Blog two of three on corona virus in Tibet, China and worldwide

Kham Kandze: health workers go door to door looking for more contacts of infected people


The corona virus crisis has revealed that China, at the highest level, is dangerously conflicted by its own contradictions and categories.

On one hand, China wants to be seen as modern, scientific, a leader in rational planning and efficient execution of policy, unhindered by the messy politics of democracy and vested interests lobbying for favoured treatment. China has poured effort into scientific research on almost every topic imaginable and works hard to make much research available in English.

In the field of global health governance, China has been active, promoting itself as an exemplary model of efficient and effective management of health challenges, an inspiration for the developing world.

On the other hand China insists on being unique, exceptional, and not bound to any universals such as human rights. Integral to China’s uniqueness is Traditional Chinese Medicine, a system of treating disease that goes back millennia. TCM has become a core element of Chinese identity and its’ use, in times of crisis, is not the individual choice of an ill person, it is compulsory. Professor Huang Yanzhong, author of Governing Health in Contemporary China commented in early 2020: “throughout modern China, there has always been an interesting marriage between TCM and politics in China. And under Xi’s government, it is now evolving into a symbol of patriotism. You won’t be considered patriotic if you don’t believe in traditional Chinese medicine,” he said.

It has become a matter of national pride that China has a medical system radically different to modern biomedicine, with not only different ingredients but a different imaginary of what it is to be human, what dis-ease is, and modes of treatment. Yet an enormous effort goes into laboratory work to validate TCM scientifically. For example, the officially recommended use of bile forcibly extracted from living bears in cages, as an effective treatment for corona virus infection, has dozens of scientific reports on its use in many other diseases.

This unresolvable tension between TCM and biomedicine, now results in tragic absurdities, in this time of pandemic. Almost certainly this corona virus, utterly new to human lungs, has existed for a very long time in bats, and was transmitted to humans via some intermediary species, no-one is yet sure who. What is clear is that the Wuhan wet market, a jumble of wild caught animals piled on top of each other in cages, awaiting slaughter, was the ideal setting for a virus to jump, from bats to some other species and then to humans. The logic behind making a health soup from bats, and consuming wildlife in feasts of conspicuous consumption, is that they are all TCM ingredients, known for bestowing health.

Thus promoting TCM means promoting the consumption of the same species that caused the corona virus contagion. This is the central contradiction.

This contradiction has not been resolved by China recently enacting further legislation forbidding the eating of wild animals; as the law does not prohibit their use, dried, in TCM and even permits animals seized in official raids to then be quietly sold to TCM compounders. The contradiction is now acute, exacerbated by official decrees listing specific traditional treatments whose approval has been validated, in the middle of a pandemic. National Geographic  says: “This recommendation highlights what wildlife advocates say is a contradictory approach to wildlife: shutting down the live trade in animals for food on the one hand and promoting the trade in animal parts on the other.”

This contradiction has arisen before, as several contagions have arisen in China, and several attempts at legislating to stop global trafficking of wildlife to China have failed. The politicisation of TCM as patriotic, used by decree on as many as 90 per cent of corona virus patients in China, only makes the contradiction ever more acute.

Further, this is no longer China’s problem alone. China, promoting TCM as a global export market, has made the status of TCM a regular priority of its soft power projection diplomacy, especially within the UN World Health Organisation.

For 12 years, WHO’s director-general was Dr Margaret Chan, from 2006 to 2017, when Ethiopian doctor Tedros Ghebreyesus took over. China was understandably proud it had a Chinese citizen heading a UN agency. China saw international recognition of TCM as not only an export market opportunity but as soft power projection, an example of why China is to be accepted on Chinese terms, as unique.[1]

WHO bowed to China’s political pressure to exclude Taiwan, a costly exclusion in this time of pandemic, as Taiwan managed a serious corona virus contagion effectively and very differently to China.

Professor John Fitzgerald, who for years headed the Ford Foundation in China, reminds us: “TCM is not quite the grass-roots cultural practice that it might appear to outsiders. It is deeply embedded in the party’s management of daily physical health in China, where it is allocated a respected place alongside evidence-based medical practice, or “Western medicine” as it’s known in China. “Chinese medicine treats the basics; Western medicine treats symptoms” goes the saying. What’s more, TCM has the backing of Xi.  A thriving and growing international consumer market for pangolin meat and scales, rhinoceros horns, leopard bones, tiger plasters, black bear bile, donkey hide, and kangaroo penises is a predictable outcome of the grandiose repackaging and political marketing of TCM as a global equivalent to evidence-based medicine in Xi New Era of global leadership.

“TCM is also a potent weapon in the party’s ongoing struggle with universal values and human rights. Beijing tends to view and portray human rights and values as a nasty concoction of false hopes and evil intentions brewed up by US institutions and liberal media to promote the global hegemony of the West.   In place of universal values, Xi champions his own brew of national values blended with national folk science and culture. He is also building the propaganda platforms and communications infrastructure needed to deliver his concoction to homes throughout the world.

“At the moment the corona virus was leaping from animal to human hosts under the Huanan market scenario, Xi attended a meeting to endorse TCM. On October 25, 2019 he told a national TCM conference in Beijing that traditional medicine “is a treasure of Chinese civilisation embodying the wisdom of the nation and its people”. In May 2019 the organisation’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, duly agreed to include a chapter on traditional medicines in its guide to acceptable global health practice, the International Classification of Diseases — an authoritative document that assists doctors around the world in diagnosing medical conditions.

” The world scientific community was appalled. The editors of Scientific American branded the decision “an egregious lapse” in evidence-based scientific practice. Nature warned in an editorial that the decision could backfire on WHO in years to come. The organisation’s endorsement of practices that were untested and potentially harmful was “unacceptable for the body that has the greatest responsibility and power to protect human health”.

When it came to endangered wildlife, such as panthers and pangolins, it did not take long to backfire. Wildlife conservationists feared the worst following WHO’s decision. TCM could turn out to be the major political and cultural vector for this devastating global pandemic. If wild game is involved, then TCM has a lot to answer for.”

[1] Huang Yanzhong, Pursuing Health as Foreign Policy, Indiana Journal of Global legal Studies, 2010, 17 #1, 110-

Huang Yanzhong, Engagement in Global Health Governance Regimes, chapter in The Sage Handbook of Contemporary China, Sage, 2018


We can now turn to other Wuhan voices, from within the epicentre, notably the Wuhan novelist Fang Fang, who used to work unloading ships sailing inland up the Yangtze to Wuhan, a worker not in a hospital but on the wharves. Fang Fang turns to the baogao wenxue 报告文学 reportage literature genre to capture the mood of her city in lockdown.  Fang Fang embraces baogao wenxue, literary investigative reporting, despite being herself isolated, yet able to read the emotions of her fellow Wuhaners.

Fang Fang delivers a low key letter from the future, our near future as we start getting used to isolation. For her, the leap day last day of February was already day 38 of lockdown:

People are a bit depressed, in Wuhan, that’s what I feel strongly. Even my cheerful colleagues so far don’t want to talk. At home, almost no one opens their mouths. Is it because everyone is only thinking about the new episode of the television series? I wish it were so. Being locked up at home for a long time with a ban on going out, you need a strong will to support it. In Wuhan, everyone feels a kind of indefinable pressure, which you can hardly understand, I’m afraid, when you are outside. We can never have enough fine words to praise the sacrifices made by the people of Wuhan during this epidemic. We persevere in our support for all official directives, we continue to follow and comply with them. We’re already at 38th day of quarantine.

publication date August 2020

Fang Fang’s translator (into French), Brigitte Duzan, reminds us how the whole of China turned to her, for a dose of reality, unfiltered by the imposition of censorship and propaganda, until it was.

During the entire month of February, and again in March, the first thing people did when they woke up in the morning, in Wuhan but also in whole China, was to rush to read Fang Fang’s “Diary”. No one wanted to watch CCTV reports or read articles from the People’s Daily. She began it the day after the imposition of the quarantine, to report the feelings of the inhabitants, but also to record the most trivial events of everyday life in order to give a true picture of life in the city.

 Fang Fang’s diary will have been a ray of light for everyone in this dark period. It brings out all the fragility of life, despair, helplessness, daily struggles and the worst suffering.

It has often been deleted, but we continue to read it. It is also a window open on the city for the outside world, to try to understand the life of the city from the outside.

Despite the inevitable censorship by the jealous gods of the party-state, Fang Fang’s daily posts are still available, in the original Chinese: http://fangfang.blog.caixin.com/

where it all began: Wuhan wet market
All wet market pix in this blog sourced from


Wearied by the  lockdown dragging on, still determined to capture the people’s emotions she gathered daily by phone, by social media, nothing wearied Fang Fang as much as the capture of Wuhan by the propaganda apparat, out to proclaim itself as the source of all that is good, successful, competent, capable, exemplary and suitable for export worldwide. Before the dead were cold the party-state supervened.

In a brief message entitled The turning point is not yet here, who is already singing a song of triumph?《拐点 尚未 到 , 谁 已 在 高歌?》She writes: The pain of Wuhan people cannot be relieved by shouting slogans.

Fang Fang is in shock at this brazen appropriation, and insistence on gratitude to the omniscient party-state and its core leader. After the acute cabin fever of lockdown, it is enough to wonder about the daring thought of going out, into the Wuhan urban world again:

As the time spent locked up at home lengthens, I wonder if, when I go out, I will get used to it. And especially if I’m going to want to go out. Today, my neighbor Tang Xiaohe sent me photos of the East Lake, as if taken by a drone, telling me that they are recent. The lake is deserted and peaceful; the plums are in bloom, alternating white and red, it is incredibly beautiful. I forwarded these photos to a colleague, and she told me that when she saw them, she wanted to cry. Ah … a spring in vain. Red apricot blossoms, red Japanese apple trees. Look at the tips of their branches, they blame the sky in silence.

In the face of official capture, censorship and compulsory forgetting, Chinese writers deploy all their skills to urge everyone to remember. Novelist Yan Lianke, in an online lecture to his Hong Kong students, says:

The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. Yet, songs of victory are already echoing all around. All because statistics are looking up.

Yan Lianke

Bodies have not turned cold and people are still mourning. Yet, triumphal songs are ready to be sung and the people are ready to proclaim, “Oh, how wise and great!”

We must not be like Ah Q (阿Q, a fictional character in Lu Xun’s novel, characterized for deceiving himself into believing he’s successful or more superior than others), time and again insisting that we are victors even after being hit, insulted, and being on the brink of death.

Our memories have been regulated, replaced, and erased. We remember what others tell us to remember and forget what we’re told to forget. We stay silent when we’re asked to and sing on command. Memories have become a tool of the era, used to forge collective and national memories, made up of what we’re either told to forget or asked to remember.

Especially since the SARS epidemic from 17 years ago, and the escalation of the current Covid-19 epidemic seem as if they are works by the same theatre director. The same tragedy is re-enacted before our eyes. As humans who are but dust, we are incapable of finding out who this director is, nor do we possess the expertise to recover and put together the scriptwriter’s thoughts, ideas, and creations.

Novelist Yan Lianke’s cry for memories to persist is part of a huge effort to preserve writings censored by official diktat, even to translate many into English. Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary, a full English translation, arrives in August.

Wuhan wet market: wet, wet, wet

Yan Lianke asks the key question: “Who erased our memories and wiped them clean?!

Forgetful people are, in essence, dirt in the fields and on the roads. Grooves on the sole of a shoe can step on them in whichever way they please.

Forgetful people are, in essence, woodblocks and planks that have cut ties with the tree that gave them life. Saws and axes are in full control of what they become in the future.

If reporters do not report what they witness, and authors do not write about their memories and feelings; if the people in society who can talk and know how to talk are always recounting, reading, and proclaiming in pure lyrical political correctness, who can tell us what it means to live on this earth as flesh and blood?

History becomes a collection of legends, of lost and imagined stories, that are baseless and unfounded. From this perspective then, how important it is that we can remember, and possess our own memories that are neither revised nor erased.

plastic packed peacocks for the market
off to market, peacocks in hand

Something is amiss when we face centralized and regulated “truths.” The little voice in us will say: “That’s not true!”  While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way. We can already hear victory songs and loud triumphant cries from all around us. If we can’t loudly question the source and spread of Covid-19, then may we softly mutter and hum, for that is also a display of our conscience and courage.

If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.”

Why is the party-state so insistent that it alone authored the fight against the corona virus, and it alone succeeded? Perhaps to cover up its guilt at denying any problems existed, in the first weeks of the virus spread, when decisive action could have greatly limited its global leap.

Kham Kandze sick Tibetan treated for corona virus


For Tibetans the post corona world won’t be the same, in several ways. The corona crisis was an opportunity for the security state to tighten its grip. The story of the corona outbreak in Kham Kandze Tawu is of intensive immobilisation of an entire county, while surveillance officials combed their contact tracing apps to  track who had been where and when, until they nailed “patient zero” and everyone who had been in contact with him.

This normalises mass surveillance, grid management and other tools of repression. Repressing viral transmission has been the ideal vector for transmitting extreme control as the new normal. The upside, once corona lockdowns ease, is that if you did stay in place, did obey orders, did self-quarantine, you may now move around, displaying at the checkpoints the green QR code on your phone app certifying you are now permitted  to move. That is how social credit works: if you are compliant, the state benevolently restores your rights; if you are noncompliant you are punished. At any moment, your rights can be revoked.

China now proclaims it is exemplary, a model for the world. China has issued an official timeline of its corona virus response, airbrushing out its many weeks of suppressing the viral truth. Fortunately, a small army of Chinese techies is working hard to preserve what is officially being erased, and much of this is becoming available in English.

This virus did not originate in Tibet, but in Tibet China trialled many of the techniques of control, denial, silencing, surveilling, editing and rewriting the facts, that have now spread across China. Tibet has long been China’s laboratory, testing grid management lockdown, silencing dissent, criminalising protest. Tibetans, especially in central Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region) have lived through such curtailments of basic human rights for decades.

Sonam Dargey is an official saint of new era China

Also not new to Tibetans is the extraction of just one man from his community, to be enshrined as a martyr, who died for the greater glory of the party-state. In the corona crisis the courageous doctor Li Wenliang was the first to alert Wuhan to the unseen danger spreading everywhere. Dr Li was then hauled in by the security state. Not only was he officially reprimanded for spreading “rumours” that were true, he was made to sign a humiliating, enforceable confession and promise to toe the official line.

Doctor Li Wenliang shortly before he died

That is how the party-state, at local level, routinely suppresses anything that might ruffle “stability.” Zhao Shilin, a courageous former professor of religion and philosophy at Minority Nationalities University, Minzu daxue, explains: “For a long time, the ingrained notion of “stability overrides all” has twisted how we treat so many societal problems. Upon careful examination of this “extreme stability” principle, all negative events, including both natural and made-made disasters, are seen as threats to stability. Both undermine the system’s image as being stable. As a result, a kind of rule has formed which holds that if any negative event can be handled in a low-profile fashion, then it should be. And so, the focus of this so-called stability is on the safety of the political regime, rather than the wellbeing of the people.

To date, authoritative Chinese and foreign sources of information are all constantly confirming the following: Policy makers knew about the present outbreak from the very beginning, ordinary people were the only ones who didn’t know, and yet ordinary people are the only ones who suffer the consequences. I regret to say, since the beginning of the epidemic, the underlying psychology of policy makers deliberately concealing the epidemic is this: Put the safety of the regime before the safety of the people; put the stability of the regime before the stability of society; put the esteem of the regime before the rights and interests of the people. Because of this, officials on all levels work together to deliberately conceal the outbreak—at the expense of people’s lives, with no regard for the fact that concealing the truth would lead to further spread of the outbreak and provoke societal unrest. This is precisely what is meant by “putting political security first.”

Wuhan wet market

“Policy makers hoped in their hearts that they could make it through this outbreak on blind luck. They were unable to quickly mobilize society to implement effective prevention and control measures as early as possible, missing the golden window again and again, and thereby resulting in the fierce spread of the outbreak. This has a direct connection to this extreme, twisted, regime-based, “putting the political regime first” social stability way of thinking.”

In Tibet, stability is always the framing device for responding to any Tibetan protests; immediately making any call, even for China to obey its own laws, illegal, to be repressed as forcefully as deemed necessary.

The harsh language of infection control is familiar language to Tibetans: “The Tibet Daily reported March 12 that “the security bureau office in Lhasa is striking back against those social elements who go against the measures of containing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.” “Keeping the safety and welfare of the people is the paramount duty of the security forces, so it is only natural that in instances where people illegally breach government measures, they are met with harsh punishment,” the Daily continued. “Those guilty people were given a trial and sentenced in accordance with the law,” the report said, adding, “The police were in the forefront of maintaining law and order during this crucial point in time.” Lhasa police officially registered seven instances of people violating coronavirus prevention and control measures laid out by the government, with 10 people arrested, the report said.”


That brings us back to the Wuhan wet market, where it all started. Those who suppose China is a fully centralised command and control authoritarian dictatorship should be amazed the Wuhan wet market existed, kept expanding, kept supplying delectable wild animals, live, for the boastful consumption by rich tuhao, mostly men. When the inevitable happened, and a virus of bats jumped species and ended up in human lungs, no-one should have been surprised. The Wuhan wet market was chaotic, unregulated, a haven of corrupt officials turning a blind eye to the highly profitable trafficking of wild animals, kept alive in cages until the moment of consumer purchase and slaughter. In those piled cages, animals had no choice but to piss, shit and bleed on each other, ideal circumstances for viruses to discover new hosts, new species to infect.

Not only was there nothing unusual about the Wuhan wet market, the suppression of inconvenient truths was also nothing unusual. The primary responsibility of local officials is to prevent anything that might disrupt order and stability from becoming widely known, triggering alarm. Suppression of information, at the most local level, is the norm, for fear of angering those higher in the hierarchy. Promotion depends on maintaining order above all else. The cadre who fails to keep dissonant facts secret is classified as a failure, to be denied promotion.

Wuhan wet market

The party-state cadres of Wuhan did what was expected of them. Only when Covid-19 cases spiralled so fast did it become apparent the truth had been suppressed for at least three crucial weeks, probably longer, squandering the only window for suppression, not of truth but of virus. Once it was all out of hand, Wuhan cadres got the blame, and some were sacked.

This is why Yan Lianke urges fellow Chinese to remember what can no longer be publicly said. This is why the propaganda machine is in overdrive, declaring itself the protector of the people, from start to finish.

Part of this official response is to legislate to forbid the consumption of wild animals, if sold for eating by pampered individuals. This legislation forms part the official boast that China is uniquely capable, decisive, interventionist and swift in rectifying wrongs. Reports sound as if the full force of authoritarian governance now forbids wildlife capture, sale and slaughter, as if China at last is taking seriously the global plea to end the trafficking in rhino horn and elephant tusks, in tiger bones and pangolin scales and shark fins and much more.

However, as was the case with past bans, the new law persists in permitting the slaughter of animals for use in traditional medicine, and the huge industry of raising innumerable species in cages for slaughter, for manufacture of medicines with Chinese characteristics.

Peter Li, Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown reminds us: “Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where COVID-19 originated, had a section for selling wild animals. This part of the market was filthy, smelly and chaotic. Cages of animals which had either been caught in the wild or bred in captivity – many of them lethargic, sick, and dying with open wounds caused during their capture and transport – were stacked one on top of another. The animals inside the lower cages were soaked in the blood, excrement and urine of the animals incarcerated above. Carcasses of slaughtered animals were strewn on the ground, allowing blood to flow indiscriminately. Suffering was everywhere. Traders were left to their own devices and could not care less about the animals. The market was like an ‘independent kingdom’ beyond the reach of the laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Wuhan wet market: porcupine

“Wuhan’s wildlife wet market is not atypical. In China, the wildlife business sector enjoys many privileges and disproportionate influence. The Chinese authorities enacted a special national law in 1989, the Wildlife Protection Law (WPL), which was for the protection of this business interest rather than wildlife. To the consternation of critics, the WPL that was revised in 2016 remains a law which defends the wildlife business interest.

“Wildlife is still designated as a ‘resource’ to allow for its uninterrupted use for human benefit. In effect, the revised law has actually rolled back the limited gains made by the country’s conservation efforts. By including a so-called ‘captive-bred offspring’ concept (Article 25), the revised WPL has prepared the ground for re-opening the tiger and rhino trade.”

Wuhan wet market

Despite the impressively authoritative language of the latest law, and accompanying propaganda, a loophole continues to allow the use of dried animal parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and allows the industry farming many species for medical ingredients to persist.

Despite widespread horror, within and beyond China, at the cruelty of the Wuhan wet market and its pampered wildlife consuming customers, wildlife farming is still allowed, and wildlife caught in the wild for consumption, then apprehended by police, may still be lawfully returned to the TCM market, to be used in TCM manufacture. Horror at hunting, caging and consuming wildlife is a common reaction within China, more so now than ever. The horror pictures of the Wuhan wet market were posted by local photographers in Wuhan, to face everyone up to the cruelty of treating wild animals as delicacies to bribe your boss with. The captions explain that “at first there were only more than 400 stalls. Later expanded several times. Now the area reaches 50,000 square meters, equivalent to 7 football fields. The number of shops has also increased to more than 1,000, making it the largest aquatic wholesale market in Central China.”

This ongoing power of wildlife trafficking as an industry says a lot about China’s insistence, as a matter of national pride, that everything must have Chinese characteristics, including corona virus treatment. Official propaganda emphasises that 90 per cent of Chinese treated for corona virus infection were treated with TCM, and the fact that most recovered demonstrates the effectiveness of TCM, not as a cure but as effective symptomatic relief.

The use of TCM to treat a disease caused by the TCN demand for animal parts is not just an embedded cultural preference; it’s a command, from the highest level. CCP Politburo member Sun Chunlan 孙春兰, who has been charged with a leading role in handling the coronavirus epidemic, writes in the party’s top ideology journal Qiushi  or Seeking Truth that TCM must be administered to all corona virus patients. This, she says, is one of the “five optimisations” of the official corona virus strategy, thus demonstrating to the world China’s responses to the epidemic had “fully demonstrated China’s power,” “the political advantages of the CCP and the institutional advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” 


The legislative exemptions for the wildlife farming industry are a reminder of how big and politically powerful it is. This is seldom mentioned, not even by those who blame China for corona virus and much more. China’s wildlife farming industry includes 6.3 million direct practitioners and a total output value of $18 billion in 2016 and has only grown since.[1]

We now have detailed information about this influential, ongoing industry and its own Chinese characteristics, from fieldwork interviews with Chinese wildlife traffickers and their official enablers, thanks to Utrecht University criminologist Daan van Uhm:.

Gift giving is a common cultural practice in China in all areas of life, both in informal relations and in dealing with official institutions. Reciprocity is a foundation in the Chinese social intercourse as accepting a gift without reciprocity is perceived as morally wrong. The Chinese practice of guānxì (關係) is the basic dynamic in Chinese personalized networks of influence and refers to favours gained from social connections. The Chinese largely rely on this form of personal informal network for many aspects of their life and reciprocal benefits are necessary to maintaining one’s guanxi. This provides a familiar framework for illegal wildlife businesses with low penetrability as it creates an effective insider-outsider system; enforcement agents are regularly outside the guanxi trading relationship. Family, cultural and ethnic ties play an important role in different stages in the wildlife trade in China. Business partners would preferably belong to the same ethnic Chinese group from the same region and social ties with family and friends would guarantee the secure network.

“Our findings suggest that social ties with officials occur frequently in the illegal wildlife trade. For example, border officials take advantage of their privileged access to confiscated wildlife contraband to obtain goods that they can sell to contacts involved in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). For such informal reciprocal agreements, guanxi was acknowledged as a vital determinant as to whether individuals would collaborate with one another. As one respondent explained: ‘Middlemen do have such relations with border officials […] If you have money and guanxi, you can pay the border control’. This informant underlined that the favours gained from social ties is fundamental in this reciprocal relationship to benefit from these special services.

Wuhan wet market porcupines: a treat to offer your boss

“In another example of how a symbiotic relationship can occur within the illegal TCM trade occurs when goods are seized from airline flights. For instance, one representative of a well-known TCM trading company outlined: ‘If smugglers from Myanmar and Laos are caught and the Chinese police seize a rhino horn, they resell it to us illegally. If the stuff (rhino horn) is confiscated by an international airline, they (government officials) burn it’ (Lihua).

