You may have heard rumours that the climate of Tibet is warming remarkably fast, and this is dangerous.

photo Jan Reurink

China’s official media, however, assure us that climate change in Tibet is all good, even that it contributes to the construction of ecological civilisation. There is nothing to worry about if Tibet warms, and eventually becomes suitable for Chinese crops and Chinese settlement.

The alarmists point to the melting of the glaciers, the shrinking of permafrost, the loss of wetlands, the widespread flooding in Tibet in 2018, as danger signs.

Tibetan lakes which for centuries gradually shrank, now grow quickly. Source: see footnote 1

But the upside is more rain, lakes brimming full, and that means more water for the uppermost catchments of China’s great rivers, so it’s all good.[1] Further, China is making progress with  geoengineering even more rainfall over the river sources, rather than letting monsoon clouds drift further inland into the remotest pastures, such a waste. What matters most is that lowland China is provided with more water from Tibet. Climate change plus geoengineering plus remote monitoring by big data satellites all add up, in official eyes, to a dividend, not at all a reason for alarm.

rising lake levels across Tibet. Source:

These days the alarmists include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which in early August 2019 reported that climate change is accelerating in Tibet, and that official policies aren’t helping. Further, the removal of livestock production from the traditional Tibetan pastoral landscapes, on a very broad scale, is the wrong move in a world where food security for billions of people is precarious.

The IPCC’s alarm was amplified by reports by International Campaign for Tibet and Minority Rights Group, which identified China’s policy failures on the rangelands and their consequences, which drive rural Tibetans deeper into poverty and insecurity, as herd size limits are enforced, or nomads are removed altogether to urban settlements.


No need, we are now told by China’s official media, to be gloomy; in fact it’s all good: “The wild animals in the Sanjiangyuan area are frequent, the lake area in the Qaidam Basin continues to expand, the water body area of ​​Qinghai Lake has increased for 17 consecutive years, and the grassland ecosystem in the Qinghai area of ​​Qilian Mountain National Park has been improved. All this marks the ecological indicators of Qinghai Province; it is good.”

solar power potential of Tibetan Plateau

Climate change, especially in Tibet, actually has its upside, transforming a cryosphere into landscapes that are becoming recognisable from a Chinese lowland perspective: capable of supporting more forest and eventually more cropping land; capable of delivering water reliably, over a lengthening wet season, to the lowlands; capable of  generating massive amounts of hydropower, wind power and solar power, all of which can be transmitted great distances to the coastal factories on ultra-high voltage power grids. It’s all good.

glaciologist Tao Yandong

Climate change in Tibet, viewed Sinocentrically, is actually a dividend, especially in the provisioning of water, both from glacier melt and from climate change induced rainfall increase, to be further enhanced by blasting Tibetan skies with rockets laden with silver iodide in the hope of enhancing rainfall even further, in the Yellow River catchment, for downstream benefit. It’s all good.

glacier melt explained

In the long term, the glaciers will be gone altogether, and the dividend will become a deficit. But that seems to be several decades away. Around the world, many would like to believe China’s planners think in decades, but the loss of the glaciers is for them far over the horizon, too far; while the dividend is now. In recent years there was considerable uncertainty as to whether melting glaciers were generating increasing runoff, with several scientific studies a decade ago suggesting that, counterintuitively, runoff was decreasing. More recently the Chinese Academy of Sciences has put a big effort into quantifying glacier melt and hydrological data on streamflows; it looks good.


This dividend is seldom spoken of openly; it doesn’t look good. Nor does China acknowledge that rapid warming, permafrost melt, glacier shrinkage, unseasonal snowstorms  and heavy flooding across Tibet in 2018 are actually bad for Tibetan livelihoods, wildlife and ecosystems. The official Qinghai Scitech Weekly quoted above goes on, in the same article, to say: “In the winter of last year, there was snow in the pastoral area of ​​southern Qinghai.” That is the only mention of the climate disasters in Tibet, where extreme weather events are becoming more extreme, as elsewhere worldwide.

The pastoral areas of southern Qinghai are bigger than the whole of Germany, and are prime pastoral landscapes, highly productive, but vulnerable to sudden and unpredictable extremes. A blizzard in early winter can block the high passes, as herds are being brought down to lower overwintering pasture. A blizzard in late winter can blanket the ground in snow so deep even yaks cannot paw through it, and delay the crucial grass growth timing of the beginning of spring, the time herd animals are weak after the long winter.

advancing desertification, vegetation blasted by gales, 2016

Extremes also mean prolonged dry spells, triggering desertification, for which drogpa nomads are usually blamed. It’s a complex picture: to what extent is desiccation/desertification a long-term process spanning centuries and millennia; to what extent is it now accelerating?

The winds that erode the grasslands are winds that could be used to generate wind power, saving the rivers from hydrodamming. Source: Global Wind Atlas

Further complexities arise when Chinese scientists try to track the seasonal thaw and refreezing of permafrost in huge portions of upper Tibet. When permafrost melts in the warmer months, or in the longer term, does this allow more water to seep deep rather than run off to the rivers and to downstream China? When permafrost freezes again, does this prevent water from trickling deeper, forcing it into the rivers? China, fixated by numbers, wants to know the answer, but generating enough data is not so easy.

In nearby Mongolia, a free country with deep experience of mobile pastoralism, and of climate change, such extreme winters, known as dzud, can be mitigated by resolute collective action, co-ordinated by government, NGOs, local authorities and the herders themselves, activating the customary otor,  a longhaul transfer of stranded stock to areas unaffected by disaster.[2]

NOMADIC PEOPLES (2008) VOLUME 12, ISSUE 2, 2008: 35–52

No such program exists in Tibet.  Mongolia also pioneered indexed disaster insurance for pastoralists, carefully designed to pay out to nomads when they lose a lot of animals in an extreme weather disaster. No such indexed herd insurance exists in Tibet, even though Mongolia has shown it can be done without great expense.

When disaster strikes, some Tibetan prefectures do now have reserve stockpiles of fodder as emergency relief, if it can be delivered to drogpa nomads on site.  But the only way to rebuild a herd is to have as many animals as possible at all times, a customary logic Han Chinese consider irrational. From their perspective the purpose of having livestock, in any modern market economy, is to sell as many animals as possible for slaughter as soon as they attain maximum weight gain as they become adult.

Official China argues, plausibly, that excessive herd size puts too much pressure on available grass, yet it fails to provide the pastoralists with effective insurance that eases the anxiety that a small herd, and a blizzard, add up to immiserisation, and destitution. That means a one-way ticket to a distant concrete apartment block, on an urban fringe, for permanent resettlement, with land rights cancelled.


But China does invest heavily in high-tech monitoring of climate, to keep track of all those overbrimming lakes and extra lakes, and in order to calculate the exact auspicious moment for firing up the rockets to blast silver iodide into the upper atmosphere of Tibet, to induce rainfall over the Yellow River catchment. Most of the Qinghai Scitech Weekly article is about the high tech:

“The Qinghai Ecological Weather Centre, established in 2018, consists of a centre, three platforms, and six major systems (ie Qinghai Ecological Meteorological Centre, ecological meteorological big data management platform, ecological meteorological service analysis platform, and ecological meteorological product release platform; business system, service system, technical system, science and technology support system, phantom security system, system standardisation system.) Through pre-construction, the role of ecological meteorological monitoring, early warning and assessment is more significant, and the comprehensive monitoring system for ecological meteorology is further optimized. Further enhanced, the ecological meteorological support standard system was basically established, laying a foundation for promoting the construction of Qinghai ecological civilization pioneer zone.”

This impressive investment includes “weather radar, ground-based microwave radiometer, lightning location, GPS/MET water vapor remote sensing, airborne cloud particle measurement system, raindrop spectrometer, the comprehensive regional observation system consisting of automatic weather stations provides basic support for scientific monitoring and evaluation of high-altitude air resources in the province, effective identification of weather-activated data gathering and quantitative assessment of operational efficiency.”

All this equipment, not only on the ground but on satellites equipped with many ways of monitoring the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau, is for the primary purpose of making more rain, where China wants it, rather than letting clouds drift by even further inland to Hoh Xil/Achen Gangyab UNESCO World Heritage area. Cloud seeding is the result of all this monitoring. The same article says: “Although it is in the ‘Chinese Water Tower’, the shortage of water resources has always been a ‘short board’ ‘短板’ that plagues the province’s economic and social development and ecological environment protection. The artificial rainfall enhancement operation is currently relatively mature and most effective. In recent years, the meteorological department of our province has continuously enhanced the capacity of ecological civilization to build meteorological support services through long-term ecological monitoring, strengthening scientific research, artificial rainfall enhancement, etc., and provided powerful meteorological support for the construction of ecological civilization in our province.” It’s all good.

Lenin defined communism as socialism plus electricity; China defines state capitalism as Marx plus rockets.

Climate change enhances the construction of ecological civilisation, a dividend that calls for rejoicing. Only worry-warts and snowflakes would see this march towards ecological civilisation as bad. Typically, International Campaign for Tibet, amplifying a major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, identified the many downsides of accelerating climate change in Tibet.  So negative. Likewise, Minority Rights Group recently identified the negative impacts on Tibetan livelihoods of climate change. Some folks would complain, even at the gates of paradise.

Since climate change, is all good, at least in Tibet –one quarter of China’s total territory- why not build more coal-fired power stations, to accelerate climate change further? China is doing just that: “Internationally, China has pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest, but it has been reluctant to promise an absolute cap on emissions. China’s carbon emissions are still increasing. China’s electricity demand has started to tick upwards again in the past few years. In response, the China Electric Power Planning & Engineering Institute, a research body, recently called for a short-term expansion of capacity over the next three years. Similarly, in March the China Electricity Council suggested that coal-power capacity should expand to 1,300 GW by 2030.” That’s a 30 per cent increase on current capacity.


After the IPCC warned in 2018 that anything beyond a 1.5 degree climate warming worldwide will be disastrous, the UN Secretary-General called for all countries to act to achieve that upper limit. Guterres specifically called for no more coal-fired power station construction after 2020. He was quickly repudiated by China, which persists in insisting that all the heavy lifting has to be done by the richest countries, leaving China free to burn ever more coal, for many years to come.

China burns more coal than the rest of the world put together, and will still do so in 20135

China’s rhetoric of constructing ecological civilisation looks all good, until you look more closely at what it means in practice. Many of China’s international partners know that if they are to have any chance of persuading China to pull its weight, they must slather China’s ecological civilisation construction with praise: China can exert  various  kinds  of international influence:  leadership  by example; leadership via resources such  as  knowledge  and financial  support; and  leadership  in coalitions and partnerships. Time is of the essence. Ecological civilization is  an  inspiring  vision  that  will govern policies  of  many  types  in  China’s  New Era. However, it is a concept that is at an early stage of understanding in other countries and globally. Now is the time to  introduce  this  important  approach  to  the  world with the aim of seeking synergies with  global,  regional  and  other  national  concepts  and strategies  of  other  countries  in  the  interest  of sustainable  development. By  securing  full  public  participation regarding  ecological  civilization, the pathway to a Beautiful China can speak to our hearts as well as our minds.”

That’s the language of CCICED, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, where leaders of Asian Development Bank, World Bank’s Global Environment Facility, UN Convention on Biodiversity, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy NGOs line up to praise China, in the hope of gently persuading it to ease up on the coal, even set some actual emissions limits. Little wonder the rest of the world gets the idea that China’s “ecological civilisation construction” means something good.

where DNA damaging, cancer inducing ultraviolet rays are most intense


In the actual world we live in, China persists in objecting to findings that pinpoint the most climate-toxic of emissions to China. The ozone hole over Tibet, which lets harmful ultraviolet radiation damage all living things in Tibet, is not shrinking, and much scientific research has identified the reason. Chinese factories manufacturing refrigerant chemicals and industrial foam sprays continue to pump into the atmosphere the deadliest of emissions, far more dangerous than carbon dioxide, which eventually gathers over Tibet, to the detriment of all life. Despite the evidence, China continues to deny this, or to take effective action.

While the UN calls for taking seriously the climate crisis, limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, Chinese scientists say Tibet will warm by four degrees by century’s end. It is all good.

spraying chlorofluorocarbon: China’s secret ozone layer killer

The Montreal Protocol, a UN treaty banning ozone depleting manufacture and emissions, is flouted, breaking international law. However, China’s experts quibble, saying the research pinning the blame on China is of dubious reliability, makes too many assumptions, has too little observational data to be certain. We recognise a familiar voice. For decades, the reality of climate change was denied by similarly attacking the scientific evidence as insufficient. The inherent assumption is that dangers that also make profits are not to be dealt with until totally proven.

But the ultraviolet hitting the surface of Tibet, unshielded by a protective ozone layer in the uppermost atmosphere, damages the DNA of all living beings, plants and animals. China’s failure to do anything much to find and close the polluters, in the words of scientists from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration “could seriously undermine the protocol and set ozone repair back by nearly a decade.”

That’s a further decade of ultraviolet rays blasting Tibet, a prime cause of skin cancers; an extra decade of careless, pointless damage to life in Tibet, and no-one talks about it. Isn’t “ecological civilisation construction” meant to protect life, in tangible ways? Not all good.


Is China’s passion for ruling distant Tibet by satellite just tech enthusiasm? Just a boyish belief in the latest gadgets that promise to govern Tibet, fire the cloud seeding rockets at just the right moment, all from a remote control room? Is that why China brushes aside concerns that climate change, ozone hole and geoengineering in Tibet might have downsides?

As usual, in today’s China, there’s all that, and more. It just so happens that in mid 2019 China launched a new stock exchange for the hi-tech corporations that make satellites and imaging equipment.

The July launch of the STAR Market, within the Shanghai Stock Exchange but with very different rules, made three new billionaires overnight on the day of launch. This is crony capitalism with CCP characteristics.

Timing is everything. Talking up China’s hi-tech unicorns to an IPO valuation astronomically in excess of their actual performance is a delicate art, if the sons of CCP bosses are to make their instant billions. The new Nasdaq-on-Yangtze had to achieve several carefully calibrated goals at once. There had to be excitement that hi-tech, especially satellites and their builders, is the wave of the future, a sure-fire investment guaranteed to be profitable. There had to be an unprecedented relaxation of stock trading rules allowing those spectacular valuations and speedy profit-taking; while shutting out mom and pop investors who stand to lose all when hyped stock prices deflate. If there are too many ordinary folk, who have little idea of the risks they are taking with their own money, who later get burned, that becomes a political problem for regime stability, so the STAR market ruled them out, while ruling the high roller insiders in.

It all worked, at least initially, so well there is now talk of the Shanghai STAR Market reducing China’s dependence on Hong Kong as a source of investment capital. Another plus. Made in China is suddenly producing star performers, whose corporate valuation vastly exceeds actual earnings.

launching the STAR Market, July 2019: who wants to be a billionaire?

China’s state capitalism has pulled off a brilliant illusion. The 140 corporations listing their shares on the new Shanghai STAR market are state-owned, with all the backing of the party-state to guarantee they can never go broke, whatever happens, without a state bailout. Not only are the initial share sellers state-owned, so too are the initial share buyers, according to analysis by the Financial Times. It’s all a magical illusion.

Xi Jinping decreed the invention of STAR Market, November 2018

What has any of this got to do with Tibet? One of the state-owned corporations listing its shares for trading on the STAR Market is China Satcom, a profitable satellite builder and operator, a subsidiary of the state-owned giant CASC, China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. CASC is the core of China’s military-industrial complex, maker and launcher of missiles and commercial rockets, usually from the Jiuquan base in the desert of NW China, totally dependent on water from the Dola Ri mountains (Qilian Shan in Chinese) of northern Amdo.

CASC and China Satcom tell investors they don’t really need the money, since the state provides all, they are only in the market for capital because they were instructed to do so, to show blue chip stocks are now buyable. China Satcom, according to its voluminous regulatory filing with the Shanghai Stock Exchange, seeks only a modest RMB one billion capital raising. That’s reassuring.

Judging by the first batch of 25 corporations to complete their listings on the STAR Market, the remaining 115 applicants, including China Satcom, will fly. This is hardly surprising, since there is every indication that the party-state is behind it all, and even if all else fails, remains the guarantor. In fact, just to make sure the launch went well, the buyers as well as the sellers were frequently state-owned, a carefully orchestrated display of party-state confidence in itself.

If the STAR Market succeeds, China reduces its dependence on both the US and Hong Kong, advances its hi-tech Made in China 2025 plans for mastery of the industries of the future. The high throughput satellites China Satcom makes will turn Tibet into big data uploads and downloads, faster than ever. Xi Jinping, who announced the STAR Market in November 2018, has achieved the sort of win/win he often proposes.

And who will be the biggest winner? Who holds lots of shares already, likely to rocket in price when China Satcom IPO is completed?  “Wen Yunsong, son of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, served as China Satcom’s chairman between 2012 and 2015 and then stayed on as a director until 2017.”

CASC launches another remote sensing satellite

The younger Wen, sometimes known as Winston Wen, may soon join the instant billionaires from the first STAR listings: “’I woke up at 10am, and the share price had doubled,’ she said. ‘It definitely surpassed my expectations. It was money that came from the heavens without me doing anything.’ For Ms Xu, it is a moment for celebration. A handful of company presidents who have become instant billionaires are also in luck.”

Tibet is becoming an integral part of how to take money from the heavens, without doing anything. It’s all good

CASC military missiles: the same corporation pomoting geoengineering/cloud seeding over Tibet is the manufacturer of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles

[1] FANG Yue, Changes in inland lakes on the Tibetan Plateau over the past 40 years, Journal of Geographic Science, J. Geogr. Sci. 2016, 26(4): 415-438

[2] Daniel Murphy,  Disaster, Mobility, And The Moral Economy Of Exchange In Mongolian Pastoralism, Nomadic Peoples, 22 (2018): 304–329.

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TIBETAN EMPLOYMENT IN NATIONAL PARKS ཡུལ་དང་དུས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་འགྱུར་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས། བོད་ལ་ལས་དང་མ་རྩའི་དོན་ལ་བརྟག་པ༎

Blog one of three on the fate of Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances

Tibetan Sanjiangyuan park ranger in his best brocade chuba with pillion passenger explaining camera alongside

 (This blog is an expanded version of a presentation by Gabriel Lafitte to the Paris seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, July 2019)


Li Xiaonan, head of the Sanjiangyuan National Park says: “after living in the hardships of the past ecological degradation, Sanjiangyuan herders now have an ‘ecological bowl’ and ate the ‘green rice’, tasted the sweetness of protecting the ecological environment.”[7]

Today the iron rice bowl  is overtly back, in this new iteration rebadged as the green rice bowl, a guarantee to every remnant drogpa nomad family of Yushu and Golok prefectures, that one family member now has a job for life, employed by the Sanjiangyuan National Park. The guarantee is explicit: one state employee per family, not more nor less. A year prior to the 2020 official launch of the Sanjiangyuan National  Park the number of local Tibetan staff to be employed  is precisely 17,211.

Many are already employed, and can already be seen in video docs online, engagingly sharing with us their joy at being out on the range, on their motorbikes, protecting wildlife. It all looks so good. This is much more sophisticated than China’s usual clunky propaganda, more plausible, more like the win/win eveyone hopes far.

It has a dark side: the ongoing, accelerating exclusion of more and more drogpa nomads from their pastures, in the name of national parks and wildlife protection. And the newly employed green rice bowlers are at the heart of the state’s machinery of exclusion and depopulation.

How to tell such a confusing story? Why would anyone doubt the word of a handsome Tibetan ranger telling a young English woman the delights of wildlife ranger work, even though it comes from China Intercontinental Communications Centre, CICC, now partnering with National Geographic and al Jazeera to get its docos into the mainstream?

Employing Tibetans doesn’t look at all like depopulating Tibet, so we need to wind back to the iron rice bowl days, meaning not only a guaranteed state salary but better access to health care and a pension after retirement, security to the grave, provided directly by the state.

Mass settlement of nomads, Golok Pema county

This return of the almost forgotten iron rice bowl is a master stroke by a state that, in contemporary China’s unique fusion of state capitalism, retains dirigiste allocative power and a highly centralised capacity to redistribute. As a metaphor, the green rice bowl is immediately understandable to livestock producers accustomed to living off uncertainty, but increasingly uneasy with their peripheral position in a glittering urbanised world instantly accessible on their mobile phones.

