DEPOPULATING THE TIBETAN PLATEAU IN THE NAME OF ENDING POVERTY
As China’s parliament officially endorses the latest Five-Year Plan, announcements are made, confirming the determination of central planners to do all that is possible to fully eliminate poverty and backwardness, even in remote Tibetan counties.
On the same day, in early March 2016, came two announcements from the National Peoples’ Congress session, both affecting Tibet, but otherwise unrelated. One reiterated the plan to build a completely new rail line, from lowland Chengdu, all the way through Kham, to Lhasa. Although the rail line has been announced before, this is the first time it has guaranteed funding, as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016 to 2020. Given the precipitous terrain of Kham, with its many wild mountain rivers in deep gorges, separated by spines of upthrust mountains, this will be a huge engineering project, which may take two full Five-Year Plans to complete.
The other announcement of March 5 repeated China’s determination to utterly eradicate all poverty, even in areas where it is deemed endemic, due to the terrain and extreme cold of the Tibetan Plateau. The National Development Reform Commission, responsible for all central planning, said: “We will move forward with targeted measures to fight poverty across the board. We will support development and poverty reduction in contiguous poor areas. We will also boost support for alleviating poverty in border areas and areas with concentrations of ethnic minorities. We will work hard to improve infrastructure and basic public services in poor areas, with a priority on roads, water supply, power, and Internet access. A great deal of effort will be devoted to ensuring key poverty alleviation programs are implemented. We will continue to support the development of Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan ethnic areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces, increasing central government support for these areas, and scaling up one-to-one assistance programs. Key Poverty Alleviation Program: Relocation from Inhospitable Areas: people living in inhospitable conditions who have registered for government poverty assistance will be relocated and provided with housing. We have set a target to relocate over two million people this year.”
This is an authoritative announcement, signalling both the will and capacity to implement it. This is literally China’s legislative voice.
RAIL IN, POVERTY OUT: ANY CONNECTION?
Other than the coincidence of dates, is there any connection between the new rail line to be driven through the most populous countiess of Tibet, and the relocation of poor Tibetans far from their “inhospitable” homeland?
Underlying both announcements is a common vision, of Tibet’s urban future, and the necessity of abandoning the vast pasture lands, relocating the poor, and letting in those who can make better use of Tibetan lands, who will arrive from China’s lowlands by rail. The Tibetan Plateau, in official eyes, has no future as a production landscape, as a specialist livestock production zone enjoying considerable comparative advantage over crowded lowland China. That is the past, so far as central planners are concerned, a past best left behind, a past dominated by harsh climate, unnatural cold, scattered populations who led lives little different to animals, wandering the great plateau pastures in search of grass. The future, as for the rest of China, is to be urban apartment dwellers, and Tibet already (like most of China) already has a huge overhang of empty apartment towers, in almost all major towns, awaiting human resettlers. In Xining, Rebkong (Tongren in Chinese), even in distant Yushu the real estate boom and bust has resulted in standing armies of empty apartment tower blocks, ghost towns without inhabitants, threatening to send the speculators who built them broke. Is this where the poor, for their own good of course, are to be relocated en masse?
This idea has already occurred to cadres in Inner Mongolia, where one of the best known ghost towns is located. Documentary maker Wade Shepard interviewed poor Mongols as they were being urged to relocate to high-rise apartments, with official finance to assist the end of their groundedness. Will something similar soon happen in Tibet?
Tibet is to urbanise. It is the only future officials can imagine, the solution to all Tibetan problems, starting with, in Chinese eyes, the appalling conditions Tibetans endure, buffeted by nature.
The glut of unsold apartments in the towns and cities of eastern Tibet weighs heavily on immigrant Chinese businesses that invested heavily on the gamble that real estate prices can only ever go up. The developers were often connected closely to local governments taking full advantage of their power to reclassify rural land as urban, making massive profits by doing so. Now those property developers, and local governments in Tibetan areas, as throughout China, are deep in debt, and with increasingly poor prospects of paying those loans.
