Eight Chinese myths about Tibetan nomads


A briefing by Gabriel Lafitte
Presented at European Parliament Tibet Intergroup 30 March 2011
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In a world where active, violent conflicts inevitably dominate headlines and the attention of policymakers, unresolved conflict over Tibet attracts less attention.

It is a political reality of this second decade of the 21st century that the rise of China overshadows the concerns expressed in earlier years by European leaders over human rights in Tibet. It is getting harder to find official voices able to speak up on violations of the civil and political rights of Tibetans.

Does this mean there is nothing we can do? Not at all, it is just that we need a different approach.

The six million Tibetans in Tibet (Chinese 2010 census figures) have made humanly habitable the planet’s third pole, by skilful, mobile, extensive land use, moving with their yaks, sheep and goats across pastureland as big as the whole of western Europe. Not only is that way of life now being rapidly shut down by official intervention, the exclusion of nomads from their pastures depopulates the Tibetan countryside, opening it to exploitation by itinerant gold miners whose methods are environmentally destructive.
This is an economic development issue, an environmental issue and a question of the collective economic and social rights of the Tibetans as a people. Exclusion of nomads is now being taken up by human rights monitoring agencies, for example, the recent reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and access to land, as a backward step in a world running short on food because of Chinese consumption. Human Rights Watch intends to publish a new report soon on the internal displacement en masse of Tibetan nomads, having first reported the issue in 2007. TibetWatch will also publish a detailed report on nomad displacement in 2011.

From development and environmental points of view, these are issues where Europe has much to offer. Development does not declare entire populations redundant, still less is it helpful to label as ignorant, backward and primitive those populations which have skilfully and productively used an entire plateau sustainably for millennia. Rehousing the millions of pastoral nomads of Tibet –as is happening now- in concrete barracks on urban edges, makes useless their livelihoods, land care skills and productivity in livestock production, at a time of fast growing demand for the wool, butter, cheese, hides and meat they produce. Global food insecurity is only worsened by making the Tibetan nomads redundant, fenced out of their pastures.

China mistakenly blames the Tibetan pastoralists for degradation of the rangelands, seen as a threat to China’s river water supply, necessitating the removal of both herds and herders, in the name of watershed protection. Although China’s great rivers –the Yangtze and Yellow- are over-used downstream, and much polluted, China is anxious to maintain the flow of pure water from the glacial sources high in Tibet, even if it means removing the nomads who live in an area the size of Germany between the glaciers and lowland China.


There is no reason why the Tibetan pastoral nomads cannot be partners with the state in protecting watersheds while maintaining their livelihoods; but China has formulated an either/or policy. China is usually very up-to-date in all matters, but when it comes to the grasslands, it does not work with or even listen to its nomads, so policy is based on remote satellite data, and mechanistic formulations of “stocking rates” and “carrying capacity” that are not relevant to the extremely unpredictable climate of the world’s third pole.

China is behind the times, and needs to catch up. Europe can help. Most of the expertise, individually and institutionally, on skilful, appropriate policies for the drylands and uplands of the nomads, is in Europe. There is much opportunity for technical assistance that strengthens nomadic life, returns mobility as the key to successful nomadic production and sustainable, mobile grazing. This new approach, which recognises the skills of nomads as risk managers, living off uncertainty and unpredictable pastures, is called the New Range Ecology.

China can learn to respect the specialist livestock producers of the Tibetan Plateau, if given help by Europe. The best help is in pilot projects showing how to work with pastoralists as partners, rather than a top-down approach that assumes all pastoralists are primitive and ignorant. For some years, the European Union and other OECD countries have financed and implemented projects that show, in practice, how development can be done most effectively by co-management, with state agencies and pastoralists, organised into producer associations, working together.

Those pilot projects could now be scaled up, in all five Chinese provinces that include parts of the Tibetan Plateau. Specifically, China could learn from the experiences of neighbouring Nepal, Mongolia and Bhutan that nomadic livestock producers can be encouraged to reduce herd size and grazing pressure by inexpensive insurance finance that recompenses nomads when disastrous climate events wipe out much of their herds. A major reason nomads keep more animals than necessary in good years is as their only insurance against bad years, in a country where there is no social safety net, all health costs are user-payment upfront in advance, and herd size on the hoof is the only source of security. When nomads know the state is there, in an emergency, to help, they are much more willing to reduce herd size, and the need for coercion and displacement evaporates.

European development agencies have spent decades in Nepal working with forest communities in the hills, setting up user groups that empower villagers to work with the state to attain globally important goals such as carbon sequestration, erosion mitigation, flood control, sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation. Yet in Tibet, on the other side of the Himalayas, the state is distant, punitive and disciplinary, relying on an approach that is decades out of date elsewhere in the developing world.

Environmentally, the Tibetan Plateau is crucial to planetary atmospheric patterns, drawing inland the monsoons that make India, China and SE Asia productive. Climate change is happening faster in the high altitudes of Tibet than elsewhere, providing China with a short-term boost in glacier melt river water; perhaps one of the reasons why China is reluctant to accept greenhouse gas emission quotas.

The Tibetan Plateau is almost 3 per cent of the planet’s land surface, naturally rich in biodiversity despite the cold. Until recently it was an unfenced land where huge wild herds mingled freely and undisturbed, with the domestic herds of the nomads. Fish were abundant in lakes and rivers, since Tibetans do not kill fish. Land was used extensively, which means lightly, in a mobile way, always moving on to ensure pasture remains intact, and not vulnerable to the biting gales and blizzards of the high plateau. There was much forest, and extensive wetlands, which were major carbon sinks.
In recent times this has all changed. Wetlands were drained and dried out, rivers dammed for hydro power, wildlife shot and poached by immigrants, the land compulsorily fenced and nomads no longer allowed their mobility, which meant concentrations of animals in small areas which inevitably degraded. Trawlers took to the waters, soldiers stationed in Tibet gunned down wildlife. Forests were destroyed, pandas died. More recently, China has nominated the less productive areas of Tibet, mostly the alpine deserts, as protected areas and insists that internal displacement of whole communities of pastoralists is for the sake of the environment.


In theory, China’s programs seem valid, even important contributions to a global effort to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester more carbon. Only when one looks more closely at the actual implementation of China’s programs, on the ground, does it become obvious that in practice the official slogans and campaigns are actually contradictory, self-defeating and with many perverse outcomes.

On paper, the displaced nomads are voluntary “ecological migrants” choosing to sacrifice their way of life for the greater good. On paper, China is scientifically addressing its downstream water shortage, its past history of mistakenly ploughing forest, grassland and hillslopes which are now being replanted as green belts. Officially, this is all about plausible, sensible slogans such as the grain-to-green campaign to turn marginal farmland back to forest or grassland, part of a land use change program needed worldwide to help adapt to climate change.

Now, many people are confused. Is there inevitably a clash between watershed protection and pastoralism, a contradiction –as Chinese officials say- between grass and animals? Are the pastoralists abandoning their whole way of life actually voluntary ecological migrants, as China claims? What sort of lives can they now lead? Could they contribute better to environmental outcomes in Tibet by maintaining their traditionally mobile way of life, and as park rangers, anti-poaching patrollers and reforesters with modest incomes from external sources to employ them as guardians of nature in Tibet?
Here are China’s eight key policies, examples of the gap between stated policy objectives and actual results:

ONE: Protecting China’s Number One Water Tower. Ostensibly, the high altitude glacial sources in Tibet of three great rivers –the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong- require removal of herds and herders so more grass will grow. Huge areas have been designated as requiring “treatment” to reverse desertification and degradation of the rangelands.

On the ground, when nomads and their animals are removed, grass does grow, but in the absence of grazing, grassland biodiversity shrinks, inedible shrubs replace grassland, alien invasive weeds multiply and medicinal herbs are fewer. There is no program of “treatment” of degraded pasture, no budget or employment to sow seeds and carefully rehabilitate degraded areas. The removal of the nomads is the “treatment.”

Climate change at the planet’s third pole –the Tibetan Plateau- happens faster than in the lowlands. Glacial melting, according to Chinese scientific calculations, gives China aghout the 21st century.
Downstream, China’s great rivers are chronically over-exploited, farmer irrigators continue to pay only nominal amounts for water use, and there is massive discharge of pollutants into the great rivers. The solutions to these problems are not to be found in Tibet, which, despite the Chinese label of “China’s Number One water Tower” is actually semi-arid. The rain and snowfall in the source area is only 250mm a year.

TWO: Climate change is the cause of rangeland degradation in Tibet, necessitating removal of nomads, under the slogan of tuimu huancao, removing animals to grow grassland.

In reality, degradation of the rangelands started to accelerate in the 1960s and has gone unchecked ever since. After 9000 years of skilful and sustainable use of the rangelands by Tibetan pastoralists maintaining a mobile civilisation, degradation began when nomads lost all power over their herds and their lives, were compulsorily collectivised into communes intended to “scientifically” intensify meat production. These communes, which lasted 20 years, were disastrous, increasing herd size beyond the capacity of the land to bear. These mistakes of the revolutionary period cannot be spoken about or acknowledged, so all blame goes now onto the nomads as ignorant, and onto climate change as the explanation of all problems.

THREE: Resettled nomads can join the modern economy, start their own businesses, take full advantage of being resettled along roads giving them access to markets.

In reality, relocated nomads are rarely allowed to keep any animals. In some places they must take out bank loans to pay for the housing that is officially the gift of a generous state, forcing them into debt. Although they are promised compensation, provision of survival rations, vocational training, schooling for their children, access to electricity and urban services, the ground reality is that in many resettlement blocks there is no school and almost no adult education providing useful vocational skills, in a language the nomads understand (Tibetan). While there is always a police station built, many promised services do not materialise. Vocational training, if available, is too brief and inadequate, or quite inappropriate to the situation, not equipping ex-nomads with practical skills such as business planning, or even how to save cash income, essential to people not used to having to pay cash for everything needed for survival.

The resettlement blocks are places of wasted life, where people made redundant in the modern world are parked, away from view, with nothing to do. Meaningless lives lead to alcohol abuse, violence and theft, community discord and the ex-nomads get a bad reputation. This is a self-fulfilling negative loop, proving what authorities suspected all along: that Tibetan nomads are of “low human quality”

The reservations of 20th century north American Indians or Australian Aborigines were similarly destructive of social bonds, of meaningful life and cultural continuity.

FOUR: China says nomads don’t own land and don’t care for it. Tibetan nomads have had land rights ever since the 1980s, but persisted in overgrazing because they could access land that doesn’t belong to them, and they don’t care if it degrades. The nomads have also had great opportunity to grow rich from off-farm income earning opportunities, notably the gathering of yartsa gumbu (cordyceps sinensis), a fungal growth of grassland caterpillars in great demand as a virility enhancer used in traditional Chinese medicine.

On the ground, the experience of the Tibetan nomads is that their animals were returned to them in 1980 after the communes failed, but returning guaranteed land tenure rights took much longer than for Chinese farmers. The land they were allocated had to be fenced, usually at nomads’ expense, there were many taxes to be paid either in cash or labour, prices for nomadic products were manipulated by unscrupulous cartels of urban merchant butchers immigrating into Tibet, and official regulations increasingly restricted herd size (as well as family size). Although nomads were eventually given land use certificates, they were only for winter pastures. Their customary mobility, essential to both sustainability and productivity, was curtailed. Access to summer pastures high up in the alpine meadows became more difficult.
On paper, nomads had secure tenure. In reality the number of animals they could keep on the land allocated to them shrank, and nomads increasingly led a subsistence existence. Many slid into poverty, very vulnerable to immiserisation if anyone in the family became ill or disabled. The nomads were encouraged to sedentarise, making the winter home the only home, with no more summer mobility.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nomads in theory had their land; in practice the land was too small, the fencing and new housing too expensive, the taxes and cadre rent-seeking usurious, the result was overstocking and land degradation, and the nomads sliding into poverty. Sometimes nomads had to sell all their remaining animals, just to survive, or could not afford to restock after a snow disaster, and were forced into becoming urban beggars. The incentives to sedentarise were often the only option for immediate survival.

Both the rangeland and the nomadic livelihoods were on a negative spiral, with intensifying restrictions reinforcing further degradation, and reinforcing the view from afar, in Beijing, that Tibetan nomads are stupid, ignorant, greedy and destructive.

FIVE: Resettled nomads will now be able to lead comfortable lives in new housing provided by the generosity of the state, with access to electricity; and their children will be able to go to school for the full nine compulsory years. Their measurable cash income will be higher than before, and they can transition to the modern economy.

In reality, concrete houses are extremely cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, especially as many have few windows. Often the nomads have to pay for house construction, even when it means indebtedness to a bank which they cannot repay. They usually have to sign an undertaking not to keep any animals, the penalty for any breach is loss of the new house. Their land use certificates are nullified, so they have no right to return to their old pastures.
Nomads stripped of all that is familiar, all their skills now useless, experience deep shock at no longer having purpose in life. They must now pay cash for everything. The young adults seek casual unskilled employment in towns, on construction sites. Unfamiliar diseases, especially infections spread by overcrowding, become more common. Public hygiene essential to high-density living is seldom taught, and not in a culturally appropriate way.

The school curriculum continues to emphasise political education in Party policies, patriotic education, and not the transmission of skills that are actually useful in remote areas. China used to have mobile tent schools in nomadic areas, until 25 years ago. It is not necessary to sedentarise whole populations so the children can attend school. Nomadic Mongolia achieved almost 100% literacy among nomads in the 1970s and 1980s by investing in well-equipped boarding schools for nomad children, and a school timetable that fits in with the nomadic calendar.

SIX Nomads must go. China says there is no way of mitigating climate change and the degradation of the rangelands, without first removing the nomads whose overgrazing is the main cause of the problem.
In reality China has not tried the methods in use elsewhere in the world, to repair degraded areas, as a co-operative process involving local land users and the state. In landcare programs around the world, local communities are encouraged to organise themselves, and work together with government to design, plan and implement labour-intensive replanting of native species which have been dying. The state provides finance, scientific expertise and if necessary income support so livestock producers can spend time on the rehabilitation work. None of this has been done in China’s grasslands, in the badly desertifying grasslands of Inner Mongolia, or in Tibet, except for a few small pilot projects.
Exclosure of entire populations should be the very last resort, if all else has failed. In China it has become the one program which supposedly will, by itself, without further intervention, fix everything, with no investment of state funds except for some of the costs of construction of concrete block housing, and the promise of subsistence rations for some, but not all, displaced nomads for a few years.

SEVEN: Kill the rodents. China says a major cause of grassland degradation is population explosions of burrowing mammals, in plague proportions, which destroy grasses by eating roots, and expose the soil to erosion. These rodent plagues must be controlled by chemical poisoning on a large scale, utilising funding from GTZ, Germany’s official aid agency.
On the ground, ecological research shows the rodents are keystone species, essential to aerating the soil, and are naturally the main food of several predatory birds species and four-legged hunters. When rodent populations explode, it is a symptom of existing rangeland degradation, not its cause. Poisoning them en masse, which Tibetans are shocked at being required to do, is not helpful, and it exposes poisoned carcases that are consumed by birds, transmitting the poisons to them.

