Making the Mountains Muncipal


China has declared Shigatse and Chamdo henceforth to be municipalities, rebadging not only two of the bigger towns in Tibet but their entire prefectures, which are largely rural, mountainous and mineraliferous.

What to make of this? Just a shuffle of administrative nomenclature?

Hardly. In China’s system, municipalisation signals a momentous shift, not only away from the rural and towards an urban destiny, but from darkness to light, from backwardness to civilisation, from lagging to leading, from weak dependence on subsidy to a strong economy based on resource exploitation.

In today’s China, the city engulfs the countryside. The urbs expands far beyond its sub-urbs, deep into the rural districts where most Tibetans continue to live, beyond the reach of the state.

This reclassification is no mere formality: it is the march of progress, the culmination of a teleology of material comfort that is the very purpose of a regime bereft of ideological legitimacy. Far from being an obscure technicality, this legal move, at a stroke, does away with the last pretence of special rights for minority nationalities, and makes land, hitherto classified as rural and thus state-owned, into a commodity to be bought and sold. All of this is achieved by adding Chamdo (Qamdo or Changdu in Chinese)  and Shigatse (Xigaze or Rikaze in Chinese) , plus the long-standing, sprawling Lhasa Municipality, to the ultimate in status: designation as cities.

The end result is that, within the restricted part of the Tibetan Plateau that China calls Tibet –the Tibet Autonomous Region- there are now only three prefectures left , as nominally Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures, and two of those are sparsely populated. In the far west of upper Tibet is the alpine desert of the Chang Tang empty plain, designated as Ngari (in Chinese Ali) prefecture. North of Lhasa is the largely pastoral prefecture of Nagchu (in Chinese Nagqu), where the Mekong River begins its great journey. In the southeast of TAR is Lhoka (Shannan in Chinese), well-watered and with a mild climate, forested and with a substantial Tibetan population, but lacking for the time being in any major city eligible for municipalisation.

The result is that around 40% of Tibet by area is now officially city; and a much higher percentage by population. Yet on the ground, Tibet and the Tibetans remain overwhelmingly rural, scattered, poor and beyond urban service delivery.

For China, this is of course about access to resources, especially water, copper and gold: it is hardly an accident that the new municipalities abound in sites for hydro dams and proven deposits of copper, gold, silver, molybdenum, lead, zinc and much else, perhaps even diamonds. But this is about more than facilitating corporate access to land, rivers and minerals; it is also proof that China is benevolently fulfilling the destiny of all within its grasp, which is to attain the peak of civilised human development, by becoming urban.

When Jirim League, in Inner Mongolia, became Tongliao Municipality in 1999, it lost its Mongolian name yet, in the words of the mayor and the party secretary:  “opens a brand new page [to] further emancipate the mind, grasp the opportunity, speed up the development, and carry a united, wealthy and civilised Tongliao into the 21st century.”[1] Party Secretaries in Lhasa rejoice in identical language, not only for the future of Lhasa, long a huge municipality, but now for Chamdo and Shigatse as well.

How can so many consequences flow from a name change? A clue comes from recognising this as a well trodden path, with a simple name in Chinese. The name of this policy is zhen gai shi (change town to city), xian gai shi (change county to municipality) and di gai shi (change prefecture to municipality). This fits into a much deeper Confucian tradition of “rectification of names”, which elevates the neglected, and restores propriety to the banished.

The most famous example of municipalisation is the carve-up of Sichuan Province in 1997 into Chongqing Municipality, administered directly from Beijing, and the rump 70% of Sichuan, including its capital, Chengdu, as the remaining province. Making Chongqing a municipality was the making of Chongqing. Today Chongqing is the hub of western China, a close rival to Chengdu, both now booming cities that have attracted far inland many of the global brand names that manufacture their high tech in Chongqing and Chengdu factories. The speeding up of Chongqing’s hypergrowth was signalled by its transition from provincial second city to national municipality in its own right, eligible for favoured treatment from Beijing.

The decision to make Chamdo and Shigatse cities was made by the State Council, China’s Cabinet. It remains to be seen whether they will remain subordinate to the Tibet Autonomous Region or will ultimately come directly under Beijing, to expedite their growth, especially the intensified extraction of water, power and mineral resources.

As far back as 2009, in a State Council White Paper on New Progress in Human Rights in the Tibet Autonomous Region, it was announced that: “Municipal construction has been speeded up in major cities and towns, such as Lhasa, Xigaze, Nagqu, Qamdo, Zetang and Shiquanhe.” At the time, this seemed to change very little on the ground.

Now that the change has been made legal, the differences are more obvious. Municipalisation immediately affects land ownership and property rights. In China, all land has been owned by the state, but several years ago there was a fundamental split made between rural land, which remains owned by the state to dispose of as it pleases, and urban land, which can be bought, sold, and owned outright by individuals and corporations.

By declaring an entire prefecture to be a municipality, the rural land surrounding Chamdo and Shigatse thus become urban land and tradeable. This fits closely with China’s plans to intensify agricultural production in feedlots close to cities, where yaks, sheep and goats raised in their early life by Tibetan pastoralists will then be brought to the urban fringe for grain-fed fattening, prior to slaughter. Municipalisation means those feedlots, and greenhouse vegetable farms currently leased by Tibetans to Chinese farmers can now be sold and bought by Chinese enterprises.

So we should not think only of the impact on the town folk, but beyond as well.

One good example, well documented by Prof. Mel Goldstein, is the chicken farming program on the outskirts of Shigatse, in which Tibetan women raise chickens explicitly for slaughter, in the yards of their homes. As Goldstein describes it (as a successful poverty alleviation project) the  women buy chicks that are only a few days old, raise them, then sell them to companies that do the final fattening and killing. This would now be considered an urban enterprise, successful partly because it has persuaded Tibetans to ignore their traditional dislike of raising animals for the sole and explicit purpose of slaughter.

