Mapmakers and geologists divide the Yangtze River, the third largest in the world, into three sections: China's mighty "Mother River" begins in the Tibetan plateau, slowly gathering strength as it meanders through a relatively barren expanse of rock and ice; then rather suddenly, the river begins to run rapidly as it plunges down a steep gradient, meanwhile swerving around hairpin turns and through steep gorges; in the final stretch, the river courses across relative flatlands and past increasingly large cities before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai.
The upper-middle section is the Yangtze's contested stretch. The steep gradient and fast-running water make it enticing to dam developers, yet this section is also spawning ground for about 40 species of endangered fish, including the Chinese paddlefish, Dabry's sturgeon, and the Chinese suckerfish.
After construction began on Three Gorges Dam -- which changed the river's hydrology and drastically reduced the habitat of fish dependent on low-range rapids to lay and hatch eggs -- China's central government established a protected zone where dams could not be built: the "Upper Yangtze National Nature Reserve for Rare and Endangered Fish" was designated along a free-flowing stretch of the Yangtze between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. It lay, notably, within the boundaries of sprawling Chongqing municipality.
Yesterday, however, ground was broken in Chongqing for development of the Xiao Nan Hai power station. A massive cascade of at least 14 dams is now slated for construction between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Three Gorges Dam. How can this happen? The reason is that in late 2011, the boundaries of the national fish reserve were moved upstream, in spite of the protests of Chinese environmental groups and a series of critical articles in state-run media.
To move a national reserve's boundaries would have required the sign-off of the national Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture (which oversees fisheries), and the State Council. To make this happen would have required the advocacy of someone with substantial political capital.
The developer of the dam cascade is the Three Gorges Dam Corporation, and local media estimate project costs will tally about 33 billion RMB ($5 billion). That's a hefty sum, even though the overall economics of the project are questionable. In terms of per-kilowatt costs, "it will be 2 to 4 times more expensive than dams above and below it," says Li Bo, head of the Beijing-based NGO Friends of Nature, adding: "It's really the last straw for the fish - this is the only remaining free-flowing stretch on the main course of Yangtze River."
Plans to build dams on this section of the Yangtze have been floated since at least the early 1990s, but economic and environmental concerns have repeatedly tabled dam proposals. That changed in 2009 when the Chongqing municipal government, under the leadership of recently deposed Party Secretary Bo Xilai, began to advocate strongly for the Xiao Nan Hai hydropower project, adding it to its list of key projects for the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015).
One might wonder if pushing the dam project forward was as much about raising Chongqing's GDP -- padding it with that 33 billion RMB -- as about keeping the lights on. "The beneficiary of this dam is going to be Chongqing municipality completely," notes Li Bo. "And we don't understand why one municipality has such a power to abuse nature and threaten the biodiversity of the whole nation."
Since 2009, Li Bo and other Chinese environmentalists have repeatedly surveyed scientists about potential impacts and written concerned letters to Beijing ministries and to the Chongqing Municipal Government. (A video created by the Chinese NGOs about the expected impacts of the dams is visible here.) "This is an extremely important area for biodiversity - and yet all these unbelievable [regulatory] barriers have fallen," says Ma Jun, author of China's Water Crisis and director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. "It's a very hastened process, even by Chinese standards."
Yet perhaps none of this is surprising in Chongqing. In recent years, the southwestern metropolis has earned a reputation as a place where breakneck development has been advocated at any cost - where varied obstacles, from green regulations to local mobsters, have been unsentimentally flattened. Chongqing's growth target for 2011 was 13.5 percent GDP, the highest in China. And it was this startling growth rate that helped propel Chongqing's former Party Secretary onto the national radar and almost into the very innermost sanctum of Chinese politics. Until his star came crashing down.
The sad irony now is this: The brakes have been slammed on Bo Xilai's political career - but not on all his tenure wrought.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
As my FP colleague Isaac Stone Fish, Bloomberg View's Adam Minter, and others have very ably documented, China's microblogs have been buzzing all week with rumors - unsubstantiated -- of a political coup in Beijing. (Were those gunshots you heard? Oh, just fireworks, as per the usual in Beijing.)
