On August 22, President Xi Jinping visited the city of Golmud in Qinghai province, which lies just northeast of Tibet, where he expressed concern about the area’s ecosystem, local poverty, and national unity.
Just as important as developing gold and silver mines, he said, is the need to protect China’s so-called water tower, a reference to the Tibetan Plateau. Sometimes also known as “the Roof of the World” or Earth’s “third pole,” because it contains the largest ice mass outside the polar regions, this is where the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang (Mekong) rivers lie. Despite Xi’s words, however, the region’s water resources are being heavily exploited by bottled water companies.
“In the last two decades,” writes Liu Hongqiao, an analyst at China Water Risk, “China has become the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer.”
“The Tibetan water tower cannot support all the damming and the extracting that is taking place right now,” said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. “Bottled water doesn’t have nearly the impact that dams and water-intensive industries do, but it’s another big drop being taken out of the bucket.”
During his trip, Xi also visited Haidong County to see firsthand the results of a relocation program begun in 2004. After establishing the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve in 2000, local Tibetan herdsman who live in the area have subsequently been relocated to better preserve the land and get people into more economically active centers, or at least that’s Beijing’s side of the story. The other side of the story is that Tibetans are being forcibly relocated, but this of course doesn’t make local news.
“Life has become better and I feel my dream fulfilled,” Xinhua reported a relocated herdsman as saying to Xi during his trip. According to the article, the man and his family were formerly “living in tents” and “sleeping on the ground,” whereas now they have furniture and home appliances.
“An even happier life is yet to come,” Xi told him. “I wish you all health and longevity.”
For many of these Tibetans, who have only ever known husbandry, life in an urban center will not be an easy adjustment. Nevertheless, Xi’s trip, The People’s Daily asserted, is further evidence of his “pro-poor feelings.”
During his tour of the region, Xi also stressed the importance of national unity, which is usually code for conformity. In other words, China is rising and we have to stick together to keep it going, so get in line. On the one hand, of course, China’s recent economic rise is arguably one of the greatest events in human history, given the sheer number of people it has lifted out of destitution.
But economic development is a worthy goal precisely because it affords greater educational, medical, professional, and recreational options. It provides for the nation better and more opportunities for success, allowing people to choose their own paths and helping them achieve those ends. But that’s clearly not happening in Qinghai.
During his trip, Xi also examined recycling efforts at the Qaidam Basin salt lake, where he emphasized the need to balance resource exploitation with environmental protection. The basin has deposits of natural gas, oil, borax, gypsum, and more lithium, magnesium, potassium, or sodium than anywhere else in the country. Here again, Xi’s words sound great, but according to a report by Warren Smith, there is ample reason to doubt his sincerity.
Smith outlines four stages of development in the region. First, there was the mining of oil and minerals such as chromium, then the gold rush of the 1980s and 1990s. Then state-owned enterprises took over, mostly mining chromium. What Beijing wants now, he writes, is to lay railroads to get more rare minerals like copper into central China where they can be processed. Beijing even subsidizes mining in Tibet, hoping minerals there will one day be cheaper than those imported from abroad. In other words, mining efforts in the region will soon radically increase, and it’s hard to see how that will balance with environmental protection.
Xi also visited the village of Tanggula, where villagers dressed in local attire adorned him with a white silk khata, or Tibetan Buddhist ceremonial scarf, and gifted him with highland barley wine. It made for a great photo op, but until something is done to curb the exploitation of the region and respect the culture and livelihood of locals, the only thing such images really capture is the cant of the capital.