Blog one in a series documenting China’s path to urbanising Tibet, depopulating the highlands, converting exnomads into infrastructure construction workers 1/5


Recent commentary on Tibet and Xinjiang, similarities and differences, focussed on labour mobilisation. Key question: are Tibetans being pushed off their pastures and into factory work, and the urban construction workforce?

This blog seeks to clarify that debate, which has been lacking documentation. This is a dive into the evidence.

Key policy statements analysed here include:

  1. the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 through 2025,
  2. recent draft revisions to the Vocational Education Law,
  3. China State Council White Paper on Tibet 2021,
  4. an April 2021 detailed plan for displacing more nomads from their lands and into urban construction, issued jointly by the TAR Departments of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, Human Resources and Social Security, Transportation, Water Resources Department and Federation of Trade Unions of Tibet Autonomous Region.

Tibet Autonomous Region is serious about urban construction, so serious most of the region’s 14th Five-Year Plan is devoted to an unusually detailed roadmap of how to crank up a construction industry that delivers at scale, on time and within budget, operating year-round, eliminating widespread graft, making the dams, bridges, factories, apartment towers and other structures, conforming to earthquake-ready standards.

Since there is a long list of constraints on concreting Tibet at the pace Beijing now demands, command of the construction sector is now imperative, if the hold of the gangmasters and tofu builders of substandard structures is to be disciplined to conform. The regional government, although seldom assertive, is in command; the piper calls the tune.

The TAR government’s will to power may cut through the bottlenecks and chokepoints of an industry of Sichuan based contractors coming to Tibet to make quick money by cutting corners, compromising quality, hiring only from within its own networks, grifting wherever it can get away with it.

TAR’s newfound will to accelerate urbanisation across central Tibet is, however, not enough to succeed. If Beijing’s mandatory leap forward is to happen, there needs to be a new, magical ingredient: a Tibetanised workforce, willing to work hard at altitude, year-round.

For Tibetan men, and a few women, construction work is not new; but it has been poorly paid, precarious, with employers, contractors and sub-contractors routinely flouting laws that protect occupational safety, working conditions, even the use of scaffolding. Construction work has been a prime source of off-farm income, usually in the summer, the very time farmers need all hands to harvest and thresh crops; when pastoralists need to fan out their herds to feast on upland alpine meadows, to fatten up after the long winter.

For decades, the fit young men of Tibet have availed of this dangerous, precarious, gig economy work, because there was little choice, and pastoralists, constrained by Chinese controls on herd size and land tenure size, were getting poorer. For decades this haphazard system worked. Tibetans privately complained of being treated as outsiders in their own lands, treated as expendable by the gangmasters, and as strictly temporary urban dwellers by the official minders of the hukou household registration system.

Now China, in a new era, is in a hurry to urbanise not only Lhasa but also Shigatse and Lhoka prefectures as well, to catch up with the urbanisation rate of lowland China, to put an end to the embarrassing ways central Tibet lags all provinces.

These are powerful drivers for a whole-of-government reboot of the construction industry, to ensure much more gets built quicker. For Tibetans, this means long term urbanisation of entire rural families, training of a Tibetan construction workforce, cancellation of rural land tenure rights, mandatory schooling in putonghua Chinese as the language of construction, depopulation of the pastoral lands, intensified agribusiness factory farm feedlots to get more meat protein to Chinese markets while employing fewer Tibetans.

This will not happen overnight, it is a five year plan, but the direction is clear. If these plans are realised, the impact will be profound. Since Adrian Zenz, in September 2020, issued an alert that labour mobilisation of rural Tibetans is intensifying, there has been debate as to whether Tibet is now similar to Xinjiang, or maybe nothing much is happening, beyond work units registering Tibetans as trainees. The question of evidence of an expanded labour market in Tibet has been problematic. Yet the obvious  source is the TAR provincial Five-Year Plan, which is the surest guide to China’s intentions. It is analysed here.

China’s 1st Five-Year Plan 1950s: learning from the Soviet elder brother


This  is what the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) says: “Guide the construction and engineering enterprises in the zone through capital operation, M&A [corporate merges and acquisitions]  and reorganization, separation of main and subsidiary companies, equity incentives and other methods to develop a group of Han nationality joint ventures and various nationality unity and cooperative enterprises, accelerate the transformation and upgrading of construction enterprises, and promote enterprises to be better and stronger. Promote the optimization and adjustment of corporate structure, track the direction of qualification reform, and guide and promote the qualified.

“The joint reorganization of the general contracting enterprise of the project with the survey and design, project management, investment and financing services and other enterprises, expand the upstream and downstream industrial chain and cultivate general contracting of projects that integrates investment, design, construction, and operational enterprises, increase the industrial concentration of the construction industry; prosper the construction subcontracting market, and support the development of competition in the whole region.

“Specialized enterprises with strong competitiveness and obvious characteristics, focusing on Shigatse and Shannan [Lhoka in Tibetan], developing entities of labor service enterprises; promote the transformation and upgrading of construction teams of farmers and herdsmen, support farmers in the district, and  herdsmen’s construction team to develop towards professionalism and standardization, through reorganization, joint operation, joint-stock cooperation, attract craftsmen from farming and pastoral areas to guide them to majors in construction enterprises, labor service enterprises, and ancient (Tibetan) architecture enterprise development, through the revocation of illegal qualifications.”

This is a comprehensive menu for creating a regulated, supervised Tibetan construction workforce, also with Tibetan corporations competing with the incoming Sichuanese. It’s a five year agenda for a lot more than the “formalism” of enrolling rural Tibetans in phantom vocational courses that don’t really happen, yet still generate net profit for Han training providers.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, 2020s: learning from the Han elder brother


The drive to intensify construction of Ȗ-Tsang requires a drive to train a new construction workforce. The TAR 14th Plan has much to say on this:

“Carry out practical construction skills training. Vigorously implement the skill improvement project for farmers and herdsmen, and establish education and training mechanism for migrant workers, improve the quality of migrant workers, give them opportunities for development, and improve the degree of organization of the transfer of employment of farmers and herdsmen, making construction workers an important impetus for the coordinated development of urban and rural areas.

“Organize training through various levels of housing and urban-rural development departments. Migrant workers bring in more local migrant workers, self-training by enterprises, order-based training, etc.

“Farmers and herdsmen at the level of modernization focus on training as construction site managers, and for those who have been employed in the construction field for a long time

“Farmers and herdsmen, increase the training of practical skills, and focus on increasing the willingness to work in the construction field for a long time.

“The training intensity of farmers and herdsmen, comprehensively improve the skill level and quality of farmers and herdsmen, so that they can convert into construction industry workers. During the “14th Five-Year Plan” period, strive to pass three-year training.

“The number of farmers and herdsmen migrant workers in the region accounted for more than 30% of the local migrant workers, persisting for a long time, and increasing year by year.  Promote the industrialization of construction workers. Reform the construction employment system and encourage construction enterprises, the industry trains and absorbs a certain number of self-skilled workers.”

This looks like an agenda for training as an industry in itself, with a three-year syllabus, ending in certification, which also absorbs Tibetans  with existing on-the-job skillsets, who are accredited for prior skills learning. Training, if it does become an industry, is highly unlikely to write its syllabus in Tibetan, and would most likely employ Han to instruct enrolees not only construction industry skills and protocols but also in Chinese language proficiency as a foundational prerequisite. Establishing a full three-year program by 2025 is the official goal.

Tibetan is good to think with

The TAR 14th plan often mentions migrants coming into the construction industry, who in turn encourage more to migrate from rural Tibet into urban training and industry employment. Migrants could also come from other provinces, but the emphasis seems to be on depriving rural Tibet, always facing labour scarcity, of the fittest young men.

Implicitly, the entire program is gendered to favour fit young men, leaving behind all others in a hinterland  lagging ever further behind, in underinvested farms and pastures. For decades, casual construction work has provided mobile young men their best chance of off-farm income. Now that established informal system is being formalised. Whether the young men share or squander their earnings will be up to each to choose. Migration always loosens social bonds.

TAR 14th Plan: “Strengthen the construction of high-level talent teams. Increasing the number of corporate managers and high-end talents. Training to improve the application of modern enterprise management, general engineering contracting, whole-process consulting, prefabricated construction. Advanced management models and emerging construction technologies such as new infrastructure, green buildings, green construction, and smart construction.”

“Clarify goals and tasks, and establish a long-term mechanism for the training and development of intelligent construction talents. Organize on-site observation meetings and training to improve the understanding and business level of prefabricated buildings, and through appropriate methods, the hoisting of prefab panels, special skills training for prefabricated construction such as grouting and welding will be carried out.


Of the 39 pages of the TAR FYP, 24 are dedicated to just this one topic, far too much to quote here. Five-Year Plans are sometimes vague about how ambitious goals will be achieved. This Plan is unusually detailed, defining who the new workers will be, what capitalist corporate models the employers will adopt, who has legal authority to regulate them; in short a full labour market plan for a construction boom beyond anything Tibet has so far seen.

More from the TAR FYP: “Farmers and herdsmen construction enterprises are appropriately supplemented with reasonable layout and distinctive features, a distinctive industrial structure with complementary advantages. Make the private economy the fastest-growing important market force. Let state-owned enterprises have stronger competitiveness in bidding for projects, especially major projects. a new business development model will be formed, the industrial level will be improved, and the construction industry chain will be lengthened.  The industry strengthens capital operations, adopts BT, BOT, PPP and other models to support the development of general contracting business for projects, focusing on Lhasa, Xigaze [Shigatse], and Shannan [Lhoka], guide and support the Construction Engineering Building Materials Group, Lhasa Urban Investment, Xigaze  state-owned enterprises such as Everest Urban Investment, Shannan Yalong Investment Company and powerful enterprises give full play to their own advantage, the establishment of an integrated enterprise of financing, construction and operation, taking prefecture (city) as a unit, participating in the city and town infrastructure, sanitation infrastructure, new-type urbanization, border areas and other projects financing investment”

source: UN International Labour Organisation 2001

This is the developmentalist state at full pitch, picking winners named in advance as the favoured candidates to lead the construction boom financed from Beijing. Profit is guaranteed upfront, by encouraging bidders to go for enterprise models designed to lock in profitability: BT, BOT and PPP. [build and transfer, build, operate and transfer, public private partnership].

All these options are designed as deals  binding contractors and the party-state financiers in which the nation-building state pays an agreed premium price, assumes much of the risk, supplies the finance at concessional rates and, where the new construction generates revenue, allows the builder to also operate the hydro dam or tollroad, collect revenue for decades, transferring ownership to the state only when the facility is old. Since the named preferred contractors is all state-owned, the party-state is effectively deepening a rentier economy, ensuring its trusted friends a guaranteed high rate of return. It doesn’t look like a new era. This looks like the old, entrenched crony capitalism.

head office of Construction Engineering Materials Group, Lhasa

But all of this starts with recruiting those farmers and herdsmen about to become redundant, as  the countryside empties and meat production is concentrated in feedlot enclaves. Labour, always scarce in Tibet, a land as big as Western Europe with (until extremely recently) no more than six million humans, is about to become even scarcer in the countryside. Rural stagnation and decline will ensue.

The TAR 14th Five-Year Plan was made public early January 2021. Lest anyone suppose this Plan, as with past Plans, is full of utopian rhetoric that seldom is implemented, four months later a more specific directive was issued by all departments responsible for implementation – TAR Departments of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, Human Resources and Social Security, Transportation,, Water Resources.

This too is far too long to quote in full, over 7000 characters. Its title is Implementation plan for Tibet Autonomous Region to accelerate the cultivation of a new era construction industry worker team,西藏自治区加快培育新时代建筑产业工人队伍实施方案, Xīzàng zìzhìqū jiākuài péiyù xīn shídài jiànzhú chǎnyè gōngrén duìwǔ shíshī fāng’àn.

This Implementation Plan aims to transform Tibet: “building an army of knowledge-based, skilled, and innovative workers, promote the reform of the construction industry’s labor employment system, strengthen the construction of the construction industry worker training base for the new era, and increase the construction industry’s agriculture and animal husbandry emigrant workers’ training efforts, improve the supply of skilled personnel in the construction industry, open up career development channels for construction workers, protect the legal rights and interests of construction workers, and accelerate the cultivation of a new era of construction industry workers.”

near Chamdo, Tibetans learn to shovel wet concrete

The wordiness of this decree paints a utopian picture of a highly trained, accredited, regulated and certified workforce, which also has a place for the lesser skilled ex-nomads: “Encourage the localization of construction industry workers. In order to save social costs, facilitate workers’ entrepreneurship and employment, reduce the mobility of construction workers, and improve their professionalism and sense of belonging, in the newly started projects, the localization and innovation of professional operation enterprises will be tried, and the labor operations will be subcontracted to professional operation enterprises in our region. Some types of skilled workers can adopt the ” local + foreign ” combination model to achieve ” passing, helping, and leading ” in the way of “mentor and apprentice” to help the development of local industrial workers. It is necessary to gradually establish a directory database of professional operation enterprises, and support general contracting enterprises to preferentially select professional operation enterprises in the region, and projects with low technical requirements can choose the construction team of farmers and herdsmen workers in our region to participate in the construction.”

This suggests an expanded credentialism, requiring years of apprenticeship in training programs run by the issuing departments, followed by more years on low pay as apprentices to those “foreign” skilled workers from other provinces. This could readily become a curriculum for civilising those backward herders, inducting them not only into construction-specific skills, but into a wider syllabus of behavioural training in showing appropriate gratitude to the party-state that has rescued them from their pasturelands.

Beauty of our mountainous land is due to the redness of our flag

That could take years to eventuate. Before the displaced graduate as qualified construction workers, the  new vocational schools must be built, and staffed by Han who understand how to educate the desire to become competitive, in a highly competitive society.[1] Credentialism is an ideology that takes itself very seriously, with Key Performance Indicators tested regularly, standardised tests, and regular exams, all conducted in standard Chinese, which is likely to require a foundation year of putonghua standard Chinese instruction.

This could well be a substantial new industry for TAR, not only in Lhasa but in Shigatse and Tsethang as well, aiming at the elaborate transformation of illiterate herders into model construction workers, who know their place, accept discipline, and are positioned on the bottom rung of the ladder of human capital formation.


This Plan isn’t only about urban infrastructure construction but also the networks of commodities that must flow to the expanding municipalities that have replaced those nominally autonomous prefectures in the targeted areas. Fast growing cities need  reliable electricity supply, cabled internet connectivity, plentiful clean water, and  fast tollroad highway and high-speed rail connections to the markets of lowland China, if they are to grow apace, and prosper. Taken together, this is a big agenda, but this FYP explicitly includes all the above.

All infrastructure construction needs the cement, sand and gravel for concrete; the steel for framing and reinforcing, the glass for the look of modernity. The fast growing TAR minerals extraction industry is even more power-hungry, and in need of advanced equipment made in Europe, such as AC/DC transformers and rock crushers bigger and more powerful than those made in China. These can all be procured. Cement is now the lead industry in Tibet, having scaled up at an extraordinary rate. Cement is now such a big industry, Lhasa has outgrown the old cement factory in town, for a much bigger site further out, with plans for the old factory to become an art museum:

The newer cement factory at Dongga to the west of Lhasa, is immediately upwind of Drepung monastery and then Lhasa city. The energy-intensive kilns that turn crushed limestone to cement are powered by the Dongga coal-fired power station next door, major contributors to air pollution in Lhasa. (Zhiyuan Cong, et al., Trace elements and lead isotopic composition of PM10 in Lhasa, Tibet, Atmospheric Environment, 45, Issue 34, November 2011, Pages 6210-6215)

As with all party-state mass mobilisation campaigns, this will be an arduous struggle: “Strengthen vocational skills training in the construction industry. Establish a construction worker vocational education and training system with the participation of industries, enterprises, colleges, and social forces, and adopt a mode of combining offline and online to provide practitioners (employees) with multi-channel and multi-type continuing education resources. It is necessary to make good use of the employment and entrepreneurship subsidy funds and various vocational training funds. Vigorously implement the skill improvement project for farmers and herdsmen workers, establish an education and training mechanism for farmers and herdsmen workers, improve the quality of farmers and herdsmen workers, give them opportunities for upward development, improve the degree of organization of the transfer of employment of farmers and herdsmen workers, and let construction workers become an important driving force for urban and rural coordinated development. Through various methods such as training organized by the competent departments of the industry at all levels, training on behalf of the job, masters leading apprentices, inland migrant workers leading local migrant workers, enterprise self-training, order-based training, etc., we focus on training farmers and herdsmen with a certain level of education as the construction site managers, increase the training of practical skills, focus on increasing the training of farmers and herdsmen who have long-term employment in the construction field, and comprehensively improve the skill level and quality of farmers and herdsmen, so that they can transform into construction industry workers as soon as possible.

