Will a secret Chinese dam project destroy Yunnan’s “Shangri-La”?

Jasper Becker, whom I trust, and Daniel Howden say it will.

In the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Peak, deep inside the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Chinese developers are operating in secret to push through a massive dam project that will wash away the section of the Yangtze river valley thought to have been the real location for the fictional Shangri-La.

Local tribesmen have revealed that work is already under way on a massive project that would flood a Unesco world heritage site, displace more than 100,000 people and destroy the way of life of the unique Naxi people, one of the world’s only surviving matriarchal societies. It would also bring an abrupt end to the nascent tourism industry in the remote southwestern Yunnan province.

The battle to save the gorge, one of the deepest in the world, has pitted a David-like alliance of green groups and local tribespeople against the Goliath of the Huaneng Group, China”s biggest independent power producer, working with the Yunnan provincial government. The company is run by Li Xiaopeng, son of the hardline 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 that was pushed through in the teeth of strident opposition from environmentalists and residents.

“The stakes are extremely high. Chinese environmentalists have decided to make this their next major campaign,” says Ma Jun, a consultant who was the first to produce a study on the dam’s implications. “I’m optimistic they will succeed because this case is a touch-stone of all the big talks on balancing environmental preservation with development”.

Opponents say the reservoir will devastate local cultures, robbing people of their farms and livelihood, and leave tens of thousands of mostly Tibetans, Miao, Yi, Bai, Lisu and Naxi minorities homeless. It would also consign ancient villages with distinctive architectural styles. Concerns are mounting over the fate of the Naxi with their unusual matriarchal tradition, which has drawn an increasing number of visitors to the area.

This would be a tragedy beyond description. It’s all thanks to the tireless and enterprising Li Peng, architect of the June 4, 1989 massacre at and around Tiananmen Square and a mastermind of the Three Gorges Dam project, which thus far has wreaked unimaginable havoc on China’s environment. Ah, progress.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

I have been in that area, north from Lijiang. If the area for the dam is around Leaping Tiger Gorge, you may have some mis-information as the area that is claimed now by the local government as Shangri-la is farther north by at least 20 km in the area of Zhongdian.

October 18, 2004 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

The problem is that the power companies are the ones with the clout and the capital to invest in Yunnan, which – we should remember – is still dirt poor. The balance between conservation and development is one of the biggest issues right now.

Have a look at this, about the Nu River area in Yunnan, where they were also planning to build power plants –


October 18, 2004 @ 11:08 pm | Comment

Interesting that the article jumps straight from lamenting the loss of the ‘real shangri-la’ to ‘opponents say’, without the nigh-obligatory, even if strawman, ‘proponents say’ bit.

It can, essentially, be summed up thus: oh look, the commies are doing something. There was that Tiananmen thing, so this MUST be bad. Let’s be against.

October 19, 2004 @ 2:55 am | Comment

Hell, it even involves a matriarchial society. That ought to revv up the femmies.

October 19, 2004 @ 3:17 am | Comment

Pete, it’s the article that referred to it as Shangri-La though it didn’t mention Lijiang.

Example, you’re being silly. There’s enough reasons to be wary of Li Peng for his role in the Three Gorges Cesspool alone, and forget about Tiananmen Square. Concerns about the environmental damage done by China’s notorious dam projects have been a cause of international concern for decades, irrespective of the country’s internal politics. But you simply don’t want to acknowledge the catastrophe, and instead blame it all on idiot Westerners who are meddling in China’s personal business. Well, we all share the planet so it’s more than fair that we comment on the rape of China’s cultural heritage, just as we comment on bush opening up the US wildlife refuges for oil exploration.

October 19, 2004 @ 7:08 am | Comment

Well, what catastrophe?

Concerns about the environmental damage has caused international concern for dacades?

Well, other than the grammatical blunder, I’d like to say this: has anyone involved actually have any first hand evidence, whatsoever? Sure. We get a few interviews of villagers lamenting. Anecdotal. We get a few pictures of sewage. Also anecdotal. Has there been any comprehensive studies on the effects of those dams?

There has been, in fact. And on the advice of those reports the projects went ahead. Of course, those are commissioned by the Commies, and we all know what liars they are, right?

As for the cultural stuff – it is, in the end, just a few old buildings and clay pots. Important as they might be to the well-fed archaeologists, I think the locals would rather have electricity. It’s a matter of practicality.

October 19, 2004 @ 9:26 am | Comment

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