Blog seven in a series on Tibet in 2021                   7/8

2337 pages in three volumes, downloadable


How many Tibetans are there? Tibetans in exile around the world number at most 150,000, perhaps less if we base it on the enrolment of at most 80,000 exiles registered to vote in recent exile parliamentary elections.

But in Tibet, how many? For decades the exile government said six million, a stable number that never seemed to change. China’s own head count, like its categorisation of ethnicity status, has always been problematic. Early census numbers, in line with the propaganda claim that Tibetans, under the burden of serfdom and monkish celibacy, were dwindling, destined to die out, came up with improbably low numbers.

Then, under socialism, the Tibetan population grew and grew and by the 2010 census was almost six million. That was a decade ago, so what about now?

China’s Seventh Census, rolled out in November 2020, is meant to capture data on each and every citizen of China by year’s end. All data is immediately fed into the Bureau of Statistics database, with Tencent tech prominently involved.

How many Tibetans are there? How many Han? County by county, where do they all live? What is the human population of the Tibetan Plateau? How far in excess of its historic carrying capacity is it, now that so many immigrants have come?

Here is the baseline, courtesy International Campaign for Tibet, the results of the 2010 census:

Tibet Autonomous Region 2,716,389 Tibetans;

Sichuan (Kandze and Ngawa prefectures, Mili dzong) 1,495,500 Tibetans;

Qinghai 1,375,000 Tibetans;

Gansu (Kanlho prefecture and Pari dzong) 488,400 Tibetans;

Yunnan (Dechen prefecture) 129,496 Tibetans;

adding up to 5,804, 785. And more in other provinces. And separate numbers for Lhopa and Monpa.

comparing 2000 and 2010 census results

That’s the short version. When China publishes the full results, as in 2010, there is a wealth of information, dzong by dzong. For example the three volumes on Amdo (Qinghai) 2010 add up to 2337 pages, all available online via the CNKI database.

Even these days, when census questions can be answered online with a QR code, it still takes an army of data collectors, door to door. That’s a major reason this happens only once every ten years.

Despite big data aggregation, expect census results to trickle in from March 2021. Expect considerable anxiety among the Han supermajority that Han numbers are barely rising, while ethnic minorities do continue to grow. Expect further anxiety about an ageing population, as the women of China continue to prefer to have one or at most two kids.

This is the first time the population census will collect people’s ID numbers, which could raise privacy concerns, although officials have said the information will be kept confidential. Can we believe that?

Census takers will also use smart phones to collect information this time, with support from Chinese tech giant Tencent.

how many red-faced Tibetans?

We Tibetans of the snow mountains
descend from kings.
In happy times, I share heartfelt words.
In difficult times, I sing songs of sorrow.
The red-faced [Tibetans] who ride astride the horn
tips of golden yaks,

On the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, their
stallion’s hooves resound in the four directions.
On Ama’s [mother’s] face, age and distress [show]
from years, months of the joys and sorrows of the
three provinces [Tibet]
Even so, the sweet songs of the pristine land of our
fathers still reverberate across the blue sky.

sung by Dolma Kyab 2006


In 2021 Tibetans and their supporters worldwide will fall for calibrated online campaigns to make us panic, outraged at China’s inexorable rise in all directions. Tibetans, like Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, are targets of professional trolling intended to make us despair at China’s unstoppable mastery of all. Beware the placing in Chinese media of stories planted to trigger our anxieties, which we in turn amplify by reposting our alarm. We are being trolled.

training prisoners in Sichuan how to troll for the party-state:

This is a sophisticated art in China’s “war” with “anti-China” forces, sending us off in all directions rather than carefully sifting the spin from actual dangers. It’s a big industry in China, officially called public opinion guidance 思想舆论导向, with a huge staff of trollers heading off unwelcome posts, while themselves sending out heaps of disinfo intended to distract. Censorship masked as a nudge from the patriotic masses. The overall message is upbeat: China is on the rise, the situation is all good. But the submessage, aimed at Tibetans, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers is: don’t mess with us, we are coming for you.

Tibetans in Tibet know they need to be super careful not to fall for too-good-to-be-true promises that you can jump the great firewall, such as the Tuber app that got lots of Chinese netizens to register their real names and smart phone numbers on an app that was immediately cancelled. The cancelled users don’t get their privacy back.

Outside Tibet, however, we do seem to fall for disinfo too often. It’s tempting. It hits our buttons. It confirms our fears. It’s doomscrolling. It reminds us that we are indeed anti-China. The most sophisticated and successful disinfo seamlessly slides from facts to fantasy, and we readers fail to notice we are now in la-la land.

A classic case is a story in Global Times, a CCP owned specialist in provocation.

That story is a sign of what is to come. As China gets more self-righteously pugnacious in demanding the world kowtow and pay tribute, the more it sets out to intimidate those who fail to bow. We are the targets.

Picking quarrels, provoking troubles?

Blog eight in a series on Tibet in 2021                     8/8

Asian Development Bank “will provide $2billion for upper and middle reaches of Yangtze”, yet nothing for Tibet


Two divergent trends for 2021 are evident, if one looks at Tibet from Beijing, not only through the eyes of the CCP but of the established elite more broadly, including the security state, and liberal academics who are increasingly discovering much in Tibet that is positive, to be learned from.

Which of these diverging perspectives will succeed is surely a key question for 2021 iron ox year.

2019 World Bank report now no longer available from World Bank following pressure from China

The case study, in this blog series, of legislation to protect the Yangtze, including its Tibetan upper third, from further hydro damming and other threats, is a story of popular and elite pressure, over decades, to insert legislative clauses drastically curtailing further damming.

Article  20 of the Yangtze River Protection Law will go down in history as the protection from damming that so nearly succeeded, and then at the last moment failed enactment. Decades of popular protest at the displacement of tens of millions of Chinese citizens by dams which often failed to perform as expected, aided by elite advocacy as well, produced an Article 20 that reversed the onus of proving a dam is needed. In both the first 2019 draft legislation and its 2020 second draft the text bluntly asserts national power: “The state strengthens the management of the development and utilization of hydropower resources and strictly restricts building of large and medium-sized hydropower projects in the Yangtze River Basin.”

At the very last moment, only five days before this law was enacted, the old guard of red patriotic dam builders won their lobbying campaign, and the key sentence was quietly removed. Prominent in their fightback was the accusation that any such “strict restriction” on further dams would be used to campaign against further damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

This victory of Maoist dam engineers against popular revulsion at the high human cost of megadams suggests the security state is winning. This blog looks at the evidence.


Seldom, anywhere worldwide, has a security state claimed China’s mandate to securitise everything.  The more power is centralised in the hands of one man, the more the security state extends its power to define all aspects of life as security threats.

The great danger for Tibet is, as in the 1960s and 1970s, everything old, everything Tibetan is classified as security risk that needs rigid and intensive controlling. China’s Minister of State Security said in 2020 that “we are faced with more and more non-traditional security threats. To deal with non-traditional security problems such as economy, culture, society, science and technology, network and biology, we need to make overall plans and comprehensive policies. 同时我们面临的非传统安全威胁越来越多,应对经济、文化、社会、科技、网络 wénhuà, shèhuì, kējì, wǎngluò、生物等非传统安全问题需要统筹兼顾、综合施策.”

The combination of “traditional” security threats and the expanding list of “non-traditional” threats covers just about everything, especially in a remote and recalcitrant frontier zone, which is how the security state has long seen Tibet. In all Tibetan areas, in five Chinese provinces, officials have always found the easiest way to get Beijing to allocate funding is to play up the security threat, while pledging to strike ever harder as long as they are well-resourced.

“Non-traditional security” is yet another concept originating in the US, which China’s massive security state has made its own. Originating in the US deep state’s 1990s post Soviet collapse search for a new mission, a slew of “non-traditional security threats” was added to their remit. Terrorism of course was top of the list, especially after 2001’s 9/11. But “non-traditional” threats could be just about anything. “The idea that everything can become a threat allowed for the inclusion of non-military threats in the field of security studies.”[1]

 China has used the concept of “non-traditional security threats” to greatly expand the scope of the security state to now cover just about everything. This heightens the sense of threat party leaders see in all directions, all of which need to be controlled by security state programs, from surveillance to incarceration. The expanding security state picks its quarrels and provokes trouble, and then accuses anyone who disagrees of criminally quarreling. That is how bullies compel compliance.

The American security state has similarly embraced the idea that just about anything can be a security threat, requiring securitisation, with security agencies in charge of the official response. A prime example is viral pandemics originating in Asia, which Western security agencies have had on their radar for at least the past two decades.[2]

When that prediction came true in 2020, the security state -especially in China- was commended for its foresight, and for its ruthless methods of suppression. The security state is strengthened further. In Tibet securitising anything and everything routinely defines any Tibetan dissent as a security threat. The solution is thus to further disempower and silence Tibetans, resulting in ever greater distress among the people, and so the spiral perpetuates itself.

It didn’t have to be this way. The concept of “non-traditional security” can be used to empower marginalised communities, bringing their voices into centre stage by “including health, food, water, natural disasters, internal conflict, forced migration, energy, transnational crime, and cyber security. This inclusive framework ensures that all voices are heard including those oftentimes under-represented and marginalized in society to ensure that academic and policy debates are well informed about the often complex and nuanced nature of these non-traditional security challenges.”[3]

a massive “traditional” security threat: a massive collapse of a glacier crashing three kms downslope into the Yarlung Tsangpo, completely blocking a big river, Oct 2018

While the security state expands its reach and its grasp, there are other trends in Beijing quietly but steadily pushing in a different direction. There is a growing awareness that hydropower dams are no longer the solution to energy security, compared to investing in the cheaper, safer and more flexible wind and solar power. With hydropower comes coercive resettlement of displaced local communities, and heightened risk of earthquakes and disastrous landslides. In 2018, only a few days apart, massive landslides completely blocked both the upper Yangtze and the Yarlung Tsangpo, until accumulating river flow burst through, greatly alarming downstream communities. Earthquakes and landslides are traditional security threats that can’t be ignored, especially in Tibet. Yet the security state is helpless against such natural forces. [4] Millions of tons of ice, rock and earth avalanched from a mountain peak at 6600 m altitude down into the Yarlung Tsangpo bed over 3 kms below. No security state can stop that; nor can dam builders dare build dams in the Yarlung Tsangpo gorge, when such catastrophic blockages of the Yarlung Tsangpo have happened not only in this time of rapid glacier retreat, but altogether 12 times since 1950.[5]

The era of expensive hydro dams that take many years to build may be starting to fade, at the moment when most sites below the Tibetan Plateau scheduled for damming have been built, and the dam engineers were itching to go upriver. The steepness of wild Tibetan mountain rivers in Kham require the tallest dams ever built, often planned to be over 300m high, if they are to hold enough water to operate beyond the wet summer months. Increasingly, the costs, lead times, expense and risk of collapse add up to risks central leaders are disinclined to do, when wind and solar are cheaper, and the leading manufacturers are national champions that export their tech worldwide.

China’s official December 2020 White Paper on Energy does, in its 50 pages mention hydropower, and the prospects of further damming on the rivers of SW China, meaning Kham. Over decades, Five-Year Plan after Plan announced many such dams, and some were built. But in this White Paper there are no targets, no specifics. By comparison, the 2020 White Paper glows with enthusiasm for solar, wind, nuclear, shale oil, gas, extracting gas from coal, etc. Gradually a shift is under way.

glacier collapses suddenly into Yarlung Tsangpo gorge, bringing with it millions of tons of rock and earth, sufficient to completely block the entire river, Oct 2018, and not for the first time.

Around the world some governments are reluctant to move away from coal fired electricity generation, on the grounds that coal delivers round the clock and round the year, unlike solar and wind, which are variable. The same is true of hydro, which generates electricity only in the wet season, so much so that predatory industries like blockchain mining and polysilicon production choose to locate close to Tibetan hydro dams that routinely have to abandon much of the electricity they generate, for want of a grid willing to transmit it to distant provinces.

So the old earth gods of Tibet, rumbling their annoyance at being dammed, having to bear the vast weight of concrete and dammed water, may yet shrug aside the dams, and the rivers may yet run free.

Dralas are elements of reality-water of water, fire of fire, earth of earth. Anything that connects you with the elemental quality of reality, anything that reminds you or the depth of perception.  Dralas [are] in the rocks…trees…mountains… a snowflake or a clod of dirt. Whatever is there…those are the Dralas of reality.  When you make that connection…you are meeting the Dralas on the spot.

Same goes for the standard official narrative that requires removing nomads from their pastures, in the name of landscape degradation repair, biodiversity conservation and carbon capture. For decades there was a solid consistency of blaming the drogpa nomads for erosion, and declaring erosion a threat to China’s water security. For decades the only solution was to limit or ban grazing, cancel nomad land rights and relocate many to settlements on urban edges, banished from their ancestral landscapes, yet not admitted to the urban economy.

Now that narrative package is coming apart. Grasslands are grasslands because they aren’t wet enough to support forest, or dry enough to be desert. Grasslands can’t be made into big stores of carbon because there is a limit to how much grass can grow, even if grazing is removed. There is almost no evidence that patches of eroding grassland threatens China’s water supply. Above all, Chinese scientists have discovered that the skilful grazing strategies of drogpa actually increase biodiversity, and are good for wild animals too. Slowly it is dawning on official China that moderate grazing, the presence on the land of herds and herders, can go with national parks, protected areas and water security. It is no longer either/or.

Occasionally the contradictions between the propaganda version and ground reality emerge, sometimes because investigative journalism in remote Tibetan areas lives on, when done by official media, with surprising results.


At a high level among established elites in Beijing, policies suitable for the Tibetan Plateau are (discreetly) more widely debated than we have seen in quite a while.

In a system where huge landscapes are zoned either ecological or economic, those two competing, mutually exclusive categories are increasingly clashing.

On one hand, China’s renewed emphasis on domestic production (and consumption) means Tibet too is expected to pull its weight by producing what China needs, also feeding Han China’s consumption cravings by offering vast depopulated pastoral landscapes as virgin, pristine wilderness for mass tourism. Looked at that way, both the prefectures and counties zoned economic and those zoned ecological end up serving economic growth, whether in primary industry (pastoralism), secondary industry (mineral extraction and processing) or tertiary (tourism management).

However rigidity of the zoning system creates tensions, most notably in Amdo and Kham. Elite debate is divided on the potential for Tibetan pastoral landscapes to satisfy newly wealthy China’s craving for meat, especially as pig populations struggle to recover after a devastating virus pandemic. In Golok and Yushu prefectures the future could be implementation of the plan to intensify meat production; or the zoning, as planned, of the entire prefectures (and beyond) as national park, with water production for lowland use prioritised above all else.

Either way, the Tibetan Plateau is seen as a producer, that must at last pay its way, whether the product is water and hydroelectricity; or meat. The number of nomads displaced from their pastures depends on the outcome of this elite contention.

Until very recently it seemed clear rewilding Tibet into pristine wilderness, largely devoid of livestock producers, was winning the debate. China submitted to the global ProtectedPlanet database its map of the whole of Yushu and Golog, and several more counties too, as the Sanjiangyuan (Three River Source) National Park, covering 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany. Three years ago that map disappeared from the UN ProtectedPlanet maps, and it now seems the Sanjiangyuan National Park has been dramatically downscaled to 121,000 sq kms.

is this what China now wants from Tibet?

These lands are prime pasture, as well as headwaters of the Yellow (Ma Chu), Yangtze (Dri Chu) and Mekong (Za Chu). Until very recently the abundance of the alpine meadows was that the consequence of bounteous summer monsoon rains, land and water went together, interwoven. But at the highest level, at least 20 years ago, China decided water was by far the most important environmental service Tibet provides to China, and nomads were a threat to it.

Now that consensus is crumbling, as evidence mounts that nomads are sustainable stewards of their landscapes, and that their customary grazing regimes, based on nomadic mobility, were good for biodiversity. The blame game, attributing pasture degradation to stupid, uncaring, ignorant nomads is at last fading. Official policy is at last starting to shift. The blame game is fading. China is belatedly discovering Tibetan nomads are skilful curators of huge landscapes. China seems to be discovering it wants Tibetan water, livestock products and carbon capture and national parks, all in the same (vast) Tibetan landscapes. Until now, on the simplistic Marxist dialectic assumption that “there is a contradiction between grass and animals”, those choices have been mutually exclusive.

Now China seems to be gradually discovering it can actually have water, livestock, carbon capture and protected areas, all without widespread removal of nomads, except in the most degraded areas. Signs of a relaxation in stigmatising the drogpa nomads are emerging, notably in the dramatic scaling back of the Sanjiangyuan to only one third of its original size, leaving plenty of room for herds and herders. Skilful grazing does not, after all, cause degradation, and is good for biodiversity, flourishing herbal medicines and wildlife.[6] For China, these are new awakenings to what Tibetans have always known.

In part this is a groundswell, as Han tourists discover, to their surprise, most Tibetans are nice, considerate folks who do care a lot about long term consequences of what they do. In part this is elite debate among scientists who are discovering the complexity of pastoral landscapes curated by mobile herds and herders, seldom to be blamed for areas of black soil.

While there are promising indications of an elite rethink, everything (as usual) depends on whether the securitisation of everything will override these considerations. If Tibet is securitised, yet again, then we are back to intensive surveillance, institutionalised suspicious mindsets, grid management or, even worse, mass incarceration of a newly created rural proletariat of displaced nomads, trained Xinjiang style to become factory workers.

All of these outcomes are possible. If the security state sweeps aside all dawning recognitions of the skills of rural Tibetans, it won’t be the first time.


The other big elite debate is about China’s future energy supply, and Tibet’s role in it. What Tibetans most fear is more hydrodams and high voltage power grids to transmit the electricity thousands of kms far to the east. The easier dams below Tibet, on the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong are largely built, and the engineers have plans ready for dams upriver, in the rugged terrain of Kham Kandze and Amdo Ngawa. But will they be built? Until quite recently, this seemed inevitable, it was just a matter of time. But now it is cheaper, quicker and more flexible to instead build solar and wind power, often in Tibet, often connecting to existing ultra high voltage grids. So will the 14th Five-Year Plan name the dams to be built?

Hydro is increasingly looking like a sunset industry, despite its political power as a nation-builder. Not only are solar and hydro competing with hydro in construction costs, these are sunrise industries with central subsidies and support as national champions for global export and global manufacturing domination.

Securitisation cannot bring back hydro, even if it manages to redefine Tibet as a high security risk. Hydro power is itself insecure, in two ways. First it is highly seasonal in Tibet, peaking in summer, barely able to generate electricity in the cold of winter. Second, so many dams, especially in geologically active areas such as Tibet, have been insecure, triggering earthquakes and landslides, collapses and cracking walls almost impossible to repair without draining the dam and starting again. Then there is the problem of siltation filling dams with sediment instead of water. Gradually, China’s enthusiasm for dams is dissipating, as solar and wind take over.

Gradual is key. The dam builders are a powerful lobby. They are big state-owned corporations with high level connections. They were for years praised as model workers, heroes of socialist construction, pioneers of planting China’s flag on remote landscapes, back in the day when most of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee were trained as hydro engineers. Their clout going forward is considerable, as many ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) power grids to transmit electricity across China, from Tibet to the east coast, are already built, in anticipation of further hydro dam construction.

Yet, in the 13th Five-Year Plan period now ending, hydro dam construction investment stalled, at a time just about any other energy source (including coal as well as renewables) surged ahead. When the hydro engineers get together with their buddies, it still sounds like the old days, full of confident rhetoric that hydro solves everything, but the megaproject era is dwindling.

Some more dams may yet be built in Tibet, but not many. This does not at all mean Tibet can escape becoming a massive energy extraction zone. What it means is that central planners are moving on, now reimagining the Tibetan Plateau as a boundless source of solar and wind power, often plugged into the same UHVDC power grids meant to bind Tibet to lowland China. Nor has China forgotten its even grander plans to generate so much electricity from Tibet to export not only eastward but also westward, possibly as far as Europe.


A favourite word of central planners is “demonstration”. Building the biggest demonstration base showcasing hydro and/or wind and solar; always the biggest. Mega hydro projects may be fading, but the mega mentality persists, not only as a way of getting Beijing to allocate funding, but as a way of demonstrating China’s technical capabilities to client states around the world. Sales ensue.

UHVDC power grids are also part of China’s global sales pitch, and new long distance grids continue to be constructed. It took two decades for China to build nine medium and big hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River in Amdo, essential to the many industries processing Tibetan oil, gas, lithium and other minerals. Those nine dams produce more than local demand requires, and there is now a UHVDC grid from the Amdo dams stretching 1600 kms to Henan province in central China 青海-河. The cost to central leaders is well over USD$3 billion, with construction starting late 2018, due for completion early 2021. From Henan Zhumadian, electricity from Amdo may well be transmitted even further, to the 10 million people of Henan Nanyang. Tibet is being woven inextricably into the fabric of China. Nobody asked the Tibetans.