This recursion is thus welcome, a return of certainty, and the 17,000 jobs allocated for Tibetan staff resident in Sanjiangyuan will be keenly sought, among the 72,000 herders deemed eligible to apply.


In the revolutionary decades (1949 to 1976) the iron rice bowl, tiefanwan, connoted a state bent on industrial mastery, with iron and steel manufacture the highest priority.  It was the ultimate and universally understood symbol of security for life, the end of famine, the arrival of a people’s republic, in which the people own everything.

The green rice bowl is overtly about wildlife protection and poverty alleviation, less overtly about urbanising drogpa.  Urbanisation has replaced the walled compound enclave, as revolutionary push is replaced by urban pull. The privileged few who gain green rice bowl employment by the State Forestry and Grasslands Administration, will deploy daily from compounds, while their relatives will be encouraged, sometimes compelled, to depopulate the rangelands so  the land of Tibet can become pristine grassland wildernesses, patrolled by the one family member remaining, with green rice bowl status.

mass settlement of nomads, Rebkong

In these ways the state achieves several objectives. It raises the cash income of drogpa families, fulfilling the pledge of central leaders to entirely eliminate all poverty, even in “contiguous destitute areas”  个集中连片特困区贫困 by 2020; it brings the state back in as guarantor of nationwide water provision, wildlife protection, biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration, carbon market product creation, land degradation neutrality. Above all, it establishes sovereign state power as the active agent in command of the territorialised pristine grassland wilderness of eastern Tibet.


Never before has the geo-body of Tibet, which was traditionally stateless, been so deeply inscribed by nation-building state power, neatly partitioned by a rigid zoning system into an upper riparian zone designated exclusively for provision of environmental services, and a mid riparian zone, in Amdo and Kham, zoned for economic production of hydropower and water for industrial and urban consumption below.

This transformation achieves its apotheosis in the new system of national parks stretching across the Tibetan Plateau, about 30 per cent of the Tibetan sky island, which constitutes one quarter of the PRC geo-body.

Tibetan park rangers release a blue sheep.
Source: Qinghai Scitech Weekly, 31 July 2019

In the recent past, the declaration of nature reserves and other categories of protected areas, notably wetlands, has been criticised as “paper parks” existing mostly as administrative categories, with little investment in actual biodiversity conservation management.

The new national park system is different. It comes at a time when China is not only much wealthier, it’s core goals now look beyond industrialisation and the primitive stage of accumulation, and China is keen to establish its credentials as the builder of an “ecological civilisation.” Previous protected areas were under provincial control, the national parks are indeed national, under central control, and bound up with China’s national reputation as exemplary global agent.

The new approach is better funded, more comprehensive in its interventions, more extensive in its reimaginings of landscape management, and more sophisticated in its recourse to  ”top-level design”, derived from systems engineering. Part of this new sophistication is to go beyond the binary opposition of livestock production versus grass production, the famous Marxist dialectic of “the contradiction between grass and animals.”

Zato, at the source of the Mekong, now a neatly geometric Chinese town

The new approach, partly prompted by the suggestions of international partners, is more inclusive, less inclined to zero/sum exclusions. Now the new slogans speak of the “endogenous enthusiasm of the herder masses” to be mobilised, under state management, to do the actual work of park patrolling, gathering data on species numbers, and picking up rubbish. This endogenous enthusiasm is the basis of the green rice bowl guarantee of state employment, and implicitly, the loyalty of the 72,000 family members of whom 17,211 are to be employed, to the benevolent state provider of the green rice bowl.

This is enormously attractive, at a time when pastoral production remains as risky as ever, perhaps riskier as climate change accelerates, and city life appears seductively attractive, over the horizon yet instantly legible on the mobile phone everyone now has.

Tsering Bum, in a recent book on drogpa life, tries to explain to his friends why he wants to live among the nomads: “I made many friends while living in Ziling (Xining) and by 2015, many had worked in the NGO sector for years. When we met to catch up and I told them that I wanted to live in a rural community for the next year or two, their common reaction was that without internet access, I would be so bored that, within two weeks, I would probably give up and return to Ziling. Many Tibetans I know are like others living in China today – they view city life as highly desirable. It was easy to discuss my plans with friends in the NGO sector, owing to our shared interests and backgrounds. Many I interacted with thought that I should work in a city or, even better, work in a government office in order to have an “iron rice bowl” – job security for life. I understand this reaction. Economic development has facilitated and driven urbanization, creating ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as binary opposites. Many in China are convinced that the city is the space for the civilized and developed, whereas rural areas are symbolic of backward, uncouth people. The goal then of higher education is to live and work in a city.”[1]

The green rice bowl is the arrival of city values in the countryside, the security of urban predictability, with a lifetime job guarantee, while still out on the grassland. It is deeply attractive, to those who have visited the cities, drawn in on the new tollroad expressways giving quick access to distant cities, but are yet to find an urban niche. Not only do the skills of pastoral production not translate to urban economy skills, in the urban context such skills are incomprehensible, and the risks routinely taken are deeply alarming to city folk.

Spontaneous endogenous Tibetan enthusiasm for protecting wildlife: not done at state direction

Hence the endogenous enthusiasm of the herder masses to protect ecosystems, 着牧民保护生态的内生动力全面激发, Zhe mùmíng bǎohù shēngtài de nèi shēng dònglì quánmiàn jīfā to use a phrase attributed to Li Xiaonan, director of the Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration.[2] This is an advance on the standard “tragedy of the commons” narrative that blames nomads for degradation, refuses to admit evidence of successive past policy failures as alternative explanations for pasture degradation, and is amnesically silent on past efforts by drogpa to protect both wildlife and pastoral landscapes.

Endogenous enthusiasm for Xi Jinping on his inspection of Changjiang resettlement village, Gormo, 2016

Is it the benevolence of central leaders to ascribe endogenous enthusiasm for doing the state’s work in remote landscapes? Is endogenous enthusiasm  not only presumed by the state employer of drogpa, but prescribed?

We need to look more closely at what the job is, beyond cleaning tourist garbage, checking the camera traps for sightings of elusive snow leopards, and counting birds. The core duty of the green rice bowlers is to finalise the exclusion of most fellow drogpa nomads from the core Sanjiangyuan landscapes. This is why  endogenous enthusiasm is mandatory.

Completing the highland clearance is the culmination of the official depopulation agenda, starting 2003 with the declaration of tuimu huancao, close pastures to grow more grass, as the ruling slogan. In fits and starts, as new quotas for nomad removals descend from above to local officials, and batches of deportees are recruited.

Well before 2003, Animal Husbandry Bureau officials were instructing drogpa to reduce herd size, to sell more animals for slaughter, to reduce grazing pressure on the limited land allocations awarded to each drogpa nuclear family. For decades this pressure on herds and herders reduced not only the total population on the land, but also reduced those who remained to poverty, as herd sizes fell below subsistence level, often in a seasonal disaster. The immiserisation of remaining nomads has been a major push factor in family decisions as to whether and when to give up the struggle, and move to the urban fringe.

Resettled nomads greet Xi Jinping in Gormo, at Changjianyuan village, 2016

In 2020, in the Sanjiangyuan National Park, this piecemeal process of depopulation becomes total. Until now, as several fieldwork ethnographers have reported, there has been some to and fro, as nomad families did move to town, yet could somehow keep their herd, in the hands of relatives, on lands not yet vacated. Sometimes young adults relocated to the concrete cantonments could slip past the surveillance cameras and return for the busy summer production season, to do the intensive milking, weaning, shearing and rotational grazing that generates an abundance of food and fibres for another year.

Until now, the total exclusion of all drogpa, and the complete cancellation of their mode of production, has not been absolute. Now, with the ceremonial opening of the Sanjiangyuan National Park in 2020, the final solution has arrived.

Nomad resettlement, Golok Pema county

Employment of the green rice bowlers locks in and polices the end to such workarounds. For the first time, the police force out on the rangelands will be Tibetan, with knowledge of the land and its winding valleys where cattle can be kept away from official scrutiny. For the first time, policing will be by state gamekeepers whose knowledge of drogpa ways is unparalleled.

Economists, looking from afar, are tempted to call the green rice bowl state employment, a welcome return of the state, with social security guarantees of lifetime employment that lifts the poor out of poverty. The state is keen to see it that way, announcing that the monthly pay of 1800 RMB suffice to keep a family of five or fewer above the official poverty line.

Policing the rangelands, enforcing removals, ensuring there is no backsliding, no surreptitious herding, no ongoing pastoral production, no high country drifters left, are the core responsibilities of the green rice bowlers, policing the compliance of their own folks, in the core zones of the new national park.

Qinghai Scitech Weekly 31 July 2019

This chimes well with the tropes abounding at the highest levels of the party-state. Now that the party’s disciplinary apparatus has formally taken over the state disciplinary machinery, the task of their combined capacity to police the entire forest of the Chinese population calling upon party members to be good “forest rangers” of the “political ecology,” which requires a clear understanding of the relationship between the so-called trees and forests. At the highest level, the rectifiers  整风  of the entire nation are forest rangers who uproot diseased trees that have no place in a healthy forest, while protecting those trees deemed suitable to remain. At the lowest level, the rectifiers of the rangelands enforce the closing of degraded pastures and permanent removal of the offending drogpa nomads, emptying the stage for the next act in the drama, the reintroduction of the tourist masses to partake of virginal wilderness.

diseased trees must be eliminated from the forest

In current CCP jargon setting drogpa to police drogpa is the phrase 主惩小恶, 以诫大恶, pay attention to punishing the small evils in order to forestall the larger evil. Now that the state has at last attained mastery over Tibetan landscapes, which took 60 years, the task is shifting from uprooting diseased trees to prophylactic prevention of any reversion to the bad old days when nomads were beyond the gaze of the state, inherently an affront to the panoptic scrutiny of the party-state.

Source: J Marc Foggin, Environmental Conservation in the Tibetan Plateau Region: Lessons for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Mountains of Central Asia, 2018


Tibetan exnomads loyal to this official agenda are employed not only as eco-inspector park rangers  立新增生态管护员岗位 but overtly as police enforcing exclusion.  The park rangers sweep through the entire landscape doing three full patrols per month: “a total monthly comprehensive patrol protection zone for three times a month. During the period, several clues of ecological violations were discovered by the inspectors and reported to the relevant government departments.” They are the frontline, but not empowered to punish; that is the role of the police, who are also often Tibetans, ex-nomads who have decided to fall in line with the overwhelming power of the party-state.

The police must contend not only with drogpa evading mandatory displacement, but drogpa already removed to urban fringes seeking to return, now reduced to destitution because official algorithms allocate less than survival rations to them, because they had little land to begin with. The complex formulae awarding subsistence payments (transfer payments or payments for environmental services in official jargon) are based on previously granted, now cancelled, land tenure certificates. Those scanty rights to secure tenure were issued 20 to 30 years ago, long enough for a new human generation to come up. In some cases families grow beyond the capacity of allocated land to support them, pushing them into poverty, since customary drogpa processes for regularly re-assigning pasture according to need are no longer recognised by the state. Those squeezed into poverty by the rigid land allocation system are then further penalised on removal to urban fringes, because they had so little to be compensated for losing.

Official media acknowledge this double penalty for being poor: “the resettlement created several ‘ecological enclaves,’ which caused difficulties in terms of government management. Meanwhile, some of those who left did not have much grassland before, resulting in lower subsidies. Because of this, a small group of them have been trying to move back to the grassland. Moreover, conflicts over land still exist in natural preservation work, the Global Times reporter learned. For instance, Tanggula (Tanglha in Tibetan) town residents are currently in a dispute over grassland with the Hoh Xil preservation station.”

Mass resettlement of nomads Machen Dawu

This presents the police with much work to do, both pushing remaining drogpa off their lands, and preventing desperately poor resettled drogpa from illicitly returning to their lands and livelihoods. Many of the police have been recruited from the earlier batches of the displaced, who have by now had 15 years on the fringes of Gormo, the Han Chinese petrochemical industrial city of Tibet, (Golmud in Chinese). They have seen the allocative, redistributive power of the authoritarian state close up, and decided to go with the strength.`

Official media give us a glowing portrait of a couple enjoying the new life, 500 kms from their traditional pasture high in the Tanglha Ri mountain range at the source of the Yangtze. She is now a cadre, he is a policeman. “Resettlement was an important part of the project. Over 55,000 herdsmen from 10,140 households abandoned the nomadic life and settled down in brick houses on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, according to the Xinhua. Aqie Jamo was one of them. She was resettled in Changjiangyuan village, 10 minutes by car from Golmud, the second largest city in Northwest China’s Qinghai Province. Aqie Jamo now works in the local town government. Her husband is a police officer. Every month, he spends 15 days in the Tuotuo River area in Tanggula, where Aqie’s family used to live. Aqie Jamo’s two children, who are 6 and 1, do not have to experience the harsh childhood their mother did. Every morning, Aqie Jamo drives her older child to school in Golmud city. ‘There are more social resources here, which make our lives easier,’ Aqie Jamo said. ‘Also, there is more oxygen.’”

Aqie Jamo (Gyalmo?) expresses her gratitude at being able to breathe the thicker air of Gormo, a sure sign the words attributed to her address the standard Han apprehensions, the thin air, never a problem for Tibetans, but always high on the Han list of reasons to fear Tibet. Also attributed to her is the comfort of life ten minutes by car from the urea, potash and PVC plastics factories of Gormo, which thicken the air further. Mentioned almost in passing is that her husband, a policeman, works back home on their former rangeland, 500 kms away, in a rotation of 15 days on duty 24/7, with 15 days a month off.

Gas pipelines pumping Tibetan and Xinjiang gas to inland China

What does her husband do for that half of each month out on the Tanglha Riwo rangeland at 4700 m altitude, a high pasture indeed? The lawless days of Hui hunters and gold diggers exploiting wildlife and riverbeds with impunity are long gone, and this alpine desert landscape is close to being what China now calls “no-man’s land.” It seems the sole duty of a policeman on duty is to ensure all grazing ceases, even though the high-impact Qinghai Tibet Engineering Corridor, with its new expressway, bisects the Tuotuo/Tongtian (uppermost Dri Chu/Yangtze) as it crosses the Tanglha high passes. Aqie Jamo’s husband is at the forefront of tuimu huancao compliance enforcement. Grass trumps Tibetan livelihoods, and negates Tibetans as owners of their pasturelands.

Aqie Jamo’s unnamed husband is the frontline of nomad exclusion enforcement, recruited because he knows the land and its people, and is used to the hard life. He is just who the party-state needs, to uproot the diseased trees, the recalcitrant and recidivist nomads who still see their land as their only lifeline. He is the decisive closure of the Tibetan pastoral lifeway, cancelled by decree after 9000 years of sustainable and productive landscape curation.

This does not mean all nomads will soon be gone, Tibet is just too vast, and official policy in many areas supports ongoing pastoralism. The closure is most intensive in the core area to be declared Sanjiangyuan national park in 2020, around 150,000 sq kms, less than half the total area of the Sanjiangyuan protected area of 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany.

Sanjiangyuan is being rolled out in stages, over several years, with no announced timeline for full expansion to its planned full size. Exclosure of the pastoral mode of production has taken decades already, and will take more years, although the pace is accelerating.

What sort of life do exnomads have in the new concrete settlements? The next blog in this series of three takes us into the lives of Tibetans displaced by China’s nation-building agenda.

[1] ཚང_ཚ_རངིངི_འ_མ_Tsering Bum རང_ང_ཁམས ི ང ངོངོ བ བདོདོི_ིའ_གོག_པ_དང_ི_དོདོ_ི_ིའཇགིགི ེནེན__Guardians of Nature: Tibetan Pastoralists and the Natural World, Asian Highlands Perspectives, 2016

[2] Herdsmen become the main body of ecological protection of Sanjiangyuan, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 10 April2019

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FATE OF THE NOMADS: neither sheep nor goat, deer nor horse, cow nor donkey

Blog two of three on Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances


China’s program of steadily depopulating rural Tibet, especially in the upper watersheds of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, is not the only possible way ahead. Quietly, Chinese NGOs such as Shan Shui and Plateau Perspectives have shown in practice that rangelands and pastoralists do go together, in the future as well as in the past, doing “eco-husbandry”, as active, skilful landscape managers.

Du Fachun

A key figure in these on-the-ground experiments in sustainable drogpa pastoralism is Du Fachun, even though his decades of immersion in the back country of Tibet has been appropriated by China’s official propaganda media, reducing him to bumper sticker simplification.

Du Fachun

Du Fachun’s three decades of careful fieldwork in Tibet and other minority ethnicity areas, detailing how relocation of traditional land managers works out in practice, has been reduced by the party-state propaganda machine to a single word. Tibetans, Du Fachun said, are “amphibious”, at home on land and water, adaptable. An academic career leading research teams interviewing urbanised pastoralists over decades boils down to one word.

How reassuring to know Tibetans are adaptable. It makes the mission of the state, to turn rural Tibet into wilderness, and Tibetans into modern citizens literate in Chinese, easier.

Du Fachun’s photo of a grassroots revolving loan fund for Lari villagers

CCP media Global Times reports on resettled Tibetans on the outskirts of Gormo, in Changjianyuan village:

Global Times, CCP media

However, if one looks beyond that one word, to the lifework of Du Fachun, his careful questioning of sedentarised Tibetan nomads reveals their exit from a constrained life of poverty on the open range, under strict herd size limits, to ongoing, even worse poverty on the urban fringes. From poverty to poverty is not the story official China likes to tell, and Du Fachun’s social scientific work at Institute of New Rural Development, Yunnan University, has been ignored, in favour of the sedentarisation/civilisation success story inspected and validated by Xi Jinping in 2016.


Du Fachun 杜发春did manage to gather his team’s fieldwork over decades into a book published in 2014, which shows the failure of the central state to live up to its promises of lifting the herder masses out of poverty by relocating them to straight striplines of concrete boxes lining the southern approaches to the industrial city of Gormo (Golmud in Chinese). Those straight lines of  regular modernity line the road, but are kept 15 to 20 kms from the Han industrial city, where only standard Chinese is spoken. Situating the resettled thousands well out of town but hundreds of kms from their customary landscapes, is intended to be salutary, minatory, a halfway house or bardo, suspended between worlds, a first entry into history and civilisation, a test of whether they can reinvent themselves, ideally with primary loyalty transferred to the state.

Du Fachun’s 2014 book on Sanjiangyuan resettlement of drogpa nomads

Du Fachun, however, found these geometric containers of human lives far from fulfilling their pedagogic promise. They were indeed a bardo, a suspension of life, awaiting the eventual plunge into some new rebirth. His 2014 book, summing up a decade of interviews as fresh waves of displaced were deposited in these new model villages, shows a picture quite different to the upbeat depictions in official media.[1] The book discusses the vulnerability, conflict and integration of ecological migration enclaves; analyzes the composition, follow-up livelihood and employment types of Sanjiangyuan relocation herdsmen with a large number of survey data. 

It finds that limited government subsidies make it difficult to maintain the promised follow-up livelihood of relocated herdsmen. The employment rate of immigrants is low, the urban adaptability is weak, and the environmental recovery effect of the emigration place is poor. Du Fachun’s comparative study of the experience and lessons of foreign ecological immigrants emphasizes that it should be avoided or reduced as much as possible. Social problems that may be caused by ecological immigration; a series of alternative policies are proposed for the dilemma and problems of Sanjiangyuan ecological immigrants.

Du Fachun draws on worldwide experience.  Next year, 2012, he published a low key critique[2] of official policy and its consequences, arguing that shengtai yimin resettlement policy “rationale and consequences need rethinking, from both an ecological and socio-economic perspective. This article draws on field research and a case study in Madoi County to argue the logic for resettlement, to examine its socio-economic consequences and environmental effects, and to explore possible solutions. Grassland degradation cannot simply be attributed to overgrazing and population growth, hence the idea of improving grassland by simply implementing resettlement projects may sound implausible. The paper then analyses the process and policies of resettlement and examines its socioeconomic changes and environmental effects. Although the herders are provided with free accommodation and a certain amount of subsidies, many cannot adapt well to the new urban lifestyle and some have an identity crisis, while their quality of life after resettlement is in general not very satisfactory due to high living expenses.

