint announcement by both branches of the party-state, the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council. This is the next big step, to remould, consolidate, intensify and accelerate the countryside, especially the remotest and poorest districts least able to resist.

China tells the world it has already built a miracle in Tibet, sparing no effort to lift all Tibetans out of poverty, and there is more mass relocation to come.

China is unique in expanding resettlement way beyond those immediately displaced by dam construction and other infrastructure projects. Building on a long history of pushing the poor into pioneering China’s new frontiers, China today does not hesitate to engineer development by pushing the poor to geographies where development is to occur.

A recent overview of China’s ambitions finds: “Unlike other places where resettlement is largely a by-product of large infrastructure projects, in China resettlement is used as a tool for poverty alleviation. With the introduction of Xi Jinping’s Targeted Poverty Alleviation, and the goal to end absolute poverty by 2020, resettlement has become central to China’s poverty-alleviation practice. Rather than investing in dispersed, remote villages, the Chinese government prefers to bring people to development by constructing high-density resettlement sites in small towns and peri-urban areas: up to 16 million people are being resettled between 2016 and 2020.

“China’s intense focus on resettlement as a tool for poverty alleviation has resulted in reduced financial burdens on those resettled, but is also engendering new conflicts at the local level. Our analysis highlights the contested nature of state-driven resettlement for poverty alleviation and raises questions about the relevance of this practice for other developing countries.”[1]

all poor in three regions are lifted out of poverty: three regions are southern Xinjiang, Tibet Autonomous region, and all Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwP-A2gpmag&ab_channel=CCTVVideoNewsAgency

A BACKSTORY OF RURAL DISCONTENT

For decades rural China has complained of being left behind in the rush to get rich, their only options being labour migration to the cities, or selling their land, if nearby expanding towns, to local governments which then profit massively by rezoning agricultural land bought at agricultural prices, as urban land for apartment towers that often rehouse those just displaced from their farmland.

Neither of these two choices are appealing. When the fittest young adults move to seek factory jobs in cities and the industrial parks that surround so many cities, they must submit to corporate discipline, and if injured, go back to the village without compensation. They cannot bring their kids with them, since city schools won’t admit them, or elderly parents, since city health services won’t treat them. But if they stay on their land, and the local government wants it for urban expansion they have to sell, for farmland price, ripped off by those who supposedly represent them.

This has gone on decade after decade, as the urban-rural wealth gap has widened further, likewise the east-west gap, the Han-minority minzu gap, and the tuhao (new rich)- nongmin (peasant) gap. For decades the party-state has promised to reduce these gaps, and has made dramatic but empty gestures such as ensuring that the Number One official party-state policy announcement each year is on rural affairs.

To those focussed specifically on Tibet, this might seem only marginally relevant, especially at a time of alarming reports of mass mobilisation of Tibetans into labour mobilisation programs and then factory work.

However, the wider context matters. The party-state insists its policies fit all, and are to be implemented everywhere in the same way, with only minor adjustments for local circumstances. So if we want to evaluate labour mobilisation in Tibet, we need to see how that fits the national “post-poverty” agenda of rural revitalisation. It’s not only Tibetans who get shunted; treated like chives to be cut at the whim of the powerful and expected to just grow back. Throughout China villagers call themselves chives to be knifed at any moment, so deep is the history of shunting people about for reasons of state.

A CAMPAIGN WAGED BY MASS MOBILISATION OF CADRES

Proving the superiority of the China model has long included mass mobilisation campaigns to raise remote rural incomes above an artificially low poverty line. China’s self-proclaimed 2020 success in removing the “poverty hat” from every designated poor county across China and Tibet, is proof of the superiority of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in contrast to the capitalist West.

The decree that poverty anywhere had been ended in 2020 culminated a massive effort that took many years, with a huge number of cadres, especially at local government level, involved in the “arduous struggle” to save the poor from themselves. A high proportion of officials have been involved in projects to identify specific poor families, document the causes of the poverty, and come up with officially sanctioned new sources of income, often requiring emigration. Poverty alleviation became an industry. The official, triumphant 2020 announcement that all poverty is hereafter abolished was followed, by what? He complex bureaucracies at national, provincial, prefectural, county and township levels dedicated to leading the fight against poverty: what was to become of them?

There are four interconnected reasons why the post-poverty rural rejuvenation/labour mobilisation campaign is ramping up.

  1. China’s international reputation, throughout the developing world, as successful in lifting all out of poverty and onto the road to wealth, enhances China’s claim to uniqueness, and to superiority over the capitalist West.
  2. Social unrest against injustice, disempowerment, corruption and exploitation of rural areas is so widespread something beyond slogans had to be done; and “rural rejuvenation” strategy aims at intensified land ownership and scaled up production.
  3. Without abolishing the hukou household registration certification, rural workers who are no longer needed on the land, as scale and technologies replace humans, will emigrate to cities. There they will replenish a dwindling industrial proletariat, be intensely surveilled at work and in their new apartment blocks, and China’s extreme concentrations of wealth can persist.
  4. A politicised bureaucracy is repurposed from poverty alleviation to post-poverty control over access to official permissions, resources and finance, extending party-state control deep into the lives of the millions who will continue to depend on state allocated transfer payments. The gaze of the state, into the lives of its scrutable, repackaged, newly urbanised citizens is extended.

All four reasons for ongoing manipulation of rural lives also affect Tibetans, in all five Chinese provinces where Tibetans live in legally autonomous regions, prefectures or counties. Perhaps Tibet is not only affected; it may even be on the front line, as rural rejuvenation/revitalisation rolls out. China in high assimilationist mode turns to social engineering on a large scale.

This blog looks into those impacts in Tibetan areas, and in so doing, contextualises those alarming suggestions that Tibetans have already been retrained, re-educated and shipped off as surplus labour, on a large scale.

To understand what is happening in Tibet, and is likely to happen soon, we need to understand what China’s key policy decrees mean for all of China; and we need to see how and why Tibet is at the forefront. For China’s grand strategists the sheer size of the Tibetan Plateau makes social engineering a temptation, and a necessity if rural Tibet is to be remade as Chinese, oriented towards lowland China, assimilated into a single identity. Experiments in social engineering, driven by official fascination with “top-level design”, are especially attractive when they can be done on a large scale, as in Tibet, with little that can get in the way. Tibet is a giant sandpit, for playing with engineering the human soul (a Stalinist phrase still in use in China). Tibet is a laboratory for real-world experimentation with new social structures, that can later be introduced across China, and around the world.

REMAKING TIBET IN CHINA’S IMAGE

China has powerful incentives to reshape Tibet, and to inscribe it with Chinese characteristics, in ways not possible until now. Unlike Xinjiang in recent decades, and unlike all of southern China in recent centuries, Tibet is not amenable to mass settlement of Han emigrants. China tried “reclaiming waste land” in Tibet, meaning ploughing grassland and sowing Chinese grains and other crops, which did not succeed in Tibet’s frigid climate. Without crops, mass migration of poor rural Chinese into Tibet was not possible.

Now the Tibetan Plateau faces a quite different path to full assimilation into China, a path which combines enclaves of intensive resource extraction, industrialisation and urbanisation; with huge areas repurposed as pristine wilderness for tourist consumption. The Tibetan population, customarily spread thinly over innumerable plateaus practicing extensive land use, is to be concentrated into enclaves, leaving vast landscapes unoccupied, available for inscription as China’s mysteriously fascinating back yard, a natural gem in China’s grasp.

Up and Out of Poverty, all 3.83 million poor in Tibet and southern Xinjiang, leaving the snowland unpopulated, for Han toursists

Tibet, having been a laboratory for experimenting with new models China hopes can become exemplary, may emerge as a propaganda success story for emulation, both across China and around the developing world. The prospect is that Tibet can be both modern and prehistorically pristine, developed yet timeless, prosperous yet also archetypally restorative landscape for tourist recovery from urban stress.

MODELLING CONFUCIAN PROPRIETY

Kathryn Gomersall argues that China’s 2016 campaign to Build a New Socialist Countryside (BNSC) relies heavily on models. More so the 2021 rural revitalisation agenda: ““Models” are a Confucian technology through which the moral example is disseminated throughout society. Model villages are constructed to act as a guide for all other villages to emulate. They serve the purpose of governing behavioral norms and the social order through moral regulation as well as physical and social structures that organize rural life. “Improvement” through aspiring to the example, mobilizes people and hence drives the success of the governance system. Models are therefore used in image building and as a propaganda tool to depict an envisioned future for rural China. BNSC models elicit a resurgence of Communist style “showcasing” in which favoritism guides policy implementation. In this way, they provide opportunities for various actors such as promotion, embezzlement or preferential treatment as a result of qualification of model status. Officials experiment with policy implementation to identify successful local systems to be emulated across the county.”

Part of that experimentation by local officials invokes Confucianism as a technology of governance, used to ensure compliance within villages that the party-state decrees are to be resettled as part of the poverty alleviation agenda, usually on the grounds that poverty is inherent in the landscape and is thus ineradicable as long as villagers live in villages that, in the gaze of the state, are shamefully remote, primitive and embarrassing to a great power. These are the areas designated as “contiguous destitution” geographies, 个集中连片特困区贫困, a stigmatising category of official thinking which attributes limited cash incomes among subsistence farmers as a direct outcome of the perverse choice of villagers to live in such bereft landscapes, defined in official eyes by their lack of factors of production.

