#3 in a blog series of 3

The world now has a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a UN session in September 2015, all governments, including China, formally adopted these SDGs as their target for improving the quality of all human lives.

How do these new Sustainable Development Goals impact on Tibet? Surely Tibetans have more immediate concerns to worry about than a long list of worthy development goals, such as eliminating poverty?

The SDGs were adopted in 2015 and like Paris COP21 were negotiated over several years, mobilising the energetic participation of a wide range of official and NGO institutions, often with Chinese partners. The SDGs are a long list of goals, objectives and yardsticks for quantifying progress, on a wide range of issues such as health, education, literacy, women’s participation, children, poverty and much more. Implementation of the SDGs is firmly in the hands of national governments, and China is determined to maintain its reputation as exemplary leader of the developing world by following up its much-acclaimed success in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), between 2000 and 2015. In a complex world, with many weak states lacking capacity to intervene helpfully in the lives of the poor, China has been hailed as the great success story, an example to the rest of the developing world.

Since China is huge, its national statistics hide enormous regional variation. Few observers have noticed that in Tibetan areas in China has struggled to fulfil key mdgs. In Tibet illiteracy remains high, and maternal mortality shockingly common. Only if national numbers are disaggregated are such problems apparent.

Because China can hide its failures in Tibet with national statistics, it remains the favourite of the global sustainable development community, and is determined to maintain its reputation. When it comes to poverty alleviation, China has announced that in the 13th Five-Year Plan period, 2016 to 2020: “China’s top leadership pledged resolute measures to help the remaining 70 million poor people shake off poverty and enjoy essential social services by 2020. President Xi Jinping told the conference that ‘no single poor region nor an individual living in poverty will be left behind’ when the country accomplishes the goal of ‘building a moderately prosperous society’ by 2020.”[1]

In counting its’ poor, China ignores hundreds of millions of poor peasants reliant on the urban factory incomes of their adult children while the ancestral land, for lack of available labour, withers. China denies that the poor are many, despite China’s  urban boom, and focuses narrowly on the 70 million officially designated as poor, by official criteria. China’s definition of poverty is low, only RMB2300 per person per year or US$376 (at 2010 prices). In Beijing one meal in an upscale restaurant can cost that much. The World Bank says the poor in China are many more than China acknowledges.[2]

A high proportion of China’s official tally of 70 million intractable poor are Tibetans. China has dramatic plans for them: “The conference laid out concrete and diversified measures in poverty relief. Industrial development is key to poverty alleviation, Xi Jinping said. Local resources should be well utilized to develop industries and ensure employment for the jobless peasants. Relocation is also highlighted. Premier Li Keqiang urged to lift about 10 million people out of poverty by 2020 through relocation, and local governments should make sure the relocated people have stable jobs to make a living.”[3]

China will not only persist in being the exemplary developmentalist state, fulfilling the new sdgs, it will go beyond its quota and physically relocate ten million human beings, to save them from the lands that doom them to poverty. The Tibetans are to be saved from Tibet.

China views the Tibetan Plateau as unnaturally cold, its air terrifyingly thin, growing little more than grass, forcing its helpless inhabitants to wander like animals that follow the grass. For Chinese planners, it is inconceivable that anyone with a choice would choose to live in such a harsh place. Now China, will graciously relocate 10 million poor people by 2020. It is not clear how how many of them will be Tibetans, but what is clear is the Chinese view that it is Tibet that makes Tibetans poor, and this can be remedied only by removal, at the least to the comfort of towns and cities, enclaves of modernity in Tibet, or away from Tibet altogether.

Other official policy announcements made in early 2016 speak of relocating as many as 50 million poor people. The annual No.1 Document issued jointly by the Communist Party and the state is always about rural policy. The January 2016 Document No. 1 names the ex situ relocation of 50 million poor as the set goal of the party-state:


The key phrase above can be translated as:  “measures to address ex situ relocation of about 50 million people out of poverty.”



Emptying rural Tibet of human use will profoundly change the landscape, which, even in the decade of pastoralist removals in the name of growing more grass to capture carbon, has resulted in grassland becoming shrubland no longer useful for livestock production. Locking up the innumerable plateaus of Tibet, in the name of cop21 carbon capture and sdg poverty alleviation, may win China much acclaim from the many environmental and developmental institutions worldwide that argued for the cop21 and sdg achievements of 2015. Yet the consequences will be profound. A depopulated Tibetan Plateau, with its human populations concentrated in cities and urban fringe resettlement camps, will have lost its food security, land tenure rights, opportunity to fulfil economic and social rights, and thus have to live under enforceable contracts written by global investors that require productive land to remain unproductive of anything but grass and water, for as much as the coming 100 years.

The Tibetan Plateau was made humanly habitable by basing the whole Tibetan civilisation on extensive land use, spread out across a vast plateau, operationalised by the strategy of mobility.  Extensive land use made skilful use of all the resources nature provides for the pastoralists, without overgrazing, due to regular mobility, moving on with herds and homes.

This pattern of extensive land use is in contrast to China’s  intensive concentration of populations, both animal and human, in specific enclaves, such as towns and their surrounds, that is typical of modernity. China has brought modernity to Tibet, in the form of intensive enclaves of development that require huge external inputs, of fuel, electricity, hydropower, financial subsidies, even food trucked in from great distances.

China has repudiated the extensive land use pattern of Tibetan production landscapes, substituting in its stead the urban enclave pattern that is ever more heavily reliant on external sources of energy and material support.

It seems extraordinary that, in the name of poverty alleviation, Tibetans can be removed from ancestral pastures and moved to urban fringes or to a fully urban existence. Yet to China’s planners, this makes perfect sense, given the premise that Tibet is altogether too high, the air too thin, the climate too cold for any human being to want to stay there. It is time for Tibetans to explain, loud and clear, why Tibetans actually prefer to live in Tibet.

This series of three blogs looks ahead to looming threats that could accelerate the depopulation of the Tibetan Plateau, clustering the entire Tibetan population in the booming cities, leaving the land empty –until new settlers move in to productive landscapes that have supported human land use for 9000 years.

Taken together, these three blogs demonstrate an underside to seemingly innocent, or beneficial policies: halting degradation of land, capturing more carbon and alleviating poverty. In principle, these are all commendable aims. But when the compulsory “Chinese characteristics” are added, even the most benign of policies can in practice become a rationale for separating Tibetans from Tibet.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy




[1] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/29/c_134864846.htm?utm

[2] Xiuqing Wang, Juan Liu et al.,China’s rural poverty line and the determinants of rural poverty;  China Agricultural Economic Review, Vol. 1 No. 3, 2009, pp. 283-300

[3] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-11/29/c_134864846.htm?utm

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