“Army personnel would utilize their position to allow traffickers to cross borders unimpeded. As one middleman in Anguo admitted: ‘My friend works as a soldier at the Guangxi border. Through this connection I can pass the orders across the border’ (Zhen). Several TCM doctors interviewed also highlighted how TCM clinics would develop a reciprocal relationship with government officials. Specifically, TCM clinics would pay government officials with gifts or money to sell certain products, such as pangolin scales or saiga horn.

“One TCM doctor in Chengdu described how government officials did not formally protect TCM traders, but did make arrangements so that other officials do not disturb or stop them. For example, it was suggested that such officials would utilize their own connections and networks to ensure that specific TCM clinics would not be inspected. Another TCM doctor explained that ‘if you can pay enough [gifts or other services] you can sell the products’ (Hua). Some study participants surmised that the diplomatic immunity afforded to such officials was one of the main reasons as to why they helped TCM traders, while others believed that the existence of an informal TCM market alongside the official provides opportunities for bribes. On the other hand, antithetical relations exist between legally registered TCM companies and illegal TCM traders in the context of competition; the same species were illegally offered on the black market. For example, both saiga horns and pangolin scales are sold by legitimate companies, but generally are illegal and hidden under the counter in plastic bags or pangolins are mainly kept in glass jars. Finally, study participants explained that the existence of tiger farms and corrupt activity resulted in the continued use of tiger parts for TCM.

“In the 1980s two tiger farms were developed by the Chinese government to breed tigers for the commercial supply of bones for TCM. While the government banned the use of tiger products in TCM in 1993, respondents stated how government officials still provide legal documents to tiger farms to produce and sell banned tiger bone wines.

Wuhan wet market: update on prices on every sentient thing your boss might fancy

“We refer to this type of activity as ‘legal exploitation’. We can speak of legal exploitation when legal actors issue authorisations for transactions that are used for illegal activities by illegal actors. In this case, it is not necessarily that legal and illegal actors benefit each other (‘systemic synergy’) or that consciously mutual benefits between the legal and illegal actors exist (‘reciprocity’ or ‘even exchanges’). Several TCM traders confirmed that they buy their tiger products from tiger farms in China. As offered by one employee of a tiger farm: Government officials allow us to sell the wine. They gave us a certificate to sell the tiger bone wine, because we have many tigers. Around 100 tigers are born, and a lot of our tigers die every year. Yes, all tigers that have died here are kept in ice.”[2]

The trafficking of wild animals into China and across China, alive and dead, for pampered consumption as a bribe received, or for use in TCM, is a deeply entrenched industry that has managed to evade effective regulation many times in recent years. It is an industry steeped in patriotism, in Chinese characteristics. It is the vector of transmission of corona viruses past and again in 2020. It is unstoppable, even by a highly centralised authoritarian regime.

Hence the horrors of the Wuhan wet market, now being bulldozed. It and similar markets in cities across China will not die, because they are essential to the giving of gifts and staging of banquets to bribe those above you, who hold power to permit or deny your business, or loan the capital your business needs in a system where bank loans go overwhelmingly to state owned enterprises. The same applies to the trade in Tibetan yartsa gumbu caterpillar fungus, a key commodity in the business of bribing pampered cadres.

Sonia Shah, the author of PANDEMIC: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016) reminds us that in the wet markets “wild species that would rarely if ever encounter each other in nature are caged next to one another, allowing microbes to jump from one species to the next, a process that begot the coronavirus that caused the 2002–03 SARS epidemic and possibly the novel coronavirus stalking us today. But many more are reared in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Avian influenza viruses, for example, which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain called H5N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry. The epidemiologist Larry Brilliant once said, “Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” But pandemics only remain optional if we have the will to disrupt our politics as readily as we disrupt nature and wildlife. In the end, there is no real mystery about the animal source of pandemics. It’s not some spiky scaled pangolin or furry flying bat. It’s populations of warm-blooded primates: The true animal source is us.”

These arguments push us to take collective responsibility for pandemics, as a human species, rather than the fragmented, competitive, anarchic scramble of each against all, blaming each other, we have witnessed as corona virus spread and spread further. The extent to which global co-operation has faded and failed, when most needed, is shocking. In the middle of the pandemic the UN called for real money for the poorest countries, to help them handle corona virus impacts. If this is news to you, it is because the UN plea got almost no media coverage at all.

The global “rules-based order” has turned out to be a fiction. Both the international “system” and effective regulation within China have been overwhelmed by greed, fear, panic, corruption and selfishness.

Is there any alternative to anarchy? One alternative is to bitterly blame it all on China and specifically on the CCP’s fatal determination, in the early weeks of infection, to hide all evidence of crisis. Anger only divides us all further, although some Tibetans see this as an opportunity to reclaim victim status, in a world of victims.

The Tibetan lamas do provide us with perspective, reminding us to have compassion for all and not delude ourselves that any of us is exempt from danger. Situ Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche, among others, offer targeted heartfelt advice.

Rather than blaming, if we listen to voices from with the pandemic, within lockdown, we are better prepared as the virus comes closer and closer to us, wherever we live. That is why this blog began with a poet and a novelist in Wuhan, surrounded by confusion, isolation and infection.

So we turn to another voice from another novelist inside the epicentre, when it moved on to Rome. Francesca Melandri reminds us Italians did not listen to Wuhan voices and were not prepared physically or mentally when the full pandemic hit.

Maybe you should cue Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time as you read what she writes to prepare us:

“I am writing to you from Italy which means I am writing from your future. We are now where you will be in a few days. The epidemic’s charts show us all entwined in a parallel dance.

We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time, just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us. We watch you as you behave just as we did. You hold the same arguments we did until a short time ago, between those who still say, “it’s only a flu, why all the fuss?” and those who have already understood.

As we watch you from here, from your future, we know that many of you, as you were told to lock yourselves up into your homes, quoted Orwell, some even Hobbes. But soon you’ll be too busy for that.

You will miss your adult children like you never have before; the realisation that you have no idea when you will ever see them again will hit you like a punch in the chest.

Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them: “How are you doing?” Many women will be beaten in their homes.

You will wonder what is happening to all those who can’t stay home because they don’t have one. You will feel vulnerable when going out shopping in the deserted streets, especially if you are a woman. You will ask yourselves if this is how societies collapse. Does it really happen so fast?

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.

 People whom you had overlooked, instead, will turn out to be reassuring, generous, reliable, pragmatic and clairvoyant.

Many children will be conceived.

Elderly people will disobey you like rowdy teenagers: you’ll have to fight with them in order to forbid them from going out, to get infected and die.

You will try not to think about the lonely deaths inside the ICU.

You’ll want to cover with rose petals all medical workers’ steps.

You will be told that society is united in a communal effort, that you are all in the same boat. It will be true. This experience will change for good how you perceive yourself as an individual part of a larger whole.

If we turn our gaze to the more distant future, the future which is unknown both to you and to us too, we can only tell you this: when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same.”

anyone for bat soup?


Our final voice from within virus lockdown is Tibetan poet Woeser in Beijing, February 2020, a double lockdown preventing her from being in Tibet, or out anywhere:

“But It Was This Time and This Place

I thought I had been through every type of circumstance

but I never expected

I would imprison myself for so long,

for so long. Yesterday the haze was thick outside my window

Today, it’s sunny for a thousand miles

The day before yesterday a blizzard

I look down from my upper story apartment

I look to the left, to the right

Of course, it’s not just me who has confined myself.

This world that has suddenly revealed its true form

Even the devil is powerless

and before I used to think it was all imaginary.

For example, I thought Kṣitigarbha’s descriptions of hell

were only to enlighten sentient beings, but it turns out they were of this time

and this place. What I thought before was simple falsehood.

“Give me your hand for a time. Hold on

to mine…. Squeeze hard. Time was we

thought we had time on our side.”

Kandze kusho temperature checking

[1]   Science, 27 MARCH 2020 • VOL 367 ISSUE 6485 p1435

Van Uhm, D. P. (2016a), The illegal wildlife trade: inside the world of poachers, smugglers and traders (studies of organized crime). New York: Springer.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2016b), ‘Illegal trade in wildlife and harms to the world’, in Spapens, A. C. M., White, R. and Huisman, W. eds., Environmental crime in transnational context. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018a), ‘Talking about illegal business: approaching and interviewing poachers, smugglers, and traders’, in Moreto, W.D. ed., Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018b), ‘Wildlife and laundering: interaction between the under and upper world’, in Spapens T., White, R., Van Uhm, D.P. and Huisman, W. eds., Green crimes and dirty money. London: Routledge.

Van Uhm, D. P. (2018c) The social construction of the value of wildlife: A green cultural criminological perspective. Theoretical Criminology, 22(3), 384–401

Van Uhm, D. P., and Moreto, W. D. (2017), ‘Corruption within the illegal wildlife trade: a symbiotic and antithetical enterprise’, The British Journal of Criminology, azx032.

[2] Daan P. van Uhm and William D. Moreto, Corruption Within The Illegal Wildlife Trade:A Symbiotic And Antithetical Enterprise, British Journal of Criminology, (2018) 58, 864–885


Anyone for Tibetan matsutake?

Tibet’s famous yartsa gunbu caterpillar fungus are bought and sold dry, with a long shelf life, suitable for distant points of sale; while matsutake are much more perishable, requiring a cold chain from picker to packer to plate. Such is the demand for matsutake, songrong 松茸, that a cold chain has been created,  analogous to the global traffic in cut flowers, enabling what is picked today to be on the table of a high end restaurant thousands of kms away, in two days. This is the globalisation of Tibet.

This makes matsutake suitable as a case study of Tibetan entrepreneurialism.  What is the role of Tibetans in the global circulation of matsutake?  Are Tibetans merely the anonymous, unseen gatherers in the forests, or are they present throughout the commodity chain?

Matsutake make a good story too about the prospects for building cold chains for other Tibetan perishables that are abundantly available, notably milk and the myriad products made from milk. Like the failed Tibetan wool cleaning and value adding industry, dairy has the potential to meet booming demand in China’s cities, yet that potential never attracted Chinese investment. The most obvious path of development for Tibet’s comparative advantages never happened. Sometimes this is attributed to the great expense of establishing a cold chain to keep Tibetan yoghurt, butter, cheese and other dairy products safe in transit over long distances. But if the matsutake business can create an transnational cold chain, why has China failed to do this for dairy? If Inner Mongolia, and imports from overseas now supply most of China’s booming dairy demand, why not Tibet?


A closer look at the matsutake market has six key lessons for the new generation of Tibetan entrepreneurs. Taken together, these six are a SWOT analysis of the opportunities for Tibetan entrepreneurs to move up the value chain.

First, the demand for matsutake is driven by Japanese demand, requiring long haul flights of fresh or frozen matsutake, bypassing lowland China, straight to Japan. This traffic bypasses much of China’s multi-layered commodity distribution system, with its many stages, all out to get a cut of the eventual sale price.

Remote Tibetan schools which learned how to make cheeses from dzo (female yak) milk, found it more rewarding to airfreight mature cheeses to New York, rather than have profits cut to a minimum by selling into China’s urban market, despite the growing Chinese interest in cheese, because so many middlemen intervene. Jigme Gyaltsen, the headmaster of a school in one of China’s remotest prefectures, Guoluo (in Tibetan, Golok) marketed Ragya brand yak cheese in New York, with one kilo selling for what nomads on average earn in two months.  The same school has found its profit margin on the New York market, despite higher transport costs, is greater than marketing the cheese to sophisticated Chinese urban consumers, because of the labour-intensivity and multi-layered nature of the Chinese distribution system.[1]

in Japan, matsutake suddenly look special, even when still raw

Matsutake, although gathered in the mountains, in dense pine and oak forests, quickly becomes an urban commodity, in Dechen, then Kunming, then Shanghai, en route to Japan. There are already plenty of intermediary steps between Tibetan collectors and Japanese consumers. However, Tibetan entrepreneurs may find online e-commerce channels for directly connecting with and then supplying Japanese matsutake aficionados; simplifying the commodity chain further.

Second, demand has been driven by the distant Japanese market, which remains mysterious and opaque to most Tibetan mushroom gatherers, even though Dechen/Shangri-la is now a major tourist attraction, including large numbers of Japanese tourists. There is opportunity for Tibetan producers to rise in the value chain, add value by adding Tibetan branding and Tibetan authenticity, rather than being price takers caught between Japanese demand and Japanese anxiety over possible pesticide contamination of matsutake from nearby farm cropping practices.

Yangzom Dolma probing for wild matsutake http://english.yunnan.cn/html/2019/flavor_0819/17528.html

Many players interpose themselves between producer and consumer, including state-sponsored marketing organisations and several NGOs predisposed to assume the level of matsutake harvesting is unsustainable, and that matsutake merits its 1999 inclusion in the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered.

Because of Japanese fears of pesticide contamination, the perishability of the mushrooms and the assumption that harvesting forest matsutake is unsustainable, the Tibetan collectors are under pressure from several directions, all of which limits the price they get for doing most of the actual labour. A high proportion of the price goes to air freight, cold chain logistics and marketing conglomerates, before the mushrooms land at Japanese airports, where prices again rise steeply.

Since the matsutake boom arrived adventitiously in the mid-1980s, Tibetans have been glad of the extra income, and used their cash earnings to build bigger and sturdier houses from the plentiful timbers of the nearby forests, in customary Kham style. However, the Tibetan producers, never able to combine to take control of supply, have settled for modest incomes, when they could now move to greater control and value adding.

Lobsang Choden packaging matsutake for market

Japanese consumers want not only fresh, palatable and pesticide-free matsutake; they also seek authenticity, sourcing their matsutake consumption from mountain folk they can connect with. Until now this has resulted in several proposals to replicate the farm to fork/paddock to plate traceability of industrially farmed meat, which lends itself to electronic tags and chipping, enabling certifiable origins to be available to end use buyers. There is no way this could be done for each mushroom, picked in the predawn by one of dozens of collectors roaming the slopes with flashlights, pooling their finds in a market town, awaiting the regular arrival of the distributors.

If anything, the demand for purity, freshness and accountability has until now pressured Tibetan gatherers to accept lower prices than matsutake collectors in other pine and oak forests such as Canada and the US. But it is now not hard for seller and buyer to connect directly, to shopify product and sell direct, c2c, collector to consumer. This is the opportunity for Tibetan entrepreneurs.

forest gathering rights in China have official protection

Third, matsutake is a mature market. This means demand is reliable and there is little likelihood Japan will be able to resume production of its own matsutake on a scale that is anywhere close to meeting demand. There is no way of artificially cultivating matsutake, despite attempts to do so.

The logistic chain is also mature, and is about to shorten and simplify further with the 2020 scheduled opening of an expanded Shangri-la airport, plus the opening of high speed railway and toll road highway in 2020 from Dechen via Lijiang and Dali to Kunming. For perishables that lose value quickly, these new infrastructures shrink the distance between producer and consumer.

In a mature market there are opportunities for consolidation, for dominant players to emerge, who could be Tibetan. A mature market does not always mean a steady price, and matsutake prices fluctuate greatly, usually to the great disadvantage of the Tibetan villagers of the mountain slope forests. Consolidation of a mature market, to oligopolistic control by a few players, is an opportunity to regulate supply, maintain prices and signal quickly to remote gatherers, by mobile phone alerts, when demand plummets or peaks. That way production keeps pace with demand. Price volatility, most recently due to corona virus infection fears, need not be an ongoing defining characteristic of matsutake production.

villagers vote on how to exercise their forest rights

Fourth, official policies, and sudden changes of policy direction, have put a lot of pressure on the Tibetans of Kham Gyalthang, usually in the name of repairing past policy failures. In the official gaze, customary livelihoods including pastoralist grazing and crop farming are now problematic, even environmentally damaging, and require curtailment. Over the past two decades, official programs intended to reforest farmland cleared earlier by official command for local crop self-sufficiency have pressured remote villages to curtail ploughing and cropping, and instead convert fields to tree plantations, with much income loss. Likewise the construction of “ecological civilisation” frequently means herd size limits or loss of land tenure rights altogether, especially in areas designated as exclusively ecological, in which pastoral production is banned.

These pressures, from above, make matsutake all the more important as reliable sources of income, fulfilling locally the modest national goal of moderate prosperity (xiaokang). Matsutake could contribute much more to local prosperity than it has over the 35 years since Japan discovered Tibetan forest mushrooms. Matsutake could do more for poverty alleviation and daily autonomy than it does.

Fifth, prospects for Tibetan matsutake in Japan, and in destinations attracting Japanese tourists, are good. Climate change in Japan raises temperatures in the Iwate prefecture forests where matsutake grows, delaying harvest; and more frequent cyclones also disrupt supply. In Tibet climate change on the midslopes of mountains may mean matsutake will soon flourish at slightly higher altitudes, a slightly higher climb from villages in the valleys. In 2019 prices reached well over $800 per kilo, yet Tibetan producers receive only a tiny fraction. The scope for fair trade rebalancing is great. In Lhasa, matsutake from eastern TAR sell for RMB 250 to 500 per kilo, USD 38 to 77, according to China’s official media. Japanese consume at least 5000 tons a year.

Sixth, wealthy Han Chinese, aware of the cachet matsutake enjoys in Japan, are developing a taste for exotic mushrooms. Urban Chinese demand in Shanghai and Beijing is growing fast, so too is matsutake trafficking with Chinese characteristics. Until now, that has turned Tibetan villagers into competitors, each against all, and undermined mandatory rest days when gathering is banned, in order to give small mushrooms a few days to grow to marketable size.

Initially, when the market was new, local Tibetan cadres instituted rest days as a sensible collective strategy to regulate competitiveness and ensure small matsutake were not picked, and given time to grow. This co-operative strategy was undermined by the aggregators, the first buyers on a circuit going from village to village, who demanded an uninterrupted chain of markets as they made their way up and down endless hillsides on third grade roads. The regulations mandating nonharvest days fell into disuse.

Princeton University Press 2015

Now Tibetan producers are no longer dependent on the schedules of commercial buyers coming to each village. The era of the drone has arrived, and China’s official media enthuses that it takes only 20 minutes to get matsutake to market, from Tibetan to Han hands, rather than toiling back downhill for hours. The problem is that the drones are mostly in the hands of Han entrepreneurs. This is an opportunity for Tibetans to invest modestly in cheap drones easily capable of transporting the lightweight matsutake down to the demand. Intermediation by drones will require trust between seller and buyer: is this readily achieved?

This is the big question, because it is characteristic of a mature market that supply and demand are largely stable, in balance, enabling investments that are likely to succeed. Risk is low, even if the seasonal harvests in supply districts vary a lot, not only due to climate variations but also corona virus lockdowns, plus, in Tibet, earthquakes and landslides that block highways, especially at the autumnal end of the monsoon season, when the matsutake are gathered.

In a mature market there may be room for new entrants able to find new supplies, or new outlets, such as meeting demand in Chinese cities, or popular Chinese domestic tourism destinations such as Lhasa and Nyingtri. But a mature market makes it hard for new entrants to get into the commodity chain, or set up a new commodity chain, because existing players have both the logistics sewn up, and the networks of distributors, wholesalers and retailers. This means that even if enterprising Tibetans could source more matsutake, Han businesses will still capture most of the value added because they control distribution.

  • China’s fungal economy

That is why new technologies, drones and social media, are necessary disruptors of the existing model. There has to be a way to bypass the crony capitalism that concentrates most of the matsutake wealth creation in the hands of Han packagers and distributors. Their near monopoly grew out of state owned enterprises of the Maoist era which had a legal stranglehold on commandeering and selling foods to be sold as exports from China. Those food export corporations earned revenue for Beijing, and their monopoly persisted well into the reform era of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Only gradually were new entrants permitted, and they were characteristically Chinese, in that they blended state and corporate power. “In some cases, the head managers for the Kunming-based private companies were former staff of the foreign trade stations and were able to use their contacts in China and Japan to cultivate relationships for their new company. This was part of a wider phenomenon, in which Chinese companies hired former government employees for their bureaucratic knowledge and social connections.”[2]

That fusion of state and corporate power has always been the primary obstacle for Tibetan entrepreneurs to get beyond the role of raw commodity supplier. China’s state capitalism privileges insiders, redistributes wealth upwards, and reduces those who do most of the actual work of production to incidental roles, as mere gatherers of raw materials.

The disruptive potential of peer to peer direct social media connections between Tibetan villager and Japanese matsutake aficionado, and also drone delivery to new nodes of matsutake aggregation, are promising entry points, bypassing the stranglehold of “the Yunnan Matsutake Association, which comprises the province’s major exporting companies. The provincial government now limits the number of exporting companies, and they in turn have created a matsutake consortium. By 2006, only twenty companies had export licenses, and a number of these companies were led by people with extensive governmental networks, sometimes with a history of working at foreign trade stations in the 1980s.”[3]

Beijing wants national champions that establish Chinese brands in global markets. Yunnan province seeks a Yunnan brand, signifying guarantees of authenticity and freshness, which would only add costly computerised tagging to the labours of the Tibetan forest gatherers. These are all obstacles to Tibetan development, income generation and poverty alleviation through enterprise and initiative.

Instead of documenting certified compliance at every step in a complex commodity chain, new technology simplifies the chain and puts consumer and producer in direct connection, establishing bonds of trust and authenticity. By air from Shangri-la airport in Dechen/Zhongdian to Kunming takes 55 minutes, then on to Shanghai and Japan in hours. No need of freezing, or an elaborate cold chain.

Is this overly ambitious? Is it unrealistic to imagine the Tibetans who produce the matsutake could take control of businesses that export 2000 tons of matsutake from Tibet to Japan annually, for a retail price of at least $2 billion? So little of that retail price –averaged at $100 per kilo- reaches the Tibetans who produce it, and with care wrap the mushrooms in rhododendron leaves for their long transit. Social enterprises serious about empowerment of remote villages have a major opportunity, based on the embedded demand for matsutake in Japan.

forest rights in practice: guaranteeing tenure

A major reason why the matsutake traffic from Tibet to Japan is a mature market is that no-one has ever succeeded in cultivating matsutake. They remain fugitive, ephemeral, arising due to causes and conditions no-one can define or reproduce. This has vexed the Japanese greatly, since the natural occurrence of matsutake dwindled greatly, at just the time many Japanese were for the first time wealthy enough to afford them, and official restrictions on their consumption, hitherto permitted only for the imperial household, had been lifted.

It took decades of scientific puzzlement to figure out why. The main cause of satoyama pine forest decline, and with it, matsutake mushrooms, was acid rain drifting across from China, the air changed by factory pollution, pine trees quite vulnerable, early indicators of the dangers of climate change. Japanese alarm at China’s world factory pollution became a major driver in Japanese development assistance and investment in helping China improve its pollution control.

None of this, however, succeeded in restoring those satoyama pine forests in Japan, still less did restoration efforts bring back the evanescent, elusive matsutake. Those efforts continue, and Japanese researchers are convinced that satoyama forests and their matsutake mushrooms, far from requiring pristine nature, actually require disturbance, even soil degradation, and definitely benefit from having farmland nearby, and farm folk foraging in the forest. “Satoyama are traditional peasant landscapes, combining rice agriculture and water management with woodlands. The woodlands –the heart of the satoyama concept- were once disturbed and this maintained, for firewood and charcoal-making. Restoration requires disturbance –but disturbance to enhance diversity and the healthy functioning of ecosystems.”[4]

If you’ve ever seen the wondrous anime My Neighbour Totoro, you will know what a satoyama landscape is. If Tibetans and Japanese matsutake consumers do eventually generate closer connections, it would be unfortunate if Tibetans took seriously well-meant Japanese suggestions about denuding hillsides, removing soil, grooming and thinning pine forests to yield more matsutake. The Japanese may well be right, that their traditional satoyama forests, where matsutake flourish, are highly disturbed by human intrusions. Ecologists may well be wrong, that restoration of pristine nature should be the goal. But that doesn’t mean recreating satoyama forest in Tibet.


The yartsa bioeconomy of the Tibetan grasslands is certainly the biggest and most spectacular, but far from the only bioeconomy of Tibet. The matsutake economy is measured in the billions of dollars, yartsa gunbu caterpillar fungus in the tens of billions.