EIGHT: Nomads should learn to become ranchers, operating feedlot cattle fattening operations on urban outskirts, bringing in fodder for animals in a modern, scientific way, making profit by selling fattened animals for slaughter as soon as they gain enough weight. Intensive feedlot meat production is the way of the future, while extensive, mobile land use, following animals to pasture, is primitive slavery to nature.

Producing animals solely for slaughter, with animals as the necessary means to a monetary end, is repugnant to most Tibetans. Accumulating wealth year by year is not common. Most Tibetans believe generously donating surplus funds annually is the best path to future wealth. Tibetans have neither the capital, nor the business model of endless accumulation, needed to go into the ranching business.

In reality, nomads did try to increase production, especially of wool, only to find their efforts undermined by county level officials who over-invested in wool scouring plants in the 1980s policy of promoting rural industrialisation. These wool scouring plants owned by county cadres failed to prosper, or to look after the interests of the nomads by separating semi-fine, valuable wool from coarser grades. By the late 1980s nearly all the rural wool scouring plants went broke and there has been no further attempt to add value to Tibetan wool.

Now the woollen mills of coastal China rely entirely on imported fine wools; and the substantial Tibetan wool surplus is used only for low grade, low priced products such as felting for hats. Instead of helping nomads improve sheep breeds, wool quality, wool sorting and cleaning, and the transport and marketing of wool to the mills, Tibetan wool is sold near Beijing in the dirt, on an open field, mixed with mud and dust, attracting only low prices.


In some cases, there are independent witnesses such as international scientists who have done the fieldwork, and published their results in reputable journals. This is true of the debate over poisoning pikas and other grassland rodents, and the biodiversity consequences of fencing animals out of the grasslands. There are dozens of scientific papers, academic conference presentations and postgraduate dissertations showing in detail the unwisdom and narrow-mindedness of China’s governance of the grasslands.

Most of the information, however, comes from those who may not speak: the nomads themselves, who are forbidden to organise themselves, or to speak up. If they try to articulate their concerns they are labelled criminal splittists, which results in long gaol sentences. In keeping with the protocols of human rights monitoring, their names are not given here. Nonetheless, there are opportunities to interview nomads discreetly, taking care to protect their identities, which is why the picture above is not attributed to named individuals.

Professional human rights monitors, development agency specialists and other professionals have debriefed nomads all over Tibet. The picture that emerges is quite varied: in some areas official policy is enforced vigorously, in other areas nomads are yet to be excluded or pauperised. But the trend is clear: in the past decade hundreds of thousands of nomads have been sedentarised, with no direction or future.


China could achieve much by effective reforestation that employs Tibetans as forest guardians, by restoring wetlands and removing the fishing trawlers. China could repair the damage to the grasslands: this has seldom been directly attempted and even more seldom has it succeeded.

There is also a much bigger picture. China’s development policies for the Tibetan Plateau concentrate investment, and environmental impacts, in areas best endowed with factors of production. This creates zones of intensive land use, at mine sites, urban centres and the engineering corridors that connect intensive development centres with highways, railways, power pylons and pipelines. It also means the rest of the Tibetan Plateau remains a vast, under-capitalised, neglected hinterland now rapidly being depopulated as the nomads are removed to urban fringes. Basically it is a choice between intensive, concentrated, high-impact development, and the older, traditional extensive land use practiced by the nomads.
There are strong environmental reasons to believe the build up in human population by Chinese immigration into Tibet, and the intensive land use pattern, are unsustainable. In other words, the people who made the entire Tibetan plateau habitable –the pastoral nomads- are the only people who know how to use Tibet sustainably and extensively. Never before has the Tibetan Plateau supported 11 million people, but it does now, only because of heavy dependence on imports of fuels, food and almost anything manufactured.


Tibet is on the brink. China could decide the future of Tibet is as a nature reserve, a wildlife refuge populated by nomads who know how to protect biodiversity; or Tibet can learn the hard way what Europe learned some time ago: that not all populations have to undergo intensification and concentration in order to live well. Europe has its Natura 2000 program, (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/index_en.htm ) the centrepiece of EU nature & biodiversity policy. It assures the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves where all human activities are excluded. It includes in nature reserves land likely to continue to be privately owned and the emphasis will be on ensuring that future management is sustainable, both ecologically and economically. If the Tibetan Plateau learned from this, there would be no need to displace the nomads, who could instead be employed locally to rehabilitate degrading rangelands and reforest hillsides which Chinese loggers indiscriminately cleared until a decade ago.

Europe understands that there are areas best designated post-industrial and post-agricultural, without need to remove the former farmers or villagers. Instead they are employed creating post-industrial, post-productivist futures, entrepreneurially setting up conservation and ecotourism businesses that include local culture and traditions as part of what attracts visitors. This would be very useful in Tibet.

China will not discover by itself how to become a partner with the pastoral nomads, because it does not listen to nomads, nor are nomads permitted to establish their own NGOs or water user groups or producer co-operatives. Chinese leaders believe they are on a civilising mission to raise the human quality of very backward people in Tibet. It will take a very long time for China to realise it has much to learn from traditional Tibetan land care practices and indigenous knowledge.
The program of removing nomads, reducing them to poverty and dependence on handouts is a path to wasted lives, alcoholism, meaninglessness and immiserisation. China blames the victims of climate change for the degradation of the grasslands and excludes them from participating in the rehabilitation of the pastures. China says it is setting aside the entire “Three River Source Area” of 200,000 sq kms –half the size of Germany- as a protected nature reserve, in which there is a program of treatment planned for the restoration of degraded and desertified areas. But if one looks more closely, the removal of the nomads is not the precondition for the beginning of treatment, it is by itself the sole treatment; there is almost no funding allocated to the remediation of degraded land, which is a labour intensive process best achieved by engaging the energies of the nomads, also providing them with income support and poverty alleviation.

In so many ways, development, poverty alleviation, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation, reforestation and watershed protection could be designed in ways that are mutually supportive. China treats them as mutually exclusive.
Europe is well endowed with development agencies with useful experience that China could learn from, which could strengthen instead of closing nomadic livelihoods. There are development NGOs, some quite small but skilful, established by Tibetans in global diaspora, which have learned from experience how to achieve not only better livelihoods for nomads but also the literacy and numeracy necessary to avoid discrimination and exploitation, and better health in a country where the poor must pay upfront for all health care. Europe has several academic institutions with practical experience in working with Tibetans, including regularly bringing bright young Tibetans to study in Europe and gain higher degrees. The connections exist, ready to be scaled up if there is a will to try fresh approaches that deal with core issues.
If the nomads of Tibet become partners in achieving environmental and developmental goals, they also cease being enemies of China’s progress, obstacles to attaining security and stability, threats to harmony and unity among ethnicities. Helping Tibetan nomadic pastoralists regain mobile livelihoods could also help China overcome its anxiety that nomads in remote border regions are a danger to national security.

China will not immediately welcome any such new approach. But what is the alternative? China will persist with its civilising mission, utterly convinced that the nomads of Tibet are of “low human quality”, to use a common Chinese phrase, and increasingly depopulate the Tibetan countryside, leaving it vulnerable to opportunistic gold miners, usually poor immigrants with neither the capital nor the technology to extract gold carefully. All over Tibet, an illegal gold rush is now occurring, even in areas officially designated as nature reserves and watershed protection zones. The reality is that officials are bribed to look the other way, the nomads are no longer there to protect their lands, or, even worse, the mining is sometimes done with local authorities as silent partners pocketing much of the proceeds. With gold at record prices, and the streambeds of Tibetan rivers carrying much gold, the mercury and cyanide used by illegal diggers have devastating effects.

On paper, small-scale gold mining in Tibet is banned. The extraordinary proliferation of illegal gold dredging from Tibetan rivers and streams suggests China’s true motive for fencing out the nomads is not watershed protection, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration, nomad education, comfortable homes or any of the rationales China presents to the world. China has long feared nomads, found their mobility a threat to disciplinary governance, and worried that nomads are uncontrolled. Six decades of controlling the world’s third pole has convinced China that it is time to consolidate China’s control of border regions nominally designated as areas of ethnic minority governance.
If nomadic mobility and nomadic livelihoods are gone, others will inevitably move into the empty land. It seems those who are moving in have no concern for environmental consequences, and Chinese authorities at a local level turn a blind eye, despite all the high level rhetoric about watershed protection.

China, usually so keen to be up to date with the latest fashions in anything, lags far behind the New Range Ecology, which emphasises the skilfulness, adaptability, resilience, flexibility, productivity and sustainability of pastoral nomadism. China will need external assistance to learn from the lessons of successful nomadic development projects in other countries.
This is an opportunity for foreign ministries in Europe, official development assistance agencies, and the NGOs with experience in nomad projects, to assist China’s transition to a positive alternative. Instead of treating the nomads as enemies of the land, and of the state, the alternative is working cooperatively with nomads, restoring their mobile, extensive, sustainable way of life. That would win Tibetan hearts, guarantee harmony and stability, and enable central authorities to work in partnership with the nomads to achieve environmental goals.



Gabriel Lafitte March 2011

China, at its imperial centre, has long mistrusted the mobility of the nomads of its northern and western edges. The mobility of the nomads was always the core of imperial fears and strategies. Mobility was an ever-present problem for successive dynasties facing their nomadic neighbours so closely to the north, and so far away in the west. Centuries of managing the risks arising from mobility left a deep imprint on Chinese minds, and a major repertoire of governmentalities to deal with it.

Negative as mobility has seemed to emperors in palaces, a closely related term, mobilisation, has come to have only positive meanings, both in raising imperial armies to defend against nomads, and in today’s world mobilisation is the process whereby the productive efficiency of the capitalist market economy is realised. This is a think piece on the interplay of mobility and mobilisation, as seen from above and below.

Fearing for the vulnerability of peasant farmers to nomadic raids, looting and plunder, it was ingrained in Chinese imperial worldviews that the fluid, mobile nomads were ever a threat, the more so because their whereabouts are unknowable, since they are beyond official scrutiny, having no registered domicile that can be monitored and taxed. How to govern or at least deter the nomads has been an abiding concern for dynasty after dynasty, including even those such as the Manchu Qing who themselves were nomads who conquered China. Many of the default policy settings of today’s China originate in the attitudes of the Qing, who ruled China from the mid seventeenth century to early twentieth. They were obsessed both with how their small Manchu population of nomadic warriors from the far north could maintain control over the whole of China, and how to subdue bigger nomadic ethnicities such as the Mongols and Tibetans.

China’s imperial annals emphasise the cultivation of sophisticated imperial statecraft as the primary means of keeping the nomads in check, divided against each other, in tributary submission to the imperial court, with military force the last option when diplomacy, patronage, imperial benevolence and dividing nomads against each other all had failed. The master narrative of the annals is that, as in the ancient Art of War, state violence is necessary only occasionally, when nomads suddenly congregate in vast numbers, to attack the lowlands, plundering the cities and farmlands. This foundational mythos does not correlate well with the historic records, however. Historically, China has tended to use force when it could, to extend its territories by conquest of nomadic realms. A closer look at the records, using not only Chinese but also Mongolian, Tibetan and other sources, shows that much of what Chinese court annalists depict as nomads and other barbarians paying tribute to the imperial court was more than repaid in kind, with the imperial court effectively buying off the emissaries from distant lands, with gifts to the nomads far greater than the offerings brought to the capital by the ambassadors from afar.

Nomadic mobility has constituted the core of the problem. As in the west, nomads are imagined to disperse and congregate anywhere and everywhere. If they can be anywhere, far beyond the gaze of the state, they can gather into a horde and descend without warning, to plunder civilisation. These are the heavily laden archetypes common to both ends of the Eurasian continent, whether in China or Europe, towards the Eurasian heartland’s endless steppes and its nomads. This is where the concepts of barbarism and civilisation were born, as polar opposites and inevitable antagonists. This is perhaps the deepest of dualisms, a logic of either/or, good and bad, right and wrong, in which one term entails the other but always opposes it, a source of chronic tension. This is clearly a construct of the sedentary, history-writing, civilised mind, seeking to distance itself from the barbarian.

Until the birth of communist power, Chinese central leaders always sought to manage the problematic nomadic mobility, not to end it. Only in Mongolia did China, prior to communism, seek to sedentarise the nomads and to settle their lands with Chinese peasants. Elsewhere, such as the Kirghiz and Uighur nomadic lands of Xinjiang, and the Tibetan Plateau, there was little attempt at governance of the nomads, little interest in extending the reach of the state into the lives of nomads and their daily decision-making about their herds and livelihoods. The dynastic annalists were content with recording the ritual submission of the Uighurs, Kirghiz and Tibetans to the imperial court, creating an appearance that Beijing was at least nominally in control. But actual control was not even attempted, except in Mongolia. The Mongols were on China’s doorstep, just to the north of Beijing. The northern capital had been built by the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan to be close to his beloved grasslands, enabling his court to winter in Beijing and summer on the steppes, with hunting aplenty. Ever since, China’s capital has been only just within the intensively farmed zone, never far from the great plains and drylands of Mongolia.

It is only in the twenty-first century that China has moved to decisively end all nomadic mobility in much of Tibet. While mobility has remained negative to the central gaze, at the same time China as the world’s factory, has also come to depend on a different kind of mobility, often called mobilisation by development specialists borrowing from the rhetorics of war. This is the mobility of the peasantry, seeking factory work in the cities, but willing to return home when a global financial crisis cuts employment, or when the seasonal harvest back home requires all hands, or when they are unwelcome in cities which refuse them and their children residential registration, schooling or health care. To economists, this mobilisation of surplus labour is the fundamental cause of China’s rise, and the mobilisation of labour in turn leads to the mobilisation of land. Small, uneconomic peasant plots need to be consolidated into bigger farms reliant on capital, fuels, and technology to replace human labour, and become much more productive, according to conventional development economics. Multiple small farms can become a few big mechanised farms only when land is mobilised, becomes a marketable commodity, with small farmers able and willing to sell their land leases and use the proceeds to launch themselves into business or a new urban life. The bigger the farms, the more capital-intensive they become, and better able to attract loans and investment, thus mobilising capital as well. Modernity, efficiency, and globalisation, all involve the mobilisation of labour, land and capital, so all may flow to where they are most productive and generate the highest rates of return. This is basic market economics.

In China, however, the mobilisation of labour is in both directions, not only from farm to factory, but back again. China has only partly dismantled a Maoist instrument of control, the hukou registration system, which designates each individual as either rural or urban, with no official permission to reside in the long term outside of one’s designated area. Despite the repeated calls of the World Bank and other orthodox economists of maximal efficiency, China has clung to this tool of governance, which was originally designed to prevent mass migration to cities. Even though the factories rely on the labour of the healthiest young adults from the countryside, China’s cities continue to view them ambivalently, as temporary guest workers, not as fellow citizens with equal claim to social security, education and official services. This ambiguous status helps keep wages down. Workers know they can be sacked and readily replaced by other new arrivals, and if they find it hard to find new employment, their presence in the city is at best semi-legal, with much scope for harassment by police, and pressure to return. Gradually this is changing, as the number of ex-peasants is in the hundreds of millions, as they gradually create pressure for access to schools and services, and equal rights. But there is still a gap, and an official stance that peasants are always peasants and must return if no longer needed. This is mobilisation with Chinese characteristics.
The willingness to leave one’s land and work in a factory is extolled as the heart of modernity, showing an adventurous spirit, a willingness to leave behind tradition and join the flows of fluid factors of production, a personal mobility that tracks, follows and goes to where the best opportunities are located. This is good mobility. It begins with the personal choice to seek one’s fortune in a factory, but leads to changing the whole of society. It is the mobility of the individual to leave the family and it enables the market’s invisible hand, and the state’s visible hand, to mobilise land as well. Then all factors of production are in play, fully mobilised, ready to flow to wherever rationality and efficiency can maximise their growth.

