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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mahasiddha Luipa


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


As the world (hopefully) emerges from pandemic, the landscape has changed, there is no return to the old “normal”. This is a moment that sharply questions China’s “normal” model for development of Tibet. In this moment, Tibetan insights into the nature of reality come to the fore, with renewed relevance, if we are to discover what is possible in the post-Covid world.

This case study of manufacturing millions of rainbow trout each year in a major Tibetan river, exemplifies all that is so yesterday about China’s development model for Tibet. China’s  trout story was promoted as exemplary development of Tibetan resources, in this case the free public good of cold, fresh water impounded in dams China built across the Ma Chu/Huang He/Yellow River to generate electricity for the industrialisation of Tibet, and beyond.

In every way the trout industry ticked all the development boxes: making an unused stillwater resource productive; fully utilising the factor endowments -new and old- of Tibet; repositioning Tibet in China’s brand-conscious markets as a high quality, premium priced source of prestigious fish; teaching Tibetans the virtues of wealth accumulation; lifting Tibetan fish farm employees (if there are any) out of poverty; integrating Tibet into the wealthy urban Chinese consumer economy through a sophisticated cold commodity chain; demonstrating to backward, conservative, lazy Tibetans the virtues of capital accumulation to be invested in hi-tech enterprises for rich returns. It’s all good, a classic win-win.

fertilised fish eggs, ready to be flown from Europe to Tibetan dams

It is all so yesterday. The “rules-based order” regulating the global trafficking of fish feed manufactured from dead fish; the global traffic in fertilised fish eggs flown in to Tibet from Scandinavia; the air freighting of chilled, filleted (or live) trout from Tibet to Shanghai, all used to be commendable achievements, proof of China’s sophistication and benevolent intentions towards Tibet. The rules-based order has faded away, not only because the virus snapped global assembly lines but because of trade wars and competitive economic nationalisms.

The old order struggles to return to “normal”, especially in China, where infected people were removed from society and isolated en masse, awaiting death or natural recovery. Now freight planes fly salmon from Norway to Shanghai, and return empty, traversing the whole of Eurasia with nothing on board. Is that normal?

If that is how we return to normal, driven solely by money, oblivious to the climate heating emissions of empty planes, we need a real restart. We need to reimagine what development means, what it is for, what its impacts are, not just today but in the longer term. To just go back to default settings would be blinkered, as if making money is all that matters.


This is where classic Tibetan understandings of the phenomenal world come in. Far from being uncivilised, backward, feudal and ahistoric, Tibet offers the postCovid world a model of how to do development truly sustainably, over the long term, fully cognisant of consequences.

The routine plunder of planetary common pool resources was already at crisis point before the virus intervened. Treating the oceans of the world as free public goods, there for the taking, with no consequences, had long overfished every known fishery worldwide. The indiscriminate haul of any and all fish, scraping seabeds to capture all that lives, had already run out of cheap fish to kill, dry and grind into fishmeal to be fed to fashionable fish such as trout and salmon.  Formulaic fish food manufacture was turning to vegetable sources of the nutrients farmed fish need, out of necessity as wild fish stocks were exhausted. China has long been the biggest exploiter of the world’s fish, its global fishing fleet making China the top predator of all.

source: UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2020

Do Tibetans have anything to say in such circumstances, in today’s world? Tibetan civilisation values fish, in situ, at home in the water, frequently depicted as a sociable pair swimming together, the two golden fish, gaurmatsya in Sanskrit;  གསེར་ཉ་ in Tibetan, pronounced sernya.  This pair constitute one of the eight auspicious symbols, reproduced so often they may seem to be nothing more than sentimentality. Yet to Tibetans they symbolise fearlessness, specifically the resilient fearlessness of fully acknowledging all the uncertainties and dangers of living in a risky, contingent world. This is the fearless recognition that the root cause of death is birth, fearlessly facing whatever may arise. The inner strength of fluid acceptance of reality arises, giving rise to inner joy no longer dependent on desiring this and consuming that.

All that from a pair of fish. Little wonder it is a Tibetan custom to welcome a visiting lama by sprinkling white barley flour on the ground, in the shape of those fish, and the other auspicious symbols.

The best-known songs in Tibetan culture, the spontaneous songs of Milarepa and other mind training practitioners, take this awakening as their main theme. Thousands of gur and doha, many known by heart, urge ordinary folks to get over struggling, striving, planning and hoarding. The singers, emerging from their chosen lockdown solitude, sing to whoever has ears.

Some gur critique the passions of this time we now live in, so as to awaken their obverse:

“Stupidity’s senseless jokes are always increasing.

Primordial wisdom, do you dare dwell out there, asleep?

Desire’s actions are growing cruder.

Contemplations of the repulsive, which swamp did you fall into?

Anger’s brute force is always increasing.

Loving kindness, where have you fled?

Pride’s roaring is louder and louder.

Humility, are you deaf, or what?

Envy’s torments are grosser and grosser.

Pure perception, wherever you went, you did not penetrate to the root.”

That’s from the 17th century, by Kalden Gyatso, 1607-1677, not far from the Ma Chu/Yellow River and its trout farms.[1]


Meat and fish consumption in China have risen extraordinarily, yet it is never enough. China plans further intensification of factory farming of all edible species, in feedlot pens, in cages immersed in hydro dams. Intensification, for the sole purpose of feeding human greed, is the sole objective, despite the vague talk of green economy and ecological civilisation.

One consequence of the pandemic originating in China’s indiscriminate wet market jumble of captured species is the postponement of a global effort to get real about biodiversity. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) has, once a decade, a chance at setting targets that might, at last, make serious efforts to reverse the anthropocentric Anthropocene world made by the old normal. Everyone knows there is a wildlife crisis, in the seas, on the land, in the skies. Everyone values animals, even loves those which seem to exhibit human traits. Like climate change, the time for action is overdue.

The last time the world’s governments all got together to try to effectively halt wildlife extinctions was at the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the CBD in 2010. The result was the Aichi Targets, named after the Japanese city where the world assembled. Compared to the current situation, the Aichi targets were limited, something bolder is needed. The Aichi targets failed, and the world’s biodiversity conservationists are the first to say so.

website of UN Convention on Biodiversity

The next opportunity to try again, to create a new normal agreed upon worldwide, was meant to happen at the next UN CBD COP, scheduled for 2020, in the Chinese city of Kunming. That had to be postponed, leaving the wildlife trafficking to China intact. Now, the CBD COP is rescheduled for 2021, still in Kunming.  China was keen to be host, and the CBD was keen to accept, since, like most UN bodies, it has limited budgets and limited authority to set binding goals and then hold accountable the governments that sign onto them. Staging a CBD COP in Kunming was planned as a way for China to present itself as a champion of biodiversity conservation, complete with side trips for conference delegates to new national parks in Tibetan areas nearby, including the new Panda national park, which is mostly in Tibetan counties of the Sichuan mountains.

Wuhan wet market: ground zero of the corona virus pandemic

Then the virus struck, not only halting the global gathering, but also bluntly reminding the world that it originated as a zoonotic disease, jumping from wild animals to humans, due to China’s voracious trafficking in wild animals for human consumption. This has been a setback for China, and a reminder that we cannot go back to an old normal in which all governments make the right noises about wildlife, but little in practice is done whenever wildlife get in the way of making money. Will there be a CBD COP in 2021? Will it commit to real world goals to save wildlife? Will it still be held in Kunming? Will China allow the world’s conservation NGOs in, to do their advocacy work and hold governments accountable?

In today’s world there are plenty of folks whose response to the frailty, contingency, uncertainty and pandemic vulnerability is to seek, above all, to find out who can be blamed. From the US President down, the quest for blame consumes energy. The World Health Organisation, like the Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are weak, underfunded, unable to enforce anything, usually reduced to falling in line with the governments that finance them. This is true of all UN agencies. All of them are restricted by their donors and member states, who resist any international body having jurisdiction over them. The governments of the world, for all their talk of a “rules-based order” in practice prefer anarchy and, if you are big enough, bullying.

So, UN CBD Kunming 2021 may showcase China as champion of biodiversity, largely by rezoning much of Tibet as national park.

These are all instances of a world in denial, of lip service to lofty climate and wildlife goals which will not be delivered, a world in which little matters other than wealth accumulation, all else is external. That’s a world yearning to return to normal, having satisfyingly found who to blame.


Those less obsessed with blame nonetheless also yearn for normal, in which the economy one more takes precedence over everything else.

Yet a growing swell of thoughtful folks are telling us this virus is teaching us there is no going back to endless economic growth as an end in itself, which makes everything else secondary. The just-in-time globalised commodity chains, forever seeking to reduce labour costs and boost profits got us to the pandemic. Enough.

 We emerge from lockdown changed, questioning the endless acceleration, intensification, urban densification, energy-intensive, capital-intensive global gig economy that concentrated wealth in a few hands, and made everyone else precarious, awaiting their job being automated by AI and algorithms. Efficiency has had its day, has sacrificed too many livelihoods, in its driven, disruptive insistence on finding hi-tech low wage solutions to problems we never knew we had.

The millions of trout made in Tibetan dams illustrate all of this. The plan is to intensify further and further. So where does the Tibetan take on reality come in?

Tibetan culture reminds us, for starters, that we are basically all the same, so privileging my pile of wealth over all others, human or animal, is plain foolish. Trusting wealth to make you happy is foolish. Forever deferring enjoyment because even more wealth generation is at hand is foolish. You can’t take it with you when you die. Human heartedness, the ability to recognize ourselves in others (and vice-versa) and forebear is essential. Patience, a wider perspective, knowing the difference between wants and needs: all are essential. Discovering inner sources of strength rather than the gratifications of consumption (followed by indifference or remorse); discovering immeasurable joy at simply being alive: all essential. Sufficiency matters more than efficiency.

These are among the strengths of Tibetan culture, not just because of the Buddhist teachings, but because they have been taken to heart, are embedded in daily life, can be observed at work in the lives of people you meet.

As the Dalai Lama has often said, all religions teach tolerance, love and patience. In Tibetan Buddhism these arise not as moral strictures, or dogmatic constraints on innate human selfishness, but as spontaneous experience of reality unadorned by overthinking. For Tibetans, working with whatever arises comes readily, not as disruption or threat, not as evil or good, just the constant arising of circumstances and perceptions in a contingent world dependent on causes and conditions. To behave morally is not to pledge an oath to a moral code that combats inherent sinfulness; it is a recognition that we are all alike, we all habitually wander repetitively, we all experience confusion and turmoil which get worse the more we expect control and predictability.

Modernity, development, urbanisation, intensification, densification, growth all demand control, aggressive risk management, constant measurement of variables, planning, critical path analysis and much more imposition of human will on wayward reality. Such tasks are endless and exhausting. We usually seem to have it all under control, in a seamless, interconnected, just-in-time delivery chain, then suddenly it all falls apart, as it did when a widely predicted pandemic arrived.

Many people, exhausted by the relentless accelerations and accumulations of modernity, are now seeking new paths. Some call it agro-ecology, or degrowth, rhizomatic networking, deep ecology, fungal futures,  web of life, the great turning, subsistence affluence, bio-cultural diversity, it goes by many names, and struggles to be heard.

China frequently calls for establishing a harmonious coexistence model of man and nature in national parks with Chinese characteristics, but this cumbersome official phrase reveals tensions and contradictions. Having so sharply differentiated man from nature, also elevating human will above all else, the task of bringing these naturalised categories of man and nature back together is laborious, difficult, endless, elusive, made more so by the insistence on Chinese characteristics.

For Tibetans, this is not a struggle, nor a moral imperative. It arises spontaneously, not as a result of effort. Once insight into reality is realised, it is not forgotten; it is experiential, embedded in being alive. There is nothing romantic about this, or wishful fantasizing: it is a plain recognition of contingency and interconnectedness, once privileging of I over others is dropped.

Kälden Gyatso:

Although the liberation-seeking bee of my mind

Longs to fly on the path of liberation,

I am attached to the feast of honey -the eight worldly concerns-

And to striving for personal gain and esteem.

Please teach me how to recognise

That sensory pleasures are deadly poisons.

Please grasp me with the iron hook of compassion.”

Trout farming the rivers of Tibet for the sensory pleasure of eating expensive, exotic fish should not be the new normal.

Reducing Tibet to a gourmet factory farm is not the way to development.

Better to leave the fish in the water, swimming sociably together, the abiding symbol of fearlessness.

Kalden Gyatso

[1] Victoria Sujata, Journey to Distant groves: Profound songs of the Tibetan siddha Kälden Gyatso, Vajra Books, Kathmandu, 2019, 53



In recent times, many colour revolutions have erupted. In so many countries predatory regimes afflict their own citizens. They routinely and coercively extract rents from the poor to transfer wealth and concentrated power to the rich.

courtesy Financial Times

The point at which oppressed populations lose their fear, and stand up to their oppressors, willing to endure state violence to end a despised regime, is seldom foreseen. Security analysts often struggle to comprehend the disillusion and despair that makes whole populations rise up against bad governments, rising despite brutal crackdowns by the military and special forces.

Regimes that came to power through revolution especially dread the prospect that revolution then becomes legitimate when the regime fails the people. China is more fearful of a colour revolution yánsè gémìng    颜色革命 than any other threat.

Xi Jinping’s extreme concentration of power has alienated China’s neighbouring client states, deeply worried competitors.

Inside China, it has raised tensions and contradictions among the people. The many fears of central leaders have led China to mass detention of 10% to 20% of the entire Uighur population in Xinjiang, on the futile assumption that forcing people to parrot official slogans, hour after hour, for days, weeks and even years on end, is an effective way of deradicalizing alienated minds. Far from being skilful and effective reorientation of values, the state violence in Xinjiang will produce only bitterness. The party-state demands all citizens love it; but love cannot be kindled by violence.


The securitised world should now be looking more closely at Tibet, where the control techniques applied in Xinjiang were first trialled, where the forbearance of a Buddhist population is tested to its limits.

All the signs of an incipient colour revolution can be observed in Tibet, with no way of knowing what and when the spark ignites unquenchable fire. Xinjiang shows China is capable of so blinding itself, with racist contempt for those who refuse to assimilate, that it provokes the contention it most fears. Will China repeat the same mistakes, and crimes against humanity, it commits in Xinjiang?

China Daily

Coercive, compulsory assimilation of nonHan ethnicities is rather vaguely known as “second-generation ethnic policy”, 第二代民族政策 dì èr dài mínzú zhèngcè . This signifies a decisive turn against the “first generation” policy, modelled on the Soviet Union, of allocating legal, territorialised autonomy to minorities in their homelands. That is so 1980s. China has now hardened its heart against those intractable minorities of the far west, who have never felt included as equals in a country with a Han supermajority, aka Chinese characteristics. Official media now routinely depicts those who resist assimilation as ungrateful, backward, primitive and dangerous.

This hardening of prejudicial stereotypes can be documented in depth, a process spanning decades, as China’s central leaders paint themselves into corners. They are hemmed in further by angry wolf warrior Han social media trolls, who were fed, decade after decade, the propaganda line that these minority nationalities are untrustworthy, loyal to international cultures, prone to violence and terrorism. Securitisation magnifies suspicious mindsets.

collected Thought of Core Leader Xi Jinping, in Tibetan


This is the present danger. It places Tibet at the forefront, straddling fault lines that can at any time trigger an earthquake. We need to know more about the situation on the ground, in Tibet, a geography the size of Western Europe, at the heart of Eurasia.

Globally China has repeatedly shown itself willing, even eager, to bully any country not its equal in size and power, projecting its power well beyond its effective grasp. Within China, the party-state regime is even more convinced it has free rein to do whatever it takes to quell the people, and has the surveillance technologies to do it. In a time of renewed competitive nationalisms, China asserts more vigorously than ever that any international concern over Xinjiang or Tibet is illegitimate interference in China’s sovereign right to oppress its citizens. This generates the dangerous illusion that the party-state is free to do whatever it wants within its borders, and perhaps beyond them.

China’s faith in the accuracy and omniscience of surveillance tech, and in algorithms capable of predicting contestation of state power, is misplaced. The algorithms are laden with racist prejudices: garbage out. In Xinjiang men with beards and women with scarves are automatically categorised as having terrorist inclinations, to be dealt with by predictive policing, supposedly  capable of predicting and thus interdicting criminal behaviour before the putative perpetrator is even consciously aware of any such intention. This is delusional. The result in Xinjiang is bitterness at a state willing to itself terrorise entire nationalities.

Further intensification of predictive policing algorithmically-driven arrests and detentions is now under way in Tibet, following the Seventh Tibetwork Forum held in Beijing in the last days of August 2020. Tibetwork is a known category within the security state, with its own “laws” to be learned and applied on mass scale, across all five Chinese provinces where Tibetan “autonomous” designated counties, prefectures and regions spread across one quarter of China.

Tibetwork Forums are rare, the last was in 2015.  They are not only attempts at whole-of-government coordination, they are meant to mobilise mass campaigns 运动  yundong, to sweep all resistance away, for the triumph of the official line. It is not yet clear what secret directives are being issued to local governments in Tibetan area. Yet the signs are clear: the mass line of recent years, of intense pressure on educated Tibetans, to denounce their own culture and culture heroes, is correct and is to be intensified. This pressure to betray becomes intolerable at a certain point, even for Buddhists with deep training in mental flexibility and resilience. The official paranoid style insists all problems in Tibet are instigated from abroad, so no Tibetan grievances, or petitions for Chines law to apply in Tibet, are permitted. The exclusion of Tibetan critiques of policy and its implementation stifles any Tibetan presence in the public sphere, beyond singing and dancing on tv. At a certain point this stifling becomes unbearable.

