Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development


On 28 and 29 August 2020 there was a Work Forum on Tibet, in Beijing.

What is a work forum? In any large country, with many government departments and levels of government from township and local county up to national, the need for co-ordination is essential. This is usually called a whole-of-government response, an effort to align all levels, across all jurisdictions, all agreed on a common policy, and how to implement it, with everyone clear about their role in implementation.

In China the Work Forum means all of the above, and more. China is not just large but huge, with provincial, prefectural and county governments that nominally agree with the uniform national policies decided by central leaders, but in reality go their own way. Co-ordination across all geographies and all levels is hard, especially if, in an authoritarian system, there is meant to be just one approach to be implemented uniformly in all areas.

Further, a Work Forum in China mobilises both the state and the party to act together, which increases complexity and surveillance to ensure compliance. A Work Forum brings together all major players, whether party organisations such as the United Front or CCDI corruption inspectors, along with all ministries relevant to the issue of focus for a specific Work Forum.

A Tibet Work Forum does Tibetwork, a specific kind of work based on Tibet as a long term, inescapable, wicked problem. Recent Tibet Work Forums abolished the public position that Tibet is just the “Tibet Autonomous Region”. Tibet Work Forums include all Tibetan areas in all five provinces. This is hardly a concession in recognition of panTibetan identity. Rather, it is recognition that Tibetans, whether in TAR, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu or Yunnan remain unassimilated, and the historic agenda of making an empire into a nation remains unfulfilled.

When a work forum is held, it often signals a new campaign, an attempt at mass mobilisation to push a new policy. Given the violence of the Xinjiang campaign, Tibetans understandably await signs that a new, perhaps more punitive, campaign is to be launched. So far, this is not yet clear.

The limited reporting of this 2020 Tibetwork Forum so far repeats familiar campaigns: poverty alleviation, accelerated urbanisation, the “arduous struggle” against the pernicious Dalai clique, and the policing of monastic minds to ensure compliance with the patriotic Sinicization of religion.

Across China and Tibet, official animosity to religion has been growing again. All over China overt signs of religiosity are compulsorily dismantled yet again. Securitisation is surging again, seeing civil society (itself a banned concept) as yet again a danger to sole authority resting with the party.

In Tibet the securitisation of religion is again becoming extreme, especially if compared to the religious renewal that started in the 1980s, and persisted for decades.

One key meeting that heralded the Seventh Tibetwork Forum was the convening of the National Security Committee of the TAR CCP, headed by Wu Jingye. His language was menacing and aggressive, sounding increasingly like Xinjiang. Wu repeatedly called for striking preventively against security threats, before any harm is done. This suggests growing reliance, as in Xinjiang, on massive data gathering on heavily surveilled  citizens, especially the religious, aided by algorithms primed to classify patterns of behaviour, triggering preventive policing action, as in Xinjiang.

Wu Jingye’s contempt for religion, and calls for preventive policing were so frequent, he seems to have said little else, according to the Xizang Ribao (Tibet Daily) reports. Yet again, religion is being depicted as irrational, unproductive, a waste of this life, since this life is the only life. Again, the party-state edges closer to believing it can attain omniscience.

Wu Jingye, in this securitisation meeting following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Tibet tour, but before the Tibetwork Forum, called for: “ the principle of preventing trouble before it happens, prepare for the foundation to prevent major incidents, look at cadres with the courage to take responsibility for implementation, strengthen territorial management responsibilities, coordinate work, implement established stability maintenance measures, and assess risks For hidden dangers, to do a good job of the plan, it is necessary to be highly vigilant against the “black swan” incident, but also to prevent the “grey rhino” incident,  Continue to follow the letter and visit work methods of preventing key issues, focusing on difficult issues, not neglecting hot issues, thoroughly explore and actively resolve various conflicts, disputes and hidden dangers, and conscientiously resolve doubts to the masses. Resolve contradictions at the grassroots level and eliminate them in the bud.  We must actively guide religion to adapt to the socialist society, guide the religious believers to treat religion rationally, downplay the negative influence of religion, and live a happy life in this life…… giving full play to mass prevention and governance. The role of copper and iron walls is to build and maintain stability. It is necessary to strictly maintain the work discipline of stability, and strictly follow the “three no matter” to hold accountable, deal with it seriously, and never tolerate those who have caused serious consequences due to non-acceptance, omission or dereliction of duty.”

From the perspective of central leaders, the Tibetans remain stubbornly loyal to their own culture, values and traditions, and refuse to identify with China and the Han race as their primary identity, despite all the investment from the centre, over several decades. The Tibetans, like the Uighurs, have become the eternal internal enemies of China’s rise and global success.

A Work Forum is more than co-ordination. Work Forums launch campaigns. Throughout its history the CCP has launched campaign after campaign. These are intended above all to mobilise everyone, as active participants in pushing forward the implementation of the official line, overcoming all obstacles, crushing all opposition, surging ahead to success, a triumph of orchestrated human will. The work forum includes not only state ministries and party cadres but the patriotic masses as well. That’s the theory.

In practice, many campaigns fail, which is why a fresh campaign may be needed a few years later. Tibetwork Forums are held roughly every five years, a cycle reflecting how long it takes to face up to the failure of the last campaign push which is invariably portrayed in official media as successful, until it isn’t. The Seventh Tibetwork Forum, held shortly after the highly secret gathering of CCP leaders at the Beidahe summer beach resort, signals a new phase, and, according to Xi Jinping, a new understanding of the “laws” of Tibetwork.

Initial propaganda after this Forum focuses solely on TAR, yet also mentions the entire Tibetan Plateau as its focus. Early messaging is vague, with little new in the key phrases, the usual emphasis on both internal stability and border stability of a frontier region. The chief policy thrust seems to be further acceleration of the already fast speed of urbanisation, linking urban enclaves through networks of toll road expressways, high speed railway (Lhasa to Chengdu, Xining to Chengdu), power grids etc.

However, Xi Jinping delivered a menu of ten “musts” of Tibetwork, we await a detailed list. On 27 August, the day the Tibetwork Forum opened, a long article in CCP leading theory journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) on Xi Jinping’s personal Tibetwork, listed many of these “musts”: “We must continue to focus on deeply impoverished areas such as the ‘three regions and three states’, implement poverty alleviation plans, and focus on prominent problems and weak links to vigorously implement policies”; “We must consolidate the results of “two guarantees and three guarantees” to prevent rebounds.” 

These lists are all focused on poverty alleviation, since poverty in Tibet has officially been abolished, and Tibet no longer wears the shameful cap of being designated poor, and, worse, an area of contiguous destitution. The withdrawal of the poverty classification, on the eve of the virus pandemic, leaves leaders aware of the dangers of destitution and immiserisation returning; but this time with no targeted poverty relief available since the “poverty hat” has been removed.

In the build-up to the 7th Tibetwork Forum, not only was Xi Jinping praised for his benevolent concern for the poor Tibetans, other high profile personages also toured Tibet, including Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister since 2013, enabling him to say he has seen for himself how much better off the Tibetan are under CCP alien rule. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi has taken midsummer trips to border areas before.

Commentary on Wang Yi’s visit inevitably emphasised Tibet as a geostrategic issue, in the aftermath of confrontations only months earlier between Indian and Chinese troops in remote border are of arid upper Tibet. His visit, commentators said, was a low key re-assertion of Chinese sovereignty. His mentions of the importance of diplomacy can also be read, in a Chinese domestic context, as a reminder that security issues are too important to be left to the security state, and also require professional negotiators who know how to talk with foreigners. It is not only in the US that militarised solutions get all the attention while State Department/Foreign Ministry diplomacy is dismissed as ineffectual. The sidelining of China’s foreign Ministry is a chronic issue.

The origins of this Tibetwork Forum, the first since 2015, seem to go back to a thorough six-week investigation by the CCDI, the party-state’s vigilance inspectors, in late 2018, who later reported that: “the study of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important discussion on poverty alleviation was not comprehensive and in-depth, and the implementation of the “precision” requirements for poverty alleviation was not solid enough, and some policies to implement poverty alleviation were out of form. The short-term poverty alleviation of the industry is outstanding/overdue, and the performance of some fund projects is not high; there is still a gap in the implementation of the “provincial responsibility”, the overall coordination is not strong enough, the main responsibility needs to be compacted; the formalism and bureaucratism in the rectification of poverty alleviation is not tight, heavy traces and low performance tendencies still exist; grassroots party building still has the phenomenon of falsification and weakening, and the construction of poverty alleviation teams needs to be further strengthened; propaganda and education guidance is not enough. The layers are weakened, some clues of disciplinary inspection and supervision organs are not timely, some work is not strict; the supervision of functional departments is not in place, the risks of projects and funds still exist; the research on the problems found in rectifying various types of supervision and inspection is insufficient.”

Put simply, poverty work looked good on paper, not so good on the ground.

The great weakness is in income earning opportunities for Tibetans in the booming towns and cities of Tibet, where Chinese is the standard language of commerce and industry, even for unskilled workers in the construction industry, the sort of precariat work Tibetans have been able to get. This matters because the clear outcome of the Seventh Tibetwork Forum is further acceleration of urbanisation, as the solution to all Tibetan problems, combined with ongoing removal of Tibetan pastoralists from their pastures, in the name of environment. The rehousing of exnomads who have had to surrender their land tenure rights and move to concrete settlements on urban outskirts has not resulted in vocational opportunities, only dependency on state transfer payments, usually in the form of ration handouts, which leave proud nomads feeling they have been herded like cattle. The August 27 Qiushi article on Tibet “striding the broad boulevard of the new era” featured a photo of a long line of 24 buses of “Herdsmen in Shuanghu County, Tibet during relocation” in December 2019. Shuanghu (Tsonyi in Tibetan) is high in the Chang Tang alpine desert, on the TAR side of the border with Qinghai. Officially, their removal is successful poverty alleviation; in reality they lead wasted lives on urban outskirts, unable to go back yet unable to enter the modern economy of urban construction employment. They remain in limbo, an unending bardo.

Also, in the lead-up to this Tibetwork Forum came news of a major intensification of copper mining upriver from Lhasa, at Chulong. The copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposit, in the historic area where Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo  was born, signals an escalation of extraction, on a scale not seen before in central Tibet. The Chulong mine is now scheduled to be among the biggest worldwide, with a waste disposal problem and energy hunger to match.

The new owner of the Chulong mine is Zijin, a pioneer of China leaping into the global sea, operating copper mines around the world. Zijin in June 2020 bought out smaller miners owning the Chulong copper mine in Meldro Gongkar, up river from Lhasa, already a huge open pit mine, with plans to make it much bigger. Zijin’s three Tibet mines together have 7.9576 million tons of copper metal and  370,600 t of associated molybdenum. For power, 110 kV high-voltage, double-circuit transmission lines have been connected to the mining area, providing security of electricity supply for mining development. Chulong has a permit to extract  30 million tons of ore per year from 2016 to 2037. After 2037 Zijin will depart, having exhausted the deposit, but the mine wastes -at least 97% of all the rock dug and crushed- must remain forever secure in tailings dams to prevent pollution of the Kyichu, Lhasa’s river. Those wastes have highly toxic metals in them that normally are well underground. Arsenic, lead and mercury naturally occur in the soil at Chulong; it will be hard to prevent them from leaking into the rivers.[1]

This is the first world-scale mine in Tibet, dwarfing Shetongmon, near Shigatse. Over the mine life three BILLION tons of rock will be blown up, hauled out, crushed, cooked to concentrate, then smelted. That is 300,000 tons a day, when the mine reaches full speed towards the end of this decade as planned. Massive. If this mine intensifies extraction as planned, many more mines will follow. This one mine, when in full production, will boost China’s copper output by 15%.

