Heroes of the past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 November, 2002, 12:00am

The Three Gorges project is engineering on a heroic scale, and yesterday's completion of the main dam across the Yangtze River represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature. For critics, it came at the cost of environmental degradation and human misery from a venture that will never pay for itself. Yet for China's leaders, the symbolic stemming of the Yangtze's flow offers potent imagery, showcasing the achievements of scientific socialism and central planning.

Such identification of the national cause with gargantuan projects demanding toil, sacrifice and sheer force of will seems to come from another era. Mega-dam projects are out of favour internationally due to the costs they impose on the environment and third parties. Few other countries could have pushed through such a venture against the groundswell of opposition from 1.2 million displaced people.

Seen in these terms, yesterday's partial completion is a bittersweet event. It also highlights the dilemma facing the leadership. Command-and-control communist regimes are well suited to managing mega projects that squeamish democracies balk at under pressure of noisy special interests.

The centralising instincts of Beijing is to be seen in the political capital that has been attached to the Three Gorges project. Yet, as the leadership prepares for the upcoming 16th congress of the Chinese Communist Party that will decide the personalities and policies to drive the country in its next phase of development, the project represents the past, not the future.

Amassing a large pool of labour and throwing huge sums of capital - 198 billion yuan in the case of the Three Gorges project - will inevitably yield results. But China's economic success over the last 20 years stemmed from the unleashing of chaotic and thoroughly unplanned private enterprise.

Looking forward, the challenge is to develop market mechanisms and governance structures that make better use of scarce resources. That involves less tangible but more complex questions about reforming industries, regulating markets, ensuring a level playing field and fighting corruption. Beijing can take pride in the persistence of its engineers, but should realise the future is more about brain than brawn.



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