The solution is to sell, as fast as possible, the empy apartments, and local governments are offering many inducements to buy. From the viewpoint of officials, this offers a win/win: it gets real estate and construction industriesback in action again; and it gets rural Tibetans, farmers and pastoralists off the land and into high surveillance concentrations that are ideal for China’s grid management security apparatus.
Between 2016 and 2020 China plans to “relocate” 10 million people as the solution to their poverty. How many of those 10 million will be Tibetans? How many will be relocated far from home, perhaps no longer in Tibet? How is it possible that, after at least 9000 years of successful, productive and sustainable Tibetan use of Tibet, it is now necessary, in the name of eliminating poverty, to remove Tibetans from the land of Tibet? How is poverty ended by depriving people of their land, and official land tenure rights?
China’s 13th Five-Year Plan includes a drive to eliminate poverty altogether, officially defined as cash income of RMB2300, or US$376 per person per year, just above one dollar a day. Officially there are precisely 70.17 million such people in China. Of these, according to a 2015 central Work Forum on Poverty Alleviation, 10 million are to be relocated, as the only solution to their poverty. This is to be an all-out struggle to root out and fully eliminate poverty in China, the official media headlines say.
The wider context is China’s official “planning objective that by 2020, China will enter the ranks of high-income countries. Plan is to build a comprehensive well-off society by 2020, GDP and per capita income should be more than double 2010. In 13th Plan the main task ranked first is to maintain economic growth, followed by the construction of ecological civilization and alleviation of poverty.” Having 70 million poor would be a drag on entering the ranks of high-income countries, and is incompatible with the “China Dream” of central leaders.
The 70 million people officially defined as poor are disproportionately in Tibet, and Chinese central planners have long argued that they are poor precisely because they live in Tibet, and as long as they live in Tibet they will remain poor.
The argument, borrowed from mainstream market economics, is that Tibetans have low measurable cash incomes because they live in areas no-one would live in by choice, areas that are frigid, where little grows, the air is dangerously thin, the people are extensively scattered across the landscape, living lives little better than the beasts they follow around. Under such circumstances modern services and comforts, such as access to electricity, health, education and urban consumer society, cannot be efficiently provided to a thin scatter of people across a vast area. So the people must, of necessity, come to where the factor endowments are greatest: the towns, cities and lowlands of China, so they too can lead comfortable lives, thus fulfilling their human rights.
One of many examples of this approach is the ambitious “Roadmap to 2050” published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2010. This series of volumes on China’s long term future is blunt when it comes to mountainous areas such as Tibet: “The mountainous areas in China, where ethnic minorities are concentrated, are characterized by sharp regional differences, strong complexity, lagging infrastructure, underdeveloped social economy and intense man-earth conflicts. There have long been intensive man-earth conflicts in the mountainous areas of China.”
The central metaphor is of a violent battle between people and nature, “man” and “earth”, because their relationship is fundamentally contradictory. This drives China’s policy decisions. China defines Tibet, and mountainous regions generally, by what they lack. By definition they are remote, difficult to access, isolated, lacking linkage to the lowland economic hubs, backward and poor.
Han Chinese often identify Tibetan religion as a further factor fostering backwardness and resistance to modernity. An official eastern Tibet county poverty report in 2005 describes the task facing the cadres in charge of modernising Tibet: “Under the dominance of the natural economy, most of the farmers and herders are old-fashioned in their thinking, conservative, agrarian, unaware of the market economy, and unproductive. It is therefore hard to improve their living standards. Some of them are satisfied with their current situation and reluctant to strive for something better. They are unable or unwilling to properly schedule their daily life and remain idle despite their ability to work. With poor education, a lack of health-related knowledge, as well as the negative influence of their religious beliefs, these individuals raise too many children, causing a reduction in the available labour force, an increase in the dependency ratio, a decline in per capita resources, which results in the population exceeding the natural capacity of their immediate environment. This is a particularly serious problem in Meiyu Township, where animal husbandry is the only industry. Under the influence of their religious beliefs, the local people are reluctant to kill and sell livestock. As a result of their desire to have an excessive number of livestock, the pastures have been degraded. Moreover, they are unaware or unwilling to comply with and even flatly reject family planning. This has caused the township’s population to increase rapidly, whilst per capita livestock and resources are declining, keeping the population in poverty.”
