By Gabriel Lafitte                                             March 2011


China’s 12th Five-Year Plan has been launched, covering the years 2011 through 2015. This twelfth plan continues a lineage of central plans originating in the revolutionary years when Stalin’s Soviet Union was the model for everything, including the dream of a single organised, coordinated, mobilised and supremely rational economy operating under a single central plan.

Do the math. The first Five-Year Plan covered 1953 through 1957, early in the life of the People’s Republic of new China. From the outset, Tibet was part of the Five-year Plan process, with explicit designation of Tibet as a site to be industrialised and quickly militarised, part of the western interior region designated as the Third Front, where heavy industries and military production could be developed as fast as possible, far from the reach of the US Navy.

That was officially the First Five-Year Plan for Tibet, but actually there is a much earlier one, going all the way back to 1724. It is a detailed Chinese blueprint for the political, economic, cultural and religious future of Tibet, covering 21 pages in the original Manchu text, and 16 in Chinese. That plan, and its author, Nian Gengyao, now long forgotten, cover all aspects of the social engineering of Tibet, just as those of the 20th and 21st centuries do. We could call it Tibet Five-Year Plan 001. In the words of a recent admirer, “Nian’s comprehensive plan included provisions for military security, economic development, and administrative reform.” (Perdue 2001, 290) It also pioneered the allocation of fixed grazing areas to Tibetan pastoralists.

How it was written, how it impacted on the lives of Tibetans, how it echoes in the 21st century present, are worth exploring. That in turn depends on whether one looks at such plans through the eyes of their Chinese authors, or on the ground through the eyes of the planners Tibetan objects.

Through Chinese eyes or Tibetan, whether viewed from above or below, some commonalities stand out. Not only does the 1724 plan announce the same disciplinary interventions as in recent plans, it is remarkably modern in its conception of how Tibetans and other ethnicities are to be conceptualised and categorised. Equally, we might discover that the most recent plans are quite ancient in their repetitive concern with imposing discipline and uniformity onto the unruly diversity of Tibet. But we must begin somewhere.

To begin, here is the first Five-Year Plan for Tibet, as seen through the eyes of China’s imperial records, and recent historians who rely on Chinese imperial viewpoints. The author of the 1724 Tibet Five-Year Plan 001 is Nian Gengyao, whose imperial title Fuyuan Dajiangjun can be translated as Generalissimo in Charge of Pacification of Remote Regions. Nian was a loyal, diligent and energetic servant of the Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. The Manchu Qing were still consolidating their hold on China, having conquered China in the mid 17th century. For the Manchu, not a numerous people but with strongly militarised social organisation, ruling the vast numbers of China was a great challenge. Maintaining control while also maintaining a separate Manchu identity by retaining aspects of nomadic gradation, such as a mobile court on horseback, were constant pressures. But the further challenge was the Mongolians and the Tibetans, the nomads beyond the walls and gates.

The Manchu were themselves nomads, from the far north, who found they had to deal with the chronic problems of other nomadic neighbours to the northwest and west. The Mongols still controlled huge areas, even though their empire had fragmented and in China been replaced by the Ming, and the Ming then by the Manchu Qing. The Mongols were still highly mobile and mobilised, still roved freely throughout what today is independent Mongolia, Chinese Inner Mongolia, Turkestan (today’s Chinese province of Xinjiang) and Tibet. This was a great crescent on China’s inland flanks, always a danger.

But the Mongols were no longer united. This was China’s imperial opportunity, to side with one Mongol faction or another, in the hope of eventually weakening and conquering all. The Tibetans too were under great pressure to choose this or that Mongolian faction as their protector. The stakes were high. Even though the Mongols were Buddhists, having been converted by the Tibetans, Tibetan factions allied to a losing Mongol faction faced death and destruction, including the killing of monks en masse and looting of monasteries. This had persisted for centuries.

It is anachronistic to speak of Mongols and Tibetans as familiar categories. The diverse clans aggregated under the term Mongol are a contemporary way of conceptualising that actually originates in the project of Nian Gengyao and his emperor to invent the Mongols, as a single, coherent identity, and separate them from the Tibetans, physically, culturally and linguistically.

The Chinese emperor Yongzheng, in 1717, decided on a military campaign to defeat the Mongols so convincingly that they would never again threaten China. This meant marching soldiers deep into Mongol lands and into Tibet, far beyond the outposts of Chinese peasant farm settlements that could feed troops on the march. It also meant relying less on Chinese soldiers than on elite Manchu soldiers brought from afar, with a warrior mentality of enduring hardship.

By 1724 the emperor’s loyal servant Nian Gengyao had ruled China’s outermost province of Sichuan for several years. Sichuan, a hot and humid basin with air so thick visiting Tibetan traders longed for clean highland air, had suffered greatly in the wars between dynasties but also between various bandits, warlords and renegade generals. Sichuan was depopulated, poor and of little use to the Qing, except as a frontline defence against the Mongols and their Tibetan allies. Today’s Sichuan is mountainous, with 42 per cent of the province’s area thrusting north-westward into Tibet. But in 1724 Sichuan meant only the intensively arable basin of the upper middle Yangtze and its many tributaries that all originated in far obscurity up in the barbarian Tibetan mountains.

Nian Gengyao, before being appointed to subdue Tibetans and Mongols, had been in Sichuan some years, where he busied himself making plans to turn Sichuan into what Foucault would certainly call a disciplinary society, with the state firmly directing the masses. The Sichuanese would be disciplined to pay their taxes, conform to imperial norms of propriety and cultivate Sichuan’s farmland much more intensively. Nian was not just an improver; he was a harbinger of modernity in its statist, top-down, directive, and purposive, even teleological mode of fulfilling what destiny is foretold.

He was made governor of Sichuan by the Qing emperor Kangxi in 1709, chosen, as a recent historian, Dai Yingcong says, because “it became necessary to send another energetic and instrumental overseer there. Only a few months after he arrived in Chengdu, he submitted a five-point proposal to the throne in which he outlined several things he deemed urgent, mainly aimed at strengthening political control and weeding out corruption.   In one year Nian sent another seven-point plan, attempting to further overhaul the administration and financial systems. Among the seven things he suggested, four were financial matters –namely to boost land registration, to set up granaries, to mint coins, and to legalise mining. Nian suggested using promotion as a way to lure the local officials away from blackmailing the farmers.” (Dai 69-70)

All this has a contemporary resonance. In 2011, as the 12th Five-Year Plan is rolled out, the central state is still deeply concerned about capturing sufficient revenue to finance its ambitious nation-building investments, and still trying to balance the need for tax revenue from remote areas with the payments needed to go to such areas to help them grow into the Chinese economy and become absorbed into the national flows. The state still struggles to regulate illegal mining, and to control greedy local officials who grab the land of peasants, invent new local taxes, and evade centralised attempts at imposing discipline and uniformity. Incentivising local officials to conform to national priorities, through bargaining, rewards and promotions remains a key way the centre tries to persuade wilful local cadres to get with the national program.

Nian Gengyao was what the emperor in distant Beijing needed, and more. Nian’s enthusiasms, expressed in his five-point, seven-point and five-year plans, often went further than what the emperor wanted. While Nian wanted uniformity, with all newly cleared and farmed land properly registered, so as to extract taxes, the emperor took a longer term view. He was less concerned administrative compliance,   maximising extraction of surplus value, or uniform rule of law, than with the slow process of letting Sichuan recover from decades of strife and depopulation. He wanted a prosperous lowland Sichuan basin capable, if necessary, of supporting large numbers of troops. If the time came to decisively defeat the Mongols, requiring logistic backup, the emperor wanted Sichuan prosperous enough to sustain a difficult military campaign pushing up from the basin into the highlands and plateaus of Tibet, to the west. Several times the emperor had to ignore or restrain the enthusiasms of Nian Gengyao.





The Kangxi emperor saw the Tibetans as little trouble, more focused on their own squabbles and negotiations with their Mongol patrons. In his own words he saw Tibetans as people “pleased with any small benefit. They would praise us even though they get only a modicum of benefit. (Dai 71)”

Chinese immigrants poured into Sichuan, mostly from heavily-taxed Hunan and Hubei, to Sichuan’s east. “After the core area was filled, the new settlers gradually radiated to the peripheries of the province and lastly to Yunnan and Guizhou, where unclaimed land was also available in large quantities.” (Dai 74) This was a settler rush similar to the peopling of North America or Australia by immigrant Europeans decades later.

