Wednesday, October 20

Yak Politics: Tibetans’ Vegetarian Dilemma Amid China’s Meat Boom | China


FThe nomads who roam free now, mostly resettled in rows of sun-drenched block houses in Tibet, face a struggle over their identity, their spiritual and cultural practices, and even their stomachs.

These yak herders have always eaten meat. In addition to the milk, butter, and cheese derived from the yaks, meat was a necessity in their harsh lives.

But a movement driven by Tibetan Buddhist monks in the region over the past two decades has increasingly urged now sedentary nomads to practice vegetarianism, to pay a “lifetime ransom” for the release of animals destined for slaughter. and to abandon the slaughter of its inhabitants. own animals because they have settled.

That “anti-slaughter movement” has pitted them against local authorities trying to boost the development and industrial production of yak meat for a Chinese public that consumes more meat than ever. The production boost has included the expansion of a large number of commercial slaughterhouses to process meat from the roughly 14 million yaks on the Tibetan plateau.

A butcher sells yak meat in a Beijing market.  In recent years, China has sought to expand commercial meat production.
A butcher sells yak meat in a Beijing market. In recent years, China has sought to expand commercial meat production. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP via Getty

The Chinese authorities appear to be winning this battle, at least physically.

“My impression is that the [anti-slaughter] The movement is declining as a result of increased surveillance and repression that criminalizes any movement that asserts Tibetan identity, ”says Katia Buffetrille, a French anthropologist and Tibetologist who has been traveling to Tibetan areas for more than three decades.

The sentencing last June of ten Tibetans, including two monks, to jail terms ages eight to 13 and fines of up to £ 7,000 each for trying to block the construction of a commercial slaughterhouse in Sangchu, Gansu province, has largely silenced the discussion emerging from Tibetan areas about anti-killing beliefs.

‘Bad karma’ on the Tibetan plateau

The anti-slaughter movement first emerged around 2000 from the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy, famous for photos of its red-roofed huts that dot a treeless alpine valley in Sichuan’s Garzê region. The spiritual oasis was home to some 40,000 unofficial residents, monks, and seekers of spirituality, prior to the extensive destruction from the area and expulsion of a large number of monks since 2016.

A flyer promoting vegetarianism near Samye in Tibet.
A flyer promoting vegetarianism near Samye in Tibet. Photography: Brochure

An influential and now deceased monk from the Academy, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, taught against slaughterhouse practices after witnessing them firsthand. He said the view inside the slaughterhouses was, “similar to what we imagine as the city of death, full of terrifying noises including the sound of machines used to process meat, the sound of throats being cut, the sound of the blood rushing and the bellowing of the cattle in a mortal panic ”.

He believed that huge commercial slaughterhouses would bring bad karma to the Tibetan plateau and were alien to the practices that nomads had followed for hundreds of years.

However, most Tibetans, and even many monks, did not practice vegetarianism, and only the wealthiest herdsmen could afford to free animals for spiritual purposes.

“[Nomadic] Tibetans were never vegetarians. Now, many monasteries do not give more meat, but some allow eating meat outside, ”says Buffetrille, adding that nomads are caught between two alternatives.

“On the one hand, the path of assimilation of the Chinese state, which is depriving them of their specific culture, language and way of life. On the other hand, the strategy of the clergy, which asks nomads to follow the Tibetan religious way of life that they defend, but which does not conform to their daily habits as lay Buddhists and nomads, ”he says.

Traditionally, vegetarianism was widely practiced in monasteries, but not among nomads, says Geoffrey Barstow, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism at Oregon State University. who said that some nomads see the “no slaughter” movement as a threat to the practicalities of making enough money to survive.

“You can imagine how difficult it would be to be a vegetarian as a nomad,” he says. “As for a complete nomad being a vegetarian, I have no record of anyone doing it.”

A shepherdess prepares to milk yak in Jiatang in Chindu county, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China.
A shepherdess prepares to milk yak in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Photograph: Xinhua / REX / Shutterstock

The problem, Barstow says, is divided into people who see Buddhism as the fundamental “heart and soul” of Tibetan identity and those who see nomadism as the core of that identity.

Beijing cracks down on activists

In the end, neither the spiritual dimension nor the identity crisis among the nomads that China has ordered to remain in place appear to be a consideration for Beijing. For local governments, under orders to increase GDP, anything that gets in the way challenges the power and authority of the state.

Since 2018, when China’s leadership under Xi Jinping launched a three-year national campaign against “black and evil” forces, local governments in Tibetan regions have increasingly cracked down on anyone organizing in those areas outside of the government-authorized activities.

Citizen groups trying to protect wildlife or the environment, those calling for greater food security, religious and cultural activities, and those advocating against land grabbing, the building of slaughterhouses, or the release of animals as a spiritual practice they have been designated as “Bands of the underworld” according to organizations like Human Rights Watch.

“One of the reasons they were cited as gangs was because they had been organizing community members against a slaughterhouse in their hometown,” Tenzin Norgay, a research analyst with the International Campaign for Tibet, told The Guardian.

Tibetan ground protesters, all in their 50s and 70s, are pictured at their trial in a court in Gansu's Sangchu County on June 29, 2020.
Tibetan ground protesters, all in their 50s and 70s, are pictured at their trial in Gansu’s Sangchu County on June 29, 2020. Photography: Brochure

“In some cases they have combined the anti-slaughter movement with the issue of separatism, so when they pass these kinds of laws it definitely has some impact on the participants of this movement,” he says.

Given that the non-violent protests against the slaughterhouse took place several years ago, the court action is largely seen as a message to warn others against similar future actions, he says.

In the months since that verdict, Norgay has not heard from people in the region of similar actions against the massacre. He says it is “too risky” as even communicating with people outside Tibet could be considered a crime.

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