Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mao and the Three Gorges Dam

Mao identified with several emperors from China's past: Zhou, Qin and Sui Yangdi. They were all great unifiers, subsuming, annexing and generally expanding the 'China' of the time, until it became the enormous country it is today. They were also cruel and regarded human life as expendable. Mao's views were similar; his nonchalant views on the atomic bomb reportedly shocked both the Indian and Russian premiers. China's population is so vast it could afford to lose 300 million, he said. His attitude to famine was the same: a shrug of the shoulders. So millions die - well, we can make more...

There were other similarities between Mao and his emperor forebears too. Qin famously burnt books and regarded the works of Confucius as sapping the country of its creative strength; and Mao burnt books too. During the cultural revolution, he went even further: intellectuals would do well to learn from peasants in the countryside, he said, and sent them there for years at a time. And if this sounds an idyllic retreat it wasn't. The life of the peasant was back-breakingly hard, doubly so if you weren't used to it, and Dr. Li describes it vividly in his book, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.

Another similarity was the ambition of these emperors to make their mark. Qin started the Great Wall and made a terracotta army to accompany him into the afterlife (as well as some great secret tomb which has yet to be opened); Sui Yangdi was responsible for a large part of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow River to the Yangtze; while Mao instigated the Three Gorges Dam. This was finally approved in 1992, fifteen years after his death.

I didn't see the dam in China, but I did see an exhibition of land now submerged. Behind my hotel was a park, one of the highest peaks, and if there hadn't been such a pea-souper I would have had magnificent views of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers. Instead I saw this

a beautiful red pagoda and underneath a tunnel, with a long painting of the Three Gorges before the dam was built.

I bought a book which reproduced it (click on the pictures to see the detail).

The guide was young and spoke English in short well-practised bursts. Questions seemed to disturb her so I asked few. She pointed to a red line on the map and told me it was the level of the water now. Beneath the red line were cities and fragment of cities.

'7, 114 emigrants from Chang Shou County,' she said.
'What happened to them?'
'They were given more land.'

'Here 65, 590 emigrants. They had to leave their ancestral home.'

'Here 54, 582. This was an important historic site...A temple was lifted stone by stone to higher ground...'

159, 333 people. For a moment I imagined them leaving the land their ancestors had famed for centuries, leaving the graves, the houses, the communities of people fracturing and having to start again.

'Where do they go?'
'They are given land - away from here.'

But this land they are given, I have read since, tends to be a in a province far away to the northwest where the ground is cold and stubbornly infertile. They are also placed strategically: a deliberate dilution of one of China's 55 ethnic restless minorities.

I didn't know that then. The picture was remarkable mainly for its length and scope. To my western eyes it seemed little more than a sumptuously illustrated map, and already it was becoming mouldy in its subterranean housing. But for a few seconds as I stared at the tiny buildings it seemed like I could hear panicked voices and gun shots of a forced exodus. I saw the waters rise to the red dotted line and then the windows of the dolls' houses pock with faces. The lucky ones in the high part of town now skirted a new shore.

I know that the Three Gorges dam has brought good: clean energy and flood prevention. But just as it has saved lives so it has also annihilated a precious past: temples have had to be rebuilt, archeological sites have been lost for ever. And 1.24 million people have been displaced. As the guide listed yet another mass migration an overwhelming sadness caught me like a wave, and I found myself blinking. All those people... I suppose it was a little like Mao blinked when he attended the funeral of one of his old generals; but according to Dr Li's account, Mao had no tears. Nothing affected him: the death of one man nor the death and displacement of millions.


Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation.

<< Home