Nian was the model of a modernising risk manager and rational planner. One of Nian’s plans was to establish state-owned granaries, not only to insure against lean years but as a reserve available to the state, and its soldiers, in the event of a frontier emergency. That emergency in Tibet grew, as rival Mongol clans battled each other following the death of the great Fifth Dalai Lama, and much dispute over the legitimacy of the sensualist Sixth, and then the identity of the Seventh, after the sudden death of the Sixth, at Mongol hands.

On any modern map, the Tibetans and Mongols are physically far apart, separated by Muslim Xinjiang (Uighur East Turkestan) and by Muslim Ningxia, as well as the Chinese corridor of Gansu pushing out westwards into the arid lands of the trans-Eurasian silk route. Although the Tibetans and Mongols shared a common religion, and often shared Tibetan religious personal names, the connections were not only spiritual but also geographic. Mongols remained the dominant power in central Asia, as they had been for centuries, despite their many clan quarrels. They retained their mobile warrior traditions and could quickly mobilise many men to go to war. They roamed freely across what is today the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as the other major provinces of Tibet, Kham to the east and Amdo to the northeast. Many Muslim populations were also under their control. Of the Mongol clans, the strongest were the Dzungarwa, under the leadership of Tsewang Rabten, who attacked a Qing China outpost at Hami in 1715, which “forced the Qing to adopt a new tactic: to set up a number of permanent military colonies in Eastern Turkestan and to connect them to the heartland with a string of outposts. The Qing reinforced their urban base in Xining, and sealed the passes leading down from the Tibetan Plateau towards Xining”. (Dai 79) The Mongol Tsewang Rabten sought some way to strike out, “as he felt the urgent need to deter the Qing from digging-in in his sphere of influence.” (Dai 79)

But Tsewang Rabten chose instead to send an army of 6000 men, on a circuitous, secretive route, to invade Tibet. When, after a year on the march, they reached Lhasa late in 1717, they deposed the Sixth Dalai Lama. This deeply distressed Tibetans who found quite acceptable a Dalai Lama whose songs of enlightenment were a celebration of womanising. But an army of 6000 could take Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama, and be undetected as it took a year to arrive, via the Changtang alpine desert of upper Tibet. Not only did the Tibetans grieve the loss of their love songster, they began to fret at the absence of his reincarnation.

Although the Dzungarwa were deeply unpopular in Lhasa, the far distant emperor Kangxi was deeply shocked, fearing a new and threatening alliance of Mongol and Tibetan factions. Despite the vast distances, and the lack of logistic support en route, or even Chinese farms whose crops could be commandeered, he ordered a Chinese invasion of Tibet. It was to proceed from Kokonor, the outpost of Chinese power near the great lake of the Tibetan Plateau on its north-eastern edge, along the route later taken by the People’s liberation Army, highway makers, railway builders, oil pipeline layers, optical fibre cables and power pylons, these days known to Chinese as QTEC, the Qinghai-Tibet Engineering Corridor.

“F or the first time in Chinese history an invasion into Tibet was ordered. In 1717 and 1718 the Qing launched two expeditions to Tibet via Kokonor. Because of inadequate preparations, both expeditions failed. Unfamiliar with the conditions in the Tibetan Plateau, the Qing expeditions, which had fewer than four thousand men each, suffered from inclement weather, illness and food shortages. Without firewood to boil water, the troops had to sometimes eat fried flour, the only food they carried, with icy water. Most of the Qing troops were either killed or captured.” (Dai 80)

Basic ground truths of Tibet were unknown to China: that there are no trees in arid northern Tibet, that water boils at a low temperature in high altitude, that there are very few farms or villages en route to raid for food, that Tibetans and Dzungarwa Mongols, even if they dislike each other, will unite to fight an invading Chinese army.

But the emperor had learned from his mistakes, and began preparations for an invasion of Tibet that was better prepared and supported. More elite Manchu troops would be needed, new invasion routes would be considered. All this took time, six years, during which China did its best to seal its borders with Tibet, and tried to divide and divert the Dzungarwa by engaging them in battle elsewhere.

Finally, by 1720, two invasion forces were ready, one to approach Lhasa, as before from Kokonor to the northeast; but also another force to climb the steep mountains and plunging valleys of easternmost Tibet, bordering on Sichuan. The source of this bold plan was Nian Gengyao, who had taken every opportunity to make the terrain of eastern Tibet scrutable, even though his men could not enter. Just as the British, in the late 19th century, overcame their exclusion from Tibet and made preparations for invasion, by recruiting Indians pretending to be pilgrims and merchants, to pace out Tibetan topography, Nian Gengyao used spies. Nian “had in fact conducted active reconnaissance of Tibet ever since the crisis started. He interrogated Tibetan and Chinese merchants and Buddhist students from Tibet and sent into Tibet spies disguised as merchants. Nian particularly paid attention to the conditions of the roads from Dartsedo to Lhasa that had that had only been used by merchants and monks in the past.” (Dai 81) Although the terrain was steep, the entire route was, by Tibetan standards, well populated; in fact it was the best endowed, most temperate and fertile part of Tibet, well watered and with abundant forests as well as productive pasturelands and prosperous pastoralists. It was Nian Gengyao’s intelligence agency that persuaded the emperor to invade a third time, from a direction the Tibetans never expected. But they never expected it 220 years later, when the People’s Liberation Army did it again.

The emperor may have been shocked in 1717 at the thought of Dzungarwa Mongols and Tibetans constituting a combined threat, a weapon of mass destruction aimed at China. But three years later, by the time he was ready to invade, there was nothing to fear from the Tibetans, who wanted only to install the young Seventh Dalai Lama on his throne. By then, all the preparations for war had been made, so it proceeded. China made war, because it could. That has been a consistent pattern of Chinese military expansion over many centuries, notwithstanding the Art of War mythos. The story China tells itself is that, as in the Sun Tzu classic, war is the last resort, and the skilful emperor gets his way by appearing mighty and invincible; this being more skilful than war. In reality, China as a regional power has made war on its neighbours when it could.

Lhasa was the end point of a long march across and then beyond Tibet’s easternmost province, Kham, a land of long valleys, high mountain passes and sacred pilgrimage mountain peaks above all. It is Kham that is most difficult to decipher on any modern map that shows China’s provinces, and the 1720 invasion is why. Kham today is parcelled fourfold, fragmented by re-imagining, redrawing and re-inscribing a new logic onto what had been a coherent province of many small principalities, each with its king, owing as little loyalty to Lhasa as to China. Kham today can be pieced together from contemporary maps only by reassembling a balkanised jigsaw puzzle: take the southernmost portion of Qinghai, the north easternmost corner of Yunnan, the whole of western Sichuan, and the eastern third of Tibet Autonomous region, and only then does Kham come into view. That erasure was the primary purpose and main achievement of Nian Gengyao’s planning and emperor Kangxi’s Manchu invasion.

Kham today faces for ways, all pointing away from each other. The Qinghai portion of Kham is governed from Xining, the starting point 700 kms away of the Chinese invasions of 1717, 1718 and one of the successful armies of 1720. Its remoteness right up to the Yushu earthquake of 2010 meant it was left alone, to slide into poverty. The Yunnan portion of Kham now faces southeast to the lowland capital of distant Kunming, which has reinscribed Yunnan Kham, and officially renamed it, as the true original actual Shangri-la invented in the 1930s by the British novelist James Hilton. The Sichuan portion of Kham faces east, towards the lowland capital of Chengdu; and the TAR portion of Kham, with its rich mineral endowment, faces west towards distant Lhasa.

In 1720, and again in 1949, it was into Kham, to the towns of Dartsedo and Chamdo that Chinese armies marched. The Manchu troops sent from Sichuan were joined by more stationed in the Tibetan town of Gyelthang, a Chinese garrison in the mountains of Yunnan, an early Qing foothold in Tibet. This too had been planned by Nian Gengyao, the great pacifier of the barbarians of the west.

The march to Lhasa took four months, but the troops carried supplies for only two. They arrived as crops were almost ready for harvest, having marched through the lean spring months when Tibetan grain stores are depleted, nomads’ herds weakened after a long winter without feed. They survived the torrential monsoonal downpours and thunderstorms, but met little resistance from the unprepared Tibetans, even in taking Meldro Gongkar not far upstream from Lhasa, where the huge new copper and gold mine at Gyama now reaps China’s richest reward. It was only in Lhasa that Tibetan troops fought fiercely, but the Qing broke through, and were soon reinforced by the Qing army that had marched from the northeast, from Kokonor (Tso Ngonpo in Tibetan, Qinghai Hu in Chinese), defeating the Dzungarwa along the way. They brought with them their ace, the young Seventh Dalai Lama.

