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12/02/2006

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Date Posted: 23:55 23/11/2005



Power games in Sichuan

Development and destruction in China's southwest


AS PART of the job, I frequently find myself hanging about, not in the nation's dangerous hotspots like the much-maligned Benjamin Joffe-Walt of The Guardian, but in the corridors and stairwells and gatehouses of Chinese government buildings. This month, on a sticky autumn morning in southwestern China's Chengdu, I was standing alone outside the gates of power in Sichuan Province, stubbing cigarettes out on a large metal sign urging petitioners to 'maintain order'.

I was trying not to draw too much attention to myself as I looked shiftily towards a pair of impassive soldiers fingering their rifles at the main checkpoint, but the only thing more conspicuous than a foreigner in China is a foreigner hanging outside a Chinese government office.

Anyway, my escort from the Foreign Affairs Bureau finally arrived and led me to the local development and reform commission, where I spent an hour listening to the affable head of the Sichuan energy department defending the decision to build thousands of bloody great dams and reservoirs throughout Sichuan.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is on the face of it a typical mid-tier Chinese city, and after spending just a week there, mostly in a comfortable hotel, your correspondent is hardly likely to get beyond the usual cliches about the reckless economic and social transformations currently causing mayhem throughout the country, or about the divisions and tensions created by more than two decades of Market-Leninism.

And so, we begin with the ride from the airport across the new high-speed expressways in a rickety old taxicab, soaring past the customary urban sleaze and crepuscular glitter of an ordinary Chinese cityscape. Arriving in the city proper, one quickly notices the columns of streaming neon light and the gruesome opulence of some of its popular nightspots, one of which goes by the implausible name of the Athens Imperial Palace. Neon light, as always, is the motif of China's relentless economic growth and the uneven edging-up of disposable incomes. Multicoloured tubes mark out the insignia of the various bars, restaurants and 'adult product' shops that fill the city's main streets. Electricity shortages there may be, but the neon continues to burn.

The pockets of wealth that every city enjoys seem thinner, patchier, more besieged than, say, Shanghai. On appearances at least, the social 'contradictions' now exercising the central government seem sharper and more pronounced. And where the haves meet the have-nots, one is obviously going to see efforts being made to redress the balance. Thus, colonies of little men shuffle around the hotels stuffng luridly decorated business cards into coat pockets and cab windows, touting various massage and 'talking girl' services to bewildered late-arrivals like me. Welcome to Chengdu.

I was here, naturally, for a story, but my first port of call turned out to be the foreigner bar. 'Shamrock's' is full of the usual off-the-shelf Irish kitsch. It is, of course, an expat asylum, providing opportunities for embittered foreigners to get together and share their grievances about the lack of baked beans or dental floss or anti-perspirant. Bladdered English-language teachers complain about being prodded by beggars. An investment banker talked about local corruption. One old timer mentioned the proclivity for cocaine among well-off local women. Your correspondent ended up lost in a fug of cheap double whiskies.

And so the week proceeded, making frantic calls to the local government during the day and drinking cheap whisky in the evening. I visited a noted geologist in his office in a remote southeastern suburb, taking an early-morning taxi beyond the newly constructed Exhibition Center and a series of cavernous industrial parks and finding that Chengdu – and all the massive development projects now cluttering the city's outlying districts – doesn't seem to stretch particularly far. Tractors chugged along the highways, and old cranes fussed over rocks at the side of the road. I was eventually dropped off at a crossroads in the small, rural town of Huayang, with the taxi unable to traverse a narrow stone bridge cluttered with pedlars and pedicabs and various bored-looking items of livestock.

The geologist told me the usual tales of woe, describing the way thousands of people have been displaced to make way for reservoirs and hydropower stations. The government official, on the other hand, gave a plausible account of China's desperation for electricity, and the way other countries have dammed their rivers to a much greater extent. He was convinced that the government was, by and large, doing everything it could to maximize the number of winners and minimize the number of losers.

In Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation project some 50 km north of Chengdu, thousands of rural migrants were recently forced to live on their wits when the authorities dammed the river, flooded their farms and then sold off the piece of land that had been allocated for them, at a profit, apparently. The small, stagnant town around the irrigation project is doing its best to squeeze as much cash as it can from the tour groups bused in from Chengdu. They offer massages, charge a few jiao to clean out your ears with a feather, and come rushing forth with newspapers and teapots and souvenirs. Not exactly a land of opportunity.

So balancing the need for energy with the interests of local people is obviously a tricky one. In Summer, many of Chengdu's suburbs had to shut off the electricity for several days a week in order to guarantee supplies to the city centre. On the other hand, most of the migrants relocated in the last few years to make way for hydropower stations have been made palpably worse off after the move. It mirrors the problems throughout the country. China cannot stay still, but the growing pains are proving to be excruciating.


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