#2 of 2 blogposts


Western China, especially the Tibetan Plateau , has become China’s primary contribution to the global effort to mitigate or at least adapt to inevitable climate change, until China’s promises of actual emissions reductions become effective. Officially, that is to happen starting in 2030.

Whether the promise of “growing more grass” across much of western China, on lands from which grazing is now banned, will succeed in capturing significantly more carbon, is far from clear. Not only is it not clear, on the ground, that short-term increases in biomass on ungrazed areas contribute meaningfully to planetary long-term carbon sequestration, bureaucratic conflict persists. The conflicts are both horizontal –between competing ministries at national level- an vertical, between officials at local, provincial and national levels, even within one ministry.

“Indeed, whether the government’s [climate]plans and policies can be successfully implemented mostly depends on China’s governance structure. The institutional framework is characterised by a discrepancy between local and national levels: policies and targets are elaborated at national level but implemented by provincial and municipal governments. In this top-down system, implementation tasks are devolved to local officials. They are evaluated on the basis of their results both in achieving GDP growth and in meeting environmental standards. And the absence of a single ministry responsible for all issues related to climate change and energy may constrain the implementation of stronger governance on these issues.

“Different provinces have different targets, which do not take into account carbon emissions that are “outsourced” through interprovincial trade. A study by the Tsinghua-MIT China energy and climate project found that China’s eastern provinces outsourced 14 percent of their territorial emissions to central and western provinces in 2007. Hence, provincial targets should be adjusted, which would mean that eastern provinces would have to make more reductions, alleviating the burden on central and western provinces.”[1]

The burden on western provinces, to do much more than their share of climate remediation, falls especially heavily on the Tibetan Plateau, which is where most of China’s nature reserves and protected areas are.  This is for the obvious reason that the Tibetans are disempowered, routinely branded a threat to national unity if they speak up for their livelihoods and landscapes. It is comparatively easy for central authorities to impose Main Functional Zoning on Tibet, as a definitive national response to a national issue such as climate change or pollution. If anything, the popular debate about smog and urban pollution has only strengthened the key institutions of China’s authoritarianism, such as the NDRC. Alarm at smog levels has led many Chinese opinion leaders to demand stronger government, stricter enforcement of environmental laws, and national government overriding vested local interests and their local government protectors. This has suited a national government which, under Xi Jinping’s leadership since 2012, has sought to position the party and the state as the sole source of effective action against polluters (and corruption); while coercively silencing many of the NGOs and protesters who named the polluters (and the corrupt) and demanded action.

This recentralisation of power leaves the party in command, but in need of showing an anxious international community it is willing to act on climate change, and an anxious domestic constituency that it acts effectively on pollution and smog; while still pushing for economic growth. This is the deepest source, within the party-state, for the awkwardly competing ideologies of productivism and protection, for a mechanism for allocating territories to each, and for committing so much of Tibet to the provision of environmental services: water flow and biomass carbon capture.

Until recently, the highly centralised cadre promotion system (ganbu yu renshi guanli zhidu) did not reflect the weighting of both ideologies as roughly equal. Cadres were able to gain promotion by fulfilling production targets, but were only nominally eligible for rewards for meeting environmental goals. Gradually, the incentives for cadres to withstand local pressures to maintain impunity for polluters have grown, and calls for substantial incentivisation have grown. For example a senior party official in Heilongjiang province in 2015 called for the inclusion of environmental protection standards in the evaluation system for local officials and cadres. [2]

However this is not the first attempt at including performance on environmental targets as cadre promotion criteria. In 2013 cadres were told of a long list of targets they are expected to fulfil: “Quality, profitable, sustainable economic development, livelihood improvement, social harmony and progress, ecological progress, and Party building should be included in as important content; resource consumption, environmental protection, excess capacity digestion, safe production should be given heavier weight; technological innovation, education and culture, employment, income, social security, and health conditions should be more highlighted.”[3]

Not only is this an impossibly long list impossible to fulfil, it is full of contradictions, and in practice cadres have usually paid more attention to local, and locally deliverable incentives, including illegal ones. The centre has responded with not only incentives but disincentives, the “hold-to-account” system, or wenzezhi (问责制), which punishes disobedient cadres, again ineffectively.[4]

Gradually, over three successive Five-Year Plan periods, including the just-begun 13th Plan, Main Functional Zoning has become a powerful tool of central planning, a reinforcement of the NDRC as “helmsman” of China’s development, and a tool backed by incentives for cadres at all levels to deliver implementation of the land uses prescribed by Main Functional Zoning. This is especially true in western China, where, due to the impossibility of local opposition, cadres have a freer hand to impose MFZ.



