Then came the questions: What about the risk of earthquakes, ecological damage and all the people whose homes would be flooded? Is it true that most of the electricity would go to China?
Two weeks later, Burma, also known as Myanmar, scrapped the cornerstone of the project. President Thein Sein, a former general who took office in March, announced that he had to “respect the people’s will” and halt the $3.6 billion dam project at Myitsone, the biggest of seven planned by China Power Investment, or CPI.
As the world’s biggest consumer of energy, China has hunted far and wide in recent years for sources of power — and of profit — for state-owned corporate behemoths such as CPI. The result is a web of deals with often-repressive regimes, from oil-rich African autocracies such as Sudan and Angola to river-rich Burma.
But coziness with despots can also backfire.
Amid a dramatic, though still fitful, opening in Burma after decades of harsh repression, public anger has swamped China’s hydropower plan. The deluge threatens not only hundreds of millions of dollars already spent but also China’s intimate ties to what had been a reliably authoritarian partner, its only East Asian ally other than North Korea.
Beijing still has big interests in Burma, including a multibillion-dollar oil and natural gas pipeline that is under construction. But a partnership forged with scant heed to public opinion has been badly jolted by a barrage of no-longer-taboo questions.
CPI “thought that making an agreement with the regime is good enough. They don’t realize that the circumstances have changed,” said Ko Tar, a Burmese writer and anti-dam activist who traveled to Myitsone early this year. He has since rallied opposition to a project that he says shows China is “only concerned with its own energy needs, not with Burma’s ecological needs.”
China’s overseas ventures
China has plenty of rivers itself and is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power, which accounts for about 16 percent of its electricity and 7 percent of its total energy consumption. It plans to increase hydro-generating capacity by nearly two-thirds over the next five years.
But under pressure from environmentalists at home and crimped by new legislation, China’s dam-builders have in recent years also looked to rivers abroad. They are constructing about 300 dams overseas.
Most of these will not help China meet its energy needs: They are too far away, in places such as Ethiopia and Sudan. But Chinese-built dams in Laos and especially Burma will pump electricity into China’s power grid. The dams under construction by CPI on Burma’s Irrawaddy River and its tributaries would, if completed, be capable of generating roughly as much electricity as China’s gigantic Three Gorges Dam. Ninety percent of that energy would go to China.