Ironically, this latest eruption of China's online rumor mill has happened shortly after the government's plans to enforce real-name registration and other controls on Weibo -- the most-prominent Twitter-like microblog -- went into effect. Or were supposed to. Although Ai Weiwei's real-name Weibo account was quickly deleted, other lesser-known users report myriad workarounds: You can verify your identity with an SMS message to a phone that isn't actually yours, for example. One couple reports that the Weibo account they set up a while back in their dog's name is still as barking active as ever. (The dog, for the record, had no comment on coup rumors.) While it's too early to say if enforcement of polices -- or penalties for political chatter -- will be stepped up in the future, evidently Beijing's new controls have so far done little to dampen online speculation and conversation.
Stepping back, this has been quite a year for Weibo. From rumors of Jiang Zemin's death (not true) to rumors of chemical-spill havoc in the northern city of Dalian (highly exaggerated) to rumors of tanks this week in Beijing (not true), we've seen how quickly fear and speculation can spread over the microblog. Meanwhile Weibo has also been a venue for important and legitimate watchdogging, including calling out government lies about the causes and impact of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash last summer, arguably pushing the mainstream Chinese media to be more aggressive in reporting as well. But there's something else all these examples have in common: Scratch just below the surface, and it's easy to see how readily people in China, or at least those inclined to discuss politics on microblogs, assume the government is lying to them.
Most of the time, the authorities' reaction is to censor key terms -- like Jiang Zemin or Wang Lijun (the name of Bo Xilai's former deputy) -- which actually seemingly gives more credence to the chatter (what are they really hiding from us?). In the case of high-level political rumors, there's no authoritative government source that ever comes forward to clear the air; as The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon memorably wrote on his blog: "And now I'm passing on the scuttlebutt too. Why? No one in Zhongnanhai is taking my calls. They're not taking anyone's calls - which leaves the outside world in the dark at a crucial moment in Chinese history." Even when government officials try to offer denials through state-run media -- as in the case of pollution fears in Dalian -- they aren't often believed. As one woman who participated in the Dalian protest last fall told me: "We feel hopeless about our local media."
The only way to really crush rumors over time isn't by trying to nickel-and-dime manage microblogs; it's by establishing some channel of trust to mediate between truth and falsehood, between the smoke-filled chambers of government and the people. Rumors can take off in any country, but they have special potency in China because there's no equivalent of a trusted Peter Jennings or White House news conference to vet before the public what's real and what isn't. And so in a city already on edge, fireworks sound like gunshots indeed.
In the interval between when BBC aired reports of Kim Jong Il's death on Monday and when CCTV and other Chinese state media got around to making their own reports in the late morning, the Chinese Internet was already abuzz with news and commentary on the North Korean leader's passing, from famous and unknown Weibo users alike. Any remaining notion that Chinese netizens wait for Party papers with Beijing's stamp of approval to tell them what's going on in the rest of the world was, once again, disproven.
One of the first to weigh in was Hu XuJin, editor of the Global Times, whose freewheeling personal Weibo account has more followers (1,523,565) than the newspaper's own Weibo. His long post began: "North Korea has announced the death of Kim Jong Il. The stability and future of North Korea now face a test. South Korea and the United States will spare no effort to influence NK, and even threaten it. China should not back down at this critical moment. China should resolutely defend the special relationship between China and NK, which is crucial to the strategic interests of China in East Asia. China should help NK onto a normal prosperous road."
Among the Weibo responses from ordinary users, however, nationalism was not necessarily the dominant response - often cynicism and humor were, regarding both the North Korea-China relationship and the nature of authoritarian regimes. "Does the system of hereditary monarchy belongs to the socialism with Korean characteristics?" one Weibo user wrote. "If Kim Jong Un becomes the new leader of DPRK, it certainly shows the essence of North Korea as a feudalist country," wrote another. And one more, "DPRK lost a fat man again." And, then, too, a series of bawdy jokes, like this one: "Kim Jong Il died of overwork. Yes, he had six wives - anyone would become fatigued. And was there a lot of sex on the train?" (Kim Jong Il was famously afraid of flying, and always took a special secure train on trips to China.)