Mobilisation is what states do to ready their armed forces for war; it is a military metaphor that economists took up to express the struggle to create wealth. Mobilisation is directed by central authority, be it the invisible hand of market logic or central authorities deciding who and where should get rich first, including themselves. Modern labour mobility is patriotic, contributing to China’s growth, leading to mobilisation. Nomadic mobility by contrast is backward, uncivilised, a slavery to nature, an evasion of the state’s gaze, a refusal to contribute to the monetised economy and growth.
Modern mobility must be freely chosen by a modern individual rationally calculating where to move to maximise life chances. Revolutionary China had three decades of compulsory mobilisation of land, labour and capital, all in the service of the revolutionary party-state, all in the service of, and at the disposal of the party-state. Between 1949 and 1978 China mobilised everyone, by decree, to go wherever pioneering labour was needed to conquer nature, open the wilderness to the plough, build invulnerable defences deep inland in preparation for foreign invasion, even to magically produce steel in backyard furnaces. Mandatory mass mobilisation failed; the new mobilisation for wealth creation must build the party-state by beginning in individual will.

The voluntary mobility of the nomad cannot, in this urban sinocentric viewpoint, be rational, productive or a good business decision by an entrepreneur of animal production, since everyone Chinese knows it is merely blindly following the animals to their pastures, a bestial existence among beasts. What could be more primitive than wandering wherever one is led by animals?

If civilisation and barbarism are polar opposites, they must begin somewhere, especially if at some point in the ancient past civilisation grew out of barbarism. What was that first impulse towards civilised mastery of the natural world? In the writings of Chinese elites, that crucial turn comes down to a simple choice: the barbarian goes with the animals to the food; the civilised man brings the food to the animals. The civilised man pens his animals in a fenced enclosure, goes out and cuts forage, or grows a fodder crop, then brings it to his animals to fatten them while under his protection. It matters little that the civilised method is more laborious and these days reliant on fossil fuels as well. It cannot be that the nomad with her herd has a more relaxed life, or more leisure, or time to train the mind, because the nomad is a slave to nature, at the mercy of the elements, an insignificant figure in the vastness of the endless plateau.

In China’s annual statistical yearbooks, the nomads hardly appear, and certainly not as risk-calculating entrepreneurs running their own businesses. The provincial and county level statistical yearbooks covering the Tibetan Plateau add up to thousands of pages, updated each year. If one searches for the nomads, and the nomadic livestock production economy, there are statistics on tonnages of meat and wool produced, and on how much meat is consumed in the immigrant cities of Tibet, and in the rural areas (a lot less than in the cities). But the producers appear in only one table. In the Agriculture chapter, a table headed Basic Conditions of Rural Grass-Roots Units and Labourers lists the total rural workforce, lumping farmers and nomads together. As a category, known only as “rural labourers”, they suggest a rural lumpen proletariat, who could be available wherever there is work; rather than entrepreneurs whose advantage is their intimate knowledge of specific pastures, and the risks of too many or too few animals. Not much seems to have changed since, in 1935, Owen Lattimore wrote on the wickedness of being nomads (Owen Lattimore, ‘On the Wickedness of Being Nomads’, T’ien Hsia Monthly 1, no.1 (August 1935)): “All policies towards the Mongols, whether Chinese, Soviet or Japanese, appear to start from, a common premise: that something must be done about the nomadism of the Mongols. If, in other words, the Mongols can only be cured of being Mongols, all will be well—at least, for China, the Soviet Union or Japan. What, actually, is nomadism, Mongol nomadism? To begin with, there has for centuries been no true nomadism in Mongolia. The Mongols live under a form of society which was established as a compromise between the political requirements of the Manchu empire, and the social and economic traditions of the Mongols themselves. Each Mongol tribal group occupies a territory with well-defined frontiers. Within this territory, all of the land belongs to all of the tribe. People move about freely, because in an arid climate it is not practical to keep animals grazing always on the same fields. Most families in Inner Mongolia have one summer camping-place, to which they return year after year, and one winter place, which is even more permanent, because it is convenient to accumulate a store of fuel for the winter. These two camps are often only a few miles apart. No individual holds any property in land. There being no ‘capitalist’ monopoly of land, wealth and social advancement depend primarily on the energy and competence of the individual. If he manages his livestock with skill, the natural increase of every year is a clear increase in wealth; he does not have to lay out capital for the purchase of pasture land on which to feed his herds. Nor can the rich man, by asserting private ownership of land, prevent the poor man from grazing his flocks on it. Under such conditions a prince can be poor and ignorant (and often is) and a commoner can be rich and educated.”

The mobility of the nomads of Tibet is likewise not random, or arbitrary, in fact many Tibetans are troubled by the romantic baggage the term “nomad” carries in English, with its connotations of utter freedom, fluidity, irresponsibility, the rolling stone with no direction known. Like the Mongols, most Tibetan pastoralists are hardly nomadic in this modernist fantasy sense of wandering at will. Even before the sedentarisation policies of the modernising party-state they overwintered in one place, often a house, usually big enough for the family on a floor above the animals sheltering at ground level. The one major move to the summer pastures was to known and agreed pastures, usually at a higher altitude, which turn green in spring and summer, and must be vacated in autumn, before the grasses brown and become dormant, preserving biomass below ground for the next growing season. This annual migration up to the alpine meadows and down again, is not what most westerners imagine.
It is not a romantic dualism of opposites to recall the fundamental differences between mobility and mobilisation. Mobility decentralises; mobilisation centralises. Mobility is centrifugal and only occasionally centric, usually in festive high summer temporary encampment, or in midwinter clustering of families in their mud walled overwintering home. Mobilisation is centripetal, drawing into the centre of power all those to be disciplined to serve as agents of the state, in making war, or class war as activists of the Party. Mobilisation is a gathering of resources, especially human resources deemed as such by the gaze of the state, drawing unto itself the able bodied, to be trained and sent into battle. Mobility evades the state, slides past the gaze of the state and out of sight, disappearing up a winding valley, beyond scrutiny.


We are all nomads now. In developed countries, jobs for life, marriages for life, careers for life are so twentieth century. We now move home, change partners, change not only employer but also industry, re-inventing ourselves as we move to fit in with the dynamic global economy. To be modern, equipped for global modernity, is to be ready to move, and when a global financial crisis wipes out not only my job but also my employer and even my industry, we do move. The pace of change, we are told, is such that we are always shovel-ready, primed with skill sets suited to the new emerging opportunities. Nomadic life has made a comeback, but it has done nothing to rehabilitate the old nomads of the steppes and high plateaus.

Unfashionable mobility is the literally upwards mobility of the nomad, beyond the reach of the state; and its is this escape to the highlands that is also celebrated romantically by the revolutionary and anarchist strands of modernity, which romance freedom from social constraint as the highest of values. The word “nomad” serves marketers of mass produced manufactures of all sorts, as a marker of individuality, appealing to imagery of being a carefree, footloose, self-actualising individual who is not just one of the herd. Innumerable manufactures use the term “nomad” to flatter the buyer into conceiving of their purchase as proof of being a free spirit, a different drummer, anything but a creature of habit and predictability. The very qualities that states view with suspicion are transvalued by those who see themselves as “rebels” by disposition.

The fashionability of the nomad, as marketing tool for encouraging consumption, and as a life strategy for responding to capitalism’s cycles of creation and destruction, would seem to have little connection with the lives of remote, unfashionable nomads of the drylands, rangelands, uplands and continental interiors, the original cowboys. The difference between the modern urban sophisticated nomad and the premodern primitive rural nomad was explored in a companion piece, Mobility and Mobilisation, with an emphasis on differences.

But what if premodern and modern mobilities were much the same, even if we haven’t noticed? That is what this post explores.
The argument is twofold: the premodern nomads were (and are) not free-floating random atoms leading lives of utter freedom, but circulated in set patterns and lived in hierarchical, ordered societies. Today’s urban nomads negotiate global capitalism by internalising a similar calculus of risk and reward, forever obtaining certificates of compliance with new competencies suited to the job market, fitting ourselves to the new governmentality which micro-manages our behaviour.

While advertisers invoke the figure of the nomad as a brand name to persuade us that being a loyal customer is an assertion of freedom, everyday reality in the contemporary compliance society is that we remake ourselves as required by the market. We circulate globally, within the designed and managed order of global corporations which might make use of our services in London today, Siberia tomorrow, then West Africa. The impersonal, disembodied, inexorable yet naturalised market rules. The market creates and destroys companies, industries; even entire economies are bankrupted by “market forces.” Governments struggle to regulate, and are helpless to defend even the sovereignty of the state when “market forces” sense weakness they can gamble against. When government is weak, the old disciplinary society is largely gone, we no longer ask what we can do for our country, and we are no longer nation builders. We are now investors in our own lives, hoping to anticipate which way the market will turn. The market makes no binding commitments to anyone or any institution or government, but expects the compliance of both the individual and the state even when it needs to be saved from itself.
The romance of the cyber age is that we can be instantly anywhere on the net, have friends across the planet, invest in our own human capital and earn a university degree sitting on the couch at home. We imagine ourselves as freely roaming nomads of the cyber world, as we comply with yet another administered test.

“Fixity, durability, bulk, solidity or permanence, those supreme values of the sedentary mentality, have all been degraded and have acquired an unambiguously negative flavour,” Bauman says. (Society Under Siege, 236). The old statist project of perfection, even utopia, to be attained by scientific rationality promised a predesigned destination, and it failed. Now there is only the market, and me. Having largely invented the market, its inventor, government, now exists in its shadow, as its facilitator, occasional regulator and rescuer, employing a wide range of devices to be alert for market failure and otherwise stay out of the way of this self-existing social force which obeys its own well-known, naturalised laws. Now that governments no longer claim to have a master plan, or even a destination beyond vague concepts such as “competitiveness” or “efficiency”, or “productivity”, governments at all levels are micromanagers deploying innumerable devices invented to monitor and adjust the conditions of life.

China, however, came into active possession of huge areas of rangeland quite recently, and with no tradition of exerting sovereign control over these vast territories to the north and west. The long transition from empire to nation-state was a task successive dynasties set themselves, including the Manchu Qing, the Republican/Kuomintang and the Communist Party. Whatever one makes of the contested claims China makes to territorial sovereignty of the far west, not even the staunchest advocate of China’s Tibet claims Chinese power extended its reach into the conditions of daily life of Tibetans, except perhaps for extraction of tax revenue in some places and times.
China in the 1950s had to make up governance of the rangelands, with almost no base. This turned out to be a complex matter, with no approach being settled on for some years, with considerable interim confusion. Among the most urgent nation building tasks were to instigate class warfare among the frontier ethnicities, and to objectively classify the various ethnicities according to scientific criteria. The compulsory denunciation by the poor of every ethnicity, of their rich, was the revolution. The liquidation of the exploiting classes, preceded by mass campaigns of public denunciation and “speaking bitterness” was the fundamental task of the revolution, and in many ethnic areas, communities were quite reluctant to denounce the educated elite. Similarly, the process of identifying, naming and classifying the ethnicities that constitute the family of nations of China, was such a messy, contradictory process that the ethnographers sent out to remote valleys and high plateaus found themselves attempting “to transform the worldviews of their minority informants during the interview process itself,” so Mullaney tells us.
This took on urgency because the regime in its early revolutionary enthusiasm asked people to identify their ethnicity, resulting in filled forms naming over 400 ethnicities in one province alone; a level of complexity quite beyond the capacities of a new state to administer with any semblance of disciplinary power. This was critical, since new China had dispensed with the Kuomintang approach of defining “the very meaning of the operative term, minzu, in such a way as to disallow the very possibility of a multi-minzu China.” (Mullaney 3) But 400 plus minzu were inadmissible, so the state engineered a miracle of categorical compression, a taxonomy of identity, which included locating each people or nation in a fixed position on a ladder of human social evolution. Where each minzu was located was crucial to the class warfare to be instigated through mass campaigns. If a minority was classified as feudal, the struggle to overthrow the landlord exploiting class must be relentless, the cadres must do everything necessary to ensure that anywhere from a minimal five per cent of the population up to as much as 80 per cent were denounced, humiliated, found guilty of class crimes and liquidated.

Other minzu were luckier, being classified in other positions on the ladder of social evolution. On the lowest rung of the ladder was primitive communism, an egalitarian prefeudal society which needed no purging, only urgent modernisation. On higher rungs were other categories, which were not predetermined to be as exploitative as the feudal, with different destinies.
These were among the devices new China deployed to create order, and make the state a presence in daily lives. The census, surveys, questionnaires, interviews, ethnographic expeditions, cadre recruitment and training, cadre schools were among the ways the state mobilised to govern. Once the oppressors were eliminated, construction could begin.
But what to construct? What could a revolutionary regime achieve in the grasslands? What was there to do? China was determined to assert sovereignty over these vast territories, and complete the task the Qing had barely attempted, to not only conquer but to rule the far west. The new state needed new ways, multiple and heterogeneous ways of making its new territories thinkable, recognisable, categorisable and calculable. It needed ways of operationalising the dream of making all that vast space –the Tibetan Plateau alone added one third to China’s area- productive.

The high plateau had not been mapped, nor its resources inventoried, or its rivers sourced to their origins. The mountains had not been climbed, the glaciers measured, the productivity of the grasses enumerated. The few existing old texts were dismissed as unsystematic and unscientific. The new generation of classifiers dismissed the old provincial gazetteers compiled by previous regimes as idiosyncratic, arbitrary, with “an excessive number of categories according to a mixed bag of taxonomic criteria: geographical origins, cultural practices, and sartorial habits, among others.” (Mullaney 54)
What the ethnographers despatched in the 1950s came up with instead was a drastic reduction of diversity, to 55 minorities, plus the Chinese, themselves redesigned as an ethnicity for the first time, making a total of 56 legally equal ethnicities altogether. This was the desired result, but it was achieved, as Mullaney’s elderly interviewees recount in detail, by hastily grabbing an obscure Edwardian era British imperial taxonomy of Chinese ethnicities based on neatly nested hierarchies of language groups, a fittingly “objective” criterion. On top of this, they used Stalin’s rigid alder of social evolution to assign evolutionary positions that spared the social suffering of class war for some and guaranteed it for others. In addition, the ethnographers had their own agendas, especially when it came to quaint and exotic communities they were fond of, even if they did not clearly possess all attributes Stalin listed as prerequisites for classification as a nation. In their unabashedly ethnogenetic enterprise”, these official ethnographers opened up the possibility for groups not yet in possession of Stalin’s four required attributes to be categorized as full-fledged minzu in advance, giving rise to the possibility of ‘precapitalist nationalities.’ The Ethnic Classification was based on a dynamic and futurological definition of minzu.” (Mullaney 90-1)

In the same first decade of communist power, the state had to decide its stance towards the land of snows as well as the people. How to make thinkable and categorisable a land of such vast extent, with so few people, a land surely of great productive potential, but potential for what was quite unclear. The Qing dynasty’s failure to turn conquest into rule, an empire into a nation-state, the inability to persuade or coerce large numbers of Chinese settlers into Tibet, suggested the difficulties ahead. Unlike other provinces assimilated into China, the Tibetan Plateau was simply too big, too remote and above all, too cold to sustain Chinese peasant farmers.