Rukor will publish an in-depth analysis of the yartsa bioeconomy. A key question, with both yartsa and matsutake as prime examples: is this development? Are we witnessing the rebirth of Tibetan entrepreneurialism, and a new Tibetan economy, after decades of development failure?

Yartsa and matsutake as new endogenously Tibetan paths to development and prosperity need evaluation, as prospective social enterprises; but also for what they tell us about new era China, which is steadily persuading the world to adopt its redefinition of human rights, as primarily the right to development, only secondarily individual rights such as freedom of speech, freedom from torture and persecution.

China positions itself as champion of the developing world’s right to development

China is vigorously pushing, in all United Nations and other international forums, its case that economic development is the only right that matters, all else is secondary. Yet Tibet remains underdeveloped, its traditional comparative advantages never invested in.  Tibet remains in disempowered development.[5] China’s failure, over six decades, to integrate Tibet’s strengths in wool and dairy production, into China’s booming demand for them, is a failure to implement the right to development.

As well as the failed bioeconomies of wool and dairy products, which never got linkages beyond traditional markets, there is now the modern matsutake mushroom economy of the oak and pine forests of eastern Tibet, especially in Yunnan and eastern TAR. Like yartsa, this is a fungal economy, based on distant demand by urban consumers with exotic tastes. Like yartsa, matsutake is a big business, with a complex commodity chain and logistics enabling linkages between Tibetans foraging on the forest floor and high end city restaurants not only in China but overseas as well. Both matsutake and yartsa are the leading edges of Tibet’s entry into the global economy.

Yartsa is famous, the matsutake trade less so, in fact many Tibetans have never heard of it. The matsutake mushrooms sprout in a smaller area than the widespread occurrence of yartsa, which sprawls not only across the grasslands of eastern Tibet but in a long altitudinal belt right along the entire Himalayan chain. Matsutake is expensive, a culinary delicacy not only in Japan but also Korea, Thailand and other markets; but yartsa is spectacularly expensive, magnetising resellers in for their margin.

Yartsa is worth a closer look, on Rukor.

And then there’s all those famous wine brands, famous in China and globally, making first rate wines from their Tibetan vineyards, close by the matsutake villages…………………

Ao Yun vineyard in Kham Gyalthang
one of the world’s most famous wine writers discovers Tibet…..

Louis Vuitton in Tibet
mystical premium priced wine from Tibet
premium priced wine, from Kham Dechen

[11] Tibetan livestock products enjoy bright market prospects, People’s Daily, 19 May 2002, http://english.people.com.cn/200205/19/print20020519_96006.html 



[2] Michael J. Hathaway, Transnational Matsutake Governance: Endangered Species, Contamination, and the Reemergence of Global Commodity Chains, in Emily Yeh and Chris Coggins eds, Mapping Shangrila, U Washington Press 2014, 159

[3] Hathaway, Transnational Matsutake Governance, 166

[4] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton U Press, 2015, 151-2

[5] Andrew M Fischer, The Disempowered Development of Tibet in China: A Study in the Economics of Marginalization, Lexington Books, 2013



When a new disease appears and spreads fast, fear and confusion proliferate even faster.

What to do, when the new corona virus is able to manifest anywhere and everywhere?

The protector is protected

A first step is for those who may be able to help to keep level-headed, and not yield to the pervasive panic or, worse, cash in by peddling nonsensical and ineffective “cures.” Worst of all would be to propose as treatment the same ingestion of animal parts that caused this animal disease to become a human disease in the first place. That conflates and confuses cause and cure.

That worst of scenarios is happening now in China, while in Tibet, leading practitioners of traditional healing have gone the opposite way, saying  bluntly that Tibetan sowa rigpa does not have corona virus cures, and don’t be fooled by anyone who says they do.

The contrast is acute, in a moment when the temptation to monetise panic is at its height. Tibetan emchi healers are saying firmly there is no silver bullet; Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is making a fortune prescribing the gallstones of slaughtered cattle as an effective remedy for SARS and corona virus, plus respiratory symptomatic relief provide by other herbs.

 Top TCM formulation for corona virus is Angong Niuhuang, a concoction including bovine bezoars, aggregates of inedible or undigested material found in the gastrointestinal tract. For many centuries, bezoars have been found in the digestive tracts of both humans and animals. In Europe, as in China, they seemed not only mysterious but had magical properties attributed to them. Europe outgrew its fascination with bezoars in the 16th century, through a horrifying experiment. “In the 1500s, the famous surgeon Ambroise Paré tested the healing properties of a bezoar stone. A cook in the king’s court had been caught stealing fine silver and was sentenced to death by hanging. As an alternative, the cook was granted the opportunity to receive a poison followed by a bezoar as a potential antidote under the supervision of Paré. It was agreed that if the cook survived the poison, his life would be spared. The cook lived for only 7 hours.”[1] Bezoars lost their magic, but not in China.

China is the destination of almost all outlawed rhino horn trafficking

Second ingredient in angong niuhang is rhino horn. Yes, you read that right. After so many decades of efforts to protect rhinos from imminent extinction, advocates of TCM still insist rhino horn has specific medicinal properties: “Sedation, Anticonvulsion, Antipyretic, Anti-inflammatory, Antiviral, Cardiotonic, Antiplatelet, Aggregation.”[2]  This 2014 team of endocrinologists of the official, government funded China Academy of Chinese Medical Science in Beijing goes on to suggest angong niuhang is likely to be effective as a treatment for the most serious of central nervous system crises such as stroke, coma and brain trauma.

Desperate measures: African park rangers cut off a rhino’s horns to prevent it being killed by poachers

As well as bovine bezoars and rhino horn, angong niuhang also contains plant based ingredients including Radix scutellariae, Coptidis rhizome, Cape jasmine, Borneol and Cucurma. However, there is one further animal ingredient: musk. Its curative properties are listed as Double-acting role in regulating the Central Nervous System, anti-inflammatory, Antiplatelet aggregation and Cardiotonic.

Musk fragrance requires the slaughter of musk deer for their musk glands, though musk oil can be manufactured synthetically. Of the several musk oils, one is civetone, produced naturally by the Himalayan civet, a small mammal native to Bhutan.

All evidence of the cause of corona virus infections in humans points to palm civets, sold illegally in the Wuhan wet market for all conceivable kinds of meat, as the transmitter of the disease. Civets, kept alive in cages until being sold to consumers, next to bats, first caught the corona virus from the bats, and then became the vectors transmitting it to humans, where it now proliferates uncontrolled.

Himalayan civet, courtsey of Operation Noah

So we come full circle. The cure is also the cause of the corona virus disease. We live in degenerate times, when panicked people reach for something, anything that supposedly protects and cures them, even if it is actually the very vector infecting humans.

This lunacy is abetted by China’s championing of TCM as a deep and effective tradition, with Chinese characteristics, meriting official support. TCM researchers have shamelessly touted traditional recipes as effective in treating earlier corona viruses including SARS.[3]

“On Jan. 25, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese medicine dispatched 25 teams of Chinese healers to Wuhan”, in the hope of demonstrating TCM is effective. Demand for rhino horn, musk deer glands and civet musk glands, as well as bovine bezoars is rocketing. The logic is simple: “If traditional Chinese medicine was not effective, the Chinese people would already be destroyed.”  Today there are more Han Chinese than ever; proof that TCM works. The same logic presumes that minorities, such as Tibetans, must inevitably assimilate and become just like the successful and numerous Han.

This return to rhino horn and musk glands has official blessing: “In its treatment plan for the coronavirus released on February 5, the National Health Commission recommended traditional Chinese medicine remedies that could be used with antiretroviral H.I.V. drugs like Lopinavir and Ritonavir. The national health department suggested trying the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill (angong niuhang) for severe symptoms such as wheezing and respiratory distress.”


Meanwhile, in Tibet leading sowa rigpa practitioners have been forthright in saying sorig does not have a cure for a disease newly arrived in humans. Dr. Thubten Phuntsok, physician of Tibetan medicine and professor emeritus of Tibetan Studies at the Southwest Minzu University in Chengdu, has warned Tibetan society to take practical precautions, not panic, and not fall for anyone claiming sowa rigpa has remedies.

In keeping with a long Tibetan traditions of impassioned remonstration, often poetically expressed, Thubten Phuntsok asserts that “the efficacy of traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine and religion has not been established,” and that, without taking standard preventive hygiene measures, “one’s own devotion, faith, mantra recitations, and medicinal amulets will have no effect at all.”

Thubten Phuntsok singles out one of the most famous and potent of Tibetan medicines, the Black-9 pill, which traditionally includes musk, as having no value in treating a virus new to the human species. In his cartoon and his caption, he could not be more direct:

thanks to High Peaks Pure Earth for posting this first

In places devoid of contagious disease, the Black-9 Pill is being sold.
The wallets of the Tibetan people empty, while physicians grow rich.
If the disease does arrive, go to the western hospital.
Tibetan medicine has no cure for this new virus.”

Classic Tibetan sowa rigpa treatment for breathing difficulties, heating an acupuncture needle by blowing onto its outer tip

As corona virus infections spread to Tibet, and panic grew even more infectious, Thubten Phuntsok took to verse as a modern mahasiddha, taking aim squarely at colleagues cashing in on the confusion and anxiety whipped up by social media. Like the gur and doha spontaneous songs of realisation, sung by the mahasiddhas revered by Tibetans, he urges us all to come to our senses, cease milling about, circling aimlessly in confusion, do what is needful, and stay mindful:

“If You Have Honour, Do Not Exploit This Opportunity to Sell Medicine
by Thubten Phuntsok

Tibetan medicine does not affect
Contagious diseases, neither new nor old. This is indisputable.
In these desperate times,
In order to protect the lives of our nation,
Well-meaning physicians
Have dispensed this Black-9 Pill, a medicine for nyen spirits,
To all Tibetan people.

To raise the price of the Black-9 Pill,
This cheap, convenient medicine,
By a factor of nine, however, is not so well-meaning.

If you have honour, dispense your medicines.
If you have compassion, donate your medicines.
To exploit this opportunity,
And sell your medicine, however, is an act of evil.

Both a beautiful face and money
Are of great value on this earth.
To distort cause and effect
In the pursuit of money, however, is an act of deception.

These days, does the Black-9 Pill
Even contain musk? You know the truth.
If there were even just a little musk
In a Black-9 Pill, wouldn’t the price tag
Be three hundred renminbi? You know the truth.

Thus, Tibetan physicians,
Take advantage of this opportunity for spiritual practice;
Donate medicines throughout the Tibetan lands;
And your good motivation will be praised by all.

Thubten Phuntsok, the vagabond physician from Pelpung in the east, appeals to the physicians of Tibet who sell their medicines while the dangerous and contagious disease, the coronavirus, is on the Central Plain of China. 28 January 2020.”

Translation by William A. McGrath. Inevitably, this translation loses much of the poetic nature of Thubten Phuntsok’s exemplary remonstration, and reminder that sowa rigpa is a spiritual practice embedded in Tibetan Buddhism, not a wealth accumulation transaction. McGrath’s deep insights into sowa rigpa are available online.

[1] Katharine Eng,  and Marsha Kay, Gastrointestinal Bezoars: History and Current Treatment Paradigms, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, v.8(11); 2012 Nov; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966178/

[2] Yu Guo, Shaohua Yan, Lipeng Xu, Gexin Zhu, Xiaotong Yu, and Xiaolin Tong, Use of Angong Niuhuang in Treating Central Nervous System Diseases and Related Research; Evidence-Based Complementary and , Alternative Medicine, Volume 2014, downloadable from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/346918/

[3] Chih-ChunWen,Lie-FenShyur, Jia-TsrongJan, Po-HuangLiang, Chih-JungKuo, PalanisamyArulselvan, Jin-BinWu, Sheng-ChuKuo, Ning-SunYang; Traditional Chinese medicine herbal extracts of Cibotium barometz, Gentiana scabra, Dioscorea batatas, Cassia tora, and Taxillus chinensis inhibit SARS-CoV replication; Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Volume 1, Issue 1, October–December 2011, Pages 41-50 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411016300554

TIBET 2020

What will happen in Tibet in 2020?

The year 2020 is set to be big for China’s long campaign to inextricably integrate Tibet, and assimilate the Tibetan nation into a single Chinese zhonghua identity. After decades of massive investment in infrastructure/superstructure, the economic integration is at last making Tibet accessible to the Chinese industries of the future.

Several initiatives by official China are due to come to fruition in 2020, with likely big impacts.

Here is a rundown of what to expect in 2020.


That’s what the headlines will say, not only in China’s official media but in media worldwide reacting positively, unless they are reminded in advance what China means by this misleading claim. What China calls poverty alleviation has a sting: it means depopulating the Tibetan countryside.

Read the fine print. China’s noble promise to end all poverty by 2020, to leave no-one behind, rests in Tibet on the governing concept of Contiguous destitute areas 个集中连片特困区贫困. This is an official territorial zoning category, that solidifies the racist Han Chinese assumption that Tibetans are poor, because they live in Tibet. That in turn rests on the assumption that Tibet, because of its altitude, thin air and low temperatures is naturally unproductive, and that no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice.


China is congratulated endlessly for having lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with only a few remaining, who are intractably poor because their homelands are, in Chinese eyes, so lacking in natural endowments that poverty is the inevitable outcome.

Thus the only solution for people classified as living in areas of contiguous destitution is to move them, for their own sake. In practice, this means cancelling Tibetan land tenure rights, requiring drogpa nomads to sell their livestock, removing them to concrete settlements and high rise apartments on the fringes of the booming new Chinese towns and cities across Tibet, with nothing to do, dependent on government rations.

So when China triumphantly announces it has fully solved the problem of poverty, that its “precision poverty alleviation” methods enabled millions of Tibetans to start new lives elsewhere, the world will applaud. Are Tibetans ready to tell the real story of reducing nomads to dependence on state ration handouts, claiming it successful poverty alleviation?

Tibet helps 150,000 shake off poverty in 2019.

From: Xinhua Economic News 7 Jan 2020

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — Around 150,000 people have cast off poverty in 2019, and around 19 counties have been removed from the poverty list in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, said Qizhala, chairman of the regional government.A total of 155,000 people have received employment training and 186,000 people benefited from job placement projects supported by the local government, said Qizhala in his government work report delivered at the ongoing third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region.In 2020, Tibet will continue to give priority to poverty relief, Qizhala added.China has set 2020 as the target year to eradicate absolute poverty.

China Focus: Tibet basically eliminates absolute poverty.

Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

LHASA, January 7, 2020 (Xinhua via COMTEX) — China’s Tibet Autonomous Region has basically eradicated absolute poverty, chairman of the regional government announced Tuesday. The feat was accomplished after Tibet lifted the remaining 150,000 people out of poverty and took 19 counties off the poverty list in 2019, said Qizhala in his government work report delivered at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. “Absolute poverty has been basically eradicated (in Tibet),” said Qizhala. “We are poised to achieve the overall victory in the fight against poverty. “Known as the “roof of the world,” Tibet is famous for its picturesque plateau landscapes and splendid ethnic cultures. It is also one of the main grounds in China’s nationwide campaign against poverty. Accumulatively, Tibet has lifted 628,000 people out of poverty, and delisted 74 county-level regions from the poverty list, according to data from the regional government. “It is of great significance in the development of the Tibetan people to basically eliminate absolute poverty, given the adverse natural conditions on the plateau and the region’s underdeveloped social conditions,” said Wang Zhuo, a public administration expert with Sichuan University. “It also attests to the success of the Chinese model of development on the high plateau and offers the world an exemplary case,” said Wang, who is also the director of an anti-poverty research center. In Tuesday’s work report, Qizhala said the gross domestic product (GDP) in Tibet was estimated at more than 160 billion yuan (around 23 billion U.S. dollars) last year, up about 9 percent year on year. Per capita disposable income for the region’s rural residents grew about 13 percent, while that for urban residents rose more than 10 percent, said Qizhala. In 2020, Qizhala said Tibet’s GDP is expected to maintain a stable growth of 9 percent. The total retail sales of consumer goods aim to grow 10 percent this year. Meanwhile, the per capita disposable income for the region’s urban and rural residents in 2020 is estimated to grow 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Qizhala added that the region aims to create 50,000 urban jobs and ensure that the registered unemployment rate does not rise above 3.6 percent.

Tibet’s tourism sector, a pillar of the regional economy, also saw robust growth in 2019, with tourism revenue rising to 56 billion yuan (around 7.9 billion U.S. dollars) and more than 40 million tourists from home and abroad visited the region, up 19 percent year on year. Tibet will continue to develop its tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand as the world’s Third Pole,” he said.


The official delisting of a further 19 dzongs (counties) from the list of counties eligible for poverty alleviation funding, brings to a total all the 74 dzongs of TAR.  The removal of every county in central Tibet from the list of counties designated as poor removes a substantial source of transfer payment support which in recent years has significantly boosted household incomes.

Official poverty funding invariably came with strings attached, for example a requirement that the money was to be spent on fencing herds into allocated pastures, or that a permanent winter housing had to be built on allocated land. Often, the purchase of fencing wire was compulsory, or the rolls of fencing wire were delivered in lieu of cash, or the resettled nomad drogpa had to contribute additional funding of their own to complete these projects, even if it meant going into debt. In areas subsequently declared national parks, drogpa were later required to dismantle the fencing they had erected, to allow migrating biodiversity to resume seasonal migration unhindered by having to jump fences.

One opportunity to remind folks that poor people above all need their own land, and secure land rights, is the World Bank Land and Poverty conference: 16-20 March 2020 location: Washington D.C.   

All Chinese citizens now have an online portal to let the government know if they object to official policies: http://www.npc.gov.cn/fgba/fgba/bascPortalManager.do?method=gotoScjyIndex


Central planning is not dead, nor is China becoming a normal capitalist economy dominated by private enterprises selling consumer goods and services for consumption by the masses. The centralised command and control economy has been strengthened in recent years, and the role of state owned enterprises (SOEs) has intensified. Those SOEs in Tibet build the hydro dams, power grids, high speed railways, wind and solar power farms, mines and smelters, which have such impact, especially in the remote locations that happen, from an engineering point of view, to be best sites to locate dams.

The 14th Five-Year Plan runs from 2021 through 2025. It will be debated in elite circles, and finalised in 2020. Accessing the debates is not hard, as there are plenty of players pushing in various directions, including many nonChinese investors, advisers and NGOs with a stake, well entrenched in the official system, who routinely publish their analysis and advocacy for their preferred policy directions.  This makes 2020 a year in which we can follow how the 14th Plan is shaped.

Expect the 14th Plan to emphasise nation-building programs including west to east power grids transmitting ultra-high voltage electricity from Tibet to coastal China. Expect the start of big investments in wind energy generation in Tibet, especially in Kham where the winds are strong, in rugged landscapes, and close to the hydro dams and power grids. Expect the completion of the high speed railway from Chengdu to Lhasa, cutting travel time to 13 hours. Expect the completion of the high speed rail from Xining to Chengdu via Rebkong, Labrang, Machu, Jiuzhaigou Tourist Park and on to Chengdu, bringing millions more Han tourists to Tibet. Expect rail and tollway connections from Kunming via Dali and Lijiang to Dechen to be completed, again funnelling more and more mass domestic tourism into Tibetan areas.

bridging the upper Yangtze in Tibet

 Expect more museums to re-present Tibetan culture safely under glass. Expect old town centres, with their traditional architecture, torn down not long ago, to now be rebuilt with traditional facades and upmarket e-commerce boutiques inside, in many tourist destinations.

Expect a real estate boom around Nyingtri, as luxury villas take the best spots for the now-famous peach blossom season each year.

Expect  central Tibet to expand its menu of destinations, beyond Lhasa, creating a circuit of airports from Chamdo in eastern TAR to Ngari Kailash in the far west, encouraging more tourists, enabling  a spread of tourist arrivals.

Tibet receives over 40 mln tourists in 2019. Date: Jan. 7, 2020

From: Xinhua Economic News

Last year, tourism revenue rose to 56 billion yuan (7.9 billion U.S. dollars), Qizhala, chairman of the regional government, said in his government work report delivered Tuesday at the third session of the 11th People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibet will continue to develop the tourism industry in 2020, with an aim to attract over 47 million tourists and increase the tourism revenue to over 60 billion yuan, Qizhala said. “We will build Tibet into an important destination for global tourism and promote our tourism brand of the world’s Third Pole,” he said.

RUKOR COMMENT:  This extraordinary number ranks central Tibet (TAR) as a bigger destination than Germany, UK or Thailand, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation barometer of tourist data. Overwhelmingly the tourists crowd into Lhasa, are overwhelmingly Han Chinese from lowland China, and comes in surges in seasonal holiday periods.

The 2019 Qinghai Statistical Yearbook  says in 2018 Amdo/Qinghai received  42,044,000 tourists, of whom 41,975,000 were domestic tourists, only a handful were foreigners. TAR Statistical Yearbook shows that year after year, non Chinese foreigners are no more than one per cent of total tourist arrivals.

Europe assesses China’s proposal to power the whole of Eurasia from Tibet, 2017

Expect serious planning to extend ultrahigh voltage power grids from Tibet not only to coastal China but also westward, across central Asia, perhaps as far as Europe. These plans, already under evaluation by the European Commission, would give Tibetan hydro dams, wind power and power grids an integral role on China’s Belt & Road Initiative.


National parks are a great idea, far better than destructive mining and dam building. Everyone loves national parks. But national parks with Chinese characteristics, to be opened in 2020 with maximum propaganda, are overwhelmingly in Tibet, for a reason. The area designated as national parks is huge, with plans for steady expansion beyond the 2020 launch, to cover around 30 per cent of the whole Tibetan Plateau, including the prime alpine meadow pastures of Yushu and Golok prefectures. This sets up a contradiction between grass and animals, between skilful pastoralism and pristine unpeopled wilderness.

China has for decades cleared Tibetan nomads off the lands they curated sustainably for thousands of years. In Chinese eyes, nomads are little better than the animals they herd, wandering the landscape randomly, they are primitive and prehistoric.

Along with poverty alleviation, the inception of massive new national parks in Tibet provides seemingly scientific justifications for removing the land owners. This is not just a tricky political manoeuvre to depopulate the Tibetan countryside; it is foundational to the whole idea of national parks. For decades China has insisted the rangelands are degrading and desertifying, not because of 1980s rapacious gold miner invasions, or 1990s ruthless hunters gunning down keystone animal species, or compulsory mass poisonings of burrowing keystone species, or  global climate change accelerating because Chinese emissions grow and grow. The sole cause of grassland degradation is, in the official narrative, greedy, uncaring nomads who maximise herd size and grazing pressure. Heedless of the consequences. Hence the need for national parks which are zoned to exclude  all human use from core areas, for the primary goal of protecting China’s water supply from Tibet.

Dola Riwo/Qilian Shan also has much extractable underground gas frozen in ice

From northernmost Tibet heading south, the three biggest new parks are:

DOLA RIWO (QILIAN SHAN in Chinese). The mountains of northernmost Tibet, separating Amdo (Qinghai) from arid Gansu province are to become a national park of at least 50,000 sq kms. The prime beneficiary of locking out many of the drogpa nomads from Qilian slopes, to protect glaciers and rivers, is China’s rocket launch base far away in Inner Mongolia, That’s where the rivers of Dola Riwo end, in the desert sands where China built its plutonium factory for manufacturing nuclear weapons, later converted to rocket launchers, totally dependent on water from Tibet.

Jiuquan plutonium factory 2004, now China’s primary rocket launch site, inner Mongolia

The World Bank’s Global Environment Fund (GEF) gave $5.4 million to the UN Development Programme between 2012 and 2017 to work closely with Qinghai provincial government to design this park, and the Sanjiangyuan park. A further $3 million of GEF money is being spent 2018-2023 on finalising design of the Qilian national park.

SANJIANGYUAN, meaning three river source, is a Chinese term that has no Tibetan equivalent, as it sweeps together two entire prefectures, Amdo Golok and Kham Yushu, plus several more counties, into a single entity facing lowland China, source of China’s great rivers, the Ma Chu (Yellow) and Dri Chu (Yangtze) plus the upper Za Chu (Mekong). Originally designated by China as 363,000 sq kms, bigger than Germany, it is at 2020 launch scaled back to 152,000 sq kms, to be scaled up later.