Cities are hungry for the resources of the surrounding countryside. The Mongol anthropologist Uradyn Bulag has followed the municipalisation of Inner Mongolia over the past decade, as it happened, in advance of China’s recent moves in Tibet.[2] He points out that “naming is not a trivial issue. The proliferation of cities or municipalities in Inner Mongolia is, among other things, a reflection of this ethnic struggle, and a strategy of the Chinese to expand their territorial space. Cities are not supposed to be ethnic, or autonomous, as we can glean from the absence of ‘city’ in the definition of autonomous areas in China’s Law on Regional National Autonomy. The rise to city checkmates ethnic sensitivity.”

China has long said that development is the answer to all Tibetan problems, and development invariably means urbanisation, more so than ever under Xi Jinping. Urbanisation could have benefited Tibetans if standard worldwide models of development, building on existing economic strengths, had been implemented. In Tibet, that would have meant ensuring Chinese markets for what rural Tibet does best, which is producing great surpluses of wool and dairy products. Although China’s urban new rich have taken to dairy consumption so totally that prices have shot up, and although Tibet Autonomous Region is connected to lowland China by rail, there has been almost no integration of the Tibetan pastoral economy into the Chinese economy. Tibetan wool, even semi-fine wool, is deemed coarse and unsuited to anything better than beating into felt. Tibetan dairy products lack market access, while China imports huge quantities of butter, yoghurt, infant formula and other dairy produce from New Zealand and elsewhere. Adding value to Tibetan primary produce, in urban factories, never happened.

Now, as the legally enshrined ethnic autonomy of Tibetan counties and prefectures is eroded by municipalisation, a new kind of autonomy is emerging. This is the autonomy of cities, which can dominate their rural hinterlands, capture their waters, dam their rivers and exploit their natural resources, while also claiming from Beijing the right to a bigger share of fiscal revenues.

When China announced its plans for opening up the great West, xibu da kaifa, urbanisation and municipalisation were core strategies. In 2001 Xiao Jinsheng, a researcher for the State Development Planning Commission noted that: “in the western provinces and autonomous regions, due to the small size of cities and their weak functions, there are still 39 prefectures which are yet to become municipalities.” That list has now shrunk.

The State Council’s  2014 decision to municipalise Chamdo and Shigatse was transmitted to the Tibetan masses by Wu Yingjie,   vice-secretary of the TAR Communist Party,    who instructed the new municipalities that: “they should transform the economic mode of the two cities, and better allocate resources.  They should better plan funding programs and take advantage of the central government’s preferential policies well in advance.”

Stand by for further acceleration of the rate of urban development in Shigatse City and its adjacent Shetongmon copper and gold mine; and in Chamdo City, which now controls great hydropower dam sites and the Yulong complex of major copper and gold deposits.

China sees this as the completion of its transformation of Tibet. Before China took command, the entire Tibetan Plateau was what geographers call a production landscape, based on extensive land use, meaning that the people, mostly pastoralists, were scattered more or less evenly across the entire subalpine landscape, using land lightly and briefly, and moving on. China has replaced extensive, light land use, with intensive land use in concentrated enclaves of modernity, notably cities, dams, power stations, mines plus the energy and transport corridors connecting them all.

Time will tell if the Tibetan land can withstand this profound shift, from extensive to intensive. Can the land survive intensive exploitation? Or were the Tibetans right, for 9000 years, to maintain a light touch, because the land and its thin soils are easily degraded by over-use?

Beijing’s preferential policies could in coming years transform Chamdo and Shigatse into big cities, as they did in Chongqing. These cities will be peopled not only by Han Chinese immigrants but also by Tibet’s ex-nomads, required to leave their lands because the nomads are blamed for land degradation. The ending of extensive land use, and the intensification of intensive urban land use also involves the depopulation of the countryside where, in Yushu urban area, for example, it is now illegal to live in a tent.

Urbanisation is China’s version of manifest destiny, and a step towards realising a post-ethnic Zhonghua identity in which there are no longer 56 distinct nationalities, each with rights to specific lands, just one Chinese nation, mingling in cities, where ethnicity is an outdated concept. Lhasa has long drawn in Han Chinese immigrants, becoming home to most of the Han settlers and sojourners in TAR. Until now, neither Shigatse nor Chamdo have had many resident Han Chinese. In the 2000 census 97% of Shigatse Prefecture were enumerated as Tibetan, and 91% of those living in Shigatse county. In the same year, by official count, 96% of all people in Chamdo Prefecture were Tibetans, and 87% of the people in Chamdo county.

All the push and pull factors for renewed Han migration to the newly designated cities are in place. Beijing’s “preferential policies” and flexible rules on hukou residential registration in Tibet will pull in those seeking newly financed jobs; and the poverty of rural Sichuan will push them. The opportunity to buy newly urbanised land is a major pull factor. Jobs in the mines, smelters, hydro dam sites and high voltage cabling will be plentiful for those who speak Chinese, the language of construction. Railway lines connecting Shigatse via Lhasa to lowland China are almost complete, and the rail line to Chamdo is under way.

Declaring Chamdo and Shigatse municipalities, no longer prefectures, means much.








[1] Renmin Ribao 6 October 1999 p4

[2] Uradyn Bulag, Municipalization and Ethnopolitics in Inner Mongolia, in Ole Bruun ed.,Mongols from Country to City, NIAS Press, 2006

Uradyn Bulag From Yeke-juu league to Ordos municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia, Provincial China, 7 #2, 2002


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