A Tibetan new gen in exile has opportunity to revitalise the Tibet issue, to make it integral to the many global debates already trending.

Existing debates about climate, carbon emissions, air pollution, pandemic response, wildlife extinctions, inequality, entrenched racism, now dominate the public sphere worldwide.

These debates lack Tibetan voices, who could offer uniquely Tibetan perspectives on the issues of the day. These are the issues of greatest concern both to governing elites and the people.

Tibetans can show they do have a unique voice,  a fresh angle, a viewpoint that enables things to be said that others can’t say. When the US critiques China, it is readily dismissed as a bully insisting on its exclusive right to behave badly, while denying China the same right. However, when Tibetans talk about accelerating climate change, loss of biodiversity, systemic racism, extreme inequality they speak from a position of displacement, marginalisation, disempowerment. They speak from the experience of being held in racist contempt by Chinese power, in a time when the whole world now struggles to understand and re-assess China’s intentions.

Everyone worldwide needs to grow their ability to decode the incomprehensible jargon of China’s rise. Tibetans, inheriting thousands of years as neighbour of China’s imperialism, have the insight, know how to read between the lines. Educated new gen Tibetans, speaking up confidently on these issues will find themselves heard, as guides to how to understand what China really intends and plans.

Language is the key. China’s power is not only military, it is discourse power, the power to define the memes everyone lives within. China is ruled by mass campaigns, and the mass campaigns are run by slogans, official phrases endlessly repeated, propaganda calculated to confuse and lull, while mobilising cadres to take command.

One key to growing Tibetan confidence in contributing to the great debates of our times is to sharpen our ability to unpack and decode China’s key propaganda slogans. Once we are able to discern the long term thrust of China’s central leaders, we give ourselves the tools we need to then enlighten others, worldwide.

Right now China’s key terms are opaque, incomprehensible. The more these deliberately vague phrases are repeated in official Chinese media, the more meaningless they become. Inside Tibet, an army of educated Tibetans is required, day after day, to translate these official campaign slogans into Tibetan, and they must use officially authorised Tibetan phrases. They find this endless cut & paste meaningless, leaving them with little idea of what is really meant, what China has actually planned for Tibet. This is not only boring, alienating and bewildering for Tibetan intellectuals, it leaves their readers uninformed. The rigid governance of CCP jargon in Tibetan translation perpetuates the gulf between ruler and ruled, leaving Tibetans who watch official TV or read official media, whether in Tibetan or Chinese, none the wiser. This is disempowering, and exacerbates mistrust.

So getting a handle on CCP jargon:

  • helps exiled Tibetans help themselves,
  • helps Tibetans inside Tibet,
  • helps a wider world frustrated by the opaqueness of China’s vague and plausible sounding rhetoric.

China scholar Nadege Rolland, 2020: “Whoever rules the words rules the world. It is China’s turn, as the ascending great power about to surpass all others, to assert authority over the world order using the same instruments that the West has used to establish and maintain its dominance.”

west of the Hu Huanyong line, carrying capacity limits are strictly enforced, in the name of adapting to climate change. To the east, in densely populated lowland China, there are no such restrictions on permissible human or animal population size, despite much heavier ecological footprint










1:       COMMON BUT DIFFERENTIATED RESPONSIBILITIES 关共同但有区别的责任概念的最 Guān gòngtóng dàn yǒu qūbié de zérèn gàiniàn de zuì, ཐུན་མོང་ཡིན་ལ་དབྱེ་བ་ཡང་ཡོད་པའི་འགན་འཁྲིའི་རྩ་དོན།

This vague and seemingly innocuous phrase is a heavily laden pack yak in much need of unpacking. What China means is that it is exempt from global standards, global agreements, and international law. China is to be judged only by China’s unique standards, and the definition of those uniquely Chinese characteristics is solely in the hands of the CCP.

China has been pressing for this key phrase to be inserted into the language of many UN agencies and agreements, as proof of China’s rise, and impunity. It is firmly embedded in the wording of the UN Climate Convention.

In the global climate debate, it means China, despite being the world’s biggest polluter and carbon emitter, has less responsibility to reduce emissions, because other countries have been emitting for longer. In fact, it means China need not commit to any specific reductions in carbon emissions at all, unlike almost all other countries. China’s only “voluntary national contribution” to reduce emissions is to reduce emissions per RMB unit of production. That does not add up to any actual emissions reduction at all, and China has explicitly said it will not begin emissions reduction until 2030.

The 2015 Paris agreement was so weak, it left it up to each signatory to nominate its own target, and China nominated this calculated measure of efficiency, not an actual tonnage emissions reduction at all.

China insists on being different, and on being assessed solely on its own terms. This diplomatically vague formula originated way back in 1972, in the very first effort to bring the world together to tackle environmental issues. The Stockholm conference of 1972 started it all, at a time the Cultural Revolution raged in China, and no-one could possibly imagine China could become the world factory and world’s biggest polluter. Fifty years ago, “common but differentiated responsibilities” did mean the richest countries, with the biggest environmental impacts, had greater responsibility. China has rigidly insisted ever since that this is still true.

China’s differentiated, lesser responsibility to solve the climate crisis further means China, as a developing, not developed, economy, has the right to demand of the richest nations that they pay for China’s climate mitigation. China’s official position is that: “the financial supports from developed countries are not enough to close the finance gap of China to address climate change. From 2016 to 2030, besides the inputs of domestic public and private sectors, China will additionally need an average of 1.3 trillion yuan annually.”

If paid from 2020 to 2030, that’s RMB 13 trillion, US$1824 billion. Clearly there is no intention anywhere to subsidise China’s climate adaptation along those lines, so China can let itself off the hook, blame others, and continue to delay doing anything meaningful.

China’s refusal to shift in 50 years, beyond its exceptional exemption from actual climate action, could doom life on this planet. China is not the only climate change denier, but it is the biggest, and as a planet, time is running out to adapt before climate change accelerates into an unstoppable momentum, completely beyond our control.


Wildlife trafficking to China, to feed Chinese appetites for exotic meals and exotic sources of traditional medicine, is the likeliest cause of the global corona virus pandemic. China’s demand for wildlife consumption reaches into countries worldwide, driven by demand for rhino horn, elephant tusk, pangolin scales, shark fins and myriad other animal parts, plus whole animals smuggled alive to China and kept alive, in the wet markets where the corona virus jumped across to humans.

Despite this appalling record, China loudly proclaims its deep love of wildlife, and is now legislating to outlaw eating wildlife, as it has done before, with little effect. However, in the fine print of the 2020 law is an exemption for TCM use, for the supply of dried animal parts for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has been strongly promoted during the Covid-19 pandemic as effective treatment, with Chinese characteristics. Not only is TCM use exempt, so too is the “farming” of wildlife in cruelly small cages, for painful extraction of bile, or for slaughter to meet the TCM demand.

Given this long-standing scandal, China is determined to regain discourse power by proclaiming its strict protection of wildlife, not in lowland China but in upland Tibet.

China regains legitimacy by giving its new law on wildlife strong language, even in its title: Decision on Comprehensively Prohibiting the Bad Habits of Eating Wild Animals, and Effectively Safeguarding the People’s Health and Safety, 关于全面禁止非法野生动物交易、革除滥食野生动物陋习、切实保障人民群众生命健康安全的决定 ཁྲིམས་འགལ་ངང་བདག་ཏུ་མ་བཟུང་བའི་སྲོག་ཆགས་ཉོ་ཚོང་བྱ་རྒྱུ་གཏན་འགོག་དང་། བདག་ཏུ་མ་བཟུང་བའི་སྲོག་ཆགས་གང་བྱུང་དུ་ཟ་བའི་སྲོལ་ངན་མེད་པར་བཟོ་རྒྱུ། མི་དམངས་མང་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་ཚེ་སྲོག་བདེ་ཐང་འགན་ལེན་ཏན་ཏིག་བྱ་རྒྱུ་བཅས་པའི་སྐོར་གྱི་གཏན་འབེབས།

China’s long-term strategy is to not only regain legitimacy but, yet again, claim world leadership in wildlife protection, and Tibet is the core of this plan. That is why the launch of the new national park system has been years in the making, involving elaborate governmentality mechanisms, and a new discourse, studded with campaign slogans.

China’s new commitment to wildlife protection in Tibet naturalises several concepts such as carrying capacity, carbon capture, degradation repair, grain to green, core and buffer zones, red line exclusion zones, all of which need decoding, with due diligence done on the fine print.

Tibet is meant to save China, and position it as a world leader in biodiversity conservation. The crowning moments, scheduled for 2020, probably now postponed because of the virus crisis, are the launch of the national parks, and the staging of the Conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity, scheduled for Yunnan Kunming in late October 2020.

3:       NATIONAL PARKS 国家公园  Guójiā gōngyuán

While China, under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, excuses itself from doing anything much to reduce its climate warming emissions, it wins back its lost reputation by zoning as much as 30% of the entire Tibetan Plateau as national parks. 2020 has been designated as the launch year for the new park system which, by area, is overwhelmingly in Tibet.

Who could possibly object to a national park? Especially in Tibet, where the alternative in recent decades has been predatory mining, rapacious slaughter of wildlife, state construction of hydro dams and power grids.

But do the new national parks include the many Tibetans whose pastures are to become nationalised parks? Does zoning huge landscapes as ecological effectively exclude customary land use, and users? Does the fine print of the “top-level design” of the national parks halt mining, hydro damming, power grid construction and other enclaves of intensive industrialisation, including yak feedlots and large-scale slaughterhouses?

on patrol in the new Panda national park in Kham
photo: Kyle Obermann

We need to look beyond the slogans to realities on the ground. So far, all indications are that national parks will further displace and disempower Tibetan nomads into destitution, while employing a few to police the rest.

National parks are meant to be protected areas. But many familiar concepts, when they acquire “Chinese characteristics”, morph into something else. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers area in Tibet, where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers run in close parallel, was drawn by China to exclude the actual rivers, and include only the steep valleys filled with medicinal herbs. The rivers can and are being hydro dammed, and UNESCO is firmly told to mind its own business.

Ga’er gompa, Nangchen 改加寺 photo by Kyle Obermann
mgar nyang chen byang chub chos gling, now part of Sanjiangyuan

4:       Sanjiangyuan, གཙང་གསུམ་འབྱུང་ཡུལ།༼རྨ་འབྲི་རྫ་གསུམ་འབྱུང་ཡུལ།༽   三江源, literally Three River Source, a newly invented term in Chinese for the sources of the Ma Chu (Yellow), Dri Chu (Yangtze) and Za Chu (Mekong), all originating in Tibet. Because this is a new word, there is no equivalent in Tibetan, only a transliteration that sounds roughly like the Chinese neologism.

Sanjiangyuan is misleading in a few ways. It obliterates situated Tibetan district place names, histories and identities across two entire prefectures, Yushu and Golok, plus other counties, 15 altogether, all swallowed by one word.

This single term naturalises a huge landscape, the size of Germany, defining it by what it provides to lowland China, reducing complexity to a single function: water flow. By erasing the attributes of hundreds of grazing landscapes, reducing them all to water provisioning, the entire territorialised and officially zoned Sanjiangyuan no longer faces west towards the rest of Tibet, but east towards lowland China.

Sanjiangyuan is misleading also in referring only to sources, high in the glaciers. In reality these braided rivers meander across the gently tilted plateau for at least one thousand kms, before plunging into steep valleys as wild mountain rivers full of energy China is keen to harness by building hydro dams athwart all three. Sanjiangyuan appropriates myriad situated local meanings and knowledges, bundling all into a new package defined solely by its service to the lowlands below. The focus on single point sources, at the feet of glaciers, evokes imaginaries if purity, connecting urban lowland Chinese with pristine mountain springs; so the vast intervening pastures, with cattle shitting everywhere, becomes by definition problematic.

Classically, China was happy to imagine the Yellow River rises in the heavens, as in this 8th century poem by Li Bai: 黃河之水天上來 huánghé zhī shuǐ tiān shànglái, the waters of the Yellow River come from upon Heaven. This famous line is now requoted in Qinghai Scitech Weekly (27 May 2020) under the heading Popularising Science of the Yellow River Source, 大河开启生命之源 ཆུ་བོ་ཆེན་པོ་ཡིས་ཚེ་སྲོག་གི་མགོ་བརྩམས་པ་རེད།

Now the Yellow River’s many sources are all precisely georeferenced, monitored by remote sensing satellite cameras, memorialised by official monuments proclaiming China’s Tibet.

To Western audiences China’s mixture of rhapsodic romanticism and scientific data-driven rhetoric sit oddly. But today’s China embraces both, seeing no problem.

In official media, China’s new enthusiasm for governance of Tibetan landscapes and watersheds is frequently wrapped in romantic Shangri-la metaphors that are extravagant even by the standards of 19th century European explorers.

The same Qinghai Scitech Weekly article has many other lyrical phrases proclaiming China’s ownership:

The countless lakes are like stars in the sky, displaying exotic scenery, colorful as a painter’s palette, 黄河源头的星星海,由大大小小难以数清的湖泊、海子、水泊所组成,无数湖泊宛如天上繁, 呈现出奇异景色,色彩斑斓似调色板。据中新社

The Yellow River spends all day and night, flowing endlessly, nourishing all creatures, and is the mother river of the Chinese nation. This big river resembling a dragon has given birth to Chinese civilization and has been endowed with so many cultural and spiritual symbolic meanings.  黄河不舍昼夜,川流不息,滋养万物生灵,是中华民族的母亲河。这条形似巨龙的大河因为孕育了中华文明,被赋予了太多文化和精神上的象征含义。Huánghé bù shě zhòuyè, chuānliúbùxī, zīyǎng wànwù shēnglíng, shì zhōnghuá mínzú de mǔqīn hé. Zhè tiáo xíngsì jù lóng de dàhé yīnwèi yùnyùle zhōnghuá wénmíng, bèi fùyǔle tài duō wénhuà hé jīngshén shàng de xiàngzhēng hányì.

This Sinocentric orientalism is now typical, very common, especially in tourism marketing. This is the language that transforms Tibet, from Tibetan landscapes with deep backstories, into China’s jewel, China’s Tibet.

5:       Returning non-productive cultivated farmlands to forests, རྨོ་བསྐྱུར་ནགས་གསོ།  退耕还林 tuigeng huanlin,  sometimes in English known as the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP), a policy premised on reversing earlier policy. In the name of each province maintaining self-sufficiency in food security, steep slopes had been cleared of forest, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, and this was now wrong. The farmers eking a living on upslopes were dryland farmers with little access to water. Ploughing slopes, baring the soil, led to erosion. However this 1990s policy was implemented all over China on a one-size-fits-all model imposed from above. In Tibet, it often meant farmers had to abandon farms, or turn much of their allocated land to plantations of designated tree species, with much loss of income.  Destitution was averted official transfer of survival rations. SLCP was popularly known as grain to green. Officially the preferred green was forest, but much of Tibet is not forest but grassland, and much of the pasture land slowly expanded over many centuries, by pastoralists inhibiting the regrowth of shrubland and forest in their pastures.

This historic expansion of grassland was done sustainably, with no evidence of wildlife extinctions. None of this was understood or acknowledged by the national SLCP project, which continued for decades.

In eastern Tibet (Kham) thickly forested old growth forests were intensively logged for decades, until mid-Yangtze floods attributable to excess runoff from Kham of monsoon rains led to a sudden logging ban in 1998. SLCP and the logging ban happened at the same time, so SLCP could have been used to employ the former woodcutters, many of them Tibetans employed by local state owned resource extraction companies, to do the labour intensive work of seeding and planting seedlings to restore forest. This did not happen. Some Chinese state employed timber workers, unemployed because of the logging ban, were redeployed to do aerial seeding, scattering seeds collected by cutting down remaining trees for seed stock. This too was not successful, as seedlings on steep, bare slopes in alpine climates need labour-intensive protection. Without protection from mature trees, a sheltering canopy, seedlings die in the sharp frosts. To survive, they need human hands, not just seeds dropped from airplanes.

Nonetheless academic assessments of SLCP across China have generally rated it a success.

do Tibetans realise they have (perversely) chosen to live in landscapes of contiguous destitution?

6:       Contiguous destitute areas གཅིག་བསྡུས་ཡུག་སྦྲེལ་གྱི་དམིགས་བསལ་དཀའ་ངལ་ཡོད་པའི་ས་ཁུལ།  个集中连片特困区贫困  Gè jízhōng lián piàn tèkùn qū pínkùn, This is a concept that attempts to explain why past poverty alleviation projects have failed, by blaming the land and the people of those landscapes. It attributes cash income poverty to inherent characteristics of territory; in Tibet this means the combination of altitude, hypoxia and extreme weather. This is a thoroughly lowland Chinese imaginary, which assumes no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice. Tibet, in lowland eyes, is unnaturally and dangerously cold, and the air so thin each breath threatens to be your last. Territorial mapping depicts counties officially designated as poor, adjacent to counties with the same status. This adds up to contiguous destitution. Thus defined, the obvious solution is to remove the population to somewhere more congenial, and better endowed with the factors of production. By removing people from areas no-one would choose, you do them a favour, and they should be grateful.

7:       Relying on heaven རྨ་ཆུ་བསྲུངས་ཏེ་གནམ་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས་འཚོ་ཐབས་བྱེད་པའི་ཉིན་མོ་དང་ཁ་གྱེས་པ།  告别了守着黄河靠天吃饭的日子,  gàobiéle shǒuzhe huánghé kào tiān chīfàn de rìzi.        literally: passively watching the river slide by without extraction, passively reliant on what the heavens provide. This  is the fate of backward, uncivilised and/or lazy people who passively wait for nature to produce all that is needful in life, to be gathered in season. In Chinese eyes, this gatherer lifeworld is little better than that of animals, and fails to show mastery of nature.

China is deeply ambivalent about nature, believing both in harmony and in mastery, both protection and conquest. Ancient traditions of living harmoniously with nature are making a comeback, but the core promise of the CCP is to deliver moderate prosperity for all, in a highly urbanised, densely populated consumer society.

This unresolved tension plays out geographically, with upland western China, especially the Tibetan Plateau, designated under zoning laws as areas of restricted human carry capacity where landscapes and wildlife are to be protected; while the same standards do not apply to the densely packed lowlands of southern and eastern China, where the human footprint is fourfold in excess of the capacity of the land to support the human population.

8:       Building a sky river དགུ་ཚིགས་བཟོ་སྐྲུན།, 天河工程 Tiānhé gōngchéng,seeding Tibetan clouds with chemicals to force rain into China’s rivers, a bonus enhancement of the rain made to fall within the catchment of the Yellow River, which in the lowlands is so overused and abused that in many winters it dries up altogether and fails to reach the sea.

In many countries, cloud seeding with silver iodide burning on the wingtips of airplanes flying into the clouds, has been tried experimentally, with at best inconclusive results. This failure has not deterred China’s tech enthusiasts, who claim to have found a way of scattering liquidised silver iodide into Tibetan clouds, without the expense and personnel of having to fly airplanes stationed on the ground, ready to take to the air at short notice.

China’s preferred tech is rockets fired at the sky, from batteries on the ground, activated by China’s necklace of Beidou satellites orbiting above Tibet, measuring the clouds. The whole operation could be automated, driven by algorithms.

sky river cloud seeding artillery

Not only is there no evidence this would work, if it did succeed, it would only deprive inner Asian landscapes even further from any ocean of much needed rain. More rain over the uppermost Yellow River would mean less precipitation in the Hoh Xil (Achen Ganggyab in Tibetan) UNESCO World Heritage area, which China lobbied for in 2017. China is now obligated to do all it can to protect this land of lakes that is Hoh Xil, not deprive an alpine desert of the little rain it gets.

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党政军民学,东南西北中,党是领导 一 切的 , the government, military, society, education, north, south, east, west — the party leads everything.

Official slogan.

Please don’t fabricate an illusion out of lies
concealing previous disasters and this current one
concealing the slaughter of countless innocent people

Poem by Woeser

The ability to respond to a crisis is one of the most fundamental abilities of an organization or individual. From the perspective of dialectics, crisis is a unity of contradictions between danger and opportunity. As a contradiction between danger and opportunity, the two sides are not absolutely opposed, but are mutually dependent, conditional, interpenetrating, dialectically unified, and can transform into each other under certain conditions.

-Qiushi (Seeking Truth), top CCP ideology journal, 20 April 2020

Blog one of two on the post corona virus new normal in Tibet


The corona virus crisis is not over in Tibet, or anywhere else. Yet already we can tell what a post corona Tibet will be like. When things return to normal; it’s a new normal. In the name of normality the state is already asserting itself, advancing its agendas.

deep documentation of deep Tibetan distress: Human Rights Watch 2020

At prefectural level, the reboot of schooling, in Amdo Ngawa, means a sudden switch to Putonghua standard Chinese as the medium of instruction in all subjects outside of Tibetan language classes. The official policy of “bilingual education” in reality has narrowed its meaning to transitioning Tibetan children, earlier and earlier, from mother tongue to the official tongue of the Han Chinese race.

At national level the new normal means elaborate instructions on fulfilling the goal of total poverty alleviation by supply side solutions making use of what poor areas are best at producing, to be fed into China’s national market.

These two post-corona policy shifts might seem to have little in common. What they share is the cult of the sovereign state, as the source of all that is needful, wisely guiding locals towards assimilation, prosperity and integration into national markets, national economy and a single national identity.

It is this cult of the state that drives policy in China, across a diverse range of issues impacting on the lives of Tibetans. The cult of the state, with Xi Jinping as the infallible core leader, underpins China’s claim to uniqueness and exemption from universals such as human rights. In the worship of the state, neoConfucianists and new left neoMarxists find common ground.

The state commands all, and remains firmly in charge, directing private capital as to what to invest in. The Party is above all. This is socialism with Chinese characteristics.

During the corona virus crisis, the state advanced; after the crisis is deemed past, the state advances further. The reach of the state grew dramatically, going deep into the private lives of citizens, in the name of contagion contact tracing. When states advance, in the name of emergency, they seldom fully retreat. Instead, the state is newly legitimated by its interventions tracking the movements of all, and where those movements might have intersected with the infected.

Some are saving others’ lives
Some pray to their own gods
Some people continue doing evil, greater evil

No place exists that will not fall to the enemy
No epidemic exists that is not terrifying
No, there exists another plague far worse than this one

The official declaration of zero new infections is suspicious
A political Shangri-La does not exist
but repeating something one hundred times will cover the truth

-three corona virus poems by Woeser, 2020


One of the most foundational powers of the modern state is the power to redistribute. The state can through taxes capture wealth generated privately, and then redistribute it geographically or socially, from east to west, or from rich to poor. It was this power to redistribute that in Western countries was widely popular from the 1930s through 1970s, then was pushed aside by resurgent private capital. In China, in the 1990s, the state stepped back for a while, as those best endowed grew gloriously rich. But in this century the state is back, stronger than ever, as guarantor of stability and thus prosperity.

Although the World Bank and the global neoliberal order urged China to let private enterprise bloom, unhindered by regulatory state intervention, China decisively chose to persist with redistribution, distilled into the slogan of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

This means more than economic redistribution. The China model of socialism with Chinese characteristics includes redistribution of identity, assimilating nonHan minority nationalities into the one Chinese race, on the grounds that fluency in Putonghua Mandarin is the key to prosperity and career. Hence the slow but steady Hanification of schooling, which in the short term makes redundant all Tibetan teachers other than those also fluent in Putonghua, and those who exclusively teach Tibetan language. The bigger picture, in official eyes, is modernisation, and Tibet must modernise.


Modernisation happens over decades, at an irregular, intermittent pace most people find tolerable, as the losses are balanced by gains, or at least the promise of gains. Some of the losses are invisible until far too late. In Tibet this includes the loss of spaciousness and solitude, replaced by crowding into urban apartment blocks, often built to settle pastoralists reclassified as degraders of pasture. Modern urban life beckons, offering access to comfort, warmth, electricity, choice, consumption, health care and education, all of which were hard to access out on the range.

But modernity makes no mention of the losses. In Tibet, for 40 years or more, rural areas, rural counties and prefectures were all officially designated as “Tibetan autonomous” local governments. Municipalities have no such designation, and are open to all nationalities, with none enjoying the privileges of being the recognised owners. “Cities are never classified as ethnic, or autonomous, as we can glean from the absence of “city” in the definition of “autonomous areas” in China’s Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, and the fact that there are no autonomous cities in the People’s Republic.”[1]

As Tibet urbanises, the full package of modernity emerges. The economy takes on a life of its own, no longer answerable to wider Buddhist concerns about long term consequences, in this life or the next. As the economy comes to dominate, nationality and religion both shrink. Nationality is reduced to a purely private, personal choice of ethnicity, no longer a collective assertion of collective rights. Religion too becomes a purely private preference, with no role to play in the public sphere.

They actually cannot stop even in these times,
They extend their black hands toward my old friends and new acquaintances:
‘The way you talk about the plague is inappropriate.’

Preventing speech is more important than preventing the plague
In no uncertain terms, they told me I was not to speak of the following:
the Dalai Lama, Hong Kong, the pandemic, and the country of the giant infants [signifying China’s immaturity].

The advent of the coronavirus did not lead to a suspension of everyday politics; in fact, it has continued unabated. Over this period, I was repeatedly cautioned by the state security organs [not to speak out of turn] and a number of my friends, even those living quite far away, were threatened because of me. Under the conditions of totalitarianism such is our everyday reality.

-two virus poems by Woeser, plus her comments in an interview with fellow poet Ian Boyden


Modernity may be intermittent, but sometimes it leaps forward. Disasters and pandemics are major opportunities to leap. Never let a disaster go to waste, as policy advisers often say.

The 2010 earthquake that levelled most of Kham Yushu (Jyekundo) is a clear example. This major prefecture of Kham is allocated to Qinghai, and the Qinghai capital, Siling/Xining is 700 kms away. Until 2010 the presence of the Chinese state in Yushu was limited; the businesses (and architecture) lining the main street were mostly Tibetan.

Three months after the Yushu earthquake the State Council in Beijing issued a lengthy reconstruction plan, 重建目标,  full of slogans, somewhat vague on specifics. The plan was to build a beautiful socialist jade tree of development, ecology and harmony, 为建设生态美好、特色鲜明、经济发展、安全和谐的社会主义新玉树奠定坚实基础, Wèi jiànshè shēngtài měihǎo, tèsè xiānmíng, jīngjì fāzhan, ānquán héxié de shèhuì zhǔyì xīn yùshù diàndìng jiānshí jīchǔ.