Sanjiangyuan three rivers source covers a huge area, well beyond the glacial sources

Although named for the glacial river sources, those rivers wind slowly across vast pastoral Tibetan landscapes before eventually dropping as wild mountain rivers to the lowlands. That’s why this park is so big. China, acutely short of water, is out to protect its “number one water tower”, which means excluding nomads and herds that poop on riverbanks, to grow more grass and create pristine wilderness tourists can marvel at.

panda habitat remains only in Tibet, except for a small part of Shaanxi SW of Xi’an

PANDA NATIONAL PARK Panda habitat used to cover the southern half of China, but no more. Now remaining panda habitat is on the eastern fringes of Tibet, in scattered reserves that are to be linked up in the hope of linking panda populations while excluding humans. China’s state news agency has reported that at least 170,000 people would have to relocate or adapt to new restrictions as part of the park’s overall plan. The panda is Tibetan.


The legitimacy of CCP rule has long depended on delivering a fast pace of growth and quick wealth accumulation opportunities. Now that growth has peaked and China is no longer the lowest of low wage economies, and  Chinese manufacturers are relocating factories to Cambodia, Bangladesh and elsewhere, many Chinese now feel frustrated that their turn to get rich never came, and may never come. Popular frustration is what the CCP most fears, especially in the densely populated east, where crowds can quickly mobilise, unlike Tibet.

So the CCP will spend big to stimulate growth, even if that means sidelining promises to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental initiatives. Spending big in Tibet could include accelerating the construction of several expressway tollroads and railways thrusting deep into Tibet. It may also mean accelerating hydro dam construction, which will be represented as green energy, despite the damage done by hydro dams, from fish kills to earthquakes.

The hydro engineers have spent decades measuring remote Tibetan valleys and the gorges of steep mountain rivers, and the projects are already on official lists of what is authorised to go ahead. If the  finance is allocated, construction will start, and the central government has now relaxed its rules on how much of the banks’ capital must be held back for emergencies, freeing up huge amounts for loans to favoured lenders, such as the state owned corporations that build dams and power grids.

The national parks story has a positive side, of skilful Tibetan social enterprises finding a niche.

Rnam sras, often called Namsei or, in Chinese, Angsai, is a remote township in Zatö county, close to the Tibetan source of the Mekong, in Yushu prefecture. Township is an administrative fiction, bundling the scattered Tibetan nomads of this sharp mountainscape into an administrative unit.  The upper Mekong winds its way through the valleys below the jagged peaks, landscapes too difficult for more than a few families, too remote for much official focus beyond counting the total population as fewer than 3400, in the 2000 census.

Zatö in Tibetan means source of the Za River, or Mekong. It remains a haven for wildlife, and is shortly to be incorporated into the Sanjiangyuan National park. The upper valleys and rocky slopes are home to agile deer, leopards and snow leopards, and many other rare species. Here in what is now becoming known as the Valley of the Cats a genuinely community run Tibetan enterprise hosts and guides a strictly limited number of ecotourists each year, with a chance to glimpse the rare and endangered snow leopard.

It’s a small miracle that intends to stay small, both for the sake of the animals, and to keep this social enterprise in local hands, not overtaken by China’s mass domestic tourism industry which is capable of funnelling tourists in the millions to precious Tibetan landscapes, as it does, for example, at Jiuzhaigou/Dzitsa Degu in Ngawa prefecture of Sichuan.

Valley of the Cats attracts animal lovers and film crews, people who know how to be patient, and happy to be accommodated in local houses by local people, yet pay well for this select privilege.

This is the upside of the Sanjiangyuan National park, which empowers the locals to keep out the masses, even to remove unauthorised campers and home stayers who try to bypass the Valley of the Cats wirth its’ package of translators, guides, wildlife conservationists, transport and home stays. None of this would be enforceable without Sanjiangyuan National Park zoning classification of the area as high conservation value, visitor numbers to be strictly controlled.

How is this small miracle possible in a centralised, authoritarian system based on mass tourism, mass consumption of iconic sites owned and managed by the state? It’s quite a backstory.

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. This has been a long, skilful and fruitful collaboration between remote Tibetan communities rich in wildlife and the elite Centre for Nature and Society, School of Life Sciences, Peking University. Working together carefully over decades built mutual respect, a recognition on all sides that local communities are better at conserving endangered species than distant governments.

Lu Zhi

During those decades elite Han Chinese learned to see landscapes and wildlife through Tibetan eyes, becoming over time sufficiently Tibetanised to reach for classic Tibetan locutions to express themselves. Du Fachun, for example, in his study of Tibetan exnomads displaced from their pastures but not successfully settled in peri-urban apartments, described their bardo as neither deer nor horse, neither cow nor donkey, classic Tibetan metaphors.

Such collaborations work in China, even in periods of authoritarian rigidity, finding niches that fulfil state agendas while ensuring programs are run by local communities rather than officials at the bottom of a top down chain of command. The Beijing elites have the right language, connections and impeccable academic credentials to protect the locals; the Tibetan communities do what they have always done, respecting wildlife, caring for the land, raising their herds.

Going back decades is Professor Lu Zhi, who has quietly supervised  the emergence of several Tibetans now qualified as postgraduate fieldworkers whose reports she helps get published.[1]

The vehicle for this work of bridging the gaps between distant provinces, distant classes and distant ethnicities is Shan Shui, a conservation NGO artfully named after the mountains and rivers of classic Chinese painting, depicted in bold watercolour brush strokes. Embedded in classical art, Shan Shui has learned from its Tibetan partners how to do effective biodiversity conservation work that also sustains local communities. Implicitly, this is an alternative to blaming Tibetans for degradation, then clearing them off their lands, in the name of national park wilderness restoration.

Shan Shui came to the mountains and rivers of Tibet with open minds, and deep friendships were formed. Out of this has come Valley of the Cats, with a bilingual English and Chinese website inviting select visitors from around the world, introducing doco film crews to remote locations, featuring community conservation and the opportunity to meet the locals, and sleep under their roofs.

The actual upcountry valley where pastoral herding ends and wild country begins has only “22 resident families, each with their own herd of yak, hold strict Buddhist beliefs about the sanctity of all life and, as a result, have a harmonious relationship with the wildlife and environment.  The densities of apex predators such as Snow Leopard, Leopard, Brown Bear and Lynx rival any place on Earth.”

This does not mean there are no pressures from above. Valley of the Cats tells us: “Given the pressure of overgrazing on the Tibetan Plateau, it is likely that the local people will be asked to reduce the number of yak in their herds.  This has consequences for their already relatively low incomes and threatens their way of life.  Many of the young people in the Valley of the Cats would like to stay but if incomes fall, they will be forced to leave for the city to earn a living.  Wildlife watching tourism has the potential to help offset the reduction in income associated with reduced numbers of yak and thus could enable these families to stay in the valley and maintain their traditional way of life. The arrangements for wildlife watching tourism have been put in place in full consultation with the local government and the local community and will continue only if the community is fully supportive.”

Having patiently negotiated with all relevant organs as well as all involved locals, this modest enterprise is succeeding, both in bringing income to a remote part of Tibet, and in fulfilling nation-building objectives of the national park system.

5 2020 is the year China’s social credit surveillance system becomes fully operational

Police forces and security state bureaucracies worldwide are buying the big data mining algorithms marketed by cyber surveillance companies, turning their vast accumulations of data on each and all of us into probability predictions as to what we will do next. These predictive algorithms claim to know, before we each do, before the idea pops into my head, what crimes I am about to commit.

In western countries, this makes for harassment of young black men by police backed by the supposedly scientific objectivity of the data we generate every day on all our electronic devices.

In China, the consequences for those singled out as “precriminals” are much greater. One only has to look at Xinjiang’s mass detentions of “precriminal” Uighurs suspected of terrorist sympathies for nothing more than saying prayers, wearing a beard or a scarf.

To be registered under the compulsory hukou household registration system as Tibetan is to automatically be classified in a high risk category, to be monitored more intensively. To be young and male adds to the risk profile, and to the selective attention of the security apparatus believing it has the ability to prevent crime well in advance.

In the West, there are limits on what police can do to someone who has not committed a crime. In China, there are no such limits. The security state’s paranoia is unchecked.


 CBD 5 October 2020 [tentative] location:  Kunming, Yunnan www: https://www.cbd.int/cop/

This is an especially important meeting of the CBD biodiversity convention, as it will set targets to be fulfilled by decade end in 2030, after this last decade’s failure to achieve much in slowing the rate of species extinctions. By holding this event in Kunming, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, draws attention to China as world’s biggest consumer of rare and endangered species, and trafficker of wildlife for the insatiable Traditional Chinese Medicine market.


After the complete failure of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) gathering in Madrid, December 2019, the next chance for effective global action on the climate emergency is scheduled for late 2020, with Glasgow the host city, 9 to 20 November.

In Madrid, China, as usual, insisted on being both a developing country entitled to lesser emissions reduction obligations, and part of the club of richer bullies who insist on doing nothing effective on climate change. Since the US is pulling out altogether, and other rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia and Brazil are overtly bad actors, out to sabotage effective action, China’s obstructive role got less attention. Yet China did send the rich country a bill, of trillions of dollars, to be paid to China to reduce emissions, while also siding with other big emitters to thwart even something as basic as an agreed audit of actual emission levels, or a standard of measuring actual emissions.

Stand by in 2020, for talk of China announcing more “ambitious” emissions reduction goals, in UN jargon NDC, Nationally-Determined Contributions, which means that all Paris 2015 managed to agree on was that each country sets its own target, with no  external oversight or accountability. China has never committed to any specific tonnage of emissions reductions. China in 2015 announced only that it will begin reducing emissions starting 2030, even though that is the year, at the end of this decade, when, according to the authoritative IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all countries should have completed the closure of coal burning power stations, and completed their emission reductions trajectory. So if in 2020 China does announce it expects to begin emission reductions a bit earlier than 2030, it will get glowing media coverage.

Dissenting voices are needed, ideally from folks who never caused the climate emergency in the first place but suffer its consequences, such as Tibetans.

In 2019 the IPCC issued special reports which focussed attention on Tibet. In 2020 IPCC is gearing up for their once-every-five-years Assessment Report, to be issued in 2021. So 2020 for IPCC is packed with meetings of authors and writers, thus opportunities for ongoing lobbying: https://www.ipcc.ch/calendar/

The UNFCC COP26 in Glasgow is scheduled for 8 to 20 November 2020.

Timeline of OTHER EVENTS OF 2020

a) Taiwan general election 11 January, outcome heavily influenced by overt and covert pressure from China, including social media manipulation and disinformation.

b) World Economic Forum 21-24 January , Switzerland www: https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-m…

c) YANGTZE River Protection Law to protect the whole of the Yangtze/Dri Chu from its origins in Amdo Ngawa and Kham Kandze, all the way to Shanghai. China’s National People’s Congress is due to approve this law in March. https://npcobserver.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/yangtze-river-protection-law-draft.pdf in 2020, and “persons living in the Yangtze River basin” [长江流域所在地人员] are officially invited to comment on the draft law before it is passed. This law could empower Tibetans to object to the many hydro dams, biggest in the world, planned for the upper Yangtze.

d) Global Biodiversity Outlook. Every six years the UN Convention on Biodiversity sums up all that is known about all species on earth, and their path towards extinction. date: 18 May 2020 location: Montreal-Est, Quebec, Canada www: https://www.cbd.int/gbo  Since China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of rare and threatened animals and plants worldwide, this is an opportunity to highlight China’s record.

e) IUCN World Conservation Congress:  A huge gathering of scientists and NGOs and governments to assess progress towards a protected planet and conservation of Nature, major lobbying opportunity, which China will use to promote its national parks as exemplary ecological civilisation construction. Marseille, France 11 to 19 June  

f) KAILASH and world heritage https://whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/44COM/ UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE Committee meets in Fuzhou, China to decide whether to accept nominations for World Heritage status, 29 June to 9 July. Sites in Tibet are on the waiting list, perhaps for a 2020 decision, including Kailash Sacred Landscape, which is mostly in India and Nepal, with just a small portion in Tibet, and only 9000 Tibetans classified as stakeholders with any say at all. On the Indian and Nepal sides there is a population of over one million, keen to see roads hotels and development, with Kailash the magnet drawing in the tourist/pilgrims. The six million Tibetans who make this sacred landscape sacred are disempowered, and have no say.

Tso Ngonpo/Koko Nor/Qinghai Hu is on the official “tentative list” for consideration, possibly in 2020, as World Heritage.

g) OZONE HOLE ABOVE TIBET There are three holes in the ozone layer that protects all living things from damaging ultraviolet radiation, over the Antarctic, Arctic and Tibet. Two UN Conventions have failed to curb illegal production in Chinese factories of chemicals that float high into the atmosphere and collect above Tibet, destroying the ozone layer. The Joint 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (COP 12) and 32nd Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (MOP 32) is scheduled to take place from 23-27 November 2020 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  

h) In August 2020 a new book will come out declaring nomads to be the wave of the future. The author, Felix Marquandt, says: “Young people from everywhere are moving everywhere. Or rather, they are moving to where they expect to improve their lives. Movement has become a key to their emancipation. After centuries of becoming sedentary, the future of humanity and the key to its enlightenment in the 21st century lies in re-embracing nomadism. Migration fosters the qualities that will allow our children to flourish and succeed. Our times require more migration, not less. The New Nomad is both the chronicle of this revolution and a call to embrace it.”

This is a global movement, pioneered by the young Tibetans of New York, Antwerp, London, Toronto and Paris. Free movement is the opposite of the involuntary displacement of Tibetans coerced into giving up their land rights to pasture.

i)TV doco on Valley of the Cats by Ray Mears to screen on ITV, Britain, autumn 2020 featuring footage of snow leopards

j) 2020 is a Census year. Once every 10 years China sends census data collectors everywhere, even quite remote places, gathering a huge trove of data on ethnicity, language, education, literacy, income and lots more, which then gets tabulated and months later in 2021 published.  Census data is usually more reliable than other official statistics that are reported up the line by local officials out to boost their declared performance and get promoted. The 2020 Census starts on 1 November. Back in 2000 Census published how many of each of the 56 ethnicities reside in each of the 2000 counties of China, including the 150 counties (dzongs) officially designated as Tibetan Autonomous. But the 2010 Census suppressed revealing any county by county ethnic spread data. The 2010 census did confirm total population of the Tibetan Plateau reached over 10 million, including 6 million Tibetans. Xining and the surrounding agribusiness/industrial belt encircling Xining have grown greatly since 2010, so expect a 2020 total population of the Tibetan Plateau of 12 million.

[1] Minghao Zhuang, Dr Gongbuzeren, Jian Zhang, Wenjun Li; Community-based seasonal movement grazing maintains lower greenhouse gas emission intensity on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of China, Land Use Policy 85 · April 2019 

Glaciers, nomads: blaming the victims

Blog two of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


the longer the red line, the greater the glacier melt, blue lines show glaciers growing
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015


In Tibet, to the benefit of downstream China, runoff increase is due not only to faster glacier melt but also to today’s higher rainfall and rising lake levels, reversing a drying trend that has lasted for thousands of years.[1] Climate change is here and now.

Rising temperatures also mean permafrost is anything but permanent, now hovering in Tibet just below freezing point. Permafrost melt is not well understood scientifically but its rapid disappearance across huge areas of Tibet is already problematic, both for local communities and globally. As water frozen in the soil melts away earlier these days in the seasonal cycle, water that growing plants could have accessed now drains down beyond the reach of growing roots, affecting both spring crop plantings and wetlands which now dry out.

This also affects the water meadows of the Yellow River in Machu Dzoge (Ru’ergai in Chinese) where official policies decades ago drained the swamp, in order to separate land and water, only to cause vegetation to die off, climate changing methane emissions to rise and peat fires to burn uncontrollably. Now China understands draining the swamp was a mistake and is trying to rectify past policy failures by filling in the drainage ditches, as local leaders now explain.


At the September 2019 UN global climate summit, Secretary-General Guterres challenged governments to be more ambitious in their emissions reduction targets, in keeping with the 2018 IPCC report on what is needed to prevent runaway climate change occurring once temperatures rise beyond 1. 5 degrees. China’s response to this challenge was silence:

“What we certainly did learn was how limited the UN has been in dragging large nations forward. Guterres invited leaders to make new commitments to cut their emissions, stop building coal plants and end fossil fuel subsidies. Three of the four countries with the biggest coal expansion plans – India, China and Turkey – were invited to speak. Each of them failed to address that consequential part of their economy. None of the large polluters met the UN secretary general’s call to raise their climate pledges. China’s statement was potentially the most consequential. It remains up to developed countries to lead, the country said. It’s also a poke in the eye for the UN, which had flagged its confidence that China would front up with new ambition.”

“The path to net zero emissions ‘is something we are just discovering,’ former French climate ambassador and CEO of the European Climate Foundation Laurence Tubiana told CHN. But the top levels of government are not yet engaged. China appears to be wary of setting goals that it does not know it can achieve. Its climate targets are barely better than “business-as-usual”, said Tubiana.”

ever wondered what all those Chinese scientists wanderingTibet are up to? Photographing dissipation and collapse in the skies of Tibet.
Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

China, almost alone among nations, has never committed to any specific emissions reduction target, only to greater energy efficiency while persisting in economic growth and construction of coal-fired power stations. Although China seeks a reputation as a world leader in environmental civilisation construction, in Paris 2015 and ever since it has refused to make any commitment to reduce emissions, other than a proposal to begin emission reductions starting in 2030. According to the IPCC 2030 is when emission reductions need to be fully completed, not beginning, if the planet is to avoid uncontrollable runaway temperature rises.

historic climate data of the entire Ganges Basin originating in Tibet Himalaya
forecasting future season climate of Ganges basin up to 2050, in winter and monsoonal summer. Rainfall (left) and temperature future (right). RCP 4.5 model assumes world acts to reduce emissions; RCP 8.5 model assumes world fails to do anything effective to reduce emissions.
Mapping the Tibetan glaciers that feed the Ganges river and its many Himalayan tributaries

UN Secretary-General Guterres is not alone in calling on China to implement policies needed if the planet is to heat by no more than the IPCC upper threshold of 1.5 degrees. China’s own high level thinktank, the China Council on international Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) in December 2018 called on the government for: “increasingly ambitious plans in the short term via the 14th Five Year Plan (2021 to 2025), in the medium term via a revised Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030 and Beautiful China 2035, and in the longer term via a 2050 Strategy. This will require well-defined targets and timelines as well as pathways for policy reform including the reform of State-Owned Enterprises including the State Grid, and building a well-functioning national emissions trading system.”[2] None of these have happened; it’ still business as usual.

Preparing for the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, China published an official response, over 3000 words, with very few numbers, none for actual emissions reductions. One of the few specifics was a number for how much energy is needed to make a ton of steel or a renminbi denominated unit of production: “By the end of 2018, its carbon emission intensity had decreased by 45.8% compared with the level in 2005.” This is commendable energy efficiency, but in no way is it an actual reduction in emissions. China remains overtly committed to ongoing economic growth. China also persists in demanding the richest countries do most of the emissions reduction work, while proclaiming itself as a developing country, thus entitled to do less.

China remains the world’s biggest emitter of climate heating gases, not only carbon dioxide but also methane and chlorofluorocarbons outlawed by globally binding treaty. China persists in burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. Of China’s 50 biggest cities, the one big city China has built in Tibet, Xining, now ranks as one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide, due almost entirely to the heavy industries surrounding Xining which process Tibetan minerals, oil and gas, with little effective regulation.[3]


For China and Tibet, most rain and snow comes with the summer monsoons, and winter is the dry time. Climate warming means spring now starts earlier, long before the rains arrive, parching the spring growth. Industry needs water year-round, and has always relied on glaciers to steadily release water, supplemented by dams impounding water to further extend seasonal flow. Now the balance is tilting. The IPCC reports that the monsoons are become more unpredictable and more extreme, more prone to inundate or to fail.

In the watershed of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, extreme weather is becoming more common, flooding eastern India and Bangladesh
Future Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra watershed rainfall (left maps) temperature (right maps) in the decades to 2050. Assuming the world limits emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).
Seasonally, where will it rain more (left maps) and get hotter (right maps) in Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin to year 2050. Assumes effective global emissions action (upper maps) or no effective action (lower maps).

China’s policy response is to close pastures and remove pastoralists to concrete block settlements on urban fringes, where their customary skills are useless, and urban employment is not available to those not fluent in Chinese. The theory is that careless over grazing by ignorant herders has caused grassland degradation and erosion, thus making the water run faster. Excluding the pastoralists and their grazing herds makes more grass grow, slows the water flow across the vast alpine meadows of Tibet, thus guaranteeing the provisioning of water to northern China, which has become Tibet’s primary service to China. That’s the foundational premise of Chinese policy.


This is an example of the many environmental services provided by the cryosphere, services many human lives rely on. China, in its refusal to name any emissions reduction target despite worldwide pressure, persists in failing to protect those cryosphere services. Within China, traditionally the first beneficiaries of cryosphere services have been those closest to the snow field slopes and the glaciers, the nomads of the Tibetan plateau. These upper riparians for thousands of years respected and protected these landscapes, often revering the mountains as gods.[4] There is no reason to suppose Tibetans in recent decades abandoned tradition and began overgrazing, causing land degradation of their own homelands, careless about the consequences of their actions.

rain and snow over Tibet are becoming less reliable. Source: R Krishnan in Hindu Kush Himalaya Asessment, ICIMOD, 2019

Official decrees from above curtailing nomadic mobility, forcing herders onto smaller land allocations were the cause of land degradation, and of intensifying poverty as pastoralists had to get by with less grass, smaller animals, rigidly assigned stocking rates, the expense of compulsory fencing, fodder crop ploughing, sowing and harvest, increasingly hemmed in.[5] intensifying poverty drove many to accept official urgings to relocate to urban fringes, surrendering land rights and selling remaining livestock. These official interventions, a cascade of official policy failures, have deeply disrupted pastoral livelihoods and now threaten the collective food security of Tibet for the first time, as so many food producers cease production.

intense bursts of snow/rain over Tibet are increasing, especially in winter.
Source: R Krishnan, Unravelling Climate Change in the Hindu 3 Kush Himalaya: Rapid Warming in the Mountains and Increasing Extremes, in The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019

ICIMOD’s 2019 Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment reminds us: “In China, ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly concentrated in mountainous areas and are significantly poorer than the Han majority—their consumption poverty level is more than twice as high and their income poverty rate is three times as high as that of Han communities. In rural areas, ethnic minorities have less access to wage employment and earn less when they engage in wage employment. Enrolment rates among school-aged children are lower among minority populations than among Han populations. Also, minority areas have less developed healthcare infrastructure and less access to safety nets such as unemployment and pension insurance.”[6]

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

Climate change, on top of all these drivers of immiserisation, may be the last straw for many rural Tibetans, including nomads accustomed to living off uncertainty. For China, however, climate change can be blamed for whatever goes wrong, as if it were an unstoppable force of nature. It is the ideal excuse. This is toxic. China persists in asserting its formula of “common but differentiated responsibilities” for doing little about climate change. China defines its differentiated responsibility as requiring no specific emissions reduction quantum at all.

The reality is that China’s top priority, for all its talk of “constructing ecological civilisation” is economic growth, under a government committed above all to stimulating growth for fear of social unrest if growth falters. Because growth remains the paramount priority, forecasts of China’s carbon emissions vary, but agree that the peak, yet to come, may be as high as 16 billion tons of CO2 belched skyward annually, and after that peak, around the year 2030, the decline in emissions will be modest and slow.[7] This is completely inconsistent with the IPCC message.

heating of Tibet and South Asia over the entire 21st century, right up to 2098
Source: Ashwini Kulkarni et al., Projected Climate Change in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region, 2013,
Mountain Research & Development

China’s case for remaining exempt from emissions reduction targets for rich industrial nations is that it is only a recent industrialiser, with still a long way to go to catch up with the countries pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution’s first steam engines. This is factually incorrect, as Chinese scientists have recently reminded us. Carbon levels in the atmosphere remained low, below the level that forces climate to warm, until 1965.[8] Only after that did carbon levels start rising fast, at a time China was urgently industrialising.


