The Political Economy of the Three Gorges Project

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Abstract

This paper examines the debates over the decision to build the Three Gorges Dam, the subsequent flows of income to the firms involved in its construction, and the continuing implications of the dam for the Chinese space economy. The paper makes and justifies three claims. First, the construction project has been responsible for both dispossession and the formation of capital (primitive accumulation). But it is too simple to interpret the project as merely the face of modernity or development: proponents were reflecting traditional attitudes to bureaucracy and environmental management, whereas opponents sought liberalisation, marketisation, and opening up. It turns out that the concept of modernity, as a western programme introduced into China after the formation of the People's Republic, is of remarkably little value in understanding the construction of this dam. Secondly, the decision to build the dam reflects both structure and happenstance – particular political events and individuals were critical. Notably, the project shows few signs of having come into being to absorb over-accumulated capital: mega-projects like this do not have to satisfy any capitalist logic. Finally, I emphasise that such huge projects have long run effects on the structure of power in China – indeed, events at Three Gorges underpinned much of the later debate and struggle over dams on the Mekong, Salween, and Changjiang above Three Gorges.

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