WHY THE CHARISMATIC KHENPOS OF TIBET URGE PASTORALISTS TO WITHOLD LIVESTOCK FROM CHINA’S URBAN NEOLIBERAL MARKET WHICH PROMISES PROSPERITY, AND INVARIABLY FAILS.
GABRIEL LAFITTE firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Management, Faculty of Business & Economics, Monash University
Presented to CONTESTING TIBET SEMINAR,
Community Identity & Displacement Research Network www.communityidentity.com.au Victoria University, Melbourne, 8 July 2014
[this awfully long blog -apologies- builds on the previous blogpost called Milking Tibet, looking closely at how today’s neoliberal China commodifies Tibet, and how Tibetans, led by charismatic khenpos and lamas is responding. So this lengthy blog tries to make sense of the wildly popular ten virtues movement sweeping Tibet, as a way of mobilising Tibetans to stand strong and united, in the face of the seductions and disappointments of China’s hedonic promise of neoliberal wealth accumulation.
If you managed to read the previous blog, you will find some overlap, but actually the further you go, the newer the argument, and a completely different frame for viewing contemporary Tibet]
What do the lamas, khenpos and geshes of Tibet observe when they look out across the vast grassland? Although they are no longer permitted any role in the public sphere, they remain keen observers, alert to the patterns of hopes and disillusionments of the pastoralists, who continue to regard their lamas as precious and trustworthy, even when publicly silent.
To the lamas, all situations are workable, all circumstances changeable and amenable to fresh approaches. Yet everywhere they look, they see Tibetans striving, against the odds, to sustain their livelihoods, despite ever-tightening restrictions. Those who have trained deeply in transforming the mind, routinely imagining themselves as all-accomplishing deities, are undismayed by obstacles; bet everywhere they look they see fellow Tibetans best by obstacles, and defeated, both by statist social engineering from above, and their own habitual confusion, from within.
The experience of most rural Tibetans is that the promise of the market is seldom fulfilled, even though it is normal, in a neoliberal economy, that the state, at a local or higher level, subsidises the construction of infrastructure such as saleyards, feedlots, animal fattening facilities on urban fringes, while also paying for road maintenance and even broadcasting price signals to remote producers. Today’s neoliberal China heavily subsidises the big “national champion” dairy companies that control the fast growing Chinese market for dairy. “According to the central government´s ‘Number 1’ Policy Document of 2013, the government will continue to support the scaling up and consolidation of the livestock industry. As part of that plan, subsidies will be provided to purchase improved varieties of dairy cows and livestock insurance, and for building standardized farms. Large dairy farms will also be supported through general incentives provided by the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) for large scale farms given MOA’s general bias toward scale, standardization and consolidation as an answer to food safety problems and management of natural resources and environmental concerns.”
All four central ministries with power over the dairy industry in 2014 agreed on a state-directed and financed plan of agglomeration. Caixin reported: “Beijing has vowed to form 10 strong domestic dairy companies by the end of 2018 which combined will account for more than 80 percent of the country’s total market share, according to a document jointly issued by four central government departments. The plan also includes building three to five of the big 10 into leading baby formula providers with annual revenue of more than 5 billion yuan. Both the central and local governments will contribute capital into the initiative to facilitate the consolidation of existing dairy firms, the announcement said.”
The current dominance of a small number of huge corporations in China’s booming dairy industry, assisted by state subsidies, is now typical of the pattern of contemporary Chinese neoliberalism; and a major reason why it is now too late for Tibetan livestock producers to enter the market. The barriers to entry are now formidable, requiring from the outset economies of scale, and an industrialised agribusiness model unavailable, unfamiliar and unattainable by Tibetans. Even if Tibetans were to wholly embrace the prevailing model of animal production in penned feedlots on urban fringes, it would at best provide employment for only a small fraction of the current pastoral population.
SLIDING INTO POVERTY
When asked why they don’t participate in the market economy, Tibetan pastoralists often say they simply don’t have the surplus to sell. Their production is for subsistence. Herd sizes have shrunk, as has the size of adult yaks, as pastures degrade. Regulatory limits on herd size have been imposed and increasingly policed. In Yushu prefecture, one of the better pastoral districts of the Tibetan Plateau, in 1989 rural families had on average 8.04 yaks per person, 11.72 sheep or 51.92 sheep equivalents if each yak is counted as equivalent to five sheep. This was sufficient to live well, with the poverty line defined as 25 sheep units (SU) per person. However, by 2005, according to official prefectural statistics, the number of animals per person had declined to 3.52 yaks and 7.57 sheep, adding up to 25.17 SU, right on the poverty line. However, when one looks not only at the entire prefecture, a huge area much of which is semi-arid, but county by county, especially in the more densely populated counties which sustain the best quality, well-watered pastures, in Trindu, Yushu and Nangchen counties, by 2005 the number of sheep equivalents per nomadic household member had fallen well below the poverty line to 18.5 in Trindu, 15.7 in Yushu county and 18 in Nangchen. On the basis of detailed fieldwork, Gruschke says: “The 2006-2007 sample survey of Yushu households reveals that less than half of them own enough animals to live above the subsistence level (25SU per person). Between 12% and 20% of rural households did not even own livestock. Almost half of the livestock owners interviewed could not earn any cash from animal products, most of them not even producing enough for their own subsistence.”
This slide into poverty, even extreme poverty and destitution, has many causes; regulatory restrictions on land allocation and herd size being one. Climate change and extreme weather is another, leading to accelerating degradation on the unduly small allocated areas to which pastoralists are restricted. A further factor is population growth. Another factor is the absence of livestock insurance enabling nomads hit by blizzards to access finance to buy new stock, to recover from natural disasters. The descent into poverty happened quickly, at the height of neoliberal China’s market embraced. On Gruschke’s figures, in 1992 the number of animals per rural person was well above the poverty line, in all counties of Yushu prefecture, with even the poorest county sustaining animals per person 30% above the poverty line.
The inevitable result of poverty and destitution is that Tibetan nomad children grow up stunted, starved of adequate nutrients. One of the most recent clinical studies by Chinese scientists shows 37.5% of rural Tibetan children have stunted growth. Another study found mental retardation rates high among Tibetan rural children. Another recent study found that: “women from minority groups had higher odds of anaemia in contrast with Han,” especially in northern Tibet (Qinghai).
MAKING TIBETAN “YAK’ MILK A HIGH END PREMIUM BRAND
While the pastoralists slide further into poverty, neoliberal China has discovered in Tibet a high-end brand that can be used to market packaged milk to urban Chinese consumers who have adopted milk as a health food, for infants and adults, are terrified, after a succession of scandals, of poisonous milk products sold in China, and have sufficient income for a private solution. The Treasure of Plateau Yak Dairy Co., and its Feifan brand of infant milk powder and Tetrapak whole milk is a case study of how, in today’s China, fortunes can be made, aided by central subsidies, by spending far more on marketing and brand building, than is paid to Tibetans to provide the milk of their dri, sold to China as “yak milk”.
