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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Nomads in the 21st Century

Among the seeming endless parade of endangered and oppressed people around the world, the plight of the Tibetans is something that caught my particular interest. I live in Boulder Colorado, the biggest hotbed of white Tibetans outside of California. My attention was grabbed by the parallel of the Chinese expansion into Tibet in the last 50 years with a virtually identical one that happened almost a hundred years ago to the Mongolians. That one also targeted a largely nomadic people.

From there, one can start to think of the Jews of Europe, the Gypsies, Bedouins, and the indigenous peoples of North America, and the inexorable absorption or destruction of any nomadic peoples who attempted to survive into the twenty-first century. What is it that drives it?

The unlikely topic that drew me to this historical cycle was dinosaurs. The head of the New York Museum of Natural History early in the twentieth century, Roy Chapman Andrews, gained fame as a dinosaur hunter. Andrews wrote a children’s book called All About Dinosaurs, which I read about 50 times when I was 9 or 10 years old, wanting to be a paleontologist. Andrews led an expedition to the Gobi Desert and discovered the first fossil dinosaur eggs. The book mixed stories of scientists with graphic descriptions of dinosaurs to get a kid’s imagination going.

When my own kids came along, my wife and I acquired a couple of dinosaur books, and the stories told (T-rex vs. the triceratops) sure sounded like they were ripped off directly from Andrews’ protean accounts. A couple years later, I discovered a bio of Andrews called Dragon Hunter. It provided a great adult perspective on a childhood memory, which led me in turn to abebooks.com to find his original 1940 report of the expeditions called The New Conquest of Central Asia.

I’m currently wading through it, and while it gives a great accounting of the paleontological and other scientific purposes of the expedition, it is also interesting for its portrayal of China, Russia and Inner and Outer Mongolia in the years after the Bolshevik takeover of Outer Mongolia, and China’s inroads into Inner Mongolia.

In fact in the 9 years of expeditions, Andrews recorded the steady settlement of nomadic Mongolia by Chinese farmers, several miles deeper into Inner Mongolia every year.

And in March of this year, those accounts echo in the news from Tibet:

"Several hundred monks from Bora monastery in Amchok Bora, a primarily Tibetan nomadic area in Gannan TAP, Gansu Province, demonstrated earlier yesterday (March 18). According to a reliable source, they broke into Chinese shops in the area and destroyed property, although they deliberately avoided violence against people in their attacks on property. According to the same source, they stopped when they were asked to do so by a respected lama and possibly other monks too. The source also said that large numbers of Tibetan nomads gathered in the area and were persuaded not to carry out protests by local monks. Casualties as a result of the protest, which was met by armed police, could not be confirmed.
Troops also broke up crowds of Tibetan demonstrators in Machu (Chinese: Maqu) county town in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu (Amdo), when a group of students began protesting and were soon joined by nomads from neighboring counties on March 16. The protestors, some of whom carried images of the Dalai Lama, shouted pro-independence slogans, and called for the return of the Dalai Lama. A Tibetan flag was displayed and protestors wore white khatags (Tibetan blessing scarves)."

Unrest in Tibet is echoed due north in the province of Xinjuan, home to a people of nomads and cowboys known as Uighurs, a people both Turkic and largely Muslim.

China’s attitudes toward these Western regions are complex. On the one hand, there has never been a repudiation of the imperialist tendencies of the Maoist Communist Government. The current government’s public pronouncements echo the florid style of socialist revolution (“Splittists!” “The Dalai Lama Clique”), even as the country embraces capitalism with a vengeance.

Analysis of migration to the West might start with the simple, evident need to relieve population pressures in the coastal regions. Those pressures of course were exacerbated by economic policies that created great wealth through manufacturing in the Pearl River Delta, and drawing workers from rural areas.

Further, the Western regions are virtually unexplored in terms of mineral riches and may contain great wealth in natural resources. (see

And finally, the fundamental requirement for China remains stability. With more than a billion people compressed largely in eastern coastal areas, and the memory of the insanity of the Cultural Revolution still fresh, China pleads the need for stability in response to criticisms of their stifling of democracy, their pursuit of economic growth at the expense of air and water quality, and their suppression of a free press.

Indeed, the maps and news organs of the Chinese government carefully omit any mention of the word Tibet (as do international investors). And with China’s role in the world economy, providing cheap labor to American producers and buying U.S. debt to finance the American foreign trade deficit, neither international investors nor liberal democratic governments are likely to press the issues. The Beijing Olympics came and went with barely a ripple of criticism of Olympic ideals being upheld in a land where democratic dissent is violently suppressed.

So Tibet not only reflects the plight of the nomad in the 21st century global community, it also is a fulcrum and avatar of the struggle that is emerging as mankind grows headlong toward a world population of 10 billion. That struggle encompasses a globalized economy, security and terrorism, wars and refugees and more – I call the challenge, in engineering-speak, Scaling Humanity. (Scaling Humanity will be the topic of the next DifferNetX rant, er, essay.) The pressure on nomads is growing in a globalized terrorist world, where your every neighbor might be a suicide bomber, and anyone who hasn’t been part of your world for generations is suspect.

In the meantime, Tibetans are nomads caught in a losing battle with the property owners of agricultural and industrial nations, the dominant mode of existence for the last 10,000 years. In this, they have something in common with Gypsies, who face eviction and assault all over Europe (http://www.errc.org/News_index.php), with American Indians, and perhaps even with Jews, an ancient nomadic people before, after and during their return to the Promised Land.

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