New China, born in 1949, was dedicated to science, development, rationality, the conquest of nature and industrialisation – all reliant on access to minerals. The Kuomintang regime defeated by the Communist Party was also dedicated to scientific modernity, the suppression of Buddhism as feudal backwardness, and integration of the Tibetan frontier into China. The KMT and CCP differed sharply in their capacity to implement policies, but their ideological stances, repudiating China’s past and embracing speedy industrialization, were similar.
China’s will to catch up to and surpass the industrial West has led Tibetans to assume that the rich mineral resources of the Tibetan Plateau were and still are the core reason why China took, and insists on holding, Tibet. And yet China has so far profited little from taking Tibet, and its inability to extract much from the earth of Tibet, other than surface gold, is the gap between China’s reach and its grasp.
If there was a time when China badly needed the minerals of Tibet, and could argue that the social and environmental costs of exploitation were justified by the mineral output, it was in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. Those were the decades in which China grew into the world’s factory, losing self-sufficiency in minerals and energy production. Sourcing minerals from Tibet would have made a difference. That is when China could have made maximum use of Tibet’s comparative advantage as a storehouse of mineral treasure. The Chinese word for central Tibet, Xizang, can be taken to mean treasure store of the west. Yet in practice China consistently found it cheaper, easier and faster to source its minerals globally, shipping them across the oceans to China.
By the second decade of this century the global material flows into China reached such intensity that the minerals of Tibet, even if fully exploited, could no longer play more than a minor part in feeding the world’s factory. Nonetheless, China is set to exploit Tibetan minerals as never before, a belated response that has slowly gathered momentum over decades, and is due to result in big mines, at a time when their contribution to China’s needs no longer matters much.
The unfinished agendas of the Qing dynasty, and of the KMT, remain, in Tibet, unfinished. The standard model, of moving in large numbers of Han Chinese peasant settlers growing familiar crops on small plots to feed the ready market of Chinese soldiers garrisoning the frontier simply did not work in Tibet. Even now, the non-Tibetan population in Tibet is overwhelmingly urban, concentrated in extraction zones, towns, cities and transport corridors that link them to lowland China. There are almost no Han settlers in rural Tibet, because agriculture with Chinese characteristics is a climatic impossibility.
Thus the party-state itself is ambivalent about how hard it can or ought to push its own state corporations to ‘go out’ to Tibet, because they are the national champions meant to stride the world stage. These state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are to be bulked up, agglomerated, their industries rationalized and consolidated, so they can become big enough to be global players. There is an urgency to the state-orchestrated strategy of building up the national champions, because mining globally, in all aspects, including extraction, processing, trading and shipping, has been increasingly dominated by a handful of giant transnationals. These are high-profile global brands such as BHP Billiton, Vale, Rio Tinto, Glencore/Xstrata, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Gazprom and so on. China wants to ‘go out’ to the world not only to reliably source its minerals, oil, gas and even coal, but to have the capacity to buy the best deposits, at the best prices, to keep the world’s factory growing. Although there is a popular perception that China is already a dominant player in Africa and Latin America, as well as among its poorer Asian neighbours close to its borders, China has made only limited acquisitions, often in high-risk areas of the world, and at premium prices.
With each merger of global transnationals, such as the 2012 Glencore/Xstrata deal, the big league gets bigger, the price of entry gets higher, the barriers to new competition grow.
For China’s miners to take their place in the Fortune 500 would take capital that might alternatively be deployed in Tibet. But the developmental party-state, through its extraordinarily profitable state-owned banks, has ample capital for mining projects. However, learning to compete with the biggest resourced mines and speculators/traders takes much more than capital. China’s budding national champions are on a steep learning curve which absorbs their attention. Tibet is somewhat old news, an ongoing problem for the central leaders, but for the corporations a distraction from the glory and personal wealth accumulation opportunities of ‘going out’.
This does not mean that nothing is happening in Tibet, far from it. But things happens more slowly than in a monolithic state. China’s state-owned miners are moving into Tibet, in the steps of the state’s infrastructure construction programmes. By 2020 mining could be the pillar industry that radically reorients Tibet, in a different economy and a different demography. The onset of major mining enclaves may have been slow in building up, but the situation may soon reach a tipping point.
The transition from a land of light, extensive, mobile land use to a depopulated land in which nomads have been sedentarized will soon leave the emptied land to miners big and small, turn Tibet into a depleting asset whose soils are stripped, along with the minerals beneath, with rampant degradation growing unchecked, and with no one left who knows and cares deeply for the land, able to defend and rehabilitate degrading areas. Mining is by definition intensive, sedentary, occurring in enclaves that concentrate capital, technology, workers and environmental impacts in a small space. Pastoral nomadism is by definition extensive and mobile, traditionally able to move on before grazing pressure compromises the regrowth of grasses. The intensive and extensive uses of land contradict each other, and cannot coexist, especially when the state actively removes the nomads and cancels their land tenure rights. They compete for water and land. Seasonal pastoral herd migration routes (which are often wildlife migration paths too) clash with the sedentary enclaves that extract minerals and monopolize limited water sources.
The Tibetan Plateau has always been of planetary significance, as the source of nearly all major Asian rivers, from Pakistan, through South and Southeast Asia, all the way up to northern China. Even more powerfully, this island 4 to 5 kilometres in the sky profoundly influences global atmospheric circulation, even diverting the jet-stream. It is a major engine of the monsoon rains on which all Asian civilizations, from India to China, rely.
..as the source of the lithium in your mobile phone or iPad; the chromium that makes your new car or refrigerator shiny and stainless; the copper that transmits hydropower from Tibetan rivers across China to the coastal factories that make the world’s manufactures. If Tibet is industrialized, at the bottom of the global commodity chain, as a supplier of cheap, unprocessed minerals, unable to set prices or make profit from resource exploitation, some will say ‘welcome to modernity’. If that is the fate of so many ‘underdeveloped’ areas, why not Tibet?
Tibetans in exile assume that China’s ‘leap-and-bound’ plans for Tibet’s pillar industries are either inscrutable or inexorable, incomprehensible or unstoppable. But the story told here is full of stops and starts, of Chinese dreams of Tibetan mineral wealth that have not been matched by extractive reality; of internal contradictions in China’s wealth-generating process. Far from making Tibetans wealthy, or including Tibetans in the new mineral economy, China’s grand narrative of development is likely to further alienate the Tibetans, whose affections for China have long been deeply alienated by decades of rampant, indiscriminate, gold-rush mining of streambeds all over Tibet. In short, there is such a gap between Chinese plans and lived reality that we might conclude that China’s interventions in Tibet are consistent only in being counterproductive, with frequently self-defeating outcomes. The coming phase of intensive mining tries to distance itself from the gold rush, but it will be hard to persuade Tibetans that corporate mining has better intentions.
This is and extract from Spoiling Tibet, by Gabriel Lafitte