“The 2004 Sanjiangyuan General Plan closely links eco-resettlement with efforts to restore grazing land to grassland. The plan called for the relocation of 55,774 people (10,142 herding households), the reduction of livestock by 3.2 million sheep units, the imposition of a ten-year grazing ban on the abandoned grasslands, and a period of off-season and rotational grazing (QECC 2003). Herders who agreed to be resettled would receive compensation. Data from the Ecological Resettlement Management Office of the Qinghai Development and Reform Commission indicates that eighty-six new settlement villages were built between 2004 and 2010. Small towns or suburbs were also established to house herders who left the grassland. As a result, eighty-six resettlement communities sprouted up in urban areas or rural townships, near markets along the state highway, and in neighbourhoods around fodder bases in the Sanjiangyuan.

“Each resettlement household was provided with a 45 sq m house (valued at RMB 800/sq m), a 120 sq m barn (priced at RMB 200/sq m), and a RMB 400 one-off taxi fare for one family to move to a new town. In addition, the government implemented a compensation policy of RMB 8,000 annually for families (regardless of family size) which continued to obey the ten-year grazing ban.

The classic Tibetan story of the small frog who outwitted the predatory crow: artwork by famous Tibetan artist Dedron


“The eco-migrants experienced drastic changes in their livelihood security, identity and adaptation. First, livelihood security: according to interview data, ecological resettlement, to some extent, improved the housing, education, medical care and transportation conditions of the migrants, but their overall living standard actually fell. The following are the comments made by interviewees. ‘Everything here costs money. A slice of meat costs 10 RMB, so does a bag of livestock dung

“We can’t afford them. Yet when we lived on the grassland, we didn’t need very much at all. We got everything from our livestock. Before we came here, we sold all our livestock, tore down our houses, and gave our grasslands back to the state. Now we can’t find any jobs and we just stay at home doing nothing all day long.’ (Mr Dawa, 52, Golok Xincun, September 2009)

“‘My family had about a hundred yaks and three hundred sheep. Our grassland was about 4,600 hectares. We were satisfied with our lives. However, after we moved to town my whole family [ten people] mainly relied on government subsidies. We received about RMB 10,000 per year, which was less than our income from raising two yaks on the grassland. What’s worse, our expenses here are much higher due to inflation. My family seldom buys meat or milk nowadays.’ (Mr Jiayang Danzeng, 55, Heyuan Xincun, September 2009)

Tibetans resettled in rural areas

“Most resettled herders interviewed had similar accounts. They relied on subsidies because few alternative job opportunities had been created for them. However, these subsidies were insufficient to meet daily expenses for food, water, electricity, clothing, transportation and religious activities. Moreover, the price of daily necessities was driven up by increasing inflation in China, but resettlement subsidies were not correspondingly increased.

“Some resettlers undertook various off-farm activities, such as digging up caterpillar fungus, knitting blankets for sale, operating small businesses, or working as security guards, taxi drivers, or construction workers. The unstable nature of these low-income jobs resulted in their standard of living declining after resettlement. Local government invested funds and effort to provide technical training and jobs, but it proved hard to create alternative industries for the resettlers. Qinghai Provincial Poverty Alleviation Office tried to support the establishment of a Tibetan blanket manufacturer in Heyuan Xincun. Ecological settlers in the village held great hopes for the factory, but it went bankrupt in October 2010. A local official from Gyaringhu rural township commented that the cost of transporting raw materials from the provincial capital of Xining was very high, and the skills of the eco-migrants were generally poor. Second, identity: eco-migrants faced unfamiliar surroundings after resettlement, and some experienced culture shock and social disruption (Li 2008).

former nomads learn to use engraving machines: Global Times, Gormo

“Migrants who moved to new prefectures had identity crises due to increasing marginalization. Some joked that by leaving their grassland, they had lost their identities as herders. Their new identity had not yet been formed.

“They did not hold urban resident registration identity cards to become citizens. Most of them could not adapt well to urban life. Instead, they were rather like the odd-looking Père David’s Deer – neither deer nor horse, cow nor donkey. These frustrations and uncertainties further led to their dissatisfaction with the poor quality of infrastructure, land management, education and social security in the new resettlement villages.”

That same year, 2012, Du Fachun teamed up with Cao Qian, a Helsinki University sociologist, and published in Chinese on global experience of projects to enhance rather than cancel nomad livelihoods while improving ecological outcomes.[3] Du Fachun expanded further on what China can learn from others in 2014.[4] He emphasized that emigration as a solution to the presumption that pastoralists on pasture are incurably poor, and emigration as solution to land degradation, have both been abandoned worldwide, in favour of a new paradigm of inclusiveness and co-management of common pool resources.

nomad resettlement, Rebkong (Tongren in Chinese)

Du Fachun has quietly introduced China to new thinking. Usually China is quick to adopt new approaches, ever keen to be up with the latest, even to excel and become exemplary leader in implementation of new concepts. But not when it comes to those uncivilised, backward drogpa nomads of Tibet, who actually could do more for the land, more for wildlife and more for China on their land rather than off it.


Du Fachun describes the Tibetans as “amphibious”, a metaphor for adaptability, at home on land or in the water. Official propaganda media are quick to pick up this phrase to validate urbanisation of drogpa nomads as a good thing.

Yet it is a trope worth thinking with further. Is the new concrete settlement the land or the water? Is the rangeland, with its endless braided streams, the land or the water? Surely the sub urban concrete, these days often an apartment tower, is land, complete with police station, bright lights and surveillance cameras. Surely the open range, a sea of grass waving in the wind, is the water.

Modern China, like any modern state, has a passion for separating land and water, each in their own regulated space. Revolutionary China set about draining the swamps, haunted by memories of the revolutionary soldiers sucked into Tibetan marshes on their Long March. Today’s China is obsessed with Tibet’s redefined primary function, the provision of water to lowland China. In contemporary jargon of environmental services, this means both water retention, and water provisioning. Tibet is now engineered to retain pure water as much as possible, no longer in the melting glaciers, but in the flow of the greatest of rivers –the uppermost Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong- as they flow gently across the gently dipping meadows of Amdo where only the slight gradient of the plateau floor keeps them moving through the mountainous lip of this enormous island in the sky. Only as those rivers incise their way down deep valleys do they become wild and, in modern eyes, suitable for damming, for endless cascades of dams. This is mostly for the electricity but also for water retention, to smooth out the annual summer monsoon influx to make water available far downriver long after the monsoon clouds have gone.

All of this engineering of landscape requires that land and water be separated and regulated, which may well, incidentally, require shifting human populations out of the way. More displacements.

Yet the alpine meadow pasture lands are rich in herbage because land and water mingle, that is what makes them fertile and abundant. The Amdowa  Tibetans are people of both land and water, of horses and cattle readily fording streams, of seasonal nomadic shifts of camp upstream to the high country before the summer rains set in fully, returning to the lower winter pasture after the summer rains, and swollen rivers, have passed. Tibetan nomads have always preferred to camp near a stream.

Amphibians, frogs for example, are not only at home on land and in the water, they move between them, their life cycle is built around transitioning back and forth. How can Tibetans still be adaptably amphibious when stranded 500 kms from water, and from home?

For the thousands of Tibetans of Changjiangyuan village, 500 kms from their traditional rangelands, the loss of water is as deep as the loss of pasture. Changjiangyuan and nearby Kunlun National Culture Village, the Potemkin villages of China’s nomad resettlement program, were inspected by Xi Jinping in 2016. Changjiangyuan is named after the absent river, with an absent name in an absent language. Changjiang is the Yangtze, in Tibetan the Dri Chu, but even Han China only calls it the Changjiang a long way downriver, well past Tibet, at the Three Gorges. Upriver, in Tibet,  it is, for all Chinese, the Tongtian and further  up, closest to the glacial source, the Tuotuo.

Yet the model Tibetans of Changjiangyuan –Yangtze source- village are stranded in a parched land, not only 500 kms from home, but far from all water, on the edge of the oil and gas fields of Tibet, in the arid Tsaidam Basin. Gormo city (Golmud in Chinese) is the second biggest city of Amdo, busily turning the millions of tons of Tibetan lake-bed salts and oil extracted annually over many decades, into petrochemicals, chemical fertilisers, plastics, explosives and myriad producer goods, the essential materials for distant manufacturers. China made Golmud the most industrialised part of Tibet despite its lack of rain, because that is where the oil was found and later, the gas fields.

So why did China decide to park thousands of Tibetans, deemed surplus to the requirements of “ecological civilisation” in a semi-desert? The answer does not lie in the soil. The soils of the Tsaidam basin are saline, infused with salts deposited in this lowland (by Tibetan standards) over millions of years of rainfall and evaporation. These soils do not bear crops, even if irrigation water could be found. Chinese scientists, led by Li Runjie 李润杰 did eventually manage, by decades of experimentally draining salts to the subsurface soil, to actually grow a good crop of wheat on 2000 mu (133 hectares)  of Hexi State Farm land.[5]

Li Runjie, hero of saline soil reclamation, courtesy Qinghai Scitech Weekly July 2019

There are no Tibetan livelihoods to be found based on land or water anywhere near the new settlements. Their location is due to their proximity to a Chinese city. They are well outside the “walls” of this heavy industrial base of Golmud, separated by 15 to 20 kms of desert and expressway,  designed to keep them out of both customary pasture and the new city, yet lure them to city life, where all facilities, services, offices and permissions, comforts and shopping malls are to be found, as well as the peteochemical refineries.

Because the oil and gas had to be deliverable to the heavy industries of distant Gansu Lanzhou, China was quick to push through a highway, then a railway which much later was extended to Lhasa, and most recently an expressway. Tankerwagon trainloads continue to haul Tibetan oil from Gormo to Lanzhou, two million tons extracted each year, and also haul the refinery products of the Gormo petrochemical plants. This then is the perfect spot for a Tibetan nomad settlement, not in an exclusively Han Chinese city, but on its outskirts, strung out along the road, on display to all who pass by on their long highway drive towards Lhasa or Lanzhou. This is where the drogpa have landed, where even water to drink must be a dispensation of state power. This is hardly the amphibious life Du Fachun has in mind.

Tibetans indeed are adaptable, as are Tibetan frogs. Contemporary Tibetan painter Dedron tells us how a defenceless yet clever Tibetan frog outwits a ravenous crow. It’s a classic. Maybe the resourceful drogpa frogs on the outskirts of Gormo will yet outwit the central  planners and petrochemical factories, and somehow hop home? Maybe they will grow their powers by first making it rain in their new desert home, recalling an old Hindu ritual Tibetans learned way back:

“Tantric techniques for controlling the weather are nothing unusual in the Tibetan tradition: weather-makers were even employed by the Lhasa government to ensure rain at appropriate times and to keep hail off vulnerable sites. The technique used by the senior lama of Tshognam, however, does not belong to the usual Tibetan repertoire but was assimilated by his grandfather, “Doctor Dandy,” from the “outsiders’ religion” (Tib. phyi pa’i chos) — specifically, from Hinduism: he learned it, it is said, from a mendicant Indian pilgrim. The ritual is performed in the summer, with the intention of ensuring that the pastures are well watered and that the snow-melt that irrigates the buckwheat crop is supplemented with rain.

“Two hollow wax models of frogs are made. Through a hole in the back, the frogs are filled with various ingredients, including the excrement of a black dog and magical formulae written on slips of paper, and the holes are sealed with a wax lid. One of the frogs is stuffed into the mouth of one of the springs to the east of Te, and the other is burned at a three-way crossroads. The principle of this method is apparently to pollute the subterranean serpent-spirits and the sky gods, and induce them to wash away the contagion by producing water from the earth and the heavens.”[6]


our little Tibetan frog safely back home, having outsmarted the predatory crow

Will the frog outwit the big state crow? What are the inner strengths of the traditional Tibetan drogpa mode of production, living off uncertainty? Will the green iron rice bowl prevail, a victory of suburban certainty over open range risk taking?  These are the issues explored in the third blog in this series of three.

[1] Du Fachun 杜发春,  Sanjiangyuan Ecological Immigration Research,  三江源生态移民研究BeiJing : China Social Sciences Press, 杜发春著2014

Zhou Huakun; Zhao Xinquan ;Zhang Chaoyuan;Xing Xiaofang;Zhu Baowen; Du Fachun, 周华坤;赵新全;张超远;邢小方;朱宝文;杜发春,The Dilemma and Sustainable Development Strategy of Ecological Immigrants in the Three Rivers Source Area, China三江源区生态移民的困境与可持续发展策略Population.Resources and Environment, 2010 中国人口资源与环境    

[2] Fachun Du, Ecological Resettlement Of Tibetan Herders In The Sanjiangyuan: A Case Study In Madoi County Of Qinghai, Nomadic Peoples, volume 16, issue 1, 2012: 116–133

[3] Du Fachun, Cao Qian, 杜发春 曹谦 Ecological Animal Husbandry: The Trend of Economic Development of Animal Husbandry in the Western Grassland, 生态畜牧业:西部草原畜牧业经济发展的走向 Original Ecological Ethnic Culture Journal 2012, 4 (01): 118-127 原生态民族文化学刊 2012, 4 (01): 118-127

[4]  Du Fachun 杜发春, A Review of Western Academic Ecological Emigration Studies 国外生态移民研究述评, Ethno-National Studies 民族研究, 2014, (02): 109-120 

[5] Li Runjie and the indissoluble bond of water, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 28 Nov 2018

[6] Charles Ramble, Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal,   Oxford University Press, 2008, 174

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Blog three of three on Tibetan nomads, frogs, green iron rice bowls and highland clearances


Bogged by the waters of the desert: Tibetan exnomad park rangers on patrol

Pastoralism worldwide is confined to drylands, which receive enough rain for grass to grow, but not forests. The drylands are between the desert and the arable. By definition, such lands are inland, often upland as well, as in Tibet, dependent on rain from distant oceanic sources, by definition environments of great uncertainty, precipitation unpredictable.

There is much to learn from the debates about pastoralism elsewhere, especially Africa, where urban elites govern the remote drylands, assuming those rangelands, at best, are unproductive and backward; at worst are exacerbating desertification and disaster. In recent decades these assumptions have been questioned by serious re-assessments, which suggest that traditional pastoralists not only make a living despite uncertainty but actually from uncertainty, by flexibly and quickly responding to unpredictable and changing circumstances, by mobility. Saverio Kratli calls this “living off uncertainty”,[1] which in Tibet could be said to be an art central to the drogpa mode of production. This China has never understood. Living off insecurity is fast losing its attraction. The green rice bowl means security, even beyond the working life, into retirement with support from a pension fund.

Siling/Xining today

Today the pull of urban comforts and certainties is irresistible. The centralisation of schooling, health care, offices and shopping malls in cities makes a life of uncertainty and endless adaptability far less attractive. This is irreversible. The pull of urban life is strong. In recent years China closed 80 per cent of primary schools in Tibet, centralising access to schooling in bigger towns and cities. But the push is also strong, pushing drogpa from their land, cancelling what limited land tenure rights they had been granted, compelling the sale of livestock, emptying the land in the name of biodiversity conservation.

Tibetans weaving livelihoods from uncertainty did not separate into exclusive categories the wild and the domestic, human and animal, nature and culture; all had the same status, all were to be protected, which is what Tibetans continue to teach to children. It’s a nice video.

Tibetan attitudes to animals -wild and domestic- are explained by the scholar Peter Schwieger: “Although Tibetan language confirms that there is a clear categorical boundary between man and animals in Tibetan society, there is—unlike in Western societies—no strict ontological boundary between the two. This is on the one hand due to the animist worldview deeply rooted in Tibetan culture, but on the other hand also due to basic Buddhist concepts which explain animals as possibly one’s own forms of existence in previous or future lives. Moreover, as beings bound to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another, they are all considered as living beings to be liberated.”

The lamas remind anyone with ears that uncertainty is the human condition, it is all we have, we must adapt as appropriate to changing circumstances. Uncertainty, conditionality, impermanence, contingency, unpredictability are the realities of life, where causes and conditions combine and dissolve, each moment. To suppose we can control all risks is impossible, yet China is more determined than ever to govern all risk away by removing the drogpa nomads away from their landscapes.

Xi Jinping Thought overlooks the salt lake beds of the Tsaidam Basin, where China extracts millions of tons of salt annually, processed in Gormo/Golmud nearby


Yet many questions remain. It is the central state that has nationalised the territories constituting the new national parks, and it will expect active gratitude, loyalty and compliance from those it employs under green rice bowl guarantees. What is particularly unclear at present is whether the privileged 72,000 drogpa of the huge Sanjiangyuan National Park are to become the only pastoralists permitted to remain on the rangeland, and still engaged in the pastoral mode of production. Does tuimu huancao, the slogan since 2003, the closing of pastures to grow more grass, still hold sway? It seems so.

The master narrative has not changed. Degradation is still the driver of policy, and blame for degradation is still solely the fault of drogpa, even if they now do have an acknowledged endogenous enthusiasm for protection, under state direction.

If anything, the institutionalisation of National Parks as a system of uniform top-level design reifies these categories further. While Tibetans from Golok and Yushu are to be employed as rangers and field data collectors etc., Han Chinese are being recruited to staff Sanjiangyuan research institutes to aggregate the field data, key metrics such as water retention, degradation of grasslands, biomass gains, and biodiversity species abundance; all numerical grist for scientific management and further evidence of China’s mastery of modernity. The distinction between those entering history –the Tibetans- and the agents of ecological civilisation construction is precise.

The recent Global Times report[2] makes it clear that the “resettled” drogpa now housed on the outskirts of Gormo/Golmud, a long way from their customary Yushu pastures, have entered history and are no longer timeless:  ”Aqie Jamo, 29, still gets frightened when she looks back on her childhood experience of herding sheep alone in the mountains. Once, when she was 7, she and her flock got caught in a storm, and all she could do was find a hole in the ground and hide inside it.
Aqie Jamo is the daughter of a Tibetan herdsman. At that time, her whole family lived a nomadic life.”

Now she and her policeman husband are exemplary citizens, with not only a horrifying past but a guaranteed rice bowl future as low level officials. They have entered history. Becoming civilised, acquiring human capital, learning the urban life, living in a high rise apartment with no space for animals, all propel the timeless uncivilised nomads onto the conveyor belt of history, a first step on the long journey to the inevitable goal of modernity with Chinese characteristics.

People’s communes are good


When the modern developmentalist state arrived in Tibet, especially in the vast stateless pasturelands of eastern Tibet, pastoralists were amazed. The very first incoming instantiations of a distant power establishing force majeure authority over the grasslands was military. The violence of “liberation” is now well documented.

PLA soldiers, when not actively fighting, camped in compounds. This was familiar, even in remote pastoral valleys of Amdo, because expeditionary forces come equipped with supplies for their campaign and, if militarily successful, then dig in as an occupation force to prevent further outbreaks of conflict. Many areas of eastern Tibet not only have memories of past conquest centuries ago, by Mongol armies and by forces despatched from Lhasa, but remember the way the soldiers literally dug in, seized land, made their forts into cantonments, produced their own food. Soldiers married local women. So there are many districts and dialects tracing their distinctiveness back to the time, many centuries ago, when their ancestors arrived as soldiers, and stayed.

The modern, centralised, command and control state rapidly grew well beyond those military compounds. Wherever the redistributive state was able, through coercion, to direct emigrant settlers, including demobilised revolutionary soldiers, to settle the virgin unploughed lands of Xinjiang and Amdo, new compounds grew.[3]

Initially, to the displaced pastoralists, these compounds, the production bases of a Construction Corps or State Farm, were less familiar than the military compounds. Their physical shape was legible, even if the compound was fenced to sharply demarcate the immigrant new reality that was superimposing itself onto the fluid, unfenced older pastoral reality. It was evident that the immigrant Chinese workers every morning left the compound in trucks, to build roads and other basic infrastructure, and returned each evening to the fenced safety of the compound. The fenced, sharply demarcated compound was the urbs, the walled town, in miniature, implanted into the rangelands.

