OBSERVATIONS IN CHINA

Miscellaneous Observations During a 17 Day Tour

FUTURECASTS online magazine
www.futurecasts.com
Vol. 4, No. 11, 11/1/02.

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A guided tour:

  China is a huge and complex nation - a whole world unto itself. Simplistic views about it are bound to be wrong. There are vast differences between urban and rural living conditions and between those living modern lives and those still living in traditional ways - between those working in government owned enterprises and those employed in the private sector. Complicating matters further are differences between the various regions.
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There is much of more or less interest that can be seen as a tour proceeds through major cities and various stretches of countryside - much that can be seen of things that seldom if ever find their way into western print media.

  A 17 day guided tour of the standard tourist attractions in China is hardly likely in itself to provide profound insights into this vast nation. Nevertheless, there is much of more or less interest that can be seen as a tour proceeds through major cities and various stretches of countryside - much that can be seen of things that seldom if ever find their way into Western print media. This article thus is limited to providing a few otherwise generally unavailable pieces of the huge puzzle that is China, plus a few narrowly drawn conclusions. There is no pretence herein of larger purposes.
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  Tour guides vary widely. Some are candid and knowledgeable, while others less knowledgeable, accurate and/or candid. All are still guarded in public, but some will openly  discuss even difficult issues in private. Most often, however, propaganda lines are still easier and more comforting. Caveat emptor.
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  Nevertheless, China is not a nation of Potemkin villages. The backwardness and physical scars of eight decades of 20th century strife and three decades of rigorous socialism are omnipresent. China cannot be expected to have recovered from these things in just two decades of economic transformation - and it clearly hasn't. Nor have they been hidden from the sight of visitors.
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China is full of mega-projects. It is now clearly as notable for where it is heading as for where it has been.

  However, the primary impression is not of a scarred and backwards nation, but of a nation on the move - energetically playing catch up with numerous infrastructure projects, and new office buildings and apartment buildings. Major river cities sport a wide variety of modern bridges. China is full of construction cranes and mega-projects. It is now clearly as notable for where it is heading as for where it has been.
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The sights:

  China is full of "must see" attractions for the tourist. There are things - both man made and natural - that neither words nor even pictures can do justice to. These are things that have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Familiar natural locations in the United States include Yosemite, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, and man made locations like the New York skyline (even without the World Trade Center).
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Although those working at all levels in the tourist industry are invariably pleasant and eager to be helpful, China has not yet had time to recover from its past - and that past still presents many unpleasant experiences.

 

The cities are full of graceless "urban renewal" type architecture. There are vast numbers of office buildings and apartments that only a bureaucrat could love. They present weathered and grimy facades to the outside world, apparently from lack of maintenance.

  There are many such attractions included in the standard tour of China. There is the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors at the Qin tomb, and the spectacular mountain landscapes along the Li River and in the Yangzi River Gorges. There are also many lesser but still interesting destinations. These make China a required part of anyone's World travel plans.
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  But China is still a long way from being a pleasant destination
- a place to go just for enjoyment. Although those working at all levels in the tourist industry are invariably pleasant and eager to be helpful, China has not yet had time to recover from its past - and that past still presents many unpleasant experiences.
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  Poverty - while no longer of the hopeless kind - is still widespread, as one might expect. Street vendors - frequently aggressive - line the paths to every major tourist attraction and besiege the casual stroller along major and lesser shopping streets. There are very few beggars, but one or two truly piteous beggars are seen strategically placed at each major tourist attraction. How the vendors and beggars get the rights to these locations is an interesting question.
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  The cities are full of graceless "urban renewal" type architecture. There are vast numbers of office buildings and apartment buildings - predominantly six story walkups - that only a bureaucrat could love. They present weathered and grimy facades to the outside world, apparently from lack of maintenance. Environmental problems are widespread and evident, and the water is not drinkable.
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  Conditions are visibly better in Shanghai and some of the other major cities along the coast. Elsewhere, modern buildings and even prominent examples of sometimes spectacular idiosyncratic modern architecture currently proliferate in jarring juxtaposition with otherwise drab and often impoverished surroundings. Of all the five star hotels on the tour, the Four Seasons in Shanghai clearly provided the best accommodations. Someone in that organization has gone to impressive lengths to get even the minutia right for the traveler - but this is certainly not a place for the budget conscious.
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Building exteriors have now become thoroughly pockmarked with room air conditioners. TV antennae and satellite dishes sprout from their roofs.