Treasure of Plateau 高原之宝 pays Tibetan pastoralists four yuan per litre of “yak milk” and sells it online, on tmall.com, for 128 yuan per litre, or far more as infant formula, which sells for 440 to 580 yuan per tin weighing less than a half kilo. This extraordinary mark-up finances a marketing budget aimed at the fears of the urban elite who want to consume milk, safely. It also pays for lobbying central authorities to be one of the small number of companies privileged to emerge as state-financed winners of a compulsory agglomeration, of intensive mergers and acquisitions designed to not only replace reliance on imports but also to create China’s own team of “national champions” capable of exporting dairy products worldwide. The marketing budget is huge. “Treasure of Plateau has budgeted 100 million yuan from 2008 to 2010 to explore the domestic and international markets. It also hired Shenzhen-based China Winwin Consulting to be its branding and marketing agency to make “Feifan” the name to know when it comes to fresh yak milk products.”
Turning the clean air and honest folk of Tibet into private corporate brand equity, while calling this most private enterprise a blessing for Tibet, does little for Tibet beyond monetising its’ supposed other-worldliness. Far from enabling Tibetan pastoralists to gain entry to the now massive Chinese urban market for whole milk, yoghurt and infant formula, the extreme prices limit Tibetan dairy to luxury items for the super-rich, status symbols not meant for the masses, a brand which would only be cheapened if mass produced.
THROUGH THE EYES OF THE LAMAS
All of this is evident to the customary leaders of Tibet, the enlightened lamas, khenpos, geshes and wandering ngagpa yogis. Not only are they revered by Tibetans, for their clear-headedness, inspiring leadership and impartiality, if anything, they are trusted more than ever, at a time when it is hard to find Han Chinese who are compassionate towards Tibetans, and trustworthy.
The lamas, even when they must be silent in public, nonetheless see the seductive promise of neoliberal modernity, and its failure to deliver. They see the tilted playing field. They hear the stories of the frustrated pastoralists who have tried to enter the wider market economy, only to be forced to accept a pittance for animals caringly reared for years. They see for themselves the failure of either the social engineering state, or the neoliberal marketplace, to build the most basic infrastructure, such as stockyards to keep animals healthy during the sales process, which would give pastoralists a chance of getting a fair price for their animals.
The nomads who descend into poverty, whose narrowly allocated fenced in lands degrade for want of herd mobility, are the lama’s people, with their loyalty to a specific monastery or a particular lineage of reincarnate lamas that stretches back for generations. If anyone has an intimate, and panoramic understanding of the problems of the red-faced Tibetans of the grasslands (as they traditionally call themselves), it is these traditional protectors of the people and the land, the lamas.
They see all too clearly that the nomads of Tibet have no way forward, and no way back. The way forward, entry into the modern mobility of wage employment in the factories, is blocked, because very few children of nomads, in poor counties with poor schools, complete primary school and qualify to enter one of the limited number of secondary (or junior middle) schools in the towns growing all over Tibet. Even if they make it to junior middle school, they seldom graduate, and those who do then face the overwhelming reality that nearly all employment opportunities require fluency in written and spoken Chinese, which they are not as good at as their Han neighbours. Entry is blocked by the language of the master race, and by the active racism of Han and Hui kin networks originating in the home provinces of the immigrants to Tibet, seizing and monopolising opportunities for wealth accumulation.
All of this is obvious to the lamas, who are seldom unaware of the social dynamics of their people; and even more obvious to the wandering yogis, the ngagpa, who live among the people and see their frustrations every day. The pastoralist parents of children who drop out of school after a few years frequently say their kids no longer have any desire to persist with the hard working life of nomadic pastoral production. They have learned bad habits at school, including the widespread disdain, not only among educated Chinese teachers, but also among Tibetan town dwellers, that nomads are backward. So they cannot go back, and cannot go forward into neoliberal urban modernity.
This has long been known to the lamas, and has long been met with compassion. But compassion, privately expressed when encountering destitute nomads in private is not, in Tibetan tradition, enough. Compassion is traditionally depicted as an energetic, active, masculine quality of an enlightened mind that proactively changes what is changeable. Until now the realm of the changeable has been restricted to the private encounter between the lama and the devotee; because on one the defining features of China’s rule is that lamas are forbidden any role in the public sphere.
RETURN OF THE REPRESSED
What is new is the return of the lamas to the public sphere, most assertively on the fringes of Tibet, in areas where a great revival of transformative mind training has generated a large body of religious practitioners with the skills, strength of mind and courage to publicly guide the pastoralists of Tibet on how to live in a world that offers only the worst of statist command governmentality combined with the more exploitative aspects of neoliberalism.
This is a movement led by khenpos, rather than by lamas who inherit a title and a monastic establishment that the state feels it must regulate. The khenpos are the self-made selfless, whose diligence in study and transformational practice has fruited in an expansive opening to authenticity, in which even the fixations of an obsessively jealous and fearful state can be transcended.
Tibetans are good at recognising those who have awakened to a non-referential, transpersonal, all-inclusive state of being; and rely on them for guidance. Tibetans have had plenty of experience discerning who, whether recognised by title or not, has actually awakened to the nature of reality; and then trusting the non-deceitful ones. They have also much experience of the wannabes and pretenders, discerning the personal neediness persisting behind the spiritual façade. Knowing who to trust, the bond of trust is strong. The khenpos fulfil the highest of human needs, for self-actualisation. Not only does this give them remarkable energy, capability and fluidity; it awakens the minds of others, mobilising collective energies willing to stand up the full repressiveness of the state if necessary; while more usually flowing round the obstacles generated by suspicious official minds, like water.
The result is “the largest centre of Buddhist studies in the world” on a remote hillside of eastern Tibet, the epicentre of a new movement providing public guidance to the millions of Tibetan pastoralists. This is Larung Gar, or more formally the Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, of Kandze prefecture in upland Sichuan. Despite its size, and success in transmitting inner realisation, and 35 year history, Larung Gar attracts little attention. A rare exception is an evocative photo essay by Frederic Lemalet in the geographical magazine of April 2012. That low key may be as its’ khenpos want it, in keeping with its designation as a gar, an encampment, suggesting something provisional, rather than the institutionalised monastic Buddhism the Communist Party finds such a threat.
Larung Gar is an engine of enlightenment, inspiring and insisting on the intensive meditational practice and study that reconditions the human person. Such centres of renewal are many in Tibetan history, as famous monasteries, founded by charismatic lamas, succumb to routine; and new centres of profound insight into the nature of mind grow elsewhere. The number of practitioners, and their energy in mobilising Tibetan society, suggests it is no exaggeration to call obscure Larung Gar the largest Buddhist study and practice centre in the world.