The location of the deposit is high in the mountains above the Kyichu, at 5200 m altitude, so high the soil is frozen permafrost, and the plan is to blast the soil with explosives and then remove it to get at the ore.[2]

Does all this add up? Or is it coincidental that all these developments happened in Tibet in the three months that culminated in the Seventh Tibetwork Forum? Taken together, they suggest everything is accelerating: urbanisation, mineral extraction, infrastructure construction, long distance electricity transmission, all of them nation-building ways of knitting Tibet into China. Along with accelerating pace is an increased reliance on securitisation, and temptations of big data driven predictive policing, to keep Tibetan community leaders, especially the religious, silenced or compliant.

We will learn more about the full intent of the Seventh Tibetwork Forum as its secret instructions and strategies gradually reveal themselves. What we know so far is the public version only, which sounds like more of the same. The general direction is towards speed, and scaling up.

[1] Shaoping Yang, Study on surficial soil geochemistry in the high-elevation and -frigid mountainous region: A case of Qulong porphyry copper deposit in Tibet, Journal of Geochemical Exploration 139 (2014) 144–151

[2] Zhai Xiangchao; Tao Tisheng; Li Honghao; Gong Shanlin. Research on Blasting and Stripping Technology of Frozen Soil Layer in Qulong Copper Polymetallic Mine Project,  Sichuan Water Power, 2019, 4: 13-15

Nowhere to Nowhere?


China’s latest railway across Tibet into the Xinjiang desert

China’s railway builders boast they are not only part of the Belt and Road, they are the Belt and Road. They also boast that for a long time they have been listed in the Fortune 500 top companies worldwide and have now made it into the top 50. This state-owned dragonhead of China’s expansion has reason to be so boastful.

From the outset the Belt was steel track, from western China through central Asia, all the way to Europe, with branches to Pakistan and an Indian Ocean connection with the maritime Road. The engineering of all that track laying, tunnelling and bridging has resulted in CREC, the China Railway Engineering Group, not only cracking the global corporate top 50 but also attracting customers worldwide, especially in Africa and SE Asia.

Thus far, it’s all well known, a regular feature of Chinese media, and of course it’s all win-win.

What is less well known is how busy CREC is in Tibet. Everyone knows about the single track from Lanzhou and Xining to Lhasa via Gormo (Golmud in Chinese), opened to traffic in 2006. There has also been publicity about the rail line under construction from Chengdu to Lhasa which, because of the terrain, is taking several years to build through the rugged landscapes of Kham.

However, CREC is also busy building two more rail lines across Tibet, that few seem to have heard of. One is from Amdo Tsonub Gormo to Korla in Xinjiang. The other is from Xining to Chengdu.

Both, inevitably, are defined as poverty alleviation, good for the locals, access to markets, win-win.

But, on closer examination these two new rail routes tell us much about China’s motives and plans.


First, the head scratcher: Gormo northwest to Korla. China calls it the Geku rail line. From an engineering perspective, construction is not as challenging as the climb up the Tanglha Riwo into the Chang Tang alpine desert permafrost, to get through to Lhasa. The altitude is lower and can largely skirt the flanks of the Kunlun Mountains which also run in a line southeast to northwest. That’s why this line, through cold, arid and windswept landscapes is coming on fast.

Google map of current road routes from Gormo (Golmud) to Korla municpality, Bayingolin prefecture of Xinjiang

The puzzle is: why? Gormo is by far the most industrialised district of the entire Tibetan Plateau, an enclave of extraction and heavy industrial processing, for export to inland and coastal China, in the opposite direction to Korla. For decades China has extracted oil, gas, potash, magnesium, lithium and common salt from the Tsaidam Basin, in massive amounts. The combination of fossil fuels and metal salts provides all the key ingredients for the manufacture of a wide range of key products, including fertilisers, plastics, explosives, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and more recently, lithium batteries for new energy vehicles.

Much of what is extracted from the Tsaidam Basin goes by rail raw or minimally processed to the factory belt surrounding Xining or on to the heavy industries of Lanzhou, or by oil and gas pipelines. Much is processed in Gormo. If socialism with Chinese characteristics manifests as the factories of high modernity, Gormo is the most modern city in Tibet, even if very few Tibetans live in Gormo, apart from the resettled nomads lined up on its outskirts, with little to do. Gormo faces northeast, towards Xining and Lanzhou, towards inland and even coastal China beyond. So why would China build a 1214-kilometre rail line to Xinjiang, and not to Urumqi but to Korla?

We have known since 2008 that this route was on the Ministry of Railways to-do list. But no business case has ever been published.[1]

Hilton DoubleTree hotel, Gormo


After Urumqi, Korla is the biggest city in Xinjiang, gateway to the southern half of Xinjiang, which remains largely Uighur, largely poor and unhappy. Korla is the centre of Han colonisation of southern Xinjiang. In some ways it is quite similar to Gormo: an outpost of intensive Chinese investment in industrialisation, a magnet for not only Chinese capital but also a Han Chinese workforce settling into a new home on the frontier, in the hope of getting rich, a hope that eludes many. Gormo and Korla are nodes of Han expansion.

downtown Korla

But the similarity of Gormo and Korla is not a reason for 1200 kms of rail line, if anything they have little need of each other. The demand for passenger traffic would be close to zero.

So this is a heavy haulage freight line, but what freight?

tomatoes by the trailer load, awaiting factory processing, Korla

From Korla it is only 200 kms north to Urumqi, a hub for quickly despatching Xinjiang production east to inland China, both on the old railway built decades ago and on the new high speed line that spears through northern Amdo en route, tunnelling through the Dola Riwo (Qilian Shan in Chinese) to speed up connections and collapse distance. Neither Urumqi nor the northern half of Xinjiang, nor the existing Belt and Road need a rail line via Korla to Gormo. They already have a direct, high speed connection. Much of what Xinjiang sends east is perishable -melons, grapes- and in no need of a detour to get to market.

older, Uighur district of Korla, marked for demolition, 2009. Photo: Tom Cliff


patriotically riding INTO the atomic blast zone

So what has prompted central leaders? Almost the entire 1200 kms route is desert, with very few inhabitants, so agriculture has no part to play. Not even the large scale State farms of the militarised Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps have much interest in these driest of drylands, so remote China in the 1960s used the Lop Nur desert to explode its nuclear weapons tests, to display mushroom clouds to the world, signalling it  had achieved nuclear parity with the superpowers.

China’s first hydrogen bomb, exploded at Lop Nur, Tarim basin, Xinjiang 1967

There is the Mangnai  asbestos mine on the Tibet Amdo side, which has operated for decades, despite the great danger to human lungs of breathing in any asbestos fibres. It is hardly big enough to warrant a railroad. The mystery deepens.

asbestos piled in the open, northern Tibet 1994

On the Xinjiang side, the only town en route  is Çakilik, in Chinese卡克里克 Qiǎkèlǐkè but officially known as Ruoqiang, a small town along the chain of old oases linking the Uighur trade towns of southern Xinjiang, again hardly a reason to build a railway. Actually, Çakilik/Ruoqiang turns out, geostrategically, to matter more than Korla.

To find an answer to this riddle, we need to start elsewhere. We need to go back a century, to the “father of the nation” Sun Yat-sen, hero of the toppling of the Qing Dynasty. In 1919 he published his vision of a future China which succeeded in integrating its vast land empire into a nation, binding all into one, by railways. In 1919 the steel way (chaglam in Tibetan) was the obvious technology for knitting China together.

Sun Yat-sen’s 1919 vision of China woven into one cloth by rail lines

Sun Yat-sen’s vision was bold, crisscrossing all of China in a dense rail network that also included Mongolia, since China had not in 1919 yielded Mongolia to the Soviet sphere. Sun’s nation-building weave of tracks was colour coded blue for the northwest and red for the southwest, and where the two colours meet is Korla.

It took a century, but Sun Yat-sen’s vision is at last being built. Trade publication Railway Gazette International explains: “The strategic north-south line connects the long straggling route running west from Urumqi to Kashi with the 1 956 km Xining – Golmud – Lhasa route serving Tibet. It is being developed as part of China Railway’s strategic programme of rail expansion in the west of the country, which includes an ambitious plan to build a complete rail ring around the Taklaman desert in Xinjiang autonomous region.”  Key word: strategic.

where blue and red meet is Korla. Most of the blue (northwest) rail network was never built because much is in independent Mongolia, no longer in China


If the ring of steel around the huge Taklamakan desert is built, China will achieve a much shorter route to its many international frontiers. Clockwise: Ladakh under direct control from Delhi; Gilgit-Baltistan, the northernmost part of Pakistan; Afghanistan; Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, all abutting southern Xinjiang, which has been so remote, so tenuously linked to China that the oasis towns were until recently intact communities deeply linked to central Asian trade, with the only railway  to Urumqi and inland China taking a very long “straggling” route to terminate in Kashgar. Now these six international borders are all strategically important, as Belt and Road corridors of growth and resource extraction, or as recurring security threats, the Gormo to Korla line at last reveals its primary use, as the shortest route from inland China to the frontline. Wherever China looks, in its farthest west, it sees urgent securitisation tasks, whether in the 2020 Galwan and Panggong confrontations with Indian troops, or in securitising the old oasis towns of southern Xinjiang such as Kashgar.

This tilts the Tibetan Plateau, which historically has seldom been a route to anywhere, into a different geography, intrinsic to both the militarisation of the Xinjiang repression and the border confrontations with India. Tibetan scholars have wondered for years whether Tibet is part of the Belt and Road, without finding much evidence that Tibet is included. Now Tibet is a necessary part of the long haul of power projection, the shortest route to the frontier and beyond. Tibet is being geopoliticised, as never before.

China’s long term goal is to be able to access its vulnerable Mid-Eastern sources of oil long before they are shipped by tanker all the way across the Indian Ocean, narrow strait chokepoints in SE Asia, then across the contested South China Sea to ports on the coast. Three quarters of this shipping route could be eliminated if China could bring its crude oil ashore in Pakistan, then take it north to Xinjiang, to the old oasis town of Kashgar, the current rail terminus. The Chinese financed, Chinese constructed CPEC China Pakistan Economic Corridor currently taking shape, will achieve energy security for China, a high priority. The rail line from Amdo Gormo into the deserts of Xinjiang are part of this long-term capability, which could bring tanker wagon trains laden with Mid-eastern oil, to be refined in Gormo. That is still several years away. The CPEC corridor is a highway, starting i8n the south at the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, reaching north all the way to Kashgar, an old trading town now bulldozed to make way for a Eurasian logistics hub, while incarcerating the Uighur population in indoctrination prisons. In the longer term the highway is to be paralleled by a railway for bulk transport of goods like oil.


Kashgar (Kashi in Chinese) has been the terminus of China’s rail system for two decades. While a rail line on from Kashgar, traversing Pakistan south to the ocean may be for the future, the other direction for rail is to head west from Kashgar, traversing Kyrgyzstan and into Uzbekistan, both well endowed with minerals. This is the long-planned CKU (China-Kyrgyz-Uzbek) railway, which has the potential to head much further west, all the way to Europe, further collapsing distance, as it would be as much as 1000 kms shorter than the current Eurasian transboundary interconnection at Xinjiang Khorgos, far to the north. So the Gormo to Korla line is just part of the jigsaw of further shortening the distance between China and Europe.

