Image credit: Desmond Kavanagh
Gabriel Lafitte is an Australian researcher and environmentalist, and the author of Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism at the Roof of the World, which details how Tibet is currently on the cusp of rapid industrialisation, as copper, gold, silver and other minerals, which are abundant in Tibet, are being mined in large quantities for the first time.
In the first part of our interview, we discussed the types of mining that is being done in Tibet. In this second part, we talk about the history and culture of Tibet, including some surprising facts of Tibet’s economic history, the conception of Tibet in the minds of Chinese and Westerners, as well as the problems raised by Han Chinese settlement in Tibet.
I feel like I’ve heard so much from Han Chinese people about how lovely it is there, and how they’ve travelled or what to go because it’s such a pristine landscape. Could that be a way of, I think you do mention this, of persuading the majority of the Han population that mining in Tibet is a bad idea? Could that be used as a tool, to use that conception of Tibet? Whether it’s completely accurate or not, it is how people here [in Shanghai] think of Tibet.
Yes, maybe one way of looking at it would be to say that mining and tourism are probably the two biggest industries that are coming up in Tibet and are really transforming Tibet, but there is really something of a contradiction, between those two industries. If we insist, as some do, that for Tibet to even begin to take the very first steps towards modernity, it must go through the stage of raw materials extraction, that that’s somehow a law of economics.
But I don’t think that that’s necessarily so. There is a lot of mining, and mines do seem to crop up all over the place in Tibet, even in areas that are designated as protected nature reserves, then it actually does undermine or contradict the tourism trade. I think especially a lot of urban Chinese who do really like to take holidays and appreciate something different and exotic and those wide open landscapes, then yes, if Tibet can somehow remain pristine and not exploited too heavily, then that actually suggests a different kind of future for Tibet. A prosperity that is based on tourism and not minerals.
You mention modernising Tibet. Aren’t there some people who would find any kind of modernising questionable, who would prefer leaving Tibet completely alone?
Well, foreigners sometimes say this.
Certainly, speaking, again, as an Australian, as a Westerner, we’ve had now one and half centuries of books and films romanticising Tibet as some sort of fabulous, mystical, magical Shangri-La. And in a way its actually funny to see Chinese tourism magazines, and videos, and documentaries all somehow recycling those same cliches. That seems to be quite ironic because when Westerners do this is, it’s called Orientalism. So how is it possible for China to also Orientalize?
Exactly! And to Orientalize a place that is to the west. I’ve certainly felt that way. I once was in a museum [in Beijing] and it was just full of the most ridiculous paintings. It was paintings of minority people. My first instinct was, this is terrible and Orientalist.
I agree with you. It’s kind of a mindbender, how China could actually be Orientalist when it looks to the west.
The bottom line to me is that I’ve never met a Tibetan who didn’t want modernity. I’ve never met a single one who said, Oh we just want things to go back to the way it were, let’s say, in the 1940s or 1950s, or something like that. But the question is whether they want modernity with Chinese characteristics, to use the classic phrase. I think that’s where certain complications arise.
Going back to what you said about modernising. That was one of the surprises. I mean, tourism is a preferable industry to mining. But I was a little bit surprised, I don’t know if I was expecting you to romanticise Tibet more than you did, maybe. But you mentioned just now that you’ve never a Tibetan who didn’t want modernity. Let’s say, putting aside the fact that there are all these projects now in mining. Say that mining wasn’t a problem. What would be the challenges to modernising in a way that would be acceptable to Tibetans?
Before China had the capacity to extend its reach into Tibet, I’m not talking about politics of the war here, I’m just talking about extending the highway, actually physically connecting the Tibetan plateau, which is such a huge area, with the rest of lowland China, before all that, Tibet had its own economy, it had its own surplus, it had its own exports. Let’s say 100 years ago or 90 years ago, before world wars destroyed all this, wool from central Tibet went through the Himalayas through down to the British India port of Calcutta and to the wool mills of England. And the wool from Northern Tibet went down down the Huang He all the way to the mills of New York.
So Tibet has an existing economy that has a surplus and has a natural capacity to export and import.
Wool, dairy products, all of these things, could be the basis of an indigenous part of the economy, rather than rely on tourism and mining.
I think what frustrates Tibetans is that they feel somewhat misunderstood. Everything they do seems to be seen in a criminal context as an existential threat to the very future existence of China. When all they’re trying to do is what ordinary, Han Chinese citizens do all the time, which might include protesting about land being taken away from farmers, or a chemical plant or heavy industrial plant being situated in a residential neighbourhood.
Tibetans want to exercise their rights to protest the same sort of things, unfortunately this is regarded as a threat to the very existence of China.
And what do you feel about the migration of Han settlers to Tibet? Is this a problem for Tibet and for Tibet’s process of modernisation?
Well, the Tibetan plateau, and I’m speaking as an environmentalist, I think we could argue that there is a certain carrying capacity, in other words, the number of human beings that can be supported by the Tibetan plateau. Already, according to the 2010 [census], the population of the Tibetan plateau is around 12 million people, double what it might have been historically.
And this is also occurring at a time when many of the pastorialists of Tibet have been told that they are not allowed to graze their animals in order to preserve water for down the stream China. They must leave their land, perhaps temporary, but usually for longer. Tibet is losing its self-sufficiency, it not only has to import manufactured goods, and increasingly basic food, now. So I think there’s a real question as to whether the large-scale migration of people from the lowlands into Tibet is actually sustainable.
So I do sympathise with Tibetans who express real anxiety that their culture is being really overlooked by immigrants who never really learned to have any appreciation or respect for their traditions. Even at the very same time that people romanticise the contemplation.
Somehow, it’s possible, as a tourist, to spend a week in Tibet, and see many places, and take a photograph sitting on a yak with a rosy-cheeked Tibetan girl holding the reins of the yak and take lots of loving photos from the great scenic spots of Tibet to take home to your family, and yet you can spend a whole week in Tibet as a tourist and never really have any real connection with a Tibetan. That’s really unfortunate because what is behind all the fascination all over the world with Tibet, there is something special about the culture,
But that is connected to what we were talking about, what we’re calling Orientalism (even though that word doesn’t make any sense here) where you can both admire and romanticise a culture without actually understand it at all, even a little bit, really.
Yeah, yeah. This is true. I suppose that is why I’m a little bit allergic to romanticisation. It doesn’t actually make for real connections. It makes for projecting our own desires and needs.
Gabriel Lafitte’s book, Spoiling Tibet: China and Resource Nationalism on the Roof of the World, is out now.
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[Image credit: Desmond Kavanagh］