China’s big plan for Tibet



China has big plans for the Tibetan Plateau. China has long had big plans for Tibet, but often they failed to materialise, or eventuated in unexpected and perverse ways that did not meet Chinese expectations, and further alienated Tibetans.

China’s current big plans, embedded in the current 12th Five-Year Plan, are different, for two basic reasons. First, the past plans may have failed to generate wealth or establish an immigrant economy capable of employing large numbers of nonTibetans, but it did slowly emplace the core infrastructure essential to linking Tibet economically to inland and even coastal China. The fundamental infrastructure of highways, railways, cities, power stations, extraction zones, development hubs and corridors is now built, ready for an economic takeoff. Second, today’s China has the wealth, technology and nationalist drive to incorporate Tibet as never before.

This blogpost series looks closely at China’s plan for Tibet, which is to repurpose the entire plateau into a network of selective extraction enclaves and boom towns, leaving a vast hinterland neglected, undercapitalised and even depopulated.

This is one of the most radical changes in land use compared to past centuries:
• from extensive use of the plateau pastures to intensive concentration of people, money and infrastructure in privileged towns, mines and corridors;
• from a light touch mobile pastoralism to a heavy impact enclave economy,
• from self-sufficiency to food insecurity,
from carbon sink to carbon emitter,
• from use economy to exchange economy,
from respect for nature to mastery over nature,
• from low density to high density concentrations of population,
• from indigeny to exogeny.

The Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, which ruled in the decade to 2012, almost to a man, were engineers, and believed that all human and land use problems can be solved by engineering. China’s strategy in Tibet, pouring billions into concentrated areas designated for intensive development, seemed to them a law of nature, a self-evident truth on a par with the laws of physics or chemistry.

The rise of the red engineers brought rocket science to all manner of social and environmental problems, always with simplistic solutions. But guiding a missile to its target is not the same as guiding a plateau the size of Western Europe into sustainable modernity while maintaining biodiversity, alleviating poverty, enhancing productivity, protecting watersheds and many other essential but equally complex policy objectives. Correcting the flight path of a missile, so it hits its target, may be the origin of the control systems theory of China’s central leaders, but human reality is more complex, and the goals are multiple.

China’s past equation, that investment in roads, railways, towns, mines and power stations adds up to economic success, has not worked out on the Tibetan Plateau. A new generation of leaders may look for a more sophisticated approach. That requires identifying past policy failures, in order to discern a new path, which no longer is based on there being a contradiction between grass and animals, pastoralism and watersheds, nomadism and productivity, Buddhism and modernity, mother tongue and business tongue. Where there is contradiction, according to Communist party orthodoxy, a zero/sum logic applies. One side of the dualism must lose, the other win. Tibet is seen in uniformly negative terms, as a place of darkness, superstition, remoteness and backwardness, all of which have to be transformed into light, modernity and progress, linked by infrastructure to China’s accelerating accumulation of wealth. There is no other way.

So it has been until now, under the government of the red engineers. However their simplistic dualisms have excluded from view many of the complexities of Tibet. Under Hu Jintao, the leaders accepted his insistence that when Tibetans resist, the only answer is force. Hu Jintao’s rise was boosted by his reputation for being tough on Tibetans, in a system that equates state violence with patriotic nation building. When Hu Jintao directly ruled Tibet Autonomous Region two decades ago, he perfected a learned deafness to Tibetan voices, which all leaders since have also cultivated. All Tibetan grievances have been routinely categorised as dangerous “splittism”, to which the only answer is riot squads, heavily armed paramilitary police, long prison sentences and torture. Whether Tibetans were grieving the loss of land, cultural space, the use of mother tongue in the classroom, pollution of rivers by gold miners using cyanide and mercury, or racist discrimination in favour of Han immigrants, the specifics were ignored, and everything was seen as an existential threat to the ongoing existence of China as a unitary state.


Tibetans believe it is not only the people who have resisted the loss of actual autonomy; the land too has resisted. Although the land is sparsely populated by humans, there is a dense population of local spirits of place, which greatly dislike the pollution of rivers and degradation of rangelands caused by uncontrolled mining, and statist attempts to make the pasture more productive than is sustainably possible. China found it frustratingly hard to populate Tibet with immigrant farmers, as has been done in all new territories conquered over the centuries.
The Tibetan Plateau remains too cold for the crops cultivated by Chinese peasant farmers. But China tried hard to introduce new crops, new animal husbandry techniques, new roads and railways. All of these required digging the turf that protects the soil of Tibet from blizzards and gales. In order to build fences, roadbeds, pipeline trenches, hydro dams, towns, quarries and mines, always the first step was to cut the earth, exposing the soil to erosion and degradation, setting off an irreversible cycle that will take centuries to repair. The local gods of earth, water and mountain peak were greatly displeased, resulting, Tibetans say, in innumerable earthquakes, landslides and other disasters.

Whether one attributes these setbacks to ever present local deities, or to the tunnel vision of engineers, the result has been endless postponement of China’s dream of making great wealth from possessing Tibet. For these reasons, this blog series looks back, at past policy failures, in order to learn lessons about a more sustainable future that does not further alienate the six million Tibetans.

To Tibetans, the everyday reality of repression, and compulsory silence, the oppressive surveillance and compulsory lessons in “patriotic education” cause alienation and mistrust. So too the urban construction boom financed directly by Beijing, the explosive growth of mass tourism, leaving Tibetans no space in which to be themselves, not even in the holiest places of pilgrimage to purify the mind. All these seem, in Tibetan eyes, to be incursions, transgressions, disruptions interfering with lives and the values that Tibetans most cherish, including making much effort preparing for the next life.

China’s new leaders need not remain deaf to the obvious unhappiness of the Tibetans, which defeats China’s objectives for secure borders, harmonious relations between ethnicities, and popular legitimacy for the government. New leaders have new opportunity to recognise the perverse outcomes of past policies, the unintended consequences of policies intended to impose security and stability, which only exacerbated insecurity.

This series will suggest a new agenda for the new central leaders. A more skilful approach, actualising the many promises of cultural autonomy enshrined in Chinese law, would do much to win back loyalty and trust among the six million Tibetans whose homelands are one quarter of China’s vast area. Giving Tibetans agency could achieve much that decades of repression have failed to do.

A fresh start requires acknowledging the mental maps that have defined policy in recent decades, including the implicit as well as explicit attitudes central leaders have towards Tibet. Central leaders often talk of the need to “emancipate the mind” from old thinking. Now is such a time. Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” This is familiar to Tibetans, because the Buddha also said that individual human dissatisfaction and social suffering have their origins in mistaken perceptions of reality, requiring a fresh perception uncluttered by habitual fixations. If old leaders, convinced that only state violence can get results in Tibet, hang on to power, especially power over the military and security services, new thinking has little scope.

By looking both back and ahead, this report evaluates China’s current plans, and assesses the likelihood they will succeed. It is not enough to simply outline China’s plans, as if implementation goes to plan unproblematically. Plans seldom translate to ground reality without unforeseen consequences and perverse outcomes, especially when plans exclude the actual views of the supposed beneficiaries, the Tibetans.

By looking back and forward, this series puts Tibet in context. All too often, the question of Tibet is focused solely on human rights, as if human rights are not grounded in economic advantage or disadvantage, discrimination, exclusion, disempowerment, loss and despair. By focusing on China’s plans, and the likelihood they will work, we can discover the underlying causes of current Tibetan unhappiness, including the continuing determination to protest, no matter what the cost in individual sacrifice.

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