• Tibet;
  • China;
  • qualitative interviewing;
  • pastoralism;
  • land allocation;
  • neoliberalism

The effects of neoliberal contexts on livestock production have been relatively ignored in geography. This paper contributes to this literature through a case study of continuity and change in pastoralism on the Tibetan Plateau in China. Since use rights to winter pasture were allocated to individual households, herders in Gouli, Qinghai, have developed an extensive, new practice of renting livestock and pasture from each other. Written contracts entail a calculation of potential price of livestock and pasture, as well as a mechanism for the wealthy to offload risk of livestock loss onto the poor. Social relations between family members have become monetised as herders become market actors. At the same time, however, these transactions allow herders to partially maintain flexibility over the opportunistic use of pasture resources that has long been at the basis of pastoralist livelihood strategies. They engage in these practices in order to maintain, rather than give up, their identities as Tibetan pastoralists, which also manifest in the limited spheres in which profit-making and entrepreneurialism are condoned. Thus, pastoralists are adapting to their new circumstances, though in potentially compromising ways. As a form of governance, neoliberal rationality intersects in contingent ways not only with other logics of governance but also with historically rooted identities and cultural idioms.