When China gains leadership of global institutions, everything shifts. The urbane, talented Chinese who now head the World Health Organisation and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are pioneers in what will be an accelerating trend. Talented as these individuals are, China sees their ascent as a national achievement, and many outside China are predisposed to crudely see these advances as China’s “capture” of planetary institutions.

Of course, in reality it is more complex, more subtle and everyone learns from each other. IUCN and WHO gain not only a capable leader with the active support of China’s strength, the leaders gain access to the full suite of modern management methods for wielding power softly, smoothing over contradictions, juggling complexity while still pressing the institutional agenda ahead.

Now that China is in the global leadership club, no longer looking in from outside suspiciously fearing it will always be held at a distance, the knee-jerk reaction of the outsider is fast disappearing. Take the World Parks Congress (WPC), a flagship IUCN event held once in ten years, a major opportunity for the governments, park managers, corporations, conservationists and environmental campaigners of the world to set the planetary protection agenda.

WPC2014 was in Sydney, on a heavily polluted but then remediated industrial complex cleaned up to become the venue in 2000 for the Olympic Games. Now, on the edge of the endless tarmac of halls and stadiums the wetlands and saltwater inlets and waterbirds slowly return, after decades of dumping of industrial wastes. Inside the massive halls, over 5000 conservationists attended not only a week of plenaries and workshops but wondrous indoor evocations of nature: Australian native trees in burlap bags suspended above one’s head as one walked through a jungle of steel scaffolding; pacific dolphins knitted in vibrant colours; multimedia displays of the technological capacity to see everything from space. Meandering the endless screens, presenters and myriad ways of representing nature, one could be seduced into feeling that, as we all work together, the planet can indeed be saved.

Yet a torrent of colour coded satellite data may not save a planet where extinctions are accelerating, economies addicted to growth, corporate profits rising and nature remains peripheral. So too with China’s leadership of IUCN. Zhang Xinsheng, an architect of the Confucius Institutes that project Chinese soft power into school classrooms and universities across the world, is a world away from a China that until yesterday was proudest of its new ability to say no. Zhang is, as his cv says, a professional politician who rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, graduating from the China University of Military Technology during the Cultural Revolution, when only the military was exempt from the Maoist struggle campaigns against “stinking intellectuals.” He got to Harvard Business School while the Cultural Revolution raged, at a time when almost everyone his age had been sent to rural internal exile, “to learn from the masses.”

When China took its decisive neoliberal turn, under Deng Xiaoping, Zhang, with his Advanced Management Diploma from Harvard Business School, was ideally placed to rise and rise. He became mayor of Suzhou, vice-minister for education, headed China’s Olympic Committee, Chairperson of the Executive Board of UNESCO (2005–2007) and was Chairperson of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (2003–2004).

In parallel, his business career took off, especially as boss of an 800 bed hotel in Nanjing, the Jinling, financed by a shrewd Singaporean who brought Zhang in just as he was about to rise to the mayoralty of Suzhou, a locus of Singaporean investment that earlier went sour as Chinese business partners looked after themselves and not their Singaporean partners. Zhang was adept building a private fortune while presenting himself as public-spirited, philanthropic and socially concerned, a familiar career path anywhere in the neoliberal world, but new in China. The fusion of profit and the public sphere, the melding of the languages of capital and serving humanity, were new to China 30 years ago, but Zhang was ready to catch the wave.

With hindsight, now that the CCP has emerged as the greatest corporate franchise in the world, we could say Zhang was an early adopter, a first mover, establishing his niche in the market economy when it was still new. Whether the CCP directly owns or controls corporations is no longer a distinction that matters much in a system where every franchisee, even the biggest of private enterprises, routinely pay franchise fees to the state, and through the state, to the party, in order to get official licences to operate. Zhang was quick to recognise this, with his career as CEO of a big hotel and mayoralty of Suzhou city intertwined. As one of his key Singapore investors puts it, “It was a sweet coincidence that a senior manager whom Mr Tao hired for the Jinling Hotel, Zhang Xinsheng, had become the city mayor when the Suzhou project was on the drawing board.”[1]

In global exile, Tibetans still tend to think of China as command-and-control communism. But the new face of China is a fusion of accumulating capital and party power. Zhang Xinsheng exemplifies China’s new face.



