the late 1990s, Premier Li Peng’s (1988–1998) retirement left behind an economic bubble in China’s coastal areas and a legacy of underdevelopment in the Western regions. The Asian Financial Crisis
of 1997 resulted in the stagnation of China’s foreign trade and the shrinking of its export-oriented economy, while major flooding in 1998 also harmed the economy. Premier Zhu Rongji
(1998–2003) led the new State Council to address these challenges by expanding domestic demand to create an economic “soft landing” (Yonglin 2006). The country’s development pattern shifted from an export-oriented economy alone to one that also prioritized investment in undeveloped regions of Western China.
In 2000, the central government launched the Western Region Development Strategy (2000–2020). Within this approach, the “West East Power Transfer” (WEPT
) strategy supported large dam
construction in Southwest China to transmit electricity to the industrialized Southeastern seaboard where power demand was high and resources to produce electricity limited (Magee 2006; Dore et al. 2007). The WEPT strategy was favored by China’s leaders because designing plans for the development of China’s western water resources allowed the WEPT strategy to promise to not only meet the electricity demands of Eastern China, but also stimulate economic growth in the West of the country (Peiyan 2010). In this policy discourse, hydropower was considered a clean and renewable energy. Yet, Southwest China, where the projects were to be built, is also the area with China’s best-preserved ecology, most abundant biodiversity
, and largest ethnic minority population, thus raising the risk of ecological and social harms due to the projects.
Dissolution of the State Power Corporation
continued economic liberalization under Premier Zhu Rongji
led to the reform of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The power generation section of the monopoly SOE State Power Company was split into five companies (Huaneng, Datang, Huadian, Guodian and China Power
Investment Corporation), while the power grid section was split into the State Grid and the Southern Power Grid
(Xiaobing 2003). Following this reform, the five power generation companies began competing to increase their profits through bids to build hydropower dams
on domestic rivers mainly in Southwest China, which became known as the “river-enclosure movement” (Xiaohui/Baiying 2010). The companies claimed that these hydropower projects were key to China’s national energy strategy.
While reform of SOEs was needed to improve their economic performance, under WEPT
the central government also unleashed market forces to drive hydropower development
. Despite a strong emphasis on planning and environmental impact assessment
(EIA), the government could not control the SOEs. Furthermore, the local and national government themselves were often captured by the benefits of strong capital forces, including the generation of revenues from taxes and various fees. Moreover, SOEs often relied on corrupt government officials to obtain project approval.
Local Government Response to the WEPT Strategy and Nu River Hydropower Plans
are six rivers flowing through Yunnan Province, with the most profitable for hydropower development
being the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha Rivers. Yunnan Province thus became the main focus of WEPT
. The Nu River
has 36,400 megawatts (MW) of potential hydropower resources and accounts for about one-third of the total hydropower capacity in Yunnan. It was viewed by the government and project developers as one of China’s largest potential hydropower resources yet to be developed. The total investment of the proposed thirteen dam
cascade proposed for the Nu River
was 89.65 billion RMB. When completed, the total annual income from the 13 hydropower dams
was anticipated to be more than 30 billion RMB. Meanwhile, annual state revenue would increase by 5.20 billion RMB and annual local revenue for Yunnan Province would increase by 2.72 billion RMB, of which the Nu Prefecture
Government would obtain 1 billion RMB of tax revenue (Yaohua/Jiankun 2004).
In November 2000, the Yunnan Provincial government responded to the strategy of WEPT
by affirming its intention to speed up the development of the hydropower industry (Hao 2000). On 31st January 2003, the Yunnan Provincial government signed an “Agreement on promoting the cooperation of power development in Yunnan” with the Huadian Group
. Subsequently, on 10th July 2003, the Yunnan Huadian Nu River Hydropower Company
was jointly established by Huadian Group
(51%), Yunnan Energy Investment Group (20%), China Resources Power Holdings (19%) and Yunnan Power Investment (10%).