 

The local farmers markets are full of a vast variety of produce. There need be no worry about how China will be fed. China is clearly capable of feeding China.

  The progress that China has made in the last two decades is clearly visible everywhere. Even in the countryside - at least along the major roads - electric service is widely available. While the hoards of buildings hastily thrown up in recent decades until recently provided for few creature comforts, their exteriors have now become thoroughly pockmarked with room air conditioners. TV antennae and satellite dishes sprout from their roofs.
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  Evidence of these creature comforts - even including some satellite dishes - are visible even in the traditional tiny city and farm homes - homes that would be considered shacks in more advanced nations. While the existence of clothes washers can only be guessed at, there are evidently few clothes dryers as yet in China. Pollution or no pollution, clothes are hung out to dry everywhere - even in recently constructed apartments - on balconies or rigs of metal pipes protruding about six feet from a window. Of course, some of those pipe rigs may simply have been left in place after driers were acquired - like some retain clothes lines in the West.
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  More important - the local farmers markets are full of a vast variety of produce. There need be no worry about how China will be fed. China is clearly capable of feeding China.
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The people:

  In Beijing and Shanghai, the people are fairly well dressed, although still far from Western standards. They go about their business in a purposeful manner by day and throngs of people clearly enjoy themselves when out for the evening. While Western style clothing is widespread, many people prefer to wear shirts and blouses out rather than tucked in. Dress is generally plainer in the interior cities.
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There is no evidence of an aging population in the cities. 

 

Whatever the limitations of the blocks of graceless apartment buildings, they represent a major step up for those living in them, and those who have them feel  fortunate.

 

Even those employed in the modern private economy still maintain their associations with the government agencies that previously employed them or their parents. They look to these agencies for such favors as allotment of scarce apartments and mortgage financing.

  The streets are full of young people in the major cities - both during the day and during the evenings. Young couples strolling hand in hand or riding two to a bike are frequent sights. There is no evidence of an aging population in the cities. This may be because it is the young people - especially those with some education - that most frequently migrate to the cities in search of a better life.
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  The contrast between old China and new China is stark. Farm villages and city neighborhoods of traditional little single story homes with clay-tile roofs contrast with modern buildings in both the countryside and the cities. There is a clear difference in attitude between those who have successfully entered the more modern segments of China's economy - even in beginning level jobs - and those who have not.
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  Whatever the limitations of the blocks of graceless apartment buildings, they represent a major step up for those living in them, and those who have them feel  fortunate. While apartment leaseholds are expensive by Chinese standards, mortgages at subsidized interest rates are made available for their purchase.
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  In the countryside, the tiny traditional homes are themselves a vast improvement over collective living prior to 1978. As soon as they were able, the farmers built their own little homes and moved out of the collectives.
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  Influence is still a vital factor in Chinese society. Even those employed in the modern private economy still maintain their associations with the government agencies that previously employed them or their parents. They look to these agencies for such favors as allotment of scarce apartments and mortgage financing.
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  The optimism of those in the modern economy is palpable. The predominant impression of those still on the outside is one of much striving. Everywhere, they are seen determinedly hustling for a yuan. However - especially considering what the Chinese people have been through - there is a remarkable resilience shared by the people in both the old China and the new - the rural and the city.
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  The revival of religion in China is readily visible during tours of the major Buddhist temples. Crowds of worshipers throng the temples during significant religious days, and nearby street vendors do a thriving business in the sale of incense and various other religious objects. While most were older, in Beijing there were a significant number of young people. However, all the Buddhist temples on the tour are similar. It would suffice to see just the temples in Beijing and the remarkable carvings at Baoding Mountain near Dazu.
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  While Buddhist temples receive government sanction, Confucian temples do not and were practically deserted except for a few tourists.
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  The Catholic churches in Beijing and Chongquing were apparently "Chinese" Roman Catholic - the faithful are not allowed to acknowledge any affiliation with the Vatican. Masses were packed - almost entirely with women over 50 - some with grandchildren - and almost no foreigners. However, the services seemed up-to-date with very enthusiastic congregational participation.

