What do we mean by our ten top key phrases?

A presentation to a TIBET POLICY INSTITUTE seminar 29 March 2012

So many people speak of Tibet, or for Tibet, with various agendas. The language used to represent today’s Tibet inevitably settles on metaphors which do a lot of work, which pack in many meanings. Each of the metaphors in common use comes with multiple associations. If we identify those echoes and amplifications, which arise in the minds of those who hear them when we use these words, we may notice some are helpful, some are not. So this is an attempt to pull apart the bundle of ideas and images wrapped up in those familiar phrases which have become so naturalised we often forget they are an invented short cut.

Some of the common metaphors are old:
1. Shangri-la, roof of the world,
2. Land of snows.

Some are much more recent:
3. third pole,
4. Asia’s water tower.

Some terms remind us of the problems of Tibet, such as
5. rangeland degradation,
6. grazing ban,
7. ecological migration.

Some are phrases which sound positive but actually have questionable meaning, such as
8. leap-style development,
9. comfortable housing,
10. grain to green.

These are among the many terms in use describing environment and development in Tibet. They are over-used. The more familiar they become, the more meaning is packed into them, the more their usefulness fades, becoming another well-known, naturalised fact which has lost its original vibrant complexity and contradictions. Such terms become clichés, through over-use. The greatest cliché of Tibet is Shangri-la, which needs no deconstruction, since it is apparent to everyone except Chinese tourism entrepreneurs that there never was such a timeless paradise hidden in the Tibetan mountains. But new clichés come into being all the time, and it is not only the Chinese who invent them. So this is an exercise in rediscovering the full significance of terms which roll off our tongues too readily. Before these new phrases become so familiar that we stop thinking about what they really mean, let’s pause, and reconsider what each of these phrases actually includes. Let’s look at them afresh.


The basic meaning in today’s usage is that Tibet is special, a point always worth making. This phrase was invented not by Tibetans but by Chinese scientists, who continue to claim it as their own. These are the cryologists, the scientists of cold. They continue to seek and obtain global connections and funding to do collaborative research on the frozen earth, glaciers and other phenomena of cold. We could say there is considerable confusion and competition as to who this phrase belongs to.

Tibet supporters often use Tibet Third Pole as a way of drawing attention to the impacts of climate change on Tibet. This is a complex subject, well worth attention. It is clear from much scientific research that Tibet is warming much faster than most places on earth, especially night time winter temperatures, and Tibet is also drying, although there is extra spring rain. The impacts of these changes are complex: loss of wetlands, drying of the active layer that is seasonally frozen, then thaws, loss of carbon stored in the earth etc.

But if we step back from the detailed impacts, we find that China takes a similar stance: that many of the problems of Tibet are due to global climate change, and there is little anyone can do about it. So is this a message we find useful? If we discuss climate change in Tibet, under the general heading of Third Pole, with environmentalists around the world, they may find it hard to see how Tibet can get onto the agenda in a meaningful way, except as just one more reason why the world should take global action to reduce greenhouse gases. Environmentalists may sympathise, that Tibet experiences many problems due to climate change, but they do not respond with actions that specifically help Tibet.

A further complication is that Tibet Third Pole obscures something quite important: that Tibet is not cold all year, and warms sufficiently in spring and summer to cause both the Indian monsoon and the East Asian monsoon by heating sufficiently to cause a huge low pressure system over Tibet that pulls in the clouds heavy with water, from the oceans. So in some ways Tibet Third Pole is misleading.

The startling idea that this planet has not two poles but three exaggerates how cold Tibet is. It makes permafrost sound permanent, which, in Tibet, it is not. The seasonally receding and advancing permafrost of Tibet is hard to explain, or to imagine, because the English word permafrost strongly suggests permanence, and so does Third Pole. In reality there are parts of Tibet that are subtropical jungle.


This metaphor also reminds us that Tibet is special, but in a more specific way: Tibet is the source of almost all the rivers of Asia. This is an extremely important point, but it too has some down side as well.

Reminding the peoples of South Asia, SE Asia and East Asia that their great rivers come from Tibet is valuable and necessary to repeat and repeat. If we look at actual watersheds, we can accurately say one billion people drink Tibetan water every day. Sometimes we say 47% of the world’s population depends on water from Tibet, which is inaccurate. The figure of 47% can be reached only by adding the entire populations of India, China and SE Asia. But we all know that not all Indians drink from the Brahmaputra or Indus, not all SE Asians drink from the Mekong, and not all Chinese drink from the Yangtze or Yellow Rivers. This is easily corrected if we look at who lives in the actual watersheds.

To call Tibet the water tower of Asia obscures a basic reality that Tibet is actually one of the more arid areas of Asia, and receives far less rainfall than India, China or SE Asia. Water tower suggests abundant water, endlessly available, but this is actually not so. The reality is that, despite a generally dry climate, it is the snow mountains that manage to magnetise and capture the little moisture in the air. It is the extraordinary altitude of the snow mountains that reaches into the upper atmosphere, so even high clouds become rain or more usually snow, when they come close to such a high peak.

Calling Tibet the Asian water tower draws attention to the glaciers, and connects those glaciers, in people’s minds, with their lives in downstream countries. That is good, but it sometimes ignores the one or two thousand kilometres of Tibetan land (and Tibetan people) between the glaciers and the downstream users.

Like Third Pole, this term actually originated in China, specifically the efforts of the Qinghai leaders in the 1980s to seek more funding from central leaders. They called Qinghai China’s water tower in order to make Qinghai important in Beijing’s eyes. The eventual result was the removal of the nomads from the source region of the great rivers in Qinghai, so we could say this phrase has actually had negative consequences.

