A New Strategy and the Old Land: The Impact of China’s Regional Development Policies on a Drokba Community in Tibet


Liu Yimin



Pastoral nomads, who graze their herds over the Tibetan plateau, call themselves Drokba. Their chief contribution to the economy of Tibet is their cultivation of yak, sheep and goats. People need their products, and the government would like to increase pastoral output, since wool, cashmere, and skins are among the main economic products of Tibet.


Important social and economic reforms have taken place in China since 1978. With these in effect, the central government has come to adopt a radically different regional development strategy from the Maoist era. The net effect of the new strategy has been revitalizing, with increased economic development since 1981 despite potential problems.


This paper provides a description and interpretation of the impact of China's regional development policies on Doma, a Drokba community in the northern Tibetan plateau. In doing so, I take into account the economic structure and living conditions in the explanatory context of the Drokba's particular historical situation. At the center of this account, I present the original field research data collected in Doma in 1987. Traditional ethnographic methods were utilized, including participant-observation and in-depth interviewing. Using my own, my research partner's work, along with other sources, I have included data which are- insofar as possible- accurate representations of the real situation. These data are considered in the context of both an ecological and a wider institutional framework. The institutional framework combines both Drokba traditional systems and the administrative institution of the Chinese state. This account is then interpreted in the context of recent and continuing institutional and economic changes. Finally, it is rounded off by a practical discussion and analysis of the implications of research on the theory of polarized development, as has been put forward by John Friedman. Before an interpretation and practical discussion are presented, I give a brief review of post-Mao regional development policy and other rural-economic policies affecting the current situation in Doma.



China’s new development strategy


In the early 1950s, when the Chinese communist leadership initiated efforts towards economic reconstruction, it regarded the huge coast-interior imbalance as irrational for three reasons. First, areas of industrial production on the coast were too far away from energy and raw material supply areas and the interior market. Secondly, the rich resources of the inland areas could not be properly exploited. Thirdly, the coast was easily exposed to foreign military powers (Yu Di, 1983). To rectify the regional imbalance, the central government decided to take an interior-oriented investment policy. These redistributive investment efforts are reflected in provincial output changes from the 1950s to the late 1970s.[1]


            Post-Mao government policies have favored the coastal region over the interior. The government sees developing the coastal region as being in the national interest and believes coastal development will serve as a catalyst in the modernization of the entire country.


            The new strategy assigned each region a special role. Current governmental policy regarding the poorer areas has been oriented towards the pragmatic objective of enabling the poor to feed themselves. "Backward" regions, including Tibet and the other western provinces, are expected to exploit their strengths by developing agriculture, livestock industry, forestry, etc. Therefore, they should initiate development by providing raw materials, while gradually advancing toward rough processing. In the western region, agriculture, animal husbandry and transport are being emphasized.


            In 1979, after thirty years following a system of state monopoly for purchasing and marketing agricultural products, the central government began to readjust its agriculture and animal husbandry policies by raising the prices of many products and encouraging free markets. Between 1979 and 1985, the average sale price of the main agricultural and livestock products rose 25 to 85% or more. Much of the extra money from the rise in prices has gone to Tibetan pastoral nomads, with their large livestock herds.



The transformation of the Tibetan economy


Before 1959, the traditional economy of Tibet was in a very primitive state of development owing to its severe climate, poor education and a skeletal bureaucratic administration. The economy was based on agriculture and livestock. Most of the people are still engaged in these two occupations.


            Prior to 1959, agriculture was only at subsistence level owing to the brief duration of the summer season and poor irrigation facilities and other factors, including the lack of modern tools. The main crops of Tibet are barley and peas in high altitudes, but in lower altitudes, especially in the valleys, wheat, buckwheat and millet are grown. The Brahmaputra basin in south-middle Tibet is called the “granary of Tibet” as it produces food for about 60% of the population.


            Besides agriculture, livestock farming is the other main occupation of Tibetans. The yak is the most important animal in Tibet by providing milk, meat, butter, cheese, etc. Sheep are raised mainly for their meat and wool, which is the main item of export. In the early 1950s, the major problem Lhasa and Beijing had to face was the American boycott of Tibetan wool, resulting from a United States policy forbidding trade with any communist nation. Beijing's response was to purchase Tibet's entire wool production at three times the market price. This was part of their policy aimed at winning the support of the Tibetan people, both the nomads responsible for raising the sheep and the nobility who profited from the sale.


            The traditional economy of Tibet was composed of two major sectors. The first included large estates, owned by the monasteries and the nobility who exercised extensive rights and special privileges over the inhabitants in matters such as collection of taxes, justice, and administration. The second sector comprised a network of peasant land holdings. In this land, and livestock were granted to households directly by the state for production and services directed for the state. The two district governors[2] in each of the districts in Tibet were responsible for the management and collection of revenues from government estates. Under this economic system, most of the Drokba in Doma owned their own animals and paid taxes and services to Tibet's government.


