CHINA’S FIRST WAVE OF INDUSTRIALISATION OF TIBET: THE THIRD FRONT
#11 in a series on THE FUTURE OF TIBET
Mention the word “Tibet” and all too often people think only of central Tibet, the provinces of U-Tsang, which includes Lhasa and the historic heartland of the ancient kings. This is also what China means by Tibet, a definition restricted to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which is only half of the Tibetan Plateau, and with slightly less than half the Tibetan population.
To the north of TAR is Amdo, where the present Dalai Lama was born, now called Qinghai by China. Logistically it is closer to lowland China, with easier access for exploitation of minerals and other modern uses. Mining, on a large scale, is only now scaling up in central Tibet as a pillar industry. But mineral extraction has for decades been a pillar of the Qinghai economy. This is a sketch of the industrialisation of northern Tibet, in the decades before the world learned to watch Tibet closely.
For Tibet, China’s transition from central planning, command and control economics, through to full marketisation with Chinese statist characteristics, means much. The centralised economy, able to warp the entire national economy to support a crash program of military industrialisation, had a major impact on Tibet in the 1960s and 1970s, turning one remote but mineral-rich corner of the Tibetan Plateau into a weaponised heavy industrial zone, by command. Much of China’s surplus, especially the meagre profits of the peasants, was commandeered to finance the Third Front, as it is known in China, the final front in the coming battle against the US imperialists and/or the Soviet revisionists. The maritime frontier with the US Navy and the land border with the USSR were the first two fronts, but Mao’s doctrine of people’s war was to lure the enemy deep inland –at enormous cost in Chinese lives- until they ran up against the Third Front, where, to their shock, they would be annihilated. Much of inland and western China was the designated Third Front, including much of Amdo, the northeastern portion of the Tibetan Plateau. This includes the Qinghai Lake (Tso Ngonpo in Tibetan, Qinghai Hu in Chinese, Koko Nor in Mongolian), China’s biggest lake, repurposed for nuclear warfare submarine missile testing and production. The Third Front also included the Tsaidam Basin, a large but arid basin populated by Tibetan and Mongolian cameleers, rich in minerals, oil and gas. The military industrialisation of Tsaidam and the Qinghai Lake was entirely a product of revolutionary will, a triumph of mass campaign over matter, of politics over rationality, of isolationist paranoia and resource nationalism taken to the extreme of autarkic self-sufficiency at all costs.
The cost was enormous, both economically and environmentally. Huge numbers of prisoners were sent to Qinghai to build their own reform-through-labour prisons, then to labour on railway construction, and the creation of an industrial base at Gormo (Golmud or Ge’ermu in Chinese), which became a hub of oil extraction, oil refining, petrochemicals, salt extraction from dry salt lake beds, manufacture of plastics, fertilisers and pesticides from the combined inputs of oil and salt.
The capital to finance these major projects came from squeezing the peasants in whose name the revolution had been fought. The capital costs of establishing steel mills in inaccessible mountains in Sichuan, abutting the Tibetan Plateau, were staggering, defying all cost/benefit norms. Politics was in command, and the Panzihua steel mill still operates.
Propaganda posters urged the idealistic young to migrate to Qinghai, to serve the nation on the frontline of socialist construction. Many went, despite Qinghai’s reputation as cold, inhospitable, lacking in amenities or comforts.
China finally had a rail line extending into the Tibetan Plateau, from Xi’an, through Lanzhou and Xining, extending further west to service the nuclear missile testing base on the shores of Qinghai Lake, then even further west and south to the Tsaidam Basin. Once the rail line was through, tanker wagons could remove the oil of Tibet to refineries in Lanzhou. Chinese official yearbook statistics show a steady average of two million tonnes extracted this way each year, for decades, with a small proportion piped south to Lhasa. At least 60 million tonnes of oil has come from Tibet, not a lot in the context of China’s demand, but it appears to be the only exploitable oil field of the Tibetan Plateau, and it has long been at peak production, with only a few years left before it is exhausted, without Tibetans ever having a say in its use.
In the 1960s, Chinese engineers realised that the Tsaidam oilfield would never be as big as the oil of Xinjiang, to the north of Tibet; but the combination of oil, slat, and proximity to lead, zinc and asbestos deposits made for not only an extraction enclave but a full scale industrial production base. The salts had many uses, since the slowly evaporating salts of a slowly drying climate that monsoon clouds seldom reached, contained not only common edible salt, but also the salts of other elements, notably potassium, magnesium and lithium. Common salt, combined with oil can make urea fertiliser, polyvinyl chloride plastic, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and wide range of petrochemicals. Potassium salts make potash fertiliser, much needed by Chinese farmers to replenish depleted, overworked soils. Magnesium salts could be used to extract magnesium, and lithium salts gradually became valuable once lithium grew in use for the batteries that power laptops, smartphones and computer tablets. Then gas was discovered close to the oil fields, adding a new source of energy, available to the heavy industries of Gormo.
Now, according to the official Qinghai Statistical Yearbook, in 2009 The Tibetan areas of Qinghai produced 94 per cent of all coal mined in the province, 100 per cent of all crude oil, natural gas and salt, plus 80 per cent of all electricity generated, from hydro dams on the Yellow River (Ma Chu in Tibetan) in Tibetan areas. The only major industrial products of Qinghai that do not come from Tibetan areas are Qinghai’s modest output of cement and steel.
All this grew out of the dirigiste command economy of the revolutionary era. In fact, the entire industrial complex was in place by the time China veered away from revolution towards its historic opening towards a market economy run by the state.
Although industrialisation was the primary method of creating socialism, there was very little industrialisation anywhere else on the Tibetan Plateau until much more recently. The southern half of the plateau, designated Tibet Autonomous Region, remained almost entirely without economic linkages to the Chinese economy, and without industry, until the 1990s.
Now that China has marketised, driven by profit, whether the investors are state owned or private, how likely is it that there will be fresh round of industrialisation of the Tibetan Plateau? How much difference does it make that China is now in its era of primitive accumulation, as Marx called it?
The most obvious point is that China’s opening, reform and marketisation has been happening for well over three decades, but in that time there has been little intensification of mining or industrialisation generally, certainly nothing comparable to the push of the 1960s and 1970s. if, in those decades, China has shifted successfully from autarkic self-reliance to sourcing its minerals globally, greatly enriching its mining companies in the process, why would China now turn to Tibet, which can, at most, provide only a fraction of China’s demand for copper, chromite, gold and silver, and little else?
 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2010, Table 25-1: Main economic indicators in Autonomous Regions.