Opening The Floodgates Of Criticism In China

Will media attacks on Beijing's land-use policies lead to unrest?

The Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend, which has a reputation for muckraking candor, was displaying unusual concern with the environment. In mid-August, it prominently featured an interview with a rueful logger in central Sichuan province that focused on his role in China's worst flooding in almost 50 years. "I, too, have responsibility for this year's floods," said 48-year-old Tang Song, who was recently named a model worker for his skill in felling trees. Now, he was shocked to see how deforestation aggravated the effects of the inundation. "I have destroyed much."

Of course, such confessions do nothing to reverse the devastating impact of the floods on the economy. But the floods are giving the Chinese a new reason to voice their doubts about government policy and the wisdom of their leaders. This trend isn't limited to China's more open news outlets. From the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily to national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), the media are getting in on the act, setting off an unusual debate on the country's development policies and their damaging environmental consequences.

This discussion, decrying rampant deforestation and the destruction of vital lakes and wetlands, is causing the kind of self-examination inside China's leadership that may prove to be a political watershed. For now, top leaders, stunned by estimates that flood damage could shave as much as one percentage point off China's anticipated 8% economic growth this year, are tacitly encouraging such discussions as a kind of escape valve for public anger. But reports of corruption tied to flood-relief spending are also angering already-riled citizens. This may lead some to ask the tough questions that Beijing would prefer to leave unasked--and which could lead to unrest.

RISING DISCONTENT. Although still largely taboo in most of the press, a debate on the costs and benefits of building the controversial Three Gorges Dam has quietly reappeared. While Beijing continues to argue that the completion of the dam, estimated to cost up to $50 billion, will help control future floods, others argue that it will have limited benefit, since much of this year's flooding has come from runoff from tributaries below the planned dam site. Journalist Dai Qing argues that the vast sums of money going into the Yangtze River dam project come at the expense of smaller flood-control projects that could have mitigated this year's damage. "Too much money has been diverted to the Three Gorges project," says Dai. "Regular flood-prevention projects have been postponed and resources moved to Three Gorges."

Such criticism is forcing Chinese leaders to give an accounting for the floods and take action to stem the discontent. Beijing had promoted both deforestation and land reclamation as part of China's unregulated rush to develop its economy. Yet in their push to meet tree-felling goals, state-owned timber companies have stripped away China's forests. Meanwhile, massive land reclamation to make way for real estate projects has encroached on agriculturally important areas.

So the governor of central Sichuan province has announced a logging moratorium along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, effective Sept. 1. The government has also unveiled a plan to release large quantities of its grain reserves onto the market to prevent price hikes and the social instability they might cause. More important, Beijing has stepped up plans to reflate the economy through a massive investment program, announcing that it would issue more bonds to raise at least $12 billion this year.

The needs are severe: 223 million people have been affected by floods, and more than 3,000 have died. Six million homes have been destroyed, and at least 14 million people have had to be relocated. Conservative estimates of total damage are $20 billion and climbing. Worse, officials have warned that if the unusually heavy rains persist, floods could continue until December.

In addition, floods have disrupted China's transportation networks, affecting many enterprises far from the flooding. According to China Daily, Guangzhou's once-thriving clothing wholesale markets have seen sales drop by 50%. Rail lines blocked by floods are keeping out buyers from the rest of China.

In an attempt to bolster its image, Beijing has launched its own propaganda blitz: The newspapers and nightly television reports feature soldiers fighting the floods. But already there are signals that the apparatchiks may resort to another kind of damage control. The propaganda czars are planning a crackdown on the most critical flood coverage. But given how devastating this year's floods are, those moves may be too late. This is one debate unlikely to go away.

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