Damming Tiger Leaping Gorge

Damming it and damning it, too.

It seems our illustrious friends in the CCP may be moving ahead with plans to ruin one of Yunnan province’s most magnificent natural treasures, putting at risk the livelihood of local farmers, the small and endangered group of Naxi peasants, and the rich botanical life that have made the gorge a tourist attraction.

As the piece says, there are already 85,000 dams in China, so why not build one more? Needless to say, it’s all about money.

The stakeholders who really hold the trump card are the moneylenders, says geologist and author Simon Winchester, who believes that the most effective way to block a project is to convince investors to steer clear. The well-traveled writer calls the gorge one of the most memorable places he’s visited. Although he calls the project “a confection of lunacy,” he notes that international business interests are pushing for increased electricity generation in China. “The combination of incredibly cheap labor and reliable power simply makes western reluctance to stop this minimal. They don’t care that this part of the world is extraordinarily beautiful. Business is business.”

Read the whole thing to get the full scope of this blunder. Just don’t blame me if you feel depressed afterwards. (To be fair, many Chinese environmental groups have shown great bravery and indignation at the rape of the gorge, and have mobilized to fight it. Let’s see how far they get; money always seems to win out in these situations.)

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Yes – this is a real tragedy in the making. I visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge two years ago (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and back then roads were busily being built into the gorge in order to lay the infrastructural foundations to enable this project to go ahead. I was horrified when I saw this all of this!

I spent a good four weeks travelling throughout this fascinating province of Yunnan, and although I had a wonderful time, I returned to Jiangsu with mixed feelings. While some of the development (that which is linked to tourism) was, undeniably, bringing wealth to a greater number of inhabitants, and peoples’ living standards improving, much of the development that I witnessed taking place can only be described as “rape”.

What many people are not aware of is the fact that the Huaneng Group, China’s biggest independent power producer, working with the Yunnan provincial government, is run by Li Xiaopeng, son of the former prime minister Li Peng, who oversaw the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Mr Li was at the forefront of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project as well.

Still, those who wish to see the gorge saved should not give up hope. Premier Wen Jiabao agreed last year to suspend plans for 13 other dams on the Salween river in response to protests from Burma and Thailand and local Chinese environmentalists.

I know that thousands of villagers, worried that they will lose their farmland, staged a rally in Lijiang last July to voice their objections. They are being supported by the state forestry bureau, the seismological bureau and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – which is encouraging. There are also a number of non-government organisations working on trying to save the gorge, like Green Earth Volunteers and Friends of Nature.

And as the article above also notes, environmental issues are now being reported on far more frequently by the Chinese media – by both television programs and newspapers.

The dam is being pushed by the Yunnan government though, not only to satisfy Mr Li’s desire to make money from the project, but also as a way of dealing with the consequences of earlier environmental disasters: water from the reservoir is to be diverted to dilute the heavily polluted lake which supplies the provincial capital of Kunming. It is rather ironic I think, that Kunming (the industrial centre of the province) is being strangled by water shortages despite sitting next to one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Asia. Decades of mismanagement have shrunk the lake and the remaining water is too dirty to drink. When will they ever learn, one wonders?

Let’s hope that China’s environmental activisits and NGOs, can, together, succeed in stopping this dam from going ahead.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

January 5, 2005 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

while i am more on the side of the author, i must point out that this is a much more complicated issue than a mere environmental protection.

china faces the challenge of how to balance short-term development and long-term development. the dam project, it is said, will greatly elevate the living standard of the locals there and enhance the economic situation of that province, and no doubt, with the price of sacrificing the environment.

which side of the balance is heavier? this is the question people have controversies.

putting himself into a developed world setting, a westerner will concludes without a second hesitation that environmental consideration should prevail. but go to ask the locals, very probably you will have a different answer.

i have been to some of the poorest regions of china and people will just do anything to make a living.

if the environmentalists finally win, you guys should thank to what you criticized vehemently before – the lack of democracy. under the “rule by the majority”, you won’t have a chance to have your opinions heared, the locals will just built the dam overnight, if that brings wealth to them in short term.