Tibetans learning to handcart concrete bricks drying in the sun

As in other campaigns, propaganda plays a part in mobilising enthusiasm for making Tibet an authentic replica of urban China. Propaganda mobilises the masses, instils a sense of pride, rewards the few deemed “model workers”. “Vigorously promote the spirit of model workers, labor spirit and craftsman spirit. Adhere to the correct guidance of public opinion, publicize and interpret the significance, objectives, tasks, and policy measures of the construction worker team building reform, and timely summarize and promote the good experience and good practices of the construction worker team building reform. Intensify the publicity of the selection of model workers for construction workers, vigorously promote the advanced models in the team of construction workers, and create a good atmosphere of the most glorious work, the most noble work, the greatest work, and the most beautiful work. Do a good job in publicity services. All localities should vigorously publicize the significance, urgency and policy measures of cultivating the construction industry worker team in the new era, and make full use of various media to publicize the contribution of construction workers to economic construction, so that construction workers can fully enjoy the pride and contribution of realizing their own value. A sense of social accomplishment, a sense of honor to be respected by the society.” Will the displaced go for it? Will Tibetans acquire useful skills? Will the skills of construction work be needed tomorrow, as mechanisation replaces skilled trades? Will vocational education be added to mandatory kindergarten, junior schooling, middle and senior secondary schooling, as essential credentialling of Tibetans? Will construction industry trainees accumulate cultural capital, and equality with Han?[2]

Tibetans learning from the Han elder brother: Mao instructs 10th Panchen Rinpoche

[1] Kipnis, Andrew B. 2011. Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

[2] S Guan and E. Blair, Adult higher education as both an ‘opportunity’ and a ‘trap’: student perceptions on credentialism in China, Studies in Continuing Education, 2021,


Blog TWO in a series documenting China’s path to urbanising Tibet, depopulating the highlands, converting exnomads into infrastructure construction workers 2/5


High on China’s construction agenda is the securitisation of over 3000 kms of border, in Shigatse and Lhoka municipalities (formerly prefectures) where Tibet abuts Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

Shigatse Yalong new village

Construction of securitised border villages, in a long chain on the northern flanks of the Himalayas is a high priority, for strategic reasons. This border demarcates sovereign nation-states, and has been a major security concern to China for many decades, so why is China now spending billions on strategic hamlet securitisation? It was across this border the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans, mostly from Tibetan border counties, fled into exile. It was along this border in 1962 that India and China went to war. Until early this century Tibetans finding life under Han racist contempt intolerable continued to find ways through the Himalayas, into exile. This is a border with a long history of militarisation, on both sides.

Yalong Pangda new village

So why, in 2017, did China embark on a major program of border village construction, a program meant to be completed by 2020? Renewed tensions with India mostly occurred later, so that is not the driver. “Plan for the Construction of Well-off Villages in the Border Areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (2017-2020)” itemises a list of 628 planned new villages all along the border, a remarkable number as the entire chain of 22 border counties is sparsely populated, as it is mostly in rain shadow, the monsoon clouds largely blocked by the Himalayas. With a human population of only 150,000 means each of the 600+ villages on average has only 250 inhabitants, more reminiscent of the strategic hamlets the Americans built in Vietnam.

“Plan for the Construction of Well-off Villages in the Border Areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (2017-2020)” 西藏自治区边境地区小康村建设规划(2017-2020年)originated in Xi Jinping’s securitisation of everything, by perceptions of risk wherever one looked. The very long Tibetan borders with South Asia, with unreliable, untrustworthy Tibetans on both sides, was an obvious candidate for extending China’s grasp to catch up with its securitising reach, all the way to the Himalayan frontier.

However building all those villages, effectively sedentarising a largely nomadic pastoralist society has in practice eluded China’s grasp. A review of project implementation in April 2019 found that “construction of 330 villages has started, of which 4 villages have been completed.” Why such slow progress?

The plan was to ensure sufficient urban comfort to not only persuade nomads they are better off sedentary, but also sufficiently wealthy to feel loyalty and gratitude towards the party-state. That meant not only concrete housing but urban amenities, including electricity, in a vast land  still habituated to hub production of electricity in distant hydro dams, to be extended along high voltage grids to the remote strategic border villages. It turned out to be a logistical nightmare.

The villagisation of southern Tibet failed to meet its target completion date of 2020. The usual industrial operational model of the construction contractors, employing mostly Han workers, just didn’t function in the cold months. The supply lines were too stretched, the scale too small for efficiency, compared to office block and apartment tower construction in cities, or the concentration of labour and resources at a hydro dam site.

In Xi Jinping’s new era, failing to meet targets imperils career prospects of cadres. A new way of getting the border villages built was called for. The new solution, announced in 2020, introduces two new approaches: a greater reliance on assembly line prefabricated building panels, trucked in from afar, and a greater reliance on a Tibetanised workforce, mobilised by displacing Tibetans from their pastoral lands. Neither is entirely new, but they are now scaled up; and interdependent as a Tibetan workforce is needed both for village construction and manufacture of concrete panels and steel frames.

Tibetwork Forum August 2020. source IndiaToday

The key announcement was at the Seventh Tibetwork Forum of August 2020, a whole-of-party-state gathering to (re)mobilise the accelerating urbanisation of Tibet. Xi Jinping told the Tibetwork Forum “We must strengthen the construction of border areas and adopt special support policies to help border people improve their production and living conditions and solve their worries.”

A month later, in September 2020, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference issued a call for compliance with this “primary political task”:   “Border areas must resolutely unify their thoughts and actions to the central and district committee’s strategies for rural revitalization and border development. The strategic decision-making deployment of enriching the people has brought together a strong joint force of governing and building Tibet in the border areas of the new era.”

The principal author of this renewed strategy is Tu Deng Kezhu [Drukhang Thubten Khedrup Rinpoche], a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He named some of the problems: “In order for the “border well-off village” to improve quality and efficiency, it is necessary to transform the resource advantages of the border areas into industrial advantages. The border area is far from the core economic cities, and all aspects of transportation facilities, public services, and industrial development lag behind the core economic cities such as Lhasa and Xigaze [Shigatse]. It is necessary to continue to exert the power of inclusive finance to benefit the people in terms of financing for construction projects in border areas and inclusive financial services for border residents, strengthen financial support in well-off border villages, and open up the “last mile” of financial services.”

The “resource advantages” of border counties can become viable industries only if local enterprises are eligible for access to finance, despite lack of collateral for loan eligibility. Further, those in TAR who do have accumulated wealth that could be invested in remote areas, are much more interested in setting up banking and securities trading subsidiaries outside TAR, because that is where faster money is to be made, as we shall see later in this blog series. The new rich of TAR, the elite managers of the construction companies, look east for wealth management opportunities, not to the border districts. China’s singular reliance on urbanisation as the long term solution for every problem yet again reduces  rural, pastoral Tibet to hinterland obscurity.

What are the “resource advantages” of the border counties that could and should, in current plans, become industrialised?  Not only are there many mineral deposits thoroughly assessed by Chinese geologists, there are pilgrimage mountains and a climate mild enough in some places to grow walnuts, plums and tea. Then there’s tourism, Chomolangma/Mt Everest the magnet. Above all, there is the massive military presence, which skews local economies towards a wide range of ancillary services.

armoured troop carriers speeding across Tibet
2002 doco on trader/pilgrims crossing from Tibet to India

Probably what pastoralists of southern Tibet would most want is for modern nation-states and their hard borders to get out of the way, to resume transHimalayan trading, as their great grandfathers did until 70 years ago. Tibetan traditions of long distance trade caravans would no longer profit, as did the famous saltmen, from herding sheep laden with salt lake bed pristine salt onto pack yak lines surefootedly negotiating the precipitous Himalayan trails, but there is always  something worth trading, and Tibetans are good at it.[1] Trading and pilgrimage go together, and there are plenty of sacred places and revered lamas on all sides of the border, awaiting reconnection too.

source: Tina Harris, Trading places: New economic geographies across Himalayan borderlands, Political Geography, 35 (2013) 60 – 68

But the party-state instead intends to extend its grasp, project its power, sedentarise the nomads and turn Tibetans into loyal citizens of distant Beijing. The enduring dream of resuming trading has been named so many times as a goal to be accomplished soon, yet it never eventuates. The CPPCC pays lip service again to trading as the obvious industry for the borders, but it’s all quite vague: “Vigorously develop border trade. Make good use of the border trade policies of the Party Central Committee, the Party Committee and the government of the autonomous region, and vigorously create a development model of “border trade +” or “+ border trade”, relying on the complete logistics system of Lhasa and Xigaze, radiating various border port areas, and realizing through the development path of industrial integration The economic synergy of “border trade +” or “+ border trade” enhances the high-quality development of border trade.”

In reality, it will have to be ongoing smuggling, for example the annual spring harvest in upper Nepal of yartsa gumbu cordyceps caterpillar fungus, since the demand is in China, hence the smuggling.[2]

China will struggle to industrialise the border region, and is still struggling with the basics of strategic border village construction, well behind schedule. For central leaders, this is not good enough, in a time when securitisation tops all priorities.

A further motive of China’s ambitious construction agenda for the implantation of model border villages all along the Himalayan borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan, is to showcase China’s reach and urban modernity, exciting envy among these who see these clean lines and speedy construction.

Jiangnan Prosperity Village

These are often remote locations, at high altitudes, not conducive to labour-intensive construction on-site. China instead plans, for speed, uniformity and that modern look, to truck everything out to the border, especially prefabricated concrete panels and girders, all speedily bolted and slotted together.

That in turn is assisted by bubbling the setting concrete to make the panels much lighter, yet still strong. The technology for inserting bubbles throughout a concrete panel relies on foaming chemicals derived from blood, and the new feedlots and slaughterhouses under construction in Tibet produce lots of blood.

From the planners’ viewpoint, it all fits. But it all needs labourers, lots of them, preferably year-round, trained, willing and able to move from construction site to site. Scarcity of labour was always a constraint on traditional modes of production, and now, on construction of modernity.

In China’s top cities, in high density districts, construction is highly mechanised, but expensive equipment isn’t the key in more scattered, low-density locations, especially in country that has long relied on hundreds of millions of semi-skilled workers willing to go wherever the work is.  But they are no longer willing to come to Tibet, except for quick money, and then go back to their home province. The days of heroic pioneers volunteering to bring the light of revolution to the dark and backward places is long gone.

All of China’s grand plans for mines, dams, border villages and urban hubs depend on getting Tibetan men (and perhaps some women) off their lands and into construction work. From Beijing’s perspective, Tibet is a laggard, chronically languishing as all other provinces surge ahead. The standard incentives and extra subsidies that spur take-off elsewhere, including some Tibetan areas such as northern Amdo, just don’t work in Tibet. As a result Tibet is such an ongoing embarrassment that it is routinely omitted from official statistics, as an outlier that fails to leap at capitalist opportunities to get gloriously rich.

So, what is different this time round? “Guide the advantageous and characteristic enterprises to develop towards specialization, with Shigatse City and Shannan City [Tsethang] as the focus, develop labor service professional operation enterprises; through guidance, cancelling legal status for  market violations, force the transformation and upgrading of farmers and herdsmen construction teams; Take advantage of the investment opportunities of major projects in Tibet during the 14th Five-Year Plan period to attract central enterprises and outstanding enterprises outside the region to settle in Tibet; Promote the development of construction enterprises for farmers and herdsmen through small and scattered projects in agricultural and pastoral areas; Change the business model of the enterprise, optimize the organizational structure and equity structure, encourage employee shareholding, technology shareholding, and investment cooperation to activate the vitality of the enterprise.”

Exnomads and exfarmers are to be encouraged to consider themselves stakeholders in an ownership society which makes a shareholding in a Chinese state-owned construction company into a stake in the enterprise’s success. Yet, despite talk of encouraging Tibetan construction companies, the corporations will be, as before, commercial spinoffs of local governments keen to cash in on the unending flow of funding from Beijing. In reality displaced Tibetans will be working, via layers of gangmaster contractors and subcontractors, for the rentier class of real estate speculators, the only folks in central Tibet who get seriously wealthy.

TAR 14th Plan: “Carry out practical construction skills training. Vigorously implement the skill improvement project for farmers and herdsmen, and establish education and training mechanism for emigrant workers, improve the quality of emigrant workers, give them opportunities for development, and improve the degree of organization of the transfer of employment of farmers and herdsmen. This has made construction workers an important impetus for the coordinated development of urban and rural areas. Organize training through various levels of housing and urban-rural development departments. Organize emigrant workers to bring local emigrant workers, self-training by enterprises, order-based training, etc.

“Focus on training farmers and herdsmen at the level of modernization as construction site managers, and for those farmers and herdsmen who have been employed in the construction field for a long time, increase the training of practical skills, and focus on increasing the willingness to work in the construction field for a long time.

“Raise the training intensity of farmers and herdsmen, comprehensively improve the skill level and quality of farmers and herdsmen, so that they can convert into construction industry workers. During the “14th Five-Year Plan” period, strive to pass three-year training. The number of farmers and herdsmen migrant workers in the region accounted for more than 30% of the local migrant workers, persisting for a long time, and increasing year by year.  Promote the industrialization of construction workers.”


China’s 2021 White Paper on Tibet reveals a wider plan to concentrate the Tibetan population, away from higher altitudes, and also away from the borders with South Asia: “Tibet has relocated the impoverished to improve their living and working conditions. Poverty-stricken populations in Tibet are concentrated in the northern pastoral areas, the southern border areas, and the eastern areas along the Hengduan Mountains. All these areas are located at high altitudes. They are remote from vital markets and live in harsh conditions. Therefore, relocating the inhabitants of these areas is a rational solution to lift them out of poverty. Since 2016, Tibet has increased efforts to resettle the impoverished from inhospitable areas to places with better economic prospects. By 2020, Tibet had completed the construction of 964 relocation zones/sites for poverty alleviation in low-altitude, hospitable areas, where 266,000 poor were happy to resettle.”

resettling pastoralists of the Chang Tang

It may take the full five years of this Plan culminating in 2025 to generate the schools providing a full three-year apprenticeship training, which no doubt will include compulsory learning of standard Chinese.  More on that below.

Tibet is not Xinjiang. In Xinjiang there are several established labour intensive industries such as harvesting and spinning cotton, making clothing from cotton cloth, harvesting tomatoes, drying and processing them on a massive scale, and many more, all in chronic need of labour, until accumulated profits reach such heights that mechanisation takes over.  Central Tibet has no such established industries to funnel the exnomads and exfarmers into.

spinning cotton in Xinjiang: Tibet has few industries like this

If this official vision is realised, it will be achieved by coercion but also by incentivising young men into a new, gendered mode of mobility, from building site to site.  The range of skillsets is wide, and Tibetans have had so many bad experiences of being ripped off by employers and the contractors through whom construction companies deal with workers. So the list of skills to be taught is wide, and the assurances to be offered make a long list in the TAR 14th Plan:

The labor team has established enterprises that focus on professional operations such as woodworking, electrician, masonry, and steel bar making. Encourage existing professional enterprises to be specialized and refined, and form a new type of construction with complete specialties, reasonable division of labor.

“Establish an industry organization structure. According to the characteristics of the job, through the corresponding safety hygiene for front-line employees, training in production, professional ethics, theoretical knowledge and operational skills to enhance professional competence and ensure safety of production and engineering quality.

“Improve the protection mechanism for the rights and interests of construction workers. Attach great importance to the issue of migrant workers and further complete improving the real-name management system of construction workers, improve the wage payment security system, and increase the real-name system platform and construction of the interconnection and interoperability of the integrated market supervision platform, the formulation of the “Real-name Management System for Construction Workers in the Tibet Autonomous Region Management Implementation Rules“, through the establishment of special wage accounts, labor service fee payment, on-site staff attendance, online big data analysis and cloud computing of indicators such as wages, on behalf of the workers, with a crackdown on informal wage behavior. Continuously improve the wages and production and living conditions of migrant workers. Explore social insurance participation and payment methods compatible with the construction industry, and vigorously promote construction units to participate in work-related injuries insurance.”

Yet even if all of this comes to pass, Tibetans will still be the industrial proletariat, very seldom the owners of the construction corporations.  For all the talk of training and protecting the new workforce, Tibetans will still be at the bottom of the ladder, with Han always above. Systemic inequality will persist. But there will be no option of returning to the clan’s pastures or fields, which will have been surrendered, in the name of conservation, or at best in the hands of a cooperative which leases the land to corporations using it to intensify production. For those who enter China’s construction labour market, there will be no going back.

“Real-name” management system is not to protect workers from being ripped off by employers who would say they never heard of them; it is an extension of grid management surveillance to ensure all Tibetan urban workers remain visible to the security state.

topography of far western upper Tibet, showing how much is higher than 4800m Source: This website allows you to zoom in to find more detail


China has decisively defined its clearance program altitudinally, from the top down, with a single carefully chosen metric, 4800m, as the magical number. Altitude has always featured as Tibet’s besetting sin, in Han eyes, an ineradicable stain that (until climate change changes everything) makes Tibet as best marginal, but mostly unliveable. The higher you go, the more Tibet deviates from what, for Han,  is tolerable, given the ingrained but unconscious bias of all Han that normal is defined by lowland China’s arable lands.

“Since 2018, Tibet has launched a very high-altitude ecological relocation project. In Nyima County, Shuanghu County, Anduo County, 3 counties and 5 townships in Nagqu City, 1219 households and 5160 people have moved to Lhasa, Shannan and other places, and the altitude has decreased more than 1,300 metres.”

