chinese attitudes to conservation and to tibet



by Orville Schell
Comments made at "Endangered Tibet," a October 1990 ecology conference held in San Francisco.

In the early 1980s, while resting for a day during a trek through the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau-a very wild, remote area--several of our expedition's Tibetan guides came galloping into camp. On the back of one of their saddles was a dead snow leopard, which our expedition ate for that day's meal. I thought, at first, that the snow leopard, an endangered species, had been shot solely for that purpose. However, as I began to look more deeply into the incident, I realized that it wasn't the meat of the snow leopard, nor the value of its skin, that our guides had been so excited about. It was the snow leopard's bones that were the most valuable piece of the animal. In Chinese medicine, the bones command a very handsome price as a kidney enhancer and remedy for arthritis.

As it turned out, guides from the Chinese Mountaineering Association who were accompanying our expedition soon bought the bones from the Tibetan guides, took them back to China, and sold them for a handsome profit. This made their entire trip--this cold, wet, unpleasant, high-altitude nightmare that we Americans had forced them to endure--quite worthwhile. However, one could not help but be struck by the absurdity and contradictoriness of our guides. They, the supposed custodians of the wilderness, had ended up being its pillagers.

Later, back in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province (formerly known as the Amdo region of Tibet) I saw a sign on a storefront that had pictures of a snow leopard, a blue bharal sheep, a Tibetan brown bear [Ed. Note: the bears are hunted for their paws], and several other exotic and now very scarce species that inhabit the Tibetan Plateau. I was stunned to learn that it was a Chinese government-run store that specialized in purchasing and selling whatever parts of these endangered animals were of value on the Chinese market.

The economics of this one snow leopard's death illustrate the kind of insoluble and often destructive connection that exists between China and Tibet today. The Tibetans would not be hunting with such eagerness if there weren't such a lucrative market in China, where there is little reverence for animal life, endangered or otherwise. Simply put, in Chinese culture, animals are revered primarily as things to eat. These cultural attitudes are one reason why China is such an environmental disaster area today, and such a poor model for Tibet when it comes to wildlife protection.

Compared to the ecological damage China has inflicted upon itself, however, Tibet remains a relatively pristine, untouched wilderness. It would not be too extreme to say that China today is a kind of Dickensian industrial hell, the likes of which are unequaled except perhaps in certain areas in eastern Europe. China is a curious example of a politically-centralized totalitarian country coupled to a growing laissez-faire economy at the local level. And it is on the local level that the government has abdicated most control, including over the environment. Although the government still restricts such things as human rights and freedom of expression, it has relaxed its grip on those other mechanisms of control that might enable it to have a salutary effect on things like China's environment.

To put it bluntly, China is an authoritarian country that misapplies its ability to control. When China was much more of a totalitarian state than it is now, under Chairman Mao Zedong, the environmental situation was not nearly as bad as it could have been. The levers of political and administrative control were still firmly in the hands of the central government at that point, and when this or that ministry chose to do something, the government could act expeditiously. Had a good environmental policy been on the movement's agenda, it could have been implemented quite easily. This is not a polemic for totalitarianism, but simply to acknowledge that dictatorial control can have a beneficial side if it is used to good effect.

Another reason China was not as ecologically devastated then as it is now is that China was not as economically developed. Not only was the power to control all industry still in the hands of the government, but people did not have much money, and industry was producing virtually no consumer goods. The Chinese government did not want its people to consume a lot. The cultural revolution under Mao was emphatically not about consumption. It was, instead, about austere struggle, what the Chinese call jianku fendou. You were expected to struggle with all your heart to serve the people, not yourself. Owning a washing machine or VCR was unimaginable; a bicycle, a sewing machine--these were the few material objects to which one could aspire. The environmental benefits of this kind of anti-consumerism are obvious.

Paradoxically, then, there was much less environmental destruction going on in China during those early years, when Chinese industry was at a kind of underdeveloped "half-throttle," compared to now. Thus, there was less damage to the natural environment of almost every area under Chinese control.

The situation today, however, has radically changed under Deng's reforms. China's nouveau totalitarianism can no longer control things that even democrats might like to see controlled. The burgeoning world of entertainment media is a good example of this. China broadcasts some of the most ghastly television programs in the world today, with absolutely no redeeming political or social importance. The programming is often so bad that you find yourself asking: Why don't they do something about this? Doesn't the government still control the media? Why are they, in effect, shooting themselves in their own feet and subverting their own socialist cause?

