The disastrous waste of 83 human lives at China’s copper and gold mine in Tibet, at Gyama, is a reminder of China’s plans for intensive extraction of Tibetan wealth, for China’s lowland factories.

So big was the landslide down the steep terrain of Gyama, the 83 mine workers may never be found. Not only are they buried in a landslide kilometres long and up to 30 meters deep, making recovery of bodies a huge task; there may be nothing to recover. Tumbling rocks grinding against each other can obliterate human flesh so totally that nothing remains.

This gruesome reality is a reminder of the violent forces inherent in mining. Just as rocks grating against each other turn rock to flour, so too the mining process, after blasting and scooping up, requires crushing rock to flour, in a giant mechanical ball mill, so that the various metals to be extracted can be concentrated and separated.

It is a metaphor used sometimes by Tibetan Buddhist retreat masters, that retreatants rub up against each other, in the 24/7 intimacy of a group retreat, and, like freshly dug potatoes, the dirt is scrubbed off by the rubbing. But rubbing potatoes clean of dirt, and grinding rocks to flour are vastly different: one is gentle, the other extremely forceful.

The Gyama tragedy is a reminder that China, after six decades of geologising Tibet, is now able to exert maximum force on the land of Tibet and its minerals, and make its fortune. Ironically, this capacity to establish intensive extraction enclaves in Tibet comes too late to make much difference to China. The demands of the world’s factory, in China, for raw materials is now so great that even the most intensive exploitation of Tibet would do little to reduce China’s need to import minerals from all around the planet.

Gyama, just upstream of Lhasa, had seemed like the least forceful of China’s big mines in Tibet. In fact Gyama’s Vancouver-based owners, the state owned China Gold International, had invested a lot in corporate PR, sending reporters to Gyama to tell the world the mine is not only good for the economy but also for the environment, and for Tibetans. Feature stories in some of China’s mainstream international media emphasised the good news story of this wonderful mine.


China’s approach to mining was not always so forceful. In Inner Mongolia, rich in iron ore, coal and rare earths, Chinese miners long ago decided on extraction, but also knew the local people, devout practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, would object. So the Communist Party arranged for the sacredness of the mountain designated for mining, to be transferred, by Buddhist ritual, to another mountain nearby. Maybe the Buddhist ritual specialists who negotiated with the earth gods had little choice but to comply with the Party’s request. But there was at least a negotiated outcome, a three-way compromise between the Party, the lamas and the gods.


That was decades ago. Can one imagine Party leaders in Tibet working in this way with Tibetan lamas to arrange a negotiated compromise that retains the sanctity of peaks and lakes, yet still makes room for mining? In today’s Tibet, where authority regards local populations with fear and suspicion, such deals are no longer imaginable. Nor, in today’s situation of deep alienation and mistrust of authority, is it possible to imagine Tibetans willing to persuade even the most humble of earth gods to move out of the way of mining.





The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is well endowed with minerals, but is physically much closer to Beijing and the overcrowded plains of northern China, and the heavy industrial heartland of China until the takeoff of southern China 20 years ago. Inner Mongolia’s proximity to the north China plain is its curse. The vast quantities of coal, iron and more recently, rate earth elements, close to the surface, are its curse.


Poor Chinese peasant settlers moved into the Inner Mongolian grasslands throughout the 20th century, ploughing rangeland, getting a few good wheat crops, before the unreliable rains failed, the desert gales whipped away the thin topsoil, and a bare infertile dustbowl was created.

The communist revolution brought to power the three revolutionary classes: workers, soldiers and peasants. The nomadic pastoralists were not included. Inner Mongolia had its farmers, both Mongol and immigrant Han, and soldiers who believed in revolutionary liberation from feudalism, but it lacked an industrial proletariat.


Communist China’s highest priority was heavy industrialisation, making fullest use of the iron and coal of Inner Mongolia. The construction of iron and coal mines, and of steel mills, also enabled Communist Party cadres, both Han and Mongol, to plan for an industrial proletariat who would be the new class to carry forward the work of revolution. The mass campaigns that led socialist construction could mobilise men and minerals together, building not only the steel mills essential to military modernity, but also a new class committed to revolutionary goals. Inner Mongolia was a new frontline.


A Mongolian working class, employed in the mining of what had been a sacred mountain, did not eventuate. The slow process of converting Mongolians from pastoralists to industrial workers bound by shift hours was too slow and difficult, in a country full of unemployed poor Han Chinese, and China was in a hurry. No task so definitively embodied the goal of the revolution as steelmaking.The Bayan Obo mountain or iron was ritually and elaborately desacralised, to make way for its extraction. The deposit was huge, and was later discovered to be rich in rare earths, minor elements with increasing hi-tech uses, especially in military applications such as night vision goggles enabling soldiers to kill 24/7.


