China’s push for hydropower dams sparking grassroots backlash, suggests new book

The Chinese government’s recent decision to scrap controversial plans for a huge dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River represents a milestone for growing grassroots political movements in China, suggests the author of a new book on the politics behind China’s epic dam-building campaign.

“Fifteen years ago, opponents of large-scale dam projects in China were greeted with indifference or repression. Today they are part of the hydropower policy-making process itself,” suggests Andrew Mertha, author of “China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change,” forthcoming from Cornell University Press, March 2008.

When complete, China's Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River will cost $25 billion and displace more than 1.4 million people.
When complete, China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River will cost $25 billion and displace more than 1.4 million people.

Mertha, an assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, bases his book on extensive field research in some of the most remote parts of Southwest China. Filled with first-hand accounts of widespread opposition to dams in Pubugou and Dujiangyan in Sichuan province and the Nu River Project in Yunnan province, the book documents dramatic changes in critical policies surrounding China’s insatiable quest for energy.

“As China has become increasingly market driven, decentralized and politically heterogeneous,” he argues, “the control and management of water has transformed from an unquestioned economic imperative to a lightning rod of bureaucratic infighting, societal opposition and open protest.”

Although bargaining has always been present in Chinese politics, Mertha shows how actors once denied a seat at the table — media, nongovernmental organizations and grassroots activists — are emerging to become serious players in the policy-making process.

Andrew Mertha
Andrew Mertha

Growing citizen dissent over the nation’s relentless dam-building program comes at a time when activists worldwide are raising grave concerns about the environmental and human costs associated with China’s massive Three Gorges Dam.

The $25 billion Three Gorges project, scheduled for completion in 2009, will become the world’s largest dam, creating a lake stretching some 500 miles along the Yangtze River, displacing as many as two million residents.

In the final days of 2007, the Chinese government made a surprise announcement abandoning plans for a controversial dam that would have submerged Tiger Leaping Gorge on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, one of China’s most renowned tourist areas. While the decision represents an obvious victory for the burgeoning Chinese environmental movement, Mertha considers the impact and occasional success of such grassroots movements and policy activism to be signals of an important and much broader shift in China’s domestic politics.

Mertha questions whether democratization is the only, or even the most illuminating, indicator of political liberalization in China. However, using the battle over hydropower as its primary example, Mertha’s book provides an informed and hopeful picture of a growing pluralization of the Chinese policy process.

As Mertha sees it, China may now be experiencing a period of political unrest similar to the grassroots opposition that took root in the United States during the 1960s. As Mertha pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, public debates over dam projects have proven to be turning points in how other societies view environmental issues.

In the U.S., for example, a 1963 government proposal to build dams on the Colorado River, in the area of the Grand Canyon, unleashed an outpouring of opposition. In 1967, the government abandoned the plan. Many scholars now date the decline of large-scale dam building in the U.S. to that event, the article noted.