Can Mekong river stingrays tell China’s dam narrative well?
- A fabricated article was used to refute allegations about the negative environmental impact of Chinese dam building
- Overall, view China is benevolent towards downstream states in its dam operations emphasised by its leaders, hydropower companies
Can a giant stingray in the Lower Mekong be used to craft a good narrative about Chinese upstream dams? It can, according to a Khmer Times article about a 300kg stingray found in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.
The June 27 article quoted Zeb Hogan, an American biologist, as saying that “stingrays do not like to live in polluted waters”, and this “shows that China’s dam construction doesn’t affect the Lower Mekong’s ecosystem”. Hogan is also director of the Wonders of the Mekong project funded by the US Agency for International Development.
Republished on the website of the China-administered Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform (LMC-ISP), this could have been an example of the “wonderful stories” the Chinese hope to tell to refute what they see as unfounded and US-instigated allegations about the negative environmental impact of dam building in the upstream Lancang (the Chinese name for the Mekong).
“Wonderful stories” was a phrase used by China in a post about a media campaign it organised to promote good narratives about the river.
The stingray story, however, appears to have a sting in its tail. In reality, it is pure fabrication. Hogan confirmed via email with this author that he never spoke to the Khmer Times and he “did not say anything that was reported in the article”, adding that “it is clear that upstream dams do impact the lower Mekong River”.
The article is a cautionary tale about China’s audacity in pushing dubious narratives about the Mekong water development.
An important vehicle for China’s discourse push is the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a China-led group comprising all six Mekong states (China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand).
“Wonderful stories” about China’s upstream dams in the Lancang have been promoted through China-administered LMC institutions such as the LMC Water Centre.
This observation is based on content analysis of the LMC-ISP’s website, which is run by the centre. Established in 2020 as the LMC’s water-data sharing platform, the website seeks to promote China’s discourse on governance of the river.
This narrative of China’s benevolence and even altruism has been emphasised by Chinese leaders, experts and hydropower companies.
According to the LMC Water Centre’s Secretary General, Hao Zhao, China’s Jinghong dam “does not fully exert its function for domestic electricity demand but tries its best to help the downstream to cope with possible droughts and avoid further transference of upstream challenges to the downstream”.
However, this does not necessarily mean that altruism towards downstream states is the operative principle or consistent practice of Chinese dam operations.
For example, using 1992-2019 satellite data and daily river height gauge data from Chiang Saen, Thailand, the April 2020 Eyes on Earth report highlighted the connection between the unprecedented drought during the wet season in the Lower Mekong in 2019 and Chinese upstream dams’ restriction of a large amount of water to prioritise the selling of hydropower to its domestic market that year.
Furthermore, the one-dimensional emphasis on Chinese dams’ water-level moderation glosses over their adverse impact in other aspects, especially reduced replenishment of sediment from upstream and the resulting loss of fisheries and food security risks downstream, as highlighted by the MRC and expert studies.
The LMC-ISP website also shines a spotlight on climate change as the primary reason for the Mekong’s environmental woes, by featuring international reports on climate change and views by Chinese and Laotian experts and officials.
A post titled “Laos Water Resources Experts: What Caused the Drought This Year”, states that climate change-induced lower rainfall is the main cause of drought in the Mekong basin.
The Laotian experts’ names are not given and the original Vientiane Times article – purportedly republished in the post – cannot be found online. The same tactic of dubious reporting is observed in another post with similar content.
Although the impact of climate change in the Mekong basin has been well-documented, overemphasis on this factor runs the risk of obscuring and even whitewashing the controversy over Mekong hydropower development.
Another tactic being employed to push positive messages has been that of co-opting the voices of foreigners in China’s discourse push.
In the Mekong context, China has engaged foreign journalists in media campaigns to tell “wonderful stories” about Lancang-Mekong cooperation and China’s dam operations. Study tours, exchanges and visits to China have been organised under the LMC framework for downstream states’ officials, youth and media, setting the stage for their reported appreciation of China’s water governance.
An August 2022 post on a visit to Lancang dams by Mekong diplomats and overseas students stated “their acknowledgement towards the importance of water infrastructures in mitigating droughts and floods”. The visit also reportedly deepened their “understanding of Chinese efforts to ecological and environmental protection while developing hydropower”.
Other more nuanced messages to boost the positive image of Lancang dams are embedded in stories about the corporate social responsibility of Chinese hydropower companies, especially those involved in downstream dam-building projects.
These include the Sanghe II Hydropower Company with a rural water supply project in Cambodia and PowerChina Nam Ou River Basin Company’s “contribution to green development in Laos”.
As with the stingray story, the Chinese narratives should be taken with a pinch of salt. The trade-offs between hydropower and the river’s ecosystem have been extensively documented in various studies, including by the MRC, and in an increasing number of books and news reports about the plight of river communities due to drying flows and dwindling fish stocks.
All Mekong countries face these trade-offs and have a share of responsibility over the state of the river. The cure for the dying Mekong, therefore, must begin with clinical analysis and honest exchange among river states. China’s unilaterally imposed narratives that obscure the full, complex picture is part of the problem, not the remedy.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. This article was originally published as “Can Mekong Stingrays Tell the Chinese Dam Story Well?” on ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s commentary site, fulcrum.sg.