So when Tibetans came to the World Parks Congress, to protest the depopulation of the best pasturelands of Tibetan Plateau, in the name of conservation, even daring to name IUCN as complicit in blaming the pastoral nomads for degradation, both China and the IUCN were ready.

Gone are the days when China, seeing itself as an outsider forever shut out by a world system rigged against it, will instantly and furiously denounce any criticism as an “anti-China” conspiracy, and immediately demand that the protesters be silenced and ejected. IUCN too, with its panoply of World Leaders en suite, was equally ready. The Tibetans handed out thousands of brochures to the protected area professionals, carefully explaining how, in the name of watershed protection and grassland conservation, the pastures of Yushu and Golok prefectures are being emptied of people, yaks, sheep and goats, and filling up with miners now free to exploit the land with no fear of local communities protesting. Park rangers, seed campaigners, indigenous knowledge champions from around the world took and read the Tibetan story and frequently told Jigme Norbu, from Environment Desk of Tibet Policy Institute, how much they sympathised with him. Often they asked quietly if he was in danger. The brochure he handed out at WPC2014 is the previous blogpost on this site.

But both IUCN and China acted as if nothing had happened. When Jigme Norbu approached the IUCN mappers who list the huge Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, that covers Yushu, Golok and more, he was politely told that since the database also belongs to the United Nations Environment Program, it must follow UN rules that nation-states define the purpose of their parks. That is why the World Conservation Monitoring Centre’s (WCMC) database, launched at the Sydney congress, argues for the removal of the nomads, saying:  “To protect the grasslands, pastoralists are not permitted to graze their animals in designated ‘core zones’, and grazing is supervised elsewhere in the SNNR. In addition, residents have been resettled from core zones and other grassland areas of the SNNR, and rangeland has been fenced and is in the process of being privatized throughout the Sanjiangyuan Area.”

In this way pastoral Tibet ends not with a bang or even a whimper. It has become an objective scientific necessity that pastoralists and their herds be removed, to grow more grass, to restore the grasslands to wild lands grazed only by the reduced wild herds that manage to negotiate the newly fenced land that prevents their seasonal migration to their birthing grounds.

Jigme Norbu spoke with Brian Mac Sharry, a key number cruncher for the UNEP WCMC  database, who was entirely open to the possibility that additional data from folks on the ground might alter the satellite data and Chinese definition that constitute the current display, but it seemed a minor, distant prospect. It would be good, Dr Mac Sharry said, if eventually they can supplement the sharply detailed satellite mapping that WCMC proudly launched, with more detailed information from people on the ground. Clearly, it won’t happen in a hurry, especially in Tibet where people are not free to differ from the official mass line. So the Tibetan perception of pointless dispossession is accidentally edited out, as if it never existed, but may somewhere down the line be added to the official version, as a minor detail. The erasure of the Tibetan viewpoint, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of pastoral nomads, the Tibetan loss of food security and deep traditions of sustainably caring for the pasture lands, are gone in a click, at most a minor accidental error.

Since Jigme Norbu raised Tibetan concerns, the protectedplanet website quickly expanded its section on Sanjiangyuan, while keeping not only the quote above justifying grazing bans and nomad removals, but also: “uncontrolled or poorly managed mining, logging, hunting, and grazing have been curtailed. Foreign and other mining firms have replaced the uncontrolled miners, trees have been planted..” Is this belated recognition that this “park” is indeed being mined?



