Andrew C. Mertha, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences
Cornell University (2008)
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, said Andrew C. Mertha, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, in his upcoming 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,” Mertha said.
Mertha based his book “China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change” on extensive field research in some of the most remote parts of Southwest China. Filled with firsthand 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 quest for energy.
“As China has become increasingly market-driven, decentralized and politically heterogeneous,” Mertha said, “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’s book 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.
Growing citizen dissent over the nation’s relentless dam-building comes at a time when activists worldwide are raising concerns about the environmental and human costs associated with China’s massive Three Gorges Dam.
The $25 billion Three Gorges Dam, 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.
While the decision to abandon plans for the dam at Tiger Leaping Gorge — which would have submerged one of China’s most renowned tourist areas — represents a victory for the burgeoning Chinese environmental movement, Mertha considered the impact and occasional success of grassroots movements and policy activism to be signals of an important and much broader shift in China’s domestic politics.
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, Mertha said.
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 United States, 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 United States to that event, the article noted.
— Gerry Everding