January 5, 2005 @ 10:29 pm | Comment

Democracy is not simply a matter of the rule of the majority. It is about the rule of law as well. I realize that China has made great strides in trying to implement a legal system that serves its people but the problem is still one of corruption, and the power of individuals whose arbitrary authority trumps a still developing legal system.

Environmental protection in the United States is largely a matter of regulations and laws. They were put into place not over the heads of people but because American people in general favor a clean environment. Of course, 20 years of environmental gains are now threatened by the Bush Administration, which shows contempt for laws that do not suit their purposes.

I realize that in a developing nation like China, where there is still a great deal of poverty, that these economic realities place tremendous strains on the environment and that the temptation is to sacrifice the environment for short-term gains. But who actually benefits from these dam projects? I would guess not the poor people who live in the area. And the health costs associated with pollution in China I gather are tremendous.

I do agree with Bingfeng, kind of, in that this is one area where the strong hand of the central government may be useful in trumping corrupt, or to put it more kindly, economically motivated local decision-makers. That is, IF the central government decides to make environmental protection a priority. I know that there have been some moves to do so. I’ve read some very interesting and complimentary articles about the current head of the Chinese version of the EPA – I’m afraid I can’t recall his name.

January 5, 2005 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

p.s. I’m a bit of a democratic socialist at heart…but the environmental record of “socialist” countries is not inspiring – the former Soviet Union for example. State authoritarianism does not make for a regime that respects nature, I’m afraid.

January 5, 2005 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

i am not familiar with the backgrounds of this particular case, but it’s not difficult for me to see there are many perspectives and dimensions for the policy-makers to consider:

– long-term vs. short-term
– economic vs. environmental
– national vs. provincial
– locals vs. those affected
– engineering
– investment
– political
– cultural
– tourist

in similar cases, i think a committee with experts from all related fields is a good tool to assist decison making, and also a number of representatives reflecting different interest groups should have the right of veto to any decison they feel unacceptable.

if i am in a position of criticizing and monitoring, my focus will be on the decision making process, rather than the decison itself.

it gives me this impression that too many western people and chinese media, without the relevant knowledge and background infor, try to play the role of an expert in cases like this, which eventually becomes a mission impossible.

i remember Confucius said sth like this – if you are not in that position, you are not supposed to do the job of that position (bu zai qi wei, bu mou qi zheng). i don’t think this is an anti-democratic statement, but rather implicates true wisdom.

January 6, 2005 @ 3:31 am | Comment

another reflection is how to educate people (or government) something that they never enountered before.

sometime i was wondering if china could do a better job without making all the mistakes along the road since opening its door in 1978.

my conclusion is that some of them are just unavoidable, or put it this way, a must.

china clearly understood the importance of environmental protection back in 1980s, but without experiencing all the pains and struggles of deterioated environment, i doubt china could ever come to the point of taking actions.

January 6, 2005 @ 3:47 am | Comment


You have visited that Gorge? Good for you. I did have visited the 3-gorge area in college years, before that huge dam got built (Gezhou Dam was already built), but not the Tiger Leaping Gorge. One after another, the nation’s most beautiful landmarks got raped in 15-20 years and will disappear for good. People in China refer Cultural Revolution as Great Rape (haojie), but in my view, nothing can compare the past 15 years in the scale of destruction of China’s landscape. That will go down history as the real haojie.

It’s an outright lie that the local people wanted the project; they never did. (That cheap liar was just echoing every Communist headlines in his posts and doesn’t worths a nickel) Associated Press not long ago released a photo showing 5-7 police cars were overturned by angry Yunnan villagers who don’t want to be displaced to make room for that dam.

It’s the money, but not the local people that are greedy. You’re right, that’s the Huaneng gang, Li Xiaopeng, and many other Li Xiao-xiao-xiao-xiao-pengs. A couple of month ago Huaneng’s general manager was on the wanted list of Chinese police for corruption scandal, and that gave me an illusion that the project would be called off due to internal politics. I was wrong. Someone else seems consolidated power and starts his own cash . It’s a shame that Western bankers / companies will be involved in this outrageous environmental onslaughter.

The issue here is never a choice between development vs. conservatory. It’s a government declaring jihad towards its own people, the most powerless and impoverished, and the natural resources from generations before us, so they can die rich.