Qing dynasty China knew well that one can conquer on horseback, but not rule. In order to impose Qing rule an altogether new plan was needed, and Nian Gengyao was ready with a plan so detailed it can be considered Tibet’s first Five-Year Plan. The joy of the Tibetans at having the new Dalai Lama brought to them, and enthroned, gave the Qing great leverage. But their ambition was great. The highest priority was to separate Tibet from the Mongols, which had become militarily feasible, as Qing troops launched more attacks on Mongol Dzungarwa forces in Turkestan, to the north of Tibet. Having driven a wedge by force, it required a political strategy to cement the military successes, entrenching victories that could not be sustained solely by an overstretched expeditionary force.

Nian Gengyao’s plan went far beyond restructuring the governance of Lhasa; it involved the whole Tibetan Plateau. The geography and economy of Tibet were repurposed, repositioned, reoriented to face differing directions, all pointing towards China. Perhaps the boldest move was the invention of Qinghai, a new Chinese province which dramatically extended the Gansu finger pointing into the Eurasian heartland. Qinghai literally means blue lake, a translation of its Mongolian name, Kokonor. The lake and the nearby camel market town of Xining became the anchor of Qinghai, in a far corner of a vast region of 743,000 square kilometres, a land of nomads and wild herds of antelope mixing freely with domestic herds of yaks, sheep and goats, in an unfenced land. Qinghai was categorised, in Nian’s Five-Year Plan, as the homeland of the Tibetans, with the various Mongol clans given only marginal recognition.

Nian’s plans faced many obstacles, even though the Tibetans were glad have a new Dalai Lama brought to them from Kumbum, close to Xining, and were glad to see the end of Dzungarwa power, which meant the looting of the temples of Lhasa. Nian Gengyao found there were problems among his own, at the highest level. The 1720 Manchu invasion from Kokonor was led by the Kangxi emperor’s fourteenth son, Yinti. The emperor died in 1722 and Yinti was expected to take the throne, partly because of his display of military prowess, foreshadowing the rise of Hu Jintao over 250 years later, whose greatest achievement before becoming Secretary of the Communist Party of China was his violent suppression of Tibet in 1989.

But instead it was the fourth son who took the throne, naming himself the Yongzheng emperor, enthroned in 1723. Would he be as keen on Nian Gengyao’s plans to subdue, by statecraft as well as garrisons, by rewards and punishments, titles and patronage, bluff and imperial pomp, the newly conquered Tibetans?

Nian’s plan was clear and precise. It began, as Mao always did, by clearly labelling friend and foe, taking care to isolate for punishment only a few at the top, excusing others who had fought against the Qing invaders, by classifying them as xiecong, or coerced followers. They were only following orders, but were not black hands. But the eight Mongol leaders were dragged before a public assembly, denounced and had their heads cut off, in a display of victor’s justice, to “rectify the laws of the nation,” to use the classic Confucian phrase used for the beheading. Mao’s class warfare used a similar strategy of isolating a small number of “class enemies” in each village, excusing the majority who had been part of the old system, publicly rallying the population to denounce the enemies before liquidating them.

Having thus declared who was in charge, Nian’s plan quickly moved to its second task, “the fixing of the territories of the Mongolian tribes. Nian thought that the autonomy of the hereditary lineages of Mongols and Tibetans in Qinghai led to continued plundering and conflict. Now that the rebels had been rooted out, the Mongols would be organised into banner companies, modelled on the military-administrative units that had been the basis of the Manchu state’s formation. Their pastureland boundaries would be fixed, and the Mongol leaders would be named jasaks; commanders of the banners subject to confirmation by the Qing. Each tribe would be allocated to a separate grazing ground. No tribe could interfere with another tribe’s pastureland.” (Perdue 291)

The imposition of a higher order, with the Qing as ultimate authority, required separating Mongols from Tibetans, a radical simplification of Tibetan identity, and a coercive reorientation of Tibetan loyalties. The Qing were few; nothing much could be achieved by force. Tibet must be governed by Tibetans, and Mongols by Mongols willing to accept being restructured along Qing militarised lines. All this could be justified by the disorderliness of Tibetan and Mongol society, their indiscriminate mixing of religion, raiding, piety, pilgrimage and plunder. This was not the first or last time a new coloniser found the natives riotously complex and chaotic, in urgent need of order imposed from above.

China’s emperors had declared themselves to be the successive reincarnations of the mighty Chinggis Khan, urging all Mongols to worship them. But the Mongols refused to see themselves simply, or primarily, as “Mongols.” Even the great conqueror Chinggis had not attempted to impose a single identity on his federation of tribes whose multilingual and multicultural empire was remarkably diverse. However, the Qing emperors were determined to not only defeat their competitors but to erase the name of Dzungarwa, through energetically rewriting history and imposing new definitions. “By the Qianlong period the impulse to historicise and taxonomies had been applied to ‘Mongols’ as to the ‘Manchus’ and to ‘Chinese.’ The combined effect of the documentary literature, regulations for language learning, and banner assignments were to generate a ‘Mongol’ constituency of the emperorship. The Qianlong emperor was convinced that military suppression of the Dzungarwas was insufficient; their name had to be literally destroyed, their peoples dispersed, and any possibility of a new leader finding legitimation for himself obliterated. The current name Dzunghar was banned absolutely. The overwriting of Dzunghar identity with a Mongol label was very literally enacted. The two-vector plan of extreme political fragmentation combined with extreme taxonomic unity worked: At the end of the Qing period, ‘Mongolia’ and ‘Mongols’ were found to be credible identities and continue today, among peoples who once fought rather determinedly not to have the names, religion, or even standardised language that the Qing prescribed for them applied.”( Crossley 312, 321, 324)

As with the state-driven 1954 project to categorise all of the China’s ethnicities, it was urgently necessary to simplify indigenous, emic complexities, overlapping, shifting and ambiguous loyalties, establishing instead an unambiguous line of command, with the Qing at the top. This involved ethno genesis, the declaring of communities as new tribes, especially those who became the Khalkha Mongols. As Nian explicitly stated, ‘thus we will divide the strength of the Kokonor princes, and the Khalkha princes will no longer suffer the shame of being slaves; they will become their own tribes.’

This decisive intervention is a radical simplification from above, of identity, territory, hierarchy, loyalty and ethnicity. Henceforth, ethnicity and territory are demarcated and equated, with mobility restricted, in the name of preventing conflict and chaos. Previous histories, competing claims, multiple and shifting identities are all erased, so as to make the remaining few categories readable, fixed, and amenable to imperial amendment as necessary. The empire demanded, as the price of conquest, that it start with a clean slate, all prior memories and identities reduced to simple, static, mutually exclusive categories.

Nian’s vision has a familiar, contemporary, recognisable way of doing reality. The old order was messy, chaotic, unscientific, and impossibly complex, with far too many competing and contradictory claims to spaces, land uses, control and fealty. The slate must be cleaned, so the state can inscribe on it a new agenda, of governmental rationality.

While Nian did not hesitate to denounce the quarrelsome Mongols as disorderly and violent, his Five-Year Plan did not announce a grand strategy or ideology. What he proposed to the new emperor was the imposition of order, good governance, putting the will to improve into practice. “To render a set of processes technical and improvable an arena of intervention must be bounded, mapped, characterised, and documented; the relevant forces and relations must be identified; and a narrative must be devised connecting the proposed interventions to the problem it will solve.” (Li 126)

The core problematic was the mobility of the Mongols, because it threatened China. The rule of a small nomadic people over China was threatened by the remembrance, present mobility and possible future danger of a much larger nomadic people who fought their wars with each other across a huge area adjacent to China, to the north and west. They must be pacified. In keeping with the traditions of Chinese annalists, this must be done not because China was fearful, but to improve the nomads themselves, to make honest, civilised citizens of the roaming tribes. They must be saved, from themselves, and their unruly inveterate tendencies. This too has a modern ring. Modern governmentality invariably explains itself as acting to achieve objectives beneficial to those most impacted: those who must move to make way for a dam will end up with a higher income; those displaced for a biodiversity protection zone will have new employment opportunities.

Nian’s plans, especially in Qinghai, begin with unmistakably imposing a Qing definition of justice. This meant public denunciation and then beheading of eight men condemned for rebelling against Qing power; while other rebels were excused by classifying them as “coerced followers” who were deemed to have no ill will towards the newly proclaimed imperial sovereign.