Some Tibetan areas in the Himalayas are in rain shadow, naturally dry as monsoon rains have already fallen at lower altitudes as clouds push up the slopes. With great ingenuity, local Tibetan communities have learned how to make skilful use of the annual freeze-thaw cycle to capture the autumn tailend of the monsoon by freezing it, to be available as ice melt in spring when young crops need watering well before the summer monsoon arrives.

storing water over winter for use in spring crop irrigation, by freezing water into an ice stupa Source: IPCC, 2019

Climate scientists admire these entrepreneurial ways of damming water with simple stone walls across creeks that freeze over winter and in spring gravity flow to the fields needing irrigation. The scientists adopt Ladakhi usage, calling the most dramatic adaptations ice stupas, as these mini glaciers made by human hand look like the Buddhist memorial chortens found all over Ladakh, the Indian portion of upper Tibet.

IPCC, while hailing these local innovations, worries that climate warming means they will soon no longer work, or will become less useful as climate becomes more unreliable and unpredictable. IPCC states Western Himalayas are drying further, and in some areas glaciers, rather than shrinking, may even be growing,[9] while in eastern Himalayas, already among the wettest places worldwide, rainfall is increasing. Extremes are getting more extreme, but, if given time, Tibetans have so far been able to adapt. Does accelerating climate change allow time to adapt?

Entire Indus River basin, from Tibetan source, through India and Pakistan. Protected areas in darker green.


Glacier and snow melt have long been factored into traditional farming strategies in monsoonal Asia, since rainfall is so strongly concentrated in summer, but crops need water much earlier in the seasonal cycle, in spring. This is especially so on the Indus River which, after leaving upper Tibet passes through northern India and then Pakistan. India’s growing reliance on impounded water, in response to increasing climate variability, has exacerbated tensions between upriver India and downriver Pakistan, which for decades were solved by an international water sharing treaty accepted by all. Pakistan now worries that as the lower riparian it is at the mercy of India and its increasing impoundment of water in dams. This adds to the many other tensions in India-Pakistan relations.

Further, agriculture on the Indus has been heavily reliant on the annual cycle of snow and ice accumulation and melt, in order to irrigate crops in need of more than what the monsoon delivers over a few months: “We show that dependence varies strongly in space and time and is highest in the Indus basin, where in the pre-monsoon season up to 60% of the total irrigation withdrawals originate from mountain snow and glacier melt, and that it contributes an additional 11% to total crop production. In total, 129 million farmers in the Indus and Ganges substantially depend on snow and glacier melt for their livelihoods. Snow and glacier melt provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people.”[10]

Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming world fails to curb carbon emissions.
Future runoff from major rivers of southern Tibet, assuming the world acts to curb carbon emissions. Source: Himalayan Climate & water Atlas, ICIMOD, 2015

The Indus is especially dependant on glacier melt, notably in the hot and dry months of spring and summer when monsoon rains push into the Himalayas but leave Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south still parched. This reliance on glacier melt makes the rice and cotton growers on the flat flood plains of the lower Indus acutely vulnerable to accelerating glacier melt on the upper Indus.

Pakistan’s main crops all depend on glacier melt in Tibet at crucial points in the growing season Source: Hester Biemans, Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, 2019 Source: H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601.

The Indus Waters Treaty has successfully defused tensions over many decades, but was written in the 1950s, a time when no-one imagined climate change would tilt the entire playing field and drive India to impound more, to Pakistan’s detriment.[11]  Not only do many Pakistani farmers depend on seasonal glacier melt to sustain their crops very far downriver from the Tibetan glacial source, Pakistan relies on both cotton and basmati rice for export income. Tibetans, upriver of both India and Pakistan, look on with deep concern, but helpless to act, as public advocacy is treated by China as criminal.


The IPCC is serious about 2030 as the outer limit of the time remaining to reduce emissions drastically, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is doing all he can to ensure all nations, big and small, developed and developing, understand that 2030 is when emissions reductions have to be completed, not slowly begun.

China is now the global outlier, having made no commitment at Paris 2015 to anything beyond beginning emissions reductions starting 2030. Since then China has pledged nothing further, yet proclaims itself a champion of ecological civilisation construction.

China’s ecological civilisation credentials come largely from removing Tibetans en masse from their alpine meadow pastures, as if this is a return to pristine unspoiled prehuman nature, to be applauded.

Tibetans did almost nothing to contribute to the climate emergency, but now suffer not only the destabilising effects of climate change but the population exclusions and clearances imposed by China in the name of climate mitigation.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

China urgently needs to offset its ongoing emissions by parading its green credentials, notably by proclaiming 30 per cent of the Tibetan Plateau as national park. Can the world, keen to see progress on climate change, get to grips with the complex reality that excluding nomads from productive and sustainable pastures is not the solution to climate change, especially when more and more coal mines and power stations are being built in China?


glaciers sweep donwslope, south of Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash.
Source: China Natural Geography magazine

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

[2] China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, 2018 Policy Recommendations to China’s State Council, CCICED Annual General Meeting, Beijing, 1-3 November 2018

[3] Haikun Wang et al., China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities, Nature Sustainability, 2019,  August, 748-754 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0339-6 

[4] Anne-Marie Blondeau ed., TIBETAN MOUNTAIN DEITIES, THEIR CULTS AND REPRESENTATIONS, 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995

abrupt collapse & total dissipation in the unruly skies of Tibet
Source: Atlas of the Clouds of Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[5] Julia A. Klein et al.,A Participatory Framework for Building Resilient Social-Ecological Pastoral Systems, in Maria E. Fernandez-Gimenez,  Restoring community connections to the land : building resilience through community-based rangeland management in China and Mongolia, CABI, 2012, 28

[6] HKH Assessment, ICIMOD, 2019, 436

[7] Guangyue Xu et al.,  Determining China’s CO2 emissions peak with a dynamic nonlinear artificial neural network approach and scenario analysis, Energy Policy, Volume 128, May 2019, Pages 752-762

[8] Jiawei Da , Yi Ge Zhang, Gen Li, Xianqiang Meng, Low CO2 levels of the entire Pleistocene epoch, Nature Comunications, 2019, freely downloadable: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12357-5

[9]Biswajit Mukhopadhyay, Rising river flows and glacial mass balance in central Karakoram, Journal of Hydrology, 2014, 513, 192- 203

[10] H. Biemans et al., Importance of snow and glacier meltwater for agriculture on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Nature Sustainability, July 2019,  594-601. IPCC cites this as an authoritative source.

[11] Durgeshree RAMAN,  Damming and Infrastructural Development of the Indus River Basin: Strengthening the Provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty, Asian Journal of International Law, 8 (2018), pp. 372–402

Emergent climate crisis in Tibet


Blog one  of two on climate change , glaciers, rivers and China’s ecological civilisation


snow melt and glacier melt on five of the major rivers originating in Tibet. From left: Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong
Source: ICIMOD Himalayan Climate Atlas 2015

When 11,000 scientists world wide issue a warning that collectively we face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis”, yet the world’s governments response is totally inadequate, we pay attention, for  a moment.  We move on. Someone really oughta do something.

The global climate emergency, long coming and now peaking, faces crunch time when all world governments gather in Madrid early December 2019. Starting 2 December,  the Conference of the Parties (COP25) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change assembles. The popular swell of demands for urgent and effective action to reduce carbon emissions and hold climate warming to no more than a manageable 1.5 degrees, is set to climax.

The world will be watching , to see if governments are at last willing to do more than talk vaguely of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to act. Currently each country selects  its own targets. That is as far as the world got in Paris in 2015. Since then, climate extremes have only gotten worse. What seemed a distant danger is now happening to us all: more intense droughts, floods, fires, cyclones, blizzards.

never mind the Potala, just look at those cumulus humilis AND cumulus fractus
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

Will COP25 Madrid 2019 change anything? As always, all the hopes, fears and attention will be on the biggest emitters, none bigger than China. The smaller countries, other than photogenic Pacific islands disappearing under rising waves, tend to be also-rans. The world’s emerging economies, global south, developing countries, whatever you call them, did almost nothing to cause the climate crisis, and get little attention, except for one country that positions itself as the leader and exemplary role model for all developing countries: China.

In a world where the US denies the reality of climate change, and Europe is unable to agree on anything, it is understandable that the hopefuls pin their hopes on China. But that is hope against hope. All China ever agreed to in Paris in 2015 was to reduce the carbon intensity of its heavy industries. China did not agree to actually begin reducing its carbon emissions until 2030; yet 2030 is the date set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the world to complete its emissions reductions, if we are, as a planet, to have a real chance of stopping climate warming from running away uncontrollably.

ICIMOD’s 2015 Himalayan Climate & Water Atlas

What of Tibet? By area, the Tibetan Plateau is almost two percent of the planet’s land surface, the same size as Western Europe. Tibet matters, not only because of its extent but its height, half way up into the troposphere, so high it diverts the jet stream around Tibet, not over it. Nowhere else on earth does that. In winter the jet stream, racing west round the mid latitudes, diverts around the south side of the plateau; in summer it switches to divert round the northern edges of Tibet.

only the Tibetan Plateau can split the jetstream

China is acutely aware that the Tibet is upriver, with both of China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, rising in the glaciers of Tibet. Tibet is also upwind of lowland China, and the climate in Tibet, capable of drawing monsoons deep inland, has a profound impact on the climate of Asia. It’s only in recent decades that climate scientists managed to connect the dots and discover how interdependent climates are, how teleconnections and forcings influence climates far away.

The intense cold of Tibet in winter is well known, less well known is how fast the entire Tibetan plateau heats in spring, especially on the bare rock of the mountain slopes, above the vegetation line. Intense sun, in the largely dry springtime climate, heats the thin air and bare rock of Tibet fast, which drives the monsoon dynamic, both the arrival in summer of the South Asian monsoon from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal; then, a little later, the arrival of the East Asian monsoon from the tropical Pacific

So Tibet does matter, not only to Tibetans. It matters especially to China and Japan, most immediately downwind, but weather and climate in Tibet have measurable effects in North America too.

However, the world knows little about climate change in Tibet, although the Tibetan exile government has tried for a decade or more to raise the profile. So this Rukor blog lays out the evidence on what is likely to happen in Tibet, over the coming decades, if the world succeeds in Madrid 2019 in effectively curbing emissions, and if the world yet again fails to take effective action to reduce emissions.

This blog draws on the extensive mapping and modelling done by climate scientists on the future climate of Tibet, not only the melting of the glaciers, but the whole range of climate changes under way, and accelerating. This blog features maps of the future climate of Tibet, in the 2040s, 2060s, even in 2095, both on the assumption that carbon emissions are globally reduced, and on the alternative assumption the world fails to take effective action.

The great rivers of Tibet and their downstream populations. Source ICIMOD

China congratulates itself on being the global leader in ecological civilisation construction, but the data on Tibet suggest otherwise.


From Brooklyn to Bangladesh the headlines arising from the latest IPCC report, on Oceans and Cryosphere, have focussed on the prospects of a dangerous rise in the levels of the seas lapping our shores.

Far from the shores, and the headlines, the IPCC also reported on the high mountains and glaciers at the start of the water cycle. It is there that climate change is impacting lives right now, in myriad ways.

In the Himalayas, Tibetan communities have skilfully managed precipitous, precarious environments for thousands of years, but now face ruin caused by climate change. The IPCC report on the cryosphere –the world’s cold regions- and the oceans details the remarkable adaptability of Tibetans, in the mountains and across the high Tibetan Plateau, as climate change changes everything. Adaptable as they are, those changes are accelerating, cancelling customary livelihoods.

It’s not only the headline writers in lowland cities who seldom notice the multiple impacts of climate change right now in the highlands, it is also the politicians, who now benefit from increasing river runoff as glaciers melt.

This is especially so in China, where the great Yellow River, cradle of China’s civilisation, runs dry, exhausted by draining off its waters for heavy industry,  especially coal, coal chemicals and coal-fired power plant cooling towers, across northern China. http://paper.people.com.cn/zgnyb/html/2018-02/26/content_1839095.htm


Rather than turn away from dependence on coal, or commit to specific emission reduction targets, China quietly enjoys a secret dividend, of increased flow, down the Yellow River from the glaciers of Tibet, as they melt at unprecedented rate.

runoff increasing, on Tibetan rivers, 2014

The glaciers at the head of the great rivers coming from Tibet –the Indus, Yangtze and Mekong as well as the Yellow- can dispense this special dividend only for a while, until they dwindle and disappear. Now the IPCC has put a timeline on this. Peak water will come as soon as mid-century; after that the shrinking glaciers will retreat upslope, unable to replenish, fading from view. By the end of this century they will largely be gone.

The IPCC, marshalling all available evidence, says: “Melt water from glaciers in the mountains can be an important source of water in hot and dry years or seasons when river runoff would otherwise be low, and thereby also reducing variability in total river runoff from year to year, even hundreds of kilometres away from the glaciers. As glaciers shrink, annual glacier runoff typically first increases, until a turning point, often called “peak water” is reached, upon which runoff declines.” IPCC  SROCC  2-25, 2-28

Glacier melt raises river flows Source: Immerzeel, 2013

“The average winter runoff is expected to increase (high confidence), and spring peak maxima will occur earlier (very high confidence). Although observed and projected trends in annual runoff vary substantially among regions and can even be opposite in sign, there is high confidence that average annual runoff from glaciers will have reached a peak, with declining runoff thereafter, at the latest by the end of the 21st century in most regions. The projected changes in runoff are expected to affect downstream water management, related hazards and ecosystems.” IPCC SROCC 2-26

This Rukor report delves not only into the implications of the IPCC Cryosphere and Oceans report, but also brings you the scientific research IPCC relies on.

when will peak water pay its best dividend to those downriver, before dwindling as glaciers shrink? Blue assumes world acts to effectively limit carbon emissions, red assumes world fails to cut emissions. Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC estimates of the glacier melt dividend downstream. In High Mountain Asia, which is mostly the Tibetan Plateau, the key question is when will increased runoff due to climate warming peak, and then dwindle as the glacial sources dwindle and disappear? The two graphs offer two differing answers, because they are based on two differing scenarios of future climate change emissions reductions. The graphs in blue assume the world will act quickly and effectively to reduce emissions; those in red assume governments fail to act and carbon emissions will continue rising. In both scenarios peak water will be mid-century, and then decline.

For the news cycle, and the attention span of political leaders, that’s way in the future. What matters now, and for decades to come, is increased runoff, a free public good delivered cost free for as long as it still snows in the Kunlun, Tian Shan, Tanglha, Amnye Machen , Hengduan and Himalayas: the mountains surrounding Tibet.

In the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra basin, who extracts its waters, and in which month?

Only some of those mountain ranges capture monsoonal moisture and hold it as snow and ice, gradually releasing their melt into streams and rivers flowing across China. The Indus River benefits more from snow and ice melt, more on that below. Of China’s great rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow, both originating in Tibetan glaciers, the Yangtze is by far the bigger, its runoff augmented not only by glaciers at the source but also in Kham, well down the Dri Chu/Yangtze/Chang Jiang. The snowpeaks of Kham, such as the pilgrimage mountain Khawa Karpo (Meili Snow Mountain in Chinese) capture, store and release a lot of water.

For lowland China, the only river in need of a climate induced dividend of extra runoff is the Yellow.  The dividend on the Yellow may be much less than on the Yangtze, where it only prolongs the flood season. On the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese) the dividend may be quite modest, and not deliver extra water far below Tibet. The Yellow is one of the longest rivers in the world, much of it through desert.

genererating “green” energy in Inner Mongolia from coal and water from Tibet, delivered by the Yellow River

In recent decades, there have been serious proposals to greatly boost the Yellow River’s flow by diverting water away from Yangtze tributaries in Tibet, building dams to impound water, canals and tunnels to get that water across to the Yellow River which, in some Tibetan areas, is only 100 kms away, with mountains in between. This is the sort of challenge China’s engineers can overcome, at great cost to both budgets and nature.

Officially, this huge project is the third stage of the three-stage South-to-North Water Transfer Project, and the first two stages, in lowland eastern China, are complete and operational. The third stage, still on the books of successive Five-Year Plans, is officially the Western Route, and has been thoroughly mapped. Yet there are no indications that it will actually be built. There may be many reasons why it languishes. The other two canals have been somewhat disappointing in delivering sufficient water northwards to be worth the cost. Damming and diverting water across Kham Kandze prefecture, a troubled area, would be expensive and difficult. But the bottom line is that even if done, it would not deliver enough water to the Yellow River to lift its river flow as far as the lower reaches, closest to Beijing, where extra water is most badly needed.

Diverting the Yangtze to the Yellow River, if it works as planned, would deliver its’ dividend to the heavily polluting industries of Qinghai Xining and Gansu Lanzhou, traversing Ningxia and then looping lengthily through arid Inner Mongolia, the core of China’s coal mining belt. There would be no increased flow beyond that, in Henan or Shandong.

No doubt the oil refineries and salt lake metals producers of Xining and Lanzhou would appreciate the availability of more water, likewise the steel mills and mass array of coal-fired power stations in Inner Mongolia.  But they are not the centre of Chinese power, and may be on the brink of a similar de-industrialisation to China’s rust belt North-east. Older, more polluting heavy industries face new difficulties, not only from enforcement of pollution laws, but from China shifting the world’s factory abroad and further inland to coal-rich, oil-rich Xinjiang.

River runoff of five great Tibetan rivers now and in 2040s. Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong. In each box, left bar is actual runoff measured from 1998 to 2007, next bar is runoff predicted for 2040s. On each river runoff will increase.

If these water-intensive and resource-intensive industries cannot succeed in persuading Beijing to further dam Kham Kandze, it is because the dividend of extra water would fail to get far enough downstream. Likewise, the dividend of extra runoff into the Yellow River from shrinking glaciers may not suffice to impact far downstream. No-one has sufficient evidence to be sure. The 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 is currently being actively debated among China’s policy elites; we may soon see whether the Western Route of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project still exists.


IPCC tells us that even if carbon emissions are dramatically and rapidly cut and succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5C, 36% of the glaciers along the Hindu Kush and Himalayan range will have gone by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss increases to two-thirds.

The scientists watch as climate change sweeps aside all past calculations of risk and reward in the high mountains of Asia that ring Tibet. The IPCC report is recognised as authoritative because it draws together all that is known, all that has been measured and extrapolated to let us know what we, as a planet, are in for.

peak water, rise and fall as glacier melt accelerates Source: IPCC 2019

IPCC says: “At first, glacier runoff increases because the glacier melts faster and more water flows downhill from the glacier. However, there will be a turning point after several years or decades, often called ‘peak water’, after which glacier runoff and hence its contribution to river flow downstream will decline. Peak water runoff from glaciers can exceed the amount of initial yearly runoff by 50 percent or more. This excess water can be used in different ways, such as for hydropower or irrigation.” 2-28

IPCC reminds us we have all tended to regard water coming to us from upriver as a common pool resource, taken for granted, uncosted, a free public good to be exploited at will, without consequences. Economists call this an externality, which means provision of water doesn’t show up in the accounts. Now, in the era of climate change, nothing we took for granted can any longer be taken for granted. Common pool resources do have finite limits, which need to be respected, and governed for the welfare of all, for ecosystem health.

IPCC’s Summary, running to 1070 pages, is far from the only source we can turn to. The Kathmadu-based International Centre on Mountain Development (ICIMOD) also published, in 2019,  a massive summation of all that is known about the Tibetan mountains and their glaciers.

The 2019 ICIMOD Hindukush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People, only 627 pages, also identifies the payoff downstream of icemelt high in the mountains: “Recent work shows that within each basin there is significant variability; the closer one gets to the glaciers and snow reserves within a basin, the greater the relative importance of glacier and snowmelt runoff. Several large-scale benchmark studies have focused on quantifying the importance of glacier and snowmelt runoffs in the overall hydrology of large Asian river basins. Glaciers have the potential to provide seasonally delayed meltwater to the rivers. Meltwater can make the greatest contribution to river flow during warm and dry seasons, which is particularly important to the water budget in water-scarce lowlands that are densely populated. A global study estimating seasonally delayed glacier runoff relative to precipitation input showed that the Indus basin had the greatest human dependence on glacier water within the HinduKush Himalaya.” (p.262)

In 2015 ICIMOD published a detailed study of climate change and its likely effects, between 2021 and 2050 on the six major rivers originating in southern Tibet: the Indus, Ganges, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween and Zachu/Mekong. ICIMOD’s HIMALAYAN CLIMATE AND WATER ATLAS: IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON WATER RESOURCES IN FIVE OF ASIA’S MAJOR RIVER BASINS, after reviewing the historic record of rainfall and temperature for each river, and after running computer projections for the year 2050, on a scenario of the world acting to curb emissions (RCP 4.5), and another scenario in which the world fails to do anything effective about emissions (RCP 8.5), came to the conclusion:

 “Under both RCP scenarios, the amount of glacier and snow meltwater will decrease, while the amount of rainfall-runoff will increase, for the upper basins of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Salween and Mekong. For the upper Indus basin, the contribution of glacial melt is projected to increase in both scenarios, and the contribution of snow melt and rainfall to runoff are projected to decrease for the extreme cases in the RCP 8.5 scenario. Overall, no significant decrease in runoff is projected until at least 2050 for all of the basins.

forecasting Tibet temperature increase: top two maps cover years 2036 to 2065, bottom two 2066 to 2095; two left maps assume world acts to reduce carbon emissions, right two maps assume little effective action to limit emissions

“An increase in runoff is projected for both RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5 scenarios for the upper Ganges (1–27%), Brahmaputra (0–13%) and Mekong (2–20%) basins. Increasing precipitation is the main driver of this change, which will compensate for decreasing contributions of glacial and snow melt. For the upper Indus and Salween basins, the picture is uncertain and varies depending on the scenario. Under the RCP 4.5 ensemble mean, the total upper Indus river flow increases (12%), while under the RCP 8.5 ensemble mean, it decreases (–5%) compared to the reference period. In the upper Salween basin, the projected change in total river flow ranges from –3 to +19%. The difference is mainly due to a reduction in snow melt and rainfall runoff under RCP 8.5, caused by a decrease in precipitation, although glacial melt increases in both scenarios.” (p 78)

Predicting Tibet winter temperature increases in coming decades (upper maps) and rainfall (lower maps). Assumes world acts to curb emissions (left maps) or fails to curb emissions (right maps).


The deep irony is that China persists in taking its great rivers rising in Tibet as common pool resources for exploitation; while accusing Tibetan pastoralists of abusing the common pool resource of Tibetan pasture lands for unsustainable exploitation

What China above all wants from Tibet is water, and is willing to depopulate Tibet to maximise water flow. Yet in reality the alpine meadows of Tibet are inseparable from the rivers flowing for a thousand kms or more through them, from their glacial sources across the pastoral landscapes before tilting to the lowlands.

Predicting rainfall and temperature to year 2050, in the watersheds in Kham of Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu. Seasonal changes to rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps). Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps).

China, however, treats the rivers as sacred, and their pastoral meanderings among Tibetan livestock producers as a threat to the reliable provisioning of lowland China with upland water, glacially pure. When assessing grassland, China assumes common pool resources will inevitably be abused, because what belongs to everyone thus belongs to no-one. Yet when it comes to the waters of Tibet China treats this common pool resource as vitally valuable to lowland China, to be protected upstream by cancelling human land use.

China in early 2019 announced a massive expansion of hydro dams and power grids on the rivers of Tibet, especially on the Yangtze (Dri Chu in Tibetan) and its many Tibetan tributaries, as damming of the Yellow River in Tibet was completed decades ago. As the world’s most hydraulic economy, China has impounded, diverted and extracted more water from rivers than anywhere on our planet. In t[1]he name of renewable energy and carbon emissions mitigation, China is intensifying these programs. China’s anxiety over water means it also publishes more on water problems than any other country.

Two great rivers in Tibet Kham: upper Salween/Gyalmo Ngulchu and Mekong/Zachu: predictions of seasonal changes in rainfall (left maps) and temperature (right maps) for decades to 2050. Assuming world limits carbon emissions (upper maps) or fails to limit emissions (lower maps)
two great Tibetan watersheds: Gyalmo Ngulchu/Salween from Kham through Myanmar, and Zachu/Mekong from Kham to Vietnam

Yet China’s argument for depopulating vast rangelands of Tibet, especially in the river source area, which is bigger than Germany, is that the nomads irresponsibly degraded the land by overgrazing, paying no heed to the health of the commons.