January 6, 2005 @ 5:56 am | Comment

Associated Press not long ago released a photo showing 5-7 police cars were overturned by angry Yunnan villagers who don’t want to be displaced to make room for that dam.

I think the incident you’re referring to is actually about a dam in Sichuan, not the proposed tiger leaping gorge dam.

January 6, 2005 @ 9:25 am | Comment

Any short term gain in electrical generation will be offset by long term losses that will be irreplaceable. Since money is the only thing that seems to matter, Yunnan’s governor should keep in mind that the tourism industry in the Lijiang area, and Yunnan in general, will be severely affected by the damage to the environment and the local ethnic cultures, be they Naxi along the Jinsha or the Lisu along the Nu (Salween). Yunnan will never be an industrial hotspot. Its geographic location, far from any seaport, makes it uneconomical for the province to ever try to compete with the Yangzi delta or the Pearl River delta for foreign investment dollars in manufacturing. The economic spinoffs from hydro power exported to eastern China will be minimal in the long term. This is a classic case of a resource based economy. Most of the economic gains will be during the initial dam construction phase, which benefits mainly the investment bankers and construction companies from out of province. The generation of employment for local labourers will be temporary, while the damages to the tourism industry by the dam will last forever.

January 6, 2005 @ 5:40 pm | Comment

one thing we should bear in mind is that provinces are interdependent in china, and the central government is certainly comparing the pros and cons of the dam pjt from the national perspective. for example, shanghai’s prosperity relies on energy supply from sichuan dam, and perhaps sichuan factories rely on the coal supply from shanxi province.

this said, i am not suggesting schtickyrice is narrowly focused on yunnan, as a matter of fact, i agree with him that irreplaceable natural resources are much more important even from a long term economic perspective.

i just want to remind those who keep a nose on yunnan to take a step back and get a bigger picture of this case.

January 6, 2005 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

I’ll be in Yunnan in 8 weeks — thank God I’ll finally get there before the land is raped.

January 6, 2005 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

I hope you enjoy your time in Yunnan Richard. It’s a fascinating province, especially once you get off the beaten track, and away from all of the tourist centres.

While you are back in China, come and visit me here in Shenzhen if you get time. We can dabate over a few pints of Guinness!

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

January 6, 2005 @ 8:11 pm | Comment

I’m afraid I won’t have time to get to Shenzhen, but maybe you can make it to Kunming — I arrive March 4th at 2pm.

January 6, 2005 @ 8:15 pm | Comment

I’d love to Richard, but I know I won’t be able to take a vacation then – not so soon after the Spring Festival break. And I will probably be in Jilin Province, enjoying the Siberian temperatures, at that time. I have to visit Beihua University, in Jilin, for work – to help establish a university foundations program there.

Still, I hope you will enjoy your time in Yunnan. I look forward to hearing all about your adventures there. I do hope to go back one day myself – as I said, it’s a fascinating place, once you get away from all of the tourist traps.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

January 6, 2005 @ 9:43 pm | Comment

Hui Mao:

That one coincided the Sichuan uprising, if you mean the Han Yuan county incident, where over 100,000 peasants beseiged the local government. But the one I referred to is about a Yunnan incident took place at the same time period. From that picture, the overturned cops car has a license plate starting with “YUN” – I once thought should be “DIAN” – for Yunnan province. The caption said a dam is in dispute, but could be another one also in Yunnan. After all, my point is local people are not necessarily for the massive project, with or without adequate compensation.

January 6, 2005 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

I’ve made that Yunnan picture available online:

January 7, 2005 @ 2:01 am | Comment

Asia by Blog

Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, usually posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. For tsunami relief information, please see the Ts…

January 9, 2005 @ 8:03 am | Comment

A real tragedy… and incredibly short sited, considering the biological and cultural diversity of the area. However, it’s certainly a dam builders wet-dream.. but isn’t this area of the world PARTICULARLY prone to strong earthquakes?

Development is one thing, but this ill-thought out mad dash for capital accumulation is sheer madness. In a secretive shroud the developers have already started preparing the site, despite any seismic testings… heck SEPA didn’t even know of the project [at least so they claim ] until the Chinese press told them!

February 2, 2005 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

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