In 1951, the agreement for the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet was signed by the then government of Tibet and the central government of China. The agreement, in addition to its emphasis on expelling Western influences from Tibet, stressed the adoption of various reforms and autonomous rights for minority-nationality areas. Yet, in consideration of Tibet's specific situation, the central government delayed reforms in Tibet and allowed the traditional administration to continue. In march 1959 an armed rebellion broke the agreement. The central government of China at once quashed the rebellion and abolished the traditional administration. At the same time, a massive "democratic reform movement" was instituted. The government reported that 93% of the 59 townships were communized by 1975 following a succession of such economic and politico-legal reforms (Grunfeld, 1987).


            The death of Mao heralded some of the most significant changes in China since 1949. But, the full impact of these changes reached Tibet only after the post-Mao Chinese leadership began to readjust China's regional development policy in the late 1970s and the early 1980s.


            Since 1979, the central government has gradually but steadily reversed the Maoist model and come to adopt a new development strategy. In 1980, a high-level delegation from Beijing arrived in Lhasa on an inspection tour of Tibet. After the trip, the delegation admitted errors in past policies, and made a surprisingly frank report on Tibet which stated the following. First, the government had invested excessive capital without regard to actual situations or the availability of supplies, leading to poor results and heavy losses. Second, living standards in Tibet lagged far behind the other provinces and autonomous regions of the country. This meant a redirection in policy to lighten the burdens on ordinary citizens. Therefore, it was decided that the people in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) be exempt from paying taxes and meeting purchase quotas for the next few years. It was also decided that they should not be assigned any additional work without pay, and that peasants' and herdsmen's produce should be purchased at negotiated prices or bartered to supply mutual needs. Finally, specific and flexible policies suited to conditions in Tibet had to be formulated and applied to all economic fronts of the region, including the agricultural, animal husbandry, financial and trade, commercial, handicraft and communication fronts.


            “In the early 1980s, communes were disbanded completely, and land was allocated to individual households to do with as they wished. There was no mention in the press of the ‘responsibility system’ prevalent in the rest of China where individual households needed to sign contracts to deliver a percentage of their output to the government in return for the use of the land. Taxes were waived until at least 1990, free markets were established, trade with neighboring countries was liberalized and encouraged,”[3] As part of a long term policy, the state now allows farmers to use land and manage their own production, and allows herders to own, raise and manage livestock. At the same time, the government has changed its investment policy in Tibet. Transportation, energy and tourism instead of local industries have become the key target of new investment from the central and local governments. The central government invested more than 700 million RMB to asphalt and widen the Qinghai-Tibet highway in 1984. This new black-topped road changed Doma.



Doma: A Drokba community in northern Tibet


Doma is a local level administrative unit (Known as Xiang) in the Doma District (Qu), Amdo county (Xian), Naquk prefecture (Zhuanqqu), Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It is located in the central section of the Northern Plateau, which is situated at altitudes ranging from 4,780-5,230m. Doma is located 370km north of Lhasa and 60km west of the Qinghai-Tibet road.


            The nomads in the Northern Plateau experience one of the most severe climates in the world. Winter lows range from minus 20-50 degrees F, and mid-summer lows are around freezing. Winter winds are fierce, and very strong throughout the rest of year except the growing season. Precipitation is monsoonal, falling mostly during June, July, and August, often in the form of snow and hail storms. In general, there is very little snow in the winter, although late fall and spring snows are greatly feared. The single growing season in the Northern Plateau begins in late April-early May and ends in September. Even during this period, snow, hail storms and evening frosts are common. Since no pasture areas in Tibet have a winter growing season, and because there is inadequate grass to cut as fodder to supplement winter grazing, the nomads' animals subsist for about eight months on the senescent vegetation remaining at the end of the growing season. These factors- the short growing season, the intense could, and the frequent and fierce summer hail storms and frosts- combine to make farming a non-viable alternative to pastoralism and preclude competition from farmers for the use of the grasslands.


            In 1987, Doma contained 98 households and 502 persons divided among 14 home-base settlements (guoxie, which means group, or neighborhood). Such a settlement consists of between 6 to 7 households or tents. Generally, there are two sets of correlated ordering principles of settlement: kinship, social structure and affinity; and location.


            Tents are made of yak hair cloth, loosely woven in narrow strips and sewn together. In shape the tent is rectangular, often some twelve feet in length. It is supported on two poles tied to pegs or heavy stones in the ground with yak hair ropes. An aperture, about two feet long in the middle of the roof, lets out the smoke (or at least some of it). These tents are waterproof and impervious to snow. In the center of tent, or near the entrance, is a stove made of stone and mud. Recently some households have started to use iron stoves. Dung is used as fuel, for most Tibetan herdsmen usually live above the elevations at which trees can grow. Typically, inside the tent there are cooking utensils, buckets and churns, rugs, saddles, and cloth bags containing food. Most nomads have few belongings and lead a very hard life. An ordinary tent affords a home to five or six persons, but many are fuller. The nomads raise yak, sheep, goats and horses, and do not engage in any farming. 23% of their livestock are yak, and 70% are sheep and goats in Domw.


