Geologist Yong Yang and the Middle Kingdom’s Dilemma

In January 2007, a geologist named Yong Yang set out from his home in China’s western Sichuan Province with five researchers, two sport utility vehicles, one set of clothes, and several trunks of equipment for measuring rainfall and water volume; a camping stove, a rice cooker, canned meat, and more than sixty bottles of Sichuan hot sauce; a digital camera, a deck of cards, and several CDs of Tibetan music; and as many canisters of fuel as his team could strap to the roofs of their SUVs. No roads cross the part of China to which Yong was traveling, so he also brought topographical charts and satellite photos of the region. His final destination, deep in China’s wild western frontier, was the unmarked place on the Tibetan plateau from which the Yangtze River springs.

For several weeks the two vehicles followed the Yangtze west, as the river turned from running water to ice. The thermometer became useless when the temperature dipped below the lowest reading on its scale. Occasionally they spotted an antelope, and once wolves devoured their fresh yak meat. As they climbed in elevation, tracing the course the Yangtze had cut through the Dangla Mountains many millennia ago, the air grew thinner and the wind fiercer. When the ground rose too steeply into the surrounding peaks for the SUVs to maneuver along the riverbanks, they drove on the frozen river itself, though this approach was not without its perils. About a month into their trip, on the auspicious first day of the Lunar New Year, Yong heard a great crunching sound as his front and then back tires slid through the ice, trapping his vehicle midstream. Fortunately, the vehicle wasn’t too far submerged, and the backseat passengers managed to clamber out and signal to the second SUV. With a rope tied to the rear bumper, they dragged the vehicle from the frozen river, with Yong still in the driver’s seat, transmission in reverse.

Yong and his companions made it safely out of the river. But since then he’s continued to travel, in many senses, on thin ice. A vital question had propelled his journey up the Yangtze: the Chinese government is embarking on the most colossal water diversion project ever attempted, and Yong had taken it upon himself to discover whether it would work.

Water is an unevenly distributed resource in China. Traditionally, the south has been lush while the north has been a land of dry tundra and frozen desert. In 1952, Mao Zedong conjured a solution to this inequity: “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce,” he said. “Borrowing some water would be good.” Ever since, China’s leaders have dreamed of diverting water from one of the country’s great rivers to the other—from the southern Yangtze River into the northern Yellow River. (To fathom the scale of this undertaking, imagine watering the American Southwest by diverting the Mississippi River into the Colorado.)

In recent years, this eccentric scheme has become increasingly appealing to Chinese authorities, as water shortages in northern cities have become more and more dire. In 2002, China’s highest executive body, the State Council, converted Mao’s grandiose notion into a plan known as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. Construction on two sections of the project have already begun, but the most ambitious stage is scheduled to begin by 2010. This phase will divert water from the Yangtze in southwestern China to the north, across mountains that rise to 15,000 feet above sea level. The entire project will cost at least an estimated $60.4 billion, and has aroused intense opposition because it is expected to displace hundreds of thousands of people and devastate fragile ecosystems.

Between January and March, Yong’s team traveled more than 16,000 miles in the Yangtze River basin, threading every bend in the western reaches of the river. The previous summer they had driven roughly the same route, so they could compare water levels in different seasons. On both trips they collected data on rainfall, geology, receding glaciers, and other trends that affect the volume of water in the river. Yong had learned from firsthand experience that for about four months each year the upper Yangtze is a ribbon of ice; only an engineering miracle could transport the frozen water north. After he spent the summer and fall compiling data and circulating it among several dozen peer-researchers for feedback, he found more reasons to be skeptical of the ability of the project to live up to the government’s vision. The bounteous stream of Beijing’s imagination became, in Yong’s careful calculations, a trickle.

