From my fifteenth floor room of my hotel I can just see the Yangtze River. There is just a thin sliver visible from here, between a jumble of apartment blocks that, themselves, dwarf a Buddhist temple complex far below me. The river is indistinct at this distance due to a haze hanging over the city which is partly natural but which also traps the pollution that the city of Chongqing creates. ‘Smog’ seems too strong a word; I am here with my mother and she remembers London’s ‘pea-soupers’ and today’s haze does not compare with those. Indistinct or not, that sliver is one small part of the mighty Yangtze, the longest river in Asia and third longest (after the Amazon and Nile) in the world. I am on holiday (visiting my son who is teaching here) but rivers feature often in my posts and I cannot pass the opportunity to write something about the third longest in the world.
Yesterday’s sightseeing took us to the Three Gorges Museum which simultaneously celebrates the diversity of geological, botanical, zoological and archaeological heritage found along the Yangtze River and justifies the destruction of much of this when the Three Gorges Dam was closed in 2006. With Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Starbucks and KFC all within a few minutes walk of my hotel, the display boards in this museum were a timely reminder that China in 2016 is still an autocratic communist state. Here is an example:
“The Three Gorges Project is a great water conservancy project which will benefit many generations. Curdling [sic] the dream of the nation, it demonstrates the outstanding courage and wisdom of the Chinese people. It utilises and enriches the advanced science and technology of the world and creates the civilisation of the Three Gorges Project and the cultural heritage protection in this area. It embodies and cultivates the Three Gorges migrants’ dignity of sacrificing individual interest for national benefits.”
Amongst Western liberals, the Three Gorges Project is a byword for large-scale state-endorsed environmental vandalism and I arrived in China with all the standard preconceptions. My visit to the Three Gorges Museum did little to assuage these. The language on the display boards was rather too defensive, in particular in its justification of the enforced resettlement of the many whose homes and land disappeared under water when the dam was closed. But the story, as ever, needs to be told in shades of grey, and is neither as black nor as white as detractors and supporters respectively claim.
Chongqing, “the largest city you’ve never heard of” is a good metaphor for modern China; it has a population of 10 million, making it larger than London. The central shopping streets are crowded with people and flanked with trademarks of familiar brands. But here’s the conundrum: how does a fast-developing country with 1.4 billion people keep infrastructure apace with the aspirations of the population? It is no use criticising the Three Gorges Project unless you can come up with a practical alternative that can provide for China’s needs. That’s the problem with many environmentalists: we are often better at explaining the problem than suggesting solutions.
The Luohan Temple, dwarfed by surrounding office blocks, stands as a symbol of the challenges facing modern China. Buddhism preaches fulfilment through the suppression of desire; capitalism, by contrast, urges fulfilment through satisfying desires. Social democrats, myself included, need those same desires to generate the tax revenues that finance health, education and other functions of government. Advocates of the free market believe that desire promotes aspiration, and thus fuels economic growth, increasing opportunities in the process.
Wanting less may be part of the solution, but that is a path that an individual can adopt, rather than a government prescribe. Having watched so many fellow travellers on the Beijing or Chongqing subways staring intently at their smartphones, I wonder if the access to consumer goods sweetens the pill of living under a still-repressive regime? And, therefore, might global moves to limit carbon emissions create instability within countries such as China? Whether any of us In China or the west really need our smartphones is a moot point; my sympathies lie with the old folk playing Mah Jong in the tea houses. They have already lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The least that self-righteous westerners can do is temper our indignation with sensitivity.