Everything was tried, usually with disastrous results. Human will could conquer mountains and all obstacles, the Chinese people were constantly told, and in the first decade of communist power, such revolutionary enthusiasms were believed. But everything about Tibet was unfamiliar, other, unknown, and mysterious. Where China’s great rivers actually began, in Tibet, was a mystery which previous regimes were unconcerned to adumbrate. How people could survive, and thrive, in such intense cold and thin air was a mystery. Whether Tibetans were physiologically different, enabling them to survive without altitude sickness, was an urgent priority for scientific investigation, but they turned out to be much the same as all humans.

An obvious start was to enumerate the land, count the livestock, map the rivers, lakes and glaciers, inventory the native species, and classify them into harmful and beneficial to crops and humans. Almost none of this had been done, other than the expeditions of European plant hunters, often employed by commercial nurseries looking for exotic species that could be domesticated as a new fashion for gardens throughout suburban modernity worldwide. Even the clouds of Tibet were unfamiliar, requiring great efforts at taxonomy, and a special Atlas of the Clouds of Tibet, such an achievement that it was translated and published in English as well as Chinese. (Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, Academic Press, New York, 1986)

Much as ethnographers had neither time nor imagination to come up with a Chinese ethnicity classification system, revolutionary China’s first “animal husbandry” administrators turned to standard rural development tools, notably the “stocking ratio” and the “carrying capacity” of given parcels of land, usually generalized across vast areas. Like language as the objective marker of ethnicity, sunlight, rainfall and grass growth were objectively quantifiable devices by which the ideal number of livestock could be determined. The ultimate number had to fulfill several criteria, which increasingly pulled in opposing directions. On one hand, revolutionary China was predisposed to believe that the vast grasslands could produce more; yet such production must also be sustainable in the long term, without degrading the grasslands. So the number had to be just right, not so low that grass would go to waste for want of teeth to graze it, nor so high that “grazing pressure” would destroy the resource on which it feeds.

In countries with predictable climatic variations, such approximations worked quite well, even if in practice, stocking ratios often had to be revised downwards after initial optimism as to what the land could be made to yield, primarily measured in edible animal protein, and proved too optimistic. Where climates were highly variable and unpredictable, with frequent extremes such as drought and flood, standardized formulae such as “stocking rates” or “carrying capacity”, averaged over spaces and times, proved to be highly misleading. European settler occupation of inland Australia, for example, spread deeper and deeper into the arid interior in the 1870s and 1880s, peaking in 1893 with a sheep population of 100 million. A decade later the number of sheep was half. (Donald 75) The calculated stock carrying capacity implemented by optimistically expanding pastoralists, was “unwarranted and the investment in it misplaced, a cause of instability not of progress. The sheep population was reduced by half and much of the Western District of new South Wales was virtually evacuated.” (Shaw 15)

The time when China found itself in actual possession of Tibet, in the 1950s, was a time of great inventiveness of devices for making growth of agricultural output necessary, measurable, feasible and naturalisable as self-evident laws of economic development. The Gross Domestic product had been invented, primarily by Kuznets, in the early 1940s, making available for the first time a territorially bounded measure of output comparable across states and across time. With GDP as a base, it did not take long to divide the world into the developed states, and their opposites, the underdeveloped. Thus underdevelopment came to be a major problem of the post WWII world, a problem on which the capitalist First World and Soviet bloc Second World agreed, while disagreeing about the roles of states and markets in solving it. Increased per capita output, a sustained secular improvement in material well-being, an increasing flow of goods and services, a significant self-sustained increase of per capita income were all conceptualised as definitions, in the 1950s, of the task of governments, in underdeveloped countries such as China. (Arndt 51)

As early as 1922 China’s leader Sun Yat-sen proposed just such an agenda, complete with railway lines crisscrossing the Tibetan Plateau. “His book The International Development of China was almost certainly the first to advocate economic development in something like the modern sense and use of the term.” (Arndt 16) But Sun had little control over China and none over Tibet; little access to investment capital, and many other difficulties. Yet he named the development agenda; which decades later the Communist Party took as its great project.

As early as 1956, before the violent liberation of Tibet had been completed, Zhou En-lai announced, at the start of the 2nd Five-Year Plan, that “In order to achieve a rational distribution of productive forces in our country, to promote the economic development of all areas, and to adapt the geographic disposition of our industries to the situation of our resources and national defence, it is necessary to build new industrial bases in the interior in a planned way.” (Eighth National Congress 289-90) Zhou listed the key projects, which included hydropower damming of the Yellow River along the Sanmen gorge in Amdo (Qinghai in Chinese) in northern Tibet, “and intensify geological work in Tibet to prepare the way for its industrial development.” The Communist Party Congress of 1956 was more specific, naming the extension of rail lines from China deep into oil-rich Xinjiang and the oil fields and industrially useful salt lakes of the Tsaidam Basin in northern Tibet: “It is required that 8000-9000 kilometres of new railways be built in these five years. The trunk railway lines from Lanzhou to our border in Xinjiang, from Baotou to Lanzhou and from Lanzhou to Tsaidam will be completed.” (Congress 244)

The industrialisation of Tibet began quickly, with much of northern Tibet incorporated into the Third Line zone of inland areas to be industrialised as a way of matching the military might of the US and then also the USSR, as far from both as possible, to minimise the danger of attack while military industries were built from nothing. China’s leaders very quickly decided they must develop the same capacity as the Americans and Soviets in making submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, able to roam the oceans globally, invulnerable to attack or even tracking their location in the depths, able to fire at will. That decision, made in secret in 1956, designated Tibet, specifically the largest lake in Tibet (and China), the Tso Ngonpo (Qinghai Hu in Chinese, Kokonor in Mongolian) as the place for a secret atomic city developing and testing nuclear submarine missiles. In the hundreds of pages of the 2nd Five-Year Plan, the language throughout is of increased output, as a natural task and an urgent necessity, expressed always in the imperative indirect voice: “It is necessary that…”

The same discourse of increasing output per capita was applied to agriculture and pastoral nomadism. In a table called “Agricultural Economic Efficiency” China celebrated four decades of applying this new norm. In 1957 agricultural output per mu of land was worth RMB 52; by 1988 this had risen to RMB 228. The output of each “agricultural labourer” producing meat from pigs, sheep and cattle was 21 kilos per person in 1957, and 69 kg in 1988.(Changes and development in China 1949-1989, table 4-11).
The necessity for increasing output, within the constraints of rationality, meant being careful about the limits of land, climate, soils and so on. The speeches of Zhou En-lai and Liu Shao-chi to the 1956 Communist Party Congress are full of warnings about not going too fast; not forcing the pace of change beyond what is bearable. Their warnings were soon countermanded by an impatient Mao.
How to measure rationality on the grassland? The nomads themselves were of no help, not only because they had no standardised technical devices to measure productivity, but because nomadic society was self-evidently static and unproductive, in the eyes of the Party. Nomadism was a primitive stage, logically prior to the invention of farming, an arrested development that suggested arrested mentalities. Nomadic Tibet was ill suited to such modern tasks as feeding huge numbers of Chinese prisoners, workers, scientists, soldiers and pioneer farmers to the Tibetan Plateau, especially to Tsaidam basin and Qinghai province, who needed meat.
The balance between increasing output and destructive over-use, the ideal sweet spot of maximal production without overgrazing, generated the closely related devices of “carrying capacity” and “stocking rate”, both resulting in a number of animals per given area, with the differing kinds of animals given a formularised statistical weighting so that one yak is declared to be the equivalent of six sheep. One number could define the optimal herd size, be it in a small area or, by averaging, smoothing and generalising, over big areas too. This simplicity quickly enabled these disciplinary devices to be naturalised, as objective laws of nature, self-evident truths, drawing attention away from themselves, with the focus solely on the numbers they produced.
In countries with no accumulated wisdom of experience in the stocking of rangelands with cattle and sheep, stocking rates were often unrealistically high, until the rangelands collapsed. In arid South Australia, early settlers, from the 1850s through to early in the 20th century commonly stocked land at a rate of 100 sheep per square mile, though today 20 to 25 is regarded as the most the land can carry, and still regenerate. What has also been learned in the last century is that instead of a single number, applicable over a wide area and over a long time, is that “the key principle is matching animal numbers with land capability and feed availability, managing total grazing pressure and making sure animal numbers are reduced quickly and sufficiently when going into a dry period.” (Pasture Degradation and recovery in Australia’s Rangelands, 2004, 190) The calculation of what is appropriate is more nuanced, flexible, contextual and cognisant of shifting circumstances, especially climatic variation. The Australian strategy of quickly destocking pastures early in a drought in turn requires a huge road network, the availability of large numbers of heavy trucks, and cheap fuel, making it economic to take animals hundreds or thousands of kilometres to areas unaffected by drought.

Tibet also experiences great climatic unpredictability, with blizzards, gales and unseasonal snow cover the biggest dangers to livestock herds. But Tibetans cannot truck livestock 1000kms to agist them or avoid a cold snap. What Tibet does have is thousands of years of pastoralism, accumulated local knowledge of what is possible, and what the productive limits are. In Tibet, the new Chinese settlers could have sought and listened to the nomads, collecting “indigenous knowledge”, which development agencies worldwide now do routinely as an integral aspect of natural resource management policy formulation. This was never done. Chinese and Tibetans inhabited the same plateau, but lived entirely separate lives, in very different lifeworlds, with almost no communication. This has been so for 60 years, and there is as yet very little sign of dialogue, even though several international NGOs and aid agencies have done small scale dialogue and consultation workshops with nomads in Tibet, to show China that the process can be beneficial.

Outside China local knowledge is often regarded as important, even the key to success in biodiversity conservation or skilful resource management or risk management. But local knowledge is always, implicitly or explicitly, juxtaposed with “universal knowledge”, meaning objective scientific knowledge that is beyond human convention, is a law of nature, independent of culture and subjectivity. China’s great project, beginning in the 19th century and now peaking, was to capture and utilise the “universal knowledge” that made the west –and then Japan- so powerful that China could be humiliated. Throughout the 20th century China’s great pedagogic task was to learn, absorb, assimilate, reproduce and disseminate these seemingly universal truths that the west proclaimed as the source of its superior power over nature and humanity. It was insufficient for the state grasp the technical tools of modernity, all patriotic Chinese should learn the new universal truths of modernity and apply them, to build and save China.

Not only did this lead to deep ambivalence about Chinese tradition, it meant that knowledges not associated with modernity became invisible or, at best, recognised as trivial skills of subsistence. The knowledges of nonChinese ethnicities, living in unfamiliar environments, were especially invisible. Yet all knowledge is local. In an article of that title, professor of cyber scholarship Geoff Bowker tells a story of a young Yolngu Australian Aboriginal boy who, after an unpromising start, turned out to have an aptitude for classroom learning, even qualifying as a pilot. Yet he only began his schooling at the age of 11. “The guy messed up majestically in class at the start: he was put into seventh grade because he was 11 years old, but when asked to read numbers on the blackboard he couldn’t. He was sent back to grade one then bounced his way up to grade 11 in record time. Naturally people thought his progress was amazing and asked him how he was able to move through the grades so quickly, telling him how much better he would have done if he’d been at school from the beginning. He responded, “If I’d been at school from the beginning I’d never have been able to do any of this. Because I spent the first 11 years of my life in the country listening to the land with the constant intelligence of the wind, the climate, the waves, the vegetation and the changes of seasons in me and around me all the time, I learned how to think and be aware constantly. It’s that awareness which allowed me to zip through school and go further than anyone had gone before.’” (Geoffrey C Bowker, All Knowledge is Local, Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, 2. 2010)
Tibetan nomads say something similar. Tai Situ Rinpoche, originally from a remote nomadic area, for decades a Buddhist master with a global following, says:

“The natural pattern, where grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, in addition to the father and mother, take care of the child’s needs, provides stability with the natural environment. These people don’t have shopping centres, big highways, and so on. They live with nature, and they know the trees, flowers, and animals. The child sees his mother milking the cow to get the milk he is going to drink for breakfast. From the beginning he learns about the natural order of things from nature itself. A typical middle-class Tibetan family has two places to live: a highland estate for the summers and a lowland estate for the winters. The family has seasonal separations and reunions, since some family members stay mostly in one place, but most of the younger adults move back and forth. Hey experience sadness at parting and happiness at the real communication that takes place at meeting their friends and relatives once again.

“Tibetan children are exposed to natural reality all of the time. If they see a death, it is a real death. Death is not something that appears on a square screen, acted out by people who then get up and star in another movie. A child knows whether her jacket is made out of wool from the sheep, the very fine hair of the goat, or the skin or fur of some other animal. She saw how it was made by her mother or uncle, and maybe she helped clean, separate, or spin the wool.

“This kind of natural information has a deeper value that relates to a person’s inner development. When someone learns that it is necessary to wait half a year for certain flowers to grow, having watched them grow from seeds into plants, and having watched the leaves come out and buds open up –all in a certain, reliable period of time- an appreciation of the natural rhythm of things develops. One becomes aware at a deep level that things happen in a particular way and at the right time. This sort of appreciation builds the ability to accept other kinds of circumstances as they occur [40] throughout life. It helps a person understand the temporary nature of life and its phases.

“People who grow up in a changed, more artificial environment has difficulty understanding that life is simple. Everything becomes very complicated for them, and especially such things as love, caring for themselves and other people, having balanced relationships, discipline and so forth. Such basic states as happiness, sadness, death, and birth all become very complicated. Even though they might have books and video cassettes that discuss every critical aspect of life, it is indirect learning. People who have grown up with nature might not have seen any books, and they might not have the ability to explain what love, respect, or kindness is, but they know and feel these principles in a way that gives them stability. The professional therapist has originated from the need of modern people to find answers for all those major questions that didn’t need to be asked in the past. Nowadays the simple things that people once knew naturally have become areas of uncertainty.” (Tai Situpa, Relative World, Ultimate Mind, Shambhala 1992, 38-41)

These are not romantic fantasies of “living at one with nature” proposed by outsiders, they express insider learning’s from direct experiences and perceptions, unmediated by formal classroom categories and hierarchies of knowledge. This is what new China, despite its construction of a disciplinary state in Tibet, never noticed as knowledge useful to governance of the grasslands or of Tibetan lives.

In the absence of local knowledge, what did revolutionary China bring to its new task of governing the grasslands? New China had a distinctive mindset, often articulated explicitly as the General Line of Party policy, in documents that were meant to be carefully studied and then implemented, by cadres all over China. Very seldom was there recognition that the nomads and their grasslands were very different to the circumstances of China’s peasantry, all of whom were to be made to produce more, fast. China had an urgent agenda for all of rural China, which was to be the source of finance for the capital needed for China’s speedy industrialisation. Even though the revolution had been made in the name of the peasants, and in New China the peasants were extolled, along with workers and soldiers, as the only trustworthy classes, predatory extraction of surplus value from the peasants was top priority, and persisted for decades. Party leader Chen Yun put it bluntly in 1950: “China is an agricultural country; the investment for industrialisation has no alternative but to use agriculture. Industries need to invest, and agriculture is our only source of funds.” (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Important Literature Collection since the Founding of the Nation, vol 1, 1992, 267)
The urgency of industrialisation, the example of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the revolutionary utopian hope that mobilised human nature could overcome all obstacles, all led to a fixed conviction that rural China, the land and the people, could produce much more, if only they were organised rationally in collectives and communes, with land and labour aggregated into much bigger units of production, then allocated for maximum efficiency.