Although MFZ so often reduces a complex production landscape to a single function, China’s government has to pursue multiple objectives, if the “China Dream” is to be realised. Not only is climate change to be mitigated and water security downriver to be protected, there are many other official goals inherent in the great project of modernising China and its vast hinterlands. Among the national goals most affecting Tibet are rural policy, poverty alleviation, food security policy, energy and resource extraction policy, and state-owned enterprise reform. As one would expect, NDRC annual work reports and plans for the year ahead cover these issues as well, always in the same prescriptive, legislative voice evident in the extracts quoted earlier.

Yet, on the ground, in the lives of Tibetan pastoralists,  land use, climate adaptation, livelihoods, income generation and overcoming poverty (especially after climate disasters that decimate herds) are all part of daily life, part of  the land management decisions mobile herders have always made seasonally. In no way are these issues separable territorially, occupying discrete terrains, separable by administrative diktat into different landscapes for different purposes. However, that is exactly what Main Functional Zoning does, and its inscription onto Tibetan lands is only intensifying.

It might seem obvious that if China genuinely seeks to alleviate, in fact completely end, all poverty among Tibetans by 2020, which is the official 13th Five-Year Plan goal, then achieving it is only hampered by banning grazing, which reduces Tibetan pastoralists to dependence on official handouts on subsistence rations as they live out useless lives in concrete cantonments on the fringes of towns across the Tibetan Plateau. Why dispossess and displace pastoralist livestock producers from their ancestral production landscapes if the official objective is food security, and poverty alleviation?

The NDRC Plan for implementation during 2016 explicitly addresses all of these goals, often with precise targets, sometimes backed by promises to utilise Main Functional Zoning to ensure success, for example, in maintaining food security in each of China’s provinces: “We will guarantee food security in China. We will hold provincial governors responsible for food security across the board and improve the mechanism under which the central and local authorities work together to ensure food security. In order to ensure that grain production, cultivated land acreage, and production capacity all remain stable, we will make explorations into establishing functional zones for grain production and protective areas for the production of major agricultural products.”[5]

Likewise, the modernisation and industrialisation of rural production is also a priority: “We will promote the integrated development of the primary, secondary, and tertiary industries in rural areas. We will coordinate the production of food, cash, and feed crops and the development of the farming, forestry, livestock, and fishing industries, and promote integrated planting, breeding, and processing operations; at the same time, we will nurture new types of agribusiness and fully engage the multiple functions of agriculture. Pilot demonstration projects for rural industrial integration will be carried out in about 100 counties, 1,000 townships and 100,000 villages. We will improve the mechanism for integrating farmers’ interests into agricultural industry chains so that farmers can receive more benefits as rural industrial integration produces more value.”[6]



In Tibet, rural industrialisation and intensification of production usually means shifting the traditional extensive livestock production into peri-urban feedlots. In central Tibet this means less mobility, a more sedentary mode of livestock production reliant on purchasing fodder and forage to feed to penned animals. A recent research report by Chinese authors from Beijing found that: “sedentary grazing can increase the cost of livestock production because herders have to purchase forage to provide supplementary fodder. Therefore, governmental policies about grazing sedentarisation and market incentives for increasing livestock production can undermine adaptive capacity of the Tibetan herder communities. From this perspective, institutional change has made the Tibetan grassland social ecological systems less resilient to climate variability and change. Although the present livelihood adaption strategies related to sedentary grazing have improved grassland productivity and economic profitability of the herding livelihood, they have led to continuous deterioration of pastures. The local grazing system has become more and more dependent on artificial feeding and inputs coming from outside the grazing system.”[7]

On poverty alleviation, the 13th Plan and the NDRC Plan for 2016 are ambitious and highly specific as to targets. NDRC says: “We will move forward with targeted measures to fight poverty across the board. We will support development and poverty reduction in contiguous poor areas. We will also boost support for alleviating poverty in border areas and areas with concentrations of ethnic minorities.  We will continue to support the development of Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan ethnic areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces, increasing central government support for these areas, and scaling up one-to-one assistance programs.