The fact that Yong is free to conduct such inquiries at all says much about the recent political evolution of China. Fifteen years ago, the government wouldn’t have tolerated public questioning of large-scale infrastructure projects. But in recent years, criticism from independent scientists and environmental organizations has prompted the government to postpone two planned western dam projects. In September, officials even acknowledged (after the fact) that unsound planning for the controversial Three Gorges Dam project had created a potential “environmental catastrophe.” This isn’t a sign that China’s Communist Party is throwing the country’s political system open to full democratic participation. But China’s leaders know that a rapidly deteriorating environment could stall the country’s economic miracle and ignite political unrest, and so they’re experimenting with limited openness to help avert these hazards. It remains an open question, however, just how much scrutiny the government will tolerate, and how much impact Yong will be permitted to have. His midwinter expedition was only the first stage of his odyssey into uncharted terrain.

On my first visit to Beijing, last spring, I wheezed all the way from the airport to my hotel. The thick smog hid any hint of direct sunlight, and for a week I didn’t see my shadow. When I returned in mid-October, the city appeared to be a changed place. I was surprised to see clear blue skies. Skyscrapers were visible from a distance, not shrouded in haze. There were other changes, too—swept sidewalks, a sudden absence of bootleg DVD hawkers, more policemen on the streets.

A week later, the city looked, sounded, and smelled like her familiar self again. The street vendors were back, along with the curbside cobblers and the men waving Bourne Identity 3 DVDs. The skies were gray, the sun obscured, and cigarette butts and orange peels once again speckled the sidewalks.

The temporary makeover had coincided—not accident-ally—with the Seventeenth Communist Party Congress, the meeting of party bigwigs that happens once every five years and attracts numerous domestic and international visitors. During the congress, the central government, eager to punctuate its new talk of environmental protection with some proof of its commitment, had directed its might toward cleaning up a targeted area for a discrete period of time, reportedly putting regional factories and Beijing’s public vehicles on a compulsory holiday. The results were eerily impressive. (Expect an encore for the 2008 Olympics.) But the greater significance of this fleeting transformation was that it exposed the limits of the party’s power. The central government can clamp down abruptly and indomitably, but it can’t do so everywhere, all the time.

As I wrote in these pages last summer (“The Great Leap Forward”), China’s political leaders have in recent years embraced the environmental cause, not out of sentiment or idealism but as a matter of survival. China’s environment is becoming so degraded that it risks choking off the country’s booming economy: the West balks at buying mercury-contaminated grain, while water shortages threaten Chinese paper mills and petrochemical plants. Also at risk is the country’s political stability: peasant riots over land seizures and polluted rivers are becoming increasingly common (“Pollution Revolution”). But while the central government has issued stern directives aimed at reducing air and water pollution, it lacks the means to enforce them. That’s because, in order to promote economic growth over the last three decades, Beijing has gradually relinquished certain types of authority to provincial governments. The result has been dramatic gains in the country’s gross domestic product, with new factories multiplying across the countryside. However, provincial autonomy has also enabled local officials to ignore cumbersome central directives, including regulations on matters ranging from food safety to environmental standards.

Understanding their diminished ability to enforce green statutes locally, China’s leaders have turned cautiously to civil society for assistance. Since 1994, Beijing has empowered nongovernmental groups to expose polluting factories. Today there are more than 3,000 citizen green groups in China. In 2003 and 2004, the government enacted laws requiring environmental impact assessments and citizen input on major public works projects. (These measures took effect shortly after construction commenced on the first two phases of the water transfer project.) In 2005, China’s first national public hearing—over the fate of the Old Summer Palace—was broadcast on national television. Progressive environmental officials are introducing the concepts of “public participation,” “hearings,” and “rights” to the public. Environmental lawyers are litigating China’s first successful class-action lawsuits. Compared to a decade ago, the situation is remarkable.

