Hunger for Tibet
By Ross Adkin
8 May 2017
The latest book on Tibet’s environmental degradation shows how any attempt to save the plateau’s ecosystem must come from within China.
(This is an essay from our March 2015 print quarterly ‘Labour and its discontents’. See more from the issue here.)
Nineteen million people – a preliminary estimate – have lost their homes, their land and their property. Their only means of survival is to move into other regions; but there is no other region that can feed so many refugees. Hunger will probably drive them to violence. This is harvest time, already there has been plundering of crops and of course if the victims have nothing to eat themselves they will join the starving and seize crops elsewhere.
The excerpt above comes not from a report on climate change or the displacement of local people following the building of a dam, but from China Tidal Wave, a futuristic novel published in 1991 by the writer and activist Wang Lixiong. In the novel, as a result of the central government’s relentless extracting of natural resources, the Yellow River bursts its banks, causing wide scale displacement and chaos. This event sets off a chain reaction in which several members of the ruling party make bids for power and plunge the country, and then the world, into war. In the nuclear winter that follows, those who have survived in China struggle on with what little natural resources remain, cultivating a vegetable called shugua and living in shelters that dot the ravaged land. At the end of the novel, Big Ox, a thuggish henchman of the Green Guards with a penchant for rape and torture is mauled to death by a Tibetan mastiff – the demise of the villain in the jaws of the dog symbolising the final and grisly triumph of a ‘pure and unspoilt’ remoteness over the brutal pursuit of power.
In parts of Tibet today, there is serious money to be made in breeding dogs to sell in China, where along with a sports car and a beautiful wife, a Tibetan mastiff is one of the three indispensable status symbols for a young man on the make. Six decades after the ‘liberation’, Tibet is being bottled and photographed, televised and sold to the mainland more than ever before, with the government undoubtedly hoping that the glossy packaging will help cover up the tricky cracks in the historical and political relationship with the motherland. The Open Up the West (Xibu da kaifa) campaign launched in 2000 aims to bring the resources of Tibet and Turkestan into more efficient sync with the industry and factories of the eastern seaboard. The showpiece of this drive, the Qinghai-Lhasa railway, was completed (ahead of schedule) six years later, enabling the more efficient transporting of Tibet’s mineral resources to mainland China, and the arrival of workers from the mainland to supply the service industries which accompany the engineers, miners and surveyors.
Along with highways, shopping malls and the Internet have come diggers, fences and the despoiling of sacred sites; development efforts which Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser calls “pseudo-modernization, essentially a kind of invasion, a sugar-coated, disguised act of violence.” An estimated two million Tibetans have been displaced or forcibly removed in preparation for infrastructure projects and mines between 2006 and 2012. Nomads are being cleared from the grasslands where they play an indispensable role in maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau, which is larger than the US states of Alaska and Texas combined, and resettled in purpose-built towns where they are euphemistically referred to as ‘ecological migrants’. Cables released by Wikileaks revealed how by 2010 the Dalai Lama had already reached the conclusion that environmental degradation in Tibet had become so severe that questions regarding political autonomy needed to be sidelined in favour of increased campaigning against the further damaging of Tibet’s natural environment. Nine major rivers are sourced on the plateau (five of these, the Yellow, Yangtse, Mekong, Indus and Brahmaputra, are among the ten longest rivers in Asia), providing irrigation, soil enrichment and support for the ecosystems on which more than a billion people depend in China, South and Southeast Asia.
Meltdown in Tibet is not another futuristic disaster novel, although chapter subheadings like ‘Where Is the Thirsty Dragon Going to Guzzle Next?’ and ‘Why Can’t They Just Leave the Rivers Alone?’ give clues to the book’s hand-wringing and polemical tone, and mark a departure from Michael Buckley’s earlier, more tranquil guidebook writings on the Tibetan world. The book deals with two broad themes: first, how Tibet’s natural resources are increasingly featured in the schemes of a government hungry for electricity, timber, water and minerals; and second, the impact these plans are likely to have on the ecosystems, populations and politics of China’s neighbours. Scattered throughout are smaller sections on poaching and mass tourism, the changing face of Lhasa, and growing desertification in Tibet and Mongolia.
The chapters dealing with dam building and water politics are the most coherent and sobering. Buckley cites research showing that the construction of “around 400 large dams” is currently being considered by the Indian and Chinese governments across the Himalayan watershed. The records of both New Delhi and Beijing are far from exemplary when it comes to consultation, safety and resettlement; furthermore, the Himalaya lies across an area of high seismic activity, and so would seem an irresponsible place to plan widespread digging, blasting and tunnelling. Inside China, Buckley explains how the government has begun to look west and further upstream for the power it needs for the cities and industry of the east, partly because of a lack of space for new dams in eastern China.
