CHINA’S CENTRAL PLANNERS: THE VISION OF PERFECTED RATIONALITY
By Gabriel Lafitte March 2011
In the west, central planning is the antithesis of efficiency; in China it remains the epitome. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for China, including Tibet, has just been launched.
Central planning got a bad name in the Soviet bloc, synonymous with waste, chronic shortages, lack of innovation, poor quality production and a major cause of corruption as the only method of obtaining goods routinely in short supply. It was the height of folly to suppose that central bureaucrats could know, and allocate, resources years ahead, correctly forecasting demand and making the necessary distribution of land, labour and capital. Conventional wisdom among conventional market economists has long been that a major reason the Soviet bloc fell apart is that paid a high price for clinging to the delusion that governments can direct flows of materials, money and workers, when this is done far better by the invisible hand of the market economy.
Not only was central planning empirically bad, a lot of elegant economic theory showed why it is inevitably so. For the past 30 years, as small government has become the norm, planning was given deeply negative labels, such as dirigiste (directed from above by state power), command economy, or more neutrally, the allocative economy. The collapse of the Soviet Second World confirmed consensus that the daily price setting processes of the market, best left to run itself, are the perfect, natural mechanism for balancing supply and demand. The state was in retreat.
Except in China, which remained the great anomaly. The former Soviet Union accepted the advice of Jeffrey Sachs and other economists that the who system was so rotten, the least painful path of reform would be a big bang immediate privatisation of everything, a miraculous new beginning. The result was the rapid appropriation of state assets and enterprises by the rich and powerful, creating a band of oligarchs who largely transferred their massive profits abroad, out of the reach of Russian tax authorities. China was much more cautious, acknowledging the need for reform while maintaining strong political control, and state ownership of the banks and the biggest industrial enterprises. This contradicted the Washington consensus on what is needed in order to transition from socialism to market capitalism, but China continued to grow and grow.
The new capitalist conventional wisdom in the 1990s was that China was nonetheless rapidly becoming “just like us,” communism was utterly dead as an ideology, central planning was no longer powerful, merely indicative, that private enterprise was the engine of China’s growth, and the state-owned enterprises, few of which made much profit, were relics of a bygone era that would inevitably give way to the dynamism of private enterprise.
Yet China continued to produce Five-Year Plans, and they increased in scope, complexity and depth of timeframe. The 1996 Ninth Five-Year Plan, for example, came complete with a fifteen year plan, officially named the Outline of Long-Term Program to 2010. The national 5 and 15 year plans were replicated at provincial level, with more detailed targets elaborated. In scope, as the planners grew more confident and ambitious, the Five-Year Plans went beyond industrialisation and farm productivity, and began to consider “protection and development of national land resources”, “urban and rural construction”, and “sustainable development.” In recent years, there have been few of the party-state’s objectives that have not been rolled into the plans, which get more and more comprehensive. Most recently, the Five-Year Plans have acknowledged the need for environmental protection, social welfare, raising the human quality of the masses through education, and “socialist spiritual civilisation”, which means mass compliance with norms of civilised urban behaviour, such as hygiene public and private, adapting to urban life by abandoning uncouth rural habits.
Social engineering is not out of fashion; if anything the planners are increasingly prescriptive about norms of behavioural compliance expected of Chinese citizens. This was made explicit in the first Five-Year Plan to fuse education, science and technology as a single theme, key to China’s future success. Not only did this vision of a technocratically literate society express the vision of the party-state, it became the battle hymn of a new generation of tiger mothers determined that their children would succeed in getting to the top. (Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)
Meanwhile the state-owned enterprises did not wither away, nor were they taken over or absorbed into the private economy. Instead the party-state hybrid created a hybrid economy in which the difference between private and state ownership was minimal. Public enterprises adopted corporate structures, hired professional managers and marketers, and accessed cheap loans to invest massively in boosting production. Private enterprises used party slogans to motivate and discipline their workers; some even have party cells inside the organisation setting the corporate agenda. Much recent social scientific research shows bosses of corporations that are nominally public or private are puzzled why westerners insist on making sharp distinctions about ownership, because it matters little to the bosses themselves. Publicly owned companies set up comer5cial subsidiaries in offshore tax havens or friendly countries such as Canada or Australia, to better retain profits in private hands, and access global investment capital. Loss making SOEs, especially the banks, were recapitalised at great public expense, bailed out quietly but expensively long before the very public bailouts of the 2008 global crisis. The state routinely intervenes to direct banks to lend to big SOEs according to the policies laid out in Five-Year and shorter-term plans, even these are risky investments, or plain bad, with little prospect of repayment. The state awards business to its favourites, while private entrepreneurs, especially small and medium sized companies, struggle to gain access to capital needed to grow their businesses. The party-state re-engineers whole industries to conform to its vision of national champions big enough to compete globally. Usually this means smaller companies are compulsorily merged into bigger ones, so that only a handful of corporations dominate the industry.