Fernanda Pirie

One of the specific outcomes of the 2020 Tibetwork Forum was to extend this silencing of public utterances by Tibetan lamas and widely trusted leaders, even in mediating local community disputes. Traditionally, clans of pastoralists disputing land rights turned to local lamas know to be unbiased, trustworthy and skilled negotiators capable of cooling hot heads. The lamas would use their reputation for fairness, their persuasive abilities, their rhetorical use of logic, to cut through the feuds and restore cooperation, in traditionally stateless societies with not only no black letter law but no concept of law. So the anthropologists, such as Fernanda Pirie at Oxford Law School, tell us.[1]

Yet even these community based informal mediation processes, among Tibetans, in Tibetan,  were explicitly banned by the 2020 Seventh Tibetwork Forum. The party-state insists it alone is the sole legal authority, even though it has no interest in resolving community disputations, until they are so entrenched the situation is unworkable. The heavy hand of the party-state defends its exclusive prerogative, its sole right to violence, yet in the eyes of feuding communities, it delivers no justice. Again, there has to be a breaking point.

Contention over pasturage rights in remote pastoral districts of low population density is not going to keep China’s security state awake at night. Such “mass incidents” can be quelled. There is a reason why there is a PLA garrison on the outskirts of every Tibetan town.


Of much greater concern for a security state hardwired to see all contention as an existential threat to China as a unitary state, is the rising dismay, in densely populated eastern Tibet, at the intensifying incursions of Chinese nation-building projects, including expressway toll roads, high speed railways, hydropower dams and power grids marching across sacred landscapes. China’s mastery of infrastructure technologies projects the power of the party-state onto remote landscapes as never before.  The mining of Tibet’s abundant resources, especially copper, gold, silver and molybdenum is also intensifying. That in turn exacerbates demand for hydropower, immigrant Han workforces, and wicked problems of mine tailings waste disposal in rugged terrain above watersheds of most of the rivers of Asia.

These combined impacts are of geostrategic significance, both because of the many transboundary rivers originating in Tibet, and because China is accelerating its pace and scale of nation building infrastructure construction, as never before, and the Seventh Tibetwork Forum signalled further intensification.

Tibetwork is a recognised specialty within the security state, a civilising mission uncannily akin to 19th century European imperialist rhetorics. “Wu Yingjie 吴英杰 [CCP Secretary in Tibet] pointed out that in the past 55 years, under the strong leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the people of all ethnic groups in Tibet have made the impossible possible. The society has achieved a historic leap from a feudal serf system to a socialist system, and development has achieved a transition from poverty and backwardness to civilization. The great leap of progress has written a strong and colorful stroke on the historical picture scroll of the Chinese nation’s continuous self-improvement. 吴英杰指出,55年来,在中国共产党坚强领导下,西藏各族人民把不可能变成了可能,社会实现了由封建农奴制度向社会主义制度的历史性飞跃,发展实现了由贫穷落后向文明进步的伟大跨越,在中华民族自强不息的历史画卷上写下了浓墨重彩的一笔.”


Thus far, the focus has been on Tibet as a whole. Strategic analysts will find they need to know about these fault lines before the earthquake. To understand where and when Tibetan distress will reach crisis point requires localised focus. Across a plateau of 2.5 million square kilometres, local circumstances vary enormously, likewise the capacity of the state to inscribe its power on landscapes varies greatly.

In hindsight, one of the triggers of the Xinjiang debacle was the transfer,to Xinjiang roughly a decade ago,  of dirty industries no longer tolerable by the mobilised, protesting citizenry of China’s big cities. In northern Xinjiang there has been an intensification of coal fired power station construction, the relocation of cotton production, processing and cloth manufacture, a proliferation of power hungry aluminium smelters, and the military-industrial dominance of the Xinjiang Production & Construction Corps drove small Uighur businesses to bankruptcy. In southern Xinjiang, which was at first much less affected by colonisation and industrialisation, new oil field finds led to massively upscaled extraction, immigrant influx and the destruction of old oasis towns in the name of modernisation. In hindsight, these were all triggers for the Uighur protests that erupted in 2009 and since, met by overwhelming but counter-productive state violence.  Few saw this coming, which made it easier for the party-state to blame it all on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

The world should not fail to recognise the same tensions building in Tibet. Hindsight is too late. Tibet is not at all an unknown unknown.


Acceleration is the hallmark of the Anthropocene era we now live in. Acceleration was the key deliverable of the Seventh Tibetwork Forum. For Tibetans this means acceleration of urbanisation, rural depopulation, intensified resource extraction and power grid linkage of Tibet with coastal China, knitting Tibet into the fabric of China forever. The cumulative impact of these multiple accelerations deeply alarms Tibetans, as is evident in their social media posts and online publications, even while acknowledging the material comforts of town life.

Tibet’s customary culture, attitudes towards landscapes, livelihoods, the purpose of life, the value of wildlife and rivers are all challenged as never before. Party-state “second generation” ethnic policy theorists foresee increased resistance but dismiss it in advance as the growing pains of inevitable modernity, which central leaders should ignore. Deafness ensues. This insouciance is dangerous, it further hardens hearts in Beijing against remote communities who are increasingly aware of China’s laws, which in practice don’t protect them.

The ingredients of crisis are accumulating, and it will not suffice to say, as China does officially, that development has its laws, is a universal path that China assiduously follows, and in the long run all will be well, as urbanisation loosens social ties, and people transfer their loyalty to Beijing, to the distant nation-state. The same productivist, developmentalist rhetoric was applied to Xinjiang, with disastrous, self-defeating results.

The party-state insists its accelerating agenda of development is a win-win, including Tibetans who are thus lifted out of poverty. This propaganda rhetoric obscures how the various nation-building projects are experienced by Tibetan communities. When cadres come to a village to announce the mandatory expulsion of a quota of local pastoralist families to distant urban outskirts, or the compulsory acquisition of rural land for a dam, expressway or railway, these are received as inexplicable orders from above. “From the perspective of Langmo villagers, it was state officials who were inscrutable, unsensing interlocutors, their visits seemingly random, their motives opaque or arbitrary. As one elder adamantly insisted to me, ‘They refuse to see with their own eyes.’” [2]

Chinese troops, ready for battle

This top-down system of command and control has no room for community consultation, still less for free, prior, informed consent of the governed. Rule by mass mobilisation slogans comes across at village level as predation, for no local benefit, not even gig jobs on construction sites, except for the few Tibetans fluent in Chinese. The disconnect between diktats from above, with realities of community life leave Tibetans increasingly feeling colonised by strong-state power, backed by the coercive presence of the local garrison of PLA soldiers routinely jogging and yelling through the streets, bayonets affixed.

Tibetan prisoners: courtesy Global Times, Beijing


Gradually, as Tibetan children learn standard Chinese, their awareness of legal rights, and the unstated logic of China’s infrastructure boom grows apparent. People connect the dots. A few may benefit when the expressways and high speed railways bring Han tourists in their millions to Tibet, but most Tibetans feel they are treated like animals, herded away from rising dam waters and mine sites, to live on urban fringes in resettlement blocks with nothing to do, dependent on official transfer payment handouts from corrupt local officials.[3]

The dangers are multiple and multiplying. Until a few years ago there were spaces in China for alternative civil society voices to query this or that hydro dam. Elite contention linked up with local community advocates, often able to lobby successfully for nation-building projects to be scrapped. Now such voices are silenced by a party-state insistence that its voice is the only public voice. This is an echo chamber. The party-state starts to believe its own propaganda, that all is well in the best of all possible worlds, and the minority nationalities believe in the nation-state. Until they don’t.

These are all issues of concern to security analysts worldwide, who need to be alert to risks, and known unknowns such as those sketched here. This is especially true of China’s far west, Tibet and Xinjiang, which border India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,  Kazakhstan and Russia, all familiar to strategic analysts as weak points and chronic sources of risk.

China’s unapologetic, openly patriarchal civilising mission drips with derogatory racist stereotypes. In 2017 geostrategic analysts worldwide started to awaken to the consequences, in Xinjiang, but it took a sustained effort, over years by Xinjiang specialists, to persuade the security community to go beyond lazy stereotypes of Uighur “terrorists.” World attention lagged, but then caught up.

Too many security risks have arisen unexpectedly. Some, like a global pandemic, were hard to predict, although security risk analysts were among the few to know it could and probably would happen. Tibet should be recognised as  a known known, as a state laboratory for testing and trialling the techniques of grid management, coercive lockdown, big data surveillance and algorithms of predictive policing, all of which were later scaled up in Xinjiang.

Security analysts now need to look much more closely and deeply into Tibet.

[1] Pirie, Fernanda. 2014. The Anthropology of Law. Oxford: OUP.

[2] Charlene Makley, The Battle for Fortune: State-Led Development, Personhood, and Power among Tibetans in China, Cornell, 2018,

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


Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development


On 28 and 29 August 2020 there was a Work Forum on Tibet, in Beijing.

What is a work forum? In any large country, with many government departments and levels of government from township and local county up to national, the need for co-ordination is essential. This is usually called a whole-of-government response, an effort to align all levels, across all jurisdictions, all agreed on a common policy, and how to implement it, with everyone clear about their role in implementation.

In China the Work Forum means all of the above, and more. China is not just large but huge, with provincial, prefectural and county governments that nominally agree with the uniform national policies decided by central leaders, but in reality go their own way. Co-ordination across all geographies and all levels is hard, especially if, in an authoritarian system, there is meant to be just one approach to be implemented uniformly in all areas.

Further, a Work Forum in China mobilises both the state and the party to act together, which increases complexity and surveillance to ensure compliance. A Work Forum brings together all major players, whether party organisations such as the United Front or CCDI corruption inspectors, along with all ministries relevant to the issue of focus for a specific Work Forum.

A Tibet Work Forum does Tibetwork, a specific kind of work based on Tibet as a long term, inescapable, wicked problem. Recent Tibet Work Forums abolished the public position that Tibet is just the “Tibet Autonomous Region”. Tibet Work Forums include all Tibetan areas in all five provinces. This is hardly a concession in recognition of panTibetan identity. Rather, it is recognition that Tibetans, whether in TAR, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu or Yunnan remain unassimilated, and the historic agenda of making an empire into a nation remains unfulfilled.

When a work forum is held, it often signals a new campaign, an attempt at mass mobilisation to push a new policy. Given the violence of the Xinjiang campaign, Tibetans understandably await signs that a new, perhaps more punitive, campaign is to be launched. So far, this is not yet clear.

The limited reporting of this 2020 Tibetwork Forum so far repeats familiar campaigns: poverty alleviation, accelerated urbanisation, the “arduous struggle” against the pernicious Dalai clique, and the policing of monastic minds to ensure compliance with the patriotic Sinicization of religion.

Across China and Tibet, official animosity to religion has been growing again. All over China overt signs of religiosity are compulsorily dismantled yet again. Securitisation is surging again, seeing civil society (itself a banned concept) as yet again a danger to sole authority resting with the party.

In Tibet the securitisation of religion is again becoming extreme, especially if compared to the religious renewal that started in the 1980s, and persisted for decades.

One key meeting that heralded the Seventh Tibetwork Forum was the convening of the National Security Committee of the TAR CCP, headed by Wu Jingye. His language was menacing and aggressive, sounding increasingly like Xinjiang. Wu repeatedly called for striking preventively against security threats, before any harm is done. This suggests growing reliance, as in Xinjiang, on massive data gathering on heavily surveilled  citizens, especially the religious, aided by algorithms primed to classify patterns of behaviour, triggering preventive policing action, as in Xinjiang.

Wu Jingye’s contempt for religion, and calls for preventive policing were so frequent, he seems to have said little else, according to the Xizang Ribao (Tibet Daily) reports. Yet again, religion is being depicted as irrational, unproductive, a waste of this life, since this life is the only life. Again, the party-state edges closer to believing it can attain omniscience.

Wu Jingye, in this securitisation meeting following Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Tibet tour, but before the Tibetwork Forum, called for: “ the principle of preventing trouble before it happens, prepare for the foundation to prevent major incidents, look at cadres with the courage to take responsibility for implementation, strengthen territorial management responsibilities, coordinate work, implement established stability maintenance measures, and assess risks For hidden dangers, to do a good job of the plan, it is necessary to be highly vigilant against the “black swan” incident, but also to prevent the “grey rhino” incident,  Continue to follow the letter and visit work methods of preventing key issues, focusing on difficult issues, not neglecting hot issues, thoroughly explore and actively resolve various conflicts, disputes and hidden dangers, and conscientiously resolve doubts to the masses. Resolve contradictions at the grassroots level and eliminate them in the bud.  We must actively guide religion to adapt to the socialist society, guide the religious believers to treat religion rationally, downplay the negative influence of religion, and live a happy life in this life…… giving full play to mass prevention and governance. The role of copper and iron walls is to build and maintain stability. It is necessary to strictly maintain the work discipline of stability, and strictly follow the “three no matter” to hold accountable, deal with it seriously, and never tolerate those who have caused serious consequences due to non-acceptance, omission or dereliction of duty.”

From the perspective of central leaders, the Tibetans remain stubbornly loyal to their own culture, values and traditions, and refuse to identify with China and the Han race as their primary identity, despite all the investment from the centre, over several decades. The Tibetans, like the Uighurs, have become the eternal internal enemies of China’s rise and global success.

A Work Forum is more than co-ordination. Work Forums launch campaigns. Throughout its history the CCP has launched campaign after campaign. These are intended above all to mobilise everyone, as active participants in pushing forward the implementation of the official line, overcoming all obstacles, crushing all opposition, surging ahead to success, a triumph of orchestrated human will. The work forum includes not only state ministries and party cadres but the patriotic masses as well. That’s the theory.

In practice, many campaigns fail, which is why a fresh campaign may be needed a few years later. Tibetwork Forums are held roughly every five years, a cycle reflecting how long it takes to face up to the failure of the last campaign push which is invariably portrayed in official media as successful, until it isn’t. The Seventh Tibetwork Forum, held shortly after the highly secret gathering of CCP leaders at the Beidahe summer beach resort, signals a new phase, and, according to Xi Jinping, a new understanding of the “laws” of Tibetwork.

Initial propaganda after this Forum focuses solely on TAR, yet also mentions the entire Tibetan Plateau as its focus. Early messaging is vague, with little new in the key phrases, the usual emphasis on both internal stability and border stability of a frontier region. The chief policy thrust seems to be further acceleration of the already fast speed of urbanisation, linking urban enclaves through networks of toll road expressways, high speed railway (Lhasa to Chengdu, Xining to Chengdu), power grids etc.

However, Xi Jinping delivered a menu of ten “musts” of Tibetwork, we await a detailed list. On 27 August, the day the Tibetwork Forum opened, a long article in CCP leading theory journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) on Xi Jinping’s personal Tibetwork, listed many of these “musts”: “We must continue to focus on deeply impoverished areas such as the ‘three regions and three states’, implement poverty alleviation plans, and focus on prominent problems and weak links to vigorously implement policies”; “We must consolidate the results of “two guarantees and three guarantees” to prevent rebounds.” 

These lists are all focused on poverty alleviation, since poverty in Tibet has officially been abolished, and Tibet no longer wears the shameful cap of being designated poor, and, worse, an area of contiguous destitution. The withdrawal of the poverty classification, on the eve of the virus pandemic, leaves leaders aware of the dangers of destitution and immiserisation returning; but this time with no targeted poverty relief available since the “poverty hat” has been removed.

In the build-up to the 7th Tibetwork Forum, not only was Xi Jinping praised for his benevolent concern for the poor Tibetans, other high profile personages also toured Tibet, including Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister since 2013, enabling him to say he has seen for himself how much better off the Tibetan are under CCP alien rule. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi has taken midsummer trips to border areas before.

Commentary on Wang Yi’s visit inevitably emphasised Tibet as a geostrategic issue, in the aftermath of confrontations only months earlier between Indian and Chinese troops in remote border are of arid upper Tibet. His visit, commentators said, was a low key re-assertion of Chinese sovereignty. His mentions of the importance of diplomacy can also be read, in a Chinese domestic context, as a reminder that security issues are too important to be left to the security state, and also require professional negotiators who know how to talk with foreigners. It is not only in the US that militarised solutions get all the attention while State Department/Foreign Ministry diplomacy is dismissed as ineffectual. The sidelining of China’s foreign Ministry is a chronic issue.

The origins of this Tibetwork Forum, the first since 2015, seem to go back to a thorough six-week investigation by the CCDI, the party-state’s vigilance inspectors, in late 2018, who later reported that: “the study of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important discussion on poverty alleviation was not comprehensive and in-depth, and the implementation of the “precision” requirements for poverty alleviation was not solid enough, and some policies to implement poverty alleviation were out of form. The short-term poverty alleviation of the industry is outstanding/overdue, and the performance of some fund projects is not high; there is still a gap in the implementation of the “provincial responsibility”, the overall coordination is not strong enough, the main responsibility needs to be compacted; the formalism and bureaucratism in the rectification of poverty alleviation is not tight, heavy traces and low performance tendencies still exist; grassroots party building still has the phenomenon of falsification and weakening, and the construction of poverty alleviation teams needs to be further strengthened; propaganda and education guidance is not enough. The layers are weakened, some clues of disciplinary inspection and supervision organs are not timely, some work is not strict; the supervision of functional departments is not in place, the risks of projects and funds still exist; the research on the problems found in rectifying various types of supervision and inspection is insufficient.”