As usual, this is a project of State Grid, one of the biggest of global corporations. In 2012 the Fortune 500 ranking of the world’s biggest corporations rated State Grid as #7 worldwide, and by 2017 #3. Late in 2020 State Grid boss Mao Weiming was promoted to Governor of Hunan province.

 As usual, it relies on the Swiss/Swedish company ABB for the crucial specialist transformers that convert AC alternating current to DC for long distance transmission, and at the other end, back to AC. Taking the most direct route, the power pylons march across protected panda habitat in the Qinling Mountains, after passing over supposedly uninhabited parts of Gansu. The electricity delivered to Henan is sufficient for eight million people, more than the total number of Tibetans. Tibet has become  a major energy exporter, of oil and gas from the Tsaidam basin for several decades, now hydroelectricity.  Nobody asked the Tibetans.

As the challenging 2020 rat year fades and a wood iron ox year beckons, China, in its own best interests, could try some nyi-shu-gu purification of old securitisation thinking, to drop the suspicious mindset typical of securitism, opening up room for taming and enlightening the mind of the ox and oxherder.

drala protector of Tibetan mountains

[1] Andrea Ghiselli, Diplomatic Opportunities and Rising Threats: The Expanding Role of Non-Traditional Security in Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, Journal of Contemporary China, 2018 VOL. 27, NO . 112, 611–625

[2] Satoko Otsu, An Overview of Pandemic Preparedness in the Western Pacific Region, in PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS IN ASIA, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (2009) Singapore.

[3] Caballero-Anthony, Mely and Cook, Alistair D.B., Non-Traditional Security in Asia : Issues, Challenges and Framework for Action. Yusof Ishak Institute, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2013.

[4] Chen Chen et al., Barrier lake bursting and flood routing in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in October 2018, Journal of Hydrology, 583 (2020) 124603

[5] Barrier lake bursting and flood routing, 2020, table 2

[6] Zi-Qiang Yuan, et al., Vegetation and soil covariation, not grazing exclusion, control soil organic carbon and nitrogen in density fractions of alpine meadows in a Tibetan permafrost region, Catena, 196 (2021) 104832

Wang, Luolin Zhu Ling,. Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap : Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu, edited by Ling Zhu, World Century Publishing Corporation, 2013.



Within hours of a Global Times report that China is now committed to a massive hydro dam building project on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, the story was picked up and amplified by media across Asia, from India to Hong Kong, The Hindu to South China Morning Post.

a broad floodplain, and a braiding river always changing channels is exactly where you DON’T locate a hydro dam

Yet the Global Times 29 November 2020 report that sparked panic was oddly coy about crucial details, such as where on a river 3000 kms long these new dams would be. Nor had Global Times done much actual journalism. It merely reprinted what was online, from an obscure meeting of China’s Hydroengineering professional association celebrating its 40th anniversary.

It got curiouser. Having stated key facts: new dam, definitely part of the 14th Five-Year Plan to be rolled out early 2021, definitely to be constructed by the state owned giant POWERCHINA (which refers to itself in Trumpian CAPITALS); the story then slid into vagueness. Suddenly the reader was somewhere in “downstream Yarlung Zangbo”, where it all gets much more exciting: on a stretch of river only 50 kms long the river drops by 2kms, such a gigantic amount of hydropower just waiting for the turbines to capture it. Suddenly the story was studded with alluring statistics of hydropotential, and more: it all heralds a regional win-win for not only China but downriver India and Bangladesh. Just like the dams China has built athwart the Za Chu/Lancang/Mekong that make downriver Cambodia, Lao and Thailand so happy.

POWERCHINA splash page

No, I’m not making this up, it’s all in the original story. Read it yourself. Just look out for the seamless slide from an actual dam, announced by your actual Xi Jinping, to all those potential dams way down in the deepest canyon in the world.

Throughout, it was clear the story originated with POWERCHINA, as the wet dream of its chairman Yan Zhiyong. But Global Times, ever the gleeful provocateur, made a meal of it.

What to make of this mishmash of actual projects approved for implementation in the 14th Plan, mixed in with the projections of POWERCHINA’s top projector Yan Zhiyong? And, crucially, where is the actual dam to be?

Global Times loves to make mischief. Of all the many media published by the Chinese Communist Party, it is the id, the freewheeling outlet for wolf warrior pugnacity. No doubt Global Times editors knew full well this report would trigger a fresh wave of panic and outrage in India, which happened fast. Timesnow and The Hindu quickly populated this initial post with dire warnings of floods and worse in India.

So was this conflation of an actual midriver dam plus fantasies of downriver megaproject speculation a deliberate attempt to annoy India, to trigger yet another neuralgic twinge of Indian nerves? In short, was this disinformation? Was it calculated to send Tibetans on a wild river raft ride to find dams that will probably never be built, way down in Metok land?

Alternatively, it may just be sloppy journalism, careless as to where facts blur into wishlists, specific plans waft off into speculation about an ideal hydroengineering utopia. In other words, was this misinformation?

Hard to be sure. Maybe we won’t get to an answer by starting from here. Better to start someplace else. Most journalists in Beijing, Delhi or Hong Kong know next to nothing about Tibet, the geography of its rivers, the depth of its canyons, the geomorphology of this collision of continents. It’s like reporting a far distant country, of which we know little, way over the horizon. For all of China’s talk that Tibet has always been part of China, nothing better illustrates how much it is in Chinese minds another country, than this chronic vagueness.

That suggests misinformation, lo-rent journalism so careless it doesn’t even notice the slide from fact to PR puffery by POWERCHINA trying to drum up business.


So let’s backtrack and start someplace else. Here is what we do know.

The 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 is rapidly taking shape, in intensive debate within the Beijing elites. The dam approved for construction in the 14th Plan is in Nyingtri (Linzhi in Chinese), roughly 200 kms down the Yarlung Tsangpo from the cascade of dams built in recent years in Gyatsa. Of the five dams planned for the narrow valleys of Gyatsa only three have actually been built, with few signs yet of the other two.

Now, it seems, the dam builders have moved downriver, and for compelling reasons. All is revealed when you go to the website of POWERCHINA:

POWERCHINA chief economist Liu Mingjiang inspects the new Nyingtri hydro dam site November 2020. Note power pylons in background, suggesting new dam is close to an existing hydro dam. Source:


The purpose of the Nyingtri hydropower dam is to power the electrified high-speed double track railway under construction between Lhasa and distant Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. This is made clear in POWERCHINA’s report of its chairman’s trip to Nyingtri only three weeks before Global Times got us all hot and bothered. The Chengdu-Lhasa railway is named four times in four sentences by POWERCHINA party boss and CEO Yan Zhiyong: “First, deeply study and understand the spirit of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Party  and General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions for the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway to raise awareness of the extreme importance of participating in the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway, the responsibilities and missions shouldered by them; second, the Party Central Committee must implement the slogan of “Build Tibet into a world ecological environment.” The requirements of “protected highlands”, pay attention to construction safety and environmental protection, and firmly establish the goal of participating in the construction of Sichuan-Tibet Railway to “lead the construction and strive for the first”; third, the contract must be strictly fulfilled, and the premise of ensuring safety, quality and green Plan, arrange, and organize carefully in advance to ensure that the project schedule is achieved ahead of schedule; fourth, it is necessary to make a good start and start well, with the main leaders directing ahead, integrating into the overall Sichuan-Tibet railway construction in an all-round way, strengthening refined management, and strict Management.”


Official media have pumped out stories regularly on the progress of this new railway, intended to reduce the overland time from Chengdu to Lhasa to only 13 hours. Story after story extolling the prowess of China’s engineers feature the bridges and tunnels designed to make this high-speed rail line possible. What has been until now a bit of a puzzle is where the electricity for an electrified line (unlike the single track Lanzhou to Xining to Gormo to Lhasa line of 2006) is to come from. Now we know.

Reliably electrifying such a long rail double track for high speed traffic is a major undertaking. Despite the innumerable tunnels and bridges, gradients are often steep, necessitating powerful electrical engines to haul uphill at speeds of up to 200 kmh in places, more likely an average of 130kmh.

bridging the Yarlung Tsangpo above the dams built in recent years at Gyatsa Zangmu, for railway traffic


Nyingtri is the pivot, for several reasons. First, it is in its own right a destination being groomed as a major tourism attraction, notable for its early spring peach blossoms, promoted on mass media as China’s version of Japan’s obsession with cherry blossoms. What could be better in the family album than pix of your wedding under the peach blossoms of Nyingtri? You’d hardly know you were in Tibet, the climate is so mild and the air not too scarily thin. You might decide you are in the classic  23 centuries old Han fantasy peach blossom paradise, a utopian pure land where today’s new rich can now build luxury villas.

Nyingtri, so tantalisingly close to the Arunachal border, gets warm monsoonal winds from nearby India, and the altitude, low by Tibetan standards, makes for a mild climate, a respite from the heat and humidity of Chengdu. This positions Nyingtri as a hill station for the rich to retreat from the plains and entertain guests in their private villa, or in the Nyingtri Hilton. Nyingtri may soon be as overwhelmed by Han domestic tourists as Lhasa is, which struggles to manage 25 million arrivals a year.

Nyingtri (Linzhi) Hilton

Second, Nyingtri, so close to India, is a staging ground for power projection southward, into what China persistently calls Southern Tibet, known to India as the state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is this proximity that causes such neuralgic pain of the powerful Indian security establishment.

Arunachal Pradesh routinely is shown on Chinese maps as Southern Tibet, thus part of China

Third, the entire Lhasa-Chengdu railway project was designed to pivot round Nyingtri. Construction was spilt into two workforces, one doing the long uphill haul from Chengdu, through the precipitous landscapes of Kham all the way to Nyingtri; the other workforce doing the shorter Lhasa to Nyingtri section. Nyingtri and its Chinese twin city Bayi (meaning August first, commemorating the PLA foundation day) has become a logistics hub, a major base of China’s power and ultimately, in the hopes of the hydroengineers, gateway to the deepest of canyons further downriver, and the might of a raging wild mountain river cutting ever deeper as the Himalayas flanking either side rise ever higher. That is where POWERCHINA’s Yan Zhiyong would like to ideally build more dams, so many he would get into the record books, bigger than even the Three Gorges.

peach blossom time in “mysterious” Linzhi/Nyingtri


Thus far, we have tracked the story causing the proliferating neuroses in India, finding the actual dam location in Nyingtri, nothing to do with the wild speculations of mega mega projects Global Times slides into further downriver. Maybe this all suggests misinfo rather than disinfo.

But there is one element of the Global Times story yet to explain. That’s the prospect of persuading India and Bangladesh that this is somehow a win-win for them too. Lin Boqiang, an energy economist in distant Xiamen is quoted at length: “Lin stressed that hydropower projects on cross-border rivers cannot be developed without communication and cooperation between upstream and downstream countries. The hydropower development of the Yarlung Zangbo River will provide more opportunities for cooperation between China and South Asian countries, which can learn from the mode of the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism, through dialogue and establishment of cooperation mechanisms to promote the comprehensive utilization and development of water resources.”

Lin Boqiang at the 2020 Davos World Economic Forum


How exactly does that work? If China builds more and more hydro dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra no amount of win-win blather will persuade the lower riparians this is somehow beneficial for them too. They see clearly that China is playing the old game, played worldwide, of upper riparians dominating lower riparians, calling the shots. Yet Lin Boqiang repeatedly calls for cooperation (on China’s terms). Why?

China has long been adept at proposing the losers, in transacting with China, should be glad China gave them this opportunity, and Lin Boqiang is adept in arguing the ongoing validity of subsidising coal fired power.

Lin Boqiang is not your average energy economist. He sits on the board of China National Petroleum Corporation, and is listed by London Speaker Bureau as one of their star performers. Fluent in English, he pops up at A-list events such as the Davos World Economic Forum, alongside the architect of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, Christiana Figueres. She put him on the spot, (@ 20 mins in) with a pointed question about when China would stop its massive subsidies to coal mines and coal fired power stations. Lin Boqiang’s answer is a virtuoso performance of the ancient Chinese art of persuading you that what is good for me is also good for you too. It takes him minutes to get around to saying the subsidies should stay, slipped in so seamlessly that only someone as sharp as Christiana Figueres would pick it up. He is a silvertongue virtuoso, worth watching. An heir to Zhou En-lai.

So this is classic Global Times disinformation. First comes a hook: a new dam somewhere unnamed on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Second: touting massively more dams further downriver; third a rationale for why this is a win-win for all concerned. All the segues stitched seamlessly.

at the new Nyingtri dam site, senior execs of POWERCHINA take turns in performative declamation of loyalty to Xi Jinping. Source: POWERCHINA


Among the many basic facts not mentioned in this Global Times provocation is an engineering reality of deep canyon damming: the only way to get the massive turbines into place, just below any dam that interrupts the Yarlung Tsangpo as it rages through its’ lower gorges, would be to float them upstream, up through Bangladesh and India, on heavy duty barges. Engineers established that decades ago. There is just no way of getting a delicate turbine weighing over 400 tons into place by parking a crane over a precipice and lowering it five kilometres into the wildest of rivers.

Maybe this is what Global Times is hinting at, by suggesting India and Bangladesh gotta love it too?

 If only India knew this, they could relax, knowing they hold the ace. For once, the lower riparians have power over the uppers.

So, all in all, Xi Jinping has definitely ordered a hydrodam be built in the 14th Plan period at Nyingtri, and POWERCHINA is the builder, and is in a hurry, as the railway is nearing completion. That is what we do know.

the classic account of the lower Yarlung Tsangpo


Exactly where is this 14th Plan dam? How long will it take to build? Given the seasonal extremes of Yarlung Tsangpo flow, how big will it have to be to impound enough water to generate electricity throughout the year? Will it be big enough to not only power the railway but also make the Bayi-Nyingtri twin city a major city for Han settlers, especially the rich, in their luxe villas? So much we don’t yet know.

Nyang River basin

Is it even on the Yarlung Tsangpo, or on the Nyang River  ཉང་ཆུ, 尼洋曲 which flows into the Yarlung Tsangpo? It is on the Nyang Chu that the present hydro power for Nyingtri comes from, the modest Duobu dam. That dam cost Beijing RMB 1.2 billion to build.[1] Installed electricity generating capacity is 120 megawatts, modest compared to many of the hydro dams in Amdo on the Ma Chu/Yellow River.[2] With construction under way, part of the 12th Five-Year Plan, Chinese hydro engineers discovered in 2013 they had a big problem. Thick layers of sediment, gravel and sand, had built up on the Nyang Chu, yet a huge chamber had to be excavated in this porous, loose sediment to house the underground turbines that generate the electricity. In any hydro power setup, the turbines have to be well below the dam, so the impounded water can rush down, gather speed, and so spin the turbines. How to dewater an underwater and under sediment space when groundwater pours in on all sides? The klu spirits of the waters weren’t going to yield their domain so easily. The chosen site was far from ideal. Eventually, deep wells had to be drilled, far below the turbine chamber site, using a lot of electricity to pump out the constantly accumulating water.[3]

The Duobu dam is well above both Nyingtri and its Chinese twin Bayi (Gyechik Drong in Tibetan), and 60kms above the junction of the Nyang and the Yarlung Tsangpo. The Nyang Chu is a longish river, with another hydropower station further above, called in Chinese Laohuzui, a further 70kms further upriver. Since the Duobu site was so tricky, maybe this new dam will be near Laohuzui?

But constructing Laohuzui was highly problematic too. Two tunnels had to be blasted through hard rock, the first a diversion tunnel to drain the riverbed for the dam to built on it, the second a spillway tunnel. The blasting caused the steeply sloping rockface above the tunnels to collapse.[4] According to the engineers, the rock turned plastic. Those shape shifting gods are tricky.

These problems have been much debated in recent years.[5] Despite the slippery fluidity of Tibetan water and unreliable rockiness of Tibetan rock, Xi Jinping has decreed that part of the 14th Five-Year Plan is a new hydro dam, somewhere in the Nyingtri district, to speed high-speed rail on its way to Lhasa. Oddly, Global Times told us none of this. But then, for Global Times, your actual Tibet is so far away, another country really.

[1] Yue Liua et al, Competitiveness of hydropower price and preferential policies for hydropower development in Tibet and the Sichuan-Yunnan Tibetan area of China, Water Policy, 20 (2018) 1092–1111

[2] Qi Xia Liu et al, Comparing and Selecting the Dewatering Schemes of Tibet Linzhi Duobu Hydropower Station Underground Factory Buildings, Advanced Materials Research, 3237-3243, 2013

[3] Qi Xia Liu et al 2013

[4] Hongkai Dong, Fei Ye & Wenxi Fu (2019) Stability reliability of a cutting slope in Laohuzui Hydropower Station in Tibet of China, Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 10:1, 935-957,

[5] Chen Jian Wang Quancai Zhang Qunli Li Bo Guo Jiang., Application analysis of new prevention structure for large-scale collapse in Laohuzui, Science Technology and Engineering,  2015, 35 (31): 79-84 

Liu Weiluo Hongying Yu Qiang Yuan Jinhui,  Numerical Simulation Research on Internal Flow Field of Turbine of Tibet Laohuzui Power Station, China Water Resources, 2015, (18): 59-62 

Zhu Bin, Wei Yufeng, Fu Wenxi.  Study on slope stability of right abutment of Laohuzui Hydropower Station, Journal of Geological Hazards and Environment Preservation, 2017, (01): 49-53 

Yang Huabin/ Hua-Bin Yang,  Application of Prestressed Anchor Construction Technique in High Slope Stabilization at Laohuzui Hydropower Station in Lingzhi of Tibet: Sichuan Water Power, Vol. 29 Issue 1,p25-29+32.

Cao Yue/ Yue Cao; Yang Huabin/ Hua-Bin Yang, Application of Controlled Cement Grouting to anti-seepage of Cofferdam for Construction of Laohuzui Hydropower Station, Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering. Vol. 39 Issue 7, p55-57

Mu Yu, Construction of Impervious Wall of Deep Overburden of Laohuzui Hydropower Station in Tibet, Shanxi Architecture, 2015, 41 (13): 76-77 


A blog series on grassroots village development and conservation partnerships between Tibetans and the few outsiders who deeply immerse in seeing through Tibetan eyes: featuring two women, warrior Pamela Logan and Lü  Zhi of Peking University.


When China builds a huge solar panel installation in Tibet, by far the biggest in China, it is proudly announced as development, of Tibet, for Tibet, even though the electricity it generates is transmitted via ultra-high voltage power lines to Chinese cities thousands of kilometres away.

solar panels to the horizon: Amdo Gormo

When Tibetans are displaced from their fields and pastures by dam construction, the relocated are classified as development successes because, on paper, their cash incomes have increased, even if they lost freedom and self-sufficiency and now survive on rations handed out by officials.[1]

University of Washington Press, December 2020

When nomads are required to relocate to urban fringes far from their pastures, are forced to sell their livestock and surrender their land tenure rights, this is called development, because in their new high density concrete blocks they are eligible for vocational education to teach them to be civilised, punctual, ready for the urban workforce. Another triumph of development.

When enormous steel cages are placed in the reservoirs behind the dam walls China builds on Tibetan rivers, to grow alien trout by the millions, then vacuum them out, electrocute, kill, gut, chill and pack them off to Shanghai, this again is called development.

Just about anything China does in Tibet outside of security state criminalisation of Tibetans voicing their needs, is called development.

This is a one-way street to a predetermined destination which China calls civilisation, moderate prosperity, discipline, modernity, hygiene, progress, human quality formation, urbanisation. These are a package. They go together. What they add up to is development, the journey from primitive to civilised, from darkness to light.

Development is delivered from above, by an all-knowing party-state that decrees what is best and requires local government to implement what is commanded and controlled from Beijing, with less and less latitude for local realities.

For such development Tibetans are not only expected to be grateful; gratitude is mandatory.

This has become the new normal in new era Tibet, as the party-state extends its nation building reach into remote areas to ensure they acquire Chinese characteristics and are assimilated into the unitary nation state constituted by the single Chinese people.

Over the eight years of the Xi Jinping new era, we have become familiar with this autocratic centralisation, in which the central leader is the author of everything, and no-one else has voice, or local initiative.

This imperative voice sweeps aside, as if it never existed, a Tibetan past that is recent, yet now erased.  Tibet has so many pasts, all worth recalling, but this is a vanished past so recent we can turn to a Californian bushido warrior in the samurai tradition to enable us to remember.

school teacher’s accommodation, Sato village, Kham 2002


Not so long ago there were many voices, Tibetan and international, on the ground across Tibet, debating, discussing, investing, experimenting with ways of inventing a Tibetan modernity that worked. Around the arrival of this century there were dozens of NGOs both big and small working in Tibet, figuring out, from the ground up, how to help Tibetans gain access to the modern world on their own terms. There were dozens of local initiatives by Tibetans, to grow more vegetables, to organise farmers into water user groups to maintain irrigation channels, to find ways of adding value to wool shorn annually from sheep, goats and yaks.

Almost all of these many, modest initiatives have been swept aside, sometimes coercively accompanied by accusations that Tibetans were getting criminally uppity, and needed to be slapped down. The security state would step in, make arrests, coerce confessions, impose sentences.

