At the European Parliament on 16 November, at the European Union Diplomatic Corps (EU External Action) on 19 November, at the Belgian Foreign Ministry 19 Nov and the French Foreign Ministry 20 November, I had opportunity to pitch the case for Tibet, in a new way.

Europe’s diplomats and parliamentarians deserve our sympathy when they raise human rights with their bored and arrogant Chinese counterparts, who dismiss all such inquiries as European imperialist interference in China’s internal affairs.

So why not try a fresh approach, try for a reset, that also embraces a comprehesive story aboiut all the difficulties facing Tibet, the land and the people?

This is the pitch:

European Union External Action Service, Brussels, 19 November 2015

By Gabriel Lafitte  glafitte1@gmail.com   website http://rukor.org

The glacier advertising this presentation is, as we all know, fast disappearing, as the Tibetan plateau warms much faster than any inhabited area of the planet. The climate crisis may be upon us, but seldom is it depicted as a human rights crisis as well. Is there a human rights dimension?

The mountains that attract every drop of moisture out of the frigid troposphere of Tibet, and thus create those glaciers, are also sources of the raw materials essential to global commodity chains, necessary for China, the world’s factory, to maintain favourable balance of trade with almost all European countries. Those mountains may be rich in gold, copper, silver, molybdenum and much more, but does resource extraction from the snow mountains that define Tibet also have a human rights dimension?

Below the mountains is the plateau of Tibet, a vast island in the sky, its floor four to five kilometres up into the troposphere, with the mountains above that. The plateau is home to millions of pastoral nomads and their herds of yaks, sheep and goats, who, in the name of climate change mitigation and carbon capture, are being rapidly removed to urban fringes. Is there a human rights dimension to this collective displacement?

Below the mountains, meandering across an endless plateau the size of Western Europe are the great rivers of Tibet, including international transboundary rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. In addition there are China’s great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze. All of them rise in Tibet, fed by the glaciers of the Third Pole. In a rugged landscape, mountains, rivers and now mines are often close together, and those rivers are drunk daily by over one billion people. If those rivers are polluted by mining wastes, is there a human rights dimension?

By asking this question over and over, it has become rhetorical, with the answer obvious. These are all human rights issues, and largely they invoke collective social and economic rights, as well as breaches of individual civil and political rights. So we need to understand what infractions are occurring, and how they are likely to intensify as China accelerates its developmentalist interventions in Tibet.

We could go further, and enumerate a long list of human rights transgressions, especially when we look at the protests by Tibetan communities at the mining of their sacred mountains and the pollution of the lakes in which the goddesses live, and the rivers. When we look at the pervasive loss of self-sufficient food production across rural Tibet, in areas where nomad removals are frequent, we discover a collective loss of food security, the pauperisation of entire populations of displaced people, whose displacement, ironically, is in the name of fulfilling the “China dream” of modernity, comfort and access to services.

Then we could add the consequences of the imposition of nature reserves, national parks and exclusion, in favour of growing more grass. This invokes the breach of those Articles of the Convention on Biodiversity,  which focus on the proven track record of local communities in doing a far better job of protecting biodiversity, and the right to life of myriad sentient beings. Then there is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which names free, prior and informed consent to mining and resource extraction as the necessary prerequisite for the commodity supply chain to gear up into action.

We could go further still, as UN Special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Olivier de Schutter, did a few years ago in China. He surprised and alarmed his Chinese hosts with the simple proposition that the right to food implies the right to secure land tenure to produce that food. He pointed out that the exclusion of pastoral nomads from their pastures, and the cancellation of their land tenure certificates, violates the right to food, and was much condemned by China for being so presumptuous.

Thus we quite quickly end up with an extraordinarily long list of infractions and transgressions of a wide range of rights.

But before going any further, we should stop and ask a seemingly naïve question: what is the point, in the context of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue ritual, of long lists? When we know, from years of experience, that our Chinese dialogue partners will swat aside any and all such concerns, condemning them as interference in China’s internal affairs, denying each and all breaches, no matter how well documented, what is the point? No matter how long our list, how well researched, it will all be dismissed as yet another imperialist impertinence of a Europe that actually cares far more about doing business with China.