The founder of Larung Gar, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, often simply called Khenpo Jikphun, is widely recognised across Tibet as a great reinvigorator of Buddhist practice, and its relevance to daily life, and the problems of living in a new world where the attractions of neoliberal modernity are enmeshed with Chinese characteristics. Khenpo Jikphun created his enterprise in the 1980s, a time when China, appalled by the Cultural Revolution, showed much greater respect for Tibetan language and culture than now. Premier Hu Yaobang, while touring Tibet, went as far as to order Han Chinese cadres stationed in Tibet to learn Tibetan, a command that was never implemented. It was a propitious moment for a renewal movement for Tibetans seeking to rediscover the repressed, not just as culture, tradition, doctrine and ritual, but as a deeply transformative inner journey to experience in fully embodied ways the nature of reality, of mind and of the phenomenal world. Here, Tibetans discovered, the full path to enlightenment could be practiced, under the skilful guidance of Khenpo Jikphun, who himself had spent the barren Cultural Revolution years taking the path of full awakening to its full fruition. His RigpaWiki page says: “During the time of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, starting in 1950, Khenpo withdrew increasingly from normal monastic life until in 1959 he took to the remote mountains, herding a small flock of goats and sheep. There, for the next twenty years, he secretly engaged in meditation and occasionally taught small numbers of disciples, often basing his instructions on the Seven Treasures of Longchenpa. Throughout this time, he was able, through legendary exploits and means, to elude the Chinese authorities.” The Rywiki entry says: “1960-1980. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok evades the People’s Liberation Army, the Red Guard and Chinese authorities by wandering as a goat herder and nomad in the remote valleys of Serthar in eastern Tibet. During these years, he continued to practice mediation, write commentaries on Buddhist philosophical texts, as well as informally transmit teachings to students. In Kham, stories abound today of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s miraculous abilities to evade capture during this period.”
Such renewals have happened many times in Tibet, perhaps the best known being the Rimé movement of the mid-19th century. After the cultural revolutionary war against everything old, including Tibetan Buddhism in its entirety, many Tibetans yearned not just for the performative aspects of Buddhist ritual, but for the inward path of discovering, and experiencing, the source of consciousness. The popular biographies of great lamas and yogis constantly emphasize the value of putting all else aside, if one finds an authentic, trustworthy, undeceitful teacher, to go to wherever the teacher resides, however far it may be, whatever the hardships, to receive the whispered oral transmissions that nudge the meditation practitioner beyond concepts and into utter authenticity. Tibetans did make the journey, from all over the Tibetan Plateau, to remote Larung Gar in Serthar County, where they built simple wooden retreat huts for basic shelter while doing intensive mind training practice under the supervision of Khenpo Jikphun.
“In 1987, Khenpo led over 10,000 Tibetan monks on a pilgrimage to Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province. This particular pilgrimage created a spectacular scene. Crowds of Chinese pilgrims and onlookers tagged along. Upon returning to Serthar, Khenpo and the monks found that a large number of Han Chinese lay and monastic practitioners then followed them into the mountains of Kham.”
Shortly after his death, in 2004, the current Dalai Lama wrote of him:
“Even amidst the oppressive darkness of the five degenerations,
You perfected your study, contemplation and meditation on all the outer and inner pitakas, and countless scriptures,
Reached the highest experience and realization of their meaning,
And stood out, as the supreme holder of the definitive teachings.
When the fierce winds of change blew with unbearable intensity,
Your determination and resolve remained steadfast like the king of mountains,
And those in saffron robes, upholders of the three trainings,
And devoted followers in their thousands, flocked around you.”
The impact on Tibetan Buddhism of the fierce winds of revolution is expressed by scholar David Germano: “The body of Tibet herself was stripped of its web of stupas, temples, and other architectural markers, and even the memories of her sacred caves, groves, and mountains were at times eradicated through the human loss. The bodies of religious Tibet were sacrificed and resacrificed on multiple fronts for a threedecade period which resulted in the literal deconstruction of an entire civilization.”
Not only did the Dalai Lama deeply appreciate Khenpo Jikphun’s ceaseless successful transmission of the inner meanings of Buddhist practice; there was a strong link between the previous Dalai Lama and the previous incarnation of Khenpo Jikphun, Terton Sogyal, which is explored at length in a 2014 English language biography of the Terton, or treasure finder.
VICTIMS AND VICTORS
The English speaking world seems to have barely noticed Khenpo Jikphun and the biggest contemporary centre of Buddhist learning and practice in the world, his creation. The nature of his achievement is evident in the large number of khenpos who graduated from Larung Gar, now revitalising Buddhist practice all over Tibet, strengthening minds and resisting the seductions of neoliberal China. What is less evident is how Khenpo Jikphun achieved what he did, and how his lasting legacy, including the campaign to refrain from sending yaks to slaughter, in the neoliberal market, originates in his decades at Larung Gar.
The only aspect of the Larung Gar story that was widely reported was the spasm of state sponsored destruction ordered by provincial authorities on belatedly discovering, to their great alarm, the number of sincere Han Chinese disciples, monks and nuns, who came to Larung Gar to pursue undistracted the 24/7 inner life of the practitioner on the path of liberation. There were bursts of repression, with the first and worst in 2001 in which most of the monastics were expelled and their retreat huts, laboriously built of timbers from nearby forests, were destroyed. Significantly, the first residential quarters to be demolished were the Han Chinese practitioners. In the eyes of officials, the feudally superstitious Tibetan religion was barely tolerable when practiced by Tibetans, but when it also infected Han Chinese the transmission of disease into the home population became intolerable. Thus put, it is hardly surprising that the wave of destruction of 2001 occurred, with further crackdowns in 2002 and 2004.
The repression fitted well with the standard Tibetan exile narrative of loss, destruction, Tibetan voicelessness and victimhood; and was widely reported. A 2014 Google search for Larung Gar mostly brings back reports from 2001.
Yet in 2014 Larung Gar is flourishing, and is as big, if not bigger than ever; a fact exile Tibetans ignore. Tibetan victimhood is at the core of the exile narrative of their homeland; inner strength is not. Larung Gar survived both the pogrom and, in 2004, the death of Khenpo Jikphun, because of its inner strengths; the same inner resources that led to its initial success. David Germano calls this re-membering the dismembered body of Tibet. Germano’s observations of Larung Gar in the early 1990s seem as true over 20 years later: “Here the sacred landscape of Tibet was being revived in the radical way that only Ter [recovered hidden treasures] can, and religious energy thus appeared centripetal in marked contrast to the alienated state in which institutionalized Buddhism finds itself in many parts of Tibet. Khenpo Jikphun has created a significant countermovement re-establishing the center of gravity within Tibet herself, thereby stemming the flow of authority and value toward Chinese modernity, on the one hand, and refugee Tibetan communities, on the other. He has constellated Tibet’s fragmented cultural energy around him, reinvested it in the Tibetan physical and imaginal landscape, directly relinked the contemporary situation with Tibet’s past, and thus in a major way reconstituted Tibetan identity within the realities of life in the contemporary People’s Republic of China, thus reinvigorating Tibetan pride, self-confidence, and sense of purpose.”
ORIGINS OF THE VOW TO WITHOLD LIVESTOCK FROM THE NEOLIBERAL MARKET
A closer look at Larung Gar’s initial decades suggest that what is actually remarkable is not that the Chinese Communist Party felt threatened in 2001 and demolished most of Larung Gar, but that it took so long for the CCP’s fears to boil. By 2001, Larung Gar had run two decades of highly structured, disciplined, intensive, intimately supervised training of thousands of monks and nuns, generating a huge number of new khenpos who were spreading across Tibet, and into lowland China.