Individually, Chinese at WPC bristled when offered a Tibetan pamphlet. But IUCN kept its cool, and its silence. It was only at a World Leaders Dialogue (WLD) plenary that a response was forthcoming. At the WLD press conference Myrna Cunningham, the seasoned Nicaraguan campaigner for indigenous rights, appointed by IUCN as a Patron, was quite forthright. Her response was that Tibetans must never give up, even when their loss of land and livelihoods is in the name of creating a park. Tibetans, she said with all her years of tireless campaigning for indigenous people at the UN behind her, should take the campaign to get back on to their homelands to every venue, every forum, every official institution and UN agency and committee and special rapporteur possible, and keep going. The management of protected areas, she said firmly, should be based on human rights. “And by that I don’t just mean individual rights but also the collective rights of peoples,” she said. “That includes rights over ancestral territories, rights that are named in the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). All UN agencies formally recognise those rights, even when it is hard to persuade them to do the work of implementation.”

She took a deep breath. “I understand that the Tibetans face more problems than others. Their case is difficult, I know. They maintained their land, and now they are blamed. Asia generally is very difficult; there is no regional instrument or commission to protect human rights.”

She paused. As a Miskita indigenous woman, survivor of a genocidal campaign against her people, and as chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues until 2012, she has lived through much. She said, “we do need a paradigm shift, all of us, we all need to change. And that includes IUCN. IUCN needs to change how it looks at the world.”



If IUCN is to get past its erasure of the Tibetan nomad case for their ancestral lands, it will need to reconsider the sloppiness of its language, such a contrast to the granular sharpness of its satellite imagery. The UNEP IUCN WCMC protectedplanet database, designed as a one-stop portal for anyone seeking definitive information on all the world’s protected areas, is so sloppy that its only words defining the purpose, management and operations of the Sanjiangyuan nomad removal zone is attributed to Wikipedia. When one looks up the Wikipedia article which cuts and pastes, there is no source at all for the assertion that grazing bans are a necessity, fencing is necessary, that even when grazing is not fully banned pastoralists must be “supervised” and residents “resettled.” No source is given for this concise summary of China’s official policy, since 2003, of “closing pastures to grow more grass”, in Chinese tuimu huancao.

Sloppier still is the claim that, along with removing pastoralists, “rangeland has been fenced and is in the process of being privatized throughout the Sanjiangyuan Area.” What is meant here by privatization? In an era of neoliberal corporate reach into even the remotest areas, privatization could be a discreet term for the reality, in depopulated parts of the Tibetan Plateau, for mining companies to move in, even in officially designated parks and protected areas. The despoliation of Tibet by mining companies, while pastoralists, removed far from their land are helpless to protect it, is one of the main complaints of the Tibetans. The brochure Jigme Norbu handed to thousands of people in Sydney featured this appalling truth behind the many protests by Tibetans, even public suicides in Tibet, to draw attention to the pillage going on in officially protected areas.

It’s not that sort of privatization that  means. Privatization is a common translation into English of the Chinese concept of making individual households responsible for what happens on land allocated to them. Since there is no private ownership of rural land in China, privatization is a misleading term. What is worse is that when pastoralists are banned from grazing the pastures that have always been their land, their home and their life, the “privatization” is cancelled, they lose their rights to their land, often the land tenure certificates issued to them 20 years ago are cancelled, and they are destitute, dependent on official handouts, themselves treated, as the pastoralists often say, like animals. What is happening, in the name of conservation and parks is the nullification of the limited “privatization” that gave pastoralists some security 20 years ago, only to have that land tenure once more taken from them, this time in the name of park making. Privatization, and loss of land tenure are opposites.

Maybe none of this matters to IUCN, even though it strongly advocates indigenous management of protected areas. IUCN, like all major institutions in a neoliberal world, is adept at walking all sides of the street at once, at cultivating both the passionate indigenous conservationists and big corporate sponsors. The contemporary art of being all things to all people, while corporate access to the remotest forests, highest pastures and deepest oceans ever expands, is a wonder of modernity. Zhang Xinsheng, a pioneer and prime beneficiary of China’s rise and rise, was an obvious choice for IUCN, as his carefully crafted curriculum vitae on the IUCN website reveals.

