A recent article in South China Morning Post (SCMP) about rapidly expanding Chinese gold mining activities in Tibet, close to India’s border, reverberated the Sino-India border tension. The Post deliberately titled the article ‘How Chinese mining in the Himalayas may create a new military flashpoint with India’ to stir the volatile relation between the two neighbors.
The highly competitive Indian media quickly picked up the news with bits of its own exaggeration, which helps SCMP to achieve its long term commercial goal of expanding readership across the Indian subcontinent.
In between such political games and commercial interest, the views of the local communities are often overlooked and the importance of the places in case are constantly misunderstood.
Lhuntse, from where the Chinese mining activity was reported, is only about 150 km from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. It is one of the 12 counties of Lhokha prefecture under the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) presently under Chinese occupation.
So why is Lhuntse suddenly in the news?
It’s unlikely the Chinese government would have allowed large scale mining in a faraway, restricted area, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stationed heavy military bases, unless there is a strategic plan. The most probable reason for the sudden surge in mining activities in Lhuntze could have been for two important issues – strategic and historical.
Strategic Move against India
The strategic plan is to heavily populate the region with Chinese migrants to outnumber local Tibetans and create a strong base to counter Indian influence across the border in Arunachal Pradesh. Mining would be an ideal excuse to attract thousands of Chinese migrants in the scarcely populated area to build a new Chinese town in the region. Such an atmosphere could facilitate a strong migrant Chinese support for PLA in the region.
The strategic plan is further evident from what Professor Zheng Youye of China University of Geosciences in Beijing told the SCMP. He said that the new mining activities would lead to a rapid and significant increase in the Chinese population in the Himalayas, which would provide stable, long-term support for any diplomatic or military operations aimed at gradually driving Indian forces out of territory claimed by China.
The SCMP also writes that Chinese migrant workers have poured into the area so fast that even the local government officials could not provide a precise count for the current population
As per 2010 Chinese census, Lhuntse County has a population of 35248, with more than 99% being Tibetans. But the demography could quickly change as expansion of mining activities in the region would attract thousands of Chinese migrant workers, accompanied by cluster of Chinese shops, restaurants and night clubs. The area also has a heavy military presence whose numbers were not included in the local population census.
The gradual outnumbering of local population by migrant Chinese could also reduce the strong influence the Dalai Lama has in the region. The Tibetan peoples’ deep faith in the Dalai Lama has created a very favorable attitude towards India as it is the current home for the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetans Administration.
Historical Importance for Tibetans
The Chinese could be also planning to change the demographic outlook of the place to reduce Tibetan cultural influence and wipe out historical memories. The place has been an important political and military base in different periods of Tibetan history. The most recent was in the 1950s. On 17 March 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee with his ministers from Lhasa as PLA threatened to bombard the Dalai Lama’s palace.
On 29 March 1959, after reaching Lhuntze, the Dalai Lama declared it as the temporary seat for the Tibetan Government and nullified the forcefully signed 17 Point Agreement.
Lhuntse is also an important military base for Tibetan resistance guerrilla fighters, the Chushi Gangdruk as popularly known to Tibetans. The military organization fought the invading Chinese and successfully led the Dalai Lama to escape into India.
Huayu Mine and its location
The mine site is located near Tashigang, about 45 km from the county headquarter or the Lhuntze town. An official website of the Chinese government states that the county is rich in gold, iron, medelevium, lead, zinc, antimony, copper etc. The Huayu Mining that owns the mine in Lhuntze proudly declares that its Zhexikang (Tashigang) mine has 600,000 tons of lead, zinc and antimony.
The mine is right next to the provincial highway S202, which makes transportation of mineral ores very convenient.
The S202 is an extremely important road for both civilian and military purpose in the region. The highway starts from Tsethang, the prefecture city of Lhoka, after passing through Lhuntze and Tsona, it ends close to the border opposite Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The S202 is also connected with Shigatse and Lhasa with other provincial highways for faster movement of goods, people and military.
Huayu claims that the company has been honored by the local government for its work safety, but such honors lack any credibility in the region. For example, despite the Gyama (Ch: Jiama) Copper Gold Mine, (one of the largest active mines in Tibet) been awarded a similar honor, it saw the biggest, man-made mine tragedy in Tibetan history with death of 83 workers in a massive landslide in 2013.
A report in TAR official website (September 1, 2017) states that the government has been able to reduce soil erosion and decrease desertification along the Lhuntze valley. But the Tashigang mine could cause soil erosion and water pollution as it sits right on the bank of Nangme Chu river, a tributary of Nyelchu river that flows through the Lhuntze valley. The river becomes Subansiri River as it enters into Arunachal Pradesh. Any water pollution by the mine could quickly flow into India as it happened back in November 2017 when Brahmuputra began to turn black for months due to (unconfirmed) activities on the Tibetan side of the border.
There is another big mine to the north of Lhuntze, the Norbusa Mine. Norbusa meaning ‘Land of Gems’ in Tibetan, is the biggest chromite mine in Tibet.
On 29 October 2017, Xi Jinping wrote (the much reported) letter to Dolkar and Yangzom sisters of remote Yulmey Township in Lhuntze. The presidential gesture, though made to look like meant for the two sisters, in fact was a message for India. It was a strategic move to illustrate people’s love for the state and the government presence in the border region. Only Beijing would know if the sisters ever sent a letter to which the Chairman replied.
The letter to the family and now the sudden surge in mining activities in the region comes after an embarrassing end to the Doklam standoff for China. The unexpected tough resistance from India could have spurred China to seek new strategy – a demographic shift with Chinese characteristics on the Indo-Tibet border. Such a move could assist the PLA’s expansion across the border with a fervent Chinese migrant support, which the Chinese military on the border obviously lacks.
*Zamlha Tempa Gyaltsen is the head of the Environmental and the Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.