 “Key Poverty Alleviation Programs:             Relocation from Inhospitable Areas: people living in inhospitable conditions who have registered for government poverty assistance will be relocated and provided with housing. We have set a target to relocate over two million people this year. In order to eradicate poverty in local areas, all resources available in poor regions will be utilized to support the development of industries, such as speciallzed farming and forestry, rural sightseeing, and solar power. This year we have set the target of lifting more than six million people out of poverty through industry-led initiatives.”[8]

On the Tibetan Plateau, these key objectives for official intervention in Tibetan lives and land management are to be achieved separately, in separate areas, on the basis of Main Functional Zoning. These three key objectives are three of the four goals that drive official policy and in turn establish the state as the author, architect and biopower in charge of Tibet. The fourth official objective actually comes first, in the remapping of Tibet on the basis of Main Functional Zoning. That is the objective of taking much of Tibet’s pastoral production landscapes out of production, in the name of xibu da kaifa, literally closing pastures to grow more grass, the dominant official slogan since 2003. This is the rising ideology of protection. On this the NDRC is explicit and specific:  “We will launch a new round of efforts to return marginal cultivated land to forest or grassland, and intensify efforts to carry out the national afforestation project. We will move steadily forward with the establishment of a system of national parks. We will continue to advance the comprehensive governance of the water environment in key water basins and the environment in key areas, such as those at the source of dust storms affecting Beijing and Tianjin, areas afflicted by the spread of stony deserts, and areas where grazing land has been returned to grassland. A major biodiversity protection project will be launched. We will step up the ecological conservation of lakes and wetlands and establish ecological red lines for forests, grasslands, wetlands and the ocean.”[9]

These four key goals could be mutually interdependent and supportive of each other: to maintain or enhance food security also increases incomes of the poor; likewise protection of fragile landscapes around the world enlists local populations as guardians, rangers, stewards of the programs of replanting and rehabilitation that enhance water supply and biodiversity conservation. But if all four key goals were to be achieved together, the human and animal populations would remain on the land, actively engaged in its restoration and productive use. The yaks would continue to graze, n the herders continue to herd, while also employed to replant grass seeds where there is degradation. There is much scientific evidence that this is the best strategy, not only for human livelihoods, but also for biodiversity.[10]

But China’s central planners have separated territorially the attainment of these four key goals. Poverty alleviation is to be achieved explicitly by relocating people en masse, because, in official eyes, Tibetans remain poor because they live in Tibet, a land so frigid and harsh that poverty is inevitable, spatially contiguous, and ineradicable. It is not yet clear where they are to be removed to, whether to the urban fringes of towns and cities within Tibet, or further away. Food security, insofar as it is an official concern in Tibet, is to be achieved by scaling up industrialised agriculture, again on urban fringes, in ranches and feedlots close to the urban market demand. Main Functional Zoning will, as in all areas of China, promote urbanisation as the growth pole, with a ring around each town for industrialised food production and for poverty alleviation. As Main Functional Zoning spreads further, that will leave the vast plateau as a hinterland designated as nature reserve and national park, in the name of climate mitigation and water supply. By area, MFZ has already apportioned  the biggest area for xibu da kaifa,  grass growing uninterrupted by grazing, and this area will grow.



It may seem an expensive, inefficient, even clumsy way of achieving these four objectives of the party-state, to implement each separately, in separate territories. Is there an internal logic uniting all four? Despite the appearance of cognitive dissonance, is there a coherent thread?

These policies all share certain characteristics. All fragment the Tibetan population, having long fragmented the land under the Household Responsibility System for rural land users decades ago. All reduce Tibetans to dependence on the state, either as welfare recipients who are supposed to be grateful for the benevolence of central leaders. All establish the party-state as being fully in charge on the grasslands, as never before. All enable the state to dispense favours, such as allocating land tenure rights, employment, vocational training or access to urban markets, to those who, by their deferential behaviour, show the right attitude; while cancelling such favours if people fail to show the right attitude. In short, all of these policies will make Tibetans more visible, legible to official scrutiny, more vulnerable, a new precariat under the constant surveillance of security grid management, seldom off camera. In these ways, what seem at first to be four policies, with four different rationales, all pulling in differing directions, share a common basis.