The cut-off isoline of 4800 m, is remarkably precise, so much so one might wonder whence it comes. Technically, drawing a relief map of the Tibetan Plateau with the 4800m contour line as a new Hu Huanyong line, is not difficult, especially in this time of satellite monitoring. But what is the significance of 4800m?

China’s newly defined “no-man’s land” of upper Tibet, above 4800m contour line

This is not the first time China has demarcated the civilised from the barbaric by a frontier drawn along a contour line. Close to a century ago, as Republican China pushed into Kham, the new province of Xikang -now Kandze and Ngawa prefectures of Sichuan- were defined by the 3600m contour line, below which wheat and barley can be grown, above is pastoral landscape.[3] China’s fixation on isoline as destiny is not new. Now the new 4800m line demarcates the human from the natural worlds, all so scientific.

Ascribing objective scientific truth to the 4800 number reveals itself, on the map, as aimed specifically at upper Tibet, the far west of Tibet, where Tibetan civilisations seems to have first developed, before slowly shifting east over centuries and millennia, as a drying climate made upper Tibet -as Tibetans call it- no longer able to sustain villages and irrigation channels, although their stone structures remain even now, thousands of years later, along with their rock art celebrating the gazelles and antelopes that mingled with their yaks and goats.

The 4800 number targets the Chang Tang, the empty plain of northern TAR, a huge alpine desert that flourishes in the summer monsoon season, attracting wildlife seeking  safe birthing grounds, also Tibetan nomads with their herds. In more recent years the Chang Tang has attracted Chinese geologists, who report many big deposit finds that mostly remain too distant to be exploited.

topography of Tibet’s borders with Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan:

It is in the Chang Tang that the party-state first encountered the global science of ecology, pioneered by wildlife ecologist George Schaller. Embedded in ecology is the assumption that all human presence in an ecosystem is by definition additional,  problematic, a threat to ecosystem equilibrium, a predatory burden that necessitates regulation, maybe complete exclusion. In the history of ecology as a science, the idea of a definable ecosystem proved in practice to be remarkably hard to capture, even with humans excluded. Where does one ecosystem flourish, where is its boundary with a different ecosystem? What are the dominant species that define an ecosystem, differentiating it from another that is similar yet different? Despite endless transects, species counts, ennumerations and  extrapolations, in practice ecologists struggled to capture the dynamics of even simple ecosystems with limited biodiversity. By definition, an ecosystem must be in equilibrium, that is what defines it as a distinct ecosystem, which always returns to its natural equilibrium even after natural disturbances such as an unusually hot or cold, dry or wet year.

source: Michael Orenich

Ecologists resisted any suggestion that there are areas, usually in the many drylands of the world, where there is no equilibrium, only great variability, to which plants, animals and customary human users have all adapted, whether by hunkering down or moving on until a more conducive season arrives. Where variability is characteristic, how can there be a definable ecosystem at all?

As if that wasn’t hard enough, there is the human presence. By definition, for most ecologists, all human use of landscapes, especially uplands and drylands, is predatory, imposing a burden that distorts ecosystems and upsets equilibrium. The simple solution was to exclude humans altogether from the effort to capture ecosystem dynamics.  Whether the humans are predatory hunters, miners or customary pastoral custodians makes no difference. All human presence is problematic.


China’s simple solution today is to literally exclude all human presence above 4800m. Since all human presence is additional, supernumerary, contingent and predatory, the regulatory response deliberately makes no distinction between wildlife hunters, gold miners, highway builders, missile batteries, military barracks, and nomadic herders. Ban the lot. At least on paper.

This drastic oversimplification of actual environmental histories of Tibetan landscapes erases the tombs, dams, villages and rock art of thousands of years of earlier Tibetan use of these lands above 4800m; erases any legitimate ongoing seasonal use of the blooming summer meadows of these high deserts.

altitude mapping of Tibetan border districts adjacent to Bhutan and Arunachal:

Total proscription of all human use serves the party-state, which strains to grasp what it reaches toward. In the first four decades of China’s six decades in command across the Tibetan Plateau, the Chang tang was penetrated only by heroic scientific exploration teams, geological prospecting parties and later by wildlife ecologists, in the wake of the fieldwork of George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society based at Bronx Zoo.

It was Schaller who first raised the alarm about Tibetan nomads as predators upsetting the natural balance. Schaller, in many writings, always finds the nomads problematic, and becoming more so as they gained access to trucks, to set up summer grazing deep in the Chang Tang. This negative depiction chimed well with Schaller’s global audience, accustomed to the foundational assumptions of ecology, and emotionally identifying with the wildlife.

At the time -in the 1980s and 1990s- official China had little interest in Schaller or in the wildlife of upper Tibet, or actively catching the gangs of hunters who marauded upper Tibet, gunning down chiru antelopes in enormous numbers, for the handful of soft belly fur that is used to make shahtoosh shawls. In the decades prior to this century, most of Tibet was well beyond the frontier, a largely lawless land China knew little about, and cared less. Any effective policing of China’s wildlife protection laws was done by Tibetans of upper Tibet, intercepting and arresting the Hui Chinese Muslim gangs wherever they could, often at great risk to their own lives.

In this century it all started to change, as a wealthier China extended the reach of the state into all territories it claimed as sovereign. What had been out of sight, beyond the frontier, became scrutable. What the party-state could now for the first time see, it had to manage, that is how sovereignty is asserted. Schaller’s persistent alarm gradually found receptive ears, in contrast to earlier years, when he published descriptions of Tibetan cadres, empowered by party-state impunity, who mouthed conservation cliches in the office, but had freshly shot wildlife in their vehicles just outside.

Schaller was shocked, and made sure the world knew.[4] Leather jacketed Tibetan cadres had learned well from their Han superiors that dialectical materialism means conquering nature and the triumph of the human will.

now that pastoralism is fast disappearing, China gets sentimental about its’ passing

[1] Wim van Spengen, The Geo-History of Long-Distance Trade in Tibet 1850-1950,The Tibet Journal , Summer 1995, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 18-63

Tina Harris,  Geographical Diversions: Tibetan Trade, Global Transactions., University of Georgia Press, 2013.

Tea-horse trade in Kham:

[2] Liv Timmermann and Carsten Smith-Hall,  Commercial Medicinal Plant Collection Is Transforming High-altitude Livelihoods in the Himalayas, Mountain Research and Development Vol 39 No 3 Aug 2019: R13–R21

Kamal Adhikari,  Ethnobotany, Commercialisation and Climate Change: consequences of the exploitation of yarsagumba in Nepal, European Bulletin Of Himalayan Research, 49, 2017, 35-58

[3] Mark Frank: 3600 Meters: The Grain Line as a Lens on the History of Han-Tibetan Relations, 2021,

[4] George Schaller, Tibet’s Hidden Wilderness: Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Tang Reserve, Abrams, 1997, 91


Blog three in a series documenting China’s path to urbanising Tibet, depopulating the highlands, converting exnomads into infrastructure construction workers 3/5


Why does China these days frequently label Tibet an “ecological security barrier highlands”? What does that mean for tibetans?

Much of the Tibetan Plateau is above 4800m altitude. Most of that is in the mountains surrounding Tibet, the abode of glaciers, ice, snow and permafrost, above the limit of even the hardiest grasses and graziers. Yet above 4800m there is life, and there are Tibetans, below the snow line, at the limits of the habitable. Now China has a fixation on the number 4800.

China got serious about wildlife around a decade ago, ostensibly because it had seen the light; unofficially because it was the only basis for asserting statist command and control over the remotest of all landscapes China claims. Ecologist George Schaller, now elderly, made a comeback steering regulations that have culminated in the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan to cancel all nomadic land tenure rights in the Chang Tang, and also in the Kailash Sacred Landscape, and everywhere above 4800m.

This is the first step in systematic clearances, displacing not just a predetermined quota of graziers to reduce grazing pressures, as has been done right across the enormous Tibetan pastoral lands for decades. What will be next? Clearing Tibet step by step, based on contour line, has an aura of scientific objectivity, so next could be a progressive lowering of the altitude demarcation line.

Even a modest drop, from 4800m to 4500m would have a dramatic effect on the Tibetan livelihoods of upper Tibet. The entire Tibetan Plateau is gently tilted from west to east, which is why the major rivers all run eastward. Upper Tibet, even on the plateau floor, would become an exclusion zone if the “orderly withdrawal relocation” system, as China calls it, 淘汰退出落后产能有序推进 Táotài tuìchū luo hòu chǎnnéng yǒu xù tuījìn were to set its next altitude limit at 4500m.

Authoritarian China is keen on ordering the ‘orderly withdrawal’ of all sorts of things, here referring to chopping off the inflating prices of imported iron ore and coal. Source:

That would depopulate not only the Chang Tang and Kailash Sacred Landscape but almost all of western Tibet, leaving a huge area emptied of human use, other than the bristling border where Chinese and Indian troop buildups have clashed repeatedly, each side backed up by forward bases manned by troops accustomed to the altitude because, on both sides, most of those who fight and die are Tibetan recruits.

Clearance of the nomads does not at all mean the end of human uses for these highlands. It does however mean the end of Tibetan uses.

Zabuye salt lake partitioned into evaporation ponds for lithium extraction. BYD buses in Europe and US cities rely on this lithium. Source: Free Tibet

Other human uses persist. A salt lake of the far west, Zabuye in Chinese, Drangyer Tsaka in Tibetan, at 4400m, is especially rich in lithium, so pure it needs little complicated purification to be used in lithium batteries. Despite its remoteness, Zabuye has been exploited for over  a decade by electric car manufacturer BYD, which has Warren Buffett as a prominent shareholder. Now, as climate is warming quickly, rainfall is increasing, and a lake bed that dried slowly over many centuries, leaving behind the lithium salts, is now filling again, so the race is on to extract as much lithium as possible, since at that altitude evaporation is slow.

copper and gold deposits of Chang Tang 2020
copper & gold deposits of upper Tibet 2019


China is proud of having rescued the highlanders from their highlands. The words of the relocated highlanders, attributed to them in official media, tell us much about Han perceptions of upper Tibet as a cold hell of unimaginable torment for those who found themselves trapped in the uplands before the modern party-state rescued and relocated them, conveniently close by Lhasa airport. There they are regularly interviewed. They stick to the script of gratitude to the benevolence of China bussing them well over 1000 kms away, to reinvent themselves. They describe their past life as horrific.

cold narak hell

Is that actually how these hardy uplanders see the life they were wrenched away from? A Xinhua story in April 2020, with the feel-good title “Life is getting more and more mellow like sweet tea-Tibetan migrants embracing a new life in their entrepreneurship” reports the 4000 highlanders herded into the Lhasa airport flight zone are so glad to now live in high density: “Before the relocation, Chage lived in Quer Village, Yaqu Township. 89 households of villagers were distributed on a grassland with a radius of thousands of square kilometers. The distance between households was two or three kilometers, and the distance was more than ten kilometers. “Now that everyone lives together, I can see each other every day, maybe because of my age, I like this kind of lively life more and more.” Chage said.”

Han Chinese used to overcrowding and accustomed to the endless networking essential to getting anything done, would indeed be horrified at the nearest household being two or three kms. Norbu, the mayor, is quoted sating “that everyone has experienced the excitement at the beginning of the relocation and the unaccustomedness that followed, and now they are trying to adapt to the new life, new life goal.”

This is a whole new town, displayed in a 2021 CCTV 4 mins doco melting together imagery of a newborn Tibetan child delivered safely in new town sanitation, warmth and comfort, juxtaposed with panoramas of the new construction. All due to China’s paternalistic benevolence.

relocating the highlanders to new town near Lhasa airport: screenshot from CCTV 2021 minidoc

A richly illustrated 2020 story tells us: “Since 2018, Tibet has launched a very high-altitude ecological relocation project. In Nyima County, Shuanghu County, Anduo County, 3 counties and 5 townships in Nagqu City, 1219 households and 5160 people have moved to Lhasa, Shannan and other places, and the altitude has decreased.”  That means more oxygen, to Han a self-evident boon, but for drogpa with deeply embodied mitochondrial capacity to thrive at high altitudes, is it so self-evident?

Maybe this is all written by Han for Han, based on standard Han prejudices and racist assumptions? Maybe Han, whether cadres or journalists, interrogators or interlocutors, reveal more than they realise when they quote Tibetans who say they are grateful to forever leave behind that thin air, high altitude, spacious distance from neighbours, freedom from high density competitiveness. Whether Tibetans, when interviewed/interrogated, actually say such things is hardly the point: everyone knows the rules of the game, everyone must display gratitude.


Gratitude for what: that’s the point. Consistently, newly villagized Tibetans perform gratitude for urban density, entry into the sole trader getihu market economy, and the prospect of industrialisation. In official media reporting of the newly displaced, what is most exciting is the opportunity to enter the market economy:

In the center of each relocated residential area, a dozen tents, large and small, were set up, which operated billiard rooms, small supermarkets, and small restaurants. It was through the booming business that young people from Ouzhujiang Village, who relocated from Cuozhe Qiangma Township, Shuanghu County [Tso nyi  མཚོ་གཉིས་རྫོང་།;] , found business opportunities. Copiers, printers, paper cutters…In the newly opened advertising company in Ouzhujiang Village, all kinds of equipment are readily available. “Every unit and every store here is newly opened. We have taken a lot of work of making house numbers, printing store names, and processing light boxes, and we are almost too busy.” Ou Zhujiangcun [Ngodup Gyatso] said, “Don’t look at the company as a company now. The printing agency, after a while, the business of various stores will be booming, and our advertising services will be able to come in handy.”

employing newly displaced nomads, in urban construction. Screenshot from CCTV doco 2021

However the joys of sole trader getihu capitalism pale in comparison to the new opportunities to do industrialised construction work on China’s many infrastructure construction projects. A 34 years old man named as Geduo [Kelsang Dhondup?] tells Xinhua: “After breakfast, these customers will plant trees or go to work on the construction site.” Geduo said that the government organized villagers to participate in the second phase of the Semburi project. Many families also bought heavy trucks for transportation on the construction site. “Compared with when I first moved, there are fewer and fewer idlers in Semburi now.” …………….. “According to the plan, Semburi will also build the second and third phases, as well as supporting the construction of an industrial park nearby.” Geduo said.”

This tells us more than Han prejudices; it reveals the trajectory the party-state has in mind for the industrialisation of Tibetans as the schleppers of the new gig economy China is in a hurry to build.

What might an industrial park, so close to Lhasa airport, do? China has invested heavily in constructing a logistics hub at Nagchu, well north of Lhasa, on the uppermost sources of the Mekong, in pastoral country China has long wanted to industrialise to intensify meat production.

Lhasa airport is a long way south of Lhasa, a suitable place for a logistics hub for anything flown in to the airport, whether mass domestic tourist busloads, airfreight goods destined for Lhasa, or for expedited delivery to Nepal and South Asia. But the first priority of the newly industrialised Tibetan exnomads is the construction of the industrial park buildings, making the roads and power lines, dozens of semi-skilled jobs China struggles to fill with emigrants from the lowlands, who do dislike the thin air and the cold of winter.

If central Tibet is ever to catch up, and take its place in China’s race to urbanise and centralise, construction must be year-round, not just in the summer season, which has too often been the case. Only Tibetans need apply, especially Tibetans abruptly bussed out of their pastures and villagized, as factors of production ready to work at whatever pays, since pastoral self-reliance has vanished, and every thing now requires cash. So exciting.

Reporters keep coming back to this newly invented urban village, most recently on the eve of Losar, when ushering in a new year requires a nostalgic feast of yak meat and butter, which only a year ago had been staples of the everyday. “More than a year ago, they were pure herders on the grasslands of northern Tibet. Shuanghu County, where Baima and his family lived, has an average elevation of more than 5,000 meters. It is the highest county in the world and is called the “Life Forbidden Zone” by many people. In order to allow herdsmen living in high-altitude areas to lead a more comfortable life, the government mobilized them to move to a resettlement site in Semburi, which is more than 3,000 meters above sea level.

Who would those “many people” be, who call upper Tibet the “Life-Forbidden Zone” 生命禁区 Shēngmìng jìnqū? No Tibetan would say that, only horrified Han. It means China has rescued Tibetans from Tibet, so they should be grateful.

“Previously, the conditions were very difficult, and it can be said that there was no concept of Chinese New Year. Later, the days have gradually improved, and some good beef, mutton and ghee can be eaten during the New Year.” Recalling dozens of New Years spent in northern Tibet, with a lot of emotion Baima said “After moving here, I can eat fresh vegetables and fruits every day, as well as a variety of pastries and drinks. Every day is the same as the Chinese New Year.”

It’s now all go, all vegetables and fruit, no vegetative idlers here. Han horror at life on the open range, all meat and butter, no vegetables; and Han contempt at the laziness of Tibetans, are seldom far away. The 1966 proposition of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins that gatherers and hunters are the original affluent society makes little sense to Han.

So Tibetans must, for their own good, not only be removed from anywhere above the 4800m contour line, but put to work.