Yet for over a decade, from the mid 1990s to around 2008, Tibetan initiatives spontaneously grew, and there were plenty of international partners with access to finance and expertise, willing to negotiate with cadres and local governments and find ways to make new projects happen on the ground.

teachers accommodation, Sato village, spruced up by Khamaid. pix in this blog by Khamaid.

Not only have these experiments with grassroots development disappeared, the international NGOs who put years of effort into them are now silent, have moved out and moved on under pressure from the suspicious gaze of the security state. Many have even removed documentation of their past efforts from their websites, as if they never happened. So today’s new generation of young Tibetans may never know the recent history of their own phayul, the land of the fathers.

Fortunately, we do have a few thorough records of those bootstrap attempts to discover a truly Tibetan mode and pace of development, grounded in local needs and local initiatives. Pamela Logan’s 2020 memoir, Compassion Mandala: the odyssey of an American charity in contemporary Tibet, is luckily nowhere near as grand as its title. Actually, it is a winding story of discovering by doing, of Tibetan women and men working with a few Americans, making up development by doing it, trying this and that, figuring out from experience, and limited funding, what works and what doesn’t. The messiness, provisionality, contingency, trial and plenty of error are what makes this book worthwhile; and a blessed relief to the high modernity discourse of the party-state on its nation building mission to civilise the backward Tibetans.

Pamela Logan’s titles -this is her third book on Tibet- make it look like she too is on a mission. Perhaps the past books – Among Warriors: a woman martial artist in Tibet,  Overlook Press 2004; and Tibetan Rescue: the extraordinary quest to save the sacred art treasures of Tibet, Tuttle 2011, had to sound dramatic in order to mobilise donors to contribute. But the warrior questing odyssey is now over. There are no more projects, classrooms, clinics, vegetable greenhouses or midwife trainings to initiate, because from 2008 China closed Tibet to the world and squeezed out the NGOs. The security state took command, and ever since, suspicion and surveillance rule.

Although calling herself a warrior, and drawing on warrior strength when exhausted, she discovers the warriors she most admires are the pilgrims she falls in with, rather than the swaggering Khampas she longed for. (Among Warriors 122) She is changed by Tibet, by those early years of walking, hitching and biking a vast land. Only after those transforming encounters did she decide to return as an aid donor, doing whatever she could to help Tibetans beyond the reach or care of the state, fending for themselves against all odds.

Litang 1999


Returning to Tibet as donor meant she had to rustle up sponsors and grants, turning her into an entrepreneur, a mediator of worlds, expectations, projections, and a professional story teller. So maybe her first book is her best, before the pressures of re-presentation required her to reproduce Tibetan lives for American consumption and donation. These days, if such immersion in Tibetan lives were still possible, the pitch would be visual, staged on social media, with greater immediacy and intimacy across cultures, bringing producers and consumers into the illusions of shared screen space.

But now only a handful of ethnographers get to immerse in Tibetan lives as Pamela Logan did in the 90s and aughties. Through them we glimpse Tibetans getting on with life. And the places that so deeply touched Pamela Logan now speak to us directly online.

What’s the point of reminiscing about 2002? Far from being contemporary, it was another world, when you could simply ask a prefectural branch of the CCP’s mass organ for controlling women if they knew anyone interested in growing vegetables, to improve nutrition in rural Tibet. The local officials of the Fulian (All-China Women’s Federation) mentioned a bunch of women they knew in remote Nyarong, in Kham Kandze, who did want help with their plan to grow edible greens (144). The Nyarongma had already tried, persuading Han women from lowland Sichuan to try planting tomatoes, lotus roots, asparagus and spinach, all of which failed in the sharp frosts of a Nyarong spring. The county Agriculture Bureau was supportive, but habituated to standard design greenhouses that cost more than either the Tibetan women, or this modest American NGO, Khamaid, could afford, so they redesigned, came up with something cheaper. It worked.

Such stories are what this book is about. Figuring it out on the go, discovering by doing. That makes this book useful for Tibetans, a reminder of local resourcefulness and an era that has passed, giving way to the panopticon gaze of the nation building state bent on assimilation and conformity. Today the Fulian, and all CCP mass organs, are under strict orders to implement Xi Jinping’s instructions, and not in any way deviate. Enterprising local Fulian chapters now must toe the line, not send inquisitive American women far upcountry to work enterprising Tibetan women.

Nyarong: first experiment in greenhouse making, torn to shreds by a gale


Back in 2002 Tibet was a different country, still beyond the frontier, a wild west little known to China, especially in rural areas. Cadres had been told the new slogan was to open up the west, but how? The local Agriculture Bureau pitched in, suggesting wooden frames for the greenhouse plastic frames would not be strong enough, and funded their construction with steel frames. They even built a moat round the half acre of plastic sheeted greenhouses to deter wandering livestock and thieves.

This was a time when Sichuanese farmers, too poor to make a living off their lowland plots, also sought to open up the west for themselves, constructing greenhouses too, triggering the classic ag business boom and bust cycle of glut and price crash. Tibetan demand for fresh, local vegetables was strong, but not strong enough to sustain prices as planned.

Then, just as crops were almost pickable, a spring gale wrecked the whole greenhouse experiment, trashing it all. (p174).

Oro village, a steep forested slope destroyed by fire: fist efforts to reforest

Readers must jump over 100 pages to the punch line: lesson learned, the hard way, which is usually the only way, especially when innovating. Khamaid moved on to build more greenhouses, much stronger, better designed for an extreme climate, for schools in Sershul and Lithang (p299).  Self-sufficiency in vegetables, fresh in summer, preserved for winter, not only makes for a healthier diet and less expense, it also enables Buddhist  khenpos to argue more effectively that meat eating is not necessary. From greenhouses big things grow.

Classic bottom up stuff. Which is what NGOs are good at, discovering by doing, making it up as you go along, action learning, ready to drop what doesn’t work, and apply more widely what does. That is the sort of development Tibetans want and need, as they partner the developers in figuring out what to do next. How else could Tibetans, new to the technologies of greenhouse construction, discover that wooden frames, and light steel frames are both inadequately strong when gales tear in, and rip the plastic sheeting to shreds? Clearly the local government, the bottom tier of the official hierarchy, didn’t know this either. Every one had to learn the hard way, so often it’s the only way. The important things is to never give up.

Yet the NGOs, the international NGOs with global reach, the multilaterals such as the European Union and World Bank, and the bilateral government to government development agencies are now almost entirely absent from Tibet, despite a decade or two of accumulating knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. A few narrowly defined technical assistance projects continue, such as an Australian government program to introduce new breeds of livestock, which conforms to the state’s insistence on being the author of all development initiatives, delivered top-down.

Oro village three years later (2004): many seedlings are growing

Some of the initiatives were highly organised, involving collaborations of many partners, over decades. Yet they are not only no longer present on the ground, they also leave no trace online, as if these experiments in community based development never happened.

One example is the consortium of environmental NGOs engaged in protecting biodiversity in the most biodiverse portion of the Tibetan Plateau, which is not where China is now establishing its network of national parks. The greatest biodiversity is in the rugged landscapes of Kham, the well-watered steep slopes of deep valleys and expansive pastures far above, a transition from subtropical to alpine on every valley side, highly conducive to biodiversity. For Tibetans, these precipitous landscapes, even if too steep for livestock, have always abounded in medicinal plants essential to the compounding of traditional human and veterinary treatments.

From afar, the global NGO Conservation International (CI) identified Kham as a “biodiversity hotspot”, although “hotspot” suggests a locality, not a big region, itself adjacent to the eastern Himalayas, another big region of flourishing biodiversity. What Conservation International stitched together was the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), an umbrella engaging Chinese scientists, Chinese environmental NGOs, global philanthropies willing to finance, Tibetan communities and environmental specialists from around the world, all working together to advance protection of the Hengduan Mountains hotspot, a neutral name acceptable to the party-state.

For over a decade, CEPF created dozens of projects, initiated many collaborations, kickstarted modern Tibetan environmentalism, generated dozens of reports. No longer does the Conservation International website host the CEPF achievements. Until not long ago, a repository of those valuable lessons could be found online, many written up in 2008 as CEPF got closed down, final reports on 15 years of creative community work. Now those final reports are finally gone, collective memory is erased, no online memory remains of what retrospectively looks like another Tibet, where local initiative, global goodwill and active participation by Beijing based scientists all worked together.

Luckily, before documentation vanished, Rukor took a closer look. Further blogs in this series reveal the key role of Prof. Lü Zhi, and what community-based conservation in Tibet achieved,

This makes Pamela Logan’s 2020 recollection of community work in Tibet all the more valuable, a reminder that it doesn’t have to be today’s sterile one-size-fits-all rule by decree imposed by central leaders, badged as “development.”

training midwives, Kham Bomda 2004

One moment we are in the same lands as CEPF, responding to a village whose hillside forest has burned, seeking ways to reforest despite a lack of state support, since official funding applies only to logged, not burned forests. In the next moment, we are on pilgrimage, on horseback and on foot, into deep forests, lakes and mountains, ostensibly to learn reforestation.

207 pages later she returns the reader to the charred forest, where Khamaid has organised a replanting and six years later a quarter of the seedlings are doing well, a higher success rate than China’s preference for aerial seeding of slopes by dropping seeds from far above, without employing Tibetans to look after the exposed seedlings.

[1] Jarmila Ptackova, Exile from the Grasslands, University of Washington Press, 2020


A blog series on grassroots village development and conservation partnerships between Tibetans and the few outsiders who deeply immerse in seeing through Tibetan eyes: featuring two women, bushido warrior Pamela Logan and Lü  Zhi of Peking University. Blog two.

delivering wheelchairs in Kham Tawu 2004. Pix by Khamaid.


Pamela Logan’s  narratives meander, across landscapes, across time between the moment and a future when clarity emerges. She is sometimes immersed, sometimes detached. At times, she reveals her inner drive, to do a pilgrimage around a holy mountain, at other moments she tries objective reportage. Shifting perspectives, just like life. No sooner do we get “a hazy vision” of what reforestation might mean, than we are off into a bureaucratic maze negotiating with the Chengdu customs office to release a shipping container of wheelchairs for disabled Tibetans who had no assistance whatever from the party-state. Pamela Logan in passing reveals “we had no legal existence in China”, but her local fixer knows what is needful. The result is getting a wheelchair to a 25 year old man trapped in a soaking wet bed, who had not been outdoors in years.

The stories keep coming. One wheelchair went to “a Tibetan, a combat veteran of China’s People’s Liberation Army, he had lost a leg to a landmine during action in Viet Nam.” China’s war with Vietnam was in 1979; the man had endured a quarter century without even minimal veterans’ support, until Khamaid showed up (p105).

She cheerfully admits (p91) “we chose projects that appealed to donors and us; we had no overarching strategy.”

midwife trained by Khamaid (centre) with Litang health workers 2004

They weren’t the only ones with little idea. Local Tibetans, seeking entry points into modernity, perplexed by inexplicable switches in Chinese policy, were also unsure what could be done. Likewise the local government officials required to implement diktats issued by distant Beijing. They lacked the means, the knowledge and the community connections to do something useful.

Today’s China is embarrassed that such official indifference and ineptitude ever existed, and not long ago. Excluding foreign NGOs, as well as foreign journalists and diplomats from Tibetan areas enables the party-state to impose its master narrative, of an all-knowing, benevolent nation-state kindly raising the backward into civilisation and modernity, with all messiness removed. If Pamela Logan were still in China, her frankness would be labelled “historical nihilism”, the crime of suggesting we all make mistakes, party-state included. Today’s China is all overarching strategy, unconnected to ground realities of Tibet.

Pamela Logan established Khamaid in 1997; by 2009 it was gone. In its latter years it attracted funding from USAid, in recognition that small NGOs with an on-ground presence can achieve much that foreign governments can’t.

Khamaid stepped in at a time Tibet was for Beijing still beyond the frontier; where all that mattered to the party-state was stability. Khamaid stepped forth at a time the global Tibet movement of exile protest crescendoed, feeding into the widespread sympathy of media and human rights monitors a dualistic narrative of good and evil, of heroic Tibetan resistance to a violent party-state. The Tibet movement was on a mission, and had no interest in Tibetan bootstrap initiatives and their amateur enablers such as Pamela Logan.

Pamela Logan describes herself as a warrior, particularly of the bushido tradition. Romantic accounts of Khampa warriors, as the last honourable brigands still alive, drew her to Tibet.[1] Kham did not disappoint. Those red braided Khampa warriors on caparisoned horses won her heart. Language was no barrier. Her first Khampa lover, Sonam Gyalpo, was a passionately patriotic singer. “We had our first kiss a day later”, she coyly tells us (p 35).

 “The notion of actual warriors was captivating, and Tibet had a lot of up in it.” The first and best of Pamela Logan’s three books is her warrior quest. She is frank, insightful, unafraid to reveal her inner conflicts, adept at vivid scene setting, and shows us how her embodied bushido inner strengths enabled her to recognise the embodied inner strengths of many Tibetans.

In the second book, she reinvents herself, in the American entrepreneurial tradition, as an art conservator, and in the third as an aid agency. The warrior mentality persists through all three, notably a willingness to face head-on obstacles that arise.


To realise the romance, and actually do some good, she needed to raise money back in the US, on the well trod path of those who come from afar with glad tidings of the pure hearted needing our help. With plenty of photos and stories of the need for clinics and schools, of crumbling monasteries struggling to conserve precious art, of forests blackened by fire and village women aspiring to grow vegetables in greenhouses, she reached out for donations.

Her passion for Kham and her narratives of need touched many, but some likely donors held back, caught between conflicting narratives. In the 1990s exiled Tibetans found their voice, as voice of the voiceless six millions inside Tibet. It was a narrative of passive victims groaning under China’s tyranny. So black was this dominant discourse, it left no room for Tibetan initiative, or for the possibility that local Chinese cadres in Tibetan districts might permit, or even encourage, local Tibetan initiatives. Pamela Logan discovered she was advocating for projects prejudged as impossible, unimaginable and impermissible.

She was far from alone in doing development work in Tibet. Not only were the environmentalists of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in full swing, other NGOs such as Trace Foundation, Winrock, Bridge Fund and the London based Tibet Foundation all worked quietly, with little publicity, delivering practical projects inside Tibet. All have had to cease such work in recent years.

wheelchairs for Derge


In 1999, Pamela Logan took the warrior option, of confronting the voiceless victim story head on. She wrote a furious op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, published by other papers as well, appealing to the editorial contrarian streak.

In Compassion Mandala in 2020 she now looks back (p59), and calls this A Major Misstep, but proceeds, as most memoirs do, to argue why she was right.

In 2020 we are all too familiar with polarisation, the tribal need to take sides, the dualistic fixations on one side right, one side wrong, the either/or logic of the zero/sum infects everything. That dualism did not come from nowhere; it is deeply embedded in Western culture. Some Tibetan lamas call it Abrahamic, a fault line inherited by secular modernity from unexamined Jewish, Christian and Islamic heritage.

That 1999 op-ed tackled head-on the obstacles she faced: “the foreign media has tended to act like a mouthpiece of the Tibetan government-in-exile, an organization whose overriding concern is, understandably, to regain its lost nation. Uncritical acceptance of flawed and biased information has been routine in American newspapers. Journalists have read the poorly researched work of other journalists, written more of the same and built up a demand for China-bashing stories. Such reporting sells newspapers by staying in the public’s comfort zone, shielding us from moral ambiguity; but it is mighty poor journalism.

“As president of a nongovernmental organization that brings foreign aid into Tibet, I have seen how Tibetans are hurt by the information blackout. When I try to raise money for repair of Buddhist monasteries, potential donors cite widely reported figures of 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 (take your pick) monasteries razed by the Chinese, and are reluctant to believe there is anything left to repair. When I solicit donations on behalf of schools in Tibet, people object erroneously that schools do not teach Tibetan language and are therefore instruments of the Chinese policy of cultural annihilation. When I ran an art conservation program that rescued some rare and endangered Tibetan murals, some felt that because the Chinese government allowed this project, there must be something wrong with it, and advised one of my volunteer workers not to participate. Americans have been conditioned to believe that the Chinese are utterly opposed to any sort of Tibetan cultural or economic advancement. Accurate reporting would show this is not the case.”

Factually, she was right. She argues for complexity and moral ambiguity, but the combative samurai tone pushes yet again into right and wrong. That article made her non grata throughout the Tibet movement at the moment of its greatest flourishing. It was indeed a major mis-step.

midwifery training, Kandze, 2002

Taking sides, Beijing versus Dharamsala, obscures complexity and the actual lives Tibetans live every day under the contempt and racism of the rulers. Righteous indignation, in the name of voicing the voiceless, in practice silences Tibetans in Tibet who must skilfully negotiate their alien rulers daily. Side taking oversimplifies the messy accommodations necessary, on the ground in Tibet, to get anything done.


One example: when a female tulku lineage of reincarnations of the ego-cutting Machik Labdron survived into the communist era, she was forced to marry and have children, and was recruited to become part of the CCP’s elaborate apparatus of legitimising its rule.[2] That makes Kalsang Damcho Drolma (in pinyin Gacang Danqu Zhuoma 尕藏丹曲卓玛), 1936–2013, a victim of communist dictatorship. However, she used that legitimacy in the new hierarchy to continue the work of a Machik Labdron. That restores her agency and effectiveness, despite all official obstacles; and when she died her obituary, praising her achievements, is an official document, issued in Chinese. Did the CCP use her? Did this reborn Great Mother use the CCP? Who is appropriating whom? Her story of inner strength is far from unique.

home delivery kits for mobile midwives, Kandze 2004

Out on the grasslands of Amdo Labrang -her home- disputes among pastoralists have persisted, sometimes solidifying into deadly feuds that can go on for generations, in lands historically not ruled by either Lhasa or Beijing, where there was not only no law, there was no concept of law.[3] Resolving such disputes was the work of Buddhist teachers, trusted deeply because of their exemplary lives, known to be beyond bias, able to persuade and convince antagonists through logic, reason and personal magnetism.

Kalsang Damcho Drolma met all these criteria in the eyes of her people. Her official 2013 obituary describes her wielding just such abilities: “In order to preserve this herding area’s peace and to prevent the further loss of husbands and fathers, the Gung ru Mkha’ ’gro ma had the power to rally support among the people. She used her kindness and energy to take the initiative herself to mediate the grassland conflict and end the dispute. Because they were touched by her leadership ability and the power of her strong personality, the dispute ended peacefully for both sides, and the matter was resolved with her even-tempered reasoning.”

Such stories seldom appear in exile Tibet movement advocacy, leaving only stories of passive victimhood. The six million Tibetans in Tibet, their aspirations and needs seldom attended to, are seldom heard. They remain invisible, now sealed off more than ever by China’s high modernist program of urgent urbanisation and top-down nation building assimilationist development.

In hindsight, from the 1980s through to 2008 there was a lot that could have been done to help Tibetans in Tibet to create their enterprises, to reforest, grow vegetables, build their schools and clinics, improve mother tongue literacy, add value to local speciality products and so on. Little of that happened, and now it is no longer possible. That’s sad.

junior school, Batang: 530 kids, no washing machine till Khamaid delivers

Compassion Mandala is unfortunately not about contemporary Tibet. If only the lessons Pamela Logan learned from listening to and working with Tibetans in Tibet could still be acted on, guiding our wish to help. If only we could read her as our guide to doing good, on the ground, somewhere in that vast plateau.

Tibet, more than ever, is caught between the Manichean dualism of China, and that of Tibetan exile. In China’s telling, Tibet dwelled in darkness, backwardness, poverty and remoteness. Benevolent modern China has brought Tibet into light, civilisation, history, development and the promise of prosperity. In the exile narrative, all Tibetans are trapped helplessly in the tyranny of communist dictatorship, passive and unable to protect their lands, language, culture and identity from extreme coercion.


In the middle are the Tibetans, unheard on all sides, asserting agency wherever possible. Pamela Logan sought that middle, listened to the aspirations of remote Tibetan villagers, and did what she could to mobilise practical assistance. It is now over 25 years since she began that work, a decade since it had to end, and we are more fixated on good and evil than ever. Logan’s new book does enable us to glimpse the lives, hopes and fears of those lost to sight in the long shadows of today’s geostrategic great games.

Three decades of travels in Tibet and reflections for the English reading audience. Three books on Tibet, over 25 years, returning again and again to what sometimes seems to be a romantic projection, a yearning for the unnameable. Yet this self-defined woman warrior did experience Tibetan culture fully, did have transformative moments, did discover in extreme hardships of pilgrimage a transcendence that took her by surprise, yet able to convey it effectively in writing. No small achievement. Few nonTibetans have so fully entered into Tibetan mind spaces, or been so open to seeing afresh, sensitive to a posture, a gesture that subtly signals inner transformation. Alive and alert, she is attuned to the uncanny, the liminal, the awakening.

Khamaid teaching English to Kandze middle schoolers, 2001


Further blogs in this series bring us to another nonTibetan woman who learned deeply how to see from a Tibetan viewpoint. Lü Zhi and a global partnership to conserve Kham as a great hotspot of biodiversity, next on Rukor.