Put simply, poverty work looked good on paper, not so good on the ground.

The great weakness is in income earning opportunities for Tibetans in the booming towns and cities of Tibet, where Chinese is the standard language of commerce and industry, even for unskilled workers in the construction industry, the sort of precariat work Tibetans have been able to get. This matters because the clear outcome of the Seventh Tibetwork Forum is further acceleration of urbanisation, as the solution to all Tibetan problems, combined with ongoing removal of Tibetan pastoralists from their pastures, in the name of environment. The rehousing of exnomads who have had to surrender their land tenure rights and move to concrete settlements on urban outskirts has not resulted in vocational opportunities, only dependency on state transfer payments, usually in the form of ration handouts, which leave proud nomads feeling they have been herded like cattle. The August 27 Qiushi article on Tibet “striding the broad boulevard of the new era” featured a photo of a long line of 24 buses of “Herdsmen in Shuanghu County, Tibet during relocation” in December 2019. Shuanghu (Tsonyi in Tibetan) is high in the Chang Tang alpine desert, on the TAR side of the border with Qinghai. Officially, their removal is successful poverty alleviation; in reality they lead wasted lives on urban outskirts, unable to go back yet unable to enter the modern economy of urban construction employment. They remain in limbo, an unending bardo.

Also, in the lead-up to this Tibetwork Forum came news of a major intensification of copper mining upriver from Lhasa, at Chulong. The copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposit, in the historic area where Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo  was born, signals an escalation of extraction, on a scale not seen before in central Tibet. The Chulong mine is now scheduled to be among the biggest worldwide, with a waste disposal problem and energy hunger to match.

The new owner of the Chulong mine is Zijin, a pioneer of China leaping into the global sea, operating copper mines around the world. Zijin in June 2020 bought out smaller miners owning the Chulong copper mine in Meldro Gongkar, up river from Lhasa, already a huge open pit mine, with plans to make it much bigger. Zijin’s three Tibet mines together have 7.9576 million tons of copper metal and  370,600 t of associated molybdenum. For power, 110 kV high-voltage, double-circuit transmission lines have been connected to the mining area, providing security of electricity supply for mining development. Chulong has a permit to extract  30 million tons of ore per year from 2016 to 2037. After 2037 Zijin will depart, having exhausted the deposit, but the mine wastes -at least 97% of all the rock dug and crushed- must remain forever secure in tailings dams to prevent pollution of the Kyichu, Lhasa’s river. Those wastes have highly toxic metals in them that normally are well underground. Arsenic, lead and mercury naturally occur in the soil at Chulong; it will be hard to prevent them from leaking into the rivers.[1]

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

The location of the deposit is high in the mountains above the Kyichu, at 5200 m altitude, so high the soil is frozen permafrost, and the plan is to blast the soil with explosives and then remove it to get at the ore.[2]

Does all this add up? Or is it coincidental that all these developments happened in Tibet in the three months that culminated in the Seventh Tibetwork Forum? Taken together, they suggest everything is accelerating: urbanisation, mineral extraction, infrastructure construction, long distance electricity transmission, all of them nation-building ways of knitting Tibet into China. Along with accelerating pace is an increased reliance on securitisation, and temptations of big data driven predictive policing, to keep Tibetan community leaders, especially the religious, silenced or compliant.

We will learn more about the full intent of the Seventh Tibetwork Forum as its secret instructions and strategies gradually reveal themselves. What we know so far is the public version only, which sounds like more of the same. The general direction is towards speed, and scaling up.

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

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

Nowhere to Nowhere?


China’s latest railway across Tibet into the Xinjiang desert

China’s railway builders boast they are not only part of the Belt and Road, they are the Belt and Road. They also boast that for a long time they have been listed in the Fortune 500 top companies worldwide and have now made it into the top 50. This state-owned dragonhead of China’s expansion has reason to be so boastful.

From the outset the Belt was steel track, from western China through central Asia, all the way to Europe, with branches to Pakistan and an Indian Ocean connection with the maritime Road. The engineering of all that track laying, tunnelling and bridging has resulted in CREC, the China Railway Engineering Group, not only cracking the global corporate top 50 but also attracting customers worldwide, especially in Africa and SE Asia.

Thus far, it’s all well known, a regular feature of Chinese media, and of course it’s all win-win.

What is less well known is how busy CREC is in Tibet. Everyone knows about the single track from Lanzhou and Xining to Lhasa via Gormo (Golmud in Chinese), opened to traffic in 2006. There has also been publicity about the rail line under construction from Chengdu to Lhasa which, because of the terrain, is taking several years to build through the rugged landscapes of Kham.

However, CREC is also busy building two more rail lines across Tibet, that few seem to have heard of. One is from Amdo Tsonub Gormo to Korla in Xinjiang. The other is from Xining to Chengdu.

Both, inevitably, are defined as poverty alleviation, good for the locals, access to markets, win-win.

But, on closer examination these two new rail routes tell us much about China’s motives and plans.


First, the head scratcher: Gormo northwest to Korla. China calls it the Geku rail line. From an engineering perspective, construction is not as challenging as the climb up the Tanglha Riwo into the Chang Tang alpine desert permafrost, to get through to Lhasa. The altitude is lower and can largely skirt the flanks of the Kunlun Mountains which also run in a line southeast to northwest. That’s why this line, through cold, arid and windswept landscapes is coming on fast.

Google map of current road routes from Gormo (Golmud) to Korla municpality, Bayingolin prefecture of Xinjiang

The puzzle is: why? Gormo is by far the most industrialised district of the entire Tibetan Plateau, an enclave of extraction and heavy industrial processing, for export to inland and coastal China, in the opposite direction to Korla. For decades China has extracted oil, gas, potash, magnesium, lithium and common salt from the Tsaidam Basin, in massive amounts. The combination of fossil fuels and metal salts provides all the key ingredients for the manufacture of a wide range of key products, including fertilisers, plastics, explosives, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and more recently, lithium batteries for new energy vehicles.

Much of what is extracted from the Tsaidam Basin goes by rail raw or minimally processed to the factory belt surrounding Xining or on to the heavy industries of Lanzhou, or by oil and gas pipelines. Much is processed in Gormo. If socialism with Chinese characteristics manifests as the factories of high modernity, Gormo is the most modern city in Tibet, even if very few Tibetans live in Gormo, apart from the resettled nomads lined up on its outskirts, with little to do. Gormo faces northeast, towards Xining and Lanzhou, towards inland and even coastal China beyond. So why would China build a 1214-kilometre rail line to Xinjiang, and not to Urumqi but to Korla?

We have known since 2008 that this route was on the Ministry of Railways to-do list. But no business case has ever been published.[1]

Hilton DoubleTree hotel, Gormo


After Urumqi, Korla is the biggest city in Xinjiang, gateway to the southern half of Xinjiang, which remains largely Uighur, largely poor and unhappy. Korla is the centre of Han colonisation of southern Xinjiang. In some ways it is quite similar to Gormo: an outpost of intensive Chinese investment in industrialisation, a magnet for not only Chinese capital but also a Han Chinese workforce settling into a new home on the frontier, in the hope of getting rich, a hope that eludes many. Gormo and Korla are nodes of Han expansion.

downtown Korla

But the similarity of Gormo and Korla is not a reason for 1200 kms of rail line, if anything they have little need of each other. The demand for passenger traffic would be close to zero.

So this is a heavy haulage freight line, but what freight?

tomatoes by the trailer load, awaiting factory processing, Korla

From Korla it is only 200 kms north to Urumqi, a hub for quickly despatching Xinjiang production east to inland China, both on the old railway built decades ago and on the new high speed line that spears through northern Amdo en route, tunnelling through the Dola Riwo (Qilian Shan in Chinese) to speed up connections and collapse distance. Neither Urumqi nor the northern half of Xinjiang, nor the existing Belt and Road need a rail line via Korla to Gormo. They already have a direct, high speed connection. Much of what Xinjiang sends east is perishable -melons, grapes- and in no need of a detour to get to market.

older, Uighur district of Korla, marked for demolition, 2009. Photo: Tom Cliff


patriotically riding INTO the atomic blast zone

So what has prompted central leaders? Almost the entire 1200 kms route is desert, with very few inhabitants, so agriculture has no part to play. Not even the large scale State farms of the militarised Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps have much interest in these driest of drylands, so remote China in the 1960s used the Lop Nur desert to explode its nuclear weapons tests, to display mushroom clouds to the world, signalling it  had achieved nuclear parity with the superpowers.

China’s first hydrogen bomb, exploded at Lop Nur, Tarim basin, Xinjiang 1967

There is the Mangnai  asbestos mine on the Tibet Amdo side, which has operated for decades, despite the great danger to human lungs of breathing in any asbestos fibres. It is hardly big enough to warrant a railroad. The mystery deepens.

asbestos piled in the open, northern Tibet 1994

On the Xinjiang side, the only town en route  is Çakilik, in Chinese卡克里克 Qiǎkèlǐkè but officially known as Ruoqiang, a small town along the chain of old oases linking the Uighur trade towns of southern Xinjiang, again hardly a reason to build a railway. Actually, Çakilik/Ruoqiang turns out, geostrategically, to matter more than Korla.

To find an answer to this riddle, we need to start elsewhere. We need to go back a century, to the “father of the nation” Sun Yat-sen, hero of the toppling of the Qing Dynasty. In 1919 he published his vision of a future China which succeeded in integrating its vast land empire into a nation, binding all into one, by railways. In 1919 the steel way (chaglam in Tibetan) was the obvious technology for knitting China together.

Sun Yat-sen’s 1919 vision of China woven into one cloth by rail lines

Sun Yat-sen’s vision was bold, crisscrossing all of China in a dense rail network that also included Mongolia, since China had not in 1919 yielded Mongolia to the Soviet sphere. Sun’s nation-building weave of tracks was colour coded blue for the northwest and red for the southwest, and where the two colours meet is Korla.

It took a century, but Sun Yat-sen’s vision is at last being built. Trade publication Railway Gazette International explains: “The strategic north-south line connects the long straggling route running west from Urumqi to Kashi with the 1 956 km Xining – Golmud – Lhasa route serving Tibet. It is being developed as part of China Railway’s strategic programme of rail expansion in the west of the country, which includes an ambitious plan to build a complete rail ring around the Taklaman desert in Xinjiang autonomous region.”  Key word: strategic.

where blue and red meet is Korla. Most of the blue (northwest) rail network was never built because much is in independent Mongolia, no longer in China


If the ring of steel around the huge Taklamakan desert is built, China will achieve a much shorter route to its many international frontiers. Clockwise: Ladakh under direct control from Delhi; Gilgit-Baltistan, the northernmost part of Pakistan; Afghanistan; Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, all abutting southern Xinjiang, which has been so remote, so tenuously linked to China that the oasis towns were until recently intact communities deeply linked to central Asian trade, with the only railway  to Urumqi and inland China taking a very long “straggling” route to terminate in Kashgar. Now these six international borders are all strategically important, as Belt and Road corridors of growth and resource extraction, or as recurring security threats, the Gormo to Korla line at last reveals its primary use, as the shortest route from inland China to the frontline. Wherever China looks, in its farthest west, it sees urgent securitisation tasks, whether in the 2020 Galwan and Panggong confrontations with Indian troops, or in securitising the old oasis towns of southern Xinjiang such as Kashgar.

This tilts the Tibetan Plateau, which historically has seldom been a route to anywhere, into a different geography, intrinsic to both the militarisation of the Xinjiang repression and the border confrontations with India. Tibetan scholars have wondered for years whether Tibet is part of the Belt and Road, without finding much evidence that Tibet is included. Now Tibet is a necessary part of the long haul of power projection, the shortest route to the frontier and beyond. Tibet is being geopoliticised, as never before.

China’s long term goal is to be able to access its vulnerable Mid-Eastern sources of oil long before they are shipped by tanker all the way across the Indian Ocean, narrow strait chokepoints in SE Asia, then across the contested South China Sea to ports on the coast. Three quarters of this shipping route could be eliminated if China could bring its crude oil ashore in Pakistan, then take it north to Xinjiang, to the old oasis town of Kashgar, the current rail terminus. The Chinese financed, Chinese constructed CPEC China Pakistan Economic Corridor currently taking shape, will achieve energy security for China, a high priority. The rail line from Amdo Gormo into the deserts of Xinjiang are part of this long-term capability, which could bring tanker wagon trains laden with Mid-eastern oil, to be refined in Gormo. That is still several years away. The CPEC corridor is a highway, starting i8n the south at the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, reaching north all the way to Kashgar, an old trading town now bulldozed to make way for a Eurasian logistics hub, while incarcerating the Uighur population in indoctrination prisons. In the longer term the highway is to be paralleled by a railway for bulk transport of goods like oil.


Kashgar (Kashi in Chinese) has been the terminus of China’s rail system for two decades. While a rail line on from Kashgar, traversing Pakistan south to the ocean may be for the future, the other direction for rail is to head west from Kashgar, traversing Kyrgyzstan and into Uzbekistan, both well endowed with minerals. This is the long-planned CKU (China-Kyrgyz-Uzbek) railway, which has the potential to head much further west, all the way to Europe, further collapsing distance, as it would be as much as 1000 kms shorter than the current Eurasian transboundary interconnection at Xinjiang Khorgos, far to the north. So the Gormo to Korla line is just part of the jigsaw of further shortening the distance between China and Europe.

When China completed its long railway line to Kashgar in 1999 there was much talk of the push westward across Kyrgyzstan and beyond, but it has not happened. Kyrgyzstan’s terrain is so rugged the Soviet rail network barely entered during the decades when Kyrgyzstan was the outer margin of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan does not have the capital to build the railway itself and is more interested in linking the north and south of the country than in a west-east transit corridor for Eurasian silk road BRI traffic. A 2019 Asian Development Bank report tried to rekindle enthusiasm: “Especially important for the Kyrgyz Republic among the PRC proposals to strengthen and diversify Landbridge rail links is a Kashi–Osh–Andijan rail link, which would provide the missing link in a potentially major PRC–Iran– European Union rail line. The PRC’s 1,446-km South Xinjiang Railway from Turfan to Kashi was completed in December 1999, and in the early 2000s the PRC proposed extending the railway with a Kashi–Andijan line, linking to Uzbekistan’s rail network. The PRC–Kyrgyz  Republic–Uzbekistan railroad would traverse and tunnel from the PRC’s far western rail terminus at Kashi to the Kyrgyz–Uzbek border town and trade hub at Kara-Suu, 20 km north of Osh, and would then connect with the Fergana Valley’s rail network, which links the region’s major cities and the GM Uzbekistan plant in Andijan. However, the project was dormant between 2005 and 2010. The PRC–Kyrgyz Republic–Uzbekistan railway network could be integrated into the PRC’s BRI via connections to ports in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.”[2]

November 2016. Xinjiang province, China. Young Uighur-minority seasonal worker in the last days of the cotton harvest in Luntai county in Xinjiang in between Korla and Kuqa, north of the Taklamakan desert. Luntai is a county in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and is under the administration of the Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.Cotton is one of the largest agricultural industries in the province and many local Uighurs are used as cheap seasonal labour during the harvest. Xinjiang is the westernmost province in all China, located at the border of Central Asian countries, Russia and Mongolia. More than twice the size of France, it has only 22 million inhabitants, a majority of which are the indigenous Uighurs, a sunni-muslim Turkic ethnic group which has lived in the region for centuries. Tensions have nonetheless arisen in the last decade as a consequence of the en-masse migration of Han Chinese settlers and confessional persecution by the strongly secular governmental authorities. Borrowing from romanticized notions of the American frontier, synonymous with ideals of exploration and expansion, photographer Patrick Wack captures a visual narrative of China’s westernmost region—Xinjiang. Whereas the American West conjures images of cowboys and pioneers, of manifest destiny and individualistic freedom, the Chinese West has not yet been so defined. It is a place of pluralities—of haunting, expansive landscapes, of rough mountains and vivid lakes, of new construction and oil fields, of abandoned structures in decaying towns, of devout faith and calls to prayer, of silence and maligned minorities, of opportunity and uncertain futures. It is a land of shifting identity. In essence, Xinjiang is the new frontier to be conquered and pondered. Literally translating to “new frontier” in Chinese, Xinjiang is a land apart, and has been so for centuries.


These strategic objectives require Gormo to be linked westwards to Çakilik/Ruoqiang. So why does this new rail line continue beyond Çakilik/Ruoqiang, further north to Korla?

Xinjiang is huge, bigger by area than Iran. For several decades China has long focussed on northern Xinjiang, where the oil, gas, coal, minerals and Eurasian interconnections all clustered, neglecting southern Xinjiang as offering little more than poor Uighurs, deserts and nuclear testing sites. Korla was the one outpost of Hanification in southern Xinjiang, the base of two regiments of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC/bingtuan).