For instance, one New Year's Eve I was in my Beijing hotel room, slumped in front of a television set, when a provincial New Year's variety hour special came on. Suddenly, the lights came up on a gazebo, covered with Christmas tree lights, which is China's current idea of being festive.(Every disco in China is plastered with rows and rows of these flashing lights.) And, lo and behold, who was in the gazebo but a young woman, with bright ruby-red lips, spiked heels, a well-tailored People's Liberation Army uniform, and an electric guitar. She sang an amazingly dreadful song called "Foxhole Disco."

Such performances raise the question of how any self-respecting totalitarian government could possibly countenance this sort of thing. The answer has little to do with the tolerance for pluralism and dissent of Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, or Deng Xiaoping. Such Chinese television programs are symptomatic of a far more significant phenomenon: China is out of control. Its government can only control the surface of things. It can shoot people in the streets; it can deny passports; but it often cannot effectively govern in a comprehensive and grass roots way. As a consequence, the lower echelons of the economy are allowed to go pretty much their own way, so that when you come to a provincial city, you enter a smoggy, degraded environment that is essentially a modern industrial hell. It became a hell because the people running the new private enterprises, private cooperatives, and state enterprises at the provincial and county level are obsessed with production and the bottom line. They don't care about the environment. They can't afford to care about the environment because of the pressure to increase production. They do not have the wherewithal to be concerned with pollution, nor do they have the regulatory agencies to watch over it.

But equally as important, the government in Beijing no longer has the will nor the power to force them to deal with such problems. As a result, much of China is beyond environmental salvation. This is especially true in the central part of the country, where factories and farms often stand literally side-by-side. It is a depressing sight to see these factories in the countryside, with outfall pipes spewing effluent laden with toxic chemicals and heavy metals into irrigation systems, which flow right into rice fields.

Again, it is China's bastardized and confused system, one that is hamstrung somewhere between socialism and capitalism, centralism and decentralism, that produces this kind of lethal tolerance. The land tenure system presents similar problems. Farmers don't own their land but with privatization of agriculture they do have long term contracts to farm it. However, because they are uncertain of their long-term stewardship over their farms, they usually want to maximize their short-term profits. Knowing that they may not have a farm five or ten years from now, they often imagine that it is in their best economic interests to use up the land's fertility without replenishing it. Because there is no long-term relationship between Chinese industry and Chinese natural resources, the overwhelming ethic is to consume the resources as rapidly as possible.

China, then, is caught on the horns of a new and terrible dilemma between production and environmental protection. The government has, in fact, set up a few environmental protection commissions, and you do find a few articles in newspapers, discussing what must be done to save China's ecology. But the bitter truth is that, with its growing population and desperation to produce, China's environment is running downhill at a very, very alarming rate.

Since Tibet is technically part of China, its ecological destruction is ineluctably connected with that of China. Moreover, Chinese are now conducting explorations for oil and other minerals in Tibet, building roads, exporting population, destroying wildlife habitats-- all things which are having a profound impact on Tibet's delicate high-altitude ecology. As long as Tibet is under Chinese occupation, we will have to look to Beijing not only to understand why this is happening to Tibet, but to stop it. The political levers are being pulled in Beijing, noting Lhasa, which means local Tibetans have very little control over the future of their land. Tibet is merely a piece of punctuation at the end of along, complicated Han Chinese sentence of environmental catastrophe.

The Chinese, with all their disregard for their own environment, care even less about that of Tibet. One has only to read Chinese traditional poetry to learn of the abhorrence with which most Chinese have historically looked upon the wild, barbarian hinterlands of Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. They don't go there for pleasure; they only go to fight or to make money, and neither are particularly salutary ways for the Chinese to be involved in Tibet.

I often wonder why China doesn't just let go of Tibet. Beijing actually sinks enormous amounts of resources into it and, for their efforts, they've gotten nothing but a terrible diplomatic black eye. In fact, one can conceive of a rather good scenario in which they might say "Look, we'll pull out of Tibet, but we'll continue to manage its defense and foreign affairs." This way, they could save face and solve any number of major problems for themselves.

The reason they haven't done this, I think, is because of their titanic pride. It is very difficult for a country as insecure as China to consider giving up something to which they have committed so many resources and so much of their ego. One must never underestimate this sense of insecurity in dealing with China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has a recurring phrase that appears in many of their statements: "The feelings of the Chinese people have been hurt by X,Y, or Z." It is this feeling of being "hurt," this fear of being made to look weak, that makes them cling so tenaciously to Tibet. From their perspective, to lose Tibet would be a tremendous loss of face.

