China's Dams

No Nu news as Beijing cracks down on crusading papers

Kelly Haggart

April 16, 2004

The uncertainty swirling around China’s plans for a cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River in Yunnan province is precisely the kind of story that a beleaguered Guangzhou-based media group would have been keen to cover in happier times.

More than two weeks after Hong Kong newspapers Ming Pao and Ta Kung Pao reported that Premier Wen Jiabao had sent plans for the Nu River project back for more “scientific research,” the fate of the pristine waterway remains unclear.

While several international news organizations picked up the story, reporting that the massive hydroelectric project had been suspended or even cancelled, no major mainland newspaper has touched it.

And neither Premier Wen nor any other top Chinese leader has made any effort to clarify the status of the project, a controversial scheme that has alarmed environmentalists and downstream neighbours Thailand and Myanmar (Burma).

The Nu is one of only two major rivers in China that have not been dammed. (The other undisturbed river is the Yaluzangbu in Tibet.) The Nu forms part of Yunnan‚Äôs Three Parallel Rivers National Park, where three mighty rivers — the Yangtze, Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) — flow through steep parallel gorges.

UNESCO noted the area’s outstanding geological and ecological value when it declared the park a World Heritage Site last year.

The current mainland news blackout on the fate of the Nu River has extended to the normally aggressive publications in the Southern media group — Southern Metropolitan Daily (Nanfang dushi bao), the weekly magazine Southern Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo) and 21st Century Economic Report (Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao).

The Guangzhou-based news group has made a name for itself throughout the country because of bold reporting on sensitive topics such as SARS, police brutality, official corruption and the adverse impacts of the Three Gorges dam.

In an apparent effort to rein in the feisty publications, Chinese authorities handed down harsh sentences last month to two senior executives of Southern Metropolitan Daily — for alleged corruption.

Yu Huafeng, the newspaper’s former general manager, received a 12-year prison sentence, while former editor-in-chief Li Minying was given 11 years. Another former editor, Cheng Yizhong, is now also under arrest and charged with embezzlement.

Southern Metropolitan Daily, the largest-circulation newspaper in Guangdong, with a daily readership of about 1.5 million, has been a thorn in the government’s side for some time. Last year, it reported the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the southern province without first seeking official permission.

And in March 2003, it broke a story that shocked the whole country: the beating death while in police custody of Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old from Hubei province who had been arrested in Guangzhou for not having a local residency permit.

Earlier, the newspaper’s sister publication, Southern Weekend, was the first to report the startling discovery in the Three Gorges reservoir area of eight graves contaminated with anthrax, dating from the 1937-45 war with Japan, as well as industrial sites containing radioactive debris.

In late 2002, the magazine highlighted the enormous archeological loss that would occur in June 2003 when the Three Gorges reservoir submerged the famed city of Fengdu, known throughout China as “Ghost City.”

And it was one of only two publications in China to carry an obituary of Huang Wanli, the leading water engineer and critic of big dams such as Three Gorges who died in 2001.

The crackdown on the Southern media group has raised an outcry in China, with journalists and legal scholars arguing that the case has nothing to do with corruption.

“Local courts have become a tool for suppressing freedom of the press,” said Beijing University law professor He Weifang.

The Guangzhou journalists’ plight is highlighted on the website of the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal-advocacy group in Beijing, with supporters urging the authorities to drop the charges.

Categories: China's Dams

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