[1] Michel Peissel, The Cavaliers of Kham, the secret war in Tibet. London: Heinemann, 1972; and Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1973

Michel Peissel, The Last Barbarians, the discovery of the source of the Mekong. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1997; and London Souvenir Press, 1998

Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone, Tibet on the Paths of the Gentleman Brigands, Thames & Hudson,1995,  also published as Tibet Land of Gentleman Brigands, White Star Publishers 2004;

[2] Peter F. Faggen, “Re-adapting a Buddhist Mother’s Authority in the Gung ru Female Sprul sku Lineage,” Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 55, Juillet 2020, pp. 140–160.

[3] Fernanda Pirie, 2014. The Anthropology of Law. Oxford: OUP. 35-6, 159


Advocacy opportunities

Occasionally, readers of the blog wonder what can be done in a practical way to right the wrongs China’s “development” agenda imposes on Tibet.

One example is our recent blog series on trout manufacture in Amdo Chabcha, in 200 cages set into the nine  reservoirs China has built on the Ma Chu/Yellow River. Readers were concerned at the cruelty of cultivating and then killing fish by the millions in a major Tibetan river, an industry abhorrent to Tibetans who generally take seriously the teaching that all sentient beings have in past lives been your mother. Tibetans do not extract the plentiful native fish in Tibetan rivers and lakes. Our discovery shocked Tibetan readers, who wonder if anything can be done, before planned upscaling gets so big the industry becomes unstoppable.

rainbow trout sold as salmon, immediately after slaughter and gutting, on the hook at Longyang Gorge processing factory. Source:

So we are revisiting China’s deep inland trout-cum-salmon fish commodity chain, specifically to analyse what might be done.

Below are further details, with the focus on the foreign investors who make this new industry possible.

Beyond the trout-cum-salmon blog are case studies of other current foreign investors in Tibet. All are written so as to be of practical help for anyone considering taking action, beyond reading about it. The emphasis is on the practicalities of advocacy, on both the opportunities to speak up for Tibet, and the constraints.

The five case studies of foreign investment in Tibet are:

  1. Fish farming trout aquaculture
  2. Lithium extraction and battery manufacture for electric vehicles
  3. Luxury hotels
  4. Copper mining upriver from Lhasa
  5. Power grids designed to transmit electricity generated in Tibet over vast distances
Norwegian AKVA technology for automating the distribution of pellet feed to all cages, reducing local employment for Tibetans, now installed in the Longyang Gorge fish farms



Since the  private companies operating the fish farms in Amdo Chabcha  boast they have licences to export trout to Europe, Russia and elsewhere, and since this is a highly globalised industry, Tibetans in worldwide exile may find it possible to gain traction. Not only is output global, even more so the inputs of supply of fertilised eggs, and manufactured fish feed, and fish processing equipment are provided by nonChinese companies, so Tibetans in exile may find nearby those companies that need reminding of corporate responsibility and not take their social licence for granted.

vacuum pumping fish out of the water, and in to slaughter

The story of how, where and why China has turned to Tibet for mass production of rainbow trout, sold in wealthy Chinese cities as “salmon” is told in depth at   and is not repeated here.

The main foreign investor in Tibetan mass production of rainbow trout is the Danish fish feed manufacturer BioMar. This may not be a well-known company, since it has few direct dealings with the consuming public, but as aquaculture grows rapidly worldwide, led by China, BioMar pitches its fish feed formulations as the most advanced and scientific, uniquely capable of enabling the trout agribusiness to intensify fast.

source: corporate website of BioMar owner Schouw:

BioMar is so keen to get into the China aquaculture market -by far the world’s biggest- it has been buying out Chinese fish food manufacturers and building new factories, so far none close to Tibet.

In 2019 BioMar, at its head office in Denmark, signed an agreement with Qinghai officials, a clear indication that the party-state is deeply involved, especially with subsidies. This is now a three-way partnership between BioMar, the Qinghai government and the private company Qinghai Minze Longyangxia Ecological Aquaculture Co., Ltd; 是青海民泽龙羊峡生态水殖有限公司还打, which is the main player, claiming in June 2020  “an annual output value of 760 million yuan, and the products were sold to domestic and foreign markets.”[1]

highway advertisement encouraging tourists to come to Longyang Gorge dam “for salmon from Longyang Gorge on Snowy Plateau”.

Each of the three partners get what they want. The Qinghai government can and does boast of successful development and poverty alleviation, as if Tibetans benefit in any way. Official media boast: “Cold-water fish farming becomes a major industry for poverty alleviation and prosperity. In Qinghai, the dotted reservoirs provide a broad space for the development of cold-water fish farming enterprises on the plateau, and become a major industry for the local poor to get rid of poverty and become rich.”[2]  Tibetans presumably should be grateful.

Qinghai gets to scale up, with the prospect of rapidly growing to a big industry feeding rich urban Han trout hard to distinguish from prestigious imported salmon. Since the Tibetan trout farming industry’s conflation of trout with salmon has scandalised Shanghai consumers, the industry is out to build its brand as clean, green, disease-free and pure because it is based in Tibet. Official media have sent investigative reporters to Amdo Chabcha (Gonghe in Chinese) to delve into how this industry operates.[3]  Qinghai, hoping for greater revenues, is keen to lift the industry’s reputation. This includes the involvement of a prestigious Danish company, adept at scientific management language.

Qinghai wants every stage of production in-house in Qinghai, including the production of fertilised fish eggs, currently flown in from Denmark, Norway and the US; and the production of formulated fish feed made of “trash” fish, soybeans and agricultural wastes. This is where BioMar comes in, as the scientific experts in calculating the exact sweet spot. If the fish feed pellets spewed by Norwegian AKVA machines into the cages twice a day is not nutritious enough the fish don’t grow as fast, cutting into profits. If, however, the fish feed is too nutritious, it goes to waste, becoming nutrients for other organisms, upsetting the natural balance. BioMar says it can get this balance right.

Many questions need answers. Will the growing trout also be fed antibiotics? Will they be fed anthaxanthin, made from “trash” fish to make their flesh pink-red, to look like salmon? Will BioMar set up a fishfeed factory in Tibet, or import fish feed pellets from its factories elsewhere in China? Will fishfeed ingredients be sourced in Tibet, or rely on soybeans shipped in from Brazil or the US? Will the production line for making fertilised fish eggs be localised, or continue to rely on imports flown in from Europe?

Will the Qinghai provincial government continue its subsidies, which currently reduce the price of producing baby trout from RMB 2.5 to 1.5? “In order to make up for the shortcomings in the development of cold water fish industry, our province has arranged a certain amount of fiscal funds every year at the policy level to support and subsidize enterprises engaged in fishery breeding, processing, circulation and logistics services.”[4]

growing imported fertilised trout eggs into baby fish in tanks at Longyangxia

For the Qinghai Minze company with exclusive legal access to the common pool resource of Tibetan waters impounded in Chinese dams, the deal with BioMar comes at the inflection point where the industry could take off, if it can improve its reputation with the sophisticated consumers of Shanghai and Beijing.

Qinghai Minze Longyangxia Ecological Aquaculture Co. has plans to launch an IPO, selling shares on a Chinese stock exchange, which could raise a lot of investment capital, as well as making its current owners very rich.

The company has benefited from the regulatory vagueness that fails to distinguish salmon from trout, enabling it to market its fish as salmon, at much higher prices. This has greatly annoyed metropolitan thought-leader influencers who have publicly questioned whether this is a scam.

Branding is everything, and Tibet is becoming a brand in its own right, a guarantor of clean, green purity precisely at the moment of industrial intensification. Both Tibet as the locus of production and the fast-growing role of BioMar as scientific guarantor of efficient, clean industrial supply chains, testify to the rainbow trout airfreighted from Tibet to Shanghai as worth their high price.

source: Shanghaiist website

BioMar has fish feed factories in Denmark, Norway, Scotland, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Chile, Costa Rica. BioMar is owned by Schouw, its shares are traded on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange. Share price has been volatile, in the past three years as high as DKK 694, as low as DKK 381. This is a business that proclaims credentials as a market leader in clean, green production. It would not wish to be associated with exploitation of Tibet, offending Tibetan religious sensibilities, and mass cruelty to animals. Such association would reduce reputational equity and thus reduce share price.


Chabcha, less than 200 kms southwest of Xining, is one of the most Chinese of rural Tibetan areas, partly due to the Longyangxia dam and the 200 trout cages sitting inside the reservoir. In the 2000 census Tibetans were only 34% of the county population. Many Tibetans were displaced by construction of the Longyangxia dam, losing access to grazing land and the freedom of being largely self-sufficient. Chabcha dzong is mostly below 3000m altitude, which attracts Han settlers. Little of the Tibetan Plateau is below 4000m. Han can often speak the Amdo dialect of Tibetan.[5]

The whole prefecture of Tsolho (Hainan in Chinese), both meaning south of the Qinghai lake, is gently rolling grassland suited to immigrating Han “reclaiming” pasture by ploughing for crops, often unaware until too late of the harsh winter winds sweeping in from the deserts of Xinjiang that can strip bare soil. Ongoing loss of pastureland is due to local government classifying pastoral landscapes as common pool resources belonging to no-one. This leads to tensions.[6]


Tibetan culture in Chabcha is strong. Prior to 1958 there were 1066 monks in 16 monasteries in Chabcha; by 1999 Chabcha had recovered, to 828 monks, in 24 monasteries.[7] On official statistics, in 2017 rural residents of Tsolho/Hainan prefecture had per capita incomes of RMB 9279, not much below those on the rural margins of Xining, the provincial capital.[8] For urban households the figure was RMB 15,130.  Chabcha is home to , an online  database of Tibetan culture that has uploaded more than 15-thousand books, including many ancient classics.

BioMar projects itself as a world leader in clean, green, scientific fish feed production. BioMar and its partners in Qinghai are acutely aware of reputation, as a form of capital, which makes all the difference between fish consumer willingness or unwillingness to pay premium prices.

Is the wealth generated by the 200 fish farming cages in the Longyang gorge dam shared by Tibetans? Not only do Tibetans dislike factory farming for the sole purpose of slaughter, the entire industry is capital-intensive and technology intensive, employing few people, and no-one without literacy in reading operational instructions issued in Chinese.

source: investigative journalism by metropolitan official media, 2018:

Tibetans sometimes get temporary work as unskilled labourers on construction sites, but there is no sign of Tibetan employment or benefit in this intensive aquaculture production line. Even the small traders who venture out onto the lake after a windstorm, to catch trout that escaped the cage, are all Han Chinese, judging by the hand painted signs they scrawl on rocks along the roadside advertising their private catch. That was the finding of investigative reporters sent from Beijing to Longyangxia in 2018.


Timing is everything. In 2020 BioMar is entering China’s huge fishfeed market for the first time, making key strategic investments, both by buying a major Chinese fishfeed manufacturer in southern China, and by building its own fishfeed factory in eastern China, close to the coastal locations of most aquaculture.

In recognition that aquaculture is now changing fast and moving inland -to Tibet- BioMar is on the ground, possibly intending to build a production base in Tibet, which could utilise by-products of other farming operations, or use imported soy beans from Brazil, and continue to import fishmeal made from “trash” fish, even though overfishing worldwide (largely by China) has so depleted fish stocks that even “trash” fish are now scarce.

So far, there is no formal contract, only a Memorandum of Understanding between BioMar, the Qinghai provincial government and the company operating the 200 trout cages in the Longyangxia dam.

A campaign to persuade BioMar’s owner Schouw that the Tibet connection is not a good idea, can succeed before BioMar has locked itself in.

frozen fish of the Pacific, seized by Ecuador government boarding Chinese fishing boats: Much of this catch was destined for fish feed pellets to feed captive aquaculture fish in China



In a crowded, competitive market for battery powered cars, one company stands out because of its reliance on Tibet as the source of lithium for battery production. Most battery manufacturers, in the US (Tesla) and China (now including Tesla) rely on lithium imported from the salt lakes of the high desert of Chile. Even though the lithium in the salts of the lakes of the Amdo Tsaidam basin are plentiful, and salt extraction is on a huge scale, very little has been used so far for battery making. This is for technical reasons: to work safely in a battery the lithium has to be extremely pure, not mixed up with the magnesium, sodium and potassium salts also in the Tibetan lake beds.

If the lithium is not extremely pure, batteries overheat and catch fire, and also don’t allow much recharge, so the batteries fail. Chinese scientists have been working hard to reach a level of purity that makes Tibetan lithium suitable for battery manufacture.

Until now, despite much interest from Tibet support groups, there has been no campaign, because there was little evidence that Tibetan lithium from Gormo was being used for battery making. Now the moment has come, because a battery making plant is now in operation just outside Xining, using lithium from the Tsaidam salt lakes.

This is the work of one company, BYD, a Chinese battery maker-cum-car maker, whose biggest shareholder is a famous American investor.

A campaign on BYD and its American part-owner is an opportunity to focus on the theft of Tibetan endowment of natural resources, without any benefit to Tibetans. This opens up a new aspect of Tibetan nationalism that has seldom attracted attention.


Campaigning on lithium extraction from Tibet opens up debate on the exploitation of Tibet, the extraction of Tibetan resources for Chinese profit, and the many environmental impacts of not only salt extraction but also the pumping of Tibetan oil and gas from the Tsaidam Basin. Combining salt and oil provides the ingredients for making petrochemicals, explosives, fertilisers and PVC plastics. That is how the Tsaidam Basin became the most heavily industrialised part of Tibet.

BYD has been the most heavily government-subsidized Chinese company in the electric vehicle industry, with more than half of its 2018 profits coming from Chinese government subsidies, according to an analysis by the U.S.-based research organization Radarlock. BYD also has large contracts with the People’s Liberation Army, and the Guangzhou Municipal People’s Government owns a significant stake in one BYD auto subsidiary. That’s led U.S lawmakers to believe BYD is controlled by the government, and the ban on using federal dollars on BYD vehicles stems from fears the company can outbid American rivals and that China uses corporate partners to spy on Americans.”

A campaign on the BYD lithium battery production in the heavily polluted industrial zone around Xining will mobilise active concern of environmentalists. Lithium production is part of the production of magnesium, potassium and sodium salts, all from the Tsaidam salt lakes, where they come mixed together. Separating them is highly polluting, and also highly reliant on using massive amounts of hydropower from China’s dams across the Ma Chu. So if environmentalists start to take interest in the problems inherent in lithium battery production, there are other related environment issues for a wider campaign.

inside the BYD Tibetan lithium battery factory, Nanchuan Industrial Park south of Xining.
source: Qinghai Scitech News 5 August 2020

The American investor in BYD is Warren Buffett, who now has a 25% stake in BYD, having bought in a decade ago, ahead of the curve. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has a strong following, because of Buffett’s reputation as the guy who knows how to make money, but his reputation is sliding, and he has been accused of strategizing his investments to create monopolies, to avoid competition. In 2011 he and Bill Gates came out endorsing BYD as the future of the car industry, and philanthropically benefiting Tibet. Benevolent.

BYD boasts of having exclusive access to a lake in far western upper Tibet, in Ngari, the Zhabuye Tsaka, which has an especially high concentration of lithium, giving it a market advantage over competitors. Scooping the lithium salts from the dry lakebed is the easy part, they then have to be trucked right across the Tibetan Plateau, around 1200 miles, to where they can be processed near Xining. Zhabuye Tsaka is a most unusual lake, rich also in uranium.[9]

BYD has benefited greatly from Chinese government subsidies, including subsidies to buyers of BYD cars and buses.

BYD’s secret lithium source, not far from the India-China border conflict zone
source: Journal of Asian Earth Sciences 2019


  • Warren Buffett is an American icon. Millions revere “the sage of Omaha” as a magical rainmaker with a unique ability to pick stocks that make you rich.
  • The BYD lithium Buffett story is complex, hard to reduce to a simple meme.
  • Folks want to believe lithium batteries will solve all our fossil fuel carbon emissions problems, and don’t want to hear about the downsides of “green, renewable” energy such as lithium batteries or hydro dams.
  • Tesla is a major competitor to BYD, but Tesla just built a huge factory in Shanghai and won’t want to rock the boat.
  • So far electric vehicle sales have never really taken off, possibly they won’t catch on, despite all the hype.
  • During the corona virus crisis BYD manufactured lots of face masks and got lots of free publicity.
BYD headquarters, Shenzhen


The Dalai Lama has often said environment issues in Tibet should be top priority. If Tibetans can tell the BYD battery story, how it robs Tibet of its resource heritage and causes pollution, while relying on the damming of Tibetan rivers for its massive electricity consumption, they build new alliances. Allies amplify the Tibet story, put it on their agenda, include it in their campaigns, make Tibet part of the global debate on mining impacts.

This is a human rights campaign focussed on the economic and social rights of the Tibetans, as a people, their collective right to development, to benefit from resource extraction, and to consent to extraction only on the basis of prior, free, informed consent.

This in opportunity to shine the spotlight on Gormo, the most industrialised city of the Tibetan Plateau, where very few Tibetans live, except for displaced nomads under intensive surveillance on Gormo’s outer fringe, along the highway. They are now the target of China’s “vocational education” mass indoctrination campaign.

Even though BYD cars are unlikely to be cruising the streets of your town, probably BYD buses are, especially if you live in an airport city. BYD has sold lots of lithium battery buses (and trucks), which return to depot for recharge. Until there are recharging stations all over town, car sales won’t accelerate. Airports are keen to display “green” credentials since everyone knows air travel is a big cause of climate heating emissions, so there may well be BYD buses nearby.

source: BYD website


Publicising the downsides of exploiting Tibetan lithium will take time, requiring commitment to go talk to local environment groups rather than the global big names in conservation, who have offices in Beijing, work with the Chinese government, and don’t want to take sides. They back renewable energy as far better for the planet than coal and oil. They will say it’s regrettable that lithium has problems but on balance it’s good.


all of Tibet under one atrium glass roof: Intercontinental Lhasa Paradise hotel


Two global hotel chains, Intercontinental and Hilton, run luxury hotels in the Tibetan cities of Lhasa and Nyingtri. There is also the StRegis Luxury resort in Lhasa, owned by Starwood; and in Gormo the Hilton Double Tree.

Their clients are wealthy Chinese tourists who, to avoid crowds and virus transmission risks, hire cars and drive to Nyingtri and Lhasa, to escape the summer heat and humidity down the Yangtze below Tibet, in Wuhan, Chongqing and Chengdu. Both Lhasa and Nyingtri have become fashionable destinations for the newly rich leisure class in China, especially at a time when international travel, because of the virus, is restricted and risky.

The Nyingtri Hilton and Intercontinental Lhasa Paradise make Tibet consumable. Lhasa, officially a city of 690,000 people, receives more than 25 million tourists a year, mo stly in the warmer months, overwhelmingly from lowland China, not many international. Although Tibetans experience many restrictions on free movement, Han Tibetans move freely, with no need to prove they are virus free.

The Intercontinental Lhasa Paradise is next door to Gutsa prison, where many Tibetans have been tortured.

Hilton Nyingtri (Linzhi) resort

Nyingtri is merging with nearby Bayi, a new Chinese town close by, marketed as the warmest climate in Tibet, famous for its peach blossom season, the ideal time to stage an upmarket wedding, or stage a meeting to impress your business clients and seal a deal, with Tibet the picturesque backdrop. If you decide you like it, you can build your own luxury villa.

Hilton Nyingtri

For the rich, first stop is these luxury hotels, which boast Tibetan styled interiors, yet employ Tibetan staff only in menial low paid jobs as housemaids and cleaners, with no career path to become front of house. The more secure and well-paid jobs are for those who speak Chinese and English, which excludes most Tibetans.

entrance lobby, Hilton Nyingtri resort

These luxe hotels strongly feature how Tibetan they are, how you can experience all Tibet has to offer under their one roof.

Hilton Doubltree hotel Gormo/Golmud


Could be modest, such as guaranteed employment for Tibetans who speak English, including those who learned during a sojourn in India.

Could be a training school for Tibetans to get real front of house jobs, not just silent cleaners, room maids and bellboys. Intercontinental says: “The IHG Academy provides local people with opportunities to develop skills and improve their employment prospects in one of the world’s largest hotel companies. Within a consistent framework, each IHG Academy is tailored to meet the needs of local communities as well as hotels around the world.”

Could be hotel chains financing training for Tibetans in defending their land rights, especially in Nyingtri, where many Tibetans are losing their land (and food security) for luxury villas built by rich Chinese.

Could be gender equality and reduction of inequality, through training to improve human capital formation.

Could be training and accrediting more Tibetans as tour guides, culture interpreters, custodians of scenic spots, ensuring visitors and Tibetans have better opportunities for real connection.


These hotels succeed because of the brand names of Intercontinental and Hilton. China is the world’s biggest luxury market, and the sacred pilgrimage route around the Potala -the Barkor- has been rebuilt as upmarket boutiques with outwardly Tibetan characteristics, selling premium products.