When China completed its long railway line to Kashgar in 1999 there was much talk of the push westward across Kyrgyzstan and beyond, but it has not happened. Kyrgyzstan’s terrain is so rugged the Soviet rail network barely entered during the decades when Kyrgyzstan was the outer margin of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan does not have the capital to build the railway itself and is more interested in linking the north and south of the country than in a west-east transit corridor for Eurasian silk road BRI traffic. A 2019 Asian Development Bank report tried to rekindle enthusiasm: “Especially important for the Kyrgyz Republic among the PRC proposals to strengthen and diversify Landbridge rail links is a Kashi–Osh–Andijan rail link, which would provide the missing link in a potentially major PRC–Iran– European Union rail line. The PRC’s 1,446-km South Xinjiang Railway from Turfan to Kashi was completed in December 1999, and in the early 2000s the PRC proposed extending the railway with a Kashi–Andijan line, linking to Uzbekistan’s rail network. The PRC–Kyrgyz  Republic–Uzbekistan railroad would traverse and tunnel from the PRC’s far western rail terminus at Kashi to the Kyrgyz–Uzbek border town and trade hub at Kara-Suu, 20 km north of Osh, and would then connect with the Fergana Valley’s rail network, which links the region’s major cities and the GM Uzbekistan plant in Andijan. However, the project was dormant between 2005 and 2010. The PRC–Kyrgyz Republic–Uzbekistan railway network could be integrated into the PRC’s BRI via connections to ports in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.”[2]

November 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Young Uighur-minority seasonal worker in the last days of the cotton harvest in Luntai county in Xinjiang in between Korla and Kuqa, north of the Taklamakan desert. Luntai is a county in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and is under the administration of the Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.Cotton is one of the largest agricultural industries in the province and many local Uighurs are used as cheap seasonal labour during the harvest. Xinjiang is the westernmost province in all China, located at the border of Central Asian countries, Russia and Mongolia. More than twice the size of France, it has only 22 million inhabitants, a majority of which are the indigenous Uighurs, a sunni-muslim Turkic ethnic group which has lived in the region for centuries. Tensions have nonetheless arisen in the last decade as a consequence of the en-masse migration of Han Chinese settlers and confessional persecution by the strongly secular governmental authorities. Borrowing from romanticized notions of the American frontier, synonymous with ideals of exploration and expansion, photographer Patrick Wack captures a visual narrative of China’s westernmost region—Xinjiang. Whereas the American West conjures images of cowboys and pioneers, of manifest destiny and individualistic freedom, the Chinese West has not yet been so defined. It is a place of pluralities—of haunting, expansive landscapes, of rough mountains and vivid lakes, of new construction and oil fields, of abandoned structures in decaying towns, of devout faith and calls to prayer, of silence and maligned minorities, of opportunity and uncertain futures. It is a land of shifting identity. In essence, Xinjiang is the new frontier to be conquered and pondered. Literally translating to “new frontier” in Chinese, Xinjiang is a land apart, and has been so for centuries.


These strategic objectives require Gormo to be linked westwards to Çakilik/Ruoqiang. So why does this new rail line continue beyond Çakilik/Ruoqiang, further north to Korla?

Xinjiang is huge, bigger by area than Iran. For several decades China has long focussed on northern Xinjiang, where the oil, gas, coal, minerals and Eurasian interconnections all clustered, neglecting southern Xinjiang as offering little more than poor Uighurs, deserts and nuclear testing sites. Korla was the one outpost of Hanification in southern Xinjiang, the base of two regiments of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC/bingtuan).

The XPCC for decades adopted the historic strategy for colonising conquered lands, a labour-intensive settlement of poor Han peasants seeking a better life in new lands, guarded by garrisons of troops, who were also customers for whatever crops could be grown. In the 1950s, human labour “reclaimed the wasteland”, and a substantial Han working class struggled, under XPCC command, to make the drylands yield more. Korla was their hub for the projection of Han hegemony over southern Xinjiang.

Korla Army Games

Now there is a substantial Han population in Korla who feel they, their parents and perhaps grandparents made Xinjiang theirs, by sweat and hard work, and the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” is outdated. They were the pioneers of land “reclamation”, the builders of productivity. Now they feel they belong in Xinjiang, and Xinjiang belongs to them as much as anyone. This pattern repeats the Han settlement as China expanded south and then inland to the west, o9ver many centuries.

Korla is where China stages its International Army Games, inviting friendly neighbouring armies to play out who has the bigger bang

However this underclass has an underclass of Uighurs who have long felt excluded from the benefits of modernity, as James Millward told us in 2014: “Xinjiang’s rapid development in recent years has brought many more Han to the region, and relations between native Uyghurs and these millions of newcomers have grown more and more strained. While standards of living for some Uyghurs have indeed risen in cities, there is a broad perception that Uyghurs enjoy less access to economic opportunities than Han. Many anecdotes, some backed up by documentary evidence, tell of active discrimination against Uyghurs in hiring not only by Han-run private enterprises but by state organs, specifically the massive Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (the Bingtuan), which operates many agricultural, industrial, and commercial enterprises and has listed “Han ethnicity” as a requirement in its job advertisements. Uyghur unemployment runs high despite the booming Xinjiang economy, which is flush with oil money and state investment.”

poor squatters on the fringes of Korla, 2009. Photo: Tom Cliff

Tom Cliff, an ethnographer who did his fieldwork in Korla tells us: “Conditions on bingtuan farms have always lagged behind those of urban areas where most of the rest of the Han population in Xinjiang reside. Every bingtuan person I know told me that they and their friends aspired above all else to leave the bingtuan. Historically, then, bingtuan people are the quintessential subaltern constructors. A significant proportion of Han in Xinjiang became frontier constructors by default or by state decree, not by their own design. Many of the voluntary Han settlers of the Mao era sought freedom—from poverty, famine, family, or restrictive social conditions—not nation- or empire-building through territorial gain or the expansion of Han cultural space.”[3]

Today, workers divided against each other on racial grounds is common worldwide. Now the best employment prospects for Han settlers is as guards staffing the prisons and concentration camps, coercing Uighurs undergoing predictive policing re-education for their wrong attitudes. Han-Uighur relations have collapsed.

pumping Tarim oil

Despite substantial domestic oil output, China is increasingly dependent on Mid East oil, with attendant anxieties about shipping lane security vulnerabilities. Korla is the dragonhead, as they say in China,  for projecting the power of the party-state into southern Xinjiang, both to establish Han dominance, and because China discovered oil in southern Xinjiang, several decades after extraction began in northern Xinjiang. Now the Tarim Oilfield Company headquarters dominates the Korla skyline. By 2019 the Tarim oilfields had cumulatively yielded 350 million tons of oil for China, one of the very few domestic oilfields not exploited until the 1990s.  As drilling goes deeper and deeper, down to 8ms below the surface, more oil is found.

cracking Tarim oil

At great depth, gas is also found, so deep it is also dangerously hot, as much as 180 degrees C. The rock formations in which gas and oil are found are tightly packed, interrupted by fault lines, trapping the gas between gypsum below and water above. How to extract gas from two to seven kilometres below the surface? The answer is fracking, deliberately damaging the rock formations to deliver the gas. How to achieve this? For years China experimented, and many attempts failed. Pumping in water laced with chemicals is no solution in a desert with no available water. The answer seems to be “oil-based fluids.”[4]

Putting oil in to get gas out? Does that make sense?


China has projected its power far out to sea, making the South China Sea its sphere of influence, by dredging the reefs and building artificial islands for positioning attack weaponry. This is what China calls the road of the Belt and Road, a maritime road. Now a new rail line is becoming a notch in China’s overland Belt. Arguably China’s Belt and Road Initiative has had little to do with Tibet until now; as ever the Tibetan Plateau has remained too cold and too high, too logistically difficult, easier to skirt around.

The new rail line from Gormo to Korla, at first glance from nowhere much to nowhere much, turns out to be strategic, part of a much bigger geopolitics game of shrinking Eurasia, overcoming the tyranny of distance, delivering raw materials to China. In this process Amdo Tsonub becomes just another geography, territory to be traversed, conquered, reduced, nullified as an impediment to wealth accumulation, just a link in a commodity chain stretching across Eurasia. Tibetans have never thought of themselves as steppingstones to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Pakistan. This is new.

The older rail line to Korla, from Urumqi and Turfan

If Tibet has been effectively downgraded, as just one geography among many in Inner Asia, Tibet is reduced to a single attribute: extent. That existent extent is conquered by the speed of the new railway, no longer a barrier to China’s power projection far, far to the west. Tibet is now measured by China’s railway engineering capacity to master extent, reducing even this last attribute to absence. Dryland Tibet then becomes a void, its last attribute absent, nullified by rail.

However Tibet as a geography for production, consumption, tourism and high-speed traverse, is quite a different story, the topic for another blog, focussing on another new but very different railway under construction, from Xining to Chengdu. Departing this platform soon.

one of the few tunnels on the Geku Gormo to Korla line

[1] US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009, 47,

[2] Takashi Yamano, Hal Hill, Edimon Ginting, and Jindra Samson, Kyrgyz Republic: Improving Growth Potential, Asian Development Bank, 2019, 193-4

[3] Tom Cliff,  Refugees, Conscripts, and Constructors: Developmental Narratives and Subaltern Han in Xinjiang, China, Modern China 2020

[4] Du J; Liu Q; Guo P; Jiang T; Xiong Y; Jiang X, Study on Water Displacing Gas Relative Permeability Curves in Fractured Tight Sandstone Reservoirs Under High Pressure and High Temperature, ACS omega [ACS Omega], ISSN: 2470-1343, 2020 Mar 27; Vol. 5 (13), pp. 7456-7461; Publisher: American Chemical Society

Zhao, Jinzhou; Pu, Xuan; Li, Yongming; He, Xianjie,  A semi-analytical mathematical model for predicting well performance of a multistage hydraulically fractured horizontal well in naturally fractured tight sandstone gas reservoir, Journal of Natural Gas Science and Engineering. May 2016 32:273-291

Jiang, Tongwen; Sun, Xiongwei, Development of Keshen ultra-deep and ultra-high-pressure gas reservoirs in the Kuqa foreland basin, Tarim Basin: Understanding and technical countermeasures, Natural Gas Industry B. January 2019 6(1):16-24

Zhu, Jinzhi; You, Lijun; Li, Jiaxue; Kang, Yili; Zhang, Junjie; Zhang, Dujie; Huang, Chao, Damage evaluation on oil-based drill-in fluids for ultra-deep fractured tight sandstone gas reservoirs, Natural Gas Industry B. July 2017 4(4):249-255

Ma, Hongyu; Gao, Shusheng; Ye, Liyou; Liu, Huaxun; Xiong, Wei; Shi, Jianglong; Wang, Lin; Wu, Kang; Qi, Qingshan; Zhang, Chunqiu. Change of water saturation in tight sandstone gas reservoirs near wellbores, Natural Gas Industry B. December 2018 5(6):589-597



ONE of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing

Why has China coercively punished Uighurs more than Tibetans? This is a question worth exploring in depth, as some reasons are obvious, some need a lot of thought.

One answer is that Tibetans have done a lot of quiet, skilful and effective work to avert the worst. That in itself needs much consideration, in a forthcoming blog.

Both minority nationalities are routinely regarded, in the gaze of the Beijing-based security state, as chronic security threats, recidivist, stubbornly resistant to assimilation, ungrateful, uncivilised and with dangerous allegiances beyond China.

This is a regime increasingly best by enemies, wherever it looks, most of them abroad and increasingly inclined to stand up for themselves, not yield to pressure and threats. But the Tibetans and Uighurs have become China’s internal enemies, on whom China can exert maximum pressure, and then more.

Security state mentality is now embedded in popular consciousness, as well as in the elite, to such an extent that the party-state has to keep pace with the angry mob of hyper nationalist wolf warrior men whose only response is to attack, attack. The wolf warrior mentality and the authoritarian personalities revered by wolf warriors are now so strong China sees threats everywhere, aggressively alienating even those who used to be friends.