Khenpo Jikphun, in those decades, had not only led pilgrimage to Wutai Shan, deep in inland northern China, but also went very publicly to Beijing, had extensive dealings with the Panchen Lama and had his institute officially certified by the Panchen; he had been to Nepal and India, had meetings with the Dalai Lama, and toured north America, Europe and Japan. Any or all of these activities could have been considered transgressive, especially by today’s standards, which are much less tolerant than China’s stance of the 1980s. Yet Khenpo Jikphun, through forced of personality, managed to stare down nervous local officials, and always tested the limits of official restrictions on public religion.
From the outset, he ran a highly disciplined operation that gave everyone clear messages as to what was acceptable, and how to deal with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when many monastics had no choice but to denounce their fellow religious, take up lay life, marry, and earn a living irrespective of the long term consequences.
He dealt with the traumatic legacy of the chaotic Cultural Revolution decade with a clear policy of truth and reconciliation, enabling many who were burdened with regret at broken vows to decisively put the past behind them. “For those practitioners who broke their monastic and tantric vows during the Cultural Revolution (such as vows of celibacy, respect for religious structures and reverence for one’s master), if the corruption was not too severe as to be beyond restoration, he instructed the performance of appropriate rituals for renewing vows.” This purified the minds of individuals burdened by post-traumatic stress, and purified Buddhism generally, to be capable of moving on. The enduring legacy was an abiding concern with discerning good and ill in the compulsions and corruptions of the times, among individuals and at the behest of the state.
From the outset, at Larung Gar it was forbidden to smoke or drink alcohol. Lax students, gossips and those with grudges were also forbidden. Every student was required to have a “yellow book” in which disciplinary infractions as well as academic progress was recorded. He asked of his Chinese followers that they learn Tibetan, and Tibetans were encouraged to learn Chinese, as both are languages rich in the texts of the Buddha dharma.
The window for re-establishing the inner path was a rare moment, but much yearned for by Tibetans who wanted nothing in life but to go within, under skilful supervision. Germano reminds us: “there remains a deep, abiding cultural depression among Tibetans, from the educated youth and religious elite to nomads and villagers. In particular, one constantly encounters feelings of alienation and inadequacy among religious practitioners and communities. There is a pervasive feeling, articulated by young people with serious religious or intellectual interests, such as lay scholars educated at the Dawu Nationalities Institute in Kham, that their religious and intellectual as well as political situation is hopeless, given the continuing Chinese cultural and political onslaught.” The way out was the creation of Larung Gar.
The current popular movement to withhold yaks, sheep and goats from the abattoir; to ask lay people individually and as villages, to vow to give up fighting, drinking, whoring and other social evils, all originate in the early years of Larung Gar, when a charismatic Khenpo, in his most generative years, seized what turned out to be a unique moment for reasserting the value of intensive mind training.
In his wrathfully compassionate way, he faced both his Tibetan and Chinese critics head on. He refused to legitimate Beijing’s choice of a Tibetan boy to be declared the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama who had died in 1989; arguing “that in order to recognise a lama one must have attained a higher degree of spiritual realisation than that lama. Furthermore, he said that he was incapable of recognising any lama, and he had never recognised even a single lama in his entire life.” This impeccable logic is classic Tibetan disingenuity, deftly wielding the weapons of the humble yet indomitable. Khenpo Jikphun not only refused to play the game of validating reincarnate lamas, he had a reformer’s scepticism as to the quality of many declared reincarnate tulkus, saying bluntly: “Today we have a surfeit of tulkus. Earlier, the progeny of lamas and aristocrats used to be tulkus. Today the rich and the white people are tulkus. They may recognize their robes and rosaries from previous lives, but the inner qualities have slipped their memory.” Such critiques invited his audience to perceive for themselves the khenpo’s inner qualities, which were not wanting.
His advocacy for animal rights, in the face of China’s neoliberal market economy, likewise had early origins, and became a major theme of his teachings. Recent articles about “the slaughter renunciation movement” tend to treat his concern for all sentient beings as a political move to consolidate Tibetan identity in opposition to Chinese market modernity; or as a doctrinal innovation in which a progressive and a traditionalist outlook are somehow in tension. But Khenpo Jikphun exhorted lay followers to abandon the wearing of furs several years before the Dalai Lama bluntly said the same; and argued not only for refraining from slaughter but actively saving the lives of animals as a daily practice. In 1997 his resolve on this issue was renewed when, in a dream, he met his teacher, who commended him for his desire to save animals, and blessed him with an intimate touching of foreheads. “From that day the Chosje [Jikphun] stepped up his call to liberate a greater number of animals through his wide retinue of disciples, spanning across the globe.”
Khenpo Jikphun and his successors crystallised these concerns into ten vows that could be taken by lay Tibetans, to refrain from stealing, using knives or guns in fights, whoring, selling guns or drugs, smoking drugs or cigarettes, drinking any alcohol, gambling, hunting, and wearing animal fur. But at the head of this list of social evils was: “Not to sell for slaughter: One should not sell horses, cattle, sheep or dogs to be butchered.”
This became a social movement, a popular cause in which his code of contemporary virtues became the lyrics of pop songs and videos, some graphically depicting animal slaughter. He dwelt at length on the specifics of what, on TV news worldwide, is invariably edited out or fuzzed: the specific methods in common use of taking Tibetan animals to the slaughterhouse, and the actual casual brutality of their deaths. He asked audiences accustomed to imaginatively visualising themselves as deities, to imagine the suffering of beasts treated as commodities.
None of this, or the list of ten contemporary virtues, is unique, or even unusual in Tibetan tradition. The lamas are always pushing their hearers to be more considerate, less hot-headed and quick to quarrel, more co-operative and thoughtful, less vain and acquisitive. There is always a tension between the direction the lamas nudge their people, and the abiding human desire to grab fleeting pleasures as opportunity arises. Tibetans in Tibet (in contrast to exile) revere their lamas, perhaps today more than ever, yet don’t always follow their advice.
Khenpo Jikphun’s advocacy of withholding herd animals from the abattoir, and his full list of ten nonvirtue to abstain from, and also his inclusive, non-sectarian inclusion of all Tibetan religious schools; all have plenty of precedent. One of the most famous 19th century lamas, Shabkar, constantly urged anyone who would listen, as he travelled all over Tibet, to go vegetarian. The practice of saving specific animals for life, buying them as a virtuous act so animals thus marked could live out their days on the pasture, is an old merit-making practice among Tibetans who could afford to do so. New media now make this practice universal.
Khenpo Jikphun gave teachings every morning at Larung Gar, ranging widely and deeply into many topics, including the practical reasons for withholding animals from slaughter, and for his advocacy of a vegetarian diet. His reasoning, based not only on classic Buddhist logic but also on a close reading of the workings of the actual market, were later gathered in publications that circulated widely across Tibet. In these and in further publications by his successor khenpos, his exegetes, much space is given to common sense arguments, taken from direct observation of daily life, in support of taking the vows of the ten virtues. He observes the workings of the neoliberal market economy as inimically unfavourable not only to herd animals but equally to their herders. These observations underscore his alternative, which is retention of the customary moral economy, both in the sense used by James Scott, signifying a use economy of bare subsistence, in which poverty is always close; and in the sense used recently by several economists calling for a return to small-scale organic eco-agriculture to replace the large scale industrial agribusiness exchange economy that is entering Tibet, with Chinese characteristics.