This is the China model, of state capitalism. His is what is meant by “market socialism” and “economy with Chinese characteristics.” Most of the growth, investment and spending is done by the state, financed largely by borrowing from future generations. Finance comes also from private investors hungry to buy shares in SOEs whenever they float an IPO on a Chinese stock market for a small portion of corporate equity. The “miracle” of China’s ongoing growth is led and directed by a party-state whose popular legitimacy relies on delivering development, and opportunities accessible to all.
State capitalism is not a new term. Mao used it almost 60 years ago to describe the early revolutionary years when private owners of capital and factories were encouraged to continue, rather than immediately expropriating their assets. Mao’s great initiative was to mobilise the energies of the masses, through constant mass campaigns exhorting everyone to work harder to fulfil the goals set by the planners. This is officially known as “Mobilisation of the Population as Development Vehicle.” As a primary technique, it has never gone out of fashion, and is referred to by current planners as ongoing, relevant and beneficial. In 1998, Hujiong Wang explicitly rejects the western notion innovation is in the hands of entrepreneurs. “The Chinese leadership, on the contrary, has repeatedly made the attempt to instil proper attitude in the masses, to consider the mobilisation and participation of the ‘masses’ much more important than the efficient allocation of resources. The success of mobilisation of the population as development vehicle is not only shown in various economic activities in the pre-reform era, it is also shown in counteracting the serious flooding disaster this  year.”
Far from repudiating planning as a Stalinist fantasy, Chinese planners see much continuity between Five-year Plans past and present. The excesses and failures of the past are not the fault of planning, but of the lack of planning in the Great leap famine, when Plan production targets were abandoned, or in the Cultural Revolution, when planning was abandoned almost totally. The successes of the present, the current policy of creating “harmonious society”, all originate in Five-Year Plans which give everyone clear guidance as to what is expected of them, and where they can succeed. While the tens and hundreds of millions still in poverty mind find such slogans, and their elaboration in Five-Year Plans, to have little relation to their daily experience, there is an urban middle class that does subscribe to the party-state’s values, who prosper from it, and think of themselves as positive examples to the rest of China, and to the rest of the developing world.
Five-Year Planning has become more mathematised, more computer-model driven, more complex and more removed from local realities and everyday experience. A major influence was the World Bank, which in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, dedicated a lot of energy and money in helping China modernise and improve its central planning capacities. The World Bank said it was doing this to persuade China to adopt planning purely as an indicative tool, backed up by limited use of indirect economic levers available to the state, as in the richest countries. China however used World Bank training in mathematical models of the economy to expand the scope and depth of the Five-Year Plans, while blandly nodding to the “small government” rhetoric of planning as purely “indicative”. Central planner Hujiong Wang uses the rhetorics of the 1950s and 1990s together: “It is emphasised in this document that the crucial role of planning should be gradually shifted to forecasting, planning, guidance and control of the overall social economic activity, to pointing out the correct direction of economic activity.” (Wang 55-6)
The dream of one plan gathering unto itself the unambiguous truth, of past and present, as the basis for accurately forecasting the future five or fifteen years ahead, remains seductive, in a system where power is contested only within the party, not in public, and difference is limited. Truth still seems graspable, even if in practice it remains somewhat out of reach. The Chinese engineers who learned how to correct the trajectory of a rocket while in flight, so it hits its target, thought it only natural to apply that knowledge to planning the trajectory of China’s entire economy. The truth embodied in an onboard control system capable of correcting slight deviations in a flight path is to them a truth that can be unproblematically scaled up to govern the whole of China. (Susan Greenhalgh, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China; Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engineers) The rise of the red engineers is based on the assumption that truth is out there, exists objectively, is not a social construct, and is available for measurement. The only problem is whether we have scientific instruments, of sufficient capacity, to adequately measure the economy of a billion people that is timely and accurate. Yet truth in any society is social and contextual, and especially so in China, according to Blum. (Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths, Rowman, 2007)
Wang, like most of the Central Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, is an engineer, with faith that engineering methods of breaking a problem down into manageable parts, then defining the technical steps that solve the problem, can be applied to an entire state the size of China, five to fifteen years in advance. In his position supervising the academic standards of the Development Research Centre of China’s State Council –China’s highest organ of state power- he was well positioned adapt his major publication “An Introduction to Systems Engineering” to Five-Year Planning for the whole of China.