Yushu’s new courthouse

The earthquake was an ideal opportunity to rebuild Yushu city with Chinese characteristics. Now Yushu looks much like any third or fourth tier Chinese city, its’ central business district dominated by Han Chinese businesses and offices, in high rise blocks indistinguishable from hundreds of cities across China. Tibetans are on the fringes. In the name of scientific earthquake reconstruction a major monastery was shifted from its secluded location and rebuilt as a tourist attraction on the road from airport to city. Yet on any geological map of the earthquake-prone faults underneath Yushu, the new locations remain as vulnerable as the old.

Central leaders have often named disasters as the moment for the party to demonstrate its capabilities, as author of all recovery efforts, sometimes to the exclusion of community grassroots initiatives. Anthropologist Charlene Makley calls this “spectacular compassion.”[2] Ethnographer Christian Sorace, in a 2017 book on the 2008 earthquake at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, in Wenchuan, notes: “The performance of Party benevolence, compassion, and reputation was not empty propaganda; it required a top-down process of political control over each phase of the reconstruction process. As academics inside China observed early on, ‘the earthquake reconstruction contains the possibility of a concealed tendency: the unlimited expansion of the scope of state power to represent public authority and control allocation of resources.’ The ‘unlimited expansion’ of state power also meant increased pressure on the Party to perform “miracles” (qiji) in the earthquake zone. Why, however, would the Party stake its reputation, image, and legitimacy on a utopian promise to engineer “great leaps of development” (kuayueshi fazhan) in two years of breakneck reconstruction activity?”[3]

April 2020: Tibetans take turns to perform gratitude at the memorial to China’s benevolence to Yushu

April 2020, in the midst of the virus crisis, was the 10th anniversary of the earthquake in Yushu, and all sections of Tibetan society had to gather at the memorial celebrating China’s generosity, and perform gratitude. The monks had to do monastic dances, the school children calisthenics, and everyone dutifully displayed their grasp of compulsory gratitude education, 感恩教育, gan’en jiaoyu.


China’s redistributive state also set itself the target of 2020 as the year in which all poverty is eliminated. Socialism with Chinese characteristics demands no-one be left behind, and China, once successful, will yet again become the exemplary model for other developing countries to emulate.

The problem, according to official classifications of poverty, is that the poorest people are in areas of contiguous destitution, defined as adjoining areas lacking endowments, 个集中连片特困区贫困  Gè jízhōng lián piàn tèkùn qū pínkùn,  where there is only thin soil or bare rock, trees and most crops cannot grow, the climate is so cold, the air so thin. In short: Tibet as seen through Han eyes as somewhere no-one would choose to live, if they had a choice. In the long run, the benevolent redistributive state could find somewhere else for these poverty stricken destitutes to live, but the target is to end all poverty quickly, in 2020. Targets are to be met, and all cadres at all levels are instructed, in considerable detail, how to do it. And they are not to be deflected by the pandemic, which officially is no excuse for meeting their target on time.

Those are the key points in the decrees of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (CAPD), issued in February 2020.

For Tibetans, these decrees make odd reading. First, all poverty in Tibet is officially already ended, in January 2020, immediately before corona virus lockdowns and infections sent people back into poverty. Second, poverty is widespread in Tibet, both because the customary mode of production, especially pastoralism, thrives on seasonal uncertainty, and sometimes fails due to unseasonal extremes. Chinese public health scientists recently confirmed what all Tibetans know: the higher you are in altitude, the further away you are from access to even the most basic health care, and little of Tibet is below 4000m. Centralisation of services has been official policy in recent years, with as many as 80 per cent of local primary schools permanently closed in the past few years, while county boarding schools have expanded.

photographer: David Raccuglia

Third, and oddest of all, is the poverty agenda announced by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (CAPD), and its specific directives for Tibet. The suggestions it makes are all sensible, proposing linkages between rural producers and urban consumers, utilising the comparative advantages remote areas have in producing specific products. This is development economics 101, elementary starting points for actually doing development.

This 2020 decree hits all the right notes: “As a starting point, with the aim of expanding income channels for poor households, stabilizing poverty alleviation achievements, and focusing on promoting the stable sales of poverty alleviation products, the effective supply of urban “vegetable baskets” and “rice bags” and the healthy development of poverty alleviation industries in poor areas will be promoted to meet the needs of urban residents. Upgrade and help the poor to continue to increase their income and build a long-term social poverty alleviation mechanism.

“Second, adhere to the basic principles: Insist on combining the development of the masses in poverty-stricken areas with the aim of increasing production and increasing poverty alleviation, and solving the urban “vegetable basket” and “rice bag” problems. Give full play to the resource advantages and ecological advantages of poverty-stricken areas, organize the supply of poverty alleviation products, ensure the quality of agricultural products and food safety, accurately meet the needs of residents in eastern regions and large and medium-sized cities for high-quality safe poverty alleviation products, and solve the problems of “vegetable baskets” and “rice bags” To achieve complementary advantages and mutual benefit.”

This is textbook stuff. Xinjiang has good climate and soils for growing melons, grapes and cotton. Inner Mongolia has grasslands well suited to dairy herds.  Tibet has always excelled, highly productively, at wool, dairy,butter and barley cropping, None of this is new, nor obscure knowledge accessible only to a few. It is obvious to anyone with eyes.

Indeed, China did intensify melon, grape and cotton production in Xinjiang decades ago, eclipsed in recent years by a boom in coal and oil-fired electricity production, aluminium smelting and mass Han employment manning detention centres. In Inner Mongolia China did intensify dairy production, to such an extent that most of China’s domestic production of milk, yoghurt, milk powder and infant formula now comes from Inner Mongolia. So how come so little happened in Tibet, even though China considers itself the leading developmentalist, champion of the developing world?


This latest state decree on poverty is very clear that this is a geographic problem, with demand concentrated in eastern China, and poverty in western China, including Tibet: “Adhere to the combination of poverty alleviation through consumption and poverty alleviation through cooperation between the eastern and western regions. Take the sales of poverty alleviation products as an important content to evaluate the effectiveness of poverty alleviation collaboration and targeted poverty alleviation work in the east and west, and promote the cooperation between east and west poverty alleviation cooperation regions and central units in consumption Poverty alleviation action.”

Again, this is all elementary, and has been said many times before. What is new this time is that a newly wealthy China is allocating money to finance implementation of this strategy:

The main ways of consumer poverty alleviation:  (1) The government procurement model is for budget units to purchase agricultural and sideline products in poor areas; encourages budget units at all levels to purchase poverty alleviation products through priority procurement and reserved procurement shares.

(2) The government leads the establishment of a cooperation model for poverty alleviation between the east and the west in the consumer poverty alleviation trading market.  Poverty-stricken areas should focus on the identification and supervision of poverty-relief products, organize poor people to develop characteristic poverty-relief industries with market demand and local advantages, build brands, improve quality, and ensure supply. The central provinces should use their geographical advantages to organize local cities and poor areas to establish long-term stable supply and marketing relations.

(3) Participation model of market entities for various enterprises selling poverty alleviation products. Encourage and guide various enterprises to give full play to their own advantages, use their own platform channels, and actively promote poverty-relief products to enter the market, enter the supermarket, enter the school, enter the community, enter the cafeteria, etc.”

Adding value to Tibetan wool

Again, this is all admirable, if it means capital expenditure and real investment in the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau, linking Tibetan producers, drogpa, samadrog and shingpa, pastoralists, farmers and those who mix both, to urban consumers with a taste for yoghurt, cheese tea and wool as a fashion statement. Cheese tea is a highly fashionable item in China. China is no longer wary of dairy, the Wall Street Journal tells its investor audience. The potential market is huge. What is questionable is the scale of actual investment.


Better yet is a rhetorical emphasis on local initiative rather than top down control: “Consumer poverty alleviation actions follow the principle of voluntariness, respect the laws of the market, and do not engage in administrative apportionment, compulsory orders, target tasks and ‘one size fits all’. Ensure that the quality of poverty alleviation products are qualified, the prices are reasonable, and poverty is real, and resolutely prevent poverty alleviation under the banner of accumulating wealth for profit.”

So when it comes to Tibet, does this State Council instruction specify what to focus on?  “Give full play to the role of the consumer poverty alleviation platform of the China Social Poverty Alleviation Network, focus on the deepest poverty-stricken areas, focusing on Tibetan barley, yak and southern Xinjiang jujube, walnuts, etc.”

At this point it all gets a bit vague. If this actually works out as planned, it could indeed do much to improve cash incomes across Tibet, even generate wealth, not just in areas blessed with yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus and matsutake mushroom to be flown to Japan, in the boom areas of Tibet. Value adding and marketing barley, yak hair, dzo milk, sheep wool, goat cashmere fibres for urban use are just what Tibet needs.

bringing science to the backward minority nationality masses

So how come it has taken China six decades of persistent under-investment, to discover these basic truths? What wasn’t all of this done 60 years ago in the “Great Leap Forward”?

If not 60 years ago, why not 45 years ago, as China emerged from the Cultural Revolution and turned decisively to market capitalism?

If not 45 years ago, why not 35 years ago, when Hu Yaobang was in charge, promising liberal reforms, and wool cleaning mills flourished briefly and then collapsed?

If not 35 years ago, why not 25 years ago? The 1996 Ninth Five-Year Plan for Tibet, for example, specified, at length: “The direction and main aims of development are: to improve preferential policies to encourage and support economic entities from China’s interior to set up industries in Tibet; continue to do a good job in economic co-ordination with Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan and Guangxi; and vigorously develop exchanges  and economic ties with coastal provinces, and to form a pattern of opening our doors……… Through regional planning and industrial policy, we will establish and develop the economies in various areas and a rational division of labour and eventually achieve the target of joint development and common prosperity……. According to the requirements for building a large-scale market network, developing large-scale trade, and invigorating the large-scale circulation of commodities, we will accelerate the construction of a unified, open, competitive and orderly market network.”[4]

If not 25 years ago why not 15 years ago, at the height of the Open up the West, xibu da kaifa, campaign? That was also the height of the aid-Tibet program, in which central leaders pressed rich provinces and corporations to adopt specific towns or counties in Tibet, and launch projects intended to transfer technology and training to remote areas, to lift Tibet out of poverty.


Nothing much happened to raise incomes in rural Tibet 60 or 45 or 35 or 25 or 15 years ago, despite the promises. China, in its frequent White Papers on Tibet, prides itself on implementing the global “laws” of development, which have just been reiterated by the February 2020 State Council announcement on comparative advantage. The reality is that China has failed to develop the long standing, indigenous, autochthonous, customary Tibetan economy of livestock and barley. Instead China imposed an economy from above, an economy of infrastructure -highways, dams, power grids, railways and urban construction- that cemented Chinese rule, employed Han immigrants, while doing very little to provide employment,  market access or value adding  for Tibetans and their abundant surpluses.

Why this under investment? Why six decades of neglect of the actually existing Tibetan economy? Why this failure of development? The only plausible explanation is racist disdain for the ungrateful, rebellious Tibetans, going back to the 1950s.  China has persistently seen the land of Tibet as huang, ye, xu and kuang, 荒地,驯服,野蛮,空旷,广阔 wasteland, untamed, barbaric, empty and vast; and the Tibetans as luohou, pinkun and pianpi, 落后, 贫困, 偏僻 backward, poor and peripheral.

Many Tibetans, having heard promises of development, linkage and market access many times, are understandably cynical, as if this is just another propaganda ploy.

Since poverty remains entrenched in Tibet, made worse by lack of access to health care in the middle of a pandemic, let’s hope this time the State Council means it. Any approach that builds on Tibetan strengths is surely preferable to making Tibetan pastoralists landless, removing them to urban fringes, in the name of repairing degraded grasslands. Is this a sign of progress?


Only three days after this State Council diktat was issued 14 February 2020, a further decree was issued, specifically denying local cadres any coronavirus excuse for failing to implement this command by central leaders. Instead of the pandemic trumping poverty alleviation, the State Council showed a clear-headed understanding that the virus is going to exacerbate poverty, so more central finance will be made available, to make sure the poor don’t slip into destitution.

The 17 February 2020 decree is brief and blunt. It commands local governments to: “Accelerate the allocation and disbursement of funds. In 2020, the central government will continue to increase the scale of special poverty alleviation funds by a large margin, and the allocation of new funds will be appropriately tilted towards the regions affected by the epidemic. Provinces (autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, hereinafter referred to as provinces) should continue to guarantee the investment of special fiscal poverty alleviation funds, give preferential support to the cities and counties that are heavily affected by the epidemic in the allocation of funds, and effectively guarantee the need for poverty alleviation in these areas. Reduce the impact of the epidemic on poverty alleviation.”

The State Council calls for: “focus on industrial projects, and to increase the support for the production, storage, transportation, and sales of industrial poverty alleviation projects that have been greatly affected by the epidemic in order to solve the problem of “difficulty in selling”. Support poor households to resume production, carry out self-rescue in production, create conditions to encourage poor labour to find jobs and start businesses.  Poor households can be given one-time production subsidies and loan interest discount support. Strengthen employment support, and appropriately arrange special fiscal poverty alleviation funds to organize and stabilize the jobs of the poor. To meet the needs of epidemic prevention and control, new temporary jobs such as cleaning and sanitation, epidemic prevention and elimination, and patrol duty will be given priority, and the placement of poor labour will be given priority. Poor laborers who go out to work in accordance with the regulations shall be provided with transportation and living expenses subsidies. Make every effort to guarantee the basic lives of the poor.” 

Unlike the vague language of propaganda, this is detailed and specific, and backed by central funds. This is a redistributive state redistributing wealth to those in greatest need.

Only time will tell if it actually happens. But we can ask now why official China feels it needs to make such announcements?

This is the heart of what China means by socialism with Chinese characteristics. China wants to be exceptional in every possible way, not bound by global norms, institutions, values, laws and conventions. China demands to be judged solely on its own announced criteria.  The next blog looks deeper into this cult of the state.

Tibetan poet Woeser: “This work is also a political critique. In particular, it is a critique of that vast political plague, although I only hint at that in a veiled fashion because I am actually quite frightened. The political plague and the oppression that it has occasioned never eased up during the time that I was writing these poems.

“Over time, China has repeatedly been infected by this ‘other plague’, one that has increased in intensity until it has become a chronic affliction. It may, in fact, prove to be incurable. As a Tibetan I have particularly strong feelings on this subject.

“The line ‘there exists another plague far worse than this one’ is the kernel of the work. So, yes, by ‘another plague’ I am referring to a political plague — tyrannical governance as well as the actual organs of repression and the thuggish sway in which it operates. Tyranny is akin to a virus. When I write of the ‘other plague’, I am talking about many things: destiny, the fate of humanity, as well as the dictator, regardless of which.”

[1] Uradyn E. Bulag,  Alter/native Mongolian identity: From nationality to ethnic group, in Perry, Elizabeth J.; Selden, Mark, eds. Chinese society: change, conflict and resistance. Routledge 2010

[2] Charlene Makley,  SPECTACULAR COMPASSION: “Natural” Disasters and National Mourning in China’s Tibet, Critical Asian Studies, 46:3 (2014), 371-404

[3] Christian P. Sorace, SHAKEN AUTHORITY: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Cornell, 2017, 17-18

[4] Xizang Ribao (Tibet Daily) 7 June 1996

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Blog two of two on the post corona virus new normal in Tibet

In the middle of a corona virus pandemic why does China choose to fire rockets across Tibet? 22 March 2020

Why does China take every opportunity, including the corona crisis opportunity, to erase Tibetan medium schooling, rebuild earthquake devastated towns with fully Chinese characteristics, and use poverty alleviation as a rationale for dislocating Tibetan pastoralists from their land? Why is China so determined to re-engineer all aspects of Tibetan life, land, culture, economy and language?

Many Tibetans would answer this by saying that’s what communist dictatorships do. These days that is all you need say, for people to agree. Across the West, the consensus has shifted just in the past year or two, recognising the many negative consequences worldwide of China’s rise. Now, “communist dictatorship” has become a shorthand explanation, as much as many feel they need to know.

We need to go deeper. China misunderstands Tibet, because it has never listened to Tibetans. In turn, Tibetans should not misunderstand China, and fall back on the clichés of “communist dictatorship.”

Today’s China is not the same as a few years ago. For the security states of the West, it may suffice to stick with “communist dictatorship” as the only explanation required. But Tibetans, who need dialogue with official China, could choose to look more deeply at what drives contemporary China. Is there any other country with such a coercive assimilationist agenda, seizing on disasters to advance its nation building agenda, and further entrench the ruling party as the only legitimate actor, silencing all other voices?

China is unique, and wants to be as unique and exceptional as possible, thus exempt from categories and concepts that long defined the global order that is now disintegrating.

One aspect of what makes China unique is the resurgence of leftish neoMarxists who support a strongly centralised state, with limited scope for private enterprise, because state socialism keeps capitalist excess under control, and the strong state stands up for the nation. It is this combination of nationalism and socialism that has few parallels elsewhere, and is worth understanding in depth.

‘The good and bad dying indiscriminately’
Anguished cries everywhere,
we swallow the salt of our overflowing tears

People, no, all living things — how long have you suffered
each in your respective way? How long have you survived
these so-called outbreaks? How much time is left?

Like wild grasses, no, like garlic chives
cut by the curved blades of one plague and another
with unparalleled swiftness, without sound, without rest

The expression ‘garlic chives’, 韭菜 jiǔcài, is a popular term on the Chinese Internet. Because garlic chives [that flavour momos] grow again after being harvested and can be cut down once more, it refers to the weak who are repeatedly exploited and unable to escape. The exploitation of the masses is referred to by employing the visual image of cutting garlic chives. Those that profit from this exploitation are equated with the sickle used to cut the garlic chives. Many people use this metaphor to describe themselves. Of course, we all know who is wielding the sickles. The scythe hangs over the head of every blade of wild grass, over every stalk of garlic chives. It may cut a wild swathe through the field without a moment’s notice.

-three corona virus poems (and commentary) by Tibetan poet Woeser, 2020

Some observers go so far as to see similarities with the national socialism of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Both the Italian fascists and German Nazis did consider themselves socialists, greatly concerned with the welfare of the workers. Philosopher Jonathan Wolff reminds us: “Early Italian fascism broke from socialism only on the grounds of nationalism. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proposed giving women the vote, lowering the voting age to 18, introducing an eight-hour workday, worker participation in industrial management, heavy progressive capital tax and the partial confiscation of war profits.”

But let’s not push this too far. Trying to make China fit the fascist strong man model is just as much a cliché as calling it a communist dictatorship. Instead, let’s look at what official China and its influencers see as China’s essence. The point is to understand China better, in order to help China understand Tibet better.

Lodro Chotso and her Han Chinese husband, ethnographer Ren Naiqiang

Many Tibetans have tried to this. Back in the 1940s, before communist dictatorship, Lodro Chotso devoted her life to encouraging the Han officials of the Kuomintang regime in power in Kham (Xikang province) to learn who the Tibetans are. This remarkable woman bridged the cultural divide, writing in Chinese, at a time when Han colonisation of Kham meant only predatory tax extraction, not today’s fully assimilationist agenda. Directly addressing the government, she writes: “If one doesn’t understand the feelings of the people and their conditions, one cannot pursue politics. In Kham, 99% of Khampa don’t understand the Chinese language, Han residents make up only 1%, so those officers exert their rule on only 1% of the population, the Han, but they have no relationships at all with 99% of the remaining population, the locals. All my family, starting from my grandparents, to my parents, down to the present generation, has already experienced three or four generations of Han officers’ governance, yet no one has understood what those officers have been doing so far.

“How do Han officers who govern our Kham people live in Kham territory? They cling to the golden rule of ‘using Chinese to transform the barbarians’ (Ch. yong xia bian yi 用夏變夷) as soon as they are appointed officers in frontier regions; they live in Chinese-style palaces built by Han people; they eat rice and vegetables sent to them from inner China; they wear traditional Chinese long robes or trendy Sun Yat-sen-style suits (Ch. zhongshanfu 中山服); everything, absolutely everything they use, has to be brought into Kham from inner China: lanterns, vegetable oil, salt, pickles, vinegar, soy sauce, as well as door inscriptions, candles, artillery and ‘toilet paper to wipe one’s butt’ (Ch. kai pigu de caozhi 揩屁股的草 紙). They, of course, can speak and write only Chinese, they read Chinese books, they publish Chinese-language notifications, they apply Chinese law, they exert Chinese-style coerciveness, they implement the Chinese educational system to build a Chinese land in Kham”. [1]

Now, in this time of aggressive assimilation, it matters more than ever that Tibetans and Han Chinese understand each other.

[1] Lara Maconi, “Mom, Can I Become a Han Officer?” Childhood Memories, Politics, Emancipation and Intimacy in the Chinese-Written Autobiographical Essays of Blo gros chos mtsho, a Khampa Woman (1909/1910–1949) Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 54, April 2020, pp. 196-240. Free download: http://www.digitalhimalaya.com/collections/journals/ret/index.php?selection=0


A strong state 强政府 qiang zhengfu, in official eyes, includes a strongly redistributive state. Redistribution, from the rich to the poor, by the government, is out of fashion in the capitalist West. That is what distinguishes China from purely market economies, in which the state plays a more limited role, deferring to private enterprise, especially the bigger enterprises with the most political influence. For new era China, the state has close relationships with the flourishing private corporations, but there must be no doubt who is in charge. The Party is above all. It is above the law, above the state, and above the narrower focus of the market on wealth accumulation. Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

This unites traditional Confucianists, who have always argued for a strong state, with the resurgent new left intellectual elite, who argue the case for redistribution, achieved by a centralised state strong enough to override local vested interests. It unites nationalists, celebrities, intellectuals and the poor, appealing to anyone who wants China’s success to be exemplary, a beacon the world should admire. It is at the core of China’s claim to be unique, and not to be measured or judged by Western concepts such as universal inborn human rights.

The return of the left, in elite Beijing policy circles, is seldom noticed by Tibetans. Maybe that’s why China’s policy directives are quickly dismissed as just more propaganda.

China’s old left were nostalgic about Mao’s China, and the sense of solidarity and common purpose that persisted until Mao ruined everything. Now there is a new left, who were schooled in Marxism and sometimes inclined to sharply criticise the deep inequality in today’s China. They do favour redistribution to the poor, in part because of their embrace of the strong state.

Professor David Ownby, a close observer of current intellectual elites notes that the influential new left have pushed for the state to maintain its dominance of the economy yet are in  “fervent embrace of the power of capital and capitalism, as long as they are tamed by socialism.  This is of course not entirely new; there are any number of descriptions of the China model that trumpet China’s achievement of a “third way” that combines the best of the market and the plan.  Discussions of the technical means by which China has created this miracle—the key concepts are “top-level planning,” “public capital,” “platform-type local governments,” and “a state based on popular livelihood”.

It is no accident that many of the influential elite thinkers in Beijing who have pushed for the complete abolition of “regional autonomy” for minority nationalities, are of the new left. Wang Shaoguang and Hu Angang are new leftists, contemptuous of religion and tradition, hard heartedly arguing that protests by Tibetans and Uighurs are nothing more than teething pains of modernity, which will pass, once the khenpos and imams have lost their congregations. They argue that a strong state should resist and repress these voices of protest, rather than listen to them.

Suddenly, the space in front of the Jokhang is empty
Has there been any time in history that has extinguished in such silence
‘… people have not the slightest fortune or ethics they can trust’

We are all brought under control under one roof
We have lost our voice and our tears
our lives trapped in chaos

Surrounded on all sides by the enemy
it is absurd to describe Tibet as a pure land
in the final analysis ‘the whole country is red’ [Mao]

-three corona virus poems by Woeser

Some prominent new leftists such as Yan Yilong 鄢一龙 begin their case for the strong redistributive state with a critique of capitalism that many Tibetan khenpos, shocked by the intrusion into Tibet of sinful capitalist demons, might well agree with: “One unfortunate consequence of modernity is that capital has replaced everything else, becoming the highest priority. The logic of capitalism pushes everything aside, becoming humanity’s highest rationality.  It wipes away the halo of the gods of religion, tears away the veil of family warmth, and destroys the fetters of feudalism so that now ‘there is no nexus between man and man other than naked self-interest, other than callous ‘cash payment.’ Capital has moulded a new culture for humanity, cultivating “public” intellectuals of various stripes, financing all sorts of “neutral” academic research, controlling “public” opinion in the modern media.  Capital has reorganized the world order, forcing the Americas, Oceania, Africa and Asia to enter the global system of capital and to submit to the ruling position of the West. The strength of capital is like magic, summoning up from below a bright, beautiful modern world, offering a fake show of peace and prosperity.”

The quotes within our quote are Karl Marx. Yan Yilong presses on: “Without exaggeration, 21st century China’s greatest crisis is that capitalist fundamentalism will take the stage, achieving a position of priority from which to control all other domains.  What is the logic of capital?  Simply put, it is that money is king.  The capitalist market economy is in fact a game of opportunity and equality, but when it’s time to eat, one banquet is set for 85 richest people, while 3.5 billion have to squeeze around the other table.

“China’s wealth gap is also frighteningly large.  The data reveal that China’s wealth gap in terms of family property is continuing to grow.  In 1995, China’s GINI coefficient for family net worth was 0.45.  It was 0.55 in 2002 and 0.73 in 2012.  The richest 1% of families possessed 30% of the wealth, and the richest 10% of families somewhere between 63% and 85%.  If proper measures aren’t taken to get this under control, China’s polarization between rich and poor will grow increasingly virulent, and political promises of a “shared wealth” will have become pie-in-the-sky empty promises. 
 Alas!  The so-called China Dream is merely something for the losers to revolt against!”

by new leftists Hu Angang, Yan Yilong and Tang Xiao, all from Tsinghua university, 2018

Yan Yilong published this critique in 2016, and has not been punished for it. He is just one of many influential writers arguing that the stronger the market economy grows, the stronger the state must be to keep it in check. “In today’s China, the reason that the strength of capital is still unable to control politics and dictate policy is that it is still not the strongest force in the country.  But if China develops a system with a tripartite division of powers, as many are strongly advocating, a multi-party regime with competitive elections, then the greatest recipient of the benefit of the division of power will be capital, after which capital will bend political power to its will and deprive the people of democracy. Socialist ideology is the theoretical weapon of the labouring masses, and the base on which is relies for its long-term development is the strength of morality and justice.  By way of contrast, capitalist ideology employs the strength of capital to penetrate every corner of society, becoming omnipresent. China is at present facing a huge ideological crisis.  The cultural system has been largely marketized, with monopoly capital controlling all new media, the Western system of humanities and social sciences is spreading its message unchanged, and some scholars have come to believe that it is natural to “speak for the wealthy.”

Far from being censored and silenced, much of this critique, with its cult of state power as the supreme necessity of these times, finds favour in new era China. It provides fresh legitimacy for the state, as long as it redistributes.