COMMODITISING ANIMALS AS MEAT
Khenpo Jikphun and other khenpos now leading the renewal movement originating at Larung Gar, identify many aspects of the ways Tibetan primary producers lose by entering the neoliberal market. In 1999, noting the sudden cessation of logging of Tibetan forests, by orders from Beijing, after disastrous flooding downstream, Khenpo Jikphun writes: “The trucks that earlier transported wood are now ferrying cattle to the abattoirs. If things go on as at present, the size of Tibet’s livestock will be reduced so drastically that the nomads will be deprived of their only source of livelihood.”
This is not just an arithmetic observation on the balance between fields on the hoof versus offtake turnoff rates; it is also an argument for the use economy in which wealth is measured by how many animals remain alive on the pasture, rather than the yardstick of success being the number sold as commodities to be converted as fast as possible to meat. Not only is this an argument for the use economy rather than the modern exchange economy, it also valorises the pastoralist’s understanding that to nomadize is to live in a risky, uncertain environment, in a land of unpredictable extremes of weather, in which recovery from disaster depends on having plenty of remaining animals on the hoof, even if many die in a blizzard or starve in an exceptionally long winter.
Chinese economists, official Chinese Animal Husbandry Bureaus and Western academics all assume the pastoralists are irrational, backward and stubbornly premodern for seeing animals on the hoof as their sole nor, or wealth, capital, collateral, dowry and social security. “The state is irritated when herders don’t slaughter their yaks for spiritual reasons. It is very common for many government officials, including some Tibetans, to say that Tibetan herders are very irrational for keeping so many yaks instead of selling them to improve their living conditions and educate their children.” Gayley, a religious studies scholar, perhaps unfamiliar with pastoralist survival strategies, is similarly sceptical about Khenpo Jikphun’s “premodern” concern to maintain the national herd, “whether or not his assessment holds up to scrutiny.”
Khenpo Jikphun monitored all aspects of the neoliberal animal commodity economy as it operates in Tibet. In a video of his teachings, he says: “from a this-worldly perspective, the business involved with killing will never bring economic improvement. I personally have never seen any middlemen, who do the livestock trading business between Tibetan pastoral areas and nearby Chinese cities, make money from their sinful business. I saw many slaughterhouses in Tibet that have slaughtered millions of livestock for many years go bankrupt one after another.”
Can this really be true, or is it the prejudice of a premodern preacher, predisposed to assume wrongdoers will come to no good? Trucking livestock, on bad roads, long distances to markets that have no infrastructure for animal welfare, still less for spelling and fattening animals prior to sale and slaughter may well debase the value of the animals thus commoditised. The logic of China’s plans for meat production all centre on intensification, which means centralising the last weeks of an animal’s life in a peri-urban feedlot, as in rich countries, fed where necessary on soybeans imported from the US, and hay imported from Australia or the US. In wealthier parts of China this is already happening, making global soybean prices soar due to Chinese demand outstripping supply.
By comparison, the kind of livestock marketing Khenpo Jikphun witnessed is small-scale, amateur, inefficient, and even deleterious to the quality of yaks as meat about to “come out” into the market. It is a primitive mode of accumulation, a step away from the moral economy of subsistence but far from a full step into the machinery of commoditised meat production that China aims for. It is the worst of both; it is ramalug, literally “neither sheep nor goat”, a common metaphor for Tibetans who compromise the purity and expressiveness of Tibetan language by sprinkling Chinese through it.
EARLY NEOLIBERAL WOOL WARS OF INLAND CHINA
It may well be that Tibetans and Chinese Muslims (Hui) who truck livestock to market towns seldom make money and eventually go broke. That is what happened in the 1980s to the attempts to add value to the wool of China’s vast rangelands, from Inner Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau, Xinjiang and elsewhere. In that first decade of opening to neoliberalism, every pastoral county saw its opportunity to add value to the raw greasy wool produced by the pastoralists administered by the local government. County governments, free at last to establish their own Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) as part of Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the economy, rushed to build wool scouring plants, to clean and add value to wool, in the expectation of selling at a profit to the woollen mills in the boom coastal cities, especially in Shanghai.
Sheep and goat wools seemed ideal commodities for local governments to enter the market economy and get rich. But every grassland county was in competition with every other. The only business plan was to buy as much wool as possible, clean it, and sell to the Shanghai mills. There was little understanding, in remote provinces, that the Shanghai woollen mills could source wool globally, and could switch between wool and synthetics, or blends of both. The county level scouring plants were greedily built to handle more than the wool output the county could command, setting off a price competition as county scours competed to bulk up their inputs, in the short term a great deal for pastoralists who had no prior experience of their wool being competitive and in high demand.
But the over-capitalised and excessively ambitious raw wool processing plants found themselves squeezed, by rising input costs, the cost of servicing the loans they had taken to build their excessively big plants, and by the woollen mills demanding prices (and quality) competitive with what they could buy from Australia. The scouring plants, rather than raising quality to match the standardised quality of imports, actually cut corners, to increase the weight of wool bales, by deliberately adding stones to weight them down. The woollen mills were furious, and stopped buying inland wool; a classic early case of China’s neoliberal turn creating such grasping at primitive accumulation that the county and township level TVE wool scouring plants nearly all went broke, in what economists call the “wool wars”. Local protectionism and greed led to collapse and failure. But the cadres still had their jobs and their state guaranteed wages; and could even make their debts the problem of the lending banks. The pastoralists had no such impunity, and went quickly from being in unprecedented demand to their wool being classified as low grade, suitable only for felt making, no longer of any interest to the woollen mills, which turned to Australian, New Zealand and elsewhere instead.
Kazakh, Uighur, Mongol and Tibetan wool growers in China could find markets in Britain, the US and Germany a century ago. Today’s dynamic China could have created a world class industry by now that not only encouraged greater quantity and quality of wool production, but manufactured Chinese wool into top quality, premium priced export market garments. This is what one might expect, since China is the world’s factory, is especially dominant in textiles and clothing manufacture, even to the extent of driving many third world textile industries bankrupt in recent years. This is also what one might expect given China’s genius for nurturing industries and corporations, with state ownership and support, into national champions capable of playing on the global stage.
There has been little attempt, in the past 50 years, to improve the quality of Chinese wool, that has had lasting results. China today has the biggest number of sheep of any country in the world, is the third largest wool producer in the world, yet the wool it produces is regarded as so inferior that it is used only for the coarsest fabrics. There has been no effort to consistently raise the quality of wool produced by poor herders in a primary industry which by its nature is extensive, using huge areas of land not suited to other productive use.