Nian drove a great wedge physically between Tibetans and Mongols by inventing Qinghai as a mixed zone that belonged to neither, nor to the increasing population of Chinese Muslims. Xinjiang –the “new territories”- was invented in a similar way, not as the homeland of the Dzungarwa or other Mongols, but as the locus of Turkic peoples, Muslims with their connections further to the west.

In the absence of significant numbers of Chinese settlers, Nian nominated certain ethnicities as the true and original inhabitants, none of them Mongols. Immigration of Han and Manchu to these new territories was to be encouraged, but it would be a slow process, and the urgent task was to not only allocate territories to ethnicities, but to ensure they had no abiding loyalties that transcended these fixed categories. This was the biggest challenge to the imperial project. While the Mongols and Tibetans had different languages, histories and traditions, they shared a common language, with deep roots in both cultures. The interdependence of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism with the Mongol clans as protectors was deeply entrenched, over several centuries. The fourth Dalai Lama was a Mongol, and the title of Dalai Lama is Mongolian. It was not only Mongols who regarded Tibetan teachers as their spiritual masters, the reverse was often true.

This interpenetration of faith, transcending apparent differences of nationality, was no obstacle to Nian Gengyao, who invoked the Ming dynasty Confucian practice of castigating Buddhist monasteries as inauthentic, rebellious and a threat to the state because of their organisational capacity. “From Nian’s point of view, the lamaseries could not be authentic religious institutions, because they gave refuge to ‘criminals’, stored weapons, and supported the rebellion. It was perfectly proper to burn them down and massacre their residents. Afterwards the lamaseries would be limited in size to three hundred monks, all of whom had to register with local officials and undergo twice-yearly investigations. Rent payment could not go directly to the lamaseries but had to be submitted to the government for distribution to them.” (Perdue 312)

None of this seemed outrageous in China, where the founder of the Ming dynasty not only had similar policies, but implemented them. But among devout Tibetans and Mongols, appalled at such an approach, the key question was whether the overstretched Qing had the means to rule, and impose such disciplinary punishments. A major further complication was that the advancing Qing armies had presented themselves, especially in Lhasa, as liberators from Mongol rulers who destroyed monasteries associated with losing factions, and as deliverers of the next Dalai Lama to his rightful place on the throne in Lhasa.

If we now turn from Chinese sources to the Tibetan histories, the Qing armies’ arrival in Lhasa in 1724 is passed over as a minor and temporary event, with the restoration of the Dalai Lama the prime issue. Tsepon Shakabpa’s One Hundred Thousand Moons sums up the attitude of earlier historians, who emphasise how the Dzungarwa lost popular support by failing to bring the Dalai Lama from Kumbum to Lhasa, so the Qing troops were initially welcome. “The Manchu Emperor Kangxi sent four thousand troops and his personal representative to protect the Dalai Lama against a potential resurgence of the Dzungar forces. There is no reason to think that even the court regarded this as anything more than temporary assistance to Tibet, a view that is buttressed by the fact that most of the troops were withdrawn in 1724 when their continuing presence came to be regarded by Tibetans as burdensome.” (Shakabpa 431) It is as if Nian Gengyao and his Five-Year Plan never existed, and remains utterly unknown.

That may have been possible to believe in Lhasa, but not in Qinghai. Nian had divided the Tibetan Plateau into two domains, which have remained so ever since. Not only was Amdo reoriented away from the rest of Tibet, and made to look to distant and peripheral Xining and Lanzhou, but Qinghai is officially part of northwest China, while Tibet is part of the southwest China cluster of provinces, linked to interior China along a completely different axis.

The sundering of the Tibetan Plateau was seen, in Nian’s plan, purely as a political question, with no heed paid to geography, ecology, climate or other natural factors underlying the coherence of the plateau as a distinctive, massive island in the sky. Nian was concerned to provide a rationale for dismembering the plateau and removing nearly all of Kham and Amdo from any claim by the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang centralised government to sovereignty. The rationale was that Kham and Amdo had been ruled by the Mongol Gusri Khan, and that the Dalai lama would be given some compensation for the commercial loss of  over half of the Tibetan plateau, by offering trade concessions.

Nian Gengyao’s masterstroke, in place ever since, was to fragment Kham. He redefined Sichuan by annexing to it much of the eastern portions of the Tibetan Plateau, which today constitutes 42% of Sichuan’s area, with less than two per cent of its total population. The huge chunks of Kham (and Amdo) incorporated into the redrawn map of Sichuan speared north-westward, up the valleys of major tributaries of the Yangtze, effectively intersecting the major trading routes across the plateau, turning most of Kham to gaze downriver to the east, to the lowlands of the Chengdu Basin, also towards Kunming in Yunnan, a province which also incorporated a prefecture of Kham. To complete the fracture, the well endowed pastoral lands of Kham Yushu were made part of Qinghai, which itself remained a hinterland of Gansu province until 1928. (Stevenson 157)

Nian’s fracturings are today sedimented, naturalised, taken for granted; yet remain costly. Neither Republican, Kuomintang nor revolutionary China changed the boundaries Nian drew, except for minor alterations. Thus the Ma Chu, or Yellow River, rises in an arid, glacial, remote portion of Qinghai, traverses gradually greener pastures, then spreads out across the lush pastures of Dzoge, a massive wetland etched in Chinese minds as the most horrific section of the 1935 Long March. A river supposedly in urgent need of remedial intervention, so urgent that the nomads must be removed altogether, wanders between provincial jurisdictions, in and out of official view, losing and regaining its status as a prioritised object of planning and discipline. This is a direct consequence of Nian Gengyao’s dissection of the Tibetan Plateau, one of its many unintended consequences. For all the talk of the need to persist with Nian Gengyao’s pedagogy of pacifying and civilising the barbarians, the nomads of Dzoge and their productive wetlands are beyond the official Three River Source designated area, because they are in Sichuan, alongside the border with Gansu, before the river eventually meanders back into Qinghai and is once again subject to strict governance.

His primary purpose, of driving the Tibetans and Mongols apart, was achieved. The Tibetans resisted to his plans, as Nian himself reports, saying “they knew only of the existence of the Mongols, and knew nothing of Chinese civil administration or garrisons.” (Perdue 311) Nonetheless they were declared subjects of the Qing court and designated as “our common people [baixing]… their lands are our lands; how can they serve the Kokonor princes?” Peter Perdue, professor of Asian Civilisations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has done much to rescue Nian Gengyao from obscurity, comments: “These native Tibetans had to cut their ties to lamaseries and Mongolian lords in order to become loyal subjects owing duties directly to the imperial administration. They became another defined population within the territory. Enforcing control over the local Tibetans also meant challenging the Dalai Lama’s suzerainty by splitting up the territorial boundaries of Tibet. Nian did not regard this reorganisation as taking territory away from the Dalai Lama; his ‘lands of incense and fire’[xianghuo] in the west remained under his control, but the Qing would ‘save several hundred thousand Tibetans from water and fire’ by detaching them from the dalai lama’s jurisdiction. In return for the loss of revenue, the Qing would make annual payments to the Dalai Lama and allow him to conduct trade at Dajianlu on the Sichuan border. This division of the Tibetan cultural region by the Qing corresponds closely to its current administrative boundaries under the PRC.” (Perdue 311-2)

The Dalai Lama was assumed to be a sovereign ruler whose sole interest in his subjects was tax farming; who would be satisfactorily recompensed for the loss of half of Tibet by a promise of payment by the Qing treasury. The deep religious bond between Tibetans and the precious victorious one, meaningful to behold, the presence of enlightened mind incarnate, was just one of the minor complications swept aside in Nian’s radical simplification of Tibetan and Mongol realities. The Dalai Lama was something more than a rent seeking tax farmer.

Simplification and categorisation were aspects of a reductive generalisation which required Tibetan to think and behave in new ways, as subjects of “our great Qing.” No longer would the generalised Tibetans be unruly, nor would they compete for Mongol patrons, nor would Mongols maraud at will. Each clan’s pastureland was designated, based on the locus of winter residence on the plateau floor, with little attention paid to the summer alpine meadow pastures, so essential to pastoral productivity and sustainable use of the grasslands.

All this set the implicit ground for subsequent Five-Year Plans, which have intensified state scrutiny and command, the fixing of pastoral boundaries not only at nationality and clan level but down to family level; right up to the current sedentarisation campaign to relocate nomads into colonial line villages. The lineage of current authoritarian interventions takes us back to 1724, even if little of the 1724 agenda was actually implemented in central Tibet, the domain of the Dalai Lamas.