Factually, this is baseless. Many Chinese scientists have shown in fieldwork studies of the skilful use of pasture by Tibetan nomads, who always move on well before grasses are overgrazed, mindful of the need to protect their long term livelihoods.[2] It is China’s restrictions on nomadic mobility that caused the overgrazing which China blames on careless nomads abusing the commons.

China has invested much effort in quantifying the runoff dividend, also in hydro damming the Yellow River in many places in Tibet (Qinghai in Chinese), plus excessive extraction of Yellow River waters in arid regions with abundant coal, to supply all of China with electricity and much else, even milk from Inner Mongolia from intensive factory farms made possible only by abundant water coming down the Yellow River, traversing the desert.

factory farming milk productionn by Mengniu corporation, Inner Mongolia, heavily reliant on water from distant Tibet

Water as a free public good has been foundational for all these lowland industries, so much so that China officially labels Tibet as China’s Number One Water Tower, gravity feeding endless water to the lowlands. Water shows up very little as a cost in the accounts of industrial enterprises, only as a last mile expense of installing pumps and pipes for extraction. Since the actual value of water to industry, intensive agribusiness and cities has never been internalised as an actual cost, the glacier melt runoff dividend is likewise off the account books, a silent dividend.

scientising the clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau,1986

That dividend shows up not in the corporate bottom line but politically, in China’s program to depopulate the Tibetan highlands, to clear out the pasture users between the glaciers and the lowlands. Guaranteeing water supply is officially the main driver of the policy of closing pastures to grow more grass and protect water supply, a policy over the past two decades that has made redundant hundreds of thousands of skilled Tibetan pastoralists in the river catchments below the glaciers but above the Chinese industrial consumers.

On the Yellow River, the dividend will peak seasonally when it is most needed downriver, in winter, the season when the Yellow River in some recent years has dried up altogether hundreds of kms before reaching the sea. Winter temperatures are rising fast in Tibet.

On the five great rivers of southern Tibet, in the 2040s decade, predicting how much snowmelt (top map) and glaciermelt (middle map) will contribute to flow.
Source: ICIMOD Atlas of Himalayan Climate, 2015
across the Himalayas and southern Tibet, the contributions of seasonal glaciermelt and snowmelt.
Consistent increase in High Asia’s runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation. 1998 to 2007 Contribution to total flow by glacier melt (a), snow melt (b) and rainfall runoff (c) for major streams during the reference period (1998–2007)
Nature Climate Change, 4, 587-592, 2014

While agriculture has little need of water in winter, factories and cities need reliable water provisioning year-round. Climate change in Tibet is especially strong in winter, IPCC reports, with rapidly rising temperatures releasing glacier melt even in winter. Further, the IPCC reports evidence that in Tibet as climate change accelerates, summer flow will decrease by as much as 10 per cent. (Section Changes in River Runoff)  The summer monsoon, especially along the Yangtze, is flood danger time, so a summer flow reduction and a winter boost would be ideal. China needs its dividend, which makes it reluctant to act decisively to reduce emissions, curb climate warming and save the planet.

No-one can say how big the glacier melt dividend will be in coming decades. Attempting to quantify it would require far more river flow gauging stations, meteorological stations and remote sensing satellite data. Even the IPCC, ICIMOD and the scientists whose work they review and summarise, cannot say with certainty how big a dividend China will obtain by gravity flow from Tibetan glaciers and rivers.

But that dividend is just the added benefit of what China routinely harvests from Tibet, the daily flow of river runoff from the plateau, from a common pool resource taken for granted, until it is deemed under threat –by the very people in Tibet who have protected streams and rivers for thousands of years.[3]


gruesome, threatening clouds of Tibet
Source: Atlas of Clouds over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, 1986

[1] Wen Li  (State Key Laboratory of Eco-hydraulics in Northwest Arid Region of China), Water Ecological Environment Protection under Changing Environment: A Systematic Review and Bibliometric Analysis, Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue No. 93, 2019

[2] Y B Li, Gongbuzeren (Gonpo Tsering), W J Li (2014) A Review of China’s Rangeland Management Policies. IIED country report. IIED, London. http://pubs.iied.org/10079IIED

LI Bo et al., Review of CCA Studies in SW China,

https://www.iccaconsortium.org › 2015/08 › regional-review-south-west-china-en

when glaciers collapse in Tibet, they can race downslope ar astounding speed, in 2016

[3] Xiaoli Shen , Zhi Lu, Shengzhi Li, and Nyima Chen, Tibetan Sacred Sites: Understanding the Traditional Management System and Its Role in Modern Conservation, Ecology and Society 17(2): 13.

Freely downloadable from: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04785-170213

XÉNIA DE HEERING and Élisabeth Guill, Providing Access to Water: The pump, the spring and the klu: Brokerage and local development on the Tibetan Plateau,  China Perspectives, No. 1 (93) (2013), pp. 61-71

glaciers grind rocks; later the retreating and collapsing glaciers expose toxic mercury in ground up rock
Source: IPCC 2019 and Zhang 2014


Blog one of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte

Gang Rinpoche is a story of a farming/herding family, their everyday piety, the routines of taking out the yaks to graze, of going to the woodlands to gather firewood, cut to length and split, loaded onto pack yaks, to be stacked near the house. Always in motion, always something that needs doing. Humdrum everyday life in Kham Markham, southeastern Tibet, where the trees are plentiful. This film is also known as Paths of the Soul.

The first suggestion of plot movement is the old guy who announces he really wants, before he dies, to do the pilgrimage to the distant holy city of Lhasa. Within minutes, many others agree to join him, no drama, no tension or argument, the woodheap is high, the autumn tasks of preparing for winter are done. We are about to go on the road.

leaving the village to begin a prostration journey of over 2000 kilometres

The road, the path broad or narrow, the journey within or without are all metaphors occurring repeatedly throughout Tibetan and Buddhist culture. The spiritual journey within is mirrored and enacted by the pilgrimage journey without.  Lena Herzog and her film maker husband Werner titled their book on Tibetan pilgrimage, Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself.[1]  Kham has plenty of pilgrimage sites of its own, such as the holy Khawa Karpo mountain.[2] But Lhasa is a once-in-a-lifetime special.

The path is the path of practice, of familiarisation with the methods of self transformation, so they become embodied, ingrained. The entirety of Buddhism and its many methods can be reduced to ground, path and fruition; meaning a preparatory intellectual understanding of the logical coherence of the teachings, the path that does the work of a change of mind, and the fruition of fully awakening to the nature of reality.

You cannot travel on the path before you have become the path itself”; a saying the Herzogs attribute to the historic Buddha: could this  be the ticket for the cast about to take to the road? Or does it demand far too much from movie-goers for whom pilgrimage is at best exotic, unfamiliar? Must we too become the path?

Fortunately, this is a romantic confection, attributable not to Buddha but Blavatsky. From a Buddhist viewpoint one takes to the path in order to gradually familiarise, to eventually become the path; it’s not a prerequisite. Meditation practice, whether seated or on foot, is above all a familiarisation.


On this Paths of the Soul path the camera keeps a certain distance. Unlike the conventions of Hollywood drama, we are not fed emotion in close-up, or by a swelling score on the soundtrack. We are so used to being manipulated; we expect it. This is a movie in which the audience has to work to fill in the gaps, and we aren’t used to that, even when Tibetan directors such as Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal ask just this of us. Pema Tseden tells us he holds his camera back to give the viewer space to fill in the rest. Yet doing that work is all the harder when daily drogpa routines are no longer familiar, as is the case for Tibetans in scattered exile worldwide.

Zhang Yang

This is a movie that takes for granted that the viewer can and will contribute, can read into landscapes and faces what’s happening, beyond the undramatic dialogue of people who take risks every day, and routinely deal with them by deadpan understatement. Our ability to access conversations is facilitated by both Chinese and English subtitles, just as well since the spoken Tibetan is in such varied dialects that it’s clear this is not a doco, it’s a doco drama, an electric shadow dramatization of sama-drog semi-nomadic family life, acted by a cast from various places, chosen for their ability to be themselves with cameras rolling. More on that later.

The plan is to go in time for Losar, the midwinter heralding of a new year, a time of festivity and communitas, a traditional time for pilgrimage, when there is little to do at home, no grass to take the yaks to, only a few hands need stay behind to feed straw to the animals downstairs. Quite quickly, in plot exposition, the plan is amplified: as well as distant Lhasa, they hope to make it to the much farther Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of holy mountains, a journey of thousands of kms, especially auspicious because in the 12-year cycle, this is the most beneficial year to go. All this is sorted in the first 10 minutes. It’s all doco realism: this isn’t a musical.

Will you be able to prostrate all day?


Back to the many tasks of autumn: grinding the harvested barley for tsampa, spinning the shorn wool, drilling an awl through wood to make a frame for yaks to carry loads. All so everyday, all so unfamiliar to Chinese and international audiences alike. It’s easy to see this as humdrum and boring, lacking in cues that alert us to conflict, or even just a little tension. Attention wandering, we may wonder if this is meant to be timeless, ahistoric Tibet, or maybe decades ago, or maybe today. Incidental details: an electric motor to grind the barley, the puffer jackets, baseball caps, motor bikes, solar panels, a mobile phone, quietly bring us into the present. The sacred journey is through the mundane.

More of the complexities of life emerge in conversation, dealt with matter of factly: if you plan to do lots of prostrations while on pilgrimage, can you do it while pregnant? No problem. “Yes, I can.” That’s all it takes to decide. We are all of 12 minutes in. Shots of ewes lambing take longer. Likewise the butchering and freeze drying of a slaughtered young yak, all part of the autumn harvest. Facts of life on the pasture.

The village butcher is also the village drunk, he knows full well the consequences in lives to come of taking life, and wants to join the pilgrimage to atone. Again, everyone agrees: he’s in.

Nine years old Gyatso will take to the road too


How can it all be so straightforward? Where’s the agonising, or a dramatic turn where the wrongdoer awakens? There’s none of that: we are among people for whom a deep trust in Buddha, dharma and sangha, and especially in the living Buddhas, is immanent, pervading all questions, all decisions. Even the tension between caring for livestock day in day out, and having to slaughter a few for winter survival, has a ready resolution. Is this for real? We are still only 14 mins in and already too much has happened, yet seemingly nothing much has happened.

This is where the viewer really has to work, to imagine life as an individual and in a community defined by deep faith, a life dedicated to the inward path unseen by the lens, with the dedication modernity devotes to education, career, accumulation, values and individuality. How to imagine that? How to believe it when we see it?

Winter has arrived, the ground is white, the chorten stupa is white, the khatag offering scarves are white as the men walk up to the white latse flags to replace the faded white lungta prayer flags.  The pilgrimage party is growing, it’s new year’s eve, which means an early start next morning. 16 mins in.

We now know who is going on this road movie and why, what motivates each one. two more are going because in a collective effort to build their house two men died, so two men in the owner’s family will do the pilgrimage to make amends.

 A child can’t be left behind, it’s beyond an elderly grannie to care for her, so she too will go. It’s all so matter of fact.


Is that why it is so hard to engage, and why the film flopped? How can we identify with so many people so quickly, enter their world and go on the road with them, when they all agree so immediately to an epic life-changing road trip?

We know our road movies: it’s a quest, usually for the unknown, for the rainbow, rather than for an awakening familiar to all. We know our noir: everyone has darkness within them. We know our kung-fu movie; the answer to everything is in who has the best moves. We know our historical romances, we know our genres and suspend disbelief accordingly. So why can’t we enter normal Tibetan rural life? Why does it seem abnormal, unbelievable, impossibly pious?

Men cut hand-sized wooden blocks to slide hands along freezing roads in full length prostrations, women cut and sew sheepskin aprons to keep  warm. Preparing for this road takes more than a tank of gas, and it’s all home-made, apart from the sneakers, bought by the dozen.

These are the practicalities of the inner journey through the outer world. A trailer is loaded with bedrolls and jerry cans; this is a major undertaking, but it’s all do-able. Hitched to a basic two-stroke tractor, we are off, victory banners strapped to the sides. We are 21 mins in, more than 90 to go. Crank the engine, cross the bridge and onto the sealed road, China’s gift. As the tractor putt putts ahead our pilgrims start their relay race, clacking the hand sandal wooden blocks strapped to their hands, taking refuge in guru, Buddha, dharma and sangha; head, throat, heart and down they go, one by one on the narrow, icy road, leaving plenty of room for traffic.

tea by the roadside, with China’s gifts: thermos and poverty-alleviation tractor, repurposed here to alleviate poverty stricken mental attitudes

 Only now do we start to see close-ups, of bodies sliding on the bitumen. Very soon, a pause for tea from the thermos, another Chinese gift, as the ten prostrators, young and old sit or lie on the road, shielded by the tractor as motorbikes and VW Santana race past.


When the sun is low they find a sheltered spot, between road and a small stream, unload the trailer: poles, steel spikes, hammers, a heavy woven yak hair tent rises, slung over the poles. Bedrolls are hauled in. By the stream, the women ladle water into the empty plastic jerrycans.

As dark falls, trucks sweep by on their long and lonely traverse, but inside the tent everyone is toasty, round the cast-iron stove, eating and comparing sore muscles. Day one is done? Not yet: first everyone chants in unison the praises of Tara, the fierce protector, who liberates all, the swift heroine, whose eyes are like an instant flash of lightning. Only then does each one wriggle into sheepskin bedding, lights out.

Morning is signalled by a Highway 318 milestone marking 3436 kms, all the way to Shanghai far, far to the east, proclaiming this two lane blacktop to be a national, nation-building road. In Tibet, Highway 318 runs westward, from Chaksam to Dartsedo, Nyagchu, Lithang, Bathang, Markham, Palsho, Pome, Nyingtri, Kongpo Gyamda, Meldro Gungkar, Taktse and then Lhasa. One of only  two east-west highways, soon to be upgraded to a four or even six lane expressway, this is a major artery of modernity. Many centuries ago the great yogi Thangtong Gyalpo built his iron chain link bridges across major Tibetan rivers, to facilitate pilgrimage; now China’s gift unrolls across Kandze, the big trucks roaring past.


China’s gifts are not edited out, as if Tibet is timeless. Nor are they made central, as if China’s investments are the core of the story, making this long distance pilgrimage possible. The tractor is clearly another gift, with slogans painted on it in Mandarin (and Tibetan) signalling it is fupin kaifa ,扶貧開發, meaning “poverty alleviation and development.”

Tractors, jerrycans, milestones, highways, mobile phones are simply part of life, to be taken as we find them because the whole approach of the pilgrims is to take life as they find it, with neither attraction nor aversion, praise or blame, a thoroughly Buddhist approach. How undramatic. China, however, does expect its gifts to be received with manifest gratitude. The anthropologists remind us gifts are conditional on reciprocity, even an entire economy of gifts and mutual obligation.[3] China’s gifts insist on gratitude in response. The quid pro quo is unspoken yet compulsory.

On we go, in single file in the morning sun. Already the sneakers are starting to look scruffy. Gyatso, the girl child in the rear walks on and on with the head/hand/heart clacking of the hand sandals, to keep up. Walking is faster than prostrating, or kowtowing as the subtitles misleadingly call it.

Lunch by the roadside, the iron stove smokes, butter tea is churned, frozen meat is sliced and chewed. In the evening we are camped by a frozen river, good for an improvised skate, pulled alongby mother. Wielding a wood splitter, one of the men breaks up enough ice for the pot to go on the stovetop. Inside the tent, it’s time for running repairs, restitching sheepskins, filing rough spots on the hand sandals, regluing loose sneaker soles. It’s all so damn practical, this business of inner transformation. Are we watching a movie or an extended Youtube manual on Prostration 101?


Are we unable to get more into this movie because it’s all unconvincing amateur acting, or an inept director? Is it because director Zhang Yang is working in a language he doesn’t understand? The Tibetan director Pema Tseden faced similar problems in casting and filming The Search back in 2009, with similar incomprehension among audiences in exile, who preferred to believe old Tibet had long disappeared.

Like Pema Tseden in The Search, Zhang Yang’s focus is on deeply religious Tibetans on the road. Pema Tseden went on the road in 2009 searching for a contemporary Drimé Kunden; seeking someone as selfless as Drimé Kunden, the operatic Buddhist model of unhesitating compassion, willing to take out his eye for a rapacious blind beggar who demands it.

To the modern mind, the figure of Drimé Kunden, for starters, has to be mythical, his exemplary offering of an eye utterly exaggerated over centuries of retelling.   Drimé Kunden is a figure from classic Tibetan Lhamo opera, thus not from real life? To go on a quest, through modern Amdo for anyone with similar generosity has to be a fool’s errand. To modern minds, Pema Tseden and Zhang Yang alike are asking us to believe the unbelievable; so our difficulty with entering into Gang Rinpoche isn’t so much that the director is Chinese. Zhang Yang is mindful that any movie audience is going to need more context, more background, and tries hard to provide it without being too obvious.

Both directors give us long shots rather than close ups, trusting us to do the emotional work for ourselves, rather than manipulating us to emote on cue. Pema Tseden’s movies are hard to relate to because he doesn’t set the scene enough; while Zhang Yang is hard to relate to because he tries too hard to contextualise? Can’t both be true, surely.

It took a while before Pema Tseden was appreciated beyond Tibet, but now he is widely respected for bringing a distinctively Tibetan eye to film making. Pema Tseden, rather than pushing us to believe a lost Tibet still exists, “deconstructs the myth of a pre-existing Tibetan people, and builds upon individual and fragmented narratives to create a new collective subjectivity, thus opening the way for a new understanding of Tibet. This case study demonstrates how Pema Tseden’s in-between position (between languages, cultures and geographical areas) permits him to develop a cinema that gives space for Tibetans to become, giving the viewer a rare insight into contemporary Tibet.”[4]


Back on the nékor pilgrimage, a high mountain is close, the sky is ominous: mountains make their own weather. In the morning it’s snowing, with a stiff wind, but the prostrators keep at it, while in the gloom heavy laden trucks roar west and empty trucks roar east.

Camping spot for the night is near an isolated farmhouse. Politely they ask for firewood. It is readily offered; everyone respects pilgrims, who do it to end suffering for all.

About to give birth in the nearest hospital: Chinas gift.

In the night our mother-to-be goes into labour, is helped into the trailer, the tractor cranked by torchlight, off into town and yet another Chinese gift: a small hospital, white coated staff, sterile set up, a baby safely delivered. All is well. It’s a boy, truly a child of the road. The rest catch up by taxi van, everyone crowds around, the baby is named. Can mother and newborn go right back out on the road, in midwinter? They can. Is this too little plot or too much? Can we believe that women used to nomadic mobility, used to being far from modern facilities, can just keep going?

To be born, or die, on pilgrimage is highly auspicious, we are reminded. The new family do get the warmer of the two tents. Next morning the newborn, swaddled in sheepskins, gets to ride in the trailer, everyone else is back on the blacktop.

a new grandson, born on the road


Reaching a house build, all local timbers, they are hailed over and invited to share tea. “We are from Markham”, our group explains. By the milestones they have done 141 kms, Shanghai is farther than before. The home builders say they wish they too could walk and prostrate all the way to Gang Rinpoche too. Next year.

The girl’s head hurts. Can Gyatso keep going till Pangda, the next town, where our Highway 318 meets up with Highway 214 from the north, all the way from Xining? Yes, she says. There will be a pharmacy in Pangda. During tea break a man worries: should she keep prostrating? Yes, her mother says, it’s good for you. He asks Gyatso directly: can you keep this up? I can, she says.

Really? Can we believe? Is this bravado, or group pressure? Or bad script writing? Maybe none of these: two months of prostrating all day every day actually does change the mind, making everything possible. Since liberation and enlightenment are possible, the Buddha tells us, this intensively embodied experience of body, speech and mind working together might just do it. Theory meets practice. We are still only 50 mins in, an hour to go.

At a stop overlooking a river far below, they stop to build stone cairns to local gods of place, Gyatso fetches the last rock to top it off, clearly she’s ok.

Next day, as the highway zigzags in switchbacks downslope, we see our party from far above, then in close up, as last night’s invocation of Tara the protector continues, one of the few moments where sound runs on beyond sight. On and on, chanting, praying and prostrating, through icy landscapes, tunnels blasted through cliffs, portions of highway roofed by avalanche shields, on and on. By now, watching this is either dead boring, or awesomely riveting.


There’s to be no shortcuts either. A grandpa appears, a self-appointed disciplinarian gegu: make sure your forehead touches the pavement; to the girl Gyatso: less walking, more prostrating; to the young Khampa warrior: take that red braid out of your hair. This is all said with the same absence of affect as everything else said, just do it, plain and simple, no drama.

ploughing the fields, early spring, with yak power and engine power

Turns out this grandpa isn’t just a stickler, he also invites them all in to his farmhouse for the night and, since the tractor is leaking oil having lost a screw, which could take a while to fix, they’ll stay a day or two and help with the new year ploughing. This interlude is a collective effort, as always. Some ploughs are pulled by walking tractors, some by yaks. Ploughing is festive, a coming together of the clan. Being sama-drog, farmer-herders, our pilgrims know how to plough. The grandpas wonder why the young are in such a hurry these days to get it all done, time is not short, spring is still ahead, there’s hay stored up on poles beyond the reach of the yaks. There’s snow on the ground, a portent of soil moisture sufficient to start the barley crop, come spring. These are the facts that matter, along with a pious heart, and an aspiration to fulfil the vow to the lama to merge the mind with his enlightened example.

In plain language grandpa reminds us of the right frame of mind for doing nékor pilgrimage; lamas have said it more poetically:

“Without desire, attachment, or any particular agenda or itinerary,
With no selfish concerns, simply roaming freely from place to place
For the sake of others, benefitting impartially those to be trained—
This is the way of the very best type of pilgrim.”


We are halfway through this movie, time for a plot recap, explaining to host grandpa that the village butcher is off alcohol altogether as part of making up for slaughtering livestock. Grandpa is delighted, he’s not such a grinch after all. He even gives Tsering Chodon a new sheepskin, the old one’s worn out.

Back on the road yet again next morning, Tsering Chodon takes a break to breastfeed her baby. Passing a loose cliff face, there’s a rockfall, the young man doing his nékor pilgrimage because men died while building his house, is injured, hit in the leg. In the tent he laments his misfortune, first the accident when a truck overturned and the two men died, then the compensation payment, now this: is this divine displeasure? “I just don’t understand why this has happened.”

We moderns know shit happens. It’s random. The group’s father figure reminds us of the Buddha’s timeless advice: this is the human condition, to suffer is normal, what matters is motivation, and our disheartened young man has not wavered in his motivation, to benefit others. So it’s all good, we’ll just rest a couple days, and recuperate. No itinerary.

Nyingtri: peach blossom time in early spring


The poverty alleviation tractor, China’s gift, chugs on, put to Tibetan use to assist in the transformation of poverty stricken mind, a novel and profound use never imagined by the developmentalist donors. As the lamas say: “One of the problems we have is feeling poverty-stricken. To overcome that, we have to be direct, and we have to trust ourselves. We are not poverty-stricken. If we are capable of smiling, we have goodness in us, always. Whether young or old, very old or very young, still, there are always possibilities of a smile. So keep smiling. Enjoy your goodness.”

By now we are nearing Nyingtri, we can tell by the peach blossoms, it must be March, the rapeseed crop is turning the fields yellow, spring comes early here. Time to lessen the heavy clothing, wash hair by the river. They hail another pilgrim, a naljorpa yogi from even further, from the foothills of Tibet in Sichuan, accompanied by his wife pulling a handcart, and their donkey. So why is she in the shaft, not the donkey? It’s precious to her, we are told, not to be overworked, it’s only for pulling uphill. “We see the donkey as family, we go through thick and thin together.” He is to be taken round the Barkor circuit of blessings  too when they reach Lhasa, we all need liberation. They have been on this pilgrim path nearly eight months by now. Pitstop over, a top-up of tsampa flour, and it’s back on the road. This was filmed before the Nyingtri expressway sliced across lakes, now nowhere to go when trucks roar towards you.