STATE FAILURE TO INTEGRATE THE PASTORAL ECONOMY
There is now an almost complete disconnect between Chinese wool and China’s woollen textile manufacturing industry. The woollen mills rely almost entirely on imports of fine wool, especially from Australia, rather than using domestic wool. The most value-added product made from Chinese wool was the Mao jacket, once ubiquitous, now a retro look among the fashion conscious nostalgic for a past in which there was a sense of common purpose, and a shared belief in a future socialist paradise. Mao jackets, PLA military uniforms and blankets were all made from wool produced by the upland remote poor, and woollen mills were built in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia to be close to the source of supply. Today nearly all these mills have closed, unable to compete with the more profitable coastal mills reliant on imported wool. 
The decline and fall of improvement to Chinese wool is a sad story of repeated state failure, market failure, misguided policy and decades of neglect of the remote upland poor, locked out of global markets since the early 1950s, who were never given the education, training and access to credit enabling them to improve the quality of their wool.
The exclusion of wool growers from the global success of China’s wool industry is dramatically illustrated by comparing the two natural fibres which are the basis of China’s global dominance of the clothing industry, as the world’s factory. If we compare wool and cotton we see a sharp divergence in the connections between domestic suppliers and manufacturers. In the decade to 2005 China’s cotton production steadily increased from around 4 million tons to the present 6 million tons. Imports have fluctuated, sometimes dropping to only 0.12 million tons in 2002, but generally were around 0.6 million tons. Thus China was over 90% self-sufficient in cotton, right up to the ending of the global multi-fibre agreement, which removed quotas that had been allocated to competing third world manufacturing countries, and China’s cotton requirements shot up. In 2005 and 2006 China used over 10 million tons of cotton a year and imported more, with a self-reliance of around 60%.
By contrast, despite the size of China’s sheep herd, self-sufficiency in wool declined to 67% as early as 1982, by 1988 was as low as 52%, and by 1992 down to 43%. On recent figures, Chinese domestic growers produce about half China’s consumption of wool, but imports are dominated by premium priced fine wool, and domestic production is dominated by coarse and semi-fine wool. China paid US$914 million for imported raw wool in 2003. If that amount had been available to domestic growers, they would have capital to invest in fine wool.
The reasons for the comparative health of China’s cotton growing, and decline of wool growing, are not hard to find. The policy of central authorities for decades was to depress the prices of agricultural inputs to industry, so as to concentrate funds within manufacturing industry, for future expansion. This was especially true in established primary industries reliant on small holders, such as wool, rather than newer industries amenable to scaling up to large state farms, such as cotton. This deliberate distortion of the market led to chronic underinvestment in grasslands and wool production, marginalisation of undercapitalised domestic growers, lack of improvement in quality despite rising expectations of woollen mills, and an increased import of fibres. The direct cause-and-effect relations between centrally planned distortions and increased imports are predicted in the modelling of economists Zhang, Lu, Sun, Findlay and Watson. The tragedy of wool is that, at a time when the state was capable of investing in improving domestic wool quality, and grower incomes, it failed to do so; and now the state no longer has the capacity since control is decisively in the hands of privatised woollen mills with no interest in helping domestic growers. Now it is probably too late to improve Chinese domestic wool quality, though the World Bank still hopes to prove otherwise.
How can it be, this remarkable situation of the country with the world’s greatest sheep herd using so little of its own wool in its own woollen cloth mills? This is a story over many years, of consistent exclusion and coercive state control over growers, while the big coastal mills were given help to grow bigger. The story of the exclusion and impoverishment of China’s wool producers has many stages over the decades since they were forbidden, in the 1950s, to sell their wool on to international markets, and had no choice but to sell to the Shanghai mills.
This story has been told succinctly by Zhou Li, Zhang Cungen and Shi Zhaolin, all of the Institute of Agricultural Economics in Beijing, part of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. They list the many ways that official policy, over decades, discriminated against wool producers, while favouring the big wool manufacturers. China’s developmentalist state chose to boost manufacturers at great cost to wool growers.
First, in the early revolutionary years, all wool became state property, compulsorily acquired at prices set by the state, to be allocated to woollen mills according to plan. The price set by the state in 1952 was RMB 2080 per ton of wool, and 10 years later it was still only 2,240 RMB per ton. By 1970 the purchasing price rose to 3,000, but over the next 15 years, despite the end of the Cultural Revolution, the return of herds to herders, the introduction of a “free market”, and great income gains by almost all other farmers, the price of wool rose only to 3730. “The relative prices of State purchased wool in the 1978-1984 period declined year by year and….. the total index of official State prices for farm produce and side-line products increased 53.7% during the 1978-1984 period, but the mixed average price of wool purchased by the State increased by only 9.7%. The real (or relative) price of wool dropped to its lowest level in 1984.” At that very time other farmers, free of state price controls, were booming and leaving poverty behind, while wool growers still had no choice of buyer. As a result, in those areas where both climate and proximity to markets allowed growers to switch, wool growers did switch from wool to mutton, or to other production altogether. Since they had no voice in policy making, their only choice was to change production. But in China’s western hinterland, far from markets and in areas too cold for other production, the herders had no choice but to continue with wool.
The latter half of the 1980s was a turbulent time in China’s domestic wool production industry, with great promise for growers. China’s reform era finally reached the wool growers. Two new policies promised to improve the livelihoods of wool producers, one by increasing prices through genuine market competition through an auction system, the other being wool scouring plants near to wool producers, to add value by supplying woollen mills with clean wool ready to make into yarn.
These two new initiatives could have succeeded, but both failed, because of opposition by powerful vested interests, able to undermine the efforts of central ministries because of their tight hold on wool sales. Initially, the auction system seemed to work, as wool prices rose significantly, aided by the drop in wool production as a response top prices being held down so long. Central ministries, still structured to fulfil central plan quotas of a command economy, competed against each other.
LEGACIES OF THE COMMAND ECONOMY
Wool was an industry segmented into three separate layers, each controlled by a different central ministry. Wool production was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, which failed to invest in the grasslands even sufficient to maintain productivity, or arrest the degradation of the working, heavily grazed rangelands. “In Inner Mongolia, the amount invested per unit area in pasture improvement over the past 30 years [to 1989] has been less than one-seventieth of the value of animal husbandry products per unit area over the same period. As a result, pasture yields in some areas are now less than half of what they were in the 1960s.” Wool manufacture was the responsibility of the Ministry of Textile Industry. Coming between the producers and the manufacturers was a third player, essential to the command economy ideal of efficient allocation of commodities according to requirements, the Ministry of Commerce and its monopolistic Native Products Corporation, and under that the Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, which were not in any sense coops set up by or for growers, but were administrative arms of the state, dictating terms of trade to growers.
The Ministry of Commerce had a monopoly on raw wool through its hierarchy of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives (SMCs) down to county level, as the only buyers in rural production areas. The Ministry of Textile Industry championed the interests of the woollen mills, at that time all state-owned, which sought more direct access to raw wool supplies without having to go through the endless layers of rent seeking administrators of the SMCs at county, then prefectural and then provincial level, each adding their own margins before releasing wool to the mills. It was the Ministry of Textile Industry that promoted auctions, but only a small proportion of China’s large wool clip was ever auctioned, as the SMCs managed to maintain their hold and thwart central plans and grower hopes.