Wang was at the top of a major official think tank, one of many which have proliferated as the complexity of planning China’s comprehensive growth to power has taken shape. Wang mentions that “there are several hundred policy research institutions, academic and non-academic, at the central, provincial and even city levels now. These policy research institutions make policy studies and provide the necessary information as a part of policymaking process.”(Wang 59-60)
While Five-Year Plans unquestionably originate in the Party, before being routinely adopted by the national People’s Congress, these official think tanks, as China grows more complex and its planners more ambitious, play a crucial role. In the west, such think tanks are often seen as playgrounds for academic wannabes, experts keen to second guess or opine gratuitously on what politicians decide. In China, the official think tanks are integral to the monitoring, surveillance, social engineering and disciplinary shaping of policy and its implementation.
Several key think tanks have been highly influential in shaping China’s Tibet policy, and most are not even based in Tibet. The Lanzhou-based CAREERI is one such. The Cold and Arid Regions Environment and Engineering Research Institute, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based in Lanzhou, (http://www.casnw.net/english/index.html) has been at the heart of China’s conquest of Tibetan nature, such as the building of a railway to Lhasa. The coupling of “Environment” and “Engineering” joins problem to solution. The nationalist jubilation of 2006 at the opening of the railway proclaimed it as the line they said could never be built, crossing, as it does “no-man’s land” (actually inhabited by Tibetan nomads), a triumph of man’s conquest of nature. CAREERI has a long history of carefully investigating, measuring, quantifying and strategising how permafrost in Tibet thaws and freezes, how blacktop heat-holding roads slump and buckle as ice laden earth melts and freezes again, over seasons and longer cycles of climate change. What Tibetan nomads had lived with as natural cycles gradually yielded voluminous data, sufficient to plot strategies to build a rail line elevated above the frozen earth, with many techniques to keep temperatures stable. CAREERI scientists have by now published around one hundred articles in English and Chinese, in technical journals such as Applied Thermal Engineering, Cold Regions Science and Technology, Permafrost & Periglacial Processes, Land Degradation & Development and Geoderma, explaining how they conquered unconquerable Tibet. These reports explain that it took decades of observations and measurement, and even now there is no certainty that the rail bed will fare better then the highways, which continue to slump and buckle.
CAREERI is far from Tibet, in a city which serves as a base camp for reducing Tibet to numbers amenable to engineering manipulations. It is one of the knowledge hubs that for the first time in Chinese history have made Tibet knowable, within standardised categories of knowledge, and thus governable. CAREERI is a Key Laboratory, part of a national network of specialist research and policy formulating institutes that focus on solving many of China’s most difficult nation building problems, especially, in Tibet, the core problem of turning an empire into a modern, unitary nation-state. The technicising of CAREERI’s work obscures this political agenda, reducing the long term challenge to a series of specific, definable tasks, such as: how can we build a railway across Tibetan permafrost without dangerous and embarrassing slumping and heaving of the rail bed?