China yet again conquers nature, this time to conquer poverty: screenshot from Up and Out of Poverty, CCTV 2021

Gomersall did her fieldwork downriver from Tibet, in Shanxi, where villagers have long carved well insulated dwellings out of the deep, soft loess silt soil the Yellow River erodes from Tibet. The party-state, with patriarchal hauteur, calls them cave dwellers.  “The rationale of poverty alleviation resettlement (PAR) prescribes criteria for equitably selecting recipients for assistance based on remoteness and lack of access to resources and services. These criteria also make a latent rural labor force visible and calculable to a state apparatus engendering a neoliberal governance regime. Tensions were evident in Tao village during the selection process due to the contradictory nature of policy implementation.”

Local government cadres make themselves a permanent presence in the lives of remote villagers as never before, with power to draw on the distributive capabilities of an allocative state, and power to decide who qualifies for transfer payments, and who must leave for resettlement elsewhere. Despite China’s long history of authoritarian government, seldom has the state been so present in the lives of villagers, especially the poor.

THE POOR ARE ALWAYS ABOVE US

In Tibet, the highest priority for resettlement is those who live above the plateau floor, in the hills between the plateau floor flat pastures below and the bare rock of the high country above the tree line. On south facing hillsides alpine meadows do flourish in summer months, so abundantly that herds driven upslope are unable to exhaust the bounty of herbs and grasses; but China has selected Tibet’s hill people as especially benighted, incurably poor with no prospect of redemption as long as they stay up in the long winding valleys in the hills. Altitude is the state’s criterion, triggering compulsory relocation, from the top down.

Hilly terrain and the logic of extensive grazing customarily make for scattering the upland pastoralists, the opposite of concentration. In the gaze of the party-state this low density and nomadic mobility are suspicious, beyond the scrutiny of the state, allowing nomads to tuck animals away in remote valleys, avoiding the counting done by livestock inspectors sent to check that official stocking density numbers are being obeyed.

convoy of buses removing nomads from their pastures. source Qiushi August 2020

GEOMETRICALLY LINING UP THE RELOCATED

When hill Tibetans are resettled it is invariably in invariable straight lines, along roads, in neat geometric lines of concrete housing. These are the new line villages, the straight lines signalling more than scrutability, countability and concrete comfort. The line village is Civilisation 101, an induction into the universe of civilised behaviours, some of which are explicit, such as injunctions to no longer spit, to wash regularly, to use modern toilets, the agendas of hygienic modernity.[2] Many of the expectations and requirements of the party-state are not as explicit, yet bear heavily on those now, for the first time, lined up. Adrian Zenz has collected many phrases used in official documents: “Poverty alleviation reports bluntly say that the state must “stop raising up lazy people.” Documents state that the “strict military-style management” of the vocational training process “strengthens [the Tibetans’] weak work discipline” and reforms their “backward thinking.” Tibetans are to be transformed from “[being] unwilling to move” to becoming willing to participate, a process that requires “diluting the negative influence of religion.”

a “line village” in colonial Fiji a century ago

The line village is a classic coloniser’s move. In New Guinea the colonial administration prioritised bringing down to the plain’s villagers up high in the jungle-clad mountain slopes, insisting they henceforth reside in line villages, even though malaria was much more common than in the mountains.

Similarly, in Fiji, where the British colonisers shipped in Indian indentured labourers to work the sugar cane fields, the Indian “coolies” had to live in lines: “Each plantation had designated lines where their indentured labourers would live, and, in turn, free settlements would spring up once labourers completed their tenure and moved off the plantation. In Fiji, the landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of billowing green cane fields, orderly coolie lines, haphazard free Indian settlements, and isolated native villages was the result of a commodity trade that linked Fiji into a global economy. Accommodation was organized into lines, as it was in other colonies which had not previously had a sizeable slave labour workforce such as Assam, Ceylon, and Malaya. The use of terminology such as ‘lines’, in the same vein as the usage of ‘colony’ and ‘quarters’, became a colonial practice that characterized those parts of a plantation where labourers were housed. Lines enabled ‘the desired positioning of bodies and spaces’ which was essential in creating a functioning and efficient plantation economy. The lines were to contain nurseries and latrines, and the keeping of animals was prohibited. They were to be an ordered space, by their very nature artificial and regimented, barrack-like in appearance. The very language used to describe housing in Fiji –lines – conjured up the effect that these were not organic settlements where social life could play out naturally – they were there for the sole purpose of accommodating labourers in the most practical way possible.”[3]

China, over a century later, has managed to reproduce this paternalistic ordering of the unruly. As in the British colonies, the intention is to discipline workers into industrial worklife.

a new line village for dislocated Tibetans. Source: Qiushi CCP Theory Journal, August 2020

THE POOR DWELL ALSO IN CAVES

In China, those designated as highest priority for resettlement are not only upcountry Tibetan pastoralists but also villagers in several provinces who have found it convenient to live in caves in the hills. In the metropolitan gaze this is primitive, even if, as the cave dwellers tell us the caves are well insulated, dry, and don’t rely on central heating being switched on as winter sets in, on a set day, irrespective of the cold seeping into the bones of the elders. Chinese citizens living in caves are the epitome of all China, as a great power, leaves behind as an embarrassing past. Even when the caves are carved from the soft silt of the loess, it’s primitive.

In recent years, official media have reported from cave villages all over China the welcome ending of primitivity, as cave dwellers emerge into the light of modernity and the line.

Kathryn Gomersall did her fieldwork among the Shanxi cave villagers as they went through the bureaucracy of resettlement. We can learn much from her ethnographic observations. What she observes is valid for Tibetans now being herded downslope and into the new line villages.

source: Bryan Denton

China’s official distaste, even horror, that 21st century Chinese citizens could live in caves is palpable. An official publication from populist China Pictorial tells us: “These people formerly lived in cold conditions, lacking water, electricity and roads; landslides were frequent, and diseases were widespread. Many even lived in caves and shacks. Now they have moved into new homes with easy access to facilities. Their quality of life has improved greatly.”[4]

In vain do the relocated protest that their cave homes are comfortable and well insulated; and they would prefer not to have to move to centralised housing under centralised control. Among the many videos China’s official media publish praising the end of cave dwelling, one video, not from official media but Turkey’s TRT, stands out. An older woman dreads leaving her cave for the bureaucratically timed seasonal firing up of central heating well after the encroaching winter chills her bones. For her, the loss of her cave home is a loss of freedom and choice. Such voices are not to be heard in Chinese media.

A similar horror pervades the official concept of contiguous destitute areas 个集中连片特困区贫困  Gè jízhōng lián piàn tèkùn qū pínkùn. This classification of multiple landscapes and entire counties, especially in Tibet, solidifies many habitual Chinese assumptions, conflating the air of Tibet (too thin, too cold), Tibetan soil and vegetation (too unproductive and slow to grow), the sheer size of the Tibetan Plateau (too vast and remote), and the Tibetans who perversely choose this as their homeland (too ignorant and lazy). “Areas of contiguous destitution” manages to package a whole spectrum of Chinese misunderstandings and failures to learn. The concept provides all the excuses needed for why it is taking so long to end poverty in Tibet, also in the cave villages and other remote districts. It makes the resettlement of the contiguously destitute necessary and inevitable, by reifying prejudices as objective facts. China relocates such folk for their own good, even if backward folk don’t know what is good for them.

In the eight-part documentary series aired on official media in March 2021, celebrating the end of all poverty “on schedule”, episode five focusses on the entire Tibetan Plateau and southern Xinjiang as arduous CCP struggles to complete the miraculous abolition of poverty, including the switch to teaching children only in standard putonghua Chinese. The episode is called Deeply Rooted in the Rocks, which is a bit more poetic than “contiguous destitute areas”.

DEFINING TIBET BY WHAT IS LACKING

The metropolitan gaze sees only lack: “in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau where natural conditions make living extremely harsh, and in the drought areas of the Northwest, desertification areas, karst areas, mountainous areas, border areas, life is hard for local residents, economic development is sluggish, public services are poor, and residents suffer from local diseases. The fight against poverty is a difficult one, confronted by many challenges.”[5]

That was a decade ago. Now there is officially no more poverty anywhere in China. The target set by Xi Jinping of 2020 as the final abolition of all poverty was met, and profusely celebrated by the party-state. Tibet was officially the first to fully abolish all poverty, in the first month of 2020, before corona virus took over as the global focus. Every one of the 150 counties classified as “Tibetan autonomous”, across five provinces, all took off their shameful “poverty hats” that had stigmatised them as contiguously destitute. Shaming the wicked and the losers by making them wear a big, pointed hat announcing their failures is an old tradition, much used during the Cultural Revolution.

Since the foundational premise of poverty alleviation is a reified package of prejudices, it is hardly surprising that the solution invariably requires relocation, sometimes not far, but more often to a quite different landscape, a much more Chinese urban landscape. By defining Tibetans as lacking all that is civilised it follows logically that they must move to where factor endowments naturally cluster.

