Geography Reference
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of dynastic strength. The rivers have not always cooperated. The Yellow River, which me-
anders from the arid interior to the Pacific carrying the huge load of loess sediment that
gave it its name, was one of the earliest cradles of Han civilization. During a recent trip
to the Chinese National Museum in Beijing, I viewed a Ming Dynasty painting that ex-
tolled the virtues of Li Xing, who oversaw a series of major projects to shift the channel
of the Yellow River following a devastating flood in 1494 C.E. that killed thousands along
the river's banks. Centuries later, Mao Zedong's famous historical couplet “When a great
sage emerges, the Yellow River will run clear” [ Shang ren chu, huang he qing ]” referred
to Mao himself, and the construction of the Sanmen Xia Dam seemed a natural exercise of
this endowment (Shapiro 2000). In the end, large infrastructure projects such as dams are
always about more than resource allocation or economic feasibility; they are often intended
as grand public statements about the power of a state and its people to control nature. As
Patrick McCully, director of the NGO International Rivers, has suggested, “They are con-
crete, rock and earth expressions of the dominant ideology of the technological age; icons
of economic development and scientific progress to match nuclear bombs or motor cars”
If hydropower development is a form of statemaking, sometimes it entails a recalibration
of the relationship between state, society, and market. In contemporary China, harnessing
the hydroelectric potential of major rivers and distributing the power on the electrical
grid involve a mosaic of state agencies, including the State Council, the MWR, and the
NDRC—the latter of which functioned as the main economic planning entity during the
socialist era and now plays a major coordinating role. These administrative organs make
rules, regulations, and policies on hydropower development. Depending on the specific
details of a given hydropower-development plan, other agencies may play a role, includ-
ing the MEP, the Ministry of Construction, the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Forest
Bureau, China Guodian Corporation, the Ministry of Communication, and the Ministry of
Health. When international rivers are involved, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may also
play a major role in decision making (Feng and Magee 2009).
Hydropower development is also a key part of China's “Develop the West” strategy
(Xibu Da Kaifa), enshrined in the Tenth and Eleventh Five-Year Plans for economic de-
velopment (2001-2005, 2006-2010), the goal of which is to narrow the economic and so-
cial disparities between the prosperous east coast and the relatively impoverished western
regions, including Yunnan. The hydropower resources of the southwest region are vast;
most of the nation's great rivers—the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong, among oth-
ers—have their headwaters in this expansive, arid interior region of southwestern China. It
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