By Gabriel Laffitte
For China, the elaborate creation of a national parks “system”, mostly in Tibet, is not an end in itself, but a means to other ends.
The formal designation of a landscape as national park does not necessarily change the situation on the ground, at least in the short term. What does change quickly is the transfer of legal power, from local and provincial governments to the national party-state in Beijing. This nationalisation is accompanied by metropolitan investment, allocation of staff and recruitment of local people to be employed as park rangers out on patrol to enforce national policies.
So we should follow the money, and follow those rangers, to see how national power begins to manifest out on the open range in Tibet.
Before we join the rangers on their motorbikes, we should step back and set the scene, learning to look through Chinese eyes at Tibet. We can discover, perhaps to our surprise, how China frames Tibet.
In today’s China, everything is defined as a security threat. Even the remotest landscape where Tibetan drogpa nomads live much as they have for thousands of years, must be securitised. Indeed, allowing people to wander, with their animals, beyond surveillance, is in official eyes a self-evident security risk. Further, it is an embarrassment to a nation proudly planning to land Chinese men on the moon, to have Tibetans wandering aimlessly like animals round the boondocks.
Even the remotest peripheral frontier grasslands must be made orderly, scrutable, legible to the all-seeing eye of the panoptic security state. This is not only because unsupervised land users are likely to degrade the commons, but because security is the necessary precondition of development. Tibet must develop. Development with Chinese characteristics means urbanisation, sedentarisation, the housing of large numbers in showcase “moderate prosperity” xiaokang villages, with centralised education and health care to incentivise the wanderers to settle where the services are located, such as schools and hospitals.
In these ways, development and security are locked together. This is explicitly the official policy, in these times when the security state commands everything. In May 2023 Xi Jinping instructed the entire party-state to “deeply understand the complex and severe situation facing national security, correctly grasp major national security issues, accelerate the modernization of the national security system and capabilities, safeguard the new development pattern with the new security pattern, and strive to create a new situation in national security work. The Central National Security Commission has persisted in carrying forward the spirit of struggle, resolutely safeguarded national sovereignty, security and development interests, and comprehensively strengthened national security.”
Earlier this century, it used to be that development and security/stability were defined as twin goals, especially in central Tibet (U-Tsang), where development was the long term solution to all Tibet problems, but the short term need to secure Tibet always came first. There was a tension between the two goals.
That tension is now resolved decisively. There is nothing that is not a security threat, and those threats are manifest not only in central Tibet but across the entire Tibetan Plateau, which in April 2023 was all brought under a single law, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Restoration Law, to strengthen national control. The Tibetan prefectures and counties of TAR, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and even the Arjin Shan of southern Xinjiang, are now all under this one law.
Ecological “restoration” is the concept named by the law, to be achieved by China’s “arduous struggle to construct ecological civilisation.” These all suggest active human involvement, on the ground, to improve the grasslands. To restore, to struggle and construct are all human activities that engage the people who know their rangelands best, to do the actual work of restoring degraded areas.
Yet the reality is that the new Qinghai—Tibet Plateau Ecological Restoration Law explicitly calls for ongoing removal of nomads from pastures.
All official policies, including watershed protection, biomass growth of grass, carbon capture, poverty alleviation, job security for park rangers, biodiversity protection and now national park redline zoning, all require further displacement of drokpa and their resettlement hundreds of kilometres away in newly built concrete slab housing. The few remaining Tibetans, employed as park rangers, one per nomad family, are out on constant patrol 22 consecutive days each month. One of their duties is to enforce the removal of nomads, livestock and grazing pressure, even if this targets their own families.
We should not look at the new national park “system” in isolation, as an end in itself. Nor should we assume it is a self-evident public good, since wildlife are now protected, even requiring drokpa who were ordered 30 years ago to fence their allocated land, to now tear down those fences, to let wildlife migrate. The migrating herds of antelopes and gazelles do benefit, yet the driver of all official policies is securitisation.
We find evidence for this if we ask a basic question. Are the national parks designated in the areas of greatest biodiversity in Tibet? Since there is now one law, covering the entire plateau in six Chinese provinces, overriding provincial governments, central leaders now have the power to protect the massive “hotspots” of biodiversity of the plateau. When we map the new national parks, and the Tibet biodiversity hotspot map, what do we find?
There is not much overlap of the two maps. The national parks and nature reserves which may soon be upgraded to national parks, are almost wholly in northern Tibet, in the Chang Tang, Achen Gangyab, and the designation of Yushu and Golok prefectures as the Three River-source National Park, Sanjiangyuan. However the greatest biodiversity, of animals and plants, is in Kham, which has only small areas officially protected. The new Panda National Park links up fragmented panda bamboo forests of the eastern fringes of Kham, to at last allow pandas room to connect. But the steep valleys and highland pastures of Kham, rich in sowa rigpa traditional medicinal herbs as well as endangered monkeys, red pandas, pheasants, takin and much more, have no protection.
Instead Kham is where mining is intensive, including extraction of copper from Yulong, between Jomda and Derge; lithium from Lhagang. The construction of large hydro dams is moving upriver into Kham, in part to power the energy-intensive processing of minerals at the mine site, mostly for export of electricity all the way to east coast China.
This is development with Chinese characteristics, likely to intensify as China, obsessed with global security risks, fears losing access to the copper it currently mines in Congo, Zambia and Peru, and the lithium China mines and imports from Chile. Extraction from Kham will accelerate.
National parks do have good out comes. Wildlife are protected and free to roam to their safe birthing grounds far from their usual pastures. In order to encourage nomads not to kill wolves, snow leopards and wild yaks that kill herd animals, the national park system promises to compensate graziers who lose livestock to wild animal attack. There are small areas, notably the Valley of the Cats, in Yushu Zato, where Tibetan villagers host wildlife tourists as homestay guests, a skilful way of both protecting wildlife and increasing local incomes.
Thes positives should be weighed against the negatives: widespread disempowerment, demobilisation, displacement, depopulation of the rangelands and, as a result, Tibetan loss of food security and increasing dependence on transfer payments by the central party-state. These are key questions of Tibetan rights.
Gabriel Lafitte has spent years living with Tibetans, in exile and in Tibet. Based in Australia, he researches the impacts of Chinese policies on the Tibetan Plateau, and regularly trains young Tibetan professional environmentalists and advocates.