Bundling prejudices masks agendas. By defining poverty solely as a list of lacks inherent in the landscape, the party-state conceals from itself what actually drives the anti-poverty campaign, which is about presenting China in the global gaze as modern, inclusive, successful, leaving no-one behind, uniquely capable, clearly different to the capitalist West. The anti-poverty campaign is about brand management, of China as different and superior.

PRECISION POVERTY TARGETING

Bundling arrogant assumptions also makes it easier to define anti-poverty work as targeted, specific and accurate, based on objective data that conceal the stigmatising prejudices. Xi Jinping made the poverty campaign a top priority, enabling 2020 to be declared China’s entry into a new era, with new utopian goals, on the basis that old tasks had now been completed.

In 2015 Xi Jinping announced the five-year goal of totally abolishing all poverty, and as 2020 approached, he made it a top priority, and success mandatory. This mass mobilisation campaign within the party-state apparat was an enormous undertaking, requiring millions of officials to prioritise poverty among their many duties. In 2019 Xi Jinping provided precise numbers: “To identify who should implement poverty alleviation initiatives, we have selected more than three million officials from government departments at or above the county level and from state-owned enterprises and government-affiliated institutions to serve as village-stationed providers of support. Currently, there are 206,000 first secretaries of CPC village committees and 700,000 village-stationed officials, in addition to 1,974,000 town-level poverty alleviation officials and millions of village officials. We have thus significantly bolstered our forces on the front lines of poverty alleviation, and ensured that our efforts in this regard overcome final key hurdles.”[6]

This army of officials empowered and commanded to intervene in the lives of remote villagers and nomads is now an asset of party-state power not to be dissipated, as it extends the reach of the state into intimate details of daily life, enabling the official gaze to scrutinise and then correct the thinking as well as the behaviours of the objects of poverty alleviation. Never before has central authority had such access to private lives, or been able to make family dynamics so legible.

Eliminating poverty crucially depends on how poverty is defined. In China the definition is purely monetary, set at under RMB 3000 per person per year. At official exchange rates that’s around US $460 a year, but RMB3000 buys you a lot more in China than US$460 does in America. Nonetheless, this definition sets the bar real low, making victory so much easier. If you ask rural Chinese across China for their own definition, you get a very different result. A team of Chinese researchers from the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences did just that in 2016, going to five representative provinces, asking over 2000 rural households to gauge, from experience, what income is required to not be really poor. Their conclusion was that the poverty line is actually RMB 8297, about three times the official definition.[7]

China has a long history of shunting people around, such as the mass demobilisation of PLA soldiers sent to Xinjiang after the CCP victory in civil war in 1949, and ordered to stay there to build state farms under paramilitary control. The last thing a newly established revolutionary government wanted was a population of unemployed ex-soldiers in Beijing, on the loose.

But the program of “precision poverty alleviation” keeps those relocated under surveillance, data on their behavioural compliance with national goals has accumulated ever since they were identified as “precision poverty” targets. Kathryn Gomersall, based on her immersive fieldwork in poor cave villages on the Yellow River, concludes: “Poverty Alleviation resettlement (PAR) policy makes reference to concentrating dispersed households to improve oversight of the population. Enhanced supervision thus allows for an efficient civilising process in which the suzhi [human quality] mentality is cultivated. Households from both villages stated that there are strict rules for living in the village and people are now under close supervision of the village committee. In Yen village, households explained that neighbours govern by watching each other’s behaviour. Village committee members or friends of the village head report everything that occurs in the village back to the village head. Observance of social norms is ensuring a tight social order and social stability. The suzhi discourse emerged during interviews with households when questioned about living in the village. Behavioural norms are governed in the village through the pursuit of “human quality” or “civilised behaviour” that is acquired through the embodied experience of living in the village. One man in Tao village commented “people are more self-aware and have more self-discipline, because there are clearer norms for behaviour now that we are living in the village. The human quality has improved”. The People’s Congress Representative concurred that despite the sentimental value of the caves resettlement is a process of “social evolution.” The human capital aspects of suzhi are being indoctrinated into rural people in an attempt to devalue traditional rural livelihoods as ‘backward’ and to encourage pursuit of civilised livelihoods outside of farming.” [8]

University of Washington Press 2020

All of these impacts are experienced by resettled Tibetans too, further up the Yellow River, for example those removed from areas flooded by the cascade of hydro dams China has built on the Ma Chu/Yellow River in Amdo, where anthropologist Jarmila Ptackova came to similar conclusions.

HOW TIBETANS EXPERIENCE RELOCATION & INTENSIFICATION

Part of the civilising agenda of the party-state is to encourage entrepreneurialism, which becomes a necessity because state subsidies cover only part of the costs of building new houses, and newly resettled villagers are in debt. This suits central planners and their civilising mission, not only because it cuts resettlement costs but because it incentivises intensified production and an attitude that prioritises wealth accumulation to service debts.

Since it is mostly men who can access entrepreneurial opportunities, this has a gendered dimension, as Gomersall notes: “a materialistic culture is eroding cultural heritage in villages. During interviews women commented that the men’s preoccupation with making money is exacerbating the gender divide with respect to participating in cultural activities. Middle aged housewives in Yen village stated that “people only care about their own self-interest and aren’t as close as before due to increased focus on making money.” One woman remembered a time when men would get together and drink wine during festivals, but this is no longer the case. “If a festival gets in the way of making money then they won’t celebrate it at all.” Despite Yen assigning the female village committee member the responsibility of organising cultural activities such as dancing and art, women only participate in these activities. By concentrating people into villages, rural identities are conditioned and favour profit centred subjectivities at the expense of alternative social and cultural functions. This process is monitored by the Party-state that can now maintain close supervision of the population to ensure stable progress towards achieving goals.

In naturalising the dominant political economic rationale certain subjectivities are privileged while others are silenced. Undesirable classes, genders and ages that are deemed low quality and do not meaningfully serve bureaucratic order are marginalised. The suzhi discourse that privileges urban middle class consumptive lifestyles and demeans the rural classes was most powerful in Tao village. People were the poorest here and were indoctrinated with a discourse that dictates village life as a process of ‘social evolution’ and where simple-minded farmers could learn to participate in intellectual conversations about making money. The constant pressure to earn money and pay for housing and the increased cost of living is having a dislocating effect on social relations that serve alternative rural social and economic purposes. Recreational time spent together has diminished for villagers since taking on debt, which is offsetting any benefit derived from bringing people together. Women in Yen have noticed a general atomising effect since living in the village and express a strong desire for a previous time when neighbours shared meaningful social and cultural time together. The women’s resentment at the emphasis on self-interest and profit reflected their acknowledgment that PAR is having a socially and culturally dislocating affect in the village.”[9]

new infrastructure, including high speed rail: an opportunity to teach barbarians how to be civilised

“Through resettlement, villagization acts as a process of subjection that achieves China’s political economic goals of poverty alleviation, urbanisation and demand driven economic growth. The micro politics of power reveals that in achieving Chinese government goals, resettlement serves to redefine space in terms of a continuum that challenges the dominant development trajectory. Therefore resettlement is critiqued as a power laden activity in which planning practices organise living environments and livelihoods and, in the process, reconfigure local identities. Poverty Alleviation Resettlement (PAR) is used to govern the behavioural norms of rural people and this includes maintaining social stability.”[10]

These are the dislocations experienced by dislocated Tibetans too. So seldom do we hear of these accelerations, the privileging of selfishness, gendered inequalities and endless bureaucratic intrusions into private life. We don’t hear because Tibetans are not free to tell their stories, and only a scatter of ethnographers get to live with the displaced long enough to gather such stories.

IMPROVING TIBETAN HUMAN QUALITY?

In the absence of plentiful thick descriptions, we can instead focus on official boasts of shipping retrained Tibetans right out of Tibet. But the spatial move doesn’t have to be far. The two relocated villages Gomersall lived with didn’t shift far, yet everything changed.

Those changes, moving villagers into a faster lane, are exactly what the party-state wants. Poverty alleviation or environmental protection are the labels attached to these governmentalities, but the agenda goes way beyond those labels.

Gomersall and many social scientists call this suzhi, a term familiar to all Chinese that is hard to reduce to English.[11] It is often translated as “human quality” or “human capital formation”. It is packed with privilege, coming from a speaking position of the mentor benevolently educating the ignorant poor in how to become modern, civilised, individual, hygienic, urban, disciplined, productive, compliant, accumulative and rich. This is a full imperial civilising mission, requiring transformation of the person, abandonment of local identity, embrace of national identity.

Inherent to suzhi is the assumption that the party-state is the acme of suzhi, the peak of civilisation, the exemplary model all must learn from. To possess suzhi is to know what is best for others, even when they fail to see it for themselves. So it is the solemn and arduous mission of the party-state to raise the level of suzhi of everyone, without exception, ignoring the false consciousness of those who would rather live on in their cave or pastoral yak hair black tent. Modernity is compulsory, because it is the destiny of all mankind, it is social evolution, it is a universal law of development, and it makes China stronger when everyone contributes to nation building.

These are extravagant claims, grounded in Marxist utopianism, Christian teleology and social Darwinist survival of the fittest, all of them European modes of thinking embraced by the CCP, that share little with Chinese tradition. Yet they prevail in China. Not only is this Eurocentric concept of destiny prevalent among the elite, it is their mission to do everything possible to get everyone to embrace the pedagogy of cultivating their suzhi.


the arrival of the gods of wealth, with overwhelmingly Chinese characteristics

[1] Sarah Rogers, Jie Li, Kevin Lo, Hua Guo, Cong Li,  China’s rapidly evolving practice of poverty

resettlement: Moving millions to eliminate poverty,  Development Policy Review, 2020;38:541–554.               