At 200 GW, China, including the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has the highest installed hydroelectric capacity of any country in the world (Brazil is second, with 84 GW). It also reflects (although Buckley only briefly mentions this) nascent but growing pressure from sections of Chinese society concerned about or affected by proposed dam projects. For example, the near-moratorium on new dam building during the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) – despite the fact that the Plan envisioned major hydropower projects – was to some extent a result of civil-society groups and environmentalists putting pressure on the government. The 12th Plan, however, has been termed a ‘Great Leap Forward’ for dam building (one laughs at the idea of a cement lobby, but it almost certainly exists), and Buckley shows how much of the ‘Great Leap’ is poised to take place in Tibet.
Currently, there are only a handful of ‘medium sized’ dams inside the TAR and the majority-Tibetan areas that border it, many of which are not operable year-round due to high-altitude rivers freezing up during winter. The government is planning to build twenty new dams, of which a proposed 38 GW capacity megadam near Metok, in eastern Tibet, will be far and away the world’s largest if completed (the largest at the moment, the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, generates 22.5 GW, and set its own record in displacing 1.2 million people during construction). Although the area around Metok is sparsely populated, it is a site of religious significance for Tibetans and also lies in an area prone to earthquakes. The most recent reminder of this was the 7.9 magnitude earthquake which struck Sichuan in May 2008 and killed 87,000 people. The political aftershocks of the dam will also be far-reaching; the Yarlung-Tsangpo river, upon which the dam will be built, becomes the Brahmaputra once it flows into India, and water-claiming on such a huge scale will undoubtedly raise tensions in New Delhi.
Buckley also shows how the tender and contract-awarding processes for new dams are often hobbled by corruption. While laws introduced in 2003 stipulate that Environmental Impact Assessments must be carried out and approved before construction begins, local governments have been too easily swayed by the promise of immediate economic windfalls, and have given the go-ahead to those wanting to dig or build. Buckley also points out how distance from the central authorities means that there are ways around the government’s diktat:
Work on Ahai Dam, in the upper Yangtse region, was carried out in secret by Sinohydro Corporation. Signs declaring the site a “military zone” were erected to discourage visitors. There was no EIA at Ahai Dam: authorities planning to visit the dam to approve the project were presented with a dam that was practically completed.
Huaneng, another state-owned power company has been fined numerous times by the government for building before permission had officially been given, and yet continues to enjoy favour.
The megadams and water diversion projects planned by the Chinese government will allow China to “turn the water on or off” for countries downstream. Buckley travelled to Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India and Nepal, and these forays worked extremely well in expanding the scope of the book and providing glimpses of the larger ecological and geopolitical picture. Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia, for example, floods every year, acting like a ‘back up valve’ for the Mekong river, and provides 60 percent of the annual freshwater fish catch when the floodwaters recede. Local sources attribute the disastrous 2003-04 catch – which was half of its usual volume after the lake flooded for three months instead of the usual five – to the completion of the Dachaoshan dam, upstream in Yunnan, in the same year. In Burma, Buckley reports how construction of the proposed 3200 MW Myitsone dam in the northeast, at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai (the source of the Irrawaddy, the country’s longest river) was officially suspended in 2011. The dam would have submerged more than 60 villages, while 90 percent of the power generated would have been exported back to China, and its suspension is a “rare victory for anti-dam campaigners in Burma”. However, on a visit to Myitkyina with a “Kachin guide and a motorcycle”, Buckley is informed by locals that workers are still on-site, working by night. What they are doing is unclear, and one wishes he had stayed longer to find out, but he reports that those displaced during the original phases of construction have not been allowed to return home, leading to the conjecture that, “Chinese engineers are just biding their time, waiting for the project to resume.”
The book also reports on the activities of Chinese state-owned enterprises in Pakistan, where dam building serves the dual purpose of power generation and territory-claiming in the disputed Northern Territories. The state-owned Gezhouba Group is helping Pakistan build the 969 MW-capacity Neelum-Jhelum dam, even as India proceeds to dam the river further upstream at Kishanganga. In northeast India, similar practices are being employed by New Delhi in the face of competing claims over the waters of the Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra: “New Delhi argues that if it has to go to the International Court of Justice to counter Chinese dam building and diversion on the Yarlung-Tsangpo, then it must show beneficial use of the river in India by building its own dams.”
