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Cyber Warrior

[The Age - Melbourne; February 27, 2001.]


Can one man in Collingwood help protect Tibet from the march of its Chinese masters? Gabriel Lafitte tells how, with patient use of the Internet, he found he could make a difference.

THE ancient bus toiled up through golden canola fields and ripening apricot orchards, stopping only for a quick lunch at a Muslim restaurant before resuming the long climb. Could this really be Tibet? Outside were whitecapped Muslims and Chinese checkpoints, but in the bus Tibetan nomads, their city business done, were on their way home to the mountains.

From the window, signs of Tibetan culture gradually appeared. Prayer flags mingled with television antennas. The valleys narrowed, the mountains came closer, streams ran faster, the Tibetans aboard sang and joked. White Buddhist shrines stood in the fields of ripening wheat, guarding the power places of the valleys.

Coming from the utterly Chinese city of Xining, on the edge of Tibet, the transition to an authentically Tibetan environment is slow. But here we were, in a village of Tibetan farmers, their ancient irrigation channels swiftly flowing, the women weeding the waisthigh green wheat, making their supple way through the crop without damaging an ear.

It was a picture postcard of Tibetan tranquillity, I thought as I wandered the narrow lanes between mudwalled houses. It looked timeless, except for the massive power pylons along the road, far from the restless pace of the Internet, the accelerating speed of globalisation. Yet it was this arcadian idyll that propelled me into a contest over multibilliondollar plans to globalise even these villagers.

Not until some of the village elders gathered was my tourist fantasy burst. They had an urgent message for the outside world, which they asked this rare visitor to convey. "Look further up the valley," the oldest man said. Upstream, I made out a large squat industrial building shrouded in white smoke. Only its chimney stood clear. "That's the aluminium smelter," the old man said. "The smoke settles on the hillsides. If we let our sheep or donkeys out to graze, their teeth turn yellow and brittle, then fall out. Our animals starve, and we lose our livelihood. Can't you tell the United Nations about this? If nothing is done the smelter will kill us."

I couldn't imagine the UN or any official institution being willing to intervene in China's business. "Isn't there some way you can tell the authorities and get some action?" I asked. "You don't understand. We can say nothing, even if it's against China's law to put such a factory right in the heart of our valley, because anything we say is labelled as Tibetan splittism, nationalism which is punished mercilessly. The only people we could take any complaint to are the cadres of the county government, and it is they who set up and own this factory. It employs their relatives. There is nowhere for us to turn."

All I could do was take photos. The closer I got to the factory, the filthier it appeared. This was an environmental tragedy, but what could anyone do? I felt helpless. On my return to Australia I remembered the hero of my adolescence, Izzy Stone, who uncovered the darker side of America's war in Vietnam and much else. Stone had a simple belief that in the modern world, disastrous policies generate enormous paper trails: reports, studies, project design documents, committee minutes, official approvals. When stitched together, they form a damning picture of how the best and brightest minds can do horrific things. Since those days, I'd spent much time with Tibetans, who have a similarly unflagging faith that if only the world gets to know of their sufferings, the world will act to set them free. But the real world is too busy to care, and everything gets faster.

Unlike Izzy Stone, I had access to the Internet, a globalised deluge of data from which I might piece together a coherent narrative. In China, it is a crime punishable by death to reveal state secrets online, and the state defines and redefines its secrets at any time. The Tongren County Aluminium Smelter may prefer its backblock Tibetan obscurity to the global gaze of the Web, but surely there was useful information out there somewhere.

I found out that aluminium smelters can readily install endofthepipe technology to treat the smoke and remove toxic fluoride. Major smelters such as Portland, partly owned by the Chinese Government, take care to abide by the rules and filter out the fluoride. But why hadn't anyone done so in Tibet?

I searched the daily online English editions of China Daily and People's Daily. They speak for a government determined to be upbeat and admit few problems. They announced China's first nationwide electricity grid, to remove hydro power from Tibet for the wealthy consumers of the booming coastal cities. More hydro dams on the Tibetan stretch of the Yellow River, more aluminium cable to carry power eastward, more efficient exploitation of Tibet, were all part of the march of progress.

But was there a downside? What would be the environmental and human cost of these grand plans? China's media are no place to find investigative journalism. If there was another side to the story, I would have to piece it together, as Izzy Stone did, slowly and laboriously.

The US Geological Survey site gave me hard figures on China's hunger for aluminium and demand for the massive electricity consumption needed to smelt it. An American company, Kaiser, had teamed with Chinese smelters just downstream of Tibet, only to pull out a year later when Chinese Government ministries had been unable to fulfil their promises of electricity for the smelters. Not only was the jigsaw filling, it was starting to look as if foreign investors might be directly involved. This would be a shock to Tibetans, who must now face the prospect that they are no longer beyond the frontiers of globalisation. But it would galvanise the cyber warriors, the global online community of activists using global technology to oppose globalisation's obliteration of everything local, unique and authentic. My hacktivist friends in the US would want to know if a US corporation was a key player in Tibet's industrialisation. It would give them leverage, making it a domestic issue about American values. The new worldwide cyber activist community has an ability to stage imaginative actions that capture media attention. All they need is someone to do the research. That research can be done as well in a Collingwood cottage as in a sleek think tank in Washington.