The prelude to the relaunch of Tibetans as urban construction workers is a hellish backstory, told over and over in official media. China has rescued people condemned to live in the coldest of cold hells, at war with the grasses, with wildlife, with the hypoxically thin air, gales and tornados, and intense cold. All of these horrifying hazards are named in just one Xinhua story extolling China’s clearance practices. In the cold month of March 2020 Xinhua ran a long story: Tibet’s extremely high-altitude ecological relocation solves the problem of symbiosis between man and nature.”

In Xinhua’s telling the drama is maximised by beginning five decades ago, with another relocation, this time northward, from Nagchu Shentsa dzong, a strongly pastoral region, up into marginal lands that are colder and drier. This first displacement was during the Cultural Revolution, which 50 years later is never mentioned by Xinhua as the driver of internal exile, in the name of “waste land reclamation” commands to conquer nature by sheer human will.

“In the 1970s, in order to alleviate the contradiction between grass and livestock, a group of herders drove cattle and sheep and migrated more than 300 kilometers north from Shenzha County, Nagqu City, Tibet, to an uninhabited area with an average altitude of more than 5,000 meters. One migration, Shuanghu County, the highest county in my country, was built.

“At the end of 2019, in order to solve the problem of the symbiosis of man and nature and make room for wild animals, 2,900 people in Shuanghu County crossed nearly a thousand kilometers to the south and moved to the north bank of the Yarlung Zangbo River at an altitude of 3,600 meters. They completed the second migration of their lives and started a better life.”

The nomads of Shentsa/Shenzha have been displaced by misplaced official decrees twice in 50 years, first to the north to the edges of alpine desert, then south to become a village servicing the labour market at Lhasa’s busy airport. The northward internal exile was in the name of alleviating the contradiction between grass and livestock, a Marxist dialectic formulation that assumes an antagonistic relationship between grazers and grasses, despite thousands of years of skilful and sustainable grazing regimes, nomadic mobility being the key to ensuring no overgrazing.

How is it possible China shunted nomads up into alpine desert to “reclaim waste land”, and they stayed there 50 years, until China benevolently shunted them down? Aren’t nomads mobile, by definition? Did they sedentarise by choice? They had no choice then, or now.

lots of construction workers needed to compete new terminal: source:


Now five decades later, again in the name of fulfilling a profound problem, a second displacement has occurred, to Semburi, adjacent to Lhasa airport, with no hint of recognising the first displacement had been a policy failure. Now, “in order to solve the problem of the symbiosis of man and nature and make room for wild animals” an entire community of nomads is shunted south, to the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo, directly under the flight path into Lhasa drome.

Each successive displacement has been for weighty reasons of state. How symbiosis of man and nature is achieved by removing an entire community is not explained, any more than was the 1971 opposite movement “to alleviate the contradiction between grass and livestock.” All we can know for sure, especially in this CCP centenary year, is that the Party is correct about everything, and always has been. And always will be.

Having set up two epic exoduses, Xinhua turns lyrical: “For Tsering Zhuoga, the days of digging ice and melting water in the river in winter are gone forever. “Look, everything is new.” Tsering Zhuoga turned around in the yard, looked at the gas stove in the kitchen, and looked at the squatting toilet and shower in the bathroom. “Thanks to the good policies of the party and the government, we have left our home in the cold and hypoxic environment and have a new home at low altitude,” said Tsering Zhuoga.”

To heighten the drama a Xinhua reporter goes north to the clearance site: against the wind and snow. The rivers and lakes along the way were frozen for hundreds of miles, and strong winds of magnitude eight or nine were raging. The temperature during the day reached minus 25°C. Tsering Zhuoga’s father Suo Lang Yang Pei [Sonam Yangphel?]  just pulled a cart of ice cubes from the glacier and piled them in the warehouse. Shuanghu Lake, known as the “Ghost Land”, is a paradise for wild animals. Shuanghu County, located in the Qiangtang National Nature Reserve, is an important area for migration activities such as Tibetan antelopes, Tibetan wild donkeys, and wild yaks. As the population grows, the competition between local humans, animals and wild animals for living space has become increasingly prominent. Especially because of its remote location, harsh environment, high investment costs, the people in extremely high altitude areas have always been troubled.”

Now these exnomads can squat over a toilet and enter civilisation. They have been rescued. Meanwhile China is investing huge amounts to send men to Mars, to discover how cold hell can be.


The Tibetans got there first: “As Pabongka mentions in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand [pp. 374–376], your body is completely immobilized on ice-cold ground or in an ice mountain, as if your shoes were nailed to the ground. Your body is completely caught. It is completely dark, even on the very first level of the cold hells, and there is unbelievable, unimaginable suffering of cold, with incredibly cold winds blowing. Relating to us, imagine that your naked body were completely buried in and surrounded by ice such that you couldn’t move, and on top of that, it was completely dark and there was an extremely, unbelievably cold wind and snow blowing over you, like in a raging blizzard. In the cold hells, it is unbelievably cold — billions of times colder than anything we could experience in the human world. No matter how cold it is in the human world, in those countries that are supposed to be extremely cold, with ice, freezing winds, and so forth, this unbelievably heaviest cold for humans is great pleasure compared to the cold suffering of the hell realms. The worst cold suffering that humans can experience is nothing compared to that of the cold hells; it’s great pleasure.”

Classic Tibetan texts such as this taught Tibetans not to crave warmth. Now however all is changed for the better, winter has become summer, there is no end to the party’s benevolencve, as Xinhua explains: “The winter in Semburi is the summer in Shuanghu.” 75-year-old Duoji Zhuoma said that compared with his hometown, the altitude here is more than 1,400 meters lower. “The weather is warmer, breathing is easier, sleeping comfortably, and life is convenient.” In reality, have Tibetans always longed to breathe easier? Actually, they find the air of the lowlands unpleasantly thick.

However, this second resettlement is not where the story ends. The displaced must now enter the labour market, at a great disadvantage, as they lack the skills of the modern manufacturing economy, and the common tongue, putonghua Chinese, the language of modernity.  “In March 2019, the Shannan [Lhoka]  Municipal Government, where Semburi is located, established the Happy Home Construction Administration, to make overall plans for the employment of relocated people from the current and long-term perspectives.”


Lhoka municipality (formerly a prefecture) is doing its bit to fulfil a wider objective: “The Tibet Autonomous Region has specially formulated an ecological relocation plan for extremely high altitude areas (2018-2025), involving 450 villages in 97 townships, 20 counties, 3 cities, Nagqu, Ali [Ngari], and Xigaze [Shigatse] in extremely high altitude areas above 4800 meters above sea level. More than 130,000 people, of which more than 100,000 will be placed along the Yarlung Zangbo River, forming a modern town with complete functions and a certain scale. Tashi Duoji, Director of the Nature Reserve Management Division of the Tibet Forestry and Grassland Bureau, said: “The purpose of such a large-scale inter-regional relocation is to allow people in extremely high altitude areas to enjoy better life and health protection and public service levels, while reducing human activities. , To return nature to wild animals and protect the plateau ecological environment.’ The reporter learned that Tibet will withdraw nearly 350,000 square kilometers of land after the extremely high altitude ecological relocation projects in Tibet are completed, including 280,000 square kilometers of protected areas. This will help comprehensively improve the ecological environment of the emigration areas. The coverage of meadows will increase by 10%-20% on average, and the coverage of desert grasslands will increase by 5%-10% on average.

Planning the growth of nature is a party-state specialty, complete with target percentages. It’s called ecological civilisation construction.



Shamefully lagging behind

Blog four in a series documenting China’s path to urbanising Tibet, depopulating the highlands, converting exnomads into infrastructure construction workers 4/5

U-Tsang, central Tibet, which China calls Tibet Autonomous Region, has long been an embarrassment to a centralized party-state whose legitimacy is based on economic growth. By almost any metric, TAR is a laggard, all the more so now that new era China is urbanizing so fast, including the new Lanxi (Lanzhou-Xining) megapolis 兰西城市 on the fringes of Tibet, moving ahead at speed.

 TAR is at or close to the bottom on almost all measures of economic success, except for one key metric, which is GDP.[1] Since GDP is just a measure of economic activity divided by the population number, China’s massive ongoing infrastructure spend in TAR on paper generates a GDP that looks impressive.

source: Tibet Party School Journal (Tibet Development Forum) 西藏发展论坛2 0 2 0 年第6 期( 总第1 7 8 期)

China gathers lots of data on every province, much of it of questionable provenance.  However, even a quick glance at Tibetan lives on the ground shows  a skewed, disempowering development model pours capital expenditure into infrastructure, built by Han immigrants, with little trickle down to Tibetans, especially in rural areas.

service (tertiary) sector, largely urban, dominates the economies of Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet. How does that work? Source: Rongxing Guo, Regional China
A Business and Economic Handbook, Palgrave, 2013

According to the statistics, the TAR sectoral economy most closely resembles tier one cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, in that the dominant sector, driver of growth, is not agriculture, pastoralism or manufacturing, but services, especially security state services, which employ lots of people in grid management, surveillance, detention, interrogation and incarceration.

a highly lopsided economy, which has not improved since 2006. Source: Andrew Fischer,
The Political Economy of Boomerang Aid in China’s Tibet, China Perspectives, 2009, #3, 38-53

Clearly this artifice is anomalous. In no way does TAR resemble Shanghai or Beijing. The top heavy economy of TAR, plus the underdeveloped, uninvested  agricultural and processing sectors display a lopsidedness found nowhere else, as many Chinese economists have pointed out. This has been chronic for decade after decade, and worsening.

No matter how much money Beijing pumps in  to TAR, dependency only intensifies, TAR remains a cost centre, producing almost nothing profitable. This has persisted so long it is beyond embarrassing; and TAR is routinely omitted from comparative provincial statistics, because the results are so awful for a party-state fixated on growth as an end in itself.

increase the supply of talent, strengthen infrastructure construction. Source: Tibet Party School Journal (Tibet development Forum) 2021 西藏发展论坛2021年第2期(总第180期) 


Xi Jinping’s “new era” is to be the era of “high-quality development.” Underlying that is the global new era of the Anthropocene. From Beijing’s perspective TAR struggles with high-quality development, because it never fully entered the Anthropocene.

 “Since Xi took control, total debt has risen from 225 percent of GDP to at least 276 percent. In 2012, it took six yuan of new credit to generate one yuan of growth; in 2020, it took almost ten. ” This is not how new eras begin, this is the law of diminishing returns, nowhere more so than in Tibet.

 Now “high quality development”, although vague (like a lot of CCP jargon)  signifies the end of China’s reliance on an endless pool of cheap rural migrant labour. This is the slogan signifying China’s effort to avoid the “middle income trap” that afflicted many countries which rose fast and then stalled. High quality development means a skilled workforce, higher wages, global competitiveness, global brands based in China, dominance of high tech industries, and much more. But in Tibet?

2021 book by Hu Angang, an advocate of abolishing ethnic regional autonomy:

The concept of high quality development requires high quality people, meaning a workforce literate in the putonghua common tongue, with sufficient education to do the elaborate transformations of raw materials into consumer products that can be competitively marketed world wide. Although robotic automation gets a lot of headlines, there will still be a huge workforce needed, if China is to maintain its place as the world’s factory, with the world’s most comprehensive commodity supply chains stretching back upstream to Tibetan mines, rivers and hydro dams.

making Tibet make more meat, intensifying agribusiness. Source: Tibet Party School Journal (Tibet Development Forum) 2020 西藏发展论坛2 0 2 0 年第5 期( 总第1 7 7 期)

The women of China have discovered there is more to life than bearing and raising children, and the proportion of the population of working age is rapidly shrinking.

As usual, central leaders demand all provinces pull their weight, and contribute to achieving national goals. This includes Tibet, which instead sinks further into dependency, and a chronically weak economy dominated by government employment, that generates very little revenue. Economically, TAR functions as a colonial outpost and as basis for a remittance economy chiefly benefitting construction companies and Sichuanese sojourners exploiting Tibet for fast returns.

Tibet, as usual, is missing from tabulations of provincial economy rankings, source:
Yuning Gao, Accounting and determinants analysis of China’s provincial total factor productivity considering carbon emissions, China Economic Review 65 (2021) 101576

Among the industries dominated by nonTibetans is construction, which attracts companies registered in TAR and in other provinces, which recruit workers from within their networks, largely excluding Tibetans  from all but the most unskilled, dangerous and precarious employment.

This may no longer suit central leaders, who have for years put up with contractors who corruptly compromise building standards,  erect “tofu buildings” prone to collapse, that fail earthquake resilience regulations, and crumble for lack of expensive cement to bind concrete securely. “High quality development” can no longer rely on TAR as a backwater for party hacks, rent-seekers and remittance workers with no continuity or care. Not only is this unsuitable for Tibetans who must live in substandard housing, it is perhaps at last unsuitable for China’s new era.

The concept of “high quality” is packed with moralistic judgements and expectations, signifying much more than a transition from a state investment led economy to a consumer demand driven economy. Bound up in the notion of high quality development is the need for high quality people capable of implementing it. China wants Tibetans 2.0, modelled on the highest of high quality Han, otherwise known as the members of CCP. Economists call this human capital formation, since every aspect of the world is now a form of capital.


China has long been obsessed with raising human quality –suzhi in Chinese. Human quality devalues traditional skills such as pasture sustainability management, and values urban skills such as financialization and wealth management. Suzhi is a deeply Confucian concept, an education in acquiring Chinese characteristics. “The word suzhi is a Chinese concept full of connotations, which is difficult to define in one English word. Suzhi of a person refers to the relatively stable quality structure, which is due to one’s knowledge internalization, based on the inherent gifts and physiology and deeply influenced by their education experience and social environment. A person has some kind of suzhi, which means they have certain values, cultural cultivation, physical and psychological quality, wisdom, and abilities. That means the aim of suzhi education is to improve the quality of the Chinese people.

At the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017 and the National Education Conference held in 2018, President Xi Jinping emphasized that China must develop suzhi education, train socialist builders and successors with all-round development of morality, intelligence, physique, aesthetic, and labor. Along with the popularizing of Chinese higher education and change of external conditions of education, morality, aesthetics, labor, social responsibility, innovation spirit, and practicing ability all become the most important factors of suzhi education. Among these, ideological political courses, entrepreneurship education, and so on, were paid most attention by the Chinese central government.”[2]

For Tibetans, becoming a high quality person endowed with suzhi is inextricably bound up with becoming Chinese, assimilating Confucian norms, accepting Zhonghua minzu -the Chinese race- as one’s identity. That is China’s goal, even if reaching the goal takes a long time, as coercive assimilation is not as widespread in Tibet as it is in Xinjiang. Displacing Tibetans from their rural lands, settling them in villages, training them in construction skills, mobilizing them into the urban workforce are all steps into suzhi formation. Suzhi is a ladder of status, with the Han at the top, Tibetans at the bottom.

Vocational education is meant to play a big part in the raising of suzhi nationally, essential to Xi Jinping’s new era goal of “high-quality development” delivered by high-quality workers. The 1996 Vocational Education Law is being upgraded, with extensive consultations involving many professions. The 2021 draft revisions to the Vocational Education Law say: “As our country enters a new stage of development, the development of vocational education is facing new situations and new requirements. Compared with the requirements of building a modern economic system and building a strong education country, our national vocational education still has insufficient system construction, insufficient motivation for enterprises to participate in running schools,  and talent training, the quality of nutritional teaching is uneven. The report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China proposed that the vocational education and training system should be improved.” Ȗ-Tsang must play its part.

China’s vocational education plan for 2020-2023 职业教育提质培优行动计划(2020—2023年) includes these targets:

  1. Establish a formal system for vocational education development in China and operationalise the national “credit bank”.
  2. Establish a chain of responsibility for vocational education involving government, industry and institutions.
  3. Expand the scale of vocational education equivalent to “regular education” and produce many high-quality “technical talents”.
  4. Gradually enhance the vocational education standards system at national, provincial and institutional level and deepen reform of teaching and learning resources and methods.

Number one task on the official list: “Strengthen the research of vocational education, and build the ideological system, discourse system, policy system and practice system of vocational education with Chinese characteristics.”

In Xinjiang “vocational education” has been the excuse for mass detention and coercive compliance with accelerated assimilation. In Tibet, the assimilationist goal is the same, but the pace is slower.

Han children, even in kindergarten, are taught the components of civilized suzhi habits, including civility, integrity, solidarity, hygiene, diligence, and initiative. Suzhi is fast becoming an English word,  that involves steady, essential, implicit mental quality and explicit adaptive behaviour. Furthermore, psychological suzhi is composed of the following three dimensions: cognitive quality, which refers to individuals’ cognitive process; personality quality, including concepts such as self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-control; and adaptive quality, referring to individuals’ flexibility when faced with a different environment. That’s the ideal.[3]

Tibetans might say all these habits are familiar, both from the self-reliance required to manage herds on the hoof, whatever happens, and through familiarity with the teachings of the lamas; but that counts for nothing in the formal cultivation of suzhi in Chinese schools in Tibet, and in the job market training programs being set up across Tibet, in fulfilment of the requirements of the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan.