China had lost a century, the revolutionaries believed, in the race to prove itself the equal of the developed countries. While China took a century to bring to power a strong state, national unity, and a determination to achieve what Japan, facing similar challenges, had tackled almost a century earlier, everything was at last in place. A new sun was rising, destined to eclipse the Japanese imperialists and the western imperialists. By 1958, at the moment of China’s most decisive intervention in Tibetan nomadic lives, China’s official goal, for which everyone was to be mobilised, was to surpass England in 15 years and catch up to America. (Shi Cheng, China’s Rural Industrialisation Policy, 55-6)

This extraordinarily ambitious goal actually took 50 years, not 15. But in the 1950s, a new wind was blowing, often called by Chinese the communist wind (gongchanfeng in Chinese), and it could blow away anything old. The Party’s newspaper, People’s Daily, editorialised: “Strive for Top Speed. To develop our country’s social productive forces, realise national industrialisation and agricultural mode4rnisation at the highest speed is the basic spirit and soul of the General Line… and is an essential policy for socialism in our country.” (quoted in Shi Cheng, 55)

Speed and revolutionary certainty manifested as five winds or five styles, phrases used by Chinese to sum up the whirlwind they lived through: the communist wind, dictatorial commandism (mingling zhuyi), blind direction of production (xiazhihui shengchan), boastful exaggeration (fukua) and cadre privilege-seeking (ganbu teshu). Boastful announcements that production targets had been fulfilled or overfulfilled were the public face of a party-state insisting its commandism and fetishisiation of production as an end in itself proved the triumph of the revolution. The private face of the party was its selfishness and greed in ensuring that its functionaries got the best of everything. (Dali L. Yang, Surviving the Great Leap famine: the struggle over rural policy 1958-62, in Timothy Cheek ed., New Perspectives on State Socialism in China, 263)

These powerful energies explain why no one listened to the nomads. The low commodity output of Tibet, even the low human population of Tibet, were proof that Tibetans had made little of the potential of Tibet. A land of backward nomads, exploiting nobles and useless meditators clearly had lost any mandate to govern the grasslands, and was now destined to enter history, modernity and industrialisation, even if new China initially had very little idea as to what that might mean.

China was on a mission to save itself, to match its enemies in military power, to stand up, and to do all this at maximum speed. Old China had been disorganised, fragmented, and unproductive. Rational planning could liberate peasants and workers to utilise to the full their labour and achieve leaps in output. All the standard concepts of the machine age pointed to economies of scale, much bigger units of production able to own, operate and maintain heavy equipment to mechanise farming. Soviet style tractor stations, combine harvesters and other machines would make agriculture much more efficient, with greater surpluses available to the party-state. Aggregating peasants into production brigades, communes and state farms, all eating from a single mess hall, with cooking and childcare centralised, would leave rural workers free to devote themselves fully to production. It was a utopian dream, which peaked at exactly the time China gained, through extreme violence, full control over the Tibetan rangelands and nomad lives.

New China had great hopes for Tibet, without being able to specifically name what Tibet might contribute to China’s full speed modernisation. Surely such a big land must yield riches, if only they can be found and mastered? But what China encountered was utterly unfamiliar and daunting. As early as 1952, Mao wrote of the task ahead in Tibet: “Tibet compares poorly with Xinjiang, whether politically or economically. Xinjiang is well connected with the heartland of the country by motor roads. While several hundred thousand Han people live in Xinjiang, there are hardly any in Tibet, where our army finds itself in a totally different minority nationality area.” (Selected Works vol 5, 73-4) Mao’s secret directive is disappointed by Tibet, since it is “totally different.” But the Party, in the vanguard of changing everything, could not for long respond by leaving Tibet to be “totally different.” Despite being totally ignorant of the totally different, the party-state must proceed to change Tibet, without coming to know it first. Mao’s secret directive devotes itself then to the strategy of saying reassuring things to the Tibetan elite, while preparing secretly “to achieve a gradual, bloodless transformation of the Tibetan economic and political system”.

Mao’s only available frame was to see Tibet in purely political terms, as a land where the Chinese occupation, he acknowledges, was deeply unpopular, where “the Dalai clique… have an advantage over us in social influence.”His response was, for the moment, to go slowly, while appearing confident, even refusing to make any compromise with the “Dalai clique.” He ends his directive by ordering the Party in Tibet that ”in appearance we should take the offensive and should censure the demonstration (against Chinese rule) and the petition for being unjustifiable, but in reality we should be prepared to make concessions and go over to the offensive in the future when conditions are ripe.”
Mao was in possession of universal truth, was the singular agent of change, at the forefront of the laws of history, and thus needed no particular knowledge of Tibet. His entirely politicised understanding of the Tibetans, and their heartfelt protests, is expressed in a military language of feints, tactical retreats and frontal attack. He spends much of the directive explaining why impatient Party cadres in Tibet should bide their time. He outlines various shrewdly sketched scenarios: either the Tibetans will come to accept China’s occupation, or they will rebel. “Either will be favourable for us. The longer we delay, the stronger will be our position and the weaker theirs.” The seasoned military campaigner thus declared the only knowledge that needed to be known, that China would overturn Tibet at a moment of its choosing, and all other knowledge is incidental.

Tibet’s incorporation into China could not have come at a more inauspicious time. Not only were 1958 and 9, the years of the final Tibetan revolts and their ruthless crushing, the high tide of Mao’s determination to accelerate the revolution, Mao had a global agenda as well. In the aftermath of Soviet repudiations of Stalinism, Mao was sure the mantle of global leader of the forces of socialism had fallen on him, and he was determined to improve on the Stalinist model, establishing China’s ideological leadership of the whole socialist world. Speed was not only a means to proving the superiority of the Chinese model, and its fidelity to Stalinism, it was an end in itself, the surest demonstration that the largest population on earth could be rationally organised to out-produce any other nation, or social system. Nothing was to get in the way, certainly not an ethnicity whose numbers at most were one per cent of the population of China, scattered across their remote plateau.
Revolutionary China’s decisive 1959 break with the Soviet Union was not at all a break with the Soviet model; if anything it was a repudiation of Khrushchev’s treacherous “revisionism” and a return to Stalinist coercion as the essential method of accelerating progress. Nor did China’s break with revolution, after Mao’s death, end the ongoing reliance on Soviet models, especially the compulsion to theorise stages of development, with socialist man at the pinnacle of social evolution, and all ethnicities ranked on the ladder of progress. (Thomas P Bernstein ed., China Learns from the Soviet Union, Lexington 2010) The rigid hierarchy invented by Morgan, ethnographer of the Iroquois in the 1870s, became Stalin’s frame for the disciplinary management of ethnic difference, and then China’s, surviving into 21st century as the ever-presentt, self-evident rationale for treating the Tibetans as primitive and feudal.

Not only did China position itself as the exemplary revolutionary society, harbinger of the future of all mankind, it also reworked its ancient history as a magnetically powerful Han ethnicity that had for thousands of years attracted, assimilated and absorbed nearby nomadic societies. Historian Chen Liankai posited Han origins in indigenous, sedentary Huaxia culture in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys around 3000-2000 BC. Its superior culture and size, Chen said, drew in and ‘polymerized’ (juhe 聚合) surrounding nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples producing first the Han minzu following the Qin dynasty unification of 221 BC. Ever since, China has had the capacity to profoundly transform its more primitive neighbours, to alter even their molecular structure. (Chen Liankai, Preliminary research on the Zhonghua minzu (Zhonghua minzu yanjiu chutan), Beijing: Zhishi Chubanshe, 1994, pp.111-29, 275-288 & 288-311). Another metaphor used by Chinese ethnographers is to depict Han Chinese society as a snowball, accreting and absorbing other nationalities as it rolls over the landscape of China. (James Leibold, In Search of Han: Early Twentieth-century Narratives on Chinese Origins and Development, China Heritage Quarterly, 19, 2009)

This dualistic interplay of extremes serves actual pastoral nomads ill. Both extremes assume the nomads wander at random, is findable anywhere and nowhere. The nomad is a random particle, a shape shifter whose presence or absence eludes the objective scientific gaze of the state, like a particle in quantum physics whose ontological status depends on the viewer. It is the mobility of the nomad that is the defining characteristic, whether this is seen as negative or positive. Because the nomad is mobile and eludes the state, he is also without hierarchies, leaders or aristocracies; whether this is seen as further proof of nomadic unaccountability or as romantically attractive. Those who see nomads as primitive, their mobility a slavery to nature; and those who celebrate it as the headless state of not being governed, would be surprised to find nomads industrious, disciplined, careful risk managers who think ahead, calculate their value adding and plan accordingly. Living at the mercy of nature and in harmony with nature are two sides of one coin, neither of which is open to the abundant evidence that nomadic societies are commonly hierarchical, as David Sneath has shown at length. Both extremes assume society is the other to the state, for good or ill. Thus nomads themselves do not have their own states, hierarchies and power relations; they are undifferentiated tribes or hordes, all based on kin connections. Sneath’s evidence of social strata, rulers and ruled in nomadic societies suggests modernity has seen in nomads only what it is predisposed to see.

Mobility has become more fashionable than ever, in academic circles, where mobilities are studied as a key conduit for understanding the connections, assemblages, and practices that both frame and generate contemporary everyday life. Thus the yearnings of Chinese peasants for New York are seen as constituting 21st century modernity. An academic study of these magical yearnings for a transformed life announces itself as “an exploration of how mobility as a key trope in projects of capitalist development and modernity is currently lived in post-Mao China among a rural-coastal population situated on the mercurial edge between global flows and parochial closures.” (Julie Chu, Cosmologies of Credit, 2011, 4) Global capitalism requires mobility of us all, not only the physical mobility of the peasant who moves to an urban factory, but also a mobility of identity, as capitalism restlessly creates and destroys whole industries and regions where production flourishes or declines. Global capitalism morphs into the new control society of flows, making us flow along, reinventing ourselves as necessary. The new order, as true of new China as of the older metropoles of modernity, engineers the consent of the governed through its use of metaphors of mobility and the opportunities mobility makes possible. Yet global capitalism, contrary to classic capitalist conceptions of flows of labour and capital to spaces of highest efficiency, also disrupts flows, especially human flows, behind mercantilist barriers and state boundaries. The grand narrative of mobility as the responsibility of the citizens of modernity is in no way contradicted by the actual prohibitions on mobility wielded by states. China encourages peasants to leave their subsistence farms, and in recent decades taxed them to extract surplus value for investment in industrialisation, forcing them off land that could then be mobilised for higher efficiency. Official discourse encouraged mobility, a willingness to plunge into the sea of commerce, even at a cost of eating the bitterness of disrupted families, low wages, job insecurity and uncertain futures, because this is how patriotic citizens improve their human quality and contribute to nation building. Yet the same party-state persists in inefficient statist, top-down allocations of labour, maintaining regulatory distinctions between ethnicities, rural and urban residents, and genders. The party-state positions itself as the embodiment of scientific development, a higher rationality, the peak of human quality incarnate, the exemplar all should aspire to. In this sense it is far from becoming the compliance society Foucault sees as emerging in the metropoles, and more closely resembles the old disciplinary society in which social engineering is the state’s pedagogy. The party-state perpetuates the tradition of the dynastic annalists in claiming authorship of the lives of its citizens, maintaining vigorous agency in shaping individual lifeworlds.
Mobility does not mean freedom, in the sense that modernist romantics imagine the nomad lives a life of freedom; but nor is the mobility of contemporary liquid modernity merely a choiceless compliance with the hegemonic project of the all-powerful party-state that engineers the consent of the governed, according to its predetermined agenda. Despite the ingrained habit of Confucianist states to imagine themselves in command of all lives, all destinies, contemporary China no longer fits such a simplistic totalising mould, if it ever did. Although the regime insists on taking credit for all successes, and censoring mention of failures, street level China has its own bold, emergent, entrepreneurial flows of capital, land, labour and human capital that are barely regulated by the party-state. The vibrant, even chaotic, speculative, high-risk new China acts first to seize opportunities, and only later generates a rationale, such as statist authorship of what worked.

But in Tibet, the nomads languish in the old disciplinary society, where little happens outside the purview and surveillance of the state, so intensive is the investment in technologies of control and disrupted mobility. The immobilisation of the nomads is but part of the immobilisation of Tibetan society, into closely watched small neighbourhoods, where all movement is monitored by ever-present surveillance cameras watched by huge numbers of immigrant Chinese security officials who seldom speak Tibetan but take behaviour on camera as signifier of mental intent, and punish accordingly. The panopticon project of early industrial modernity lives on in China’s remotest provinces, where the apparatus of disciplining the masses results in tertiary sector employment dominating the whole economy. Prison guards, security agencies, file keepers, monitors of behaviour public and private: these are bigger than the nomadic, farming, mining and industrial economies of Tibet put together, as Andrew Fischer reminds us.

The disciplinary society China has created in Tibet not only confines people in institutions, but has made all of urban Tibet an institution, locked down, segmented into quadrats, under constant surveillance even when people are at home. To be Tibetan is to be suspect, requiring surveillance and discipline. To be an educated Tibetan, even a cadre or minor official is to be especially suspect, forever monitored for any sign of disloyalty. The best to be hoped for is to be provisionally free to circulate, a right the party-state can always withdraw. As Kafka reminds us, in disciplinary society, apparent acquittal, between confinements, is as much as can be achieved. China’s disciplinary society can always declare one guilty of revealing state secrets, which covers anything declared retroactively to be a state secret. The definition of state secret is a state secret.

To Foucault, disciplinary societies are creatures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reaching their peak early in the 20th. But the disciplinary society has an afterlife, its most total instantiation being Tibet, complete with the party-state’s teleology of Tibet’s compulsory journey from darkness to light, from primitivity to standardised urban comfort. The relocation of nomads into roadside line villages en route to market, is just part of the grand plan. It may be that “we’re in the midst of a breakdown of all sites of confinement –prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family. Educational reforms, industrial reforms, hospital, army, prison reforms; but everyone knows these institutions are in more or less terminal decline.” (Deleuze, Negotiations 178) But in Tibet it is as if Mao’s vision lives on, of the great sage who inscribes his beautiful thoughts onto the minds of the blank masses.

This is far from the mobility of global capitalism, in which “there’s no universal state, precisely because there’s a universal market of which states are the centres, the trading floors.” (Deleuze, Negotiations, 172) The market is the sole universal, making almost impossible the process of even imagining any other ways modernity might constitute itself. So naturalised, automatic and unreflective is the inbuilt model of the market, all else seems shadowy, or archaic or romantic. Nomadic existence may well be all three in many minds, a vestigial remnant of a romantic golden age that cannot possibly be relevant to anyone in a globalised interdependent economy.



A presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to “Der Dritte Pol in Gefahr – Chinas Umweltpolitik in Tibet” conference of Tibet Initiative Deutschland 15 March 2011, Berlin
glafitte@aanet.com.au, www.rukor.org +613 59623434 +613 407 840 333

Table of Contents



According to recent archaeological fieldwork, the Tibetan Plateau has been used extensively by pastoral nomads for close to 9000 years, so there should be little reason to expect that, in the 21st century, such land use would be brought to an end.

But Tibetan nomadic pastoralists are now required, by state directives, to remove both their herds and themselves from large areas of grazing land, with little prospect of ever resuming their mobile mode of production. Under an official policy of tuimu huancao, “removing animals to grow grass”, hundreds of thousands of nomads have already been removed, especially in the area where three great rivers: the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong all rise in glacier melt on the Tibetan Plateau.

The pastoral nomads who have been removed have had their land rights documents nullified. They are now landless, without means of subsistence, untrained in modern skills essential for entry into the modern workforce, dependent entirely on rations issued for a limited period to many but not all who have been internally displaced by tuimu huancao since it was announced in 2003.

Landlessness, loss of livelihood and production in many areas such as the prefectures of Yushu and Golok (in Chinese Qinghai Yushu and Guoluo) are now a direct cause of immiserisation and despair, as there is nothing the formerly independent producers can now do to sustain their lives.

The root of the problem is denial of the right to access traditional customary lands, in areas already adding up to hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. This exclusion zone has been proclaimed, and is now expanding, as the policy solution to the problem of rangeland degradation and hence the threat of erosion of the upper watershed of China’s greatest rivers.

This raises several questions. First, are the rangelands degrading, and what are the causes? Is exclusion of customary land use the only policy alternative? What is the scientific basis for declaring hundreds of thousands of lives redundant?

In order to answer such questions, we could begin by meeting the pastoral nomads of Tibet, getting a feel for their lifeworlds.


Tibetan nomads, if asked, usually say that their traditional way of life is easy, garnering the natural bounty of the seasons. The animals mate and reproduce by themselves, the dri (female yaks) give milk freely, both to their calves and their human milkers, the grass grows by itself. All the people need do is be mobile, moving on with their animals, so pastures are not exhausted. This is what they told Mel Goldstein (Nomads of western Tibet, Serindia, 1989)

Nomads are seldom asked, so their perspective is seldom heard. Occasionally, an anthropologist or development specialist does ask, and are told that being at home on the range means a life of comfort and ease, with material needs provided by the animals, and mental ease coming from a grounded life, and the popular traditions of training the mind in not thinking excessively.

No westerner has immersed in the Tibetan nomadic world as did Robert Ekvall close to a century ago, and his embodied familiarity with nomad ways of doing and being is evident on every page. He had 14 childhood years and eight adult years among the nomads, ending in 1936. (Cultural Relations, intro) Growing up as a native Tibetan speaker gave Ekvall special insight.

He notes the revealing nomad greeting: has there been difficulty? “There is a common greeting, in the form of a question, to which I have never heard an affirmative answer. E dKaa THal? (‘Has there been difficulty?’) is the question asked of the guest as he enters the tent, is shouted to riders coming within earshot from every form of venture, trade, hunting, raiding, pilgrimage, or long-range herding, and is posed to the members of the tenthold as they gather at the end of the day’s activities. The invariable answer is Ma dKaa THal (There has been no difficulty), or more colloquially, ‘No trouble at all’. The hard fact is that, in every instance, there has been plenty of trouble. No day filled with the exigencies of pastoralism combined with nomadism can be without trouble. Repeatedly, I have travelled with Tibetans when the entire day has been a succession of disasters or near-disasters: loads thrown in bogs and streams; robbers evaded or, in head-on confrontation, bluffed off; rain all day, so hard that no noon halt was feasible and everyone went hungry and thirsty; what should have been fords become waters for swimming, with loads and cattle nearly swept away; and at the end we were a sorry bedraggled lot, but the answer, somewhat hoarsely defiant and denying all reality, remained true to form –Ma dKaa THal (No difficulty at all). (Fields on the Hoof 92)

The nomadic masculine insistence that nothing is problematic contrasts with the Chinese predisposition to find everything about Tibet problematic. Tibetan nomads accept that life is risky, that the best approach is to deal with risks on the spot, as they arise, decisively. Ekvall notes that Tibetans, nomads and farmers alike, live in an unpredictable climate: “The economy is a high-risk one with very little of the slow-but-sure aspect of gain, for the livestock fields of the agriculturalists are as vulnerable as the harvests. A single heavy snowstorm, or a virulent cattle epidemic, can virtually wipe out all the potential harvest and the fields as well, leaving the once wealthy pastoralist a pauper. Loss and gain are equally unpredictable, for in two or three very good seasons a poor man can become a man of wealth, but risk is always present. With acceptance of risk as the basic factor, the subsistence routine becomes a successive taking of chances, and when risk taking becomes a habit, the habit may well leave its mark on personality, thus giving to the nomadic pastoralist something of the character and outlook of the gambler. This may partially explain his lavishness, his love of status symbols, and his arrogant assurance in situations of disaster, for chance, that has gone against him, may well be with him next time.” (Fields on the Hoof 91)

Ekvall lists many more of the unpredictable risks facing nomads, to which their response is “realistic appraisal of just exactly what is happening in a photoflash recognition of relevancies; near-instantaneous making of decisions, ad hoc and all-out commitment, as suggested in the Tibetan words for decision-making, Thag Chod (cut-off rope); action swift as a reflex, but carried through to the end. They are tough, self-reliant, meeting emergencies as mere routine, and subtly alert to changes of weather, scene, and circumstance; for the change that goes with movement is a variable requiring constant, focused attention.” (Fields of the Hoof 88)


The qualities Ekvall names are exactly those cultivated by Buddhist practice: fearless acceptance of reality is it occurs, a willingness set aside comfort and habit in order to encounter the nature of reality; immediate, immanent, embodied experience of suchness; decisive responsiveness to circumstances as they arise rather than prescripted ideas about what should be, or routinised attempts at controlling (or editing out) the uncontrollable. Circumstances are encountered as a gestalt, in the present, not as abstractions or examples of theories about what should be. Immediacy, unmediated responsiveness, presence of mind are not only highly valued in Tibetan Buddhism as manifestations of enlightened mind, but are taught as abilities one can learn to embody. Such learning can begin intellectually, but textual learning is only one of many entry points to the actual work of familiarising mind and body with the fluid nature of reality. In the west, with its tradition of intellectual Buddhism, there is a tendency to suppose nomads, often barely literate, could not possibly have understood such higher teachings on emptiness, interdependence, contingency and impermanence; that only literate practitioners of the “high” monastic culture could have understood. This seriously under-estimates the many ways the Buddhist approach to the nature of all things is popularly available, through proverbs, songs of realisation of the most popular saints, dance and opera, and especially by the living example of lay yogis and great lamas in the community. It is intellectual arrogance to assume that only those familiar with technical philosophical language can access the inner truths of Buddhism, or that nomads are unable to develop the deep faith which ripens into confidence and transformation of the self.

The qualities Ekvall observes in Tibetan nomads, of groundedness, realism and decisiveness, are described by a great contemporary lama, Tai Situpa: “The natural pattern, where grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, in addition to the father and mother, take care of the child’s needs, provides stability with the natural environment. These people don’t have shopping centres, big highways, and so on. They live with nature, and they know the trees, flowers, and animals. The child sees his mother milking the cow to get the milk he is going to drink for breakfast. From the beginning he learns about the natural order of things from nature itself. A typical middle-class Tibetan family has two places to live: a highland estate for the summers and a lowland estate for the winters. The family has seasonal separations and reunions, since some family members stay mostly in one place, but most of the younger adults move back and forth. They experience sadness at parting and happiness at the real communication that takes place at meeting their friends and relatives once again.

“Tibetan children are exposed to natural reality all of the time. If they see a death, it is a real death. Death is not something that appears on a square screen, acted out by people who then get up and star in another movie. A child knows whether her jacket is made out of wool from the sheep, the very fine hair of the goat, or the skin or fur of some other animal. She saw how it was made by her mother or uncle, and maybe she helped clean, separate, or spin the wool. This kind of natural information has a deeper value that relates to a person’s inner development. When someone learns that it is necessary to wait half a year for certain flowers to grow, having watched them grow from seeds into plants, and having watched the leaves come out and buds open up –all in a certain, reliable period of time- an appreciation of the natural rhythm of things develops. One becomes aware at a deep level that things happen in a particular way and at the right time. This sort of appreciation builds the ability to accept other kinds of circumstances as they occur throughout life. It helps a person understand the temporary nature of life and its phases.

“People who grow up in a changed, more artificial environment have difficulty understanding that life is simple. Everything becomes very complicated for them, and especially such things as love, caring for themselves and other people, having balanced relationships, discipline and so forth. Such basic states as happiness, sadness, death, and birth all become very complicated. Even though they might have books and video cassettes that discuss every critical aspect of life, it is indirect learning. “People who have grown up with nature might not have seen any books, and they might not have the ability to explain what love, respect, or kindness is, but they know and feel these principles in a way that gives them stability. The professional therapist has originated from the need of modern people to find answers for all those major questions that didn’t need to be asked in the past. Nowadays the simple things that people once knew naturally have become areas of uncertainty.” (Tai Situpa, Relative World, Ultimate Mind, Shambhala 1992, 38-41) Similar first-hand accounts of the inner life experienced by those who grow up as nomads can be found in the writings of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, and Chope Paljor Tsering. (The Nature of all Things, Lothian, 2004)

Tai Situ Rinpoche, speaking to modern metropolitan audiences, suggests it is they who are confused, lacking confidence and certainty, wandering in a maze of ideas about reality; while the nomads have direct and immediate access to how things are, and no illusions as to whether all risks can be controlled, managed, insured against or compensated for when all is lost.


China’s exclosure of nomads en masse is based on scientific evidence that the Tibetan rangelands are in disequilibrium, are unbalanced, degrading, prone to extreme events, all highly problematic. Is this an objective truth of the science of ecology, or an artefact of observation by the invisible scientific observer? Why is it that everything about Tibet, through Chinese eyes, seems problematic?

A profound change has occurred in ecology as a science, with major consequences for the world’s pastoral nomads, whether Tibetan or African. A new discourse has emerged. Instead of deploying a narrative of deficit, resource scarcity, threats due to drought, disease and insecurity; the new discourse, based on a closer awareness of what pastoral nomads actually do, recognises “the key role played by mobility in enhancing production. We argue that specialist dryland pastoralists produce by exploiting non-uniform distribution –in the form of what we call ‘intelligent’ harvesting of unstable concentrations of nutrients on the range. Dryland pastoralists are successful producers, they do so by exploiting asymmetric distribution, not stability and uniformity.” (Saverio Kratli, Living Off Uncertainty: the intelligent animal production of dryland pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research, 22, 2010, 606-7)

This is a new way of understanding how pastoral nomads have made the Tibetan Plateau and the drylands of Africa habitable and productive. Modernity, manufacturing, urban life, corporate success and agribusiness all require uniformity, stability, predictability, elaborate commodity supply chains and management strategies for minimising risks. So ingrained is the emphasis on stability and control of nature, as the necessary prerequisite of all modern life, it took a long time before rangeland scientists could name the assumptions, and be heard. Now they have named the alternative to dominance, equilibrium and predictable, guaranteed access to natural resources. The alternative starting point is to accept living in an environment which is unpredictable, unstable, where abundant nutrients flourish in brief transience, in asymmetric patterns across the landscape. Rather than seeing such uncertainty as problematic, both for human life and for environmental sustainability, this new appreciation recognises the fluid mobility of pastoral nomadism as its greatest asset, “operating not by avoiding risk but by harnessing it as the very basis of production.” (Kratli 608)

This is a nomad-centred way of looking at the drylands and uplands where the nomads live. Instead of imposing on them, in the name of science, assumptions which govern city life, the new range ecology says “the unstable heterogeneity of dryland environment is not an obstacle to pastoralists; it is what they produce with. This is done by systematically targeting and intelligently harvesting the transient concentrations of nutrients on the range.” (Kratli 608) In short, “pastoral systems are better understood as driven by stochastic events rather than homeostatic mechanisms.” In non mathematical language, this means the availability of feed for herds is governed not by regular processes always tending towards stability, but by unpredictable, adventitious circumstances due to unpredictable confluences of causes and conditions. Thus it is entirely inappropriate to judge the choices made by pastoralists as to where they lead their herds, as if they live in a stable environment with an inbuilt tendency to revert to a steady state. To apply a steady state model to the way pastoralists live is to inevitably find them to be dangerously overgrazing, carelessly pushing the land beyond its limits. China looks at its newly acquired grasslands for regularity, then, not finding it, assumes everything is problematic.

The alternative to a predetermined model for the grasslands, taken unwittingly from the regularities of urban modernity, is not another predetermined set of assumptions. It is not a question of dropping one ideology, or master narrative, for another that is chosen just as arbitrarily. Ecology has swung away from assuming, in advance of detailed observation work, that ecosystems by their nature tend towards equilibrium. Having discovered the hard way, after great effort, that no such equilibrium is to be found in nature, in actual ecosystems, which are instead in dynamic flux, ecology has tended to go for an opposite model, which is just as arbitrary. If an equilibrial steady state is not to be found, then ecosystems should instead be seen as inherently resilient and robust. Not surprisingly, ecologists are still arguing as to whether either set of assumptions is a valid starting point.


There is a third alternative, which arises from seeing the grasslands through the eyes of the pastoral nomads. This is a different way of doing life, by choosing to avoid grand assumptions altogether, taking conscious care to do away with grand concepts such as rangeland dynamics and ecosystem drivers, in favour of a cultivated immediate responsiveness to circumstances as they arise. From a Tibetan viewpoint, human minds do inveterately tend to generalise, to liken this to that, to accrete habitual ways of making decisions based on analogous past experience, and these are secondary. What matters most is sensitive, close observation and awareness of circumstances and associations, of the mood of one’s animals, the taste of their milk, conjunctions of naturally arising phenomena, as well as past experience of which medicinal herbs grow best in which pasture previously visited. This is a more immediate, fluid, situated, responsive way of making decisions, more attentive to detail, less concerned with fitting what arises into a predetermined set of categories. Each situation is encountered afresh, in its suchness, rather than fitting it retroactively into a predetermined chain of cause and effect. If the availability of feed arises stochastically, the chain of cause and effect is obscure and complex, not simple and predictable. There is little point in trying to fix cause and effect, and thus gain control of effects, such as a predictable supply of grass in particular times and places. Rather than being fixated on aetiology, and chains of causation, each situation is taken for what it is, as it is, as a sui generis, something unique, to be utilised decisively if useful, and avoided if not of use. This is living in the present rather than reconstructing the past so as to predict and control the future. This includes living with generalisations, rules, policies and ideologies kept as useful ways of organising, but not as master narratives to be followed, irrespective of actual circumstances in the present. These are practices familiar to Tibetans, practices which can be learned, for which there is a language of training and practical exercises which can be done to embody learning and make it practically available as needed, as circumstances arise. Learning how to live in the present, rather than in a world of ideas, is familiar to nomads.