Why Xinjiang? Many answers seem relevant. Above all, China classifies the Uighurs collectively as terrorists, as it did to the Tibetans for a period after the 2008 preOlympic protests. But it is hard to call public sacrifice by burning oneself to death terrorism. The sporadic outbreaks of Uighur protest, however, were not only labelled terrorism, but also accepted as such by the security agencies of many countries willing to officially designate the Uighur resistance a terrorist organisation.

This blog explores several reasons why Xinjiang is singled out, though many apply also to Tibet. One is Xinjiang’s strategic location, as China’s land gateway to central Asia and beyond, overland to Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe, especially their resource wealth. Another factor is the scale of Han immigration into Xinjiang, in two distinct waves, populating Xinjiang with enough Han to staff the concentration camps.

A major factor, for both Tibet and Xinjiang, is the hardening of Han hearts to difference, as authoritarianism pervades the party-state from top to bottom. Seeing difference as criminal results in the securitisation of everything, making any minority assertion of difference a threat to the nation.

Another major factor is the technologies of surveillance, big data mining, and the algorithms of predictive policing, which generate the illusion that criminal acts can be predicted and thus prevented by mass detention, isolating the untrustworthy before they are even consciously aware they have criminal intent.

Xinjiang matters more to China. Tibet, as ever, is somewhat isolated by its geography, a vast island several kilometres up in the sky, hardly en route to anywhere. Xinjiang, by contrast, is China’s gateway to the whole of Eurasia and from there overland to the Middle East and Europe, the core of the Belt and Road, the oil, gas and minerals of inner Asia. Xinjiang itself is more valuable than Tibet, has had much more investment not only in infrastructure but in extraction of energy and minerals, long distance energy supply to coastal China, and is where much of the heaviest and most polluting industries have relocated. Despite China’s massive investments in infrastructure in Tibet -an area the size of western Europe, it is not on the scale of Xinjiang (yet).

These are well-recognised reasons why China’s wrath is especially intense in Xinjiang.

Tibetans are doing a lot to be acceptable to China as Buddhist insiders, while remaining insistently outsiders. The skilful ways Tibetans have eluded the worst China can punitively impose is the topic of another blog, not here.


There is however one driver of the mass internment of a million or more Uighurs that is seldom noticed. This is simply that by 2015 China for the first had the technologies on hand for identifying each citizen in a population of several millions, knowing everything from each individual’s genome and blood type to a record of their habits, dress, face shape, prayers, social networks, movements; all gathered into huge integrated databases, capable of generating not only profiles but predictions as to the likelihood each and any one would behave in ways not in accord with official ideology. It was big data, and its alluring promise of predicting behaviour that by 2015 had developed sufficiently to capture the state and its surveillance apparat.[1]

2015 was the pivotal year. Prior to that big data was obviously promising. In the West, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google were adept at persuading customers to generate huge amounts of data the techs could aggregate and sell, highly profitably, to advertisers mesmerised by the prospect of pitching their products to folks known to desire just what they sell. Around the world, security agencies and police forces listened attentively to the big data pitch for seamless integration of all data sources, which would result in real time tracking of crime and criminals, perhaps even sufficient data to omnisciently predict crime, and thus prevent it.

Not surprisingly, China’s security state took an interest, especially the researchers in police academies, magnetised by the emerging prospect of predictive policing, 预测警务 Yùcè jing wù. Their reports drip with references to global thought leaders pioneering these algorithmic solutions. One article, Research on Theoretical Basis and Technical Path of Predictive Policing published in Wuhan in the Journal of Hubei University of Police 湖北警官学院学报 names (in English) Jeremy Bentham, Rational Choice Theory, Deterrence Theory, crime generators, crime attractors, risk terrain, self-exciting processes, Big Data Lab, Computational Criminology, Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History) and many more sources of inspiration. [Li Guojun, 李国军 Hubei University of Police, Research on Theoretical Basis and Technical Path of Predictive Policing, 预测警务的理论基础与技术路径研究, 湖北警官学院学报, Journal of Hubei University of Police, October 2016]

Predictive policing was not an idea originating in China. But, as with much else, China took it and ran with it. If Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and others -China’s equivalents of Amazon etc.- could mine big data for spectacular profits, the security state could  do it too, and attain the dream of the ideal security state in which crime is prevented before it happens.


What became predictive policing originated in the idea that all laboriously generated data on actual crimes and criminals could be aggregated electronically, a compendium of the past of each individual under official scrutiny. For China it was only a short step to project such data forwards into the unknown future, and to categorise an entire ethnicity as criminal, hence suitable cases for treatment.

China did it because it could. China could go all out to force behaviour change in Xinjiang because official China has no qualms about arresting people who have committed no crime.

In other countries, predictive policing faces many obstacles, including technical questions about accuracy and reliability, and a moral objection that no state has the right to lock up people unless and until they actually commit a criminal act. In the West, civil liberties and freedom of expression are so entrenched as inalienable rights that societies have had the utmost trouble reining in hate speech, domestic violence and psychotic breakdowns, on the grounds that you can’t arrest anyone until they have already committed a crime.

China has no such conflicts of values, especially when it come to a minority nationality considered criminally inclined. What matters is to identify and then isolate the “extremists”, and subject them to intensive behaviour modification pressure, day and night, for long periods, until they are fully assimilated into the Chinese race-nation.


That is the significance of 2015. Uighur resistance to China peaked in 2009 with street riots in the largely Han Chinese provincial capital Urumchi, with sporadic outbursts later. Xi Jinping’s 2014 tour of Xinjiang was pivotal. By 2015 there was little overt Uighur resistance anymore. Yet it was in 2015 that the security state geared up, with elaborate preparations for mass incarceration, starting with local “convenience police stations” in every neighbourhood, that took every opportunity to take blood samples and saliva swabs from everyone, to map their DNA and generate sufficient data for the algorithms to chew. The disjunct between the earlier waves of Uighur protest and the later imposition of the predictive policing state is often noticed, but seldom explained.

Another facet everyone can see, but is seldom understood, is that while one or perhaps even two million Uighurs are in secret detention and intense pressure to memorise official propaganda slogans, many more millions of Uighurs are not incarcerated.

Since China has worked hard to conceal the entire forcible assimilation campaign, no-one really knows what proportion of the entire Uighur population is imprisoned. Officially there are just over 12 million Uighurs, so roughly ten percent are incarcerated. This both a huge and a smallish proportion. The size of the internment facilities, the investment of time and money to design, build, staff and operate them is huge. The disappearance of so many people, now not seen by their families for years, is huge. Yet at the same time, predictive policing aims to be selective, weeding out those with the greatest criminal propensity, to concentrate on intensive rectification of errant tendencies, a highly labour-intensive process for gaoler and gaoled alike.

Xinjiang’s Justice Department’s Party Committee secretary stated that in a typical (Muslim) village, 70% of the population merely ‘change with the wider surroundings’ and are hence ‘easily transformed’. In contrast, the other 30% are ‘polluted by religious extremism’. This latter group ‘requires concentrated education work…..…when the 30% are transformed…the village is basically cleansed’. In the same report, the secretary of Khotän County’s Politics and Law Committee argued that of those who received religious extremist influence, ‘about 5% belong to the hardened faction, 15% are supporters, and 80% are illiterates’.

“About 18 months later, in April 2017, the region unleashed an unprecedented re-education drive, with internment rates in Muslim-dominated regions bearing a striking semblance especially to the ratios stated by the Khotän County secretary in the mentioned report. His statements reveal the logic by which XUAR regions with a majority-Muslim population share are simply being assigned fixed internment quotas for re-education, regardless of whether those interned can in fact be convicted of any legal transgressions.”[2]


China has created an industrial scale assembly line to identify the 15 to 30 per cent who require personality dismantling and remodelling as compliant Chinese citizens, speaking Chinese, with official slogans of “Xi Jinping Thought” imprinted on their minds.

By 2017 the old oasis town of Kashgar had become “a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina. Driving or taking a bus to a neighbouring town, you’d hit checkpoints where armed police officers might search your phone for banned apps like Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through your text messages to see if you had used any religious language. You would be particularly worried about making phone calls to friends and family abroad. Hours later, you might find police officers knocking at your door and asking questions that make you suspect they were listening in the whole time.”

If any of your surveilled behaviour triggers the algorithmic decision that you are classified as unreliable and untrustworthy, you are rounded up and put into mandatory detention, not as a preliminary to prosecution, but for “re-education.”  “The instructors taught the detainees to do traditional Chinese dances in the yard of the building, she said. Sometimes there were lectures — an imam working for the state might come in and talk about how important it was to avoid “extreme” practices like wearing headscarves. Once in a while, detainees would be taken to an interrogation room to be grilled about their pasts, often for hours. “They told me I was an ‘unreliable’ person,” Ziyawudun said with another bitter laugh. Her interrogators asked her whether she had ever worn a headscarf and how long she wore her skirts. Many days, inmates were forced to sit on plastic stools beside their bunk beds, with their backs perfectly straight and their hands on their knees, watching endless state television programs extolling Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ziyawudun’s health started to deteriorate from the cold and bad food. She became anaemic. But the hospital building in the compound was even more terrifying. There, she saw men come in with bruises from being beaten and scars she thought were from electric batons. Ziyawudun’s dorm room had three cameras, which guards used to monitor the women at all times. If she were raped, she knew, there would be no one to tell about it, no place to report the crime. After all, she had landed in the camp because authorities felt she was “unreliable.” If one of the women were raped, who would believe them? She had never felt more vulnerable in her life. Sometimes at night, she said, younger women would vanish and come back with no explanations. In the darkness of the room, she would hear them quietly sobbing. “Nobody can talk about this openly,” she said. The real torture, she discovered, took place in silence, in the inmates’ minds”.

This is the lived experience of forcible assimilation, the party-state’s insistence you must adopt Chinese characteristics in all things, from dance to clothes, language, and ability to memorise and reproduce official slogans. Days, weeks, months and now years of being made to sit bolt upright and look at a screen praising the wisdom and benevolence of core leader Xi Jinping. Enemies must be rectified.

“Former detainee Tursunay Ziyawudun said she was injected until she stopped having her period, and kicked repeatedly in the lower stomach during interrogations. She now can’t have children and often doubles over in pain, bleeding from her womb, she said. Ziyawudun and the 40 other women in her “class” were forced to attend family planning lectures most Wednesdays, where films were screened about impoverished women struggling to feed many children.

“Some women have even reported forced abortions. Ziyawudun said a “teacher” at her camp told women they would face abortions if found pregnant during gynaecology exams. A woman in another class turned out to be pregnant and disappeared from the camp, she said. She added that two of her cousins who were pregnant got rid of their children on their own because they were so afraid. Another woman, Gulbahar Jelilova, confirmed that detainees in her camp were forced to abort their children. She also saw a new mother, still leaking breast milk, who did not know what had happened to her infant. And she met doctors and medical students who were detained for helping Uighurs dodge the system and give birth at home.

“In December 2017, on a visit from Kazakhstan back to China, Gulzia Mogdin was taken to a hospital after police found WhatsApp on her phone. A urine sample revealed she was two months pregnant with her third child. Officials told Mogdin she needed to get an abortion and threatened to detain her brother if she didn’t. During the procedure, medics inserted an electric vacuum into her womb and sucked her foetus out of her body. She was taken home and told to rest, as they planned to take her to a camp.”

