Whatever one makes of China’s claims to historic sovereignty over Tibet, no Chinese claim to have exercised actual day-to-day control over the lives of Tibetans until the 1950s.
Only in the latter half of the twentieth century did China’s power extend to the vast grasslands of Tibet, intervening decisively in a rangeland quite unfamiliar to Chinese eyes. At the height of China’s revolutionary drive to catch up with the industrialised West, the Tibetan grasslands were suddenly in the hands of Chinese cadres with no experience of pasture dynamics. Productivism was the new ideology, to intensify meat production for China, especially for the influx of Chinese migrants building new towns, oil wells and mines in Tibet.
These cadres took charge, holding the power of life or death, able to withhold rations to punish nomads unable to fulfil predetermined production quotas. In the name of “democratic reform,” the old landlords owning nomadic lands had been executed, but the new cadres held greater powers than any landlord had. The nomads were herded into communes, stripped of all possessions, reshaped into production brigades, and given their orders. No production meant no rations. Starvation, especially in 1959, 1960 and 1961, was common.
From the outset, the new class of cadres in command saw the nomads not as stewards and curators of the landscape, but as ignorant, backward and irrational, utterly lacking in enthusiasm for class warfare. The cadres were told it was more important to be red—i.e., to show a fervour for revolution—than expert. Out on the
grasslands, the idea that nomads were the experts was laughable. Not only were the nomads devoted to the Buddhist lamas, they seldom slaughtered their animals, and allowed wild herds of antelope to mingle freely with their sheep, goats, yaks and horses. Clearly, these nomads were unscientific, unproductive, superstitious and in need of revolutionary regimentation. They must be made to increase herd size, slaughter rates, meat production, fencing and a civilised, sedentary way of life.
Twenty years later, in the late 1970s, the communes collapsed, having failed except for one achievement: the number of animals, in all Chinese official statistics, had climbed steadily every year, to record levels: 30 million sheep and goats, six million yaks.
In the early 1980s nomads were given their animals back, but not their land. As soon as they regained some control over their lives, they cut the number of sheep back to more sustainable levels, as is shown in Chinese official yearbook statistics. Nomads could once more draw on their intimate knowledge of plateau and alpine meadow pastures to regain the mobility that is the secret of both productivity and sustainability.
But Chinese attitudes did not change much. With no tradition of grassland governance to draw on, Chinese leaders persisted in seeing the nomads as primitive and irrational. Meat, wool and dairy production met the subsistence need of the nomads, and their neighbours, the farmers of Tibet; but nomads failed to commercialise slaughter rates. Little meat was available for monetisation.
A rainforest is immediately recognisable as complex, with a huge variety of plants dependent on each other. A grassland, to the outsider, seems far simpler and less wonderful; yet on close observation, the grazed grasslands are as complex and amazing as a rainforest.
Chinese scientists now know that Tibetan nomads gradually cleared plateau forests for pasture over thousands of years, creating complex meadows kept diverse by steady grazing pressure. By skilfully introducing domestic herds, then moving them on, the nomads maintained an extraordinary biodiversity of grasses and sedges, enabling human life to flourish at the third pole. Mobility was crucial, moving on before grazing pressure destroys plants, exposing the