The XPCC for decades adopted the historic strategy for colonising conquered lands, a labour-intensive settlement of poor Han peasants seeking a better life in new lands, guarded by garrisons of troops, who were also customers for whatever crops could be grown. In the 1950s, human labour “reclaimed the wasteland”, and a substantial Han working class struggled, under XPCC command, to make the drylands yield more. Korla was their hub for the projection of Han hegemony over southern Xinjiang.

Korla Army Games

Now there is a substantial Han population in Korla who feel they, their parents and perhaps grandparents made Xinjiang theirs, by sweat and hard work, and the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” is outdated. They were the pioneers of land “reclamation”, the builders of productivity. Now they feel they belong in Xinjiang, and Xinjiang belongs to them as much as anyone. This pattern repeats the Han settlement as China expanded south and then inland to the west, o9ver many centuries.

Korla is where China stages its International Army Games, inviting friendly neighbouring armies to play out who has the bigger bang

However this underclass has an underclass of Uighurs who have long felt excluded from the benefits of modernity, as James Millward told us in 2014: “Xinjiang’s rapid development in recent years has brought many more Han to the region, and relations between native Uyghurs and these millions of newcomers have grown more and more strained. While standards of living for some Uyghurs have indeed risen in cities, there is a broad perception that Uyghurs enjoy less access to economic opportunities than Han. Many anecdotes, some backed up by documentary evidence, tell of active discrimination against Uyghurs in hiring not only by Han-run private enterprises but by state organs, specifically the massive Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (the Bingtuan), which operates many agricultural, industrial, and commercial enterprises and has listed “Han ethnicity” as a requirement in its job advertisements. Uyghur unemployment runs high despite the booming Xinjiang economy, which is flush with oil money and state investment.”

poor squatters on the fringes of Korla, 2009. Photo: Tom Cliff

Tom Cliff, an ethnographer who did his fieldwork in Korla tells us: “Conditions on bingtuan farms have always lagged behind those of urban areas where most of the rest of the Han population in Xinjiang reside. Every bingtuan person I know told me that they and their friends aspired above all else to leave the bingtuan. Historically, then, bingtuan people are the quintessential subaltern constructors. A significant proportion of Han in Xinjiang became frontier constructors by default or by state decree, not by their own design. Many of the voluntary Han settlers of the Mao era sought freedom—from poverty, famine, family, or restrictive social conditions—not nation- or empire-building through territorial gain or the expansion of Han cultural space.”[3]

Today, workers divided against each other on racial grounds is common worldwide. Now the best employment prospects for Han settlers is as guards staffing the prisons and concentration camps, coercing Uighurs undergoing predictive policing re-education for their wrong attitudes. Han-Uighur relations have collapsed.

pumping Tarim oil

Despite substantial domestic oil output, China is increasingly dependent on Mid East oil, with attendant anxieties about shipping lane security vulnerabilities. Korla is the dragonhead, as they say in China,  for projecting the power of the party-state into southern Xinjiang, both to establish Han dominance, and because China discovered oil in southern Xinjiang, several decades after extraction began in northern Xinjiang. Now the Tarim Oilfield Company headquarters dominates the Korla skyline. By 2019 the Tarim oilfields had cumulatively yielded 350 million tons of oil for China, one of the very few domestic oilfields not exploited until the 1990s.  As drilling goes deeper and deeper, down to 8ms below the surface, more oil is found.

cracking Tarim oil

At great depth, gas is also found, so deep it is also dangerously hot, as much as 180 degrees C. The rock formations in which gas and oil are found are tightly packed, interrupted by fault lines, trapping the gas between gypsum below and water above. How to extract gas from two to seven kilometres below the surface? The answer is fracking, deliberately damaging the rock formations to deliver the gas. How to achieve this? For years China experimented, and many attempts failed. Pumping in water laced with chemicals is no solution in a desert with no available water. The answer seems to be “oil-based fluids.”[4]

Putting oil in to get gas out? Does that make sense?


China has projected its power far out to sea, making the South China Sea its sphere of influence, by dredging the reefs and building artificial islands for positioning attack weaponry. This is what China calls the road of the Belt and Road, a maritime road. Now a new rail line is becoming a notch in China’s overland Belt. Arguably China’s Belt and Road Initiative has had little to do with Tibet until now; as ever the Tibetan Plateau has remained too cold and too high, too logistically difficult, easier to skirt around.

The new rail line from Gormo to Korla, at first glance from nowhere much to nowhere much, turns out to be strategic, part of a much bigger geopolitics game of shrinking Eurasia, overcoming the tyranny of distance, delivering raw materials to China. In this process Amdo Tsonub becomes just another geography, territory to be traversed, conquered, reduced, nullified as an impediment to wealth accumulation, just a link in a commodity chain stretching across Eurasia. Tibetans have never thought of themselves as steppingstones to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Pakistan. This is new.

The older rail line to Korla, from Urumqi and Turfan

If Tibet has been effectively downgraded, as just one geography among many in Inner Asia, Tibet is reduced to a single attribute: extent. That existent extent is conquered by the speed of the new railway, no longer a barrier to China’s power projection far, far to the west. Tibet is now measured by China’s railway engineering capacity to master extent, reducing even this last attribute to absence. Dryland Tibet then becomes a void, its last attribute absent, nullified by rail.

However Tibet as a geography for production, consumption, tourism and high-speed traverse, is quite a different story, the topic for another blog, focussing on another new but very different railway under construction, from Xining to Chengdu. Departing this platform soon.

one of the few tunnels on the Geku Gormo to Korla line

[1] US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009, 47,

[2] Takashi Yamano, Hal Hill, Edimon Ginting, and Jindra Samson, Kyrgyz Republic: Improving Growth Potential, Asian Development Bank, 2019, 193-4

[3] Tom Cliff,  Refugees, Conscripts, and Constructors: Developmental Narratives and Subaltern Han in Xinjiang, China, Modern China 2020

[4] Du J; Liu Q; Guo P; Jiang T; Xiong Y; Jiang X, Study on Water Displacing Gas Relative Permeability Curves in Fractured Tight Sandstone Reservoirs Under High Pressure and High Temperature, ACS omega [ACS Omega], ISSN: 2470-1343, 2020 Mar 27; Vol. 5 (13), pp. 7456-7461; Publisher: American Chemical Society

Zhao, Jinzhou; Pu, Xuan; Li, Yongming; He, Xianjie,  A semi-analytical mathematical model for predicting well performance of a multistage hydraulically fractured horizontal well in naturally fractured tight sandstone gas reservoir, Journal of Natural Gas Science and Engineering. May 2016 32:273-291

Jiang, Tongwen; Sun, Xiongwei, Development of Keshen ultra-deep and ultra-high-pressure gas reservoirs in the Kuqa foreland basin, Tarim Basin: Understanding and technical countermeasures, Natural Gas Industry B. January 2019 6(1):16-24

Zhu, Jinzhi; You, Lijun; Li, Jiaxue; Kang, Yili; Zhang, Junjie; Zhang, Dujie; Huang, Chao, Damage evaluation on oil-based drill-in fluids for ultra-deep fractured tight sandstone gas reservoirs, Natural Gas Industry B. July 2017 4(4):249-255

Ma, Hongyu; Gao, Shusheng; Ye, Liyou; Liu, Huaxun; Xiong, Wei; Shi, Jianglong; Wang, Lin; Wu, Kang; Qi, Qingshan; Zhang, Chunqiu. Change of water saturation in tight sandstone gas reservoirs near wellbores, Natural Gas Industry B. December 2018 5(6):589-597



ONE of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing

Why has China coercively punished Uighurs more than Tibetans? This is a question worth exploring in depth, as some reasons are obvious, some need a lot of thought.

One answer is that Tibetans have done a lot of quiet, skilful and effective work to avert the worst. That in itself needs much consideration, in a forthcoming blog.

Both minority nationalities are routinely regarded, in the gaze of the Beijing-based security state, as chronic security threats, recidivist, stubbornly resistant to assimilation, ungrateful, uncivilised and with dangerous allegiances beyond China.

This is a regime increasingly best by enemies, wherever it looks, most of them abroad and increasingly inclined to stand up for themselves, not yield to pressure and threats. But the Tibetans and Uighurs have become China’s internal enemies, on whom China can exert maximum pressure, and then more.

Security state mentality is now embedded in popular consciousness, as well as in the elite, to such an extent that the party-state has to keep pace with the angry mob of hyper nationalist wolf warrior men whose only response is to attack, attack. The wolf warrior mentality and the authoritarian personalities revered by wolf warriors are now so strong China sees threats everywhere, aggressively alienating even those who used to be friends.

Why Xinjiang? Many answers seem relevant. Above all, China classifies the Uighurs collectively as terrorists, as it did to the Tibetans for a period after the 2008 preOlympic protests. But it is hard to call public sacrifice by burning oneself to death terrorism. The sporadic outbreaks of Uighur protest, however, were not only labelled terrorism, but also accepted as such by the security agencies of many countries willing to officially designate the Uighur resistance a terrorist organisation.

This blog explores several reasons why Xinjiang is singled out, though many apply also to Tibet. One is Xinjiang’s strategic location, as China’s land gateway to central Asia and beyond, overland to Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe, especially their resource wealth. Another factor is the scale of Han immigration into Xinjiang, in two distinct waves, populating Xinjiang with enough Han to staff the concentration camps.

A major factor, for both Tibet and Xinjiang, is the hardening of Han hearts to difference, as authoritarianism pervades the party-state from top to bottom. Seeing difference as criminal results in the securitisation of everything, making any minority assertion of difference a threat to the nation.

Another major factor is the technologies of surveillance, big data mining, and the algorithms of predictive policing, which generate the illusion that criminal acts can be predicted and thus prevented by mass detention, isolating the untrustworthy before they are even consciously aware they have criminal intent.

Xinjiang matters more to China. Tibet, as ever, is somewhat isolated by its geography, a vast island several kilometres up in the sky, hardly en route to anywhere. Xinjiang, by contrast, is China’s gateway to the whole of Eurasia and from there overland to the Middle East and Europe, the core of the Belt and Road, the oil, gas and minerals of inner Asia. Xinjiang itself is more valuable than Tibet, has had much more investment not only in infrastructure but in extraction of energy and minerals, long distance energy supply to coastal China, and is where much of the heaviest and most polluting industries have relocated. Despite China’s massive investments in infrastructure in Tibet -an area the size of western Europe, it is not on the scale of Xinjiang (yet).

These are well-recognised reasons why China’s wrath is especially intense in Xinjiang.

Tibetans are doing a lot to be acceptable to China as Buddhist insiders, while remaining insistently outsiders. The skilful ways Tibetans have eluded the worst China can punitively impose is the topic of another blog, not here.


There is however one driver of the mass internment of a million or more Uighurs that is seldom noticed. This is simply that by 2015 China for the first had the technologies on hand for identifying each citizen in a population of several millions, knowing everything from each individual’s genome and blood type to a record of their habits, dress, face shape, prayers, social networks, movements; all gathered into huge integrated databases, capable of generating not only profiles but predictions as to the likelihood each and any one would behave in ways not in accord with official ideology. It was big data, and its alluring promise of predicting behaviour that by 2015 had developed sufficiently to capture the state and its surveillance apparat.[1]

2015 was the pivotal year. Prior to that big data was obviously promising. In the West, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google were adept at persuading customers to generate huge amounts of data the techs could aggregate and sell, highly profitably, to advertisers mesmerised by the prospect of pitching their products to folks known to desire just what they sell. Around the world, security agencies and police forces listened attentively to the big data pitch for seamless integration of all data sources, which would result in real time tracking of crime and criminals, perhaps even sufficient data to omnisciently predict crime, and thus prevent it.

Not surprisingly, China’s security state took an interest, especially the researchers in police academies, magnetised by the emerging prospect of predictive policing, 预测警务 Yùcè jing wù. Their reports drip with references to global thought leaders pioneering these algorithmic solutions. One article, Research on Theoretical Basis and Technical Path of Predictive Policing published in Wuhan in the Journal of Hubei University of Police 湖北警官学院学报 names (in English) Jeremy Bentham, Rational Choice Theory, Deterrence Theory, crime generators, crime attractors, risk terrain, self-exciting processes, Big Data Lab, Computational Criminology, Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History) and many more sources of inspiration. [Li Guojun, 李国军 Hubei University of Police, Research on Theoretical Basis and Technical Path of Predictive Policing, 预测警务的理论基础与技术路径研究, 湖北警官学院学报, Journal of Hubei University of Police, October 2016]

Predictive policing was not an idea originating in China. But, as with much else, China took it and ran with it. If Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and others -China’s equivalents of Amazon etc.- could mine big data for spectacular profits, the security state could  do it too, and attain the dream of the ideal security state in which crime is prevented before it happens.


What became predictive policing originated in the idea that all laboriously generated data on actual crimes and criminals could be aggregated electronically, a compendium of the past of each individual under official scrutiny. For China it was only a short step to project such data forwards into the unknown future, and to categorise an entire ethnicity as criminal, hence suitable cases for treatment.

China did it because it could. China could go all out to force behaviour change in Xinjiang because official China has no qualms about arresting people who have committed no crime.

In other countries, predictive policing faces many obstacles, including technical questions about accuracy and reliability, and a moral objection that no state has the right to lock up people unless and until they actually commit a criminal act. In the West, civil liberties and freedom of expression are so entrenched as inalienable rights that societies have had the utmost trouble reining in hate speech, domestic violence and psychotic breakdowns, on the grounds that you can’t arrest anyone until they have already committed a crime.

China has no such conflicts of values, especially when it come to a minority nationality considered criminally inclined. What matters is to identify and then isolate the “extremists”, and subject them to intensive behaviour modification pressure, day and night, for long periods, until they are fully assimilated into the Chinese race-nation.


That is the significance of 2015. Uighur resistance to China peaked in 2009 with street riots in the largely Han Chinese provincial capital Urumchi, with sporadic outbursts later. Xi Jinping’s 2014 tour of Xinjiang was pivotal. By 2015 there was little overt Uighur resistance anymore. Yet it was in 2015 that the security state geared up, with elaborate preparations for mass incarceration, starting with local “convenience police stations” in every neighbourhood, that took every opportunity to take blood samples and saliva swabs from everyone, to map their DNA and generate sufficient data for the algorithms to chew. The disjunct between the earlier waves of Uighur protest and the later imposition of the predictive policing state is often noticed, but seldom explained.

Another facet everyone can see, but is seldom understood, is that while one or perhaps even two million Uighurs are in secret detention and intense pressure to memorise official propaganda slogans, many more millions of Uighurs are not incarcerated.

Since China has worked hard to conceal the entire forcible assimilation campaign, no-one really knows what proportion of the entire Uighur population is imprisoned. Officially there are just over 12 million Uighurs, so roughly ten percent are incarcerated. This both a huge and a smallish proportion. The size of the internment facilities, the investment of time and money to design, build, staff and operate them is huge. The disappearance of so many people, now not seen by their families for years, is huge. Yet at the same time, predictive policing aims to be selective, weeding out those with the greatest criminal propensity, to concentrate on intensive rectification of errant tendencies, a highly labour-intensive process for gaoler and gaoled alike.

Xinjiang’s Justice Department’s Party Committee secretary stated that in a typical (Muslim) village, 70% of the population merely ‘change with the wider surroundings’ and are hence ‘easily transformed’. In contrast, the other 30% are ‘polluted by religious extremism’. This latter group ‘requires concentrated education work…..…when the 30% are transformed…the village is basically cleansed’. In the same report, the secretary of Khotän County’s Politics and Law Committee argued that of those who received religious extremist influence, ‘about 5% belong to the hardened faction, 15% are supporters, and 80% are illiterates’.

“About 18 months later, in April 2017, the region unleashed an unprecedented re-education drive, with internment rates in Muslim-dominated regions bearing a striking semblance especially to the ratios stated by the Khotän County secretary in the mentioned report. His statements reveal the logic by which XUAR regions with a majority-Muslim population share are simply being assigned fixed internment quotas for re-education, regardless of whether those interned can in fact be convicted of any legal transgressions.”[2]


China has created an industrial scale assembly line to identify the 15 to 30 per cent who require personality dismantling and remodelling as compliant Chinese citizens, speaking Chinese, with official slogans of “Xi Jinping Thought” imprinted on their minds.

By 2017 the old oasis town of Kashgar had become “a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina. Driving or taking a bus to a neighbouring town, you’d hit checkpoints where armed police officers might search your phone for banned apps like Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through your text messages to see if you had used any religious language. You would be particularly worried about making phone calls to friends and family abroad. Hours later, you might find police officers knocking at your door and asking questions that make you suspect they were listening in the whole time.”

If any of your surveilled behaviour triggers the algorithmic decision that you are classified as unreliable and untrustworthy, you are rounded up and put into mandatory detention, not as a preliminary to prosecution, but for “re-education.”  “The instructors taught the detainees to do traditional Chinese dances in the yard of the building, she said. Sometimes there were lectures — an imam working for the state might come in and talk about how important it was to avoid “extreme” practices like wearing headscarves. Once in a while, detainees would be taken to an interrogation room to be grilled about their pasts, often for hours. “They told me I was an ‘unreliable’ person,” Ziyawudun said with another bitter laugh. Her interrogators asked her whether she had ever worn a headscarf and how long she wore her skirts. Many days, inmates were forced to sit on plastic stools beside their bunk beds, with their backs perfectly straight and their hands on their knees, watching endless state television programs extolling Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ziyawudun’s health started to deteriorate from the cold and bad food. She became anaemic. But the hospital building in the compound was even more terrifying. There, she saw men come in with bruises from being beaten and scars she thought were from electric batons. Ziyawudun’s dorm room had three cameras, which guards used to monitor the women at all times. If she were raped, she knew, there would be no one to tell about it, no place to report the crime. After all, she had landed in the camp because authorities felt she was “unreliable.” If one of the women were raped, who would believe them? She had never felt more vulnerable in her life. Sometimes at night, she said, younger women would vanish and come back with no explanations. In the darkness of the room, she would hear them quietly sobbing. “Nobody can talk about this openly,” she said. The real torture, she discovered, took place in silence, in the inmates’ minds”.