Yet, in the same month of the creation of the Yunnan Huadian Nu River Hydropower Company
, on 3rd July 2003, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted to list the “Three Parallel Rivers”
as a World Nature Heritage site. This listing offered a different development option for both the Nu River
and the Nu Prefecture
government. However, the local government quickly initiated a propaganda campaign to ensure that hydropower development
was the option to be prioritized. For example, the Secretary of the Nu Prefecture
government, Xie Yi, requested each government department to collectively write an article explaining that hydropower was “the only way to facilitate Nu River
development” (later to be published as “An inevitable choice for the Nu River
”). The aim of the articles was to influence civil servants’ views on hydropower development
. Additionally, the local newspaper and radio began reporting daily on the significance of hydropower to various industries. When Cha Chaoou, a government official of Lisu origin in charge of the prefecture’s poverty alleviation program, pointed out that there were many ways to alleviate poverty and that hydropower development
was not the only option, he was quickly removed from his position (Bizhong 2004).
Challenges from the State Environmental Protection Administration
The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA)
played a key role in the debate over the Nu River
’s development pathway. With the implementation of China’s EIA Law
on 1st September 2003, SEPA gained the authority to question EIA reports and processes, and subsequently challenged the EIA of the Nu River
plan. SEPA’s main criticism centered on the fact that the EIA report was based on the “Regulations for River Basin Environmental Impact Assessments” issued in 1992. As there were technical differences between these regulations and the new EIA Law
, SEPA questioned the overall credibility of the Nu River
Planning Unit and the EIA Unit of the Beijing Engineering Corporation (Yikun 2004).
Following a review meeting held by the National Development and Reform Commission on Nu River
hydropower planning in Beijing on 12th–14th August 2003, SEPA held two expert forums on ecological environment protection and hydropower development
in the Nu River
Basin on September 3rd and October 21st 2003. Following objections raised around the EIA report, the media flagged the issue as a public concern. Yang Chaofei, Director of the Natural Ecological Protection Division of SEPA, began to question the hydropower boom and the ecological impact of dams
(Chaofei 2003). In this debate, he also introduced the report of the World Commission on Dams
(WCD 2000) into the discussion in China about hydropower. These studies informed the cautious attitude and discourse of SEPA toward large hydropower dams
on rivers in China’s Southwest.
The Nu River
hydropower planning also stimulated public debate. Chinese environmental NGOs
cooperated with the public, media and experts to conduct a series of advocacy
campaigns (see below).
Suspension and Consequence of the Nu River Hydropower Plan
In February 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao
(2003–2013) officially suspended the Nu River
plan. However, project proponents continued to support the projects and decision-making on the future of the Nu River
became complicated. Supporters of hydropower construction applied three new strategies: (1) form an alliance with the media to influence public opinion; (2) create a hydropower nationalism
discourse; and (3) cultivate pro-hydropower academics.
For hydropower developers, the media had become a challenge to them as it tended to report civil society
opinions against the dams
. Hydropower developers thus saw it necessary to create hydropower-friendly media to cultivate a discourse endorsing dam
development. This strategy manifested itself in the emergence of a group of on-line writers, including Zhang Boting, Fang Zhouzi, and Sima Nam, who positioned themselves against the civil society
movement seeking to halt large dam
Relatedly, a ‘hydropower nationalism
’ discourse emerged that centered on framing river protection as a Western country-induced plot against China. The ‘hydropower nationalism
’ discourse presented hydropower development
as a means to protect China’s public and national interests. Under this discourse, the transnational environment NGO movement questioning hydropower development
and advocating for indigenous people’s rights were portrayed as a Western scheme to sow seeds of dissent within China. Rumors such as “Premier Wen Jiabao
was coerced by NGOs
into impeding hydropower development
” (Xiaolan 2007) or that SEPA officials were against hydropower because they wanted to increase their own decision-making power were commonly used in this discourse.
Regarding cultivating pro-hydropower academics, in 2004, the Yunnan Power Company
set up a “Yunnan Power Prize” worth 800,000 RMB to support research by the Yunnan Academy of Social Science. He Yaohua, former President of the Yunnan Academy of Social Science and Chairman of the Southwest National Research Association, wrote, collected and published papers in a book that supported hydropower development
entitled “Nu, Lancang and Jinsha Rivers: Research on the exploitation of hydropower resources and the protection of the environment” (Jiangkun/Yaohua 2004). The publication was disseminated as policy input for decision-making by the Yunnan Province government and its senior leaders. In promoting hydropower development
, this academic strategy reduced space for public debate on hydropower by framing hydropower decision-making as purely an academic and technical issue. Qin Guangrong, Vice Secretary of the Yunnan Provincial Party Committee and Executive Vice Governor, praised the role of the academy in supporting Yunnan’s development (Guangrong 2004).