            Before 1959, the nomads of Doma were directly controlled by the government of Tibet. Each household owned and managed its own livestock. Their economic obligation to the government consisted of several kinds of taxes. Examples of taxes paid yearly to the government included a wool tax, a salt tax, a prayer tax (butter, meat, and woolen cloth for monks), a livestock tax (butter, skin or money), a corvee tax, and a military tax (wages and supplies for soldiers).


            Beginning in 1959, the central government had adopted a policy to bring Tibet into the "socialist way" gradually. In accordance with this policy, all Doma households kept the animals and pastures they held and managed their herds as they had in the past. Debts dating from before 1959 were rescinded and those contracted in 1959 were recalculated with reduced interest. In early 1961, the relatively mild policy called "mutual aid" was implemented in Doma. Most households were formed into mutual aid groups consisting of several households that jointly held pastures and cooperated in tasks such as herding. Economic decisions, however, remained the prerogative of individual households, and income was received individually.


            During the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976) Doma became one production brigade. The nomads became "owners" of shares in the brigade, but in reality were simply laborers who worked according to the brigade leader's orders. The pastoral technology remained basically the same, but social and political organization were restructured by transferring ownership of the means of production and all production and trade decisions from the household to the brigade. However, full-scale pastoralists' traditional culture also came under severe attack. The government's overt policy during this period was to maintain pastoral production but to destroy the social and cultural fabric of the nomads' traditional way of life (Goldstein and Beall, 1989).


            With the reform beginning in the late 1970s, China's policies in Tibet dramatically changed the system of production and improved the overall standard of living. As in the rest of China, the major economic reform program in Tibet is known as the system of "responsibility". It began at Doma in the Fall 1981 when the communal brigade was dissolved and all of the brigade's animals were distributed evenly among the nomads. Then, each household became completely responsible for its own production and marketing, as in the pre-1959 era.



The traditional system of pastoral production


Pastoralism is a subsistence strategy. The pastoralism of Tibet is not like the commercial ranching of developed countries in which grain production is linked to livestock production. There is no production of crops mainly for animal feed. At least in the Northern Plateau, pastoralism is still primarily traditional and based on open grazing on the extensive grasslands.


            At Doma, animal husbandry is based on effectively exploiting the single, short growing season.[4]  Doma nomads prolong their herds' access to good quality pasture by moving themselves and their livestock annually between at least two or three encampments. In general, they move from a winter-spring season home-base encampment to summer encampment for the several months between mid-late May and mid-late October. The nomads reason that on an individual household basis, increasing herd size during good years provides necessary insurance against the inevitable bad years when heavy snow or drought decimates their herds by making them more susceptible to disease and winter cold. Pastoralism, here as else where, is a risky undertaking.


            Daily management tends toward efficiency of allocation of labor, and during the daylight hours the nomads prefer to keep animals clustered in flocks or sub-flocks within the larger groups. These herd management groups generally include 15 to 25 yak and 70 to 130 sheep and goats. One or two persons, usually young men, can supervise such groups, which are relatively easy to direct for pasture and water.


            There is usually a division of labor by gender. Milking is carried out by women and livestock trade by the men. General supervision can be carried out by both. Sometimes sheep and goats are looked after separately by youths and women; these animals are divided into male and female groups to reduce fighting among males. Watering is normally carried out directly in small rivulets in the pastures.


            A unique feature of the traditional  (pre-1959) pastoral system that is no longer being practiced is the complex administrative system of pasture allocation and reallocation. The then government of Tibet owned all pastureland and allocated plots to individual households who then had exclusive usufruct right over them for a given period of time. The nomads owned their livestock. These pastures were not fenced, but boundaries were enforced by the government. Nomads’ households could use only their assigned pastures. Nowadays, in practice the nomads follow the traditional pattern of neighborhood allocation of pasture and boundaries although the central government owns all pasture  which the nomads use. Within Drokba, community use rights fall to each household according partly to traditional, and partly according to an egalitarian, rotation.



Transformation of the pastoral economy


The New Transportation Network


For centuries, all transportation in Tibet was by porters and pack animals. In 1950 there was no other independent country of comparable size in the world where no wheeled vehicles were used (Kavan, 1978). Traditionally, the nomads in Doma made a winter trading trip to agricultural areas in the southeast which took 30-40 days of walking.


            The central government of China introduced modern transportation on vehicular highways, although they were built primarily with political goals rather than commercial intentions. The central government embarked upon a program of road building in the early 1950s. After implementation of the new development policy, the central government invested more money in road construction in Tibet. "Fascinating" Tibet is no longer beyond reach. With a total mileage of 21,695 kilometers, a complete transportation network has been formed (Cai, 1990). Except for Medog county[5] in southern Tibet, the highway system reaches all 76 counties under the jurisdiction of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)[6]. With Lhasa as the center, and the Qinghai-Tibet, Sichuang-Tibet and Sino-Nepal highway as arteries, and coupled with flights linking Lhasa to Beijing, Lanzhou, Chengdu, and Katmandu, tourists, pilgrims, and businessmen can reach Tibet in a matter of hours.


