(May 24, 2010) Qian Zhengying, who held office as the Minister of Water Resources for nearly 40 years, admitted in an interview with the Asia Weekly in April that the drought in South Western China and South East Asia was caused by China’s over-exploitation of water resources. “A problem existed in past water management projects: careless and sloppy management, and imprudent exploitation,” she said.
Her statement could not possibly serve as an apology for the torment tens of millions went through in the drought-affected provinces of Southwest China. Neither will it stop China from building the upstream dams on the Mekong River—a project which many countries in South East Asia have strongly opposed, stating it will adversely affect the river’s biodiversity, water quality, and downstream volume.
The extent of damage the Ministry of Water Resources’ projects have done to China’s ecosystem seems yet to completely reveal itself.
Expert or Culprit?
China’s water challenges have been summarized by experts in the field as “Flood, Drought, Pollution.” Experts, both inside and outside the Ministry of Water Resources, agree that Qian Zhengying could hardly absolve herself of the blame for the current scenario.
Qian is the only minister-level official alive today to have stayed in power, in the same ministry, under three different administrations—Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping. In 1952, Qian, then 29, was appointed Deputy Minister of Water Resources. During this period she played a central role as the then minister, Fu Zuoyi, was a surrendered Chinese Nationalist Party general and was not fully trusted by the regime. She became the minister in 1975 and remained in the post until her retirement in 1988.
Her official resume, as published by the state controlled Xinhua News Agency, says she “participated in the reshaping and planning of the river regions including Yellow River, Yangtze River, Huai River, Pearl River and Hai River; Was in charge of the decisive study of major water resources and hydropower engineering; Resolved major technical issues in project constructions such as harnessing Huai River and Miyun Reservoir, Liujiaxia Hydroelectric Power Station, and Gezhouba Water Control Project on Yangtze River.”
The current situation of all these projects tells us that the nearly four decades of Qian Zhengying’s ministration was a period of systematic destruction of China’s water resources. The Yellow River has dried up, the Hai River is short of water, the Pearl River is severely polluted, and the Huai River does more harm than good.
Qian Zhengying created the “Three Oriented” policy: “Storage Oriented, Small Scale Oriented, and Commune Run Oriented,” which overlooked the dramatically diverse geographical and hydrological conditions in China, and completely ignored that hydraulic projects have to be adapted to local geographical conditions. As a result, hundreds of projects met with disastrous ends. In the mid-70s, several hundred reservoirs collapsed every year. Some collapsed as soon as they were filled, others upon completion of construction.
In an article titled “Why China has been Suffering Constant Water Disasters Till Today: A Brief Commentary on 50 Years of China’s Hydrological Work,” a hydraulic expert who had worked in the Institute of Water Conservancy and Hydroelectric Power Research for decades, writing under the penname Chen Shi, analyzes in detail how Qian’s policies are responsible for the disastrous situation China’s water projects are in.
The author holds Qian Zhengying responsible for promoting the disastrous “Three Oriented” policy, ignoring the principle of “discharge capacity” in flood control projects, favoring mass movements over expert judgment, not making proper use of scientific planning and design, cutting down on funds for hydraulic planning, design and scientific research, blindly promoting projects without sufficient study, inappropriate placement of personnel, and refusal to consider opinions.
The Ministry of Water Resources under Qian was accustomed to “fish-funding” major hydraulic projects. A low budget proposal would be used to obtain approval, and the construction would be started on it to create a fait accompli. Then, constant requests for further funding would be made, and the project would end up costing several times more than the initial projected budget.
The Ministry would repeat the pattern for the next project before the current project finished. This guaranteed a constant influx of money into the ministry, and squandering was common to all its projects.
At the time of leaving her office, the “Three Gorges Project” was underway. The project has met with much criticism world-over. Journalist Dai Qing, who was jailed for 10 months in 1989-90 for criticizing the project, refers to it as the “the most environmentally and socially destructive project in the world.” Qian’s role in the project is described in Dai Qing’s article “Holding Tears in Front of the Yellow River Lamenting Disastrous Water Resource Management” and in the article titled “Qian Zhengying vs. China’s Water Problems” written by renowned hydraulic engineer Wang Weiluo. Hydraulic professor Huang Wanli’s years of persuasion to stop the Three Gorges Project was completely ignored by Qian. Mr. Huang fought for the cause till his end days, to no avail.
Qian Zhengying’s light apology could never make up for the numerous mistakes made under her ministration, and these engineering disasters will continue to harm China for decades to come.
Missing in Qian’s Apology
Qian Zhengying’s apology fails to link issues in China’s political system with the destruction of China’s water resources. This makes her statements extremely shallow when viewed in the light of analyses done by others in the field.
The author Chen Shi, for instance, says: “Large-scale hydraulic projects have become politicized in China. The reason lies in that high-ranking officials consider these kinds of projects a political agenda to boost their image and the Party’s image, whereas low ranking officials see in them the potential to climb the political ladder and strive to please their superiors. None of the high-ranking officials and technical experts in the Ministry of Water Resource have the common citizen in mind. They merely care about being “politically correct,” and rarely shoulder the responsibilities of their decisions, however serious their consequences are.”
Qian’s apology also lacks sincerity. She has always been submissive toward the CCP. One might argue that very few people could stand up against Mao’s despotic power, but Qian’s brownnosing of Jiang Zemin is hard to overlook. The scientific community had unanimously agreed that the 1998 Yangtze River flooding had to do with human mistakes and was not merely a natural disaster. Jiang, however, insisted that it be labeled a purely natural disaster. The already-retired Qian then immediately stepped out in the role of an “expert,” echoing Jiang. When Jiang came up with his “Three Represents,” again, Qian immediately used it to politicize the Three Gorges project.
Any retrospective analysis will be meaningless if it does not take China’s political system that caused the disaster into consideration. Qian’s successor, Pan Yue, seems to have a better perspective on this: In an interview in February 2006 Pan told a Southern Weekly reporter that “China’s environmental issues are political issues.”
Not Caring for Consequences
The CCP’s political system holds none accountable for mistakes, no matter how high or low their rank. Mao’s genocide, is, for instance, to this day, revered as “heroic, correct, and great.” In the recent forced removal of residents from government confiscated land, some civilians burned themselves to death in protest. No responsibility for this ever fell on any official. China’s water resources are on the brink of collapse after four decades of Qian’s leadership. However, not a word of regret came from Qian, till the recent skin-deep apology, lauded by the state media. When will this brand of zero-responsibility politics stop running China?
But a sense of justice still remains in the common man. When the Three Gorges project was announced, Huang Wanli, then on his death bed, said: “In the future, there will be three kneeling iron statues in the Baidi city, just as those in Hangzhou’s Yue Fei Tomb. The three statues will kneel to admit their crime against the Yangtze River, against the Chinese people, for generations to come. And there will be a stone tablet next to the statues saying: ‘Please forgive us. We failed to stop them.’ The statues will be of Qian Zhengying, Zhang Guangdou, and Li Peng.”
I hope Mr. Huang’s words will come true, as the kneeling statues would represent not just the three officials, but the CCP’s brand of no responsibility politics.
He Qinglian, China in Perspective, May 24, 2010
Categories: Three Gorges Probe