More ominously, Zhang Wen, a memorial of the editorial board of China Newsweek (no relation to the U.S.-based Newsweek), wrote: "The collapse of North Korean is in near future, and the unification of Korean peninsular is in near future."
As Kim's death came on the heels of Czech dissident leader and poet Vaclav Havel, many Weibo users also compared the two men's very different legacies, of freedom and dictatorship. (Xinhua published a dubiously truncated obituary of Havel yesterday). One Weibo user wrote: "Both Havel and Kim Jong Il have died; one let us see the efforts of a man of conscience, while the other the stubbornness of a dictator." Another: "The only way in which Kim Jong Il ever came in front of Havel was by dying first." The Chinese poet Sang Ke wrote, "Mr. Havel, had it not been for you before, I would have walked in the dark even longer. Thank you." But as Cheng Yizhong, a Chinese journalist with an independent streak, observed sadly, with a nod to North Korea and perhaps China as well: "Havel passes away, but totalitarianism remains."
Friday morning in Beijing, the TV sets inside subway cars that typically play ads for skin whiteners, slimming treatments, and home appliances instead blared marshal music. That was more difficult to ignore than the usual commercial jingles. One passenger in her 20s scowled as one might scowl at a screaming child on an airplane.
The subway TVs -- like all public TVs in Beijing -- were tuned to a live broadcast of the day's massive parade in Tiananmen Square to mark the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Images of the parade, interspersed with close-ups of top Party officials, flickered on TV sets inside banks, bus depots, and doctors' offices across the city. I never saw anyone actually watching, but you could hardly avoid being made aware of the event.
It's a bit of a strange celebration. And not at all because the accompanying state-run newspaper stories are presenting a selective version of history (nothing new there). Rather, it's strange because 90 is an odd anniversary to mark -- the centennial minus ten years has something of anti-climatic ring to it. More importantly, it's strange because the parade and related fanfare (souvenir subway maps, etc.) are taking a host of images, themes, and songs usually trotted out to burnish the glory of China and instead using them to polish the reputation, explicitly and exclusively, of the CCP. As if the two were interchangeable.
In fact, the rising, chest-pumping patriotism that many Chinese now feel is for good reason focused on China -- the place, the people, the culture -- not on the Communist Party. T-shirts read "I love China," and I'm occasionally told by Beijingers, "China Number 1," and they do mean China. So it's not clear who, exactly, is expected to get teary-eyed when the parade marchers loft a red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle, the flag not of the country but of the Party? Is the spectacle for the Party cadres themselves? Or is it the organizers' ambition to somehow transfer patriotic sentiment from country to Party? That does seems an unpromising crusade. After all: the Party is only 90, but as any good patriot will tell you, China has 5,000 years of continuous history.
In December, following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg's visit to Beijing to hobnob with China's tech elite, I wrote a piece for FP asking, "Will Facebook Friend China?"
Now Bloomberg is reporting the answer is "yes."
Facebook Inc. has signed an agreement with Baidu Inc. to set up a social-networking website in China, Sohu.com reported, citing unidentified employees at the Chinese search-engine company.
The agreement followed several meetings between Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Baidu CEO Robin Li, Sohu.com reported on its website today. The China website won’t be integrated with Facebook’s international service, and the start date is not confirmed, according to the report.
This would give Facebook access, at last, to China's 420 million-and counting Internt users. (Currently the site is block in China.) Though details are limited, a few things stand out.
It appears that the company intends to create a closed-loop version of Facebook for China -- in other words, a site that is not integrated with Facebook writ large and its 500 million international users. This would allow for simpler enforcement of China's censorship policies, including bans on content critical of the government as well anything deemed to fall under the broad and easily manipulated category of "pornography" (which the government has recently, dubiously, sited as a reason for arresting artist Ai Weiwei). For tech-watchers who've long speculated that China would try to create a closed Internet unto itself, this is perhaps the clearest example yet of that coming to pass -- and also a sign that leading international companies may be willing to comply.
