Social Engineering Doesn’t Work, Even in China

It doesn’t matter how often politicians fail. They keep coming back with grand new schemes for transforming their own, and often other people’s, societies. And they keep failing.

At least in democratic Western societies there is a chance to hold public officials accountable for their mistakes. Not so in authoritarian, collectivist states.

But now even China is being forced to acknowledge that all is not well with the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river. The world’s largest and most expensive water project, it has had enormous, and enormously harmful environmental and social consequences.

And the price continues to climb. Reports the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

Fan Zhongcheng last year joined 1.4 million people forced to flee rising Yangtze River waters caused by the government’s massive new Three Gorges Dam. His elderly parents’ mud-brick house collapsed as the family tried to dismantle it to comply with official orders. Mr. Fan and his wife were buried alive for hours, and his parents died.

The family’s troubles aren’t over. Now the Chinese government says it plans to induce as many as four million more people to move from homes near the shore and in the surrounding mountains. The Fans’ new homestead, up a hill from the old one, may be among them.

The mass uprooting is just the latest controversy to plague the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. Built to tame the violent annual floods of the 4,000-mile Yangtze River and to harness its power, Three Gorges is now threatening many of the rural residents it was intended to help. Since the dam first cut off the Yangtze’s flow in June 2003, parts of the reservoir’s shoreline have repeatedly collapsed. Waste from neighboring farms and villages is creating a water-pollution crisis. And by flooding hundreds of square miles of rich farmland, the reservoir has robbed hundreds of thousands of farmers of their livelihoods and overcrowded the remaining land.

How Beijing handles the challenge could have great consequences both for the environment and for political stability in the region. National and local officials have responded to the twin problems of ecological and economic peril in the countryside with a massive urbanization plan, promising jobs for those who relocate — a move that also meets economic development goals.

The plan could be complicated by simmering resentment over the fate of the people already displaced by the dam, may of whom were left without jobs or government subsidies that were promised. “They had so many problems with moving one million people. How are they going to move four times that many?” asks Wu Dengming, head of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, a local environmental group.

The government has not called the project, which does provide electricity and has stemmed floods, a mistake. But in September, five days after approving the relocation plan, Beijing’s State Council acknowledged the dam’s problems for the first time after a meeting called by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Officials of the cabinet-level Three Gorges Commission warned that the dam was having an “adverse impact” and could cause an environmental “catastrophe” unless drastic measures are taken, according to state news agency Xinhua.

China’s success or failure in dealing with this challenge is likely to tell us a lot about whether the regime is capable of evolving into a freer and more democratic system.