Yan Yilong reaches his punch line: “Without the help of capital’s strength, socialism cannot succeed; but without socialist constraints, capitalism becomes a raging flood, a wild beast.  Capital truly is a steady horse that propels society forward, but this horse must wear the blinders of the “public interest” in order to better serve the interests of all of the people. In the process of a new round of reform of the state economy, socialist elements have not retreated, but have been strengthened through the power of their control of capital.”

Is this just an ingenious rationale for CCP power? Or the arguments of an irrelevant intellectual? It is more elegant than the official slogan  “党政军民学,东南西北中,党是领导 一 切的 , government, military, society, education, north, south, east, west — the party leads everything.” Yan Yilong’s views are distinctive, but more broadly the new left is now influential, and new era China has indeed decisively turned away from the state retreating, while capital advances. State owned enterprises are stronger than ever, despite the urgings of American investors and the neoliberal consensus.  As Yan Yilong says: “The state economy controls the lifeblood of the national economy, like a national economic army that comes when it’s called and wins when it arrives.  Globally, it is the main force promoting the achievements of the state’s strategic objectives, but in times of crisis it is also the major force in meeting the crisis.  This is because a state-owned enterprise is not only an economic animal, but instead assumes its social responsibilities, and in times of need, can sacrifice the interests of the enterprise to those of the people and the society.”

Effective poverty alleviation fits in with this ideological package, and may explain the determination of the State Council to help the remote poor to raise their incomes.

Columbia, 2019

The need for a strong state gets a lot of support by Chinese thinkers who, since the start of this century, have seen the liberalism of the West as stumbling and failing, not as a model China should follow. Instead the anti-liberal ideas of Carl Schmitt are popular in China, arguing for the supremacy of politics above all, for the strongest of states, and for a state that is fixated on its enemies. “Classical liberalism assumes the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals and treats conflict as a function of faulty social and institutional arrangements; rearrange those arrangements, and peace, prosperity, learning, and refinement will follow. Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary. Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semiautonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. “The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.” Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature  and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares“thus it shall be.’’[1]

The cult of the state attracts so many in China. In 2020 in Chinese eyes, the liberalism of the West seems, more than ever weak, ineffective, conflicted, ineffective; while the new era proclaimed by the CCP is assertive, decisive, capable and successful.


Tibetans have endless experience of the strong state intruding into private lives, usually punitively and with extreme prejudice. The strong state takes every opportunity to advance and assert its dominance, whether by sidelining the Tibetan mother tongue in Amdo Ngawa schools, or the reconstruction of Yushu, or new instructions on how to do poverty alleviation. The new system of national parks across the Tibetan Plateau follows the same logic of the state projecting its power into remote landscapes it had little interest in until recently.

Tibetans experience most of these extensions of the state’s reach as unwelcome, and often resist. It is hard to imagine hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trained and qualified Tibetan teachers, suddenly redundant, not protesting vigorously. Elsewhere in Tibet, such mother tongue protests have succeeded. Many eloquent refutations of China’s assimilationist education agenda have been written by Tibetans.


A difficulty many Tibetans experience is that the initiatives and intrusions of the central party-state seem arbitrary, ill-considered, pointless or counter-productive, unpredictable, unreadable and senseless. Yet, for central leaders, all these policy pushes share a coherent, common nature. They all push Tibet towards modernity, urbanisation, wealth accumulation, scientific land management, access to science and career prospects through learning putonghua, a post-agricultural and post-industrial future in cities, perhaps as commodity chain distributors of Tibetan wool and dairy at last entering China’s huge market on more equal terms of trade. This is the modernity package.

Seeing China’s many new policies in Tibet through the eyes of China’s ascendant new left statist elite doesn’t make them acceptable, on the ground, in Tibet, but at least it makes them comprehensible. And that means readying for the passing of the corona virus crisis, leaving the state more firmly in power than before. Seeing how Tibet looks, through elite eyes in Beijing, makes it easier to anticipate further statist nation-building policy shifts.

The cult of the state unites people across the spectrum in China, from Confucian traditionalists to new left Marxists who want the state to curb the greed and selfishness of capitalism. Their fascination with the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt reminds us the sovereign state not only finds its enemies and attacks them, it needs enemies, in order to define itself. It is the fate of the stubborn Tibetans to be the eternal enemy, for refusing to become Chinese. ”Not only is there a wide range of people that the Party-state considers deserve to be placed outside of society, but also in contemporary China detention is still considered to be a very useful form of social management and control.”[2] The punitiveness of the strong state, in Tibet and Xinjiang, is not incidental; it is of the essence of the strong state with Chinese characteristics.

The popularity of Carl Schmitt gives us an insight into the attractions of a strong and punitive state: “The friend-enemy distinction encourages a stark form of binary thinking. The category of friend, however substantively defined, can be conceived only by projecting its opposite. ‘Friend’ acquires meaning through knowing what ‘enemy’ means. The attributes used to define a ‘friend’ can, as Schmitt pointed out, be drawn from diverse sources. Religion, language, ethnicity, culture, social status, ideology, gender or indeed anything else can serve as the defining element of a given friend-enemy distinction.

“The friend-enemy distinction is a public distinction: it refers to friendship and enmity between groups rather than between individuals. (Private admiration for a member of a hostile group is always possible). The markers of identity, however, are relatively fluid because a political community is formed via the common identification of a perceived threat. In other words, it is through singling out ‘outsiders’ that the community becomes meaningful as an ‘in-group’. This Schmittian way of defining a ‘people’ elides the necessity of a legal framework. A ‘people’, as a political community in the Schmittian sense, is primarily concerned about whether a different political community (or individuals capable of being formed into a community) poses a threat to their way of life.”

In many ways this is new. As recently as the first years of this century, Tibet remained over the horizon, too far from central leaders to care much about, unless it appeared to threaten national stability. Tibet was the frontier, or in practice beyond the frontier, to be exploited, but not actually governed, except for the enclaves of modernity with Chinese characteristics, in the municipalities and the logistic networks connecting them to lowland China. The vastness of the Tibetan Plateau for decades remained an unknown hinterland, combed by heroic geologists for mineral deposits and engineers for hydro dam sites, but otherwise a terra incognita. For decades, swarms of predatory gold miners and ruthless wildlife hunters roamed Tibet, and central leaders took no interest.

But now China projects its power into all Tibetan landscapes, zoning them all as either ecological or economic, the two categories being mutually exclusive. The unfinished business of making an empire into a nation is back on the agenda.


The core paradox is that China takes every opportunity to impose modernity but without development. Almost anywhere, development and modernity are closely intertwined; economic progress, a new division of labour and new urbanisation. In Tibet especially  the nation-building state seizes the opportunity of an earthquake, or a viral pandemic to advance its agenda of urbanisation, rural depopulation and urban concentration under surveillance. Yet Tibet remains under developed, under invested except in the enclaves, under linked, unintegrated, unable to access the win-wins central leaders love to talk about.

This is a paradox, as the rebuild of Yushu city cost $7 billion, and in addition a new expressway greatly reducing the time taken on the 700 km journey between Yushu and provincial capital Xining, added billions more.

Development economist Andrew Fischer, in a lengthy analysis, says: “the development discourse of the CPC with regard to Tibet treats the particular mode of integration of the Tibetan areas into the national economy through the implementation of western development strategies as if there is no alternative. This mode of integration that has dominated since the late 1980s has essentially accentuated the disempowering and assimilationist dynamics of development, even while providing for strong economic growth and the rapid build-up of certain types of infrastructure, that is, those conceived principally within a broader centre-periphery relationship.”[3]

Modernity with Chinese characteristics but without development means Tibetan remain poor and marginal, whether still on ancestral rangelands or in cities. It means dependence[4] on official rations and handouts, for which Tibetans are required to publicly express gratitude. It means, most recently, Han immigrants arriving in Lhasa, excitedly explaining they are from Wuhan, while Tibetans remain in chronic lockdown, under tight surveillance, movement restricted.

For a few weeks the whole of Hubei, then the whole of China, experienced the restrictions Tibetans, especially in Lhasa, have long lived under. Tibet is where China’s grid management lockdowns were trialled, tested, tweaked and institutionalised. The phone apps that tell the security state where you are, at any time, were first developed to track Tibetans, later to track those exposed to corona virus infection.

The virus contagion allowed the security state to advance, in a great leap forward. It is the same security state that is obsessed with Tibetans as an infectious threat to stability, and with viruses as threats to stability. When the virus arrives, the security state advances; when the virus fades, the security state advances: ask the unemployed Tibetan teachers of Ngawa prefecture.

Why has Carl Schmitt enjoyed such an afterlife in China? Not only does he argue eloquently for a strong state, and for the primacy of politics above all else, he also argues that the state is constituted by its enemies.

China heroically guns down its enemies: Three Body Problem anime

The need for enemies is not an accidental outcome of in-group solidarity, an unwitting dualism that fails to recognise that, as the lamas often remind us, all concepts entail their opposite. Cold is meaningless unless there is also a concept of hot. Us remains vague until set in opposition to them.

The Chinese Communist Party, gearing up to celebrate its centenary in 2021, has always been obsessed with the hunt for enemies, both internal and external. Under Mao, the number of class enemies plotting to wreck the revolution was a fixed proportion, usually five percent. Never more and seldom less. This ratio of one in twenty enabled the majority to feel secure that they were actually a supermajority of likeminded folks, all that is needful is to weed out the one from the 20.

The class traitors, bourgeoisie and stinking intellectuals to be purged never seemed to drop much below five percent, a plague that is always with us, requiring eternal vigilance.

In order to maintain the friend/enemy polarity, identifying the enemy is of paramount importance. But, having named the enemy, it is equally important to know as little as possible about them, lest they become human, rather like us. This happens over and over. If you know too much about your enemies, you might recognise a mirror image of yourself. In the Cold War, Sovietology was a considerable industry in the US, and almost no-one foresaw the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Instead the Sovietologists routinely over-estimated the strengths and durability of the Soviet Second World. That is just one example.

The nomads of the north, as the eternal enemy of China, goes all the way back to the imperial court historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Sima Qian), who “gives to the history of the northern frontier independent status as an object of investigation, but at the same time it places the north in a position whose only referent is China: the history of the nomads came into existence, as it were, because it was relevant to China. This polarity has within itself the power to generate a false causal relationship, namely, that not only Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s narrative, but also very the history of the Hsiung-nu, and perhaps of the nomads, came into existence as a product of the timeless frontier relationship between nomads and China.” [5]The unending enmity between civilised China and the nomadic barbarians of the north is from the outset a Sinocentric confection.

In Ssu-ma Chi’en’s time, 2nd century BC,  the pastoralists could be defined as external enemies. But between the late 13th and early 20th centuries, those northern barbarians, first the Mongols and later the Manchu, not only conquered China but ruled for many centuries, actually for most of the whole period from 1279 to 1911. This has resulted in convoluted rationalisations by subsequent court historians and later the CCP. On one hand, they want to claim 5000 years of unbroken history, China’s foundational claim to uniqueness. This requires the claim that the conquerors quickly became Chinese, thus maintaining China’s cultural continuity. On the other hand, the hated Manchu Qing were overthrown in 1911 by popular hatred, and hatred towards the inside/outside enemies in the grasslands has persisted ever since. The current solution is coercive assimilation, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Are the Tibetans among China’s eternal enemies? Despite being insider/outsiders the Tibetans have never come sufficiently far inside to be considered cooked, the classic Han metaphor for assimilation. The Tibetans remain raw and ungrateful.

New era China remains imprisoned by its past court historians.When it comes to clearly external enemies, such as the US,the ambivalence is even more intense. The beautiful country, meiguo, is above all to be admired, emulated, imitated. It has long been where the party-state elite send their children to college. Yet the beautiful country, especially at present, is also the enemy, the biggest of enemies, the hegemon patrolling China’s seas, opposing China’s rise, sabotaging China’s plans.

China’s resurgent nationalism is reinforced by the existence of the enemy, and by the creation of ever more enemies onscreen, so China’s “wolf warriors” can enjoy the thrill of cheering on their heroes as they beat evil Americans to pulp, or single handedly defeat an invasion from outer space. These are the most popular movies made in China, highly profitable, even if they seldom resonate with nonChinese audiences.

This scaled up tribalism makes it easy for Han Chinese to dismiss Tibetan voices, as nothing more than the squawks of peripheral barbarians who don’t know what is good for them, who are to be modernised, harmonised, assimilated and merged into the great Chinese race, whether they want to or not. It takes only a moment for Han to recall that China is on the rise, and no backward tribe on the margins need be taken seriously.

Does this hegemonic master narrative mean Tibetans are helpless? Not at all. Tibetans have, again and again, resisted coercive assimilation by maintaining identity and solidarity, despite the pressure. That’s the short term response, and it often works. After all, does China really want mass unemployment among Tibetan schoolteachers made redundant by the switch to Putonghua? In a land where teachers are still respected, and the teaching profession is as high as Tibetans can aspire to, a sudden loss of career path for educated Tibetans is also a worry for the security state.

I hadn’t read the Vajra Armor Mantra before
Now, I’m on my ninth day of reading it 108 times a day
My reading more and more fluent, my heart more and more reliant on it

If we see the virus as a ‘strange moon’, then will we not also see a strange world? The clear cold moonlight illuminating the dark of night also illuminates life itself. Under that light we can readily perceive the impermanence of all things. This is a good thing. However, my Buddhist practice leads me to believe that our present incarnation is just a single lifetime, one of many lifetimes that are bound together.

-corona virus poem and commentary by Tibetan Buddhist poet Woeser

In the long term, the best prospect for Tibet is to persist, come what may, with reminding any Han Chinese who listens, that Tibetans are their better selves, that Tibetan Buddhism is the key to happiness, whether one is rich or poor. This has been the Dalai Lama’s aim for many decades, likewise the many charismatic lamas and khenpos who have dissolved friend/enemy dualisms and taught the Han flocking to them how to take better care of the mind and its discontents.

In the long run this will be effective. Han Chinese who learn to listen to lamas who introduce them to the nature of their own minds also learn to listen to Tibetans on other subjects, and to make the surprising discovery that Tibetans generally have a good approach to the challenges of life. Learning to listen and appreciate Tibetans brackets the sloganistic, repetitious official message, exposes its vacuousness and irrelevance to reality.

At a time when a racist party-state locks a million or more Uighurs in compulsory rote-learning slogan chanting, is there any time left? Many Tibetans, finding the mandatory repetition of official slogans to be suffocating, will worry whether a long term strategy of awakening openness can work soon enough to be effective.

Yet Tibet and Xinjiang are not the same. Revolutionary China called Buddhism a foreign religion, as it does to Christianity today, to be repressed and expelled simply for its foreignness. Official China ceased calling Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism foreign, decades ago. Xi Jinping calls on Buddhism as a social force that helps combat endemic corruption. That is progress.

There are just too many Han Chinese who have discovered the Buddhism of their grandparents was more than offering incense to a statue in a temple, that Buddhist practice can be radically transformative. Millions of Han have discovered that the Buddhism of Tibet best maintains continuity of insight and awakening, best exemplifying -in exemplary lives- how to live authentically and happily, whatever the circumstances.

Dawa Norbu reminds us, in his China’s Tibet Policy: “Buddhism, whose penetration and diffusion in China predates the Yuan dynasty, has tended to soften, if not diffuse, the authority and power relations between the Middle Kingdom and Buddhist dependencies. This was particularly true of Tibet, which since the twelfth century was progressively projected and perceived as the Vatican of Mahayana Buddhism. We find no parallels in Chinese history to the highest-level state receptions accorded to the Vth Dalai Lama by the Qing Emperor, to the Sakya Lama (Phagpa) by the Yuan Emperor and to the Vth Karmapa Lama (Dezhin Shakpa) by the Ming Emperor. None of these Tibetan Lamas had to kowtow before the emperor; kowtow culture was transformed into mutual respect.

Awakened Tibetans have been turning minds for a long time, sometimes over years, in the intimacy of a teacher-student transmission, sometimes momentarily  in a spontaneous gesture towards a stranger. Honey Oberoi Vahali, a psychoanalyst, tells of such a moment when she was six, a child on holiday in Shimla with her family, discovering in a humble market stall of a Tibetan woman refugee a red coral ring:

Honey Oberoi Vahali, Ambedkar University, Delhi

“The shop was owned by an elderly Tibetan woman with two long plaits, dressed in a chuba. My eyes must have shone with wonder and amazement. The Tibetan lady smiled at me. I smiled back. Then a few minutes later I began urging my mother to buy me the ring. Even as my mother considered my demand, the smiling Tibetan lady emerged from a small trapdoor in the shop and came forward with the ‘precious’ ring in her outstretched hand. Straightening herself, she slipped the ring on my second finger. As my mother was opening her purse to pay her, the lady patted me affectionately on the head, pecked me on the cheek and told my  mother, ‘Let the little one have it as a gift from me.’”

From that came Honey Oberoi Vahali’s decades of immersion in Tibetan refugee lives, a sensitive and insightful book on the lives of Tibetans in India, psychotherapeutic work among torture survivors, and an ongoing voice for refugees everywhere.

Honey Oberoi Vahali tells us during partition her folks fled what is now Pakistani Punjab so, even as a child, she understood what it means to be a refugee. My mother too was a refugee, from Hitler’s advances across central Europe, and I grew up in Australia in a family that wanted to be as far from Europe as possible.

By being themselves, acting not instrumentally but spontaneously, Tibetans turn minds. May it ever be so.

a deeply insightful and compassionate book, 2009

As editor of Rukor, I too had a moment which turned my mind. As a journalist and radio documentary producer, I interviewed Gyalwa Rinpoche back in 1977, then toured several Tibetan settlements, recording more interviews, which eventually became a lengthy radio series broadcast in Australia, Paths to Shangri-la.

After that initial interview in Bodhgaya and months on the road I finally came to Dharamsala and was invited by Westerner friends to join a group audience with Gyalwa Rinpoche. With so many cassette tapes in hand, I had no intention of asking His Holiness anything, my plan was to just sit quietly at the back.

To my astonishment, he turned to me: “You! You have seen how we Tibetans live. Do you have any suggestions?”

Journalists are trained to quickly sum up any situation and reduce it to words, a reason why so much reportage is cliched. It would be so easy to say, without any responsibility, why don’t you do this, or that?

My mouth was already open. In that moment I decided that anything I did say I would also accept some responsibility for. I said: “Your Holiness, there are things that could be done, and I will do what I can to help.” Like that red coral ring, this has stayed with me for over 40 years. The turning of the mind was a specific moment. Rukor has come from it. 

Gabriel Lafitte

When I read this haiku I started to cry:
‘In the wind, I loudly pray: Namo Guanshiyin Pusa’
Please release the souls, lost, packed into the bardo …

I think that everyone who is struggling with the plague are in a kind of bardo, one that we need to free ourselves from. But in my poem I also call the thousands of departed souls who died as a result of the plague ‘wanderers’. They didn’t want to die; surely they still long for the realm of the living and so they linger in the murky limbo of the bardo. It is a harrowing and sorrowful state. I pray, as a Buddhist, for all of those lost souls and for their rebirth. As I am still in the realm of the living it is something I felt that I could do, and so I have.

The descriptions of hell in Buddhist sutras are very detailed, although people don’t usually think of them as being literal. To my mind, however, presently we are living in all six realms of samsara and circulating through the eighteen levels of hell. It is something that is happening right now. It is not a metaphor.

I encountered Taneda’s haiku during the outbreak of the epidemic. I learned that he was a mendicant monk who travelled by foot, a monk who wandered through the clouds. His haiku is suffused with the ‘voice of the dharma’, and its language is beautiful. I read about how he felt he was walking with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Walking on the road. Walking in the wind. Walking and praying. To him prayer is as routine as chatting.

I love the feeling of the wind. I think the wind that blows from snow-shrouded Everest towards lowland China is a true wind without impurities, it carries the smell of my homeland, Tibet. When I stood in that wind and chanted ‘I take refuge in the Bodhisattva Who Perceives the World’s Cries’ [南無觀音菩薩], I experienced a profound sense of consolation. As a result, I was not so anxious, not so fearful of the political plague.

I like the resonances of the original Japanese haiku even more. The way this voice floats in the wind, how this voice attaches to the wind, how it leaves its traces on the wind. This voice is a prayer in all languages be it Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, English, or whatever.

-Tibetan Buddhist poet Woeser’s response to corona virus, in poetry and prose commentary

Woeser’s copy of artwork by Tomoya Ihaya: even in detention, hearts and minds can grow freely

[1] Mark Lilla, Reading Strauss in Beijing: China’s strange taste in Western philosophers. New Republic, 30 December 2010

[2] Sarah Biddulph,  Elisa Nesossi, Susan Trevaskes and Flora Sapio,  Detention and Its Reforms in the PRC, China law and society review 2 (2017) 1-62

[3] Andrew M Fischer, Disempowered Development of Tibet in China, Lexington, 2013, ch 4

[4] Andrew M. Fischer,  The Revenge of Fiscal Maoism in China’s Tibet, Erasmus  Working Paper No. 547, July 2012

[5] Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies, Cambridge, 2002, 316

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blog three of three on corona virus and Tibet

Health workers in Kandze take a break 12 Feb 2020

For China, corona virus in Tibet starts and ends with data on individuals and the zealous tracking of all the contacts of infected individuals. Like all big data aggregations, this lends itself to immediate publication on official prefectural websites, often with specific biodata, everything but personal name, on those infected.


Prompt publication of data built on intensive and intrusive tracking of everyone who might be infected is the end of the story, for official China.

For Tibetans, that story then begins. Having had white coated health professionals rush through the streets, alarming everyone, trying to nail every person in contact with an infected person, what do you then do if you are now officially labelled as a corona virus case, or a likely case with no symptoms yet? Your biodata has been published on an official website. You have been ordered to stay home, in strict self-quarantine. But what happens if you do develop a corona virus infection, and urgently need treatment when you quickly become short of breath?

Australian Red Cross

In rich countries, with abundant access to information, people know to expect the crisis to come on the eight day after symptoms manifest, as the immune system goes into overdrive and starts lining your lungs so bad you are shorter and shorter of breath. Then you need help quickly, as deterioration is usually rapid, and extra oxygen may be all you need, rather than highly invasive ventilator.

But in Tibet, what can you do? Waiting, as symptoms worsen, is not a good option, as that only increases the likelihood you will end up needing a ventilator. The problem with ventilators is that they exist only in cities, are expensive to buy and to operate, as they require having an anaesthetist on hand to keep the patient sufficiently sedated to tolerate having a tube thrust deep into the lungs, forcing in oxygen through clogged lung walls and into the blood stream.

Tibetan nurses on the corona virus frontline, Elmhurst Hospital, New York

In Western countries there is an obsession with ventilators, and much argument about whether there are enough, how to get more, who is to blame. Yet the reality ignored by many is that a ventilator is a last resort, a desperate measure, that in 50% of cases, still results in death.

What matters much more, as the infection progresses, is that key transition, usually on the eighth day of being ill, when the immune system starts over reacting, clogging the lung wall. This requires a rapid transition from self-isolation to hospital admission.

In rich countries, that is often problematic. Many people wait at home too long. Many find it hard to get an ambulance to come. Many get to a hospital only to find it overloaded and understaffed as health workers themselves increasingly fall ill. There is not much point in encouraging Tibetans to go to hospital as needed, when it’s urgent, if they can’t get in.


In Tibet the obstacles to timely and effective treatment, in that critical period, are multiple. As well as the complications experienced by the rich, Tibetans have to overcome the stigma of being labelled a danger to public health, to be hidden away, in order to be accepted as an inpatient in a hospital. You have to get to a hospital, which may be far. You may find the county hospital giving preferential treatment to the well-connected and/or Han urban residents, who have the money to pay scalpers charging huge amounts to sell you a ticket to the hospital’s outpatient queue, where you may then be assessed for inpatient admission.[1] Even in big Chinese cities, even with supposedly universal health care insurance, you still need to bribe your way into a hospital bed, starting with paying whatever the scalper demands. You need cash upfront, or you may not even get through the front door, still less into a hospital bed.

In Tibet the quickest path into poverty is illness, anyone in the family sick or injured. Although China has officially abolished all poverty in Tibet, the risks remain. For China, officially ending poverty is a one-way trajectory, with no sliding back, but in Tibet everyone knows anything can happen, life is contingent, a snowstorm can wipe out half your yaks overnight, a slip into a marmot burrow can break a leg.

A 2020 freely downloadable article by Chinese scientists, based on a nationwide cross-sectional survey of 29,712 rural poor households, concluded: ”The health status of the rural poor in China is not optimistic, with 51.63% attributing their poverty to the illness of household members. Non Communicable Diseases are the biggest health threat to the rural poor in China. Over 60% of all the households have at least one patient and more than a quarter of the households with patients cannot afford expensive medical expenses. Although 98% of all the households participate in China’s a rural health insurance system – the New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme – 16% are still unable to bear their medical expenses after reimbursement from the scheme. Further, high altitude, ill-health and low-income are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

“The per capita net income of poor households was inversely proportional to the altitude of their places of residence, family aging and unhealthy status, but was positively correlated with the number of workforces in their families. Poverty due to illness is one of the root causes of rural poverty in China. With the backward medical infrastructure in high altitude areas, people are more prone to fall into the vicious circle of poverty-unhealthy-low income-poverty. At present, most of China’s poverty-stricken population is concentrated in the deep mountainous areas. For every 1000m increase in altitude, net income per capita will decrease by CNY/RMB 120.

“Furthermore, geographical position, ill-health and poverty are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The elevation of farmer’s residence affects medical infrastructure or services, thus affecting human health and family income. The higher the altitude of the farmer’s residence, the lower the level of medical services they enjoy, and the worse their health. Therefore, there is a significant negative correlation between the altitude of the farmer’s residence and the health status.”[2]


Dangerous infections jumping from animals to humans are not new to Tibetans. Yungdrung Gyurme, in his village beyond Shigatse over the new year discovers “the experience of the older generation regarding epidemics dates back to the last century. My father once told me about an epidemic in the 1970s. A villager had been infected with a scary disease transmitted from a dead yak. He got a rose-like rash on his body and soon died. His family was in a horrible situation, no one dared to help them remove the body, they went everywhere holding out their thumbs pleading for help (Tibetans stretch out their thumbs when they plead for help). In the end, they buried the body in the soil; Tibetans, however, had been holding sky burials since the 13th century and believe that when you bury the deceased, it will bring disaster to the following generations. So they later started digging out all the bones and only felt at ease when the body was burnt.”