Why does so much go wrong? Hit by falling rocks, illnesses, an unexpected birth, blizzards, trucks hurtling at everyone, and eventually a death. Are these simply plot devices to hold our interest? Narrative hooks? Overly programmatic directing? Actually, pilgrimage is meant to be hard, purifying work, an experience of the bardo, the limbo between worlds, between moments, between one life and the next. Pilgrimage is meant to be challenging, as the great 19th century pilgrim Shabkar reminds us:

“When I made the pilgrimage of the Tsa ri ravines/ When traversing with difficulty the treacherous paths/ The rivers and bridges of the land of Lho/ It occurred to me that it must indeed be like this/  When travelling the perilous paths of the bar do.”[5]

The hardships of pilgrimage were vividly expressed a century ago by an English plant hunter, Frank Kingdon-Ward, whose greedy motivation for entering the beyul hidden land of Kham Pemako was to collect flowering specimens that might adorn English gardens:

Past the peach blossoms that these days make Nyingtri/Bayi a favourite of Han tourists, and briefly into Bayi town, buying more sneakers in bulk, 30 at a time: they don’t last but are cheap. Nyingtri (Linzhi in Chinese) these days has its own Hilton hotel.

keep on prostrating, through China’s new city of Bayi/Linzhi/Nyingtri

 A moment later, we are out in the fields again mountains and clouds towering above. This is the road to Lhasa, soon to become the high speed electrified rail line from Chengdu  to Lhasa as well. What takes the pilgrims months will be trip of 13 hours, the railway constructers tells us. Pressurised, heated, insulated the whole way. Progress.


Next challenge: the highway fords an ice cold stream. What to do? It’s not dangerous: SUVs heading the other way cross readily, the tractor and its trailer would too. But they decide together to not only go through on foot, but to continue prostrating. Only the baby and the tractor driver get it easy. No wonder their sneakers wear out quick.

However, this isn’t a via dolorosa penance: the wet clothes are taken off, dry ones put on. Practical.

keep mindful and carry on prostrating

 Camping for the night by a big river means another drenching, from the rain. Summer is close. Time for a reminder from our grandpa that we all by now have bumps on our foreheads, but what counts is not action but motivation, a pure heart, no need to be a Drime Kunden,  “what matters most is your heart; if your forehead hurts, it reflects piety in your heart, and kindness.”


A hundred kms from Lhasa, the inevitable crash. An SUV rams the tractor, no-one too badly hurt but the front axle is broken, the wheel is off, spare parts a long way ahead or behind. What to do? Is this a modern Trials of Job? What more could befall them?

With much the same resourcefulness nomads need on the grassland when disaster strikes, the men pull and push the trailer a ways ahead, then walk back to the tractor to complete their unbroken prostrations. No shortcuts. Repeat, uphill.

Camping yet again, approaching the pass, from there it’s downhill to Lhasa. Phone reception is good up here, time for the girl to phone grandma back in the village near Markham, they miss each other.

Up, up to the pass, no motorists stop to help. Hauling the trailer by hand is hard, even with all hands pushing. Breaking into a ragged song of ascent, where the chorus line is that we may have the same mother, but our paths in life differ, some are more fortunate than others. We accept the results of past karma; as for future karma, we make our own, here and now.

Finally the pass is reached, festooned with prayer flags proclaiming victory to the gods, a moment to tie on a few more, and refresh the battered old trailer with new victory banners, as the prostrators catch up. Everyone tosses their sheaf of tiny paper windhorses to the winds.

at the pass down to Lhasa


Downhill is so easy, joyful all the way, camping on green grass, dancing barefoot in a circle dance, the trials of Job it is not. But one quarter of movie time is still ahead, and we are at Highway marker 4504 kms to Shanghai. It’s the urban fringe, the Potala in the distance. The holy city has been attained.

Inside the great temples our ragged pilgrims join the throng, touching foreheads to altars and to an empty throne: whose throne could that be?

With the right motivation, you can ignore the lenses of the Han tourists and the official posters of China’s Tibet, and keep the mind on what matters: receiving the blessings of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, making them tangible, a lived experience. Tibetans do still know how to do that, and be changed by it.

Khatag silk scarves at the ready, it’s time to meet Lama Thubten, a distant uncle, who has been busy giving teachings. He knots their scarves, the knot of communitas. A special blessing for the baby.

In their cramped urban lodging, time to wash clothes, and think about pressing on all the way to Gang Rinpoche, Mount Kailash. But money is short, and the tractor still needs repairs.

As always Buddhist economics intervenes. A woman at the window is unwell, and lama Thubten has instructed her to purify by doing 100,000 prostrations. Can she pay them to do it for her, she just can’t manage it herself? Why of course. And, as their patron, the benefits accrue to her, she has fulfilled the lama’s instructions.

how do broke pilgrims make a bit of cash in Lhasa? Join the global precariat, washing cars

Something will always turn up. There’s also the itinerant work gigs available in a city where Tibetans do all the low paid unskilled work, cleaning cars to look like they belong in town, stacking scaffolding on construction sites. Our men, in hard hats, go to work. Hardly Chinese gifts, just the precariat work of the global gig economy.

in overcrowded Lhasa, you can still do the Barkor prostration circuit by night, unmolested by tourist cameras

But by night, when the tourist crowds are gone, they can do their nékor round the Barkor circuit, undistracted. 

Time has passed, the baby is almost walking. Money in hand, time to move on, even if it means leaving a budding romance.


In a flash we are out of the city, but where? Out of the fog our prostrators emerge, on the road again, where it can snow even in summer. We are at the holy Mapam Tso, Lake Manasarovar, camped by the shore.

Then at last Gang Rinpoche, the holiest of mountains and fount of Tibetan civilisation. On the 53 kms kora circuit around the mountain, our young mother has baby strapped to her back, taking the prostrations well, but grandpa is struggling. Prostrating through the talus in snow and scree is not easy.

Waking up in the yak hair tent, grandpa Yangpei has died. Quick, get a lama to make sure his consciousness has left, and is free to deal with the bardo. Father delivers an impromptu eulogy: he was a good man, raised kids when the wife died young, he loved invoking the Buddhas to be tangibly present, he never picked quarrels, was always kind, now he has died at Gang Rinpoche, this is a blessing. Passing away here connects him to the holy mountain.

Grandpa died on he circuit, his body is now an offering to all sentient beings

Monks arrive, chanting the mantra of compassion. Seated on the ground, the unmistakable holy mountain in the background, with damaru hand drum and drilbu bells they offer the body to the circling vultures, as the family brings out their progenitor in a winding sheet, laid at the feet of the monks. It is complete, it is finished, life goes on. China today prefers to eradicate all evidence of the departed, and many Han Chinese now mourn the death of graves.


A little below, the adult sons make small cairns of granite stones, adorned with the dead man’s boots  knives, and silk scarves. A little tsampa is sprinkled on another rock where a small fire gives of fragrant smoke, another offering to unseen spirits, a signal to the vultures.

That’s decisively the last goodbye, time for everyone to move on, in this world or the next. On with the leather aprons, on with the prostrations through the scree of the great peak. The best of tributes to grandpa is to keep right on. Slowly, the entire group passes from right to left and off-screen, Gang Rinpoche majestically unmoving, overlooking all.

The final scene is a long shot, all white snow and looming slopes, the pilgrims small in a vast landscape, the clacking of woodclad hand against hand the only sound. We are done.

This is a neglected movie that prompts many questions, explored in the next blog. #gabriellafitte

prostrating round Gang Rinpoche/Mt Kailash in winter

[1] Lena & Werner Herzog, Arcperiplus, London, 2002

[2] Alexander Patten Gardner, The Twenty-five Great Sites of Khams: Religious Geography, Revelation, and Nonsectarianism in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Tibet, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2006

[3] Emily Yeh, Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development, Cornell, 2015

[4] Vanessa Frangville (2016): Pema Tseden’s The Search: the making of a minor cinema, Journal of Chinese Cinemas: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17508061.2016.1167335

Dan Smyer Yu (2014) Pema Tseden’s Transnational Cinema: Screening a Buddhist Landscape of Tibet, Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 15:1, 125-144, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2014.890355

[5] Mathieu Ricard, The Life of Shabkar, SUNY, 1994, 254


blog two of four on movies filmed in Tibet #gabriellafitte

For a while, Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul was a surprise hit with Chinese audiences, doing better than Hollywood megamovie Transformers, released at the same time. Media speculated why.


Throughout Gang Ripoche  the director refrains from deploying basic story telling film techniques that are embedded in media-saturated audiences, as film analyst Chris Berry reminds us: “In the interior scenes, the camera often pans or tracks laterally across the people in the room as they talk. Point-of-view and shot-and-reverse shot structures are avoided. Not only does this discourage identification with any individual character on the part of the audience, but also it gives a sense of almost ethnographic observation and distance of the pilgrims as a mass, because they all share the same values and culture.”[1]

This seems to be the problem. We are primed to select which individual we identify with, and who we dislike. While each pilgrim has specific personal reasons for going on nékor, once they are on the road they become a collective noun, the nation incarnate. Zhang Yang seldom pushed his cast to do take after take, necessary to the shot-and-reverse grammar of film that enables the viewer to see in close up the range of emotions as characters wrestle with what to do next.

Is this a failing? If we just don’t care, don’t engage with individuals we can identify with, we aren’t going to care much about the group; they are just too agreeable. This makes it, Berry suggests, more like an ethnographic  film of types, rather like the minority ethnicity albums of past centuries, in which Han painters focussed on typically different behaviours, as seen through Han norms.[2] Typology is for museum dioramas, not the box office.

Director Zhang Yang insists the lack of drama is simply because, to Tibetans, taking months or even a year or two to do a pilgrimage is not heroic, or even exceptional, it’s ordinary, even natural. The cast we meet is not exceptional. Not only are they not heroic, they are not especially sinful either, and thus on a path of redemption. For a butcher to awaken to the harm he has done by animal slaughter is the same natural awakening we all experience, and which, in Tibetan opera, is a pivot in the drama, yet always happens offstage, because awakening is ordinary and inevitable.

Zhang Yang says: “For the Tibetan Buddhist, to make this pilgrimage at least once in your lifetime is a must, so it’s natural that they do it. What’s difficult was not to motivate the cast to do the pilgrimage but to explain to them what shooting a movie was and persuade them to participate. So I took a lot of time explaining how shooting the film would be. After the process, shooting the movie was not that difficult. What was difficult, in the beginning, was to find the right village, where all the actors I wanted in the movie were together. I was very lucky to find the village. For real Tibetan Buddhists it’s very natural that during the one or even two-year duration of the pilgrimages that a pregnant woman would give birth to a baby while she was on the road,” he says. “That’s what I had encountered before and why when I shot the film, I tried to find a village with such an actor – a pregnant woman – so I could include this scene in the movie. Very luckily, I found one. In the beginning, as I told her that on the road we would wait for the moment she gave birth and would capture it on camera.”

Maybe we recoil from Paths of the Soul/Gang Rinpoche because this ordinary readiness to undertake a year of full-on 24/7 practice for the welfare of all sentient beings, is too confronting. We all, Tibetans and nonTibetans alike, live busy modern lives, trying to stay in control and solve problems, beset by anxieties and risks. That others can so readily handle all risks, all challenges so calmly, and keep on prostrating, is just too much.

Gyatso phones the folks back home

So the easiest response is to distance ourselves, to accuse these Tibetans filmed in 2015 of living in the past, or in a timeless ethnographic present, outside of history. That makes them artefacts, relics of a lost past, when Tibet was timeless, before modernity irrupted and accelerated everything.

Yet what if Gyalwa Karmapa is right, that we have become so busy, we are unable to understand emptiness, and thus unable to relate to others, perhaps only to one or two people whom we are able to love, keeping others distant? “We can’t understand other sentient beings because we are trapped in the same wrong views they are trapped in. It’s as if we are in a prison of our own making. You actually made the prison all by yourself. You made the prison; you are the prisoner, and you are the one who keeps the prison under lock.”


So let’s try a different angle, with a different film, also set in Tibet, which makes all the right camera moves. A very different movie single filing through the snow, released to coincide with the 2019  70th birthday of the People’s Republic, makes clear why some movies work and some, like Gang Rinpoche, fail. The Climbers is a 2019 hit, an epic set in 1960, of the first Chinese ascent of Chomolangma, Mount Everest. The Climbers, at a breathless pace,recapitulates China’s 1960 conquest of a Tibetan mountain, only seven years after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and a New Zealander were first to the top. Two Tibetan actors have minor roles, Choenyi Tsering, and Tobgyal.   The poster for the film proclaims: “For the country to climb the top, not to let the soil go.”

Reviewers beyond China found it a bit too full on: “a mode of storytelling that is 80% score-driven. Thunderous trumpets announce every step Fang makes in the right direction; keening strings signal lovey-dovey business. You should be able to cling to the traces of a sports-movie arc discernible beneath the layers of bombast.”   It’s not only Chinese audiences who respond emotionally to trumpets and strings, swooping drone shots and CGI generated thrills. After all, Chinese movie makers learned this from Hollywood. Ticket sales on the first day of release were RMB 164 million, and film studio share prices rose. Then it faded fast. By trying too hard, too obviously to be both a romance and a wolf warrior badge of patriotism, The Climbers failed to revive interest in a forgotten triumph of 60 years ago.

Pema Tseden says he seldom swoops into close-up for the money shot because he respects his audience, gives them space to decide for themselves what to make of a scene; but we have become used to having our emotions manipulated by experts, our adrenaline surges on cue.

We have also sped up. Tibetanist scholar Roberto Vitali, responding to Pema Tseden’s films notes: “I have heard complaints that the movie is slow. Those, who say so, have probably not experienced the way time flows on the Tibetan plateau, away from the towns transformed into Chinese steel and mirror monsters. Time seems to be immemorial on the sandy plains and the hills lit by the sun. Life flows with a rhythm that has its own pace and everyone ― men, animals, even fierce winds ― seem to be aware of that.”

1960 is remembered in Tibet and throughout China as the worst of three years of famine, not for this mountaineering triumph, because all the film shot then fell off the mountain and was forever lost.  A great leap to top a Tibetan mountain,  was all part of the 1960 Great Leap to beat the West in steel production, at a cost of 30 million or more starving to death.

The Climbers does not ignore the famine , instead brazenly  making it a further reason for patriotism. Even in the official trailer, one doubter asks: “Can climbing a mountain feed a few hundred million hungry people?” The decisive answer: “If a few hundred million people can only worry about what’s for dinner, what hope do we have for our nation?” This gratuitous insult to the grandparents of today’s ticket queue, those who did survive Mao’s great famine, is for today’s generation: patriotism is more important than eating.


A more obvious comparison with Gang Rinpoche/Paths of the Soul  is a 2008 doco that is not only focussed on Tibetan nékor pilgrims prostrating all the way to Lhasa, it also starts in Kham. Even more obscure than Gang Rinpoche, this one hour Korean doco joins a group of Khampa men prostrating through all weathers and all landscapes, even up and down steep, stony slopes, way off-road, slip-sliding on the ice. More remarkably still, it too starts in winter and ends seven months and 2100 kilometres  later in Lhasa, covering the same route and same seasonal cycle as Zhang Yang’s lens nearly a decade later.

Asian Corridor in Heavenis a six-part series made by Korean Broadcasting System, in collaboration with  Japan’s NHK, Taiwan’s GTV, TRT and BBTV

Episode two, Road to Pilgrimage, and all six eps follow conventions of the doco genre, including a voice over narrator, overlaid music, hand held camera, lots of close ups and mid shots, occasional long shots. Only at the very end do key characters speak direct to camera, about why they do it.

The viewer is with this party of five, Busa, Lulu, Dawa, Choeji (Chogyal?) and Lappa (Lhagpa?), who have not even a tractor to pull a trailer of gear. They have only two light handcarts, each pulled by one of the five men, sometimes up slopes so steep they have to constantly weave across both traffic lanes, to lessen the gradient. In some places the road, designed by China in the 1950s for underpowered truck engines unable to manage steep gradients, so the road to or from a pass is endless switchbacks. There the men head off road, straight down or up hill, boulders, snow, ice and rubble notwithstanding, prostrating as best they can, without a break.

making the hand plank sandal to literally hit the road with

It’s riveting viewing. For starters, there’s no doubt as to whether it is staged for the camera, or scripted, it is palpably real. There’s nothing programmatic about it. The nuts and bolts of how to survive months on the road, in gales, blizzards, ice and snow gradually reveal themselves, the same basic technologies of survival as in Gang Rinpoche, including inventive roadside bricoleur  stitching of leather aprons about to fall apart.

The viewer has time to see it all, the voice over is minimal, the music never too insistent. Lots of close-ups, you can choose who to identify with. Although it is an ethnographic doco, one of six filmed in Tibet, it is emotionally engaging. It all works, in ways Gang Rinpoche doesn’t.

By the time we are almost done, we  are really keen to find out why would anyone do this, and we are ready for the matter of fact answers, from Lhagpa,  a young Khampa who has awakened after alcoholic years, and now, having purified mind and body, intends a full time religious vocation. His body/mind prostrating prayers, he tells us, have been to become a different person, and there is little reason to doubt he has done it. His voice is not one of yearning, nor of 12-step AA self-recrimination. He is matter of fact: you can decide to become a different person, you can then actually become a different person, and my culture has specific methods to achieve this, and they do work.

The older man, Busa, is calmly facing mortality and the next life, saying that, at 66, “I want to someone with a big heart in my next life, so that I can lessen the sufferings of others.” This is the classic bodhisattva path. After seven months on the road, you can believe it.

Yet Asian Corridor in Heaven never got any traction outside of Korea, and disappeared completely, but with an afterlife online, subtitled in English. Why this depiction of one of the core strengths of Tibetan civilisation remains so unknown is a mystery.

Tibet tech


What hope have quiet movies, amid such hype? Whether directed by Tibetan Pema Tseden or Han Chinese Zhang Yang, the problem is the same: conflict and conquest are more cinematic than a quest for inner goodness. This is so from Gang Rinpoche’s first frames, in the cusp of the annual completion of the labour-intensive summer and autumn production cycle. The camera turns us to the undramatic but equally labour-intensive group winter work of pilgrimage.

before enlightenment: chopping wood…………

Everyone does autumn harvest, but meanings differ sharply. When the Kham harvest is in, the barley threshed and ground, it’s time to change the agenda, a home truth embodied in the Chinese phrase 秋后算账 qiu hou suan zhang, “to balance the books after the autumn harvest”. However these days, in China, this has come to mean “to take revenge when the time is ripe”. The downfall of Tibetans is their optimism; the downfall of the Han is their fearfulness, as another old saying has it.

To go on nékor pilgrimage once the harvest is in is to do embodied spiritual practice. This is now unfamiliar to the modern world, whether Han, Western or Tibetans in exile, pursing the promise of modernity, of becoming a true self. Who these days has a whole winter to spare? We see the prostrators in action, but still struggle to see why they do it.

The lamas say “dharma practice is not just about working with the mind, but involves all aspects of us. In Buddhism, when we talk about self-transformation, it is not seen as purely mental. Self-transformation is seen as transformation of the totality of one’s being. One’s physical body, one’s vocal capacity, and one’s mind all become transformed simultaneously. In the West when we use the word ‘spirituality’, it has the connotation of contrasting with the corporeal. However, in Buddhism there is no tradition of seeing body and mind, corporeality and spirituality, in dualistic terms. Our body stores its own version of memory.  Freeing the body of this is a way of transforming one’s body. Doing different practices that deal with the body frees it up.”[3]

Gang Rinpoche/Kailash as axis mundi, the centre of the world

Could it be that uneducated Khampa nomads know something urban sophisticates don’t? is their year-long pilgrimage just remarkable piety, or something more?

The film does take us through a full year, from winter to winter, and the filming actually took a year. This was a full-scale production in every way, with budget, crew, post-production all on industrial scale.

Yet it rose without a trace, failed commercially. Chinese audiences complained that nothing happens. In every scene an obstacle or challenge arises and everyo0ne readily agrees to just keep on prostrating. No drama.  Why then did Gang Rinpoche fail with Tibetan audiences too?  Pilgrimage is culturally familiar, even if today’s generation has other things on their mind.

Could it be the overtly Buddhist theme? Other movies steeped in Buddhism from beginning to end, such as Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Kundun, and Dzongsar Khyentse’s 2003 Travellers and Magicians come to mind as exemplary tales of  Buddhist practice, and they have both become beloved classics.

Are Scorsese and Dzongsar Khyentse simply better story tellers?   They deftly create believable characters more so than Zhang Yang or Pema Tseden.

Yet there is more to consider. For decades now, very few Tibetans growing up in exile have felt drawn to the inner path, be it monastic or as a yogic adept in the community. For decades, the rebuilt monasteries in India relied on Tibetans fleeing the father land, in order to pursue a religious vocation. When that stream ran dry over a decade ago, those labour-intensive monastic establishments were at a loss, only partially met by recruiting from the Himalayan belt.

There is no pilgrimage in exile, nor in a crowded world is it imaginable. There is the India circuit of the key holy places of the life of the historic Buddha, and many exile Tibetans immerse themselves in the Mon Lam intensive prayer season in Bodhgaya.

The gifted writer Tsering Wangyal Dhompa calls the lost father land, in the lives of today’s generation, as the miscellany under grandma’s bed, to be brought out occasionally, but increasingly remote, strictly for the old folks. Exile has gone too long, the new generation re-invented themselves, adapted to the speed of modernity, and moved on. Who has time these days for pilgrimage?

These may be why Gang Rinpoche, sometimes known as Paths of the Soul, disappeared before wider audiences could know it exists.  Actually, it didn’t quite fail commercially, taking box office receipts of RMB 100 million, probably enough for the seven production companies investing in it to get their money back. It was also enough for director Zhang Yang, determined to continue his offbeat path, to get to make the 2019 Dali’s Voice, to some acclaim, even though it is shot entirely in a remote indigenous town, not far below Tibet, and privileges soundtrack over visuals, again confounding audience norms. Zhang Yang says this latest film grew out of Gang Rinpoche.


According to China’s business media: “The low-budget docudrama, “Paths to the Soul,” has been more profitable per screening than Hollywood juggernauts such as the latest “Transformers” movie, which opened in late June. “Paths to the Soul” raked in over 40 million yuan ($5.88 million), or nearly three times its production cost, during its first 11-day run despite being shown in less than 2% of theaters in the country.”

What is remarkable is that this movie resonated with an unexpected audience: urban China’s new generation of start-up entrepreneurs, those brave enough to plunge into the ocean of business, endure all difficulties, eat bitterness and eventually reap the rewards. They saw in the Tibetan pilgrims the same willingness to handle all challenges, and keep going. The pilgrims would be most unlikely to see themselves as eating bitterness, as they evidently take the world as it is, as it manifests. Yet the concept of eating or speaking bitterness has a long revolutionary history, and a contemporary usage.  “During the Mao era, campaigns were organised in which people would  ‘speak bitterly’ (suku) about the past, and ‘recall past bitterness in order to savour the sweetness of the present.’”[4]  For Tibetans speaking bitterness was compulsory, meaning denunciation of revered lamas and disliked landlords alike, accusing them of profiting from the seat of the workers. Failure to speak bitterness could readily result in oneself being denounced and punished as a green brained lackey of the serf owners.

Today, it has shifted meaning. Now it means a willingness to undergo hardships in order to fulfil a great goal. For entrepreneurs out to disrupt business as usual, with visions ahead of their time, Gang Rinpoche was an inspiration, both for the new capitalists and to inspire their staff. That’s how Gang Rinpoche made some money. And then it quickly vanished.

