This week, China's Land and Resources Ministry announced that over 100,000 residents of the area surrounding the Three Gorges Dam’s mammoth reservoir may be forced to evacuate in the coming months due to the ever-escalating risk of severe landslides. This is in addition to the over 1 million people who have already been forced to evacuate, often without compensation, since the project’s start in 1992.
The numbers demonstrate the unprecedented scale of the dam’s construction. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest power plant and dam and has used more concrete and steel than any other building project in history. Its production of massive amounts of clean, hydroelectric energy and its expansion of the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity have been touted as historic accomplishments by the Chinese government for years. Yet, the Dam’s catastrophic and well-documented impacts on surrounding regions have largely destroyed the rosy image of the project that the regime has painstakingly tried to cultivate.
International Rivers estimates that flooding resulting from construction of the Dam’s reservoir has wiped over a thousand towns, cities, and villages off the map. Countless archaeological digs have also been submerged. The landslides that prompted the latest evacuations are the result of ongoing erosion caused by manipulation of the reservoir’s water level and are a serious threat to already fragile local fisheries, further compounding the ecological cataclysm already created by the literal drowning of entire regional ecosystems. To top it all off, the Dam lies on top of a major fault line and many experts believe that its crushing weight could lead to serious earthquakes in the future.
The Chinese government has responded to these and other problems arising from the Dam’s construction in the same way it seems to respond to all major internal problems that threaten the regime’s credibility: by silencing dissent. Officials have spent years scouring the internet for and censoring criticisms of the government’s handling of the situation. Additionally, according to Canada’s Financial Post, both lawsuits and efforts to obtain official cost estimates for the project have been squashed with equal bureaucratic aplomb.
Is this how China is to conduct itself in the century so many overzealous writers have already called theirs in recent years? With a flagrant disregard for both natural facts and the livelihoods of some of its most vulnerable citizens? Every great nation, at some point, has to confront its own limits. Having ensured that dissenting voices are as submerged as the homes of so many of the Dam project’s evacuees, the Chinese government seems intent on pretending it has none.
Despite this and other displays of outright indifference towards human suffering (and, frankly, reality), the single-mindedness and resolve of the Chinese government has often been viewed with wonder and even admiration by those in the West, particularly in this country, who lament the deadlock and dysfunction that frequently prevents democracies like ours from pragmatically and rationally setting out to do difficult things like transforming our energy economy or rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. Here though, it is abundantly clear that the Chinese approach to governance deserves nothing but our disgust and contempt. In the absence of divided government and free discourse, Chinese leaders have developed an unwieldy arrogance that takes for granted the state’s domination of not only its own people, but of nature itself.