Sunday, October 22, 2006

Well, I'll be dammed ...

While the nationally heralded joy over Jia Zhangke's win at the Venice Filmfestival with his documentary-style feature film "Still Life" (三峡好人) must be slowly subsiding, it seems not all is quiet yet on the Three Gorges Dam front.

While the film focuses on the tribulations and love stories of the people that had to suffer through relocation because the dam reservoir flooded their original dwellings, a lot of people are now also frowning their eyebrows for more economic concerns. With one of the two shiplocks that take the boats around the dam, in effect locked, one of the major reasons for having the dam built, i.e. improving navigation on the upperreaches of the Yangtze, seems to be in serious jeopardy.

The delays that have plagued boats trying to get around the Three Gorges dam are set to worsen soon when one-half of the two-way shiplock is taken out of service for more than nine months.

The partial closure of the shiplock is scheduled to begin in mid-September and continue until the end of June 2007, Xinhua reports. The five-step shiplock raises vessels to the higher water level in the reservoir behind the dam or lowers them to the river downstream.

The Three Gorges reservoir is due to be raised a further 17 metres after the current flood season, when it will go from 139 to 156 metres above sea level. After the reservoir is raised, the south (downstream) side of the shiplock will be drained to allow construction work on the structure to be completed. With the shiplock's traffic-handling capacity cut in half, vessels going in both directions will have to use the one lane that normally only handles ships going upstream.

The story, which can be found over at CDT and Three Gorges Probe, is just one of those things that makes one wonder whether the benefits will finally outweigh the drawbacks. In the meantime, the bills keep going up on the monsterproject.

Now, in an apparent effort to relieve some of the pressure on the shiplock, the Three Gorges Project Corp. has decided to build a highway from the dam site to the city of Yichang, China News Service reports. The 57-kilometre, 3.6-billion-yuan (US$450-million) road will run from the port of Maoping just upstream of the dam to the Yangtze Bridge at Yichang, and connect with the Chengdu-Shanghai national highway system.

The plan for the new highway appears to confirm the concerns expressed by many, including local governments and shipping companies, that the shiplock is able to handle much less freight than its designers anticipated or project authorities promised.

Clearly, the trials have only begun, as already the first reports start popping up on weather change, not only in Yichang -the dam's location- but areawide in the Sichuan region, which could be due to evaporation of the huge watersurface behind the dam. According to Probe International's Patricia Adams, also the Yangzi flood control argument will not be able to deliver on it's promises:

Meanwhile, the much-touted flood-control benefit turns out to have been nothing more than propaganda. Internal and confidential state documents that were leaked to us confirm that, according to the best analysis done by Qinghua University scholars, the dam will not control Yangtze floods, and the officials know it. But, the leaked documents warn, "never, ever let the public know this."

TGP however is now a fact of life and the Chinese (and the world by extension), whether benefitted by it or not, will have to accomodate whatever consequences it may bring. In view of the huge debate this project has aroused, with fierce criticsm from all circles of scientists, environmentalists, engineers etc ... AND the less than positive track-record they have on dams (over 200 collapsed, several disfunctional due to silting, ...), one would have expected China to be cautious on venturing in further megalomaniac hydropower projects.

Not so the Middle Kingdom. Though TGP will probably remain the largest single project in dimension and size, the sheer number of dams that are on the planning table is incredible. "International Rivers Network" has put up a map on what is in the pipeline for the so-called Greater Shangri-La Region. Extrapolation of this map to the entire country may not be the correct thing to do as there are other area's in China that have far less river coverage than this part, but it gives us an idea on what is on the Chinese planners mind to boost power production fourfold by 2020. When we look at it from this angle and from the first lessons that have been learned from TGP, it may seem that China's environmental nightmare may only have just begun.

The chinese authorities may also have to toughen up further if they want to implement all they have in their drawers, because opposition is also straightening it's back and gets ready to fight. As such, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao already had to order a stop on the building of a dam on the Nujiang River to further assess the environmental impact (Ref. Ma Jun's "Record-breaking Dam Building Boom could make Free-Flowing Rivers and Endangered Species in the World's Most Dammed Country") .

Maybe the River Dragon is slowly awakening and starts to bite back in defense.


Friday, October 20, 2006

One new blog a day ...

From a blog-spotting perspective, this has been a good week. I even think it's fair to say it has been an excellent week.

First I ran into J's "Jottings of the Granite Studio", which makes for really very refreshing reading on Chinese history and how it links into modern China and the rest of the world, or just the opposite way round. Can't go wrong with a guy who can actually blog an entire entry on how he got to the name.