The railway to Lhasa became the key project in Tibet of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2001 through 2005. The timing of this massive investment in integrating Tibet into the Chinese economy is no accident. If the political decision to mobilise all resources necessary had been left to CAREERI, the railway would have been delayed, to be more certain that the extreme variability of the climate of upper Tibet, and its mysteriously recurring and disappearing permafrost, were better understood. But China’s planning process involves much more than technical feasibility studies. In the years immediately prior to the decision to construct the iron rooster, China announced a major new thrust, xibu da kaifa, meaning opening up the great westernmost interior of China, making its riches available to the rest of China. When Jiang Zemin announced xibu da kaifa in 1999, shortly before officially retiring, it was the culmination of a decade of careful rethinking of Chinese policy towards minority peoples. Minglang Zhou, of University of Maryland, has carefully traced the evolution of ethnic policy throughout the 1990s, as China sought to learn lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union which, in Chinese official eyes, was largely due to minority ethnicities breaking the Soviet Union apart. This required quite different expertise to that of CAREERI. It was China’s leading anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong, who first formulated the shift, summed up in the slogan jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti, meaning “speed up economic development, while downplaying the national question.” (Zhou 492)
Fei Xiaotong, having observed and written about minorities for decades, saw the time was right to shift away from the fiction that China is a collection of 56 nationalities, the Han -90 per cent of China’s population- being just one. In his 1989 speech at Chinese University of Hong Kong, he did not propose abandoning this cherished formula, but instead added to it another layer. In addition to the 56 nominally equal ethnicities China is also “a national entity that has developed from a common emotion and desire for a shared destiny of opportunities and successes.” (Zhou 491) This is a higher identity, beyond the particularities of specific minority cultures, a bond of sedimented sentiment that stretches back into the past, and enables all of China to share a common destiny stretching far into the future. Unquestionably, the Han played the core role, of integrating all disparate elements into one Chinese nation, and will play the core role of leading all of China to its greater destiny. Fei called this duoyan yiti, “one nation with diversity.”
That was the year of the Tiananmen massacre, followed shortly by the collapse of Soviet power. In 1990 the State Nationalities Affairs Commission, the supreme official organ for governing minorities, sponsored a symposium on this new formula and commissioned several expert studies. Within months Jiang Zemin announced official adoption of this new formula, in a speech to local leaders in Xinjiang. Jiang made the new stance easy to memorise by announcing it as the “three cannots.” The Han cannot do without the minorities, the minorities cannot do without the Han, and the minorities cannot do without each other. There is little doubt as to who elder brother is, and who is junior. (Zhou 491)
This coincided with intensive think tank studies of the imploding Soviet bloc, which took time to reach consensus as to the lessons to be learned, and what to do to avoid China making similar mistakes. These discussions were run not by the State nationalities Affairs Commission but by the Communist Party’s mass organ for controlling minorities, the United Front Work Department. Increasingly, they focused on the 1984 Law on Minority Regional Autonomy, as giving too much scope for minorities to make too many claims, assertions of rights, and demands for financial support. This, they concluded, opened the way for Soviet-style dissolution of the unitary state. Each province and autonomous region has its own people’s congress, nominally able to pass its own laws, which could, for example, stipulate a minimum quota of minority ethnicity officials to fill official posts. “Some autonomous regions wanted more economic power, and some wanted more political power, while many desired both. These demands for economic and political power seriously challenged the central government’s authority. Drawing on lessons from the Soviet failure, the PRC realised that these problems must be satisfactorily resolved before they could spin out of control. CCP leaders concluded that the central government should not relinquish political power and should not allow minority dominance of local party apparatuses, or even of the local legislatures in autonomous regions.” (Zhou 494)
This culminated, in 2001, in the enactment of two laws, the revised Law on Autonomy, and the National Commonly Used Language and Script Law. In keeping with the new approach, of speeding up development and downplaying ethnicity, “the revised Law on Autonomy gives local governments more power or responsibility in social and economic development, but takes away some political powers.” (Zhou 494) Autonomous Regions no longer have the power to fix minimum quotas for their own ethnicity employment in their own government. Both the 2001 laws “downplayed the role of minority languages and cultures while promoting Putonghua (Mandarin) as the super language in a structured linguistic order. For example, the teaching of Chinese is now required to start in the early or later years in elementary schools. Minority officials are now required to learn to use both standard oral Chinese and standard written Chinese. These measures may be considered as a representation of the demotion of ‘nationalities’ to ‘ethnic groups’ in the new model of ‘one nation with diversity’, where Putonghua as the common language is to dominate.” (Zhou 495)
China did little to publicise this redefinition of the key term minzu, which had long signified a people, a nation, a distinct ethnicity with collective rights; perhaps even, early in the Communist Party’s long life, the right to self-determination and perhaps even national independence. “In Beijing in 1997, the State Commission on Nationalities Affairs held a forum on whether ‘minzu’ should be officially translated into ‘nation/nationality’ or ‘ethnic group’. The participating experts unanimously agreed on the term ‘ethnic group’ for ‘minzu’ because the new English term can better represent the spirit of China’s new orientation. The replacement of the Soviet model with the new Chinese model has had direct impact on China’s minorities policy.” (Zhou 492)
In the global Tibet movement, nobody noticed these changes, but the new opening up of western China policy was announced with much publicity, and Tibetans, in and beyond Tibet, speculated as to what it portended. Few foresaw the renewed emphasis on exclusion of nomads from their pastures, or the rail lines to two big new gold and copper mines to the east and west of Lhasa.