[2] Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity, California, 2014

[3] Reshaad Durgahee (2017) ‘Native’ Villages, ‘Coolie’ Lines, and ‘Free’ Indian Settlements: The Geography of Indenture in Fiji, South Asian Studies, 33:1, 68-84,

[4] Fang Yunzhong, Poverty Reduction in China, China Pictorial Publishing House, Beijing, 2013, 157

[5] Poverty Reduction in China, China Pictorial Publishing House, Beijing, 2013, 27

[6] Xi Jinping, Speech at a Symposium on Resolving Prominent Problems in Poverty Alleviation, English Edition of Qiushi Journal, October-December 2019|Vol.11,No.4,Issue No.41 | http://english.qstheory.cn/2020-01/13/c_1125443359.htm

[7] Hanjie Wang, Qiran Zhao, Yunli Bai,  Linxiu Zhang & Xiaohua Yu, Poverty and Subjective Poverty in Rural China, Social Indicators Research (2020) 150:219–242

[8] Kathryn Gomersall, Resettlement practice and the pathway to the urban ideal, Geoforum,  96 (2018) 51–60

[9] Gomersall, Resettlement practice and the pathway

[10] Kathryn Gomersall,  Governance of resettlement compensation and the cultural fix in rural China, EPA: Economy and Space, 2021, Vol. 53(1) 150–167

[11] Ann Anagnost, The Corporeal Politics of Quality ( Suzhi ), Public Culture, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2004

CHINA’S PLANS FOR DISLOCATING MORE TIBETAN LIVES

Development with Chinese characteristics

Blog two of two on China’s latest plans for upscaling poverty alleviation in rural Tibet into urbanisation, industrial agribusiness, commercialisation and accelerated lives

source: Qiushi CCP theory journal

There are plenty of Tibetans who do embrace development and modernity with Chinese characteristics as not only inevitable but necessary. There seems to be no alternative, especially now, when China’s infrastructure investments in Tibet make the convenience and comfort of urban life more accessible than ever. It is not just the standard economistic propositions of neoliberal efficiency and scale that resulted in health care and education being concentrated in towns and cities. In the past decade as much as 80 per cent of village schools in Tibet were closed, in favour of bigger, centralised schools in county towns, where children must board and can only see their families in holiday time. The business case may emphasise efficiency, but the party-state agenda goes deeper. Fragmentation of families, weakening customary bonds and loyalties are a first step in creating individuals who display their individuality through their consumption, who identify above all as Chinese, leaving behind their customary ethnicity. The full package requires big changes to the self.

source: CGTN

Tibetans in Tibet, seeing no alternative, often embrace modernisation, in the hope that it can live up to its promise of making life more convenient and comfortable; without dislocating values Tibetans have always seen as important, such as consideration for all sentient beings, long term preparation for consequences of present actions, patience, forbearance, spaciousness, flexibility.

At first the move from an old house to a new one, although expensive and requiring debt, may seem modest, especially if the newly constructed housing is not far from the old. But dislocation is a conveyor belt, an assembly line of new identities, ever accelerating. Once the conveyor belt has begun conveying, there is no stopping, no going back. Individuals are in competition for secure work, and competition intensifies as one ascends. In a networked society, where one must have the right connections, Tibetans and Uighurs enter the workforce disadvantaged from the start, because their spoken and written Chinese may not be good enough, because they lack certified training, lack a certified work history, and especially because they lack a network of connections among Han.

SEARCHING FOR TIBETAN BILLIONAIRES

The new era that dislocated Tibetans now enter tells them they can succeed if they work hard enough. But they are outsiders, of an ethnicity mistrusted and even despised. In contemporary modernity productivity is all, but productivity is selectively and narrowly defined, as delivery of services in specified times and places, at specified prices, according to contracts not written by entrants but by the already privileged.

China’s richest man makes his money by selling bottled water. Tibet Water has been a highly successful Chinese corporation domiciled in Hong Kong. Where are the Tibetan billionaires making fortunes from bottling pure Tibetan water? Marketable Tibetan purity of water source is highly profitable, in a country where contamination is a widespread fear, and there is a middle class of hundreds of millions of people willing to pay for guaranteed purity.  Is making billions the definition of success, of having finally acquired suzhi? Or is there reason to suppose the party-state would see a Tibetan billionaire as dangerous competition, and bring him/her down?

Such speculation can only be speculative, yet having some idea of the destination does matter at the start of a journey. What if the purported destination ever recedes over the horizon? There is an inexorable logic to the urgings of economists to embrace scale as the engine of efficiency, requiring everything to forever get bigger and faster. Consolidated pastures must consolidate further and get ever bigger, or be left behind by competing enterprises that have upscaled and can produce animal protein more profitably. Consolidated farmland must consolidate further, invest more in technologies that standardise production, in the name of efficiency.  Processors of rural production must merge, through corporate takeovers, to become globally competitive and maximise profits, even if that means treating local pastoralists and farmers badly.

DELUSIONS OF SPECTACULAR MODERNITY

Do Tibetans understand the danger that modernity is an escalator without end? Almost certainly, they do.  Many Tibetan teachers warn of the dangers of irretrievable enmeshing with the globalised productivist ideology, even if they can’t overtly call it that. Plenty of Tibetan teachers have seen the wider world, move easily through city life, mingle with rich and super-rich followers in China and elsewhere, and are highly aware of how addictive the accelerations of modernity are. They teach all who will hear that the race for accumulation is delusional, unsatisfying, at best ephemeral.

This applies also at modernity’s entry level, among those who have only recently had their “poverty hats” removed by decree of those who earlier designated them “poor.” On the ground in Tibet, China’s miraculous success in wholly abolishing poverty actually means, for the displaced/relocated, unending dependence on official handouts, since they are grounded, living in straight lines on urban fringes  strung along highways, in accommodation too small to allow for any animals to be kept, unable to earn a living, all their accumulated landscape and pastoral management knowledge nullified and no longer relevant.

wearing the hat of shame: a Cultural Revolution thamzing struggle session

Yet Xi Jinping is triumphant, even while conceding the results are far from perfect. Xi says: “the CPC’s governing foundations in rural areas have been further consolidated. A large number of officials have been tempered in the fight against poverty, local CPC organizations in rural areas have seen their cohesiveness and effectiveness significantly enhanced, rural governance and management capacity at the local level has improved markedly, and the relationship between the Party and the public and between officials and the public has continued to improve. The success and experience that we have gained in poverty alleviation have contributed Chinese wisdom and solutions to the cause of global poverty reduction, demonstrating the political strength of the CPC’s leadership and China’s socialist system and winning praise from the international community. Many countries and international organizations have expressed their hope to benefit from China’s experience in poverty reduction. China is the only developing country that has simultaneously brought about rapid development and large-scale poverty reduction and enabled the poor population to share the fruits of reform and development. This is a miraculous achievement.”

targeted poverty alleviation does not leave one behind, poster

This is the actual agenda: party building on the ground in Tibet, ongoing surveillance and supervision of the dislocated; and trumpeting of China’s miraculous achievement abroad.

However, in the fine print, Xi Jinping and the CCP’s internal disciplinarians concede that the miracle remains problematic. The pivotal year of 2020 climaxed an all-out assault on poverty measured by cash income, with announcements early that year, before the pandemic spread, of success in Tibet.

Since dislocations and vocational trainings are core strategies of poverty alleviation, and China’s rationale for mass punishment of Uighurs focusses on relocation and vocational education, there are now understandable fears that Tibet is going the way of Xinjiang. The January 2020 announcement that a further 19 counties in Tibet Autonomous Region  had their poverty hats removed also announced: “A total of 155,000 people have received employment training and 186,000 people benefited from job placement projects supported by the local government, said Qizhala [Che Dalha] in his government work report delivered at the ongoing third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet autonomous region.”[1]

Whether such precise numbers are miraculous or alarming, they suggest rapid change, driven by military campaign urgency. Militarised language pervades Xi Jinping’s poverty campaign to prove the superiority of his new era China. In 2019 Xi concluded a long speech on poverty work: “Winning the fight against poverty is a historic mission that is both glorious and immensely challenging. If we are to attain complete success in this mission, we must continue putting in arduous efforts. We must press on with courage and resolve, making new and greater contributions so that we may realize our goals of winning the fight against poverty and building a moderately prosperous society on schedule.”

