Well, maybe not.
But I do want to introduce myself, the author of all the www.rukor.org blogs, if only to say hello and goodbye.
When I started this blog a few years ago, it seemed to me that debate on Tibet was restricted to a narrow range of essential issues: civil and political rights, religious freedom, hopes for negotiations with China, autonomy. To me, that left much, on which there was at best intermittent focus. Among the issues that seemed to need more sustained attention, analysis and then action were:
- China’s development plans for Tibet, and their impacts on remote Tibetan communities;
- environmental and social impacts of mineral extraction, industrial and urban growth in Tibet;
- hydro dams and Tibetan rivers;
- the new economy of protected areas designed to make money through carbon capture and ecotourism;
- displacement of nomads from their pastures, settling them as fringe dwellers on the outskirts of towns in Tibet, dependent on state handout rations.
As an Australian, the nomad question had lots of resonances. White Australia made Aborigines live on missions and government settlements. The story was that this was for their own good. Aborigines, used to caring for country actively and energetically, called this “sit down money.” They were paid in flour, sugar, tea and tobacco to do nothing, or become servants of the white settlers. Sedentarised Aborigines developed the diseases of the sit down life: overweight, diabetes, dust diseases including ear infections and blindness. Even now, although Australia has at last largely learned to value and respect Aboriginal understanding of how to care for country, the legacy of “sit down money” is hard to shake.
So the exclusion of Tibetan drogpa nomads from their pastoral production landscapes, in the name of modernity, progress, development, poverty alleviation, access to modern services, and carbon capture seemed familiar. It seemed like official China was committed to making every mistake Australia had made, without noticing that, after 200 years of European settlement frequently ruining Australian lands, we have finally learned how to learn from the Aboriginal stewards and guardians of the bush, the wildlife and the arid landscapes, how we all can and must care for country.
That’s why, six years ago, I chose an obscure Tibetan word, rukor, to frame this blogspot. It literally means a circle of tents, an encampment in which several families get together, pooling herds and labour, making collective decisions by combining intimate landscape knowledge of several experienced pastoralists.
I chose rukor because it names something China has never understood: that on the grasslands, the risk management decisions essential to the sustainability of wildlife and rangelands, and to the livelihoods of the mobile nomads, are best made by a modest sized group who know the land intimately.
China, by comparison, has swung between extremes. In the revolutionary Maoist years, extreme communes were forcibly created, on far too big a scale, with the drogpa disempowered, herded like animals into barrack-style compounds where even cooking pots belonged to the commune. People got rations according to how much work they did. People starved.
By the late 1970s it was painfully obvious the communes had failed , except in one key metric: building up yak, sheep and goat herd size to unsustainable numbers. As the communes collapsed, China went to the opposite extreme, of making each individual family contractually responsible to the state to limit herding to allocated land, to fence it and build housing on it. This household responsibility system fragmented lands and families, fragmented the major risk management decisions that the rukor had done so skilfully, and reduced nomadic mobility, resulting inevitably in overgrazing, for which the nomads were then blamed. Between the extreme of large-scale communes and small-scale household contracts is the middle way of the rukor.
Six years and 160 long, hard-to-read blogs on, perhaps 350,000 words in all, what is the upshot?
That’s not really for me, the author, to judge. All I can say is that, while academics seldom read this blog, and give academic cred only to journal articles, Tibetans do read www.rukor.org, in a steadily increasing number, which says a lot about the confidence and curiosity of the new generation of young Tibetan professionals who want to understand Tibet in greater depth, and are willing to persevere with my dense, difficult English. That, in turn, gives me great satisfaction.
But this is both hello and goodbye. I kept this blog anonymous so readers could focus on the issues raised, without distraction, and test for themselves whether the arguments put forward are founded in careful research, with links wherever possible to further, deeper data. The disadvantage of an anonymous blog, however, is that is discourages dialogue, as there seems to be no-one for readers to talk to. So it’s time to come out. Gabriel Lafitte is rukor.
