‘Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World’ – coming soon from Zed Books

Twenty six years ago Zed published a book on Tibet, which quickly became controversial. The Making of Modern Tibet by Tom Grunfeld made the case for China’s revolutionary modernising project in Tibet. Not surprisingly, many Tibetans found this apologia for revolutionary class warfare upsetting.
That was 1987, a time when global awareness of Tibet was emerging from obscurity, the global presence of the Dalai Lama only beginning, and China’s revolution a questionable legacy, especially in China. Only two years later, at Tiananmen, the popular Chinese embrace of all things western, including democracy, collided with the Communist Party’s utter insistence on monopolising power. Much student blood flowed.
In hindsight, Grunfeld’s book was a last sigh, from an Atlantic left that mourned the passing of China’s revolutionary era, and had yet to face the human cost of Mao’s revolution, which is now inescapable and undeniable.
Now Zed is again pioneering new ways of considering, and writing about Tibet. Spoiling Tibet, out in September 2013, is about mining, but also about traditional Tibetan uses of mountain landscapes, where the mineral deposits are.
Spoiling Tibet argues that Tibet has long valued highly the landscapes of solitude, those high slopes beyond human settlement, peculiarly suited to solitary contemplation of the nature of mind. High above the farmers in the valley, above the high plateaus and the nomads with their herds of yak and sheep, live the yogis, the meditators who go inwards, deep into the nature of reality, beyond appearance. In their caves in the snow, these disciplined men and women experiment, to discover the nature of self, of emotion, of all phenomena. Away from all distractions, they practice the many Tibetan sciences of mind training.
They are absent from society for years. When done, they return to society, with the deep inner confidence of having realised, in embodied ways, a source of inner strength that does not rely on things going the way we want. They become leaders of Tibetan society, revered for their depth of insight, equanimity, impartiality and clarity. Tibetan civilisation is built round these victors of solitude.
The places of solitude are now threatened by mining. Tibet can be made to yield its gold, copper, silver, lead, zinc, lithium and molybdenum. Or it can provide reflective, expansive spaces in which to explore to the fullest the human condition. It is getting increasingly harder to do both.
These days, we are used to counting the value of environmental services versus the value of mineral extraction. Both can be monetised, so a cost/benefit comparison can be done. But how can we weigh the respective merits of using the mountains of Tibet for solitary contemplation or wealth accumulation? That’s the question posed by Spoiling Tibet.
Back in 1987 it would have been impossible to ask that question. The difference between Zed’s two titles on Tibet is a measure of how far we have come. In 1987, Tibetans were barely heard speaking for themselves; now charismatic Tibetan lamas transform the lives of thought leaders throughout the modern world. In 1987, rigid Cold War dualist categories were everywhere. The right saw Tibet as an anti-communist issue; the left wanted a China success story. Tibet fitted either into the feudal theocratic hell to be liberated by class war – Grunfeld’s argument – or was a lost Shangri-la of saintly, other-worldly mystics, a fantasy that gripped many European imaginations. Both of these extreme projections were unhelpful, both spoke for Tibet, both excluded Tibetan voices speaking for themselves.
In Spoiling Tibet, Tibetans speak for themselves, as much as is possible when speaking up is met with repression, torture and imprisonment. This is a fresh Asian Argument.

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