By Johanna Son
CHIANG MAI, Thailand (TerraViva) – Powerful neighbour. A rising power. Old friend. Big, secretive investor. Big boy of the region.
These were some of the terms participants at a talk-show format discussion at the Mekong Media Forum used when asked to share the images of China they get from the media.Several said they had mixed feelings about the country that is the big power in the Mekong region, among the biggest investors in their countries and has built two dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River.
“There are two Chinas,” said Cambodian journalist Nguon Serath, editor of ‘Rasmei Kampuchea Daily’ newspaper. One is the country that has put in the biggest investments in Cambodia and “that is a good picture”, he explained. The second is the builder of dams in the Mekong river that has sowed discontent among communities in downstream countries from Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam and triggered letters of protest.
These comments, which came up through the four-day Forum, reflect the depth of resentment by neighbouring countries that perceive that China has run roughshod over their concerns about the impact of its dams on water levels, salination, worsening floods and their livelihoods.
Chinese diplomats and engineers, including at an October consultation held by the Mekong River Commission with in Chiang Rai, say that these problems are not due to the dams. The Lancang, as the upper reaches of the Mekong is called, contributes just 16 percent of the flow of the Mekong river, so damming cannot have such a huge impact on it, they have pointed out.
At the height of the record-high floods in Vientiane last year, the Mekong River Commission also issued a statement saying that based on a study of the volume of water involved, they could not have been caused by China’s dams.
But China’s views are not always read or heard much in the media of other Mekong countries as well in China’s own media. There is an information gap between upstream and downstream countries and communities, and this is perhaps part of why some Chinese journalists at the forum and audiences inside the country are surprised by the extent of the anger over its dam projects.
Over the years, it has become increasingly common for media reports in downstream countries to carry as ‘fact’ statements that China’s dams are behind uneven water levels and other water-related problems.
Media reports in Vietnam now carry articles criticising the dams. In June, Ngo Dinh Tuan, chair of the scientific council of the South-east Asia Institute of Water Resource and Environment, told ‘Tuoi Tre’ newspaper: “(Chinese) dam construction now joins hands with climate change to worsen droughts, salinity intrusion, landslides and land erosion.” He added: “The Vietnamese government must create a national strategy for protecting the river downstream, not only for the Mekong but the Red River (in Vietnam’s north), as China has started to build dams on it as well.”
The scrutiny given to China’s moves is a reflection of its soft power in the region.
This has been taking root since the nineties, as a more confident China signed cooperation accords with South-east Asian countries that had previously been impossible to discuss with Beijing (including the matter of the Spratly islands) except on a bilateral basis. Gradually, China’s image changed, from one of a threat to a power that had a ‘good neighbour’ policy toward South-east Asia. Today, the story angle of the ‘China threat’ is gone.
But its behaviour in the Mekong region, especially in the years since the first Mekong mainstream dam was built in 1993 and the second one in 2005, has been judged heavily against the backdrop of these hydropower projects.
Journalists say it is far from easy to get the views of China or Chinese officials in their stories, though Chinese colleagues also explained new trends point to more accessibility these days. Language is also a challenge.
Perhaps all the attention paid to China – and the depth of uneasiness toward its Mekong moves — is the price to pay for its large political footprint. “America in Asia”, in fact, was a phrase that Beijing-based journalist Lin Gu cited to refer to China’s power in the region.
He said that China is learning the ropes of being a power, and is concerned about how it is viewed by the outside world. “The (Chinese) government should understand that being beaten is part of the price to pay for being strong,” he said. At the same time, it still lacks confidence and can thus be “sensitive” and “overreacts” to criticism.
A barrage of questions about China’s dams also arose at the MRC meeting in October, from hydrologists, engineers, water researchers and academics and campaigners. In an interview, Chinese diplomat Lu Hai Tien said “we will bring all these concerns back” to Beijing.
Lu, from the Department of International Organisations and Conferences of China’s foreign ministry, conceded that there were many concerns about China, and “that’s why we are here”. Told that Mekong journalists had difficulty getting the Chinese government’s views, he said: Maybe there has not been a proper platform for China to express its views.”