Even if drogpa were fenced out, it was apparent that within the compound the Han had built dormitory housing, canteens, workshops, even factories, and administrative headquarters, with  a school and a first aid station. It was a complete, self-enclosed world, the proto city in miniature, as a single enterprise.

What remained mysterious, not at all evident, was the source of this vigorous implantation of compounds. What was driving this new economy? Conquest, even when acutely painful, is comprehensible. Attempts at ploughing and cropping pastoral lands were comprehensible as efforts to live off the land, even though most such experiments failed. So what was driving  all this compound based activity? A new kind of economy had arrived, in the wake of a new kind of military power spearheaded by modern artillery. How to make sense of this?


Soon enough Tibetans were themselves inside the compound, rounded up like their animals, in the hasty collectivisation of the Great Leap Forward.[4] It was the great misfortune of Tibet to experience total military defeat in the late 1950s, when Mao’s revolutionary enthusiasm for mobilising all productive forces was at its height, and nomads were rapidly consolidated into production brigades.

Although it took decades for the communes to collapse, the earliest years were especially disastrous. Cadres held greater power over Tibetan lives than feudal rent-seeking land owners had ever had. Tibetans were compulsorily agglomerated into communes, their herds compulsorily aggregated, and  herders were granted survival rations only if they earned work points sufficient to have labour translated into flour.

In these ways rural Tibetans discovered the iron rice bowl, the guarantee provided by the revolutionary state that if you are absorbed into a danwei work unit, itself part of a collective or a commune, the distant state will feed you, for life. The unbreakable, life-long iron rice bowl was the primary source of regime legitimacy, especially across lowland China, with recent memories of warlord ruin, civil war, Japanese invasion and famine.

Tibetan pastoralists, used to a life of acute uncertainty out on the range, where anything could happen, were deeply struck by the magic of the iron rice bowl. Even when the worst famine ever known[5] reduced communards to eating bark and grass, and dying, the promise of the iron rice bowl retained allure. The state’s failure to fill those iron rice bowls with food, after three years of starvation, eventually turned out to be temporary, and the magnetic attraction of iron rice bowl security returned.

Smash the iron rice bowl, get gloriously rich


China’s decisive turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s dramatically changed the concept of the iron rice bowl, which suddenly epitomised all that was inefficient, bloated, overstaffed, unproductive about China. The new slogan, under Deng Xiaoping, was the necessity of smashing the iron rice bowl. Under Deng and later Zhu Rongji, and with external support from the World Bank, payrolls were slashed, guaranteed employment for life was stigmatised. While factory workers were made redundant, the administrative and managerial classes only grew, especially in Tibet, where industrialisation was limited to a few extraction zones, and the maintenance of “stability” became a huge source of employment. The iron rice bowl, especially in Tibet, lived on, even if in public discourse it was no longer the raison d’etre of state legitimacy.

Across China, among the older generation, there remains a nostalgia for the iron rice bowl time, not only because of its secure employment guarantee, but because its stands for a period of shared values and common purpose, in contrast to the hypercompetitive present. But the iron rice bowl is long smashed, except in Tibet, where the surveillance state constitutes as much as 60 per cent of the economy of Tibet Autonomous Region.


Cities exist because they reach deep into the countryside, making it into a hinterland. Cities extract from the ecosystems and production landscapes of the countryside all of their water supply, food production and clean air to blow away urban pollution. Urbanism is entrenched as the primary mechanism for attaining all of China’s goals of new era prosperity, post-industrial as well as industrial development, poverty alleviation and much more. Yeh and Makley distil this succinctly: “the ideology of urbanism has replaced that of industrialization as the medium of history and progress. Thus, as Oakes put this, ‘The state in China reproduces itself in urbanism, not merely by constructing cities, but in the way the state is restructured and reorganized in the form of urban institutions.’”[6]

The benevolence of the central state remains the hegemonic speaking position, but the state, in its benevolence, now shifts from depicting the lumpen category of herders as the sole cause of ecological degradation, to also being its victims, thus deserving benevolence.


The new slogan is “one household, one post” 一户一岗  yi hu yi gang, as the mechanism for fulfilling the most labour intensive part of park administration, the data gathering generated by painstaking observations of wildlife in habitat, plus garbage disposal, and property maintenance, none of them jobs likely to attract motivated Han year round.

The state acquires, out on the open range, an ability to scrutinise the privileged green rice bowl few, usually found only in cities, under hitech surveillance. One household, one post fits into old Chinese governance structures of collective responsibility and collective punishment if any family member is deemed guilty of infraction. The loyalty of the entire family is thus guaranteed. Filial piety of the peripheral to the central is thus guaranteed.

By pinning to the state the secure livelihoods of green rice bowl clients of state power, the security state, as patron, ensures the loyalty of entire families, including those who now live in cities.  The new national park system, especially the elaborately planned Sanjiangyuan, extends the reach of the urban state into vast areas primarily designated for urban consumption, by mass tourism, on the promise of seeing not only Tibetan antelopes and gazelles but even snow leopards. This is a new form of urbanism, which requires pristine wilderness as the setting that will attract the urban leisure masses, rather than pastoral production landscapes, nowhere near as attractive to urban imaginations.


But what of the other customary residents of Sanjiangyuan and beyond, their traditional stewardship of landscapes and wildlife, the maintenance of their sacred sites, their secure land tenure rights, their food security?

On official statistics, as recently as 2016 Amdo/Qinghai still had 4.8 million yaks and hybrid cattle on the hoof, over 12 million sheep despite a decline in sheep raising in prospering Yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus collection districts,[8] and 1.8 million goats. This includes nonpastoral and minimally Tibetan areas of eastern Qinghai, where animals are penned and fed on fodder crops.[9] Within the new Sanjiangyuan National Park the yak herd was 900,000 in Golok prefecture and 1.9 million in Yushu prefecture; sheep in Golok 390,00 and in Yushu 530,000, in 2016.

The human population of rural Golok, excluding the prefectural seat, was 168,000 and of rural Yushu 368,000 in 2016.[10] The number of households was 70,000 in Golok (rural and urban) and 110,000 in Yushu. To these can be added the several counties included in Sanjiangyuan, beyond these two prefectures.

What will happen to all those animals, to the pastoral production system on which Tibetan food security and herd genetic diversity depends, and to the many households which will not obtain a “one household, one post” state guaranteed green rice bowl? What will happen to the large number of animals “freed for life” tsethar, free to wander until they die of natural causes, freed by their pastoralist owners, from the prospect of slaughter?[11] If the rangelands are remade into pristine grassland ecosystem wilderness, who will ensure the sentient beasts freed to live out their days are not poached by new arrivals?

Figures on the total size of Sanjiangyuan in official reports vary between 152,000 sq kms and 363,000 sq kms. This is a huge discrepancy . Much remains unclear. While the rural population of Sanjiangyuan is around 600,000 people, overwhelmingly engaged in livestock production on the rangelands –some of the best pasture lands of the entire plateau- what is not clear is the staging of Sanjiangyuan. It seems the scope of the park is planned to widen over the years beyond 2020, and that the 2020 launch is focussed on the defined “core” and “buffer” districts mapped by scientists as crucial for distant lowland water supply and compromised by land degradation.

Also unclear is the pace and extent of displacement of drogpa, as there are other ongoing official policies that continue to promote livestock production, while pushing it to feedlots with Chinese characteristics, intensively fattening livestock on urban fringes, while also continuing to support the traditional Tibetan mode of production on the open range. This is confusing.

Even in a single media story, several policies, pulling in different directions, are listed, as if there is no contradiction. On one hand, the construction of urban fringe intensive high rise housing blocks for former nomads continues to get bigger; on the other hand there are programs to stockpile fodder so that, when a disastrous blizzard happens, emergency fodder supplies can be trucked to remote, snowed-in areas to save the lives of starving animals unable to paw through heavy snow to feed.

There are also plans for a compensation scheme, which is intended to pay modest amounts to drogpa nomads who lose some herd animals to predation by snow leopards, wolves or bears. While this may not be a big expense for government, it is a sign that for some time to come, extensive open rangeland production will continue, and herders will be incentivised to not hunt down wolves, bears or leopards, because compensation will be payable, to avoid human-wildlife conflict, as conservationists call it.

Taken together, this suggests policy incoherence, but the Tibetan Plateau is huge, policy implementation varies a lot in different areas. What is clear is that, in the core 152,000 sq kms of Sanjiangyuan, the mobile mode of extensive pastoral production is officially outmoded, and is to end.

Amidst the precious wildlife to be protected, the Tuotuo river -the uppermost Yangtze- passes under the new expressway from Gormo to Lhasa
The new expressway bridge over the uppermost Yangtze/Tuotuo, the same high pasture area where Tibetan nomads have been removed to Gormo


The shift in the official Chinese imaginary of the entire Tibetan Plateau, from industrial extraction of raw material producer goods, to a post-industrial leisure and hospitality destination marketed as a pure land of grassland wilderness, is a dramatic transition, with far yet to go.

The origins of this transition, consonant with China’s overall transition from world’s factory to post industrial services-driven economy, go back at least a decade, especially in Tibet Autonomous Region. Perhaps there was a recognition that despite massive infrastructure investment, the sheer size, aridity and cryospheric climate of Tibet meant the dream of wealth accumulation from resource extraction was unlikely to eventuate on anything like the scale Mao envisaged.

Chinese planners see the liminal moment, the dawn of the new era, as 2009: “On the 18th of January 2009, the State Council of China principally approved the proposal submitted by the People’s Government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China (TAR), to conserve and build the Tibetan Plateau as an ecoshelter. This is considered one of the most ambitious national environmental protection and restoration programmes in China. It will last twenty years, and over 15.5 billion Yuan (2.4 billion USD) will be invested. According to the final proposal  of The National Development and Reform Commission, 2009, the programme was launched because of the significant function the Plateau plays in stabilizing the climatic system, maintaining water resources and hosting rich biodiversity, which was being depleted by increasing grassland degradation, desertification, soil erosion and biodiversity loss. The programme included five conservation projects (rangeland conservation; forest fire and disease control; protection of wild plants and animals and construction of protected areas; wetland protection; and development of alternative rural energy), four restoration projects (forest shelter building, grass planting, rangeland restoration, and desert and soil erosion control), and one monitoring and assessment project. It is an undoubtedly magnificent programme.”[12]

Tibetan artist Dedron, painter of the story of the little frog outwitting the voracious crow

That assessment of China’s pivot, by plateau research scientists in Beijing, Kunming and Lhasa, was published in 2011. Since then this ambitious and magnificent program has gotten bigger and better financed, to now include the four new national parks in Tibet, with Sanjiangyuan the headliner. The ambitious mission has grown to making China an exemplary:

  • ecological civilisation,
  • a model to be emulated throughout the developing world,
  • a global leader in biodiversity conservation,
  • water retention and provision,
  • carbon sequestration,
  • land degradation neutrality,
  • payment for environmental services,
  • participation in carbon markets, and more.
  • Attaining UNESCO World Heritage status for many of the new protected areas is also a high priority.

As the vision of Tibet as ecological safety barrier has progressed, Sanjiangyuan, China’s Number One Water Tower, has come to the fore as the most important of all providers of environmental services from Tibet, and the locus of innovative inscriptions of state power, including the mobilisation of a cohort of Tibet park staff with guaranteed green rice bowl employment.

Yet the resourceful, adaptable land and water frogs of Tibet may amphibiously find ways of being both urban and rural, maintaining identity and curating their ancestral landscapes, leaping from nomadic uncertainty to rice bowl certainty and back again.

To be realistic, the scattered Tibetan drogpa frogs have little chance of evading the predatory crow, if other Tibetans just look on, and do nothing.

It’s not only Chinese cadres who disdain nomads, the experts at living off uncertainty. Secular urban Tibetans also dismiss the pastoralists as backward, as Tsering Bum reminds us. The nomads face the power of the party-state alone, to be removed, family by family, by China’s latest technology of enforcement: the green iron rice bowl police.

Trung trung black-necked crane (grus nicollis) endemic to Tibetan Plateau, protected by Tibetan grass roots community conservation Shan Shui

[1] Saverio Kratli, Living Off Uncertainty: The Intelligent Animal Production of Dryland Pastoralists, European Journal of Development Research, 2010,  Vol. 22, 5, 605–622

Saverio Krätli, Wenjun Li et al, A House Full of Trap Doors: Identifying barriers to resilient drylands in the toolbox of pastoral development; IIED Discussion Paper, 2015

[2] Shan Jie in Golmud,  Tibetan villager resettlement program leads to improved ecology in Qinghai, Global Times Published: 2019/April/16

[3] Greg Rohlf, Dreams of Oil and Fertile Fields, The Rush to Qinghai in the 1950s, MODERN CHINA, Vol. 29 No. 4, October 2003 455-489

[4] Dhondub Choedon, Life In The Red Flag People’s Commune, 1978

[5] Ian Johnson, Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims,

[6] Emily T. Yeh & Charlene Makley (2018): Urbanization, education, and the politics of space on the Tibetan Plateau, Critical Asian Studies, 50, 4, 2018

[7] Herdsmen become the main body of ecological protection of Sanjiangyuan, Qinghai Scitech Weekly 10 April2019

[8] Kabzung/ Ga Errang, The case of the disappearance of Tibetan sheep from the village of Charo in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan pastoralists’ decisions, economic calculations, and religious beliefs, Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines , 50 | 2019,

[9] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2017, table 12-16

[10] Qinghai Statistical Yearbook 2017, table 4-4

[11] Gillian G. Tan,  “Life” and “freeing life” (tshe thar) among pastoralists of Kham: intersecting religion and environment , Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [Online], 47 | 2016

[12] Fu Yao, Tu Yan-li , Yang Yong , To build the Tibetan Plateau as Eco-Shelter: from Policymaking to Designation, Action and Reconsideration; in: Pastoralism and Rangeland Management on the Tibetan Plateau in the Context of Climate and Global Change, Hermann Kreutzmann, Yang Yong, Jürgen Richter eds, GIZ German Development Agency, Bonn, 2011

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A new urgency about effective action on climate change is evident wherever you look, from striking school children marching on city streets, to the endless torrent of scary warnings from panels of scientists. The 2015 Paris agreement, which let each country set its own climate change targets, already looks tired and inadequate.

Loss of biodiversity worldwide has also been gaining a similar urgency, report after report tells us a million species are at risk of extinction. Human dominance of the entire planet, at the cost of all living beings, is more questionable than ever.

The build-up to each global treaty negotiation on climate is intense; likewise the build-up, now counting down, to a renewed treaty commitment by every nation on earth, to act effectively to protect life, all species, all of global biodiversity. That build-up culminates in October 2020, when all nations convene, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, in Kunming, for the Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD).

Conservation International’s Sacred Lands program


The staging of this crucial gathering in Yunnan Kunming, where China can decide who to allow in and whom to exclude, greatly complicates the issue.

Kunming, in October 2020 will be the culmination of years of advocacy for those who have no human voice, the wildlife of the world, including the millions of species almost completely unknown even to scientists. The prospect that we could almost casually, inadvertently make extinct so many species, not just the iconic mammals, in the name of efficiency, productivity and a globalised commodity food supply chain, is galvanising wildlife campaigners worldwide. Momentum is building.

Expect intense debate. Paris, an open city, had plenty of public spheres for the urgency of the climate debate to be aired in 2015. Kunming, however, although well situated in one of the world’s greatest biodiversity “hotspots”, is in China, where open debate, on anything, is tightly controlled. But, in the UN system, it was China’s turn.

Panda habitat, then and now

The last time CBD declared a target for protected areas, meant to be binding on all governments, was back in 2010, known as the Aichi Target, aiming at each country setting aside 17 per cent of its territorial area for the protection of wildlife. At Kunming 2020 that Aichi target will be hotly debated, critiqued as inadequate, with demands that it be upped to as much as half the land surface of each country.[1] No wonder many governments will resist, and instead propose no mandatory target, merely those “voluntary commitments”, in UN jargon INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

By October 2020 the high speed railway from Kunming to Shangri-la (Dechen in Tibetan, Xiang er li la in Chinese), via Dali and Lijiang will be operational, enabling delegates a quick mid conference excursion to Tibet, including a bridge over Tiger Leaping Gorge, due to soon be dammed for hydropower, despite UNESCO’s feeble objections to damaging a World Heritage property.


China plans the 2020 Kunming event as a celebration of China’s exemplary prowess as conserver of wildlife, announcing it has met the Aichi Target of 17 per cent of its territory set aside for wildlife conservation, by declaring as much as 30 per cent of the entire Tibetan Plateau to be National Parks. It will be a triumph. That national park system, with four of the ten new Chinese parks, and by far the biggest, situated in Tibet. They are due for official launch months before the Kunming conference. Yet again, China leads the world in constructing “ecological civilisation” 生态文明思想.

If ecological civilisation sounds a bit odd in English, it is. In new era Chinese usage, pristine landscapes for wildlife (and carbon capture and water provision for distant consumers and much more) don’t just happen, they must be constructed. Only the power of the state, the epitome of civilisation, can do this. That is because it is an “arduous task”, to use another CCP jargon, which only state power can allocate funding and commit all citizens to; and only a state can carefully plan with scientific precision how to make a pristine natural wilderness.

If that still sounds odd, it doesn’t in China, where concepts such as rebuilding an authentic replica Potala makes sense, as does  the strenuous state-directed project of building ecological civilisation.

Kham: eastern Tibet, Kunming just to the south


Why Kunming? It was clear in recent years it was China’s turn to stage the CBD in 2020, and it seemed Beijing was the location. The switch to Kunming, in China’s subtropical southwest, signals a new spectacular, staging the event in China’s biodiversity hub. The Pota Tso (Pudacuo in Chinese) protected area, just upgraded to National Park, is conveniently nearby to showcase pristine wetlands.

entering Pota Tso

Tibet is tantalisingly close; in fact Kham Gyalthang is now officially the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Shangri-la, comprising the upland portion of Yunnan province, featuring famous sacred sites such as the Khawa Karpo (Meili Snow Mountain) holy pilgrimage circuit, and the UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers protected area.

It is the large Tibetan prefecture of Yunnan that gives Kunming its cred as global capital of biodiversity. China expects to be congratulated as the exemplary leader of the entire developing world, a model to be emulated. China intends CBD COP15 in Kunming to be its coronation as conservation central.

The world yearns for a good news story, at a time when leadership on climate and wildlife is not coming from the US, Europe is divided, and the American presidential election is only a month after the Kunming event. China will control the narrative, alternative voices will be blocked from attending, and there will be plenty of celebs and top influencers at hand to amplify China’s pride.


Those alternative voices could tell us there is another side to the straight arrow narrative of China’s ascendancy as the greatest ecological civilisation. Mandatory amnesia is now common in today’s China, especially when it means forgetting past state failures incompatible with today’s state ambitions. China’s new era narrative rewrites recent history, in several ways, erasing living memories in order to insert the state as the sole actor, sole protector of wildlife and biodiversity.

In the interests of homage to all protectors, and the value of memory, we correct the record, with five key remembrances that add up to an alternative path for the future of Tibetan wild life and livelihoods::

  1. For years China wrestled with the actual Tibetan “hotspot” location of greatest biodiversity, only to turn elsewhere, for fear of fanning pan Tibetan unity.
  2. China remains the world’s biggest market for animal parts from around the world, providing the finance incentivising hunters, poachers, smugglers and criminal networks all focussed on the insatiable demand in China for supposedly curative animal parts accursed by the Chinese characteristics attributed to them.
  3. Kunming was for decades a centre not only of biodiversity but of the indigenous knowledges, of many minority ethnicities, which had effectively protected biodiversity for thousands of years. Today’s China, in order to make the state the sole actor and sole protector of wildlife not only shut down the hugely successful Kunming Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, but erased its remembrance.
  4. Kunming was for decades the centre of a global network of endangered species research, inclusive development projects bringing together international donors and local communities as equal partners. Not only has this effort been closed, its memory has been suppressed.
  5. Tibetans were deeply engaged in these initiatives,  in risking –and losing- their lives to protect wildlife at a time when central leaders had no concern for the wild west of upper Tibet, beyond the frontier, where cruel poachers and rapacious miners roamed at will. Those shameful decades of the 1980s and 90s are also expunged from the new story of the deep, longstanding, heartfelt and benevolent care extended by the central state to the remotest alpine deserts of Tibet. Today, when Tibetans speak up to protect local environment, they are criminalised, with heavy jail sentences.
A biodiversity “hotspot” covering all five Tibetan provinces: Conservation International 2008


First, Kunming is indeed on the fringe of a great biodiversity hotspot, so big the moniker “hotspot” is misleading understatement. This is Kham, or eastern Tibet. Politically, Kham is carved up into no less than four Chinese provinces: Yunnan Shangri-la; Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region.

spanning five provinces, an enormous “hotspot” of biodiversity
A huge biodiversity “hotspot” under threat, from the Chinse lowlands to the south
Conservation International precise mapping of greatest biodiversity 2007

 Kham is the dramatic end result of India tectonically pushing into Eurasia, a deeply crumpled, rugged landscape of endless mountain ranges dissected by the deep valleys of great wild rivers. Precipitous Kham, to use a classic Tibetan phrase, in its ranges and rivers, provides habitats from the subtropical to the alpine, on every slope. That is what makes it such a biodiversity hotspot, first named as such by the global NGO Conservation International, decades ago. They called it the Hengduan Mountains, or Southwest Mountains of China hotspot.