            For the nomads in Doma, the Qinghai-Tibet highway is extremely important for their social and economic life. The highway, originating in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, and ending in Lhasa, runs past salt lakes and crosses eight mountains, including peaks in the Kulun and Tunggula- ranges that are 4,767 and 5,231 meters above sea level- for a total distance of 1,937 kilometers. The Qinghai-Tibet highway was completed and opened to traffic in 1954.Wider and smoother than other highways leading to Tibet, it is the most important transportation artery linking Tibet and inner China. Since its completion, it has been carrying 85% of the goods entering the region and 90% of those going out. But, since the 1960s, the condition of the roads has deteriorated. In the 1970s, the nomads in Doma had to spend 5 to 7 days to get to Lhasa by this road, even by truck. In the early 1980s, the central government invested 760 million RMB yuan in a complete overhaul of the highway during 1983 and 1984. The highway was widened and paved with asphalt. It now enables the nomads to get to Lhasa or Xining within 15-20 hours by Japanese-made trucks or buses.[7] The nomads' salt and grain caravans stopped when good black-topped roads and new foreign trucks were introduced.


            As a signal of the nomads' new era, a "truckable" road from Amdo county to Doma was constructed in the mid 1980s. In the summer of 1986, seven households at Doma joined together to buy an old Chinese truck. This is a new common property resource in the pastoral area.


            Since 1986 a ground satellite communications station has been set up in Amdo county. The people living in and near the county town have been able to watch Lhasa and Beijing television programs on the same day they are broadcast. In the early 1980s Doma became accessible to postal communications. Now anybody in the county can send telegrams to other places in Tibet and China. For the convenience of Tibetans the post and telecommunications department of TAR has designed a Tibetan telegraphic code. Just a few nomads in Doma make long-distance telephone calls. For most ordinary Tibetans making a long-distance telephone call is still very difficult, even in Lhasa.[8]



Reorientation of Trade


In its purest form, pastoralism is an economic system in which all food for the household is produced from domestic herds. But few pastoralists depend solely on their livestock. They supplement milk and meat from their domestic herds with grain consumption. The degree of dependence on farm products varies as do ways for obtaining them, either directly through farming pursuits or indirectly through trade. Even the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, people that have been used as examples of pure pastoralism, rely to a considerable extent on farm products. The Doma pastoral production system involves rearing yak, sheep and goats, harvesting their products, consuming part of the yield, and then bartering with another portion to obtain necessities such as barley and tea.


 (1) Barter of grain, salt and livestock products


An economy based on livestock products is very efficient in fulfilling human requirements for protein. According to the nomads' standard, a herd of 50 sheep or 6-7 yak would be enough to meet the protein needs of an adult (Geleg, Zhang, Ang, and Liu, 1988). It takes a considerably larger number to meet caloric needs, a fact that suggests the rationality of adding grain to the diet. In Doma, grain is a seasonal replacement for milk and meat, but also a regular supplement and ultimate reserve for bad years. Because roughly 40%-60% of these nomads' annual calories derive from barley and other grains, trade for grain has always been an  integral component of their subsistence economy.


            Grain and other crops are grown mainly in south eastern Tibet which has higher population densities and a lower altitude, on average, than the northwest. Much of the surplus grown in the southeast has been traditionally exchanged for pastoral products and salt for human consumption from the northwest. Traditional exchanges in Tibet occurred between areas with different ecologies and different local products. Each area balanced its needs with the surplus of another. The one important ecological factor that gives rise to this particular pattern is topography: the country rises from southeast to northwest with an average altitude in Tibet of over 4,000 meters; these high altitudes are associated with climatic extremes of heat and cold, dryness and wetness, and winds (Clarke, 1988).


            Historically, Tibetan nomads were the primary producers of salt for Tibet, and Nepalese hill areas and, in the past, parts of northern India. Each spring, some of the Doma nomads took pack animals (sheep, goats, or yak) to a "caka" (saline lake) about 15-16 days to the west to collect salt from large exposed salt beds. Some of this went to pay a salt tax to the Tibet government, while the excess was bartered with villagers. The nomads traditionally made a winter trading trip to southern areas for 30-50 days; farmer-traders came to the northern areas during the summer months to barter with the nomads. Even into the early 1980s a few of the nomads in Doma carried out long distance trade in order to obtain grain and deliver salt. It would be normal for a group of men and load-carrying yak from Doma to be away for months at a time carrying these goods from one area to another. Nomads used to have traditional exchange partners in the villages. Such relationships often persisted between the households over a number of generations.


(2) Wool and cashmere trade


Wool has been the most important trade item for the nomads in Doma. Wool from Doma and Amdo areas has had a commercial reputation for a long time. Before 1959, a profitable India wool trade resulted in the development of a wealthy Tibetan trading class in Napuk. They mainly exported wool to India, and imported a wide variety of merchandise from India, such as rice, dye materials, ironware, sugar, tea, cloth, and rifles.


            Cashmere, the soft down of goats, was of little value to the traditional nomads economy in Doma but has risen dramatically in value over the past few years, and in 1987, sold for between 7-8 times the price of wool sold at the government rates.