The exclosure of nomads, now on a huge scale, originates in official think tanks and research institutes, but is driven not by the urge to speed up development but another dominant strand in Five-Year Plans, the need to set aside much of Tibet for conservation, of watersheds and biodiversity, to show the world that China is acting responsibly to mitigate its global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
These twin impulses, to conserve and to speedily develop, might seem contradictory or confused, but spatially, in a plateau the size of Western Europe, there is room for both. Even when they pull in differing directions, they explain what is happening in Tibet, more coherently than other frames can.
The key is the announcement, made in the Ninth Five-Year Plan covering 1996 through 2000, declaring “transformation of the pattern of economic growth from extensive to intensive.” (Wang 56) This bland statement summed up an existing trend, and signalled its acceleration. Tibet was already becoming two economies, spatially adjacent, but operating quite differently and with few connections. By the 1990s Tibet was well on the way to becoming a modern boom economy in its fast growing urban centres and mineral extraction centres, connected by engineering corridors (to use a Chinese term) of highways, power lines, pipelines, fibre optic cables, and later, railways. This is the zone of intensive growth, attracting nearly all the investment capital directed by state power to its Five-Year Plan projects.
Surrounding this intensive development net is a vast rural hinterland, of poor Tibetan farmers and nomadic pastoral livestock producers on rangelands that were steadily eroding and degrading, without effort or investment by the state to rehabilitate pastures being lost. This vast area is perhaps two million square kilometres of the total 2.5 m sq kms of the whole Tibetan Plateau. This is the extensive zone. It was the nomads, around 9000 years ago according to the archaeologists, who discovered how to make the Tibetan Plateau humanly habitable. Extensive use was the key. Nomadic mobility, walking and riding with the domestic herds of yak, sheep and goats, to avoid exhausting pastures, finding fresh green pick up in the alpine meadows in summer and on the plateau floor in winter, are the secret of how the Tibetan Plateau, despite its frigidity and extreme weather, became a human home. Mobile, extensive land use, seasonally moving on to ensure sustainable regrowth of hardy plateau grasses, is the key discovery made millennia ago. It is the logic of extensive land use that China has never understood, quickly started to restrict once it took power in the grasslands, and has now banned altogether in more and more areas across Tibet.
The juxtaposition of small intensive development areas, and the neglected, depopulated extensive areas, tells the whole story of contemporary Tibet. It is a story worth considering more closely.
Long before China took effective administrative control over Tibet in the 1950s, China was predisposed to see extensive nomadic production as unproductive, primitive and uncivilised. Civilised people pen their animals, and bring grass to them; only barbarians wander with their animals to wherever grass is to be found. This is an ingrained attitude with a long history. It predisposes Chinese policy makers and think tanks to believe there is nothing useful to be learned from nomads, no risk management strategies, indigenous land management methods or biodiversity conservation traditions. Nomads and Chinese cadres inhabited different worlds, separated not only by language but by a conceptual gulf.
Intensive development is mainstream orthodoxy of development economics worldwide. From this viewpoint, almost everything about Tibet, the Tibetans, and the Tibetan Plateau is problematic. For starters, they are the epitome of remoteness from major markets, with a widely scattered population to whom modern services, from electricity to education, cannot be efficiently delivered because they are extensively scattered over a vast landscape. Moreover, they move with the seasons.
Development means concentration, urbanisation, intensification, acceleration, aggregation. This applies to people and livestock alike. Modern livestock production systems keep larger and larger concentrations of animals in smaller and smaller spaces, to be fed a scientifically formulated diet calculated to maximise weight gains in minimal time, whereupon animals are slaughtered.