But not for much longer. The doctors tell me I am almost certain to die soon, cancers are everywhere, despite my good fortune, as an Australian, to avail of operations, radiation, chemotherapy, the best of treatments, and in a country where treatment is free. Partly due to Rukor and your responses, I can die without regret.
That is actually why I decided to say hello, in the hope of finding, among the wonderful new generation of Tibetans, a few who might care to pick up what I shortly must leave. Whether www.rukor.org continues is not the point. What does matter is that we develop a capacity to do what rukor has tried to do: to be an early warning system for Tibetans in Tibet, alerting them as to China’s plans, tracking China’s policy announcements, not just their propaganda. We want to do what we can to help remote communities know in advance what China’s plans are, what the strengths and weaknesses of those policies and plans are, how they will impact.
That means focussing more closely on China than Tibetans usually do. When you do shift focus, you will be surprised to find how much information is out there, on official websites, in statistical yearbooks, in academic databases, in English and Chinese. Over the years I have collected at least 30,000 electronic publications relevant to Tibet, covering a wide range of topics, and donated the collection to young Tibetans in various countries, as a Tibet-focused database including entire books, chapters, dissertations, statistics, journal articles and official reports. If more copies of this database are needed, let me know and I will copy it to 32Gb memory stick and send it to you.
The hard part is shaping all that data, often not written with Tibetans in mind, into a shape that makes sense, and is useful from a Tibetan perspective.
Engaging with China, watching closely the many contradictions in China’s policy debates and political decisions, also means learning to write with Chinese readers in mind. The more I delve deeper and deeper into China’s elite debates, the more I find senior Beijing academics who quietly but firmly disagree with official policy, and say so at every opportunity. We need to not only use their research but to engage with them, build bridges, write in ways that pull no punches but could communicate, based on shared common ground.
I don’t read or speak Tibetan or Chinese, beyond a very small vocabulary of nouns. Yet I have somehow found ways of accessing information indepth, sometimes starting off with machine translation. I could explain more, if you want.
This year is for me the 40th since first meeting with Tibetans, starting (as journalists can) at the top, with an interview with Gyalwa Rinpoche in Bodhgaya in 1977. I asked him a whole bunch of dumb questions which he took seriously, thought about them for a while, and gave me such fresh answers I knew I needed to know more. I was hooked.
Over those 40 years I slowly learned how to become useful. I witnessed the Tibet movement grow and grow for 20 years, and then, over the past 20 years slowly dwindle, as many supporters grew disillusioned with an issue that never seemed to progress. Twenty years ago information gathering was much easier. British intelligence routinely intercepted and translated key Chinese broadcasts, including internal provincial broadcasts and BBC Monitoring published them. Likewise in the US the CIA did the same, published as World News Connection. Keeping close watch on China was easy.
Now there are no such central feeds, but hundreds of online sources to monitor. If you remain focused, a picture does emerge. The posts to rukor do show it is possible to grow a comprehensive picture of China’s policies, from multiple perspectives, enabling a detailed representation to emerge.
I may yet have time for a few more posts to rukor.org, but before long I must depart for the next life. I feel strongly that Tibetans have given me as much as I have tried to give in return. I have learned how to live and how to die, now I must turn to practicing those good habits, so I am fully ready for dying, bardo and the next life. I have learned from great lama, also from not particularly religious Tibetans, close colleagues and friends over the years, who simply have a quiet, undramatic focus on what needs to be done, with little of the emotional roller coaster that afflicts us injis. I thank many Tibetans, who may never have thought of themselves as my teacher, yet I learned a lot just by hanging with them.
So now it is over to you, my readers, in the hope that this kind of assessment and analysis can continue. One Tibetan friend made the very practical suggestion that if we can find a dozen or 15 Tibetans, each of whom pledges to write a minimum of one blogpost a year, then we have enough to maintain the output of rukor (or whatever it may morph into). That way the burden on any individual researcher/writer is not too great. Good idea.
Over to you,
btw: the artwork illuminating this blog is by the famous Taiwanese artist Chuang Che, who was inspired by the classic Chinese Buddhist concept of the 16 arhat/lohan/ bodhisattavas; this is his modern take on an old trope that has inspired so many artists over many centuries.