Yungdrung Gyurme tells us this story, in his posting on the impact of corona virus in remote Tibetan villages, without telling what the disease was, despite his allegiance to scientific rationality. That this dramatic contagion should, even in 2020, remain mysterious, says a lot about the lack of effort by official China to feed back to Tibetans the voluminous research done on hydatids, and the nasty, often fatal, disease this inter-species transmission causes. Echinococcosis is a very unpleasant way to die.[3] Same goes for brucellosis.

freely downloadable


On paper, China has a comprehensive health insurance system that reimburses you for the health bills you’ve paid. On paper, the urban health insurance system and its rural equivalent merged in 2019, bringing greater reimbursement payments to rural folk, with only a modest increase in insurance subscription payments. In reality, it is still true that “rural families often borrow money, sell their productive assets, or cut short their children’s education in order to pay their medical expenses, or simply do not go to see the doctor when falling ill due to their inability to pay.”[4]

The lack of the right connections and lack of cash are the biggest health hazards in Tibet, often compounded by doctors insisting on prescribing the most expensive medicines and treatments, which remains a major source of their income. Tibetans, due to remoteness and membership of a disdained ethnicity, are at the end of the line, still queuing even when the need for treatment is urgent.

Then there’s the shortage of health care professionals in rural areas. According to the UN International Labor Organisation’s World Social Protection Report 2017-2019, 29.1 per cent of China’s rural population has no effective health cover because of a deficit of health professionals.

The ILO report was published to track each country’s progress towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG3, universal health care. That requires not only emergency hospital care but long term care (LTC) that enables people, after discharge from hospital, to live independently, with access to ongoing health services as needed. Although China boasts it leads the developing world in delivering fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, China spends only 0.1 % of its GDP on long term care, according to ILO data tables. By comparison Belgium spends 1.7% of GDP on LTC, the Netherlands 2.2%.

China spends $133 per older citizen per year on long term care, a figure inflated by calculating purchasing power parity, which assumes renminbi expenditure gets you more than do dollars in other countries. But that $133 per over-65, the ILO tells us, is not a lot; and way below the $450 South Africa spends, or $186 in Indonesia, or $3838 in Belgium.

China has long underspent and underinvested in health care, which is not a problem for the urban rich, but, on ILO figures, 91% of China’s population older than 65 are excluded from LTC services due to financial resource deficit. The health insurance system requires local governments to contribute, as well as central payments and the regular insurance payments by families opting to be covered. The result is a highly unequal system, with poor counties only able to finance poor health (and education) services. This has been so for many decades now.

The UN has had since the 1950s a Convention binding signatory governments to provide social protection to all citizens, ILO Convention 102. China has never signed it.


China’s downshifting of responsibility for so much of the financing of health and education, down to local level, favours rich provinces and prefectures, while depriving poorer areas of resources. Michelle Bachelet, speaking for the UN response to corona virus, says: “In developing countries, where a large portion of the population may rely on daily income to survive, the impact could be far greater. The millions of people who have little access to health-care, and who, by necessity, live in cramped conditions with poor sanitation, and no safety net, no clean water, will suffer most. They are less likely to be able to protect themselves from the virus, and less likely to withstand a sharp drop in income. Unchecked, the pandemic is likely to create even wider inequalities, amid extensive suffering.

“An emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations. I am profoundly concerned by certain countries’ adoption of emergency powers that are unlimited and not subject to review. In a few cases, the epidemic is being used to justify repressive changes to regular legislation, which will remain in force long after the emergency is over. In some countries we have already seen reports of journalists being penalized for reporting a lack of masks; health-workers reprimanded for saying they lack protection; and ordinary people arrested for social media postings about the pandemic.  Criticism is not a crime. When an existential threat faces all of us, there is no place for nationalism or scapegoating – including of migrants and minority communities.”

If you missed Michelle Bachelet’s statement, you aren’t alone. When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights speaks thus, on April 9, it gets almost no media coverage, in a time when everyone is scared for themselves.


China’s pervasive surveillance technologies have perhaps legitimated themselves by their use in the virus crisis in swiftly tracking everyone who came into contact with someone who turned out to be infected. This constant surveillance could readily become the new normal, not only across China, but in other countries too. Now Apple and Google, normally rivals, are collaborating on designing apps you can (voluntarily) download and use to see if your path crossed with anyone infected, because they too have downloaded the app.

While China continues to fail to invest in rural health care in Tibet, the surveillance state is surging. “The police authorities in China are using these tools to create a powerful surveillance dragnet and racially profile minorities. Such acts of the Chinese government are giving rise to a fear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will rule via Digital Authoritarianism, i.e., state-led mass surveillance using a new form of credit scoring to influence the behavior of citizens.”

China is energetically promoting its health care system and its mass surveillance technologies to developing countries, especially in 50 African countries. The China model promises universal health care at modest prices for central governments, and intensive surveillance of citizens on the move, as essential tools for pandemic case contact tracing.

When Tibetans speak up about the realities of a virus first transmitted to humans in Wuhan, of unavailable treatment, they are speaking truths many need to hear.


Over and over Tibetan culture has rediscovered its inner strengths in the most testing times. The trust so many Tibetans have in the Buddhas and bodhisattvas means they are not alone, and have active guidance available, as long as they ask for it, as heartfelt as possible.

This has most recently been expressed poetically by Dzongsar Jamyang Khentse Rinpoche:

Master Shakyamuni, think of me!
Lord Khasarpani, think of me!
Only father Oddiyana Padma, think of me!
Only mother Tara, think of me!
Glorious sister Kali Devi, think of me!
Pay heed to this person’s prayers and desperate plea!

Purify the effects of negative actions,
Remove obstacles and adverse circumstances,
Free us from the grasp of malicious spirits,
Pacify the sufferings of plague,
Destroy the root of destructive epidemics,
Pacify wars and disputes.

If I don’t pray to you, to whom should I pray!
If you don’t care for us with compassion, who will care for us!
If you don’t protect us with your power, who will protect us!
Bless us!
Bless us right now!
Bless us this very day!
Bless us this very moment!

Bless all beings that they encounter the Three Supreme Jewels,
Bless all beings that they have faith in the Three Supreme Jewels,
Bless all beings that they develop conviction in cause and effect,
Bless all beings that compassion and bodhicitta arise within them,
Bless all beings that they understand the meaning of shunyata,
Bless all beings that they recognize their mind as Buddha.
May this person’s aspiration be realized!


[1] Hospital Scalpers Anger Many, Stay in Business Anyway,  Caixin Online, 02.29.2016

[2] Yang Zhou, Yuanzhi Guo and Yansui Liu , Health, income and poverty: evidence from China’s rural household survey, International Journal for Equity in Health, vol 19, 2020, article 36  free from https://equityhealthj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12939-020-1121-0

Liu Y, Liu J, Zhou Y. Spatio-temporal patterns of rural poverty in China and targeted poverty alleviation strategies. Journal of Rural Studies, 2017;52:66–75.

[3] Lass A; Ma L; Kontogeorgos I; Xueyong Z; Li X; Karanis P,  Contamination of wastewater with Echinococcus multilocularis – possible implications for drinking water resources in the Qinghai Tibet Plateau China. Water research 2020 Mar 01; Vol. 170, pp. 115334

Boufana B; Umhang G; Qiu J; Chen X; Lahmar S; Boué F; Jenkins D; Craig P, Development of three PCR assays for the differentiation between Echinococcus shiquicus, E. granulosus (G1 genotype), and E. multilocularis DNA in the co-endemic region of Qinghai-Tibet plateau, China. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene 2013 Apr; Vol. 88 (4), pp. 795-802

Wang X; Liu J; Zuo Q; Mu Z; Weng X; Sun X; Wang J; Boufana B; Craig PS; Giraudoux P; Raoul F; Wang Z, Echinococcus multilocularis and Echinococcus shiquicus in a small mammal community on the eastern Tibetan Plateau: host species composition, molecular prevalence, and epidemiological implications. Parasites & vectors 2018 May 16; Vol. 11 (1), pp. 302

Chen, Fan; Liu, Lei; He, Qili; et al, A multiplex PCR for the identification of Echinococcus multilocularis, E. granulosus sensu stricto and E. canadensis that infect human, PARASITOLOGY; OCT 2019; 146; 12; p1595-p1601 

王展; 胥瑾; 王海久; 周瀛; 任利; 阳丹才让; 侯立朝; 樊海宁Establishment of animal model for Echinococcus inoculation infection in Microtus fuscus in Qinghai – Tibet Plateau.  泡球蚴感染青藏高原野生田鼠动物模型的建火. Journal of Clinical Hepatology / Linchuang Gandanbing Zazhi. Feb2018, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p373-377.

Gao CH; Wang JY; Shi F; Steverding D; Wang X; Yang YT; Zhou XN,  Field evaluation of an immunochromatographic test for diagnosis of cystic and alveolar echinococcosis. Parasites & vectors 2018 May 23; Vol. 11 (1), pp. 311;

Li, Jian-qiu; Li, Li; Fan, Yan-lei; Fu, Bao-quan; Zhu, Xing-quan; Yan, Hong-bin; Jia, Wan-zhong. Genetic Diversity in Echinococcus multilocularis From the Plateau Vole and Plateau Pika in Jiuzhi County, Qinghai Province, China, FRONTIERS IN MICROBIOLOGY; NOV 5 2018;

Moss JE; Chen X; Li T; Qiu J; Wang Q; Giraudoux P; Ito A; Torgerson PR; Craig PS, Reinfection studies of canine echinococcosis and role of dogs in transmission of Echinococcus multilocularis in Tibetan communities, Sichuan, China. Parasitology 2013 Nov; Vol. 140 (13), pp. 1685-92;

Cai, Qi-Gang; Han, Xiu-Min; Yang, Yong-Hai; Zhang, Xue-Yong; Ma, Li-Qing; Karanis, Panagiotis; Hu, Yong-Hao.  Lasiopodomys fuscus as an important intermediate host for Echinococcus multilocularis: isolation and phylogenetic identification of the parasite, INFECTIOUS DISEASES OF POVERTY; MAR 31 2018;

Abulizi, Abuduaini; Wen, Hao; Zhang, Chuanshan; Li, Liang; Ran, Bo; Jiang, Tiemin; Aji, Tuerganaili; Shao, Yingmei. Sequence analysis of mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase 1 and cytochrome b genes of echinococcus multilocularis from human patients, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND EXPERIMENTAL PATHOLOGY; 2018; 11; 2; p795-

Cao, M.; Chen, K.; Li, W.; Ma, J.; Xiao, Z.; Wang, H.; Gao, J.   Genetic characterization of human-derived hydatid fluid based on mitochondrial gene sequencing in individuals from northern and western China. Journal of Helminthology. 2020, Vol. 94, p1-5.

Role of dog behaviour and environmental fecal contamination in transmission of Echinococcus multilocularis in Tibetan communities.  Parasitology 2011 Sep; Vol. 138 (10), pp. 1316-29;

Craig PS; Giraudoux P; Wang ZH; Wang Q, Echinococcosis transmission on the Tibetan Plateau. Advances in parasitology 2019; Vol. 104, pp. 165-246

Jian-qiu Li; Li Li; Yan-lei Fan; Bao-quan Fu; Xing-quan Zhu; Hong-bin Yan; Wan-zhong Jia. Genetic Diversity in Echinococcus multilocularis From the Plateau Vole and Plateau Pika in Jiuzhi County, Qinghai Province, China, Frontiers in Microbiology, Vol 9 (2018

Feng K; Li W; Guo Z; Duo H; Fu Y;  Development of LAMP assays for the molecular detection of taeniid infection in canine in Tibetan rural area, The Journal of veterinary medical science 2017 Dec 22; Vol. 79 (12), pp. 1986-1993

[4] Xu, Y., X. Zhang, and X. Zhu. 2008. Medical financial assistance in rural China: Policy design and implementation. Studies in Health Services Organisation, Strategy and Policy 23: 295–317.

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Blog one of three on corona virus in Tibet, China and worldwide

for a moment, Tibetan health care workers remove their masks

In early February 2020 Rukor published an analysis of the new corona virus, both in China and Tibet, and how Tibetan and Chinese healers were responding.

That post was premature, before it was obvious the whole world would have to tread the infection path China transmitted globally.

Two months later, with a global pandemic spreading fast, and no-one able to say the worst is past, seems the right moment to revisit the virus, its origins and its impacts not only on lungs but on minds and societies, taking Wuhan as example.

Kham Kandze: lockdown surveillance

To revisit virus rampant is not to dwell too much on apportioning blame. There is so much blaming at the moment, accusations, counter accusations, false information at a time when we need to work together both at community and global levels. It is important to identify how and why this virus jumped into the human realm and spread so fast. But what matters most is to relearn our common humanity, and that we all face a common threat, with no-one exempt.

So, amid the din of advice, panic and confusion, this blog focusses on just a few voices, on the ground, in virus epicentres, giving us ground zero access to the emotional journeys of fear, lockdown and acute anxiety.

We now know so much more; above all we have the voices of people inside Wuhan, and their photos of how it all began, so we can learn from their experience what it is actually like under lengthy lockdown, an invisible, unseen danger present everywhere. We have many posts by Woeser, monitoring the virus spread, made available in English by Highpeakspureearth.

In rich countries, enormous efforts are under way to prevent economic collapse as well as effective monitoring, contact tracing and treatment of those with the virus. In poorer countries, not only do they lack state capacity for coherent response, investors from rich countries are pulling out, resulting in economic crisis at the worst possible moment.

Kham Kandze disinfecting traffic

We are suddenly in a Hobbesian world of each against all, with almost zero co-operation between states. The UN is almost totally helpless and silent; its’ appeal for trillions in aid to the poorest countries hardly got a mention in media. We are in Mad Max post apocalypse end times survivalist mode, just like that. The security state has yet again expanded its surveillance of us all, especially where we are and where we go. It’s as if those whose professions thrive on fear and suspicion were ready for this moment, ready to make ambit claims for massive handouts, expanded powers and privileged status. Never let a crisis go to waste.

Those handouts and subsidies will have to be paid for by austerity for us all, not just for a few years but for probably a generation, by those already precariously hanging in to a whirling gig economy.

So there is a lot of sorting, clarifying, rectifying to do, and little prospect of a return to normal. The worst that could happen is a protracted blame game, exacerbating the tribal divides already well entrenched in most countries.

Kham Kandze Feb 6 2020: health workers tracking down contacts of infected people, house to house tracing as fast as possible


That’s all in the future. Right now, we can learn from Wuhan, listen to Wuhan voices, share their pain, grief, strength, endurance. They were the first, now it’s our turn. If we did look at Wuhan at all, it was from a great distance, through the rhetorics of state power. Now it’s time to return to street level, to the lives of individuals, who could be us today or tomorrow.

Wuhan is to China what Chicago is to the US: a major city that works as a hub connecting everywhere to everywhere else. Wuhan, on the midYangtze, a long way downriver from Tibet, is a long way upriver from Shanghai. If you want to fly across the huge territory of China, chances are you’ll fly into Wuhan first, get reshuffled onto another flight and on to your destination.

That hub reshuttling is, we now recognise, an ideal opportunity for a highly infectious virus to spread as fast and far as possible. Wuhan was the conveyor belt, as we came to know too late. Millions left Wuhan to celebrate new year with folks back home, because no-one warned them the virus was spreading everywhere.

What does this mean, in daily life, especially if you work in a hospital in Wuhan, because you volunteered to go there to help out in a crisis:


Haze, shady rain
Five days, damp and dismally quiet
Cold and cruel, tears and injury
These dull and murky words.
How much I hope you stay away
At the guesthouse in self-isolation
Without time, without days
No sound and no air
Writing material, psychological intervention.
Place a hundred fearful hearts in each respective palm
The trembling, the dread, the crying and despair
Throw it away with those muddied in poison.
One person’s room
Is divided into a contaminated area and a clean area.
Wash your hands, wash your hands. Mask, mask
Forced to correct all bad habits.
Right now, everyone knows that a bat is responsible for the poison
And calling the crime poisoning is sketching it lightly.
The poison from seventeen years ago is still fresh in my memory.
Today is a carbon copy of yesterday
But the poison isn’t yesterday’s poison.
People’s pampering gave rise to its cunning
Strong contagion is the fruit of their pampering.
Very late at night, what I most want to do
Is give those bats hidden in their caves
Steel armour to put on
Engraved with the two characters, “Wuhan.”
Leave all the blades with no handles
Leave all the teeth nothing to bite.

These are the words of nurse Wei Shuiyin, an accomplished poet who flew into Wuhan from Gansu to help out, on the front line. Nurses did die in Wuhan. Wei Shuiyin is the poetic penname, evoking gently flowing water, of Long Qiaoling 龙巧玲, who nurses in Shandan county hospital, immediately adjacent to Tibet Amdo.

from the northernmost Tibetan mountains water for the parched Hexi Corridor of Gansu. Shandan county far right.

Shandan is one of the driest parts of the Hexi Corridor of Gansu, and relies for its water on the Dola Riwo (Qilian Shan) mountains of northern Amdo, and the Waden Chu river draining Tibet’s northernmost mountains eastward.

An official heroic version

The poison of 17 years ago is SARS, which some remember and learned from, and many forgot. The pampering/spoiling/doting/人溺爱 that caused this poison to infect humans is the selfish, self-indulgent display of wealth, conspicuously consuming wildlife, cooked and eaten after procuring live animals at the Wuhan wet market. It was the proliferating Wuhan meat market that enabled this virus to jump from animals to people, exposing the entire human species to contagion to which no human is immune because until now no human immune system has ever been exposed to it. In medical jargon, we are all corona virus naïve, like newborns thrust into a world full of dangers. Now we are all naïfs.

Tibetans lost naivete long ago, after exposure not only to artillery barrages and aerial bombardment officially defined as peaceful liberation; and compulsory class warfare officially defined as democratic reform.

Wuhan wet market: snakes awaiting slaughter

Tibetans have witnessed culture heroes such as Sonam Dargey (Soinam Dajie in Chinese) who risked and lost his life to protect Tibetan wild animals, then shamelessly appropriated as an official heroic worker and martyr, long after his death, to the greater glory of the party-state. The apotheosis of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, now an official martyr of the glorious national corona war, is a similar shameless appropriation of someone who stood up for truth and compassion and suffered for it. Sonam Dargey has been remade officially into an ancestor of China’s drive to build national parks in Tibet, while erasing from memory the mountain patrol of Tibetans in their jeeps tracking and confronting the slaughterers of Tibetan antelopes. Their collective effort is erased, while their leader is officially enshrined.


On February 8, Lantern Festival Night, far from her Hexi Corridor home, Wei Shuiyin wrote:

Night of the Lantern Festival

Outside an eighth floor window of the Wuhan Jinlaiya Hotel
Lanterns already lighting the city
The splendour of skyscraper silhouettes
Clarifying the true colours of the night
Silent. Sombre. Frigid.
I know that through the lanterns
Further and deeper in the background
Even more windows are black
Black as a cave, as a bat, as if swallowed up
Like a hidden poison with a flowery crown

In the darkness I stare into the distance
Look into the distance of the Yangtze, the Han River
The distance of the Yellow Crane Tower
The distance of the makeshift hospital
The distance of the Gansu Hexi Corridor
The distance of the Huangpu River in Shanghai
The distance of heaven using a long spoon to feed us all

The darkness still spreads
But I’ve no doubt, all is well
As the Lantern Festival moon rises
All is well, all is bright

The blackness of bats, of caves, of the dark, of danger are all around; and Wei Shuiyin is alone. Yet she remains stoic, determined to continue tending to the sick. Amid the blackness there is light.

Day after day, shift after shift, she worked, a hundred nursing sisters alongside her worked in the temporary hospital hastily erected in Wuhan. The strain was enormous. The protocol governing use of personal protective equipment (PPE) not only conceals the individuality of faces, it disallows taking off your PPE, already in short supply, even to use the toilet. Not surprisingly, fellow nurses, unable to eat, unable to take a break, almost faint from low blood sugar:

bat soup

Little Sister, Tonight I’m Ashamed of the Praise

In the early hour of two o’clock
Thunder and lightning, wind and rain
The iron plates that blocked the doors have been overturned
A tiny figure was carried home by the storm
Floating like a scrap of paper
“Little sister, why did you come back early?”
“Hypoglycaemic dizziness, group leader let me go”
“Forty-minute travel time?”
“A Wuhan taxi driver took me”
Face pale, voice weak
The thermometer at her forehead reads 33.1°C

A spray of disinfectant, wash hands, repeat
Wipe clean nostrils, ears
Monitoring the operation, my hand trembled
Through my protective goggles
I can’t tell if the drops on her face
Are tears or splashed disinfectant
Remove the mask
Forehead, nose, cheek, ears
Blisters, boils–accomplices of hypoglycaemia and the cold rallying towards me
I’ve no strength to say anything
Any consolation will seem a false show of affection
Change clothing, shoes
Step back into disposable slippers
Shower in water above 56°C, don’t eat for a half hour

Wuhan wet market: porcupines

Everyone knows
Tightly wrap your body in protective clothing for a dozen hours
Don’t eat don’t drink don’t evacuate
Have to eat and drink less before starting work
Ah, protective clothing, how is there still a shortage?
Can you let her change to a new protective gown during the shift?
Even if work hours are extended?

The little sister who returned with hypoglycaemia
So far, I haven’t been able to remember your face
A hundred sisters
A hundred masks covering unknown beauty
Concealing how much hypoglycaemia from my sight
Perhaps, there are things I can’t say

Little sister, no praise tonight
All songs of praise are guilty
All deceived consciences
Will kneel to you
Put on a facemask, the instant you turn
I suddenly call to mind
I should add another mask
Me, facing this erupting storm
Should I play deaf and dumb

The nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers are culture heroes, keeping alive so many who otherwise would succumb.  Why then does our poet headline this graphic account of what it’s like at ground zero, moment by moment “I’m ashamed of the praise.”

Wuhan wet market: badgers


What deeply distresses our poet is not the unending work of saving lives, or popular praise, but the entry of a distant praise singer, out to praise itself by praising the workers. The entry of the state, of the massive propaganda apparatus, praising itself as infallible and exemplary, is what causes Long Qiaoling the deepest pain. She does not want to be labelled a model worker, a shining example of sacrifice, to be appropriated by the propaganda machine even before the dying are cold:

Please Don’t Disturb

Please allow me to take off my protective clothes and mask
To remove the flesh of my body from its armour
Let me trust my own health
Let me breathe undisturbed
The slogans are yours
The praise is yours
The propaganda, the model workers, all yours
I am merely performing my duties
Acting on a healer’s conscience
Often, there’s no choice but to go to battle bare-chested
Without time to choose between life and death
Genuinely without any lofty ideals
Please, don’t decorate me in garlands
Don’t give me applause
Spare me recognition for work injury, martyrdom, or any other merits
I didn’t come to Wuhan to admire the cherry blossoms
And I didn’t come for the scenery, the reception of flattery
I just want to return home safe when the epidemic ends
Even if all that remains are my bones
I must bring myself home to my children and parents
I ask:
Who wants to carry a comrade’s ashes
Setting foot on the road home
Media, journalists
Please don’t disturb me again
What you call the actual facts, the data
I haven’t the time or the inclination to follow
Weary all day, all night
Rest, sleep
This is more important than your praise
I invite you to go look, if you are able
At those washed out homes
Does smoke rise from the chimneys
The cell phones drifting about the crematorium
Have their owners been found?

Wei Shuiyin is weary, and uninterested in turning her raw experience into data and journalist’s clichés that only distance the reader from raw reality. In her weariness is clarity, and a focus on details that say it all. Usually we worry about losing our phone, but in the crematorium the phones pile up, having lost their owners. No-one knows what to do.

The party-state of course knows what to do, at all times since, by definition, it is the wise and capable leader of all, solver of all problems and none may disagree. The official apparat is out to bestow labels: model worker, even martyr, thereby glorifying itself. So shameless and insistent is the party-state, it demands gratitude when all anyone wants to be is take time to mourn. The self-referential self-importance of the central leaders is tone deaf to the grief.

Wuhan wet market: frozen hog deer

The virus did not originate in Tibet, but compulsory “gratitude education” did, and from Tibet it spread virally to Xinjiang and now right across China.

Tibetans remember the 1980s, when CCP secretary Hu Yaobang apologised for the extremes of the Cultural Revolution and ordered Han cadres stationed in Tibet to either learn to speak Tibetan, or leave.

Neither happened, and by 1989 Hu Yaobang himself was ousted by party hardliners who accused him of sympathising too much with the patriotic protesters in Tiananmen.

For so many Tibetans the 1980s seemed promising, but the promise was never fulfilled, culminating in the 1987 uprising. Above all, the 1980s were a time of shock and trauma, of mourning the 18 unrelenting years from 1958 to 1976 when revolutionary China made war against everything Tibetan, destroying everything old.

The party never understood the need to mourn. When Dharamsala was allowed to send delegations into Tibet, to hear that grief, it overwhelmed everyone. Leader of the 1979 delegation Lobsang Samten, a younger brother of the Dalai Lama was so overcome by torrential outpourings of grief he later died of a broken heart.

Cadres accompanying the Tibetan delegation were shocked to discover that Tibetans were so traumatised. “Beijing’s ignorance of actual conditions in Tibet, cultivated by glowing reports and wildly exaggerated claims conveyed to Beijing by Chinese cadres in Tibet, led to an overly optimistic view of the ease with which it would be possible to impress the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans in exile and convince them to return. The Chinese believed much of their own propaganda about material progress, the achievements of ‘people’s democracy’ under socialism. The strictly conformist regime imposed by the Chinese themselves isolated them from accurate information concerning the real feelings of Tibetans.”[1]

Wuhan wet market

Beijing was again shocked in 2020 when senior Wuhan party officials demanded Wuhan show gratitude for the party’s corona crisis response. “Anger simmered on social media in China March 7, 2020, as state media reported remarks made by Wang Zhonglin 王忠林  Wuhan’s new top official, during a video conference on the city’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. Wang reportedly said that it was necessary to “carry out gratitude education among the citizens of the whole city, so that they thank the General Secretary [Xi Jinping], thank the Chinese Communist Party, heed the Party, walk with the Party, and create strong positive energy.”

Where does the concept of “gratitude education” 感恩教育 come from? What are the syllabus and pedagogy of gratitude education? To Tibetans this is a familiar demand of the new masters, going back to the 1950s, ethnographer Emily Yeh tells us, when in official history, the introduction of vegetable cultivation is associated not only with a blow to “imperial” arrogance but also, deploying the metaphor of Chinese nation as family, with Tibetan gratitude for the care of the elder brother Han’s assistance.”[2]

Gratitude education is a syllabus for ensuring Tibetans understand expressions of gratitude are required, on demand. Depicting the Han supermajority as the strong elder brother and Tibetans as the weaker younger brother positions Tibet lower in the Confucian hierarchy of who owes filial piety to whom. Like other Confucian precepts, mandatory gratitude is best instilled by rote learning and repetition, behavioural modifications leading to heartfelt adoption of correct attitudes. In China, behavioural psychology has a long lineage. Modern China’s gratitude education began in Tibet before spreading across China.