(3) Butter and beef market


Both traditional and more recent taxation have been in butter and beef. Milk is processed into butter.[9] In Doma, roughly 70%-80% of total milk production is consumed locally; only 20%-30% is traded. The general absence of a large surplus of butter for trade was noted everywhere in Tibet. In recent years, Tibetans living in Lhasa and Naquk (the central town of northern Tibet) have bought butter produced in Beijing.


            According to our empirical investigation of milk production in Doma, one explanation for low milk and butter production is that herd husbandry is oriented towards beef rather than butter production. Why has the demand for beef risen? So far, at least two things are clear. As incomes in the nation, especially in urban areas, go up, the demand for beef will rise. From 1980-1984, the numbers of employees who work for government agencies at different levels in Tibet increased by 65%. At the same time, the average wages of these employees doubled. For the nomads, raising a beef herd means raising more males, as they are bigger and fetch more money on the market than females.


            At present, there are three important types of trade at Doma. We can speak of trade with the government, at the district and county levels; and trade with people from the cities, like Naquk, Lhasa, and even some of China's coastal cities like Shanghai; and trade with Tibetan farmers who come to the north in summer to exchange agricultural products and labor for livestock or livestock products.


            There are four principal differences between traditional trade within Tibet and the modern trade in livestock and associated products. First, the government plays a major role in trade nowadays, extending to the creation of monopolies (at least potentially) in the distribution of benefits. Second, due to the transport network, less time is required for travel and more in negotiations at one's destination. Third, trading focusses more on the cities, even coastal industrial cities. Finally, a transaction now is more the sale of a commodity. That is, it involves a market relation with a cash nexus and the aim of maximization, rather than the traditional exchange which was expressive of, and reinforced, continuing relationships between households.


            The new development policy gives nomads and farmers the right to sell their products to whomever they want, but the bulk of the nomads' wool and cashmere trade is conducted with the district's trade office through a system of contract or quota sales. The reason for this is simple: the nomads are being asked by local (district and county) officials to sell a quota to the government, and there are strong pressures to meet such requests. Such trade is carried on as follows. The Naquk prefecture’s trade office makes a contract with the county's trade office to buy a specific quantity of livestock products, according to the number of head of livestock in each of its districts. The district calculates the amount of wool and cashmere which each nomads' group must provide to the government, based on the number of livestock in each. The district administrators inform each household what it has to provide. In general, a variety of threats and sanctions are employed to compel the nomads to sell this quota to the government before they sell anything on the open market.


            In 1986, the county trade office paid the nomads 2.5-3 yuan or 6 jin of grain per jin of wool and then sold it to the prefecture for 4 yuan,[10] making a profit of more than 30%. They paid the nomads 12 yuan per jin for cashmere, and sold it to Naquk for 19 yuan per jin. The gross profit is actually larger than this because many nomads take grain rather than money and the county obtains grain for 0.6-0.4 yuan less than it charges the nomads. One jin of goat cashmere sold in 1986 for 45-48 yuan per jin in Guangzhou, the Great Commercial city on the southern coast of China.


            Wool is said to have been sold in 1986 to Shanghai and Guangzhou for 2.00-3.00 yuan per kilogram. The wool price for export sales to Nepal in 1986 was said to be 3.00-3.50 yuan per kilogram delivered to the Nepalese border. Wool and cashmere also bring high prices on the free market. In Lhasa, for example, 0.5 kilogram of wool fetched about 4-5 yuan in 1986. In the winter of 1986, two Doma nomads who went to Lhasa in the truck they had bought for business bartered their surplus wool for 8.50 kilograms of barley per kilogram of wool. Similarly, private traders from Sichuang who came to Doma in the summer of 1986 were offering 70-80 yuan per kilogram of cashmere. But such deals are against the regulations of the local government of Tibet.


            The economic exploitation of the nomads is also occurring at the district level.[11] The nomads are compelled to sell butter and sheep to district oficials for the officials’ own consumption needs. In Doma, we saw the nomads sell sheep for 28 yuan each to district official. But, at the same place and almost same time, the nomads were selling sheep at 50-55 yuan each to outsiders. In Lhasa they could sell sheep for 60-70 yuan each. In Doma, the system works not by an open market economy, but by establishing a "quota" at prices below the market value. The officials decide how much butter and meat they need and then establish a per animal quota which will yield this.


            Since wool was traditionally Tibet's main export item, the nomads have always been part of a larger market system. However, their dependence on distant China and world markets has increased since the early 1980s. The construction of truck roads from the county to the district in the mid 1980s has played an important role in fostering this increasing entanglement. In recent years, the government can easily bring grain and other commodities to district headquarters. The new Qinghai-Tibet highway made truck transport even more convenient. The highway and other roads not only have allowed the government to keep the districts well stocked with grains and other essential trade goods, but have facilitated visits by Lhasa based traders seeking cashmere, skins and furs, as well as offering nomads the possibility of trading directly with new markets such as the city of Naquk which is just 4 hours away by truck. The general trend is for farm surplus, previously bartered with pastoralists, to now be sold on the national market. Farm products' prices have been subject to great inflation.[12]


            For the nomads in Doma, regional integration into these markets has caused both an increased emphasis on cash and a shift in local trade from barter to cash exchange. Since 1980 the building of infrastructures in communication and transport stands as the main positive achievement. More recently there appears to have been an influx of goods, ideas and people on a scale that has materially altered life. These have accompanied the recent administrative movements towards deregulation and a cash economy that are similar to those in inner China.