The earth gods whose home was the iron mountain could be persuaded to move, but it took all the persuasive powers of the Mongol leaders within the Communist Party to persuade the lama persuaders to do what was necessary for revolutionary access to iron. Uradyn Bulag, a Cambridge anthropologist, has told the story of how the mountain, customarily known Bayanbogd, literally the “rich holy” became Bayan Obo, the rich cairn of stones, which ultimately became the Baotou Iron & Steel Works.[1] An obo or oboo is a cairn of stones atop a peak which is the home of local earth spirits which, if not treated with respect, can make trouble for the people. So, by negotiation, the obo had to be removed before mining could begin, and the resident earth spirit persuaded, both politely and urgently, to take up residence elsewhere, on a nearby hill, Bayanchagaan.


The ritual to usher in a revolutionary era when mountains could be removed, was based on the rituals of Tibetan lamas in claiming new territories for the Buddha, which involves taming local spirits, binding them under oath to use their subterranean powers only benignly. When the Tibetans, centuries earlier, had tamed the minds of the warrior Mongols, they also tamed the land, wrestling with the earth spirits, addressing them directly, urging, cajoling and demanding that they take an oath to be better behaved. The leading Mongolian Communist Party cadre, Ulanhu, cajoled the lamas to go further, and persuade the spirits to move 20 kms to another mountain. Ulanhu announced that everything must be done to “follow the Mongolian custom, follow the religious ritual, hold a grand obo site removal ritual”

Bulag writes: “A grand ritual was conducted, with monks reading prayers, attended by Mongol herders in ethnic costumes. Many old herders piously knelt on two sides of the road. The obo relocation ceremony was held on 3 June 1953. At the time of relocation, thirty odd lamas read prayers for several days, and a midsummer naadam festival was held, full of fun. “A leading Chinese cadre Su Qianyi, was moved to say ‘At the time of removing the obo, one thought occurred to me: the Mongolian people, in order to build the Baotou steel plant, went so far as to remove their own obo. What a great and respectful patriotic spirit! Participating in the obo removal ritual itself is equivalent to participating in the construction of the Baotou steel plant. Thus, there ought to be Mongolian people among the steel workers of Baotou steel plant. The first generation steel workers of this “nationality on horseback” should be born at this age of ours.’


Bulag says, “The relocation of the obo finally defused the Mongol opposition to the Chinese mining operation on the mountain, as Mongols’ spiritual focus was turned to another mountain. Bayanbogd, the Rich Holy Mountain, was no longer holy, and it began to be called by its less spiritual name—Bayanobo—the Rich Cairn—commensurable to its new role as provider of rich rare metal resources. The Chinese now ‘welcomed’ Mongols, as Mongols ‘welcomed’ Chinese, following Mao’s prescribed course of ‘opening two doors.’”


China had the outcome it wanted, and was able to exploit Bayanobo fully, with very few Mongols employed in mining. Ulanhu, later purged for being too Mongol and insufficiently red, had what he wanted, a middle way that respected Mongol custom and China’s industrialisation campaign. To achieve this several fictions had to be created, to conflate the intentions of the Mongols and the Chinese.


Mongolian beliefs had been turned upside down, but the pastoralists, who made offerings every morning to the earth spirits, and their lamas, knew they had little choice. When the first geological survey was undertaken by communist China, in 1952, the geologists were accompanied by two cavalry brigades. The pastoralist herders protested vigorously, but in Chinese eyes this was a plot by reactionary Mongol aristocrats to stir trouble. One Chinese account says:  “When the prospecting team arrived at the Baiyun [Bayanobo] iron mine, reactionary nobles, on the one hand, spread rumours, poisoning and bewitching herders to stop the prospecting of Bayanobo, nonsensically saying that ‘if the southern barbarians (nan manzi) dig away the golden boat in the mountain, the Buddha will bring down disaster to the grassland.’ On the other hand, they secretly instigated reactionary upper echelon elements in several banners to plot rebellion to echo the bandits roaming the grassland. They threw the grassland into chaos, making the prospecting work very difficult to carry out. The government dispatched the army in time and drove away and wiped out the jackals and wolves.”[2]


Under the circumstances, the pastoralists had no choice but to move their earth spirits on, but at least there was negotiation as well as coercion. No such negotiation has ever been done in Tibet.


Bayan Obo turned out to be a far greater prize than anyone realised in the 1950s. Not only did it yield enormous quantities of iron ore, sufficient to make Inner Mongolia a core of China’s steel industry, it also had rare earths, in fact the biggest rare earth deposit in the world.[3] Scientists are still unsure how this deposit formed around 1300 million years ago, despite intensive research over nine decades, and hundreds of articles in scientific journals.  Rare earths are rare, and such a concentration is so exceptional. Hopefully, the origins, in the breakup of the supercontinent Columbia, will be better understood before it is all mined out and consumed.


