The announcement by The Global Times of a mega hydropower station on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang-Brahmaputra) has different dimensions.
I shall try to look at a few of them.
The Propaganda Game
First, there is no doubt that there is a propaganda aspect.
After the Ladakh fiasco where President Xi Jinping did not expect the Indian Army to resist his land-grabbing tactics (‘salami slicing’ or whatever you call them), he has to save his face in front of his colleagues of the Central Committee and Politburo. To bring the threat of a mega dam to the Northern Indian border is a clever move.
The fact that the news came out in The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, is telling. Xi and his colleagues are aware that the tabloid has become the new Bible for the Indian media, which faithfully reports every line printed in it.
Xi believes that the Party (meaning himself) is always right, how could he have blundered in Ladakh. To regain some standing, he has to intimidate India. A mega dam or hydropower plant, thrice the size of the Three Gorges Dam, threatening the life in the North-East is the best way to divert the attention from the Pangong tso.
Recently, the Chinese President published a new book, On the Party’s Propaganda and Ideological Work (Beijing: Institute of Party History and Documentation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 2020).
It is a collection of 52 speeches by Xi on Marxist Ideology and Propaganda from August 19, 2013 to February 23, 2020.
Xi believes that the Chinese people should be proud of “the excellent traditional Chinese culture nurtured by the Chinese nation’s 5,000 years of civilized history.”
But Chinese culture should be interpreted using ‘Marxism as the guide’.
He said that all is not acceptable in Chinese tradition, Xi wants to keep only what is compatible with Marxism: “The charm of Chinese culture should be used in international propaganda, to spread a gentle image of the CCP as part of its soft power.”
We have seen the outcome in Ladakh.
Xi wrote “China is red, and this color cannot be diluted. It is necessary to tell the stories of the party, the revolution, the origin, the stories of heroes and martyrs, strengthen revolutionary tradition education, patriotic education, and youth ideological and moral education, and carry on the red gene to ensure that the red country will never change its color.”
Now, the Red Country has lost face, to bring back the ‘mega dam’, this utopian project in the limelight is a way to show India that the Emperor can take up the most impossible tasks (with the significant risks for the neighbour downstream).
But let us see how much fund is allotted to the project and if Beijing is really serious; its feasibility is still doubtful.
In 1818, the British started the Great Trigonometrical Survey, the ancestor of the Survey of India. They thought that the best way to ‘conquer’ the subcontinent was to map the subcontinent …and beyond.
Their best surveyors were put on the job. George Everest, who later gave his name to the highest peak of the planet, was one of them. One of the main objectives of the Survey was to acquire a better geographic knowledge of the remote Himalayan areas, particularly Tibet.
The resourceful Englishmen decided to use ‘locals’ (they called them ‘pundits’) for surveying (and spying) the Roof of the World. One of these pundits was Kintup, alias KP, a native of Sikkim. He was sent to Tibet with a special mission: to find out the course of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Was the mighty river flowing towards South-East Asia like the Mekong or to Burma…or to India?
After several years of adventure (and a few months working as a slave in a remote village in Southern Tibet), the illiterate KP found that the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river. He was however unable to explore some 120 miles of the river’s course where the Brahmaputra drops from an altitude of 12,000 to 3000 feet. KP tried to follow the river downstream, but was only able to reach an area called Pemakoe, forty miles north of British territory in Assam (today Arunachal).
KP also tried to send marked logs down the river to see if they would reach Assam. Unfortunately, nobody got his message in British India and when he returned to Assam in 1884 (after four years on the mountain tracks), nobody believed his story. It is only several years later that the Survey found some of the logs in Bengal and that KP became famous.
|Opening of the tunnel to Metok in 2013|
Isolated no More
On the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2013, several Chinese official websites splashed the news that this area, also known as Metok [the Chinese pronounce it ‘Motuo’], had finally been ‘opened’.
The Chinese TV proudly announced: “Motuo, Dream of connecting to outside world to come true”. A CCTV reporter elaborated: “Motuo is the only county in China which cannot be accessed by car. The county is located in the southeastern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The harsh natural conditions meant building a highway connecting Motuo to outside world was once considered a dream. However, just in a week, the last tunnel is due to be completed for the Motuo Highway and the dream will come true.”
Why was this news, which has grave strategic implications for India, made the headlines in China just one day before Wen’s arrival in Delhi?
The 2013 First Road to Metok
Xinhua then reported: “Construction of the tunnel on a highway that links Tibet's Metok County to the outside world was completed when explosives blasted through the final section. The construction crew announced the success of the blast, which took 152 kg of explosives, and workers from both ends met. It took construction workers more than two years to complete the construction of the 3,310-meter Galongla tunnel, built at an altitude of 3,750 meters. It is part of a planned highway that will link Metok County to the outside world, which is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2011.”
I then wrote on this blog: “It is maybe true that Metok was the last county with no highway link in China, but who can believe that all these efforts are only for a population of 11,000?”
It was just a message to Delhi that Beijing is ready to activate other threats in case of conflict.
Is it different today? It is not.
I have mentioned the second route to Metok yesterday.