Livestock management


The different orientation of production leads to a different set of management strategies by herders. If the goal is to maximize milk or meat production for sale, the objective is to have a herding operation that will give the best returns with a minimum investment of labor (Moran, 1982). Daily management tends towards efficiently of allocating labor, and during daylight hours people prefer to keep animals clustered in flocks within larger groups. In Doma, such management groups are 15-20 for yak, and 70-130 for sheep and goats.


            The expanding monetary economy is felt not only in changes in the local availability, or price level, of grain but also through changed facilities for the marketing of livestock. Tibetan pastoralists have a reputation for being reluctant to sell their animals. Livestock have served as an investment in many places in the world. In Tibet, there is a traditional attitude that the pure accumulation of livestock itself is of value, and expression of well-being and prosperity, a form of wealth. In Doma, an old man told me: "Look, my herd is my bank, which can be hung on my tent." This is borne out in popular speech among pastoralists on the Northern Plateau. Cash is seen by them as another item or good, rather than as a baseline medium of exchange and store of value (Clarke, 1988). There is cultural resistance to the slaughtering of livestock, with strong Buddhist prohibitions against killing.[13] Traditionally, the pastoralists often did not cull the herd early in the season when the price is high, but held on until much later, perhaps coming near to degradation of the pasture. Only at the end, when the price has fallen in winter did they slaughter the animals.


            The market-pricing process makes people more aware of the possibilities inherent in slaughtering livestock earlier in the season. In effect, pastoralists now own the livestock themselves, and in areas near urban areas there clearly has developed an open market in livestock. Beyond the livestock, which is contracted to the state, surplus livestock can be sold in these markets for cash, and this has begun to alter people's attitudes towards breeding for market.



The Household Economy


In the summer 1987, Doma contained 98 household and 502 persons. In Doma, most nomads live in smaller, nuclear family households, of over five members, on average. At the beginning of decollectivisation (1981), all households had the opportunity to "shake off poverty". The nomads were free sell or barter their animals as they saw fit; all the animals of the brigade were divided equally among the nomads regardless of their class, background, or age. Each Doma adult or child received 48 head of livestock. In addition, households were allowed to retain the "private" animals they held during the commune era. This raised the average to 51 animals per person.


In 1987, six years after the division following decollectivisation, economic differentiation has reemerged in Doma. Again, there are now both wealthy and poor nomads. As a result of this process of economic differentiation, the richer 24% of households in 1987 owned 44.5% of the animals. There was an increasing concentration of animals in the hands of the upper 24% of the households and the emergence once again of a lower stratum of households with few animals. Several cases of how rich and poor households managed their household economics can illustrate their very different strategies for survival.



            Case One


This household is a typical "nuclear" family in Doma. It is made up of a man (39 years old), his wife (36) and their three children (16, 14 and 9). In 1981, they had in all 63 yak, 118 sheep, 67 goats and 2 horses. In 1987, the family had 82 yak, 205 sheep, 5 horses and 41 goats. Since the distribution of the collective property to individuals, there has been an increase in value, or effective size, of the family herd of over one-third. This is not from purchase or re-allocation, but from natural increase, locally estimated at 25% per annum, minus the number sold for slaughter over the period. At 1987 Naquk sale prices these animals would have a value of around 48,000 RMB yuan,[14] that is 9,700 yuan per capita. The value of livestock for this household is more than the average for this nomadic community.



            Case Two


This household is relatively wealthy in Doma. It contains 8 members: husband (53), the first wife (49), the second wife (42, sister of the first wife), the wives' mother, two daughters (22, 20), a son (11), and an adopted son (19). We can find strong support for the relationship between family size and wealth in this case. This husband said: "I want as many children as come…if somebody dies, we should make sure there are more." When he had had two daughters, he wanted a son, so he adopted a child from a relative.


            In the summer of 1987 this household owned 812 animals (137 yak, 298 sheep, 9 houses and 368 goats) more than 101 animals per person. The market value of these animals (1987) was about 121,000 RMB yuan (US$24,200). This household slaughtered 3 yak, and 80 sheep and goats for meat in 1986. In this year, the household sold 154 kilograms of wool at 3.5 yuan per kilogram, 25 kilograms of cashmere at 14 yuan per kilogram, 15 sheep at 30 yuan and 2 yak at 465 yuan to the local government. At the same time, this household sold 30 kilograms of cashmere at 18.5 yuan per kilogram to businessmen from Guangzhou, and sold 4 yak (as meat) at the Naquk free market for 2,200 yuan (total).