Still, there are limits to the government’s spirit of reform, and perhaps some in the party feel they’ve been moving too fast. Around the time of high-profile events like the Party Congress, the flashpoints become more apparent. For instance, the first promotion resulting from the congress was Li Yuanchao, former party secretary of Jiangsu Province, who was elevated to a seat on the Politburo, the inner circle of Chinese leadership. In announcing his ascent, newspapers extolled Li’s “environmental” record. A few months earlier, however, his province had shut off water to 4 million people for a week because chemical pollution and algae blooms had turned the local water source, Lake Tai, a brilliant pea green. An environmental activist named Wu Lihong had tried to alert the authorities and the public to the problem. For his trouble, he was arrested on the orders of local officials and sentenced to three years in prison. (His case was recently written up in the New York Times.) To many observers, it seemed odd that Wu was silenced while more prominent environmentalists were allowed to operate freely. But Wen Bo, a veteran environmentalist in Beijing, decoded the message for me: Wu was thrown in jail for questioning the real record of Li’s Jiangsu government. “Li is a protege of Hu Jintao,” Wen said. “Jiangsu Province is the stronghold of Hu Jintao. If that area is quiet, their power-hold is strong.”

The government does want citizen groups to help combat pollution, and it has created an opening for them to do so. But political power in China is still wielded behind closed doors, and that opening can constrict without warning when an activist crosses the agenda of an influential official. It is within this unpredictable sphere that Yong Yang is attempting to operate.

This October, I spoke with the forty-nine-year-old Yong in Beijing. (We first met last spring in western Sichuan Province.) He had thick black hair and hadn’t shaved for a day or two. He was dressed in a black jacket, a gray sweater, and black jeans. Despite his rugged appearance and the adventurous nature of his research, his eyes seemed more sad than rebellious. “I am not against the government,” he explained, snuffing out what was likely his sixth or seventh cigarette of the evening. “What I want is to get the facts.”

In Yong’s hotel room, we hunched over his laptop to look at slides from his trip. There were photos of his SUV crashing through the ice; of someone pouring hot water from a teakettle to defrost the engine’s water tank; of Tibetan herders who offered Yong and his colleagues meat and milk along the way.

Then Yong opened a spreadsheet. On one side was a series of estimates, based on Yong’s research, of the volume of water in the Yangtze. On the other side were the official estimates prepared by the government’s Yellow River Conservancy Commission. The government data was supposed to be secret, but Yong had obtained it from a network of friends and former colleagues inside the government.

Yong found that the official figures were often “way off.” In one section of the river, the government’s plans call for diverting between 8 and 9 billion cubic meters of water north each year. However, Yong’s research—supported by thirty years’ worth of reports from hydrology monitoring stations—indicates that the average annual water flow for that section includes a low estimate of 7 billion cubic meters. This means that when the river flow is low, the government would be hoping to divert an amount of water greater than the total volume in the river. Moreover, no sound engineering plan should call for redirecting all of the water in a river, since downstream communities, including Shanghai, will still depend upon the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower.

Yong is not alone in doubting the feasibility of the final section of the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. More than fifty scientists in Sichuan contributed to a 2006 book, South-to-North Water Transfer Project Western Route Memorandums. The collection of scientific articles and reports raises serious concerns about construction at high altitudes, seismic stability, pollution in the Yangtze, climate change (the river’s volume is expected to diminish as Tibet’s glaciers melt), and the potential for reduced river flow to shut down hundreds of downstream hydropower stations, perhaps inflicting blackouts on millions. According to one former government researcher, there are even critics within the Ministry of Water Resources.

Why are the official projections so fantastically optimistic? Yong, who once worked as a government scientist in the Ministry of Coal Industry, thinks he has some idea of how the numbers were produced. “The government, they will make a goal,” he explained. “Then their researchers think their job is just to say it works. Everybody will just say the good word, and try to find data to support it,” he said, shrugging. “It’s not a very scientific way of doing research.”

Yong says he has asked the Yellow River Conservancy Commission how they arrived at their figures, but their staffers have refused to respond. “They just emphasize that there won’t be much problem,” he said. (My request for an interview with the commission was referred to the Water Ministry’s Propaganda Department, where an official said that no one would be available for comment for at least two months.) No matter whose figures are correct, what worries Yong most is that there is no independent system in place to determine whether such a colossal and disruptive undertaking will work.

