One of the sayings trotted out when people try to explain Chinese politics is, “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” It is meant to describe the limits on the power of the central government and the ability of local authorities to do much as they wish. Like most such clichés it is only partly useful. If something is considered a threat to the rule of the Communist Party, for instance, the emperor, or his minions at least, are never far away. They are tapping phones, hacking computers and knocking on doors in even the most remote corners of the People’s Republic.
But if the question is one further down the list of priorities — environmental protection, for instance — then the emperor can be indeed far away, and the directives of the central government can often be ignored. I was reminded of that by the news that after a decade of debate, plans are going ahead for the construction of a series of dams on the Nu River, also known as the Salween, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the China. It flows south from the Tibetan plateau through western Yunnan province, into Burma and along the Thai border for a stretch before entering into the Andaman Sea. In 2003, plans to build 13 hydroelectric dams on the river set off a furor among Chinese environmentalists, who feared the project would jeopardize the 80 threatened or endangered animal species in the river valley. They further argued that damming the river would force large-scale relocation of residents and harm the unique culture of the region. Nu prefecture is home to more than one-third of China’s ethnic groups including some, like the Derung people, with small populations numbering in the thousands.
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In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao called a halt to the project to order further impact assessments as required under a then new environmental law. Chinese green groups celebrated a rare victory over unrestrained growth. But some of the leading critics of the dam proposal, such as Yu Xiaogang, who runs a Yunnan-based environmental group, and Wang Yongchen, a journalist in Beijing who co-founded one of the country’s first environmental NGOs, questioned whether the project was truly killed or merely postponed.
Then a strange thing happened: work continued on the dams anyway, with preparation permitted at four of the proposed sites. I witnessed this on a reporting trip in 2008 and a follow-up visit in 2009. While there was no construction on the river itself, development efforts were clearly under way. This is what I saw in 2008:
Public discussion or not, work along the Nu is moving ahead. Xiaoshaba, a riverside village of 120 families just a few miles upstream from the regional capital of Liuku, has been leveled and its residents relocated to higher ground. The project was officially carried out under the national “New Socialist Countryside” program. Villagers were compensated for the loss of fields that will be flooded. Earth movers, laborers and survey teams from the Sinohydro company, a member of the consortium that wants to dam the river, crawl over the site.
Ninety-seven km downstream other crews are at work on a bridge and dam foundation at Saige, which along with Xiaoshaba are the two sites mentioned in the development-and-reform commission’s five-year plan. While signs say the Saige work is for a transportation project, a surveyor standing on the roadside by the site readily admits they are building a hydropower dam.
Indeed, while the single political leader who obstructed their path would eventually go away, China’s voracious appetite for energy certainly wouldn’t. Wen’s 10-year tenure as Premier will end in March, when he will be replaced by Li Keqiang. From 2006 to 2010 only about a third of dam projects identified as a priority went ahead, Reuters quoted Zhang Boting, who represents a Chinese hydropower industry group, as saying in November. That is expected to change in the coming years. The country’s 2012 white paper on energy policy declared, “China will energetically develop hydropower.” So it was little surprise that China’s State Council, the central administrative body chaired by the Premier, moved late last month to lift the ban on damming the Nu River and gave Sinohydro the go-ahead for five dams including the Liuku and Saige sites I visited five years ago. In particular, the Songta dam, the farthest upriver and the only structure on the Nu in Tibet, has been approved for construction by 2015, notes International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental NGO.
Environmentalists have denounced the move, arguing that in addition to the effect on the Nu region’s people and wildlife, there is a significant danger that the weight of massive new reservoirs will add to the risk of seismic instability. Some scientists have said the Zipingpu dam in Sichuan may have been one of the factors that helped trigger the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which left 87,000 people dead or missing. Other scientists question that assertion and say the water weight couldn’t possibly trigger the quake on its own.
What is certain is that the new dams along the Nu will dramatically change the region. Thousands of people will be relocated, fields in the river valley will be inundated, and a river that has always run wild will be shackled and harnessed. In TIME Asia’s 2009 Best of Asia edition, the magazine named the Nu River Valley as a place to visit before it disappears. That advice is now truer than ever.
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