Whether or not Facebook or its partner, Chinese search-engine giant Baidu, would be directly involved in policing the site (i.e., taking down offensive content and keeping records on certain user behavior -- available for government inspection upon demand) remains unclear.
What's in it for Baidu? Spokeperson Kaiser Kuo hasn't revealed much to the media, but Ming Zhao, an analyst for Susquehanna Financial, wrote in a note to clients, "We view Facebook entering China as a positive headline for Baidu shares," according to the International Business Times. Zhao went on to note that Baidu -- essentially the Google of China -- needs help more effectively breaking into social media (just like its Mountain View-based counterpart).
Whether or not Chinese users would flock to a new Facebook site is anyone's bet. There are already equivalent social-networking sites in China, such as 160-million users strong Renren.com; moreover, part of the appeal of Facebook (the main site) is being able to network with friends around the world, which a China-exclusive version would rule out.
But for now, if reports are accurate, it's a bet Mark Zuckerburg looks willing to make.
"Now all the roads are cleared," a 30-year-old woman from the county of Suijiang, in China's southwest Yunnan province, told the Wall Street Journal. "There are military police patrolling the streets to avoid people gathering together." After five days of heated protests -- which had drawn 2,000 people to the streets -- a tense silence was being enforced. On Tuesday, 400 paramilitiary officers had descended on tiny Sujiang to disperse demonstrators.
The villagers had gathered to protest government plans to build a major hydropower station on the nearby Jinsha River. Approximately 60,000 people are slated to be relocated by the dam, but many villagers either don't qualify for government compensation -- or feel that the amount offered is far too low to replace their lost livelihoods.
Over the next decade, expect many more dams to be built in China, as the country seeks to meet rapidly growing energy needs. As Peter Bosshard wrote recently in FP, China's National Energy Administration is likely to soon approve further hydropower projects totaling 140 gigawatts -- in comparison, he notes, "the United States has installed just 80 gigawatts of hydropower capacity in its entire history."
Protests over land seizures and low compensation are not uncommon in rural China. (More than 50,000 such "public disturbances" are counted by public security bureaus each year.) But the recent Sujiang demonstration attracted particular national attention, in part because snapshots (see above) of paramilitary forces arriving in armoured personnel carriers were distributed widely through Sina Weibo -- a popular Twitter-like microblogging site that remains accessible in China, for now.
Getty Images/AFP/Sina Weibo
Last week, Larry Page's dream of "organizing all the world's information" hit a set-back. A federal judge in New York threw out a settlement between Google, which aims to digitize and put online all the world's books, and a group of publishing houses and authors that had sued for copyright infringement. As a result, the Google books project is in limbo.
Meanwhile, a parallel conversation, of sorts, is happening across the Pacific. China's largest search engine, Baidu, is facing accusations from a group of more than 50 writers that the company violated their copyright by allowing the distribution of their content online for free without their permission.
Thus far, the accusations have taken the form of an online letter-writing campaign, not a legal battle. Baidu stands acccused not of digitizing the content itself, but of allowing its platform to be used by others to rip off writers. (No one attributes to Baidu CEO Robin Li, for better or worse, Larry Page-esque idealism about bettering the world through promoting free information.)
It might sound a bit muddy, but that makes it a perfect moment for Han Han, the 28-year-old celebrity Chinese blogger (plus race car driver, FP Global Thinker, and rumored New York Times columnist-to-be), to jump into the fray. Han Han specializes in drawing clear-cut lessons from sometimes chaotic circumstances, with an idiosyncratic blend of righteousness and cynicism. He also has a talent for translating battles of ideas and interests into indictments of particular individuals -- in this case Robin Li.
