By Richard Pascoe.

The prize-winning documentary ‘Up the Yangtze’, shown in Nottingham as the second event in the Doing the Business’ film series organised by the University’s International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, is a heart-wrenching story of the sad fate of a peasant family forced to leave their home as it is flooded by the giant Three Gorges Dam.  The world’s largest hydropower project, with 22.5 gigawatts of generating capacity half way up the Yangtze River, created a giant lake as long as Britain that forced the displacement of 1.5 million people.

The film, by Canadian Chinese director Yung Chang, tells the story of a family of poor farmers eking out a living in a hovel on the banks of the river.  Their only way to survive the tragedy is to send their daughter to get a job on a ship taking Western tourists on luxury cruises up and down the Yangtze – which, conveniently, she succeeds in doing. The film contrasts the enjoyment of the rich tourists with the fate of the poor family, switching back and forth between images of two entirely different worlds.

It mirrors the human tragedy of China’s poor rural migrants, 200 million of whom have moved from the countryside to the towns and cities. But despite some angry and tragic scenes in which the displaced poor are heard criticising a callous government that doesn’t seem to care, the political line of the ruling Communist Party does come through in the film. In one scene, a bright young training manager on the cruise ship somewhat incredibly invites the girl’s peasant parents for a tour of the ship.   He explains to them how important the Three Gorges Dam is for China’s national development and how they have to come to terms with the need to move house. Filming in China of course requires official permission, and an element of political stage managing is revealed here.

Chairman Mao himself called for the building of the dam, and even wrote a poem glorifying the concept.  The main goals of Three Gorges project were to prevent flooding downstream, to generate, at one point, up to nine per cent of China’s electricity needs, and to help divert water from the rainy, wet southern part of China to the dry north.  Another objective was to ease navigation upstream to Chongqing and to Sichuan province.

Now the world’s largest emitter of carbon pollution, China is under global pressure on climate change and has set ambitious targets to improve energy efficiency and lower carbon output.  The Three Gorges dam has helped propel China to produce more hydropower than any other country – about double that of the USA.

But whether the benefits of Three Gorges outweigh the massive environmental and human cost will be debated for decades to come.  The dam has caused a myriad of urgent problems, not least disastrous pollution from industrial chemicals and other contaminants upstream, where the river drains a region of 120 million people.  Thirteen cities lie flooded under the lake.  Trash washed down the river forms huge island crusts of rubbish which block the locks, and 3,000 tonnes of garbage have to be removed each day. Silting up will be a huge problem, and the weight of water behind the dam is causing landslips and buildings to crack in the surrounding area. The ecology of the Yangtze has been changed forever. Chinese leaders today admit that insufficient attention was paid to these issues, raised much earlier by experts but ignored at the time.  Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have distanced themselves from the project, failing to attend its completion ceremony in May 2006.

 The movie can be seen as an allegory for China’s rapid development over the past 30 years, the tensions between wealth and poverty, between fast economic growth and human rights.

 Perhaps history will record that the Three Gorges project taught the party-state a painful lesson – that if it does not allow proper consultation and public debate on major issues, there can be a huge price to pay.  Only time will tell whether this lesson has been learnt.

 (This is an edited version of a longer blog which may be found at

Richard Pascoe is a Consultant to the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. Thanks for this information, Richard. From a search I noticed that the film mentioned is available to watch for free at as a streaming video and to buy from the same site. Certainly it will form part of this weekends relaxation and family time programme. I am sharing the link for anyone else who missed the showing.

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