[1] China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App, Human Rights Watch 2019

[2] Adrian Zenz (2019) ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang, Central Asian Survey, 38:1, 102-128, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997



TWO of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing


In China, this quest to identify the enemy has deep roots. It is almost 100 years since Mao wrote one of his most famous essays: Who are our enemies, and who are our friends?” A more recent book, Policing Chinese Politics: a history, reminds us the figure of the enemy is what binds China now, and “tells the story of what happens when the binary of politics saturates the life world to become its doxa- when every facet of life turns on knowing who the enemy is and acting against that figure. It is at that moment that we arrive at that point when society and life become fused in politics.”[1]

Mao’s obsession became China’s obsession. Mao was formulaic. There was always an enemy, no matter how much revolutionary violence had just named, struggled and purged them. But the enemy was always small enough to be opposed, isolated and defeated. Usually, and by definition, the enemy was five per cent, big enough to be a threat, small enough to be dealt with, leaving the remaining 95 per cent the overwhelming supermajority of us, constituting a universe of fellow feeling, a nation united against the enemy. Us always greatly outnumbered them.

The Uighurs however, by their refusal to assimilate, had shown themselves to be recalcitrant, resistant to both push and pull, both to incentives to transfer loyalty to the state, and to punishment. The problem had become extremely serious, and it was up to big data and predictive policing to determine who the bad actors are. The outcome was 10 to 15 per cent of all Uighurs required coercive rectification. It is not hard to imagine China coming to similar conclusions about the Tibetans, but so far China’s turn, yet again, to严打 yanda, strike hard, has fallen harder on the Uighurs.


Xi Jinping’s tour of Xinjiang in 2014 signalled a major turning. His secret speeches to Xinjiang cadres became public years later: “The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive,” Mr. Xi said in one talk, after inspecting a counterterrorism police squad in Urumqi. “None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, axe heads and cold steel weapons. We must be as harsh as them,” he added, “and show absolutely no mercy.” In free-flowing monologues in Xinjiang and at a subsequent leadership conference on Xinjiang policy in Beijing, Mr. Xi is recorded thinking through what he called a crucial national security issue and laying out his ideas for a “people’s war” in the region.

“Although he did not order mass detentions in these speeches, he called on the party to unleash the tools of “dictatorship” to eradicate radical Islam in Xinjiang. He likened Islamic extremism alternately to a virus-like contagion and a dangerously addictive drug, and declared that addressing it would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment….. The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated,” Mr. Xi told officials in Urumqi on April 30, 2014, the final day of his trip to Xinjiang. “People who are captured by religious extremism — male or female, old or young — have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.” In another speech, at the leadership conclave in Beijing a month later, he warned of “the toxicity of religious extremism………As soon as you believe in it,” he said, “it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.”[2]

This is Han China’s own orientalism, its’ meme of the Islamic fanatic, taking us back to Marco Polo’s hashish fuelled assassins, who will murder you in a flash.

Xi Jinping vowed China will build in Xinjiang “walls of copper and iron” 铁壁铜墙 tiě bì tóng qiáng, a metaphor stretching back to the Mongol Yuan dynasty that ruled China in the 13th century. It’s a poetic way of saying adamantine, indestructible, eternal; perhaps akin to Donald Trump’s wall to forever keep Latinx fenced out.

Xi Jinping’s other key metaphor was a pledge to build nets reaching to the sky 蚊帐从地球传播到天空 Wénzhàng cóng dìqiú chuánbò dào tiānkōng. At the time, in 2014, it was not obvious what he meant.  Was it a giant mosquito net to protect the body politic from infection? In 2014 it was hard to visualise what a net reaching to the sky, through which all Uighurs would be sieved, would look like. Now we know. In retrospect, it’s an apt image of the hi-tech surveillance state forever gazing remotely at the lives of all Uighurs, with predictive policing netting those classified as unreliable, for correction.

Aided by the algorithms of predictive policing, mass incarceration has become a huge experiment in brainwashing, possible as long as the proportion of the total population at risk is not more than 10 or perhaps 15 per cent. Detainees do mandatory performative repetition of official slogans. Party-state officials hope this will not only wear away their stubborn resistance to assimilation, it will also convince the rest of the population to identify with the unitary nation-state and its single, unitary race-nation, the zhonghua minzu. Thus, it becomes, yet again, a “people’s war” against the minority and their errant thinking. “We must launch an anti-terrorism and stability maintenance People’s War, encourage the masses to offer and report evidence of terrorism, and support the people and the masses, in conjunction with the armed forces to subdue and arrest thugs.”[3]

Urumqi 2014

A “people’s war” deliberately invokes memories of Mao’s declared war strategy when, as expected, the Americans would invade. Mao’s strategy was to allow the enemy deep inland, at enormous human cost, then surround and eliminate the invaders, in a scaled-up version of how Stalin’s Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s armies. For a people’s war to work, it must be absolutely clear to all who “the people” are. When dealing with the expected foreign invasion, that is easy; when the enemy to be subdued are citizens, of a minority nationality guaranteed autonomy by law, not so easy.

Bytedance staff do their compulsory ‘Study Slogans of Xi Jinping’ session. Bytedance owns TikTok.


In practice, mobilising the Han against the Uighurs has worked, making it clear who wages people’s war, against whom. The populating of Xinjiang by Han is a major reason why the situation in Xinjiang now is so much worse than in Tibet, where emigration of Han into Tibet remains constricted.

Yet this mobilisation of the Han took time, in fact decades. This is because -unlike Tibet- the number of Han who emigrated to Xinjiang is large, yet they came in distinct waves, with distinct differences in attitude towards the Uighurs.

Today in Xinjiang, Mao’s 1920s question: Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? is readily answered. But it was not always so straightforward. The first wave of Han emigrating to Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s were themselves a minority, often ordered to the frontier as demobilised soldiers to be kept well away from the capital in case they fomented trouble. They were organised into a paramilitary production brigade, known in English as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and in Chinese simple as the bingtuan. They had the dual function of repressing the Uighurs should they revolt, and of building large scale state farms, highways and infrastructure. This encouraged other Han to migrate, to work in the oil extraction industry, cotton, melon and grape farming, their produce in demand in eastern China.

The bingtuan became a full-scale military industrial complex, dominating many industries, providing cradle to grave iron rice bowl security to its employees. The bingtuan issues its own statistical yearbook, as provinces do. The 2018 bingtuan yearbook lists the number of people within it as just over three million, of whom 2.55 million are Han.

Despite the military structure of the XPCC, this first wave was acutely aware that Xinjiang is huge, the Uighurs at every turn made it clear it is their home, and the Han could in no way ignore the traditional land owners. Gradually, as the decades passed, a modus vivendi evolved. Uighurs and Han socialised to some extent, learned each other’s languages a bit, and above all, discovered each other’s favourite foods. A limited multiculturalism grew.

The second wave came from the mid-1990s onward, incentivised to emigrate by official propaganda, subsidies, investment capital from Beijing, into the existing Han enclaves of northern Xinjiang. New industries grew: oil extraction became gas wells and coal mines and power grids and aluminium smelters and scaled up agricultural commodity production for distant Chinese markets. Xinjiang is China’s Belt and Road gateway to the extraction of resources across central Asia, and the Belt and Road Initiative rapidly globalised Xinjiang and renewed Han migration, sped up by faster railways and highways. This second wave had less time to acculturate, to get to know Uighurs socially, and less reason to do so, as Uighur resentment at being overwhelmed and treated with racist contempt hardened everyone. The second wave was more hard-headed than the first, less inclined to accommodate difference, more certain of China’s civilising mission, at a time of China’s rapidly growing wealth.


When resentments flared into violence, socialising ceased. Battle lines were drawn, people’s war against Uighur “extremists” declared.

The people’s war did require mobilising all Han in Xinjiang, whether first or second wave.  Features of the new people’s war were extraordinarily labour intensive, requiring every Han to report for duty. It is this enlistment of all Han in Xinjiang, reconstituting them as the people/volk/ethnos/zhonghua minzu of people’s war against the people’s enemies, that is the most unique aspect of the Xinjiang strike hard campaign. It has no historic parallel, but it does, as with much else in Xinjiang, have precedents in Tibet.

In the earlier phase of mass Han mobilisation, the core task was to define who is the enemy. Since the Xinjiang Han and Uighur populations are roughly the same in numbers, it would be impossible to classify all Uighurs as enemies, even though the Han coalesced around a single phrase: “The Uighurs are so bad”. The enemy, whether five or ten or 15 percent or even more, had to be identified, at a time when facial recognition software and the algorithms of predictive policing were still being developed.

The party-state did what only a highly authoritarian party-state could do, there is little precedent elsewhere, other than in Tibet. Politically reliable Han were ordered to live with Uighur families, under one roof, sometimes for a week at a time, sometimes longer, often repeatedly, and then report their data to the security state’s fast expanding big data aggregations. Uighur families were ordered to accept these projections of party-state power into the hearth, living space and bedrooms of all Uighur, knowing full well they were being assessed as trustworthy, unreliable, or enemy.

This requires, of all Han, an unshakeable conviction in their civilisational superiority, a manifest destiny as tutors to the poor and backward, a strong belief that this invasion is for the good of all.

For Uighurs, it requires displays of gratitude, from the moment the Han invigilator arrives, showing him (sometimes her) to the best room, to be served the best food and, above all, to perform the declamation of official slogans, not just when prompted, but at all times.

Everyone knew this was crunch time; that lifeways would be decided by these assessments and reports back to the burgeoning big data, for the algorithms to do the crunching. And everyone knew that everyone had to act as if this was normal, and in fact welcome. Any slip up in performance could be taken as the truth of “extremism” revealing itself.

Among first wave Han, who had, in earlier years, made friends with Uighurs, or at least socialised with them, it took a while before they all understood what was required. But Uighur, seeing friends and relatives disappear into concentration camps, understood clearly that the distinction between public and private had vanished, and they were on view, under official gaze, made legible to the party-state in even their most private spaces and moments. The only way to avoid being next to be disappeared was to perform official slogans, and only official slogans, not just when prompted, but at all times, whenever possible. Neither Kafka nor Orwell ever quite imagined this intensity of party-state rectification.


How does this work in practice? Here is the story of a first wave Han arriving at the house of an Uighur family known to her family, over many years:

“A middle-aged Uyghur couple greeted them effusively in heavily accented Chinese. The food was steaming on a low table that had been set on a platform. It was a meal that must have cost the family a considerable amount, given their economic status as rural farmers. Lu Yin told me, “They presented us with polu, the good kind with the leg of lamb.” She and the other three Han visitors took off their shoes and climbed up onto the raised platform.

“As they began eating, the Uyghur hosts immediately began talking about “re-education” centres. “They said in those places the guards say, ‘Who provides your daily bread?’ The answer is, ‘Xi Jinping! If you don’t answer this way then you don’t get fed!’”

“The turn in the conversation and the banality with which the couple spoke shocked Lu Yin. What was even more startling was that none of her relatives or their Han colleagues challenged what they said. They did not attempt to explain away the violence of the camp system. There was no discussion of job training or free education. Lu Yin said, “Nobody questioned this, the Uyghur family spoke about the violence of the camps in incredibly matter-of-fact ways.”

“In fact, her family members responded to this discussion of internment camps by using clichés about “social stability” and defeating the three evil forces of “separatism, extremism, and terrorism.” Lu Yin was stunned. She said, “Everyone was talking in slogans.” As she observed the scene and listened to what they were saying, she realized that the slogans were not just in the spoken words. “Inside the house, there were slogans pasted everywhere,” she said. Her relatives, the Uyghur hosts, their home, and their village had been inundated with “re-education.”

“No one interrupted the Uyghurs while they were speaking. No one contradicted what they said. When there was a gap in conversation, the refrain was ‘Uyghurs are so bad!’ The Uyghur husband and wife said in response, ‘Yes. Uyghurs are so bad.’” As they drove away from the Uyghur home, Lu Yin’s aunt began to repeat some of the things that had been discussed over dinner. “Over and over she said, ‘Uyghurs are so bad. Uyghurs are so bad. Islam is bad. The Hui are bad too.’” The others in the SUV joined in, affirming the same lines.