As an Australian, I have watched, over many years the similarly technicised and ritualised Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue going nowhere. I can only sympathise with the diplomats assigned to ritually raise these long lists, knowing full well that there will be no meaningful response, no public accountability, no actual dialogue, and the issues raised will remain unresolved. When Katrin Kinzelbach, in her uniquely in-depth analysis of such ritual “dialogues” names them a stark failure, lacking impact, showing only the ineffectiveness of quiet diplomacy, I can only agree.[1]

So what is the point of regularly assembling yet another list of breaches and transgressions when we know, with absolute certainty, that not one of them will be taken seriously, investigated, or resolved? It is madness to try, fail, try, fail and just go on repeating those failures in the pointless hope that one day our strategy might get results.

So there is little to be gained by generating yet more lists of wrongs that will not be righted.

We need a new approach, if that is imaginable within a process that has “relegated and isolated human rights from higher level political dialogue”, to again quote Katrin Kinzelbach.

Despite the technicised ritual, the formulaic process, I suggest there are ways of bringing freshness, and Prof de Schutter showed us how to do it. With his simple and rather basic assumption that the right to food entails the right to land, he effectively ambushed his hosts. He was invited, because there is some obligation on members of the Human Rights Council to allow at least a few Special rapporteurs to investigate on the ground, and report. China, having repeatedly denied permission for many Special Rapporteurs to enter China, confidently expected that a rapporteur on food could only congratulate China on ending famine and making plenty of industrial agriculture available on the market. What confounded China was de Schutter’s insistence that agro-ecology is better than agribusiness, that pastoralists do care for the land and for production, and their removal is unnecessary and wrong. That’s an example of a fresh approach.

More importantly, it is an example of a holistic approach, which looks at the right to food as more than a quantum of product on supermarket shelf space. What we need now, if ever this dialogue is to become meaningful, is a holistic approach.

On the Tibetan Plateau, what might a holistic approach look like? What does our long list add up to?

These are the wrong two questions to pair up. We will not discover the whole by simply adding up lists. Lists may have worked, in the narrowly technical, professionalised milieu of official human rights dialogues, when the cases of individuals, arrested or tortured, imprisoned or executed, were the topic. In such circumstances, lists of prisoners can achieve much.

Now we are trying to begin again, to obtain a holistic overview of the circumstances of an entire population, through the lens of human rights. In this instance we are looking at the entire Tibetan Plateau, ignoring the fragmentation of the Plateau into units of differing “autonomous” status, so as to gain a wider perspective, taking in all six million Tibetans, the four million Han Chinese settlers, perhaps even the decimated wildlife, since sentient beings have rights too.

Taking a panoramic perspective enables us to look at the entire suite of official China’s interventions, where they are going, what effects they have, what direction they are trending. We can sketch in broad outline, for want of time, which can be amply filled in vividly by abundant evidence.

The broad picture is that China has consistently expected, required and demanded that the land and people of Tibet be more productive, yet also provide uninterrupted environmental services, especially water, to users far downstream in lowland China. China’s statist interventions have consistently pushed Tibetan pastoralists and farmers to make more meat, above all, and to commercialise their livestock production so pastoral care becomes a routine commodity chain operation, in which animals are nothing more than meat, and cash, on the hoof. Tibetan pastoralists have, for decades, resisted this commodification, not only because they respect their animals as fellow sentient beings, but also because they know they can never get a good price in markets heavily rigged against them, and because herds of the hoof are their only security, capital and insurance against disasters, in a risky environment.