Beijing was shocked by popular revulsion at the 7 March command to show gratitude, but it still took a further four weeks before an official mourning ceremony was held, led by Xi Jinping. He waited until the annual tomb sweeping day for honouring the dead, the Qing Ming, making the Wuhan virus deaths part of Confucian filial piety towards ancestors.


Central leaders take pride in central solutions to problems defined by central leaders. One size fits all. Seldom do policies designed for overcrowded cities work well in Tibet. But whole-of-government 举国体制 Jǔguó tǐzhì policy prescriptions apply to all. So even the remotest of Tibetan areas had to shut down, once it became clear that suppression of essential virus spread information failed to halt the virus spread.

Before everything belatedly shut, the virus spread from Wuhan, even into some of the remotest of Tibetan communities, by people coming from Wuhan.

disinfecting a gompa in Kandze

The worst we know of so far was Tawu (རྟའུ་་རྲོང་ rTa’u in Tibetan, 道孚  Daofu in Chinese), a community tucked away in the rugged landscapes of Kham. Tawu (like Rebkong) is a transition town from the more densely populated lowlands below to the pastoral highlands above. Tawu county’s average altitude is 3245m, which is quite low for Tibet, and it is on one of the few highways linking China’s two routes into Tibet from Sichuan. The S303 Highway brought corona virus to Tawu county, and its 57,000 people, overwhelmingly Tibetan but with an increasing immigrant population. The official gazetteer describes this county as well endowed,  “rich in mineral resources such as gold, iron, lead, copper, hot springs and cordyceps” (caterpillar fungus) and water flow of 4.144 billion cubic meters, capable of generating hydropower of 1.538 million kilowatts. Plenty of opportunities for lowland immigrants, including from Wuhan.

Kangding/Dartsedo northwest to Tawu

Access to Tawu has sped up with the recent completion of a four lane expressway to Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) from Ya’an at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, dramatically cutting travel time from Chengdu (and Wuhan) to Dartsedo and Tawu. The virus now has expressway access all areas privileges.

The spread of contagion so far from Wuhan so alarmed officials that intensive contact tracing resulted in identification of the source, and of the proliferating number of infections. By mid-February 2020 county cadres explained to Sichuan Daily the main source was a driver who travelled widely across Sichuan in the first half of January, arriving in Tawu 18 January, spreading the corona virus to several sexual partners along the way.

Kham Kandze Tawu corona virus infection treatment

One month later, zealous contact tracing meant “339 people in close contact had been subjected to centralized isolation medical observations, and 1908 general contacts had been subjected to home medical observations. All 8463 key people who were in close and general contact, regardless of whether there were symptoms, were sampled in a rigorous and responsible manner, and intensified PCR nucleic acid testing. The working method changed from waiting for the onset to confirming the diagnosis, and to proactively inspecting due diligence. The purpose is to lock the infected person in the shortest time and treat it in a timely manner; to identify close contacts and to focus on medical observation to prevent infection; to carry out home isolation medical observation on general contacts to prevent spread.”

in Tibet, checking everyone’s temperature

By then there were 62 confirmed corona virus case in Kandze prefecture, 57 of them just in Tawu county. Linguist Sonam Lhundrop, from Tawu/Daofu, explains how it all happened: “In the 1980s, when the local economy first opened to the outside, Daofu became home to a booming timber industry. Although the lumber companies were owned by outsiders, people in Daofu exploited this opportunity by transporting logs to Chengdu. Then, when this industry was closed down in the early 2000s by strict environmental regulations, many Daofu people stayed in the transport industry, working for local mines and other industries. In this context, it is certainly significant that both of Daofu’s ‘patient zeros’ were local people who had been travelling for business immediately before they brought the epidemic home. It is perhaps a lack of local economic opportunity, rather than a fatal character flaw, which has wounded the weanling, and left this place and its people particularly vulnerable.” Tawu in the local language means a weanling, a young horse only just weaned.

The global blame game, which preoccupies so many folks, occurs within Tibet too. Sonam Lhundrop reports that nearby Tibetan communities blame Tawu people: “In WeChat discussions, many Tibetans have interpreted Daofu’s misfortune as karmic retribution for inhabitants’ supposed lack of piety, as reflected in their economic activities: many Daofu Tibetans are traders and entrepreneurs.”

are bats a delicacy at dinner table…..
.or a danger long known to Tibetan sorig emchi healers?

[1] Warren W Smith, Tibetan Nation, Westview, 1996, 565-6

[2] Emily Yeh, Taming Tibet, Cornell 2013

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Blog two of three on corona virus in Tibet, China and worldwide

Kham Kandze: health workers go door to door looking for more contacts of infected people


The corona virus crisis has revealed that China, at the highest level, is dangerously conflicted by its own contradictions and categories.

On one hand, China wants to be seen as modern, scientific, a leader in rational planning and efficient execution of policy, unhindered by the messy politics of democracy and vested interests lobbying for favoured treatment. China has poured effort into scientific research on almost every topic imaginable and works hard to make much research available in English.

In the field of global health governance, China has been active, promoting itself as an exemplary model of efficient and effective management of health challenges, an inspiration for the developing world.

On the other hand China insists on being unique, exceptional, and not bound to any universals such as human rights. Integral to China’s uniqueness is Traditional Chinese Medicine, a system of treating disease that goes back millennia. TCM has become a core element of Chinese identity and its’ use, in times of crisis, is not the individual choice of an ill person, it is compulsory. Professor Huang Yanzhong, author of Governing Health in Contemporary China commented in early 2020: “throughout modern China, there has always been an interesting marriage between TCM and politics in China. And under Xi’s government, it is now evolving into a symbol of patriotism. You won’t be considered patriotic if you don’t believe in traditional Chinese medicine,” he said.

It has become a matter of national pride that China has a medical system radically different to modern biomedicine, with not only different ingredients but a different imaginary of what it is to be human, what dis-ease is, and modes of treatment. Yet an enormous effort goes into laboratory work to validate TCM scientifically. For example, the officially recommended use of bile forcibly extracted from living bears in cages, as an effective treatment for corona virus infection, has dozens of scientific reports on its use in many other diseases.

This unresolvable tension between TCM and biomedicine, now results in tragic absurdities, in this time of pandemic. Almost certainly this corona virus, utterly new to human lungs, has existed for a very long time in bats, and was transmitted to humans via some intermediary species, no-one is yet sure who. What is clear is that the Wuhan wet market, a jumble of wild caught animals piled on top of each other in cages, awaiting slaughter, was the ideal setting for a virus to jump, from bats to some other species and then to humans. The logic behind making a health soup from bats, and consuming wildlife in feasts of conspicuous consumption, is that they are all TCM ingredients, known for bestowing health.

Thus promoting TCM means promoting the consumption of the same species that caused the corona virus contagion. This is the central contradiction.

This contradiction has not been resolved by China recently enacting further legislation forbidding the eating of wild animals; as the law does not prohibit their use, dried, in TCM and even permits animals seized in official raids to then be quietly sold to TCM compounders. The contradiction is now acute, exacerbated by official decrees listing specific traditional treatments whose approval has been validated, in the middle of a pandemic. National Geographic  says: “This recommendation highlights what wildlife advocates say is a contradictory approach to wildlife: shutting down the live trade in animals for food on the one hand and promoting the trade in animal parts on the other.”

This contradiction has arisen before, as several contagions have arisen in China, and several attempts at legislating to stop global trafficking of wildlife to China have failed. The politicisation of TCM as patriotic, used by decree on as many as 90 per cent of corona virus patients in China, only makes the contradiction ever more acute.

Further, this is no longer China’s problem alone. China, promoting TCM as a global export market, has made the status of TCM a regular priority of its soft power projection diplomacy, especially within the UN World Health Organisation.

For 12 years, WHO’s director-general was Dr Margaret Chan, from 2006 to 2017, when Ethiopian doctor Tedros Ghebreyesus took over. China was understandably proud it had a Chinese citizen heading a UN agency. China saw international recognition of TCM as not only an export market opportunity but as soft power projection, an example of why China is to be accepted on Chinese terms, as unique.[1]

WHO bowed to China’s political pressure to exclude Taiwan, a costly exclusion in this time of pandemic, as Taiwan managed a serious corona virus contagion effectively and very differently to China.

Professor John Fitzgerald, who for years headed the Ford Foundation in China, reminds us: “TCM is not quite the grass-roots cultural practice that it might appear to outsiders. It is deeply embedded in the party’s management of daily physical health in China, where it is allocated a respected place alongside evidence-based medical practice, or “Western medicine” as it’s known in China. “Chinese medicine treats the basics; Western medicine treats symptoms” goes the saying. What’s more, TCM has the backing of Xi.  A thriving and growing international consumer market for pangolin meat and scales, rhinoceros horns, leopard bones, tiger plasters, black bear bile, donkey hide, and kangaroo penises is a predictable outcome of the grandiose repackaging and political marketing of TCM as a global equivalent to evidence-based medicine in Xi New Era of global leadership.

“TCM is also a potent weapon in the party’s ongoing struggle with universal values and human rights. Beijing tends to view and portray human rights and values as a nasty concoction of false hopes and evil intentions brewed up by US institutions and liberal media to promote the global hegemony of the West.   In place of universal values, Xi champions his own brew of national values blended with national folk science and culture. He is also building the propaganda platforms and communications infrastructure needed to deliver his concoction to homes throughout the world.

“At the moment the corona virus was leaping from animal to human hosts under the Huanan market scenario, Xi attended a meeting to endorse TCM. On October 25, 2019 he told a national TCM conference in Beijing that traditional medicine “is a treasure of Chinese civilisation embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people”. In May 2019 the organisation’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, duly agreed to include a chapter on traditional medicines in its guide to acceptable global health practice, the International Classification of Diseases — an authoritative document that assists doctors around the world in diagnosing medical conditions.

” The world scientific community was appalled. The editors of Scientific American branded the decision “an egregious lapse” in evidence-based scientific practice. Nature warned in an editorial that the decision could backfire on WHO in years to come. The organisation’s endorsement of practices that were untested and potentially harmful was “unacceptable for the body that has the greatest responsibility and power to protect human health”.

When it came to endangered wildlife, such as panthers and pangolins, it did not take long to backfire. Wildlife conservationists feared the worst following WHO’s decision. TCM could turn out to be the major political and cultural vector for this devastating global pandemic. If wild game is involved, then TCM has a lot to answer for.”

[1] Huang Yanzhong, Pursuing Health as Foreign Policy, Indiana Journal of Global legal Studies, 2010, 17 #1, 110-

Huang Yanzhong, Engagement in Global Health Governance Regimes, chapter in The Sage Handbook of Contemporary China, Sage, 2018


We can now turn to other Wuhan voices, from within the epicentre, notably the Wuhan novelist Fang Fang, who used to work unloading ships sailing inland up the Yangtze to Wuhan, a worker not in a hospital but on the wharves. Fang Fang turns to the baogao wenxue 报告文学 reportage literature genre to capture the mood of her city in lockdown.  Fang Fang embraces baogao wenxue, literary investigative reporting, despite being herself isolated, yet able to read the emotions of her fellow Wuhaners.

Fang Fang delivers a low key letter from the future, our near future as we start getting used to isolation. For her, the leap day last day of February was already day 38 of lockdown:

People are a bit depressed, in Wuhan, that’s what I feel strongly. Even my cheerful colleagues so far don’t want to talk. At home, almost no one opens their mouths. Is it because everyone is only thinking about the new episode of the television series? I wish it were so. Being locked up at home for a long time with a ban on going out, you need a strong will to support it. In Wuhan, everyone feels a kind of indefinable pressure, which you can hardly understand, I’m afraid, when you are outside. We can never have enough fine words to praise the sacrifices made by the people of Wuhan during this epidemic. We persevere in our support for all official directives, we continue to follow and comply with them. We’re already at 38th day of quarantine.

publication date August 2020

Fang Fang’s translator (into French), Brigitte Duzan, reminds us how the whole of China turned to her, for a dose of reality, unfiltered by the imposition of censorship and propaganda, until it was.

During the entire month of February, and again in March, the first thing people did when they woke up in the morning, in Wuhan but also in whole China, was to rush to read Fang Fang’s “Diary”. No one wanted to watch CCTV reports or read articles from the People’s Daily. She began it the day after the imposition of the quarantine, to report the feelings of the inhabitants, but also to record the most trivial events of everyday life in order to give a true picture of life in the city.

 Fang Fang’s diary will have been a ray of light for everyone in this dark period. It brings out all the fragility of life, despair, helplessness, daily struggles and the worst suffering.

It has often been deleted, but we continue to read it. It is also a window open on the city for the outside world, to try to understand the life of the city from the outside.

Despite the inevitable censorship by the jealous gods of the party-state, Fang Fang’s daily posts are still available, in the original Chinese: http://fangfang.blog.caixin.com/

where it all began: Wuhan wet market
All wet market pix in this blog sourced from


Wearied by the  lockdown dragging on, still determined to capture the people’s emotions she gathered daily by phone, by social media, nothing wearied Fang Fang as much as the capture of Wuhan by the propaganda apparat, out to proclaim itself as the source of all that is good, successful, competent, capable, exemplary and suitable for export worldwide. Before the dead were cold the party-state supervened.

In a brief message entitled The turning point is not yet here, who is already singing a song of triumph?《拐点 尚未 到 , 谁 已 在 高歌?》She writes: The pain of Wuhan people cannot be relieved by shouting slogans.

Fang Fang is in shock at this brazen appropriation, and insistence on gratitude to the omniscient party-state and its core leader. After the acute cabin fever of lockdown, it is enough to wonder about the daring thought of going out, into the Wuhan urban world again:

As the time spent locked up at home lengthens, I wonder if, when I go out, I will get used to it. And especially if I’m going to want to go out. Today, my neighbor Tang Xiaohe sent me photos of the East Lake, as if taken by a drone, telling me that they are recent. The lake is deserted and peaceful; the plums are in bloom, alternating white and red, it is incredibly beautiful. I forwarded these photos to a colleague, and she told me that when she saw them, she wanted to cry. Ah … a spring in vain. Red apricot blossoms, red Japanese apple trees. Look at the tips of their branches, they blame the sky in silence.

In the face of official capture, censorship and compulsory forgetting, Chinese writers deploy all their skills to urge everyone to remember. Novelist Yan Lianke, in an online lecture to his Hong Kong students, says:

The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. Yet, songs of victory are already echoing all around. All because statistics are looking up.

Yan Lianke

Bodies have not turned cold and people are still mourning. Yet, triumphal songs are ready to be sung and the people are ready to proclaim, “Oh, how wise and great!”

We must not be like Ah Q (阿Q, a fictional character in Lu Xun’s novel, characterized for deceiving himself into believing he’s successful or more superior than others), time and again insisting that we are victors even after being hit, insulted, and being on the brink of death.

Our memories have been regulated, replaced, and erased. We remember what others tell us to remember and forget what we’re told to forget. We stay silent when we’re asked to and sing on command. Memories have become a tool of the era, used to forge collective and national memories, made up of what we’re either told to forget or asked to remember.

Especially since the SARS epidemic from 17 years ago, and the escalation of the current Covid-19 epidemic seem as if they are works by the same theatre director. The same tragedy is re-enacted before our eyes. As humans who are but dust, we are incapable of finding out who this director is, nor do we possess the expertise to recover and put together the scriptwriter’s thoughts, ideas, and creations.

Novelist Yan Lianke’s cry for memories to persist is part of a huge effort to preserve writings censored by official diktat, even to translate many into English. Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, a full English translation, arrives in August.

Wuhan wet market: wet, wet, wet

Yan Lianke asks the key question: “Who erased our memories and wiped them clean?!

Forgetful people are, in essence, dirt in the fields and on the roads. Grooves on the sole of a shoe can step on them in whichever way they please.

Forgetful people are, in essence, woodblocks and planks that have cut ties with the tree that gave them life. Saws and axes are in full control of what they become in the future.

If reporters do not report what they witness, and authors do not write about their memories and feelings; if the people in society who can talk and know how to talk are always recounting, reading, and proclaiming in pure lyrical political correctness, who can tell us what it means to live on this earth as flesh and blood?

History becomes a collection of legends, of lost and imagined stories, that are baseless and unfounded. From this perspective then, how important it is that we can remember, and possess our own memories that are neither revised nor erased.

plastic packed peacocks for the market
off to market, peacocks in hand

Something is amiss when we face centralized and regulated “truths.” The little voice in us will say: “That’s not true!”  While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way. We can already hear victory songs and loud triumphant cries from all around us. If we can’t loudly question the source and spread of Covid-19, then may we softly mutter and hum, for that is also a display of our conscience and courage.

If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.”

Why is the party-state so insistent that it alone authored the fight against the corona virus, and it alone succeeded? Perhaps to cover up its guilt at denying any problems existed, in the first weeks of the virus spread, when decisive action could have greatly limited its global leap.

Kham Kandze sick Tibetan treated for corona virus


For Tibetans the post corona world won’t be the same, in several ways. The corona crisis was an opportunity for the security state to tighten its grip. The story of the corona outbreak in Kham Kandze Tawu is of intensive immobilisation of an entire county, while surveillance officials combed their contact tracing apps to  track who had been where and when, until they nailed “patient zero” and everyone who had been in contact with him.

This normalises mass surveillance, grid management and other tools of repression. Repressing viral transmission has been the ideal vector for transmitting extreme control as the new normal. The upside, once corona lockdowns ease, is that if you did stay in place, did obey orders, did self-quarantine, you may now move around, displaying at the checkpoints the green QR code on your phone app certifying you are now permitted  to move. That is how social credit works: if you are compliant, the state benevolently restores your rights; if you are noncompliant you are punished. At any moment, your rights can be revoked.

China now proclaims it is exemplary, a model for the world. China has issued an official timeline of its corona virus response, airbrushing out its many weeks of suppressing the viral truth. Fortunately, a small army of Chinese techies is working hard to preserve what is officially being erased, and much of this is becoming available in English.

This virus did not originate in Tibet, but in Tibet China trialled many of the techniques of control, denial, silencing, surveilling, editing and rewriting the facts, that have now spread across China. Tibet has long been China’s laboratory, testing grid management lockdown, silencing dissent, criminalising protest. Tibetans, especially in central Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region) have lived through such curtailments of basic human rights for decades.

Sonam Dargey is an official saint of new era China

Also not new to Tibetans is the extraction of just one man from his community, to be enshrined as a martyr, who died for the greater glory of the party-state. In the corona crisis the courageous doctor Li Wenliang was the first to alert Wuhan to the unseen danger spreading everywhere. Dr Li was then hauled in by the security state. Not only was he officially reprimanded for spreading “rumours” that were true, he was made to sign a humiliating, enforceable confession and promise to toe the official line.

Doctor Li Wenliang shortly before he died

That is how the party-state, at local level, routinely suppresses anything that might ruffle “stability.” Zhao Shilin, a courageous former professor of religion and philosophy at Minority Nationalities University, Minzu daxue, explains: “For a long time, the ingrained notion of “stability overrides all” has twisted how we treat so many societal problems. Upon careful examination of this “extreme stability” principle, all negative events, including both natural and made-made disasters, are seen as threats to stability. Both undermine the system’s image as being stable. As a result, a kind of rule has formed which holds that if any negative event can be handled in a low-profile fashion, then it should be. And so, the focus of this so-called stability is on the safety of the political regime, rather than the wellbeing of the people.

To date, authoritative Chinese and foreign sources of information are all constantly confirming the following: Policy makers knew about the present outbreak from the very beginning, ordinary people were the only ones who didn’t know, and yet ordinary people are the only ones who suffer the consequences. I regret to say, since the beginning of the epidemic, the underlying psychology of policy makers deliberately concealing the epidemic is this: Put the safety of the regime before the safety of the people; put the stability of the regime before the stability of society; put the esteem of the regime before the rights and interests of the people. Because of this, officials on all levels work together to deliberately conceal the outbreak—at the expense of people’s lives, with no regard for the fact that concealing the truth would lead to further spread of the outbreak and provoke societal unrest. This is precisely what is meant by “putting political security first.”

Wuhan wet market

“Policy makers hoped in their hearts that they could make it through this outbreak on blind luck. They were unable to quickly mobilize society to implement effective prevention and control measures as early as possible, missing the golden window again and again, and thereby resulting in the fierce spread of the outbreak. This has a direct connection to this extreme, twisted, regime-based, “putting the political regime first” social stability way of thinking.”

In Tibet, stability is always the framing device for responding to any Tibetan protests; immediately making any call, even for China to obey its own laws, illegal, to be repressed as forcefully as deemed necessary.

The harsh language of infection control is familiar language to Tibetans: “The Tibet Daily reported March 12 that “the security bureau office in Lhasa is striking back against those social elements who go against the measures of containing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.” “Keeping the safety and welfare of the people is the paramount duty of the security forces, so it is only natural that in instances where people illegally breach government measures, they are met with harsh punishment,” the Daily continued. “Those guilty people were given a trial and sentenced in accordance with the law,” the report said, adding, “The police were in the forefront of maintaining law and order during this crucial point in time.” Lhasa police officially registered seven instances of people violating coronavirus prevention and control measures laid out by the government, with 10 people arrested, the report said.”


That brings us back to the Wuhan wet market, where it all started. Those who suppose China is a fully centralised command and control authoritarian dictatorship should be amazed the Wuhan wet market existed, kept expanding, kept supplying delectable wild animals, live, for the boastful consumption by rich tuhao, mostly men. When the inevitable happened, and a virus of bats jumped species and ended up in human lungs, no-one should have been surprised. The Wuhan wet market was chaotic, unregulated, a haven of corrupt officials turning a blind eye to the highly profitable trafficking of wild animals, kept alive in cages until the moment of consumer purchase and slaughter. In those piled cages, animals had no choice but to piss, shit and bleed on each other, ideal circumstances for viruses to discover new hosts, new species to infect.

Not only was there nothing unusual about the Wuhan wet market, the suppression of inconvenient truths was also nothing unusual. The primary responsibility of local officials is to prevent anything that might disrupt order and stability from becoming widely known, triggering alarm. Suppression of information, at the most local level, is the norm, for fear of angering those higher in the hierarchy. Promotion depends on maintaining order above all else. The cadre who fails to keep dissonant facts secret is classified as a failure, to be denied promotion.

Wuhan wet market

The party-state cadres of Wuhan did what was expected of them. Only when Covid-19 cases spiralled so fast did it become apparent the truth had been suppressed for at least three crucial weeks, probably longer, squandering the only window for suppression, not of truth but of virus. Once it was all out of hand, Wuhan cadres got the blame, and some were sacked.

This is why Yan Lianke urges fellow Chinese to remember what can no longer be publicly said. This is why the propaganda machine is in overdrive, declaring itself the protector of the people, from start to finish.

Part of this official response is to legislate to forbid the consumption of wild animals, if sold for eating by pampered individuals. This legislation forms part the official boast that China is uniquely capable, decisive, interventionist and swift in rectifying wrongs. Reports sound as if the full force of authoritarian governance now forbids wildlife capture, sale and slaughter, as if China at last is taking seriously the global plea to end the trafficking in rhino horn and elephant tusks, in tiger bones and pangolin scales and shark fins and much more.

However, as was the case with past bans, the new law persists in permitting the slaughter of animals for use in traditional medicine, and the huge industry of raising innumerable species in cages for slaughter, for manufacture of medicines with Chinese characteristics.

Peter Li, Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown reminds us: “Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where COVID-19 originated, had a section for selling wild animals. This part of the market was filthy, smelly and chaotic. Cages of animals which had either been caught in the wild or bred in captivity – many of them lethargic, sick, and dying with open wounds caused during their capture and transport – were stacked one on top of another. The animals inside the lower cages were soaked in the blood, excrement and urine of the animals incarcerated above. Carcasses of slaughtered animals were strewn on the ground, allowing blood to flow indiscriminately. Suffering was everywhere. Traders were left to their own devices and could not care less about the animals. The market was like an ‘independent kingdom’ beyond the reach of the laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Wuhan wet market: porcupine

“Wuhan’s wildlife wet market is not atypical. In China, the wildlife business sector enjoys many privileges and disproportionate influence. The Chinese authorities enacted a special national law in 1989, the Wildlife Protection Law (WPL), which was for the protection of this business interest rather than wildlife. To the consternation of critics, the WPL that was revised in 2016 remains a law which defends the wildlife business interest.

“Wildlife is still designated as a ‘resource’ to allow for its uninterrupted use for human benefit. In effect, the revised law has actually rolled back the limited gains made by the country’s conservation efforts. By including a so-called ‘captive-bred offspring’ concept (Article 25), the revised WPL has prepared the ground for re-opening the tiger and rhino trade.”

Wuhan wet market

Despite the impressively authoritative language of the latest law, and accompanying propaganda, a loophole continues to allow the use of dried animal parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and allows the industry farming many species for medical ingredients to persist.

Despite widespread horror, within and beyond China, at the cruelty of the Wuhan wet market and its pampered wildlife consuming customers, wildlife farming is still allowed, and wildlife caught in the wild for consumption, then apprehended by police, may still be lawfully returned to the TCM market, to be used in TCM manufacture. Horror at hunting, caging and consuming wildlife is a common reaction within China, more so now than ever. The horror pictures of the Wuhan wet market were posted by local photographers in Wuhan, to face everyone up to the cruelty of treating wild animals as delicacies to bribe your boss with. The captions explain that “at first there were only more than 400 stalls. Later expanded several times. Now the area reaches 50,000 square meters, equivalent to 7 football fields. The number of shops has also increased to more than 1,000, making it the largest aquatic wholesale market in Central China.”

This ongoing power of wildlife trafficking as an industry says a lot about China’s insistence, as a matter of national pride, that everything must have Chinese characteristics, including corona virus treatment. Official propaganda emphasises that 90 per cent of Chinese treated for corona virus infection were treated with TCM, and the fact that most recovered demonstrates the effectiveness of TCM, not as a cure but as effective symptomatic relief.

The use of TCM to treat a disease caused by the TCN demand for animal parts is not just an embedded cultural preference; it’s a command, from the highest level. CCP Politburo member Sun Chunlan 孙春兰, who has been charged with a leading role in handling the coronavirus epidemic, writes in the party’s top ideology journal Qiushi  or Seeking Truth that TCM must be administered to all corona virus patients. This, she says, is one of the “five optimisations” of the official corona virus strategy, thus demonstrating to the world China’s responses to the epidemic had “fully demonstrated China’s power,” “the political advantages of the CCP and the institutional advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” 


The legislative exemptions for the wildlife farming industry are a reminder of how big and politically powerful it is. This is seldom mentioned, not even by those who blame China for corona virus and much more. China’s wildlife farming industry includes 6.3 million direct practitioners and a total output value of $18 billion in 2016 and has only grown since.[1]

We now have detailed information about this influential, ongoing industry and its own Chinese characteristics, from fieldwork interviews with Chinese wildlife traffickers and their official enablers, thanks to Utrecht University criminologist Daan van Uhm:.