Kham is the wettest and warmest part of the Tibetan Plateau, able to sustain an extraordinary variety of life. The enormity of this biodiversity “hotspot” is the story China doesn’t want you to know. That is because the new National Parks spread across the Tibetan Plateau are mostly not in the hotspot, but in areas of lesser biodiversity, which happen to be the sources of lowland China’s water supply. The newly declared protected areas, and the areas of greatest diversity of life don’t match up. China doesn’t tell you this, nor does Conservation International, which discovered, after years of advocacy, that China had no interest at all in creating a pan Tibetan entity that would unite all the provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau –one quarter of China’s total territory- had been split.

Conservation International 2007 map of biodiversity in the sources of Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers: a very different map to China’s Sanjiangyuan National Park

To the wildlife scientists of Conservation International, it was a straightforward calculation of mapping species abundance data, collating all the accumulated transect data of sightings and trappings, to build a bigger picture. It also became clear that during the ice ages, as glaciers spread worldwide, many species had found refuge in the warm, wet, monsoon fed valleys of Kham, and later spread Eurasia-wide as the ice retreated. All of this made Kham biologically important. It was thus self-evident that it needed special protection, so Conservation International presented its case to the Chinese government. CI’s mapping of species abundance even went further north, beyond Kham, into parts of Amdo, both in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. So all five of the provinces into which the Tibetan Plateau has been carved by modern state nation-building –Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai and Gansu, are embraced in the singular concept of biodiversity “hotspot.”

Conservation International 2007


CI’s scientists had no idea their high concept was born at just the time China’s leaders were secretly committing to undermine ethnic minority identity and nominal autonomy, for fear of emulating the fall of the USSR.  While CI mapped its hotspot, central leaders were secretly considering policy proposals published by influential academics, urging dismantling the autonomy and separate identity of minorities, to be replaced by accelerated assimilation into the language and mindset of the Han supermajority. Hu Lianhe 胡联合 and Hu Angang beat a steady drum of warnings that China, following the Soviet model, had made a serious error by formalising and reinforcing ethnic difference which conceded Tibetans and Uighurs separate status and separate territory.[2]

Li Bo and other Chinese authors identified Community Conserved Areas best left under Tibetan local control, as the best way of protecting biodiversity

Central leaders decided not to formally abolish this, which would have been too overt, and caused backlash. Instead, they quietly launched systematic assimilation, shifting school curricula to emphasise standard Chinese and de-emphasize mother tongue, and other policy shifts. Those shifts, from a multi-ethnic country to a single, unitary state of a single Chinese race speaking a single standard Chinese language, culminate in Xinjiang today in compulsory, coercive assimilation en masse.


Only years later did it dawn on the conservationists that China might have its reasons for not wanting to reunite Kham and overcome its fragmentation. Kham is where the PLA decisively defeated the Tibetan army in 1950, in Chamdo.

Indepth documentation of the war in Kham, from the memoirs of Chinese commanders and official Chinese sources: Li Jianglin 2012

Kham is where the popular uprising against China’s takeover began, in 1956, the start of years of full scale warfare, with air force bombings of monasteries and aerial gunning of fleeing nomads and their slow yak herds.[3] The PLA again triumphed, but the Khampas were warriors, even when faced with death from a distance, by modern artillery and ruin from the air. China has had every reason to keep Kham as fragmented as possible; and any mention of conquest as secret as possible.

Conservation International knew better than to name this giant hotspot either Kham or Tibet, instead blandly labelling it “The Mountains of Southwest China.” Then a decade ago it dropped the entire project, eventually almost scrubbing it from its Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) website.CI wanted an ongoing presence in China, and discovered the price.

By the time CEPF left Tibet, it had accumulated massive documentation of biodiversity. The bottom line is that, if China is serious about maximising conservation coverage, its designated national parks are largely in the wrong places.

Snow leopard habitat map


Second contradiction of China’s new story of its embrace of wildlife conservation:  in practice, despite global attempts at enforcement, China remains the global destination for almost all wildlife smuggling and trafficking, as has long been the case. China’s appetite for –you name it- seahorses, shark fins, tiger bones, antelopes, bear bile, coral, monkey brains, pangolin scales, rhino horn, ivory- remains insatiable. In fact, as China gets richer, far more people can afford expensive smuggled ingredients once available only to an elite, and the Traditional Chinese Medicine market persists in its belief that all ailments, especially libidinal, are curable by medicines with Chinese characteristics, smuggled from everywhere. An exhaustive 2018 monitoring report by TRAFFIC, In Plane Sight, is exhausting reading, as all the maps point in just one direction.


China now proclaims a new found passion to protect Tibetan antelopes and gazelle, snow leopards and brown bears, the state resolutely on guard. To say the least, this is a very new passion, thousands of years after China’s elephant population was destroyed, hundreds of years since all but remnant panda habitat across most of southern China was lost.

China knows it has a reputational deficit to overcome, and CBD Kunming 2020 will showcase the new narrative.


Third, positioning the central state as the sole protector and guarantor of wildlife populations erases the long record of local Tibetan communities as stewards of wildlife, including the pastoralists herding their yaks, sheep and goats intermingled with wild antelope and gazelles, all seasonally migrating to remote upland summer pasture each spring, all returning to winter grazing with their newborns.

Now the state is the sole agent, and the embarrassing decades of the 1980s and 1990s, when Tibet was a wild west the state had no interest in, are best forgotten. Upper Tibet was beyond the frontier, a lawless land open to rapacious miners seeking gold in the river beds, and shahtoosh fur on the hoof, slaughtered en masse. State indifference is incompatible with today’s nation-building state assertiveness.

In China’s lawless, stateless 1990s wild west, the only law enforcement halting wildlife slaughter was by these Tibetans. Source: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Beijing.

Official amnesia reaches a crescendo with the erasure of the Wild Yak Brigade’s mountain patrol, which scrounged jeeps and fuel to track down and arrest Muslim Chinese hunters who mercilessly shot antelopes for a handful of underbelly fur that fetched high prices in India and Pakistan, crafted into the lightest of shawls, status symbols for offering to the woman who has it all.

1999 Xining Declaration, published by WWF and IUCN

Protecting the wildlife of Tibet became, in the 1990s, a global movement, culminating in 1999, in the Tibetan city of Siling/Xining, in a global gathering of “government representatives from China, France, India, Italy, Nepal, the UK and the USA and representatives from the CITES Secretariat, China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW),Tibetan Plateau Project (TPP), TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), as well as experts and scholars specializing in the study and protection of this species.” They mounted a transnational campaign to stop the smuggling of antelope fur to India, to disrupt the criminal networks, which gained momentum by mobilising conservationists worldwide. Their 1999 Xining Declaration is a roadmap of effective worldwide biodiversity action.

China today has somehow elevated one Tibetan, Sonam Dorje, to martyr status, sweeping his grave clean in regular remembrance; while suppressing all recollection of the antelope protection patrols he organised, and the many Tibetans risking all, at a time of official indifference, to track and arrest the ruthless poachers.

In today’s Tibet, local Tibetan community leaders and local government officials who try to protect local environments from expropriation and other threats are arrested, are yet again charged with many crimes and imprisoned for long periods.[4]

arresting a Tibetan environmentalist 2019

The most recent criminalisation of Tibetan environmental protest explicitly charges Tibetans with usurping the state monopoly of power. ”Local authorities stated that a group of village residents along with Zom Ché had founded an illegal organisation in the name of environmental protection.

“Among the 11 sentenced is Wang Ché, a former head of the villagers committee of Do Thrang. The group was charged of ‘setting up illegal organisation with evil intentions, destroying the village social management order through manipulation of village affairs.’ The charges also included ‘creating hurdles for the government policy, not accepting environmental conservation compensation, and stopping others from receiving it, and negatively influencing the regular working of the village and party committees’”.


FOURTH, Kunming for decades, brought together biodiversity researchers, and global aid donors, together with Chinese scientists and local Tibetan communities, all working together to document species abundance, traditional conservation successes, problems and prospects. This was a fruitful program, one of many examples being the 2005 A Rapid Biological Assessment of three sites in the Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot, Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China, a 174 page report on the abundance of wildlife in Kham Kandze prefecture of Sichuan. Not only did it bring together dozens of field researchers from across China and across the world, it also brought together funding and institutional support from Conservation International, The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Sichuan Academy of Forestry and Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department. Other funders of this collaborative effort to map the Kham biodiversity hotspot included World Wide Fund for Nature, The Nature Conservancy, Ford Foundation, the World Bank, European Union and several government aid donors.

These reports now gather dust; as China has shifted its focus north, to the river sources, which provide China with its water tower, biodiversity becoming the rationale for depopulating the watershed. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund program in Tibet is no more. Its legacy is rich documentation, in obscure online corners, of a wealth of community based conservation research results.[5]

Another example, also from 2005, is Xu, J., E. T. Ma, D. Tashi, Y. Fu, Z. Lu, and D. Melick. 2005; Integrating sacred knowledge for conservation: cultures and landscapes in southwest China; teamwork by Tibetan, Chinese and international conservationists on local community knowledge as the key to conservation success in the Kham “hotspot.”[6]  That teamwork is the reason for today’s official amnesia, because those embarrassing reports of 10 to 20 years ago point to local knowledge and local agency, in partnership with scientists and official institutions, as the best strategy for achieving actual biodiversity protection. Today’s China insists the central state alone is the guardian and guarantor of biodiversity, employing exnomads to police the clearance of Tibetan pastoralists from their pastures.

As this decade plus of global endeavour to map and conserve wildlife and entire habitats of Kham came to a halt in 2008, when China accused Tibetans of “killing, looting, burning, smashing” everything Han Chinese, Chinese  biodiversity scientists made one last attempt at gathering together everything they had learned from Tibetan communities.  They had learned a lot. China has now pivoted decisively away from community conservation in Tibet, for fear it will only strengthen Tibetan identity, embracing the sovereign state as sole actor.


Fifth, Kunming was the centre of this co-operative, bottom-up work to bring together Tibetan local communities, other Yunnan minority ethnic communities, scientists, global finance, and the state, in the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Kunming’s own institutional base for this embrace of indigenous knowledge was the Yunnan Institute of Botany’s Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge (CBIK).  

Try searching for and see how far you get. For many years CBIK provided support, publication platforms and staged conferences bringing together a global collection of conservationists, all dedicated to weaving traditional conservation practices together with modern science. CBIK was closed a decade ago, its online legacy almost erased, while its parent, the Kunming Institute of Botany is now fully in line with official top-down policy, inscribing scientific categories onto Tibetan landscapes as far away as Kailash Sacred Landscape in far western upper Tibet. No Tibetans need apply.

official seal of approval, agreeing to the authority of Derge Zongsa monastery to be in charge of comunity conservation, 1996

China needs us all to forget that Kunming, a long way from Beijing, once cheerfully embraced community conservation, indigenous knowledge and bottom-up effective conservation grounded in sacred mountains, landscapes and pilgrimage. China wants us to look only ahead, to the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming, October 2020.

China once recognised Tibetan reverence for mountain gods as best protection for biodiversity:. Source: Review of CCA Studies in SW China by Li Bo 2008

China wants to be congratulated as the most capable constructor of ecological civilisation the world has ever seen. It’s not that simple.  Conservation with Chinese characteristics uses the rhetorics of biodiversity to inscribe exclusive and exclusionary state power onto vast Tibetan landscapes, while erasing memories of how it all could have been done by Tibetan communities instead of excluding them.

We regret this stifling. Where would conservation research and community based active protection could be by now if they had continued? Today there would be many Tibetan conservation NGOs, confidently working with Chinese partners, to protect wildlife, whole landscapes and Tibetan communities together. Grassroots community-based organisations would have kept growing, all over Tibet, with support from elite institutions such as Peking University, not only conserving endangered species but financing their work by running select ecotours to remote areas, with local Tibetan communities hosting visitors in their homes and earning income as well.

Tibetan drogpa nomad snow leopard monitoring team, Shan Shui NGO 2014

This is not a fantasy. It is a trajectory established during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years, which, in a low key way managed to quietly persist, even after China’s decisive turn, under Xi Jinping, to centralisation, authoritarianism and assimilation of minorities. It tells us much about Tibetan adaptability and resourcefulness that conservation NGOs such as Shan Shui manage to keep going.

In the wider world, community conservation, rather than top down statist rigid territorial zonings, grows and grows, embraced by just about everyone, including the Convention on Biodiversity (CDB), which, in its Article 8j, specifically encourages community conservation on the solid basis that historically it has been far more successful than state driven efforts, since it is grounded in sacred landscapes local communities hold dear.

The best kind of map for biodiversity protection: the pilgrimage circuit for Khawa Karpo holy mountain

Kunming 2020 CDB will be a test: which way will CDB go?


What is at stake is the future of life on earth. The issues are enormous. Here is a list, provided by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, in diplomatic language:

  • What should the new set of biodiversity targets look like? How can they maintain ambition while being specific and promote action on the ground? How should they align with other global targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
  • How can the international community finally tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss? Are biodiversity mainstreaming and cooperation among multilateral environmental conventions the only possible options?
  • What is the role of voluntary commitments for biodiversity? Should they be included in the post-2020 framework?
  • What should be the place of means of implementation? How can biodiversity commitments and targets be coupled by specific commitments on finance, capacity building and technology transfer?
  • What mechanisms, tools, and review mechanisms can support implementation at the national and local level?
  • How can the post-2020 framework integrate different worldviews, in particular those of indigenous peoples and local communities?
  • How can the broader public be engaged in biodiversity governance? What is needed to catalyse societal action for biodiversity?

This adds up to a huge agenda in Kunming, with widespread unease that leaving it all to governments, and the inter-national system, only produces fudges and diplomatic phrasings masking hollow promises that cannot be held accountable. Danger signs include the prospect that, to get things moving, the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) might have to agree to let each country set its own targets, merely voluntary commitments, with no mechanism for holding them accountable. That is just what happened in 2015 in Paris, at the climate talks, with results that fell far short of what is needed.

Will these negotiations be better for being staged in a city and a country intending to keep out the rebellious extinction protesters?

[1] E. Dinerstein, and others, A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets; Science Advances,  2019; 5 : eaaw2869 19 April 2019

[2]  Hu Lianhe, 前苏联改革失败和国家解体的再反思, Rethinking the Failure of the Reform of the Former Soviet Union and the Disintegration of the Country, 湖北行政学院学报, Journal of Hubei Administration Institute,2005 年第3 期  总第21 期 No.3 , 2005, vol 21

[3] Li Jianglin [李江琳], When the Iron Bird Flies in the Sky [当铁鸟在天空飞翔], Taipei: Lianjing Press [联经出版社], 2012),

Carole McGranahan, Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War,

Charlene Makley, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, 2007

[4] Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in China: The King of Dzi, Lexington Books, 2015

[6] Ecology and Society 10(2): 7.

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 a blog about UNESCO’s inability to hold China accountable for endangering World Heritage

Sacred pilgrimage mountain Khawa Karpo overlooksThree Parallel Rivers World Heritage site in danger from hydro damming and river diversion

Will UNESCO be the first major agency of the United Nations to fall to Chinese money, patronage, soft power projection and suasion?

At first, this sounds like a slur on a venerable multilateral institution with a very wide responsibility, from a specialisation in hydrology to protecting the world’s monuments and the most exceptional landscapes as World Heritage.

Yet China is closing in on this problem child of the UN system, repeatedly shunned by the US, desperately short of cash for its Paris headquarter staff and global responsibility for culture, both tangible and intangible, monumental and natural.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Dri Chu/Yangtze in Kham Gyalthang

China’s campaign to capture UNESCO is low key, under the radar, yet increasingly obvious. In May 2019 UNESCO staged an International Water Conference in Paris, the entire event underwritten by a pushy new Chinese multilateral set up to market China’s prowess in building hydro dams and power grids worldwide. The chief sponsor was the grandly titled Global Energy Interconnection Development Cooperation Organisation (GEIDCO).


GEIDCO is a vehicle for Liu Zhenya, who has outgrown his work as head of State Grid Corporation, despite it being, by capitalisation and operational capacity, one of the very biggest  corporations worldwide. Having electrified China, making it into one national grid, having crisscrossed China with ultra-high voltage transmission lines, Liu Zhenya is out to electrify the planet, as a single global grid, all manufactured and operationalised by his State Grid ultra-long distance, ultra-high voltage power pylons and cables.  This might sound like fantasy, but it isn’t.

Here is his pitch: “Global energy network is an important platform to guarantee effective exploitation of global clean energy and ensure reliable energy supply for everybody. Global Energy Interconnection analyses the current situation and challenges of global energy development, provides the strategic thinking, overall objective, basic pattern, construction method and development mode for the development of global energy network. Based on the prediction of global energy and electricity supply and demand in the future, with the development of UHV AC/DC and smart grid technologies, this book offers new solutions to drive the safe, clean, highly efficient and sustainable development of global energy.”

Liu’s vehicle has a title as long and impressive as United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation: Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization. All the news on its website features the travels of Liu Zhenya as he deploys the classic Chinese soft power technique of jimi 羁縻, literally bridling and feeding, as in the taming of a wild animal that needs to be broken in, to accept being mastered by human will.

As Didi Kirsten Tatlow reminds us, jimi has a long lineage and GEIDCO’s website is a catalogue of where Liu Zhenya plies this trade of bridling and promising to feed those who agree to his mastery. While the rise and rise of Huawei gets the headlines, and GEIDCO is as yet influential only among tech heads and penniless UN agencies, it too is on the rise.

GEIDCO is not bashful about its ambition to hardwire the world, its’ ambition is boundless: “GEIDCO innovatively proposed a new model for the co-development of electricity, mining, metallurgy, manufacturing and trade, with the aim of transforming Africa’s resource advantages into economic strength and building pillar industries and new engines for Africa’s economic growth.”


China these days offers African countries a one-stop shop for wealth accumulation, pitched at regime elites across Africa. You guys have the minerals; you also have the rainfall and the big rivers, so here’s the package deal: we build the hydro dams and the long distance ultra-high voltage power grids that Liu Zhenya pioneered, in his previous incarnation as boss of State Grid. We also build the factories and the ports that turn the minerals into metals, using the hydropower, then ship the metals back to China, whose appetite is bottomless.

No need to negotiate endlessly with a dozen haughty foreign investors to raise the capital, plus a cohort of development assistance agencies who will impose all sorts of conditionalities on you. We can do it all for you, all you need do is establish state control over the land and clear out the villagers. We do the rest.

This is a seductive pitch, a shortcut to industrial modernity, a carrot dangled to spur the donkey, classic jimi 羁縻. The bridling comes later, when the African client realises too late they signed an unequal treaty, and are locked into paying tribute to a global accumulation engine headquartered in China.

If this seems, well, a bit megalomaniac, we now live in a world inclined to reward such corporate disruptors of boring old realities, such as painstakingly negotiating free, prior informed consent of those to be shoved out of the way of the hydro dam or mine or power grid or factory or port. Liu Zhenya is one of China’s answers to the Jobs and Zuckerbergs and Musks; nowhere near as famous as Jack Ma of Alibaba, but with UNESCO’s craven help, on the way.