Yet informed sources say that the project has a champion in retired President Jiang Zemin—still a powerful force in Chinese politics—and a handful of influential retired army officers. And many entrenched interests have a reason to hope that construction proceeds. The steering committee that manages the water transfer project is led by Premier Wen Jiabao, and its members include high-ranking officials from the national government. A similar bureaucracy has been replicated in affected provinces, creating hundreds of titles and salaries dedicated to moving the project forward. Five state banks have major investments in the plan, and expect loans to be repaid when water user fees are assessed. The two companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to build the early phases of the project are hungry for more. Yet the environmental impact assessment required by the 2003 law has still not been released, and the real deliberative battle over the project remains invisible.

The perennial unreliability of information pervades all aspects of China’s environmental protection system, from water management to pollution control. Dr. Zhao Jianping, sector coordinator for energy in the World Bank’s China Office, for example, told me he was dubious of the government’s ability to achieve its goal of having 15 percent of China’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Having looked at the official plans, he told me that Beijing’s characterization of the potential of wind energy was somewhat realistic, but the discussion of biomass potential was, in his judgment, wishful thinking. “In most other countries, you do the analysis first, then set goals,” he said. “In China, you set the goal first, then you do the research and set the policy to try to achieve it.”

Similarly, Yang Fuqiang, vice president of the Energy Foundation, a research center and partnership of major international donors, told me about Beijing’s efforts to stem rising coal consumption. To monitor progress, the central government relies on local cadres to report the number of new mines, but these officials often give faulty estimates—either for lack of accurate information or out of a desire to please Beijing. “Collecting reliable data is a major challenge,” Yang said. There are no independent watchdogs to verify official statistics, which, unsurprisingly, often turn out to be wrong. In 2003, Beijing went back to review prior estimates of annual coal consumption, and discovered that its estimates for 2000 had failed to account for 50 million tons of coal burned—”a rather large oversight,” Yang remarked.

Optimists say that what China needs most is more technical training for its officials: to ensure that regional administrators are better equipped to count coal mines, and local lawyers and judges understand the nuances of new environmental laws. China does need those things. But others are beginning to think that further changes are needed, too.

One person who has helped fund Yong Yang’s research is Dr. Yu Xiaogang, founder of the nonprofit organization Green Watershed. Yu is also the architect of the greatest success story of Chinese environmentalism to date. In 2004, he coordinated opposition to a proposed series of dam projects on China’s last wild river, the Nu. (Activists and scientists presented convincing evidence that the dam would have had a ruinous effect on local communities and ecosystems.) After a sustained campaign, Premier Jiabao personally suspended the project, pending a new environmental impact assessment. When I visited Green Watershed’s offices in western Yunnan Province, Yu surprised me when he said that his success was only temporary. “There will always be another dam proposal, another financier,” he explained. He said he wants a reliable process for gathering public and expert input while plans are being drafted, not when the bulldozers are ready to roll.

“What we have got to do,” Yu said, “is change the system.” The veteran environmentalist Wen Bo also told me, “For China’s environment to improve, I think the political system needs to change. I don’t know exactly what the future needs to look like, but it needs to be moredemocratic, more free society, more free media.”

In America, the popular and political momentum for creating our modern environmental apparatus was inspired by the work of a scientist, Rachel Carson, who challenged conventional wisdom and official policies governing the use of pesticides. After Congress passed a series of landmark environmental laws in the 1970s, independent environmental lawyers ensured that those statutes were upheld by suing the government when it failed to enforce legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. When Washington has dragged its feet, independent scientists and reporters have uncovered White House obfuscations and pushed for government action. Every industrialized country—apart from Singapore, a green authoritarian city-state—that has cleaned up its environment has done so with the help of civil society and a free press.

In countries where the government hasn’t been able to control pollution, environmental crises have sometimes helped spur momentum for broader political change. Two decades ago, many in eastern Europe had grown resigned to life under a repressive government. That changed on April 26, 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in the former Soviet Union, sending vastly more radiation into the air than an atomic bomb. In downwind Poland and Slovenia, uproar over nuclear reactors and official secrecy (the state presses initially refused to report on the disaster) provoked the first mass demonstrations against the government. “Chernobyl [alone] did not topple Communism,” Padraic Kenney wrote in A Carnival of Revolution, a history of democracy movements in the former Soviet bloc. “But it became a popular symbol of government breakdown, a rallying cry for dissenters, a wake-up call for the population at large … and helped galvanize dissent in the years leading up to 1989.”