Now China has altogether lost patience with this stubborn withholding of beasts from the market, and has declared a major goal of the 13th Five year Plan, operational from 2016 to 2020, is to transform rural production into a modern, intensive, feedlot meat production commodity chain. If this is development, it is disempowering development, to use the term coined by one of the few economists who closely studies Tibet, Andrew Fischer. The result will be a further depopulation of the vast Tibetan countryside, the concentration of animal production on urban fringes, in large scale Chinese owned industrial enterprises that employ only a few Tibetans. This will further intensify the existing trend of excluding rural Tibetans from their land, cancelling their land tenure security, displacing them to concrete peri-urban settlements where they are utterly dependant on official handouts of subsistence rations, and live under constant surveillance.

Another major goal of the Five-Year Plan to 2020 is a massive build-up of hydropower dams on all the major Tibetan rivers, from which one billion people drink daily. In the name of diversifying away from coal, all the wild mountain rivers are to be impounded, in endless cascades of dams. The upcoming 13th Plan period is also when an audacious canal bisecting eastern Tibet is scheduled to begin construction, to take water away from the upper Yangtze and into the Yellow River. This too will bring influxes of lowland Han Chinese workers into remote valleys where Tibetan life, identity and cultural continuity has until now been little interrupted.

Another substantive goal of the 13th Plan is the relocation of the world’s factory away from China’s east coast to new hubs far inland, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, which will draw their raw materials from Tibet rather than from imports. Tibet, Asia’s number one water tower, is to provide the water, copper, gold, silver and many other metals, plus enormous flows of hydropower to the factories of Chongqing, Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xining that make all the big brand consumer products in our pockets. This too is transforming Tibet, as China’s resource nationalism finds domestic sources to substitute for imports, primarily in Tibet and elsewhere in western China, such as the Uighur region of nominal “autonomy” in Xinjiang, and the nominally “autonomous” Inner Mongolia. If we add the lands of the Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs we are talking of half of China, an area bigger than the maximal definition of Europe, from the Urals to Portugal.

These are the announced thrusts of the 13th Plan, with much more yet to be announced in March 2016 at the session of the National People’s Congress. These policies drive Tibet further in a direction already well under way, such as the widespread exclusion of pastoralists form the best pasture lands in Tibet, in the name of conservation, repairing land degradation, and carbon capture.

These drivers drive Tibet and the entire Tibetan population in a discernible direction, their food security and land tenure lost, their future bleak since they are not provided with vocational education to enter the modern economy, and their freedom of movement is curtailed by hukou household registration rules, and by the pervasive, racist suspicions of the security state that Tibetans are generically a threat.

Due to the power of a strong state against a fragmented and impoverished society, the direction of the future is knowable. Even the 13th Plan’s emphasis on fully eradicating to poverty of the remaining 70m people across China officially classified as poor, pushes Tibetans to leave their lands, livelihoods and sacred mountains, to the miners. China argues that Tibetans are poor because they live in Tibet. Remote mountainous areas are by definition poor because low concentrations of scattered mobile pastoralists can never be reached by the comforts of modernity. So, in the name of poverty alleviation, the current social engineering of Tibetans away from the land, to the towns and then to cities and to lowland factories, is to intensify. When we hear that EU Special Representative on human rights Stavros Lambrinidis and “the EUSR welcomed some important developments since his last visit, including China’s commitment to lift an additional 70 million people out of poverty over the next five years”, we must urge you to look more closely at what China means by poverty alleviation, including wholesale involuntary relocation of substantial populations without prior consent.

Thus we arrive at an extraordinary picture. In the name of entirely worthy objectives such as conservation, carbon capture, efficient farming, poverty alleviation, resource nationalism, balanced energy use; the Tibetans are to leave their lands and become displaced, peripheral, useless fringe dwellers leading wasted lives, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term.

This surely is the ultimate absurdity. Taken singly, each of official China’s policies has surface validity. In principle we can all agree that carbon capture, or poverty alleviation, are worthy objectives. Only when we assemble the full suite of developmentalist governance do we see that in practice each objective actually disempowers, dispossesses and displaces the Tibetans en masse, as a people, as a nationality with nominal rights to self-determination.