Campaign rhetoric condensed the targets into readily memorised mnemonics, such as the “three regions and three prefectures” singled out for special struggle; the three regions being southern Xinjiang and the entire Tibetan Plateau across five provinces; while the three prefectures are minority nationalities near Tibet. This closely fits the deterministic concept of “contiguous destitution areas” bereft of income because their natural circumstances are so utterly lacking in factor endowments.

source: Global Times

Only months before Xi Jinping announced the miraculous achievement, an inspection mission sent from Beijing by the feared CCP Central Discipline Commission reported its dissatisfaction with how poverty alleviation was being done in Tibet. On 30 January 2019 CCDI published its findings, after interrogating officials across Tibet Autonomous Region, finding much at fault. Again their report is suffused with military metaphors. The report was delivered by Sun Yegang, who ran the Education Department in Xinjiang from 2004 to 2010, a period of intense assimilationist pressure to replace mother tonbgue languages with Chinese in all Xinjiang schools. [Byler, War on the Uyghurs 139-141] He was then promoted to be a CCDI leader. He had a long list of the failings of the poverty campaign in TAR:

The shortcomings of industrial poverty alleviation are outstanding, and the performance of some fund projects is not high; there is still a gap in the implementation of the “provincial responsibility”, the overall coordination is not strong enough, and the main responsibility needs to be consolidated; the formalism and bureaucracy problems in the fight against poverty are not grasped. The tendency of focusing on traces and neglecting actual performance still exists; the grassroots party building still has the phenomenon of weakening and weakening, and the construction of the poverty alleviation team needs to be further strengthened; the publicity and education guidance is not in place, and the “helping aspirations” and “helping the intelligence” are still lacking; the discipline inspection and supervision organs pressure transmission Levels are weakened, some grassroots discipline inspection and supervision agencies do not handle clues in a timely manner, and some work is not strict and untrue; the supervision of functional departments is not in place, project and capital risks still exist; the overall research on the problems found in the rectification of various supervision and inspections is insufficient, and supervision and guidance Not strong enough.”

Sun Yegang demanded a more vigorous campaign in Tibet Autonomous Region that was better targeted, and better able to generate the intended result of haematopoiesis– the formation of blood cells in the weak, bloodless Tibetans immiserised by having to live in contiguous destitution. The feebleness of the Tibetans, in urgent need of either a Han blood transfusion, or training in anti-poverty haematopoiesis is a favourite trope of the party-state.

Sun Yegang, at the 19 Jan 2019 public release of the findings of the CCDI’s six weeks inspecting TAR, demanded seven “rectifications”, among them: “It is necessary to avoid “one size fits all” affecting the sense of gain of the people, and to prevent unrealistic policy formulation. Develop industries in accordance with local conditions, consolidate the results of poverty alleviation, and achieve long-term, stable and sustainable results in poverty alleviation.

“The fourth is to strengthen ideological guidance and stimulate endogenous motivation. In-depth study and comprehension of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s “Be the guardian of the sacred land and the builder of a happy home” in reply to the letter, deepen the “Four Stresses and Four Loves” activities, truly combine poverty alleviation with aspirations and intellectual support, and focus on the ability and self-development of the poor. Cultivate development potential and continuously enhance its own “haematopoiesis” ability.

“The fifth is to strengthen the work of party building to promote poverty alleviation, strengthen the construction of grass-roots party organizations, adhere to the combination of strict management and love, care for grassroots front-line poor cadres, and promote cadres to take responsibility.

Sun Yegang. source: Baike Baidu

“Sixth, we will further strengthen the supervision of the Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision and the supervision of the departments, gather the combined forces of supervision, intensify efforts to rectify formalism and bureaucratic issues, keep a close eye on the funds, key links and key areas of poverty alleviation projects, and carry out normalized supervision.

“The seventh is to consolidate the main responsibility of inspection and rectification, make overall research on the problems found in various supervision and inspections, find the reasons behind the problems, draw inferences from one another, establish a long-term mechanism, and use the actual results of rectification to ensure that the poverty alleviation task is completed on schedule.”

This is clear recognition that top-down, centrally designed programs delivered by cadres concerned only with fulfilling quotas and ignoring local concerns doesn’t work well. The solution is to double down on obeying central commands without the slightest deviation, yet somehow also avoid “one size fits all” and also develop industries in accordance with local conditions. Only then can those anaemic Tibetans shake off their poverty hats and grow some blood. The racist condescension is pervasive.

hat of shame: Tibetans remember the Cultural Revolution

Sun Yegang adamantly insists this is all about politics, about boosting the power, reach and reputation of the CCP. Politics is everything. Explicitly targeting the relevant provincial party secretaries, he demands they “further improve the political position, implement the main responsibility for poverty alleviation, and earnestly assume the political responsibility of “provincial responsibility”, and regard poverty alleviation as a major political task and an important practical carrier of the theme education of “not forgetting the original intention and remembering the mission”.

China’s poverty “mission” is not primarily about “lifting” people out of poverty; it is about enhancing the party-state. To achieve this nation-building goal of turning an empire under alien rule in Tibet, into a unitary nation state, China dictates the lives and livelihoods of even its remotest citizens.

do these people know they are poverty stricken?

Starting with the Tibetan highlanders, specialists in making full use of the extraordinary efflorescence of alpine meadows in summer, China is leveling Tibet, bringing everyone down to the plateau floor. This is methodical, it has its own logic, and poverty alleviation is the primary rationale. China levels Tibet for the sake of those poor Tibetans stuck at altitude, condemned to eking a living in areas of contiguous destitution. By bringing the highlanders to the plains and into modernity, China manifests its’ benevolence.

LOOKING AHEAD

That’s the story this far. What of the future? Officially 2020 was pivotal, the year all poverty was abolished everywhere, and China officially attained its xiaokang goal of moderate prosperity. The modest goal to achieve xiaokang was announced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, invoking an ancient Confucian trope. Now China has fulfilled its destiny.

In 2021 a new era beckons. For Tibetans, what matters most is what further plans China has, ready to roll out.  What will happen to the massive bureaucracy mobilised to implement the poverty campaign? Are there more highlanders to be displaced and shunted into urban fringes? Will there be further campaigns to educate Tibetans displaced from their pastures, in how to become job-ready, having learned not only employable skills but how to overcome their “laziness” and accept factory assembly line discipline?

These are key questions, and we do have clear answers.

On 22 March 2021 new policies aiming to intensify production in rural areas throughout China were announced, in considerable detail. This includes the Tibetan Plateau.

In 2019 Xi Jinping named relocation as an ongoing agenda: “Construction tasks in alleviating poverty through relocation are nearing completion. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020), we planned to relocate about ten million people registered as living in poverty from inhospitable areas. By the end of last year, construction tasks related to the relocation of 8.7 million people had been completed, and most relocated people have been lifted out of poverty. We expect that the remaining construction tasks will be fully completed this year.

Is relocation now fully completed? The 22 March 2021 “Opinion of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council on Realizing the Effective Connection between Consolidating and Expanding the Achievements of Poverty Alleviation and Rural Revitalization answers this question. Although called an “opinion” of both party and state, it is a command, and is understood as such throughout China. It sets goals to be achieved during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, 2021 through 2025.

The goal has shifted. Rural revitalisation is a much bigger goal, in response to decades of frustration across rural China at widening urban-rural inequality. Past party-state pledges to reduce that gap achieved little. So now we get rural revitalisation/rejuvenation, 乡村振兴, a phrase aligned with a Xi Jinping favourite, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The five years to 2025 are just the beginning of this great rejuvenation, which aims to apply productivist efficiency to the countryside, which means consolidating rural lands in fewer hands, intensifying production for urban consumption, making millions more small farmers redundant. Rural rejuvenation is the party-state’s embrace of the get-big-or-get-out logic of neoliberal capitalism; the same logic India’s Modi government embraced, then faced implacable opposition from farmers.

China’s small farmers lack any opportunity mobilise, unlike the Punjabis taking their tractors to town.  Yet hundreds of millions of small farmers understand clearly that land consolidation makes winners and losers, so they will need years of persuasive propaganda to accept that selling their land rights to bigger players is the right thing to do. In theory, they are told, they can buy back those land rights.

Rural revitalisation, despite its sweeping ambition, is part of the urbanisation campaign, which targets much higher concentrations of people in cities in the foreseeable future. That’s the wider picture.

How does this affect Tibet? In the long term it could mean consolidating and intensifying rural production, especially meat production, which is what China most wants from Tibet these days. Several “livestock production industrial park demonstration zones” have been set up across Tibet, but so far on a limited scale, as Tibetans remain unconvinced that raising animals solely for slaughter is good.

However, this official “opinion” on Realizing the Effective Connection between Consolidating and Expanding the Achievements of Poverty Alleviation and Rural Revitalization is quite clear as to what can be expected in the next few years.

First, poverty may be officially gone, but there are many who could slide back, and the army of anti-poverty officials must remain on duty, forbidden transfer to easier jobs, mobilised for this new phase of fusing poverty alleviation with the wider agenda of rural revitalisation.

“By 2025, the achievements of poverty alleviation will be consolidated and expanded, rural revitalization will be promoted in an all-round way, the economic vitality and development potential of poverty-stricken areas will be significantly enhanced, the quality, efficiency and competitiveness of rural industries will be further improved, the level of rural infrastructure and basic public services will be further improved, the ecological environment will be continuously improved, the construction of beautiful and liveable villages will be solidly promoted, the construction of rural civilization will make remarkable progress, the construction of rural grass-roots organizations will be continuously strengthened, the long-term mechanism of classified assistance for rural low-income population will be gradually improved, and the income growth rate of farmers in poverty-stricken areas will be higher than the national average.”

The poor have now entered history, are on the road to civilisation, poverty alleviation is morphing into development, an urban future for most rural dwellers beckons. This conforms to universal laws of development, in China’s official eyes, an inevitable progression from poverty to accelerated income growth rate, from backwardness to human quality, from darkness to light in an urban apartment block. These are the common metaphors of party-state “opinions” and “guidelines”.