While high quality development remains vague, educators of minority nationalities argue for “the impact of human capital structure in the process of China’s economic transition from a high-speed growth stage to a high-quality development stage. The measurement of human capital structure is calculated by proportion of employed population with various education. Increase in the proportion of high educated population would effectively promote the quality of regional development. In order to avoid low quality trap, the less-developed regions in China should take corresponding policies to improve their human structures.[4]

As usual, Tibet is the one missing province, it’s just too embarrassing. Source: Guanchun Liu, Growth path heterogeneity across provincial economies in China: the role of geography versus institutions, Empirical Economics, (2020) 59:503–546

For China’s economists, high quality development is all about efficiency and productivity. Since China’s workforce is not growing, and actually shrinking, economic growth can only come from raising productivity per worker, which is measurable. Tibet ranks lowest for efficiency, productivity and the many other measurable attributes of high-quality development, in fact so low TAR is omitted from the list of 30 ranked provinces. Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu are all near the bottom of the “comprehensive development degree” rankings.[5]

Britain tries to regulate its gangmasters, China not so much


In order to sharply accelerate the concretisation of TAR the 14th Five-Year Plan goes into detail about how displaced rural Tibetans are to be trained into construction workforce participation. The TAR Plan, in keeping with China’s developmentalist, top-down, command and control model, picks winners. The most favoured construction companies are named in this Five-Year Plan, for further contractual favouritism:

  1. Tibet Construction Engineering Building Materials Group, ,建工建材集团、Jiàn gōng jiàncái jítuán,
  2. Lhasa Urban Investment拉萨城投、lāsà chéng tóu;
  3. Xigaze  state-owned enterprises such as Everest Urban Investment,日喀则珠峰城投、rì kā zé zhū fēng chéng tóu;
  4. Shannan Yalong Investment Company山南雅砻投资公司等国有企业shānnán yǎ lóng tóuzī gōngsī děng guóyǒu qǐyè.

Each of these four construction companies have their turf, patrons, networks and long histories of hiring Tibetans only to do the dirty and dangerous manual work, then lay them off as soon as a contract is completed, or emigrant skilled workers are required.

offices of Lhasa Municipal government, constructed by Tibet Construction Engineering Group

Of the four named, only the first works all over TAR, the other three work their patch in Lhasa, or in Shigatse/Xigaze or in Lhoka/Shannan.

Tibet Construction Engineering Building Materials Group is owned by the TAR government, as a vehicle for transferring wealth accumulation to top management, and getting buildings built. It grew out of the cement factory in Lhasa, excavating limestone, using lots of diesel fuel to make the cement that is in every way foundational to modernity with Chinese characteristics.

If you look at the Tibet Construction Engineering Building Materials Group website, they built the Lhasa railway station, the bridges spanning Tibetan rivers and floodplains, the highways and the urban density apartment tower blocks, the hydro dams, they did it all.

connecting old and new Lhasa by bridging the Kyichu

Now it describes itself as “a key state-owned enterprise group in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The headquarters of Tibet Construction Group is set up in Lhasa, Tibet, China. The group’s industry is involved in investment and operation, capital operation, building materials production and marketing, civil blasting, planning and design, construction and ecological greening, etc. The group has 2 main board listed companies [Tianlu Stock (stock code: 600326), Gaozheng Civil Explosion (stock code: 002827)] and 2 new third board listed companies, holding more than 150 companies with key shares. At present, the group’s industry has been distributed to the north and south of the motherland and radiated to the markets of neighboring countries. It has achieved “out of the plateau” development and integrated into the overall national economic development pattern. In 2020, Tibet Construction Group ranked 43 among the top 50 Chinese building materials companies, setting a new record for Tibetan state-owned enterprises in the national authoritative industry list, witnessing the development of Tibet’s industrial industry, and also recording the progress of the new era.”

This exemplifies the path to corporate success in neoliberal new era China. The party-state’s passion for urbanisation as the solution to all problems generates construction contracts which can be financialised, leveraged, channelled into a complex corporate structure of 150 subsidiaries, all designed to make money work harder, for greater accumulation. Production of building materials and actual building construction are listed only after the financialised functions. This is a company set to grow and grow, and outgrow Tibet.

If, in coming years, as per the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan, the building workforce is to include more Tibetans, this corporation will tender for the training contract and, as the most favoured insiders, win contracts.

Nyingtri airport, built by Tibet Construction Corporation

Everything about this corporation, including its reach into other provinces, its ambition to become a national champion and its financialisation, all suggest Tibetans are merely factors of production, just as cement, steel, glass and fossil fuels are factors of production, to be moved about the landscape according to corporate need. Unlike Xinjiang, which already has cotton spinning and textile manufacturing, bulk tomato and grape harvesting and processing, aluminium smelters and much more manufacturing industries, TAR has only cement production and little else. Small amounts of lithium come from upper Tibet in the far west of TAR; copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposits in TAR are now mined intensively, yet the smelting that separates these metals is done in Qinghai and Gansu. The wealth accumulation is at the smelters. What accumulates in TAR is the mine wastes, since chemical concentration of pulverised rock is done at the sites of the many mines, resulting in enormous tonnages of toxic tailings, often close to major rivers.

Given all we know, it seems unlikely Tibetans entering the urban construction workforce will  rise far, or be treated with respect, or accrue pension payments, or gain ongoing access to social security and health care benefits, still less will they hold equity in the corporations that employ them.

Dorje Norbu, boss of Tibet Construction Corp

The conventional Han depiction of Tibetans is that they are lazy and uncompetitive, because they fail to appreciate that accumulation is an end in itself, without end, forever scaling up to remain competitive.

Second on the TAR Plan’s preferred contractor list is Lhasa Urban Investment which, unsurprisingly, is also state-owned but privately managed, for the wealth accumulation of its well-connected management. Even the quickest look at its gold-tinged splash page graphics makes it clear getting gloriously rich is what it’s all about.

In 2017 Lhasa Urban Investment plunged into financialisation: “Lhasa Urban Investment Financial Investment Holding Group Co., Ltd. Gold Control 2017. The registered capital is 1 billion yuan, and the main business is venture capital and management, infrastructure and urban public project investment, energy and transportation and other high-tech industries. There are 4 subsidiaries of Lhasa Urban Investment Information Technology Co., Ltd., Tibet Jiangxu Investment and Development Co., Ltd., Tibet Hongfa Comprehensive Testing Co., Ltd., and Tibet Hangxin Metal Products Co., Ltd., with administrative personnel department, financial accounting department, and party building discipline inspection. In terms of financing consulting services, Lhasa Urban Investment Corporation’s subordinate industrial group companies and major enterprises in the autonomous region provide consulting services such as loans, listing, bond issuance, and finance; in terms of financial equity investment, it provides consulting services for banks, insurance, securities, and Funds and other industries coordinate the layout; in terms of foreign cooperative investment, combined with the main business of Lhasa Urban Investment, invest in the upstream and downstream of the industrial chain. Since the establishment of the group more than a year ago, it has completed a total of approximately 9.5 billion yuan in financing and a total investment of over 12 billion yuan. The group plans to further expand its business scope, obtain banking, securities, insurance, funds, financial leasing and other financial licenses, strive to strive for first-class financial enterprises, and earnestly perform its responsibilities in comprehensive financial services, and help realize the leapfrogging of Lhasa Urban Investment Company development.”

This is state capitalism maximising its rent seeking dominance of the construction industry, to funnel profit into making money make ever more money. This is not a corporation with concern for the welfare of its workforce, especially the casual Tibetans on its building sites with no security, occupational safety or even hard hats and safety harnesses on insecure scaffolding.[6]

Xigaze Everest Urban Investment Development Group Co., Ltd.. website splash page

Third on the TAR 14th Plan list of construction industry insiders is a Shigatse based corporation which calls itself in English Xigaze Everest Urban Investment Development Group Co., Ltd..  Again this is a state-owned vehicle for private wealth accumulation, boosted in 2017 by Shigatse losing its prefectural status, instead reclassified as a municipality covering a vast rural area, as well as urban Shigatse town. The difference between a prefecture and a municipality is not only an emphasis on urban construction, but also the cancellation of any minority nationality “autonomous” status.

Here, from the corporate website is how this company defines itself: “Xigaze Everest Urban Investment Development Group Co., Ltd., formerly known as Xigaze Everest Investment Co., Ltd., is a wholly state-owned company approved by the former Xigaze Prefectural Committee and Administrative Office. It was registered and established in July 2013, and was renamed Xigaze Everest Urban Investment Development Group Co., Ltd. with the approval of the Shigatse Municipal Party Committee and Municipal Government in February 2017. The company’s current registered capital is 2625.8878 million yuan (including cash investment of 80.227 million yuan, and physical investment of 182558.05 Ten thousand yuan).

“The company adheres to the corporate mission of “creating value and wealth, to serve the urban economic construction and development of Shigatse as its own responsibility, with the goal of becoming a stronger and better and larger state-owned enterprises, independent management, independent accounting, participating in all aspects of urban construction, and undertaking urban infrastructure construction and operation projects.

       “Mainly engaged in the construction, operation and management of urban infrastructure; comprehensive real estate development; primary land development; operation of various building materials; leasing industry; tourism development, hotel operation, cultural media operation; development and operation of characteristic agricultural products; seedling operation and greening projects Undertake; investment, financing, financial management and other businesses.

       “After 7 years of development and growth, the company has begun to take shape. The company has a comprehensive management department, a human resources department, a party building propaganda department, a financial management department, an investment and financing department, a production management department, a strategic development department, and a risk control audit department. There are 11 functional departments of the Disciplinary Inspection and Supervision Department, the Office of the Board of Directors, and the General Engineering Office. There are currently 40 affiliated companies, including 20 wholly-owned subsidiaries, 13 holding companies, and 7 share-holding companies. As of the end of 2018, the total number of employees in the company reached 1,514 (672 employees and 842 retired), and the company’s total assets were 7.519 billion yuan.”

It now awards contracts for the demolition and rebuilding of urban slums in Shigatse where Tibetans from the countryside have led a precarious existence without hukou household registration papers. It is not yet on a scale akin to the two Lhasa based corporations, but could grow fast if the urban densification of Shigatse is, as planned, now a high priority, and Everest is just down the road (actually it is 343 kms by road).

Tibet University School of Marxism strategising intensification of development. Source: Tibet Party School Journal (Tibet Development Forum) 西藏发展论坛2 02 0 年第6 期( 总第1 7 8 期)


  1. Wang Wei. Research on the Construction and Measurement of the Evaluation System of my country’s High-quality Economic Development, Ningxia Social Sciences, 2020, (06): 82-92.
  2. Tang Tianwei, Cao Qinghua, Zheng Zhengwen. The connotation and characteristics of the modernization of local government governance: Symptoms and their measurement index system, Chinese Administration, 2014, (10): 46-50.

[2] Haishao Pang et al., Suzhi Education and General Education in China, ECNU Review of Education 2020, Vol. 3(2) 380–395

[3] Xiaoling Mo, et al, Parent-child attachment and good behavior habits among Chinese children: Chain mediation effect of parental involvement and psychological Suzhi, PLOS ONE | January 6, 2021

[4] Wenwen Qin,  (Southwest Minzu Institute, Southwest Minzu University Chengdu), Human Capital Structure and High-Quality Development: An Empirical Study,  2020 7th International Conference on Behavioural and Social Computing, Bournemouth, UK.

[5] Xinhuan HUANG; Binqing CAI; Yalin LI, Evaluation Index System and Measurement of High-quality Development in China., Revista de Cercetare si Interventie Sociala. mar2020, Vol. 68, p163-178.

[6] Mengchun Zhang And Dongping Fang, A cognitive analysis of why Chinese scaffolders do not use safety harnesses in construction, Construction Management and Economics, 2013, Vol. 31, No. 3, 207–222,


Blog five in a series documenting China’s path to urbanising Tibet, depopulating the highlands, converting exnomads into infrastructure construction workers 5/5


The most favoured construction corporations in Tibet build the highways, airports, railways, bridges, hydro dams. Wherever concrete and steel are needed, they are there. They also build cities, such as the entire city block occupied by the Lhasa Municipal Government, proudly built by Tibet Construction Engineering Building Materials Group, and featured on their splash page.

Lhasa Municipality administration cantonment, built by Tibet Construction Engineering Group

All of the construction corporations based in Tibet Autonomous Region are now proliferating subsidiaries to financialise their wealth, to make their money work harder than ever. Before branching out into banking, lending, securities and the whole gamut of financialisation, how did these companies first make their fortunes?

author is at U Michigan;

All were in prime position to profit from real estate. “Although land cannot be sold, local governments can lease time-limited rights for “land transfer fees” that go directly to local coffers. Nationwide, land-related proceeds ballooned from 51 billion Yuan in 1999 to an estimated 3.2 trillion Yuan in 2012. This spawned an extremely lucrative market in real estate, where developers readily offered officeholders large kickbacks in exchange for prized parcels of land. Although the physical expanse of Chinese infrastructure is dazzling, the way it was financed is deeply troubling. Funds for these projects were funneled through a proliferation of non-transparent “investment vehicles” (rongzi pingtai), shell companies set up by local governments and agencies to borrow loans.”[1]

The municipalisation of first Lhasa prefecture, then Shigatse and Shannan (Lhoka), contributed greatly to this real estate bonanza. Municipal governments had the power to commandeer farmland at rural prices, pass it on to their state owned construction companies to build urban infrastructure and profit enormously from the jump in land value.

China may be entering a new era, but the entrenched older ways of concentrating wealth in a few hands persist. Pushing rural Tibetans off their pastures and into peri-urban villages may further concentrate those concentrated rich lists. Villagisation and  municipalisation go together.[2] Villagisation gets rural Tibetans off their lands and into the construction workforce, while municipalisation gets land into the hands of real estate companies who then employ exnomads as casual construction labourers.

Tibet Construction Engineering Corp splash page

Villagisation is state power concentrating rural folk into strategic hamlets, for strategic purposes. It relies on compulsion and, if necessary force; the opposite of the free flows of labour and other factors of production of the neoliberal ideal, where the invisible hand of the market brings all factors together at the sweet spot of convergence.

China’s rise to prosperity and wealth concentration is based on that neoliberal model of free flow, yet it also relies on coercion and compulsion, first by displacing nomads from their pastures, then by enrolling them in construction industry skills training.

China manages to be both neoliberal and dirigiste, full of Five-Year Plans that talk of the “decisive” role of markets. China’s state capitalism is crony capitalism, guaranteeing in advance that the contracts go to a named list of contractors. China’s highly publicised crackdowns on corruption may have eliminated rivals within the party, but have not at all eliminated corruption. Contradictions abound.

Tibet Construction Engineering Group splash page


Does this mean the fast growing cities of Tibet will be populated by Tibetans? Do the Tibetan construction workers who build the cities have the right to stay in the cities they build?

Across China, one of the most powerful ways of maintaining the concentration of wealth is the ongoing disempowerment of migrant workers, due to the hukou household registration system. Anyone born in the countryside is permanently registered as residing there, not in a town or city, and may be employed in urban construction work only as a migrant worker, who must leave if work runs out, and may not bring family to town, since rural hukou registration entitles your children only to schooling in the home rural area, likewise elderly parents can’t obtain health care in town, only in their registered hukou district. Hukou splits families. Hukou is cruel. Hukou perpetuates inequality.

For decades, economists have urged China to abandon the hukou system, yet it persists. It does get tweaked. Several years ago, emigrant workers coming to Tibet from other provinces were explicitly permitted to change to a TAR hukou, and then change back when they returned to their home province. Tibetans have nothing like such flexibility.

More recently, after so many years of pressure, central leaders announced rural migrants may, at last, be allowed to apply for urban hukou, but only in cities under three million population. The bigger cities can continue to regard rural migrants with contempt.

China’s many ghost cities do eventually fill with buyers of apartment shells hoping to get gloriously rich


If urban construction in Tibet takes off, as planned, catching up with the rate of construction almost everywhere else in China, who will live in these growing cities targeted in the 14th Plan: Lhasa, Shigatse and Tsethang, the city of Lhoka/Shannan? Will Tibetans live in the apartment tower blocks they built? Will migrants flood in? Will mass domestic tourism expand, as planned, attracting many more Han settlers doing hospitality work?

The 14th Plan runs through 2025. Even if the Plan materialises, it will take time before there is a mass mobilisation of rural Tibetans, trained in urban construction skills. In the short-term, there is no clear answer to these questions; Tibetans are not being bundled en masse off the streets and into internment camps, as in Xinjiang. Yet the acceleration of Tibet is the clear trend, with plenty of Beijing finance to ensure the planned infrastructure is built. Beijing’s return on investment may be diminishing, but, as usual, political fears of security threats outweigh economic rationality.

Tibet Construction Engineering Corp splash page

On official figures, the 2019 population of Lhasa Municipality was 721,000, up from 475,000 20 years earlier; Shigatse Municipality 800,000, up from 635,000 in 2000; and Lhoka/Shannan 383,000, up from 318,000.[3] These numbers do not include the military garrisons, or the “floating population” of migrants. According to the 2020 TAR Statistical Yearbook the total population was 3.5 million, with a birth rate of 14.6 babies born each year per 1000 people, down from 26 in 1990, a decline in birth rate similar to the worldwide trend of demographic transition.

