Dam advocate loses sight of his cause in caustic remarks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am


Debate has re-emerged over the mainland's burgeoning obsession with large dams.

But the fresh squabbling appears to stem less from a debate over the pros and cons of dam building, as it had in the past, and more about the personal attacks launched by a key dam advocate against a vocal critic.

Zhang Boting , deputy secretary general of the China Society of Hydropower Engineering, held a press conference last week, attempting to discredit Yang Yong and called him 'a fake expert'. Yang is a Sichuan -based independent geologist known for his harsh criticism of the nation's dam construction frenzy.

Zhang's attack seems to be largely based on a finding that the Hengduan Mountain Research Society, which Yang often claims to represent when being quoted by mainland media, is basically a one-man band. Zhang is right about the fact that Yang largely runs the research group on his own, but why does that make the geologist's criticism any less credible?

'Yang is a liar who spreads defamatory statements about hydropower development! Why should the public trust a guy who could not even get into university?' Zhang wrote in his blog on Sciencenet.cn.

Here comes, once again, Zhang's usual mud-slinging tactics: a person is not qualified to talk about dams if he or she is not a scientist with a university education.

Zhang, who is a prolific online writer supporting big dams under the pseudonym Shuibo, has earned notoriety for his frequent use of defamatory and even abusive remarks against people he calls 'pseudo-environmentalists', as well as media outlets that dare to question dam-construction policies.

Although his affiliation with the powerful hydropower society, which has mostly incumbent and retired officials, and power firm executives, usually protects Zhang from defamation charges, he paid a price for one of his faux pas about two years ago.

Despite defending his comments as a scholarly critique, he was convicted by a Beijing court of defaming a well-respected environmental reporter from the China Business News and was ordered to make a public apology and pay more than 3,000 yuan (HK$3,680) in compensation. His appeal was also rejected.

Although Zhang never apologised for calling the reporter, who voiced concerns over dam construction, 'ignorant', 'insolent' and a 'retarded moron', he did pay the compensation.

Yang, who was among the first mainlanders to successfully raft along the Yangtze River in the 1980s, is best known for his persistent effort to survey the headwaters of China's great rivers in the Tibetan plateau and for his opposition to erecting dams in the southwest region, which is prone to seismic and geological hazards.

When asked for a response to Zhang's attacks, Yang told The Beijing News that he did not see any point in recriminating, as it belittled the debate. He has avoided becoming an easy target for those who support dams, by grounding his opinions in the bedrock of geological facts. His research is appreciated by many officials and government-linked research institutes.

During a recent trip along the Jinsha River - a tributary of the upper Yangtze River - that I joined, Yang repeatedly voiced concerns about the potential ecological impact of the government's renewed push for dozens of big dams to be built in Sichuan and Yunnan in the next decade. After a respite of nearly a decade, Beijing has reaffirmed hydropower as the pillar of the mainland's clean-energy drive and aims to raise capacity by 50 per cent, to 300,000 megawatts, by 2015.

Echoing the concerns of several leading environmentalists, Yang also said the grave social impact had often been glossed over.

Interestingly, although grievances over forced evictions and unfair payouts are widespread in almost every dam-affected area, with occasional flare-ups leading to unrest, Zhang and other dam supporters rarely touch on the politically sensitive issue, as it is considered a challenge to stability.

Instead, Zhang often repeats the official line that dam-building offers a win-win solution for poverty-stricken people in hinterland regions and the energy-hungry mainland economy.

Environmentalist Yu Xiaogang, who won the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize for his groundbreaking experiment on the social impacts of dam construction, also noted that China still lagged far behind in confronting the true cost.

Although government agencies have started accepting the importance of social-impact assessments of large projects, their focus now is mainly about the economic effects on those evicted.

'Dam-building often deals heavy, and sometimes devastating, blows to the social fabric of affected communities and deprives those evicted of dignity and respect when they are forced to vacate their homes, and start new lives with strangers in different neighbourhoods,' Yu said.

Other environmentalists have also voiced support for Yang, saying the fresh row that Zhang has stirred up fails to touch on the real issue behind the dam-building frenzy.

Apart from the devastating impact of big dams on the ecosystem, they say that the almost-irreversible impact on people and communities is also worrying. In Yang's words, the accountability of the government is at stake when local authorities are unable to assess possible social implications in advance and then effectively handle repercussions.