As always, the civilising mission is arduous. Poverty is notoriously intermittent, in Tibet much dependent on seasonal variability. Backsliding must be prevented.

China’s benevolent blood-strengthening poverty alleviation programs have been skilfully popularised by the recent Minning Town tv drama series, set in Ningxia, an arid inland province nominally for Muslim Chinese, where the human footprint has outstripped the capacity of the land to support the population. In 23 long episodes the drama unfolds. This is a production with a huge cast, six scriptwriters, two directors, a big budget and believable plotlines that don’t feel at all like the stiff propaganda language of those official “opinions” above.

rich coastal Fujian comes to uplift poor inland Ningxia

Spread slowly and believably across so many eps, the story deeply engaged a wide audience. Already all eps are on YouTube, with subtitles, or you can read a plot summary on China’s Wikipedia, Baike Baidu.[2] Minning Town, newly built to relocate the poor as desert encroaches, is a success, despite many setbacks, because central leaders in their paired wealthy coastal Fujian province with destitute, arid, inland Ningxia. The Chinese name of this long form drama is Shanhai qing, connoting the bringing together of the mountains and the ocean, Ningxia and Fujian, learning to love each other. The Fujian experts sent to uplift the relocated villagers teach them how to grow mushrooms, then how to successfully market them. All ends well. The relocated are indeed grateful.

But do the Tibetans perform the correct gratitude for China’s civilising mission? Can Tibetans bring themselves to endorse the extravagantly self-congratulatory language of the 22 March announcement:

“The great practice of poverty alleviation has fully demonstrated the great miracle created by our party’s leadership of hundreds of millions of people in adhering to and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics, and fully demonstrated the political advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and my country’s socialist system. Getting rid of poverty is not the end, but the starting point for a new life and a new struggle. After winning the battle against poverty and building a well-off society in an all-round way, we must do a good job in rural revitalization. In order to focus on realizing the prosperity of rural industries, ecological liveability, civilized rural style, effective governance, and affluent life. The focus has been shifted from focusing resources to support poverty alleviation to consolidating and expanding the results of poverty alleviation and comprehensively promoting rural revitalization.”

Achieving all of this escalating agenda will be difficult, with many dangers to be avoided. One danger neoliberals in China and elsewhere worry about is “avoiding policy settings that subsidise lazy people or encourage long term welfare dependency”, 防止政策养懒汉和泛福利化倾向, Fángzhǐ zhèngcè yǎng lǎnhàn hé fàn fúlì huà qīngxiàng.

This is especially pertinent to Tibet, where cadres have for decades accused Tibetans of being insufficiently desirous of consumer goods, stubbornly unwilling to relocate, uncompetitive and uninterested in accumulating wealth as an end in itself.[3] The pedagogies of the party-state have only slowly shifted Tibetan thinking towards commercialisation, intensification and productivism. The phrasing of this 2021 “opinion” is ominous.

the beauty of our land of China is due to the redness of our flag

How to achieve the new 2025 goals? This requires a tricky balance. On one hand state transfer payments to the newly unpoor must continue, lest they backslide, but without promoting laziness. How to tell? Ongoing intensive surveillance is the way: “Give full play to the advantages of concentrating forces on major events, and extensively mobilize the participation of social forces to form a strong joint force that consolidates and expands the results of poverty alleviation and comprehensively promotes rural revitalization. Supervision to prevent poverty rebound. The continuation of the existing assistance policy, the optimization of the optimization, and the adjustment of the adjustment ensure policy continuity. Relief policies must continue to maintain stability. Improve the dynamic monitoring and assistance mechanism for preventing the return to poverty.

“Regular inspections and dynamic management are carried out for households that are out of poverty, unstable households, marginal households prone to poverty, and households experiencing serious difficulties in basic living due to large expenditures due to illness, disasters, accidents, etc. Establish and improve the rapid detection and response mechanism for the poor who are prone to return to poverty. Establish a mechanism for discovering and verifying people who are prone to return to poverty, which combines active application by farmers, departmental information comparison, and regular follow-up visits by grassroots cadres, and implement dynamic management of assistance targets. Adhere to the combination of preventive measures and post-event assistance, accurately analyse the causes of poverty caused by returning to poverty, and adopt targeted assistance measures.”

This is why the army of cadres mobilised to scrutinise Tibetan lives and assess their compliance cannot be stood down, nor permitted to apply for more comfy urban jobs. Rural Tibetan lives must be legible to the gaze of the state, to determine whether they can take off their poverty hat or not. Scrutiny leads to decisive state intervention when required, especially in areas of contiguous destitution.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwP-A2gpmag

Relocations are not over at all; displacement remains a key policy solution: “Do a good job of follow-up support for relocation of poverty alleviation and relocation. Focus on the original deeply impoverished areas and large-scale resettlement areas, increase support in terms of employment needs, industrial development and subsequent supporting facilities construction and improvement, improve the follow-up support policy system, continue to consolidate the results of relocation and poverty alleviation, and ensure the stability of how the relocated people can live, have employment, and gradually get rich. Improve the level of community management services in resettlement areas, establish a caring mechanism, and promote social integration.”

Getting rich, measured as cash income, is the only permissible outcome, and the party-state cannot begin to imagine relaxing its grip until this is achieved. Relocation is only a first step in a trajectory that then requires employability training and industrialisation.

In order to achieve that goal, not only must Tibetans be intensively monitored, but the monitors in turn must also be monitored to ensure compliance. The party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, after inspecting Tibet Autonomous Region made it clear in 2019 they will stay on the case: “Persist in comprehensive rectification, implementation and reform, immediate improvement when knowing, real reform and actual reform, regular reports on the rectification situation, and the formation of a regular and long-term mechanism for rectification and reform. Disciplinary inspection and supervision agencies and organizational departments should strengthen daily supervision of inspections and rectifications, and urge inspections and rectifications to be effective; combined with the problems found in inspections to deepen special governance, focus on rectifying formalism and bureaucratic problems; improve the quality of supervision to prevent generalization and simplification of grassroots accountability ; Serious accountability for ineffective rectification, perfunctory response, and false rectification, and the requirement of comprehensive and strict governance of the party throughout the entire process of poverty alleviation.”

Language like this is these days common, a florid display of loyalty to core leaders, a repeat of solemn pledges made many times before. But gradually the pressure on Tibetans to leave their highlands, to embrace money making, to get rich, to become Chinese, grows and grows. Gradually Tibetans are incentivised to become dependent on the state for secure lifelong “iron rice bowl” employment. This includes employing drogpa nomads -one per family- as park rangers responsible for policing compliance with relocation orders. Gradually the budget for retraining the “lazy” Tibetans to become more competitive increases. Gradually schooling is extended to preschool kindergarten years, with Chinese the medium of instruction. Gradually the pressure on Tibetans grows.

CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announces findings of their autumn 2018 inspection of Tibet Autonomous Region anti-poverty campaign, Lhasa, 19 January 2019 Source:
http://www.ccdi.gov.cn/yaowen/201901/t20190128_187862.html

The 2020 announcement that poverty is ended has been followed in 2021 by massive self-congratulatory celebrations staged by the party-state to make sure everyone gets the message. This includes the presumption, deeply embedded in China’s networking culture of gifts, favours and banquets, that recipients of gifts should display the proper gratitude. The ingratitude of the Uighurs for China’s gift of development in Xinjiang was a driver of the punitive fury that now engulfs Xinjiang. Tibetans too are not displaying sufficient gratitude for having been saved from Tibet, by relocation and a one-way ticket into the urban factory workforce. Xinjiang was industrialised much more than Tibet, so it’s far from an exact parallel, and there are plenty of videos in official media in which Tibetans do display the mandatory gratitude for poverty alleviation.

Will China tilt into fury at Tibetans too? It is possible, yet the Tibetans, despite being depicted as poverty-stricken primitive tribals, have so far managed to avert such extremes.


[1] Tibet helps 150,000 shake off poverty in 2019, Xinhua, 7 Jan 2020 https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202001/07/WS5e143cfca310cf3e3558301e.html

[3] Xiaoqiang Wang and Nanfeng Bai, The Poverty of Plenty, Palgrave, 1991

TIBETAN FORCED LABOUR IN CHINA’S FACTORIES

Scary

Thanks to Adrian Zenz diligently digging into Chinese websites, we discovered in September 2020, a massive Chinese program to retrain and reform Tibetans en masse to propel them into the urban factory workforce.

Of all the sources Zenz delved into, the scariest was a story, with precise numbers, of the number of Tibetans in TAR who have been retrained and sent on to labour assignments elsewhere. Citing a TAR government website, Zenz tells us: “In the first 7 months of 2020, the TAR trained 543,000 rural surplus laborers, accomplishing 90.5% of its annual goal by July. Of these, 49,900 were transferred to other parts of the TAR, and 3,109 to other parts of China.”

That’s what set off the alarms, the talk of forced labour, and Tibet becoming like Xinjiang. Taken at face value, we should now be looking for the factories where Tibetans doing forced labour are making the sneakers, or woollen suits on sale in shopping malls worldwide.