The current Karmapa is one of many high lamas born (in 1985) into nomad society, spending their early years in nomadic communities. According to Chogyam Trungpa, for centuries Tibetan Buddhism has also been mobile: “They travelled in large encampments, or caravans. This included the Karmapas, up to the seventh or even the eighth generation of Karmapas. Everything was adapted for a travelling group situation. It was possible to set up a magnificent capital, a temporary modern city, right on the spot. The Tibetan tent culture was prominent and became powerfully important. This provided possibilities of establishing complete splendour in one night. The next day, the whole thing could be disassembled and the people could continue on their journey. Villagers would wake up in the morning and go out to take their herds into the mountains. They would look down into the next valley and find a whole huge monastery encamped there. Then the next day, when they woke up, the camp was gone. That type of monastery was able to travel to a lot of areas.

“The way to reduce pollution and save ourselves from urbanisation might be to have a magnificent dharma tent culture. The organisation could fulfil its duties wherever it goes. The administration would have a chance to relate with each locality as well, and then fold everything up and move somewhere else. That is a very heroic and very Buddhistic approach: nothing is particularly permanent, but you keep on moving all the time.” (Chogyam Trungpa, The Mishap Lineage, Shambhala, 2009, 32-4) There has been great difficulty, yet no difficulty at all.

One textual example of this approach is How to Look at a Horse and Judge its Worth, which proved so valuable to the People’s Liberation Army that it reprinted Buston’s 14th century Tibetan translation of this 10th century Sanskrit classic soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when it once more became politically permissible to use traditional Tibetan knowledge instead of persecuting it. As the title suggests, this intensely practical work, from a branch of Tibetan medicine, which is a specialist branch of Tibetan Buddhism, was of use to all who ride in Tibet, be they Chinese soldiers or Tibetan nomads.

China’s army’s embrace of classic Tibetan (and Indian) ethno veterinary knowledge is unfortunately exceptional. There are few other examples of China paying heed to nomadic knowledge, or even noticing that it exists. There is a reason China has fallen so far behind current ways of understanding pastoralism. Although China usually prides itself on being up with the latest in just about any field, but on the key question of whether pastoral Tibet is an overgrazed disaster requiring expulsion of the nomads, or a manageable but highly unpredictable environment, China is 20 to 30 years out of date. It is 30 years since Sandford’s book critiquing standard “carrying capacity”, “over-stocking” and “herd size regulation” models of rangeland governance, just one year after China promulgated its Grassland law in 1982. In the intervening three decades a new paradigm has evolved, usually called the new range ecology (NRE).


International best practice where rangelands are degrading is to first work with local pastoralist communities to provide them with resources and training to rehabilitate degraded areas, by providing them with suitable knowledge, seeds and equipment to establish sown pasture using indigenous varieties suited to the cold climate of Tibet. Removal of both herd and nomads should be the very last resort, after other forms of co management have been tried and failed. It is a serious policy failure to turn to exclosure as the first substantial intervention to deal with what China calls “the contradiction between grass and animals.” China has turned to depriving nomads of their land as a first resort, without having tried cooperative joint management of natural resources to maintain primary goals of rangeland management: sustainability, wildlife and habitat conservation, and productivity.

How many of the two million pastoralists of the Tibetan Plateau have already been driven to abandon both herds and land is hard to quantify, in the absence of independent monitoring and the political impossibility of nomads speaking for themselves, organising to make their voices heard. The inexorable pressure of state policies over decades, to reduce herd size, reduce land lease area or cancel leases altogether, restrictions on family size, sudden natural disasters and worsening erosion of grassland soils have steadily pushed Tibetan nomads off the land, towards casual money earning opportunities somewhere else. The poverty of pastoralists unable to graze or maintain herds beyond bare subsistence level pushes them to urban fringes, sometimes as construction workers, or sellers of medicinal ingredients found in the grasslands. Sometimes there is work on local road construction. Such cash income opportunities usually attract the healthiest adult males, with women, children and the elderly left on the rangelands to carry on the hard work of livestock production. Taxes need to be paid in cash too, putting further pressure on nomads.

After a natural disaster –a blizzard, cold snap or earthquake- the poor are often reduced to beggary, again forcing people off the land and into towns. This may be temporary, but if debts have accumulated –exacerbated by bank loans for nomads to build new permanent homes- nomads sometimes have little choice but to accept the standing offer from the state to buy out their remaining herd, and also pay a modest amount to cancel their grazing land lease. Given the range of policies which squeeze and compromise nomadic viability, and the combination of incentives and orders to leave the land, it is hard to distinguish involuntary displacement from the choices made by the desperately poor, in order to survive. For these reasons, it is hard to quantify how many Tibetan pastoralists have, with great reluctance, left their land, with no prospect of ever returning. It is certainly hundreds of thousands of people, and the number is increasing rapidly.

The tuimu huancao policy, removing animals to grow more grass, is China’s boldest solution to the endless problems of nomads and grasslands. For decades, despite nominal restoration of land use rights in the 1980s, Tibetan nomads have been hemmed in with stocking rate formulae, administrative caps on herd size, strictly allocated grazing rights, restrictions on family size, heavy taxation requiring cash payments, compulsory fencing and attendant costs, often including indebtedness from having to take out loans for state owned banks. The combination of all these pressures has been steady impoverishment, with a lot of data suggesting that most nomads have barely enough livestock for subsistence.

In a land of uncertainty, with mobility long curtailed, this slide into immiserisation also makes it hard to say what is the final straw that drives nomads off their land and into a concrete block. China argues that all sedentarisation is voluntary and no-one is coerced. However, when Human Rights Watch released its first report on Tibetan nomads (another is due in 2011) it made telling use of a phrase HRW monitors were told repeatedly by nomads: “No-one has the liberty to refuse.” (No-one has the liberty to refuse: Tibetan herders forcibly relocated, Human Rights Watch, June 2007 vol 19 #8)

What is certain is that they deeply regret having to leave livestock, land and a livelihood that had been their whole world; and are even more distressed to find that there is no way back, that the state, having cancelled a land lease, never restores it.

This social suffering is invisible to China’s central leaders. In 2011, in response to requests by the UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food that nomads not be involuntarily resettled, China replied: “The Government emphasized that although many people were relocated to save the grasslands, no one was forced. The resettlement process always involved careful consideration of the individuals affected. The Government invested money to establish water, electricity, roads, education, medicine, radio, and other needs to the people that were relocated into cities and towns. The Government encouraged the relocated herdsman to start their own businesses.”

The tuimu huancao policy names the above ground growth of grass biomass as the sole objective, to which all else must comply. This entails abrogation of the long-term land lease certificates issued to nomadic families in the 1980s and 1990s, in every way analogous to the land rights given to Chinese farmers to convince rural producers that the land confiscations of the 1950s can never happen again. In a state where absolute title to rural land is not available to rural dwellers, these long term leasehold certificates were proclaimed as being as good as a title deed. They could be used as collateral for raising bank loans, since they entailed a state guarantee intended to persuade farmers to care for land that was in every way theirs. In nomadic areas of Tibet, the awarding of such certificates happened more slowly than in most of China but by the early 1990s all nomadic families had their certificate, which named the family members entitled to use the specified land.

What seemed at the time a welcome retreat by the state, entrusting active land management to responsible nomad households, turned out to be a time bomb. Problems quickly surfaced. First, the land rights usually covered only winter grazing areas, not the upper alpine pastures that are essential to enabling herds depleted by winter starvation to rapidly gain weight grazing on mountain meadow. The mobility inherent in nomadism as an integrated system of animal rearing was compromised. Second, the nomad families were strongly encouraged to make their winter quarters into a permanent home, and to fence their allotted land. Construction of a permanent home and fencing both require capital outlay, though nomads have had only limited access to cash income, since they consider their true wealth to be animals on the hoof, not animals sold for slaughter. In some areas, central poverty alleviation funds partly financed fence and house construction but in many areas nomads report that they were required to take loans from China’s state owned policy banks, which led to great indebtedness and great difficulty in servicing loans. Poverty was the result, as herd sizes have relentlessly decreased to bare subsistence levels, a fact verified by recent research conducted by Leipzig University. A nomadic family interviewed in November 2010 said: “The local officials promised us poverty alleviation funding, and it sounded like a great bird would come from the sky. But when it got closer, it seemed like just an ordinary bird, and by the time it landed, it was no bigger than a bug.”

Third, the long term land lease certificates identified by name the family members at the time of issue, and were never subsequently amended to accommodate natural increase, whether by birth or marriage. This bureaucratic rigidity, so unlike the periodic re-adjustment of pasture allocation undertaken by the traditional rukor tent-circle, had severe consequences later. Officials in charge of administering this policy, chiefly the Animal Husbandry Bureaus at provincial level and lower, said explicitly that the refusal to enter new family names onto land certificates would teach the nomads to restrict family size; and the refusal to re-allocate land as circumstances change in a highly changeably alpine climate that is prone to natural disasters, would teach the nomads to restrict herd size.

These statist interventions proved disastrous. The official failure to engage with nomads in any meaningful program of rural extension, breeding programs, basic education in numeracy and literacy, meant state policies remained incomprehensible to the nomads, and the nomads remained a lumpen mass of backwardness in official eyes. A policy intended to incentivise nomads to care for land that was effectively theirs, was experienced as enclosure, which the nomads had to pay for, while greatly restricting the mobility on which pastoral systems worldwide depend.

The result was further degradation of pasture, since the nomads had largely lost their mobility; which in official eyes only further proved the nomads are to blame for degradation. One official response was to renew efforts to persuade nomads to kill more animals, increasing the slaughter rate to the officially recommended level of one half of all sheep to be slaughtered each year and one quarter of all yaks. This too the nomads resisted, in part because of a Buddhist repugnance at raising animals solely and specifically for slaughter, but also because, in a high-risk environment, the herd is the nomad’s only wealth, and after a disaster, the bigger the remaining herd, the faster the recovery. Experience in other nomadic economies, notably Mongolia, shows that nomads can be persuaded to reduce herd size if they can first be persuaded that the risks inherent in pastoral nomadism are shared by the state. This is achieved by setting up an inexpensive livestock insurance program which pays nomads to restock and recover after a major disaster. China never attempted in any way to assist the nomads to lessen risk, or to invest in rehabilitating degrading pasture.


The state-driven exclosure movement is the culmination of decades of state suspicion, mistrust, misunderstanding and communication failure to understand the dynamics of pastoral nomadism, is now accelerating. All over the vast Tibetan Plateau, in area comparable to Western Europe, both herds and nomads are compulsorily removed, while praised in official media as “ecological migrants.”

This is one of the greatest expulsions of a population from their lands in history, comparable in many ways to the 19th century European settler-driven removal of Australian Aborigines, American and Canadian Indians from their lands and into vestigial reserves. This profoundly mistaken and entirely unnecessary policy is a breach of collective social and economic rights as well as individual rights to freedom of movement and association. It cuts off at the root the livelihoods, productive economy and food self-sufficiency of those who made the Tibetan Plateau habitable.

This is state failure on an extraordinary scale, a reversal of direction by a state that throughout the 1980s and 1990s had dismantled the first wave of statist intervention, the disastrous communisation of the nomads into disempowering work units utterly under the control of revolutionary cadres with no understanding of the natural limits of the rangelands. After the failure of the communes, the Chinese state returned herds to owners, and gradually issued long term land rights certificates to each nomadic family, guaranteeing secure access to grazing land. Now these land rights have been torn up, the certificates nullified, herds removed and the nomads themselves compelled to leave pastures they managed both sustainably and productively for the past 9000 years.

Anthropologist Emily Yeh (Restoring the grasslands? China Dialogue, January 26, 2010)
writes: “Evidence to date suggests that the ecological benefits are questionable while the social costs are high. For tuimu huancao and ecological migration to improve grassland degradation in any given area, several conditions must hold true: grasslands must be degraded; overgrazing must be a primary cause of the problem; and removal of grazing must be able to move the ecosystem out of its undesirable state. However, a number of scientists have questioned sweeping statements about pervasive degradation across the plateau. Indeed, some of the data on which commonly cited statistics about the extent of degradation and the rate at which it is increasing is based, appear to be from undocumented and methodologically dubious surveys.

“Recent attempts to more rigorously quantify the extent of degradation have had conflicting results. Thus, while overgrazing in the past or present is undoubtedly a key driver of vegetation change in some areas, other factors such as climate change – and interactions between multiple factors – may also play important roles. To date, few rigorous studies have been conducted to investigate these multiple interacting factors, or the extent to which ecosystems can transition to other states under conditions imposed by various interventions. Much work remains to be done in demonstrating the ecological effects of grazing removal in areas where it is being implemented.

“Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that tuimu huancao in its various forms will not be a win-win solution for both rangeland health and climate-change adaptation. Large-scale boundary fencing, together with use-rights privatisation, reduces mobility across the landscape. (Although small-scale fencing for reserve pasture or fodder production is generally welcome). This could potentially increase vulnerability to devastating snowstorms, which climate-change models predict will become more frequent and severe. In addition, such fencing can have negative effects for migratory wildlife, as well as for local livelihoods, as a result of the uneven spatial distribution of rangeland resources.

“A study conducted by Chinese scientists in Sichuan’s Ruo’ergai county found that the number of herders facing lack of water availability tripled after household rangeland allocation. Furthermore, recent ecological evidence from warming and grazing experiments on the eastern Tibetan plateau suggests that the presence of moderate grazing actually helps control the expected effects of global warming on reduction of biodiversity and rangeland quality. Experimental warming leads to decreased species richness, including of medicinal plants, as well as decreased biomass, including palatable biomass. However, these effects are dampened in the presence of grazing. These results suggest tuimu huancao may not be adaptive for climate change.

“Studies to date of those who have been resettled through ecological migration also suggest that the benefits of resettlement for improving the livelihoods of herders are overstated. Some who have voluntarily resettled have expressed regrets about doing so, saying they did not realise the extent to which everything in their new town-based lives must be purchased with cash. For many families, government compensation has been inadequate, especially as inflation drives up costs while subsidies remain the same. In one study conducted in Golok, the annual income of those resettled in towns was reportedly lower than their earlier subsistence income, while expenditures were higher; those interviewed also stated that their health conditions had declined after resettlement, because of changes in living conditions as well as diet. Contributing significantly to the problems is the fact that the Tibetan ex-pastoralists do not have Chinese language and other skills needed to earn an income in the towns.”

In recent decades the rangelands have experienced alarming degradation, erosion, even such loss of soil as to strip the land back to bare rock exposed to the gales, blizzards and temperature extremes typical of the planet’s third pole. The Chinese state, backed by Chinese scientific research reports, insists that the nomads themselves are primarily responsible for greedily and ignorantly overstocking the pastures, and failing to kill a higher proportion of their yak, sheep and goat herds annually. China’s other explanation for the degradation of the rangelands, including the area where the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers all rise in Tibetan rangelands, is global climate change, for which China blames the older industrialised countries. Because of climate change and nomadic backwardness, in order to conserve the headwaters of China’s great rivers, the tuimu huancao policy required the removal of herds and herders, to grow more grass. To the Chinese state, this policy is necessary, rational, and scientific and is now extending far beyond the river source region to the entire plateau.


At the current accelerating rate of exclosure, almost all of Tibet’s two million nomads will have become displaced persons by 2013. We are more than half way through a decade of accelerating depopulation of the great grasslands, with implementation spreading now well beyond the initial four prefectures that constitute most of the rangelands of Qinghai province.

This is a major breach of the collective rights of whole communities, clans and nomadic tribes to their economic and social rights to livelihood, access to land and the means of production.

