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Drowning in Progress

by on February 11, 2013

Floating gently down the Yangtze River with a group of Chinese tourists in a desolate but scenic region of Hubei province, I almost forgot what I’d come for. But all at once the rolling hills parted and the mist lifted – and right before me stood the largest, ugliest human construct I had ever laid eyes on.

Stretching 7,661 feet long and standing 607 feet tall, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest power station in the world with a generation capacity of 22,500 megawatts, equivalent to the capacity of over a dozen nuclear plants. The dam is a testament to the emergence of China as a world power, serving as a demonstration of the country’s vision and technological prowess. It fits snugly between two small hills on the banks of the Yangtze – a giant eyesore of steel and concrete in an otherwise picturesque landscape.

A colossal project whose construction spanned two decades, the dam cost less than anticipated and began operation without issue. For tens of millions of Chinese in the nine provinces the dam services, the power station provides cheap, reliable electricity that allows businesses to flourish and families to live comfortably. In contrast to many other developing nations, China is not constrained by power shortages – a tribute to the government’s advance planning. More navigable shipping routes that resulted from the deepening of up-river areas have bolstered regional economic development, and the project has also reduced the risk of floods that could kills tens of thousands.

But improvements in living standards have come at a cost. The dam ravaged the regional ecosystem. Dozens of fish and marine animals have become threatened after the dam’s construction altered water temperatures and flow regime. Among those was the Baiji, a species of dolphin found only in the Yangtze River, which was traditionally revered as “The Goddess of the Yangtze.” In 2006, the same year that construction on the dam was completed, the species was declared “functionally extinct.”

“The water has risen so high that much of the natural scenery is now underwater,” said our tour guide as the boat floated through the three gorges, once a magnificent natural wonder now eclipsed in fame by its namesake dam. Our guide seemed to be lamenting, but then she caught herself and proceeded to mechanically list off all the ways in which the government has devoted time, effort, and resources to preserving regional wildlife. Even the goal of reigning in natural disasters by stopping floods may have had a price: there are whispers that the dam – and the weight of the water behind it – may be to blame for the devastating earthquake that killed so many people in Sichuan province in 2008.

But tour guides and wildlife specialists weren’t the only ones grumbling over the dam project. An estimated 1.3 million people were forced to relocate to make way for the rising waters created by the dam. That population included two entire cities, and countless towns and farm villages. Sure, the people were supposedly “compensated,” but can one really compensate for the loss of a home, a village, a way of life? As I looked out across the endless expanse of water behind the dam, I imagined the buildings that once stood there. I thought of the towns that had been obliterated for the greater good, and the peasants whose dreams had drowned with their farms. I thought of the people whose lives had forever changed course with the river.

And that’s when I met Ming.

A short man in his 50s with stubbly, graying hair and tough, lean arms, Ming delighted in my Chinese and our shared name (my Chinese given name is also Ming). He wore a fraying black coat and dress shoes, and was cheery, even ebullient.

“I come from Guangxi province,” Ming said in thickly accented Mandarin. “I grew up as a farmer, but then I became a factory worker. I’ve worked in the factory for over 20 years.”

As Ming told me his story, how he was born into the rural peasantry, how he got a job in the city as part of the 90s economic boom, how he’d recently retired, and how he was now traveling across China, seeing sights and places and people he’d never dreamed of in his bucolic home village, I was acutely aware that the amelioration of his life circumstances was the direct result of aggressive government economic policies like the dam project he was now visiting.

“So what is America like?” Ming turned to me. I paused uneasily.

“It’s … different.”

“It’s better, you mean. A better life.”

If Ming noticed my uneasiness, it didn’t deter him from continuing the line of questioning. He was ravenous for knowledge of America. How much did a meal cost? What was the average salary? What were living standards like? Each time I tried to equivocate. I didn’t want to offend him with my life of comfort back home.

Finally, Ming sighed. “It must be wonderful to live in America,” he said wistfully.

And suddenly I felt guilty. Guilty for having what others did not; guilty for condemning a country for wanting what I already had. Of course Ming must be thankful for all the dam has done, yet his only crime is wanting a better life. Is that a crime at all?

And that’s what makes China so dizzyingly complex. The beneficiaries of the brutal repression that paves the way for economic expansion are not only cutthroat tycoons and corrupt officials – they are also everyday, ordinary citizens. Farmers like Ming, who now live better lives because of decisions made by Beijing autocrats.

Surrounded by the serenity of the Yangtze, it was hard to fathom the turmoil that the creation of this edifice had inflicted on the communities that had once lived where the reservoir now lay. Yet it was equally hard to appreciate the incredible potential for this wall of concrete to help propel a nation out of poverty and into prosperity.

I watched as the river flowed into the dam. I imagined the giant turbines spinning continuously beneath my feet. I listened to the water roar as it poured out of the dam and back into the river. And the river flowed, and the turbines spun, and the water roared.

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