Lu Yin asked her aunt what relationship they had with the host family. She told her that they had been “assigned” to them. “Sometimes we bring them rice during our visits,” she said. The Uyghur couple was their “younger brother and sister.” Like over one million other mostly Han civil servants, they had been assigned to monitor and re-educate a Turkic Muslim family. Lu Yin had just witnessed this. She was also witnessing a larger transformation of Han attitudes toward Uyghurs and other Muslims who were native to Xinjiang.”

Everyone was talking in slogans. Everyone behaves as if on camera, with security state grid management monitors watching it all, for the slightest signs of deviance. No-one can trust anyone. No-one can speak their mind. To open your mouth is to betray yourself. The only safe utterance is performative declamation, as if addressing a public gathering, of officially mandated slogans.

In private, with no Han present, Uighurs feel they have to perpetuate the slogans and euphemisms: “The concentration camps are not referred to as “concentration camps”, naturally. Instead, the people there are said to be occupied with “studying” (oqushta/öginishte) or “education” (terbiyileshte), or sometimes may be said to be “at school” (mektepte). Likewise, people do not use words like “oppression” when talking about the overall situation in Xinjiang. Rather, they tend to say “weziyet yaxshi emes” (“the situation isn’t good”), or describe Xinjiang as being very “ching” (“strict”, “tight”).”

Any conscientious Han “elder brother” emplaced as eyes of the party-state captures troves of data, to be uploaded into the predictive policing system for identifying the enemy. Along with actual camera surveillance in public spaces, genomic profile of each individual, behavioural record stretching back, at least for Uighurs who had been cadres, of a voluminous dang’an personnel file, all add up. The party-state believes it has achieved panopticon omniscience, even to the extent of being able to predict future individual criminality not consciously known to the human who is thus labelled an enemy.

Fittingly, the official name of this project of enemy identification is itself a slogan, officially fanghuiju 访惠聚, an acronym that stands for “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People” 访民情、惠民生、聚民心 Fang mínqíng, huì mín shēng, jù mínxīn. Each of the three slogans, elided in common speech just as fanghuiju, has in the middle of its three characters min, people. The leadup to a people’s war starts with Han as official visitor to the people, to benefit people’s livelihood, and gather people’s hearts. The decisive classification as to whether you, and your family, are actually part of “the people” or of the enemy is cloaked in benevolent paternalistic euphemism, signalling the onset of deep inauthenticity.

Apps make it easy to make slogan chanting a public performance. “A WeChat app allows users to “fasheng liangjian” (“to clearly demonstrate one’s stance” or, literally, “to speak forth and flash one’s sword”), by plugging their name into a prepared Mandarin- or Uighur-language statement. The statement pledges their loyalty to the Communist party and its leaders, and expresses, among other things, their determination in upholding “ethnic harmony” and standing opposed to terrorism. The generated image file could then be readily posted on their social network of choice as a show of loyalty.”

[1] Michael Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics: a history, Duke, 2004, 4

[2] Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, NY Times, November 16, 2019

[3] 发动群众打赢反恐维稳人民战争, Mobilize the Masses to Win the Anti-Terrorism and Stability Maintenance People’s War, 16 November 2018.  



THREE of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing


Having identified the Tibetans and Uighurs as China’s eternal internal enemies, coercive correction ensues. In today’s wolf warrior China, it follows readily that what you do with enemies you cannot be rid of, you must and can coercively transform. This too is enormously labour-intensive.

Inside the concentration camps, the pressure to speak only in slogans is even more intense, and without cease. Even in the cell shared with other inmates, all speech must be those slogans, nothing else.

Endless repetition of slogans, over days, months and years, constitutes the success of re-education, and eventually “graduating” to release, though there have been few releases. Does the security state, established to institutionalise suspicion, actually believe that endless mouthing of performative declamation is actually a change of heart? Does anyone believe chanting gratitude to Xi Jinping for putting food into one’s mouth is done sincerely? Is this why detention is interminable? Does the security state want to believe its own propaganda? Is there any exit?

This drastic reduction of Uighur culture down to a single dimension – propensity for violence- inevitably robs Uighurs of a deep cultural heritage. A one-dimensional depiction of the Uighurs as classic Orientalist thuggee assassins who will without warning stab you to death, also robs the world of a culture that over many centuries contributed to the civilisations of inner Asia.[1]

Between the first Han immigrant wave into Xinjiang and the second, there was a revival of Uighur culture, and vigorous argument among Uighurs about what had been lost in complying with China’s exclusion of religion from the public sphere, which had led to devotional songs being reframed as love songs. This happened in Tibet too. Videos, DVDs and online postings of songs were acceptable to the censors if they presented as songs to the beloved, or to the beauty of the land, with a subtler subtext of devotion to the guru.

The Uighur cultural renaissance broadcasts of the 1980s “became ritualised events linking modern Uighurs with this poetic and musical canon of collective culture, variously described as an encyclopaedia Uighur culture, a ‘folk classical’ tradition, and a valuable part of world cultural heritage.”[2]

source: Shutterstock


The entire campaign to forcibly realign minds en masse depends on the algorithms of predictive policing. Algorithms by definition must be fed numbers, so emphasis is inevitably on what can be measured. Which Uighur men have beards? Which women cover their heads?  These are ranked as key indicators of criminal dispositions in need of correction. Who prays?

These, and many other quantifiable attributes of self and identity, are no longer the numbers of the Quantified Self, as the data belongs to the state, for the primary purpose of instantly calculating criminal propensity. The Quantified Self (QS) was a promising proposition, that by wearing tracking devices, each of us will generate data so we will then be nudged to be fitter, get more exercise, become healthier, and avoid pandemic infections.

The state capture of the Quantifiable Self, not only for surveillance but also compulsory correction of deviant behaviours, is just one aspect of the parallel universes of American and Chinese corporate AI enthusiasms, which did not merge in ownership, due to prohibitions, both in China and the US, on corporate mergers and acquisitions. What did converge, however, was an increasing fusion, especially in China, between the oligopoly of corporate AI giants, and the party-state.

The fusion of state and corporate giants is most obvious in the ramping up of social credit systems, which blend data torrents of state surveillance and corporate tracking of consumer behaviours, preferences and desires, into a mimesis of the Quantified Self, who is to be rewarded or punished according to their ranking score. This hologram appears to be a whole human being, but is a statistical apparition, a ghost that walks into hypermodernity, to be incentivised, nudged, accoladed for obedience, or punished and even incarcerated, for praying, having a beard or headscarf. As usual, the advocates of social credit rankings seductively pitch their system as an enticing official recognition of compliance, a reward for paying your bills on time and having a good credit rating. Advocates of social credit rankings understandably dwell less on those to be punished, who will not be as keen to sign up; but such a system, in which everything is a one or a zero is inherently dualistic, requiring a negative pole, of deviants to be punished, to make the positive pole meaningful.

How the party-state fostered the AI corporates, in a conscious copying of Silicon Valley, is told by Kai-fu Lee, in his 2018 AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, as a story in which he has a central role. In his chapter on “China’s Alternate Internet Universe” he introduces us to Guo Hong, an official tasked with generating a Beijing AI production base capable of imitating and then surpassing Silicon Valley, much faster. “Silicon valley’s ecosystem had taken shape over several decades. But what if we in China could speed up that process by brute-forcing the geographic proximity? We could pick out one street in Zhongguancun [in Beijing], clear out all the old inhabitants, and open up the street to key players.”[3]

As a senior party-state official, all Guo Hong needed to do was make a few phone calls, the old residents were evicted and “an alternate internet universe” was born. It is now renamed the Avenue of the Entrepreneurs. That’s how it goes.

This is socialism with Chinese characteristics, new era state capitalism. The distinction between data gathering for profit and data gathering to enforce assimilation has blurred. All data generated by quantified selves, voluntarily or involuntarily, is fed into the algorithms of reward and punishment, for marketing products, generating corporate revenue and for predictive policing. There are no clear boundaries separating the gathering, assembly and algorithmic rating of each citizen for consumption or correction purposes.


In the West, it is supposed to be different. Maybe.

In the West the corporates who vacuum up the data from each Quantified Self keep it out of the hands of the security state. Maybe.

In China the conflation of enterprise and party-state in not the only collapse of categories. Big data started out by promising to lighten the bureaucratic load of police personnel laboriously entering information on criminals suspected, arrested, interrogated, tried and convicted. This simple automation of drudgery quickly morphed into a panopticon of surveillance, armed with facial recognition cameras everywhere and Quantified Self software to instantly allocate identities to each image. From there it was a short step to predictive policing. The hubris of AI start-ups was boundless, and the eagerness of the party-state for omniscience and omnipotence was insatiable. It was a match. Not for the first time, China’s century old worship of Mr. Science led it astray.

The other driver of predictive policing, coercive assimilation and now cultural genocide is Han racism. The aura of algorithmic scientific objectivity conceals the racism embedded in the assessments it generates. Algorithmic racism is by now well recognised around the world, among the many ways algorithms perpetuate and exacerbate inequality.[4] This is not hard to see. Algorithms are full of valuations and judgements which, once set are then invisible, and assume the mantle of fact. From the outset, in the insurance industry’s actuarial calculations of risk, algorithms have been fixated on identifying and quantifying risk. That’s core business. Assigning a risk weighting to beards and headscarves is just the start.

The naturalisation of forcible assimilation driven by algorithmic assessment is further reinforced by likening it to medical treatment of disease:  “In April 2017, the Khotän Prefecture government published a bilingual Chinese-Uyghur document, ‘Transformation through Education Classes Are Like a Free Hospital Treatment for the Masses with Sick Thinking’ (2017). The document begins by stating:

“In the recent period…a small number of…especially young people have been sent to transformation through education classes to receive study; many parents, relatives and the general population do not understand transformation through education classes and may have some misgivings.

“The document then promises to dispel these misgivings by extolling the benefits of ‘transformation through education’ as a free ‘treatment’, effectively equating religiosity with a dangerous drug addiction. According to this logic, replacing religious beliefs with ‘correct’ state ideology through re-education is akin to a detoxification process that is freely provided by a benevolent state. In other contexts, the state equates the battle against religious ‘extremism’ with ‘eradicating the tumours’”.[5]


A detailed list of the official categories embedded in the algorithms of mass detention is a jumble of racist prejudices:

  • Breaking family planning laws
  • Travelling to one of 26 ‘sensitive’ countries
  • Being involved in the 2009 protests in the city of Urumqi
  • Going on a hajj pilgrimage
  • Being related to someone who is detained
  • Being an ‘untrustworthy’ individual
  • Providing a place for ‘illegal’ worship
  • Secretly taking religious texts from the mosque to pray at home
  • Owning a passport
  • Growing a beard
  • Being a ‘wild’ (unofficial) Imam
  • Using a virtual private network — software that allows access to websites banned by China
  • Owning ‘illegal’ books
  • Getting married using a fake marriage certificate
  • Reading scripture to a child aged under 16
  • Visiting a banned website
  • Donating money to a mosque
  • Disobeying local officials
  • Praying in a public place
  • Calling someone overseas
  • Having previously served time in prison
  • Downloading violent videos[6]

These categories of criminality drive the algorithmic allocation of guilt.

This jumbled list of what justifies official hostility is a mishmash of classic Han prejudices. Those prejudices are not at all new, but their systematisation is, as is the insistence that these are objective markers of Uighur anti-social tendencies in urgent need of correction.