            In the summer of 1987, the household hired a man from another nomad community and a woman from a southern village. In 1986, the family paid 12 sheep, and 370 yuan as wages. The husband said he would like to sell more beef in Naquk and Lhasa.[15] The husband is an indicator of the production plans of the family. A beef herd has more males, as these are bigger and fetch more money on the market than females. The main purpose of the females in a beef herd is reproduce the male beef stock. But for a traditional herd from Doma it is said that the males would be used only for trading and carrying the tents; in which case there would be an excess of females over males and the herd would often be oriented towards milk product production. In this case-study household there are 98 male and 39 female; this suggests a beef rather than milk herd. In fact, the household sold 9 female yak to other households in 1986. In this case the ages of male yak were reported as 5.2 years. In general, males are said to be full grown at around their sixth year. So, unless the costs of feed outweigh the benefits, there would be no point in slaughtering before that age. Quite obviously there is some economic incentive to raise beef for market.


            The householder regards his livestock as mainly an item for trade, not for dairy products. He said that he was planning to sell wool, cashmere or other livestock products in border trade with Nepal,[16] but he did not how to do that yet. His father did business over the Himalayas before 1959. His eldest brother is in India. This family, together with six others from this neighborhood group, have bought a used truck. But his son was full of complaints about the difficulty of getting gasoline,[17] parts, and permission for dealing in some goods, like cashmere and grain in the long distance trade.


            In 1986, the household had to purchase barley, wheat, rice, and cooking oil. The household consumes 90 kilograms of grain per month, which they obtain from the Doma district office and the free market, sometimes paying with cash and sometimes in butter, beef and wool. He makes cash purchases of tea (from Sichuang), cigarettes (made in coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing) and cloth (also from coastal cities, for example, there is a factory which has only made "Tibetan style" felt hats for Tibetans since the 1960s in a coastal-industrial city). He also bought traditional and new luxury goods such as silk, necklaces, rug, otter skins (originating in Northern America), watches (produced in Hong Kong), a lighter (from Taiwan), binoculars and a cassette tape/radio player (parts from Japan, assembled in Guangzhou).



            Case Three


This household, by contrast, is one of the poorest in Doma. The household contains 4 persons: the father, who has a drinking problem (58), his daughter (32) and her two illegitimate children.[18] In the summer of 1986 this family owned only 2 yak, 20 sheep and 13 goats. In that fall, the district office gave this household four female yak to help them develop their own herd. But, by the winter, they had slaughtered two of these yak for meat and sold one for cash. The household also bartered two sheep and one goat with farmer-traders from the south for 110 kilograms of barley flour. In 1987, this woman spun 25 kilograms of yak hair for her relative and received 2 kilograms of butter, 5 kilograms of beef and 2 sheep as wages. Her son, 14 years old, worked 4 months as a herder for a household simply for better food and one sheep as salary.



            Case Four


This household is not as poor as the household in case three, but has been a loser in the economic transformation. The household has 5 members: a man (29), his brother (unmarried, 21), his mother (48), his wife (23), and a male child (2). In 1984, this household still owned 317 animals. In the winter of 1985, these two brothers took the traditional two-months trading trip with their carrying animals (yak) to barter salt in farm areas. But in the southern villages, they found the market was changing: the price of grain rose, due to the government's new price policy and a bad harvest, while the price of salt fell (salt from Qinghai and Sichuang was cheap). The brothers earned less from the sale of their salt than they had ever made previously. On the way back home, they had to sell their animals for cash. After their return, the brothers sold almost half of their animals, and took a loan of 7,000 yuan.[19] They opened a teahouse in the Amdo county town. The teahouse closed after it operated for four months. There were three reasons: first, they put too much butter and sugar in the tea; second, they always served free tea to their friends and relatives; third, a Chinese from Sichuang opened a restaurant and teahouse next door. In the cold spring of 1987, the household received 250 kilograms of barley as welfare from the local government. Their herd was reduced to 185 in the summer of 1987. The younger brother had to work for three months as a herder for a household in another encampment.


            Now, members for the poorer households must work for wages and accept welfare from the government. The rich households on the other hand, as they did before the mid-1960s, hire poor nomads to do many of the difficult jobs. The poor nomads see this change as a part of the traditional way of things, and the rich generally treat their poor fellows quite kindly. The nomads said "This is our Drokba way."





The economic transformation that occurred in the pastoral areas of northern Tibet have come about at least in part because of the same material and ideological forces that have had their impact over all of China since the new, regional development policies have been implemented.


            In the Tibet Autonomous Region during the 1980's the main achievement was the development of an infrastructure for communication and transport. The economic reform also presented the possibility that the introduction of commercial marketing would promote the development of a vertical structure, with trade centered in urban centers in either the Tibet Autonomous Region or inner China. These may become a further focus for the reorientation of traditional Drokba trade patterns and development of differentials between the Tibet Autonomous Region and inner China.


            As China's modern history has shown, the central government's economic development policies are politically motivated. While the Maoist development strategy was heavily redistributive and interior-oriented, China's new development strategy enables the coastal regions to derive more benefits than other regions.


            The post-Mao regional development policy cannot guarantee a harmony of interests among the regions. The policy is one which concentrates on developing the coastal regions rather than the interior. Transmission of development from region to region is not automatic. The implications of this thesis are pointed out most forcefully by John Friedman in his, A General Theory of Polarized Development. He argues that development is a process of innovation which aims "to transform the established structure of society by attracting creative or innovative personalities into the enclaves of accelerated change; by encouraging the formation of new values, attitudes, and behavior traits consistent with the innovation; by fomenting a social environment favorable to innovative activity; and by bringing into existence yet further innovations" (82).


            According to Friedman, conditions that are especially favorable to innovation are generally found in large and rapidly growing urban systems. Moreover, successful innovation tends to increase the potential power of innovators. As a result, the centers of innovation tend to penetrate and dominate the periphery through trade, transport networks, new communication systems, and production and market relations. In the meantime, new desires and frustrations will grow in the peripheral areas and give rise to demands for autonomy, or even political conflict with the core.


            China's new development policies implemented in Tibet have produced a major economic transformation in Northern Tibet. The policies have proceeded to change the local economic system and have led to increasing involvement in cash-oriented productive patterns and to dramatic social and economic differentiation.


            This general integration of pastoralism into a market economy, together with new development policies, has brought some new, even more serious problems for more equitable and stable long-term development.





Cai, Ruikang "Highway and Airport Construction in Tibet", China Today (English), March, 1991.


Clarke, G E  "China's Reforms of Tibet, and Their Effects on Pastoralism", Discussion Paper #237, University of Sussex, 1986.


Friedman, John  "A General Theory of Polarized Development", in Hansen, Niles ed., Growth Centers in Regional Economic Development, New York: The Free Press, 1972.


Gelek, Chang Jiangshe, Ang Caidang and Liu Yimin   Changtang Drokba (The Nomads on the Northern Plateau), Beijing: The Tibetan Studies Press, 1988.


Goldstein, M C and Beall, C M    "The Impact of China's Cultural and Economic Reform Policy on Nomadic Pastoralists in Western Tibet", Discussion Paper, Case Western Reserve University, 1989


Grunfeld, A. T . The Making of Modern Tibet, New York: Zed Books Ltd., 1987.


Karan, P. R. The Changing Face of Tibet, University of Kentucky, 1978.


Yu Di. Zhongguo Jingji dili xue (China's Economic Geography), Beijing: The

Business Press 1983.





[1] Tibet's modern industrial development began in the late 1950s with a concentration of manufacturing plants in central Tibet, where transportation and communications systems were better. In march 1959 a blast furnace with a capacity of one and one-half tones of pig iron, for processing local ore and coal, was erected at Lhasa. An ordnance factory began producing ammunition in 1964 at a site about two miles east of Lhasa. Linchih, a city in central-southern Tibet, is a new center of industrial activity developed since the Cultural Revolution. The technical personnel and workers for this industrial center were sent from Shanghai and other coastal cities in China. The Shanghai Weilun Woolen Textile Mile moved to Tibet and set up the region's largest plant in Linchih, employing more than 3,000 workers. It produces fifty types of wool fabrics, including blankets. Its raw material comes mostly from the Northern Plateau.

[2] One was a monk, the other a lay official.

[3]  Grunfeld, 210.

[4] At Doma, green foliage first appears in late April or early May on the spring-fed wet meadows and river banks that cover just a small part of the summer grazing area. The bulk of the land is covered by plant communities that depend on monsoonal precipitation and these begin to play a role in livestock forage selection in late May or early June. Foliage is sufficient to wean newborn lambs and kids and begin milking only in mid-June. The growing season ends in September.

[5] This region is contiguous to India.

[6] The TAR corresponds closely to political Tibet, the area traditionally ruled by the Tibet government in the 1930s and 1940s.

[7] Japanese vehicles started to be imported in the late 1970s and appeared on the plateau in the middle 1980s.

[8] In Lhasa, just few people have private phones. In Doma, no one does.

[9] In Doma butter is still made in a very primitive way by some nomads. Milk is poured into a yak skin slung supported by two posts. After a few hours the butter is found floating and buttermilk is separated and used in other ways. In the Northern Plateau, butter can be stored for several months without getting rancid.

[10]  100$ =346.14 yuan in 1986

   1 jin =500 grams

[11] Actually, people might note that this is unofficial, as people are not obliged to sell to the government by law.

[12] Grain increased from 0.40 per kilogram in 1983 to 1.00-1.20 in 1987. Tea increased from 1.75 to 1.90 yuan per brick in 1986.

[13] In traditional Tibet, the butcher's trade was hated by Tibetans and all butchers were outcasts. Today, the profession is still hereditary and is one of the lowest in Tibet. The killing of animals is regarded as a very cruel and barbarous act and one can not even see it. In Doma, some of the nomads hire people to kill

[14] About $ 12,000

[15] The free market selling price in Naquk in the spring of 1987 was 600 yuan for a yak and 55 to 65 yuan for a sheep.

[16] Doma is about 500 km from Nepal.

[17] They have to buy gasoline on the "black market" or from the government's drivers at 3 to 4 yuan per gallon. The official prices is 0.9 to 1.10 yuan for one gallon.

[18] In 1987, 4.58 of the Doma population were considered illegitimate.

[19] 1986 was to be the first year in which interest had to be paid.