Qinghai was different. It was literally more approachable from the Chinese lowlands, the passes on the ascent far more manageable than the multiple rugged climbs (and multiple descents) en route from the Chinese lowlands of Sichuan and Yunnan into Tibet. Qinghai was better known, its mineral wealth was known much earlier, it was basically adjacent to well established outposts of China’s reach, at the western end of the Great Wall. Amdo (Qinghai) was largely open pastoral country; Kham was a rugged land of forests, raging mountain rivers, high pastures, farmed hill slopes and fierce warriors loyal only to local principalities and lamas.

All that was required in order to expand Gansu enormously to the west was to come up with an ideology, beyond “saving” Tibetans from the predations of the Dalai Lama. An ideology of colonial rule that at least satisfies the rulers of their civilising mission is also a global necessity of modernity, whether early or late.  Like the civilising missions of the British or French, the natives had to be saved from themselves, from their tendency towards anarchy, violence or lassitude. The self-evidently uncivilised lives of the nomads, whose mobility and capacity to coalesce into a military threat had prompted the invasion from the start, were an obvious basis for an ideology of colonisation.

Ideology requires ideas about a better future, a new direction which can be achieved only if everyone contributes to realising the new goal. For Nian Gengyao the obvious ideological turn, sure to appeal to the far emperor, was to sedentarised Qinghai and Tibet, and the Mongols, and to overrun them, if possible, with sedentary immigrant peasants. “Nian promoted immigration in order to forge links with the interior and create a more peaceful, settled society. He proposed to send ten thousand Manchu and Han settlers into Kokonor to ‘dilute’ the strength of the Mongols and turn them toward stable cultivation. Nian proposed to construct a huge fortified border along Kokonor’s northern frontier. He envisaged a connected series of fortresses that would in effect extend the Great Wall of defence, cutting off Kokonor from contact with the Zunghars (Dzungarwa) to the north. He would clear out all Mongols from this area and bring in large numbers of settlers to populate the garrison towns. As Nian noted, and as the Qing later found in Xinjiang, criminals sentenced to military exile would make ideal cultivators of the soil.” (Perdue 312-3

Not Nian Gengyao’s entire plan for Tibet was implemented, despite imperial approval. Central planning in China, even at the height of revolutionary enthusiasm, was never a matter of Beijing issuing commands, and they were done. Neither in Nian’s time nor ours do plans result in action in direct fulfilment of the central planner’s vision. Central plans at most are indicative, sketching a direction, a theme that expresses the dominant political ideas of the time. Central plans are wish lists which may or may not translate into infrastructure, immigrant flows, and reoriented identities on the ground.

Although Nian Gengyao’s vision of Tibet, forcibly separated from the Mongols, had all the elements of a modern central plan, Qing dynasty China had no effective means for implementing it in what is now Tibet Autonomous region. “The unnecessary fortress line was never built, and migration to Kokonor was slow. Yet his proposals uncannily forecast the primary measures of frontier control of the Qing, Nationalist, and PRC governments. Repression, settlement, state simplification, migration, and commercial integration sum up the policies of all three regimes.” (Perdue 313-4)

The failure of Nian Gengyao’s five-year plan for Tibet was not just because the emperor’s reach exceeded his grasp of Tibet. China had no interest in the daily lives of Tibetans, or in actual governance. Tibet served an altogether different purpose, as an idea, an abstraction, as “an ideological resource”, in the words of the influential historian Pamela Crossley. Since the Mongols remained devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, the emperor “intended to make his imperial capital at Peking the spiritual; capital of the lamaist realm. Tibet was an odd constituency among the Qing collection, in that it appeared primarily as an idea, a set of cultic practices, and a language.” (Crossley 328)

It was not enough that the emperor’s armies had divided Mongols against each other, had inflicted defeat after defeat on those who held out against Qing dominance, and that China had redefined the Mongols as a single people, with defined territories. It was not enough that the emperor of China was the reborn Chinggis Khan; he had to be the great patron of Tibetan Buddhism as well, an incarnation of Mahakala. “Tibet was the source of supernatural aid to the ruler and the source of an established code of dominion over the ‘Mongols.’”, Crossley says. Since Mongols accepted the Dalai Lama as their guru, if the Chinese emperor could make himself the patron, protector and even the selector of the Dalai Lama, the Mongols would obey the code and worship him.

So the emperor had no need of Nian Gengyao’s Five-Year Plan for Tibet. “No project narrating the ‘pacification’ of Tibet seems to have been welcomed by the court. There is no conventional conquest narrative of Tibet and no formal compilations of administrative documents.” (Crossley 328, 331)

Qinghai, because it was Mongol, had to be transformed and re-oriented, but central Tibet remained, to the Qing, an idea, not a unit of imperial administration.







By Gabriel Lafitte March 2011

In the west, central planning is the antithesis of efficiency; in China it remains the epitome. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for China, including Tibet, has just been launched.

Central planning got a bad name in the Soviet bloc, synonymous with waste, chronic shortages, lack of innovation, poor quality production and a major cause of corruption as the only method of obtaining goods routinely in short supply. It was the height of folly to suppose that central bureaucrats could know, and allocate, resources years ahead, correctly forecasting demand and making the necessary distribution of land, labour and capital. Conventional wisdom among conventional market economists has long been that a major reason the Soviet bloc fell apart is that paid a high price for clinging to the delusion that governments can direct flows of materials, money and workers, when this is done far better by the invisible hand of the market economy.

Not only was central planning empirically bad, a lot of elegant economic theory showed why it is inevitably so. For the past 30 years, as small government has become the norm, planning was given deeply negative labels, such as dirigiste (directed from above by state power), command economy, or more neutrally, the allocative economy. The collapse of the Soviet Second World confirmed consensus that the daily price setting processes of the market, best left to run itself, are the perfect, natural mechanism for balancing supply and demand. The state was in retreat.

Except in China, which remained the great anomaly. The former Soviet Union accepted the advice of Jeffrey Sachs and other economists that the who system was so rotten, the least painful path of reform would be a big bang immediate privatisation of everything, a miraculous new beginning. The result was the rapid appropriation of state assets and enterprises by the rich and powerful, creating a band of oligarchs who largely transferred their massive profits abroad, out of the reach of Russian tax authorities. China was much more cautious, acknowledging the need for reform while maintaining strong political control, and state ownership of the banks and the biggest industrial enterprises. This contradicted the Washington consensus on what is needed in order to transition from socialism to market capitalism, but China continued to grow and grow.

The new capitalist conventional wisdom in the 1990s was that China was nonetheless rapidly becoming “just like us,” communism was utterly dead as an ideology, central planning was no longer powerful, merely indicative, that private enterprise was the engine of China’s growth, and the state-owned enterprises, few of which made much profit, were relics of a bygone era that would inevitably give way to the dynamism of private enterprise.

Yet China continued to produce Five-Year Plans, and they increased in scope, complexity and depth of timeframe. The 1996 Ninth Five-Year Plan, for example, came complete with a fifteen year plan, officially named the Outline of Long-Term Program to 2010. The national 5 and 15 year plans were replicated at provincial level, with more detailed targets elaborated. In scope, as the planners grew more confident and ambitious, the Five-Year Plans went beyond industrialisation and farm productivity, and began to consider “protection and development of national land resources”, “urban and rural construction”, and “sustainable development.” In recent years, there have been few of the party-state’s objectives that have not been rolled into the plans, which get more and more comprehensive. Most recently, the Five-Year Plans have acknowledged the need for environmental protection, social welfare, raising the human quality of the masses through education, and “socialist spiritual civilisation”, which means mass compliance with norms of civilised urban behaviour, such as hygiene public and private, adapting to urban life by abandoning uncouth rural habits.

