HYPER-MOBILITY, LYING FLAT and ROLLING AROUND

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

OVERPROMISING

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.

NEW BEGINNINGS IN CHINA

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!”

CAPTURING AND MONETISING THE LIE FLAT MOVEMENT

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.

CHINA’S PROSPERITY GOSPEL

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 MODEL SLACKER?

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.

A COUNTER-CULTURE IS BORN

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 https://beijingbrown.tumblr.com/

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?

A CULTURE HERO FOR THESE TIMES

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

GRIDS, PANDEMICS, PRECARITY

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.

EXPANDING USES OF GRID MANAGEMENT, TIBETAN STYLE

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.”

THE RETURN OF CLASS TO A NEWLY PROSPEROUS BUT DEEPLY UNEQUAL CHINA

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.

PROPELLING RURAL TIBETANS INTO CHINA’S URBAN JOB MARKET

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?

CHINA MOVES FAST AND SPINS ITS WHEELS

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

SHUNTING NOMADS ASIDE

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

TRAINING TIBETANS FOR BULLSHIT JOBS

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.

FROM LYING FLAT TO REDISCOVERING THE WAY

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.

“LAZY” TIBETANS AND HAN “SLACKERS”

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.

CIVILISING THOSE GREEN-BRAINED TIBETANS

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

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

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

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

training Tibetan nurses in Sichuan 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BACKSTORY OF RURAL DISCONTENT

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

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

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

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

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

A CAMPAIGN WAGED BY MASS MOBILISATION OF CADRES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REMAKING TIBET IN CHINA’S IMAGE

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

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

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

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

MODELLING CONFUCIAN PROPRIETY

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

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

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

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

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

THE POOR ARE ALWAYS ABOVE US

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

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

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

GEOMETRICALLY LINING UP THE RELOCATED

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

a “line village” in colonial Fiji a century ago

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

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

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

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

THE POOR DWELL ALSO IN CAVES

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

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

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

source: Bryan Denton

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

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

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

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

DEFINING TIBET BY WHAT IS LACKING

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

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

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

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

PRECISION POVERTY TARGETING

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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Washington Press 2020

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

HOW TIBETANS EXPERIENCE RELOCATION & INTENSIFICATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPROVING TIBETAN HUMAN QUALITY?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Gomersall, Resettlement practice and the pathway

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

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

CHINA’S PLANS FOR DISLOCATING MORE TIBETAN LIVES

Development with Chinese characteristics

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

source: Qiushi CCP theory journal

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

source: CGTN

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

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

SEARCHING FOR TIBETAN BILLIONAIRES

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

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

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

DELUSIONS OF SPECTACULAR MODERNITY

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

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

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

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

targeted poverty alleviation does not leave one behind, poster

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

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

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

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

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

source: Global Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Yegang. source: Baike Baidu

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

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

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

hat of shame: Tibetans remember the Cultural Revolution

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

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

do these people know they are poverty stricken?

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

LOOKING AHEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rich coastal Fujian comes to uplift poor inland Ningxia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

TIBETAN FORCED LABOUR IN CHINA’S FACTORIES

Scary

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINDING THOSE SURPLUS LABOURERS

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

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

China’s viral fire fighters 2020

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

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

POVERTY PROGRAMS MASKING COERCION?

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

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

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

traditional embroidery of the Tu Monguor women

PASSIVELY DEPENDING ON THE SKY

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

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

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

Tu Monguor embroidered felted boot

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

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

China has defeated the corona virus 2020

HOW TO LIVE OFF UNCERTAINTY

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

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

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

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

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

now we are all shielded from the corona virus 2020

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

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

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

REACH OF THE STATE EXCEEDS ITS GRASP

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

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

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

securitisation is what protects us from the pandemic 2020

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

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

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

SOAKED IN RACISM

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

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

be grateful: China has beaten the corona virus

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

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

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

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

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

springtime for Xi and China: unity is strength

HAMSTRUNG BY FEAR

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

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

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

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

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

A TIBETAN TAKE ON LABOUR MOBILISATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These young Tibetans beg to differ. Wangmo Dechen sings:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A NEW COMMUNIST COSMOLOGY

RECUPERATING TIBET

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

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

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

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

西藏自治区国家生态文明高地建设条例

(2021年1月24日西藏自治区第十一届人民代表大会

第四次会议通过)

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

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

Adopted at the fourth meeting)

目 录

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

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

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

GRAZING WHILE TIBETAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LET’S GET SERIOUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VAGUE BUT SONOROUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OMNIPOTENT CHINA DISCOVERS GREEN?

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

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

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

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

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

DELUSIONAL SELF-IMPORTANCE

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

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

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

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

“About six inches to the mile.”

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

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

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

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

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

REMOTEST OF CONTROL

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

seeding the clouds with silver iodide to make it rain

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

firing silver iodide into Tibetan skies to make it rain

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

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

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

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

artillery at the ready, to force Tibetan clouds to rain

LIVING MOMENT TO MOMENT ON LAND, NOT IN ALGO LABYRINTHS

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROLETARIANISING TIBET IN 2021

TIBET 2021: WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOOKING BACK TO LOOK AHEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

exnomad resettlement in Golok

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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