There is probably an Intercontinental or Hilton in your city, since Intercontinental also owns Holiday Inn and many other brands. Local action for global effect. Intercontinental (IHG) operates 5,900 hotels in roughly 100 countries, is listed on the London Stock Exchange. Its shareholders are acutely aware of reputational risk, which can dampen bookings, and reduce share price and profits. Hilton is second to IHG in size. Both have experienced dramatic drops in bookings in 2020 because of virus fears and travel restrictions; both are vulnerable to reputational loss. IHG has sublet some hotels to governments as virus quarantine isolation locations. Biggest IHG shareholder is Cedar Rock Capital.

Wealthy Chinese are also acutely conscious of corporate reputations, as in this 2018 secretly filmed video which caused a crisis for Hilton and others.

All hotel chains are attuned to reputational risk and publish plenty on their websites about corporate social responsibility, and the need to train local staff to qualify for better jobs.

There are many critics of luxury tourism, its carbon costs, cultural impacts, exploitation of indigenous peoples, who will be interested to hear from Tibetans.

China is regularly criticised for theft of intellectual property. If you look at these hotels you see theft and appropriation of Tibetan intellectual property.


Big corporations can ignore protests, brush them aside, unless the protest gathers momentum, mobilising a lot of voices online. Tibet supporters need to prepare for a long campaign.

As of summer 2020, luxury hotel bookings are from wealthy Han Chinese, not international travellers, so no point in targeting Western tourists. However, that will change once virus panic is past, and the hotel chains seek to recover lost traffic and revenues, and may well offer special deals, possibly marketing Tibet as a pristine, clean destination.


This campaign can show that Tibetans are now precarious gig workers in their own land. The campaign can deliver practical solidarity with Tibetan hotel staff, and push for big chains to live up to their published corporate social responsibility promises, which include training minority staff for bigger responsibilities.

Private equity dealmaker Blackstone bought Hilton in 2007 at the height of a boom, then saw it crash when the world economy went into crisis in 2008. So it took Blackstone a decade to make Hilton sufficiently profitable to make it worth selling, initially to a bold Chinese investor, HNA, which took a 25% stake. As of 2018 both HNA and Blackstone had sold their holdings, so Hilton is back on the NY Stock Exchange. Biggest shareholder is T. Rowe Price Associates, holding 12.8%.

The biggest shareholders in both Intercontinental and Hilton are professional wealth managers who invest other people’s money. They are sensitive to risk, any risk that might affect share price, and quick to sell if they see difficulties ahead.


While the Intercontinental Lhasa Paradise was under construction, Tibet supporters tried to oppose it, making a maximum demand, by letter, that construction stop. The campaigners were not ready for a long-haul campaign with mass mobilisation, IHG ignored the request, the campaign ceased.



Tibet is rich in minerals China needs, not only lithium, oil and gas from Amdo, but also copper, gold, silver and molybdenum in many deposits mapped by Chinese geologists, in a long line close to the Yarlung Tsangpo, and further east in Kham. Usually these metals occur together, and need to be concentrated and smelted into separate, pure metals on site, at the mine, because of the vast amounts of waste produced, which stays forever at the mine, held from leaking into nearby rivers by tailings dams.

International miners have been involved in mine development stages, to map deposits, plan an extraction and processing strategy. At that point the international partner is usually bought out, and the actual mining is done by Chinese companies. In Tibet that increasingly means just two companies: Zijin and Western Mining.

Digging up the ore, crushing, processing and smelting rock into pure metals all takes a lot of electricity, so high voltage electricity supply is just one of the many subsidies provided by the Chinese government, along with the construction of highways and railroads. This intensifies the pressure to build more hydro dams in central Tibet.

One company now dominates: Zijin, which in June 2020 bought out smaller miners owning the Chulong copper mine in Meldro Gongkar, upriver from Lhasa, already a huge open pit mine, with plans to make it much bigger. This is where Songtsen Gampo was born. Zijin’s three Tibet mines together have 7.9576 million tons of copper metal and  370,600 tons of associated molybdenum. For power, 110 kV high-voltage transmission lines have been connected to the mining area, providing security of electricity supply for mining development. Chulong has a permit to extract  30 million tons of ore per year from 2016 to 2037. After 2037 Zjin will depart, having exhausted the deposit, but the mine wastes -at least 97% of all the rock dug and crushed- must remain forever secure in tailings dams to prevent pollution of the Kyichu, Lhasa’s river. Those wastes have highly toxic metals in them that normally are well underground. Arsenic, lead and mercury naturally occur in the soil at Chulong; it will be hard to prevent them from leaking into the rivers.[10]

Chulong copper deposit, on a high mountain ridge above 5000m. White is the gravel beds of the rivers flowing north into the Kyichu Lhasa River, carrying toxic metals from the mine

This is the first world-scale mine in Tibet, dwarfing Shetongmon, near Shigatse. Over the mine life three BILLION tons of rock will be blown up, hauled out, crushed, cooked to concentrate, then smelted. That is 300,000 tons a day, when the mine reaches full speed towards the end of this decade as planned. Massive. If this mine intensifies extraction as planned, many more mines will follow. This one mine, when in full production, will boost China’s copper output by 15%.

The location of the deposit is high in the mountains above the Kyichu, at 5200 m altitude, so high the soil is frozen permafrost, and the plan is to blast the soil with explosives and then remove it to get at the ore.[11]

Chinese geological mapping: Lhasa is surrounded by major deposits of copper, molybdenum, gold and silver, found together. Source Mineralium Deposita Journal

Zijin is fast becoming a leader in China’s global reach, and has privileged access to loan capital at cheap rates. Its shares are listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It is also traded on the Berlin Stock Exchange,  and Frankfurt Stock Exchange.


  • Tibet Autonomous Region to show some autonomy by legislating for Zijin to set up a long term mine remediation fund to care for despoiled landscape after Zijin departs. Zijin to pay royalties to local communities in Meldro Gongkar county. In Papua New Guinea a provincial government stood up to Zijin and cancelled its licence.
  • Zijin chairman Chen Jinghe to be put on list of individuals banned entry to US.
  • Independent environmental impact assessment required. Toxic metal concentrations in Kyichu and Yarlung Tsangpo to be monitored monthly, with public disclosure of results.
  • Press US government to restore Dodd-Frank Act monitoring of conflict minerals trade, and broaden definition of conflict minerals to include Tibet, lithium, copper and molybdenum.
TAR CCP Secretary Qi Zhala with Zijin boss Chen Jinghe


Zijin mines copper, not only in Tibet but in Congo, Serbia, Guyana, Colombia and Papua New Guinea. These mines are controversial, attracting activist critiques by well-established NGOs opposed to exploitation, pollution, conflict minerals, climate change, corruption and slavery. China also mines copper in Zambia, which is also controversial. Campaign allies are readily available.

The many campaigns against conflict minerals have broadened to name climate change as a result of not only fossil fuel extraction but also the world’s insatiable demand for minerals, especially by China. Climate activists will readily come on board. 

Zijin announces take over of Chulong copper mine 2020

Suppliers of surveillance cameras in Xinjiang have been named, shamed and sanctioned. Retailers of consumer products made in Xinjiang have been named and shamed in several campaigns. US Congress, under both Republican and Democrat regimes, is increasingly willing to take legislative action.

Where Zijin operates outside China it is under intense scrutiny, with a lot of reporting on its performance. Contrasting Zijin’s global corporate accountability, and unaccountability in Tibet can be easily done.

While there are no international investors with a stake in Zijin, there are plenty of foreign key equipment suppliers, specifically Cummins diesel powering the heavy haul trucks, Thyssenkrupp providing the conveyors taking ore to crushers, and powdered rock from crushers to smelters, Siemens providing power.

Further up the Kyichu valley is the Gyama copper mine, also open pit, which disastrously collapsed, killing 83 immigrant Han mine workers in 2013.


There are no international mining companies invested in Tibet.

Equipment suppliers may duck responsibility, even if their equipment is crucial.

Metso, a mining logistics company from Finland has helped prepare the Chulong mine for this scaling up, but their effort seems to be largely over. However the massive machines that grind rock to powder, essential to extracting the metals, are yet to be installed by Metso.


Tibetans in Tibet are disempowered. If they protest, they are criminalised and jailed. This is a solidarity opportunity to stand with local communities of a deeply historic district, to prevent the despoliation of Tibet, theft of patrimony.

Mining is controversial worldwide, many campaigns willing to add Tibet to the list of conflict minerals zones.

Both the US and EU have legislated to keep conflict minerals out of their supply chain and have imposed reporting requirements on manufacturers of consumer products to prove their metals do not come from conflict zones. The US Dodd-Frank Act, EU and OECD rules are a bit narrow, some are focussed only on Africa, others only on specific minerals such as cobalt, which are not mined in Tibet, but a regulatory regime is already in place, due to intensive lobbying by NGOs agonised by Congo. Further lobbying could expand the laws to cover Tibet. A Biden presidency will be an opportunity to reverse Trump’s abandonment of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals governance. A campaign to restore conflict minerals vigilance will unite Tibetans and campaigners focused on Africa.

One major ally could be the campaign group Global Witness, which worked hard to stop trafficking of conflict minerals from Congo, but embarrassed itself by certifying the compliance of Chinese miners. Global Witness works with Chinese mining companies in their operations outside China, while saying nothing about the same companies operations in Tibet.


Conflict minerals are not as hot a topic as a few years ago. But as post-virus demand picks up and US rejoins the world, concerns about conflict minerals will return.



Hydro dams in Tibet are a concern to environmentalists in China and worldwide. The great rivers of Asia, all originating in Tibet, are well known. The increasing number of hydro dams -some of them with the tallest concrete walls in the world- only work when connected to power grids, transmitting the electricity generated to far distant consumers.

China’s grand plan is for the colonisation of Tibet to at last make profit, by transmitting electricity right across China from west to east, from Tibet to the power-hungry industrial cities of the east coast. China’s longer-term plan is that Tibet will generate so much electricity, not only from hydropower but also wind and solar power, that China will be able to export electricity across Asia, even as far as Europe.

Technically this was not possible, until recently, because the usual alternating current (AC) electricity dissipates into the air as it traverses long distances, a waste of energy. China has now mastered the technologies of direct current (DC) which can be despatched over thousands of miles with little loss, on power lines of alarmingly high voltage, at present 1.1 million volts. That is how China plans to electrify the world, with Global Energy Interconnections, a project technically feasible enough for the European Commission to have already checked, finding it is technically possible to transmit electricity from Tibet to Europe.

This means massive power grids originating in Tibet. China’s program for grid construction consciously announces itself as a strategy for knitting China together as one nation-state, with one identity, one language, and one market. In practice, it means power grids marching across Tibetan landscapes, including national parks and UNESCO World Heritage areas.

Many of the grids are already built, and many of the hydro dams, with many more scheduled for construction. They advertise to the world, especially to developing countries, that China can (and does) build similar infrastructure worldwide.

This plan crucially depends on key technologies supplied by Western countries. At both ends of any ultra-high voltage DC grid there must be massive transformers. At the upload end, they convert AC coming from hydro dam turbines, wind farms and coal fired power stations, to DC. At the download end, close to industrial and urban consumers, these transformers convert DC back to AC, ready to use in factory and home.

These transformers are manufactured by one Swedish/Swiss company, and one German company.

Share in ABB are traded daily on the Swiss Stock Exchange. Siemens shares are traded on many stock exchanges in Europe, US and India.


  • Opportunity for local campaigns  by local groups pressing global infrastructure companies Siemens and ABB to do the right thing and sell no more AC/DC transformers to State Grid.
  • This campaign has the lot. It raises the profile of so many issues affecting Tibetans:
  • Power grids lock Tibet into China as never before, making Tibet a profit centre for China, a return on investment; gives coastal cities a stake on ongoing exploitation of Tibet
  • The construction of high wall hydro dams in remote areas where the population till now is almost wholly Tibetan
  • The disempowering of poor Tibetan villages, where ultra-high voltage lines are overhead but inaccessible because DC above isn’t transformed into usable AC below
  • Employment on dam and grid construction restricted to immigrant workers fluent in written and spoken Chinese
  • No economic benefit to Tibetan communities, no royalties or compensation for land loss, yet electricity by decree sells at low price, so as to subsidise industrial users, while much never gets into the grid at all, and is wasted
  • Incentivises further scaling up, with massive wind and solar farms close to power grids and hydro dams, enabling export of electricity across south and central Asia, even to Europe
  • Turns Tibet into a showroom for developing country delegations to admire, and do deals with State Grid, one of the world’s biggest companies, to do the same in their country
  • Loss of land tenure and Tibetan food security as nomads are removed from pastures above dam and grid locations in the name of watershed protection
  • Loss of medicinal herbs essential to sowa rigpa traditional Tibetan healing, as steep Kham valleys are walled in concrete


Both Siemens and ABB are big corporations, with long histories of partnering with Chinese companies. They have experience handling protest, and strong connections to governments in many countries.

Hydro and wind power are promoted as green energy, better than coal. For many folks that is enough: they support hydro and ignore the downsides.

Construction of dams and power grids takes years, a slow process, an effective campaign might need patience and resilience over a long period.

Tibetans in Tibet frequently protest and are ruthlessly crushed; no opportunity to form their own NGO citizen initiatives; journalists seldom have access

Chinese environmentalists organised effective and successful campaigns against hydro dams in Tibetan areas but are now silenced by the current repressiveness.

China learned from the West how to build ultrahigh voltage power grids, made the technology its own, and now dominates power grid construction worldwide. China may also learn how to make the essential AC/DC transformers too.

ABB is an unwieldy corporate conglomerate, criticised by investors for failing to make enough profit, which may sell low profit operations including power grid technologies to its growing partnership with Hitachi.


Environmentalists worldwide, climate campaigners, biodiversity campaigners and heritage protectors already know much of this story and will readily sympathise. The task is to mobilise that latent support.

Siemens recently had to defend its investment in tech help for a controversial Adani  coal mine in Australia, as a result of social media campaigning. Activists against the coal mine persuaded huge investors such as BlackRock to protest to Siemens. “One thing is clear: the Adani case was a communications disaster,” said Vera Diehl, a portfolio manager at Union, which represents German co-operative banks.”

Disinvestment campaigns work. Investment analysts, wealth management consultants and antitrust regulators accuse Siemens of being too big, a dinosaur conglomerate that needs to break apart. Its division selling equipment for gas and electricity generation is the likeliest to be sold off. This guarantees keen interest in the AC/DC transformers story.


China’s grand dream of connecting all of Eurasia to electricity from Tibet might seem so improbable, and so distant, that more immediate issues take priority

It’s a complex story, in places a bit technical, not so easy to summarise into a campaign slogan.

[1] The self-report of Qinghai cold-water fish “rising to the plateau”, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 3 June 2020

[2] Cold-water fish breeding enterprises bred in the upper reaches of the Yellow River, 2020-June -02  Workers Daily

[3] What kind of fish is freshwater salmon? Field visit to Longyangxia Reservoir in Qinghai Province,  July 4, 2018 l

[4] The cool waters of the sky are good for fish farming-the rapid development of Qinghai cold water fish industry creates a brand, Qinghai Ribao, 23 September 2019,  

[5] Duojie Zhaxi (Dorje Tashi), Tibetan Farmers in Transition: Urbanization, Development, and Labour Migration in Amdo, PhD thesis University of Colorado 2020, 159

[6] ‘‘Tibetan Villagers Evicted to Make Room for New Airport,’’ Radio Free Asia, May 16, 2019.

[7] Kolas, Ashild, and Monika P. Thowsen. On the Margins of Tibet: Cultural Survival on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier, University of Washington Press, 2011, 206

[8] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2018, table 11-9, Per capita consumption expenditure of rural households by region

[9] Uranium Geology Journal vol 30, 4, July 2014 铀  矿  地  质

[10] Shaoping Yang, Study on surficial soil geochemistry in the high-elevation and -frigid mountainous region: A case of Qulong porphyry copper deposit in Tibet, Journal of Geochemical Exploration 139 (2014) 144–151

[11] Zhai Xiangchao; Tao Tisheng; Li Honghao; Gong Shanlin. Research on Blasting and Stripping Technology of Frozen Soil Layer in Qulong Copper Polymetallic Mine Project, Sichuan Water Power, 2019, 4: 13-15



Blog one of five on an industry totally new to Tibet: mass manufacture of millions of alien trout in hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River

This is a fish story with the lot, which is why it’s a long read. It’s got predation, pollution, protein, pristine rivers, and post-pandemic new normal productivist fish farming.

artwork by Seppo Leininen

New era China has discovered, after decades of experiments and failures, how to breed alien fish in the dams China built across the Ma Chu in Amdo, millions of them, currently about five million a year.

The rainbow trout industry is totally alien to Tibetan culture and values, yet is represented as successful development of Tibet, a win-win contribution to poverty alleviation.

Five million trout a year are vacuumed from cages set inside the dam reservoirs, electrocuted, bled to death, gutted, packed, chilled and airfreighted to Shanghai and other rich coastal Chinese cities, fetching premium prices, where consumers confuse trout with salmon, partly because the trout are fed additives to make their flesh pink like salmon.

New era China has plans to greatly expand fish production in Tibetan dams.

This is one of the most highly industrialised meat manufacturing systems worldwide. It is high tech, capital-intensive, high in environmental impacts, integrated into globalised commodity chains and sells into distant urban markets via a sophisticated chilled distribution chain. It is a model for China’s plans to similarly intensify the production, slaughter, boning and chilling of Tibetan yak, sheep and goat meat, also for distant consumers persuaded by marketing to pay premium prices for pristine Tibetan purity.

In the nine hydro dams China has built in the Ma Chu/Huang He/Yellow River in Amdo the total length of impounded water adds up to 300 kilometres. From a productivist perspective, that adds up to not only a lot of electricity generation for the heavy industrialisation of Tibet and Gansu, but also pondage of clear, cold water ideal for factory farming of rainbow trout, a species not native to Tibet.

It has taken several years, with much help from the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, for China  to figure out how to make the withheld water yield profit, but full production is now under way, concentrated in the Tibetan areas of Mangra, Chabcha and Tsongkha, where the Ma Chu drops, sometimes in steep valleys suited to dam building, to altitudes low enough to not ice over in winter.

To China, this is exemplary, a lesson Tibetans should learn from. All natural resources should be made to work harder, to produce more, to yield more for human use, through application of human will. This is development, modernity, efficiency, productivity, prosperity, win-win.


As part of the globalised aquaculture industry, further improvements are always sought, fine tuning industrial strategies to squeeze further fish weight gain into the shortest time prior to slaughter. This industrialisation includes genetic mutation, selecting fish with extra chromosomes, or triploidy. “Due to the infertility caused by triploidy, triploid fish have more advantages than diploids in terms of rapid growth, high meat quality and no gene pollution. Triploid rainbow trout has become one of the most successful commercialized species. In China, after importing the eyed eggs from the USA, Norway and Denmark, triploid rainbow trout are cultured in reservoirs with clean and cold spring water for 2–3 years, until reaching market size of around 4 kg. It has been one of the main cold-water fish species cultured in China with annual production of>30,000 tons.”[1]

This advanced globalisation, starting with flying in from the US and Scandinavia millions of living, fertilised fish eggs, at the precise point of their embryonic development where the dark colour of a fish eye in formation can be seen through the semi-transparent egg. This is the sweet spot for transport across the globe: the eggs are still small but demonstrably alive, not yet so big that transPacific or transEurasia temperature-controlled air cargo gets complicated.

Turning eggs into hatchlings and then into adult fish, ready for slaughter, is highly globalised. Tibet slots into a global dispersal of geographies, each playing a specific role in the commodity chain.

Precisely formulated feed is crucial, for cost control, profit maximisation, fastest weight gain and antibiotic protection against infections, as the fish are crowded together in huge cages inside the reservoirs behind dam walls. Much can go wrong, including disease outbreaks that are uncontrollable in the overcrowded cages. Global corporations are now partnering Chinese fish food manufacturers, building new factories together, to produce optimally formulated feed pellets that rainbow trout will eat, and gain weight fast.

The quote above comes from a team of 10 scientists from Qinghai University and two key corporations, Danish owned feed manufacturer Tongwei Co., based in Chengdu; and Qinghai Minze Longyangxia Ecological Aquaculture Co., LTD., whose home base is the biggest and oldest of the  eight hydro dams in the Ma Chu, at Longyangxia 811800, China. Longyangxia, or Longyang Gorge, is such a big dam it shows up readily on satellite photos, by far the biggest interruption of the Ma Chu, yet still 1600 kms downstream from the source, up in Tibetan glaciers far to the west. Those glaciers, evoking imagery of glacial purity, drive China to declare much of Amdo pasture to be national park, from which graziers and grazing are increasingly banned.

Effectively, the Ma Chu in Tibet has become two consecutive rivers. The uppermost catchment, starting at the glaciers, has become sacred national park in a developmentalist state out to make its mark on the land, in the name of maintaining water flow to lowland China.