Social engineering is not out of fashion; if anything the planners are increasingly prescriptive about norms of behavioural compliance expected of Chinese citizens. This was made explicit in the first Five-Year Plan to fuse education, science and technology as a single theme, key to China’s future success. Not only did this vision of a technocratically literate society express the vision of the party-state, it became the battle hymn of a new generation of tiger mothers determined that their children would succeed in getting to the top. (Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)

Meanwhile the state-owned enterprises did not wither away, nor were they taken over or absorbed into the private economy. Instead the party-state hybrid created a hybrid economy in which the difference between private and state ownership was minimal. Public enterprises adopted corporate structures, hired professional managers and marketers, and accessed cheap loans to invest massively in boosting production. Private enterprises used party slogans to motivate and discipline their workers; some even have party cells inside the organisation setting the corporate agenda. Much recent social scientific research shows bosses of corporations that are nominally public or private are puzzled why westerners insist on making sharp distinctions about ownership, because it matters little to the bosses themselves. Publicly owned companies set up comer5cial subsidiaries in offshore tax havens or friendly countries such as Canada or Australia, to better retain profits in private hands, and access global investment capital. Loss making SOEs, especially the banks, were recapitalised at great public expense, bailed out quietly but expensively long before the very public bailouts of the 2008 global crisis. The state routinely intervenes to direct banks to lend to big SOEs according to the policies laid out in Five-Year and shorter-term plans, even these are risky investments, or plain bad, with little prospect of repayment. The state awards business to its favourites, while private entrepreneurs, especially small and medium sized companies, struggle to gain access to capital needed to grow their businesses. The party-state re-engineers whole industries to conform to its vision of national champions big enough to compete globally. Usually this means smaller companies are compulsorily merged into bigger ones, so that only a handful of corporations dominate the industry.

This is the China model, of state capitalism. His is what is meant by “market socialism” and “economy with Chinese characteristics.” Most of the growth, investment and spending is done by the state, financed largely by borrowing from future generations. Finance comes also from private investors hungry to buy shares in SOEs whenever they float an IPO on a Chinese stock market for a small portion of corporate equity. The “miracle” of China’s ongoing growth is led and directed by a party-state whose popular legitimacy relies on delivering development, and opportunities accessible to all.

State capitalism is not a new term. Mao used it almost 60 years ago to describe the early revolutionary years when private owners of capital and factories were encouraged to continue, rather than immediately expropriating their assets. Mao’s great initiative was to mobilise the energies of the masses, through constant mass campaigns exhorting everyone to work harder to fulfil the goals set by the planners. This is officially known as “Mobilisation of the Population as Development Vehicle.” As a primary technique, it has never gone out of fashion, and is referred to by current planners as ongoing, relevant and beneficial. In 1998, Hujiong Wang explicitly rejects the western notion innovation is in the hands of entrepreneurs. “The Chinese leadership, on the contrary, has repeatedly made the attempt to instil proper attitude in the masses, to consider the mobilisation and participation of the ‘masses’ much more important than the efficient allocation of resources. The success of mobilisation of the population as development vehicle is not only shown in various economic activities in the pre-reform era, it is also shown in counteracting the serious flooding disaster this [1998] year.”

Far from repudiating planning as a Stalinist fantasy, Chinese planners see much continuity between Five-year Plans past and present. The excesses and failures of the past are not the fault of planning, but of the lack of planning in the Great leap famine, when Plan production targets were abandoned, or in the Cultural Revolution, when planning was abandoned almost totally. The successes of the present, the current policy of creating “harmonious society”, all originate in Five-Year Plans which give everyone clear guidance as to what is expected of them, and where they can succeed. While the tens and hundreds of millions still in poverty mind find such slogans, and their elaboration in Five-Year Plans, to have little relation to their daily experience, there is an urban middle class that does subscribe to the party-state’s values, who prosper from it, and think of themselves as positive examples to the rest of China, and to the rest of the developing world.

Five-Year Planning has become more mathematised, more computer-model driven, more complex and more removed from local realities and everyday experience. A major influence was the World Bank, which in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, dedicated a lot of energy and money in helping China modernise and improve its central planning capacities. The World Bank said it was doing this to persuade China to adopt planning purely as an indicative tool, backed up by limited use of indirect economic levers available to the state, as in the richest countries. China however used World Bank training in mathematical models of the economy to expand the scope and depth of the Five-Year Plans, while blandly nodding to the “small government” rhetoric of planning as purely “indicative”. Central planner Hujiong Wang uses the rhetorics of the 1950s and 1990s together: “It is emphasised in this document that the crucial role of planning should be gradually shifted to forecasting, planning, guidance and control of the overall social economic activity, to pointing out the correct direction of economic activity.” (Wang 55-6)

The dream of one plan gathering unto itself the unambiguous truth, of past and present, as the basis for accurately forecasting the future five or fifteen years ahead, remains seductive, in a system where power is contested only within the party, not in public, and difference is limited. Truth still seems graspable, even if in practice it remains somewhat out of reach. The Chinese engineers who learned how to correct the trajectory of a rocket while in flight, so it hits its target, thought it only natural to apply that knowledge to planning the trajectory of China’s entire economy. The truth embodied in an onboard control system capable of correcting slight deviations in a flight path is to them a truth that can be unproblematically scaled up to govern the whole of China. (Susan Greenhalgh, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China; Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engineers) The rise of the red engineers is based on the assumption that truth is out there, exists objectively, is not a social construct, and is available for measurement. The only problem is whether we have scientific instruments, of sufficient capacity, to adequately measure the economy of a billion people that is timely and accurate. Yet truth in any society is social and contextual, and especially so in China, according to Blum. (Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths, Rowman, 2007)

Wang, like most of the Central Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, is an engineer, with faith that engineering methods of breaking a problem down into manageable parts, then defining the technical steps that solve the problem, can be applied to an entire state the size of China, five to fifteen years in advance. In his position supervising the academic standards of the Development Research Centre of China’s State Council –China’s highest organ of state power-  he was well positioned adapt his major publication “An Introduction to Systems Engineering” to Five-Year Planning for the whole of China.

Wang was at the top of a major official think tank, one of many which have proliferated as the complexity of planning China’s comprehensive growth to power has taken shape. Wang mentions that “there are several hundred policy research institutions, academic and non-academic, at the central, provincial and even city levels now. These policy research institutions make policy studies and provide the necessary information as a part of policymaking process.”(Wang 59-60)

While Five-Year Plans unquestionably originate in the Party, before being routinely adopted by the national People’s Congress, these official think tanks, as China grows more complex and its planners more ambitious, play a crucial role. In the west, such think tanks are often seen as playgrounds for academic wannabes, experts keen to second guess or opine gratuitously on what politicians decide. In China, the official think tanks are integral to the monitoring, surveillance, social engineering and disciplinary shaping of policy and its implementation.

Several key think tanks have been highly influential in shaping China’s Tibet policy, and most are not even based in Tibet. The Lanzhou-based CAREERI is one such. The Cold and Arid Regions Environment and Engineering Research Institute, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based in Lanzhou, (http://www.casnw.net/english/index.html) has been at the heart of China’s conquest of Tibetan nature, such as the building of a railway to Lhasa. The coupling of “Environment” and “Engineering” joins problem to solution. The nationalist jubilation of 2006 at the opening of the railway proclaimed it as the line they said could never be built, crossing, as it does “no-man’s land” (actually inhabited by Tibetan nomads), a triumph of man’s conquest of nature. CAREERI has a long history of carefully investigating, measuring, quantifying and strategising how permafrost in Tibet thaws and freezes, how blacktop heat-holding roads slump and buckle as ice laden earth melts and freezes again, over seasons and longer cycles of climate change. What Tibetan nomads had lived with as natural cycles gradually yielded voluminous data, sufficient to plot strategies to build a rail line elevated above the frozen earth, with many techniques to keep temperatures stable. CAREERI scientists have by now published around one hundred articles in English and Chinese, in technical journals such as Applied Thermal Engineering, Cold Regions Science and Technology, Permafrost & Periglacial Processes, Land Degradation & Development and Geoderma, explaining how they conquered unconquerable Tibet. These reports explain that it took decades of observations and measurement, and even now there is no certainty that the rail bed will fare better then the highways, which continue to slump and buckle.

CAREERI is far from Tibet, in a city which serves as a base camp for reducing Tibet to numbers amenable to engineering manipulations. It is one of the knowledge hubs that for the first time in Chinese history have made Tibet knowable, within standardised categories of knowledge, and thus governable. CAREERI is a Key Laboratory, part of a national network of specialist research and policy formulating institutes that focus on solving many of China’s most difficult nation building problems, especially, in Tibet, the core problem of turning an empire into a modern, unitary nation-state. The technicising of CAREERI’s work obscures this political agenda, reducing the long term challenge to a series of specific, definable tasks, such as: how can we build a railway across Tibetan permafrost without dangerous and embarrassing slumping and heaving of the rail bed?