China’s new propaganda posters: China has knifed the corona virus 2020

Yet in the six months since, no OSINT sat cam search has revealed any new factories in TAR, still less big brand consumer goods factories for export. Maybe the forced labour factories are in Sichuan? So, what’s up? Do we need to look further?

Digging deeper isn’t just a pedantic insistence on dotting every i. When we take propaganda literally, we abandon our critical thinking, we succeed in scaring ourselves, thus enabling us to scare others. Is that useful?

FINDING THOSE SURPLUS LABOURERS

Let’s do a reality check. If we take the official number for seven months, that’s close to one million TAR Tibetan “surplus labourers” retrained in a year. According to the 2020 TAR Statistical Yearbook, in 2019, there were 21,400 unemployed people in the urban areas of TAR.[1] Total TAR population in 2019 was 3.506 million. A total of 2.6 million were in employment, nearly all the rest being children or the elderly. Not much sign of close to a million “surplus labourers.”

The number of rural TAR Tibetans employed in rural labour has continued to grow, in 2019 totalling 1.43 million.[2] That’s a 40 per cent increase over the past 20 years, in a time when across rural China, migration to city factory work has shrunk the rural labour force. Again, not much sign of all those “surplus labourers.” However, the rural workforce, in official statistics, includes not only those employed in pastoralism and farming, but also construction workers, 160,000 of them, who may be targets of vocational training.

China’s viral fire fighters 2020

What most alarmed Tibetan exiles and their supporters was the prospect of the retraining being done in military uniforms, with graduates then shipped off to distant parts, including beyond Tibet, accelerating their compulsory mobilisation into modernity, at a cost of fragmenting Tibetan families and society. Worst of all, the retrained could become a forced labour workforce, locked into factories. That prospect dominated the headlines.

The model is Xinjiang, where OSINT satellite camera tracking has indeed revealed large factories right next to internment camps.

POVERTY PROGRAMS MASKING COERCION?

If official media are to be believed, China has succeeded several times over in remaking Tibet in China’s image. Here is another recent example, another story dripping with precise statistics, on poverty alleviation in a remote area of Amdo, in northern Tibet: Moergou Village is located in the Naoshan area. The four natural societies are located in four deep gullies. Before poverty alleviation, there was no collective economy in the village. The poverty incidence rate reached 37% and the per capita disposable income was 2,700 yuan. In the past five years, a total of 4.51 million yuan has been arranged for special guidance funds for cultural tourism development, and 3 million yuan has been obtained for tourism poverty alleviation funds of the Provincial Poverty Alleviation Bureau for the construction of tourist infrastructure such as Moergou Village Tourist Service Centre, self-driving camp toilets, and tourist toilets. After several years of construction, the former remote mountain village has now become a rural tourist attraction integrating pastoral customs, ecological leisure, folk culture, and smart tourism. The peasants who originally depended on the sky for food became the small owners of the farmyard, and the poor households who could not be self-sufficient in their harvest opened a small shop to get rich. Since the opening of the rural tourist attractions in Moergou Village in 2020, it has received 150,000 tourists and 125 tourism practitioners, of which the poor accounted for 60%, and the village’s collective economic income has risen from zero to 1.39 million yuan.”

Despite the welter of numbers, this is nonsense. Gonlung county (Huzhu in Chinese) is only 45kms northeast of the boom city of Xining, Qinghai’s capital, but it does have some rugged terrain where the main river of northern Tibet cuts through the mountains, and poor villages on upper slopes. Nominally this county is for the Tu minority nationality,[3] Tibetans are not so many, but you would take a while to realise this, as the Tu embraced Tibetan Buddhism. The many Nyingma and Gelug monasteries produced famous scholars, Gyurme Dorje tells us.[4] Take a look at grainy video shot 25 years ago.

The main outcome of the village’s designation as poor is millions of yuan spent on toilets, resulting in 150,000 tourist visits? The villagers used to have no income but now plenty?  Now 150,000 tourists have come, not only for the toilets, but for “pastoral customs, ecological leisure and folk culture”?

traditional embroidery of the Tu Monguor women

PASSIVELY DEPENDING ON THE SKY

What stands out in such reporting is the arrogant racism about “peasants who originally depended on the sky for food”, a trope commonly applied to Tibetan pastoralists, as if they are passive, helpless, fatalistically dependent on the whims of nature. Nothing new here; like the derogatory language Zenz reproduces, such metaphors have been on Chinese lips for many decades.

Salvation by becoming objects of the tourist gaze is a favourite, even the report is so vague about what those 150,000 tourists came to gaze at. This story, of March 2021, claims tourists flocking to a remote mountain village in a time of pandemic. An earlier story, in June 2020, in the same Qinghai Scitech Weekly, tells us the pandemic scared tourists away, even though local women had much embroidery for sale. However, the poor Tu learned to go online, and their embroidery sold. Again, the patronising language is revealing: “A few days ago, county officials faced the camera of their mobile phones for the first time, interacted with “net celebrities”, and set foot on the “cloud” webcast to bring goods.”

Having hired Han influencers as brokers, who get a cut of every sale, distant Han customers on the lookout for new products that confirm their individual taste, were persuaded to buy. That’s China’s benevolence.

Tu Monguor embroidered felted boot

Through Tibetan eyes “depending on the sky/heaven for food” 原本靠天吃饭的 Yuánběn kào tiān chīfàn is not at all passive, fatalistic, defeatist or lacking in human will. It is skilful adaptation to highly variable and unpredictable climate and seasons, in a land where snowstorms can occur even in summer, seemingly out of nowhere in a clear sky.

It is Han China’s foundational assumption that the peasant who does not impose human will on the land, by ploughing and sowing, will starve. Human will is likewise the essence of revolution, and the utopian promise of a new heaven on earth. Human will, Mao often said, can remove mountains. On the vast grasslands, according to Han perspective, civilisation begins with penning animals, cutting fodder, bringing it to the animals. The uncivilised depend on the sky for food, which makes them little different to their animals.

China has defeated the corona virus 2020

HOW TO LIVE OFF UNCERTAINTY

China has now had seven decades of actively governing the grasslands of Tibet, longer in Inner Mongolia, but has never learned to see through local eyes that flexible adaptation to uncertainty is skilful.

Nor has modern China, despite extending its reach deep into the grasslands, ever understood how differently Tibetans look upon the land, its natural cycles, and the human need for nutrition. Far from seeing predicament, problem and the necessity of mastery, Tibetans have seen themselves as gatherers of what grows seasonally as and when favourable causes and conditions arise. The primary responsibility of the human is to relax, allow problems to dissipate of their own accord, and be willing to move on to avert overgrazing. Flexibility and mobility are the keys to gathering the gift of animals which convert grass and sunlight into wool and dairy, skins and muscle, all that is needed for subsistence, sustenance, shelter and trade.

In classic Tibetan thinking the transformative journey within, to discover the nature of mind and of all phenomena, requires from the start the cultivation of equanimity, an acceptance of things as they arise, and as they of their own dynamic change. Equanimity is a relaxation of the fixation on problem and solution, a recognition that clouds do gather and obscure the sun, yet they pass of their own accord. Without equanimity the mind remains cluttered by wrestling with rights and wrongs, problems and solutions, never spacious enough to experience the nature of mind.

When a Tibetan nomad walks his yak herd round a sacred site, in the snow, this could be seen as utterly useless, totally impractical, completely irrelevant to how the real world works. It could also be seen as a cheerful nomad clearing his mind, a training in equanimity and the qualities which, in the Tibetan system, follow from the development of equanimity: abiding joy, love and compassion for all.

China’s ongoing derogatory depiction of Tibetans “depending on the sky for food” is ignorant, racist and contemptuous. It is this contempt that is the biggest price Tibetans must pay for living under alien rule. Official China routinely calls Tibetans lazy, backward, sunk in darkness, weak, unable to compete, in need of modern industrial discipline, all arising from contempt for “depending on heaven/the sky for food.”

now we are all shielded from the corona virus 2020

China under Xi prides itself on its mastery, on extending its reach in all directions, in solving all problems, rather than standing back to let problems dissipate of their own accord. A China fixated on mastery is full of contradictions, problematics, solutions, allocations, numbers, targets, quotas, directives and commands. Local governments are under intense pressure to fulfil quotas and report up the line their success, in a system which rewards cadres for meeting targets and penalises them harshly if local discontent spills into public life.

The TAR provincial government report claiming to have trained 543,000 Tibetan “surplus labourers” in seven months, is a classic example of reporting up the chain of command what leaders want to hear, no matter how impossible.

Adrian Zenz, in bringing us this absurdity, dug deep into Chinese sources, in this case the official website of the TAR government. We need to dig deeper, to contextualise such claims. We need to understand Xi Jinping is not omnipotent, and has reason to frequently denounce “formalism”, the term for pretending to comply with commands from above while in practice ignoring them.

REACH OF THE STATE EXCEEDS ITS GRASP

Digging further, we discover the dangers of taking official media and their boastful statistics literally. We turn to those who have spent a lifetime immersed in the un/governability of China to guide us. Prof Minxin Pei is a reliable guide.