UNESCO may think it staged the 2019 International Water Conference, with GEIDCO its lead sponsor, but GEIDCO sees it the other way round: “At the UNESCO International Water Conference co-held by the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris from May 13 to 14, GEIDCO rolled out…..”

The rollout is boundless, embracing not only the whole of Africa in a single power grid, but the whole world. Europe is next; to be powered by grid supplied energy across the Mediterranean from African superabundance of electricity, and from Asia:  “At the High-level Panel of the UNESCO International Water Conference on May 14 2019, GEIDCO released the Europe Energy Interconnection Planning Research Report. The goal of the report is to build an energy system dominated by clean energy and centring on electricity and further strengthen interconnection. Hence it proposed the planning scheme for Europe Energy Interconnection and 11 key interconnection projects from Africa to Europe and Asia to Europe, and also evaluated the comprehensive benefits of Europe Energy Interconnection.”

Little wonder then that UNESCO, GEIDCO’s client, in its other role as protector of World Heritage, is eager to show it has been bridled. Under the headline “UNESCO, Africa and China agree on projects to safeguard World Heritage in Africa”, UNESCO announced in June 2019, for its new patron: “Ninety-five African sites from 35 States Parties are inscribed on the World Heritage List, fewer than 9% of all the inscribed properties. Yet, African sites account for one third of the List of World Heritage in DangerChina alone has 53 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, none on the List of World Heritage in Danger.”

China now benevolently partners UNESCO in tutoring African countries how to get more prestigious World Heritage listings, and on how to ensure UNESCO does not chide World Heritage managers for bad management. That’s an attractive package.


Does Tibet have any role in all this? Well, yes. Firstly, the great wild rivers of eastern Tibet are the source of the hydropower State Grid transmits, along its ultra-high voltage power lines, all the way across China to the world’s factory, stretched out across China’s coastal provinces. Tibet is the showroom and the salesroom. Tibet is where Liu Zhenya flies African leaders to see for themselves what State Grid and GEIDCO can do for them.

Second, if the full cascade of planned and authorised dams is built in Tibet and just below, so much hydropower will be generated, some could be exported, on those ultra-high voltage grids, all the way to Europe, knitting Eurasia together. This isn’t going to happen tomorrow, nor is Elon Musk’s mission to Mars. But Liu Zhenya thinks big, and he is convinced his tech advance, upping the voltage on the power lines to well over one million volts, is the game changer, enabling electricity to be transmitted thousands of kilometres, with very little loss en route.

Kham Gyalthang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, before the expressway tollroad and high speed railway

If all those dams do get built Tibet will play a central role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, potentially transmitting electricity not only west towards Europe but also to Southeast Asia. That would fit in with China’s planned transition from a low wage, labour intensive manufacturing economy to a rich, services based economy, shifting its manufacturing (and industrial pollution) away from China to SE Asia, while retaining ownership of the factories. As China shifts its factories abroad, electricity demand will peak and decline; while growing in the relocated factories still owned by China in Vietnam or Cambodia or Bangladesh. This would take a decade, probably longer, but that is the vision of Liu Zhenya and China’s central planners.

Third, for Tibet, how is it possible that China has none of its World Heritage sites on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger? How can it be that all those dams, especially those in the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site in Kham Gyalthang, on the eastern edge of Tibet, do not flash danger signals? How can UNESCO tell Africa that China is the exemplary model to follow, because not one of China’s 53 World Heritage sites is in danger?


Three recent reports document in detail exactly how World Heritage is in danger, in Three Parallel Rivers, from dams, mines, and large scale diversion of the waters of the Dri Chu/Yangtze/Jinsha, including the displacement of 100,000 small farmers whose fertile cropland will be drowned by the dams.

  1. The NGO focused on keeping UNESCO honest, World Heritage Watch, has released its 2019 World Heritage Watch Report of case studies of the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam in Kham Gyalthang, plus many hydro dam projects around the world financed and built by China.
  2. International Campaign for Tibet’s report shows precisely where all the planned dams recently authorised by China’s National Development & Reform Commission are located.
  3. This blog also reported on the absurdity of a Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site that does not include the actual rivers themselves, only their steep valley walls, leaving China free to dam, and UNESCO speechless.
to be lost to damming………..

UNESCO World Heritage in China, specifically in Tibet, is in danger, and UNESCO must decide if it will go beyond diplomatically “strongly urging” China to actually protect its protected areas. The prospects are not promising. The crunch comes at the formal decision-making session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, held in Baku, Azerbaijan, 30 June to 10 July 2019. Already, UNESCO’s draft decision is available well in advance.

UNESCO does protest at the many threats to its Three Parallel Rivers, but limits itself to “strongly urging” China (the State Party in UN jargon) to do better. China (p14) basically insists that the rivers themselves are not strictly in the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage boundaries, so UNESCO better mind its own business. In the recent past, UNESCO did raise wider issues, in its State of Conservation reports on those rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween (Dri Chu, Za Chu and Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan), including expressing alarm at water diversion, dams and mass displacement of disempowered subsistence farmers along the rivers. Now, when it matters most, UNESCO is backing down.

UNESCO, in its draft resolution for adoption by its World Heritage Committee early July 2019 says: “The confirmation of the closure and termination of mines inside the property and its buffer zones, as a follow up to previous commitments to consider the whole area off limits, is welcomed.” Yet China’s own compliance report submitted to UNESCO, accompanied by satellite pix, says only that the mines “have not been expanding.”

Now, at crunch time, UNESCO has backed away from naming the danger. It gives up altogether on two of the rivers, the Yangtze/Jinsha and Mekong/Lancang, on the grounds that they are already heavily dammed, focussing instead on the one remaining undammed river, the Salween/Nujiang/Gyalmo Ngulchu, in the forlorn hope that it alone can be spared damming. UNESCO is now all set, if it follows the script it has written, to “note with concern”, and even “strongly urge the State Party not to consider any further development until the SEA [Strategic Environmental Assessment] for the property and buffer zone has been completed, and ensure that the last remaining free flowing river Nujiang is not altered by hydropower development.” That’s as close as UNESCO is willing to go to declaring danger.

UNESCO’s unique intellectual property IP is its power to bestow an appellation of Outstanding Universal Value, the key to gaining World Heritage status. This is UNESCO’s legislative voice. UNESCO is about to sign away its highly valued intellectual property IP, yet again, for the benefit China’s wealth accumulation; yet again authorising a top down state driven project to dam the Yangtze/Jinsha/Dri Chu, the Mekong/Lancang/Za Chu and Salween/Nujiang/Gyalmo Ngulchu.

from the UNESCO manual on how to nominate for World Heritage status

Top down control is more than decades of dam planning followed by construction; it is also mass tourism that can be top down, not managed by local communities. Local bottom up management is more rewarding both for the locals and more meaningful for the tourists, as is shown in a recent study of two World Heritage villages in Anhui province, eastern China.[1]

Despite UNESCO/IUCN’s fears, China has swamped Kham Gyalthang with hordes of tourists at Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the next dams will only bring more expressways, high speed railways and tourist masses to marvel at China’s engineering might, and wonder about the 100,000 vanished local farmers who once ploughed the deep, fertile sediments of these great rivers.

Outstanding Universal Value and sacred pilgrimage route: Tiger Leaping Gorge


UNESCO is increasingly  bridled and fed by China’s wealth and power, by China’s jimi coaxing and cajoling, bankrolling and grandstanding. UNESCO now chooses to accept China’s assurances, yet again, that mining within Three Parallel Rivers has finally ceased. Jimi works, UNESCO is bridled, compliant, willing to mouth China’s pitch to Africa for the rollout of global power grids as the universal path to fortune.

Faced with the prospect of being captured by China, UNESCO is ill-equipped to recognise that this is even possible, or imaginable. UNESCO is the one UN agency in which the developing country majority of UN members managed to set the agenda, which is why successive US administrations, Trump being only the latest, have loathed UNESCO and refused to fund it. The standard Western accusation is that UNESCO, by embracing Palestine, is anti-Semitic, but Western objections to UNESCO go much deeper than that. UNESCO has been oriented towards amplifying the voices of its Third World constituency, without any notion that China, the self-proclaimed leader of the developing bloc could actually have the muscle and money to capture UNESCO.

While UNESCO sees itself, deprived of US funding, as desperately short of money and greatly overstretched, it is rich in intellectual property (IP), a highly monetisable category of capital these days. UNESCO is the inventor and owner of the Authorised Heritage Discourse which defines heritage, based on its exclusive concept of Outstanding Universal Value, and bestows World Heritage status on sites put forward by governments for UNESCO approval.[2]

China craves that UNESCO AHD stamp of approval, and, once received, does not hesitate to monetise it, for China’s advantage. If UNESCO were to get over its self-depiction as poor, it might discover it has enormous power in dealing with China. It could learn the sort of hard headed dealmaking that China respects,  thus making many World Heritage properties live up to their appellation. 

This would not come as a shock to China, where critiquing the concept of World Heritage drew 400 participants to Hangzhou in October 2018, to a Critical Heritage Studies conference.          


If one looks back at how China got the UNESCO seal of approval for its 53 Chinese World Heritage sites, the guile of nominating the Three Parallel Rivers minus the actual rivers is not so unusual.

Three Parallel Rivers was nominated by China in 2003, at a time when China’s ascendancy as the world’s factory was in full swing. Planning far ahead, in the full knowledge that hydro dams were planned for all three rivers, China carefully on paper carved out the actual rivers from the proposed UNESCO site,  nominating only the steep valley sides that rise as much as four kilometres, abundant in medicinal herbs, from subtropical to alpine on a single slope.

UNESCO went along with this fragmentation, and repeatedly failed to pay attention to China’s vague intimations of possible future development –dams, grids, river diversion- until far too late. UNESCO has persisted with its Eurocentric patrician assumption that it is the patron, and third world countries the client state beneficiaries, even when China reversed the roles.

China’s nomination of Three Parallel Rivers is 300 pages of scientific data assembly. Buried deep in those 300 pages (at p.160) are vague references to the likelihood of being overrun by tourists, overwhelmed by earthquakes and other natural disasters, then one paragraph on Prospects: “The unfavourable factors mentioned above as well as the possible serious consequences have been taken into serious consideration by governments and competent departments at various levels.  Active measures –more legislature support, increased scientific research and more funding- have been taken to gradually control and solve these problems.” The relevant organs are in command, nothing to see here.

The words hydro, dam, electricity or grid appear nowhere in China’s Three Parallel Rivers nomination. IUCN, to whom UNESCO outsources its evaluation of natural site nominations, did note that China’s master plan for future development of Three Parallel Rivers:  “mentions increases in the use of hydro power which, at the micro level can provide clean energy, but at more extensive levels could be potentially damaging to the natural values of the main rivers. This General Plan is due to be revised over the next few years and this imbalance between development and conservation should be corrected.”


This has been a costly failure for UNESCO, which has been unable to face the reality that it was misled by China from the outset, blinkered and bridled by the State Party.

Why not now declare Three Parallel Rivers in danger? If one looks at the 54 World Heritage sites officially in danger, only three are in rich countries. Does that mean the rest are the fault of poor countries unwilling to effectively maintain World Heritage sites?  Not at all. Many listed as in danger are because both the site and its surrounds are conflict zones, and the endangered status is a symptom of much bigger problems, a cry for help. The birthplace of Jesus is on the endangered list, as are many sites in Afghanistan, Syria, Congo, Yemen and Libya, all devastated by conflict.

UNESCO’s definition of World Heritage in danger: “construction of reservoirs which flood important parts of the property.”

Three Parallel Rivers is in danger, from multiple threats. Adding to that, China now alleges that the ongoing presence of subsistence crop farmers along the river is in itself an unspecified threat to heritage.  China now says: “Rural poverty is suggested to be the main factor threatening heritage protection. Some villages have been or are going to be relocated upon consensus by the residents to improve their living conditions as well as heritage protection.”[3]

This makes the local communities and customary stewards of these great rivers enemies of heritage, in need of removal, even though the surrounding terrain is so steep there is no vacant farmland to which they could be relocated. The displaced will be officially classified as voluntary “ecological migrants.”

This makes Three Parallel Rivers a conflict zone. China is declaring the indigenous conservers of the three rivers to be the enemies of heritage protection. Three Parallel Rivers is in danger, yet UNESCO has almost nothing to say of mass displacement of local communities beyond vague approval.

Black is white, white is black; UNESCO supposedly holds China accountable; in reality China is capturing UNESCO.


learning how to critique state discourses of power and heritage

After the end of the revolutionary era of criticising Confucius, the Communist Party has decisively turned to embrace heritage as a primary source of regime legitimacy. Heritage, tangible and intangible, is booming.

A recent book on China’s embrace of UNESCO’s Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) reminds us: “The starting point for the ‘heritage turn’ in the 1990s is to be found in ideological shifts and the CCP’s search for a new form of legitimacy beyond communism. There is a growing pride in the country’s long history and rich traditions, affirmation of erstwhile condemned cultural values, huge investment in heritage protection, and promotion of a culturally based nationalistic discourse. The new vocabulary and ways to conceptualize the past in terms of cultural heritage (wenhua yichan) has changed how historical sites and cultural traditions are imagined, valued, and interpreted. But this does not mean that all aspects of the country’s past and its traditions are now embraced. There is selectivity in the choice of sites and practices elevated to heritage status, attempts to govern and control cultural and religious practices through the heritage discourse, and continuing tensions between a state-led national discourse and bottom-up celebrations of local cultures and identities.

“Heritage-making processes, however, often privilege elites and the middle class in their cultural and leisure activities, a section of the populace which has grown significantly in China over the last decade. Yet, although the state and elites have a privileged access to and voice in heritagization processes, ordinary citizens, local communities, and marginalized groups have more abilities to express their views, negotiate, appropriate, and resist the AHD or its implementation.”[4]

Now is the moment for UNESCO, and its natural heritage site verifier IUCN, both of whom frequently declare themselves in support of “ordinary citizens, local communities, and marginalized groups,” to decide whether they will speak up for the disempowered, or side with the State Party.

If UNESCO were to recognise and exercise its great power, as creator and inventor of the Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) China so badly wants, it would not only classify Three Parallel Rivers as World Heritage in Danger, it would insist that Three Parallel Rivers be renominated for UNESCO approval, this time with the actual rivers included. Since the core of AHD is UNESCO’s grand concept of Outstanding Universal Value, how could the restoration of those three actual rivers to the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage property be anything other than an enhancement of Outstanding Universal Value?

[1] Rouran Zhang, Laurajane Smith, Bonding and dissonance: Rethinking the Interrelations Among Stakeholders in Heritage Tourism, Tourism Management 74 (2019) 212–223

[2] Laurajane Smith, The Uses of Heritage, Routledge, 2006

Her naming of UNESCO’s powerful Authorised Heritage Discourse is familiar in China: 话语与过程:一种批判遗产学的视角——文化遗产研究与实践系列访谈之Laurajane Smith专访; Discourse and Process: A Perspective of Critical Heritage Studies——A Special Interview with Laurajane Smith; 百 色 学 院 学 报Journal of Baise University第27卷第5期Vol.27-No.5 2014年9月Sep.2014

[3] WHC/19/43.COM/7B.Add, p. 15

 [4] Christina Maags and Marina Svensson eds,  Chinese Heritage in the Making Experiences, Negotiations and Contestations, Amsterdam University Press, 2018, 14-15

Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment


When China’s first railway line into Tibet opened in 2006, Tibetans outside Tibet, and their supporters, condemned it, for many reasons. It would only intensify Han Chinese emigration to Tibet, they warned, would disrupt migratory wild animals seeking safe, wolf-free remote pastures to give birth, would cause erosion and degradation, and other disasters as well. There were no counterbalancing benefits.

Tibetans inside Tibet took a more nuanced view, if we take the Lhasa 2006 railway art competition as a guide. With the optimism for which Tibetans are rightly famous, the artists responded to the arrival of the chaglam by immediately filling it with Tibetans, arriving and departing, on the move, using it for their own purposes, investing that single track, non-electric, medium speed line with Tibetan characteristics.

Tibetan Contemporary Art

China built not only that track but a grand station in Lhasa, its architecture a tribute to the shape of the Potala, and won prizes for its design.

In hindsight, 2006 was almost the last time exile indignation was the automatic, self-evident, default response, in the exile diaspora. If we jump 13 years forward to today, when China is spearing four or five high speed electrified double track rail lines into Tibet, both from the north (from Xining and Lanzhou to Chengdu) and from the east (Kunming to Dechen, Chengdu to Nyingtri and Lhasa) we hear nothing much from exile Tibet. The Tibetan voice has faded.

Meanwhile, inside Tibet, the elaborate dance of appropriation, replication, imitation goes on, at an accelerating pace, as China builds more infrastructure, not only railways and highways, but innumerable museums too, and substantial cities, across Tibet. Who is appropriating whom here?  Who is paying homage, who is ripping off the original, with a bad fake?

Tibet Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum

When China builds a faux Potala 布达拉宫, across the Kyichu, high on the south bank, high enough to gaze directly at the original, is this Tibetan architecture with Chinese characteristics, or Chinese architecture with Tibetan characteristics, or something else altogether? What to make of this Tibet Museum of Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Little wonder, in the face of such accelerating construction, Tibetans are increasingly speechless. The old categories, when it was clear who is the victim and who the victimiser, no longer apply so readily.


The Shenzhen based architects, keen to show off their ersatz Potala, lapse into extravagant rhetoric. The architects of the new Tibet Intangible Heritage Museum fixate on the Potala steps: “Tibet is considered to be a holy place close to the sky, with the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple being pilgrims’ destinations. So, our basic design concept of Heavenly Road is consistent with the most unique natural and cultural genes here.”

The ascent matters. The climb to the Potala, or to the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage mountains such as Emei Shan and Wu Tai Shan, are more than an exertion. They are opportunity to pause, to reflect, to contemplate why you are doing it, what expectations, what baggage you bring with you. Tibetans pray to be reborn in Potala, that hidden land, from where it is a short journey to enlightenment.

The architects fanciful “design concept” of the Potala steps as heavenly road, Tiān lù 天祿, is no accident. This is a favourite Chinese metaphor for Tibet, at an altitude so high you can touch the clouds, to invoke yet another cliché. Tianlu was also the default metaphor for that initial rail line into Tibet, and amplified by the pop songs that made love to a railway.

The architects boast to fellow architects: “After appreciating the rich intangible cultural heritage of Tibet through a hard climb, visitors will finally reach the ending point where they can overlook the Potala Palace across both time and space, establishing a dialogue as well as paying a tribute not only to Tibet’s great natural landscapes, history and culture, but also to the holy land at the bottom of everyone’s heart.”

It is easy to respond to such words with outrage, exacerbated when you look at their many pictures and design graphics, which manage to combine the exterior of the Potala with the interior of the Jokhang. A mashup of the two holiest buildings in Tibet. That could tempt us to fall back into the certainties of identity politics of the vanished decades of Tibet advocacy. Self-reinforcing outrage gets you nowhere these days, there is just too much of it about, wherever you look.

But it is hard not to be outraged, when the architects boast that: “Secondly, it means a unique experience of space. The main volume of the museum evolves from the main hall of the Jokhang Temple, forming an introverted and stable space. The touring path of the “heavenly road” put up in such a space creates a diversified spatial experience that makes people feel tall, narrow, spacious, dim, or bright in different public spaces or exhibition chambers, and indicates an reflection of a special journey of life.”

Faced with such nonsense, the habitual response is to label this new Potala a fake, reproducing a neat binary of categories, the authentic and the fake. It’s all too neat.

from one Potala to another


The fifty or more shades of grey in between suggest this burbling about Tibet as the land of magic and mystery, a re-tread of  the Western fantasies of Shangri-la a century back, are more than burble, and are increasingly heartfelt. No longer just a marketing pitch, nor simply a propaganda ploy, today’s China knows in its bones that Tibet has something China lacks, something valuable, even life-changing. Today’s new era China may lack the vocabulary for what that elusive something is, and so fall back on clichés, but the appreciation is growing, wherever you look in Chinese popular media. It was way back in 2002 that Michelle Yeoh climaxed her movie The Touch, 天脈傳奇,Tian mai zhuan qi, on the roof of the Potala, its martial arts heroes attaining mystical revelation.