One reason the auctions failed is that wool prices were volatile, soaring between 1985 and 1988, then crashing. 1989 was a year of political turmoil that cut China’s trade, including demand for wool, but many other factors were at work. By 1989 the expensive wool scouring plants located in wool producing areas were in serious trouble, on the brink of collapse, at great cost to growers. The scouring plants seemed like a good idea, part of the reform era, enabling not only cities to industrialise and create wealth, but also rural areas were able to capitalise on their comparative advantage by adding value to local raw commodities. This was the time of Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs), a rural industrialisation policy intended to give the countryside its chance to keep up with the booming urban centres and become rich.
In theory, this was a strategy based on real opportunity, but in practice the opportunities were seized by middlemen yet again, by county level officials who used their new permission from above to borrow money, to build wool scouring plants that were too big for the local supply. Greedily, they expected huge profits, which would be possible simply by paying wool growers a little more than the usual price, including growers beyond their own local government jurisdiction. The business plans looked good, and the state owned banks were obliged to lend, since they were directed to do so from above.
Inevitably, the good idea of some quickly became the same good idea driving all county governments in all wool producing areas. Soon there were too many wool scouring plants, with too little supply to justify the capacity of each plant, all competing against each other. This period is known in China as the “wool wars.”
The wool wars were a disaster for China’s poor wool growers. Just at the time when they had opportunity to increase incomes, and at a time of surging demand by woollen mills rapid expansion, the mills turned decisively away from domestic supply, and became big importers, because of the self-destructive greed of the wool scouring plants operated by county level cadres. In 1978, at the start of the reform period, China imported only 10,000 tons of wool. Ten years later, this had risen 15-fold to 152,000 tons, and in 2004 it was 220,000 tons. The sudden increase in wool imports was boosted by handsome state subsidies to the woollen mills, to ease the burden of paying more for imported wool. In fact, the subsidy was as much as RMB 5000 per ton of wool in 1986. In that year the average price of domestic Chinese wool was RMB 6000, so this is a massive subsidy. In 1978 China’s wool growers provided 93% of all wool used in China to manufacture woollen goods, but by 1987 domestic growers produced only 59% of what manufacturers used. The long term decline that has so marginalised the wool growers had begun, and gradually worsened.
The khenpos now leading the revival of Tibetan values witnessed these successive failures to include the Tibetan pastoral economy in any meaningful way in China’s fast growing globalised economy. They have understood that the fatal flaw in all Chinese plans for Tibet is the neglect, uninterest and even disdain for what is assumed to be a primitive mode of production, little better than an animal existence trailing after animals as they seek fresh grass. The khenpos have seen the full cycle of Chinese policy towards rural Tibet; from revolutionary productivist enthusiasm for bigger herds, and collectivisation, hoping for more meat production; to neoliberal enthusiasm for premium brand niche marketing of Tibetan produce by brand building Han Chinese entrepreneurs to whom Tibetan producers are at best minor aspects of brand equity. In sixty years, China’s primary lens viewing Tibet has shifted, from productivity to sustainability; yet the current dominance of sustainability narratives leads only to grazing bans, loss of Tibetan land tenure, closing of pastures and the redesignation of rangeland as watershed protection zones in which almost all human activity is officially excluded.
SUMMING UP THE SLAUGHTER RENUNCIATION MOVEMENT
Throughout these successive state failures and market failures, the khenpos have seen Tibetan pastoralists, ever hopeful despite their slide into over-regulated poverty, attracted by the neoliberal promise of wealth accumulation. Having seen the neoliberal market is rigged against Tibetan primary producers, the khenpos instead urge abstention from slaughter, presenting this as the first of ten virtues that are both traditional and attuned to the dangers of the times. While urging their people to take these vows to abstain from unwholesome activity, the khenpos at the same time urge rural Tibetans to send their children to school, even if the only schools are far, requiring not only junior middle school students to board, away from their families and family enterprises, but even primary age children too must these days leave their families, as schooling is increasingly centralised.
Some observers assume the khenpos are reactionary traditionalists, insisting on old fashioned Tibetanness reified as eternal difference, in an anti-modern rejection of the market, which will only doom rural Tibetans to ongoing poverty. Some even accuse these khenpos of being as unhelpful as the Chinese Communist Party, in sacrificing pastoralists’ market entry opportunities for the sake of a foolishly backwards-looking anti-modern agenda.
Yet the khenpos, and other enlightened leaders trusted by Tibetans, urge parents to send children to school, to gain literacy and numeracy, preferably in Tibetan as well as Chinese, which are essential to finding a place in a fast changing world. Far from being green-brained reactionaries, they read the times, and see all too clearly that China has at no point taken the interests of the Tibetan pastoralists to heart, or even identified what those interests might be.
These charismatic khenpos are realists, attuned to the times. When they sometimes urge pastoralists to not only withhold their livestock from “coming out” to slaughter, but even to renounce eating meat themselves, they do so knowing that the proliferation of Han Chinese market gardens growing vegetables make the vegetarian option viable, for the first time in Tibetan history.
The slaughter renunciation movement, based on acute observation of the dynamics of China’s neoliberal economy, thus offers all Tibetans opportunity to participate in the solidarity and revival of Tibetan values that characterises the self-immolation movement. The reframed ten virtues reassert core Tibetan values as classic Buddhist values, which distinguish Tibetans, mindful of long term consequences, from Han Chinese concerned only with immediate wealth accumulation.
Outside Tibet, the 130 or more Tibetan protest suicides by burning the body have been much misunderstood, as a cry of utter desperation, or protest only at religious repression, or a doomed attempt at provoking a mass uprising. It is also misunderstood as a cry for global help, or greater effort by Tibetans in diaspora. But the primary meaning of the self-immolations, if we attend carefully to what the immolators leave as their last testaments, is none of these: it is a call to fellow Tibetans inside Tibet to remain strong, united, with a strong sense of Tibetan identity and a revalorisation of Tibetan culture, as they only way of maintaining what is valuable about Tibet, at a time of rapid encroachment of neoliberal Chinese characteristics.
The ten virtues of the khenpos, not only the abstentions from harm but also their positive embrace of modern education, are likewise aimed at maintaining Tibetan collective strength, as a people, with a clear sense of difference and purpose in life, determined to stand together. Very few can make the ultimate sacrifice of burning the body; but all can participate in the renewal of Tibetan values and identity as a nation, by taking one or more of the ten vows. The decommodification of animal lives is a revalorisation of Tibetan lives.
All Tibetans now have roles in cultural maintenance, in the face of the encroaching neoliberal economy of China and its seductions. Change is now happening at a much faster rate than ever before, but it is also piecemeal, incremental change: a new road here, a tunnel there, a comfortable housing scheme here, a milk marketing promise, a new shop handily close by. In these everyday ways mundane modernity advances, always with Chinese characteristics. These advances are usually welcomed by Tibetans, who usually have an optimistic attitude. The railway that brings millions of tourists from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa also runs from Lhasa to Beijing and Shanghai, enabling Tibetans, at least in theory, not only access to new sights but new markets.