Everything about Tibet, its vastness, innumerable plateaus, intervening peaks and glaciers, alpine deserts and lush meadows, suggests lack, loss, scatter, inefficiency, the antithesis of modern mastery of nature. It is nature untamed, undisciplined and unpredictable. “Pastoralism is still largely seen as a coping strategy that allows herders to get along with an ‘inadequate’ resource base. This stance can be traced to a long-established approach in the disciplines that inform pastoral development planning (natural resource management, range ecology, animal science) to rely on analytical tools based on standard statistics and average values. However, pastoralism is better understood as a sui generis production system, that deliberately exploits the transient concentrations of nutrients that represent the most reliable feature of dryland environments; a system geared at maximising the production of economic value while stabilising its performance in environments where ‘uncertainty’ is harnessed for production. As average values and standard statistics fail to capture non-uniform distribution (relied upon for production in dryland pastoralism), they should not uniquely or uncritically inform pastoral development planning.” (Kratli )
According to the conventions of grassland sciences, pastoral mobility is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, whether modernity means intensified productivity, or sustainability, or both. Pastoral mobility can only be seen negatively, as a subsistence survival strategy of people living as slaves to nature, at the mercy of the elements, unable to subdue nature and intensify.
Much of China’s deep-seated animus against mobile pastoralism comes from a conviction that, in Tibet, the nomadic way of life is both unsustainable -the basic cause of rangeland degradation- and unproductive, because there is actually more grass, in the summer alpine upland meadows, than the yaks, sheep and goats can eat. Chinese scientists interpreting photographs taken by satellites hundreds of kilometres above Tibet calculated that in summer months, there is a surplus of grass in the upper pastures, which receive both intense sunshine and summer monsoon rains, and also benefit from glacier melt.
Frequently, sustainability and productivity are supposed to be contradictory: the more of one, the less of the other. Sustainable long term land use, including conservation of biodiversity of plants and animals, and protection of watersheds, all push in the direction of reducing human impacts such as grazing domestic animals. Maximising productive land use pushes in the opposite direction, maximising herd size and speeding up commercial sale of livestock for slaughter as soon as they reach adult weight. Yet Tibetan pastoralism is conventionally accused of grossly overstocking winter pastureland and understocking the summer meadows. Overstocking is blamed as the fundamental cause of degradation and unsustainability; while under stocking is inefficient, failing to convert the abundant summer meadows fully to animal protein. A team of Australian agricultural economists working in China’s grasslands say “many areas report grass surpluses in summer. In mountainous areas, summer pastures have more time to recover after winter-spring spelling and are only grazed for several months before cold weather forces herders and livestock down from the mountains. In contrast, degrees of overstocking are severe in spring-autumn pastures throughout China.” (Waldron 303) They calculate that the actual stocking rate in Tibet, on overwintering pastures, is 377 per cent. In other words, Tibetans have almost four times as many animals as the land can bear. If all of China’s autumn-winter-spring grasslands are overstocked, it can only be because they have always been overstocked, not just because of recent added pressures such as climate change and recent stocking practices.
This negative assessment condemns the traditional pastoralism of not only the Tibetans but also the Mongols, Kazakhs, Yugu, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of China, all of them fundamentally unsustainable, because their animals lack feed in winter, and their owners face difficult choices, especially in spring, about when to let penned animals out to graze when pasture is beginning to grow and is susceptible to damage if grazed too early.
The reality is that all of these nationalities have adapted to make best, flexible use of transient concentrations of nutrients, in different seasons, at different altitudes, on different pastures, calculating differing risks. Transience is at the heart of nomadic pastoralism, and is not understood by those who don’t practice making a virtue, and a lifeway, out of uncertainty.
Tibetan civilisation made not only its nomadic production but its core existential values transience and uncertainty. Tibetan Buddhism in practice makes impermanence, transience, contingency, interdependence as the primary characteristics of all realities and all circumstances, natural and social. Far from seeing this as problematic, unreliable or even fearsome, the changeable character of all phenomena enables practitioners to be responsive and accommodating of change, using it as the basis of decisive action in the moment, making full use of recognising and acting on what Tibetans call auspicious coincidence. It is no exaggeration to say that the Buddhism practiced by ordinary nomads from the moment they wake and start muttering mantras is grounded in the constructive uses of transience and uncertainty.