This is the lived experience of forcible assimilation, the party-state’s insistence you must adopt Chinese characteristics in all things, from dance to clothes, language, and ability to memorise and reproduce official slogans. Days, weeks, months and now years of being made to sit bolt upright and look at a screen praising the wisdom and benevolence of core leader Xi Jinping. Enemies must be rectified.

“Former detainee Tursunay Ziyawudun said she was injected until she stopped having her period, and kicked repeatedly in the lower stomach during interrogations. She now can’t have children and often doubles over in pain, bleeding from her womb, she said. Ziyawudun and the 40 other women in her “class” were forced to attend family planning lectures most Wednesdays, where films were screened about impoverished women struggling to feed many children.

“Some women have even reported forced abortions. Ziyawudun said a “teacher” at her camp told women they would face abortions if found pregnant during gynaecology exams. A woman in another class turned out to be pregnant and disappeared from the camp, she said. She added that two of her cousins who were pregnant got rid of their children on their own because they were so afraid. Another woman, Gulbahar Jelilova, confirmed that detainees in her camp were forced to abort their children. She also saw a new mother, still leaking breast milk, who did not know what had happened to her infant. And she met doctors and medical students who were detained for helping Uighurs dodge the system and give birth at home.

“In December 2017, on a visit from Kazakhstan back to China, Gulzia Mogdin was taken to a hospital after police found WhatsApp on her phone. A urine sample revealed she was two months pregnant with her third child. Officials told Mogdin she needed to get an abortion and threatened to detain her brother if she didn’t. During the procedure, medics inserted an electric vacuum into her womb and sucked her foetus out of her body. She was taken home and told to rest, as they planned to take her to a camp.”

[1] China’s Algorithms of Repression: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App, Human Rights Watch 2019

[2] Adrian Zenz (2019) ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang, Central Asian Survey, 38:1, 102-128, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997



TWO of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing


In China, this quest to identify the enemy has deep roots. It is almost 100 years since Mao wrote one of his most famous essays: Who are our enemies, and who are our friends?” A more recent book, Policing Chinese Politics: a history, reminds us the figure of the enemy is what binds China now, and “tells the story of what happens when the binary of politics saturates the life world to become its doxa- when every facet of life turns on knowing who the enemy is and acting against that figure. It is at that moment that we arrive at that point when society and life become fused in politics.”[1]

Mao’s obsession became China’s obsession. Mao was formulaic. There was always an enemy, no matter how much revolutionary violence had just named, struggled and purged them. But the enemy was always small enough to be opposed, isolated and defeated. Usually, and by definition, the enemy was five per cent, big enough to be a threat, small enough to be dealt with, leaving the remaining 95 per cent the overwhelming supermajority of us, constituting a universe of fellow feeling, a nation united against the enemy. Us always greatly outnumbered them.

The Uighurs however, by their refusal to assimilate, had shown themselves to be recalcitrant, resistant to both push and pull, both to incentives to transfer loyalty to the state, and to punishment. The problem had become extremely serious, and it was up to big data and predictive policing to determine who the bad actors are. The outcome was 10 to 15 per cent of all Uighurs required coercive rectification. It is not hard to imagine China coming to similar conclusions about the Tibetans, but so far China’s turn, yet again, to严打 yanda, strike hard, has fallen harder on the Uighurs.


Xi Jinping’s tour of Xinjiang in 2014 signalled a major turning. His secret speeches to Xinjiang cadres became public years later: “The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive,” Mr. Xi said in one talk, after inspecting a counterterrorism police squad in Urumqi. “None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, axe heads and cold steel weapons. We must be as harsh as them,” he added, “and show absolutely no mercy.” In free-flowing monologues in Xinjiang and at a subsequent leadership conference on Xinjiang policy in Beijing, Mr. Xi is recorded thinking through what he called a crucial national security issue and laying out his ideas for a “people’s war” in the region.

“Although he did not order mass detentions in these speeches, he called on the party to unleash the tools of “dictatorship” to eradicate radical Islam in Xinjiang. He likened Islamic extremism alternately to a virus-like contagion and a dangerously addictive drug, and declared that addressing it would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment….. The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated,” Mr. Xi told officials in Urumqi on April 30, 2014, the final day of his trip to Xinjiang. “People who are captured by religious extremism — male or female, old or young — have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.” In another speech, at the leadership conclave in Beijing a month later, he warned of “the toxicity of religious extremism………As soon as you believe in it,” he said, “it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.”[2]

This is Han China’s own orientalism, its’ meme of the Islamic fanatic, taking us back to Marco Polo’s hashish fuelled assassins, who will murder you in a flash.

Xi Jinping vowed China will build in Xinjiang “walls of copper and iron” 铁壁铜墙 tiě bì tóng qiáng, a metaphor stretching back to the Mongol Yuan dynasty that ruled China in the 13th century. It’s a poetic way of saying adamantine, indestructible, eternal; perhaps akin to Donald Trump’s wall to forever keep Latinx fenced out.

Xi Jinping’s other key metaphor was a pledge to build nets reaching to the sky 蚊帐从地球传播到天空 Wénzhàng cóng dìqiú chuánbò dào tiānkōng. At the time, in 2014, it was not obvious what he meant.  Was it a giant mosquito net to protect the body politic from infection? In 2014 it was hard to visualise what a net reaching to the sky, through which all Uighurs would be sieved, would look like. Now we know. In retrospect, it’s an apt image of the hi-tech surveillance state forever gazing remotely at the lives of all Uighurs, with predictive policing netting those classified as unreliable, for correction.

Aided by the algorithms of predictive policing, mass incarceration has become a huge experiment in brainwashing, possible as long as the proportion of the total population at risk is not more than 10 or perhaps 15 per cent. Detainees do mandatory performative repetition of official slogans. Party-state officials hope this will not only wear away their stubborn resistance to assimilation, it will also convince the rest of the population to identify with the unitary nation-state and its single, unitary race-nation, the zhonghua minzu. Thus, it becomes, yet again, a “people’s war” against the minority and their errant thinking. “We must launch an anti-terrorism and stability maintenance People’s War, encourage the masses to offer and report evidence of terrorism, and support the people and the masses, in conjunction with the armed forces to subdue and arrest thugs.”[3]

Urumqi 2014

A “people’s war” deliberately invokes memories of Mao’s declared war strategy when, as expected, the Americans would invade. Mao’s strategy was to allow the enemy deep inland, at enormous human cost, then surround and eliminate the invaders, in a scaled-up version of how Stalin’s Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s armies. For a people’s war to work, it must be absolutely clear to all who “the people” are. When dealing with the expected foreign invasion, that is easy; when the enemy to be subdued are citizens, of a minority nationality guaranteed autonomy by law, not so easy.

Bytedance staff do their compulsory ‘Study Slogans of Xi Jinping’ session. Bytedance owns TikTok.


In practice, mobilising the Han against the Uighurs has worked, making it clear who wages people’s war, against whom. The populating of Xinjiang by Han is a major reason why the situation in Xinjiang now is so much worse than in Tibet, where emigration of Han into Tibet remains constricted.

Yet this mobilisation of the Han took time, in fact decades. This is because -unlike Tibet- the number of Han who emigrated to Xinjiang is large, yet they came in distinct waves, with distinct differences in attitude towards the Uighurs.

Today in Xinjiang, Mao’s 1920s question: Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? is readily answered. But it was not always so straightforward. The first wave of Han emigrating to Xinjiang in the 1950s and 1960s were themselves a minority, often ordered to the frontier as demobilised soldiers to be kept well away from the capital in case they fomented trouble. They were organised into a paramilitary production brigade, known in English as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and in Chinese simple as the bingtuan. They had the dual function of repressing the Uighurs should they revolt, and of building large scale state farms, highways and infrastructure. This encouraged other Han to migrate, to work in the oil extraction industry, cotton, melon and grape farming, their produce in demand in eastern China.

The bingtuan became a full-scale military industrial complex, dominating many industries, providing cradle to grave iron rice bowl security to its employees. The bingtuan issues its own statistical yearbook, as provinces do. The 2018 bingtuan yearbook lists the number of people within it as just over three million, of whom 2.55 million are Han.

Despite the military structure of the XPCC, this first wave was acutely aware that Xinjiang is huge, the Uighurs at every turn made it clear it is their home, and the Han could in no way ignore the traditional land owners. Gradually, as the decades passed, a modus vivendi evolved. Uighurs and Han socialised to some extent, learned each other’s languages a bit, and above all, discovered each other’s favourite foods. A limited multiculturalism grew.

The second wave came from the mid-1990s onward, incentivised to emigrate by official propaganda, subsidies, investment capital from Beijing, into the existing Han enclaves of northern Xinjiang. New industries grew: oil extraction became gas wells and coal mines and power grids and aluminium smelters and scaled up agricultural commodity production for distant Chinese markets. Xinjiang is China’s Belt and Road gateway to the extraction of resources across central Asia, and the Belt and Road Initiative rapidly globalised Xinjiang and renewed Han migration, sped up by faster railways and highways. This second wave had less time to acculturate, to get to know Uighurs socially, and less reason to do so, as Uighur resentment at being overwhelmed and treated with racist contempt hardened everyone. The second wave was more hard-headed than the first, less inclined to accommodate difference, more certain of China’s civilising mission, at a time of China’s rapidly growing wealth.


When resentments flared into violence, socialising ceased. Battle lines were drawn, people’s war against Uighur “extremists” declared.

The people’s war did require mobilising all Han in Xinjiang, whether first or second wave.  Features of the new people’s war were extraordinarily labour intensive, requiring every Han to report for duty. It is this enlistment of all Han in Xinjiang, reconstituting them as the people/volk/ethnos/zhonghua minzu of people’s war against the people’s enemies, that is the most unique aspect of the Xinjiang strike hard campaign. It has no historic parallel, but it does, as with much else in Xinjiang, have precedents in Tibet.

In the earlier phase of mass Han mobilisation, the core task was to define who is the enemy. Since the Xinjiang Han and Uighur populations are roughly the same in numbers, it would be impossible to classify all Uighurs as enemies, even though the Han coalesced around a single phrase: “The Uighurs are so bad”. The enemy, whether five or ten or 15 percent or even more, had to be identified, at a time when facial recognition software and the algorithms of predictive policing were still being developed.

The party-state did what only a highly authoritarian party-state could do, there is little precedent elsewhere, other than in Tibet. Politically reliable Han were ordered to live with Uighur families, under one roof, sometimes for a week at a time, sometimes longer, often repeatedly, and then report their data to the security state’s fast expanding big data aggregations. Uighur families were ordered to accept these projections of party-state power into the hearth, living space and bedrooms of all Uighur, knowing full well they were being assessed as trustworthy, unreliable, or enemy.

This requires, of all Han, an unshakeable conviction in their civilisational superiority, a manifest destiny as tutors to the poor and backward, a strong belief that this invasion is for the good of all.

For Uighurs, it requires displays of gratitude, from the moment the Han invigilator arrives, showing him (sometimes her) to the best room, to be served the best food and, above all, to perform the declamation of official slogans, not just when prompted, but at all times.

Everyone knew this was crunch time; that lifeways would be decided by these assessments and reports back to the burgeoning big data, for the algorithms to do the crunching. And everyone knew that everyone had to act as if this was normal, and in fact welcome. Any slip up in performance could be taken as the truth of “extremism” revealing itself.

Among first wave Han, who had, in earlier years, made friends with Uighurs, or at least socialised with them, it took a while before they all understood what was required. But Uighur, seeing friends and relatives disappear into concentration camps, understood clearly that the distinction between public and private had vanished, and they were on view, under official gaze, made legible to the party-state in even their most private spaces and moments. The only way to avoid being next to be disappeared was to perform official slogans, and only official slogans, not just when prompted, but at all times, whenever possible. Neither Kafka nor Orwell ever quite imagined this intensity of party-state rectification.


How does this work in practice? Here is the story of a first wave Han arriving at the house of an Uighur family known to her family, over many years:

“A middle-aged Uyghur couple greeted them effusively in heavily accented Chinese. The food was steaming on a low table that had been set on a platform. It was a meal that must have cost the family a considerable amount, given their economic status as rural farmers. Lu Yin told me, “They presented us with polu, the good kind with the leg of lamb.” She and the other three Han visitors took off their shoes and climbed up onto the raised platform.

“As they began eating, the Uyghur hosts immediately began talking about “re-education” centres. “They said in those places the guards say, ‘Who provides your daily bread?’ The answer is, ‘Xi Jinping! If you don’t answer this way then you don’t get fed!’”

“The turn in the conversation and the banality with which the couple spoke shocked Lu Yin. What was even more startling was that none of her relatives or their Han colleagues challenged what they said. They did not attempt to explain away the violence of the camp system. There was no discussion of job training or free education. Lu Yin said, “Nobody questioned this, the Uyghur family spoke about the violence of the camps in incredibly matter-of-fact ways.”

“In fact, her family members responded to this discussion of internment camps by using clichés about “social stability” and defeating the three evil forces of “separatism, extremism, and terrorism.” Lu Yin was stunned. She said, “Everyone was talking in slogans.” As she observed the scene and listened to what they were saying, she realized that the slogans were not just in the spoken words. “Inside the house, there were slogans pasted everywhere,” she said. Her relatives, the Uyghur hosts, their home, and their village had been inundated with “re-education.”

“No one interrupted the Uyghurs while they were speaking. No one contradicted what they said. When there was a gap in conversation, the refrain was ‘Uyghurs are so bad!’ The Uyghur husband and wife said in response, ‘Yes. Uyghurs are so bad.’” As they drove away from the Uyghur home, Lu Yin’s aunt began to repeat some of the things that had been discussed over dinner. “Over and over she said, ‘Uyghurs are so bad. Uyghurs are so bad. Islam is bad. The Hui are bad too.’” The others in the SUV joined in, affirming the same lines.

Lu Yin asked her aunt what relationship they had with the host family. She told her that they had been “assigned” to them. “Sometimes we bring them rice during our visits,” she said. The Uyghur couple was their “younger brother and sister.” Like over one million other mostly Han civil servants, they had been assigned to monitor and re-educate a Turkic Muslim family. Lu Yin had just witnessed this. She was also witnessing a larger transformation of Han attitudes toward Uyghurs and other Muslims who were native to Xinjiang.”

Everyone was talking in slogans. Everyone behaves as if on camera, with security state grid management monitors watching it all, for the slightest signs of deviance. No-one can trust anyone. No-one can speak their mind. To open your mouth is to betray yourself. The only safe utterance is performative declamation, as if addressing a public gathering, of officially mandated slogans.

In private, with no Han present, Uighurs feel they have to perpetuate the slogans and euphemisms: “The concentration camps are not referred to as “concentration camps”, naturally. Instead, the people there are said to be occupied with “studying” (oqushta/öginishte) or “education” (terbiyileshte), or sometimes may be said to be “at school” (mektepte). Likewise, people do not use words like “oppression” when talking about the overall situation in Xinjiang. Rather, they tend to say “weziyet yaxshi emes” (“the situation isn’t good”), or describe Xinjiang as being very “ching” (“strict”, “tight”).”

Any conscientious Han “elder brother” emplaced as eyes of the party-state captures troves of data, to be uploaded into the predictive policing system for identifying the enemy. Along with actual camera surveillance in public spaces, genomic profile of each individual, behavioural record stretching back, at least for Uighurs who had been cadres, of a voluminous dang’an personnel file, all add up. The party-state believes it has achieved panopticon omniscience, even to the extent of being able to predict future individual criminality not consciously known to the human who is thus labelled an enemy.

Fittingly, the official name of this project of enemy identification is itself a slogan, officially fanghuiju 访惠聚, an acronym that stands for “Visit the People, Benefit the People, and Get Together the Hearts of the People” 访民情、惠民生、聚民心 Fang mínqíng, huì mín shēng, jù mínxīn. Each of the three slogans, elided in common speech just as fanghuiju, has in the middle of its three characters min, people. The leadup to a people’s war starts with Han as official visitor to the people, to benefit people’s livelihood, and gather people’s hearts. The decisive classification as to whether you, and your family, are actually part of “the people” or of the enemy is cloaked in benevolent paternalistic euphemism, signalling the onset of deep inauthenticity.

Apps make it easy to make slogan chanting a public performance. “A WeChat app allows users to “fasheng liangjian” (“to clearly demonstrate one’s stance” or, literally, “to speak forth and flash one’s sword”), by plugging their name into a prepared Mandarin- or Uighur-language statement. The statement pledges their loyalty to the Communist party and its leaders, and expresses, among other things, their determination in upholding “ethnic harmony” and standing opposed to terrorism. The generated image file could then be readily posted on their social network of choice as a show of loyalty.”