What justifies urgent rectification is the violence, especially in 2009 and 2014, against Han hegemony over a nominally autonomous Uighur region. Official propaganda videos on this “extremist terrorism” have whipped up widespread Han anger and a wolf warrior will to punish not only the guilty but those who might dare to think about it.[7]

However, Uighur unhappiness at colonisation is not new. In 1956 “some backward masses” rose against XPCC bingtuan Han “killing and wounding scores of our cadres, comrades and soldiers”.[8] Further uprisings occurred in 1958 and 1959. In one, 10,000 young Uighur men stormed a prison, releasing 600 prisoners, and seizing grain stocks as famine loomed.[9] Only the overwhelming firepower of the military quelled the masses.

Official policy remained conflicted and contradictory. Not only were the rights of minority nationalities to be respected, officially there were calls “in particular to rectify the tendency towards ‘great nationalism’ prevalent among the Han cadres.”[10] As elsewhere in China, this equivalence of great Han chauvinism and small minority chauvinism gave way to a revolutionary zeal to sweep away everything old. Han chauvinism was no longer spoken of. In the name of revolution Han racist prejudices triumphed.


How did we get to the calculated cruelty of predictive policing and the incarceration of a million or more people suspected, by algorithmic formula, of criminal intent?

In the West, where surveillance capitalism still seems to many to be separate from the surveillance state, it all started well. Shoshana Zuboff tells us: “from the very start Google’s breakthrough depended upon a one-way mirror: surveillance. The new methods were invented and deployed from 2001 to 2004 and held in strict secrecy. This shift in the use of surplus behavioural data was a historic turning point. Google had found a game-changing, zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement towards a genuine commercial exchange. Surveillance capitalism soon migrated to Facebook and rose to become the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by every start-up and app.  It was rationalised as a quid pro quo for free services but is no more limited to that context than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Model T. It has long been understood that capitalism evolves by claiming things that exist outside of the market dynamic and turning them into market commodities for sale and purchase. Surveillance capitalism extends this pattern by declaring private human experience as free raw material that can be computed and fashioned into behavioural predictions for production and exchange.  In this logic, surveillance capitalism poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains and our beating hearts. You are not “the product” but rather the abandoned carcass. The “product” derives from the surplus data ripped from your life. 

“At a certain point, surveillance capitalists discovered behaviour modification: digitally mediated real-time interventions that nudge consumers in the direction of desirable outcomes. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way . . . We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

“Surveillance capitalists produce deeply anti-democratic asymmetries of knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. They know everything about us, while their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They predict our futures and configure our behaviour, but for the sake of others’ goals and financial gain. This power to know and modify human behaviour is unprecedented.”[11]

From there, it is a short step to predictive policing in a developmentalist state that has long picked corporate winners, subsidising its favoured enterprises, using technologies invented for profit to punish enemies of the state. Whether the customer is nudged to buy, or the Uighur on the street is rounded up by police, the big data gathering is the same, and the algorithms are the same.

For an advertiser, Google promises to sell you its selection of people who have an active interest in your product. If you are a manufacturer of barbeques, for example, targeting your advertising direct to a curated list of people who have used the word “barbeque” in a Google search, that  looks like a much better bet than the scattergun of advertising to millions in a general interest mass medium. Even if only a handful of the thousands Google has curated just for you ever actually buy your barbeque, it is still a winning proposition compared to mass advertising. If you sell a dozen, you’re laughing.

But if you are a security state seeking to identify, in a population of 12 million Uighurs, the few with actual violent intent, does monitoring of beards and prayers deliver the target? Or are the measurables of facial recognition software, such as beards and head scarves, delivering a huge number of people, only a few of whom intend violence? Is it wise to aggressively indoctrinate a thousand because one in a thousand is likely to become violent?


Radical uncertainty is the human condition. Anything can happen. What is normal can collapse, almost as if it had never been. The past is no guide to the future. The compulsion to calculate risks that may arise is delusional. Not only do the Buddhist lamas tell us so, so too does the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in his 2020 reflection on what he learned in a decade of running the British economy, in Radical Uncertainty.[12]

Central banks and core institutions of globalisation such as the International Monetary Fund are expected to foresee major crises, such as an economic recession or financial crisis. Identifying trends and assessing risks are core business, in a world increasingly fixated on anticipating and controlling risks. A quantification of IMF risk assessments, 1988 to 2018, finds there had been 469 recessions, 79 of them in advanced economies. The IMF foresaw only four a year in advance, and none when it came to rich nations. It did, however, spot 47 that never happened.

Mervyn King tells us why “future-proofing”, the delusion driving predictive policing, is delusional. We seek certainties that don’t exist and invent knowledge that we can’t have to support our decision-making. Yet the economics profession has become dominated by an approach to uncertainty that requires a comprehensive list of possible outcomes with well-defined numerical probabilities attached to them. Drawing widely on philosophy, anthropology, economics, cognitive science, strategic management and organisation scholarship, King and co-author John Kay present an argument that probabilistic thinking gives us a false understanding of our power to make predictions.

To be reminded of this, in the midst of a global pandemic no-one foresaw, is helpful. But this is hardly a new insight. Not only have the Buddhist teachers been telling us for over 2500 years that everything is contingent, interdependent and unreliable, it is 99 years since Keynes reminded us. In 1921 Keynes depicted the ubiquity of “radical uncertainty”, based on the premise that we do not know what is going to happen, and we have a very limited ability to even describe the things that might happen.[13] Keynes said: “By uncertain knowledge, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain . . . There is no scientific basis to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” When Keynes wrote that in 1921 it was just three years since “the war to end all wars”, and no-one could imagine that 18 years later Germany would insist on refighting it.

Nonetheless the Chinese Communist Party remains addicted to data, calculations, models, extrapolations, forecasts and predictive policing. It is not alone.  The hunger for certainty, predictability, reliably controlled risks is so strong. Investors, corporate bosses, think tanks, management consultants, as well as governments all want the future to be chartable and manageable. Milton Friedman, high priest of neoliberalism, disagreed with Keynes, insisting “We may treat people as if they assigned numerical probabilities to every conceivable event.”

This is seductive, and the advent of big data made it all the more seductively tantalisingly close: the chimera of mastery of not only the present but also the future.

In order to make the future predictable, Friedman had to reduce human complexity to a thin simulacrum, homo economicus, who is forever objectively calculating the shifting odds, as if that is what real people do, all the time. This highly reductive version of human nature is now thoroughly discredited by behavioural economics, which reminds us that human motivations, expectations, hopes, fears, prejudices and assumptions all affect our attempts at peering into the future.

China’s party-state remains addicted to the illusion of control, blind to the racist prejudices embedded in the predictive policing classification criteria. This is not just because China has not caught up with the shift in economic thought, it is because the CCP’s legitimacy relies on its supposed capacity to foresee emerging problems and apply the right solutions. The CCP is a problem-generating engine, manufacturing “contradictions” which it alone is qualified to resolve. That is its mode of existence.


While the CCP casts its baleful gaze outwards onto the Uighurs, it is averse to gazing inward, to notice its deep prejudices, that pervade its predictive policing. In China, racism is frequently blamed as the driver of Western efforts to decouple the global economy, and name China a bad actor for stealing intellectual property and competing unfairly by favouring its Chinese national champions. China is quick to name racism as endemic in the West, and occasionally is willing to look at popular attitudes towards Africans resident in China as racist. That is as far as it goes.

China has global ambitions, aided by classifying anyone, anywhere worldwide, who is of Chinese descent, as Chinese. This is a deterritorialised Chineseness that transcends boundaries and claims people as Chinese whether they see themselves that way or not. In Chinese there is little distinction between:

  • 中国人 (zhōngguó rén), meaning someone from the country China;
  • 华侨 (huá qiáo), a politically laden term meaning ‘overseas Chinese’, implying sojourner status;
  • and 华人 (huá rén), meaning ‘Chinese (ethnic) person’,
  • or 华裔 (huá yì), meaning ‘of Chinese ethnicity’.

This ‘华’ (huá) is a shortened version of ‘中华’ (zhōnghuá), which can be found in the official name of the People’s Republic of China—中华人民共和国 (zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó)—as well as that of the Republic of China—中华民国 (zhōnghuá mínguó). To use a Germanic word, 中华 refers to the Volk. As Chinese populations expand worldwide, with Chinese workforces building Chinese loan-financed infrastructure, “strategies and policies implemented by the Chinese government and its overseas representatives aiming at engaging Chinese diasporas also contribute to spreading nationalism and building a deterritorial Chinese identity.”[14]

Within China, territorially defined, it is axiomatic that all minority nationalities will inevitably merge into the volk, the Han race-nation, the 中华’ zhōnghuá. From a standard Han perspective, the history of China is the assimilation of minorities, even those who conquered and ruled China, including the Mongols and Manchu. Chinese civilisation is so self-evidently superior, magnetic, compellingly attractive, it is a historic inevitability that all under heaven will be drawn to it, and adopt it as their identity. Of the 56 officially recognised ethnicities, only two stubbornly resist: the Uighurs and the Tibetans. Their resistance is proof of their backwardness, primitivity and refusal of modernity. Yet modernity is simply a universal law of development. All of this is so obvious to nearly all Han it seldom needs to be said.

[1] Nathan Light, Slippery Paths: performance and canonisation of Turkic literature and Uygur Muqam song in Islam and modernity, PhD, Indiana, 1998

[2] Nathan Light, Cultural Politics and the Pragmatics of Resistance, in Ildiko Beller-Hann ed., Situating the Uyghurs between China and Central Asia, 2008, 156

[3] Kai-fu Lee, Mariner Books, 2018, 53

[4] Lily Hu and Yiling Chen. 2018. A Short-term Intervention for Long-term Fairness in the Labour Market. In WWW 2018: The 2018 Web Conference, April 23–27, 2018, Lyon, France. ACM, New York, NY,

[5] Zenz (2019) ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’

[6] Christian Shepherd and Laura Pitel , The Karakax list: how China targets Uighurs in Xinjiang, FT 17 Feb 2020,

The Karakax List: Dissecting the Anatomy of Beijing’s Internment Drive in Xinjiang, Journal of Political Risk Feb 2020


[8] Xinjiang Daily, 23 September 1956, cited in Don McMillen, Chinese Communist Power and Policy in Xinjiang, 1949-1977, Westview Press 1979, 117

[9] McMillen, 119

[10] Report of the Central People’s Government Mission to Northwest China, Xinhua, 22 March 1951, cited in McMillen, 114

[11] Shoshana Zuboff: Facebook, Google and a dark age of surveillance capitalism, Financial Times, 25 Jan 2019

[12] John Kay and Mervyn King, Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future, Little, Brown, 2020

Nassim Taleb, (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable. Random House, London

Philip E. Tetlock, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Broadway Books,

[13] John Maynard Keynes, 1921, A treatise on probability. Macmillan, London

[14] Jinpu Wang & Ning Zhan (2019) Nationalism, overseas Chinese state and the construction of ‘Chineseness’ among Chinese migrant entrepreneurs in Ghana, Asian Ethnicity, 20:1, 8-29, DOI:10.1080/14631369.2018.1547875



FOUR of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing

In Western countries racism is debated everywhere, at all times, is vigorously contested, so much so that even in the middle of a pandemic entrenched racism and its legacies is the top topic. There is no such debate in China.

When educated Chinese are asked to reflect about racism, they sometimes say: I like black American culture, but I don’t like blacks. That’s as far as they get. The possibility that their perception of Uighurs and Tibetans might be suffused with racist stereotypes never occurs to them, there is no debate, only silence. Han chauvinist racism as a driver of official policy and popular attitudes is not only off the agenda, it is unimaginable.

As a direct result these unconscious prejudices are embedded in the classifications of predictive policing that get you locked up. Once you are incarcerated, the same racism sets the agenda of the “reform through education” program you must learn to repeat on demand. The recent revelation that Uighur women are routinely sterilised against their will, and required to accept insertion of permanent contraception devices, is the clearest evidence of a violently racist campaign to suppress Uighur population. At the same time a pro-natalist policy for the Han is failing to boost Han numbers -well over a billion people- as fast as the party-state now wants. This is eugenics, the active elimination of an “inferior” race, while promoting a higher birth rate among the “master” race. At this point it is hard to distinguish a forcible assimilation campaign from cultural genocide.