Science, however, routinely turns what it observes into a problem, which requires expertise to solve. Anything, if examined closely and in isolation, can be problematic. The greater the data, the likelier it is that dangerous trends can be interpreted from the accumulating numbers. The medicalisation of pregnancy is the classic example. Giving birth and being born have always been risky, but once the risks are enumerated, calculable and actuaralisable, they take on a life of their own, demanding medical intervention as a matter of principle. In this way the natural processes of giving birth and being born are overwhelmed by the master narrative of medical risk, which usually necessitates locating birth in a hospital. (Kathryn Pyne Addelson, The Emergence of the Fetus, in Gender Struggles, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)
As soon as Chinese, and later, international scientists, turned their gaze to the mobile, extensive land use of the Tibetan pastoral nomads, it quickly became obvious –even though most such scientists seldom actually went to Tibet- that raising yaks, sheep and goats is inherently problematic. There is not enough grass for the long winters, and in the summer growing season, when nomads are very busy moving herds onto new pastures, milking and many other tasks, there is no time to grow fenced fodder crops for harvest and storage for winter. Not only is there insufficient grass for overwintering, there is too much, sometimes much too much grass, in summer, in the high pastures.
If one takes such data to calculate rational stocking rates based on objective measurement of carrying capacity, it turns out that all the grasslands of China are overstocked and always have been. Yet the pastoralists of China have lived, seemingly sustainably, on these extensive grasslands, for thousands of years. Experts whose business is finding expert solutions seldom acknowledge this, since traditional practices were not recorded in numerical detail and are not to be found in available data sets.
Although Chinese scientists mounted many expeditions into Tibet to make readable this unknown land, and reducible to standard scientific categories, China never learned the basic fact of human life in Tibet: extensive, mobile use of the entire plateau, from wetlands and lake shores right up to the snow line, where vegetation ends and even the toughest sedges and grasses cannot survive.
From the outset, Chinese eyes sought only exceptional Tibetan land pockets suited to intensification: a hydro dam here, a state farm there, a town here, a mine there, all connected by power lines, pipelines and highways. Intensification was the logic, even the intensification of livestock production. In the communes of the 1960s and 1970s nomads were forced to live in large concentrations, eating in communal mess halls, owning almost no personal possessions, given rations only according to how hard they worked. Herds and herders were intensified and concentrated, on the theory that this meant an organised division of labour, hence greater efficiency and productivity. But the vast plateau grasslands cannot be made to function like a factory assembly line; especially when the decision makers, recently immigrated Chinese cadres, know little about the blizzards and gales, snow disasters, hailstorms, dust storms, cold snaps and other dangers routinely faced by Tibetan pastoralists.
In most developing countries where nomads occupy the drylands and uplands, newly independent governments, of urban-based politicians, have had limited sympathy for pastoralists, or appreciation of the logic, productivity and sustainability of pastoralism. Usually, governments have gradually encroached on pastoral lands, undermining the viability of mobile, extensive rangeland use. But in China, the encroachment was not so gradual.
In myriad ways, China encroached on Tibet’s extensive pastoral land use civilisation. In the violence of conquest, most battles were on pastoral land, often where nomads retreated up long winding valleys in the hills, after discovering their 19th century flintlocks were no match for machine guns and artillery in the hands of seasoned PLA soldiers who had served in the Korean War. Hauling heavy artillery over great plateau distances was done by requisitioning yaks, close to a million of them, few of which were returned. Once the nomads were defeated, China moved quickly to establish the communes, with all pastoralists required to surrender their herds into a collective, in concentrations that made it hard to maintain the necessary mobility.
For 20 years the communes persisted with China’s dream of meat production on industrial scale in Tibet. Even Tibetans who were sincere converts to communist ideology were shocked at the crude, predatory methods used to turn nomads into labourers at the command of cadres from provinces far from the grasslands. One of the few accounts of daily life in the communes was written by Dhondub Choeden, a woman from the “serf” class favoured by the revolution, who was a minor commune official, and kept detailed records of commune life. Her 1978 account is written in the present, since the communes were still operating, after 20 years of servitude. Unfortunately Life in the Red Flag Peoples Commune, published in Dharamsala in 978, is long out of print.