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19th January, 2004

James Naughtie in China

China is the coming superpower, from which astonishing statistics emerge daily. We know the facts; but what is China like today, and how is it facing the problems that come with success and openness?

See reports and pictures from Shanghai , Yichang, Lanzhou , the train journey to Lhasa and Tibet.

Read Jim's final thoughts on his stay in China.



Yichang is the stopping off point for the Yangtze’s Three Gorges, one of the main tourist sites in China. Large cruise ships steam along the river through dramatic enery, allowing travellers the experience of passing through great ravines and crevices in the landscape, giving you the feeling that you’re in ‘caverns measureless to man.’ Now, of course, there is the dam.

Jim at the Three Gorges DamNone of the huge projects in modern China has stirred up more trouble, and none catches more clearly that dilemma it faces. The dam has meant the (forcible) relocation of 1.35 million people. The reservoir created by the mile-and-a-half-wide dam stretches back up the river for more than 350 miles. So, say the critics, it’s an environmental disaster.

Power linesYet the main purpose is to save the livelihoods of many of the 15 million people who live downstream, and whose lives are blighted nearly every year by terrible floods. These should now recede. And the dam produces (relatively) clean energy. In a country that is still building coal-fired power stations faster than any other on earth, many envionmentalists celebrate the opening of a project that will produce the same amount of power, by using water, as would be produced by six Chinese nuclear power stations. There are new methane emissions from the reservoir (and as we know from flatulent cows they can be damaging too), but the balance is still vastly on the plus side)

There is a cultural cost of course, part of the river has been ruined for ever including the destruction of ancient sites where there were traces of very early human habitation. They are now under water.

Fishermen on the YangseNot surprisingly, we encountered an almost evangelical enthusiasm for the dam from the vice-president of the project when we spoke to him; and a bitterly-antagonistic view from a man who’d spent years protesting against the inadequate compensation for the “relocated”, protests for which he’d been beaten up by thugs who, he claims, were in league with the police. Wreaths of flowers meant for the dead were dumped outside his door.

Cargo Boats travelling past the damThe Yangtze is China’s bloodstream, carrying trade from west to east and back again, and fertilising the plains. The case for the dam is that it makes that function more efficient: shipping down the river will increase by five times and the risk of flooding on the land will be reduced. But the cost is the destruction of a precious part of China’s heritage. Make your choice.

There’s another aspect to the protest by some of those who say that promised compensation was withheld. Link that complaint to a claim that the Communist party is now corrupt, and that government from Beijing is rotten. It’s exactly like the complaint in western democracies about remote government. Local party officials may make the decisions here, but mistakes are blamed on Beijing. Our protestor had a poster of Mao Zedong and Zhou en Lai on his wall: his anger is not at a Communist system, but what he claims is its betrayal.

The Fu householdThis is the sense of distance that feeds into what may be the most tricky political argument in China today, about the gap between rich and poor. It was mentioned by president Hu Jintao in his opening speech to the 17th Party congress in Beijing this week, because he knows it is a time bomb. How can the professional middle class in Shanghai be allowed to gorge itself on western consumerism, if hundreds of millions of people are living at levels of poverty that are still startling? Yet the economic expansion is necessary if China is to get fresh water, cheap and clean energy and the means to transform the medieval practices of the countryside.

Behind the podium at the Party congress, that is the nightmare challenge.
 Three Gorges Dam
It’s been a brief visit to Yichang. But long enough to understand the power of the river, and some of its beauties (I was sure it was an eagle that wheeled not far away from my window as the sun came up). Looking at the dam on a misty morning was also to understand the scale of the changes on which China has embarked, and the problems that the revolution will bring in its wake.

Tomorrow : Lanzhou in Gansu province in Western China, en route to Tibet by train.

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