Dam shows flaws in China's economic model
The Yangtze River, near the town of Luohuang. This section of the
river belongs to a nature reserve created to protect hundreds of
species of fish, including the Chinese Paddlefish. When built, the
Xiaonanhai Dam will destroy the reserve, flooding it, creating an
enormous reservoir. At around five billion dollars, the dam is one of
Chongqing's largest investment projects. Critics say Bo Xilai
championed the project to help the city acheieve historic GDP growth
numbers, thereby securing himself a spot in China's top leadership.
by Rob Schmitz
Marketplace for Thursday, August 9, 2012
Kai Ryssdal: China's trial of the century was over today almost as
quickly as it started. Seven hours beginning to end for the wife of
disgraced politician Bo Xilai. She's accused of murdering a British
Bo Xilai himself, once a hugely powerful party chief in the
southwestern city of Chongqing, was cashiered in April for violations
of discipline, the party said. His legacy lives on, though, through
the political machine he built. And a lot of actual things he built.
Marketplace's Rob Schmitz explains.
Rob Schmitz: Scientists say the Chinese Paddlefish has lived on Earth
for more than a hundred million years. It survived an asteroid impact
thought to have killed off the dinosaurs. It lived through the Ice
Age. Nothing, it seemed, could kill this animal.
But then along came Chinaï¿½s Communist Party. It built enormous dams on
the Yangtze River, cutting off the paddlefishï¿½s migratory path, making
it nearly impossible for the fish to reproduce.
The last Chinese paddlefish was seen here on this nature reserve, on
the upper reaches of the Yangtze six years ago. Scientist Yang Bo
studies the river for the Nature Conservancy.
Yang Bo: If we worked harder to protect the fish, we might be able to
restore its habitat. But if this new dam is built, we wonï¿½t have a
Sheï¿½s talking about the Xiaonanhai Dam. The dam was Bo Xilaiï¿½s pet
project. But now, Boï¿½s gone. Still, the governmentï¿½s going ahead with
And that angers Weng Lida. Weng is the former head of the government
bureau charged with protecting the Yangtze. He first heard about the
project when Bo Xilai sent a team to try and sell him on the idea.
Weng Lida: Economically, the project made no sense. They wanted
billions for a dam that would generate relatively little electricity.
Then I thought the dam might help with irrigation, but that didnï¿½t
make sense either.
Weng was convinced Bo Xilai wanted to build this dam for only one
Weng: This is all about GDP. This will cost five billion dollars to
build. Itï¿½s one of the biggest investments in the history of
Chongqing. Bo wanted the best GDP growth numbers in Chinaï¿½he wanted to
make sure growth stayed over 14 percent annually.
Bo got what he wanted -- the investment secured for the Xiaonanhai dam
helped catapult Chongqingï¿½s GDP growth to a whopping 16.4 percent last
Patrick Chovanec: For a long time now, the main way to get ahead as a
local official in China was to produce high levels of growth and hit
or exceed GDP targets.
Patrick Chovanec is a professor at Tsinghua Universityï¿½s school of
economics and management. He says Bo helped fund Chongqingï¿½s
investment boom by cracking down hard what he labeled the mafia,
seizing their assets, then using them as collateral to borrow money
from state banks. According to former government official Weng Lida,
Boï¿½s underlings bribed a colleague of his to write a favorable report
on the damï¿½s environmental impact. And when Chinaï¿½s Ministry of
Agriculture raised objections to the dam, Wengï¿½s friends there told
him Bo went straight to the top of the ministry, exerting enough
pressure to change their minds.
But Boï¿½s way of operating was hardly unique among Chinaï¿½s government
officials, says Patrick Chovanec.
Chovanec: The party is on dangerous ground in any of the charges they
level against Bo, whether it be the corruption or whether it be
wasteful economic policies, because when they point the finger at Bo,
they kind of point the finger at themselves.
The farm of 54-year-old Li Long Rui wonï¿½t survive when the dam is
built. Government officials have just measured her house to determine
how much sheï¿½ll be compensated after its flooded. Tens of thousands of
people will have to move out of this area.
Li Long Rui: I have no idea where Iï¿½ll move. And Iï¿½m sure local
officials will steal from the compensation money Iï¿½m owed. All of them
are so corrupt! They just donï¿½t care about us farmers.
As for the Chinese Paddlefish, its final resting place might be here,
in the quiet halls of the Yangtze River Museum of Aquatic Organisms,
downriver in the city of Wuhan. Scientist Wu Qingjiang says the
Xiaonanhai dam is one of many proposed dams heï¿½s worried about. One
day soon, says Wu, the upper Yangtze will cease to be a river -- itï¿½ll
be a series of cascading reservoirs leading from one dam to the next.
Wu Qingjiang: In the short term, these dams may help develop the local
economy, but if you take the long view, there are things you can never
recover, like this fish. Once itï¿½s gone, itï¿½s gone.
One of many species wiped out by one of the worst predators to come
along in millions of years: ambitious government officials with a
seemingly insatiable appetite for GDP growth.
Reporting from Chongqing and Wuhan, Iï¿½m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.
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