The second Ma Chu river, after making its vast S-bend around the holy Amnye Machen range, is in every way an industrial river, not only for fish farming but as an energy production hub with hydropower turbines spinning, plus adjacent solar power farms feeding ever more electricity into the power grids leading from the dams. The electricity in turn powers irrigates intensive agriculture and heavy, polluting industries processing the raw materials of Tibet. Those factories in turn produce toxic wastes, including liquid wastes that are supposed to not enter the river.

 Further downstream, the Ma Chu becomes the Huang He/Yellow River. So the magically pure water of the high plateau, “China’s Number One Water Tower”, must now flow through the economic production zone of the dams, fish farms and hydropower turbines, before it can reach lowland China. How does this acclaimed purity traverse the fish farms and the antibiotics fed to the fish to prevent aquaculture pandemics? Such are the contradictions of globalised modernity.

Part of the argument for the construction of dams far up the Yellow River was flood control, which means impounding as much as possible, but also, for the sake of dam safety and risk management below, releasing water at flooding peak levels. For fish farmers, this means the water level rises and falls, for reasons that have little to do with fish growth.


Tibet is not lacking in fish, hardly surprising in a largely flat plateau with hundreds of lakes, some fresh, some salty, and the upper reaches of nearly all the major rivers of Asia. China now speaks of the myriad lakes of the Tibetan Plateau as valuable natural capital, even though few lakes have any outflow steam, only inflows; and how those lakes maintain a balance between inflow and strong summer evaporation remains a mystery to Chinese scientists.

Having quantified the aggregated dimensions of all the lakes of Tibet, China now tells itself it has a treasure, even though there is no way of extracting water from over 1000 lakes that have no outflow. “Zhu Liping, secretary-general of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Association and researcher of the Institute of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, put forward a little-known point. Zhu Liping, who has been engaged in the study of lakes on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for more than ten years, explained that there are 1091 lakes on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with an area of more than 1 square kilometre. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau accounts for 49.5% of the total number of lakes in the country. That is, Tibetan Plateau only accounts for 1/4 of the country’s land area, but the lake area accounts for 1/2 of the country’s lake area. It is the highest altitude, largest number and largest lake area on the earth.”

A high profile Chinese natural capital valuation scientist, Ouyang Zhiyun, has put a precise monetary value of RMB 531.36 billion for the water stored in those largely inaccessible lakes in Qinghai in 2015. That’s over $40 billion in 2015 dollars. Such numbers reinforce China’s determination to hold on to Tibet, as “China’s Number One Water Tower.”[2]

Quantifying the resources of Tibet, and the pests that threaten their availability for human use, has been a top priority. One of the earliest results of China’s passion for taxonomy was the 1983 publication of Tibetan Aquatic Invertebrates, in 492 pages describing 458 protozoon species, 208 wheel animalcules and 58 brachiopods endemic to Tibetan waters, complete with indexes in both Chinese and Latin.

But none of these sufficed for industrial scale aquaculture. In fact, early attempts at exploiting fish stocks, by introducing trawlers to Tibetan lakes, were disastrous, quickly depleting fish populations in Ngoring and Gyaring lakes on the upper Ma Chu so drastically that fishing had to be forbidden.

Rainbow trout are not the only alien trout introduced to Tibetan rivers. In southern Tibet, in Dromo dzong, with Sikkim further south, there are brown trout, possibly introduced by imperial British invaders in the early 20th century.[3] Invaders commonly congratulate themselves on calling conquest a civilising mission, by introducing new species, even setting up Acclimatisation Societies to encourage alien species to thrive. One of China’s official White Papers on Tibet, written when biodiversity was perhaps still a novel idea, boasted that China had added to biodiversity in Tibet by introducing several new fish species to Tibetan rivers and lakes.


Tibetans are unaccustomed to thinking of the homeland as a global frontier, at the leading edge of a globalised production system that forever restlessly moves forward, seeking new opportunities for production and profit.

However, Tibet now finds itself at the forefront of China’s ever-expanding aquaculture industry, making it a member of a club Tibetans would not choose to join. Aquaculture production is an integral aspect of fish extraction worldwide. China’s ambitions and appetites know no bounds, least of all on the oceans of the world where there is almost no law, no governance, only minimal monitoring of the locations of boats, for marine safety purposes. China with impunity plunders the world’s oceans, on an extraordinary scale, trawling deep seas and also getting as close as possible to shallower continental shelf seas even if that means transgressing the Exclusive Economic Zones countries can draw around their land, well out to sea.

In practice, many of the developing countries urged to model themselves on China lack ability to patrol their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and chase away illegal trawling by Chinese fleets which at times cluster hundreds of boats into an armada. Not many poor countries have the will and the ability to intercept Chinese fishing boats and confiscate their frozen catch of any and all species caught in the nets. Further, Chinese fishing companies make arrangements with local fishers, for example in Ghana, so who owns the boats, who owns and profits from the fish caught, is often unclear. Fortunately, this has scandalised so many conservationists worldwide there are now several NGO networks closely monitoring what goes on at sea. They are natural allies of the Tibetans, far inland.

a new Danish owned factory making fish feed pellets for captive caged fish feeding, a major ingredient is pulverised “trash fish” caught worldwide

For China, yesterday’s fish production frontier was Ghana, in West Africa. Today’s frontier is Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. Tomorrow’s frontier is the scaling up of Tibetan trout aquaculture, in a further intensification and exploitation of common pool resources.

Does this really integrate Tibet into global seafood business? The feed pellets fed to trout in Tibetan dams are largely made from ground up fish. Feeding fish to fish is normal, a standard practice in aquaculture worldwide. The logic is straightforward: trawlers haul out of the sea everything that lives, inescapably caught in the net and hauled on board by powerful diesel-fuelled motors. However, some fish are in demand, many are not. In the industry those not fetching high prices are called “trash fish.” Small fish and fish that have a low market price are taken ashore, to factories where they are turned into fishmeal, which is then manufactured into fish feed pellets used in aquaculture as the main way of upping protein levels needed to maximise fastest growth of caged aquaculture fish.

China’s aquaculture industry consumed approximately 1.4million tonnes of fishmeal in 2015, and China has always been the largest importer of fishmeal from the global market. China also produces a large amount of fishmeal from ‘trash fish’. Trash fish are the small fish that form the low-value component of commercial catches. A large proportion of the trash fish available in China is composed of juveniles of commercially important species, small benthic and mesopelagic fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. Unfortunately, China’s capture fisheries have been fully or over-exploited. In addition to fishmeal, the production of fish feed pellets often requires various crop products, and soybean meal is another important protein source used in aquaculture feeds. However, the production of soybean meal requires considerable arable land that could be used to grow food crops for human consumption.”[4]

“eye eggs” flown to Tibet from Europe are fertilised fish eggs, inside the embryonic fish have developed eyes, proof the egg is fertile and ready to be airfreighted across Eurasia to Tibet

The fish fed to trout in Tibet, in dry pellets, may well have been caught in the Atlantic, taken ashore and processed in a fishmeal factory in Ghana. Fish in Tibet may be eating fish caught in the tropical Pacific, where huge Chinese predatory fleets prowl the unregulated oceans. In an elaborate industrial chain, the fish caught in a trawler net are then transferred, out in the remote ocean, to a much bigger ship, which eventually returns to China, its frozen accumulation of many trawler hauls on board, for processing. Out of sight, beyond regulation. It all happens so far from scrutiny that it is only recently that environmentalists have gathered the resources to monitor the movements of the trawlers and the big freezer ships, to reveal the pattern of their traffic.


We now know how and where fish are fed to fish, including Tibet. Tibet is an integral part of this globalised killing of billions of commercially worthless “trash fish”, for manufacture into expensive feed pellets, to produce premium priced fish favoured by wealthy urban Chinese consumers. Not only were Tibetans never asked to consent to this, the accelerating aquaculture industry in Tibet is badged as a poverty alleviation benefit to Tibet.

fish made in China and Tibet, or caught worldwide and then processed in China, are exported worldwide: UN FAO

China has long planned to similarly industrialise and intensify production of yak, sheep and goat meat from Tibet. If aquaculture is deemed a success, it will become a model for similar intensification, using similar cold chain logistics, to distant urban markets. Back in 1996 the regional congress of Tibet Autonomous Region formally approved what would be developed during the Ninth Five-Year Plan for 1996 to 2000. Official media announced: “We will adhere to the slogan of ‘raising livestock according to pastoral resources and raising more livestock’, increase the livestock growth and commodity rates and the rate of animals delivered to slaughterhouses. We should appropriately concentrate investment funds on building a number of centres for raising, slaughtering, storing, transporting and processing livestock and poultry in order to in crease the supply of livestock products.”[5]

In reality, such intensification of yaks as throughput for meat production failed to materialise as fast as planned, due to drogpa nomad stubborn insistence on herds on the hoof as their only social security. So, such plans have been recycled, in one Five-Year Plan after another. The infrastructure just didn’t exist, linking remote pastures to urban demand for beef, an unfamiliar addition to urban eating. But slowly, according to official statistics of all Tibetan areas in five provinces, slaughter rates have been rising. The big breakthrough could be the creation of a cold chain commodity flow, driven by demand for trout.

Danish fish food manufacturer BioMar seals the deal with Qinghai provincial government vice governor Yan Jinhai, 2019


China continues to plan accelerating slaughter rates for yaks. The state also intervenes in China’s global exploitation of fish stocks. This is not simply the free market at work, maximising profit.

China’s primary intervention is to heavily subsidise the price of the diesel fuel needed by fishing boats to get to distant fish populations, and to haul nets up from the deep. A 2019 analysis by the International Institute for Environment and Development quantified China’s subsidies to its roaming fishing industry at $16.37 billion a year, a huge amount, far bigger than in other fishing countries.[6]

China’s subsidies distort the global fishing industry (on right): International Institute of Environment and Development

If China’s official subsidies calculated per tonne of fish caught and brought ashore, it works out to $945.8 per tonne of fish caught. Not only is this far more than the subsidies paid by other governments to their fishers, it profoundly tilts the whole industry. It is this massive subsidy that makes it worthwhile to trawl the sea floor, netting anything and everything indiscriminately, since even the “trashiest” of those “trash fish” that are then turned into fishmeal are so heavily subsidised. If it weren’t for those massive subsidies, fishermen would be much more selective about what they catch and would leave the “trash fish” alone.

Vector Drawing of the eight auspicious, Buddhist symbols, also called eight treasures (Ashtamangala): Wheel of law (Dharmachakra), Lotus flower (Padma), Endless Knot (Srivatsa), Jeweled Parasol (Chhatraratna), Conch Shell (Sankha), Victory Banner (Dhvaja), Treasure Vase (Kumbha) and a Pair of golden Fishes (Gaur-Matsya).

[1] Rui Ma et al., Protein nutrition on sub-adult triploid rainbow trout (1): Dietary requirement and effect on anti-oxidative capacity, protein digestion and absorption, Aquaculture 507 (2019) 428–434

[2] Zhiyun Ouyang et al, Using gross ecosystem product (GEP) to value nature in decision making, PNAS | June 23, 2020 | vol. 117 | no. 25 | 14593–14601

[3] FuHua Hao & YiFeng Chen,  The reproductive traits of brown trout (Salmo trutta fario L.) from the Yadong River, Tibet, Environmental Biology of Fishes (2009) 86:89–96

[4] Wing Yin Mo et al., Use of food waste, fish waste and food processing waste for China’s aquaculture industry: Needs and challenge, Science of the Total Environment 613–614 (2018) 635–643

[5] Xizang Ribao, 7 June 1996

[6] Robert Arthur, Stephanie Heyworth, John Pearce, The cost of harmful fishing subsidies, International Institute of Environment and Development, Working paper 2019,


Blog two of five on an industry totally new to Tibet: mass manufacture of millions of alien trout in hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River

Of the many dams China has built athwart the Ma Chu in Amdo, by far the biggest in size is the highest, Longyangxia, although other dams below generate more electricity. Longyangxia, completed in 1987, is also the oldest of the Amdo dams, built at a time when most of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee were engineers. Initially fish cultivation in reservoirs was a distant dream, although the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation helped set up fish farming, in Longyangxia, as early as 1990.

ཨང་གྲངས། ཆུ་མཛོད་མིང་། རྫོང་། ཁུལ། གནས་བབས། 
1.        Ma er dang 玛尔挡 མར་སྟེང་། Martengརྨ་ཆེན། It’s in Ragya Town.མགོ་ལོག། 2018 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 
2.        Yang qu 羊曲 གཡང་འཁྱིལ། Yangkyil བྲག་དཀར། མཚོ་ལྷོ། 2016 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 
3.        La xi wa 拉希瓦 ལ་ཟེ་བ LaSewaཁྲི་ཀ། མཚོ་ལྷོ། 2010 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 
4.        Li gorge   ངོས་མ་ཟིན། 1999 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 
5.        Da Gorge   ངོས་མ་ཟིན། 1998 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 
6.        Long yang xia 龙羊峡 ཚལ་རྔ་འགག Tsal nga gakགསེར་ཆེན། མཚོ་ལྷོ། 1992 བཟུང་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་བཞིན་པ། 


The case for constructing Longyangxia was focussed on hydropower, flood control, provisioning of irrigation water and protecting the downstream Yellow River from damage by floating ice. These remain the key purposes, and scientific research suggests Longyangxia has met those targets.[1] All of these outputs constitute economic growth and are classified as poverty alleviation for the local communities, another win-win for all. In reality Tibetans were removed from their lands to make way for Longyangxia’s man-made lake, and more have been displaced since the dam waters rose, by encroaching desertification, which was not officially attributed to climate change but to overgrazing by ignorant herders.[2]

Czech anthropologist Jarmila Ptackova did ethnographic fieldwork at Longyangxia between 2007 and 2013, 20 to 26 years since Longyangxia dam wall was completed, enough time to assess the dam’s impacts on local Amdowa Tibetan communities. She further reported in 2016 on plans to build more dams upriver from Longyangxia, but these have not yet been built.  “In Qinghai province, between the late 1970s and 2012, 47,640 people were forced to leave their original homes to make way for river dams and hydroelectric power stations, such as the Longyangxia, Lijiaxia, Gongboxia, Nina, Laxiwa, Kangyang, Zhiganglaka and Suzhi. Additional hydroelectric power stations – Bingling, Jishixia, Dahejia, Huangfeng, Banduo, Yangdian, Maerdang, Shitouxia and Nazixia – are under construction and will require the relocation of a further 51,855 people by 2020.

“The total surface area of the reservoir is 383 km2. The dam was built for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, ice control and the stair-step power stations along the Longyangxia-Qingtongxia section. The construction of Longyangxia began in 1976.  With a height of 178 m, on completion. The actual damming of the river began the first relocations of affected residents to state-employed engineers’ assumptions on the river’s behaviour, the water level and has had a huge impact on the local and agriculturalist inhabitants.

“Due to the still increasing water level, new villages and fields continue to be flooded. Moreover, because of strong water-level fluctuations, land and fields that normally stand above the actual water level are also occasionally being shoaled and are not suitable for agriculture any more. Thus, 30 years after the completion of the dam and the launching of the hydroelectric power station in

1986, the water level of the Longyangxia is still rising and continues to impact the surrounding environment, necessitating the relocation of more and more people.

“During the first relocation phase between 1977 and 1991, in Gonghe County 34 villages in five townships—a total of 3852 households—were relocated to make way for the Longyangxia reservoir. On the southern side of the dam, in Guinan County, additional villages had to be moved. Due to the continuous increase of the water level, some households and village communities from the Longyang basin have been forced to relocate up to three times since the start of the dam construction.”

In her detailed ethnographic fieldwork, Ptackova found many displaced Tibetans had been samadrog, both crop farming and livestock raising on grassland, requiring access to pasture. On being resettled, the land allocated to them enabled cropping, but no space was provided for grazing, which wrecks the balance between the two modes of production, essential to subsistence. Worse, a livestock feedlot for intensive animal production was set up right next to their resettlement village, which the resettlers did not own, but had to live with the effluent pollution from it.

stress faultline earthquake risks Longyangxia

Hydraulic engineers describe hydro dams as stable and predictable, especially big ones like Longyangxia, which can release huge amounts of water without the water level changing much. But in the experience of Tibetan villagers, and the local government that allocated land to resettle, Longyangxia continued to rise, and villagers had to move again.


Ptackova: “After only about two years, however, the village was again forced to move to a new location near Guomaying town. In the new settlement the houses were paid for and constructed by the government. Although use rights over some agricultural land were granted to the villagers, again no grazing space suitable for keeping livestock was made available and in the tight courtyards it is difficult to build even small animal sheds.”

Jarmila Ptackova takes us to the: “11 local Tibetan communities which were resettled when the Longyangxia canyon was flooded. The new village is situated close to the Guinan County seat, about 30 km away from the original site. Though these resettled Tibetans were also semi-pastoralists, the Lagan village has no pasturelands attached. On the available fields, the variety of possible crops is limited due to the colder climate. While in the former location the villagers planted tomatoes and melons, rapeseed is now the main crop. The relocated Tibetans families were granted some funds to build new houses by themselves.

“The villagers were informed about the damming project only when the construction works were already in progress and were assured that the water level would not reach their village and agricultural land. However, though Demang village was not among those originally to be flooded, it was affected at a later stage due to the unforeseen ongoing increase in the water table many years after the dam construction was completed. When the fields became flooded, the villagers demanded help from the local government, which decided to solve the problem through relocation.

“Though it did not destroy all the fields, the landscape changes inflicted by the construction of the dam caused severe logistical problems for the Tibetan community in the old Demang village. The village was situated 35 km from the Gonghe county town, which was also its nearest market place. Though the villagers had to cross the Yellow River on the way, the water level in this section was comparatively low and the river itself was relatively narrow. This changed with the construction of the Longyangxia dam and other dams and reservoirs further downstream. Since the Longyangxia canyon was flooded, the Demang villagers have to travel between 130 to 250 km around the reservoir in order to reach Gonghe.

photo: Michael Orenich

“As in the majority of cases of relocation it also became more difficult for the villagers to reach monasteries and request monks to perform rituals, the lack of a public worship place has usually been among the main points of complaint in relocation sites. in the new Demang village also the prospective villagers were not consulted during the planning and design phase. As a result, the new concrete houses are considered uncomfortable by the majority of resettled villagers and those with sufficient financial means construct a second, wooden building in the style of a Qinghai farming house next to it. It is now these new wooden houses that serve as the main living quarters for the resettled families.


“The transformation into a water landscape destroys the ecosystems around the reservoir as animal and plant habitats vanish. Damming may also even enhance soil erosion and trigger earthquakes around the dams and reservoirs (International Rivers 2010), further negatively influencing the lives of the inhabitants of the affected areas. The secondary impact is felt in an indirect way over a long period and continues to have an influence on larger and more distant plots of land. When resettling the population away from the nascent reservoir, new sites have to be developed to host the new settlements, and it is often the case that hillsides or grassland are adopted for cultivation, such as in the case of Lagan village. The concentration of the population in new centralised settlements and the extensive use of local land, however, further exacerbate the degradation of the environment and thus lead to even more environmental resettlement projects. Moreover, the resettled population is exposed to rapid changes in livelihood and ‘involuntary relocation usually results in people being transferred from a social environment in which they were primary actors to one in which they are aliens’, a situation which can further lead to conflicts with the previous users of the land. The resettlement did not lead to the shift of household registration to the new location. Instead, the registration remained at the original village site, even though some of the communities were resettled to different counties. This leads to additional complications and hampers integration in the new administrative unit. Adapting to new locations is, of course, most difficult for elderly people, who find it hard to establish new social networks and join in the cash-generating labour.

“For the relocated people, however, major challenges begin with the implementation, when alternative livelihoods must be created. In new settlements, because no livestock is held, daily expenses usually rise. Thus, even when fields can provide food for the family, the majority of the younger generation have to seek out additional sources of income. In new settlements, potential for employment or business activity is limited, owing to the shortage of customers. Low education levels, limited Chinese language and management skills, low investment capacity and the inability to deal with the challenge of leaving the village additionally hinder the shift to a new profession and integration in urban economies.

“By placing the new settlements closer to towns and communication routes, the government obviously hopes to facilitate finding employment. However, the competition among unqualified workers is continuously on the rise owing to immigration of predominantly Han and Hui workers from other provinces. Therefore, even in settlements established more than 10 years ago, such as the one near Gumaying, a substantial portion of the population has been unable to find a sustainable substitute for their previous occupation and lives in a prolonged state of precariousness.”

photo: Rinchen Lucy Ato


These nine dams on the Ma Chu in Amdo (Yellow River in Qinghai) fit into a wider context of damming. In 2019 the World Bank[3] reviewed China’s experience of hydro dams and displaced local communities, based on an in-depth investigation by the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute (CREEI): “Since the 1970s, China’s planners have promoted hydropower projects as a strategically vital means to increase electricity generation for national development. The scale of hydropower development has increased significantly in more recent decades. More than 3,300 medium- or large-scale hydropower projects have been constructed — the Three Gorges Project being the largest and most famous — with China’s hydropower output now totalling about one-third of the global total. The construction of these sizable dams and the filling of the reservoirs behind them has caused population resettlement on a massive scale, with an estimated 24 million Chinese people relocated to accommodate hydropower schemes since the 1970s.