  The service in Shanghai was in English, with many foreigners and many young Chinese in the congregation. It did appear to be fully affiliated with Rome, but the sign outside identified it as the "Catholic Intellectual Association of China," and the mass itself was held on the third floor, above what looked like offices and other assembly rooms.
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  Chinese history has seen repeated waxing and waning of interest in the past, and at present that interest is definitely on the rise among the Chinese people.
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  Mao is still officially venerated despite the vast suffering caused by his major policy blunders. His undeniable achievements are that he unified the country and eliminated all remaining influence of the European colonial powers. Anarchy is always the worst form of tyranny, and his ruthless rule at least eliminated the even worse horrors of the anarchy and conflicts that preceded the Communist victory.
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  However, there is little evidence of any veneration among the people who suffered so much because of his policies. His picture and statue were seen only in a few public places and primary tourist facilities. It is Deng Shao Ping who is the people's hero.
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The economy:

  Small business has sprouted everywhere in China. However, everywhere, it seems to remain largely at the simplest levels. While major businesses make impressive progress, there is as yet no evidence of any widespread ability of small business to expand and begin employing substantial resources and labor beyond those of family or inner circle.
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In order to sell wares or services, the outside walls have been widely opened up to make small room sized shops - literally "hole-in-the-wall" sized shops - accessible to the public. Along major streets and down both sides of long twisting narrow alleys, a vibrant commerce is conducted out of such shops.

  Why this should be - after two decades of economic transition - is a legitimate question. What weaknesses in the economic environment remain that hold back the creativity and power of the small business engine of economic development and prosperity? Lack of property rights (land is typically leased from the government for up to 70 years rather than owned), weaknesses in applicable aspects of contract and commercial law, and a credit mechanism not accessible by small business are the most obvious limitations that can retard the expansion of successful small businesses.
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  Chinese at the local level are inward looking.
In traditional farm villages or urban neighborhoods, they present blank single story walls to the outside world, and instead construct their homes to open onto inner courtyards. There is no visible effort to decorate or maintain the appearance of the outsides of these homes - either the outside walls or the courtyard surfaces.
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  However, capitalism is literally punching holes in this tradition. In order to sell wares or services, the outside walls have been widely opened up to make small room sized shops - literally "hole-in-the-wall" sized shops - accessible to the public. Along major streets and down both sides of long twisting narrow alleys, a vibrant commerce is conducted out of such shops.
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  Burglary must be a serious problem in China. Unemployment is admittedly above 20% in some interior cities. The mass of small storefronts use metal pull-down doors to close up shop. The picture windows on the larger stores in the major shopping streets are all gated. Metal grills are used for all ground floor and second story windows in the modern apartment buildings, and even for some third story windows. Some of China's most modern apartment buildings are now in gated communities - but nevertheless have metal grills as high as their third floor windows.
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Incredible effort has been expended to recreate architectural treasures damaged or destroyed during Mao's widely destructive Cultural Revolution. Here is Chinese craftsmanship of the highest order - supplemented by competent maintenance.

 

The Chinese themselves are on tour everywhere - crowding all the attractions to see and enjoy what their country has to offer. Ninety percent of all tourists in China are the Chinese themselves

  The quality of construction work done in China, and the adequacy of maintenance, is brought into question not only by the weather-beaten walls of relatively new buildings, but also by disagreeable experiences on a few ostensibly modern roads where the bus has to slow to a crawl over washboard like surfaces. Major urban projects frequently result in the displacement of entire neighborhoods of traditional homes (the government, after all, owns the land), and the people have understandably responded with a minimum of maintenance in these neighborhoods. The little homes are dark and grimy. One can only wonder at the extent of deferred maintenance accumulating in China.
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  This is in stark contrast to the Central European transformation economies. There, people enjoying legally enforceable private property rights have in little more than a decade fixed up their homes, apartments, shops and farms - thus providing themselves with pleasant surroundings and attractive communities in which to live. See, "Observations about Czech Republic & eastern Germany."
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  However, the parks and plazas and major attractions are glorious.
  Major parks and zoos cover impressive expanses. Incredible effort has been expended to recreate architectural treasures damaged or destroyed during Mao's widely destructive Cultural Revolution. Here is Chinese craftsmanship of the highest order - supplemented by competent maintenance in some instances - but by shoddy maintenance in others. There were many attractions covered in substantial depth by dust - and many where maintenance was of a slapdash, superficial "as long as it looks good" character.
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  Outside the major hotels, going to the bathroom is a frequently disagreeable adventure. Many Chinese are still far from understanding Western standards of sanitation. However, the central cities were clean, with street sweepers everywhere. There were few flies or insects or other vermin or bad smells, and the people looked clean. All the taxis used in the major cities were well maintained and clean - and very inexpensive.
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  Tourist attractions charge modest admission fees - fees that might not seem so modest for many Chinese. However - as with parks in the U.S. - yearly  admission privileges are available to locals at a substantial discount at least at some of these parks. Nevertheless, many of the major tourist attractions were jammed - even at an off season time. Tourism is a major - growing - clearly successful industry for China.
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  Tour guides speaking many different languages can be heard shepherding their flocks through palaces, parks, tomb complexes, museums, and temples and shrines. The Chinese themselves are on tour everywhere - crowding all the attractions to see and enjoy what their country has to offer. Ninety percent of all tourists in China are the Chinese themselves - although most of them employ more modest accommodations than the four star and five star hotels used by foreign tourists.
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  China's airlines apparently have no trouble filling almost all of their seats. Almost everyone carries small bottles of drinking water, and there is good inexpensive local beer, only mildly alcoholic, available everywhere.
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There are almost no old trees anywhere. China was stripped of its trees to fuel the pitiful little backyard steel furnaces during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, and has been feverishly engaged in reforestation during the last two decades.

