Chinese reactions to the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project have been diverse.
Du Ping, a political talk show host at the Hong Kong-based and very mainland-friendly satellite broadcaster Phoenix, called the stop on Myitsone an American plot and insisted that Burma “should be made to feel that it has sustained an irreparable loss.” But Zhu Feng, deputy director at Peking University’s Institute for International Strategic Studies, wrote that
unless China begins to offer necessary public goods — which in addition to trade must include mature regional governance based on the rule of law, human rights and regional economic growth — its neighbours will not sincerely consider China’s interests
and the appropriate response to the dam issue is “more cooperation” rather than “turning tough.” And Peking University international relations professor Zhao Daojiong wrote, in Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, that “nothing can replace transparency” in China’s energy projects abroad.
More surprisingly perhaps., the English edition of the generally nationalistic Global Times published an editorial entitled “China has reasons to be happy about Burma’s changes.” It notes that, so far, Burma is showing no signs of “Westernisation” but is rather undergoing a process of “self-correction” after a period of military extremism. This process entails uncertainties, but the opportunities that a more independent Burmese politics (compared to its past reliance on China) would bring China more opportunities than problems. To think that China will lose in a free competition to access the Burmese market is ignorant, as is to compare reforms in Burma (open access to BBC and Twitter, for example) with those in China, as such indicators in themselves cannot be used to describe the “overall level of political modernization.”
The liberal Southern Weekend published a fairly neutral report from the site — the reporter had been duly detained by the Burmese military — noting nonetheless that China Power International has already paid resettled villagers compensation in cash, a year’s rice, and land plots, constructed a new village of two-story houses and a sewage treatment plant, and was now constructing a church.
A church. The state-owned company that, according to the Chinese Communist Party news portal
, offered a new model for “overseas Party construction” 海外党建 at its Myitsone site. Party members, the report said, were at the frontline of danger after the “terrorist attacks” on the site in 2010. It was also the Party’s task to raise Chinese workers’ morale dampened by their isolation (they are not allowed to leave the site, which has been subjected to periodical sabotage by the Kachin Independence Army). And finally it was the Party’s task to apply the “mass line” and the “Yanan spirit,” known from the mythical days of the CCP’s struggle for power, to Burmese villagers: building roads and schools, donating to the poor, importing provisions from China in order to avoid causing a rise in local prices. I am sure the church construction was also a Party project.
40 thousand Chinese workers were projected to work on the site during the peak of the project. Before the suspension, the project employed over 5,300 Chinese and some 4,500 Burmese, according to the Party website. Gao Fengbiao, a Chinese worker at Sinohydro’s Fourth Office, one of the project’s contractors, wrote a bitter post about the “humiliation” of the project’s suspension, asking what would have happened if the Burmese government had stopped an American project. To add insult to injury, the announcement was made on the eve of the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, an official holiday. “When will the Chinese people straighten their backs?” the worker asks. “Wake up, all the Chinese!” He then launches into a litany of recent national humiliations — from Japanese, Korean and Philippine military exercises near disputed islands to American pressure to let the yuan depreciate — and concludes that China is in an encirclement (四面楚歌) and its officials are failing to react. Even a “small country” like Burma dares bully China. Why is China, which has not yet eliminated hunger, “throwing money right and left to buy diplomacy” and “save foreigners”? Gao finishes his post with an evocation of the “spirit of the people’s army.” He does not ask why the Burmese government wants to stop the project if it is in fact a gift of aid. (According to Chinese articles, it is, rather, an extension of a plan to use power generated in the country’s west to supply the eastern seaboard.) The story bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous case of the Wusong Railway, China’s first railway built by Western concessionaries, then bought and torn up by the Qing government in 1876.
Whether or not the Myitsone project eventually restarts — construction of the smaller Chinese-built dams in the area continues — the reactions to its suspension are a reflection of the complex and contradictory narratives around China’s development export. A strategic project whose stopping is a humiliation to China; an undeserved gift to a “poor, backward, corrupt and closed” country (in Gao Fengbiao’s words); a result of China’s skewed incentives for state companies that lead to ignoring political risks; a reflection of a wrong-headed diplomacy that is insensitive to popular opinion. All of these views are publicly voiced in online and print media, sometimes by the same individuals.