The three cities named as highest priority growth targets in the TAR 14th Plan are the three cities of southern Tibet closest to the borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan. The two adjacent municipalities (formerly prefectures) of Shigatse and Shannan (Lhoka) are front and centre of China’s southern flank facing South Asia  They are now hubs of a new growth zone in TAR.

Tibet Construction Engineering Corp splash page


A major driver of the intensification of construction is the border with South Asian countries. China has been moving troops, weapons and supporting logistics to border districts, implanting high altitude facilities ready for power projection and conflict, at many points along the Himalayan border. This has been much publicised.

source: Claude Arpi

Less publicity has focussed on the fast construction of model border villages, designed to impress the neglected pahari  hill folk across the borders in the Indian, Nepalese and Bhutanese Himalayas.

The new border villages are at high altitude, sometimes snowed in, enduring long, cold winters. China’s strategy is to standardise construction as much as possible, relying on prefabricated panels that can be quickly bolted together, rather than slow and labour-intensive timber frames, or traditional stone houses.

Production and distribution of prefab kits requires logistic hubs able to get gear to site reliably, along a lengthy border.. Of the 3488 kms of the India-China border, roughly half is in these two municipalities, plus the entire 1389 kms of China-Nepal border, and the 477 kms of China-Bhutan border. Altogether, over 3000 kms of border fringing  Shigatse and Lhoka.

If that length is to be populated with exemplary modern border villages that excite longing and envy among all who see them, that’s  a lot of construction to be done in a hurry, in the short seasonal window, at altitude. Prefab is the solution.

Hauling concrete panels great distances, over second class roads, is heavy work requiring a lot of fuel. Reducing the weight of the panels without losing the strength of concrete reinforced with steel rebar can be done, by forcing bubbles into the wet concrete. Those bubbles have to hold their place while the concrete sets hard, so the bubbles need special characteristics. The technology of bubbling concrete relies on a byproduct of an industry China is keen to intensify in Tibet, the slaughter of yaks, sheep and goats in centralised abattoirs located in “livestock industry demonstration parks” China is building in many Tibetan areas, usually with a livestock fattening feedlot attached.

Industrial scale slaughter produces lots of blood, which has few uses in modern agribusiness, but is the raw material for chemical processing to bubble concrete and make lightweight panels suitable for longhaul transport.


Taken together, China’s latest announced interventions in TAR add up to several paradoxes.

If, as the State Council’s 2021 White Paper on Tibet announces, border areas adjacent to the Himalayan societies of South Asia are to be depopulated, and made into a chain of border security villages, who will live in those villages?

If, as the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan says, all areas above the 4800m contour line are being rapidly depopulated, does this leave upper Tibet a free fire zone for the military’s war games? In addition to the Chang Tang in the north, officially dedicated now to wildlife, lacking all human presence, south of the Chang Tang is a huge area bordering India Ladakh, where most of the recent China-India border clashes have occurred. The Tibetans of the entire prefecture of Ngari (Ali in Chinese) will be removed to lower altitudes and closer proximity to growing urban centres, plus the huge westernmost county of Shigatse “municipality”, which remains part of the border security village construction program.

It could be that White Papers, despite sounding authoritative, don’t mean much; and that the 14th Five-Year Plan is full of targets, which will not materialise. Plenty of previous Five-Year Plans, full of promises to create “pillar industries” in Tibet fell far short.

If, as planned, the TAR population is being concentrated into a much smaller area, does this mean they will now fill the fast-growing cities of TAR? Or will accelerated urbanisation attract settlers from lowland provinces? That needs much more investigation.

Until now, the steady displacement of rural Tibetans has culminated in settlement on urban fringes, in straight line villages of concrete boxes, with little for the relocated to do, their subsistence supported by officially issued rations. As such settlements have proliferated, on the outskirts of so many towns across the Tibetan Plateau, sometimes going vertical, into apartment towers with even less space for livestock producers to keep any animals at all, there has been much criticism. Transitioning Tibetans from useful to useless is not progress.

In recent years, peri-urban settlements came with vague official language about vocational education, but in reality these Tibetans were simply parked someplace, surplus to requirements, with no way back to their lands, and no way forward into new modes of production and income. They have been, in every sense, peripheral, their old life cancelled, with no new life path ahead. Wasted lives.

Now China, perhaps in response to those critiques, announces it has a plan to mobilise the displaced, some now employed by the state as national park rangers enforcing further ongoing displacements; many more mobilised into the urban construction industry.

While China’s plans for TAR require concrete all over the place, in bridges, tunnels, rail tracks, highways, tollroads, power grid footings, hydro dams, they all head into cities. The infrastructure being built across Tibet is a network of commodity flows that ensure growing cities get the electricity, water and transport connections they need in order to grow, as cities. So the core paradox, if the cities of Ȗ-Tsang southern Tibet do, as planned, grow fast, is who will populate those cities?

Will the displaced Tibetans parked on urban fringes become city folk, with urban hukou registration? Will the cities grow outward to envelop the current line villages on the outskirts? Or is there a real likelihood that the cities will fill with emigrant Han, drawn by tourism industry opportunities to get rich?

There is also the possibility that, as commanded and financed by Beijing, expanded cities will be built, endless blocks of apartment towers, that stand empty. Such ghost towns have been built all over China, and attracted much attention. Yet, over time, most of those ghost towns did fill, as families decided to emigrate, in the hope of new opportunities. Build it and they will come, as real estate speculators have long said.  The state-led developmentalists model pays state owned construction companies to build those concrete apartment blocks as external skins lacking fittings and internal walls, which are up to each apartment buyer to complete.

This is a quite unsatisfactory way to end a long blog, with more questions than we began with.

We can, however, be confident that the worst fears of the Tibetan diaspora are not about to come true. “Population transfer” of millions of Han shipped to Tibet has always been the great fear, as if China could readily shunt masses to the frontiers, and make them stay. That did not happen in Ȗ-Tsang, despite official attempts at setting up intensive state farms, and growing crops suited to concentrated production.

Mass population transfer to TAR didn’t happen when China was poor and people were motivated to start afresh, because altitude, climate and frigidity ruled out peasant production with Chinese characteristics. Now that China is much richer, there are few Han yearning to live in Tibet, which is like a foreign country to them, in every way, starting with every breath of thin air.

Given the way China populated Xinjiang with many millions of Han, and the older history of making Sichuan and Yunnan Chinese, the fear of population transfer was grounded in reality; yet in TAR it failed.

However, China current plans for new airports, hotels, tourist attractions and tour circuits that make all of TAR, from Kailash in the far west to Chamdo and Nyingtri in eastern TAR, do suggest a huge expansion in tourism is coming. That’s for a future blog.

This long blogroll sheds light on a debate triggered in September 2020 likening Tibet to Xinjiang, focussing on clearances of rural folk from their land, and into state programs of labour mobilisation. That debate has been intense, yet missed delving into key Chinese documents that reveal China’s actual plans.

What is clear from a close look at the TAR 14th Five-Year Plan 2021 to 2025, the 2021 State Council White Paper on Tibet and the 2021 TAR construction workforce policy is that:

  • Tibet is not Xinjiang, However, Tibetans and Uighurs alike are objects of Han racist contempt, discrimination and punishment for resisting assimilation.
  • China has serious intentions of accelerating urban construction throughout central Tibet, Ȗ-Tsang, by villagising large numbers of nomads away from their pastures and into urban construction training and employment.
  • In Xinjiang the pace of compulsory assimilation is top speed, reliant on coercion and violence. In Tibet assimilation is also the goal, but the strategy is a combination of coercion and incentivisation. China sees both nationalities as backward tribes who inexplicably resist the obvious magnificence of Chinese civilisation and the superiority of the Chinese Communist Party.
  • Because the pace of coercive assimilation is slower, reliant on pull as well as push, there is time to alert the world, and to alert Tibetans who may be tempted by utopian get-rich promises to abandon customary connections and get in to the construction industry.
source: Council on Foreign Relations

[1] Yuen Yuen Ang, China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 62

[2] Logan A. Hennessy. Re-Placing Indigenous Territory: Villagization and the Transformation of Amerindian Environments Under “Cooperative Socialism” in Guyana, Annals of the Association of American Geographers.2013, 103(5):1242-1265;

Castela Tiago,  The Production Of Colonial Space In State Theory : Portugal’s Wartime Villagization, 1961–1974, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review.2018,  30(1):64-65; International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE)

[3] TAR Statistical Yearbook 2020, table 3-3


China prepares Tibetans for tightly disciplined bullshit jobs in distant cities.

Blog one of four on realities of the labour market for displaced Tibetans

If Tibetans are catapulted out of their pastures, into urban apartments and migration to big cities, how will they fare? What awaits them in the city job market? If you want the latest statistics on China’s labour transfer program in Tibet, go to blog four below. If you want the wider context, read on.

upskilling Tibetans to shovel concrete


As China seeks to mobilise and accelerate Tibetan lives, how can Tibetans assess their prospects? The smart phones almost all Tibetans have tell them opportunity is knocking, a new era of wealth accumulation beckons, as long as you are adventurous, and willing to move to where the entrepreneurial openings are. If you move to the city, work hard, leave family behind, take risks, you too can join the rich list.

Before you plunge into the sea of business, you must first learn to swim. This means fluency in Chinese, and training in vocational skills, which is increasingly available from local governments.

Before you succeed, you must be willing to eat bitterness, live frugally, learn to save, and resist clan demands to share, learn to network and cultivate the trust of those who can help you, and then you will succeed. To use a Maoist slogan now making a comeback: dare the struggle, dare to win.

You may need to reinvent yourself more than once, before you find that niche that is your sweet spot, where you can establish your brand. You may have to migrate more than once, to bigger and bigger cities where distance from kin is a blessing, old concepts of karma and consequences fade, you become your own master.

Can you pass as Han? All the better. Are you a networker? Can you cultivate a powerful patron? Do you know how and when to give gifts, and prove your trustworthiness?

When you succeed, everything is possible. People will want to know you, including officials. You can build a villa, travel, go anywhere, become a benefactor to your hometown.[1] Everything is consumable. China is a world unto itself, with not only the high-pressure cities but the vast idyllic primordial landscapes of Tibet as the antidote to urban stress.

The success that awaits you makes the years of discipline worthwhile. All those years, starting early in childhood, urged on by your teachers and parents, of obsessive focus on memorising the right answers, will eventually pay off. There are winners, and they get to be wealthy and super-wealthy, magnetising more and more wealth and emulation.

”The second generation of rural entrepreneurs, who set up businesses in the first two decades of the 21st century, have begun to identify as a social group that is clearly distinct from the rest of the local population. Intentional depersonalisation of social relationships…. this growing social differentiation parallels shifts in the geographical basis of identity, as rural entrepreneurs start to identify more with a nationally defined social community.”

Don’t worry about burnout, only the weak burn out, and they deserve contempt. They lie flat, and say that’s OK.


For decades now, Chinese have been told these times are the best in China’s history, the greatest opportunity ever to get gloriously rich. Hence the endless work, plunging into the sea of enterprise, eating bitterness. Now a new generation is saying: enough, we are indeed wealthy as our hard-working ancestors never were. So what is life for? Can we relax, and look around?

The more the party-state and corporate bosses push their prosperity gospel, the more a double movement swings back against it. A new Han generation sees the concentration of wealth, the worship of billionaires, the endless pressure to consume, and decide on a simpler and more authentic life, even if they are held in contempt by those committed to the rat-race. Even if, for men, a lack of capital means a lack of opportunity to marry, still many are drawn to drop out, do their own thing, take life as it comes, opt out of the relentless march to mastery as an individual as well as national mission.

If others judge them as failures, losers, let them. In fact don’t wait to be labelled a deadbeat, announce it yourself: I’m lying flat, so be it. Embrace the stereotyping, make it your own.

Go write poetry, or wander the land, or make art, be true to yourself, find ways of expressing yourself, find the Way, so much better than a meaningless job in a corporation that works you 996 yet has no loyalty to you at all should you drop from exhaustion.

Not only are you expected to do nothing other than work, eat and sleep, but you also need to cultivate a network if you expect to get ahead, and that too is exhausting. It’s not just a question of finding the right patron, offering the right gifts, the rituals of establishing emotional bonds with your patron, establishing trustworthiness, is extremely time consuming as well as expensive.

On popular media such as weibo, this is a major reason for opting out: “For promotion, I will not engage in interpersonal relations, nor will I flatter anyone to get opportunities, nor will I treat guests or give gifts to achieve my goals, so I simply gave up and no longer think that promotion or becoming an official is a necessity in my life. Especially the fate of those corrupt officials is admirable. I can only do my job well. Although there is no glory and wealth, but live cleanly, live real, not vanity, not hypocrisy.”

Better to lie flat, 躺平 tang ping, let the world know you are done competing. If others accuse you of passivity, fatalism, even of being Buddhist, so be it. Lying flat is a fairly recent buzzword, but its meaning is not so new. This stance of passive acceptance of whatever arises used to be called Buddhist “佛系” fu xi, with similar connotations of fatalistic equanimity as the alternative to endless competition and marketisation of all aspects of life.

As long as slacking is just a choice of a smallish number of well-educated youths, the party-state is not worried, indulgently regarding it as a fad, a gap year break before getting back to the grind. But if it takes off, and sheds its self-critical negative evaluation, official China may not be so tolerant.

This is not at all the onward and upward mission of the party-state, which demands everyone mobilise and discipline the self to succeed. Nor is it the mission of the corporations that promote consumption as the purpose of life. Most definitely it is not the mission of the education system, that relentlessly teaches exam success as the sole gateway to life. So it is also not the mission of your parents, who only want you to be a winner, and themselves made many sacrifices so you would cram rote fact learning round the clock, in order to succeed.

For some who do lie flat, art beckons; for some the nomadland of wandering a vast and varied China with hinterlands that belong to a different world. Having paused, there is a sense of discovering an authentic self, which means taking life as it comes, finding ways to express an individuality that is more than advertising an identity made by consumer decisions. To lie flat allows in the light, fresh perspectives, self-discovery, self as method. That’s better than endlessly rolling round and round going nowhere. A manifesto of taking life lying flat is neither negative, nor defeatist.

As this movement picks up, is glamourised by elite media such as Sixth Tone and The Paper and Bilibili, the party-state will sternly remind all they must play their part in China’s great rejuvenation.  Official media celebrating the 2021 centenary of China’s communist party demand endless, arduous struggle for mastery: “We will certainly make greater contributions to the progress of human civilization and the development of world socialism, and make this just and promising cause shine more brilliantly in generate!”


The video streaming platform Bilibili, favourite of the young, shamelessly badged a package of short videos on women artists and male adventurers, as a series all about lying flat to do your thing. Each five-minute episode followed the same format: a 40 second teaser to hook your interest, an animated title sequence of flopping onto a sofa in trackpants, then the doco.

“’Riding the massive wave of videolization, we aim to further grow our mindshare among the Gen Z+ demographic as the premium destination for video-based content,” said Bilibili chairman and CEO Rui Chen in a statement.” Bilibili makes much of its profit from selling user data to advertisers, and much as an e-commerce platform. Bilibili has 223 million users each month, including 60 million who use it every day. The hunger for new content, for new “this could be your life” segments is inexorable. Lying flat is fast becoming a new lifestyle choice packaged for consumption, to be copied, a new cool destination with lots of accoutrements you can buy.

Authenticity can be marketized. Lying flat can be appropriated, remade as the next cool lifestyle fad.

If you live in a Western country, this might sound familiar. Capitalist creative destruction is always on the lookout for the next big thing, the next gimmick or craze, viral hit or meme, to co-opt for the greater advantage of the brand. Worship of disruptive tech billionaires? Mining website users for data? Surveillance by smart phone apps? Monetising eyeballs? Influencers galore?  If all this sounds all too familiar, the most obvious conclusion would be that, despite China’s quarrels with America, China has emulated any and every capitalist move you can think of, even including black rap culture and hyper saturated sneakers. And you’d be right, only China has gone further, much further than the US. This is especially evident in the penetration of fintech and e-commerce and delivery of what you buy online. Now it’s the US that struggles to keep up.

The result is ferocious competition, even where no competition is needed. Historian Peter Perdue:
“Chinese people struggle to find moral guidance in a world of rapacious capitalism, unconstrained by rule of law or moral norms. Chinese endorsed cowboy capitalism of the most corrupt, environmentally destructive kind. Like all of us, they struggle to restrain capitalist greed with moral or legal norms; many of them, amazingly enough, have turned to Christianity for answers, but others search for guidance in Buddhism, Daoism, popular cults, and even Confucius. Where is the unified moral community of the past, if it ever existed, to be found?”

So it’s hardly surprising more and more young adults opt out, lie flat, and with mock self-deprecation call themselves deadbeat failures, much as Tibetans call themselves lazy. It means accepting you will always have a mediocre social credit rating, in a system elaborately designed to rate and reward those who take the corporate and party-state agendas as their own. It means accepting you will be officially classified as untrustworthy.