The railway to Lhasa became the key project in Tibet of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2001 through 2005. The timing of this massive investment in integrating Tibet into the Chinese economy is no accident. If the political decision to mobilise all resources necessary had been left to CAREERI, the railway would have been delayed, to be more certain that the extreme variability of the climate of upper Tibet, and its mysteriously recurring and disappearing permafrost, were better understood. But China’s planning process involves much more than technical feasibility studies. In the years immediately prior to the decision to construct the iron rooster, China announced a major new thrust, xibu da kaifa, meaning opening up the great westernmost interior of China, making its riches available to the rest of China. When Jiang Zemin announced xibu da kaifa in 1999, shortly before officially retiring, it was the culmination of a decade of careful rethinking of Chinese policy towards minority peoples. Minglang Zhou, of University of Maryland, has carefully traced the evolution of ethnic policy throughout the 1990s, as China sought to learn lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union which, in Chinese official eyes, was largely due to minority ethnicities breaking the Soviet Union apart. This required quite different expertise to that of CAREERI. It was China’s leading anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong, who first formulated the shift, summed up in the slogan jiakuai jingji fazhan, danhua minzu wenti, meaning “speed up economic development, while downplaying the national question.” (Zhou 492)

Fei Xiaotong, having observed and written about minorities for decades, saw the time was right to shift away from the fiction that China is a collection of 56 nationalities, the Han -90 per cent of China’s population- being just one. In his 1989 speech at Chinese University of Hong Kong, he did not propose abandoning this cherished formula, but instead added to it another layer. In addition to the 56 nominally equal ethnicities China is also “a national entity that has developed from a common emotion and desire for a shared destiny of opportunities and successes.” (Zhou 491) This is a higher identity, beyond the particularities of specific minority cultures, a bond of sedimented sentiment that stretches back into the past, and enables all of China to share a common destiny stretching far into the future. Unquestionably, the Han played the core role, of integrating all disparate elements into one Chinese nation, and will play the core role of leading all of China to its greater destiny. Fei called this duoyan yiti, “one nation with diversity.”

That was the year of the Tiananmen massacre, followed shortly by the collapse of Soviet power. In 1990 the State Nationalities Affairs Commission, the supreme official organ for governing minorities, sponsored a symposium on this new formula and commissioned several expert studies. Within months Jiang Zemin announced official adoption of this new formula, in a speech to local leaders in Xinjiang. Jiang made the new stance easy to memorise by announcing it as the “three cannots.” The Han cannot do without the minorities, the minorities cannot do without the Han, and the minorities cannot do without each other. There is little doubt as to who elder brother is, and who is junior. (Zhou 491)

This coincided with intensive think tank studies of the imploding Soviet bloc, which took time to reach consensus as to the lessons to be learned, and what to do to avoid China making similar mistakes. These discussions were run not by the State nationalities Affairs Commission but by the Communist Party’s mass organ for controlling minorities, the United Front Work Department. Increasingly, they focused on the 1984 Law on Minority Regional Autonomy, as giving too much scope for minorities to make too many claims, assertions of rights, and demands for financial support. This, they concluded, opened the way for Soviet-style dissolution of the unitary state. Each province and autonomous region has its own people’s congress, nominally able to pass its own laws, which could, for example, stipulate a minimum quota of minority ethnicity officials to fill official posts. “Some autonomous regions wanted more economic power, and some wanted more political power, while many desired both. These demands for economic and political power seriously challenged the central government’s authority. Drawing on lessons from the Soviet failure, the PRC realised that these problems must be satisfactorily resolved before they could spin out of control. CCP leaders concluded that the central government should not relinquish political power and should not allow minority dominance of local party apparatuses, or even of the local legislatures in autonomous regions.” (Zhou 494)

This culminated, in 2001, in the enactment of two laws, the revised Law on Autonomy, and the National Commonly Used Language and Script Law. In keeping with the new approach, of speeding up development and downplaying ethnicity, “the revised Law on Autonomy gives local governments more power or responsibility in social and economic development, but takes away some political powers.” (Zhou 494) Autonomous Regions no longer have the power to fix minimum quotas for their own ethnicity employment in their own government. Both the 2001 laws “downplayed the role of minority languages and cultures while promoting Putonghua (Mandarin) as the super language in a structured linguistic order. For example, the teaching of Chinese is now required to start in the early or later years in elementary schools.  Minority officials are now required to learn to use both standard oral Chinese and standard written Chinese. These measures may be considered as a representation of the demotion of ‘nationalities’ to ‘ethnic groups’ in the new model of ‘one nation with diversity’, where Putonghua as the common language is to dominate.” (Zhou 495)

China did little to publicise this redefinition of the key term minzu, which had long signified a people, a nation, a distinct ethnicity with collective rights; perhaps even, early in the Communist Party’s long life, the right to self-determination and perhaps even national independence. “In Beijing in 1997, the State Commission on Nationalities Affairs held a forum on whether ‘minzu’ should be officially translated into ‘nation/nationality’ or ‘ethnic group’. The participating experts unanimously agreed on the term ‘ethnic group’ for ‘minzu’ because the new English term can better represent the spirit of China’s new orientation. The replacement of the Soviet model with the new Chinese model has had direct impact on China’s minorities policy.” (Zhou 492)

In the global Tibet movement, nobody noticed these changes, but the new opening up of western China policy was announced with much publicity, and Tibetans, in and beyond Tibet, speculated as to what it portended. Few foresaw the renewed emphasis on exclusion of nomads from their pastures, or the rail lines to two big new gold and copper mines to the east and west of Lhasa.

The exclosure of nomads, now on a huge scale, originates in official think tanks and research institutes, but is driven not by the urge to speed up development but another dominant strand in Five-Year Plans, the need to set aside much of Tibet for conservation, of watersheds and biodiversity, to show the world that China is acting responsibly to mitigate its global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

These twin impulses, to conserve and to speedily develop, might seem contradictory or confused, but spatially, in a plateau the size of Western Europe, there is room for both. Even when they pull in differing directions, they explain what is happening in Tibet, more coherently than other frames can.

The key is the announcement, made in the Ninth Five-Year Plan covering 1996 through 2000, declaring “transformation of the pattern of economic growth from extensive to intensive.” (Wang 56) This bland statement summed up an existing trend, and signalled its acceleration. Tibet was already becoming two economies, spatially adjacent, but operating quite differently and with few connections. By the 1990s Tibet was well on the way to becoming a modern boom economy in its fast growing urban centres and mineral extraction centres, connected by engineering corridors (to use a Chinese term) of highways, power lines, pipelines, fibre optic cables, and later, railways. This is the zone of intensive growth, attracting nearly all the investment capital directed by state power to its Five-Year Plan projects.

Surrounding this intensive development net is a vast rural hinterland, of poor Tibetan farmers and nomadic pastoral livestock producers on rangelands that were steadily eroding and degrading, without effort or investment by the state to rehabilitate pastures being lost. This vast area is perhaps two million square kilometres of the total 2.5 m sq kms of the whole Tibetan Plateau. This is the extensive zone. It was the nomads, around 9000 years ago according to the archaeologists, who discovered how to make the Tibetan Plateau humanly habitable. Extensive use was the key. Nomadic mobility, walking and riding with the domestic herds of yak, sheep and goats, to avoid exhausting pastures, finding fresh green pick up in the alpine meadows in summer and on the plateau floor in winter, are the secret of how the Tibetan Plateau, despite its frigidity and  extreme weather, became a human home. Mobile, extensive land use, seasonally moving on to ensure sustainable regrowth of hardy plateau grasses, is the key discovery made millennia ago. It is the logic of extensive land use that China has never understood, quickly started to restrict once it took power in the grasslands, and has now banned altogether in more and more areas across Tibet.

The juxtaposition of small intensive development areas, and the neglected, depopulated extensive areas, tells the whole story of contemporary Tibet. It is a story worth considering more closely.

Long before China took effective administrative control over Tibet in the 1950s, China was predisposed to see extensive nomadic production as unproductive, primitive and uncivilised. Civilised people pen their animals, and bring grass to them; only barbarians wander with their animals to wherever grass is to be found. This is an ingrained attitude with a long history. It predisposes Chinese policy makers and think tanks to believe there is nothing useful to be learned from nomads, no risk management strategies, indigenous land management methods or biodiversity conservation traditions. Nomads and Chinese cadres inhabited different worlds, separated not only by language but by a conceptual gulf.

Intensive development is mainstream orthodoxy of development economics worldwide. From this viewpoint, almost everything about Tibet, the Tibetans, and the Tibetan Plateau is problematic. For starters, they are the epitome of remoteness from major markets, with a widely scattered population to whom modern services, from electricity to education, cannot be efficiently delivered because they are extensively scattered over a vast landscape. Moreover, they move with the seasons.

Development means concentration, urbanisation, intensification, acceleration, aggregation. This applies to people and livestock alike. Modern livestock production systems keep larger and larger concentrations of animals in smaller and smaller spaces, to be fed a scientifically formulated diet calculated to maximise weight gains in minimal time, whereupon animals are slaughtered.