Wrestling with claims in official media that intensive surveillance by China’s grid management system, pioneered in Tibet, is now in place all over China, Minxin Pei reminds us: “The idea behind this multi-layered, sophisticated, and integrated information system is to provide real-time awareness of events that potentially may endanger public safety, disrupt people’s lives, or undermine stability. Another critical component of grid management is its supposed integration with the various types of surveillance equipment installed in each grid.   

“Official claims must be treated sceptically because they tell us little about the effectiveness of grid management in achieving its stated objectives.  In all likelihood, provincial authorities provided these numbers to show to the central CCP leadership that at least on paper they had carried out its policy on implementing grid management. Despite the impressive titles given to those staffing the grids, most of them appear to be part-timers, volunteers, or government employees with other full-time responsibilities.  Perhaps the only full-time personnel dedicated to performing the responsibilities assigned to each grid is the grid attendant.  But in many jurisdictions, lack of funding forces local officials to label people already employed by the neighbourhood committees as “grid attendants.” At the moment, despite claims made by provincial and local governments about implementation of the system, available evidence indicates that this remains a work in progress and the Chinese party-state will confront enormous challenges in fulfilling its goal of dividing Chinese society into more than one million small grids patrolled by full-time attendants and equipped with hi-tech information and surveillance technologies.

securitisation is what protects us from the pandemic 2020

“The other flaw is the excessive paperwork, or busy work, they must perform.  Since grid management is designed to gather information on incidents and potential hazards in a given neighbourhood, evaluation of the performance of grid attendants unavoidably tilts toward the amount of information they generate.  As a result, grid attendants engage in a lot of busy work (completing paperwork and posting on social media) that has no impact on improving the delivery of services.   In the countryside, where the government delivers far fewer services, grid attendants are under pressure to report incidents or issues requiring attention because that is part of their evaluation metrics.  They sometimes report false information or trivial issues to meet their quotas.  Our study shows that 90 percent of the issues or incidents reported by grid attendants in the countryside are trivial or useless. What appears to have happened so far with respect to implementation of grid management is a rather familiar Chinese story in which the central leadership issues an ambitious, if not impractical, order but provides few resources for local governments to execute it.  As a result, local authorities are forced to improvise, appearing, on the one hand, that they are faithfully carrying out Beijing’s edict and, on the other, avoiding extra expenditures.”

If Minxin Pei is right, a surveillance system at the core of China’s securitisation of everything, is clogged with busywork, trivia, falsehoods, excessive paperwork, going through the motions, in other words formalism. If he is right -and he has an impressive record of reading China well and very closely- then what applies to the grid management program applies also to the labour mobilisation program in Tibet.

How can Prof Pei, based in California, know all this? He dives so deep, he comes up with an academic research report into grid management in remote rural areas, published in 2020, that reveals: “The shortcoming of grid management is that bureaucratic governance and process-based operation are contrary to the logic of rural affairs governance, which brings formalization of affairs governance and involution of grassroots governance.”[5]

SOAKED IN RACISM

Diving that deep is what we need to do, firstly to test the reliability of boastful claims found all over official media. Secondly, we need to know what impacts official policy have on Tibetan communities. If we actually want to help Tibetans deal with daily pressures, constraints, Han racism and contempt, we need to see how China’s alien rule operates on the ground in Tibet. If we only collect high level official announcements, and assume an omnipotent Chinese leadership just snaps its fingers, and everyone does as instructed, we are stopping short of hitting the ground.

If we limit ourselves to spreading alarm, because it sparks legislators in the West to don their white hats, we do stand up to China.

be grateful: China has beaten the corona virus

Yet that doesn’t actually do much to change anything for Tibetans in Tibet. But is there anything folks outside Tibet can actually do that does help? Not a question often asked.

Focussing on the deeply entrenched racism of Chinese perceptions of the Tibetans is helpful, for a few reasons.

First, Han China is completely oblivious to its racism. Not only is it not acknowledged, it is nowhere discussed, nowhere even imagined as a possibility. In urban China there is active debate about racism towards blacks, sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the US, and by several incidents in China where Africans were attacked. These days, it is not hard to find educated urban Chinese who say: “I like American black culture, but I don’t like blacks, and I recognise this is a contradiction.” Yet even such hip, woke awareness does not extend to Tibetans or Uighurs. It is simply inconceivable that the entire depiction of these recalcitrant minorities is shot through with condescending, patronising, stigmatising racist metaphors. There is no debate at all.

There has been a long history of portraying Tibetans as backward, timeless, outside of history, primitive and to blame for their poverty. This is not new. A foundational racist assumption is that Tibet is unnaturally and unhealthily cold; the air is dangerously thin, to visit Tibet risks breathing your last, no-one would choose to live in Tibet if they had choice. China benevolently offers Tibetans choice, yet Tibetans ungratefully refuse modernity with Chinese characteristics.

Yet China is quick to allege racism as the driver of attitudes to China, especially among the Anglo nations most willing to call out bad behaviour. So naming racism for what it is names the primary pressure Tibetans experience daily. It explains why they are understood as a security risk and little else, why they are not believed, excluded from the public sphere, criminalised when they try to speak for themselves.

springtime for Xi and China: unity is strength

HAMSTRUNG BY FEAR

Second, Han racism is so pervasive it limits the extent of labour mobilisation and the ethnic mingling that official China promotes. To understand the depth of racism across Han China is to understand how constrained the party-state is, in implementing its assimilationist plans to sprinkle Uighurs and Tibetans all over China. This is a way of gauging whether party-state plans can take effect.

There are many reports of officials in Xinjiang assembling trainloads of retrained Uighurs sent off to distant factory work in inland provinces; only to have officials at the destinations turn them away, for fear of having the feared Uighurs on their patch. Far from shipping Uighurs en masse into inland and coastal China, the actual number transhipped is at most 76,000 and they were all promised the right to return to their Xinjiang families, a right they took up during the pandemic, to such an extent that when the BBC sent reporters to several factories purported to house Uighurs in their factory dorms, none remained, all had gone to their distant home.

China, at the highest level, is prisoner of its own racism, unable to impose its will because at the lowest level, officials know their primary responsibility is to prevent and suppress “incidents” of popular protest. Nothing is more likely to spark “incidents” than the presence of Uighurs in an overwhelmingly Han factory town, and they are hard to control. The safest strategy is to refuse to let the Uighurs detrain, or to find any excuse to send them back.

China imprisoned itself by incessantly accusing the Uighurs, collectively, of being terrorists. China’s official media, after Tibetan protests in 2008, spent years labelling Tibetans collectively as “looting, smashing, burning, killing.”

When we cite official media claiming to have retrained half a million TAR Tibetans in seven months, and take it literally, it looks like China is omnipotent, and can move Tibetans around China like pawns on a chessboard. When we dig deeper, we discover China’s leaders stoked the ultranationalism that now imprisons them.

A TIBETAN TAKE ON LABOUR MOBILISATION

Third, Tibetans aren’t a primitive tribe mired in ignorance, even though China relentlessly depicts them so. Far from being unaware of modernity, Tibetans offer each other sophisticated critiques of the costs of being mobilised, or seduced, into urban acceleration.

Why do humans have hands? a contemporary singer asks. Holding a smart phone in your hands only restricts the countless works the hands can do.

The visual faculties are consumed by the phone” Dakpo’s Dog sings . Tibetan culture responds to the addictive shrinking of the world to a phone screen, by producing videos that will be accessed on phone screens. Tibetans critique the flashy appeals of holding the speeding world in your hands, by using the tools of hypermodernity. That’s a hallmark of the indestructible, immutable vajrayana, the tantric take on reality. The lyrics and music were composed by a Tibetan who calls himself The Immutable.

Ubercool young Tibetans sing to us on our handhelds, Tibetan first principles being their starting point. Maybe we should all be listening to them.

”The function of both hands is vanquished by the phone
The visual faculties are consumed by the phone

When the old and young have phones in their hands
They need neither parents nor their friends

It’s the phone when on the road and it’s the phone at home
Neither listening to good advice nor doing meaningful work

Holding the phone in your hands, don’t waste your time
When your youth has gone, the phone won’t have done you any good.”

There are more smart phones in Tibet than people, which China takes as proof that it has delivered that most important of human rights: the right to development. Tibetans ought to be grateful.

These young Tibetans beg to differ. Wangmo Dechen sings:

“Don’t hold your phone in your hand
Please put your phone down now
It is not a protective mala
The blurry worldwide web
Is poison to distort the vision

“Now if you don’t put the phone down
Your eyes are about to go blind
Your neck is about to become crooked
Your daily activity is disrupted
Your dreams at night are disrupted

“Though sending messages may be efficient
Between parents and siblings
Between couples and partners
Between the kin and relatives
It will further distance the affection.”


[1] Statistical Yearbook Tibet Autonomous Region 2020, table 3-22

[2] Statistical Yearbook Tibet Autonomous Region 2020, table 8-1

[3] Li Dechun, Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet, https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/638

Schram, Louis M. J. 1954. The Monguors of the Kansu-Tibetan Frontier. Their Origin, History, and Social Organization. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 44.1:1–138.

[4] Gyurme Dorje, Tibet Handbook, 4th edition, Footprint Books, 2009, 696

[5] Liu Rui, 刘锐,”The Vision of Rural Grid Management,”  “农村网格化管理神视,” Guizhou Social Sciences,贵州社会科学,364 (4) (2020): 151–157.

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?