“The Chinese experience shows that relying solely on a command and control approach to land acquisition and resettlement will not promote successful resettlement. Affected people can restore their lives and livelihoods more quickly and efficiently if they are allowed — and encouraged — to be actively involved in their own rehabilitation. The CREEI Report highlights the importance of a people-centred approach in which people are provided timely and useful information about matters affecting them, are engaged in formulating plans, and have accessible and reliable means to raise complaints and concerns to relevant officials. The significance of this approach however is not solely that affected people are given a voice; it is that structured arrangements are in place to increase the probability that their voice will be heard and will get some form of response.”

Although Ptackova’s fieldwork shows local Tibetan communities get almost no say in how their displacement and resettlement are designed and implemented, according to CREEI and World Bank, China is learning to listen: For the Gongboxia Hydropower Station Project, in response to affected persons’ preferences, special measures were planned to minimize cultural disruption for Tibetan, Hui and Salar minority members who were among those to be affected. In some instances, separate resettlement sites were prepared, or ethnically differentiated villages were provided within shared sites. Site planning included culturally appropriate housing design and layout, and religious facilities were provided at or near village centres.

“For the Yangqu Hydropower Station Project in Qinghai, planners recognized that normal valuation procedures for structures would not capture the less tangible sources of value Tibetans attached to religious facilities and activities that occur within them. The local resettlement officials instituted a consultative process with local religious leaders to determine appropriate replacement sites and appropriate means of support to enable religious leaders and adherents to agree to relocation arrangements.”

These are encouraging signs, yet no-one has ever asked Tibetan communities how they feel about farming alien trout by the millions, killing, gutting, chilling, packing and airfreighting them off to China’s wealthiest cities. It remains axiomatic, in the eyes of central leaders, that this is development and poverty alleviation, a benefit to the Tibetans.

Until 2000 aeolian (wind) desertification advanced towards southeast, close to Gonghe & Longyangxia dam


Ptackova’s fieldwork around Longyangxia dam villages concluded in 2013. While she was in the field the precarity of life among the Tibetans displaced was intensified by encroaching desertification. To the northwest, landscapes have been slowly desiccating over a long period, summer rains from distant Indian and Pacific monsoons have failed to arrive, desertification has crept towards these marginal villages. Tibetan villagers in these districts only ploughed the small areas that were fairly flat and well-watered. On relocation, they had to plough the grassland, only to see seasons where expected rains failed to arrive, turning exposed soils to dust, readily blown away by strong winds, with a loss of soil fertility. To make matters worse, they were blamed for desertification.

Work constructing the first big dam athwart the Ma Chu began in 1976. The last of the nine dams (so far) was completed in 2010. In those 34 years, much of Qinghai has desertified, especially along the Ma Chu near the Longyangxia dam. This has not been a problem for the river, which is plentifully watered from far upstream, not only from the source glaciers but from meandering over 1400 kms through lush alpine pastures and water meadows, slowly making its braided way across plateau land that is almost flat. Much further down the same river, the Huang He/Yellow River takes a massive turn north and then east through the deserts of Inner Mongolia, a lifeline for all production, from livestock to heavy industry.

Longyangxia dam at top of map

But desertification in the northwest of the Tibetan Plateau greatly alarmed China’s policy makers, who were quick to attribute blame to “irrational” Tibetans, often the same folk who had been displaced by dams, no longer given access to sufficient grassland to graze livestock flexibly and sustainably, by moving on well before the frasses were exhausted. The displaced Tibetans often had to subsist solely by ploughing the soil, to rely on cropping, even though the experience of breaking the grassland soil in Inner Mongolia was disastrous, decades earlier.[4]

Both in Inner Mongolia and then in Qinghai the driver is wind, the result is aeolian desertification. There is nothing new about the fierce winds that blow hard from even deeper in inner Asia, capable of stripping bare earth of soil, leaving behind only pebbles and rocks. Much of the Chang Tang alpine desert of upper Tibet, in the west of the plateau, is a gibber plain of pebbles bared by those fierce winds. Even though Tibetan Zhang Zhung civilisation initially flourished in what is now a barren land, the wind drove then further and further east, leaving behind the remains of the irrigation channels and stone shelters built when these landscapes, thousands of years ago, supported human use.

China’s unfamiliarity with the deep history of Tibetan (and Inner Mongolian) landscapes, and with the long, slow history of creeping desiccation, led to alarm. Someone must be to blame. The obvious people to blame were/are the nomads of Tibet, even though, in this 21st century, past millennia of drying climate change has now reversed, and most Tibetan areas are now steadily getting wetter. That increase in rain and in lake levels, well measured by Chinese scientists, should suffice to drop blaming the nomads for desertification, yet the blame has outlived the science.

Chinese scientists mapping of the spread of desertification towards Tso Ngonpo/Qinghai Lake (top right on each map) and nearby Longyangxia dam; then after 2000 desert starts to retreat. Climate change is credited with desert retreat; irrational nomads are blamed for desert advance.


Recently, Chinese scientists have discovered they were wrong to assume the Tibetan Plateau, prior to China measuring it, was static and timeless, just like China’s assumptions about the Tibetans.[5] Far from being in equilibrium, the Tibetan Plateau was gradually drying, then climate change reversed the trend. The team of scientists who mapped the advance of windblown aeolian desertification to the shores of the Longyangxia dam; and then since 2000 the retreat of the desert, neatly attribute the reversal to climate change and China’s wise statist projects, while hanging the blame for pre-2000 desertification on “irrational” Tibetans.[6] This is in line with official policy, which no-one in China would dare to contradict.

Aeolian desertification on the Qinghai Tibet Plateau QTP has changed from expansion to reversal since 1977. From1977 to 2000, aeolian desertification expanded throughout the plateau, and irrational human activity was the dominant factor responsible for the expansion of aeolian desertified land ADL. Since 2000, reversal of desertification was the dominant process, and the ADL area decreased gradually. Irrational human activities were the dominant factor responsible for the expansion of aeolian ADL prior to 2000, whereas the subsequent reversal was mainly caused by climate change combined with large ecological restoration projects. Overgrazing damaged the natural vegetation and the soil structure, thereby making the soil more vulnerable to the development of aeolian desertification. Additionally, other irrational human activities, such as grassland reclamation and deforestation, are common on the QTP. These activities also damaged the natural vegetation and the soil, making the soil more vulnerable to the development of aeolian desertification. Therefore, irrational human activities, such as overgrazing, are the main reason for the development of aeolian desertification during those periods.”[7]

The mention of deforestation and “grassland reclamation”, which means ploughing grassland to make it farmland, is a discreet and muted critique of official policies, followed by crediting China for more recently attempting to reforest what it deforested. Bottom line: nomads are irrational, and to blame.

The advancing desert near the Longyangxia hydro dam deeply worried China’s central planners. Blame seemed to be due to Tibetans, both traditional pastoralists and relocated Longyang Gorge villagers relocated to the pasture lands, who “with little foresight” ploughed the grassland, despite average annual rainfall of only 300mm, often much less.

The condition of grassland degradation was insignificant before the 1980s. The Longyangxia Reservoir had not yet been built, and grassland in the northern region of the Muge Bottomland was controlled by the military [state farm]. Moreover, the presence of inhabitants (approximately 30 000 in 1972) engaging in agriculture practices was scarce in the Muge Bottomland while the total sheep population of Guinan County was approximately 458 000, less than the theoretical carrying capacity number of 463 262 for pastureland in Guinan County. Human disturbance to grassland regions was therefore light prior to the 1980s. Grasslands in the region at that time were described as heavy and thick. Grassland degradation became severe during the 1980s and 1990s. The management of Muge Bottomland grasslands was handed over from the military to the local authorities increasing the agriculture population moving into the Muge Bottomland region. In 1986, the Longyangxia Reservoir had commenced operation and began to reserve water submerging some grassland underwater. The population of Guinan County reached 60 000 in 1995, double the 1972 population. The sheep population of Guinan County reached 932 458 in 1996, reaching well beyond the theoretical carrying capacity for pastureland in Guinan County. Grassland was cultivated intensively with little foresight being overgrazed by yaks and sheep leading to grassland degradation. Animal husbandry output began to decrease while the development speed of the regional economy began to falter due to this degradation. The grassland crisis reached severe levels of degradation by the 1990s.”[8]

This was the standard narrative, repeated endlessly in both scientific reports and policy statements. However, in more recent years, climate change has been acknowledged as a main driver of desertification. This recognition has occurred because climate change has now started to reverse the long historic trend towards drying, with rainfall and temperature increases.


Longyangxia is one of nine hydro dams intercepting the Ma Chu below the new national park protected area of Sanjiangyuan, the Three River Source park. Other dams have also not worked out as planned. By impounded water area, Longyangxia is the biggest of the nine, but by electricity output the biggest is Laxiwa, further downriver.

Laxiwa is a dam wedged between granite canyon walls, a dramatic location that attracted the hydro engineers because it is a natural pinch point. The planned electricity generating capacity of Laxiwa’s turbines is 4200 megawatts (MW), which is more than three times what Longyangxia can generate. By comparison the three dams generating hydropower for Lhasa between them are capable of generating only 10 per cent of what Laxiwa was designed to produce.[9]

But this meant the turbines turning the down rush of captured water into electricity had to be in a huge excavated chamber blasted out of the granite, deep underground.

Granite is hard, having cooled slowly from molten rock pushed up from deep within, taking long enough to cool to form a crystalline structure. However, under renewed pressure, granite can fragment and even shatter, with dramatic consequences. In choosing granite walled Laxiwa as the location for a major dam, China’s hydro engineers took a great and expensive risk. What if the granite collapsed and crushed the underground turbine chamber? What if the rising waters of the Laxiwa dam lubricated fractures in the granite walls on either side of the dam?

Longyangxia was completed in 1987, Laxiwa in 2010, the newest of the Ma Chu dams (along with the smaller Jishixia dam further down the Ma Chu in Tsongkha/Haidong). There are reasons why the location appealed to engineers: “A high steep slope encourages the construction and operation of the high dams. First, the high slope itself is an important component of the overall structure of the dam providing the bedrock capable of bearing water load, resisting dam thrust forces and enabling the positioning of hydraulic structures. The low permeability of the rockmass may play an important role in controlling the water seepage in the reservoir and the slope with rock of good lithology is in harmony with the environment and so improves the overall stability of the dam. Second, a high slope is very helpful to the construction process enabling the provision of convenient traffic routes, the positioning of concrete mixing plant and the mooring of winch platforms and other large plant items within the slope.”[10]

However, the topography hydro engineers find so attractive has its dangers: “Sudden changes in water levels and earthquakes during the operation periods may all greatly affect the stability of the slope. Once the high steep slope becomes unstable, the resultant landslide of material into the water is likely to cause severe secondary disasters, such as the creation of dammed lakes, debris flow and even dam overtopping.  The construction of the Three Gorges dam in China has triggered 430 landslides, and approximately 5400 other potentially dangerous sites have been identified and are being monitored.  These landslides caused losses of billions of dollars and forced 100,000 people to leave their home village. Studies have shown that these landslides were caused by long-term water seepage, which saturated and weakened the face of the slope through the slow process of the slope immersion during the filling process of the reservoir.”

Filling of the Laxiwa dam began in the early spring of 2009. Within two months, before the summer rains that swell the Ma Chu, the granite canyon wall started to deform, so badly it was visible from satellites in orbit hundreds of kilometres above.[11]

Because the deforming slope is about 700 m high and 1,000 m wide in average and is very close to the dam site, if collapse would occur, it could greatly damage or destroy the dam and other facilities. Besides, the possible wave would flood the downstream area, greatly threatening people living there and downstream hydraulic schemes.” [12]

In 2016 the landslide accelerated, during an unexceptional summer monsoon, as rainwater infiltrated the rock face:  “Although most of the daily precipitation was less than 10mm and almost no heavy rainfall larger than 36 mm/day occurred, the continuous rainfall may still have an impact on the landslide stability. Rainwater infiltrated into the cracking rock and increased the pore water pressure, which thereby decreased the shearing strength during potential slide/toppling events and thus intensified the deformation. Furthermore, stronger sunshine and larger day-night temperature differences in summer are likely to aggravate the weathering effects on the slope surface.”[13]

Chinese scientists say this is similar to the Vajont landslide in northern Italy in 1963, when 300 million cubic metres of rock crashed into the dam in just 45 seconds, sending such a huge amount of water over the top of the dam wall that 2500 people were killed. The cause of that landslide was the same as at Laxiwa, a reactivation of an old landslide, triggered by fluctuations in the reservoir level. If ever there was an accident waiting to happen………

[1] Jun Qiu et al., Evaluation of Environmental and Ecological Impacts of the Leading Large-Scale Reservoir on the Upper Reaches of the Yellow River, Sustainability, 2019, 11, 3818;  htpps://

[2] Jarmila Ptackova, Making Space for Development: A Study on Resettlement from the Longyangxia Water Reservoir Area of Qinghai Province, Inner Asia , 2016, Vol. 18, No. 1, 152-166

[3] A Review Of Resettlement Management Experience In China Hydropower Projects: Identifying key lessons learned, World Bank, 2019,

[4] Dee Mack Williams, Beyond Great Walls: Environment, identity and development on the Chinese grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Stanford, 2002

[5] Guangyin Hu et al., Holocene aeolian activity in the Headwater Region of the Yellow River, Northeast Tibet Plateau, China: A first approach by using OSL-dating, Catena, 149 (2017) 150–157

[6] Chun-Lai Zhang et al., Monitoring of aeolian desertification on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau from the 1970s to 2015 using Landsat images,  Science of the Total Environment 619–620 (2018) 1648–1659

[7] Zhang, Monitoring of aeolian desertification, 2018

[8] Y. Feng et al., Assessment Of Grassland Degradation In Guinan County, Qinghai Province, China, In The Past 30 Years, Land Degradation and  Development, 20: 55–68 (2009)

[9] The hydro dams generating electricity for Lhasa are Yamdrok Tso, operational since 1998, generating capacity  112.5 MW; Pondo, completed 2013, 160 MW generating capacity; and Drigung  completed  2007,  100MW generating capacity. Lhasa’s rapid urbanisation has outpaced these expensive dams, resulting in the installation of an ultra-high voltage power grid from Amdo Gormo (Qinghai Golmud) to Lhasa to meet electricity demand.

[10] Peng Lin et al., Large Deformation Analysis of a High Steep Slope Relating to the Laxiwa Reservoir, China, Rock Mechanics and  Rock Engineering (2016) 49:2253–2276

[11] Zhang DX, Wang GH, Yang TJ, Zhang MC, Chen SH (2013) Satellite remote sensing-based detection of the deformation of a reservoir bank slope in Laxiwa Hydropower Station, China. Landslides 10:231–238.

[12] Menghua Li et al., Monitoring active motion of the Guobu landslide near the Laxiwa Hydropower Station in China by time-series point-like targets offset tracking, Remote Sensing of Environment, Vol 221, February 2019, 80-93

[13] Menghua Li et al., Monitoring active motion


Blog three of five on an industry totally new to Tibet: mass manufacture of millions of alien trout in hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River


While trout production in Tibet has taken off, there has been much trouble at the far end of the commodity chain, among wealthy urban consumers in Shanghai and other cities. The trouble is over whether the fish from Tibet are trout or salmon, which is more prestigious, since salmon is better known as an expensive imported fish, capable of enhancing the reputation (and human quality, suzhi) of he who stages a banquet featuring such a luxury.

Shanghai fish market

The agitation by consumers keen to performatively display their sophisticated tastes peaked in 2018, with demands that salmon, Salmo salar,  and trout Oncorhynchus mykiss be separately labelled, otherwise ostentatious displays of wealth, featuring imported salmon, will be haunted by accusations of using cheaper Tibetan fish. It culminated in a showdown three hour session in Shanghai, with scientists and lawyers for consumers demanding labelling separating the two alien species, while the trade association tried to fudge the difference. This was reported in detail by major media. CCTV even did a mini investigative 11 minutes doco, with footage taken by drone flying over the Tibetan trout cages.

This consumer revolt comes just as state capitalism in Tibetan man-made lakes was at last gathering momentum. As elsewhere in China, the distinction between private enterprise and the all-powerful party-state is blurry. The key operator is 青海民泽龙羊峡生态水殖有限公司 the Qinghai Minze Longyangxia Ecological Aquaculture Co. Ltd., which has much official support.

corporate logo of Lon Yan Xa, operator of the fish farms in Amdo Longyang Gorge dam

There is inevitably a Qinghai province “Implementation Plan for Accelerating the Green and Organic Development of Fishery Farming” which regulates the impounded waters, a public good created by state investment in damming, promising to protect the rights of operators and subcontractors, while also defining which areas can be farmed, and which are off-limits. These regulations give maximum rent extraction opportunities to officials, in exchange for official permissions. Privatising public goods privatises rents. The existence of a published regulatory regime also assures consumers the fish protein they eat is certified organic and clean, justifying a high price. Another win-win, except for the fish.

Part of the marketing pitch for the rainbow trout-cum-salmon produced in Tibetan dam reservoirs is that the slaughtered, gutted, packed and chilled fish are then rushed to Xining airport for fast delivery to coastal consumers. By road Xining is no more than two hours away.

China’s appetite for salmon has been influenced by Japanese tastes, which means eating fishmeat raw. This is a further driver of consumer insistence that supply must be clean and disease free. The regulatory regime governing production is meant to assure consumers the entire supply chain is clean and green.

In reality, it’s a bit more complicated. Industrial aquaculture relies on feeding pellets of manufactured formulated dry food to the growing fish, some of which may not be eaten, thus adding to the nutrient level of the lake. Growing fish excrete wastes, which further add to nutrient levels. Further, preventing pandemics among fish penned closely together inside cages usually means adding antibiotics to their feed. The slaughter, scale removal and gutting of farmed fish adds more wastes to be disposed of, or fed back to the remaining fish, part of the pelletised prefabricated fish food.

The scaling up of rainbow trout production in Tibetan dam lakes is so recent, there seems as yet little evidence of nutrient pollution.[1] Extra nutrients would foster phytoplankton and algae blooms, which can and do occur in fish farm lakes around the world. The dam lakes are considered oligotrophic, which means they are rich in oxygen but poor in nutrients. If, however, plans for further intensification of trout sold as salmon are realised, production will rise much more, far beyond the 15,000 tons of fish a year now. Officially, there is a ceiling of 30,000 tons production limit,[2] but premium consumer price payments make greater production a great temptation.

aquaculture fed fish now dominate global fish production: FAO


Tibet is now globalised, integrated into the global flows of fish eggs, fish feed and slaughtered fish competing for top price in Shanghai supermarkets.

Tibetans were never asked if this was the path to development and future prosperity. China takes it for granted that the implantation of a trout farming industry in the artificial lakes behind China’s ma Chu chain of dams in Amdo is by definition beneficial to Tibet.

Not only is Tibet thus globalised, without any debate or discussion, this global trafficking in fish enmeshes Tibet in the global politics of luxury consumption. China chose to punish Norway for awarding Nobel Prizes to dissident Chinese, by slashing imports of Norwegian salmon. Once that punishment ran its course, the traffic returned to normal, so much so that refrigerated Norwegian salmon are airfreighted to China, with the planes returning empty. That adds to climate heating emissions across Eurasia.

Whether Norway is punished or rewarded by China now impacts on Tibet, causing spikes and slumps in demand, making Tibetan fish farms more or less valuable. Tibet is thus caught up in the multiple ethical dilemmas of intensive industrial aquaculture, without having any say at all.


There are ethical issues about introducing alien species on a river which, upstream, in the huge Sanjiangyuan (Three river source) National Park is dedicated above all to protecting native Tibetan biodiversity. Introducing triploid trout which cannot interbreed with native Tibetan fish reduces risks, but alien species can be highly invasive, if they escape their immersion in steel cages. For native fish this is a double challenge, since they cannot get over concrete dam walls to continue their migrations up and down river, especially when there is a cascade of nine hydro dams on a short span of river. A cascade of interruptions.

There are ethical issues on the feeding of antibiotics to the impounded trout in their cages, which has been done routinely, not only to control diseases among fish packed tightly but also because laboratory research suggests trout fed erythromycin or other antibiotic medicines grow faster, which means more profit. This has been highly controversial, at a time when bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotics, and the world is running out of antibiotics that are effective against human infections.

Further, the trout bred in Tibetan reservoirs have a pale flesh, not the orange-red that consumers expect of trout, even more of salmon, which the Qinghai industry hopes to mix up in consumer minds.

The solution is to feed astaxanthin to the growing trout, as a further feed additive. Astaxanthin can be extracted from algae and yeasts, but also from salmon and other seafood species. [3] In Tibetan eyes, this may be similar to being required to eat your mother.

Ethical issues surround the impact on water quality in the dams and below, of penning millions of fish in cages. The fish consume the oxygen dissolved in the water, and release their wastes into the water. Feed pellets that are not snapped up by hungry fish sink into the water, providing nutrients for much else to grow, far beyond their natural occurrence. The balance of nature is upset.

