China's Dams

Omen on the Yangtze

(April 17, 2012) Twenty years ago this month, China’s epic Three Gorges Dam received construction approval from the Chinese government, with the blessing of a Canadian government report: both governments stood to benefit from the ill-conceived state vanity project at great cost to many. Probe International’s Patricia Adams looks back at how the symbol of China’s ‘rise’ has become an omen of all that is wrong with China and why a country like Canada would inflict such risks on citizens elsewhere.

By Patricia Adams for the Financial Post

Twenty years ago this month, the Chinese government, amid great controversy but with the blessing of a Canadian government report, authorized construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

The critics said the dam would be an environmental and economic nightmare that would flood millions of people off their land, induce landslides and earthquakes, cripple navigation and produce unaffordable electricity.

Twenty years later, the critics have been proven right on all counts. The arguments in favour of the dam were always thin gruel, without scientific depth or credibility, repeated ad nauseam in the form of propaganda, while the arguments against the dam were extensive and detailed and, as we now know, accurate.

But if so many knew what trouble the Three Gorges dam would cause, why couldn’t they stop it? Conflict of interest, or as its Chinese critics put it: “Those who suffered were not the beneficiaries, while those who benefited were not the sufferers.”

The Three Gorges Dam project has been, to use Chinese slang, the ultimate “fishing project,” a vehicle for corruption and influence peddling, in which dam proponents gave low-ball cost estimates and then racked up endless cost overruns: “Announce a little early on, then replenish unceasingly” or “small bait fishes big fish,” as Chinese citizens say on the Internet.

Then this enormous state project, financed with state funds and a tax on every Chinese electricity user, controlled by the ruling elite and protected by state monopolies, generates profits which are appropriated by those in power.

To keep a tight lid on stories that might expose wrongdoing, Chinese censors prohibited bad news about Three Gorges, at least until the arrival of the Internet. Kangaroo courts thwarted attempts by public interest lawyers, such as those who attempted to use China’s new access to information law to get official cost data for the dam. And those who argue for representative government, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, ended up in jail.

As long as the Chinese decision-makers did not have to account to the public in a legislature, in a courtroom, or along the river bank, there was no limit to the costs and risks they could inflict upon the Chinese citizenry. If those decision-makers stood to benefit personally from their decisions, and they did, the public was in even graver danger. Today the Three Gorges dam stands, not as a symbol of Chinese technical and economic prowess but as a monument to the country’s self-destructive governance system.

But what about the Canadians? How could a country with a reputation for being peacekeepers to the world, morally upstanding, and environmentally sound give the Three Gorges Dam the credibility and financing it desperately needed?

Again, conflict of interest. Canadian politicians wanted to secure contracts for this mammoth engineering project for their own politically favoured firms, mostly in the province of Quebec, which in the 1990s was in a state of secessionist unrest. The Canadian government secured contracts for Quebec workers, especially in the turbine and generator business, in an attempt to keep Canada “whole” and to win their own re-election. The benefits to Canadian politicians were great and the costs far away in another country, largely unseen and unheard.

Moreover, any attempt in Canada to defend the rights of Chinese citizens was countered with arguments that Canadians had no business telling the Chinese government how to manage China. Canadian dam proponents were also not shy about making the most morally bankrupt argument of all — that moving 727,000 Chinese citizens to make way for the Three Gorges Dam represented a small percentage of China’s total population, and so was justified.

The benefits that Canadian politicians received from their support for the Three Gorges Dam were made possible because of the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and the absence of Chinese citizens’ rights.

It is possible that if China’s decision to build the Three Gorges Dam had been postponed until after the advent of the Internet, the dam would never have seen the light of day: With the Internet able to distribute the many sound arguments against the dam and provide a forum for the voices of the millions who would be affected, the Chinese populace might have taken such offence to the notion of damming the iconic Three Gorges — many in China believe this dam could not have been authorized today.

Those Chinese leaders who chose to build the Three Gorges Dam 20 years ago may have thought they were building a monument to China’s rising power. But with each passing year, as the problems have become more intractable, the costs higher, and the risks to the security of millions of China’s citizens ever greater, new generations of leaders have distanced themselves from the vacuous promises once made. New leaders now pledge to protect those harmed by the dam. Because they surely must know, as the rest of the world does, that the Three Gorges Dam is no longer a symbol of China’s “rise” but an omen of all that is wrong with it.

Patricia Adams is executive director of Probe International, and editor of Three Gorges Probe, an online news portal for ­environmental news from China.

Read the original article on the Financial Post here.

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