The displacement of nomads from the grasslands and plains of Tibet is an issue with ecological as well as moral implications, and one dealt with at length in the book. With knowledge of the land, weather patterns, flora and fauna, nomadic families and their herds are an integral part of the fragile ecosystem, the “stewards of Tibet’s grasslands”. The central government has been actively discouraging this way of life, claiming that a sedentary population can be better educated and cared for. Buckley has suspicions as to the real reasons for the resettlement programmes: the freedom of movement the nomads enjoy, and the presence of valuable minerals like lithium, copper and gold underneath the land they roam over. A conversation with a nomad family near the town of Litang is interesting. The head of the family tells Buckley through an interpreter:
There has been a lot of pressure to sell their animals and settle… He says that he will stay on the grasslands as long as he can, because he has talked to others that settled and they were very disappointed with their new lives. They were no longer free. Everything suddenly came down to a question of money and having to buy food and clothing. Here, he says, he has his freedom – and he never pays for his food or water.
Sadly, Buckley does not explore what life is like inside one of the resettlement towns, although he highlights how exactly nomads are being forced off the grasslands, and, if not into towns, into much smaller fenced-in areas, where overgrazing quickly becomes a problem. This is partly achieved through the creation of what he terms ‘Paper Parks’. These are huge areas of land designated as national parks or protected areas (and so off-limits for nomads), inside which mining companies are often free to prospect for minerals.
The scope of Meltdown in Tibet is impressive. Buckley does a fine job in bringing together current research on Tibet’s environment and the plans Beijing has for harnessing it to maintain the economic growth it sees as a guarantor of political stability. He is clearly at home writing on things Tibetan, and his anxiety and concern for the preservation of Tibetan culture are clear. However, throughout, the polemic follows a too-simplistic ‘environmental Tibetan / materialist Chinese’ agenda, to use the phrase of academic Graham E Clarke. “The tourists and their guides”, Buckley writes of Chinese visiting Tibet, “show little interest in Tibetan culture and religion. Their interest lies in scenery, fresh air, blue skies, photography and shopping.” He backs up this generalisation with anecdotal evidence, but seems to forget that European and North American tourists go to Tibet for precisely the same reasons; they too smoke cigarettes where they shouldn’t, and are just as capable of being patronising and disrespectful of local sensibilities. Anyone who has travelled in Tibet will know this. The arbitrary suspicion of almost everything Chinese firstly betrays Buckley’s politics – common to the rest of the adventure writer/climber/rafter crowd who yearn for Tibet to be free, pristine and unexplored again – but also, more damagingly, does not allow his book to seriously entertain the possibility that ways of combating environmental degradation in Tibet could come from within China itself.
Environmental activism is currently one of the few domains of Chinese politics where protest and dissent are somewhat tolerated. Zed Books’ China and the Environment: The Green Revolution and Joy Zhang and Michael Barr’s Green Politics in China (both published in 2013) explore the growth in environmental NGOs and activism, and tell us that even if green politics in China is not of the confrontational kind we are familiar with elsewhere, it is certainly happening, and sometimes with encouraging results. Following the publishing of data by monitors in the US Embassy in Beijing in 2009-10, which revealed the catastrophically high presence of PM 2.5 molecules in the air, the ‘I Monitor the Air for My Country’ campaign started by the NGO Green Beagle asked citizens to take their own PM 2.5 measurements and upload their findings online. With its catchy, social media-friendly slogan, the ‘citizen science’ campaign showed that it is possible for a group of people outside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to challenge the party’s position (or lack of one) on an issue that is both political and environmental, even if for a limited period.
Examples of this concern extending to the Tibetan plateau are harder to come by. But they are there. Mining Tibet, published by the Tibet Information Network in 2002 quotes a paper by Chinese academics Hu Angang and Wen Jun published in the government’s China Tibetology journal, in which they argue that the state’s current mining policies are widening the wealth gap between Han migrant workers and local Tibetans, and should be scaled back in favour of sustainable development initiatives which involve local nomads and farmers. In 2011, ‘Globe Trekker: Across the Kekexili’, a publicity campaign by the Snow Beer brand which aimed to send an adventure group to Kekexili reserve in northwest Tibet sparked opposition from a number of environmental campaigners in mainland China mobilised by Weibo and other social media.
There are occasions where it seems Buckley’s book is about to take the ambitious and much-needed step to look at the potential for change from within China. Following a discussion of the successful campaign from 2004 to 2007 to halt the construction of a megadam at Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, Buckley writes: “The fate of Tibet’s rivers lies with courageous figures… triggering change from within China.” Earlier, he makes the observation that “Chinese environmental NGOs and activism are tolerated, it seems… But Tibetan action is viewed as subversion.” Neither of these openings are followed up, which is a lost opportunity for the book and its author to take a great leap and enquire into whether the Chinese environmental activism that is currently tolerated also has Tibet on its radar, and if so, whether it could be mobilised to fight the government’s policies on the plateau (or to begin with, in Tibetan areas outside the TAR where restrictions on assembly and dissent do not seem to be as stringent). Hunting for scenarios or instances of ecologically-minded Chinese and Tibetans working together would have required much arduous research in Chinese and Tibetan. But if such examples could be unearthed, then surely here was a new topic worth exploring which could have challenged the conventional narrative on Tibet and China.
