As CCP celebrates its centenary, Mao’s hydraulic legacy lives on
As it celebrates its centenary on July 1, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has put out a propaganda offensive, extolling socialist culture with nationalistic messages. Authorities are also reminding citizens, and the world, of the “great unity of the Chinese people” that Mao Tse-tung expressed when forming the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
The politburo is seizing on the patriotic celebrations to commence operation of the first unit of the Baihetan hydropower on the Jinsha river (upper Yangtse), the world’s second largest after the Three Gorges Dam. The mega dam with an installed capacity of 16 gigawatts (GW), when fully completed, will generate 62 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Another under-construction dam is the 10.2 GW Wudongde on the same river. Both these projects are part of the “Go West” programme of China that aims at transferring electricity from west to the east provinces.
By all accounts, these projects are an engineering marvel but with an unmistakable ideational claim. In its pledge to achieve carbon neutrality and demonstrate its climate responsibility, China intends to produce an estimated 15,000 terawatt-hours of clean electricity by 2060, of which hydroelectricity will see a doubling from its current capacity.
Consequently, more dams will come up on rivers, some of which are transboundary, to give a renewable boost. Plans are afoot to build a “super dam” on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbu (Brahmaputra) in the Medog county near Arunachal Pradesh. The super dam is considered a historic opportunity to advance China’s clean energy aspirations, which the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) clearly outlines.
China’s core competence in hydrological interventions is a legacy of Mao and in his vision of building a strong socialist country, which he called “paradise”, rivers were to be re-presented not as natural wonder but of exploitation that would symbolise human endeavour. Mao’s hydraulic mindset fashioned large-scale, capital-intensive water projects with slogans like “big diversions, big irrigation”.
Mao was no “caveman Marxist”, as Stalin mocked him. After the revolutionary triumph in 1949, one of Mao’s profound action was to strengthen the Institute of Geography, founded in 1940, and focus particularly on hydrography, economic geography and cartography. A top-rank country, Mao believed, with the dormant power of the millions of struggling peasants, had to overcome the landscape that was fraught with disparities. In the decade after 1949, geography and the concept of regions permeated all levels of the education system. But for Mao as a strategist, geography required a clear political thought.
Around the time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Korea in October 1950, Mao was seizing control of Tibet. With the “annexation” came the prized possession of the watersheds of the four principal rivers: Yangtse, Yarlung, Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong).
Interestingly, it was the Jinsha river, which today is witnessing unprecedented mega-dam activities, that the 18th Army of the PLA had crossed, occupied Chando from the defending forces, and created pressure for an agreement with the Tibetans.
Having stamped his unassailable authority, yet calling it a “peaceful liberation”, Mao frequently prefixed Tibet as “a large area with a small population”. At a reception marking the first anniversary of the PRC, Mao kept uttering “because you are afraid” to the delegation from Changdo before patronisingly stating, “We will not redistribute the land for you.” However, on the abundant water resources in Tibet, Mao authorised redistributrion observing, “The south [Tibet] has a lot of water, the north little. If possible, it is ok to lend a little water.” Later in his poem, Swimming (translated), Mao outpoured his desire to build dams on the Yangtse, which he loved to swim in, writing, “Walls of stone will stand upstream.”
The dominance over the Tibetan massif spawned a breed of engineers-turned-politicians and a powerful bureaucracy. The South-North Water Diversion Projects with three routes, the eastern, central and western, once fully complete, will transport 40 billion cubic meters of water annually from Tibet to unlock China’s development potential.
From Mao to Xi Jinping, China continues to maintain status quo on its upstream activities. In increasingly State-directed development, water will remain an independent, controllable and reliable catalyst for China. That leaves downstream countries, including India, lot to be concerned about.
Uttam Kumar Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal