Top seven relaunched ministries, and their new era of impacts on Tibet

How does the 2018 reorganisation of China’s government affect Tibet?

Although the reorganisation is the biggest in decades, with hardly any ministry unaffected, there has been no commentary on how this impacts on Tibet. Further, the commentaries so far available, looking more generally across China, have been superficial, focussed mostly on picking winners and losers.

In reality, the March 2018 reorganisation announced at the National People’s Congress session must be seen in the context of the recentralisation of power, which has been vigorously pushed by Xi Jinping for some time. The wider context is that the party-state’s centre is regaining the command-and-control powers it relinquished back in the early 1980s, after the centralised economy of the Cultural Revolution decade almost collapsed. Deng Xiaoping returned much power to provincial, prefectural and county governments, and attempts in the 1990s to recentralise largely went nowhere.

The announced restructuring is based on a seemingly impeccable logic: each ministry now has a single function, rather than a clutter of functions pulling it in various directions, made worse by many official bodies sharing core functions better done by a single arm of the party-state. The appeal to rationality, efficiency, productivity and clarity is great.

The new era approach, we are told, is all about service delivery, as if it is a new social media platform. The core argument is efficiency: “The main idea of this reform, says Wang Manchuan 满传 National School of Administration, is to ‘transfer one matter to one agency’. Each one is supposed to do one thing, and do it well. They are assigned core missions (‘functions’ 功能 in CCP jargon).”[1]


For Tibetans, key questions are to do with how the key functions are defined. Are key functions framed wholly by China’s new era emphasis on production and consumption, including consumption of a cleaner environment? Is there any acknowledgement in the new structure that the Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of China’s total area- and the six million Tibetans are exceptional, whose circumstances are quite different to the lowland norm?

This is a whole-of-government approach, without exceptions. It comes at a time when the party-state has insisted, more forcefully than ever, that it is the party that is in command. In fact, many of the reorganisations now explicitly position the party as the driver of official state policy, fully institutionalising the party as the permanent arbiter of policy and its implementation. If Tibetan concerns are marginalised by this reorganisation, there is no recourse to another branch of the party-state for redress, or a hearing of concerns. If Tibetan concerns are not only marginalised but defined out of existence altogether, by the functional categories now constituting the party-state, not only is there no-one to appeal to, the language of appeal, petition and grievance is immediately illegitimate, impossible to hear, and can only be classified as a matter for the security apparatus.

Since Tibetans have long struggled to be heard, any further erasure of Tibetan livelihood and cultural concerns, can only lead to greater deafness and greater securitisation. From a Tibetan point of view, however, “doing one things well” turns out to be the one things the party-state wants, mainly water supply and a new tourism-based post-industrial economy. There is not one ministry whose “one thing” includes any concern for the welfare of Tibetans, especially rural Tibetans, on their lands, maintaining their customary livelihoods as skilled land, wildlife, grass and livestock managers and farmers. The logic of “one thing” to the exclusion of all else is likely to further exclude Tibetans, all in the name of entering a wonderful new era.



Bearing in mind these dangers, what are the actual reorganisation specifics?

1 We begin by identifying the most powerful of the restructured ministries affecting most directly the lives of Tibetans. First and most obvious is the security state, not only because of its size, massive central financing, predominance in provincial budgets and intrusive grid management surveillance, but also because it is the biggest employer of Tibetan graduates, since so few Han Chinese have learned Tibetan.[2] The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is little changed, having already been instructed on many occasions, as with the armed forces, that they are directly under the party, and their loyalty is to the party. MPS is no longer required to participate in emergency management, such as earthquake relief, nor will it administer immigration, as there is now a new bureaucracy to control who enters China.

2 The second most powerful ministry for Tibetans is the highly restructured Ministry of Water Resources (MWR). For Tibetans all over the plateau, who still have to carry water on their backs to their village, from the nearest stream, it might seem odd to say this is the second most powerful.  Yet the entire usefulness of Tibet to China is redefined in this new era as, primarily, the supply of water to lowland China, requiring the removal of any obstacles to reliable delivery of clean water. China increasingly classifies Tibet as a “strategic reserve of natural resources” available to meet future demand, but the one resource urgently needed right now is water, and the two major rivers of China rise in Amdo and Kham.

MWR is further strengthened by now having direct control of the biggest of hydraulic megaprojects that are now built and running: the Three Gorges Dam athwart the Yangtze, and the South-to-North water diversion canals sending Yangtze water north. Until now both Three Gorges and South-to-North were directly under the State Council. But are they all built? The one south-to-north mega-diversion project yet to begin is in Tibet, requiring many dams across upper tributaries of the Yangtze, to be tunnelled through mountain ranges and pumped uphill to get to the parched Yellow River. Although this huge project, which would deeply impact the Tibetans of Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa, remains on the to-do list of the current 13th Five-Year Plan, there is as yet no sign the many blueprints are actually breaking ground.

MWR is all about provisioning of water for lowland China, ensuring glacier melt reaches its downriver urban users, damming and hydro-electrifying those rivers as needed, also exporting China’s hydraulic engineering expertise, for which Tibet serves as a useful showroom demonstrating MWR capabilities. However, flood control is not under MWR, but the newly created Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) 应急管理部 . Removing pollutants from water is the responsibility of another ministry, the newly upgraded Ministry of Ecological Environment  ⽣态环境部. Despite the idea of “one function, one ministry”, water provision and water quality are separate. In order to ensure water supply from Tibet is of good quantity and quality, all that is needed is to remove the nomads, and their animals which do their droppings in rivers and streams. That is how official China sees it.

The minister of water resources (and party secretary of MWR) is E Jingping, a professional dam builder and hydraulic engineer since the 1970s. But will dam building in Tibet, a high priority in each successive Five-Year Plan be the job of MWR or those in charge of energy, or economic development, or the renewables industry?

3 For Tibet, an obvious candidate for third most important is the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). This is no longer the same as the Ministry of Land and Resources. MNR in many ways is more powerful than Land and Resources was. It has many new responsibilities: it is to administer urban and rural planning, administer the rights registration and investigation of water resources, administer the rights registration and investigation of grassland resources which has until now been in the hands of the State Forestry Administration, and administer the rights registration and investigation of forest and wetland resources. The Grassland Law will be the responsibility of MNR, a law filled with responsibilities of grassland users, with little on rights. If there is deemed to be any clash, or contradiction, between water and grassland, the grassland users will lose; and it has long been official policy that there is a contradiction between grassland and grazing animal herds.

Everyone knows Tibet is a treasure house of minerals, and Chinese geologists keep finding more. MNR will have the power to co-ordinate extraction of those resources, not only because that is its core responsibility but because it has new powers over urban and rural development, including the construction of infrastructure to enable resource extraction, plus it has the new power, taken from the National Development & Reform Commission to organize the drafting of the plan for main functional areas. This is a major central planning power, delegated from the NDRC to MNR.

However, China’s new era emphasis on designating much of Tibet as Key Ecological Function Zone does limit the extent of resource extraction, instead giving priority to mass tourism. China has not found much enthusiasm among mining companies, even among those directly state-owned, for the direct investment of capital in large-scale resource extraction in Tibet. Those companies have the choice of mineral deposits worldwide, and usually prefer to invest in Africa or Latin America rather than Tibet, and keep their profits abroad too. So MNR, despite its many new powers, may yet find it hard to have much impact.

4 Fourth is the new Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT). This innovation brings together two bureaucracies hitherto quite separate, united by the single core function of fostering a consumer culture capable, in Tibet, of bringing tens of millions of Han Chinese tourists to quite remote areas, which thus provides employment for immigrant Han Chinese who provide all services to the tourists and speak their language. This marriage of culture and tourism tells us much about the future direction for Tibet, where already around 40 per cent of the total area of the Tibetan Plateau has been designated as Key Ecological Function Zone, making these protected areas into destinations for tourism, with the promise of pristine wilderness landscapes.

The previous Ministry of Culture already had a big role in tourism, being the owner and operator of many scenic spots, monuments, old palaces and temples, which gave it revenue and power to control the story told to visitors. However the previous National Tourism Administration regulated all other destinations, and the hospitality industry. Now they are fused. Will this new, bigger ministry have a role in running the new national parks in Tibet, due to be launched in 2020? Despite the emphasis on each ministry doing one key function, this is not yet clear.

Huang Kunming, China’s head of all propaganda work told the Ministry of Culture & Tourism: “establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a major decision made by the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core based on the overall cause of the party and the country, and strengthening the overall leadership of the party in cultural and tourism work. It is of practical significance and far-reaching historical significance to promote the integration of cultural undertakings, cultural industries and tourism, meet people’s needs for a better life, and increase national cultural soft power and Chinese cultural influence.”

5 Fifth, in terms of impact on Tibet, is the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA). Hopefully, this is the ministry for Tibetan livelihoods, for improving the productivity of Tibetan livestock and crop farming production landscapes, the one ministry that could help Tibet link to the booming urban Chinese demand for dairy products. In reality the old Ministry of Agriculture took no interest in the rangelands and had no understanding of the ways Tibetan nomads made flexible use of extensive lands. This is unlikely to change. The addition of Rural Affairs means more focus on the incomes of farmers, and programs to turn many small farms into a small number of big agribusiness farm enterprises, in the name of efficiency. Specifically, MARA takes over several functions previously administered by other departments:  agricultural investment projects, no longer under the central planners of NDRC;  agricultural comprehensive development projects, no longer arranged by Ministry of Finance; farmland renovation projects, no longer under Ministry of Land and Resources;  farmland water conservancy construction projects, a function taken away from the Ministry of Water Resources.  This will perpetuate the wasteful use of water by farmers, who will continue to expect plentiful water supply at extraordinarily cheap prices, which encourages wasteful use. Far from the new Ministry of Water Resources having power to control water demand and restrict wasteful water use, MWR is limited solely to supplying water, not regulating demand or cleaning up polluted rivers and lakes.


These five key ministries will do much to shape the future of Tibet, plus the armed forces, stationed in permanent garrisons in every Tibetan town. What is striking about all five is that none of them have human welfare of existing rural Tibetan communities as their core mission. Indeed, each new ministry has its own powerful reasons to ignore Tibetan lives and livelihoods, in pursuit of their single function, be it security of the party-state, guaranteed water supply from Tibetan glaciers, a rapid growth in mass domestic Han tourism into Tibet, and consolidation of customary lands into industrialised large-scale agribusinesses. Each of these missions makes traditional Tibetan modes of production irrelevant or problematic, or an obstacle to achieving the new era goal.

If the top five ministries (plus the armed forces) all tend to assume Tibetans are obstacles to achieving the ministerial new era mission, rather than citizens to be served, perhaps we need to look to other ministries to find the caring side. There are many more ministries, some old, some new, with a hand in governing Tibet.

We could start with the National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC), the central planners who write the Five-Year Plans and supervise their implementation. Commentary on the latest reorganisation has branded NDRC as one of the big losers, on the grounds that many of its roles have been transferred to many of the “one function, one ministry” departments. Far from weakening central planning, it has been extended, with each of the powerful ministries now doing a lot more social engineering, to realise the “great rejuvenation.” Centralising power away from local and provincial government, concentrating power in the national party-state, means more central planning, not less. Command-and-control is back, even though the centralisers will find, in a country as huge as China, that it is far easier to issue commands than to exercise actual control.

Much of the commentary has focused on the new Ministry of Ecological Environment (MEE) ⽣态环境部, which builds on the old Ministry of Environment Protection.

Why not put MEE in the top five, since there is a lot of environment to protect in Tibet? China is getting quite serious about urban air pollution, although its methods of ensuring compliance are highly authoritarian. The reason MEE, despite its enhanced powers to investigate and fine noncompliant projects and enterprises, is not high on our list for impact on Tibet, is simple: it is focussed almost wholly on eastern China. It is in the big, polluted cities of the east that populations of distressed citizens are mobilised, and the party-state faces deep discontent.

In China’s west, including Tibet, the securitization of Tibetan concerns makes Tibetan protests immediately criminal, matters solely for the security organs. MEE is unlikely to exercise its new powers in Tibet any time soon. On paper, Tibetans, and all of China’s citizens, have new powers, for example the right to obtain official disclosure of information, in advance, on major construction projects, such as the building of hydro dams. [3] In practice, the security state overrides MEE, and many other Tibetan rights.

A further sign that the central party-state struggles to get environmental compliance realised is that the revenues MEE earns when it does impose fines and penalties on polluting factories, is to be returned to local governments[4]. Centralisation goes only so far.

MEE now speaks boldly, naming and shaming polluters,, even if they have official backing: “The illegal production of enterprises and the implicit support of local governments have sounded unbelievable. However, they appeared in Luotian County, Hubei Province. This is a very typical act of chaos. It seriously deviated from the decision-making and enforcement of the central government, seriously decimated the expectations of the people, and seriously affected the improvement of environmental quality. Providing quality ecological products for the masses is the statutory duty of the local government and the internal affairs. However, Luotian County and its Economic Development Zone Administrative Committee, is willing to act as an umbrella for illegal companies. Compared with ordinary inactivity and slowness, this type of chaos is more serious and has a worse influence. In fact, the reason why the local government chose “hidden” instead of “bright face” to support illegal activities is because they know that their actions are contrary to the central government’s policy. While shouting that environmental protection is important, they connived, acquiesced, and even supported environmental violations, knowingly committing crimes, engaging in small tricks, and playing abacus.”

The offending county is far from Tibet, and close to Beijing, so it is being held accountable. Maybe the day will one day come when pollution protecting county governments in Tibet will also be publicly shamed.


6 That brings us to continue this list of newly centralised party-state power. Number six is a familiar name to Tibetans, a CCP mass organisation that has now swallowed several agencies of the state: “The day after the NPC closed on March 20, party authorities announced a further series of administrative restructuring geared toward subsuming State Council departments or functions under party organs. One notable example is the party’s United Front Work Department, which absorbed three State Council units—the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and the Overseas Chinese Work Department. The abolition of the three State Council departments testifies to President Xi’s instructions about “the party running state organs.” This also portends more vigorous oversight over China’s ethnic minorities, Christians (including worshippers in house churches) and the activities of ethnic Chinese domiciled abroad. The head of the expanded UFWD is You Quan, another Xi protégé with connections to Fujian Province (, March 21;, March 21). And looming above the much-changed landscape of Chinese governance is Xi, the hands-on supreme leader who is determined to run this huge nation as if it were his personal fiefdom.[5]

This fusion of party and state fully institutionalises the party as the driver of policy, the state merely the implementer. “The mask has come off,” said Jude Blanchette, a senior adviser and China analyst at Crumpton Group, an advisory firm based in Arlington, Va. “What was for a time a convenient fiction that the government was separate from the party is, apparently, no longer needed.”

Regulations which came into effect in February 2018 give the implementing authorities sweeping power. The new regulations codify religious compliance with party ideology: “Article 3 Religious affairs shall be administered under the principles of protecting legitimacy, stopping illegitimacy, containing the extreme, resisting penetration, and cracking down on criminals.

“Article 4. Religious groups, religious institutions, premises for religious activities and religious citizens shall comply with the Constitution, laws, regulations and rules, practice the core socialist values, and maintain national integrity, ethnic solidarity, religious harmony and social stability. No organization or individual may make advantage of religion to endanger national security, destroy the social order, harm the health of citizens, obstruct the educational system of the state, or carry out other activities that harm the national interest, public benefits, or lawful rights and interests of citizens.

“No organization or individual may create contradictions or conflicts between different religions, in a same religion, or between religious and non-religious citizens, preach, support or subsidize religious extremism, or take advantage of religion to destroy ethnic solidarity, split the state or carry out terrorist activities.

“Article 5 All religions shall adhere to the principles of maintaining their independence, relying on themselves respectively, and holding their respective religions on their own. No religious group, religious institution, premise for religious activities or religious affair shall be dominated by foreign force.

“Article 6 The people’s governments at all levels shall strengthen their religious work, establish and improve the mechanism of religious work, and guarantee the strength of work and the necessary working conditions.

“Article 8 A religious group shall have the following functions: (1) assisting the people’s government in implementing the laws, regulations, rules and policies and protecting the lawful rights and interests of the religious citizens.”[6]

7 Seventh in our listing of newly empowered party-state departments with big impacts on Tibetan life is State Forestry and Grassland Administration (aka National Park Administration 国家公园管理局) {MNR} 国家林业和草原局. The State Forestry Administration is not new, nor is its governance of the vast rangelands of Tibet and thus the drogpa nomads. But SFA is now reshaped. It now explicitly includes grasslands in its official title, making clear that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs is out of the picture. Since MARA is focussed on income and welfare of farmers, there is no similar emphasis on the welfare of customary rangeland users.  In fact, as China gears up to launch many new national parks in 2020, four of them in Tibet, SFA is explicitly now the National Park Administration. That means its primary responsibility is the maintenance of landscapes deemed wilderness, for tourist use, not ongoing pastoral production.

SFA has lost some of its former powers, but it has also gained powers previously scattered among several ministries, that effectively nationalise under central control the common pool resources of the herders. Until now nature reserves, protected areas and national parks had overlapping masters, including Ministry of Land & Resources, Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture and even the State Oceanic Administration; all of which are now transferred to SFA. This makes SFA more powerful, but its focus is not on livelihoods and customary landscape stewardship, but on creating a new consumer economy designed for mass domestic tourism, in the grasslands and forests it now exclusively governs.

China’s central leaders are responding to complaints by farmers of having been left behind, in the rush to get rich, with little investment in the basic amenities such as sanitary toilets and a sewer system, in villages across China. Now, the central party-state has announced a vigorous program to provide these basic facilities in rural settlements.[1] But now that China’s grasslands are no longer the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, nor the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development, does the official support for constructing village toilets and sewers extend to Tibet? It seems not. The State Forestry Administration is all about closing farmland, insisting on planting trees on farm fields and on grassland, in programs that have been running for decades. In addition, many Tibetan herders do not live in villages, other than the “administrative villages” deemed into existence by bureaucrats who can’t cope with pastoral mobility. So the new restructuring of powers appears to have, again, excluded Tibetans.

[1] National Development and Reform Commission: Push forward the actions to improve the rural human settlement environment in a down-to-earth manner, 26 Feb 2018,



The party-state is serious about having entered a new era. It is serious about averting the “middle-income trap”, a concept invented by economists to describe the complexity and contradictions of countries that are no longer poor, but still well short of becoming rich, which often slow down. China is determined to create a consumer-driven economy, and Tibet is to be consumed, primarily by mass tourism, and the employment tourism creates for Han hospitality service providers.

In new era China, huge portions of the Tibetan Plateau are now designated as natural resource strategic reserves, not for immediate exploitation, leaving many landscapes designated instead for tourism, and for water supply to lowland China.

This new era reorganisation of the party-state says it is all about rationality, efficiency, logic, and a move away from the revolutionary era emphasis on production, production, production. “Former finance minister Lou Jiwei 继伟 joked ‘frogs in the river are governed by the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA); frogs on the shore are governed by the State Forestry Administration”’. But this is more than a rationalisation of functions; it is also a recatgorisation of what government is and does. Does government serve the masses? On paper, yes. In practiced, in Tibet, it is hard to find a ministry that fosters, promotes, enhances, supports, strengthens or empowers Tibetan livelihoods; while almost all of the new ministries are instructed to restrict, exclude and exclose Tibetans, for a wide range of official reasons, including poverty alleviation, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and water supply.

Those who support this new centralisation use the language of disruption and innovation, to sweep aside the old and usher in the new:  The 17 March plan, and simultaneous national rollouts of pilot programs, break out many offices of local government—including revenue, environmental enforcement and the courts—from city and county budgets and place them under direct authority of central agencies, via local branches. This means mayors and county chiefs will be less able to ignore environmental and budget rules in pursuit of their interests. The new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEEN) will take over a national network. Local environmental protection offices, formerly subordinate to mayors and county chiefs, will receive independent funding and will be placed under the joint oversight of local governments and MEEN.”[7]

Logic, as Buddhist logicians have always said, has its limits, and must be transcended. Logic can unravel delusions, but it can’t bring us to discover how to live. China’s new era government looks exciting, until you look closely.


[1] A Revolutionary Government Overhaul, , 19 March 2018

[2] Adrian Zenz, China’s Ticking Time Bomb – Finding Jobs for Soaring Numbers of Graduates From Tibetan Higher Education Will Pose an Increasing Challenge to the Regime, European School of Culture and Theology, Korntal, Germany, 2017

[3] Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Advancing Public Disclosure of Government Information in the Field of Approval and Implementation of Major Construction Projects,  国务院办公厅关于推进重大建设项目批准和实施领域政府信息公开的意见 [现行有效],【法宝引证码】Issuing authority: General Office of the State Council•Document Number: No. 94 [2017] of the General Office of the State Council, Date issued: 12-04-2017

[4]   Notice of the State Council on Issues concerning the Ownership of Revenues from Environmental Protection Tax 国务院关于环境保护税收入归属问题的通知 [现行有效], 【法宝引证码】CLI.2.307419, Document Number: No. 56 [2017] of the State Council, Date issued: 12-22-2017

[5] Willy Wo-lap Lam, At China’s ‘Two Sessions’, Xi Jinping Restructures Party-state to Further Consolidate Power, March 26, 2018, China Brief

[6] Regulation on Religious Affairs (2017 Revision) 宗教事务条例(2017修订) [尚未生效], 【法宝引证码】CLI.2.301551(EN), Issuing authority: State Council, Order No. 686 of the State Council,•               Effective date: 02-01-2018

[7] A Revolutionary Government Overhaul, , 19 March 2018


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