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
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
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
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
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
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.