Dams and Landslides

China’s PR Problem Rears Head at Mekong Forum

(December 12, 2009) CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Dec 12 (IPS/TerraViva) – Powerful neighbour. A rising power. Old friend. Big, secretive investor. Big boy of the region. These were some of the terms participants at the just-finished Mekong Media Forum here used, when asked to share the images of China they get from the media.

At a talk-show discussion here, several participants said they had mixed feelings about the country that is the big power in the Mekong region, among the biggest investors in their countries and has built three dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River.

“There are two Chinas,” said Cambodian journalist Nguon Serath, editor of ‘Rasmei Kampuchea Daily’ newspaper. One is the country that has put in the biggest investments in Cambodia and “that is a good picture,” he explained. The second is the builder of dams in the Mekong river – the Manwan, Dachaoshan and Jinghong dams and some more to come – that has sowed discontent among communities in downstream countries of Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and triggered letters of protest from grassroots groups.

These comments, which came up again and again through the different sessions at the four-day forum, reflect the depth of resentment by neighbouring countries that see China as having run roughshod over their concerns about the impact of its dams on water levels of the Mekong River, salination, worsening floods and their livelihoods. Some 60 million people in lower Mekong basin rely on the river for food, transport and water.

Chinese diplomats and engineers, including at an October consultation held by the Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission (MRC) in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, maintain that these problems are not due to its dams. The Lancang, as the upper reaches of the Mekong is called, contributes just 16 percent of the flow of the river, so damming cannot have such a huge impact on it, they have pointed out. The 4,880-kilometre river flows from its headwaters in Tibet and on to Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia before it goes into Vietnam, and out into the South China Sea. At the height of the record-high floods in the Lao capital Vientiane last year, the Commission also issued a statement saying that based on a study of the volume of water involved, they could not have been caused by China’s dams.

But China’s views are not always read or heard much in the media of other Mekong countries as well in China’s own media. There is an information gap between upstream and downstream countries and communities, and this is perhaps part of why some Chinese journalists at the forum and audiences inside the country are surprised by the extent of the anger over its dam projects. Over the years, it has become increasingly common for media reports in downstream countries to carry as ‘fact’ statements that China’s dams are behind uneven water levels and other water-related problems. Media reports in Vietnam now carry articles criticising the dams.

In June, Ngo Dinh Tuan, chair of the scientific council of the South-east Asia Institute of Water Resource and Environment, told ‘Tuoi Tre’ newspaper: “(Chinese) dam construction now joins hands with climate change to worsen droughts, salinity intrusion, landslides and land erosion.” He added: “The Vietnamese government must create a national strategy for protecting the river downstream, not only for the Mekong but the Red River (in Vietnam’s north), as China has started to build dams on it as well.”

The scrutiny given to China’s moves is a reflection of its soft power in the region. This has been taking root since the nineties, as a more confident China signed cooperation accords with South-east Asian countries that had previously found these impossible to discuss with Beijing – including the matter of the contested Spratly islands – except on a bilateral basis. Gradually, China’s image changed, from one of a threat to a power that had a ‘good neighbour’ policy toward South-east Asia.

Today, the story angle of the ‘China threat’ is gone. But its behaviour in the Mekong region, especially in the years since the first Mekong mainstream dam was built, has been judged heavily against the backdrop of these hydropower projects. The Manwan dam was built in 1993, followed by the Dachaosan that was completed in 2005 and then the Jinghong dam. The fourth dam, the Xiaowan one, will be the world’s tallest dam when completed in 2012. At least a fifth dam, the Nuozhadu dam, is to follow by 2014.

Journalists say it is far from easy to get the views of China or Chinese officials in their stories, though Chinese journalists at the forum also explained new trends that point to more accessibility these days. Language is also a challenge because it makes it harder for Mekong country journalists and audiences to access perspectives from China. Likewise, Chinese journalists have pointed out that the dam issue does not make much news inside the huge country of 1.2 billion people, including in the capital Beijing, which is at the other end of the country from Yunnan, where the Lancang flows through.

Perhaps all the attention paid to China – and the depth of uneasiness toward its behaviour in the Mekong – is the price to pay for its large political footprint. “America in Asia,” in fact, was a phrase that Beijing-based journalist Lin Gu cited at one forum session to refer to China’s power in the region. He said that China is learning the ropes of being a power, and is concerned about how it is viewed by the outside world.

“The (Chinese) government should understand that being beaten is part of the price to pay for being strong,” Lin Gu said. At the same time, it still lacks confidence and can thus be “sensitive” and “overreacts” to criticism.

A barrage of questions about China’s dams also arose at the MRC meeting in October, from hydrologists, engineers, water researchers and academics and campaigners. In an interview there, Chinese diplomat Lu Hai Tien said “we will bring all these concerns back” to Beijing. Lu, who is from the Department of International Organisations and Conferences of China’s foreign ministry, conceded that there were many concerns about China, and “that’s why we are here”. Told that Mekong journalists had difficulty getting the Chinese government’s views, he said: “Maybe there has not been a proper platform for China to express its views.”

Johanna Son, IPS News, December 12, 2009

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