These attitudes are common among local government officials, and at higher levels which rely on local reports to formulate policy. Such attitudes, blaming skilful pastoralists for their poverty, thoroughly misunderstand rangeland dynamics and the importance of pastoral mobility as the primary strategy that avoids overgrazing and degradation. Official policies have curbed the customary mobility of herds and herders, fragmented herds onto small allocated blocks of compulsorily fenced land, then blamed the herders for the inevitable degradation.
ENTER A NEW CLASS
None of this means the land of Tibet will be empty, only that a new class will take over the land, no longer for productive purposes, but as enclaves of luxury villas for the newly rich of the lowlands, notably the crowded, smoggy, hot and humid megacities of Chengdu and Chongqing. The wealth being accumulated by the new rich is staggering: China now has more billionaires than the US. Much of that wealth is now generated far inland, in Chengdu and Chongqing, primary beneficiaries of China’s drive to “open up the west.” Chengdu advertises on airport hoardings across the world that if you are one of the few remaining global top 500 companies yet to relocate to Chengdu, you’d better get in quick. You name the brand; chances are their factories are in Chongqing or Chengdu.
But the climate of these super cities in summer is stiflingly hot, humid and polluted. Think of the British in India, who similarly hated the Indian summer, its heat and monsoon downpours. The 19th century solution was the hill stations, mostly in the Himalayan foothills. Every summer, the entire British Raj ruled India from Shimla, relocating for the season from Calcutta. Dharamsala likewise was built as an idyll of Englishness, for the annual exodus from the plains, away from the press of sweaty Indians.
All stories about the new rail line from Sichuan to Lhasa emphasize Nyingtri, (in Chinese Linzhi) already a magnet for the lowland new rich. Nyingtri, roughly halfway across the plateau, well east of Lhasa, enjoys the most benign climate, warmer and wetter than Lhasa, able to grow many fruits, nuts, vegetables and with plentiful rivers. Already the luxury villas dominate the prime locations, even though technically the land remains in public ownership. Those villas are on the market, and accessible online. On Airbnb it looks almost tropical. Then there are the luxury hotels, especially in nearby Bayi, a brand new town, long a ghost town but now populated. Some are just cinderblock and reflective plate glass; others are more upmarket and feature token Tibetan embellishments.
Bayi is not a Tibetan town. Even its name is Chinese for August first, the date the People’s Liberation Army celebrates its anniversaries. Nyingtri and Bayi are most definitely open for business, and the rail station will bring tourists by the millions. That may still be a decade way yet, but it confirms that Tibet is destined to be urban, peopled by the relocated poor, employed casually as a new proletariat, by the Han tuhao new rich enjoying their summers far from the grime of the lowlands.
 NDRC, Report On The Implementation Of The 2015 Plan For National Economic And Social Development And On The 2016 Draft Plan For National Economic And Social Development, Delivered at the Fourth Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 5, 2016, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2016/03/05/china-npc-2016-the-reports/
 China pledges resolute measures to root out poverty by 2020, English.news.cn, 2015-11-29
 Dadao Lu and Jie Fan eds., Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Science Press and Springer, 2010, 163-4
 Zuogong County Poverty Relief Office, 2005, 8. Zuogong (Dzogang in Tibetan) is a county in Kham, close to the borders of Myanmar and Yunnan, on the banks of the upper Salween.