Tibetans, especially in exile, will readily hasten to go a step further, and accuse China of a master strategy of weakening, or even destroying Tibetan culture, identity and viability as an ongoing civilisation. If it were that simple, China could have achieved this decades ago, especially in the revolutionary Maoist era when the official slogan of smashing the four olds meant, in Tibet, smashing everything Tibetan.

The more likely reality is that, having never understood the land or people of Tibet, China, in its quest for modernity with Chinese characteristics, has over decades fumbled towards this seemingly coherent suite of policies, all of them wrapped in the rhetorics of scientific objectivity, historic inevitability, logical necessity, responsible global climate change citizenship,  benevolent poverty alleviation, resource and food security and maintenance of environmental services. Growing out of China’s abiding perception of Tibet as a foreign and unfamiliar land, it was all too easy to take up a modern global planning tool, of main functional zoning, and give it Chinese characteristics, resulting in the territorialised split of the Tibetan Plateau, into zones for water supply, grass growth and carbon capture, with other zones for intensive food production and poverty relief. On paper, it all looks good, the sort of energetic and decisive statist interventions that have won China praise as the exemplary model developing society, celebrated worldwide as having lifted more out of poverty than any country ever. That accolade, repeated endlessly, accepts the fundamental premise of China’s party-state propaganda, which proclaims official China as the source of all that is good, the author of all progress.

China’s planners have fully taken on the modernist argument that specialised division of labour is the key to raising productivity, growth and wealth accumulation. On the Tibetan Plateau those divisions of labour, if the current 13th Five-Year Plan is implemented according to plan (a big if), those divisions of labour will be territorialised. The livestock production zone will surround the towns and cities, likewise the poverty alleviation zone of relocated pastoralists will also be close to towns, yet not within them, for security reasons. Meanwhile the vast land of a thousand plateaus, designated as national parks and nature reserves will become a zone of human exclusion, as well as the exclusion of grazing animals, policed by Tibetan rangers employed to enforce the scientific regulations that value grass production, for carbon capture and China’s global climate mitigation credentials, as the highest goal, that trumps all other legal land use.

China’s Main Functional Zoning is the fundamental premise driving these policies that are depopulating rural Tibet and concentrating the Tibetan population on urban fringes, while, in the name of security grid management, restricting their right to become fully urban. What unites all of these policies, and earlier productivist policies now nullified by the rise of Main Functional Zoning and the classification of most of Tibet as “fragile ecology”, is the desire of the state to be manifestly in charge throughout Tibet.

Put another way, what is intolerable to China’s party-state is that the Tibetan people go on in their customary self-sufficient and sustainable way, with little need for the constant presence in their lives of an intrusive, directive party-state that delivers urban modernity, demands gratitude and disempowers those made to depend on it.


[1] Pierre Nabé, A review of recent developments in China’s climate and environmental policy, 2015, China Analysis Sept 2015, European Council on Foreign Relations,

[2] Jin Weike, China’s environmental pollution has already entered a stage of ‘normalisation’, Gongshi Wang, 27 April 2015


[4] Ciqi Mei and Margaret M. Pearson, Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys? Deterrence Failure and Local Defiance In China, The China Journal, No. 72 (July 2014), pp. 75-97

[5] p33


[7] Wang, J., Y. Wang, S. Li, and D. Qin. 2016. Climate adaptation, institutional change, and sustainable livelihoods of herder communities in northern Tibet. Ecology and Society 21(1):5.

[8] P41

[9] P39

[10] Li Wenjun and Kongpo Tsering (Gongbozuren), Pastoralism: the custodian of China’s grasslands, International Institute of Environment & Development 2013,      also: and

Julia A. Klein, John Harte, and Xin-Quan Zhao; Experimental Warming, Not Grazing, Decreases Rangeland Quality On The Tibetan Plateau, Ecological Applications, 17(2), 2007, pp. 541–557

Julia A. Klein, John Harte, and Xin-Quan Zhao, Decline in Medicinal and Forage Species with Warming is Mediated by Plant Traits on the Tibetan Plateau, Ecosystems (2008) 11: 775–789


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