On the northeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau, in central China's Gansu Province, nomads can buy insurance policies for their sheep and yaks. The Chinese government subsidizes the plans, and on highways cutting across Gannan, a Tibetan prefecture in Gansu, billboards advertising the insurance programs share the roadside with signs promoting family planning. Behind the billboards lie vast expanses of grassland—rolling canvases of deep green that stretch into oblivion—where sheep and yaks graze, as if Chinese Communist Party officials have placed them there for a photo shoot.
In Langmusi, a small monastery town, I found a local insurance administrator in a café, slumped over a table and mumbling to himself. He stared vacantly at four empty beer cans and then spotted me across the room.
"Meiguo pengyou! Lai!" "American friend! Come!" The day was young—1 p.m. on a Thursday—and I asked why he'd already begun drinking.
"I took a day off today. There's nothing to do."
"My job has no meaning."
"Business isn't good?"
"It's bad," he said. "This insurance thing, it doesn't have any meaning." He looked into his beer glass, sniffled, and shook his head.
I offered, optimistically, that insurance could help a lot of people. There were lots of nomadic shepherds in Tibet—wasn't there demand? He shook his head again.
"Nobody buys the insurance. Nomads don't understand insurance."
This statement perfectly encapsulated the Chinese government's struggle in Tibet. Since the 1950s, when the CCP first occupied Tibet, assimilation by force had brought little beyond resentment. After decades of failure, the Party had begun to try a new strategy; instead of coercing Tibetans for their loyalty, it would try to buy it. The Chinese government invested in infrastructure, provided generous subsidies and tax incentives across various industries, and attempted to bring modern finance—like insurance—to the Plateau. The economic strategy has, so far, been far more successful than the military one, but it is an ongoing project, and one with limits.
"They just don't understand this stuff," he said again, referring to the nomads.
He explained the pricing. The payoffs, he said, were far too low.
"It doesn't matter anyway. No one buys the insurance. The job doesn't mean anything."
As the afternoon wore on, his depression grew more personal. Middle-aged and far from his home village, he worried about his aging parents. At one point, he began to sob, imagining them dying alone while he failed to sell yak and sheep insurance.
Later, at dinner, he ate slowly, the way a sick person does when he's not hungry, and then sauntered out of the café. I expected his exit would mark the last time I ever discussed yak insurance with anyone.
But, a few weeks later, I was eating lunch not far from Langmusi with Suonan, a Tibetan friend of mine, and yak insurance came up again. Born into a nomad family, Suonan had left the grasslands as a teenager for Hezuo, his prefecture's capital. Eventually, he went into the hotel business, and now he spends all of his time in cities. He had grown rich, as he described it, by selling out to Chinese tourists. But newfound wealth only made him more resentful of the ways in which Chinese economic influence had changed him, and, like many Tibetans, he seldom missed an opportunity to criticize the CCP's behavior on the Plateau. China's economic expansion in Tibet, even when it made Tibetans rich, often had that effect. To Suonan, the failure of yak insurance exemplified the impossibility of the CCP's dream—of taming a region it continued to view as a wild, remote backwater in need of liberation from feudalism.
Suonan had many theories about the failures of livestock insurance. Tibetan nomads, he believed, didn't have enough guard dogs, and he complained that, since Tibetans (like all Chinese) were no longer allowed to own guns, nomads stood little chance of defending their herds from wolves. The government understood very little about the nuances of nomadic life, he said, and he didn't think it cared very much. But he stressed one theory above all others.
"The problem with insurance," Suonan told me, "is the nomads' guard dogs. They just ignore the wolves now."
"Ignore the wolves?"
"They don't attack when the wolves come anymore. That's what I heard from the people in my village. And the wolves don't even eat the herds now—they've killed so many they're not hungry! The wolves just kill the sheep and yak for play."
I stared at a plate of yak meat on the table in front of us. Suonan picked up a large chunk and ripped off a piece with his teeth.
"What does that have to do with insurance?" I asked.
"You think the government is going to pay for that many dead yak and sheep?"
"But what about, you know, the insurance contract?"
Suonan scoffed at my invocation of formal law. Rarely do such things matter in China.
"The officials don't believe the nomads anyway. The nomads all share fake photos with each other."
Suonan clarified. He meant the pictures of dead livestock that insurance officials required from nomads to file a claim. Suspecting the photos were being recirculated, and unwilling to visit remote pastures, Chinese officials had stopped accepting them. To make matters worse, the wolf attacks had led to such an extraordinary number of yak and sheep deaths that officials refused to even believe the number of claims. These problems effectively stalled the program, leaving insurance officials with little to do beyond, it seemed, midday drinking. Still, the government was unwilling to admit defeat and refused to shut down the initiative, continuing to staff it with almost no revenue. For the time being, the CCP's fight to introduce modern finance to Tibetan sheep pastures had reached a stalemate. None of this, of course, had been reported by local Chinese news outlets, which rarely criticize government initiatives.
I returned to the core issue—the détente between guard dogs and wild wolf packs. If the guard dogs could just protect sheep and yaks again, and only a few animals died from natural causes, perhaps the government would be willing to foot the smaller bill.
"So the guard dogs," I said. "Do the nomads know why they've stopped attacking the wolves?"
Suonan let out a laugh. He was deeply proud of Tibetan chaos—mysteries like this confounded Chinese leaders, and he delighted in their confusion.
"You see?" he asked.
I said I guess I did.
He smiled. "The Chinese government," he said, "has a hard time governing Tibet."