  There is a total lack of natural landscape in the lowlands and on all but the steepest hillsides of the eastern half of China. Every inch of the countryside is intensively cultivated or otherwise in use. Riversides and borders and steep hillsides are thick with trees - but there are almost no old trees anywhere. China was stripped of its trees to fuel the pitiful little backyard steel furnaces during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, and has been feverishly engaged in reforestation during the last two decades.
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  Most of China is covered with mountains and deserts and is lightly populated. Even in the arable Eastern lowlands, there are vast open spaces accommodating its farming population. The small farm plots are privately and intensively cultivated, producing an amazing variety of produce for village and city markets.
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Vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians in Beijing and some other cities move through and across streets at a leisurely pace with a studied disdain for each other.

 

Upwardly mobile Chinese who have obtained bicycles, TVs, apartments and air conditioners now aim next for automobiles.

  China is clearly on a collision course with the automobile. In Beijing and many other major cities, traffic is anarchic. Vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians move through and across streets at a leisurely pace with a studied disdain for each other. Remarkably, no crumpled fenders were observed in any of the cities, until arrival in Shanghai, where traffic moves in a more orderly manner on the freeways - and at higher speeds. However, in the central city, Shanghai traffic, too, is an anarchic nightmare.
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  Beijing and Shanghai already have no room for their vehicles - and face a flood of new automobiles as WTO membership forces drastic reductions of tariffs on imports. Upwardly mobile Chinese who have obtained bicycles, TVs, apartments and air conditioners now aim next for automobiles. In interior cities outside Beijing, the number of private vehicles is still limited, but their turn is coming.
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  Beijing - like all of China's major cities - is vast. It will have a total of five major beltways - some already built and others under construction. Major arterial avenues pierce the city. However, a street grid is the most efficient way of handling city traffic. The lack of a street grid capable of handling vehicle traffic already funnels overwhelming volumes of traffic into these arteries. The alleyways in the traditional neighborhoods can only accommodate a single vehicle at a time, and many are too narrow for even that.
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  Building booms are evident in several of the cities. There are building cranes everywhere. Vast amounts of high end office and apartment space is now under construction. This raises the obvious question of how accurate the demand estimates are for this space. It is not unusual for such building booms to come to a sudden and untimely end.
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  While the cities are vast  and still growing, there is little evidence as yet of urban sprawl. Countryside begins almost as soon as the city ends.
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Since the best jobs require education, the tradition of children sending substantial remittances to parents can only enhance the attraction of education among farm families.

  And money is clearly flowing into the countryside. Small two story western style brick homes - many owned by party functionaries - appear here and there in a countryside still dominated by traditional single story clusters of dark courtyard facing homes. Inside even the traditional homes, one or two light bulbs hang from exposed wires, there is a small TV set, increasingly a room air conditioner and even a satellite dish in addition to the TV antenna.
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  There is a strong tradition in China of obligation to parents. Those with jobs in the cities send appreciable sums back to their parents on the farms. Since the best jobs require education, this tradition can only enhance the attraction of education among farm families that might otherwise prefer help with the farm work. However, tuition is now required for many schools, which could be a significant problem for poor families and for minority families that have been permitted to have more than one child.
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The potential for economic growth and production from just the rational employment of China's vast labor pool is truly impressive.