For Tibetans, industrial fish production is in itself an ethical issue, at a time when a revitalised vegetarian movement, expounded by popular Buddhist teachers, attracts many Tibetans, who are reminded by their religious guides that Chinese like to buy fish live, and drop them alive into boiling water. This horror has deep roots in Tibetan culture. In 1370 Dorje Lingpa spontaneously sang a song of sadness at the karmic consequences for fishermen, in what today is Bhutan, whose lives were given over to catching and killing so many sentient beings.[4] His song is part of a widely known and popular tradition of songs remonstrating with local communities over wasting this precious life on fleeting satisfactions. Songs sung in contemporary Tibet celebrate community sociability with metaphors of golden fish:

“The beginning of my song/is nine floors of a golden/building in a walled city.

The sun rises naturally on a/golden nine-floor building.

The middle of my song is/a sprout of branches.

Cuckoos naturally fly around/sprouting branches.

The end of my song is a rising/lake. Golden fish naturally/swim around in a rising lake.”[5]

Dorje Lingpa

The golden fish, gser nya in Tibetan, are one of the eight auspicious symbols found repeatedly in Buddhist imagery, signifying fortune and fearlessness. Tibetan ethnographer Kabzung (Ga’errang in pinyin Chinese) says: “During my fieldwork, many Tibetans told me that certain types of living beings are associated with much greater evil deeds than others; for instance, fish is one such sinful food.”[6] The embedded Tibetan custom of tsethar, of ritually freeing animals destined for slaughter to live out their lives undisturbed, has been extended to fish, which Tibetans buy live in Chinese wet markets, to release them back into rivers.


Yet are we making a big deal out of a small industry? The trout cages on the Ma Chu in Amdo currently produce only 15,000 tons of fish a year. Compared to global production and consumption of trout, that’s not a lot. Compared to global factory farming of salmon, it’s even less, even if the farmed trout never get bigger than four kilos, so 15,000 tons is four to five million fish a year.

In the wider context, China is by far the world’s biggest producer of aquaculture fish, both from inland and coastal waters; as well as sending its fishing fleets worldwide to capture fish in international waters, process them in China, then export. In every aspect of fish and seafood production, China is a giant, its predatory fishing fleets much resented by developing countries ill equipped to defend their waters.

“China, the world’s largest fishing nation, has a distant water fishing fleet estimated between 4,000 to 17,000 vessels (compared to 300 for the United States). This fleet accounts for 15% of the global fish catch and 40% of global fishing effort.  China’s fleet fishes in the sovereign waters of more than 50 countries.”

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, China’s aquaculture production is edging close to 50 million tons a year (inland and coastal).

Danish fish food manufacturer BioMar now manufactures in China

However in Tibet, this is an industry that is young, just beginning to scale up. Even though Chinese and United Nations fish experts have been trying to mass manufacture fish in Tibetan reservoirs for three decades or more, only now has production taken off. This is an industry that could intensify and accelerate greatly; that’s the plan.

What has held back production is decades of failure, despite the best efforts of the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, which remains an enthusiastic promoter of aquaculture. UNFAO initially suggested salmon would be suitable, but one disaster after another followed.

Now Wang Guojie, deputy director of the Qinghai Fishery Environmental Monitoring Station, has a 2020 long list of ongoing problems in those Ma Chu dams, and ambitions, if this industry is to achieve its wealth accumulation goals:

“There are currently at least five problems restricting the expansion of our industrialization scale: First, the control of cage culture capacity has not been strictly implemented. Since Gongboxia Reservoir, Suzhi Reservoir, and Lijiaxia Reservoir are jointly managed by two or three counties, although there are reservoir breeding capacity quotas, the reservoirs are not subdivided by counties, and the lack of specific and effective strict control measures has caused some poorly implemented regional breeding capacity control. 

“Second, the implementation of relevant systems for biosafety management is not strict. Some farms have inadequate implementation of biological safety management system measures such as vehicles, non-standard disinfection of personnel, lack of treatment facilities for diseased and dead fish, etc.; some farms are backward in fish disease diagnosis and epidemic prevention and control technologies and methods, and the risk of epidemic diseases still exists ; Individual farms are self-propagating and self-breeding, and lack of relevant quarantine procedures for reporting and filing, which not only brings a great epidemic risk to the salmon trout cage culture industry in Qinghai Province, but also poses a potential threat to the ecological safety of wild fish in the Yellow River. 

“The third is to improve the production and supply of improved varieties. At present, there are three salmon trout breeding farms in Qinghai Province, which supply aquaculture production. The supply of refined species is totally dependent on foreign imports and there is no own breeding technology, which has become the bottleneck of the development of the salmon trout industry in our province. 

“Fourth, brand building is not strong enough. Although the trout culture environment of salmon trout in Qinghai Province is excellent, the farming mode and facilities are advanced, and the product quality is good, due to the large number of existing farm brands, the product quality is uneven, no regional common brand has been formed, and the brand awareness is not high. The premium potential of the common brand has not yet been realized, affecting product sales and breeding efficiency. 

“Fifth, the service capacity of county-level aquatic stations needs to be improved, and there is a shortage of aquaculture professionals. Judging from the basic disaster situation in the past two years, the cages in some county farms are unreasonably set up, and the cages have been damaged due to floods and the cages have been stranded. Facilities such as quality testing cannot meet the needs of large-scale farming for aquatic product quality testing, water environment monitoring, and epidemic prevention and control, which has affected the effective development of grass-roots fishery science and technology public services.”

This long list of the problems of industrial intensification suggests, as is usual in China, that the party-state will step in, order intensification by decree, step up its subsidies, concessional finance, tax breaks and other incentives to ensure the industry succeeds.

In a time of accelerating intensification, Wang Guojie’s complaints signal the likelihood the Qinghai provincial party-state will step in and impose controls, plans and targets, effectively nationalising this new asset class, the waters of the man-made reservoirs behind the dam walls, to ensure not only greater profitability, but that the wealth capture opportunities go to well-connected urban cadres. This is standard. Wang Guojie’s case for intensification is the sole full-page feature story in the 2 June 2020 edition of the Qinghai Scitech News, a sure sign the developmentalist state, keen to further industrialise Amdo/Qinghai will step in.

With finance provided by the state owned policy banks, which must obey the party-state, many more trout cages could be built, on all the Amdo Ma Chu dams, connected to fully industrialised slaughter gutting, packing, chilling and air freight shipping to distant markets: a full cold commodity chain. Intensification means a capital-intensive industry, reliant on technology and standardised production protocols, employing few humans in a largely automated production line. Jobs for Tibetans -should they want such work- will be few.

source UN Food & Agriculture Organisation

The potential for upscaling is huge. The industry has managed to blur the distinction in consumer minds between trout and salmon, raising the tantalising prospect of joining the premium priced market for imported salmon, flown in from Norway.

How many trout could be produced in the 300 kms of cold, clear water of the nine hydro dams China has built on the Ma Chu in Amdo? The current 4 to 5 million fish a year could possibly be increased tenfold. This could be the start of something big, which in turn could become a model for similar cold commodity chains for sheep, goat and yak meat from Tibetan areas, a goal the party-state has planned for decades with only limited success so far. Once a fishmeat commodity cold chain exists, expanding it to process a range of meats is not so hard.

A feature of industrial agribusiness worldwide is that power is concentrated in the hands of the processors, distributors, marketers and retailers, not the producers. Power means the ability to capture the profits, while the actual producers get to take all the risks. This is a further reason why, apart from the ethical problems from a Tibetan perspective, this is an industry with very little potential for Tibetan participation, except as unskilled low paid workers.

Nonetheless, if the party-state gets behind the push to make Qinghai fish a brand attracting premium prices, it will be presented as a further success of development and poverty alleviation, yet another win-win.

[1] Shiyu Miao et al., Long‑term and longitudinal nutrient stoichiometry changes in oligotrophic cascade reservoirs with trout cage aquaculture, Scientific Reports, (2020) 10:13483 |

[2] Shiyu Miao 2020

[3] Roche F. Astaxanthin As a Pigmenter in Salmon Feed, Colour Additive Petition 7C02 1 1, United States Food and Drug Administration. Hoffman-La Roche Ltd.; Basel, Switzerland: 1987. Astaxanthin: Human food safety summary; p. 43

[4] Samten Karmay, Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in history, myths,  rituals and beliefs in Tibet,  vol 2, 2005, Mandala Book Point, 123

[5] Wendolyn Craun, Nomadic Amdo Tibetan Glu Folk Songs Within The Settings Of Tibetan Culture, History, Theory, And Current Usage, dissertation, Bethel University, 2011, 192

[6] Kabzung, Tibetan identity and Tibetan Buddhism in transregional connection : the contemporary vegetarian movement in pastoral areas of Tibet (China), Etudes mongoles, siberiennes, centrasiatiques et tibetaines, 47, 2016


Blog four of five on an industry totally new to Tibet: mass manufacture of millions of alien trout in hydro dams on the Ma Chu/Yellow River



The mean price paid by consumers for salmon sold in Shanghai supermarkets in 2017 was RMB 176 per kilo, almost $26, a price comparable to what consumers in western countries are willing to pay.[1] There is a lot of money to be made.

The wider context is that China is the biggest consumer and exporter of processed fish in the world, with a global fishing fleet extracting fish on an extraordinary scale worldwide. The US Department of Agriculture says: “China continued to be the world’s leading seafood producer in 2019, with production stable at 64.5 million metric tons (MMT). Aquaculture production was basically flat at 50.5 MMT, while wild catch fell to 14.0 MMT, a 5 percent decrease compared to 2018. E-commerce has become a popular way for Chinese consumers to purchase seafood products, leading some producers to shift their focus from foreign markets to domestic e-commerce channels.”[2]

Consumption of fish alien to China’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters is a sign of being an urban sophisticate, a discerning individual with cultivated tastes, a high-quality person others can look up to. Just about anyone in China can afford carp but eating salmon or rainbow trout demonstrates your superiority. Globally, only six per cent of fish eaten are salmon or trout.

China now produces around two million tonnes of fish from inland fish farms each year, which is 16 per cent of global inland fish production. This is an industry that worldwide is transitioning from small scale fish farming in farm ponds, to large scale industrial production. The transition from labour-intensive small scale to capital-intensive large scale is driven by the hunt for greater profit, which means concentrating on the highest priced fish, salmon and trout.

In 2015 wealthy Chinese in Beijing and Shanghai were surveyed to find out what they know about their virtue signalling consumption of the more expensive fish.[3] Most respondents showed little interest or concern about whether the fish they buy and consume are produced sustainably, or are in danger of extinction, often arguing that the high price consumers pay was the best protection against extinction.

The greater the industrialisation, and investment in cold chain commodity flows, the more premium priced fish, chilled, vacuum packed, standardised, barcoded, will be ready for export to the world. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts that China’s fish exports, which were 8.17 million tonnes in 2018 will rise to 8.7 million tonnes by 2030. This could include trout manufactured in Tibet, on the plate not only in China’s cities but cities worldwide, if China succeeds in its plan to intensify trout production in the Amdo Ma Chu.

China’s long-term ambition is to export premium priced as well as cheaper fish, processed, packaged and chilled. In the shorter term, while China remains an importer of prestigious fish such as salmon and trout, the priority is to scale up production. This is where the deep inland factory farms of the Ma Chu come in. If China can, as planned greatly increase the scale, intensity and profitability of trout farming, the market is ready.

This is especially so if the trout marketers, with the backing of the Qinghai provincial government can continue to conflate trout with salmon, to get top price. If fish farming in the reservoirs impounding the Ma Chu could reach 150,000 tons of trout a year and manipulate their pale flesh colour to match pink salmon, Qinghai would have a substantial industry. What we see now could be just the start.

How would Tibetans feel about 20, 30, 50 million trout produced and sold from Tibetan waters, as against the current five million? On the scale planned, there are major impacts and ethical issues beyond those raised earlier. Those ethical issues are familiar to Chinese consumers, as there have been many scandals, during this century’s aquaculture production boom, over the health of the farmed fish, the health of the waters they grow in, and the health of the humans who eat them. The bad reputation of the coastal aquaculture industry is a major reason to move doing business so far from the coast is higher, given the expense of shipping the fish in oxygenated trucks to the processing plant in Fuqing and their forswearing illegal drugs, which lowers survival rates and increases the growth period of most fish to five years from three years.”

More recently, the main concern has been the addition of antibiotic tetracycline to fish feed in trout farms worldwide.[4] In a globalised industry all fish farms, whether big or small, wherever they are, are under pressure to use such short cuts to reducing fish deaths and increasing profits. If they don’t adopt similar methods, their prices are uncompetitive. This applies even to the 762 small scale trout farms in Himachal Pradesh, India, in Kullu, Chamba, Shimla, Kinnaur and Mandi districts.[5]

A 2020 comprehensive guide to taking care of welfare of farmed trout is freely downloadable. This welfare manual, written by Norwegians, suggests a dawning awareness that fish are fellow sentient beings: “Many studies have shown that fish have a qualitative experience of the world, have a good ability to learn and remember, have anticipations of the future, have a sense of time, can associate time and place, can make mental maps of their surroundings, can know their group members and can cooperate with them. Fish can also learn by observing others, and some fish can even make innovations and use tools.”

What is fed to caged trout has many consequences. If the premanufactured feed is too low in nutrients, the fish don’t grow as fast as on competing fish farms, slowing production and reducing profit. If, however, the feed is too rich in nutrients, those nutrients build up in the water, feeding other organisms, changing the whole ecosystem. This is problematic in trout farms worldwide.[6] Scientists from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency calculate that in 2010 1.2 million tons of nitrogen entered fish farm waters worldwide, in excess of what was eaten by the farmed fish.[7] They forecast this figure is likely to rise, even though fish farmers do try to not overfeed.


Integrating Tibetan waters into a competitive global industry means these are all questions Tibetans, for the first time, need to consider. In a time of climate change, global industries have global impacts, and have to adapt to global challenges. Again, Tibetans never had to worry about such matters, back in the day, not so long ago, when all Tibetans “lived worlds where economic, social, and sacred ties were not separated. In Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, economist Kate Raworth calls for the need to recreate or re-recognize ties between economic activities and complex social, biological, and cultural systems. Such re-integration, she argues, is the foundation of a necessary shift from extractive to regenerative systems. She writes: ‘When political economy was split up into political philosophy and economic science in the late nineteenth century, it opened up a “moral vacancy” at the heart of public policymaking. Today economists and politicians debate with confident ease in the name of economic efficiency, productivity and growth—as if those values were self-explanatory—while hesitating to speak of justice, fairness and rights.’”[8]

Tibetans do seek to be heard on justice, fairness and rights. Displaced Tibetans may find it hard to scientifically measure antibiotic and effluent nutrient pollution in the Ma Chu trout farms. But Tibetans can recall the strengths of traditional Tibetan culture, which did not separate the lived world into separate realms of the economic and the sacred. To remember this is to discover a basis for questioning not only intensive trout farming but all of China’s campaigns to intensify production in Tibet.

The more trout farming is globalised, the more complex it gets, and harder to change in a good direction. China calls this development, as if such intensification, acceleration and productivism is automatically good, unquestionably beneficial.

China, the world’s aquaculture superpower, having encouraged fish farm intensification for decades, now struggles with the consequences. Pollution of soil and water by antibiotics fed to fish (and to feedlot farmed animals) is now so pervasive in eastern China, the scientists of the Key Laboratory of Environment and Population Health, National Institute of Environmental Health, Chinese Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, and Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and are alarmed.[9] They say: “China is facing serious antibiotic pollution in the environment, and it is becoming a significant threat to ecology and human health. The consumption of antibiotics in 2013 was approximately 162,000 tons, with 48% being used for humans and the rest for animals. This was 150 times more than the UK and 9 times more than the USA. Among the total consumption, more than 50,000 tons were emitted into water and soil environments.”

One Chinese answer is to relocate fish farming, away from polluted eastern China, far inland, to Tibet, starting again in landscapes Chinese consumers perceive to be pure and unpolluted. Fish farming along China’s coasts is a huge industry. Satellite remote sensing data monitoring concludes “China’s 2018 coastal zone raft aquaculture area comprised 194,110 ha, the cage aquaculture area covered 57,847,799 square meters.”[10]  If only part of this was transferred to Tibet, for a fresh start, the burden would be great.

A major ethical concern is what to feed to caged fish to maximise growth to a size suited to slaughter, which in industrial fish farming is usually electrocution followed by bleeding each trout to death.

Manufacturing pelletised dry feed for trout is a substantial industry, also globalised. For each kilo of weight gain in each fish, two kilos of feed pellets must be thrown into the water. Since those feed pellets are highly nutritious, with a very high proportion of protein, they could feed people directly. This is one of the biggest objections to fish farming: it is a highly inefficient use of scarce food. Further, the standard formula, in order to achieve a high level of protein and fish oil, includes a lot of cheaper fish that have been caught en masse, killed, dried, ground up and pelletised.  This means the wastes from killing the previous generation of rainbow trout -guts, bones, scales- are routinely gathered to feed the next generation, in addition to the inclusion of wild fish that get caught in fishermen’s nets but only attract low prices.

This barbaric, almost cannibalistic practice has long been routine, but global overfishing has become so widespread there is now a shortage of cheap fish in the oceans, and the industry is actively seeking vegetable based alternative pellet manufacture.

mahasiddha Luipa


Tibetan horror at consuming fish shows up in Tibetan art, illustrating the life of the Indian Buddhist adept Luipa  རྒྱ་གར་གྱི་གྲུབ་ཆེན།. Paintings of siddha Luipa usually show him eating the most revolting of foods: fish guts. This deliberately transgressive image is a visual reminder that if you are serious about fully awakening, there is no normal or abnormal, no convention, no boundary. Luipa is still revered in Tibet, 13 centuries after his life in India, for discovering -the hard way- that the inner path is no respecter of social norms. Luipa ‘s liminal, antinomian, playful story admonishes us all to see past what we consider normal: “As a young king on the island of Shri Lanka, Luipa felt only contempt for his wealth and power. He made one attempt to escape the royal palace but was stopped by his brothers who bound him in golden chains. On his second attempt he succeeded in bribing his guards, then disguising himself in rags he fled for the country of Rameshvaram. He became a simple yogin, sleeping on a bed of ashes and eating only what was given to him in his begging bowl. Despite his meagre conditions, he remained handsome and charming. When his travels brought him to Pataliputra he met a courtesan outside a house of pleasure who was an incarnate worldly Dakini. She told him that although he was quite spiritually advanced and pure, there was still a pea-sized obscuration of royal pride in his heart. She then poured some putrid rotten food into his begging bowl. When he thought she was gone, he threw the contents of the bowl into the gutter. The Dakini, who had secretly been watching him, appeared and scorned him. She stated that someone who truly wished to attain enlightenment would not be concerned with the purity of their food. Luipa was mortified and realized that his judgmental mind was still active and that he still viewed certain things as intrinsically more desirable than others, and that this was an obstacle on the path toward enlightenment. He decided his new meditation practice would be to live on the banks of the Ganges River and eat nothing but the entrails of fish that were left by local fisherman. He did this for twelve years and then achieved a level of realization, transforming the fish entrails into the nectar of pure awareness through the insight that that the nature of all things is emptiness. Luipa lived the rest of his days as a respected and revered teacher.”

[1] Ya Du, Xiaobo Lou, Taro Oishi, Yiyang Liu, The influence of quality characteristics of aquatic products on its price determination in China-A case of salmon products in supermarkets of Shanghai, Aquaculture & Fisheries journal, article in press 2020

[2] USDA FAS GAIN report, China: Continued Seafood Import Growth in 2019, May 08,2020, Report Number: CH2020-0058,

[3] Michael Fabinyi et al.,  Aquatic product consumption patterns and perceptions among the Chinese middle class, Regional Studies in Marine Science 7 (2016) 1–9

[4] Murat Topal,   Investigation and monitoring of tetracycline and degradation products in waters of trout farm, Pamukkale University Journal of Engineering Sciences, 23(3), 273-278, 2017

[5] Bhartiya Krishi Anushandhan Patrika, 33(4): 58-61, 2019

[6] M. A. B. Moraes et al., Environmental indicators in effluent assessment of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) reared in raceway system through phosphorus and nitrogen, Brazilian Journal of Biology, 2016, vol. 76, no. 4, pp. 1021-1028

[7] A. F. Bouwman et al., Hindcasts and Future Projections of Global Inland and Coastal Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loads Due to Finfish Aquaculture, Reviews in Fisheries Science, Volume 21, 2013 – Issue 2

[8] Wendi L. Adamek,  As if This Is Home, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, Number 15, 2020.

[9] Jia Lyu et al., Antibiotics in soil and water in China: a systematic review and source analysis, Environmental Pollution, 266 (2020) 115147

[10] Yueming Liu et al., Satellite-based monitoring and statistics for raft and cage aquaculture in China’s offshore waters, International  Journal of Applied Earth Observation & Geoinformation,  Volume 91, September 2020, 102118