Water Power: The "Hydropower Discourse" of China in an Age of Environmental Sustainability

Yuen-ching Bellette Lee
2014 The ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts  
As China has entered the 21st century with an increasing need for energy and in a position of leadership in hydropower technology following its success in building the Three Gorges Dam, a new form of "hydropower discourse" has begun to take shape. Unlike the global polemics over the Three Gorges Dam, which entailed a largely dichotomous opposition between the developmentalism embraced by Chinese technocrats on one side and the environmentalism advocated by transnational activist groups on the
more » ... ist groups on the other (Lee 2013, 102-126), the new hydropower discourse in China has broken down the boundary between the two sets of ideology and practice and crossed over to the environmental field to appropriate some of its concepts. Discourse here encompasses articulations, both spoken and textual, which enact, legitimate, and reproduce social relations that enable certain people or groups to exercise power over others by naturalizing the discourse's constituent ideology. In the case of hydropower discourse, the harnessing of rivers is conceptualized, debated, and discussed in such a way that a certain approach of hydraulic development appears to be natural and unobjectionable. The technocratic language of river development, expressed in the ethical terms of environmental protection in pursuit of renewable energy, eliminates the political content and socioeconomic implications from the practice of dam building. Removed in this depoliticizing act are, inter alia, people's rights, social justice, impacts on the natural environment, and economic distribution between citizens, geographical regions, and groups with disparate interests. The apparent apolitical character of hydropower discourse, in other words, conceals relations of dominance, in which people or objects in the lower end of the power hierarchy -be it nature, groups that have little or no share in the economic benefits, or rural villagers who are excluded from the decision-making system -are deprived of Water Power: The "Hydropower Discourse" of China in an Age of Environmental Sustainability Abstract: As the world searches for renewable energy in the face of climate change and China attempts to expand its power supply to further its economic development, hydroelectricity has moved to the top of the country's energy agenda. This has given rise to a new form of "hydropower discourse" in China. The discourse is underpinned by the ideas of environmental protection and sustainable development, which are widely perceived as unobjectionable in view of the current availability of resources. This article argues that the apparent ethical pursuit of renewable energy by building dams to generate electricity masks relations of dominance and helps to enable large energy companies, political leaders, and regional decision makers to pursue their interests against those who have limited or no access to the knowledge and capital employed in the development process. It will examine the ideological assumptions and institutional rootedness of hydropower discourse, and the power relations embedded in it.
doi:10.16995/ane.103 fatcat:r3mjttvqurgbjhgk5hyrabfhze