As Yangtze Rises, China Must Choose

Millions of homes and crops wash away. Officials may decide to save cities first.

Like never-ending waves of troops in an invincible army, the floods that for months have mounted attack after attack here are battering China's heartland.

Although millions of civilians and soldiers have been mobilized to counter the joint assault of the rains and the ever-swelling Yangtze River, the losses are growing. Already about 30 million people have been displaced during China's worst floods in nearly a half century; 5.6 million homes have been washed away, and almost 12 million acres of crops have been destroyed, say officials at China's State Council, or Cabinet.

The Yangtze, which flows from the Tibetan plateau and cuts across central China to the east-coast's Shanghai, is undergoing an old metamorphosis: Like the Nile, the river most of the time feeds the fertile plains surrounding its banks, but periodically rises up to destroy its neighbors.

The Yangtze is now being perceived as an enemy, and China's leadership, like any military strategist, is forced to decide how to contain the threat.

Water levels are rising so quickly that flood control officials "are mulling flood diversion to ease pressure downstream and spare heavy industrial" areas, says a report in the official China Daily.

In other words, the government must decide whether to flood poor rural districts along the Yangtze in order to save large cities like Wuhan.

Yet just as in war, the first casualty of the floods may be the truth: Several Chinese officials say privately that the policy of sacrificing peasant villages to protect rich urban centers has already begun.

Last week, before the Yangtze threatened to inundate Wuhan's 7 million residents, "we diverted part of the waters into upstream villages," says an official at the Hubei Provincial Flood Control Headquarters. "While some villages were destroyed, the flooded Yangtze safely passed" downstream cities, adds the official, who declined to identify himself.

The practice of forcing the countryside to bear the brunt of hardships in order to safeguard urban elites dates back to imperial rule, and has been continued by the Communist Party, say several Chinese scholars.

"The peasants traditionally have been seen as a very weak interest group that can tolerate hardships," says a Chinese sociologist. "Because China does not have national direct elections or a federal system, the leadership has little to fear by placing the burden of the disaster on the countryside," he adds.

Former reporter Dai Qing agrees. "There have been no reports in the Chinese media on flooding the countryside to save the cities," says Ms. Dai. "Yet this type of policy has been implemented throughout Chinese history. China's political system often makes ordinary people, poor people, sacrifice for the cities or the government," she adds.

Writer Dai says the mounting casualties from the floods "have two causes - one natural and one manmade." While many countries are subject to periodic floods, China's problems have been greatly exacerbated by "two generations of leaders who had no sense of environmental protection," she says.

During the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong, Beijing mobilized the masses in great projects to build dams and cut down trees without regard for environmental consequences. Mao also encouraged the Chinese masses to go forth and multiply, and the resulting population boom not only put more pressure on the ecosystem, but also forced would-be farmers to seek fertile land increasingly close to waterways.

Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, continued an environmentally questionable industrial revolution, and only since Deng's death has the Chinese leadership begun to address problems like massive erosion and worsening floods, Dai says.

China's rulers often say that their multibillion dollar Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze, slated for completion early in the 21st century, will help tame the river and control the floods that currently threaten millions of riverside dwellers. Yet Dai, a longtime critic of the dam who has written two books on the subject, sharply disagrees.

First, the titanic dam "will partially protect downstream cities like Wuhan while increasing the danger for upstream cities like Chongqing," which holds 30 million residents, she says. Second, because the central government has budgeted so much money for the Three Gorges, it has meager funds left for disaster prevention and relief for the current floods, she adds.

A State Council spokesman said at a press conference on Thursday that Beijing had allocated 1.9 billion yuan (about US $240 million) for disaster relief, but conceded that some refugees from the floods had "lacked food for a long time."

Wang Zhenyao, a disaster relief official at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, says that "so many peasants have been forced to flee their villages that it will be a huge undertaking to provide them all with food, tents, and medicine."

Mr. Wang says that the central government had abandoned its policy of "protecting cities by flooding the countryside several years ago" and adds "the current goal is to protect the entire area along the Yangtze." Yet another ministry official concedes that "the old policy of blasting dikes in rural areas to limit the danger to larger cities is now being revived along scattered areas of the river."

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