So Tibet is a sort of tar baby for China, and one doubts that the present leadership will be sufficiently visionary or confident to solve this problem creatively. Indeed, Beijing hardly seems able even to think in terms of the real interest of its people, as opposed to all the other interests gravitating around the question of face. Beijing's gerontocrats are living in another era, where they are still struggling against the imputations of old weaknesses. Until there is a change in this leadership, and China's perception of itself, it is doubtful that there will be any kind of real solution to the problem of Tibet.

Sadly, there cannot be an environmental movement in China, or in Tibet, until the political situation changes. Environmental movements almost always grow up on the margins of the political and economic mainstream. They are like mosquitoes buzzing around centers of power and rarely grow up within established governments. They represent the nascency of pluralism. China has been singularly unable to purge itself of manifold political, economic, social, and cultural problems precisely because there has been no tradition of pluralism, diversity, or loyal dissent. The government's traditional presumption has been "If you'renot with us, you'reagainst us." This traditional attitude was reinforced by the whole orthodox Marxist/ Leninist/Maoist canon, which stressed that everyone must agree. If one doesn't agree with the government, one is put in prison. Thus, no margins on which people can stand outside the government can develop, and this is the only territory in which a truly independent environmental movement can begin to grow.

By 1989, there was a curious Sherwood forest growing up in China, outside of the Party. There was a vibrant private economy, where people could make a living outside of state-run enterprises. There was also sort of a proto-Bohemian ethic developing as people began to form rock groups, to write bold, critical pieces of literature, and to set up avant garde theater groups that were outside the official ring. One looked to this with great hope for both China and Tibet. There was hope that, out of this new margin of cultural and political life, a host of new groups would arise, groups that could act as checks and balances on the government and keep it honest. But, as everyone knows, this movement died dramatically in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. It was snuffed out before it ever really had a chance to take up the issue of the environment.

The most tragic aspect of China and Tibet's environmental decline is that very few Chinese seem to notice the degradation around them. As more and more Chinese begin to travel abroad to Europe, the United States, and elsewhere--and begin to come in contact with adversarial environmental groups, this situation may well change. Perhaps they will go home and be able to see the hideous conditions in which most urban people live, and in turn be moved to try and do something about them.

For now, the Chinese government is not about to countenance any kind of political movement that is not completely sanctioned and controlled by it. But, eventually such movements will arise, even though the process may be very painful. We can only hope that Tibet will somehow survive until such a time. The Himalayas are a tremendously fragile environment, however, and the migration of Han Chinese into Tibet is an especially perilous development. No one knows the exact statistics, but they are diluting the Tibetan Culture as well as bringing rapacious development to the area.

This migration is being impelled forward by China's most frightening environmental nightmare: namely, its skyrocketing population. Like the periodic plagues of locusts that sweep over the countryside, China's population is slowly exhausting and devastating the land, and ultimately will overwhelm every available natural resource in the country. This will, in turn, apply more and more pressure on the Chinese to move out of China proper and into the so-called autonomous regions. And if China begins to discover more and more valuable resources in Tibet, not only will the migration grow more rapidly, but the despoliation of Tibet will advance as well.

This has created an enormous amount of resentment among the Tibetan people and nobody knows how that will finally resolve itself. But once again, it is almost unimaginable that the situation will resolve itself by Tibetans revolting and overthrowing Chinese rule. It must, therefore, resolve itself back in Beijing through some kind of political evolution or revolution at the center. One can only hope that the Chinese students and dissident intellectuals who are at the forefront of the democracy movement will not forget Tibet.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's proposal to turn Tibet into a giant nature preserve--and a human preserve as well--is a fascinating idea. He might become the Vaclav Havel of Asia, and Tibet a buffer zone between India, Pakistan, China, and Nepal--all Asian countries that have histories of tension and border wars.

Is this vision more than just a pipe dream? Well, there are not many leaders left in the world who have the moral authority of the Dalai Lama. His powers of moral suasion and his committed to nonviolence are very precious commodities in this day and age of hype and deceit. They are also commodities that could serve the Chinese well, if they could learn how to put them to good use, rather than to deride and oppose them. What is important to ask is: Who can help turn Tibet from being a problem, a land in environmental decline, into something stable and protected.? Perhaps the Dalai Lama could play such a role, but we must, not hold our breaths. This will probably not happen as long as the gerontocrats, who hold the power in Beijing, endure. I am afraid any kind of real Tibetan autonomy lies down a long and twisting road. But it is one of those marvelous fantasies that I nonetheless like to entertain, and I hope that someday it may have a chance to come to pass.



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