The Bailey Report
Captain FM Bailey of the Political Department (in fact an Intelligence officer) mentioned Pemakoe in his Report on an Exploration on the North-East Frontier (1913). Based on this report, the McMahon Line was drawn.
Bailey described the area: “The valley of the Tsangpo below the gorge is known as Pemako [or Pemakoe] a vague term the district having no definite boundaries. Formerly this valley was inhabited by Abors but, about 100 years ago, a large number of people from eastern Bhutan and the neighbourhood of Tawang immigrated into this country. They came in search of a land of promise which ancient prophesies had called Pemako and which was believed to be near the frontiers of India.”
He quoted Jacques Bacot, the French explorer about a well-known prophesy: “when their religion was persecuted in Tibet, the people should go to Pemako where they would find a land where rivers flowed with milk, where crops grew without the necessity of any labour, and whence their religion would spread over the whole world.”
In his book Le Thibet revolté, Bacot wrote that the ravages of the Chinese soldiery on the eastern Tibetan frontier “caused a fresh migration in search of this land and he describes the villages deserted by the inhabitants who had fled from the Chinese to seek this land of promise.”
Bailey commented: “The descendants of these first immigrants now form to a large extent the population of the valley; they are called Monbas or Drukpas indiscriminately: the former name means an inhabitant of the Tibetan district of Monyul near Tawang, and the latter means Bhutanese. They still speak a dialect of Monba, the language spoken near Tawang.”
It remained the most isolated place in the world.
The Sacred Place by Excellence
For the Tibetans, the region is one of the most pristine of their country. They consider the area around the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra as the home of the Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s Protecting Deity. Many believe that Pemakoe is the sacred realm often referred to in their scriptures: the last hidden Shangrila. It is also said that the great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava visited the place during the eighth century and tamed the local spirits to conceal spiritual scriptures for future generations.
The road and the hydropower plant will not only be responsible for the disappearance of one of the last sacred places of this planet, but will also have serious environmental, strategic and military consequences for India.
It might be a dream for China; but it will be a nightmare for India.
The Mystic Aspect: The Hidden Land of Pemakoe
Ian Baker, a Himalayan and Buddhist scholar and author of The Heart of the World, the hidden land of Pemako extensively wrote on Guru Padmasambhava, ‘the king of all hidden lands’, visiting the area.
Baker explained: “The very eastern end of the Himalayan range is where the [Yarlung] Tsangpo Brahmaputra river makes this great bend, a hairpin bend, around the peak of Namcha Barwa, at the very terminus of the Himalayan range. These are described as the texts that provide liberation, by hearing about the great and blissful land of Pemako in words attributed to Padmasambhava. That is the path to enlightenment.”
Baker visited several time Pemakoe: “I tried to follow what is called the sequence of the outer and inner circle into Pemako, leading into a kind of a paradisical round at the very heart of the circumambulation.”
He described the mythical place, which may soon be destroyed by the Chinese engineers: “Gyala Peri at around 23,891 feet, and Namche Barwa at more than 26,000 feet, is what makes it to the Guinness Book of Records claim of being the world’s deepest point. And if you draw a line between the summits of these two peaks on the eastern edge of the Himalaya, the distance is 11 miles. Then if you drop a line down from the other line into the heart of the gorge, it is 5,500 feet which gives one a vertical rise in a relatively short distance of 11 miles between the two summits that are over 19,000 feet. That is why it is considered the world’s deepest gorge or the deepest point, although it is not a canyon like the Grand Canyon. It is the overall sense of the vast scale which is very hard to capture in a photograph. This makes it an extraordinary place.”
This is obviously attractive for the dam-building lobbies.
Baker explained further: “Shambala was represented as the mandala, a paradisical centre, with different ways leading into it from the peripheries. This was the way in which hidden lands and Shambala were both represented, a kind of template for an initiation into Buddhism. As one enters the mandala, it is a transforming as well as a transformed space and condition. In Pemako, people describe the body of a particular tantric Buddhist goddess called Vajravarahi in Sanskrit.”
What will happen to the Paradise on earth after the tunnel digging machines arrive?
The discovery of the ancient mystics and yogis has probably no place in Xi Jinping’s New China scheme, but for Baker “you can really get a sense of the extraordinary depth of the inner gorge with Namche Barwa behind it, going into an area which has a very convoluted landscape.”
He observed: “The area which is on trickier terrain is called the river Yarlung or the innermost secret river. There were small monasteries established here, mostly by the people who came from Bhutan following the prophecies. Crystal glaciers, the sky and rainfall were nectar from the guardians of this land. Rainbows filled the sky, and the peaks touched the sky. It was believed that this hidden land of Padmasambhava is from where fortune and gain would finally come.”
This will disappear.
Password for Happiness?
In 2018, a report from China Tibet Online explained that Metok was presevered by creating a beautiful calling card of “ecology, livability, health, charm, and happiness.”
Is it compatible with a plant thrice the size of the Three Gorges Dam.
The Chinese Panchen Lama
Incidentally, the Chinese Panchen Lama visited Metok County at the end of August this year.
He was probably explained the Grand Water Scheme.