No way would these pilgrims consider themselves to be eating bitterness; again Han and Tibetan understandings diverge. Same scene, different meanings.

two lane blacktops through Tibet are being replaced by four lane tollroad expressways

There is, however, a tinge of bitterness in some Chinese responses to Gang Rinpoche. Qiang Ge, of the CCP Central Committee Party School in Beijing, a specialist in modernity in Tibet, has angrily asked why this movie takes China’s gifts to Tibet for granted, and fails to feature their key role in making pilgrimage possible.  He has also accused Tibetan “peasants” of stubbornly resisting Chinas 1970s introduction of winter wheat as a new farmcrop, only to later benefit from it.[5]

Qiang Ge pointedly asks: “When you feel sympathy for the devout prostrating Buddhists, have you ever thought about those who paved the road upon which they kneel? Whether in artworks or when we travel through Tibet, we always see them prostrating with their heads on the road. But who actually built this road? It was built by generations of construction workers under the guidance of the Party’s leaders.  I respect even more the construction workers who defied all setbacks and struggles; ‘Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve/ Which dares to make sun and moon shine in new skies’ (a quote from one of Mao’s poems), that was their great spirit.  In the Old Tibet, a pilgrimage by prostrating all the way to Lhasa did not exist. Because there was no road. Tibet’s topography was complex and arduous, it was even difficult for monkeys to cross many places on four legs, so it would have been even more difficult for people kneeling down. Secondly, pilgrimages did exist, but they were only made by a very small group of aristocrats.”

Qiang Ge, still advocating class warfare, seems as angry at the film maker as at the ungrateful Tibetans. It seems he has never seen Tibetans prostrating where there is no road, in the rubble of the lower slopes of holy mountains.

A young Tibetan intellectual in Tibet who calls himself Riga was also angry at Gang Rinpoche on its 2017 release, for the all-too-familiar reason that it reproduces a coloniser fantasy: “these seemingly benign images leave us bewildered as we begin to believe the myths that we are being sold. With Tibetan Buddhism more popular than ever, in China and the West, Tibet and Tibetans have become objects of the bourgeois Han imagination. Objects upon which their own longing can be inscribed.  In the contemporary context, and especially in regard to independent filmmaking, depictions of Tibet are rooted in fantasies of a dissatisfied bourgeois class. Tibet becomes somewhere timeless and ahistorical, existing as an anachronism in which we may find an antidote to the disorientation of our modern secular condition. And by assuming the role of the passive observer we become participant in the commodification of our own culture. The dominant representation of Tibet sees filmmakers regurgitating tired stereotypes about Tibet. Celebrating Tibetan filmmaking might be best done by underscoring what is not unique to it.”

Fortunately, the entire Gang Rinpoche movie is freely available online, so judge for yourself.

There is one further reason why this movie rose without a trace, never engaging a Tibetan audience. It brings us back to genre. This is a drama in doco style. It’s this elision that seems to be the problem, a transgression of the boundaries of truth, and reality, and what counts as authentic.

This directorial decision is Zhang Yang’s original sin, dooming the entire movie. For many Chinese viewers, the doco format robs it of drama, and of emotional engagement with this character or that. It is merely an ethnic curiosity, an album of gestures and postures of difference.

Tibetan audiences, hearing the greatly differing dialects of the key characters, realised quickly that this is no doco, but a drama staged to look like a doco, making it inauthentic. Authenticity is bigger than ever in these times of essentialised identity. Zhang Yang’s genre bending is illegitimate, it seems.

Zhang Yang is not a director on the talk show circuit pumping his work; he prefers that his movies speak for themselves. Although he doesn’t say much, he has been very clear that this melding of drama and doco was a conscious choice, unlike his other movies before and since. When Gang Rinpoche was released, in 2017, Global Times noted: “Shot in the style of a documentary, Zhang used non-professional actors that he handpicked for the film, leading to a blend of scripted fiction and spontaneous reality. It is this method of depicting the group’s journey that has received the most criticism from moviegoers as some feel that a documentary format is not appropriate for a fictional story.  Zhang Yang said  ‘I think, on the contrary, this film presents another type of reality, which is what I wanted,’  Zhang said responding to the criticisms that a fictional pilgrimage should not have been filmed in a documentary style. He defended his decision by pointing out that even documentaries end up being edited to make a coherent story and that, in his opinion, those who are filmed are more or less performing in front of the camera. ‘My method is to rely on a documentary format to restore the truth. From my point of view, you can say that a director’s purpose is to present an artistic reality.’”

This is a direct challenge to our genre silos, our conditioned expectations. Zhang insists that the doco genre, for all its slice-of-reality hand-held authenticity is nonetheless sliced, into an edited representation. If fiction, as the saying has, is truth without facts, this film is a search for truth, a sun-beaten path Zhang Yang has trodden along with his cast. It was in every sense a long journey for all, starting in winter and ending in winter, reflecting the reality that filming did actually take a year.

in the yak hair woven tent at night, running repairs to scuffed clothing

Zhang Yang boldly asserts that reality and artfulness, far from being opposites, actually go together. This is a reminder of the Buddhist teaching that there is no pure, unmediated sensory perception; all we perceive is instantly mediated by our accumulated mental categories and concepts, so inseparably and immediately that what we hold dear as being authentic experience is actually conceptually framed. Zhang Yang’s framings unapologetically blur doco and drama, because that’s life.

Maybe the movie he did next, Up the Mountain, in a remote Yunnan village succeeded better in  fusing art and reality, the authentic and the representation, direct perception and skilful editing. Inspired by Gang Rinpoche, Up the Mountain, 2018, got rave reviews, for good reasons, notably Zhang Yang’s painterly touch and skilful editing. But that’s another story, for another time.

a prostrating yogin stops for a cup of tea

The point surely is that Gang Rinpoche, the first full-length film to take prostration pilgrimage seriously, on its own terms, tries to show us not only the practicalities of prostration in all weathers, but to give us an inkling of the frame of mind required to persist, despite all challenges. Zhang Yang  holds his mirror up for us to see not only the body and speech of prostration but also mind.

This matters, because prostration is the most photographed and least understood of all Tibetan behaviours. No tourist to Lhasa leaves without shots of prostrators in action, signifying only an inexplicably exotic behaviour that defies rationality. The snorting of a bull or scampering of a monkey are more explicable.

This is why Zhang Yang chose his cast, and, despite not wanting to say much, is quite upfront about how and why he did his casting, in much the way Chaucer cast his Canterbury Tales pilgrims. “In a press release for the film, Zhang explained that he already had a picture in mind of what he wanted to present on screen: First an old man in his 70s or 80s, who possible could die during the journey; a pregnant woman who would end up delivering her baby on the way; a butcher looking to atone for taking so many lives; and a child of about 7 or 8 who could add some interesting elements and uncertainty to the journey. He also wanted a mature and sober middle-aged man in his 50s who could act as the group’s leader. Having these characters in mind, Zhang and his film crew traveled through South China’s Yunnan Province and Southwest China’s Sichuan Province and Tibet until he met Tsring Chodron, a young pregnant woman whose father-in-law’s uncle had longed to go on a bowing pilgrimage his entire life. Soon after he found other local people who fit the bill for the characters he wanted to portray in his film.”

Once he found the pregnant woman, willing to give birth on the road, he knew he had a movie, the whole project could go ahead. She did indeed give birth on the road, in pain but unafraid. And the journey continued.

This is the mind of devotion as the path that clears all obstacles, inner, outer and secret. As Patrul Rinpoche says:  “Devotion unlocks the door to all Dharma/ It clears the obstacles to all practice/ It brings out the benefits of all oral instructions/ It is offering a request to the guru’s completely compassionate mind/ and it becomes a vessel for all blessings/  It gathers the quintessence of all meditative accomplishments/ It is devotion –the singular, sufficient, pure remedy/  It can’t be conquered by any demons/ It can’t be stopped by obstacles/  It cleanses itself of all defiling stains/ It is devotion, and should be known as such/ It prevents the birth of false desires/  At the time of death there’s no pain of life suddenly cut short/ It pacifies the false appearances of the bardo/ It is devotion, and should be known as such.”[6]

This devotion is what Han domestic tourists are seldom able to comprehend, as they train their lenses on pilgrims at the Lhasa Jokhang flat on the ground in devotion, trust and faith, enacting the deepest sources of Tibetan strength.

So Zhang Yang may be one of the few Han Chinese to enter into Tibetan life, not as voyeur or ethnographer, but as a mirror, fully aware that he is an artist making artistic decisions throughout a movie of almost two hours, a self-knowing mirror.

 Gang Rinpoche has its flaws, but it deserves better than a quick dismissal.

How is it possible a Chinese director can enter so fully into Tibetan life? Did he script it, or was the plot collaborative, in effect coming from the cast?

There’s precedent for that, for example Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, a successful plunge into the lives of the Yolngu of far northern Australia. All de Heer had as a starting point was a collection of  black and white carefully staged ethnographic photos taken almost a century ago by anthropologist and biologist Donald Thompson, who had posed Yolngu hunters in their bark canoes on the monsoonal wetlands, spears in hand. When de Heer showed up, Yolngu couldn’t at first relate to naked warriors in flimsy bark canoes out on the mosquito infested swamps; and, as Christians, they had no willingness to disrobe for the camera. Patiently, with a lot of workshopping, Yolngu warmed to the idea, coming up with lots of jokes, and an entire plot, which de Heer bought into. The result was an instant classic. It worked so well, there was a follow-up doco with the director telling the story of how it all came about.

Is this how Gang Rinpoche was made?  Can we consider it a Tibetan film?


[1] Chris Berry,  Pristine Tibet? The Anthropocene and Brand Tibet in Chinese Cinema, 249-274 in K.-C. Lo, J. Yeung (eds.), 2019, Chinese Shock of the Anthropocene, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-6685-7_12

[2] The art of ethnography : a Chinese “Miao album” / translation by David M. Deal and Laura Hostetler ; introduction by Laura Hostetler., University of Washington Press, [2006

[3] Traleg Kyabgon, Integral Buddhism, Shogam, 2018, 39-40

[4] Jeffrey JAVED, 诉苦 Speaking Bitterness, in Christian Sorace, ed, Afterlives Of Chinese Communism Political Concepts From Mao To Xi, 2019, Verso & ANU Press, free download: https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/afterlives-chinese-communism

[5] 国家的策略性:农业技术变迁中的政治因素基于一个少数民族案例的研究,  社会 (Society), 2017, 37 (05): 78-104

[6] Dza Patrul Rinpoche, Plaeful Primers on the Path tr Joshua Schapiro, in Holly Gayley ed., A Gathering of Brilliant moons: Practice Advice from the Rimé Masters of Tibet, Wisdom Publications, 2017, 67

Once Upon a Time in the West of Tibet

Blog three of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet #gabriellafitte


Chinese movie directors increasingly make Tibet the set. It helps a lot if you film in Tibet, and if the landscapes and people of Tibet do much of the work of carrying the actual meaning.

For Tibetans, this raises interesting questions. What does Tibet have to say? What does the cinematographer deliver,  as the emotional message conveyed by Tibetan settings and Tibetan actors in bit parts? Is Tibet merely exotic, or is its presence onscreen freighted with meaning?

Sometimes, the answers are straightforward. In Zhang Yang’s Soul on a String the upper Tibet setting instantly stands in for the badlands of America. The arid canyons and windswept uplands of the Changtang take us to the mythical American West, we know in a flash a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if the plot device is a silly mishmash of Chinese fantasies about the mysteries of Tibet.

Soul on a String tells the story of Taibei, a Tibetan wanderer from a distant time who discovers a sacred stone in the mouth of a deer and begins a quest to return the stone to its rightful home on the holy mountain of the Buddha’s handprint. Ok, that’s a pretty ropey premise, but as a basis for lots of lone treks through dunes, ravines, mountains and endless plains, and lots of fights, it’s standard issue. It’s the action, and the tension leading to explosive action that counts. It’s a Western after all.


Then there’s Wang Chao’s Looking for Rohmer, the most recent of the Chinese movies shot in Tibet, around Kham Lithang. This gay romance has had a troubled passage through the censors, which delayed its release for years, slashed it to 83 minutes, with a complete name change from the 2015 Seeking McCartney to the 2018 Looking for Rohmer. The delay and the cuts were fatal. As a result, this is a movie that has disappeared without a trace, surviving only on pirate platforms: https://ok.ru/video/1172877347405

For Tibetans, however, this Sino-French coproduction is worth a closer look, because Tibetan landscapes and Khampas play a big role, not just as scene setters or exotic backdrops.

From the opening moment we are in a bleak, frigid Tibet, sweeping along a road flanked by the snow peaks that killed this love, the grieving survivor in close up. 34 minutes later, after much exposition, set in Paris as well as Beijing, we are back on that road into the Tibetan mountains near Lithang, where this romance so discreetly blossoms. Cut to dark interior shots, as our grieving lover sighs and suffers.

 How do we know we are still in Tibet? On the soundtrack a woman’s voice melodiously chants dharani in Tibetanised Sanskrit, then a sudden cut to a parked police car, lights flashing. A Tibetan man shuffles into shot, and prostrates. And prostrates. We never discover anything about him, he remains as faceless and enigmatic as the empty police car, as the two protagonists meet on either side. This is Tibet as mood music, with archetypal Tibetan scenes standing in for the yearnings of the men for each other, and the danger in the flashing lights. Tibet does the emotional work we see only fleetingly on the faces of the two men drawn to each other.

A moment later we are on the road to Dartsedo (Kangding in Chinese) in eastern Tibet. Suddenly we are wandering into a monastic courtyard, where the monks energetically debate Madhyamaka logic on the nature of reality, externalising the interior musing of the grieving Han protagonist on what is reality or illusion. Again it’s Tibet that provides meaning,   momentum, exposition, and a foretaste of the existential issues.

Later, after a return to Paris, a Lhamo dancer awaits his turn, and meets our two leads. The dancer, in wig and elaborate costume, is as near to a crossdresser as we are going to get: again Tibet tells us the subtext.


Zhao Jie, our protagonist joins a band of jongleur Tibetan minstrels for a few joyous minutes, as they  truck their act from pasture to pasture, enacting a Tibetan mystery play on the meaning of everything. Rapturously our hero transcends his urban reserve, merrily joining in, at last one with himself, the land, the dance, the great love of his life. The elegant mudras of Lhamo gesturing take on a feminine cast. Tibet is the land of the possible, an alternative universe where Tibetan men dress as women, always singing, always dancing.

This is the homoerotic climax, a rapturous liminality among a Khampa brotherhood. Never has kneading tsampa in a bowl looked so sensuous, nor pouring hot milk heated on a campfire.

A princely Tibetan dancer and our urban Chinese seeker face off, each holding erect a shiny new prayer wheel in hand, with mountains faux and actual the dramatic set. Cut to an aspiration prayer soundtrack from a Lhamo performance, circle round the prop mountain, twirling the prayer wheel: everything Tibetan is a source of joy and fulfilment. Tibet has revealed its true face. We are almost 60 mins into this foreshortened, censored movie.


The truckload of jongleurs toils uphill, the brotherhood still singing. We are back to grief and yearning for the lost lover from across the sea. The soundtrack mingles the merry Khampas and the campest aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly:

One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
And then the ship appears
And then the ship is white
It enters into the port, it rumbles its salute.

Do you see it? He is coming!
I don’t go down to meet him, not I.
I stay upon the edge of the hill
And I wait a long time
but I do not grow weary of the long wait.

And leaving from the crowded city,
A man, a little speck
Climbing the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?
And as he arrives
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call Butterfly from the distance
I without answering
Stay hidden
A little to tease him,
A little as to not die.
At the first meeting,
And then a little troubled
He will call, he will call
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.

Back in France, a Catholic Mass commemorates the life of the young Frenchman killed in the avalanche, consoling his mother; while in a Tibetan monastery, the monks, with his body, release him into another life.  Rohmer will live forever, in the skies and mountains of Tibet. Finally we see him, the French object of desire, alive, in the monastery, reverently doing his kyab su chi, taking refuge.  Like the old Tibetan man prostrating past the flashing police car, whose face we never see, our Frenchman does his chag tsälo prostration. He has found fulfilment. “Death is not nothingness. The soul lives on”, he tells us. ”If I die, I want to be like the Tibetans.”

It is winter above Lithang, snow everywhere. Rohmer, who was ready to die in the unseen avalanche, is finally cremated, as the vultures circle above, as the monks chant. “Only death can set you free.”


Finally, again in France, we are at the vineyard, fondly remembering the dead Rohmer through his family photo album. As Zhao Jie is falling asleep, he is immediately back in Tibet, amid the flailing Lhamo dancers, revealing their true faces: Zhao Jie and his beloved Rohmer. Thus the movie ends.

Looking for Rohmer begins in desolate grief, expressed by bleak snowy Tibetan hills. It ends with grief healed by the transcendant power of love, expressed by exuberant Khampa dancers who welcome the French man and the Chinese man into their Lhamo dancing. The repeated intertwining of Madama Butterfly’s inconsolable grief and hopeless hope, with the plunging, swooping, swirling healing power of the Tibetan dancers, are a call and response, antiphonally positing grief and loss as the human condition, answered decisively by the Tibetan embrace of life, including a willingness to let go of it.


 Looking for Rohmer was released to screens early in 2018 and died immediately. “’I thought I’d come to the cinema to show support. But to my disappointment, I didn’t see much gay love. I only saw natural sceneries,’ commented one Weibo user. ‘The movie is still inside the closet,’ another user added.”

“’Finally! A movie that tells a gay story can be publicly screened — I’m definitely going to watch,’ one fan wrote in 2016, after the trailer was released. But Sixth Tone found that some opinions had changed after fans watched the movie. ‘I thought I was watching a documentary film about the scenery in Tibet’, wrote another user. ‘The product after censorship is a perfunctory, sucky movie.’

This movie was butchered by China’s homo-averse censors and completely failed commercially as a result. That’s   sad for Chinese gay audiences expecting more, but it should now be seen through Tibetan eyes.  Despite publicity in gay media, on the BBC and in The Economist, Looking for Rohmer flopped everywhere. Not gay enough for the audience waiting expectantly for years, too gay for the censors.  Call Me by Your Name it’s not.

Because this movie did little to serve socialism with Chinese characteristics, it was mutilated and failed. But that is no reason for Tibetans to ignore it. Nor is today’s obsession with identity, appropriation and imperialism a reason to dismiss it as just another Chinese colonial power grab.  There is more to film art than identity politics.

Of course, it does take it for granted that China’s Tibet is indeed China’s Tibet. In official narratives, including the many “patriotic” movies set in Tibet, the China’s Tibet story is the standard narrative of liberation from serfdom, into the light of progress, development, modernity and civilisation,  all guided by China. All so predictable. Patriotic movies have become a genre of their own, zhuxuanlu 主旋律.

Maybe that is why there is plenty of room in the vastness of Tibet for narratives, told through Chinese eyes, as well as by Tibetan directors.


Censorship and Genre Moviews

Is Tibet a genre in its own right?

Blog four of four on the Chinese film industry in Tibet: this is a coda. #gabriellafitte

Movie directors in China have a hard time. Directors anywhere must juggle finance, script, casting, shifts in public taste, and the years it usually takes between acquiring rights and hitting the screen. Any director out to recover costs, or even make a profit, must somehow reconcile the sharply differing tastes of Chinese and global audiences. Movie makers in China have the added danger of a ferocious censorship system staffed by suspicious minds alert to the slightest suggestion of critiquing how China is governed.

Not surprisingly, many movies never make it, or are held up for years by the censors, or emerge from the bureaucratic maze so mutilated the movie is an audience flop. It takes patience, skill and artistic flair to weave through the maze.

One shortcut path is to make a genre movie. Each genre has its own assumptions and conventions, that’s what defines a genre. In a noir you expect everyone to be crooked. In a Western, a lone hero has to shoot it out with the baddies. Audiences and censors can then relax, we know we are looking at a Western, a gangster noir, a chop-socky martial arts, a doco dressed as fiction, a drama that looks like a doco.

Genre conventions provide cover for directors when script and then footage reach the censors. The central character is a thug and clearly the police are in his pocket? Hey, this is a noir after all. The couple falling in love are gay? Yes, but their passion is conveyed not by bodies touching but by landscape and crowds of extras dancing. The knife fights are too violent? It’s just a Western set in the badlands, with a bit of martial arts, after all, a fantasy no-one will take seriously

Looking for Rohmer climaxes


Does it help a Chinese movie get past the censor if it is shot in Tibet? It seems so, as Tibet has become, in Chinese imaginaries, the land where anything is possible, where the normal no longer applies. Expect more movies made in Tibet by Chinese directors, even if few of them allow Tibetans to speak for themselves.

Does it help a Chinese movie get Chinese audience eyeballs if it is shot in Tibet? That’s not clear. Even a doco drama like Gang Rinpoche, in which Tibetans do get to speak for themselves, as themselves, got limited traction at the box office. And the “patriotic” spectaculars of the PLA liberating Tibet from itself, with plenty of Tibetan speaking parts, often struggle commercially, simply because there are now so many violent action hero movies, including those set in a science fiction future, to watch. Who needs to revisit the 1950 battle for Chamdo when Chinese action heroes so satisfyingly beat Americans to pulp in contemporary Africa, or defeat alien space invasions?

Does it help Chinese movies win international audiences if shot in Tibet? On the arthouse and film fest circuit, yes, but that’s as far as it goes. Western audiences who buy into Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop version of mystical Tibet seem unable to relate to the unhyped daily routines of a Tibetan nomad family doing their everyday livestock management tasks, around the hearth talking of the prospect of a pilgrimage to distant Lhasa, or even to the farther distant Gang Rinpoche/Kailash. It’s all too slow, the camera –as in Pema Tsedan’s Tibetan movies- is too distant, there’s not enough emotion or drama.


There are other Chinese movies, not associated with Tibet, that also sneak past the censors, because they are genre films, and, in keeping with genre, you can get away with a lot. Jia Zhangke’s recent Ash is the Purest White is an example. Jia, a top director at the top of his game, made a movie Tibetans who grew up in Tibet will recognise as true to life, recognisably familiar. The lead is a small time local standover man who makes his money bullying and threatening locals who fail to pay debts, or make landlords unhappy. He is a very close friend of the police, so it’s clear the state is onside, part of the action. He enforces the will of the powerful, whether they are businessmen or officials.

Ultimately, as China changes fast, as cities swallow villages, he sees everywhere new opportunities to scale up his intimidation and thuggery, and make much more money; again an accurate reading of where China is heading. But he fails. Small fish get eaten by bigger fish. China is a kleptocracy.

How this got past the censors is a mystery. Jia Zhangke is a top director, but that doesn’t always help. What does help is the crime noir thriller genre, in which it’s a given that crooks are everywhere, and what they all do is crooked. It is Jia Zhangke’s genius that there is not one single scene or even frame a censor could call subversive, yet it all adds up to a subversive depiction of life in new era China, where authority routinely relies on thugs to enforce local government schemes, and thugs rely on local government for protection. Tibetans in Tibet know this well.

Censors are fixated on rooting out suspicious moments, and are unable to stand back and see how the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Jia Zhangke is a visual poet, and his framing of landscape does a lot of work ensuring we, the audience, see what the censors never saw.

Another miracle of sliding past the censor was the now classic Farewell My Concubine.  The BBC recently reminded us: “Back in 1993, Farewell My Concubine – regarded as one of the great works of Chinese cinema – made it to the big screen. It reveals the turbulence and brutality of China’s modern history through the lives of two Peking Opera artists, and also explores the love and hate that burns between those two men. The film also criticises the Cultural Revolution. The award-winning film by renowned director Chen Kaige managed to clear the censorship tests more than two decades ago, and is still screened proudly today. Mr Chen has described it as a ‘miracle’”.


Of course, one way of ensuring there is not the slightest danger of censorship is to make your movie so innocuous, your characters all cute and endearing, and animate the lot in a Dreamworks Hollywood studio. That tells you what you need to know about Abominable. Interestingly, the villains, out to capture our lovable yeti are scientists and American millionaires, none bearing any resemblance whatsoever to Jeffrey Katzenberg, boss of Dreamworks. This feel good flick is so American it had to be extensively  reverse -engineered in China to play to Han tastes.

No-one asked Tibetans about yetis surfing the rapeseed fields, but one Tenzing Norgay Trainor, an 18years old Florida Sherpa, grandson of the first man atop Everest,  does get to voice a main character. And in this identity-obsessed, authenticity fixated era, the  voiceover actor and the way his character, Jin, are drawn, there’s  a likeness, PLUS they both like the same shoes.  It doesn’t get more real than that.

The punchline of the movie: “When you set your mind on something, nothing is impossible”, a credo of the self-made capitalist success myth. Dale Carnegie goes anime.


It’s the shoes…………