The trope of lying flat didn’t start out as a positive alternative to the chicken blood force-fed childhood so many endure, in obedience to ambitious parents. It began as an expression of exhaustion and despair, at the cram schooling of childhood and the 996 work culture ahead. It began with teenagers struggling to make sense of the endless success-focussed discipline imposed by tiger mothers, who invariably said: “this is for your own good.” When it is not only the party-state but also your mom and dad instructing you to be always obedient, how to process that? There’s no escape.

The upside of opting out is living in the present, not in endlessly deferred gratifications. Increasingly, popular media in China acknowledge the upsides of becoming a slacker.

A further upside is declining to have your mind endlessly mined for data, not getting hooked by influencers, not becoming the product online platforms sell to advertisers.

boyz 2 men, boosted by an injection of rooster blood

The turn from despair to celebration, from losing the race to winning freedom, is the birth of a counterculture. Perhaps the surest sign of the emergence of a counterculture is that is has a culture hero, whose life story as well as his analysis of this moment add up to a positive role model.

Xiang Biao, a sociologist who has specialised in the effects of migration within and from contemporary China to the world, is the exemplary poster child for the new lie flat ethos. Xiang Biao’s cv reads like the sort of success story chicken blood mothers urge their children to emulate. He is a professor in Oxford, having grown up in regional China, graduating from Peking University, and he has a big following.

Yet he in no way positions himself as leader of a movement; instead championing the individual journey of self-discovery every inside roller traverses. Less than a generation older than his many Han slacker followers, he defers to their individual quest for authenticity as a path that needs no validation from him. He is supportive, encouraging and a source of critiquing the hypercompetitive anxieties of today’s China, that draws on his familiarity with both Chinese and Western culture theory.

Xiang Biao (or in the Anglo system Biao Xiang, putting the family name last) is the classic insider outsider, a genial critic of the accelerating speed of new era China, able to present his analyses within China and worldwide. As professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, and director of the equally prestigious Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, he is at the apex of what every Chinese tiger mother dreams her son will accomplish, yet he has no Wikipedia page.


A recent book length interview with him is a best seller in China, giving him opportunity to do a participant observer ethnography of today’s China and why, despite such success, it spins faster and faster, like a gyroscope that must twirl at top speed, or topple. His metaphor.

Such critiques are not unique in today’s China. Critiquing the excesses of wealth concentration and capitalist exploitation of workers is the hallmark of the highly influential New Left academics who somehow always end up arguing for China’s uniqueness, continuity, stable identity and the need for s strong state that regulates capitalism’s booms and busts. So many of the New Left, many of them much more famous than Xiang Biao in China and worldwide, end up justifying CCP rule as a historic necessity, and proof of the superiority of Chinese characteristics.

Xiang Biao is less included to such grand narratives, more interested in ethnography of the present moment, more attuned to what the flatlining slackers are up to. His youthful looks, acute critiques and academic cred have made him into a meme, a comic book character who illuminates why all those dead-end bullshit jobs exist in China, monopolising the waking hours of the new precariat of urban China, doing exactly the low paid gigs Tibetans are now being urged into.


Xiang Biao’s 15 seconds of fame as a comic strip is for a reason: he nails why and how China exploits its young while forever dangling the mirage of success if only you keep working for the man. China has not just entered global culture, it leads it. If we want to see the future of modernity, look at China, the pace setter.

In itself, that is a good reason for Tibetans scattered in global diaspora to notice the prevalence of gig economy jobs in urban life, whatever your city. Exiled Tibetans sans papiers in many cities, awaiting a chance to register as asylum seekers, also must accept underpaid underclass bullshit jobs too, until they get a toehold. Being down and out in Jackson Heights or Paris or Shanghai is being down and out.

cataloguing some of the many bullshit jobs prevalent in China, graphics by Beijing based artist Krish Ragav

Yet it is this world of glam promise and endlessly repetitive, often dangerous, precariat work that rural Tibetans are being lured into, as well as being coerced into. This has little of the drama of forced labour in Xinjiang, of reconditioned Uighurs transferred from indoctrination incarceration to the factory next door. In Tibet, the process is more patchy, piecemeal and reliant on the seductions of urban life, the illusions of freedom to find your own niche, only to find yourself delivering pizza, dodging heavy traffic.

Tibetans attracted by the promise of urban modernity need to know where this ends up, in entry level precarity. Who can tell them? Who better than the Tibetan underclass in Delhi, Paris, Antwerp, London or New York?

In short, what Xiang Biao does is to reintroduce the Marxist concept of class. Since China calls itself Marxist, this is a deep irony. The last thing the party-state needs is a Marxist critique of how wealth concentration is built on all those service sector gig workers doing their bullshit jobs until they drop from exhaustion.

Yet his critique is in no way confrontational, challenging the party-state. It is reflective and personal, a story arising from his own experience, starting as a student entering university in 1990, a year central leaders saw as imperative to instil discipline by sending all new students off to military bootcamp. There Xiang Biao discovered the deep bonds of teamwork, a good start. As Xiang Biao puts it: “only if you protect one another will you survive, so you have to coordinate your actions and create an emotional desire to live or die together.’

So his hit book of 2020 is tellingly titled Self as Method.[2] Fortunately, much is now available in English translation. Some quotes: “Truly, not letting go is a problem for me, a huge obstacle in my research.  If you don’t let up, and stubbornly push your thoughts deeper, then you don’t let your mind wander, which can wind up limiting your creativity.

As a sociology student at Peking University (Beida) 30 years ago he wrote a polite but pointed critique of “older professors who had been there forever, and had little understanding of society, and my feeling was that they were not interested in what was happening in society.” To his surprise, this was taken seriously. A pattern was set: understand closely what is happening in society, and critique those who fail to notice reality. It sounds so simple: why don’t more do it?


Xiang Biao emerged from these formative years with a deep sympathy for “the masses” the party-state claims to represent; yet treat as an abstraction they don’t wish to know about much. He is a good listener. His focus is on the marginal, the migrants, the outsiders. He retains a youthful enthusiasm and a reflective capacity to see underlying patterns, systemic inequalities, and a quiet way of speaking truth to power. In many ways he resembles Anand Giriharidas or Zeynep Tufekci, prophets for these times.

Being from Zhejiang Wenzhou also gave Xiang Biao an early start. Wenzhou is famous for having taken to entrepreneurialism quickly, as soon as Deng Xiaoping, in 1992, said it was OK to get gloriously rich. People from Wenzhou, and Zhejiang province in China’s southeast, migrated to wherever they saw opportunity, including establishing a colony in a Beijing suburb, which is where Xiang Biao spent most of his time as a Beida undergrad, doing fieldwork and skipping class. He saw up close both the promise of capitalist enterprise, and its downsides, resulting in the bullshit jobs so many young Han end up in.

As China prospered, and wealth concentration grew, entrepreneurial Wenzhou turned strongly to religion, especially Christianity[3], with its emphasis on public morality. Eventually, in the new era that began 2012, Wenzhou Christians were punished, their churches closed or demolished, for threatening the party-state’s monopoly of loyalty.

So Xiang Biao was an early witness to all of this, and an early adopter of the need for morality in public life, to balance the rush to get rich, heedless of consequences. As a Beida student he inherited the agenda of China’s precommunist youthful revolutionaries of May Fourth, 1919, who demanded a China governed by Mr Science and Mr Democracy.  To that he added a Mr New Morality. This is part of his backstory, as he says in Self as Method: “Everyone had always said that the May 4th spirit at Beida was basically about “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy,” but I said that there was a third figure, called “Mr. Morality,” or “Mr. New Morality.”   I thought the moral question was very important, and should not be forgotten.  At the same time, I also wanted to stress that morality should not be like a hat that we put on our head, a mere protective cover over our lives.  For today’s morality we need to hold the hat in our hands and take a good look at it.  We can’t see the hat on our head, even if we can feel its existence, but we don’t know its shape or its colour, and in the same way, if we don’t know where our morality comes from, and simply follow it unthinkingly, then we are just following along blindly. I truly felt that morality should be the result of empirical observation and analysis, and not just sloppy dogmatism.”

Migration remained the focus of his academic work, both migrants from rural China coming to city factories for work; and Chinese emigrating abroad in search of opportunities, as so many from Wenzhou have done. In a world of nation-states, internal and international migrants are quite different categories, but Xiang Biao reminds us they are much the same, driven by the same hopes and fears, experiencing the same discriminations, exclusions and disappointments. Little wonder he was alert to the ruthless ways the dominant big corporations generated all those bullshit jobs that in turn led to the lying flat counterculture of refusal.

Xi Jinping Thought is full of moral prescriptions and injunctions, but Xiang Biao says: “Morality where you have no choice is immoral, as is morality that is forced on you, because when I force my morality on you, it means that I am thoroughly denying your humanity at an implicit level, and that if you don’t accept my morality, then in my eyes you are not a person.”

Xiang Biao’s reflections, in this Self as Method bildungsroman, attune him to what is to be gained by not sticking to the script of your tiger parents or wolf warrior party-state: “Things that have truly changed history, whether we are talking about history writ large or your own personal history, are often the result of following your impulses.  Plans based on historical calculations often wind up not having much of an impact.  This is sort of a miraculous thing about life.  It surprises you, it makes you feel like life and history have come alive, it gives opportunities for young people.”

Xiang Biao not only validates those who drop out and lie flat after discovering that no matter how hard they work, precarity is the only outcome, he makes them the wave of the future. He turns their flattened acceptance of the loser label into a positive, a turn towards the authentic life. He nudges his audience towards a positive evaluation of their refusal to endlessly compete, into a self-actualisation, a personal liberation, becoming fully human, no longer just a consumer. So this gawky academic, who turns 50 in 2022, has become a hero to the young who are gradually making a counterculture.

[1] Guiheux, Gilles. 2012. “Chinese Socialist Heroes: from Workers to Entrepreneurs.” In Florence, Eric, and Pierre Defraigne, Towards a New Development Paradigm in Twenty-First Century China. Economy, Society and Politics, Abingdon: Routledge, 131-142.

[2] 项飙, 吴琦, 把自己作为方法–与项飙谈话, Dandu/Shanghai, Wenyi chubanshe, 2020.

[3] Nanlai Cao, Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, Stanford, 2010


Blog two of three on realities of China’s labour market for displaced Tibetans

China is urbanising fast, including in Tibet. From a distance, out on the open range, urban life can look tempting. Up close it’s a relentless hyper-competitive race.

China’s big consumer brands are in constant need of heroes, nudgers, validators, influencers or, as they are called in China KOLs -Key Opinion Leaders. The biggest brands snap KOLs up, exploit them and spit them out. What could be better marketing than a bright young Oxford prof who is a byword for authenticity, being true to yourself, keeping it real?

Little likelihood Xiang Biao would do that. izsHis emergence as a culture hero is based on decades of careful fieldwork, listening attentively to the migrant workers, gradually discovering that the kind of mobility now meant to include even remote Tibetans, has become the defining characteristic of contemporary China.


Xiang Biao illustrates this by comparing the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the Covid pandemic of 2020. In 2003 it was the rural migrants flocking to city work who were the mobile ones, who had no choice but to return to their villages when their work on urban construction sites was shut down, depriving them not only of income but a place to sleep, as they often lived on site. By 2020 the number of migrant workers had grown greatly, but the whole society had bought the idea that mobility is the key to success, and China had become “hypermobile.” This, Xiao reminds us, is a result of China’s transition to an economy based not on farming or factories but services, and the innumerable gig economy jobs done by mobile precariat workers.

In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, although migrant workers had little choice but to return to home villages, taking SARS infections with them, China’s ambivalence about mobility meant migrant workers were stigmatised as spreaders. In 2003 the migrants went home; in 2020 they were locked down, in place. In 2020, China had perfected the grid management it had pioneered in Tibet, then spread to Xinjiang, then established as a model applicable wherever needed, across China. Grid management meant suddenly and totally stopping the hypermobility of the workers, a strategy that did halt viral spread more effectively than the muddled response in most countries.

That made for a short, sharp break in hypermobility, and a quick return to the gig economy and its bullshit jobs, the dead ends after all those years of exam cramming and chicken blood transfusions. Now hypermobility is back, increasingly extending to Tibetans deemed surplus to rural production requirements, and precarity is back.

The precarity of the new urban underclass is baked into China’s state capitalism and the rise and rise of the billionaires whose fortunes rely on taking no responsibility as employers of the underclass. Precarity is more than no job security and lousy pay; it is also the lack of access to health care or education for your kids, if you are one of the 230 million Chinese living in cities but excluded from any right to city services because they remain registered under the hukou system as rural. The cruelty of the hukou household registration system has been den oinked for decades as a basic contradiction, in a country where urbanisation is promoted as the prime path to poverty alleviation, yet 230 million urban folks are systemically second class.

Since their work is insecure, with no employer provision of welfare or even sick leave, and they are not entitled to urban health care or schools, not surprisingly those stuck in bullshit jobs save as much as they can, their only safeguard if things go wrong.

It is those savings that are at the heart of the party-state’s most recent campaigns to foster a shift towards an economy driven by consumption rather than by official investments. If only the underclass could be persuaded to spend more, the macro-economists urge, has the potential to unleash a wave of spending that lifts all boats, but especially the fortunes of the fintech billionaires, who would benefit most. In today’s China, that’s a compelling argument for finally loosening or even abolishing hukou. “Granting rural-born migrant workers the right to settle permanently in cities could raise their consumption by 27%, even assuming no change in their wages or other conditions.”


China officially reveres Marx, champion of the downtrodden urban proletarian underclass struggle for social justice. In practice the ruling CCP elite is indistinguishable from the hyper-wealthy elite, and inequality keeps widening. Only a handful of academic sociologists dare talk about class, Xiang Biao among them.

Throughout the modern world we see the new underclass everywhere: the fast-food delivery riders, uber drivers.

But China has taken this further, inventing many more bullshit jobs than you might have imagined, such as Guinness Book of Records verifier, the guy you pay to stand in line for a seat in  a fashionable restaurant so you can then glide in and eat,  the arbitrageur of the coolest sneakers, the guy who collects dumped e-bikes and brings them back to where people want one to hop on to, the list goes on. There’s the woman who airbrushes online images to conform to censorship decrees, the tweeters paid to promote local destinations, the machine minders paid to maintain illusions of seamless automated efficiency.

Other cataloguers of bullshit jobs write about this, among them grunge punk music sceners chronicling the energies of underclass losers, a parallax China of wild creativity and avant-garde pioneers, whose music has by now been around for 25 years. “The idleness of China’s so-called “wasted youth,” kids who’d dropped out or were asked to drop out of the narrow path to money and success, led to a very particular kind of ferment — in art, in music, in writing. Beijing’s punk scene, especially the cluster of bands that formed around Scream Club in Haidian, were of this ilk, and Wuliao JunDui (The Bored Contingent) laid the foundations for an entire country’s punk underground out of sheer boredom.”

Some of the best chroniclers of the lie flat underclass are musicians and comics illustrators, such as Krish Raghav, whose graphics illustrate this blog (with permission). The creativity and musicality of the lying flats suggests there is more to them beyond refusal to conform to the norms of accumulation.

Withdrawing from the rat-race, opening to the authentic in nature, in quiet receptiveness, has much deeper roots in Chinese tradition, especially Taoism. Since China is at last rediscovering its cultural heritage, after a century of repudiation, this could be a promising basis for lying flat to grow into a counterculture. There is much more to Chinese tradition than the official party-state versions of Confucius and the Legalists.

Moving fast, yet bogged rigid

Blog threer of four on China’s labour market for displaced Tibetans

Lying flat is one of several metaphors used by the disillusioned young Han. Inside rolling and going Buddhist are equally popular. If only more young Chinese, disillusioned by the dead-end bullshit jobs, could discover what most Tibetans grow up with, that practicing Buddhism does not mean inert fatalism but an abiding inner joy and flexibility that comes from within.

The paradox of China’s prodigious economic growth, accompanied by a huge underclass going nowhere, bothers some in the West, who tend to see this as a contradiction, an indictment of a self-defined communist party that in reality runs an authoritarian system that concentrates wealth and makes it impossible for workers to organise.

In China this paradox remains paradoxical, a simultaneity of wealth and precarity, repletion and depletion, satiation and hunger. Some argue that this reflects the concerns of traditional Chinese medicine, extremes don’t cancel each other out, they co-exist. Depletion of vital energies is clearly problematic, requiring, for example, an injection of rooster blood to make a boy child into a little man. At the same time repletion, satiation, excessive indulgence are also problematic: “Repletions tend to be malfunctions that allow substances to become excessive, collecting and stagnating in one place.”[1]  China can be both newly rich and keep a huge underclass in perpetual precarity.

This is the world of intensive, escalating, unending competition Tibetans are asked and sometimes tempted to join, while others are thrown into it by labour training programs that send new workers to distant cities.


Can Tibetans succeed in this intensely competitive, Han-dominated society? Outside Tibet, analysts focus on compulsion, but there is as much pull as push, as rural Tibetans increasingly find life on the open range tedious, unrewarding, risky, cold, monotonous and lacking in the glamour available every time you open your phone.