No contemporary architect could be content with just mashing the Potala and Jokhang. This replica Potala might look much like the original from below, but the higher you go, the more modern, even edgy, it gets, culminating in a box on top, not deer and a dharmachakra turning of the wheel in remembrance of the Buddha’s first teachings. That box, draped in lungta windhorse colours, is set at a gravity-defying rakish angle. It signals the triumph of modernity, the capacity of engineering to cantilever structures out into open space. This is past and future somehow meshed, a melange of styles, at once Tibetan, Chinese and global anywhere, which makes it very now.

Worries that China might build an imitation Potala, in the new industrial zone south of the Kyichu, go back years. Public intellectual Woeser back in 2014 called out the first attempt at Tibetanesque design, built to stage the propaganda opera, a must-see for Han tourists, on how princess Wencheng, back in the T’ang dynasty, brought civilisation to the barbarians of Tibet.

Woeser warns, 2014

This Rukor blog, back in 2014, attempted to complexify the issue, by introducing the Chinese concept, alien to either/or Westerners, of the “authentic replica.” To the ears of most English speakers, that is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory concept. You can be authentic, you can make a replica, but you can’t be both. In Chinese, it is not odd. For example, some of China’s minority ethnicities are able to control the inrush of Han mass tourism by building replica folk villages where, when the buses roll in, they dress in replica folk costume and stage replica folk dances. That way where they actually live is separate, not submerged under the tourist tide. Everyone gets what they want, the tourists are happy with the staged authentic replica, the locals can get on with their lives, not mixing up performance with living.


Tibetans have no control over tourism, and the numbers arriving have swollen way beyond the capacity of the Potala or Lhasa generally, to accommodate the 25 million Han coming each year, on the latest official statistics (multiply the numbers in the right column by 10,000). Since almost all Han go to Lhasa, that is a huge overload, and a strong argument for a replica Potala, aka Tibet Museum of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Tibet Autonomous Region 2018 Statistical Yearbook

But handling the waves of curiously incurious Han masses is only part of the wider story of speedy urbanisation throughout Tibet, of the push and pull that magnetises Tibetans towards urban comforts and facilities; plus the objectification of Tibetan-ness as the unique selling proposition that makes urban Tibet a marketable destination.

Rapid urbanisation and a veneer of Tibetan characteristics go together. Much of inner Lhasa has been demolished and rebuilt with Tibetan finishes, external facades that nod to traditional building design, because mass urbanisation and mass tourism demand that Tibet, as an attractive destination, be both familiar and different, comfortable yet exotic, safe but also edgy, heated, airconditioned, even pressurised yet also raw, authentic and even challenging. That’s the mix, and the authentic replica, to which you go by comfy bus, fits those needs.

We could dismissively call all this fake, or, a bit more elegantly, Tibetanesque or Tibetoiserie. We could call it China’s own Orientalism, a fantasy of packaged, sanitised difference that tames Tibet, put under glass, fashioned as museum display.

However, the Tibetan artists who, in 2006, Tibetanised the railway, reminding us that it opened the way for Tibetans to go round China, tell us there is more to this. Who is taming whom? Are the Tibetans, slowly, almost imperceptibly, taming the minds of the Chinese, insisting quietly but persistently on being different, not just in architecture but in understandings of the nature of mind, the purpose of life?


The game of Tibetan-Chinese relations is an old one, both sides have accumulated innumerable strategies for dealing with each other. The question of who is appropriating whom is an old one. The Buddhisms of Tibet and China are the same and different. The traditional healing systems  overlap yet are different. The traditional architecture of monasteries is similar but different. Relations between charismatic Dalai Lamas and powerful Chinese emperors were full of projections, patronage, appropriation, subtle jostlings as to who sits highest, competing courtly chronicles, elaborate gift giving and bestowal of extravagant titles, proclamations of control without substance, the rule of men not law.

Tibetans know how to do such ambiguity. Princess Wencheng is a good example. For centuries, she was forgotten in China. It was the Tibetans who kept alive her memory, revering her not for introducing seeds, agriculture and civilisation to primitive Tibet, but because she brought the Jowo, the most sacred of all Buddha statues, to Tibet. It was through the Tibetans that China rediscovered their long forgotten princess and the power of the Tibetan empire to demand a princess to marry the king of Tibet. The opera Gyasa Belsa tells the story, with all the flourish of classic Tibetan art.

Woeser warned us, 2014

That was then reverse engineered into a vehicle for making China not the tribute payer but the civiliser, benevolently sending their princess to the outer darkness to civilise the Tibetans. To stage this revisionist Sinocentric drama, China then built the pseudo Tibetan backdrop that so horrified Woeser, to make the staging appear authentic. Is Songtsen Gampo’s Chinese bride the origin of China’s Tibet, or Tibet’s China?


Let’s look at this from a different angle. Take the China International Music Competition, a prestigious effort by China to get into the big league of Western classical music performance. China embraces the canon of European classic music, much as it now embraces Tibet as a land of mystery and revelation. There is now a massive investment in training and fostering talented young Chinese pianists, not only to attain technical mastery but to play with passion and depth, like the most celebrated of Western performers.

Canadian Tony Siqi Yun wins the China International Music Competition 2019 playing Mozart

How does that fit with China’s insistence on everything having mandatory “Chinese characteristics”? For a century, the slogan has been that anything Western must serve China, and Xi Jinping recently reminded everyone that still holds.

Yet the reality, to quote the Financial Times, is that: “China boasts over 80 orchestras, many of them new creations. Concert halls are typically full with young audiences. In particular, the nation is gripped by piano mania, with an estimated 40m children learning to play the instrument. Competitions are springing up all over China, many of them organised by conservatories. Their aim is to raise quality and prestige by drawing students hungry for solo careers. The rivalry is intense. Such events are lavishly funded by the government. ‘The government is using music to purify the souls of the people,’ Wang Liguang, an influential Chinese Communist party member explains via a translator. ‘This is the message that we send to the world: that we are nurturing our local traditions but harnessing the essence of the advanced western culture to make Chinese culture shine more brightly.’”

So who is appropriating whom? Is this imitation, or ripoff, or heartfelt homage? Is China’s romantic image of Tibet, so reminiscent of Western Shangri-la fantasies, just a mass marketing ploy to get even more than 25 million Han into Lhasa each year? Does China grasp that if Tibet becomes the same as anywhere in China, much is lost, much that will be a loss for overworked, overcompetitive urban Han? Is this a quiet reassertion of Tibetan difference, fostered wherever possible by Tibetans, attuned to the unmet higher needs of speedy Han apartment dwellers?

Is the new Potala, gazing across the Kyichu at the original, just a cynical knockoff, or also a homage?


displaying Tibetan intangible cultural heritage

Beyond the pseudo Potala façade, the interior is meant to display Tibetan intangible cultural heritage, in contrast to the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, which displays tangible cultural heritage, such as Chamdo pottery that is several thousand years old.

tangible Tibetan heritage

The odd distinction between tangible and intangible heritage is not of China’s making, but of UNESCO. When UNESCO got World Heritage under way in the 1970s, there was a Eurocentric bias towards monuments and ruins. They are tangible. Culture that merits celebration as heritage worth protecting is much more than monuments; so UNESCO came up with the vague and clumsy category of intangible heritage. Sowa rigpa disease diagnosis and treatment, for example.


The furious pace of museum construction, across Tibet and across the whole of China, is part of the making of cities, and a civilised urbanisation that keeps the past present, but under glass and under official control of interpretation.[1]

Siling (Xining), the biggest city of the Tibetan Plateau, with a Tibetan population of at least 120,000 maybe many more

It is the pace of urbanisation in Tibet that is by far the biggest transformation Tibet has experienced, in thousands of years, and yet it is little discussed. Urbanisation in Tibet has profound consequences, such as negating minority ethnicity autonomy, as geographer Emily Yeh and anthropologist Charlene Makley have recently pointed out:


“The urban today is thus privileged in China as the site of progress and modernity, the imaginative horizon of the future, and a synonym for development itself. Planners take urbanization to be the central means for continued economic growth and modernization. At the same time, urbanization is also a key process for reproducing state power. As geographer Tim Oakes notes, China appears to be taking to heart Henri Lefebvre’s argument that the ideology of urbanism has replaced that of industrialization as the medium of history and progress. Thus, as Oakes put this, “The state in China reproduces itself in urbanism, not merely by constructing cities, but in the way the state is restructured and reorganized in the form of urban institutions.”


“The significance of the urban as both the inevitable site of dreams of future prosperity as well as the locus of state power is both underpinned and reinforced by China’s territorial administrative hierarchy, which structures subnational territory and ranks administrative divisions. Five of six prefectures of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have been converted to urban prefecture-level municipalities, and two rural counties of Lhasa Municipality, the capital of the TAR, have recently been converted to urban districts, a process that involves substantial farmland expropriation and the displacement of people from rural villages to high-rise apartment blocks. The TAR government plans to raise the provincial urbanization rate from 25.7 percent in 2014 to over thirty percent by 2020. Outside of the TAR, a number of rural Tibetan counties (including Yulshul in Qinghai Province, Dartsedo and Barkham in Sichuan Province, Shangrila in Yunnan Province, and Tso in Gansu Province) have also been upgraded to county-level cities over the last decade.  Importantly, urban administrative units are ethnically unmarked; cities do not have “autonomous” status and associated cultural and political rights. Mongolian scholar Uradyn Bulag has argued that as a consequence the administrative promotion of rural counties to urban municipalities is a “shortcut to overcoming ethnic autonomy.” [2]


Accelerating urbanisation stacks Tibetans in high rise apartment blocks, under surveillance, with no land for animals or even a vegetable greenhouse.  Urban life means trips to the countryside, to collect the tangible herbal ingredients to make sowa rigpa medicines become rare. Sowa rigpa is instead under glass, at the Potalesque Tibet Intangible Heritage Museum, a feature attraction of post-autonomy urbanism. The tangible becomes intangible, autonomy fades away, urban density and grid management replace the open range.

Maybe it is time to focus on urbanisation, beyond  the Tibetan characteristics of the architecture of museums and railway stations in Lhasa.

Lhasa railway station

[1] Tami  B l u m e n f i e l d and H e l a i n e S i lverman eds, Cultural Heritage Politics in China, Springer, 2013

[2] Emily T. Yeh & Charlene Makley (2018): Urbanization, education, and the politics of space on the Tibetan Plateau, Critical Asian Studies, 50, 4, 2018

through the feature window, gaze upon the old Potala
Posted in Tibet | Leave a comment



Skills training for Tibetans and their friends in Europe, in researching and analysing China’s plans for Tibet.

Have you wondered how the Rukor blog obtains information and assesses China’s plans to transform Tibet? How does Rukor find its’ stories, verify and document China’s agenda for the future of Tibet?

This European Summer School shows you how easy it is to discover China’s visions of mastery, and reframe them from a Tibetan viewpoint. Discover the secrets of delving deep, past the propaganda surface, into the documents, debates and elite think tanks that shape China’s policies. Go behind the scenes, to discern the actual drivers of official policy. Connect with local communities in Tibet to gauge likely impacts when infrastructure projects go ahead.

Expressions of interest are invited, to attend a weeklong training program led by Rukor editor, Gabriel Lafitte. Venue and date to be finalised, depending on your feedback to

civilising the barbarians

The purpose of the workshop is to encourage more research and analysis, on a wide range of environment and  development issues that impact on Tibet, using case studies as a method of unpacking what appears online as a comprehensive overview, but started out as just simple curiosity. By pulling apart past Rukor posts, or adventuring into new topics, we aim to show it is not necessary to have sophisticated search skills, just patience and persistence. We aim to demystify the process, in the hope of building a group that is alert to the complexities, contradictions, strengths and weaknesses of how Chinese and Tibetans mis/understand each other.

Depending on demand, there may be more than one workshop, in more than one European city, probably in July or August.

There are no prerequisite requirements to enrol, other than being comfortable in English, and curiosity about what is actually happening across Tibet, and in China’s official elite. If you don’t read Chinese, no problem.

back in the day, when mastiffs were a Han boss fashion accessory

Email to register your interest, with suggestions as to venues and dates, so we can plan a workable program.

Gabriel Lafitte

Posted in Tibet | Tagged , | Leave a comment



Blog one of three

This 2019 moment uncannily echoes 2004, when Chinese environmentalists and an investigative newspaper revealed Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, was about to be dammed, stilling a mountain river famed for its untamed wildness and spectacular gorge. That 2004 report opened an official secret, that a planned cascade of dams on the Dri Chu (Jinsha  金沙江in Chinese, Yangtze in English) would reach upriver as far as the untouched awesome beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Environmentalists mobilised support, scientists investigated the technical obstacles. By 2007 their advocacy achieved a result. The state owned dam building corporations backed off, an iconic landscape had been spared. This was a historic win for citizen initiatives.

Fast forward 15 years to 2019. That crusading investigative newspaper, Southern Weekend is long closed by orders from above. Hu Jintao, China’s leader in the first decade of this century is long gone, and officially dismissed as a do-nothing. Xi Jinping is in sole command, and a more muscular new era is proclaimed. Damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge is back, and environmentalists are aghast. So certain these days are arrest, detention, torture and public confession, for publicly questioning official policy, they dare not speak directly. This is their plea.

locations of hydro dams, both built and scheduled for construction
locations of hydro dams, built or scheduled for construction


At the highest level Tiger Leaping Gorge dam, now rebadged Longpan dam, has been authorised for construction. In 2019, the central planners of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Bank and National Energy Board issued a long list of projects to proceed, including many dams on Tibetan rivers, the biggest being Tiger Leaping/Longpan.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is now Longpan 龙盘.  The Baidu online encyclopaedia explains why the name change: “In order to avoid public doubts, the Tiger Leaping Gorge Hydropower Station was renamed Longpan Hydropower Station.”

 Of the 17 dams on the Jinsha, already built or planned, Tiger Leaping Gorge/ Longpan is planned to generate 4000 megwatts of electricity, a huge amount.

This is a massive project. Its promoters say the installed capacity of Longpan is 4.2 million kW; the annual power generation is 17.5 billion kWh . Longpan Reservoir will have a storage capacity of 21.5 billion m3.  Behind the dam wall, the newly forming lake drowning the farmland of 100,000 villagers, will stretch upriver for 265 kms. When filled, the lake will cover 373 sq kms.[1]

China’s official map of the scattered protected areas (UNESCO World Heritage in darker green) closest to Tiger Leaping dam


Distance is vanquished, the ancient kingdoms of Gyalthang and Satham (Lijiang) united by China’s engineering spectaculars.[2] Two oversold, overloaded tourism destinations connected by dams and bridges. The road bridge is due for completion in 2019, the rail bridge later. Because rail lines need gentle gradients, there is a lot more tunnelling required. Tibet is drawn closer to China, more accessible to more people, less remote, more consumable.

Fictional Shangri-la became a defined territory, certified officially as the true location of the 1930s hit novel and movie, Lost Horizon, with the three parallel rivers crucial to turning fiction to fact. “In order to credibly identify Zhongdian as the ‘true Shangrila’, a key task of the expert group was to document similarities between the Diqing (Dechen in Tibetan) area and the setting of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. For this purpose they read the novel carefully (in several Chinese translations), taking note of geographical features such as the three rivers running through the area, the characteristics of the novel’s Valley of the Blue Moon and the snowcapped mountain towering above. The three rivers of Lost Horizon were easily identified, since the Nu (Chinese: Nujiang), Mekong (Lancang) and Golden Sand (Jinsha) all run through Diqing.”[3]

China official map of fragmented heritage protection, excluding the actual rivers, 2018


At its narrowest, the Jinsha is only 25m wide, hence the romantic story that a tiger was seen leaping it. The name makes it wholly Chinese虎跳峡;  Hǔ tiào xiá, no longer a remote divide between ethnic minority kingdoms. Being now fully Chinese, it is being bridged, its waters tamed by diversion aqueducts and dams, and the narrowest point for a leaping tiger is also the narrowest point for engineers to span a wall across the river.

The narrower the river the more it rages in tumult, especially in the summer monsoon season. From the glass bottomed viewing platform, where rich tourists are carried down by sedan chair 轎 coolies轎夫,

new rich tourists ride sedan chair down to Tiger Leaping Gorge

nature in its wildness is close, yet at a safe distance. The Dri Chu/Jinsha is narrowed by mountains on both sides. On the Tibetan (northwest) side, the engineers decided the metamorphic marble and crystalline schist rock was strong enough to anchor the suspension cables directly into the rock, requiring excavation of tunnels for the expressway lanes to plunge into Haba Gangri (Haba Snow Mountain哈巴雪山 Hābā Xǔeshān), plus tunnels directly above to hold the cables.

On the other side, in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, the slope is not quite so steep, making it possible to erect massive concrete pylons to hold up the cables, a more conventional kind of suspension. 

The bank on the Lijiang side, the Dri Chu’s right bank, is seriously unstable, having been pushed up by the tectonic advance of the Tibetan Plateau, resulting in many fractures. The entire right bank is so loose that many Chinese scientists have wondered whether it can hold, if the Tiger Leaping Gorge/Longpan hydro dam is built. There has been serious investigation of the likelihood of a massive landslide collapse of the right bank, lubricated by the impounding of water behind a dam wall 276 metres high.[4]


Given the cumulative impact of water diversion aqueducts, hydro dams, displaced populations, tourism infrastructure, road expressway and high speed rail bridges, UNESCO has responded, in 2017 expressing alarm: “Pressure on the property primarily stems from infrastructure development. Spatially separating conservation and development is not, in and of itself, an effective strategy to ‘harmonize the coexistence and relationship between development and the nature’, as the State Party puts it in one of its fundamental objectives. The highly significant modification of the river systems, which gave the property its name, amounts to a profound landscape change, with additional threats from large-scale water diversion programmes. While the projects may be located outside of the “commitment area”, the effects of disturbance, loss of connectivity, improved road access facilitating illicit activities and species invasions inevitably accompany large infrastructure projects beyond their spatial footprint. Besides, there are linkages between freshwater biodiversity and processes affected by dams and terrestrial ecosystems. Although located outside the property, the massive hydropower projects and the associated infrastructure objectively change the natural beauty and aesthetic importance of the valleys and their numerous important views, which contribute to the property’s OUV (outstanding universal value) under criterion (vii), and cannot be restricted to selected elements of a landscape. Therefore, the visual impact of these infrastructure projects is considered to exert a direct negative impact on the OUV.”  State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List

County boundaries: Tibet pale green, Lijiang Naxi pink, divided by that river

However, separating conservation and development is China’s strategy, supported by a zoning system that makes all territory either economic or ecological. This rigid separation is acute in the UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site, where China, from the beginning of the nomination process, excluded the actual rivers from the protected area, including only fragmented steep valley landscapes and peaks, between the three rivers.

This is a nonsense, and UNESCO let China succeed, while  knowing the dam plans had accumulated for decades, awaiting construction. A landscape is a landscape, especially where mountain rivers incise deep valleys and microclimates conducive to the abundance of medicinal herbs found on the steep slopes above the three parallel riverbeds, precious to Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine alike. “The topographic variation in this area is remarkable. Elevations can change 4,000 meters within a span of ten kilometres. Subtropical ecosystems exist along canyon bottoms, whereas a few hours’ hike uphill brings one to temperate, boreal, and arctic-alpine life zones. Along the banks of these rivers and in the nearby mountain valleys grow more than ten thousand different plant species, making this region one of the most biodiverse in the world.”[5]

UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers boundaries, official map

China’s partitioning of the valleys and gorges from the rivers is instructive: the valleys are too steep for farming or other economic purposes, and are thus classified as waste land suited to World Heritage status; whereas the rivers rushing the gorges are economic, primarily for their hydropower, flood control and water diversion potential, long measured and assessed by Chinese engineers. A further reason the Dri Chu/Jinsha is an economic asset is that dams slow the river, leading to deposition of sediment behind dam walls, thus relieving the Three Gorges Dam, farther down the Jinsha/Yangtze, of the threat of silting up.

