The Thirsty Dragon: China’s Water Industrial Complex

Courtesy of Tibetan Plateau, an interesting look at China’s “water industrial complex”, a term they use to describe the professional and ideological alliance of technocratic Communist Party elites with water-related bureaucracies and businesses that influence government policy. The article concludes that the Peoples Republic of China – which has built 22,000+ large dams since it came into existence in 1949 (or approximately one large dam per day) – that there are striking structural similarities between the phenomenon of the American Military Industrial Complex (“described as an all-too friendly relationship that may develop between defense contractors and government forces, where both sides receive what they are perceivably looking for: a successful military engagement for warplanners and financial profit for those manning the corporate boardrooms”) and what goes on in China’s water construction industry.  As the report notes:

China’s Water Industrial Complex compared with America’s Military Industrial Complex

America’s Military Industrial Complex China’s Water Industrial Complex


· Realism

· Anarchic international system

· American Primacy

· “City on the Hill,” “uphold freedom and democracy”

· Marxist-Leninist-materialism

· “Man over nature”

· Powerful China

· Greatness of socialism, “Socialist re-construction”


· Corporate and other private sector executives

· Defense services, Pentagon leaders

· Family business involvement

· “Revolving door system” of professional and political roles

· Engineers, “Red Specialists,” “Tsinghua Clique”

· Party leaders

· Family business involvement

· “Revolving door system” of professional and political roles



· Crisis management small groups

· Closed door system

· Crisis management small groups

· Closed door system

Mode of public support

· Propaganda through mainly corporate owned media

· “Communist threat,” “rogue states,” “terrorist” groups

· Rally behind the flag, “national interest,”
patriotism, etc.

· Propaganda through govt. owned and controlled media

· Natural threats like flood and draught, “Thirsty North”

· Rally behind the flag, “national interest,”
patriotism, etc.

Size of

· World’s largest in terms of monetary value of production

· Over $ 305 billion in military expense

· World’s largest in terms of project sizes and numbers

· 22,000 of the world’s 45,000 large dams



· Economic interest of military-industrial firms

· Departmental bureaucratic interest in expansion of size and power

· Economic interest of water-industrial firms

· Dep’tal bureaucratic interest in expansion of size and power

Influence on gov’t policy

· Perpetuation of military related production

· Development of the most advanced and deadly weapons

· Perpetuation of water related construction

· Construction of the largest water control projects

Source: Tsering, T. (2003). China’s Water Politics: In Whose Interest? Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of degree of Masters of Arts in Political Science at the Portland State University.

By China’s Water Industrial Complex, I mean the professional and ideological alliance of technocratic Communist Party elites with water-related bureaucracies and businesses that influence government policy. In this context, the WIC has three principle features: dominance of hardline technocratic elites in decision-making; their professional and ideological alliance with the economic and bureaucratic interests of water industry and bureaucracies (water sector entities); and this alliance’s major influence on government policy to further water-related construction. Within this framework, it appears that decisions regarding major water control projects are being made to serve the bureaucratic and commercial interests of China’s WIC, and not necessarily its people.

The immediate purpose of introducing the concept of a Chinese water-industrial complex is to highlight the power alliances (formal and informal, as well as professional and ideological) and the structure of interests that shape water policy in China. My underlying objective is to contribute to social justice debates in Chinese water policy.

Since 1950, the PRC has achieved an astounding 12% annual growth rate in its hydropower production. China’s water construction industry is continues to grow as significant sources of China’s hydropower, especially on the Tibetan Plateau, are still untapped and the demand for energy is high in the fastest-growing electric power industry in the world.

By law, the Ministry of Water Resources is the main agency responsible for water management in China. Analysts have long identified the Ministry’s bureaucratic self-interest (and corruption prospects) in large-scale projects. In reality, the management of China’s water industry is split among three ministries—the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Construction, and the Ministry of Machine-Building Industry—and municipal and provincial government water-resource bureaus. The responsibilities of these three ministries match their names: the Ministry of Water Resources plans for reservoirs and river projects, and allocates water to industry and cities; the Ministry of Construction administers large public works projects; and the Ministry of Machine-Building Industry is charged with partial oversight of the water engineering equipment sector. The close functional relationship between these ministries and other institutions provides them with a similar interest—promotion and expansion of their activities.

Policy decisions regarding major projects remain highly autarkic, under the control of a small number of Party elites, whose professional and ideological backgrounds are rooted in near-religious faith in big engineering approaches to water development. In fact, since the very beginning of the Chinese Communist Party, leadership has been dominated by individuals with technical engineering backgrounds. Although the generation of influential hongse zhuanjia (“red specialists,” or party leaders trained in the former Soviet Union as engineers) like Li Peng are retiring, the nature of internal Party politics ensures assumption of leadership by cadres with similar ideological and professional backgrounds.

In Novemeber 2002, there was a major power shift in Chinese leadership, from the “third generation leaders” to the “fourth generation leaders.” The “fourth generation leaders” who assumed power, although considered fresh and least dogmatic in their outlook, share with their predecessors a professional background and ideological approach to development. Jiang Zemin and his team of six other outgoing members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making authority in China, were engineers by training. And interestingly enough, all the nine new members of the Committee headed by its new leader Hu Jintao are engineers by training. Technocratic dominance is likely to continue in the next Chinese government. Engineers also dominate China’s provincial leadership, which is considered “the training ground for national leadership.” As of September, 2001, 62.9% of Chinese provincial leaders had engineering degrees, followed by economics, physics and Chinese with 6.5, 4.8 and 4.8%, respectively.

An important Party policy regarding the tenure of its top leaders is a professional revolving door system by which top provincial leaders are frequently reshuffled to avoid a situation of cadres accumulating excessive influence and power in a region. Owing to the common engineering background shared by most Chinese leaders, the practice of this professional revolving door system results in certain technocratic bureaucracies such as the Ministry of Machine Building, Ministry of Construction, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Energy becoming influential bases for these leaders to climb the Party’s bureaucratic ladder. Arguably this practice feeds the influence of China’s Water Industrial Complex: the technocratic bureaucracies become politically more powerful with the association of the party elites. The flip side of this is something students of bureaucratic politics would observe; the party leaders would have a professional bureaucratic bias toward these government agencies.

Party leaders are both decision makers and issue framers. The dominance of technocrats in China’s leadership, their bureaucratic bias toward construction-related bureaucracies, and the fact that important decisions are made behind closed doors combine to bias government water policies in favor of structural solutions. These reasons provide an explanation for the fact that People’s Republic of China is building more than one large dam per day since its inception in 1949 and continues to expand its dam building industry around the world.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 24th, 2010 at 7:30 am and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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