Gift giving is a common cultural practice in China in all areas of life, both in informal relations and in dealing with official institutions. Reciprocity is a foundation in the Chinese social intercourse as accepting a gift without reciprocity is perceived as morally wrong. The Chinese practice of guānxì (關係) is the basic dynamic in Chinese personalized networks of influence and refers to favours gained from social connections. The Chinese largely rely on this form of personal informal network for many aspects of their life and reciprocal benefits are necessary to maintaining one’s guanxi. This provides a familiar framework for illegal wildlife businesses with low penetrability as it creates an effective insider-outsider system; enforcement agents are regularly outside the guanxi trading relationship. Family, cultural and ethnic ties play an important role in different stages in the wildlife trade in China. Business partners would preferably belong to the same ethnic Chinese group from the same region and social ties with family and friends would guarantee the secure network.

“Our findings suggest that social ties with officials occur frequently in the illegal wildlife trade. For example, border officials take advantage of their privileged access to confiscated wildlife contraband to obtain goods that they can sell to contacts involved in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For such informal reciprocal agreements, guanxi was acknowledged as a vital determinant as to whether individuals would collaborate with one another. As one respondent explained: ‘Middlemen do have such relations with border officials […] If you have money and guanxi, you can pay the border control’. This informant underlined that the favours gained from social ties is fundamental in this reciprocal relationship to benefit from these special services.

Wuhan wet market porcupines: a treat to offer your boss

“In another example of how a symbiotic relationship can occur within the illegal TCM trade occurs when goods are seized from airline flights. For instance, one representative of a well-known TCM trading company outlined: ‘If smugglers from Myanmar and Laos are caught and the Chinese police seize a rhino horn, they resell it to us illegally. If the stuff (rhino horn) is confiscated by an international airline, they (government officials) burn it’ (Lihua).

“Army personnel would utilize their position to allow traffickers to cross borders unimpeded. As one middleman in Anguo admitted: ‘My friend works as a soldier at the Guangxi border. Through this connection I can pass the orders across the border’ (Zhen). Several TCM doctors interviewed also highlighted how TCM clinics would develop a reciprocal relationship with government officials. Specifically, TCM clinics would pay government officials with gifts or money to sell certain products, such as pangolin scales or saiga horn.

“One TCM doctor in Chengdu described how government officials did not formally protect TCM traders, but did make arrangements so that other officials do not disturb or stop them. For example, it was suggested that such officials would utilize their own connections and networks to ensure that specific TCM clinics would not be inspected. Another TCM doctor explained that ‘if you can pay enough [gifts or other services] you can sell the products’ (Hua). Some study participants surmised that the diplomatic immunity afforded to such officials was one of the main reasons as to why they helped TCM traders, while others believed that the existence of an informal TCM market alongside the official provides opportunities for bribes. On the other hand, antithetical relations exist between legally registered TCM companies and illegal TCM traders in the context of competition; the same species were illegally offered on the black market. For example, both saiga horns and pangolin scales are sold by legitimate companies, but generally are illegal and hidden under the counter in plastic bags or pangolins are mainly kept in glass jars. Finally, study participants explained that the existence of tiger farms and corrupt activity resulted in the continued use of tiger parts for TCM.

“In the 1980s two tiger farms were developed by the Chinese government to breed tigers for the commercial supply of bones for TCM. While the government banned the use of tiger products in TCM in 1993, respondents stated how government officials still provide legal documents to tiger farms to produce and sell banned tiger bone wines.

Wuhan wet market: update on prices on every sentient thing your boss might fancy

“We refer to this type of activity as ‘legal exploitation’. We can speak of legal exploitation when legal actors issue authorisations for transactions that are used for illegal activities by illegal actors. In this case, it is not necessarily that legal and illegal actors benefit each other (‘systemic synergy’) or that consciously mutual benefits between the legal and illegal actors exist (‘reciprocity’ or ‘even exchanges’). Several TCM traders confirmed that they buy their tiger products from tiger farms in China. As offered by one employee of a tiger farm: Government officials allow us to sell the wine. They gave us a certificate to sell the tiger bone wine, because we have many tigers. Around 100 tigers are born, and a lot of our tigers die every year. Yes, all tigers that have died here are kept in ice.”[2]

The trafficking of wild animals into China and across China, alive and dead, for pampered consumption as a bribe received, or for use in TCM, is a deeply entrenched industry that has managed to evade effective regulation many times in recent years. It is an industry steeped in patriotism, in Chinese characteristics. It is the vector of transmission of corona viruses past and again in 2020. It is unstoppable, even by a highly centralised authoritarian regime.

Hence the horrors of the Wuhan wet market, now being bulldozed. It and similar markets in cities across China will not die, because they are essential to the giving of gifts and staging of banquets to bribe those above you, who hold power to permit or deny your business, or loan the capital your business needs in a system where bank loans go overwhelmingly to state owned enterprises. The same applies to the trade in Tibetan yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus, a key commodity in the business of bribing pampered cadres.

Sonia Shah, the author of PANDEMIC: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016) reminds us that in the wet markets “wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other in nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002–03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today. But many more are reared in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Avian influenza viruses, for example, which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain called H5N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry. The epidemiologist Larry Brilliant once said, “Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” But pandemics only remain optional if we have the will to disrupt our politics as readily as we disrupt nature and wildlife. In the end, there is no real mystery about the animal source of pandemics. It’s not some spiky scaled pangolin or furry flying bat. It’s populations of warm-blooded primates: The true animal source is us.”

These arguments push us to take collective responsibility for pandemics, as a human species, rather than the fragmented, competitive, anarchic scramble of each against all, blaming each other, we have witnessed as corona virus spread and spread further. The extent to which global co-operation has faded and failed, when most needed, is shocking. In the middle of the pandemic the UN called for real money for the poorest countries, to help them handle corona virus impacts. If this is news to you, it is because the UN plea got almost no media coverage at all.

The global “rules-based order” has turned out to be a fiction. Both the international “system” and effective regulation within China have been overwhelmed by greed, fear, panic, corruption and selfishness.

Is there any alternative to anarchy? One alternative is to bitterly blame it all on China and specifically on the CCP’s fatal determination, in the early weeks of infection, to hide all evidence of crisis. Anger only divides us all further, although some Tibetans see this as an opportunity to reclaim victim status, in a world of victims.

The Tibetan lamas do provide us with perspective, reminding us to have compassion for all and not delude ourselves that any of us is exempt from danger. Situ Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche, among others, offer targeted heartfelt advice.

Rather than blaming, if we listen to voices from with the pandemic, within lockdown, we are better prepared as the virus comes closer and closer to us, wherever we live. That is why this blog began with a poet and a novelist in Wuhan, surrounded by confusion, isolation and infection.

So we turn to another voice from another novelist inside the epicentre, when it moved on to Rome. Francesca Melandri reminds us Italians did not listen to Wuhan voices and were not prepared physically or mentally when the full pandemic hit.

Maybe you should cue Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time as you read what she writes to prepare us:

“I am writing to you from Italy which means I am writing from your future. We are now where you will be in a few days. The epidemic’s charts show us all entwined in a parallel dance.

We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time, just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us. We watch you as you behave just as we did. You hold the same arguments we did until a short time ago, between those who still say, “it’s only a flu, why all the fuss?” and those who have already understood.

As we watch you from here, from your future, we know that many of you, as you were told to lock yourselves up into your homes, quoted Orwell, some even Hobbes. But soon you’ll be too busy for that.

You will miss your adult children like you never have before; the realisation that you have no idea when you will ever see them again will hit you like a punch in the chest.

Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them: “How are you doing?” Many women will be beaten in their homes.

You will wonder what is happening to all those who can’t stay home because they don’t have one. You will feel vulnerable when going out shopping in the deserted streets, especially if you are a woman. You will ask yourselves if this is how societies collapse. Does it really happen so fast?

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.

 People whom you had overlooked, instead, will turn out to be reassuring, generous, reliable, pragmatic and clairvoyant.

Many children will be conceived.

Elderly people will disobey you like rowdy teenagers: you’ll have to fight with them in order to forbid them from going out, to get infected and die.

You will try not to think about the lonely deaths inside the ICU.

You’ll want to cover with rose petals all medical workers’ steps.

You will be told that society is united in a communal effort, that you are all in the same boat. It will be true. This experience will change for good how you perceive yourself as an individual part of a larger whole.

If we turn our gaze to the more distant future, the future which is unknown both to you and to us too, we can only tell you this: when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same.”

anyone for bat soup?


Our final voice from within virus lockdown is Tibetan poet Woeser in Beijing, February 2020, a double lockdown preventing her from being in Tibet, or out anywhere:

“But It Was This Time and This Place

I thought I had been through every type of circumstance

but I never expected

I would imprison myself for so long,

for so long. Yesterday the haze was thick outside my window

Today, it’s sunny for a thousand miles

The day before yesterday a blizzard

I look down from my upper story apartment

I look to the left, to the right

Of course, it’s not just me who has confined myself.

This world that has suddenly revealed its true form

Even the devil is powerless

and before I used to think it was all imaginary.

For example, I thought Kṣitigarbha’s descriptions of hell

were only to enlighten sentient beings, but it turns out they were of this time

and this place. What I thought before was simple falsehood.

“Give me your hand for a time. Hold on

to mine…. Squeeze hard. Time was we

thought we had time on our side.”

Kandze kusho temperature checking

[1]   Science, 27 MARCH 2020 • VOL 367 ISSUE 6485 p1435

Van Uhm, D. P. (2016a), The illegal wildlife trade: inside the world of poachers, smugglers and traders (studies of organized crime). New York: Springer.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2016b), ‘Illegal trade in wildlife and harms to the world’, in Spapens, A. C. M., White, R. and Huisman, W. eds., Environmental crime in transnational context. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018a), ‘Talking about illegal business: approaching and interviewing poachers, smugglers, and traders’, in Moreto, W.D. ed., Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018b), ‘Wildlife and laundering: interaction between the under and upper world’, in Spapens T., White, R., Van Uhm, D.P. and Huisman, W. eds., Green crimes and dirty money. London: Routledge.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018c) The social construction of the value of wildlife: A green cultural criminological perspective. Theoretical Criminology, 22(3), 384–401

Van Uhm, D. P., and Moreto, W. D. (2017), ‘Corruption within the illegal wildlife trade: a symbiotic and antithetical enterprise’, The British Journal of Criminology, azx032.

[2] Daan P. van Uhm and William D. Moreto, Corruption Within The Illegal Wildlife Trade:A Symbiotic And Antithetical Enterprise, British Journal of Criminology, (2018) 58, 864–885

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Anyone for Tibetan matsutake?

Tibet’s famous yartsa gunbu caterpillar fungus are bought and sold dry, with a long shelf life, suitable for distant points of sale; while matsutake are much more perishable, requiring a cold chain from picker to packer to plate. Such is the demand for matsutake, songrong 松茸, that a cold chain has been created,  analogous to the global traffic in cut flowers, enabling what is picked today to be on the table of a high end restaurant thousands of kms away, in two days. This is the globalisation of Tibet.

This makes matsutake suitable as a case study of Tibetan entrepreneurialism.  What is the role of Tibetans in the global circulation of matsutake?  Are Tibetans merely the anonymous, unseen gatherers in the forests, or are they present throughout the commodity chain?

Matsutake make a good story too about the prospects for building cold chains for other Tibetan perishables that are abundantly available, notably milk and the myriad products made from milk. Like the failed Tibetan wool cleaning and value adding industry, dairy has the potential to meet booming demand in China’s cities, yet that potential never attracted Chinese investment. The most obvious path of development for Tibet’s comparative advantages never happened. Sometimes this is attributed to the great expense of establishing a cold chain to keep Tibetan yoghurt, butter, cheese and other dairy products safe in transit over long distances. But if the matsutake business can create an transnational cold chain, why has China failed to do this for dairy? If Inner Mongolia, and imports from overseas now supply most of China’s booming dairy demand, why not Tibet?


A closer look at the matsutake market has six key lessons for the new generation of Tibetan entrepreneurs. Taken together, these six are a SWOT analysis of the opportunities for Tibetan entrepreneurs to move up the value chain.

First, the demand for matsutake is driven by Japanese demand, requiring long haul flights of fresh or frozen matsutake, bypassing lowland China, straight to Japan. This traffic bypasses much of China’s multi-layered commodity distribution system, with its many stages, all out to get a cut of the eventual sale price.

Remote Tibetan schools which learned how to make cheeses from dzo (female yak) milk, found it more rewarding to airfreight mature cheeses to New York, rather than have profits cut to a minimum by selling into China’s urban market, despite the growing Chinese interest in cheese, because so many middlemen intervene. Jigme Gyaltsen, the headmaster of a school in one of China’s remotest prefectures, Guoluo (in Tibetan, Golok) marketed Ragya brand yak cheese in New York, with one kilo selling for what nomads on average earn in two months.  The same school has found its profit margin on the New York market, despite higher transport costs, is greater than marketing the cheese to sophisticated Chinese urban consumers, because of the labour-intensivity and multi-layered nature of the Chinese distribution system.[1]

in Japan, matsutake suddenly look special, even when still raw

Matsutake, although gathered in the mountains, in dense pine and oak forests, quickly becomes an urban commodity, in Dechen, then Kunming, then Shanghai, en route to Japan. There are already plenty of intermediary steps between Tibetan collectors and Japanese consumers. However, Tibetan entrepreneurs may find online e-commerce channels for directly connecting with and then supplying Japanese matsutake aficionados; simplifying the commodity chain further.

Second, demand has been driven by the distant Japanese market, which remains mysterious and opaque to most Tibetan mushroom gatherers, even though Dechen/Shangri-la is now a major tourist attraction, including large numbers of Japanese tourists. There is opportunity for Tibetan producers to rise in the value chain, add value by adding Tibetan branding and Tibetan authenticity, rather than being price takers caught between Japanese demand and Japanese anxiety over possible pesticide contamination of matsutake from nearby farm cropping practices.

Yangzom Dolma probing for wild matsutake http://english.yunnan.cn/html/2019/flavor_0819/17528.html

Many players interpose themselves between producer and consumer, including state-sponsored marketing organisations and several NGOs predisposed to assume the level of matsutake harvesting is unsustainable, and that matsutake merits its 1999 inclusion in the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered.

Because of Japanese fears of pesticide contamination, the perishability of the mushrooms and the assumption that harvesting forest matsutake is unsustainable, the Tibetan collectors are under pressure from several directions, all of which limits the price they get for doing most of the actual labour. A high proportion of the price goes to air freight, cold chain logistics and marketing conglomerates, before the mushrooms land at Japanese airports, where prices again rise steeply.

Since the matsutake boom arrived adventitiously in the mid-1980s, Tibetans have been glad of the extra income, and used their cash earnings to build bigger and sturdier houses from the plentiful timbers of the nearby forests, in customary Kham style. However, the Tibetan producers, never able to combine to take control of supply, have settled for modest incomes, when they could now move to greater control and value adding.

Lobsang Choden packaging matsutake for market

Japanese consumers want not only fresh, palatable and pesticide-free matsutake; they also seek authenticity, sourcing their matsutake consumption from mountain folk they can connect with. Until now this has resulted in several proposals to replicate the farm to fork/paddock to plate traceability of industrially farmed meat, which lends itself to electronic tags and chipping, enabling certifiable origins to be available to end use buyers. There is no way this could be done for each mushroom, picked in the predawn by one of dozens of collectors roaming the slopes with flashlights, pooling their finds in a market town, awaiting the regular arrival of the distributors.

If anything, the demand for purity, freshness and accountability has until now pressured Tibetan gatherers to accept lower prices than matsutake collectors in other pine and oak forests such as Canada and the US. But it is now not hard for seller and buyer to connect directly, to shopify product and sell direct, c2c, collector to consumer. This is the opportunity for Tibetan entrepreneurs.

forest gathering rights in China have official protection

Third, matsutake is a mature market. This means demand is reliable and there is little likelihood Japan will be able to resume production of its own matsutake on a scale that is anywhere close to meeting demand. There is no way of artificially cultivating matsutake, despite attempts to do so.

The logistic chain is also mature, and is about to shorten and simplify further with the 2020 scheduled opening of an expanded Shangri-la airport, plus the opening of high speed railway and toll road highway in 2020 from Dechen via Lijiang and Dali to Kunming. For perishables that lose value quickly, these new infrastructures shrink the distance between producer and consumer.

In a mature market there are opportunities for consolidation, for dominant players to emerge, who could be Tibetan. A mature market does not always mean a steady price, and matsutake prices fluctuate greatly, usually to the great disadvantage of the Tibetan villagers of the mountain slope forests. Consolidation of a mature market, to oligopolistic control by a few players, is an opportunity to regulate supply, maintain prices and signal quickly to remote gatherers, by mobile phone alerts, when demand plummets or peaks. That way production keeps pace with demand. Price volatility, most recently due to corona virus infection fears, need not be an ongoing defining characteristic of matsutake production.

villagers vote on how to exercise their forest rights

Fourth, official policies, and sudden changes of policy direction, have put a lot of pressure on the Tibetans of Kham Gyalthang, usually in the name of repairing past policy failures. In the official gaze, customary livelihoods including pastoralist grazing and crop farming are now problematic, even environmentally damaging, and require curtailment. Over the past two decades, official programs intended to reforest farmland cleared earlier by official command for local crop self-sufficiency have pressured remote villages to curtail ploughing and cropping, and instead convert fields to tree plantations, with much income loss. Likewise the construction of “ecological civilisation” frequently means herd size limits or loss of land tenure rights altogether, especially in areas designated as exclusively ecological, in which pastoral production is banned.

These pressures, from above, make matsutake all the more important as reliable sources of income, fulfilling locally the modest national goal of moderate prosperity (xiaokang). Matsutake could contribute much more to local prosperity than it has over the 35 years since Japan discovered Tibetan forest mushrooms. Matsutake could do more for poverty alleviation and daily autonomy than it does.

Fifth, prospects for Tibetan matsutake in Japan, and in destinations attracting Japanese tourists, are good. Climate change in Japan raises temperatures in the Iwate prefecture forests where matsutake grows, delaying harvest; and more frequent cyclones also disrupt supply. In Tibet climate change on the midslopes of mountains may mean matsutake will soon flourish at slightly higher altitudes, a slightly higher climb from villages in the valleys. In 2019 prices reached well over $800 per kilo, yet Tibetan producers receive only a tiny fraction. The scope for fair trade rebalancing is great. In Lhasa, matsutake from eastern TAR sell for RMB 250 to 500 per kilo, USD 38 to 77, according to China’s official media. Japanese consume at least 5000 tons a year.

Sixth, wealthy Han Chinese, aware of the cachet matsutake enjoys in Japan, are developing a taste for exotic mushrooms. Urban Chinese demand in Shanghai and Beijing is growing fast, so too is matsutake trafficking with Chinese characteristics. Until now, that has turned Tibetan villagers into competitors, each against all, and undermined mandatory rest days when gathering is banned, in order to give small mushrooms a few days to grow to marketable size.

Initially, when the market was new, local Tibetan cadres instituted rest days as a sensible collective strategy to regulate competitiveness and ensure small matsutake were not picked, and given time to grow. This co-operative strategy was undermined by the aggregators, the first buyers on a circuit going from village to village, who demanded an uninterrupted chain of markets as they made their way up and down endless hillsides on third grade roads. The regulations mandating nonharvest days fell into disuse.

Princeton University Press 2015

Now Tibetan producers are no longer dependent on the schedules of commercial buyers coming to each village. The era of the drone has arrived, and China’s official media enthuses that it takes only 20 minutes to get matsutake to market, from Tibetan to Han hands, rather than toiling back downhill for hours. The problem is that the drones are mostly in the hands of Han entrepreneurs. This is an opportunity for Tibetans to invest modestly in cheap drones easily capable of transporting the lightweight matsutake down to the demand. Intermediation by drones will require trust between seller and buyer: is this readily achieved?

This is the big question, because it is characteristic of a mature market that supply and demand are largely stable, in balance, enabling investments that are likely to succeed. Risk is low, even if the seasonal harvests in supply districts vary a lot, not only due to climate variations but also corona virus lockdowns, plus, in Tibet, earthquakes and landslides that block highways, especially at the autumnal end of the monsoon season, when the matsutake are gathered.

In a mature market there may be room for new entrants able to find new supplies, or new outlets, such as meeting demand in Chinese cities, or popular Chinese domestic tourism destinations such as Lhasa and Nyingtri. But a mature market makes it hard for new entrants to get into the commodity chain, or set up a new commodity chain, because existing players have both the logistics sewn up, and the networks of distributors, wholesalers and retailers. This means that even if enterprising Tibetans could source more matsutake, Han businesses will still capture most of the value added because they control distribution.

  • China’s fungal economy

That is why new technologies, drones and social media, are necessary disruptors of the existing model. There has to be a way to bypass the crony capitalism that concentrates most of the matsutake wealth creation in the hands of Han packagers and distributors. Their near monopoly grew out of state owned enterprises of the Maoist era which had a legal stranglehold on commandeering and selling foods to be sold as exports from China. Those food export corporations earned revenue for Beijing, and their monopoly persisted well into the reform era of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Only gradually were new entrants permitted, and they were characteristically Chinese, in that they blended state and corporate power. “In some cases, the head managers for the Kunming-based private companies were former staff of the foreign trade stations and were able to use their contacts in China and Japan to cultivate relationships for their new company. This was part of a wider phenomenon, in which Chinese companies hired former government employees for their bureaucratic knowledge and social connections.”[2]

That fusion of state and corporate power has always been the primary obstacle for Tibetan entrepreneurs to get beyond the role of raw commodity supplier. China’s state capitalism privileges insiders, redistributes wealth upwards, and reduces those who do most of the actual work of production to incidental roles, as mere gatherers of raw materials.

The disruptive potential of peer to peer direct social media connections between Tibetan villager and Japanese matsutake aficionado, and also drone delivery to new nodes of matsutake aggregation, are promising entry points, bypassing the stranglehold of “the Yunnan Matsutake Association, which comprises the province’s major exporting companies. The provincial government now limits the number of exporting companies, and they in turn have created a matsutake consortium. By 2006, only twenty companies had export licenses, and a number of these companies were led by people with extensive governmental networks, sometimes with a history of working at foreign trade stations in the 1980s.”[3]

Beijing wants national champions that establish Chinese brands in global markets. Yunnan province seeks a Yunnan brand, signifying guarantees of authenticity and freshness, which would only add costly computerised tagging to the labours of the Tibetan forest gatherers. These are all obstacles to Tibetan development, income generation and poverty alleviation through enterprise and initiative.

Instead of documenting certified compliance at every step in a complex commodity chain, new technology simplifies the chain and puts consumer and producer in direct connection, establishing bonds of trust and authenticity. By air from Shangri-la airport in Dechen/Zhongdian to Kunming takes 55 minutes, then on to Shanghai and Japan in hours. No need of freezing, or an elaborate cold chain.

Is this overly ambitious? Is it unrealistic to imagine the Tibetans who produce the matsutake could take control of businesses that export 2000 tons of matsutake from Tibet to Japan annually, for a retail price of at least $2 billion? So little of that retail price –averaged at $100 per kilo- reaches the Tibetans who produce it, and with care wrap the mushrooms in rhododendron leaves for their long transit. Social enterprises serious about empowerment of remote villages have a major opportunity, based on the embedded demand for matsutake in Japan.

forest rights in practice: guaranteeing tenure

A major reason why the matsutake traffic from Tibet to Japan is a mature market is that no-one has ever succeeded in cultivating matsutake. They remain fugitive, ephemeral, arising due to causes and conditions no-one can define or reproduce. This has vexed the Japanese greatly, since the natural occurrence of matsutake dwindled greatly, at just the time many Japanese were for the first time wealthy enough to afford them, and official restrictions on their consumption, hitherto permitted only for the imperial household, had been lifted.

It took decades of scientific puzzlement to figure out why. The main cause of satoyama pine forest decline, and with it, matsutake mushrooms, was acid rain drifting across from China, the air changed by factory pollution, pine trees quite vulnerable, early indicators of the dangers of climate change. Japanese alarm at China’s world factory pollution became a major driver in Japanese development assistance and investment in helping China improve its pollution control.

None of this, however, succeeded in restoring those satoyama pine forests in Japan, still less did restoration efforts bring back the evanescent, elusive matsutake. Those efforts continue, and Japanese researchers are convinced that satoyama forests and their matsutake mushrooms, far from requiring pristine nature, actually require disturbance, even soil degradation, and definitely benefit from having farmland nearby, and farm folk foraging in the forest. “Satoyama are traditional peasant landscapes, combining rice agriculture and water management with woodlands. The woodlands –the heart of the satoyama concept- were once disturbed and this maintained, for firewood and charcoal-making. Restoration requires disturbance –but disturbance to enhance diversity and the healthy functioning of ecosystems.”[4]

If you’ve ever seen the wondrous anime My Neighbour Totoro, you will know what a satoyama landscape is. If Tibetans and Japanese matsutake consumers do eventually generate closer connections, it would be unfortunate if Tibetans took seriously well-meant Japanese suggestions about denuding hillsides, removing soil, grooming and thinning pine forests to yield more matsutake. The Japanese may well be right, that their traditional satoyama forests, where matsutake flourish, are highly disturbed by human intrusions. Ecologists may well be wrong, that restoration of pristine nature should be the goal. But that doesn’t mean recreating satoyama forest in Tibet.


The yartsa bioeconomy of the Tibetan grasslands is certainly the biggest and most spectacular, but far from the only bioeconomy of Tibet. The matsutake economy is measured in the billions of dollars, yartsa gunbu caterpillar fungus in the tens of billions.

Rukor will publish an in-depth analysis of the yartsa bioeconomy. A key question, with both yartsa and matsutake as prime examples: is this development? Are we witnessing the rebirth of Tibetan entrepreneurialism, and a new Tibetan economy, after decades of development failure?

Yartsa and matsutake as new endogenously Tibetan paths to development and prosperity need evaluation, as prospective social enterprises; but also for what they tell us about new era China, which is steadily persuading the world to adopt its redefinition of human rights, as primarily the right to development, only secondarily individual rights such as freedom of speech, freedom from torture and persecution.

China positions itself as champion of the developing world’s right to development

China is vigorously pushing, in all United Nations and other international forums, its case that economic development is the only right that matters, all else is secondary. Yet Tibet remains underdeveloped, its traditional comparative advantages never invested in.  Tibet remains in disempowered development.[5] China’s failure, over six decades, to integrate Tibet’s strengths in wool and dairy production, into China’s booming demand for them, is a failure to implement the right to development.