Then today, I stumbled into "The Opposite End of China", a China blog by an American laowai on life at China's outer regions with focus on Xinjiang. Still a lot to be discovered over on that site, but I couldn't resist drawing attention to the magnificent pictures of Michael's last trip to Tibet. I was especially charmed by this one:

The charm, apart from the beautiful colors of the sky, comes entirely from the angle from which it is shot. Not the seen-that-one-thousand-times (yawn, yawn ...) frontal view of the Potala Palace, but a more distant shot from the side, contrasting the building with the relative chaos of the other urban dwellings in front and making it look like one of these Japanese fortified castles like you're bound to see in for instance Kurosawa's "Ran".

Love it, and the best part ... there's plenty more to be enjoyed.

Monday, October 16, 2006

North-Korea: shocking !

A lot of debate ongoing in the blogosphere on North-Korea, the international pariah receiving the unanimous conviction of the entire "civilised" world for the outrageous provocation they have thrown in our face by performing a nuclear test.

To be sure: I don't feel comfortable with these guys messing around with nukes, albeit in the underground of their own country.

But then again, I don't feel any more comfortable with the American or Russian nuclear arsenal, when there is evidence popping up that for instance the Kursk, the Russian submarine that sank on August 12, 2000, may have been grounded by a U.S. launched missile.
I don't feel comfortable when the U.S., in a way that is more becoming rule than exception, is disregarding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and cooperates with India on it's nuclear development (for civil reasons, of course) while leaving Pakistan in the cold.
I didn't feel comfortable back in 1995 when Mr. Chirac slapped the world in the face by resuming nuclear tests in the Mururoa atol, when 10 years before that the French had already sunk Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior for trying to intervene in similar tests.

I just don't feel comfortable with any nukes, whether they are held by George, Jacques or Kim.

In the Korean debate, I however missed anyone making reference to a pretty good article in Newsweek by Selig S. Harrison. His opening statement read like this:

On Sept. 19, 2005, North Korea signed a widely heralded denuclearization agreement with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang pledged to "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." In return, Washington agreed that the United States and North Korea would "respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations." Four days later, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea designed to cut off the country's access to the international banking system, branding it a "criminal state" guilty of counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration says that this sequence of events was a coincidence. Whatever the truth, I found on a recent trip to Pyongyang that North Korean leaders view the financial sanctions as the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the administration to undercut the Sept. 19 accord, squeeze the Kim Jong Il regime and eventually force its collapse.
(emphasis is mine. Notice again the "weapons of mass destruction'-thing ?)

So is that the way we do business nowadays ? Signing treaties and then shoot the cosignataries in the back ? I don't care whether North Korea were communist, Hinduist, polygamist or ... my God, catholics ... they deserved a chance to show that they were willing to make efforts in a process that could lead, if not to worldwide loving embrace, at least to peaceful co-existence with it's neighbours. Israël is given a new chance every time they have trampled on the Palestinians, so why not North-Korea, a "country on the verge of collapse" ?

Do I have any reason to distrust Mr. Harrison ? I wouldn't see why, with his credentials.

I am getting sick of all the distorted thruths we are confronted with every single day, from all sides.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lotus shoes

This time I couldn't help myself, I just had to buy a pair of those tiny little shoes for those tiny little chinese feet when I saw them on the Shanghai antique market near Huaihai Lu.

Don't worry: it's not that I take these to be the real thing. When I compare what I had to pay, to the prices I find on e-Bay for these items, I either have to conclude that I struck an incredibly good deal, or that I purchased some of these artefacts that roll out of some factory in response to popular tourist demand. I'll stick to the latter option, for the time being. Not that I care. I don't intend to become a collector anytime soon, but just to think of the history behind that kind of shoes made me feel I had to buy it.

Let me first show how they look like:

Isn't it an enormous irony that those who of old were said "to hold up half the sky", -the chinese women in other words- were hardly able to hold themselves upright because of their bound feet that made them rather hobble than walk ? Yet the custom has sustained for over a thousand years. As if these women felt that to mould the world they lived in into a moral universe, of which they had been assigned the keepers, they first had to mould their own bodies into something ... aspiring for more, let's say. The binding of feet, how male-induced it may have been at the core, could not have survived for such a long time if the women, who performed it on their own daughters, were not supportive of it.

There is no way denying the hardship footbinding brought for each and every girl that was submitted to the torture, but look at the shoes -and these may not even be the best of samples- and feel the love and pride that went into them. These shoes were after all the adornment of precisely that what empowered women in a male-centered world: their lotus feet, which purely by concealing them, could drive the men crazy, yet were just as much a token of the characterstrength and the right sense of decorum that could earn the women respect in an otherwise harsh world.

There is an entire new way of research ongoing, steering away from the standard, largely western, christian biased arguments of the early twentieth century anti-footbinding movement and there may be more surprises coming up in the way we view this peculiar custom.