Wake up to Asia's giant;Geography;Subject of the week

26th March 1999 at 00:00
Only 2 per cent of secondary schools study China, yet it is of huge global importance, both politically and economically. Mike Morrish argues its case and explains how it can be incorporated into the GCSE syllabus

Are you hooked on Shanghai Vice? Anyone who is watching Phil Agland's new television series on Channel 4 will need no convincing of China's endless fascination and capacity to surprise. Here are real people caught up in the turbulence of the country's biggest city as it undergoes dramatic social and economic change. Like Agland's 1994 documentary Beyond the Clouds, it reveals the complexity of a deeply traditional society, transformed by Communism and then re-cast in the mould of capitalism.

China is a special country. Its global importance lies in its physical size, its huge population, its economic potential and its political power. It is the world's second largest state, comparable in size to Canada and the United States. It contains more people than any other nation, with a total expected to reach 1,300 million by next year. The territory of China is rich in raw materials and energy resources, though many of these are scarcely developed. Its agricultural production supports one fifth of humanity from only 5 per cent of the world's arable land. For more than 30 years China was a hardline Communist state, yet now it allows private enterprise and promotes capitalist investment in its economy. Social conditions are far better than in most economically developing countries, but the Chinese people still live under a strict and repressive regime.

In all respects China is a major piece of the global jigsaw and a political power of the deepest significance. With the demise of the USSR, it remains the sole sur-viving colossus of Communism, a country whose history in the post-war years is inextricably linked to central planning, state control and Maoist doctrine. Moreover, China's "open-door" policy of the past 20 years has moved it into the economic spotlight. With an annual growth rate of 8 per cent in the 1990s, it has become a key player in world manufacturing and trade.

Most geography teachers would acknowledge the increasingly important role of China in the modern world. Yet a recent survey indicated that only 2 per cent of UK secondary schools selected China as a country for study. Why is this Asian giant so neglected? It could be that its sheer size and complexity are off-putting, or maybe teachers fight shy of pronouncing the unfamiliar place names. More probably it reflects the lack of information and, therefore, teaching resources, which characterised Communist China before the "modernisation" of recent years. During the Sixties and Seventies there was also a concern that some materials were ideologically motivated and uncritical. Although there is now a wider range of resources available, China's political shift to "market socialism" presents a situation that is perhaps harder to understand and to explain.

Earlier this month the Geographical Association held a one-day conference, "Teaching and Learning about China", at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to discuss the country's geography and its place in the UK school curriculum. Sixty educators and specialists heard details of a five-part Channel 4 schools television series on China, which will be available from January 2000. This may well stimulate the production of further appropriate and up-to-date materials.


The Three Gorges Dam, currently under construction on the Yangtze River, is China's biggest engineering project. It is also the most striking example of the conflict between large-scale modernisation and the country's human and physical environment. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world and its basin covers one fifth of the nation's land area and contains one quarter of its farmland.

The idea of damming the Yangtze goes back 70 years to Sun Yat-sen and was later supported by Mao Zedong. However, the first detailed proposals for the scheme had to await the economic expansion of the Eighties, when they aroused outspoken opposition both nationally and internationally. Then, in 1991, China suffered the worst flooding for two generations. The Yangtze rose to record levels and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. The disaster prompted the People's Congress to give approval to the scheme in 1992, and construction began the following year.

The dam will be 185 metres high and almost two kilometres wide, forming a reservoir of more than 1,000 square kilometres in area. Completion of the entire scheme is scheduled for 2010, when an anticipated 18 megawatts of electricity will be generated.

Although flood control and electricity production are the main reasons for building the dam, it has also been justified in terms of improving navigation and water control. However, many aspects of the project remain contentious. The reservoir between Yichang and Chongqing will force more than 1 million people to leave their homes and be resettled on higher land, accounting for one third of the total budget. There are technological concerns over the massive locks that would allow river traffic to by-pass the dam. The stability of the dam is also suspect, in a region that has suffered earthquakes reaching 6 on the Richter scale. Yet by 2010 it is predicted that more than three-quarters of China's energy will be supplied by coal, oil and gas - the same proportion as today, although demand is expected to rise greatly.

Opponents of the Three Gorges Dam project point out that a dam could not have prevented the 1991 floods since so many tributaries join the river downstream. The reservoir will drown the most productive alluvial farmland and force peasant farmers to cultivate steeper, less fertile land higher up the mountain sides. This, in turn, will increase the risk of soil erosion and add to the problems of siltation of the reservoir. Animal habitats and fish-breeding grounds will be lost or altered. Yangtze gorges and their historic sites will disappear.

Essentially the Three Gorges Dam project is a grand political gesture and its functional effects could be achieved equally well by a range of smaller projects.

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