Another case—closer to home for the Chinese—is Taiwan. The country was under martial law until 1986; any kind of open political opposition to the ruling Kuomintang Party was strictly forbidden. As long as the government was delivering security and economic growth, the middle class tolerated one-party rule. Then the effects of environmental problems began to affect their daily lives. The dissident groups that later became the Democratic Progressive Party first coalesced around environmental issues, especially air pollution and opposition to nuclear power. One former U.S. embassy official told me, “Pollution was the one issue Taiwan’s middle class couldn’t tolerate.”

China’s leaders are aware of these historical parallels. David Lampton, the director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, explained Beijing’s conundrum: “The Chinese are caught between the logic of what they know they need to effectively implement environmental policy, and the fear of whether these groups could become the opening wedge to political liberalization.”

During my time in China I often found myself wondering whether Beijing’s experiment could succeed. Can a limited form of public participation help avert environmental ruin? Or are independent oversight, the rule of law, and the ability to vote out bad officials essential components of effective environmental protection?

Perhaps China will, once again, elide the apparent contradictions of its environmental politics in the same way that it has somehow melded capitalism and communism. Or perhaps smoggy cities, dwindling water supplies, and peasant protests over pollution will force the party to accept greater political openness. Or perhaps the environmental activists themselves will call for it. Whatever happens, the consequences will be epic. If China continues on its current course, within twenty-five years it will emit twice the carbon dioxide of all the OECD countries combined. The Middle Kingdom’s dilemma is ours, too.

For now, China’s environmental politics have a slightly schizophrenic quality. This summer, for instance, Beijing police shut down a long-running national environmental Web site, China Development Brief, which had pages in both Chinese and English and was closely monitored by experts inside and outside the country. Observers speculate that authorities were worried about the site’s role as a hub for green groups to network nationally without any kind of state supervision. In October, however, the State Environmental Protection Administration sanctioned a national conference of green NGOs, which gave environmentalists the opportunity to conduct their national networking in person.

I attended the conference in Beijing, and saw representatives of more than 300 citizen groups from across China behaving anything but furtively, exchanging business cards and debating President Hu’s environmental theories in nearby restaurants. A few government officials showed up on the first morning to commend the work of notable attendees and encourage citizens toward greater “public participation” in environmental protection. The program of speakers had been approved by the government, but as one participant told me, “The most important thing is not the schedule, but the chance to meet other environmentalists from everywhere in China.” Some of the activists I spoke to said they wanted to be a “bridge” between the government and the public, helping to disseminate information about green priorities, while others said they wanted a greater role in setting or overseeing policy. Nearly all of them mentioned “the line”—the boundary between safe and potentially punishable forms of advocacy—which is perceived differently by the government and the public and fluctuates with changing political tides.

Yong Yang was at the conference too. He debuted a new PowerPoint presentation of his research, sharing information and gathering feedback. Having failed to open a direct line of communication with the government, he is now trying to telegraph his concern about the South-to-North Water Transfer Project through informal networks. (Over the summer, he had spoken with a reporter for the South China Morning Post, but the article was never published because, he thinks, it was scheduled to appear right before the National Party Congress.)

Although Yong’s activities appear to bring him into increasingly open conflict with the government, he insists that his aim is not political—he sees himself as a scientist first, an environmentalist second. (“Science,” he told me, “is the most damning kind of criticism.”) Still, he is aware that his work is, as he put it, “a direct challenge to the system—to the government’s decision-making process, and to the interest groups that benefit from it.”

Yong has walked the line before. Two years ago, while researching power stations along the Min River, local business interests attempted—unsuccessfully—to silence him with bribes and threats. I asked if he was ever nervous for his safety. “Once you make up your mind to do this,” he told me, “you have to be prepared for everything that happens.”

[Washington Monthly]