A dam tour. Plus a bonus question: Why doesn't China have chocolate bars?

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 23 2009 11:25 AM

What I Saw Inside China's—and the World's—Most Important Dam

Plus: Why can't I find a chocolate bar in China?

Three Gorges Dam. Click image to expand.
Three Gorges Dam

China may be taking baby steps to develop a consumer-based economy, but it's pretty clear that business of the nation is still business. The needs and comfort of individuals are routinely subordinated to economic development. Much of China's commercial infrastructure—airports, bridges, shipping terminals, office buildings—is state of the art. But the intercity roads are for trucks and buses, not for passenger cars. The airports are designed to accommodate globe-trotting business travelers, not a mass market of local tourists. And while they may be lovely, the green waters of the Yangtze River—and the stunning amounts of concrete that have been poured into them—are intensely commercial.

This was driven home during a six-hour trip down the river from Wanzhou (population 1.7 million). It is a city large enough to have a Wal-Mart and McDonald's in its downscale downtown and yet sufficiently provincial that the sight of an American buying breakfast buns from a street vendor was an occasion for double-takes. As was the case with many other cities in the flood plain of the Yangtze River, a chunk of this river port was essentially rebuilt on higher ground as part of the relocation efforts stemming from the Three Gorges Dam project.

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I'm traveling with a group of journalists through China, and the vessel we boarded had been advertised as a flying jet boat. A bit of an overstatement. It was a low-slung, Russian-built boat that spewed noxious fumes as it idled. And, as expected, conditions onboard were borderline Soviet. The first-class cabin had aggressively uncomfortable seats, an iron bar positioned to produce maximum damage to the passenger's lower back. An inane Hong Kong cop-gangster comedy caper blared from the television. On deck, crew members prepared lunch. One sat hunched over a battered wok and fried eggs in a pool of oil, while a colleague spooned rice and vegetables into Styrofoam containers. (It was the closest thing we've had to American-style Chinese food all week.)

We made good time over the placid waters, marveling alternately at the scenery and at the modern infrastructure that has been imposed upon it. The wide river carved an occasionally dramatic course through green hills. But the water level is about 500 feet higher than it had been before the Yangtze had been dammed downriver, which meant you had to imagine how much more dramatic the soaring mountains must have seemed pre-dam. Overhead, new bridges spanned the water, all of them less than 15 years old. (I stopped counting after a dozen.) Every hour or so we'd pass another city or town, a huddle of white concrete structures climbing from the new waterfront up the hills. There were no pleasure boats on the river. But we passed plenty of ships moving both directions carrying coal and containers. The most modern were large car-carrying boats, which looked a bit like Mississippi River paddleboats, bringing hundreds of vehicles made at the Chang'An factory in Chongqing downriver to the coast.

The controversial Three Gorges Dam project, which flooded hundreds of square miles of land and required the relocation of more than 1 million people, was promoted as an effort to improve human welfare. No longer would the Yangtze's periodic floods kill large numbers of Chinese. And the vast quantities of electricity to be generated by the dam would mean China could continue to electrify without having to rely entirely on coal-burning plants. But the dam was a blunt instrument. Its construction meant many existing towns were simply flattened or submerged. A fellow passenger on the boat had been relocated from his village of 180 people. His life was now more comfortable, he conceded, but he missed the village, and the relocation money he received from the government wasn't enough.

When we docked below Yichang, a rickety cable car conveyed us up the hillside, and we trudged through a dusty terminal before boarding a bus that whisked us to the Three Gorges Dam. As we saw during the Olympics, the Chinese are enormously proud of their heroic feats of engineering—proud that they can afford to build them, proud that they can carry them out quickly, and proud that they seem to work. While the construction of this complex was hugely labor intensive, the dam is highly efficient and mechanized. Ships idled at the bottom, waiting to enter the locks that would convey them to higher water. Embedded in the walls of the dam are turbines with capacity to generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity. We took an elevator into the bowels of the dam, through an immaculate cavernous space that housed the turbines, and into the control room. When the guide pushed a button, the opaque glass cleared, and we watched three engineers monitoring an electronic array. In a frenetic country, here was one of the most placid power plants you'll ever see—buried in the new Great Wall of China.

I have just a few days left in China. I'm hoping a Slate reader can answer this question before I depart. I have yet to see a chocolate bar in China. Why? Please send answers to moneybox@slate.com.

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