Everything about Tibet, its vastness, innumerable plateaus, intervening peaks and glaciers, alpine deserts and lush meadows, suggests lack, loss, scatter, inefficiency, the antithesis of modern mastery of nature. It is nature untamed, undisciplined and unpredictable. “Pastoralism is still largely seen as a coping strategy that allows herders to get along with an ‘inadequate’ resource base. This stance can be traced to a long-established approach in the disciplines that inform pastoral development planning (natural resource management, range ecology, animal science) to rely on analytical tools based on standard statistics and average values. However, pastoralism is better understood as a sui generis production system, that deliberately exploits the transient concentrations of nutrients that represent the most reliable feature of dryland environments; a system geared at maximising the production of economic value while stabilising its performance in environments where ‘uncertainty’ is harnessed for production. As average values and standard statistics fail to capture non-uniform distribution (relied upon for production in dryland pastoralism), they should not uniquely or uncritically inform pastoral development planning.” (Kratli )

According to the conventions of grassland sciences, pastoral mobility is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, whether modernity means intensified productivity, or sustainability, or both. Pastoral mobility can only be seen negatively, as a subsistence survival strategy of people living as slaves to nature, at the mercy of the elements, unable to subdue nature and intensify.

Much of China’s deep-seated animus against mobile pastoralism comes from a conviction that, in Tibet, the nomadic way of life is both unsustainable -the basic cause of rangeland degradation- and unproductive, because there is actually more grass, in the summer alpine upland meadows, than the yaks, sheep and goats can eat. Chinese scientists interpreting photographs taken by satellites hundreds of kilometres above Tibet calculated that in summer months, there is a surplus of grass in the upper pastures, which receive both intense sunshine and summer monsoon rains, and also benefit from glacier melt.

Frequently, sustainability and productivity are supposed to be contradictory: the more of one, the less of the other. Sustainable long term land use, including conservation of biodiversity of plants and animals, and protection of watersheds, all push in the direction of reducing human impacts such as grazing domestic animals.  Maximising productive land use pushes in the opposite direction, maximising herd size and speeding up commercial sale of livestock for slaughter as soon as they reach adult weight. Yet Tibetan pastoralism is conventionally accused of grossly overstocking winter pastureland and understocking the summer meadows. Overstocking is blamed as the fundamental cause of degradation and unsustainability; while under stocking is inefficient, failing to convert the abundant summer meadows fully to animal protein. A team of Australian agricultural economists working in China’s grasslands say “many areas report grass surpluses in summer. In mountainous areas, summer pastures have more time to recover after winter-spring spelling and are only grazed for several months before cold weather forces herders and livestock down from the mountains. In contrast, degrees of overstocking are severe in spring-autumn pastures throughout China.” (Waldron 303) They calculate that the actual stocking rate in Tibet, on overwintering pastures, is 377 per cent. In other words, Tibetans have almost four times as many animals as the land can bear. If all of China’s autumn-winter-spring grasslands are overstocked, it can only be because they have always been overstocked, not just because of recent added pressures such as climate change and recent stocking practices.

This negative assessment condemns the traditional pastoralism of not only the Tibetans but also the Mongols, Kazakhs, Yugu, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of China, all of them fundamentally unsustainable, because their animals lack feed in winter, and their owners face difficult choices, especially in spring, about when to let penned animals out to graze when pasture is beginning to grow and is susceptible to damage if grazed too early.

The reality is that all of these nationalities have adapted to make best, flexible use of transient concentrations of nutrients, in different seasons, at different altitudes, on different pastures, calculating differing risks. Transience is at the heart of nomadic pastoralism, and is not understood by those who don’t practice making a virtue, and a lifeway, out of uncertainty.

Tibetan civilisation made not only its nomadic production but its core existential values transience and uncertainty. Tibetan Buddhism in practice makes impermanence, transience, contingency, interdependence as the primary characteristics of all realities and all circumstances, natural and social. Far from seeing this as problematic, unreliable or even fearsome, the changeable character of all phenomena enables practitioners to be responsive and accommodating of change, using it as the basis of decisive action in the moment, making full use of recognising and acting on what Tibetans call auspicious coincidence. It is no exaggeration to say that the Buddhism practiced by ordinary nomads from the moment they wake and start muttering mantras is grounded in the constructive uses of transience and uncertainty.

Science, however, routinely turns what it observes into a problem, which requires expertise to solve. Anything, if examined closely and in isolation, can be problematic. The greater the data, the likelier it is that dangerous trends can be interpreted from the accumulating numbers. The medicalisation of pregnancy is the classic example. Giving birth and being born have always been risky, but once the risks are enumerated, calculable and actuaralisable, they take on a life of their own, demanding medical intervention as a matter of principle. In this way the natural processes of giving birth and being born are overwhelmed by the master narrative of medical risk, which usually necessitates locating birth in a hospital. (Kathryn Pyne Addelson, The Emergence of the Fetus, in Gender Struggles, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

As soon as Chinese, and later, international scientists, turned their gaze to the mobile, extensive land use of the Tibetan pastoral nomads, it quickly became obvious –even though most such scientists seldom actually went to Tibet- that raising yaks, sheep and goats is inherently problematic. There is not enough grass for the long winters, and in the summer growing season, when nomads are very busy moving herds onto new pastures, milking and many other tasks, there is no time to grow fenced fodder crops for harvest and storage for winter. Not only is there insufficient grass for overwintering, there is too much, sometimes much too much grass, in summer, in the high pastures.

If one takes such data to calculate rational stocking rates based on objective measurement of carrying capacity, it turns out that all the grasslands of China are overstocked and always have been. Yet the pastoralists of China have lived, seemingly sustainably, on these extensive grasslands, for thousands of years. Experts whose business is finding expert solutions seldom acknowledge this, since traditional practices were not recorded in numerical detail and are not to be found in available data sets.

Although Chinese scientists mounted many expeditions into Tibet to make readable this unknown land, and reducible to standard scientific categories, China never learned the basic fact of human life in Tibet: extensive, mobile use of the entire plateau, from wetlands and lake shores right up to the snow line, where vegetation ends and even the toughest sedges and grasses cannot survive.

From the outset, Chinese eyes sought only exceptional Tibetan land pockets suited to intensification: a hydro dam here, a state farm there, a town here, a mine there, all connected by power lines, pipelines and highways. Intensification was the logic, even the intensification of livestock production. In the communes of the 1960s and 1970s nomads were forced to live in large concentrations, eating in communal mess halls, owning almost no personal possessions, given rations only according to how hard they worked. Herds and herders were intensified and concentrated, on the theory that this meant an organised division of labour, hence greater efficiency and productivity. But the vast plateau grasslands cannot be made to function like a factory assembly line; especially when the decision makers, recently immigrated Chinese cadres, know little about the blizzards and gales, snow disasters, hailstorms, dust storms, cold snaps and other dangers routinely faced by Tibetan pastoralists.

In most developing countries where nomads occupy the drylands and uplands, newly independent governments, of urban-based politicians, have had limited sympathy for pastoralists, or appreciation of the logic, productivity and sustainability of pastoralism. Usually, governments have gradually encroached on pastoral lands, undermining the viability of mobile, extensive rangeland use. But in China, the encroachment was not so gradual.

In myriad ways, China encroached on Tibet’s extensive pastoral land use civilisation. In the violence of conquest, most battles were on pastoral land, often where nomads retreated up long winding valleys in the hills, after discovering their 19th century flintlocks were no match for machine guns and artillery in the hands of seasoned PLA soldiers who had served in the Korean War. Hauling heavy artillery over great plateau distances was done by requisitioning yaks, close to a million of them, few of which were returned. Once the nomads were defeated, China moved quickly to establish the communes, with all pastoralists required to surrender their herds into a collective, in concentrations that made it hard to maintain the necessary mobility.

For 20 years the communes persisted with China’s dream of meat production on industrial scale in Tibet. Even Tibetans who were sincere converts to communist ideology were shocked at the crude, predatory methods used to turn nomads into labourers at the command of cadres from provinces far from the grasslands. One of the few accounts of daily life in the communes was written by Dhondub Choeden, a woman from the “serf” class favoured by the revolution, who was a minor commune official, and kept detailed records of commune life. Her 1978 account is written in the present, since the communes were still operating, after 20 years of servitude. Unfortunately Life in the Red Flag Peoples Commune, published in Dharamsala in 978, is long out of print.