The longer term consequences of China’s massive capital expenditures on infrastructure over two decades of “leap over” investment, only gradually unfold. A newly reconstructed all-weather highway turns an unpleasant journey of nine hours in a grinding, slow, cold, underpowered bus to the provincial capital, into a two hour, heated journey in a fast modern bus, that makes the remote village and the provincial capital within ready commuting distance. It becomes quite easy for grandparents with an urban apartment to visit grandchildren, or to swap places, allowing the grandchildren easy access to decent schools not available in villages.
But the converse also applies. A highland town once an arduous journey up from the provincial capital is now only two comfy hours away. Thus Rebkong, a town well known for the quality of its iconographic painters, sculptors and applique thangkas, finds itself caught up in a China-wide real estate boom, with high rise apartment blocks, especially on its northern edge, which is closest to Xining, the city of the Qinghai province. Rebkong’s reputation as a town of artists is commoditised, to advertise a property developer’s plans for an “authentic replica” fantasy version of an “artist’s village” accommodating art-loving Chinese tourists who want all modern comforts.
The inconvenient reality is that just to the north of Rebkong, along the Rongwo valley, there are many old Tibetan villages, and long established small farms, some of which will be displaced for the authentic replica version.
In some minority ethnicity areas of China, tourism is controlled by local communities, and benefits accrue to their tourism enterprises. They often build replicas of traditional villages, so as to be ready to perform traditional dances and displays when the scheduled busloads arrive, without their actual living spaces being encroached upon. But Tibetans do not have control over how they are represented, how the tourism industry is run, or who runs it. Displacing actual functioning villages for a replica village, owned and run by Han Chinese entrepreneurs for their own benefit, in which Tibetans at best are employed as casual labourers to demonstrate their skills in painting or applique, is yet another loss, in a game stacked against Tibetans.
The everyday encroachment is well captured in a recent book by a Tibetan writer in exile who went back to her family place in Nangchen, a remote and poor area of Kham. Even there neoliberal modernity is everywhere in Tibetan lives: “We have brought a tray of plums, apples and peaches with us. Yungyang pulls out a knife to skin her fruit: she says she knows how to eat it. The Chinese are so clever to make such tasty fruit, she says to me. She sinks her three good teeth into the fruit. Her pupils dilate as her tongue registers the sensation of peach.”
In A Home in Tibet, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa captures the everyday aspects of China’s new hegemonic capacity to remake lives in the image of Chinese hedonic neoliberalism: “Five decades ago it had taken Tashi close to twenty days to reach Xining on horseback from Kyegu. When jeeps began to cover the same distance in twelve hours, she thought it was by some divine machination. ‘Now I can take a plane from Xining and be in Kyegu in the time it takes me to make bread,’ she says in wonder.”
“Each winter Tibetans flock to the city leaving only a caretaker to mind their homes in snowbound towns and villages…. On cold winter days the elders spend their days in the shopping centres. The new buildings are so toasty, she sighs.
“This is the city Tibetans flock to when their small towns cannot help them: the sick come for surgeries, businessmen replenish their goods, families purchase furniture for new homes, and newlyweds spend a month’s salary to capture their union in glossy photo albums in Xining.”
“China is present in the clothes Kunga wears, the writing on the gates of his school, the language in which he studies. He forgets why the Chinese are in Tibet. He would, he says, prefer it is the Chinese left him alone, but since that is unlikely, he doesn’t see any other recourse available to him but to resign himself to the situation and make the best of it. All afternoon, Kunga reads Don Quixote in Chinese.”
These neoliberal commodifications of Tibetan peaches, milk, art, suit coats and ways of life are now met, not only by the public suicides of Tibetans demanding the solidarity of fellow Tibetans, but also the new ten virtues that aim at decommodifying Tibet, decoupling it from its subaltern position in the neoliberal economy, in which Tibetan culture is available for tourist consumption.
As the khenpos fan out across Tibet, urging pastoralist families and whole villages to take the vows of abstention from the quick pleasures of consumption, there is an increasing felt urgency, in a situation where Tibetan language and culture seem to lack agency and efficacy, while standard Chinese Putonghua becomes the highway to access all that modernity promises. This urgency puts the social pressure of the whole village, and the special status of the khenpos, onto those who struggle to maintain these vows of abstention.
Tibetans now complain, on online chat platforms, that group pressure condemns backsliders who fail to keep vows, and khenpos have been known to bluntly warn that those who infract these lay vows are destined in the next life for the hell realms.
The ten virtues movement expounded by the khenpos has been called traditionalist, anti-modern and even a betrayal of the slender opportunities to pastoralists to gain extra income and enter the modern economy. Now, as coercive social pressures are exerted, taking a whole village to raise the abstemious hedonist, the khenpos are now accused of fascism, of imposing their will on the reluctant masses, in the name of abstract Buddhist versions of the good life, denying individual rights to have fun here and now. The khenpos are seen, often from afar, as anti-modern, anti-development and even as fascist. In the west, with its deep history of suspicion of church as a reactionary presence in the public sphere, dark echoes abound.
In Tibet, there is a sense that the endgame is close. Revolutionary China made war on Tibet, starting in the 1950s, which Tibetans resisted as best they could though ill equipped for modern ruin from aerial bombardment. To the many lay and religious of Tibet who have taken the opportunity of postrevolutionary reform to rebuild traditional inner strengths of Tibetans, and thus the collective strength of the Tibetans as a people, neoliberal China is now far more a threat than the forced marches and artillery of the People’s Liberation Army once were.
Once again, this is now new, especially in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands along the eastern rim of the plateau. Traditionally, these border regions were dotted with massive monasteries, capable of mobilising large number of monks to withstand the pressures of encroaching lowland Chinese armies, Mongol invaders, Muslim warlords and ambitious Qing emperors. Just as the new ten virtues are new only in the superficial sense of naming contemporary vices, the cultural solidarity movement, embodied by the self-immolators and the vow giving khenpos are not new. Within any Tibetan monastic establishment, solidarity is expected, with a high degree of loyalty to the lama or khenpo. Now the widespread popular trust in those who manifest the inner transformation of realisation of the path within is put to the test, as the endgame draws nigh.
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Zhang Cungen, An overview of the Chinese wool textile industry, 31-42 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990
Shi Zhaolin, Wool marketing problems in China, 24-30 in John Longworth ed., The wool industry in China: Some Chinese perspectives, Inkata Press, Melbourne, 1990
 Zhang Cungen, Review of wool production, 16
 Watson, Who won the wool war? 226
 Ai Yunhang, Major issues in wool supply and demand in China and the appropriate policies (Wo guo wangmao gong qiu fangmian de zhuyao wenti ji qi duice), Problems of Agricultural Economics (Nongye jingji wenti) #7, 188, 30-34, translated in Watson, Who won the wool war?
 Zhang Cungen, Review of wool production, table 7
 Andrew Watson, Christopher Findlay and Du Yintang, Who won the ‘wool war”?: A case study of rural product marketing in China, China Quarterly #118, June 1989, 213-241
 Kabzung, 140-1
 Emily Yeh, (2013). Blazing Pelts and Burning Passions: Nationalism, Cultural Politics, and Spectacular Decommodification in Tibet. The Journal of Asian Studies, 72, pp 319-344
 Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, A Home in Tibet, Penguin India, 2013, 270