While Bayan Obo is by far the biggest rare earth deposit ever discovered, there are others. China’s ability to monopolise rare earths production is not because there are no other sources, but because China was able to extract them cheaper than anywhere else, and then fall to the resource nationalist temptation to use them as a weapon of foreign policy, shutting down supply to nonChinese users, especially Japanese manufacturers, to gain competitive advantage for Chinese manufacturers and punish Japan over ocean boundary disputes. China failed to buy competing deposits in Australia, and its rare earths monopoly will end, but it has persisted long enough to persuade many manufacturers to relocate to China, to ensure they are supplied with rare earths, and in exchange they must supply China with their advanced technologies. China has been able to leverage its window of monopoly power into a compulsory technology transfer intended to give China a lasting dominance of new industries such as solar and wind energy equipment manufacture. When the Mongol pastoralists, in 1952, protested that  ‘if the southern barbarians dig away the golden boat in the mountain, the Buddha will bring down disaster to the grassland,’ they seem to have intuited the dark uses of rare earths six decades later.


China justified its restrictions on rare earths exports by invoking the rhetorics of environmental regulatory compliance, as a legitimate way of restricting supply without invoking World Trade Organisation sanctions. Although environmental compliance is not much associated with China’s miners, in this instance it enabled intensification of monopoly, and an enormous jump in rare earth prices. That attracted the rich and powerful, including relatives of supreme leader Xi Jinping who in a 2012 expose were shown to have “an 18 percent indirect stake in a rare-earths company with $1.73 billion in assets.”[4]


China’s official policy was to consolidate the many rare earths miners clustered at Bayan Obo, back into a single national champion corporation able to present a united face to the world and maintain, for as long as possible, China’s role as price maker. At the direction of several government ministries[5],  the official position, in mid 2011, was that there would be a speedy and compulsory amalgamation of the proliferating rare earths miners, within weeks. A Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, reported: “Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech Co.,Ltd, the largest rare earth production and processing enterprise in the world, will replace its competitors in Inner Mongolia to become the only firm running upstream operations of rare earth in northern China, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Government Office said recently, according to The other 35 upstream companies in the rare earth industry in Hohhot, Baotou and Bayan Nur — cities in Inner Mongolia — will face restructuring or closure. The restructuring work will be finished by the end of June.”[6] A year later, Xi Jinping’s relatives were still earning rents from their control of one of the rare earth ore bodies.


This is far from the first time official policy has been subverted by the wealth accumulation temptations available to the families of those who publicly espouse the national interest.  Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, investment advisers with close knowledge of how China works in practice, say: “With access to huge cash flows, broad patronage systems and, in many cases, significant international networks, the senior executives of the National Champions can expect to succeed in lobbying the government for beneficial policies or even to set the policy agenda from the start. The sons, daughters, and families now have institutional backing outside of the Party itself and this gives rise to questions over whether these business interests have, over the past decade, replaced the government apparatus or eroded government from within.”[7]


China’s use of rare earths as a resource nationalist tool of geopolitics, against Japan and the US, resulting in compulsory World Trade Organisation adjudication, now also involves molybdenum. The molybdenum soon to be extracted from Tibet, along with copper and gold, is discussed in chapter five.

In a country where the greed of the new rich is everywhere apparent, Bayan Obo has been the most intensive manifestation of the triumph of greed over all else, including official policy. The disasters feared by the Mongol pastoral herders were hardly primitive superstitions. The lamas who reluctantly moved the earth spirits away from the Bayan Obo mountain, have always understood such spirits to be creatures of the human mind, not existing objectively. Yet they never denounced these preBuddhist spirits, banished or liquidated them, but instead honoured local belief. The Tibetan Buddhist response to the eruption of greed at Bayan Obo is not anger but grief, always with an eye for mining for wisdom within delusion, to use a classic phrase which in 2012 became an English book title. The metaphor describes how meditating on the nature of reality bears fruit as the dawning of nonconceptual wisdom. The ultimate attainment of intensive Buddhist mind training is to discover what is, and always has been, amid the confusions, delusions, temptations and desires of everyday life, and nowhere else.


[1] Uradyn Bulag, Collaborative Nationalism: The Politics of Friendship on China’s Mongolian Frontier. Rowman and Littlefield 2010, 180-1

[2] Bulag 177

[3] Kui-Feng Yang and others, Mesoproterozoic carbonatitic magmatism in the Bayan Obo deposit, Inner Mongolia, North China: Constraints for the mechanism of super accumulation of rare earth elements, Ore Geology Reviews 40 (2011) 122–131

[5] Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Economic and Information Technology Commission.

the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Commerce.

[6] Baotou Steel Rare Earth replaces rival processors in Inner Mongolia,, June 07 2011

[7] Carl E Walter and Fraser J T Howie, Red Capitalism, Wiley, 2012, 194

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