Inside the camps, surrounded by razor wire and armed guards, the curriculum is solely accelerated, mandatory assimilation. For there to be any hope of eventual release, and a return to family life, each person must not only learn to parrot party slogans, but to embrace identification with the Han Chinese race-nation, zhonghua minzu, as one’s primary loyalty and identity.

The foundational assumption behind this pedagogy is that six decades of trying to persuade Uighurs to adopt Han Chinese characteristics failed, so now it is time to speed up the inevitable and push, where pull failed. Since Han China is now so strong and successful in an all-round way, the transfer of loyalty from imam to party-state, from Uighur ethnicity to zhonghua minzu is both a historic inevitability and is for their own good, even if they obstinately refuse to see this right now. So, compulsion is necessary. The racism is invisible.

The official rhetoric of this elaborate system of surveilling, recording, classifying and detaining huge numbers of citizens for long periods is that it is a re-education. Is it? Will it achieve the goal of making all Uighurs identify as Chinese, as members of the one Zhonghua Minzu race-nation?  Will endless repetition of official slogans and CCP mass campaign phrases somehow shift the minds of Uighurs, so their primary loyalty is to the party-state, ahead of their identification with the Uighur people and Islam? That is the stated intention.

Criminologists worldwide remind us that carceral systems usually talk of rehabilitating prisoners, but in practice this always comes second to punishment. The Uighurs are being punished, for being Uighur. Mass punishment, including forced labour manufacturing export goods, mass sterilisations, rape, chopping long hair for overseas sale of hair extensions, as well as the torments above, can only generate bitterness.

Official China has told the Han masses for decades that the Uighurs, in their officially designated “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” have enjoyed decades of privileged treatment, including the right to have more children than Han were allowed. The official message is that despite official benevolence, the Uighurs remained ungrateful and then turned terrorist. There are many slick official videos stridently branding the Uighurs as terrorists.[1] Official China is now the captive of its own endless hate speech, having stirred popular passions to demand punishment of an entire nationality.

This cannot end well. Mass punishment, with no end in sight individually or collectively, is cultural genocide. That is the direction this complex algorithm driven system is heading. Genocide is a word coined in the 1940s, adopted by the UN, but weakened by the victors of World War II to exclude cultural genocide, which was the original thrust of the definition proposed by jurist Raphael Lemkin, inventor of the concept. So worried were the major powers that they could find themselves accused of genocide, the legal meaning narrowed to require proof of state intention to eradicate an ethnicity. Philippe Sands, author of an in-depth history of the concept, and its legal variant, “crimes against humanity”, says there can be no doubt China’s actions in Xinjiang are crimes against humanity.


Detaining 10 to 15 per cent of an entire nationality, for months now becoming years, is logistically enormously expensive and enormously labour intensive, since the ostensible purpose is not only punishment but to change minds. China has been willing to make that investment. Staffing the concentration camps, recruiting staff, both Han and Uighur, to implement coercive assimilation is a huge undertaking, as is evident in the job advertising monitored by Adrian Zenz and others.

Nonauthoritarian personalities need not apply. Effective dehumanisation of Uighurs en masse requires concentration camp staff who have first dehumanised themselves to the point of indifference to the suffering they cause.

This is one of the most striking aspects of the Chinese system, not often discussed: the prevalence, at all levels of the party-state, of the authoritarian personality. A system that selects for authoritarianism results in institutionalised authoritarianism, top to bottom. The ability to see the beard or headscarf as irredeemably Other and a danger to civilisation with Chinese characteristics, is an essential, self-perpetuating prerequisite for making the system work.

Authoritarian personalities recruit fellow authoritarians to their ranks of party members, cadres and local government officials, as well as the staff running the concentration camps. China has over many years created a system that selects for authoritarians at all levels, which reproduces itself in its own image.

Authoritarians relish exercising authority over those ranked below, but also slot comfortably into a hierarchy which issues commands they willingly obey. Subservience to superiors and dehumanised punishment of inferiors are the traits of the authoritarian.

The Chinese Communist Party is about to celebrate its centenary. From the outset it ruthlessly purged those whose ideas deviated from those of the leaders, a long tradition frequently invoked by current leaders.


What does vex central leaders is cadres who elaborately display their conformity with directives but do little in practice to implement them, often because central commands don’t fit local circumstances. In CCP jargon, this is the sin of “formalism”, a term with Stalinist roots, and it has become such a serious problem of an authoritarian system that the CCP tries, again and again, to command it to cease. The problem is perfunctory performative declamations of obedience to central leaders. The solution is to issue further commands, which inevitably generate further performative declamations of compliance.

In April 2020, amid the virus pandemic, a new diktat was issued: ““Notice on Continuously Solving the Problem of Formalism that Troubles Grassroots Officials and Providing a  Strong Work-Style Guarantee for the Comprehensive Establishment of a Moderately Prosperous Society.” It quoted Xi Jinping’s remarks on “firmly putting an end to various kinds of formalism and bureaucratism” and highlighted his directives on “guaranteeing a strong work style for realizing decisive victories in the comprehensive establishment of a moderately prosperous society and the tough battle of poverty alleviation.” Consolidate a strong ideological and political foundation to overcome formalism and bureaucratism and study Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Firmly rectify the problem of formalism and treat it as a political problem. Cut unnecessary meetings and paperwork and streamline workflow.”

As with the many similar prior decrees, Continuously Solving the Problem of Formalism will only generate further formalism. Authoritarian systems, especially in a country as big and varied as China, know authoritarianism generates problems, yet the only acceptable solution is further concentration of power, and further demands for obedience.

“The dead hand of such writing can carry on for ten or twenty or thirty pages of single spaced, small font characters.  You can imagine how it sounds when you have to listen for an hour or two or three. It is of no matter to a speaker at a meeting, or people on the dais, that perhaps no one in the audience is paying attention.  Attendance may be mandatory; attention is not, when a single speaker can declaim for two or three hours.  I was surprised to find leaders, who are given great deference in other circumstances, speaking to a crowd that has their heads down, focused on cell phones.  But – performative is what counts.  Substance will be communicated via other means.”[2]

Social scientists in China remind us that authoritarian personalities not only ignore the needs of those under their control, they are routinely tempted into corruption, secure in the knowledge that they are in no way accountable to those they command. This further incentivises ongoing authoritarianism at all levels.

Chinese social scientists have a six-step questionnaire to identify authoritarian personalities. Respondents are asked if they agree with these propositions:

  • Government leaders are like the head of a family; we should all follow their decisions.
  • Even if a parents’ demand is unreasonable, children should do it.
  • It is taken for granted that subordinates should submit to a higher-ranking person.
  • Even if government policy is wrong, people should obey.
  • If we have political leaders who are morally upright, we can let them decide everything.
  • The portrait of our national leader cannot be used arbitrarily in a cartoon.[3]

This list, of authoritarian traits with Chinese characteristics, reveals the Confucian roots underlying the CCP’s embrace of authoritarianism. To be classified as an authoritarian, you don’t need to agree with all six. It’s a list that is more coherent than the above list of behaviours that classifies Uighurs as terrorists,  in urgent need of coercive rectification.

So entrenched is authoritarianism, at all levels of the party-state, this is no longer a question just of the tightening authoritarianism at the top, concentrating all power in the hands of one man. There are plenty of people who agree with all the authoritarian propositions listed above, including that even if government policy is wrong, people should obey.

sing the new song of socialism with Chinese characteristics


Obedience has to be publicly signalled, in a performance witnessed by those below you in the hierarchy. Tibetans long ago complained that in premodern Tibet they were burdened by taxes; after “liberation” the burden was compulsory attendance at endless meetings, where cadres would drone on, repetitively, and at length. Performative submission to those above is admonition to those below to do likewise.

“For Chinese citizens, regardless of how much or how little they understand the slogan-saturated language used in speeches by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, this language is an unavoidable part of everyday life. They encounter it from the time they enter kindergarten and thereafter throughout their formative years, daily in the media, and in the workplace. The Party’s slogans, songs, and spectacular national day parades, and the images and stories it projects of China’s past and present, are interwoven into people’s memories of school life and public holidays.”[4]

In a multi-level hierarchy, ritual performance of subservience and command must be repeated, as orders descend from on high. It’s time consuming, a tax. It is also a worry for a country that since the 1980s embraced entrepreneurial initiative as a driver of wealth accumulation. The entrepreneur is an innovator, not a subservient cipher. The demand, since the 1980s, for business schools, to teach modern management skills, was enormous. The demand for modern managerial skills sent the sons and daughters of central leaders to the most highly ranked business schools in the West.

Yet, in the latest tightening of centralised authoritarianism all businesses, whether state owned or not, are required to conform to the Party’s command, not just with a Party cell embedded in management, but with full compliance with official policies.

Systemic authoritarianism also bothers social scientists in China, such as Lu Li-bang and Huang Heng-xue, of the School of Government Administration at prestigious Peking University. They write: “The authoritarian personality of civil servants refers to a kind of personality that civil servants own in the administrative management activities and is closely connected with their identity,power and behaviour. In China, the master and servant roles are the distinguishing features of the civil servants’ authoritarian personality,which results from the joint effects of the repressed ego,the sociality of authoritarian personality,the traditional culture, the modern historical factors, etc. At present,it is mainly reflected as bureaucracy,privatization of public power,obvious bureaucracy,weak sense of service innovation consciousness,corruption breeding etc. The negative influence that authoritarian personality of civil servants can be shown in administrative management system and its running becomes more and more obvious. The personality transformation of civil servants must be taken, and the modern administrative personality must be gradually shaped”.[5]

This analysis takes care to avert its gaze from the apex of the pyramid, and concentrate on the drones. Having diagnosed the ailment, the solution is presented as yet another top-down authoritarian intervention: the wholesale “personality transformation of civil servants.”

Tibetans and Uighurs stand out in such a system as deviant and noncompliant, persistently and stubbornly so. In a patriarchal and authoritarian system the party, by definition, knows what is best for everyone, so noncompliance is intolerable, since it perpetuates backwardness, poverty, ingratitude and, above all, difference, in a system working towards a single Zhonghua Minzu race, in which all ethnic differences are assimilated into a single national identity. This is “personality transformation” at mass scale.

The Tibetans have been punished for preferring their own culture for longer; but the Uighurs since 2017 have been punished more widely and intensively. From a Han authoritarian perspective, China has patiently sought for many decades to persuade these recalcitrant minorities of the obvious superiority of Han Chinese civilisation, and they have spurned it. In an authoritarian system, the time has come to force compliance with what is desirable and inevitable.


Note: this blog prefers Uighur to the more common Uyghur, because that is closer to how it is pronounced. Uyghur tends to be spoken as wee-gah. Uighur allows for the first two vowels to be somewhat distinct: oo-ee-gur. The wee-gah pronunciation is yet another Han appropriation.



[2] Bill Markle, Performative Declaration,

[3] Deyong Ma & Orion A. Lewis (2020) Personality, media choice and political ideology: explaining ideological pluralism in China, Democratization, 27:4, 527-546, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1696775

[4] Gloria Davies, A Dream of Perpetual Rule, China Dream, ANU Press, 2020

[5] 吕立邦,黄恒学, 公务员权威主义人格探析, A Study of Civil Servants’ Authoritarian Personality 山西师大学报( 社会科学版)Journal of Shanxi Normal University( Social Science Edition)  Nov 2016 Vol. 43 No. 6


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.



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


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:


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


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

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;

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