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

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