[1] Michael Dutton, Policing Chinese Politics: a history, Duke, 2004, 4

[2] Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, NY Times, November 16, 2019

[3] 发动群众打赢反恐维稳人民战争, Mobilize the Masses to Win the Anti-Terrorism and Stability Maintenance People’s War, 16 November 2018.  



THREE of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing


Having identified the Tibetans and Uighurs as China’s eternal internal enemies, coercive correction ensues. In today’s wolf warrior China, it follows readily that what you do with enemies you cannot be rid of, you must and can coercively transform. This too is enormously labour-intensive.

Inside the concentration camps, the pressure to speak only in slogans is even more intense, and without cease. Even in the cell shared with other inmates, all speech must be those slogans, nothing else.

Endless repetition of slogans, over days, months and years, constitutes the success of re-education, and eventually “graduating” to release, though there have been few releases. Does the security state, established to institutionalise suspicion, actually believe that endless mouthing of performative declamation is actually a change of heart? Does anyone believe chanting gratitude to Xi Jinping for putting food into one’s mouth is done sincerely? Is this why detention is interminable? Does the security state want to believe its own propaganda? Is there any exit?

This drastic reduction of Uighur culture down to a single dimension – propensity for violence- inevitably robs Uighurs of a deep cultural heritage. A one-dimensional depiction of the Uighurs as classic Orientalist thuggee assassins who will without warning stab you to death, also robs the world of a culture that over many centuries contributed to the civilisations of inner Asia.[1]

Between the first Han immigrant wave into Xinjiang and the second, there was a revival of Uighur culture, and vigorous argument among Uighurs about what had been lost in complying with China’s exclusion of religion from the public sphere, which had led to devotional songs being reframed as love songs. This happened in Tibet too. Videos, DVDs and online postings of songs were acceptable to the censors if they presented as songs to the beloved, or to the beauty of the land, with a subtler subtext of devotion to the guru.

The Uighur cultural renaissance broadcasts of the 1980s “became ritualised events linking modern Uighurs with this poetic and musical canon of collective culture, variously described as an encyclopaedia Uighur culture, a ‘folk classical’ tradition, and a valuable part of world cultural heritage.”[2]

source: Shutterstock


The entire campaign to forcibly realign minds en masse depends on the algorithms of predictive policing. Algorithms by definition must be fed numbers, so emphasis is inevitably on what can be measured. Which Uighur men have beards? Which women cover their heads?  These are ranked as key indicators of criminal dispositions in need of correction. Who prays?

These, and many other quantifiable attributes of self and identity, are no longer the numbers of the Quantified Self, as the data belongs to the state, for the primary purpose of instantly calculating criminal propensity. The Quantified Self (QS) was a promising proposition, that by wearing tracking devices, each of us will generate data so we will then be nudged to be fitter, get more exercise, become healthier, and avoid pandemic infections.

The state capture of the Quantifiable Self, not only for surveillance but also compulsory correction of deviant behaviours, is just one aspect of the parallel universes of American and Chinese corporate AI enthusiasms, which did not merge in ownership, due to prohibitions, both in China and the US, on corporate mergers and acquisitions. What did converge, however, was an increasing fusion, especially in China, between the oligopoly of corporate AI giants, and the party-state.

The fusion of state and corporate giants is most obvious in the ramping up of social credit systems, which blend data torrents of state surveillance and corporate tracking of consumer behaviours, preferences and desires, into a mimesis of the Quantified Self, who is to be rewarded or punished according to their ranking score. This hologram appears to be a whole human being, but is a statistical apparition, a ghost that walks into hypermodernity, to be incentivised, nudged, accoladed for obedience, or punished and even incarcerated, for praying, having a beard or headscarf. As usual, the advocates of social credit rankings seductively pitch their system as an enticing official recognition of compliance, a reward for paying your bills on time and having a good credit rating. Advocates of social credit rankings understandably dwell less on those to be punished, who will not be as keen to sign up; but such a system, in which everything is a one or a zero is inherently dualistic, requiring a negative pole, of deviants to be punished, to make the positive pole meaningful.

How the party-state fostered the AI corporates, in a conscious copying of Silicon Valley, is told by Kai-fu Lee, in his 2018 AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, as a story in which he has a central role. In his chapter on “China’s Alternate Internet Universe” he introduces us to Guo Hong, an official tasked with generating a Beijing AI production base capable of imitating and then surpassing Silicon Valley, much faster. “Silicon valley’s ecosystem had taken shape over several decades. But what if we in China could speed up that process by brute-forcing the geographic proximity? We could pick out one street in Zhongguancun [in Beijing], clear out all the old inhabitants, and open up the street to key players.”[3]

As a senior party-state official, all Guo Hong needed to do was make a few phone calls, the old residents were evicted and “an alternate internet universe” was born. It is now renamed the Avenue of the Entrepreneurs. That’s how it goes.

This is socialism with Chinese characteristics, new era state capitalism. The distinction between data gathering for profit and data gathering to enforce assimilation has blurred. All data generated by quantified selves, voluntarily or involuntarily, is fed into the algorithms of reward and punishment, for marketing products, generating corporate revenue and for predictive policing. There are no clear boundaries separating the gathering, assembly and algorithmic rating of each citizen for consumption or correction purposes.


In the West, it is supposed to be different. Maybe.

In the West the corporates who vacuum up the data from each Quantified Self keep it out of the hands of the security state. Maybe.

In China the conflation of enterprise and party-state in not the only collapse of categories. Big data started out by promising to lighten the bureaucratic load of police personnel laboriously entering information on criminals suspected, arrested, interrogated, tried and convicted. This simple automation of drudgery quickly morphed into a panopticon of surveillance, armed with facial recognition cameras everywhere and Quantified Self software to instantly allocate identities to each image. From there it was a short step to predictive policing. The hubris of AI start-ups was boundless, and the eagerness of the party-state for omniscience and omnipotence was insatiable. It was a match. Not for the first time, China’s century old worship of Mr. Science led it astray.

The other driver of predictive policing, coercive assimilation and now cultural genocide is Han racism. The aura of algorithmic scientific objectivity conceals the racism embedded in the assessments it generates. Algorithmic racism is by now well recognised around the world, among the many ways algorithms perpetuate and exacerbate inequality.[4] This is not hard to see. Algorithms are full of valuations and judgements which, once set are then invisible, and assume the mantle of fact. From the outset, in the insurance industry’s actuarial calculations of risk, algorithms have been fixated on identifying and quantifying risk. That’s core business. Assigning a risk weighting to beards and headscarves is just the start.

The naturalisation of forcible assimilation driven by algorithmic assessment is further reinforced by likening it to medical treatment of disease:  “In April 2017, the Khotän Prefecture government published a bilingual Chinese-Uyghur document, ‘Transformation through Education Classes Are Like a Free Hospital Treatment for the Masses with Sick Thinking’ (2017). The document begins by stating:

“In the recent period…a small number of…especially young people have been sent to transformation through education classes to receive study; many parents, relatives and the general population do not understand transformation through education classes and may have some misgivings.

“The document then promises to dispel these misgivings by extolling the benefits of ‘transformation through education’ as a free ‘treatment’, effectively equating religiosity with a dangerous drug addiction. According to this logic, replacing religious beliefs with ‘correct’ state ideology through re-education is akin to a detoxification process that is freely provided by a benevolent state. In other contexts, the state equates the battle against religious ‘extremism’ with ‘eradicating the tumours’”.[5]


A detailed list of the official categories embedded in the algorithms of mass detention is a jumble of racist prejudices:

  • Breaking family planning laws
  • Travelling to one of 26 ‘sensitive’ countries
  • Being involved in the 2009 protests in the city of Urumqi
  • Going on a hajj pilgrimage
  • Being related to someone who is detained
  • Being an ‘untrustworthy’ individual
  • Providing a place for ‘illegal’ worship
  • Secretly taking religious texts from the mosque to pray at home
  • Owning a passport
  • Growing a beard
  • Being a ‘wild’ (unofficial) Imam
  • Using a virtual private network — software that allows access to websites banned by China
  • Owning ‘illegal’ books
  • Getting married using a fake marriage certificate
  • Reading scripture to a child aged under 16
  • Visiting a banned website
  • Donating money to a mosque
  • Disobeying local officials
  • Praying in a public place
  • Calling someone overseas
  • Having previously served time in prison
  • Downloading violent videos[6]

These categories of criminality drive the algorithmic allocation of guilt.

This jumbled list of what justifies official hostility is a mishmash of classic Han prejudices. Those prejudices are not at all new, but their systematisation is, as is the insistence that these are objective markers of Uighur anti-social tendencies in urgent need of correction.

What justifies urgent rectification is the violence, especially in 2009 and 2014, against Han hegemony over a nominally autonomous Uighur region. Official propaganda videos on this “extremist terrorism” have whipped up widespread Han anger and a wolf warrior will to punish not only the guilty but those who might dare to think about it.[7]

However, Uighur unhappiness at colonisation is not new. In 1956 “some backward masses” rose against XPCC bingtuan Han “killing and wounding scores of our cadres, comrades and soldiers”.[8] Further uprisings occurred in 1958 and 1959. In one, 10,000 young Uighur men stormed a prison, releasing 600 prisoners, and seizing grain stocks as famine loomed.[9] Only the overwhelming firepower of the military quelled the masses.

Official policy remained conflicted and contradictory. Not only were the rights of minority nationalities to be respected, officially there were calls “in particular to rectify the tendency towards ‘great nationalism’ prevalent among the Han cadres.”[10] As elsewhere in China, this equivalence of great Han chauvinism and small minority chauvinism gave way to a revolutionary zeal to sweep away everything old. Han chauvinism was no longer spoken of. In the name of revolution Han racist prejudices triumphed.


How did we get to the calculated cruelty of predictive policing and the incarceration of a million or more people suspected, by algorithmic formula, of criminal intent?

In the West, where surveillance capitalism still seems to many to be separate from the surveillance state, it all started well. Shoshana Zuboff tells us: “from the very start Google’s breakthrough depended upon a one-way mirror: surveillance. The new methods were invented and deployed from 2001 to 2004 and held in strict secrecy. This shift in the use of surplus behavioural data was a historic turning point. Google had found a game-changing, zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement towards a genuine commercial exchange. Surveillance capitalism soon migrated to Facebook and rose to become the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by every start-up and app.  It was rationalised as a quid pro quo for free services but is no more limited to that context than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Model T. It has long been understood that capitalism evolves by claiming things that exist outside of the market dynamic and turning them into market commodities for sale and purchase. Surveillance capitalism extends this pattern by declaring private human experience as free raw material that can be computed and fashioned into behavioural predictions for production and exchange.  In this logic, surveillance capitalism poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains and our beating hearts. You are not “the product” but rather the abandoned carcass. The “product” derives from the surplus data ripped from your life. 

“At a certain point, surveillance capitalists discovered behaviour modification: digitally mediated real-time interventions that nudge consumers in the direction of desirable outcomes. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way . . . We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

“Surveillance capitalists produce deeply anti-democratic asymmetries of knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. They know everything about us, while their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They predict our futures and configure our behaviour, but for the sake of others’ goals and financial gain. This power to know and modify human behaviour is unprecedented.”[11]

From there, it is a short step to predictive policing in a developmentalist state that has long picked corporate winners, subsidising its favoured enterprises, using technologies invented for profit to punish enemies of the state. Whether the customer is nudged to buy, or the Uighur on the street is rounded up by police, the big data gathering is the same, and the algorithms are the same.

For an advertiser, Google promises to sell you its selection of people who have an active interest in your product. If you are a manufacturer of barbeques, for example, targeting your advertising direct to a curated list of people who have used the word “barbeque” in a Google search, that  looks like a much better bet than the scattergun of advertising to millions in a general interest mass medium. Even if only a handful of the thousands Google has curated just for you ever actually buy your barbeque, it is still a winning proposition compared to mass advertising. If you sell a dozen, you’re laughing.

But if you are a security state seeking to identify, in a population of 12 million Uighurs, the few with actual violent intent, does monitoring of beards and prayers deliver the target? Or are the measurables of facial recognition software, such as beards and head scarves, delivering a huge number of people, only a few of whom intend violence? Is it wise to aggressively indoctrinate a thousand because one in a thousand is likely to become violent?


Radical uncertainty is the human condition. Anything can happen. What is normal can collapse, almost as if it had never been. The past is no guide to the future. The compulsion to calculate risks that may arise is delusional. Not only do the Buddhist lamas tell us so, so too does the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in his 2020 reflection on what he learned in a decade of running the British economy, in Radical Uncertainty.[12]

Central banks and core institutions of globalisation such as the International Monetary Fund are expected to foresee major crises, such as an economic recession or financial crisis. Identifying trends and assessing risks are core business, in a world increasingly fixated on anticipating and controlling risks. A quantification of IMF risk assessments, 1988 to 2018, finds there had been 469 recessions, 79 of them in advanced economies. The IMF foresaw only four a year in advance, and none when it came to rich nations. It did, however, spot 47 that never happened.

Mervyn King tells us why “future-proofing”, the delusion driving predictive policing, is delusional. We seek certainties that don’t exist and invent knowledge that we can’t have to support our decision-making. Yet the economics profession has become dominated by an approach to uncertainty that requires a comprehensive list of possible outcomes with well-defined numerical probabilities attached to them. Drawing widely on philosophy, anthropology, economics, cognitive science, strategic management and organisation scholarship, King and co-author John Kay present an argument that probabilistic thinking gives us a false understanding of our power to make predictions.

To be reminded of this, in the midst of a global pandemic no-one foresaw, is helpful. But this is hardly a new insight. Not only have the Buddhist teachers been telling us for over 2500 years that everything is contingent, interdependent and unreliable, it is 99 years since Keynes reminded us. In 1921 Keynes depicted the ubiquity of “radical uncertainty”, based on the premise that we do not know what is going to happen, and we have a very limited ability to even describe the things that might happen.[13] Keynes said: “By uncertain knowledge, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain . . . There is no scientific basis to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” When Keynes wrote that in 1921 it was just three years since “the war to end all wars”, and no-one could imagine that 18 years later Germany would insist on refighting it.

Nonetheless the Chinese Communist Party remains addicted to data, calculations, models, extrapolations, forecasts and predictive policing. It is not alone.  The hunger for certainty, predictability, reliably controlled risks is so strong. Investors, corporate bosses, think tanks, management consultants, as well as governments all want the future to be chartable and manageable. Milton Friedman, high priest of neoliberalism, disagreed with Keynes, insisting “We may treat people as if they assigned numerical probabilities to every conceivable event.”

This is seductive, and the advent of big data made it all the more seductively tantalisingly close: the chimera of mastery of not only the present but also the future.

In order to make the future predictable, Friedman had to reduce human complexity to a thin simulacrum, homo economicus, who is forever objectively calculating the shifting odds, as if that is what real people do, all the time. This highly reductive version of human nature is now thoroughly discredited by behavioural economics, which reminds us that human motivations, expectations, hopes, fears, prejudices and assumptions all affect our attempts at peering into the future.

China’s party-state remains addicted to the illusion of control, blind to the racist prejudices embedded in the predictive policing classification criteria. This is not just because China has not caught up with the shift in economic thought, it is because the CCP’s legitimacy relies on its supposed capacity to foresee emerging problems and apply the right solutions. The CCP is a problem-generating engine, manufacturing “contradictions” which it alone is qualified to resolve. That is its mode of existence.


While the CCP casts its baleful gaze outwards onto the Uighurs, it is averse to gazing inward, to notice its deep prejudices, that pervade its predictive policing. In China, racism is frequently blamed as the driver of Western efforts to decouple the global economy, and name China a bad actor for stealing intellectual property and competing unfairly by favouring its Chinese national champions. China is quick to name racism as endemic in the West, and occasionally is willing to look at popular attitudes towards Africans resident in China as racist. That is as far as it goes.

China has global ambitions, aided by classifying anyone, anywhere worldwide, who is of Chinese descent, as Chinese. This is a deterritorialised Chineseness that transcends boundaries and claims people as Chinese whether they see themselves that way or not. In Chinese there is little distinction between:

  • 中国人 (zhōngguó rén), meaning someone from the country China;
  • 华侨 (huá qiáo), a politically laden term meaning ‘overseas Chinese’, implying sojourner status;
  • and 华人 (huá rén), meaning ‘Chinese (ethnic) person’,
  • or 华裔 (huá yì), meaning ‘of Chinese ethnicity’.

This ‘华’ (huá) is a shortened version of ‘中华’ (zhōnghuá), which can be found in the official name of the People’s Republic of China—中华人民共和国 (zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó)—as well as that of the Republic of China—中华民国 (zhōnghuá mínguó). To use a Germanic word, 中华 refers to the Volk. As Chinese populations expand worldwide, with Chinese workforces building Chinese loan-financed infrastructure, “strategies and policies implemented by the Chinese government and its overseas representatives aiming at engaging Chinese diasporas also contribute to spreading nationalism and building a deterritorial Chinese identity.”[14]

Within China, territorially defined, it is axiomatic that all minority nationalities will inevitably merge into the volk, the Han race-nation, the 中华’ zhōnghuá. From a standard Han perspective, the history of China is the assimilation of minorities, even those who conquered and ruled China, including the Mongols and Manchu. Chinese civilisation is so self-evidently superior, magnetic, compellingly attractive, it is a historic inevitability that all under heaven will be drawn to it, and adopt it as their identity. Of the 56 officially recognised ethnicities, only two stubbornly resist: the Uighurs and the Tibetans. Their resistance is proof of their backwardness, primitivity and refusal of modernity. Yet modernity is simply a universal law of development. All of this is so obvious to nearly all Han it seldom needs to be said.