However, sedimentation is double-edged. The sharp turn of the Dri Chu/Jinsha is where the three rivers, all running from NNW to SSE, cease to be parallel. Suddenly the Jinsha changes course, heading NNE, making a sharp left turn where it also slows sufficiently for much sediment to settle out of the stream flow and raise the river bed. That unconsolidated sediment is in places 250 metres thick, yet the Longpan dam is to sit atop it, a hazard unfamiliar to dam builders.[6] UNESCO considers itself an expert on hydro dam sedimentation, and is holding an International Water Conference 13 and 14 May 2019 at its Paris headquarters, immediately prior to the World Hydropower Congress, also in Paris. This could be a suitable moment to ask UNESCO if it agrees with Chinese researchers who say at Tiger Leaping Gorge “it is difficult to construct a high dam large reservoir on a deep overburden.[7]

The dam is a massive project, which China’s hydraulic elite call comparable  to the Three Gorges Dam much further down the Yangtze. From an engineering perspective Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge are one single interconnecting hydraulic civilisation system, including the other 17 dams in between, with Tiger Leaping/Longpan at the crown. This is why the dam builders are so persistent in pressing for it to be built.


UNESCO concedes it lacks any jurisdiction over areas outside the scattered jigsaw pieces under its protection, yet expresses its concern at “projects located outside of the ‘commitment area’”. In response, in late 2018, China issued a bland State of Conservation report referring vaguely to the prospect of even more dams: “One hydropower development project, so called one reservoir with eight cascades, along Jinsha River midstream has accomplished constructions of Liyuan, Ahai, Jiananqiao, Longkaikou, Ludila and Guanyinyan power stations. Two of planned stations, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations, the Ministry of Environmental Protection states, as the aspects of ecological and environmental protection, Longpan power station and Liangjiaren power stations need to be further studied before making any decisions. The relevant construction plans and EIAs have not been completed, reported and ratified. And they are not under construction”.  2018 State of Conservation report by the State Party:

UNESCO is again humiliated. Environmentalists in China are horrified to see the steady progression of the Longpan 6000 megawatt dam through the official approval process, as part of “green development”, along with investments in wind power and solar power, listed as a priority for construction.

How did this unpopular dam make a decisive comeback? That’s the story told in blog two in this series.

[1] An Shenyi, 安申义 Comprehensive Benefits of Longpan Hydropower Station in the Main Stream of the Yangtze River, China Hydropower Engineering Society, 13 Nov 2014

[2] Gyalthang (rGyal thang) is located in the easternmost foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in the northwest corner of present-day Yunnan Province in southern Kham. From 1725 until 2001, this area was referred to as Zhongdian 中甸 in Chinese, but in 2001 Zhongdian County was renamed Shangri-la County (Xianggelila xian 香格里拉县).

[3] Åshild Kolås (2017) Truth and Indigenous Cosmopolitics in Shangrila, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 18:1, 36-53,

[4] Wang M Y, et al,.A seismic study of the deformable body on the Longpan right bank of the Jinsha River .Chinese Journal of Geophysics, 2006, 49(5):1489~ 1498

XU Wen-jie  徐文杰 et al, 虎跳峡龙蟠右岸边坡稳定性的数值模拟 Numerical simulation on stability of right bank slope of Longpan in Tiger-Leaping gorge area, 岩土工程学报,  Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering 2006 #11

JIANG Shu et al, Long-term kinematics and mechanism of a deep-seated slow-moving debris slide near Wudongde hydropower station in Southwest China, Journal of Mountain Science, 2018, 15(2): 364-379

[5] Dá!a Pejchar Mortensen The History Of Gyalthang Under Chinese Rule: Memory, Identity, And Contested Control In A Tibetan Region Of Northwest Yunnan, PhD dissertation, North Carolina, 2016, 2

[6]王启国/ Qi-Guo Wang,  Causes of Riverbed Deep Sedimentation and Engineering Significance of Tiger Leaping Gorge Reach of Jinsha River, Chinese Journal Of Rock Mechanics And Engineering. Vol. 28 Issue 7, p1455-1466

[7]王启国/ Qi-Guo Wang, Causes of Riverbed Deep Sedimentation and Engineering Significance of Tiger Leaping Gorge Reach of Jinsha River, Chinese Journal Of Rock Mechanics And Engineering. Vol. 28 Issue 7, p1455-1466

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Blog two of three


What has changed since 2007? Why are the Longpan/Tiger Leaping Gorge dam construction plans now again high on the infrastructure construction agenda?

Much has changed, tilting the playing field in favour of the engineers. Above all, the political climate has worsened, with no-one permitted to question the central leader.

China’s environmentalists can no longer openly express their anguish. They find themselves in the same position Tibetan environmentalists have suffered for decades: silenced by diktat. This plea, written at the urgent request of Chinese environmentalists, is their only way of alerting the world that UNESCO must not, yet again, allow its precious heritage brand equity be trashed by overdevelopment in and around its World Heritage sites.

anchoring Tiger Gorge expressway bridge into rock of Tibet


What has also changed since 2007 is that central, lowland Yunnan has battled to cope with chronic excessive extraction of water, for heavy industry, intensive irrigation crop farming and fast growing cities. Lakes once admired for their beauty are now clogged with toxic algae, unusable. There were five years of rainfall deficit in central Yunnan, starting 2009, and calls grew stronger to solve all these problems by channelling off the Dri Chu/Jinsha exactly where it makes that sharp turn back towards the north.

In 2016 the planned “average annual water diversion is 3.403 billion cubic meters, of which 2.231 billion cubic meters are supplied to urban life and industry, 500 million cubic meters for agricultural irrigation, and 67.2 to the Dianchi Lake, Wuhu Lake and Yilong Lake.” So says Yunnan Information News.  China’s official 2018 State of Conservation report carelessly inflates the amount of water to be extracted tenfold, while insisting it is only eight per cent of the Jinsha flow at that point, despite the absence of gauging stations.[1] According to Asian Development Bank[2] the total annual flow of the Yangtze is just over 200 billion m3. China’s official report goofed.

aqueduct with tunnels 660 kms long from Dri Chu across Yunnan

To some, that is a modest water diversion, only 8 per cent of the Jinsha’s flow. However, among ecologists 10 per cent is the upper limit of water extraction before a riparian ecosystem is fundamentally changed. Further, it will be mostly withdrawn when the river is lowest, in the drier months from September to February. Subtropical lowland Yunnan grows crops year round, if irrigated. This is a threat UNESCO has so far said nothing about.

Water will be pumped from the Dri Chu/Jinsha at a rate of 486,000 cubic metres per hour, for 660 kms right across central Yunnan, to the capital Kunming, where it will be on display in an urban waterfall park currently reliant on a much smaller water diversion, with some water eventually reaching Dianchi Lake, making it swimmable again after decades of oxygen depleting green algae pollution. This ambitious scheme reaches as far as the upper watershed of the depleted Red River.

draining Dri Chu to irrigate Yunnan agribusiness

UNESCO has not remonstrated with China over this water extraction project, although it was publicly launched in 2015, with a construction phase of eight years. Officially it is the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project 滇中引水工程. It is also called Suizhong. The headline for the 2015 launch: “China initiates enormous Yangtze water diversion scheme.” Publicity emphasizes theattractions of remediating smelly, toxic lakes, but most of the extra water is for industry, as specialist publications acknowledge.[3]

Yunnan capital Kunming urban waterfall, from pumping out the Dri Chu

Yunnan has long been pushing for this low tech solution to its chronic over use of water, with first Jinsha diversion plans going back to the 1950s. Under the national  “Open up the West” campaign launched by Jiang Zemin in 1999, Yunnan is rapidly industrialising and agribusiness is intensifying, in accordance with official policy, all requiring much more water. Diversion of the Jinsha to central Yunnan, and the construction of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Longpan hydro dam go together, proponents argue: “Call for the Yangtze River leading reservoir to be launched as soon as possible. Located in the mouth of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, Longpan Reservoir is the leading reservoir of the 17 cascade hydropower stations in the Yangtze River. It is the best water source for water diversion in the central Yunnan Province. Its comprehensive social and economic benefits are outstanding and irreplaceable. It is necessary to immigrate 100,000 people. The Suizhong water transfer plan is closely related to the Longpan hydropower station. The article studies show that the Longpan hydropower station is the best solution for water transfer in Suizhong.”[4] Pumping a lot of water uphill takes a lot of energy, so what better than to have a massive hydropower dam close by?

proliferating road network within UNESCO Three Parallel Rivers, to meet tourism market requirements


What has also changed since 2007 is that the dam engineers not only never gave up on their concrete dream, they  redoubled their pitch, claiming the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam would benefit everyone, even as far as the mouth  of the Yangtze, close to Shanghai, over 4000 kms downriver, where it would hold encroaching seawater at bay.

The strongest pitch to get it built came in the 3rd year of Xi Jinping’s new era, in 2014, from senior hydro-engineer An Shenyi, 安申义 (Wang Sanyi) who was 88 that year.  An Shenyi, the former vice president of the Central South Survey and Design Institute in Hunan Changsha and the chief engineer of the plan, leaked to reporters his calculations, and case for construction. What he revealed was widely reported in official media.

Soul of China, CCP Party School magazine, May 2014

An Shenyi is a celebrated hero of pioneering dam design, and his 2014 urging that Tiger Gorge dam be built was accompanied by a glowing report in the CCP Central Committee Party School magazine, Soul of China, emphasizing his deathbed recovery from a 2010 heart attack. It became a sacred mission to fulfil this last wish of a heroic red exemplary model. An Shenyi will be immortalised in the 276 metres high dam wall at Tiger Gorge/Longpan.

With highly specific numbers, he argues that this massive dam –big even by Chinese standards- will deliver massive and multiple benefits. Not only will it hold a vast amount of water, becoming a pleasure lake, it will release water, after passing through the electricity generating turbines, well into the dry season, lifting the level of the Yangtze far downstream, sufficiently for ships as big as 10,000 tones weight to use the Yangtze reliably as a logistics transport highway far inland. That prospect of making the Yangtze navigable for ships was one of the promises of the Three Gorges Dam, which failed to materialise. Thus Tiger Gorge’s fate is inextricably bound up with fulfilling the Three Gorges promise, remediating Li Peng’s legacy, something he can be fondly remembered for rather than the unmentionable Tiananmen events of 1989.

Elderly red hero An Shenyi makes the case for damming Tiger Gorge. Source: Soul of China, CCP Party School, May 2014

These arguments, backed by An Shenyi’s calculations, give powerful players reasons to want Tiger Gorge dammed, from Shanghai on the coast, saved by Tiger Gorge dam from encroaching seawater, upriver to Hunan province, An Shenyi’s base, and further up all the way to Chongqing, at the farthest inland end of the Three Gorges dam. An Shenyi packages Tiger Gorge/Longpan as the start of the entire Gezhouba cascade of 17 dams serially located, and already built, further down the Dri Chu/Jinsha, below Three Gorges. This one crowning dam is to be bigger than the other 16 combined:

The Longpan Dam is 276m high , the total head of the Gezhouba Cascade is about 1800m , and the storage capacity is 90.8 billion kWh at the time of full storage . It is equivalent to the annual power generation of the Three Gorges Reservoir, and can generate 4 kWh per cubic metre of water. In the largest energy storage reservoir in foreign countries, the storage of electricity is only 48 billion degrees, only 53% of Longpan . The storage capacity of the Longpan is equivalent to three times the energy of the downstream 16 cascades , which is very beneficial to ensure the power supply quality and power supply safety of the cascade and the combined power grid.”

computer generated wall of Tiger Gorge dam

This is more than a mega-project. It is a vision uniting provinces thousands of kms apart, linked by one river visualised as a single pipeline to be sluiced shut and selectively opened, a system of hydraulic civilisation construction in which, as always, Tibet is a solution to China’s problems.

Longpan is the one with the lot: flood control, drought relief, huge power output, including power pumping water uphill to central Yunnan, a green alternative to coal fired power,  tourism enhanced, ship lifting: An Shenyi’s list of benefits is long, and seductively precise in its quantification.

dam and powergrid plans

Our singular focus here is on Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it is one of many dams long planned, both up and downstream on the steep margins of the Tibetan Plateau.

As recently as January 2019 the joint directive of China’s Green Development Catalogue of Approved Projects listed the many dams scheduled for construction (if not already built), nominally within the 13th Five-Year Plan period that goes to 2020. Most of these dams have been in planning for decades, awaiting central finance. Sites further downriver, in less difficult terrain, usually got priority. China is now moving upriver, on the various branches of the upper Yangtze in Tibet (Dadu, Yalong, Jinsha) and the list is a long one. Those not built under the 13th Five-Year Plan will be rolled into the 14th Plan, for 2021 to 2026.

Here is the full list of what is officially scheduled, now branded as “green development”, from the joint announcement of the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Bank and National Energy Board:

Section title translation: 3.2.4 Mega Hydraulic power Generating Facility Construction and Operation.

Key mega hydropower Base Constructions which are definitely included in 13th Five-Year Plan Renewable Energy Project:

List of Hydropower station projects in Tibet

Ye Ba Tan hydropower Station叶巴滩水电站 in Palyul County (Chinese: Bai Yu), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Construction of Yebatan dam began in April 2019. 

Lawa Hydropower Station拉哇水电站 is at the boundary of Markham County (Chinese: Mang Kang), TAR and Bathang County (Chinese: Ba tang) Kardze TAP, Sichuan province.

Ba tang Hydropower Station巴塘水电站  is at the boundary of Markham County (Chinese: Mang Kang), TAR and Bathang County( Chinese: Ba tang) Kardze TAP, Sichuan province.

Chang bo Hydropower Station昌波水电站is at the boundary of TAR and Kardze TAP, Sichuan 

Bo Luo Hydropower Station波罗水电站 is at the boundary of Jomda (Chinese: Jiang da) County, TAR and Palyul (Chinese: Bai Yu) County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. 

Gang tuo Hydropower station岗托水电站 is at the boundary of TAR and Sichuan Province.

All six above hydropower stations are at boundary of Tibetan Autonomous Region( TAR) and Sichuan Province. They are located along Drichu River(Chinese: Jin sha jiang/Yangtze) runs through Jomda County( Chinese: Jiang da), Gojo County( Chinese: Gong jue) and Markham County (Chinese: Mang kang) of TAR and Dege County, Palyul County (Chinese: Bai yu) and Bathang Coutny (Chinese: Ba tang) of Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture(TAP) in Sichuan Province.

Xu long Hydropower Station旭龙水电站 is located at the boundary of Derong County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province and Dechen County( Chinese: Di qing), Dechen( Chinese: Di qing) TAP, Yun nan Province.

Ben zi lan Hydropower Station奔子栏水电站 is at boundary of  Dechen County, Dechen TAP, Yunnan Province and Markham County( Chinese: Mang kang), TAR.

Tiger Leaping Gorge/ Long pan Hydropower station龙盘水电 is at boundary of  Shang ge Li la/Shangrila (Tibetan: Sem kyi Nyida means Sun and Moon of Heart) County, Dechen(Chinese: De qing) TAP and Yu long County of Li jiang City, Yun nan Province


Ya gen First Level Hydropower Station牙根一级水电站 is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

Meng di gou Hydropower孟底沟水电站 station is at the boundary of Gyazur (Chinese: Jiu long) County, Kardze TAP and Mu li Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan Province.

Ka la hydropower station卡拉水电站 is in Mu li Tibetan Autonomous County, Sichuan Province.

Ya gen Hydropower Station牙根二级水电站is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

Leng gu Hydropower Station楞古水电站 is in Nyakchu County( Chinese: Ya jiang), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.


Jin chuan Hydropower Station金川水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Ba di Hydropower Station巴底水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Ying liang Hydropower Station硬梁水电站 is in Chagzamka County(Chinese: Lu ding), Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province.

An Ning Hydropower Station安宁水电站 is in Chun chen County(Chinese: Jin chuan), Ngaba(Chinese: A Ba) TAP, Sichuan Province.

Dan ba Hydropower Station丹巴水电站 is in Rongdrak(Chinese: Dan ba) County, Kardze TAP,Sichuan Province.

Ma er dang Hydropower Station玛尔挡水电站  is at the boundary of Ba Dzong( Chinese: Tong de) County, Tsolho(Chinese: Hai Nan) TAP and Machen(Chinese: Ma qin) County, Golok(Chinese: Guo luo) TAP, Qing hai Province.

Yang Qu Hydropower羊曲水电站 Station is at the boundary of Drakar( Chinese: Xing hai) County and Gaba Sumdo(Chinese: Gui nan) County, Qinghai Province.

Ci ha Xia Hydropower Station茨 哈峡水电站  is at the boundary of Drakar (Chinese: Xing hai) County and Ba Dzong(Chinese: Tong de) County, Qinghai Province.

Ning mu te Hydropower Station宁木特水电站 is in He Nan(Tibetan: Ma lho) County, Huang Nan(Tibetan: Malho) TAP, Qing hai Provice.

A qing Hydropower Station 阿青水电站is Tsada(Chinese: Zha da) County, Ngari(Chinese: A Li) Prefecture, TAR.

Yu Zhong Hydropower Station 忠玉水电站 is in Lhari (Chinese: Jia li) County, Nakchu Prefecture(Chinese: Na qu) TAR.

Zha La Hydropower Station扎拉水电站 is in Dzogang(Chinese: Zuo gong) County, Chamdo(Chinese:Chang du) Prefecture, TAR

On top of all that, the same central planners have also instructed Tibet Autonomous Region to invest much more in hydropower construction. Altogether, the damming of the upper Yangtze is to be on an extraordinary scale, requiring further analysis.


An Shenyi’s clincher argument is that the 100,000 people to be displaced by the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam will be better off elsewhere. In 2000 An Shenyi published a book on how to manage the environmental and resettlement issues, proposing the kind of win-win Xi Jinping loves to embrace.

For Tibetans and the smaller population of Bonpo Naxi (Jang to Tibetans), 100,000 people is a lot, and their farmland is precious in the rugged terrain of precipitous Kham (eastern Tibetan Plateau). Although Tiger Leaping Gorge is narrow, below it, along the 265 kms of future man-made lake the river often widens, enabling farmers to grow the glowing gold canola/rapeseed crops that feature on the splash page of the dam building corporation.

Where can those 100,000 Naxi and Tibetan shingpa farmers go? An Shenyi offers few specifics, yet he is sure their income will increase, and the economy of the future is in tourism.

This is not reassuring, as China has built thousands of hydro dams in recent decades, displacing many millions of people, and there are many research reports documenting the ongoing poverty of the relocated, despite official promises.[5]

China is chronically short of arable land, especially in rugged Yunnan. Chinese as well as international researchers find displaced villagers required to emigrate are seldom paid the actual value of their land.[6]

The displaced can do aquaculture, An Shenyi assures us, or pick shitake mushrooms in the forest. A gourmet future awaits. Meanwhile a global future awaits China’s dam builders and power grid builders. Blog three in this series explains.

[1] China’s official response to UNESCO’s concerns, issued late 2018, gives much higher figure as to the extraction of Jinsha flow: Based on monitoring information, the annual average flow at this segment of Jinsha River is 426 billion m3.The planned annual average water intake is 34.2 billion m3, account for 8% of the flow at this segment. The impact on downstream water flow is low.” State of Conservation Report, November 2018,  11. Their ratio, of 8% still holds.

[2] Asian Development Bank, Managing Water Resources for Sustainable Socioeconomic Development: A country water assessment for the People’s Republic of China, Dec 2018.

[3] Progress of the water diversion project in Yuzhong, Pump Technology, 2012, (03): 53

[4] An Shenyi, Working together to promote the Yangtze River leading reservoir as soon as possible In: Hongshui River,  红水河 2014, 33 (04): 1-2

[5] Sabrina Habich, Strategies of Soft Coercion in Chinese Dam Resettlement, Issues & Studies, 51, no. 1 (March 2015): 165-199

Shawn Steil and Duan Yuefang,  Policies and practice in Three Gorges resettlement: a field account; Forced Migration Review 12, 2002

[6] Wang Xu,  Promote resettlement work based on comprehensive land price and value-added income distribution, Yunnan Hydropower Journal, vol35 #5, 2018, 王旭,孔元刚,杨海青; 基于综合地价和增值收益分配推动移民安置工作, 云南水力发电

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