As well as the failed bioeconomies of wool and dairy products, which never got linkages beyond traditional markets, there is now the modern matsutake mushroom economy of the oak and pine forests of eastern Tibet, especially in Yunnan and eastern TAR. Like yartsa, this is a fungal economy, based on distant demand by urban consumers with exotic tastes. Like yartsa, matsutake is a big business, with a complex commodity chain and logistics enabling linkages between Tibetans foraging on the forest floor and high end city restaurants not only in China but overseas as well. Both matsutake and yartsa are the leading edges of Tibet’s entry into the global economy.

Yartsa is famous, the matsutake trade less so, in fact many Tibetans have never heard of it. The matsutake mushrooms sprout in a smaller area than the widespread occurrence of yartsa, which sprawls not only across the grasslands of eastern Tibet but in a long altitudinal belt right along the entire Himalayan chain. Matsutake is expensive, a culinary delicacy not only in Japan but also Korea, Thailand and other markets; but yartsa is spectacularly expensive, magnetising resellers in for their margin.

Yartsa is worth a closer look, on Rukor.

And then there’s all those famous wine brands, famous in China and globally, making first rate wines from their Tibetan vineyards, close by the matsutake villages…………………

Ao Yun vineyard in Kham Gyalthang
one of the world’s most famous wine writers discovers Tibet…..

Louis Vuitton in Tibet
mystical premium priced wine from Tibet
premium priced wine, from Kham Dechen

[11] Tibetan livestock products enjoy bright market prospects, People’s Daily, 19 May 2002, http://english.people.com.cn/200205/19/print20020519_96006.html 



[2] Michael J. Hathaway, Transnational Matsutake Governance: Endangered Species, Contamination, and the Reemergence of Global Commodity Chains, in Emily Yeh and Chris Coggins eds, Mapping Shangrila, U Washington Press 2014, 159

[3] Hathaway, Transnational Matsutake Governance, 166

[4] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton U Press, 2015, 151-2

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

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When a new disease appears and spreads fast, fear and confusion proliferate even faster.

What to do, when the new corona virus is able to manifest anywhere and everywhere?

The protector is protected

A first step is for those who may be able to help to keep level-headed, and not yield to the pervasive panic or, worse, cash in by peddling nonsensical and ineffective “cures.” Worst of all would be to propose as treatment the same ingestion of animal parts that caused this animal disease to become a human disease in the first place. That conflates and confuses cause and cure.

That worst of scenarios is happening now in China, while in Tibet, leading practitioners of traditional healing have gone the opposite way, saying  bluntly that Tibetan sowa rigpa does not have corona virus cures, and don’t be fooled by anyone who says they do.

The contrast is acute, in a moment when the temptation to monetise panic is at its height. Tibetan emchi healers are saying firmly there is no silver bullet; Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is making a fortune prescribing the gallstones of slaughtered cattle as an effective remedy for SARS and corona virus, plus respiratory symptomatic relief provide by other herbs.

 Top TCM formulation for corona virus is Angong Niuhuang, a concoction including bovine bezoars, aggregates of inedible or undigested material found in the gastrointestinal tract. For many centuries, bezoars have been found in the digestive tracts of both humans and animals. In Europe, as in China, they seemed not only mysterious but had magical properties attributed to them. Europe outgrew its fascination with bezoars in the 16th century, through a horrifying experiment. “In the 1500s, the famous surgeon Ambroise Paré tested the healing properties of a bezoar stone. A cook in the king’s court had been caught stealing fine silver and was sentenced to death by hanging. As an alternative, the cook was granted the opportunity to receive a poison followed by a bezoar as a potential antidote under the supervision of Paré. It was agreed that if the cook survived the poison, his life would be spared. The cook lived for only 7 hours.”[1] Bezoars lost their magic, but not in China.

China is the destination of almost all outlawed rhino horn trafficking

Second ingredient in angong niuhang is rhino horn. Yes, you read that right. After so many decades of efforts to protect rhinos from imminent extinction, advocates of TCM still insist rhino horn has specific medicinal properties: “Sedation, Anticonvulsion, Antipyretic, Anti-inflammatory, Antiviral, Cardiotonic, Antiplatelet, Aggregation.”[2]  This 2014 team of endocrinologists of the official, government funded China Academy of Chinese Medical Science in Beijing goes on to suggest angong niuhang is likely to be effective as a treatment for the most serious of central nervous system crises such as stroke, coma and brain trauma.

Desperate measures: African park rangers cut off a rhino’s horns to prevent it being killed by poachers

As well as bovine bezoars and rhino horn, angong niuhang also contains plant based ingredients including Radix scutellariae, Coptidis rhizome, Cape jasmine, Borneol and Cucurma. However, there is one further animal ingredient: musk. Its curative properties are listed as Double-acting role in regulating the Central Nervous System, anti-inflammatory, Antiplatelet aggregation and Cardiotonic.

Musk fragrance requires the slaughter of musk deer for their musk glands, though musk oil can be manufactured synthetically. Of the several musk oils, one is civetone, produced naturally by the Himalayan civet, a small mammal native to Bhutan.

All evidence of the cause of corona virus infections in humans points to palm civets, sold illegally in the Wuhan wet market for all conceivable kinds of meat, as the transmitter of the disease. Civets, kept alive in cages until being sold to consumers, next to bats, first caught the corona virus from the bats, and then became the vectors transmitting it to humans, where it now proliferates uncontrolled.

Himalayan civet, courtsey of Operation Noah

So we come full circle. The cure is also the cause of the corona virus disease. We live in degenerate times, when panicked people reach for something, anything that supposedly protects and cures them, even if it is actually the very vector infecting humans.

This lunacy is abetted by China’s championing of TCM as a deep and effective tradition, with Chinese characteristics, meriting official support. TCM researchers have shamelessly touted traditional recipes as effective in treating earlier corona viruses including SARS.[3]

“On Jan. 25, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese medicine dispatched 25 teams of Chinese healers to Wuhan”, in the hope of demonstrating TCM is effective. Demand for rhino horn, musk deer glands and civet musk glands, as well as bovine bezoars is rocketing. The logic is simple: “If traditional Chinese medicine was not effective, the Chinese people would already be destroyed.”  Today there are more Han Chinese than ever; proof that TCM works. The same logic presumes that minorities, such as Tibetans, must inevitably assimilate and become just like the successful and numerous Han.

This return to rhino horn and musk glands has official blessing: “In its treatment plan for the coronavirus released on February 5, the National Health Commission recommended traditional Chinese medicine remedies that could be used with antiretroviral H.I.V. drugs like Lopinavir and Ritonavir. The national health department suggested trying the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill (angong niuhang) for severe symptoms such as wheezing and respiratory distress.”


Meanwhile, in Tibet leading sowa rigpa practitioners have been forthright in saying sorig does not have a cure for a disease newly arrived in humans. Dr. Thubten Phuntsok, physician of Tibetan medicine and professor emeritus of Tibetan Studies at the Southwest Minzu University in Chengdu, has warned Tibetan society to take practical precautions, not panic, and not fall for anyone claiming sowa rigpa has remedies.

In keeping with a long Tibetan traditions of impassioned remonstration, often poetically expressed, Thubten Phuntsok asserts that “the efficacy of traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine and religion has not been established,” and that, without taking standard preventive hygiene measures, “one’s own devotion, faith, mantra recitations, and medicinal amulets will have no effect at all.”

Thubten Phuntsok singles out one of the most famous and potent of Tibetan medicines, the Black-9 pill, which traditionally includes musk, as having no value in treating a virus new to the human species. In his cartoon and his caption, he could not be more direct:

thanks to High Peaks Pure Earth for posting this first

In places devoid of contagious disease, the Black-9 Pill is being sold.
The wallets of the Tibetan people empty, while physicians grow rich.
If the disease does arrive, go to the western hospital.
Tibetan medicine has no cure for this new virus.”

Classic Tibetan sowa rigpa treatment for breathing difficulties, heating an acupuncture needle by blowing onto its outer tip

As corona virus infections spread to Tibet, and panic grew even more infectious, Thubten Phuntsok took to verse as a modern mahasiddha, taking aim squarely at colleagues cashing in on the confusion and anxiety whipped up by social media. Like the gur and doha spontaneous songs of realisation, sung by the mahasiddhas revered by Tibetans, he urges us all to come to our senses, cease milling about, circling aimlessly in confusion, do what is needful, and stay mindful:

“If You Have Honour, Do Not Exploit This Opportunity to Sell Medicine
by Thubten Phuntsok

Tibetan medicine does not affect
Contagious diseases, neither new nor old. This is indisputable.
In these desperate times,
In order to protect the lives of our nation,
Well-meaning physicians
Have dispensed this Black-9 Pill, a medicine for nyen spirits,
To all Tibetan people.

To raise the price of the Black-9 Pill,
This cheap, convenient medicine,
By a factor of nine, however, is not so well-meaning.

If you have honour, dispense your medicines.
If you have compassion, donate your medicines.
To exploit this opportunity,
And sell your medicine, however, is an act of evil.

Both a beautiful face and money
Are of great value on this earth.
To distort cause and effect
In the pursuit of money, however, is an act of deception.

These days, does the Black-9 Pill
Even contain musk? You know the truth.
If there were even just a little musk
In a Black-9 Pill, wouldn’t the price tag
Be three hundred renminbi? You know the truth.

Thus, Tibetan physicians,
Take advantage of this opportunity for spiritual practice;
Donate medicines throughout the Tibetan lands;
And your good motivation will be praised by all.

Thubten Phuntsok, the vagabond physician from Pelpung in the east, appeals to the physicians of Tibet who sell their medicines while the dangerous and contagious disease, the coronavirus, is on the Central Plain of China. 28 January 2020.”

Translation by William A. McGrath. Inevitably, this translation loses much of the poetic nature of Thubten Phuntsok’s exemplary remonstration, and reminder that sowa rigpa is a spiritual practice embedded in Tibetan Buddhism, not a wealth accumulation transaction. McGrath’s deep insights into sowa rigpa are available online.

[1] Katharine Eng,  and Marsha Kay, Gastrointestinal Bezoars: History and Current Treatment Paradigms, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, v.8(11); 2012 Nov; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966178/

[2] Yu Guo, Shaohua Yan, Lipeng Xu, Gexin Zhu, Xiaotong Yu, and Xiaolin Tong, Use of Angong Niuhuang in Treating Central Nervous System Diseases and Related Research; Evidence-Based Complementary and , Alternative Medicine, Volume 2014, downloadable from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/346918/

[3] Chih-ChunWen,Lie-FenShyur, Jia-TsrongJan, Po-HuangLiang, Chih-JungKuo, PalanisamyArulselvan, Jin-BinWu, Sheng-ChuKuo, Ning-SunYang; Traditional Chinese medicine herbal extracts of Cibotium barometz, Gentiana scabra, Dioscorea batatas, Cassia tora, and Taxillus chinensis inhibit SARS-CoV replication; Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Volume 1, Issue 1, October–December 2011, Pages 41-50 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411016300554

Posted in Tibet | 1 Comment

TIBET 2020

What will happen in Tibet in 2020?

The year 2020 is set to be big for China’s long campaign to inextricably integrate Tibet, and assimilate the Tibetan nation into a single Chinese zhonghua identity. After decades of massive investment in infrastructure/superstructure, the economic integration is at last making Tibet accessible to the Chinese industries of the future.

Several initiatives by official China are due to come to fruition in 2020, with likely big impacts.

Here is a rundown of what to expect in 2020.


That’s what the headlines will say, not only in China’s official media but in media worldwide reacting positively, unless they are reminded in advance what China means by this misleading claim. What China calls poverty alleviation has a sting: it means depopulating the Tibetan countryside.

Read the fine print. China’s noble promise to end all poverty by 2020, to leave no-one behind, rests in Tibet on the governing concept of Contiguous destitute areas 个集中连片特困区贫困. This is an official territorial zoning category, that solidifies the racist Han Chinese assumption that Tibetans are poor, because they live in Tibet. That in turn rests on the assumption that Tibet, because of its altitude, thin air and low temperatures is naturally unproductive, and that no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice.


China is congratulated endlessly for having lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with only a few remaining, who are intractably poor because their homelands are, in Chinese eyes, so lacking in natural endowments that poverty is the inevitable outcome.

Thus the only solution for people classified as living in areas of contiguous destitution is to move them, for their own sake. In practice, this means cancelling Tibetan land tenure rights, requiring drogpa nomads to sell their livestock, removing them to concrete settlements and high rise apartments on the fringes of the booming new Chinese towns and cities across Tibet, with nothing to do, dependent on government rations.

So when China triumphantly announces it has fully solved the problem of poverty, that its “precision poverty alleviation” methods enabled millions of Tibetans to start new lives elsewhere, the world will applaud. Are Tibetans ready to tell the real story of reducing nomads to dependence on state ration handouts, claiming it successful poverty alleviation?

Tibet helps 150,000 shake off poverty in 2019.

From: Xinhua Economic News 7 Jan 2020

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — Around 150,000 people have cast off poverty in 2019, and around 19 counties have been removed from the poverty list in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, said Qizhala, chairman of the regional government.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 in his government work report delivered at the ongoing third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region.In 2020, Tibet will continue to give priority to poverty relief, Qizhala added.China has set 2020 as the target year to eradicate absolute poverty.

China Focus: Tibet basically eliminates absolute poverty.

Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — China’s Tibet Autonomous Region has basically eradicated absolute poverty, chairman of the regional government announced Tuesday. The feat was accomplished after Tibet lifted the remaining 150,000 people out of poverty and took 19 counties off the poverty list in 2019, said Qizhala in his government work report delivered at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. “Absolute poverty has been basically eradicated (in Tibet),” said Qizhala. “We are poised to achieve the overall victory in the fight against poverty. “Known as the “roof of the world,” Tibet is famous for its picturesque plateau landscapes and splendid ethnic cultures. It is also one of the main grounds in China’s nationwide campaign against poverty. Accumulatively, Tibet has lifted 628,000 people out of poverty, and delisted 74 county-level regions from the poverty list, according to data from the regional government. “It is of great significance in the development of the Tibetan people to basically eliminate absolute poverty, given the adverse natural conditions on the plateau and the region’s underdeveloped social conditions,” said Wang Zhuo, a public administration expert with Sichuan University. “It also attests to the success of the Chinese model of development on the high plateau and offers the world an exemplary case,” said Wang, who is also the director of an anti-poverty research center. In Tuesday’s work report, Qizhala said the gross domestic product (GDP) in Tibet was estimated at more than 160 billion yuan (around 23 billion U.S. dollars) last year, up about 9 percent year on year. Per capita disposable income for the region’s rural residents grew about 13 percent, while that for urban residents rose more than 10 percent, said Qizhala. In 2020, Qizhala said Tibet’s GDP is expected to maintain a stable growth of 9 percent. The total retail sales of consumer goods aim to grow 10 percent this year. Meanwhile, the per capita disposable income for the region’s urban and rural residents in 2020 is estimated to grow 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Qizhala added that the region aims to create 50,000 urban jobs and ensure that the registered unemployment rate does not rise above 3.6 percent.

Tibet’s tourism sector, a pillar of the regional economy, also saw robust growth in 2019, with tourism revenue rising to 56 billion yuan (around 7.9 billion U.S. dollars) and more than 40 million tourists from home and abroad visited the region, up 19 percent year on year. Tibet will continue to develop its tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand as the world’s Third Pole,” he said.


The official delisting of a further 19 dzongs (counties) from the list of counties eligible for poverty alleviation funding, brings to a total all the 74 dzongs of TAR.  The removal of every county in central Tibet from the list of counties designated as poor removes a substantial source of transfer payment support which in recent years has significantly boosted household incomes.

Official poverty funding invariably came with strings attached, for example a requirement that the money was to be spent on fencing herds into allocated pastures, or that a permanent winter housing had to be built on allocated land. Often, the purchase of fencing wire was compulsory, or the rolls of fencing wire were delivered in lieu of cash, or the resettled nomad drogpa had to contribute additional funding of their own to complete these projects, even if it meant going into debt. In areas subsequently declared national parks, drogpa were later required to dismantle the fencing they had erected, to allow migrating biodiversity to resume seasonal migration unhindered by having to jump fences.

One opportunity to remind folks that poor people above all need their own land, and secure land rights, is the World Bank Land and Poverty conference: 16-20 March 2020 location: Washington D.C.   

All Chinese citizens now have an online portal to let the government know if they object to official policies: http://www.npc.gov.cn/fgba/fgba/bascPortalManager.do?method=gotoScjyIndex


Central planning is not dead, nor is China becoming a normal capitalist economy dominated by private enterprises selling consumer goods and services for consumption by the masses. The centralised command and control economy has been strengthened in recent years, and the role of state owned enterprises (SOEs) has intensified. Those SOEs in Tibet build the hydro dams, power grids, high speed railways, wind and solar power farms, mines and smelters, which have such impact, especially in the remote locations that happen, from an engineering point of view, to be best sites to locate dams.

The 14th Five-Year Plan runs from 2021 through 2025. It will be debated in elite circles, and finalised in 2020. Accessing the debates is not hard, as there are plenty of players pushing in various directions, including many nonChinese investors, advisers and NGOs with a stake, well entrenched in the official system, who routinely publish their analysis and advocacy for their preferred policy directions.  This makes 2020 a year in which we can follow how the 14th Plan is shaped.

Expect the 14th Plan to emphasise nation-building programs including west to east power grids transmitting ultra-high voltage electricity from Tibet to coastal China. Expect the start of big investments in wind energy generation in Tibet, especially in Kham where the winds are strong, in rugged landscapes, and close to the hydro dams and power grids. Expect the completion of the high speed railway from Chengdu to Lhasa, cutting travel time to 13 hours. Expect the completion of the high speed rail from Xining to Chengdu via Rebkong, Labrang, Machu, Jiuzhaigou Tourist Park and on to Chengdu, bringing millions more Han tourists to Tibet. Expect rail and tollway connections from Kunming via Dali and Lijiang to Dechen to be completed, again funnelling more and more mass domestic tourism into Tibetan areas.

bridging the upper Yangtze in Tibet

 Expect more museums to re-present Tibetan culture safely under glass. Expect old town centres, with their traditional architecture, torn down not long ago, to now be rebuilt with traditional facades and upmarket e-commerce boutiques inside, in many tourist destinations.

Expect a real estate boom around Nyingtri, as luxury villas take the best spots for the now-famous peach blossom season each year.

Expect  central Tibet to expand its menu of destinations, beyond Lhasa, creating a circuit of airports from Chamdo in eastern TAR to Ngari Kailash in the far west, encouraging more tourists, enabling  a spread of tourist arrivals.

Tibet receives over 40 mln tourists in 2019. Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

Last year, tourism revenue rose to 56 billion yuan (7.9 billion U.S. dollars), Qizhala, chairman of the regional government, said in his government work report delivered Tuesday at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibet will continue to develop the tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand of the world’s Third Pole,” he said.

RUKOR COMMENT:  This extraordinary number ranks central Tibet (TAR) as a bigger destination than Germany, UK or Thailand, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation barometer of tourist data. Overwhelmingly the tourists crowd into Lhasa, are overwhelmingly Han Chinese from lowland China, and comes in surges in seasonal holiday periods.

The 2019 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook  says in 2018 Amdo/Qinghai received  42,044,000 tourists, of whom 41,975,000 were domestic tourists, only a handful were foreigners. TAR Statistical Yearbook shows that year after year, non Chinese foreigners are no more than one per cent of total tourist arrivals.

Europe assesses China’s proposal to power the whole of Eurasia from Tibet, 2017

Expect serious planning to extend ultrahigh voltage power grids from Tibet not only to coastal China but also westward, across central Asia, perhaps as far as Europe. These plans, already under evaluation by the European Commission, would give Tibetan hydro dams, wind power and power grids an integral role on China’s Belt & Road Initiative.


National parks are a great idea, far better than destructive mining and dam building. Everyone loves national parks. But national parks with Chinese characteristics, to be opened in 2020 with maximum propaganda, are overwhelmingly in Tibet, for a reason. The area designated as national parks is huge, with plans for steady expansion beyond the 2020 launch, to cover around 30 per cent of the whole Tibetan Plateau, including the prime alpine meadow pastures of Yushu and Golok prefectures. This sets up a contradiction between grass and animals, between skilful pastoralism and pristine unpeopled wilderness.

China has for decades cleared Tibetan nomads off the lands they curated sustainably for thousands of years. In Chinese eyes, nomads are little better than the animals they herd, wandering the landscape randomly, they are primitive and prehistoric.

Along with poverty alleviation, the inception of massive new national parks in Tibet provides seemingly scientific justifications for removing the land owners. This is not just a tricky political manoeuvre to depopulate the Tibetan countryside; it is foundational to the whole idea of national parks. For decades China has insisted the rangelands are degrading and desertifying, not because of 1980s rapacious gold miner invasions, or 1990s ruthless hunters gunning down keystone animal species, or compulsory mass poisonings of burrowing keystone species, or  global climate change accelerating because Chinese emissions grow and grow. The sole cause of grassland degradation is, in the official narrative, greedy, uncaring nomads who maximise herd size and grazing pressure. Heedless of the consequences. Hence the need for national parks which are zoned to exclude  all human use from core areas, for the primary goal of protecting China’s water supply from Tibet.

Dola Riwo/Qilian Shan also has much extractable underground gas frozen in ice

From northernmost Tibet heading south, the three biggest new parks are:

DOLA RIWO (QILIAN SHAN in Chinese). The mountains of northernmost Tibet, separating Amdo (Qinghai) from arid Gansu province are to become a national park of at least 50,000 sq kms. The prime beneficiary of locking out many of the drogpa nomads from Qilian slopes, to protect glaciers and rivers, is China’s rocket launch base far away in Inner Mongolia, That’s where the rivers of Dola Riwo end, in the desert sands where China built its plutonium factory for manufacturing nuclear weapons, later converted to rocket launchers, totally dependent on water from Tibet.

Jiuquan plutonium factory 2004, now China’s primary rocket launch site, inner Mongolia

The World Bank’s Global Environment Fund (GEF) gave $5.4 million to the UN Development Programme between 2012 and 2017 to work closely with Qinghai provincial government to design this park, and the Sanjiangyuan park. A further $3 million of GEF money is being spent 2018-2023 on finalising design of the Qilian national park.

SANJIANGYUAN, meaning three river source, is a Chinese term that has no Tibetan equivalent, as it sweeps together two entire prefectures, Amdo Golok and Kham Yushu, plus several more counties, into a single entity facing lowland China, source of China’s great rivers, the Ma Chu (Yellow) and Dri Chu (Yangtze) plus the upper Za Chu (Mekong). Originally designated by China as 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany, it is at 2020 launch scaled back to 152,000 sq kms, to be scaled up later.

Sanjiangyuan three rivers source covers a huge area, well beyond the glacial sources

Although named for the glacial river sources, those rivers wind slowly across vast pastoral Tibetan landscapes before eventually dropping as wild mountain rivers to the lowlands. That’s why this park is so big. China, acutely short of water, is out to protect its “number one water tower”, which means excluding nomads and herds that poop on riverbanks, to grow more grass and create pristine wilderness tourists can marvel at.

panda habitat remains only in Tibet, except for a small part of Shaanxi SW of Xi’an

PANDA NATIONAL PARK Panda habitat used to cover the southern half of China, but no more. Now remaining panda habitat is on the eastern fringes of Tibet, in scattered reserves that are to be linked up in the hope of linking panda populations while excluding humans. China’s state news agency has reported that at least 170,000 people would have to relocate or adapt to new restrictions as part of the park’s overall plan. The panda is Tibetan.


The legitimacy of CCP rule has long depended on delivering a fast pace of growth and quick wealth accumulation opportunities. Now that growth has peaked and China is no longer the lowest of low wage economies, and  Chinese manufacturers are relocating factories to Cambodia, Bangladesh and elsewhere, many Chinese now feel frustrated that their turn to get rich never came, and may never come. Popular frustration is what the CCP most fears, especially in the densely populated east, where crowds can quickly mobilise, unlike Tibet.

So the CCP will spend big to stimulate growth, even if that means sidelining promises to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental initiatives. Spending big in Tibet could include accelerating the construction of several expressway tollroads and railways thrusting deep into Tibet. It may also mean accelerating hydro dam construction, which will be represented as green energy, despite the damage done by hydro dams, from fish kills to earthquakes.

The hydro engineers have spent decades measuring remote Tibetan valleys and the gorges of steep mountain rivers, and the projects are already on official lists of what is authorised to go ahead. If the  finance is allocated, construction will start, and the central government has now relaxed its rules on how much of the banks’ capital must be held back for emergencies, freeing up huge amounts for loans to favoured lenders, such as the state owned corporations that build dams and power grids.

The national parks story has a positive side, of skilful Tibetan social enterprises finding a niche.

Rnam sras, often called Namsei or, in Chinese, Angsai, is a remote township in Zatö county, close to the Tibetan source of the Mekong, in Yushu prefecture. Township is an administrative fiction, bundling the scattered Tibetan nomads of this sharp mountainscape into an administrative unit.  The upper Mekong winds its way through the valleys below the jagged peaks, landscapes too difficult for more than a few families, too remote for much official focus beyond counting the total population as fewer than 3400, in the 2000 census.

Zatö in Tibetan means source of the Za River, or Mekong. It remains a haven for wildlife, and is shortly to be incorporated into the Sanjiangyuan National park. The upper valleys and rocky slopes are home to agile deer, leopards and snow leopards, and many other rare species. Here in what is now becoming known as the Valley of the Cats a genuinely community run Tibetan enterprise hosts and guides a strictly limited number of ecotourists each year, with a chance to glimpse the rare and endangered snow leopard.

It’s a small miracle that intends to stay small, both for the sake of the animals, and to keep this social enterprise in local hands, not overtaken by China’s mass domestic tourism industry which is capable of funnelling tourists in the millions to precious Tibetan landscapes, as it does, for example, at Jiuzhaigou/Dzitsa Degu in Ngawa prefecture of Sichuan.

Valley of the Cats attracts animal lovers and film crews, people who know how to be patient, and happy to be accommodated in local houses by local people, yet pay well for this select privilege.

This is the upside of the Sanjiangyuan National park, which empowers the locals to keep out the masses, even to remove unauthorised campers and home stayers who try to bypass the Valley of the Cats wirth its’ package of translators, guides, wildlife conservationists, transport and home stays. None of this would be enforceable without Sanjiangyuan National Park zoning classification of the area as high conservation value, visitor numbers to be strictly controlled.

How is this small miracle possible in a centralised, authoritarian system based on mass tourism, mass consumption of iconic sites owned and managed by the state? It’s quite a backstory.