In the event U.S. audiences are about to get much more exposure to his writing and thinking, we bring you this preview. Here's a translated version of Han Han's Mar. 25 "Shame on Baidu" blog post:
Baidu claims that the spirit of the internet is about free goods and sharing. I don't particularly agree with this point of view. The way I see it, the internet is about freedom and broadcasting.
If it were about free goods, then why does Baidu charge for advertisements disguised as search results? If it were about sharing, then why after becoming one of China's richest people, doesn't Robin Li share his personal wealth and his company's assets with the rest of us?
Baidu's business model is that all the goods on offer are free of charge, and because of the huge traffic they make money off advertising. No problem with that, but I sure hope they haven't forgotten that the producers of these goods also need to earn a living. Baidu then came up with "sharing". Sharing should be that I donate my goods, you donate yours, and then we all take home what each of us likes best.
The problem is that right now, you and me are donating and sharing other people's goods. That is what Baidu's free goods and sharing is about....
Dear friends, I intimately understand the predicament of Chinese writers. Most of them need two to three years to finish a single book. For each book they make ten or twenty thousand yuan (USD 1,500 – 3,000). That’s at most 800 yuan (USD 120) per month, my friend. ... If you download it for free then suit yourself, but do you really need to add insult to injury and criticize those writers, my friend?
And what about our 60 billion yuan (USD 9 billion) main man over there? Please leave some room for the Chinese publishing industry and its authors to earn a living. Any dirty old dire strait will do.
Read more here. I admire Han Han for always sticking his neck out, but I honestly got a little lost trying to fully follow the logic.
The sidewalks of Beijing are conspicuously well-swept. That's because yesterday kicked off the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress. This showcase time of year, laden with pomp and circumstance, is also when the government most wants to avoid any hint of unrest, or even uncleanliness, from hitting the streets. When the NPC session concludes a week from Monday, China's leaders will formally announce the details of the country's 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015). Many aspects of the plan have been previewed in the media.
Beijing's extraordinary long-term vision is to raise per capita GDP in China from $4,000 to $10,000 by 2020, and the next five years is obviously critical. Chinese Central Banker Zhou Xiaochuan said at a recent G-20 meeting in Paris that the country has 10 years to transition from an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing and exports to one driven by domestic innovation, higher-end manufacturing, services, and consumption. Think about that for a moment. If achieved, that would mean overturning -- once again -- fundamental aspects of Chinese education and society.
Of course, the challenges are many. As Dan Harris of the excellent China Law Blog notes in a long post summarizing what to expect from the next Five Year Plan, China's leaders have themselves identified ten potential obstacles to future prosperity:
- Resource constraints: energy and raw materials.
- Mismatch in investment and imbalance in consumption.
- Income disparity.
- Weakness in capacity for domestic innovation.
- Production structure is not rational: too much heavy industry, not enough service.
- Agriculture foundation is thin and weak.
- Urban/rural development is not coordinated.
- Employment system is imbalanced.
- Social contradictions are progressively more apparent.
- Obstacles to scientific development continue to exist and are difficult to remove.
If you're interested in how the Chinese government aims to overcome those hurdles, the entire post is well worth reading. Among the most ambitious objectives of the 12th Five Year Plan, as Harris summarizes them:
-- Expand domestic consumption while maintaining stable economic development.
-- Promote energy saving and environmental protection.
Currently, for every 1% increase in GDP, China’s energy use increases by 1% or more. If this rate continues, China will need to increase its energy consumption by 2.5 times to achieve its 2020 economic goal.… One major way to reduce the amount of energy required for the Chinese economy is to implement energy saving practices throughout the economy. A second way to reduce is to shift from hydrocarbon based energy to alternative energy sources. The new plan advocates an all out program in this area.
-- Create an innovation driven society by encouraging education and training of the workforce.
China will need to become a domestic innovator in all areas of current modern technology, with an emphasis on practical industrial applications. Where China is not capable of domestic innovation, China will continue to import technology from advanced economies. However, China will seek to actively domesticate that technology through a program of “assimilate and re-invent.”
How well China fares in meeting such targets will be something to watch for the next five years, and beyond.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.