[1] Nathan Light, Slippery Paths: performance and canonisation of Turkic literature and Uygur Muqam song in Islam and modernity, PhD, Indiana, 1998

[2] Nathan Light, Cultural Politics and the Pragmatics of Resistance, in Ildiko Beller-Hann ed., Situating the Uyghurs between China and Central Asia, 2008, 156

[3] Kai-fu Lee, Mariner Books, 2018, 53

[4] Lily Hu and Yiling Chen. 2018. A Short-term Intervention for Long-term Fairness in the Labour Market. In WWW 2018: The 2018 Web Conference, April 23–27, 2018, Lyon, France. ACM, New York, NY,

[5] Zenz (2019) ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’

[6] Christian Shepherd and Laura Pitel , The Karakax list: how China targets Uighurs in Xinjiang, FT 17 Feb 2020,

The Karakax List: Dissecting the Anatomy of Beijing’s Internment Drive in Xinjiang, Journal of Political Risk Feb 2020


[8] Xinjiang Daily, 23 September 1956, cited in Don McMillen, Chinese Communist Power and Policy in Xinjiang, 1949-1977, Westview Press 1979, 117

[9] McMillen, 119

[10] Report of the Central People’s Government Mission to Northwest China, Xinhua, 22 March 1951, cited in McMillen, 114

[11] Shoshana Zuboff: Facebook, Google and a dark age of surveillance capitalism, Financial Times, 25 Jan 2019

[12] John Kay and Mervyn King, Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future, Little, Brown, 2020

Nassim Taleb, (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable. Random House, London

Philip E. Tetlock, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Broadway Books,

[13] John Maynard Keynes, 1921, A treatise on probability. Macmillan, London

[14] Jinpu Wang & Ning Zhan (2019) Nationalism, overseas Chinese state and the construction of ‘Chineseness’ among Chinese migrant entrepreneurs in Ghana, Asian Ethnicity, 20:1, 8-29, DOI:10.1080/14631369.2018.1547875



FOUR of four blogposts on authoritarian China’s delusional fixation on predictive policing

In Western countries racism is debated everywhere, at all times, is vigorously contested, so much so that even in the middle of a pandemic entrenched racism and its legacies is the top topic. There is no such debate in China.

When educated Chinese are asked to reflect about racism, they sometimes say: I like black American culture, but I don’t like blacks. That’s as far as they get. The possibility that their perception of Uighurs and Tibetans might be suffused with racist stereotypes never occurs to them, there is no debate, only silence. Han chauvinist racism as a driver of official policy and popular attitudes is not only off the agenda, it is unimaginable.

As a direct result these unconscious prejudices are embedded in the classifications of predictive policing that get you locked up. Once you are incarcerated, the same racism sets the agenda of the “reform through education” program you must learn to repeat on demand. The recent revelation that Uighur women are routinely sterilised against their will, and required to accept insertion of permanent contraception devices, is the clearest evidence of a violently racist campaign to suppress Uighur population. At the same time a pro-natalist policy for the Han is failing to boost Han numbers -well over a billion people- as fast as the party-state now wants. This is eugenics, the active elimination of an “inferior” race, while promoting a higher birth rate among the “master” race. At this point it is hard to distinguish a forcible assimilation campaign from cultural genocide.

Inside the camps, surrounded by razor wire and armed guards, the curriculum is solely accelerated, mandatory assimilation. For there to be any hope of eventual release, and a return to family life, each person must not only learn to parrot party slogans, but to embrace identification with the Han Chinese race-nation, zhonghua minzu, as one’s primary loyalty and identity.

The foundational assumption behind this pedagogy is that six decades of trying to persuade Uighurs to adopt Han Chinese characteristics failed, so now it is time to speed up the inevitable and push, where pull failed. Since Han China is now so strong and successful in an all-round way, the transfer of loyalty from imam to party-state, from Uighur ethnicity to zhonghua minzu is both a historic inevitability and is for their own good, even if they obstinately refuse to see this right now. So, compulsion is necessary. The racism is invisible.

The official rhetoric of this elaborate system of surveilling, recording, classifying and detaining huge numbers of citizens for long periods is that it is a re-education. Is it? Will it achieve the goal of making all Uighurs identify as Chinese, as members of the one Zhonghua Minzu race-nation?  Will endless repetition of official slogans and CCP mass campaign phrases somehow shift the minds of Uighurs, so their primary loyalty is to the party-state, ahead of their identification with the Uighur people and Islam? That is the stated intention.

Criminologists worldwide remind us that carceral systems usually talk of rehabilitating prisoners, but in practice this always comes second to punishment. The Uighurs are being punished, for being Uighur. Mass punishment, including forced labour manufacturing export goods, mass sterilisations, rape, chopping long hair for overseas sale of hair extensions, as well as the torments above, can only generate bitterness.

Official China has told the Han masses for decades that the Uighurs, in their officially designated “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region” have enjoyed decades of privileged treatment, including the right to have more children than Han were allowed. The official message is that despite official benevolence, the Uighurs remained ungrateful and then turned terrorist. There are many slick official videos stridently branding the Uighurs as terrorists.[1] Official China is now the captive of its own endless hate speech, having stirred popular passions to demand punishment of an entire nationality.

This cannot end well. Mass punishment, with no end in sight individually or collectively, is cultural genocide. That is the direction this complex algorithm driven system is heading. Genocide is a word coined in the 1940s, adopted by the UN, but weakened by the victors of World War II to exclude cultural genocide, which was the original thrust of the definition proposed by jurist Raphael Lemkin, inventor of the concept. So worried were the major powers that they could find themselves accused of genocide, the legal meaning narrowed to require proof of state intention to eradicate an ethnicity. Philippe Sands, author of an in-depth history of the concept, and its legal variant, “crimes against humanity”, says there can be no doubt China’s actions in Xinjiang are crimes against humanity.


Detaining 10 to 15 per cent of an entire nationality, for months now becoming years, is logistically enormously expensive and enormously labour intensive, since the ostensible purpose is not only punishment but to change minds. China has been willing to make that investment. Staffing the concentration camps, recruiting staff, both Han and Uighur, to implement coercive assimilation is a huge undertaking, as is evident in the job advertising monitored by Adrian Zenz and others.

Nonauthoritarian personalities need not apply. Effective dehumanisation of Uighurs en masse requires concentration camp staff who have first dehumanised themselves to the point of indifference to the suffering they cause.

This is one of the most striking aspects of the Chinese system, not often discussed: the prevalence, at all levels of the party-state, of the authoritarian personality. A system that selects for authoritarianism results in institutionalised authoritarianism, top to bottom. The ability to see the beard or headscarf as irredeemably Other and a danger to civilisation with Chinese characteristics, is an essential, self-perpetuating prerequisite for making the system work.

Authoritarian personalities recruit fellow authoritarians to their ranks of party members, cadres and local government officials, as well as the staff running the concentration camps. China has over many years created a system that selects for authoritarians at all levels, which reproduces itself in its own image.

Authoritarians relish exercising authority over those ranked below, but also slot comfortably into a hierarchy which issues commands they willingly obey. Subservience to superiors and dehumanised punishment of inferiors are the traits of the authoritarian.

The Chinese Communist Party is about to celebrate its centenary. From the outset it ruthlessly purged those whose ideas deviated from those of the leaders, a long tradition frequently invoked by current leaders.


What does vex central leaders is cadres who elaborately display their conformity with directives but do little in practice to implement them, often because central commands don’t fit local circumstances. In CCP jargon, this is the sin of “formalism”, a term with Stalinist roots, and it has become such a serious problem of an authoritarian system that the CCP tries, again and again, to command it to cease. The problem is perfunctory performative declamations of obedience to central leaders. The solution is to issue further commands, which inevitably generate further performative declamations of compliance.

In April 2020, amid the virus pandemic, a new diktat was issued: ““Notice on Continuously Solving the Problem of Formalism that Troubles Grassroots Officials and Providing a  Strong Work-Style Guarantee for the Comprehensive Establishment of a Moderately Prosperous Society.” It quoted Xi Jinping’s remarks on “firmly putting an end to various kinds of formalism and bureaucratism” and highlighted his directives on “guaranteeing a strong work style for realizing decisive victories in the comprehensive establishment of a moderately prosperous society and the tough battle of poverty alleviation.” Consolidate a strong ideological and political foundation to overcome formalism and bureaucratism and study Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Firmly rectify the problem of formalism and treat it as a political problem. Cut unnecessary meetings and paperwork and streamline workflow.”

As with the many similar prior decrees, Continuously Solving the Problem of Formalism will only generate further formalism. Authoritarian systems, especially in a country as big and varied as China, know authoritarianism generates problems, yet the only acceptable solution is further concentration of power, and further demands for obedience.

“The dead hand of such writing can carry on for ten or twenty or thirty pages of single spaced, small font characters.  You can imagine how it sounds when you have to listen for an hour or two or three. It is of no matter to a speaker at a meeting, or people on the dais, that perhaps no one in the audience is paying attention.  Attendance may be mandatory; attention is not, when a single speaker can declaim for two or three hours.  I was surprised to find leaders, who are given great deference in other circumstances, speaking to a crowd that has their heads down, focused on cell phones.  But – performative is what counts.  Substance will be communicated via other means.”[2]

Social scientists in China remind us that authoritarian personalities not only ignore the needs of those under their control, they are routinely tempted into corruption, secure in the knowledge that they are in no way accountable to those they command. This further incentivises ongoing authoritarianism at all levels.

Chinese social scientists have a six-step questionnaire to identify authoritarian personalities. Respondents are asked if they agree with these propositions:

  • Government leaders are like the head of a family; we should all follow their decisions.
  • Even if a parents’ demand is unreasonable, children should do it.
  • It is taken for granted that subordinates should submit to a higher-ranking person.
  • Even if government policy is wrong, people should obey.
  • If we have political leaders who are morally upright, we can let them decide everything.
  • The portrait of our national leader cannot be used arbitrarily in a cartoon.[3]

This list, of authoritarian traits with Chinese characteristics, reveals the Confucian roots underlying the CCP’s embrace of authoritarianism. To be classified as an authoritarian, you don’t need to agree with all six. It’s a list that is more coherent than the above list of behaviours that classifies Uighurs as terrorists,  in urgent need of coercive rectification.

So entrenched is authoritarianism, at all levels of the party-state, this is no longer a question just of the tightening authoritarianism at the top, concentrating all power in the hands of one man. There are plenty of people who agree with all the authoritarian propositions listed above, including that even if government policy is wrong, people should obey.

sing the new song of socialism with Chinese characteristics


Obedience has to be publicly signalled, in a performance witnessed by those below you in the hierarchy. Tibetans long ago complained that in premodern Tibet they were burdened by taxes; after “liberation” the burden was compulsory attendance at endless meetings, where cadres would drone on, repetitively, and at length. Performative submission to those above is admonition to those below to do likewise.

“For Chinese citizens, regardless of how much or how little they understand the slogan-saturated language used in speeches by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, this language is an unavoidable part of everyday life. They encounter it from the time they enter kindergarten and thereafter throughout their formative years, daily in the media, and in the workplace. The Party’s slogans, songs, and spectacular national day parades, and the images and stories it projects of China’s past and present, are interwoven into people’s memories of school life and public holidays.”[4]

In a multi-level hierarchy, ritual performance of subservience and command must be repeated, as orders descend from on high. It’s time consuming, a tax. It is also a worry for a country that since the 1980s embraced entrepreneurial initiative as a driver of wealth accumulation. The entrepreneur is an innovator, not a subservient cipher. The demand, since the 1980s, for business schools, to teach modern management skills, was enormous. The demand for modern managerial skills sent the sons and daughters of central leaders to the most highly ranked business schools in the West.

Yet, in the latest tightening of centralised authoritarianism all businesses, whether state owned or not, are required to conform to the Party’s command, not just with a Party cell embedded in management, but with full compliance with official policies.

Systemic authoritarianism also bothers social scientists in China, such as Lu Li-bang and Huang Heng-xue, of the School of Government Administration at prestigious Peking University. They write: “The authoritarian personality of civil servants refers to a kind of personality that civil servants own in the administrative management activities and is closely connected with their identity,power and behaviour. In China, the master and servant roles are the distinguishing features of the civil servants’ authoritarian personality,which results from the joint effects of the repressed ego,the sociality of authoritarian personality,the traditional culture, the modern historical factors, etc. At present,it is mainly reflected as bureaucracy,privatization of public power,obvious bureaucracy,weak sense of service innovation consciousness,corruption breeding etc. The negative influence that authoritarian personality of civil servants can be shown in administrative management system and its running becomes more and more obvious. The personality transformation of civil servants must be taken, and the modern administrative personality must be gradually shaped”.[5]

This analysis takes care to avert its gaze from the apex of the pyramid, and concentrate on the drones. Having diagnosed the ailment, the solution is presented as yet another top-down authoritarian intervention: the wholesale “personality transformation of civil servants.”

Tibetans and Uighurs stand out in such a system as deviant and noncompliant, persistently and stubbornly so. In a patriarchal and authoritarian system the party, by definition, knows what is best for everyone, so noncompliance is intolerable, since it perpetuates backwardness, poverty, ingratitude and, above all, difference, in a system working towards a single Zhonghua Minzu race, in which all ethnic differences are assimilated into a single national identity. This is “personality transformation” at mass scale.

The Tibetans have been punished for preferring their own culture for longer; but the Uighurs since 2017 have been punished more widely and intensively. From a Han authoritarian perspective, China has patiently sought for many decades to persuade these recalcitrant minorities of the obvious superiority of Han Chinese civilisation, and they have spurned it. In an authoritarian system, the time has come to force compliance with what is desirable and inevitable.


Note: this blog prefers Uighur to the more common Uyghur, because that is closer to how it is pronounced. Uyghur tends to be spoken as wee-gah. Uighur allows for the first two vowels to be somewhat distinct: oo-ee-gur. The wee-gah pronunciation is yet another Han appropriation.



[2] Bill Markle, Performative Declaration,

[3] Deyong Ma & Orion A. Lewis (2020) Personality, media choice and political ideology: explaining ideological pluralism in China, Democratization, 27:4, 527-546, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1696775

[4] Gloria Davies, A Dream of Perpetual Rule, China Dream, ANU Press, 2020

[5] 吕立邦,黄恒学, 公务员权威主义人格探析, A Study of Civil Servants’ Authoritarian Personality 山西师大学报( 社会科学版)Journal of Shanxi Normal University( Social Science Edition)  Nov 2016 Vol. 43 No. 6


A Tibetan new gen in exile has opportunity to revitalise the Tibet issue, to make it integral to the many global debates already trending.

Existing debates about climate, carbon emissions, air pollution, pandemic response, wildlife extinctions, inequality, entrenched racism, now dominate the public sphere worldwide.

These debates lack Tibetan voices, who could offer uniquely Tibetan perspectives on the issues of the day. These are the issues of greatest concern both to governing elites and the people.

Tibetans can show they do have a unique voice,  a fresh angle, a viewpoint that enables things to be said that others can’t say. When the US critiques China, it is readily dismissed as a bully insisting on its exclusive right to behave badly, while denying China the same right. However, when Tibetans talk about accelerating climate change, loss of biodiversity, systemic racism, extreme inequality they speak from a position of displacement, marginalisation, disempowerment. They speak from the experience of being held in racist contempt by Chinese power, in a time when the whole world now struggles to understand and re-assess China’s intentions.

Everyone worldwide needs to grow their ability to decode the incomprehensible jargon of China’s rise. Tibetans, inheriting thousands of years as neighbour of China’s imperialism, have the insight, know how to read between the lines. Educated new gen Tibetans, speaking up confidently on these issues will find themselves heard, as guides to how to understand what China really intends and plans.

Language is the key. China’s power is not only military, it is discourse power, the power to define the memes everyone lives within. China is ruled by mass campaigns, and the mass campaigns are run by slogans, official phrases endlessly repeated, propaganda calculated to confuse and lull, while mobilising cadres to take command.

One key to growing Tibetan confidence in contributing to the great debates of our times is to sharpen our ability to unpack and decode China’s key propaganda slogans. Once we are able to discern the long term thrust of China’s central leaders, we give ourselves the tools we need to then enlighten others, worldwide.

Right now China’s key terms are opaque, incomprehensible. The more these deliberately vague phrases are repeated in official Chinese media, the more meaningless they become. Inside Tibet, an army of educated Tibetans is required, day after day, to translate these official campaign slogans into Tibetan, and they must use officially authorised Tibetan phrases. They find this endless cut & paste meaningless, leaving them with little idea of what is really meant, what China has actually planned for Tibet. This is not only boring, alienating and bewildering for Tibetan intellectuals, it leaves their readers uninformed. The rigid governance of CCP jargon in Tibetan translation perpetuates the gulf between ruler and ruled, leaving Tibetans who watch official TV or read official media, whether in Tibetan or Chinese, none the wiser. This is disempowering, and exacerbates mistrust.