Quietly, Chinese NGOs such as Shan Shui and Plateau Perspectives have shown in practice that rangelands and pastoralists do go together, in the future as well as in the past, doing “eco-husbandry”, as active, skilful landscape managers. This has been a long, skilful and fruitful collaboration between remote Tibetan communities rich in wildlife and the elite Centre for Nature and Society, School of Life Sciences, Peking University. Working together carefully over decades built mutual respect, a recognition on all sides that local communities are better at conserving endangered species than distant governments.

Lu Zhi

During those decades elite Han Chinese learned to see landscapes and wildlife through Tibetan eyes, becoming over time sufficiently Tibetanised to reach for classic Tibetan locutions to express themselves. Du Fachun, for example, in his study of Tibetan exnomads displaced from their pastures but not successfully settled in peri-urban apartments, described their bardo as neither deer nor horse, neither cow nor donkey, classic Tibetan metaphors.

Such collaborations work in China, even in periods of authoritarian rigidity, finding niches that fulfil state agendas while ensuring programs are run by local communities rather than officials at the bottom of a top down chain of command. The Beijing elites have the right language, connections and impeccable academic credentials to protect the locals; the Tibetan communities do what they have always done, respecting wildlife, caring for the land, raising their herds.

Going back decades is Professor Lu Zhi, who has quietly supervised  the emergence of several Tibetans now qualified as postgraduate fieldworkers whose reports she helps get published.[1]

The vehicle for this work of bridging the gaps between distant provinces, distant classes and distant ethnicities is Shan Shui, a conservation NGO artfully named after the mountains and rivers of classic Chinese painting, depicted in bold watercolour brush strokes. Embedded in classical art, Shan Shui has learned from its Tibetan partners how to do effective biodiversity conservation work that also sustains local communities. Implicitly, this is an alternative to blaming Tibetans for degradation, then clearing them off their lands, in the name of national park wilderness restoration.

Shan Shui came to the mountains and rivers of Tibet with open minds, and deep friendships were formed. Out of this has come Valley of the Cats, with a bilingual English and Chinese website inviting select visitors from around the world, introducing doco film crews to remote locations, featuring community conservation and the opportunity to meet the locals, and sleep under their roofs.

The actual upcountry valley where pastoral herding ends and wild country begins has only “22 resident families, each with their own herd of yak, hold strict Buddhist beliefs about the sanctity of all life and, as a result, have a harmonious relationship with the wildlife and environment.  The densities of apex predators such as Snow Leopard, Leopard, Brown Bear and Lynx rival any place on Earth.”

This does not mean there are no pressures from above. Valley of the Cats tells us: “Given the pressure of overgrazing on the Tibetan Plateau, it is likely that the local people will be asked to reduce the number of yak in their herds.  This has consequences for their already relatively low incomes and threatens their way of life.  Many of the young people in the Valley of the Cats would like to stay but if incomes fall, they will be forced to leave for the city to earn a living.  Wildlife watching tourism has the potential to help offset the reduction in income associated with reduced numbers of yak and thus could enable these families to stay in the valley and maintain their traditional way of life. The arrangements for wildlife watching tourism have been put in place in full consultation with the local government and the local community and will continue only if the community is fully supportive.”

Having patiently negotiated with all relevant organs as well as all involved locals, this modest enterprise is succeeding, both in bringing income to a remote part of Tibet, and in fulfilling nation-building objectives of the national park system.

5 2020 is the year China’s social credit surveillance system becomes fully operational

Police forces and security state bureaucracies worldwide are buying the big data mining algorithms marketed by cyber surveillance companies, turning their vast accumulations of data on each and all of us into probability predictions as to what we will do next. These predictive algorithms claim to know, before we each do, before the idea pops into my head, what crimes I am about to commit.

In western countries, this makes for harassment of young black men by police backed by the supposedly scientific objectivity of the data we generate every day on all our electronic devices.

In China, the consequences for those singled out as “precriminals” are much greater. One only has to look at Xinjiang’s mass detentions of “precriminal” Uighurs suspected of terrorist sympathies for nothing more than saying prayers, wearing a beard or a scarf.

To be registered under the compulsory hukou household registration system as Tibetan is to automatically be classified in a high risk category, to be monitored more intensively. To be young and male adds to the risk profile, and to the selective attention of the security apparatus believing it has the ability to prevent crime well in advance.

In the West, there are limits on what police can do to someone who has not committed a crime. In China, there are no such limits. The security state’s paranoia is unchecked.


 CBD 5 October 2020 [tentative] location:  Kunming, Yunnan www: https://www.cbd.int/cop/

This is an especially important meeting of the CBD biodiversity convention, as it will set targets to be fulfilled by decade end in 2030, after this last decade’s failure to achieve much in slowing the rate of species extinctions. By holding this event in Kunming, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, draws attention to China as world’s biggest consumer of rare and endangered species, and trafficker of wildlife for the insatiable Traditional Chinese Medicine market.


After the complete failure of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) gathering in Madrid, December 2019, the next chance for effective global action on the climate emergency is scheduled for late 2020, with Glasgow the host city, 9 to 20 November.

In Madrid, China, as usual, insisted on being both a developing country entitled to lesser emissions reduction obligations, and part of the club of richer bullies who insist on doing nothing effective on climate change. Since the US is pulling out altogether, and other rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Brazil are overtly bad actors, out to sabotage effective action, China’s obstructive role got less attention. Yet China did send the rich country a bill, of trillions of dollars, to be paid to China to reduce emissions, while also siding with other big emitters to thwart even something as basic as an agreed audit of actual emission levels, or a standard of measuring actual emissions.

Stand by in 2020, for talk of China announcing more “ambitious” emissions reduction goals, in UN jargon NDC, Nationally-Determined Contributions, which means that all Paris 2015 managed to agree on was that each country sets its own target, with no  external oversight or accountability. China has never committed to any specific tonnage of emissions reductions. China in 2015 announced only that it will begin reducing emissions starting 2030, even though that is the year, at the end of this decade, when, according to the authoritative IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all countries should have completed the closure of coal burning power stations, and completed their emission reductions trajectory. So if in 2020 China does announce it expects to begin emission reductions a bit earlier than 2030, it will get glowing media coverage.

Dissenting voices are needed, ideally from folks who never caused the climate emergency in the first place but suffer its consequences, such as Tibetans.

In 2019 the IPCC issued special reports which focussed attention on Tibet. In 2020 IPCC is gearing up for their once-every-five-years Assessment Report, to be issued in 2021. So 2020 for IPCC is packed with meetings of authors and writers, thus opportunities for ongoing lobbying: https://www.ipcc.ch/calendar/

The UNFCC COP26 in Glasgow is scheduled for 8 to 20 November 2020.

Timeline of OTHER EVENTS OF 2020

a) Taiwan general election 11 January, outcome heavily influenced by overt and covert pressure from China, including social media manipulation and disinformation.

b) World Economic Forum 21-24 January , Switzerland www: https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-m…

c) YANGTZE River Protection Law to protect the whole of the Yangtze/Dri Chu from its origins in Amdo Ngawa and Kham Kandze, all the way to Shanghai. China’s National People’s Congress is due to approve this law in March. https://npcobserver.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/yangtze-river-protection-law-draft.pdf in 2020, and “persons living in the Yangtze River basin” [长江流域所在地人员] are officially invited to comment on the draft law before it is passed. This law could empower Tibetans to object to the many hydro dams, biggest in the world, planned for the upper Yangtze.

d) Global Biodiversity Outlook. Every six years the UN Convention on Biodiversity sums up all that is known about all species on earth, and their path towards extinction. date: 18 May 2020 location: Montreal-Est, Quebec, Canada www: https://www.cbd.int/gbo  Since China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of rare and threatened animals and plants worldwide, this is an opportunity to highlight China’s record.

e) IUCN World Conservation Congress:  A huge gathering of scientists and NGOs and governments to assess progress towards a protected planet and conservation of Nature, major lobbying opportunity, which China will use to promote its national parks as exemplary ecological civilisation construction. Marseille, France 11 to 19 June  

f) KAILASH and world heritage https://whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/44COM/ UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE Committee meets in Fuzhou, China to decide whether to accept nominations for World Heritage status, 29 June to 9 July. Sites in Tibet are on the waiting list, perhaps for a 2020 decision, including Kailash Sacred Landscape, which is mostly in India and Nepal, with just a small portion in Tibet, and only 9000 Tibetans classified as stakeholders with any say at all. On the Indian and Nepal sides there is a population of over one million, keen to see roads hotels and development, with Kailash the magnet drawing in the tourist/pilgrims. The six million Tibetans who make this sacred landscape sacred are disempowered, and have no say.

Tso Ngonpo/Koko Nor/Qinghai Hu is on the official “tentative list” for consideration, possibly in 2020, as World Heritage.

g) OZONE HOLE ABOVE TIBET There are three holes in the ozone layer that protects all living things from damaging ultraviolet radiation, over the Antarctic, Arctic and Tibet. Two UN Conventions have failed to curb illegal production in Chinese factories of chemicals that float high into the atmosphere and collect above Tibet, destroying the ozone layer. The Joint 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (COP 12) and 32nd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (MOP 32) is scheduled to take place from 23-27 November 2020 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  

h) In August 2020 a new book will come out declaring nomads to be the wave of the future. The author, Felix Marquandt, says: “Young people from everywhere are moving everywhere. Or rather, they are moving to where they expect to improve their lives. Movement has become a key to their emancipation. After centuries of becoming sedentary, the future of humanity and the key to its enlightenment in the 21st century lies in re-embracing nomadism. Migration fosters the qualities that will allow our children to flourish and succeed. Our times require more migration, not less. The New Nomad is both the chronicle of this revolution and a call to embrace it.”

This is a global movement, pioneered by the young Tibetans of New York, Antwerp, London, Toronto and Paris. Free movement is the opposite of the involuntary displacement of Tibetans coerced into giving up their land rights to pasture.

i)TV doco on Valley of the Cats by Ray Mears to screen on ITV, Britain, autumn 2020 featuring footage of snow leopards

j) 2020 is a Census year. Once every 10 years China sends census data collectors everywhere, even quite remote places, gathering a huge trove of data on ethnicity, language, education, literacy, income and lots more, which then gets tabulated and months later in 2021 published.  Census data is usually more reliable than other official statistics that are reported up the line by local officials out to boost their declared performance and get promoted. The 2020 Census starts on 1 November. Back in 2000 Census published how many of each of the 56 ethnicities reside in each of the 2000 counties of China, including the 150 counties (dzongs) officially designated as Tibetan Autonomous. But the 2010 Census suppressed revealing any county by county ethnic spread data. The 2010 census did confirm total population of the Tibetan Plateau reached over 10 million, including 6 million Tibetans. Xining and the surrounding agribusiness/industrial belt encircling Xining have grown greatly since 2010, so expect a 2020 total population of the Tibetan Plateau of 12 million.

[1] Minghao Zhuang, Dr Gongbuzeren, Jian Zhang, Wenjun Li; Community-based seasonal movement grazing maintains lower greenhouse gas emission intensity on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of China, Land Use Policy 85 · April 2019 

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Glaciers, nomads: blaming the victims

Blog two of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


the longer the red line, the greater the glacier melt, blue lines show glaciers growing
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015


In Tibet, to the benefit of downstream China, runoff increase is due not only to faster glacier melt but also to today’s higher rainfall and rising lake levels, reversing a drying trend that has lasted for thousands of years.[1] Climate change is here and now.

Rising temperatures also mean permafrost is anything but permanent, now hovering in Tibet just below freezing point. Permafrost melt is not well understood scientifically but its rapid disappearance across huge areas of Tibet is already problematic, both for local communities and globally. As water frozen in the soil melts away earlier these days in the seasonal cycle, water that growing plants could have accessed now drains down beyond the reach of growing roots, affecting both spring crop plantings and wetlands which now dry out.

This also affects the water meadows of the Yellow River in Machu Dzoge (Ru’ergai in Chinese) where official policies decades ago drained the swamp, in order to separate land and water, only to cause vegetation to die off, climate changing methane emissions to rise and peat fires to burn uncontrollably. Now China understands draining the swamp was a mistake and is trying to rectify past policy failures by filling in the drainage ditches, as local leaders now explain.


At the September 2019 UN global climate summit, Secretary-General Guterres challenged governments to be more ambitious in their emissions reduction targets, in keeping with the 2018 IPCC report on what is needed to prevent runaway climate change occurring once temperatures rise beyond 1. 5 degrees. China’s response to this challenge was silence:

“What we certainly did learn was how limited the UN has been in dragging large nations forward. Guterres invited leaders to make new commitments to cut their emissions, stop building coal plants and end fossil fuel subsidies. Three of the four countries with the biggest coal expansion plans – India, China and Turkey – were invited to speak. Each of them failed to address that consequential part of their economy. None of the large polluters met the UN secretary general’s call to raise their climate pledges. China’s statement was potentially the most consequential. It remains up to developed countries to lead, the country said. It’s also a poke in the eye for the UN, which had flagged its confidence that China would front up with new ambition.”

“The path to net zero emissions ‘is something we are just discovering,’ former French climate ambassador and CEO of the European Climate Foundation Laurence Tubiana told CHN. But the top levels of government are not yet engaged. China appears to be wary of setting goals that it does not know it can achieve. Its climate targets are barely better than “business-as-usual”, said Tubiana.”

ever wondered what all those Chinese scientists wanderingTibet are up to? Photographing dissipation and collapse in the skies of Tibet.
Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

China, almost alone among nations, has never committed to any specific emissions reduction target, only to greater energy efficiency while persisting in economic growth and construction of coal-fired power stations. Although China seeks a reputation as a world leader in environmental civilisation construction, in Paris 2015 and ever since it has refused to make any commitment to reduce emissions, other than a proposal to begin emission reductions starting in 2030. According to the IPCC 2030 is when emission reductions need to be fully completed, not beginning, if the planet is to avoid uncontrollable runaway temperature rises.

historic climate data of the entire Ganges Basin originating in Tibet Himalaya
forecasting future season climate of Ganges basin up to 2050, in winter and monsoonal summer. Rainfall (left) and temperature future (right). RCP 4.5 model assumes world acts to reduce emissions; RCP 8.5 model assumes world fails to do anything effective to reduce emissions.
Mapping the Tibetan glaciers that feed the Ganges river and its many Himalayan tributaries

UN Secretary-General Guterres is not alone in calling on China to implement policies needed if the planet is to heat by no more than the IPCC upper threshold of 1.5 degrees. China’s own high level thinktank, the China Council on international Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) in December 2018 called on the government for: “increasingly ambitious plans in the short term via the 14th Five Year Plan (2021 to 2025), in the medium term via a revised Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030 and Beautiful China 2035, and in the longer term via a 2050 Strategy. This will require well-defined targets and timelines as well as pathways for policy reform including the reform of State-Owned Enterprises including the State Grid, and building a well-functioning national emissions trading system.”[2] None of these have happened; it’ still business as usual.

Preparing for the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, China published an official response, over 3000 words, with very few numbers, none for actual emissions reductions. One of the few specifics was a number for how much energy is needed to make a ton of steel or a renminbi denominated unit of production: “By the end of 2018, its carbon emission intensity had decreased by 45.8% compared with the level in 2005.” This is commendable energy efficiency, but in no way is it an actual reduction in emissions. China remains overtly committed to ongoing economic growth. China also persists in demanding the richest countries do most of the emissions reduction work, while proclaiming itself as a developing country, thus entitled to do less.

China remains the world’s biggest emitter of climate heating gases, not only carbon dioxide but also methane and chlorofluorocarbons outlawed by globally binding treaty. China persists in burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. Of China’s 50 biggest cities, the one big city China has built in Tibet, Xining, now ranks as one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide, due almost entirely to the heavy industries surrounding Xining which process Tibetan minerals, oil and gas, with little effective regulation.[3]


For China and Tibet, most rain and snow comes with the summer monsoons, and winter is the dry time. Climate warming means spring now starts earlier, long before the rains arrive, parching the spring growth. Industry needs water year-round, and has always relied on glaciers to steadily release water, supplemented by dams impounding water to further extend seasonal flow. Now the balance is tilting. The IPCC reports that the monsoons are become more unpredictable and more extreme, more prone to inundate or to fail.

In the watershed of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, extreme weather is becoming more common, flooding eastern India and Bangladesh
Future Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra watershed rainfall (left maps) temperature (right maps) in the decades to 2050. Assuming the world limits emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).
Seasonally, where will it rain more (left maps) and get hotter (right maps) in Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin to year 2050. Assumes effective global emissions action (upper maps) or no effective action (lower maps).

China’s policy response is to close pastures and remove pastoralists to concrete block settlements on urban fringes, where their customary skills are useless, and urban employment is not available to those not fluent in Chinese. The theory is that careless over grazing by ignorant herders has caused grassland degradation and erosion, thus making the water run faster. Excluding the pastoralists and their grazing herds makes more grass grow, slows the water flow across the vast alpine meadows of Tibet, thus guaranteeing the provisioning of water to northern China, which has become Tibet’s primary service to China. That’s the foundational premise of Chinese policy.


This is an example of the many environmental services provided by the cryosphere, services many human lives rely on. China, in its refusal to name any emissions reduction target despite worldwide pressure, persists in failing to protect those cryosphere services. Within China, traditionally the first beneficiaries of cryosphere services have been those closest to the snow field slopes and the glaciers, the nomads of the Tibetan plateau. These upper riparians for thousands of years respected and protected these landscapes, often revering the mountains as gods.[4] There is no reason to suppose Tibetans in recent decades abandoned tradition and began overgrazing, causing land degradation of their own homelands, careless about the consequences of their actions.

rain and snow over Tibet are becoming less reliable. Source: R Krishnan in Hindu Kush Himalaya Asessment, ICIMOD, 2019

Official decrees from above curtailing nomadic mobility, forcing herders onto smaller land allocations were the cause of land degradation, and of intensifying poverty as pastoralists had to get by with less grass, smaller animals, rigidly assigned stocking rates, the expense of compulsory fencing, fodder crop ploughing, sowing and harvest, increasingly hemmed in.[5] intensifying poverty drove many to accept official urgings to relocate to urban fringes, surrendering land rights and selling remaining livestock. These official interventions, a cascade of official policy failures, have deeply disrupted pastoral livelihoods and now threaten the collective food security of Tibet for the first time, as so many food producers cease production.

intense bursts of snow/rain over Tibet are increasing, especially in winter.
Source: R Krishnan, Unravelling Climate Change in the Hindu 3 Kush Himalaya: Rapid Warming in the Mountains and Increasing Extremes, in The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019

ICIMOD’s 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment reminds us: “In China, ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly concentrated in mountainous areas and are significantly poorer than the Han majority—their consumption poverty level is more than twice as high and their income poverty rate is three times as high as that of Han communities. In rural areas, ethnic minorities have less access to wage employment and earn less when they engage in wage employment. Enrolment rates among school-aged children are lower among minority populations than among Han populations. Also, minority areas have less developed healthcare infrastructure and less access to safety nets such as unemployment and pension insurance.”[6]

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

Climate change, on top of all these drivers of immiserisation, may be the last straw for many rural Tibetans, including nomads accustomed to living off uncertainty. For China, however, climate change can be blamed for whatever goes wrong, as if it were an unstoppable force of nature. It is the ideal excuse. This is toxic. China persists in asserting its formula of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for doing little about climate change. China defines its differentiated responsibility as requiring no specific emissions reduction quantum at all.

The reality is that China’s top priority, for all its talk of “constructing ecological civilisation” is economic growth, under a government committed above all to stimulating growth for fear of social unrest if growth falters. Because growth remains the paramount priority, forecasts of China’s carbon emissions vary, but agree that the peak, yet to come, may be as high as 16 billion tons of CO2 belched skyward annually, and after that peak, around the year 2030, the decline in emissions will be modest and slow.[7] This is completely inconsistent with the IPCC message.

heating of Tibet and South Asia over the entire 21st century, right up to 2098
Source: Ashwini Kulkarni et al., Projected Climate Change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region, 2013,
Mountain Research & Development

China’s case for remaining exempt from emissions reduction targets for rich industrial nations is that it is only a recent industrialiser, with still a long way to go to catch up with the countries pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution’s first steam engines. This is factually incorrect, as Chinese scientists have recently reminded us. Carbon levels in the atmosphere remained low, below the level that forces climate to warm, until 1965.[8] Only after that did carbon levels start rising fast, at a time China was urgently industrialising.


Some Tibetan areas in the Himalayas are in rain shadow, naturally dry as monsoon rains have already fallen at lower altitudes as clouds push up the slopes. With great ingenuity, local Tibetan communities have learned how to make skilful use of the annual freeze-thaw cycle to capture the autumn tailend of the monsoon by freezing it, to be available as ice melt in spring when young crops need watering well before the summer monsoon arrives.

storing water over winter for use in spring crop irrigation, by freezing water into an ice stupa Source: IPCC, 2019

Climate scientists admire these entrepreneurial ways of damming water with simple stone walls across creeks that freeze over winter and in spring gravity flow to the fields needing irrigation. The scientists adopt Ladakhi usage, calling the most dramatic adaptations ice stupas, as these mini glaciers made by human hand look like the Buddhist memorial chortens found all over Ladakh, the Indian portion of upper Tibet.

IPCC, while hailing these local innovations, worries that climate warming means they will soon no longer work, or will become less useful as climate becomes more unreliable and unpredictable. IPCC states Western Himalayas are drying further, and in some areas glaciers, rather than shrinking, may even be growing,[9] while in eastern Himalayas, already among the wettest places worldwide, rainfall is increasing. Extremes are getting more extreme, but, if given time, Tibetans have so far been able to adapt. Does accelerating climate change allow time to adapt?

Entire Indus River basin, from Tibetan source, through India and Pakistan. Protected areas in darker green.


Glacier and snow melt have long been factored into traditional farming strategies in monsoonal Asia, since rainfall is so strongly concentrated in summer, but crops need water much earlier in the seasonal cycle, in spring. This is especially so on the Indus River which, after leaving upper Tibet passes through northern India and then Pakistan. India’s growing reliance on impounded water, in response to increasing climate variability, has exacerbated tensions between upriver India and downriver Pakistan, which for decades were solved by an international water sharing treaty accepted by all. Pakistan now worries that as the lower riparian it is at the mercy of India and its increasing impoundment of water in dams. This adds to the many other tensions in India-Pakistan relations.

Further, agriculture on the Indus has been heavily reliant on the annual cycle of snow and ice accumulation and melt, in order to irrigate crops in need of more than what the monsoon delivers over a few months: “We show that dependence varies strongly in space and time and is highest in the Indus basin, where in the pre-monsoon season up to 60% of the total irrigation withdrawals originate from mountain snow and glacier melt, and that it contributes an additional 11% to total crop production. In total, 129 million farmers in the Indus and Ganges substantially depend on snow and glacier melt for their livelihoods. Snow and glacier melt provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people.”[10]

Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming world fails to curb carbon emissions.
Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming the world acts to curb carbon emissions. Source: Himalayan Climate & water Atlas, ICIMOD, 2015

The Indus is especially dependant on glacier melt, notably in the hot and dry months of spring and summer when monsoon rains push into the Himalayas but leave Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south still parched. This reliance on glacier melt makes the rice and cotton growers on the flat flood plains of the lower Indus acutely vulnerable to accelerating glacier melt on the upper Indus.

Pakistan’s main crops all depend on glacier melt in Tibet at crucial points in the growing season Source: Hester Biemans, Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, 2019 Source: H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601.

The Indus Waters Treaty has successfully defused tensions over many decades, but was written in the 1950s, a time when no-one imagined climate change would tilt the entire playing field and drive India to impound more, to Pakistan’s detriment.[11]  Not only do many Pakistani farmers depend on seasonal glacier melt to sustain their crops very far downriver from the Tibetan glacial source, Pakistan relies on both cotton and basmati rice for export income. Tibetans, upriver of both India and Pakistan, look on with deep concern, but helpless to act, as public advocacy is treated by China as criminal.


The IPCC is serious about 2030 as the outer limit of the time remaining to reduce emissions drastically, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is doing all he can to ensure all nations, big and small, developed and developing, understand that 2030 is when emissions reductions have to be completed, not slowly begun.

China is now the global outlier, having made no commitment at Paris 2015 to anything beyond beginning emissions reductions starting 2030. Since then China has pledged nothing further, yet proclaims itself a champion of ecological civilisation construction.

China’s ecological civilisation credentials come largely from removing Tibetans en masse from their alpine meadow pastures, as if this is a return to pristine unspoiled prehuman nature, to be applauded.

Tibetans did almost nothing to contribute to the climate emergency, but now suffer not only the destabilising effects of climate change but the population exclusions and clearances imposed by China in the name of climate mitigation.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

China urgently needs to offset its ongoing emissions by parading its green credentials, notably by proclaiming 30 per cent of the Tibetan Plateau as national park. Can the world, keen to see progress on climate change, get to grips with the complex reality that excluding nomads from productive and sustainable pastures is not the solution to climate change, especially when more and more coal mines and power stations are being built in China?


glaciers sweep donwslope, south of Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash.
Source: China Natural Geography magazine

[1]FANG Yue et al., Changes in inland lakes on the Tibetan Plateau over the past 40 years, Journal of Geographic Sciences, 2016, 26(4): 415-438

[2] China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, 2018 Policy Recommendations to China’s State Council, CCICED Annual General Meeting, Beijing, 1-3 November 2018

[3] Haikun Wang et al., China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities, Nature Sustainability, 2019,  August, 748-754 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0339-6 

[4] Anne-Marie Blondeau ed., TIBETAN MOUNTAIN DEITIES, THEIR CULTS AND REPRESENTATIONS, 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995

abrupt collapse & total dissipation in the unruly skies of Tibet
Source: Atlas of the Clouds of Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[5] Julia A. Klein et al.,A Participatory Framework for Building Resilient Social-Ecological Pastoral Systems, in Maria E. Fernandez-Gimenez,  Restoring community connections to the land : building resilience through community-based rangeland management in China and Mongolia, CABI, 2012, 28

[6] HKH Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019, 436

[7] Guangyue Xu et al.,  Determining China’s CO2 emissions peak with a dynamic nonlinear artificial neural network approach and scenario analysis, Energy Policy, Volume 128, May 2019, Pages 752-762

[8] Jiawei Da , Yi Ge Zhang, Gen Li, Xianqiang Meng, Low CO2 levels of the entire Pleistocene epoch, Nature Comunications, 2019, freely downloadable: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12357-5

[9]Biswajit Mukhopadhyay, Rising river flows and glacial mass balance in central Karakoram, Journal of Hydrology, 2014, 513, 192- 203

[10] H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601. IPCC cites this as an authoritative source.

[11] Durgeshree RAMAN,  Damming and Infrastructural Development of the Indus River Basin: Strengthening the Provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty, Asian Journal of International Law, 8 (2018), pp. 372–402

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