This punitive approach also contradicts China’s own “Outlines of National Food Security Development Plan” for the years to 2020, which emphasises the need for state investment in technology to make primary producers more productive, rather than constricting them in am myriad regulations, all of which reduce productivity.


in the booming immigrant Chinese cities on the plateau, in the mining extraction areas, and in the corridors of roads, railways, pipelines and power pylons that connect these intensive development zones, the pace of development is accelerating, with many new hydropower dams due to be built, both to power Tibetan extractive industry and prove China’s green credentials.

Put simply, Tibet is fast becoming two economies, two kinds of land, two ways of using land: extensive and intensive. Extensive land use is traditional, mobile, a light touch, grazing here and there, moving on, few towns, no heavy industry, no concentration of population and environmental impacts in small areas. Intensive land use is the opposite: concentrations of investment, infrastructure, people, feedlot farming and urban services, in as small an area as possible. China explicitly signalled the shift from extensive to intensive as its key strategy of the Ninth Five-Year Plan that began in 1996. It is the key to efficient delivery of services, from electricity to education, to people clustered conveniently together. Extensive is primitive, intensive is modern. Extensive means being at the mercy of nature; intensive development is proof of man’s mastery over nature.

This is orthodox development economics, the economics of efficiency and scale, of bundled service delivery, with a country like Germany the ideal: a big population concentrated in a manageable area, with the capacity to invest in ensuring all gain access to the full range of modern services at least cost. When Deng Xiaoping famously said: let a few get rich first, the first are those already best favoured by their location, those who are best endowed with factors of production. Hence urbanisation is at the core of all of China’s plans for Tibet, as Anders Andersen’s forthcoming book, The Chinese Presence, TibetWatch 2011, makes clear. This is the ideology of productivism.

But China is just as strongly committed to colouring vast areas of the map of Tibet as nature reserves and river source protected areas. This serves China’s interests, protecting upper watersheds, making settled nomads visible and scrutable by state power, excluded from the nature reserves, in new towns where they can learn how to be civilised. China continues resist being bound to any greenhouse gas emission reduction targets or quotas, and must win credibility elsewhere, on the vast hinterland of Tibet, which has never produced much for China, and can better be re-engineered as climate-change abatement land.

These are China’s hopes, but Tibet remains disappointing and problematic, in Chinese eyes. Everything about Tibet seems problematic, and the more one thinks about it, the more one investigates, and decrees policies, the more problematic it gets. Everything about Tibet is discordant, unfamiliar and difficult. It is extremely cold yet very sunny. It is China’s number one water tower, yet largely arid. The people are stubbornly wedded to their non-commercial way of life, even when opportunities to accumulate wealth are available. Great rivers start below dramatic glaciers but then disappear into swamps as they fan out across plateau grasslands. Fugitive permafrost comes and goes, wrecking all engineering efforts to construct highways that don’t heave upwards in winter and slump down in summer, axle-breaking hazards for trucks and buses. The sky is so close one can touch the clouds, but the air is so thin every breath could be one’s last. Even in midsummer, a snowstorm can materialise out of the blue. Herders live at the mercy of the elements, but don’t want to modernise. Crop after crop has been tried, but few survive. Yaks, sheep and goats are everywhere but there is very little fresh meat to be had in the markets. The rivers and lakes are full of fish but the Tibetans don’t fish. Tibet is vast, but produces nothing. There is more grass in summer in the alpine meadows than herd animals to eat it. There is insufficient grass in the overwintering plateau floor pasture for livestock to survive without starving, but the nomads show little interest in farming crops for fodder to feed their animals in winter. He land abounds in minerals, but few mining companies –Chinese or foreign- are willing to invest capital to extract them. Beijing pours money into Tibet, but there is never an economic take-off. The Tibetans are not grateful, they prefer the mumbo-jumbo of their lamas. The more one thinks about Tibet, the more problematic it becomes.

All this problematising, from a Tibetan point of view, comes from too much thinking, that is not grounded in an appreciation of what is. Tibetans generally find Tibet fine as it is, and don’t begin, as their first move, by seeing their homeland as harsh, fearsome, threatening, overpowering, perverse or difficult.


The famous French philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposed the creation of a “nomadology” as an alternative to the all-too-familiar category of “history.”

Although he never developed a nomadology of his own, he saw the need for not just a different story to the conventional stories historians tell, but a different universe, inhabiting a different space/time, with a very different attitude towards the word, so cherished by historians as the currency of record, and thus of truth.

While seeing the need for a radically different starting point, Deleuze himself, a French intellectual of the mid 20th century, was quite unable to do more than point in the right direction. It is, the nomads say, grandmother’s finger pointing our eyes towards the hazy moon of enlightenment, but it is we, each of, who must turn our gaze to encounter the cold silver light of reality.

History is inevitably a written record of sedentary peoples bound by conventions of time and space, with an exaggerated reverence for the word. History is a primary tool of identity of people who have externalised time and space and the word into objectively existing naturalised categories of existence, within which we live, bound by them as absolutes. History is the record of the great deeds of kings and armies, conquests and cities, territory and wealth.

The history of the Chinese Communist Party’s encounter with the nomads of Tibet is disastrous, from the 1935 beginning, in the Long March. Nowhere did the retreating communists suffer greater losses than in crossing the boggy wetlands of eastern Tibet, sniped at by nomad riflemen, responding in kind by looting monasteries and leaving the nomads to starve. Both history and now science see Tibet, the land and the people, only as problematic, extreme, harsh, in disequilibrium, ungovernable. Maybe it’s our paradigm.

Nomadology makes no such assumptions. Time and space are fluid, elastic, human conventions immensely useful for naming a thousand plateaus but not to be taken too seriously. Nomadology does not impose Euclidean geometry as an invisible overlay circumscribing the world of experience. Nomadology is unmediated direct experience of whatever arises, without excessive thinking, conceptualising and confusing proliferation of categories. Nomadology, in the daily lives of Tibetan nomads, is the momentary encounter with whatever arises, without a complex predetermined agenda as to how nature is to be conquered, progress accelerated, accumulation intensified.

History worships the timeline, the arrow of time that ever points from past to future, from the triumphs and disasters of the ancestors to the ever greater triumphs (and inevitable disasters) of the coming generation. History naturalises progress, binds us to the agendas of nationbuilding, scientific mastery, ever upward and onward. Accumulation, growth, expansion are naturalised as inevitable and necessary, as the graph of stock indices climbs and falls and climbs again. Every situation becomes a project. Every project is defined narrowly by excluding much of the messy complexity of reality, treating those externalities as invisible, so as to better focus intensively on the few remaining variables, which can be manipulated. Every project thus contains a problem, and its technical solution. Only an expert can deal with the problem, as Laurie Anderson sings.

All the innumerable problems, solutions and project implementations add up to the great project of modernity, the attaining of the ever-unreachable goal of comprehensive national power, the fulfilment of all wishes, the availability of all consumables at affordable prices to we whose fundamental role is as consumers.

History not only obliterates nomadology, it makes it so utterly invisible that it becomes impossible to even imagine.

Yet nomads continue to live their nomadology, notably in Tibet, a vast land sparsely but extensively populated by pastoral nomads not driven by the agendas of the nation-state, or the urgency of modernity’s obsessive drive for perfection. Nomadology is not just different, it is fundamentally different, in ways that remain inscrutable to the gaze of the legislative state. Nomadology slips between the categories, and can be seen, if seen at all, as a passive, retrogressive fatalism, a surrender to the forces of nature, a primitive failure to strive for mastery, even a terror-filled abyss in which puny man is at the mercy of the violent forces of nature.

As recently as November 2010, China announced it had succeeded in sedentarising 6000 Tibetan pastoral nomads, far from the Three-Rivers-Source region, in the Tibetan prefecture of Yunnan province (Dechen in Tibetan, Deqen or Diqing in Chinese). The China Tibet Online website announced: “6,000 herdsmen say goodbye to nomadism in Deqen. Shangri-la County of Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province has helped more than 1,300 families nomadic herders left nomadic life and moved into comfortable, spacious houses. This year, a total of 111,780,900 yuan will be invested on construction projects to help 6,000 nomadic herders of 1,300 families move into new houses.” (28 Nov 2010)
In this Tibetan upland portion of Yunnan, pastoral nomadism has been practiced for centuries, and in recent years, villagers democratically agreed on formal rules ensuring that there would be no overgrazing, and that all available pastures would be used skilfully, in seasonal rotation. In translation, this is the exact wording of that village-level democratic process: “To people of all sectors of society in Dimaluo: Based on the leadership of the Village Committee, for the good of animal husbandry in our Dimaluo, for the health of the future Dimaluo villagers’ living environment, for the sustainable development of the livestock industry in Dimaluo, on the basis of the Village Customary Regulations (in Chinese cungui minyue) and to strengthen the management system of rangelands that are going to degrade, we ask people of all sectors to cooperate. Let us create a beautiful future animal husbandry together.
“The following is the management system for Xinke upland rangeland:
-Before the 10th of May every year the path up to Xinke must be made passable. Every household that herds in Xinke rangeland must take part in repairing the road. Those who, after being informed, do not take part in repairing the road, will be fined.
-Before 10th of May each year it is forbidden for the livestock of any household in any hamlet to graze in Xinke rangeland. Infringers will be fined……” (Andreas Wilkes, The Creation of Community-Managed Rangeland Institutions in Dimaluo: three cases of community-based natural resource management, Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, Kunming, Community Livelihoods Working Paper #11, 2005, p10)
By these simple rules, the three villages democratically decided how to ensure that the upper summer pastures are used, taking pressure off lower pasture land, and that herds are not moved up until spring grass growth is vigorous. Tibetan pastoralists have shown their capacity to translate customary oral decision making by the traditional tent-circle, into the formal and written processes of Chinese legal regulations. Yet these arrangements have now been nullified by the supervention of state power, herding the herders off their land and into block houses below their pasture lands, with little future. An especial irony is that in Yunnan this is happening just above the zone designated officially by China as the actual historic Shangri-la, the romantic paradise on earth invented by the English novelist James Hilton in 1935. While tourists enjoy being photographed seated on a docile yak, the real nomads are now shut out of their land and livelihoods.


China ratified the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1993 and is thus obligated to enact complementary legislation and then implement it, to fulfil its CBD responsibilities.
Sanjiangyuan, the Three-Rivers-Source Protected Area is officially gazetted by the government of China as a high level officially Protected Area, thus incurring the mandatory obligation, under the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s Element 2 Program of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA), dealing specifically with governance of protected areas, to ensure that traditional owners and land users in protected areas are not excluded but become participants in the work of protection.
The Convention on Biodiversity has many sections (notably Article 8 (j)) emphasising the importance of indigenous communities as guarantors and protectors of biodiversity and the ongoing sustainability of entire ecosystems, based on evidence from around the world, showing that the most effective way of maintaining ecosystem services to downstream users, and the viability of biomes, and the conservation of endangered species, is to not only allow customary land owners continuing access to land, but to support their efforts at rehabilitation of degraded areas.
The Convention on Biodiversity specifies not only governance but also equity and participation as the key issues all signatory parties must address, and report on, in certifying their compliance with provisions of the Convention. Equity and participation require inclusion of communities long resident inside declared Protected Areas, respect for their collective economic and social rights to livelihoods compatible with the objectives of declaring areas protected.


China should halt implementation of its tuimu huancao policy of removing animals to grow grass, until there is scientific consensus that such a program is necessary. A world scientific conference should be convened to clarify whether customary and contemporary Tibetan pastoral nomadic practices are causes of rangeland degradation, and whether grassland rehabilitation can be achieved with active nomadic participation rather than by exclusion.

China should update its rangeland management policy to world standard, inviting best practitioners from rangelands around the world to establish projects aimed at co-management of natural resources, to introduce new, inclusive processes of flood control, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration and sustainable grazing, rather than exclusion. The NEW RANGE ECOLOGY should be the benchmark.

China should extend basic income support, health insurance and a social safety net to rural Tibetan areas, enabling pastoralists to repay debts, restock pastures and resume seasonal herding. This is in line with China’s policies of increasing domestic demand and buying power, lessening reliance on exports, and increasing incomes of the poor.

China should provide pastoral nomads with guaranteed land rights comparable to those issued to China’s peasant farmers in the 1980s, including official guarantees that land will not be arbitrarily repossessed by the state, for decades to come.

China should invite scientists from many countries to independently investigate how well central policies actually work in practice on the Tibetan plateau. This includes the sloping land conversion program, the grain-to-green program, the tuimu huancao removing animals to grow grass program and other land use programs that restrict nomadic mobility.

China should implement policies announced in 2003, which stated that nomads and herds would be removed for three or five years, to let more grass grow, and then be allowed to return to their pastures.

China should design all policies for pastoral areas according to the overall principle that traditional pastoral nomadism was sustainable because it was mobile, making extensive use of all pasture. All policies should be designed to ensure seasonal access to both summer alpine meadow and winter lowland pasture. The net loss of sustainable agro-ecological food and fibre production further deprives a world in which food prices are rising rapidly due to neglect of investment in agriculture, nowhere more so than on the Tibetan Plateau.

China should suspend programs requiring pastoral nomads to build (and finance the building) of barns, overwintering animal enclosures, fenced hay paddocks and hay storage, until consultation with nomads, as equals, establishes whether such measures are workable, given the intense pressure on nomads to maximise food and fibre production in the short growing season.

China should implement its food security policy and invest in organic agro-ecological production of food and fibre from the Tibetan Plateau, including investment in employing pastoralists to sow native grass seeds and rehabilitate eroded areas.

China should cease mass poisonings of Tibetan wildlife such as burrowing mammals that aerate the soil, and the birds that feed on them.

China should enforce its own laws on biodiversity conservation and halt poaching of endangered species in nomadic areas, including the source area of China’s rivers.

China should fulfil its obligations under the Convention on Biodiversity to report in detail on how it promotes co-manangement of pastoral lands on the Tibetan Plateau.

China should enforce decrees forbidding the mining of gold and other minerals by unregulated gold rush artisanal operators, and repair the damaged rangelands resulting from gold rushes, highway and railway construction and fencing that exposes alpine soils to erosive winds and blizzards.

China should promote the uses of Tibetan pastoral wool, cheeses, yoghurt and other nomadic produce in urban Chinese markets which are rapidly acquiring a demand for dairy products and wool. China should learn from NGOs creating markets and value-added products for urban consumption by using the produce of the pastoralists.

China should cancel the indebtedness of pastoralists and resettled pastoralists, where such loans are nonperforming, and the debtors have little realistic prospect of repaying.

China should make mobile solar power readily available to nomadic families rather than requiring nomads to settle permanently before becoming eligible for access to electricity.

China should invest in boarding schools with well paid teachers and good facilities, to attract the children of nomads, rather than use China’s commitment to 9 years of compulsory schooling as an excuse to settle nomads in areas where no decent schools exist.

China should allow resettled nomads an option of return to their lands, with official assistance to train pastoralists in natural resource management, protected area management, and sustainable land use.

In addition to sources cited above there are many organisations dedicated to taking a fresh approach towards pastoral nomads:


www.iied.org, http://www.odessacentre.co.uk/,


http://www.iwgia.org/sw161.asp, www.internal-displacement.org/







http://www.cbd.int/traditional/, http://www.nomadicpeoples.net/







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.