Once the glaciers have melted, will Tibet any longer be Asia’s water tower? Perhaps there is a danger that people are unaware how limited is the water in the water tower, and it may soon be gone, after a few more decades of high flow due to glacier melt.

The phrase Asia’s water tower also sets up misleading images in many minds, by suggesting that most of the water in the Brahmaputra comes from Tibet. Thus people suppose that when the level of water in the Brahmaputra is unusually low it must be due to something happening in Tibet such as China building the Zangmu hydro electric dam. Equally, when there are floods in Assam or Bangladesh, people assume it must be due to something happening in Tibet. In fact, the monsoon rains in eastern India, on the southern slopes of the Himalayas are extremely heavy, and it is likely that both drought and flood in eastern India and Bangladesh are not so much affected by Tibet. Not enough measurements have been done to be sure of this, but that is what the limited evidence suggests.

The metaphor of the water tower suggests downstream countries are right to be fearful of China’s hold on the water tower, because they might lock the water tower in a series of dams and deprive downstream users. But if the Brahmaputra is not so deeply reliant on Tibetan water, this is a fear with little basis. However, we keep repeating such statements, because it is a well developed Tibetan habit to appeal to Indian fears, and to feed them. There are plenty of Indians fearful of, or suspicious of China. That is a familiar audience to exiled Tibetans; it is a reason why Indians become friends with Tibetans, by sharing a common fear.

There is only one river arising in Tibet which may soon be severely blocked by China and that is the Mekong. Not only is Tibet the water tower of the Mekong, rising deep in Tibet, in Nagchu Hor, but there are so many Chinese dams built or under construction on the Mekong, in Tibet or where the Tibetan Plateau falls away to the lowlands. This will cause many problems, including increased risk of earthquakes due to the weight of water in the dams, siltation, interrupting the life cycles of fish, and other impacts. The water released from hydro dams no longer corresponds with seasonal cycles or even natural daily cycles, and creates many artificial problems.

Yet it is important to make a clear distinction between hydro dams that are built only to generate electricity, from hydro dams intended to capture water and divert it away from the river, either for local irrigation or long distance transfer. We seldom make that basic distinction, so people downstream imagine that China’s dams are massive, and will rob them of water they need badly. The reality is that until now, if we look at all the middle sized and large dams China has built in Tibet, or is currently constructing, not one is designed to divert water away from the river.
In India, few people know much about dams, or make the distinction between a dam for electricity and a dam for water diversion. As long as the primary audience for Tibetan messages is India, this may not be a problem. But in the wider world, it would be foolish if we do not take care to be clear about which dangers are real, and which are due to excessive imagination. Tibetans will not be taken seriously, anywhere outside India, if they claim that all Chinese dams threaten the water supply of all downstream countries.


Metaphors are powerful. They shape the imagination; they take hold in the mind, and set up further connections. China understands the power of metaphors by choosing phrases like ecological migrants and grain to green to mask processes that actually cause much displacement, suffering and loss of livelihood.

Familiar metaphors tend to be taken literally, no longer as metaphors. If a metaphor oversimplifies reality, much is left out, that may be useful or even necessary.

It is timely for us to look afresh at these familiar images used to represent Tibet, as we learn how to effectively engage with audiences worldwide.

The ten phrases listed above include some that are used exclusively by China, some only Tibetans, some that are shared, but with differing connotations. All are clichés in the sense that they are over-used, taken for granted, naturalised, too well-known to any longer stimulate the imagination, too general and vague to demand attention.
This is a not a question of right and wrong, as if a simple dualism was all we need. It may seem harsh to label all these key metaphors as clichés, since phrases such as Tibet Third Pole and Asia’s water tower have become central to the Tibetan effort to motivate the wider world to take seriously the dangers facing the Tibetan Plateau.

Cliches are neither true nor not true. They are a tired shorthand way of compressing much, in a quest for a clear, simple, brief, memorable message. This is very necessary in a world of limited attention, and so much information competing for our minds to focus on. We do need to simplify, but if we also want to move people to action, we need to keep our language fresh, and avoid clichés, as George Orwell reminds us. Being fresh and brief is hard, a constant pressure to avoid clichés as favourite shortcuts. Cliches are not necessarily wrong, but they don’t turn minds. Turning minds is our work.


Metaphors are all we have: there is no objective, eternal truth out there, the Buddhists tell us. Metaphors wear out with overuse. They become too familiar and we forget what it is that they are pointing us to. We always need fresh metaphors.

We also need new evocative metaphors for some of the ways that Tibet is special, which we seldom notice, partly because there is no metaphor that captures it. For example, the meteorological scientists tell us that the Tibetan Plateau is a major driver of the monsoons of India and China and SE Asia. Over the tropical oceans –both the Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal and over the South China Sea- heavy clouds build up, but what is it that draws them inland, bearing billions of tons of water? The secret is that it is the heating of the Tibetan Plateau in spring, creating a massive low pressure system in the atmosphere over Tibet, which brings the clouds far inland.

How come we seldom mention this, since we are always keen to explain to the world that Tibet is special, a Third Pole, a water tower? Maybe it is because no-one has come up yet with a metaphor, a phrase that captures this dynamic. Perhaps we need a competition to come up with a memorable metaphor for this process, which meteorologists define in mechanical language, such as engine, driver, dynamic and forcing: words that don’t effectively express what is so extraordinary about millions of tons of water floating through the sky, magnetised by the annual heating of the Third Pole.

Any ideas for a fresh metaphor?

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