IUCN’s capacity to draw together the entire spectrum of those who hope to negotiate a long term future for the earth, is pitched to business as IUCN’s “convening power”, and thus for IUCN as the venue for managing “a continuous and constructive dialogue between business and other sectors of society.” The business of managing Tibetan lands for the ongoing profitability of downstream Chinese city and industrial water supply, by making Tibet a depopulated parkland, is for IUCN business as usual, and Tibetan protests have so far been ignored. Tibet hardly fits IUCN’s business model, or the IUCN slogan, “Nature is our Business.” Nature, especially the mineral wealth under the pasturelands of Tibet, is now China’s business, all the more accessible with Tibetans calling for life, land and livelihood removed to urban fringes.

IUCN, WCMC and also the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank have ended up abetting China’s invalidation of Tibet’s pastoral production landscape.



Where one ends up depends much on where one starts from.  For all these global conservation institutions, the starting point, where they buy in, is China’s depiction of the pasture lands as badly degraded. If the land is degraded, it should be restored, the kind of narrowly defined, technicised program that the GEF and IUCN are so focused on. Everything follows from accepting China’s rhetoric of degradation, usually expressed by alarming statistics claiming that as much as 90 per cent of Tibetan pasture land is now degraded, and becoming desert. Since there are few independent expert verifications of the alarmist discourse, and Tibetans may not speak for themselves, no-one notices that Tibetan pastoralists seldom see degradation as a major problem, except within the strictly fenced areas allocated to individual families which now, against all custom, must suffice, both in summer and winter, to meet each Tibetan family’s subsistence needs.

All else follows. Once the entirety of Tibet is encompassed by the language of degradation, over-grazing and “fragile ecology”, it seems the next logical step to proclaim grazing bans, exclusion zones, and a goal of greatly increasing the weight of biomass growing above ground. That simple metric is then the sole criterion of success. We now have a technical problem and a technically defined solution.

The aspects of this scenario that don’t fit this chain of logic are swept aside. It is seldom noticed that China’s scientific estimates of the extent of degradation vary wildly, between 30 per cent and 90 per cent. No external agency wants to get into the murky territory of what caused this degradation, especially if it starts to look like successive state policy failures are the primary cause, rather than ignorant and careless pastoralists ruining their own ancestral lands. Little attention is paid to how degradation is defined, even though the claims of 70 or 90 per cent degradation rely on assuming that a totally ungrazed grassland wilderness can be defined as not degraded. A further complication that no-one wants to know about is that the hardy grasses and sedges of the Tibetan Plateau, used to not only grazing but also gales and blizzards, keep most of their biomass not above but below ground. That is awkward, because above ground biomass is measurable by satellite, without any of the hard work of going out into pastoral regions and looking closely; but below ground biomass can’t be measured by satellite. Nor does it matter that the crude slogan of “growing more grass” means in practice that tall, ungrazed grasses shade out the lower growing herbs that are an important source of traditional Tibetan medicines. That means that even as grass grows, biodiversity shrinks, the pasture reverts to shrubland, undoing centuries of careful pastoral stewardship.

To admit such complications adds too many variables, uncertainties and new starting points. To include the pastoralists as part of the solution, however the problem is defined, is also too hard. China is set on sedenetarising the pastoralists of Tibet, especially in the headwaters of China’s great rivers, in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, and the participation of international partners is predicated on accepting China’s policy.

Thus we end up very far from IUCN’s espousal of indigenous management of parks and protected areas, even though WPC2014 in Sydney featured many workshops on the success of Indigenous Protected Areas around the world. IUCN has yet to notice that, when it comes to Tibet, it is upside down and back to front; and the Tibetan pastoralists are the losers.

IUCN can readily remediate this mistake. It has all the tools, guidelines and policy manuals to do so, in-house. If the Sydney Olympic Park can remediate its heavily polluted past, so can its most recent guest, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

When China takes over leadership of major international institutions, those institutions develop institutionalised blindness to the voices of Tibetans. In the case of IUCN, the blindness is entirely curable.


[1] Business mind, philanthropic heart, The Business Times, 11 Jan 2011

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