Tibetans enter the urban job market at a discount. Their skills, fluency in standard Chinese, willingness to eat bitterness and work long hours are all devalued, simply for being Tibetan, a status declared on every identity card. Tibetans are not regarded as trustworthy as Han. Above all, Tibetans migrating to city work lack the networks that guarantee work and adequate pay, and tolerable working conditions, and prospects for job security and even a career path. Networking is far more important in China than in most countries, and Tibetans almost by definition are outsiders lacking the right connections, as soon as they leave their lands and clans.

Tibetans, once they leave home base, become urban gig workers, doing the dirty and dangerous work no-one else wants to do. Officially, this teaches them discipline, hygiene and all-round modernity, which eventually add up to civilisation. In official ideology, that is the necessary transition from rural to urban, outsiders to insiders., darkness to light, all these polar cliches in common official use.

The insiders who are actually going nowhere, just rolling around in endlessly repetitive bullshit jobs, are such a feature of contemporary China, there is much debate. China these days moves so fast, mobilises energies so successfully, brings together all the factors of production in enclaves of intensification, builds cities overnight, yet hundreds of millions scrape by just above the poverty line with no security, amid an ever-widening inequality. How is this possible, especially in a socialist state ruled by a communist party?


New era China, for all its speed, greed, accumulation, mobilisation and acceleration is in many ways stagnant, deeply reliant on endlessly available cheap labour, abundant in an overcrowded land, which stifles innovation. The new era insists everything must display Chinese characteristics, and that’s restricts equitable sharing of wealth, and holds back evolution.

The academic term for this, in use in China, is involution, signifying a highly productive economy that somehow is still stagnant, unable to fulfil its potential, too stuck in its ways to recognise it is in a trap. The pedigree of this concept, taken from social anthropology, is much discussed, including by Xiang Biao in the official media Sixth Tone.

When involution is translated into Chinese it comes alive. “The Chinese word, 内卷 neijuan, is made up of the characters for ‘inside’ and ‘rolling,’ and is more intuitively understood as something that spirals in on itself, a process that traps participants who know they won’t benefit from it.”  Ain’t nobody goin’ nowhere, just treading water, got no traction, spinning your wheels.

Neijuan is a meaningful meme, ranking in the top ten buzzwords of 2020, an ironic designation given its meaning, signifying almost the opposite of evolution. Neijuan means everyone is required to compete against each other, even when competition is unnecessary. Despite burgeoning prosperity, the system veers towards a Hobbesian “each against all” fetishization of competition as an end in itself. In any competition there can only be few winners, and many losers, the odds are against you. That’s neijuan.

As China is now so much wealthier, and scarcity a distant memory, how come competition is fiercer than ever? Surely competition is most intense when resources are scarce? This is the paradox no-one is free to explore. The ongoing intensive censorship of open debate stifles any attempt at understanding systemic structures that keep people competing. This may also be why an obscure academic concept -involution- is the nearest anyone can get to critiquing a system built on inequality.

“Involution has recently become a popular buzzword. Whether it’s takeout delivery drivers or computer programmers at big tech companies, they all complain that their work is “too involuted.” Or, when applying for a job at a bank or another such good company and there’s a written exam designed purely to test whether you beat the other applicants. It’s a kind of competition for the sake of competition, where the content might have absolutely nothing to do with the job. Afterward, people will mockingly describe the situation using the word involution.”

Competition for the sake of competition does serve a purpose. It makes the scramble for secure employment seem like an objective test, with a measurable outcome, a numerical guarantee that the system is meritocratic, in accord with managerial standards, conforming to the laws of social progress. In short, competition for the sake of competition confers status on those who administer the tests. It shows that China has mastered managerialism, and is at the forefront of global civilisation. The fact that those who must endlessly compete feel frustrated and even abused, is incidental.

China’s sociologists, Xiang Biao included, do try to find ways to talk about class, inequality and concentrations of wealth, without triggering the censors: “Single-minded market competition becoming a way of life, a fundamental method for organizing society, and a way of allocating resources could be what people mean with involution. First, of course, is market competition. But a lot of competition is not really market related. For example, when it comes to education, examinations are set by the state or the school. But they make exams look like market competition and have everyone participate in the game. Next, homogeneity is extremely important. One of the most important prerequisites of the involution is nondifferentiation: Everyone is focused on and living for the same goals. Otherwise, if you’re unhappy at work, you could go do something else like open a noodle restaurant. But no, everyone is propelled to go down the same path. Heated competition began in the ’90s; the reason people are raising the question of involution now is because the last bus has passed. The lower class still hopes to change its fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.

“One very important aspect of involution today is that there’s no exit mechanism. You’re not allowed to quit. When moving down or stepping out of the competition and living the life you want to live, the moral pressure is enormous. Society’s stability and so-called development is maintained by this intense competition. Therefore, the winners demand the losers to admit that they are a failure: Not only that they have less money and fewer material possessions; they must bow down morally and admit that they’re useless and have failed. If you don’t admit it and simply quietly walk away from the competition, you’ll face a lot of criticism. It’s not allowed.

“We used to think that competition arises because of resource scarcity, because of what people call an imbalance of supply and demand. But if I was a village head and invented a way that put everyone in competition with each other, with the highest reward being my approval, wouldn’t I be very comfortable as the village head? So-called shortages are human made. What constitutes a “good life”? What kind of things are “honourable”? Aren’t these all human-made? This form of competition leads to an extremely high degree of integration. Everyone thinks the same, and everyone expends their energy and lives together, not thinking of anything else — everyone is just busy. China has a Confucian foundation with extremely liberal market competition mixed in.”

That is what Xiang Biao said, in response to questions from official media The Paper, in 2020. Chinese sociologists usually talk about stratification rather than class, since the class warfare of the 1950s liquidated the oppressor class, and the masses are now officially the masters. While avoiding overt focus on class, the sociologists can be quite frank, especially a graduate of Peking and Oxford Universities in charge of a prestigious research institute in Germany.

Xiang Biao’s sympathies have always been with the migrant workers, the underclass who never quite break out of precarity, and this is reflected throughout his work over many years. In 2009, in the International Journal of Educational Development, he focussed on the consequences of reducing humans to human capital, just one of many forms of capital: “During the late 1990s China moved from a period of ‘‘wealth creation’’ that benefited the majority of the population to a period of ‘‘wealth concentration’’ that benefited a minority. This essay focuses on the role of international student migration from China to other countries in this process. In particular the authors delineate how different types of capital – the human, social, political and cultural (specifically foreign degrees) – transform into each other. In the process the analysis considers how the conversions among these different types of capital have intensified and have become concentrated in the top stratum of society.”[2]

China’s central leaders, who routinely send their children to Harvard, Oxford or other highly capitalised schools, are prime examples of the human capital formation ideology that enables the CCP to present itself as the acme of human civilisation, the exemplary meritocracy, the finest cohort of modernity and rationality. Everything is capital, including nature, enabling everything to be measured and monetised, and set up to compete with everything else. A quick look at the endlessly popular show If You are the One to see how interpersonal relationships are now all about the money.

Xiang Biao: “according to the Chinese sociologist Sun Liping, during the 1990s the reforms turned from being a period of ‘‘wealth creation’’ that benefited the majority to being a period in which wealth became concentrated among a few. The cleavage between the haves and have-nots has become unprecedentedly wide, with all forms of resources – economic, social, political and cultural – increasingly converging and concentrating in the hands of an emerging elite group. Government officials are now among the best educated and economically most privileged; elite education paves the way to wealth and status. Beijing University, known for its antiestablishment tradition and eccentric intellectualism, is now dubbed the ‘‘Cradle of Tycoons.’’[3]

[1] Judith Farquhar, Appetites: food and sex in post-socialist China, Duke, 2002, 122

[2] Xiang Biao, International Student Migration and Social Stratification in China, International Journal of Educational Development, 29 (2009) 513–522

[3] Xiang Biao, International Student Migration, 2009


Blog four of four on China’s labour market for displaced Tibetans


This is the labour market Tibetans are now expected, sometimes compelled, to enter. All aspects of this vast, highly competitive urban labour market marks Tibetans generically as uncompetitive, backward, lacking in entrepreneurialism, untrustworthy and not even fluent in the common putonghua tongue.

Adrian Zenz has alerted us to the extended reach of the state into the rangelands of Tibet, officials declaring pastoralists to be nothing more than lumpen “rural labourers” who are increasingly surplus to requirements, a supposedly “floating population” China will benevolently train them in vocations that are needed. Since Zenz published in September 2020, there have been further boasts by local governments in Tibet of the many they are retraining.

According to the Human Resource and Social Security Department of Qinghai province “In the first quarter of 2021, the Human Resource and Social Security Department at all levels in Qinghai have tremendously promoted the labour force transfer and employment in agricultural and pastoral areas. By the end of Feb2021, more than 184.900 labour forces of farmers and herdsmen transferred employment in Qinghai and accounted 17.6% of the annual target of 1.05 million people, and an increase of 35.8% over the same period of last year. From Jan to Feb 2021, the labour force transfer and employment of farmers and herdsmen in Qinghai solidly increased.”

From the perspective of central leaders, this means Tibetans now participate, in large numbers, in the nationwide shift to urban life, achieved through a transition into the hyper-mobility that characterises today’s China of extreme competition. Urbanisation is the engine of development, modernity, progress, wealth creation and all-round civilisation, and Tibetans must participate. Tibetans can realistically expect only entry-level employment, likely to be precarious, sometimes dangerous, with no employee rights or protections if they are injured on the job.

Persuading Tibetans they must reinvent their lives, exchanging the freedoms of the open range for the discipline of factory work, is not easy. Senior cadres complain: ““Vocational Education is an important part of the mainstream education field, with the aim of directly cultivating the application-oriented and innovative skilled talents urgently demanded by the society, and it plays an important role in social economic development particularly. However, due to the long-term influence of many factors such as history and reality, the development of Vocational Education in Tibetan related areas in Qinghai started late and has laid only on a poor foundation. There are still some problems, such as insufficiency conditions in running schools and number of professional teachers, and further strengthen counterpart support to solve the common shortage of full-time teachers and “double qualified” teachers in Vocational Schools in Qinghai Province”.

To overcome the non-competitive mentality of rural Tibetans, the party-state’s strategy is to mobilise waves of cadres to go deep into pastoral country, to exhort nomads and farmers to emigrate. Officially this is “rural revitalisation”. 

“Qinghai province officially launched “sending tens of thousands of party cadres to grassroots in 2021” and actively “consolidating and expanding the work of poverty alleviation and comprehensively promoting the implementation of rural revitalization from March 1st to April 10 2021”.

  “More than 13,000 party cadres based in village were despatched to enter into the households and deliver the spirit of No1 document of Central Party Committee [on rural policy] , and publicize the agricultural and rural reform, development policies in Qinghai in the period of “14th Five Year Plan”, especially the policies and measures closely related to the vital interests of farmers and herdsmen, such as consolidating and expanding the work of poverty alleviation, comprehensively promote rural revitalization, and accelerate the modernization of agricultural and rural reform in Qinghai”.

Although this mobilisation campaign is seldom noticed outside Tibet, its pace is accelerating, as planned. Yet the actual numbers shouldn’t be taken too literally, coming from cadres out for promotion, keen to claim they have fulfilled all targets, and then some. “Vocational training” includes everything from a quick class in how to fold restaurant napkins to serious and much needed training of nurses. The quickie courses predominate.


What makes China unique is its hyper-mobilisation, an endless rolling round in the restless search for opportunity, fulfilling the promise the system makes all the time, finally nailing it. The ongoing relocation of Tibetan nomads is one aspect of a wider hyper-mobilisation based on the assumption that labour must move to where the other factors of production congregate in enclaves and clusters. While there are many governments that relocate people deemed to be in the way of a dam, or a mine, China shoves and shunts people around landscapes for myriad reasons, and urges everyone to accept being monetised, as a mobile factor of production, as natural and inevitable.

So far, the party-state treats those who opt to lie flat or go Buddhist as harmless fads among educated youth in need of time out. In a country addicted to fads and buzzwords, there is even media competition to report this latest fad. But what if it spreads? What if the fast-food delivery workers decide, in numbers, that on reflection a life of following the Taoist Way, of lying flat and going Buddhist, is what life is for, rather then pointless and endless competition? What if they redefine themselves, no longer as losers, choosing instead to embrace the Tao or the Buddha as deeply Chinese ways of being that are authentic? What if they discover Buddhism is not at all about passivity and fatalism?

Already some in the party-state are alert to this danger. Dong Zhenhua, Deputy Director, Professor and PhD Supervisor of the Philosophy Teaching and Research Department of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China warns: “This kind of entertainment pop phenomenon is not very beneficial to the development of our business. On the one hand, this kind of entertainment will make us gradually lose the ability to think independently and be unable to judge with reason. It makes us only passively accept the information transmitted to us from the outside world, and will lose our ability to innovate and autonomy over time. On the other hand, this kind of entertainment does not have the function of educating the masses, it can only make everyone feel interesting for a while, but it has little effect on the inheritance of our excellent civilization and the spread of positive energy.”

A Baike Baidu (Wikipedia) article locates the origin of this going Buddhist meme as originating in Japan in 2014, then picked up in China. That might be OK in wealthy Japan, Baike Baidu argues, but China has a ways to go before getting as rich as Japan, so everyone must work, and not slack off: “If a society of low desires for young people is really ushered in, the future may not be bright. The negative effect of the low-desire society on the economy is very obvious. The most obvious is the weak consumption power.  When Japan entered a low-desire society, it already had a relatively affluent life. China obviously has not reached this level. Once the economy stagnates, it means a higher unemployment rate, more social contradictions and less resources”.

As usual, it all comes down to money, and wealth accumulation, as a task no-one can shirk. The monetisation of all relationships, including the most intimate, accelerates ever further and faster.


This has the makings of tragedy. In Tibet, the party state is hustling rural folk to become urban hustlers, on the move, always on the lookout for opportunity, for the next big chance for getting rich. Yet Tibetan culture has inner strengths, abilities to work constructively with whatever arises, to discover endless consumption at best results in ephemeral satisfaction. These home truths, familiar to most Tibetans are starting to fade at just the time a new generation of young Han, often well-educated but tired of endless competition, are reaching for a more meaningful life, such as the Tibetan capability for turning poisons into wisdoms.

China’s party-state defines consumption as the driver of China’s growth in this new era of “high-quality development”, a CCP favourite phrase, so no-one can drop out. Making China a consumption-based economy is a mission all must contribute to, though slackers can be tolerated if there aren’t too many of them.

Tibetans, even in remote pastures, are increasingly drawn into this hyper mobilisation and monetisation of all human relations, sucked into a networked, ratings obsessed society where Tibetans will always be outsiders at a discount.

The lie flat young “Buddhists” show us a groundswell of an emergent China much more tolerant and open minded, better able to see and accept Tibetans as they are, even find Tibetan life commitments useful. Tibetan Buddhists tell us it is only through looking life squarely in the face, that we find liberation. We are reminded that this world we try so desperately to secure, doesn’t ultimately lend itself to trustworthiness, and that, our relentless attempt to secure it, defines “samsara.” There is another way of being in life that is empowered and courageous. However, this approach, ironically, relies upon our ability to accept the frailty and poignancy of being human.

Tibet is not lost. The drogpa ghost riders in the sky are firmly grounded, and China increasingly recognises many -not all- do have a place on the land, alongside the wildlife and national parks.

Can Tibetan livestock producers, now depicted even in propaganda as part of nature and national parks, round up the urban slackers, and show them how to live? Can something new emerge in time for overworked hyped up Han to discover Tibetans have much to offer? Or will the cadres hustle Tibetans off their rangelands and into city hypermobility first?

Exiled Tibetans understandably seldom look closely at China. The more China looms wherever you do look, the greater the natural aversion to all the endless stories of triumph. China’s discourse power grows, while Tibetans would rather get on with their own lives.

Tibetans who do look more closely at China are usually preoccupied with legal and historic questions of sovereignty and identity. Or they focus on geostrategic and security issues, border tensions.

Monitoring social change within China is not on the radar; China is far too big, the voice of the party-state too loud, it is more straightforward to assume a command-and-control model is in place, where the centre decrees and all salute.

Yet China is not uniform, nor are the masses worker ants. China is at an unusual moment, full of contradictions and new possibilities. What appears from a distance to be monolithic state capitalism, a developmentalist state bent on allocating resources to achieve its dirigiste goals, is, on the ground, an intensely competitive system with few winners. The strains of having to compete, urged on by influencers, under impossible conditions, are so great there is now a grassroots swell of opting out to lead a more authentic life, and take the consequences. This swelling birth of a counterculture is fast attracting young people tired of pointless rote learning, of teaching to the test, of endless competition for scarce rewards.


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

how China saved Tibetans from life in Tibet: screenshot from 2021 documentary series Up and Out of Poverty

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

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

training Tibetan nurses in Sichuan 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

all poor in three regions are lifted out of poverty: three regions are southern Xinjiang, Tibet Autonomous region, and all Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

a “line village” in colonial Fiji a century ago

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

source: Bryan Denton

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Washington Press 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Xi Jinping, Speech at a Symposium on Resolving Prominent Problems in Poverty Alleviation, English Edition of Qiushi Journal, October-December 2019|Vol.11,No.4,Issue No.41 |

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

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

[9] Gomersall, Resettlement practice and the pathway

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

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