  The potential for massive further economic development and prosperity is evident. Unemployment is not something that is readily visible but is reportedly quite high, and underemployment is evident everywhere. Labor is still very cheap in China, and overstaffing is apparent in everything from the work gangs on the numerous construction projects to the numerous clerks in the larger shops.
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  Even before China develops a truly modern economy, the potential for economic growth and production from just rationally employing its vast labor pool is impressive. Should China's economic transformation ever reach a level where it truly facilitates profit driven, market directed commerce, there is clearly no limit to its economic potential.
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The dam:

  The controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi River is now almost complete. This month (November, 2002), the diversion channel is scheduled to be closed, and the first stage of filling the lake is scheduled for next Spring during the season of heavy rains. Amazingly, the vast lake is expected to be filled to its first level in just a few months. The lake will be completely filled at a later date after a period of evaluation.
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There are highways and railroads serving the same route - much straighter and faster. Only the heaviest bulk cargo need go by river - and there is surprisingly little of that on the currently navigable stretches of the river.

  Unsurprisingly, both the criticisms of and supporting arguments for this vast project turn out to have been grossly overstated. In ideological battles as in physical wars, truth is always the first casualty.
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  The area of electrification supported by the dam will be much smaller than first claimed. Nevertheless, the core region up and down the Yangzi River is populated by over 50 million people, and the hydroelectric power will be a vast improvement on the power currently provided by polluting soft coal power plants.
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  The Yangzi is a Mississippi-sized river. The lake will open up all year round river traffic to the major industrial center of Chongqing. Nevertheless, this navigation is unlikely to be the major economic asset promised. There are highways and railroads serving the same route - much straighter and faster. Only the heaviest bulk cargo need go by river - and there is surprisingly little of that on the currently navigable stretches of the river.
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  The success of the dam as a flood control facility remains to be seen. It of course will have no impact on flooding above the lake head.
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  On the other hand, the criticisms also appear clearly overblown. They are similar to those that were directed at the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Today, it is impossible to imagine Egypt without that dam.
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The Chinese have successfully operated the smaller dam in that area for more than 15 years, with little sign of the problems feared for the higher dam.

 

The lake will enable and improve access to regions not readily accessible at present.

 

The larger lake will stretch beyond Chongquing, with its much heavier and polluted industrial concentrations along the river.

  There is already a dam near that point in the river. While it is much smaller than the new dam, it still backs up a considerable lake with a lake head beyond the Xiling Gorge. The Chinese have successfully operated this dam for more than 15 years, with little sign of the problems feared for the higher dam.
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  The mountains and spectacular cliffs of the Gorges range as high as 4,000 feet above water level. The raising of the water level by less than two hundred meters above the current water level is not going to greatly diminish them, and the lake will enable and improve access to regions not readily accessible at present.
The little motorized sampans will no longer offer the adventure of their struggle up shallow rapids in the Lesser Three Gorges, but the often shear cliffs will be little diminished and the lake will offer access to even the least powerful sampans. There is no panic among those who make their living off of the Yangzi River cruises.
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  Dams pose little obstacle for the fine silt suspended in the Yangzi River. The river is as muddy below the current dam as above. It is the heavy bottom silt that the dam will block and that will pile up at the lake head.
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  After more than 15 years, however, there is no evidence of any problem with this at the lake head behind the smaller dam. There are plans for periodically flushing this silt out - or dredging it out and shipping it by train to the Sechuan basin - the success of which remains to be seen. At any rate, both here and behind Egypt's Aswan Dam, the speed with which such silting develops seems to have been grossly overstated.
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  Two problems, however, are undeniable. The smaller lake covered some polluted riverside industrial sites - leaching the pollutants into the lake. The larger lake will stretch beyond Chongquing - with its much heavier and polluted industrial concentrations along the river. The river is already heavily polluted. Also, displaced farmers are losing valuable cropland - particularly suitable for citrus crops. However, those removed to apartments built higher up along the river will clearly improve their living conditions. More problematic is the fate of those moved elsewhere - to other regions where conditions and dialect are unfamiliar.
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  But the dam is already a reality - and it will clearly be a major asset for that region of China.

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Copyright 2002 Dan Blatt