It was months before my obsessive patrolling of cyberspace paid off. China's official media were full of the newest policy push: a mass campaign to develop the west. Quickly I was drowning in downloaded information. American think tanks were helping China draw up these grand plans for grids and pipelines to keep China's coastal industries humming. In the name of energy efficiency they were steering China towards a more intensive exploitation of underground oil and gas and the hydropower potential of Tibet.

A few details stood out. The next hydropower dam will be built, for the first time, by a multinational power company based in the US. I thought of the Tibetan villagers, fumigated with fluoride by electricity from the hydropower dam on the Yellow River immediately upstream from the dam, about to be built in record time by Americans. Would the electricity generated go into the same grid, the same pylons carrying power to the Tongren smelter? If China is to have one grid, it seemed so.

The cast was getting bigger. Tibet suddenly seemed to be on everyone's radar. Getting electricity for China out of Tibet was big, but bigger still were China's plans for Tibetan natural gas. Gas was newly discovered. If China's rhetoric about how much it and Exxon had found in Tibet were true, this was a bonanza. Not only was the payoff in the billions of dollars, but so too was the cost of the audacious plan to build a pipeline right across China, from the farthest corners of Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang, 4200 kilometres to Shanghai.

The puzzle of from where the money was coming was all the more intense, but there was no doubt that I had stumbled on a historic moment for Tibet, the moment it got plugged into the global economy.

This megabuck megaproject was, I found, not being financed by China's public purse, not by bank loans, by soft money from foreign governments, nor by the World Bank. Nor were transnationals yet being allowed in as owners of such a massive project, except for AES.

Websites for investors in China were abuzz with the prospect of some of China's biggest stateowned enterprises launching initial public offerings of shares to raise capital.

The buzz on the investor websites was that the next cab off to the capital markets would be China National Petroleum Corporation, and it was planning to raise as much as $US10billion ($A19 billion). The penny dropped. It was CNPC that owned the oil and gas of Tibet and just about all the onshore oil fields in China. CNPC, with the help of management consultants, had gone through the corporatisation process. It had been readied to attract global capital. What was going up for sale was a slice of equity, so small it fell far short of privatisation, but enough to bring in the billions of dollars needed if CNPC was to realise its ambitious plan to build and run a 4200 kilometre gas pipeline.

What electrified me was that CNPC, under a new name, PetroChina, was turning directly to Wall Street, and we had advance notice, time to do something, to appeal to punters on the New York Stock Exchange.

If there was to be a campaign, we were up against one of the mightiest of China's stateowned corporations, an entity so big that a small slice of its equity was worth $10billion. And we would be appealing to investors to take into account moral, environmental and human rights, in a world where not even a voluntary code of conduct requires capitalists to focus on anything beyond the bottom line. I was way out of my depth. I'd started with a single aluminium smelter and now the entire machine of globalisation was invading Tibet.

But if anyone could do it, my Tibetan friends in the US could. The handful of Tibetans in Washington had such intuitive feel for the dynamics of power, they managed, like martial artists, to make use of the thrusting energies of their opponents to neutralise them.

The dossier I assembled for American human rights and environment non government organisations grew thicker, studded with quotes, references, citations to websites. The hype about it all being out there on the Web was true. The rest actually is history. The PetroChina float was already in the sights of rightwing Republicans and Christian groups, whose concern was Sudan, where PetroChina's parent company had invested heavily in oil fields whose profits fuelled war and human rights abuses. All I needed to do was meet Ronald Reagan's former national security economics adviser, and introduce him to the Tibetans, and a new coalition was born.

My American friends, unhampered by the Australian sense of being marginal, came up with strategies to target potential investors. They figured a Chinese oil giant was not going to attract day traders fixated by the dotcom craze. The investors to go after, they told me, were the superannuation funds of state government employees. So they wrote to the treasurers of the retirement funds of school teachers and municipal workers. After listing good moral reasons for avoiding the PetroChina IPO, they went straight for the threat of litigation. The managers of trillions of dollars were warned that if they did go ahead and buy PetroChina stock, there would be a disinvestment campaign. There would be more sellers than buyers, and the value of the shares would slide. Then came the real sting: if you buy this stock, knowing it is likely to fall, your members can sue you. When in doubt, in America, threaten to sue.

The coalition was across the political spectrum. Environmental activists, Christians, Republicans, and the trade union movement all came on board. As the coalition started to get publicity, PetroChina and its brokers began to scale back the amount they expected to raise. From $US 10 billion they came down to $8 billion, then $5 billion. Eventually they raised $3 billion, largely from corporations seeking to do business with PetroChina in the future. The float nearly collapsed. Only when the global giant BP took a hefty equity stake in PetroChina did the IPO successfully make it to market.

A short, sharp campaign had crimped Beijing's master plan for financing exploitation of Tibet on the NYSE, to the tune of $7 billion. It began on the Net, in a tiny Collingwood workers cottage. Globalisation means Wall Street is now an active force in shaping Tibet, but it also means the worldwide linking of people using imagination and knowledge to stand up to the corporatisation of our lives, wherever we are.

BP is now under increasing pressure from a worldwide disinvestment campaign to rethink its stake in PetroChina. The Tongren smelter continues to belch toxic smoke laced with fluoride. There are many struggles yet to be won.

The author is a Tibetan activist who was held for seven days by Chinese authorities in 1999, accused of conducting "an illegal visit and doing illegal interviews" and having driven past a "forbidden" prison farm.

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