The renegotiating of Tibet’s status within the ‘motherland’ has been unfolding for a while now. That closer integration with the mainland has so far been characterised by, among other things, the accelerated extraction and exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources should hardly be surprising, depressing as it is. The prices the inhabitants of resource-rich peripheries must pay for their modernity are the same everywhere. The bonds that bind Tibet to China are certainly tightening in many ways, and indeed seem to be shrinking spaces for dissent regarding autonomy and religious rights. But those who are concerned about the fate of Tibet’s environment need to be working out how they can be effective in this changing climate, and what kinds of opportunities it could offer if they learn to negotiate inside it.
Within China, it is not only technocrats and government planners who have visions for what a future Tibet will look like. A small yet growing number of academics, journalists and activists already see a bigger picture in which the preservation of the plateau’s rivers and ecosystems is in everyone’s interest as floods, desertification and soil degradation increasingly affect the lives of those living downstream. Not every tourist from Shanghai drops litter in Lhasa or defaces statues in monasteries, just as every Belgian or Swiss visitor does not possess an inherent capacity to understand the plight of the Tibetans and the exclusive right to speak up for them. We need to begin accepting that growing numbers of Chinese people are also unhappy that Tibet’s mountains are being bulldozed and its rivers blocked up, and that they may in fact be more effective torchbearers than those of us in Southasia or in the West. One would hope that if criticism and opposition to the government’s environmental policies on the plateau could be raised as part of the more mainstream Chinese environmental agenda (and include familiar and tolerated Chinese voices), then the ‘splittist’ label would be less easily applied and voices from Tibet less easily dismissed out of hand. An ‘environmental Tibetan / environmental Chinese’ agenda is surely plausible.
In an episode of the US sitcom Friends from 2004, Phoebe explains indignantly, to audience laughter, why her eccentric, steel-drum playing friend Marjorie is so smelly: “Hey! She will shower when Tibet is free!” Throwaway, pop-culture references like this illustrate how in the West the Tibet issue is effectively dead in terms of questions of political autonomy and religious freedom, even as Tibetans are portrayed as embodiments of compassion and suffering. Meanwhile, as its political and economic clout grows, the CCP continues ignoring the impassioned criticism of its Tibet policies that comes from abroad. Those in the West who have taken up the Tibetans’ cause and chafe at this deafness, often seem to forget that for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, China was bullied, pillaged and shamed by a cohort of rapacious foreign powers and treated with contempt on the world stage. A sign at one of the entrances to the Summer Palace of Qing emperors in Beijing (which was destroyed by British and French soldiers in 1860) now reads ‘Do not forget the national shame, rebuild the Chinese nation.’
Such jingoism does not bode well for the rivers, forests and mountains of the Tibetan plateau. And, when choices need to be made, will those dwelling in the megacities of mainland China choose a less reliable electricity supply so that a dam need not be built on a river thousands of miles upstream? Possibly not. But – and this is a painfully obvious fact – Tibet’s environment is only going to be saved if people in China desire it to be. For the moment, there may be some breathing space to work out how this is to be done. In Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, another excellent book recently published by Zed, Gabriel Lafitte concludes that while Tibet is ‘primed’ for wider scale exploitation, this process has not yet begun in earnest. He also writes: “There is a deep spiritual hunger in China (jingshen weiji), for guidance as to how life can be made more meaningful than the endless consumer pursuit of endless wants.”
The faceless, monolithic and all-consuming behemoth that we are told is China, has its own inefficiencies and failings. It also has ‘courageous figures’ like Wang Lixiong who want change – individuals who are mentioned only in passing in Buckley’s narrative. The excluding of such individuals is unfortunate and demonstrates an unwillingness to come to terms with the realities of Tibet’s political and economic situation today, however distasteful it may be. And when it should be the task of those who have long-standing connections with Tibet and deep sympathy for its people, to tell us where possibilities for saving its environment lie, even if they might be in China, Meltdown’s refusal to entertain any such possibility can only ensure that the picture it paints of the future is a dark and hopeless one.
~Ross Adkin is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.
(This is an essay from our March 2015 print quarterly ‘Labour and its discontents’. See more from the issue here.)