Reasons to Dam: China’s Hydropower Politics and Its Socio-Environmental Consequences

  • Sabrina Habich


One hundred years ago, the first hydropower plant started to generate electricity in China. Since then, China has constructed tens of thousands of dams within its borders. While back in 1910, discussions surrounded the question as to whether the Shilongba dam should be financed with national or foreign capital, today, debates about hydropower development touch upon social, environmental, political as well as economic questions. This chapter traces these developments over the past century with a special focus on the changes that have taken place over the past three decades of reform and opening up. This chapter specifically aims to answer the question as to why—despite recent economic and political changes in China—large and socially as well as environmentally unsustainable dams are still being built. To provide an answer, the chapter applies the framework for large-scale development schemes developed by James Scott (Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1998) and adapts his analysis to the current process of dam construction in China. It shows that despite an increase in political pluralisation, policy in China continues to be driven by statist actors with only limited input from society. The hydropower bureaucracy is powerful both in financial and political terms. While political actors aim to secure clean energy for the country’s growth, China’s hydropower companies seek to increase their profitable business along major domestic and international rivers.


Environmental Impact Assessment Environmental Impact Assessment Chinese Communist Party Hydropower Project Hydropower Development 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sabrina Habich
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of East Asian StudiesUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

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