So getting a handle on CCP jargon:

  • helps exiled Tibetans help themselves,
  • helps Tibetans inside Tibet,
  • helps a wider world frustrated by the opaqueness of China’s vague and plausible sounding rhetoric.

China scholar Nadege Rolland, 2020: “Whoever rules the words rules the world. It is China’s turn, as the ascending great power about to surpass all others, to assert authority over the world order using the same instruments that the West has used to establish and maintain its dominance.”

west of the Hu Huanyong line, carrying capacity limits are strictly enforced, in the name of adapting to climate change. To the east, in densely populated lowland China, there are no such restrictions on permissible human or animal population size, despite much heavier ecological footprint










1:       COMMON BUT DIFFERENTIATED RESPONSIBILITIES 关共同但有区别的责任概念的最 Guān gòngtóng dàn yǒu qūbié de zérèn gàiniàn de zuì, ཐུན་མོང་ཡིན་ལ་དབྱེ་བ་ཡང་ཡོད་པའི་འགན་འཁྲིའི་རྩ་དོན།

This vague and seemingly innocuous phrase is a heavily laden pack yak in much need of unpacking. What China means is that it is exempt from global standards, global agreements, and international law. China is to be judged only by China’s unique standards, and the definition of those uniquely Chinese characteristics is solely in the hands of the CCP.

China has been pressing for this key phrase to be inserted into the language of many UN agencies and agreements, as proof of China’s rise, and impunity. It is firmly embedded in the wording of the UN Climate Convention.

In the global climate debate, it means China, despite being the world’s biggest polluter and carbon emitter, has less responsibility to reduce emissions, because other countries have been emitting for longer. In fact, it means China need not commit to any specific reductions in carbon emissions at all, unlike almost all other countries. China’s only “voluntary national contribution” to reduce emissions is to reduce emissions per RMB unit of production. That does not add up to any actual emissions reduction at all, and China has explicitly said it will not begin emissions reduction until 2030.

The 2015 Paris agreement was so weak, it left it up to each signatory to nominate its own target, and China nominated this calculated measure of efficiency, not an actual tonnage emissions reduction at all.

China insists on being different, and on being assessed solely on its own terms. This diplomatically vague formula originated way back in 1972, in the very first effort to bring the world together to tackle environmental issues. The Stockholm conference of 1972 started it all, at a time the Cultural Revolution raged in China, and no-one could possibly imagine China could become the world factory and world’s biggest polluter. Fifty years ago, “common but differentiated responsibilities” did mean the richest countries, with the biggest environmental impacts, had greater responsibility. China has rigidly insisted ever since that this is still true.

China’s differentiated, lesser responsibility to solve the climate crisis further means China, as a developing, not developed, economy, has the right to demand of the richest nations that they pay for China’s climate mitigation. China’s official position is that: “the financial supports from developed countries are not enough to close the finance gap of China to address climate change. From 2016 to 2030, besides the inputs of domestic public and private sectors, China will additionally need an average of 1.3 trillion yuan annually.”

If paid from 2020 to 2030, that’s RMB 13 trillion, US$1824 billion. Clearly there is no intention anywhere to subsidise China’s climate adaptation along those lines, so China can let itself off the hook, blame others, and continue to delay doing anything meaningful.

China’s refusal to shift in 50 years, beyond its exceptional exemption from actual climate action, could doom life on this planet. China is not the only climate change denier, but it is the biggest, and as a planet, time is running out to adapt before climate change accelerates into an unstoppable momentum, completely beyond our control.


Wildlife trafficking to China, to feed Chinese appetites for exotic meals and exotic sources of traditional medicine, is the likeliest cause of the global corona virus pandemic. China’s demand for wildlife consumption reaches into countries worldwide, driven by demand for rhino horn, elephant tusk, pangolin scales, shark fins and myriad other animal parts, plus whole animals smuggled alive to China and kept alive, in the wet markets where the corona virus jumped across to humans.

Despite this appalling record, China loudly proclaims its deep love of wildlife, and is now legislating to outlaw eating wildlife, as it has done before, with little effect. However, in the fine print of the 2020 law is an exemption for TCM use, for the supply of dried animal parts for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has been strongly promoted during the Covid-19 pandemic as effective treatment, with Chinese characteristics. Not only is TCM use exempt, so too is the “farming” of wildlife in cruelly small cages, for painful extraction of bile, or for slaughter to meet the TCM demand.

Given this long-standing scandal, China is determined to regain discourse power by proclaiming its strict protection of wildlife, not in lowland China but in upland Tibet.

China regains legitimacy by giving its new law on wildlife strong language, even in its title: Decision on Comprehensively Prohibiting the Bad Habits of Eating Wild Animals, and Effectively Safeguarding the People’s Health and Safety, 关于全面禁止非法野生动物交易、革除滥食野生动物陋习、切实保障人民群众生命健康安全的决定 ཁྲིམས་འགལ་ངང་བདག་ཏུ་མ་བཟུང་བའི་སྲོག་ཆགས་ཉོ་ཚོང་བྱ་རྒྱུ་གཏན་འགོག་དང་། བདག་ཏུ་མ་བཟུང་བའི་སྲོག་ཆགས་གང་བྱུང་དུ་ཟ་བའི་སྲོལ་ངན་མེད་པར་བཟོ་རྒྱུ། མི་དམངས་མང་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་ཚེ་སྲོག་བདེ་ཐང་འགན་ལེན་ཏན་ཏིག་བྱ་རྒྱུ་བཅས་པའི་སྐོར་གྱི་གཏན་འབེབས།

China’s long-term strategy is to not only regain legitimacy but, yet again, claim world leadership in wildlife protection, and Tibet is the core of this plan. That is why the launch of the new national park system has been years in the making, involving elaborate governmentality mechanisms, and a new discourse, studded with campaign slogans.

China’s new commitment to wildlife protection in Tibet naturalises several concepts such as carrying capacity, carbon capture, degradation repair, grain to green, core and buffer zones, red line exclusion zones, all of which need decoding, with due diligence done on the fine print.

Tibet is meant to save China, and position it as a world leader in biodiversity conservation. The crowning moments, scheduled for 2020, probably now postponed because of the virus crisis, are the launch of the national parks, and the staging of the Conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity, scheduled for Yunnan Kunming in late October 2020.

3:       NATIONAL PARKS 国家公园  Guójiā gōngyuán

While China, under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, excuses itself from doing anything much to reduce its climate warming emissions, it wins back its lost reputation by zoning as much as 30% of the entire Tibetan Plateau as national parks. 2020 has been designated as the launch year for the new park system which, by area, is overwhelmingly in Tibet.

Who could possibly object to a national park? Especially in Tibet, where the alternative in recent decades has been predatory mining, rapacious slaughter of wildlife, state construction of hydro dams and power grids.

But do the new national parks include the many Tibetans whose pastures are to become nationalised parks? Does zoning huge landscapes as ecological effectively exclude customary land use, and users? Does the fine print of the “top-level design” of the national parks halt mining, hydro damming, power grid construction and other enclaves of intensive industrialisation, including yak feedlots and large-scale slaughterhouses?

on patrol in the new Panda national park in Kham
photo: Kyle Obermann

We need to look beyond the slogans to realities on the ground. So far, all indications are that national parks will further displace and disempower Tibetan nomads into destitution, while employing a few to police the rest.

National parks are meant to be protected areas. But many familiar concepts, when they acquire “Chinese characteristics”, morph into something else. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers area in Tibet, where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers run in close parallel, was drawn by China to exclude the actual rivers, and include only the steep valleys filled with medicinal herbs. The rivers can and are being hydro dammed, and UNESCO is firmly told to mind its own business.

Ga’er gompa, Nangchen 改加寺 photo by Kyle Obermann
mgar nyang chen byang chub chos gling, now part of Sanjiangyuan

4:       Sanjiangyuan, གཙང་གསུམ་འབྱུང་ཡུལ།༼རྨ་འབྲི་རྫ་གསུམ་འབྱུང་ཡུལ།༽   三江源, literally Three River Source, a newly invented term in Chinese for the sources of the Ma Chu (Yellow), Dri Chu (Yangtze) and Za Chu (Mekong), all originating in Tibet. Because this is a new word, there is no equivalent in Tibetan, only a transliteration that sounds roughly like the Chinese neologism.

Sanjiangyuan is misleading in a few ways. It obliterates situated Tibetan district place names, histories and identities across two entire prefectures, Yushu and Golok, plus other counties, 15 altogether, all swallowed by one word.

This single term naturalises a huge landscape, the size of Germany, defining it by what it provides to lowland China, reducing complexity to a single function: water flow. By erasing the attributes of hundreds of grazing landscapes, reducing them all to water provisioning, the entire territorialised and officially zoned Sanjiangyuan no longer faces west towards the rest of Tibet, but east towards lowland China.

Sanjiangyuan is misleading also in referring only to sources, high in the glaciers. In reality these braided rivers meander across the gently tilted plateau for at least one thousand kms, before plunging into steep valleys as wild mountain rivers full of energy China is keen to harness by building hydro dams athwart all three. Sanjiangyuan appropriates myriad situated local meanings and knowledges, bundling all into a new package defined solely by its service to the lowlands below. The focus on single point sources, at the feet of glaciers, evokes imaginaries if purity, connecting urban lowland Chinese with pristine mountain springs; so the vast intervening pastures, with cattle shitting everywhere, becomes by definition problematic.

Classically, China was happy to imagine the Yellow River rises in the heavens, as in this 8th century poem by Li Bai: 黃河之水天上來 huánghé zhī shuǐ tiān shànglái, the waters of the Yellow River come from upon Heaven. This famous line is now requoted in Qinghai Scitech Weekly (27 May 2020) under the heading Popularising Science of the Yellow River Source, 大河开启生命之源 ཆུ་བོ་ཆེན་པོ་ཡིས་ཚེ་སྲོག་གི་མགོ་བརྩམས་པ་རེད།

Now the Yellow River’s many sources are all precisely georeferenced, monitored by remote sensing satellite cameras, memorialised by official monuments proclaiming China’s Tibet.

To Western audiences China’s mixture of rhapsodic romanticism and scientific data-driven rhetoric sit oddly. But today’s China embraces both, seeing no problem.

In official media, China’s new enthusiasm for governance of Tibetan landscapes and watersheds is frequently wrapped in romantic Shangri-la metaphors that are extravagant even by the standards of 19th century European explorers.

The same Qinghai Scitech Weekly article has many other lyrical phrases proclaiming China’s ownership:

The countless lakes are like stars in the sky, displaying exotic scenery, colorful as a painter’s palette, 黄河源头的星星海,由大大小小难以数清的湖泊、海子、水泊所组成,无数湖泊宛如天上繁, 呈现出奇异景色,色彩斑斓似调色板。据中新社

The Yellow River spends all day and night, flowing endlessly, nourishing all creatures, and is the mother river of the Chinese nation. This big river resembling a dragon has given birth to Chinese civilization and has been endowed with so many cultural and spiritual symbolic meanings.  黄河不舍昼夜,川流不息,滋养万物生灵,是中华民族的母亲河。这条形似巨龙的大河因为孕育了中华文明,被赋予了太多文化和精神上的象征含义。Huánghé bù shě zhòuyè, chuānliúbùxī, zīyǎng wànwù shēnglíng, shì zhōnghuá mínzú de mǔqīn hé. Zhè tiáo xíngsì jù lóng de dàhé yīnwèi yùnyùle zhōnghuá wénmíng, bèi fùyǔle tài duō wénhuà hé jīngshén shàng de xiàngzhēng hányì.

This Sinocentric orientalism is now typical, very common, especially in tourism marketing. This is the language that transforms Tibet, from Tibetan landscapes with deep backstories, into China’s jewel, China’s Tibet.

5:       Returning non-productive cultivated farmlands to forests, རྨོ་བསྐྱུར་ནགས་གསོ།  退耕还林 tuigeng huanlin,  sometimes in English known as the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP), a policy premised on reversing earlier policy. In the name of each province maintaining self-sufficiency in food security, steep slopes had been cleared of forest, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, and this was now wrong. The farmers eking a living on upslopes were dryland farmers with little access to water. Ploughing slopes, baring the soil, led to erosion. However this 1990s policy was implemented all over China on a one-size-fits-all model imposed from above. In Tibet, it often meant farmers had to abandon farms, or turn much of their allocated land to plantations of designated tree species, with much loss of income.  Destitution was averted official transfer of survival rations. SLCP was popularly known as grain to green. Officially the preferred green was forest, but much of Tibet is not forest but grassland, and much of the pasture land slowly expanded over many centuries, by pastoralists inhibiting the regrowth of shrubland and forest in their pastures.

This historic expansion of grassland was done sustainably, with no evidence of wildlife extinctions. None of this was understood or acknowledged by the national SLCP project, which continued for decades.

In eastern Tibet (Kham) thickly forested old growth forests were intensively logged for decades, until mid-Yangtze floods attributable to excess runoff from Kham of monsoon rains led to a sudden logging ban in 1998. SLCP and the logging ban happened at the same time, so SLCP could have been used to employ the former woodcutters, many of them Tibetans employed by local state owned resource extraction companies, to do the labour intensive work of seeding and planting seedlings to restore forest. This did not happen. Some Chinese state employed timber workers, unemployed because of the logging ban, were redeployed to do aerial seeding, scattering seeds collected by cutting down remaining trees for seed stock. This too was not successful, as seedlings on steep, bare slopes in alpine climates need labour-intensive protection. Without protection from mature trees, a sheltering canopy, seedlings die in the sharp frosts. To survive, they need human hands, not just seeds dropped from airplanes.

Nonetheless academic assessments of SLCP across China have generally rated it a success.

do Tibetans realise they have (perversely) chosen to live in landscapes of contiguous destitution?

6:       Contiguous destitute areas གཅིག་བསྡུས་ཡུག་སྦྲེལ་གྱི་དམིགས་བསལ་དཀའ་ངལ་ཡོད་པའི་ས་ཁུལ།  个集中连片特困区贫困  Gè jízhōng lián piàn tèkùn qū pínkùn, This is a concept that attempts to explain why past poverty alleviation projects have failed, by blaming the land and the people of those landscapes. It attributes cash income poverty to inherent characteristics of territory; in Tibet this means the combination of altitude, hypoxia and extreme weather. This is a thoroughly lowland Chinese imaginary, which assumes no-one would choose to live in Tibet, if they had a choice. Tibet, in lowland eyes, is unnaturally and dangerously cold, and the air so thin each breath threatens to be your last. Territorial mapping depicts counties officially designated as poor, adjacent to counties with the same status. This adds up to contiguous destitution. Thus defined, the obvious solution is to remove the population to somewhere more congenial, and better endowed with the factors of production. By removing people from areas no-one would choose, you do them a favour, and they should be grateful.

7:       Relying on heaven རྨ་ཆུ་བསྲུངས་ཏེ་གནམ་ལ་བརྟེན་ནས་འཚོ་ཐབས་བྱེད་པའི་ཉིན་མོ་དང་ཁ་གྱེས་པ།  告别了守着黄河靠天吃饭的日子,  gàobiéle shǒuzhe huánghé kào tiān chīfàn de rìzi.        literally: passively watching the river slide by without extraction, passively reliant on what the heavens provide. This  is the fate of backward, uncivilised and/or lazy people who passively wait for nature to produce all that is needful in life, to be gathered in season. In Chinese eyes, this gatherer lifeworld is little better than that of animals, and fails to show mastery of nature.

China is deeply ambivalent about nature, believing both in harmony and in mastery, both protection and conquest. Ancient traditions of living harmoniously with nature are making a comeback, but the core promise of the CCP is to deliver moderate prosperity for all, in a highly urbanised, densely populated consumer society.

This unresolved tension plays out geographically, with upland western China, especially the Tibetan Plateau, designated under zoning laws as areas of restricted human carry capacity where landscapes and wildlife are to be protected; while the same standards do not apply to the densely packed lowlands of southern and eastern China, where the human footprint is fourfold in excess of the capacity of the land to support the human population.

8:       Building a sky river དགུ་ཚིགས་བཟོ་སྐྲུན།, 天河工程 Tiānhé gōngchéng,seeding Tibetan clouds with chemicals to force rain into China’s rivers, a bonus enhancement of the rain made to fall within the catchment of the Yellow River, which in the lowlands is so overused and abused that in many winters it dries up altogether and fails to reach the sea.

In many countries, cloud seeding with silver iodide burning on the wingtips of airplanes flying into the clouds, has been tried experimentally, with at best inconclusive results. This failure has not deterred China’s tech enthusiasts, who claim to have found a way of scattering liquidised silver iodide into Tibetan clouds, without the expense and personnel of having to fly airplanes stationed on the ground, ready to take to the air at short notice.

China’s preferred tech is rockets fired at the sky, from batteries on the ground, activated by China’s necklace of Beidou satellites orbiting above Tibet, measuring the clouds. The whole operation could be automated, driven by algorithms.

sky river cloud seeding artillery

Not only is there no evidence this would work, if it did succeed, it would only deprive inner Asian landscapes even further from any ocean of much needed rain. More rain over the uppermost Yellow River would mean less precipitation in the Hoh Xil (Achen Ganggyab in Tibetan) UNESCO World Heritage area, which China lobbied for in 2017. China is now obligated to do all it can to protect this land of lakes that is Hoh Xil, not deprive an alpine desert of the little rain it gets.