Current Status of WEPT in Yunnan Province
large hydropower development
has been questioned by the public since the early 2000s, hydropower in Southwestern China continues to be built under the direction of various government agencies responsible for energy and the local government. By the end of 2014, the total installed capacity of hydropower in China had reached over 300 million kilowatts, accounting for a quarter of the world’s total installed capacity (Hui 2015). However, as China’s economy enters a new norm of less rapid economic growth and a restructuring of the economy away from energy intensive industries, hydropower developers have been left with an excess of power generation capacity (Lin et al. 2016). In response, as discussed in the energy reform pathway below, the government has proposed to expand electricity exports into Southeast Asia, and domestically to shift from WEPT
to increasing demand in Yunnan Province itself.
Small Hydropower on Nu River Tributaries
the official suspension of large hydropower dam
plans in 2004, the Nu Prefecture
government reoriented towards promoting small- and medium-scale
hydropower. These plans, however, have also been backed by various Central Government policies since 1983, when the Ministry of Water Resources endorsed small hydropower projects for rural electrification. Investors from eastern areas of China, such as Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces, rushed into Southwestern China attracted by small hydropower’s low initial investment and running costs.
There was, however, a lack of binding regulations, especially regarding small hydropower’s environmental impacts. SEPA, which in 2008 was upgraded to the Ministry of Environment Protection, issued a “Notice on the Orderly Development of Small Hydropower to Effectively Protect the Ecological Environment” in June 2006. The Nu Prefecture
government has also issued measures on small hydropower development
and utilization management in 2007 and 2015 respectively. However, given the fact that the Nu Prefecture
government was also promoting small hydropower, it tended to be flexible with regulations to encourage and enable development. In contrast to large hydropower projects, small hydropower projects are rarely reported on in the media, so there is a lack of public awareness. In the absence of policy constraints and public awareness, small hydropower has expanded rapidly in just a few years, with numerous legal violations and some dams
even being built within the World Heritage site.
While accurate data is difficult to ascertain, according to some media reports, there were 45 companies developing small hydropower as of 2008, with agreements to build 85 power stations on 65 branches. WLE-Mekong (2018) document 21 hydropower dams
of 15MW and above, and 10 irrigation dams
with reservoir surface areas larger than 0.5 square kilometers. In a case study of 12 villages along the Dimaluo tributary river in Nu Jiang Prefecture, Ptak (2014) highlights that there are benefits and challenges. For instance, small-scale
hydropower projects have brought some limited material benefits to relatively inaccessible rural ethnic minority communities
; mainly this is linked to electricity production, but also is evidenced during the construction phase. Yet, the process of creating the projects have lacked participation and did not addressed multidimensional needs, such as access
to employment opportunities nor improved access
to education and health services. In his case study, Ptak found that the projects had also created difficulties for those who had been resettled (Ptak 2014).
Small hydropower is often presented as a means to help local communities
increase their household income (as low electricity prices from small hydropower can help farmers reduce their household burden) and to protect forests by decreasing reliance on firewood for cooking and heating. However, uncoordinated small hydropower dam
construction has also resulted in significant environmental degradation
. The dams
, canals, and diversion tunnels built by small hydropower stations can alter river channels and even cause the original river to sometimes dry up, leading to the disappearance of aquatic species that rely on specific niches or that cannot migrate. According to Kibler/Tullos (2013), small hydropower in the Nu River
basin has resulted in a huge cumulative impact on the ecological environment, particularly with regard to habitat and hydrologic change. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the small hydropower dams
are linked to mining projects nearby within the Nu River
basin. In 2007, the local government had encouraged mining projects near to the hydropower stations to use their power, as there was insufficient transmission grid infrastructure to export the electricity farther away.
As investors built these power stations one by one, power generation grew incrementally, and generation overcapacity became an increasingly serious problem. In general, there is sufficient water for more power generation, but due to the lack of transmission grid infrastructure, most of the small power stations cannot run at full capacity. By the end of 2015, the Yunnan provincial government had halted further small hydropower construction on the Nu River