Chinese Water Worlds: Hydropower, green authoritarianism, and the energy transition in SEA

Andrea E. Pia, LSE Anthropology

It is important to recognize that electricity is increasingly entangled with the social not only as the endpoint of continuous infrastructural expansion but, in the form of renewables, as an emergency break that promises a qualitative rapture with the global climate-altering energetic culture that oversupplies energy through continuous fossil fuel consumption. Because of this, electricity can now be seen as having acquired a new kind of social and ethical valence: what kind of electricity and for what purpose?

Since 2019, China’s emissions have exceeded those of all developed countries combined and presently account for 33% of total global emissions. As this figure suggests, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should be considered the key player in the global fight against climate change. China is now doubling down on technological and geoengineering solutions, including the redesigning, and harnessing of transnational river systems such as the Mekong River. My new ethnographic and oral history research project brings together a range of local and international civil society stakeholders to investigate the implications for local societies and their environments of this transition towards more sustainable modes of electricity production in Southeast Asia (SEA). It asks: Is it possible to reconcile the economic impetus towards a more sustainably powered economy with the equally important requirement for the protection of richly biodiverse, socio-natural communities? Whose future gets counted in, and whose present counted out, by Chinese transboundary hydropower? Can China’s decarbonisation and sustainability transitions be just?


In the summer of 2022, China was hit by its most severe heatwave in six decades, exacerbating a drought that has impacted food and factory production, power supplies and transport in a vast area of the country. Energy production in Sichuan, which accounts for 30% of China’s national hydroelectric generation, plummeted by around 50%. Environmentalists worry that global warming will further prolong China’s reliance on coal, stymying the world’s progress on emission abatement.  

In this context, China’s hydropower expansion across borders to neighboring South East Asian states becomes important: hydropower expansion promises to solve energy uncertainty domestically as well as accelerate the decarbonisation of the global economy (Li, Li and Bo 2022). But what about the role of justice here? Is the PRC’s hydropower élan perhaps bringing forth new tensions and political frictions with local communities and indigenous people in South East Asia – constituencies already suffering some of the most extreme outcomes of the climate and ecological crises?

The Lancang River of Yunnan Province connects the shrinking glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau with the growing economies of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam where it takes on the name of Mekong. China’s geographical advantage and engineering supremacy put the country in the position of an “upstream superpower” (Nickum 2008: 227), which typically entails growing political influence over downstream governments (Mehtonen, Keskinen and Varis 2008). Historically, the Mekong River has acquired the shape it has today through a long history of canalisation and land reclamation during the French colonial period (Biggs 2010). But the river also has a long history of Chinese management that predates this period: water-born commercial traffic on the Mekong had long been controlled by overseas Chinese merchants belonging to a vast network of family-owned businesses spanning from the Malacca Strait to southeast China. This network comprised a space that some of my water expert interlocutors call a “Chinese-controlled water world” (中国控制的水世界).

Over time, this situation developed into a political terrain of well-meaning cooperation across the ethnically composite and ecologically rich landscape of South East Asia – a political tradition of mutual recognition encapsulated in the so-called ‘Mekong Spirit’ (Mirumachi 2015; Middleton, Allouche 2016). But this spirit is slowly being vanquished. For instance, China has rejected becoming a formal member of the Mekong River Commission. The PRC maintains its sovereign rights to develop all water resources that flow through its territory, and various South East Asian (SEA) countries are now starting to fight over the control of the river waters and its resources.


As of 2020, there were 241 dams on the Mekong, 29 of which are still under construction and 91 more are planned (15 by Chinese corporations). In July 2018, one of these dams, the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy Dam (a Korean-owned Dam) in Laos collapsed (one thousand people died, and more than ten thousand were displaced). A global outcry ensued. Precisely to avoid unwanted scrutiny, China shrouds its water resources development plans in secrecy. Chinese dams are difficult to research and there’s very little available data on them (Mahanty 2021). Ostensibly, the dams that Chinese corporations such as Sinohydro or Hydro Lancang are helping build in SEA plan to export electricity to China (thus diminishing the carbon footprint of the country) and regularise water levels for navigation and agriculture.

Modern dams are often hailed as non-renounceable climate fixes. Their hydroelectric flexibility (allowing them to operate as baseload, peak and energy storage) provides the easiest integration of variable renewables and makes it a useful part of a country’s energy system. But who carries the costs?

Oral histories I collected from conservations and local indigenous activists about one of these Chinese hydropower dams described with horror the continuous dredging for sand and gravel for exports to Singapore; and the destruction of forests for timber for the upscale Chinese market. Fish populations are being either destroyed, permanently damaged, or replaced by the species better adapted to the new techno-ecology of the river (Pia, Ruzol 2023). Communities whose primary protein intake comes from fish are either turned into a mobile migrant labour pool or fall back on cattle, which require grazing and imply a higher carbon footprint.

Hydropower dams are kinetic machines for the conversion of material flows: they slow down the water flow while enabling parallel acceleration of other kinds of flows: electricity, people, biome, and of capital – a ‘dance of agency’ (Pickering 1995). But these flows are not watertight – to use the language of water engineers – they have effects in excess beyond their volition. Chinese hydropower impacts local epistemologies, cosmologies, and values (Whitington 2019). It helps bring into existence ontological and epistemological machines too: dams change ways of being and ways of knowing the world; they shape intuitions about the sort of place the world is (Morita 2017).

For one, along the Mekong because of Chinese damming the water flow is no longer predictable. In Northern Laos, local communities are losing the capacity to predict when fish will be available or to distinguish good fish from contaminated fish (Johnson 2020). A new market for hybrid fish breeds is changing the river ecosystem and transforming people’s understanding of their own place as well as their imagination and perception of the future. Teerapong Ponum, a Thai activist and founder of the Mekong Community Institute in Chiang Mai, told me that because of the impact of another Chinese Dam, the Don Sahong Dam, the water of the Mekong turned blue for the first time in recorded history. “We call this the hungry river: this means that the river is hungry; life and spirits no longer reside within it”. What is the new spirit of the Mekong?


Critical observers have largely described the compounded effects of hydropower excesses as beneficial to the standing of China in the region. By promoting dams and permanently changing the ways in which the Mekong River can be experienced, China is successfully pre-empting the formation of opposing views, a move that helps to greenwash China’s increasingly dirigiste model of international sustainable development (Li, Shapiro 2020). Green authoritarianism may in fact become an appealing institutional fix in SEA for its increasingly repressing governments, which may wish to do away with the inefficiencies stemming from the time-consuming process of multilateral resource management (Morgenbesser 2020).

A new spirit is taking possession of the Mekong River, that of China-led decarbonisation. By introducing epistemological and ontological uncertainties, hydropower disempowers indigenous and critical citizens’ engagement with the costs of decarbonisation. By being irreversible (you can take down a dam, but you cannot take it back), they make it difficult to mobilise coherent constituencies against them. Attending to the local particularities of Chinese energo-politics (Boyer 2019; Howe 2019) reveals opportunities for decarbonisation but also new forms of technological imperialism haunting global fantasies of energy justice at the end of carbon.


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