How can we reveal this ultimate absurdity? The best cross-cutting tool we have, that penetrates the jargons of protected areas, reducing degradation, efficient farming, resource nationalism, renewable energy intensification etc. etc. is the discourse of human rights.

If we reframe the current direction Tibet is pushed towards from above, and add in the 13th Five Year Plan, seen now in a human rights framework, the absurdity is revealed. It will not be hard to understand that the entire project of the modern state, as it inscribes its power into Tibet, is disempowering, leads to depopulation and even for many, destitution. From the UDHR to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples we have the tools we need to understand the fate of Tibet in toto, as whole. This may be the best way available to us to puncture the self-referential insistence by official China that it is merely obeying the “laws” of development and of history, a claim often made in China’s White Papers on Tibet.

In a brief presentation such as this, you may doubt whether the evidence supports such a singular depiction of ground truth, as the Tibetans experience it.  That evidence is available, can be provided and tested.

If the modernising project is in reality marginalising and even pauperising the Tibetans, reducing them to endless dependence, we discover an absurdity that much needs to be named and exposed. This is so much more than compiling endless lists of individual cases of prisoners whose individual civil and political rights have been transgressed.

The absurdity of the Tibetans being developed to leave Tibet is not the only absurdity facing us. We also face the absurdity of technicising human rights, forcing the dialogue into a narrowly ritualised channel of sterile “exchanges” between EU External Action diplomats and their bored, haughty, dismissive Chinese counter parties. The stifling pretence that human rights, inherently political, can be squeezed into this airless format of formal “dialogue” of officials, is absurd.

So I conclude by making an audacious suggestion. By naming the absurdity of China developing the Tibetans away from Tibet, we also transcend the absurdities inherent in the ritualised EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. By speaking plainly of the big picture, we build on the enterprising Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and declare the emperor, in his own eyes adorned with all the splendours of modern statecraft, is actually naked.

Katrin Kinzelbach suggests the ritual of EU-China HR Dialogue has “relegated and isolated human rights” and “gave European politicians an excuse to hide in generalities.” The result, she says is “insincerity about the very principles it [the EU] hailed as fundamental.”

To name the pompous emperor as naked is to also liberate the EU-China HR Dialogue, and breathe life back into a stale ritual. To disclose absurdity is, of course, undiplomatic, yet it could give European diplomacy a fresh life, renewed purpose, and fulfil the “European dream” of a foreign policy that stands in solidarity rather than endless competition between the major states of Europe for China’s favour.

China takes full advantage of Europe’s increasing timidity. Shamelessly, China now accuses us of double standards, in the wake of the Paris terrorist atrocity, for failing to applaud China’s war on the fictional, non-existent “East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” Is this insult, and brazen appropriation of the pain of Paris, not an affront to us all?

As Francois Godemont reminds us, China is debauching Europe’s greatest inventions, not only the concept of universal human rights, but also the entire international order. Godemont says: “What if China made us change our own perspective? Like any open tender, the search for an international order implies a choice between quality and cost. If China becomes the lowest bidder, that will surely impel other suppliers to lower the quality of their offer in order to stay competitive.  The result would be a low-cost version of the international order – less ambitious but also less demanding than the outgoing order.” Is that what Europe wants, a race to the bottom, in which human rights are invisible, having been technicised out of sight so that Volkswagen can continue to get 65% of its profits from China? Godement asks tough questions about the place of human rights in the discourse with China: “How much of a degraded or hollowed-out order are we ready to accept for the sake of general agreement? At what level can that order function acceptably? What is the trade off between the entente among large powers that a low-cost order might generate, and minimal value and content requirements?”[2]

If EU External Action were to take a holistic perspective on China, on Tibet, and on its own relegation to the technicised corner, it could signal a revival, a comeback, a renewed confidence in asserting European values.




[1] Katrin Kinzelbach,  The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits,  2015 – Routledge

[2] François Godement, China’s promotion of a low-cost international order, 06th May, 2015


also by Godemont: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_speaking_to_china_why_Europe_needs_unity_on_human_rights375


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