What do Chinese think of when they hear “Mekong River?” I asked my friends and their answers pointed to the brutal killing of Chinese sailors in 2011 by drug kingpin Naw Kham, who was sentenced to death by a Chinese court.
For them, the Mekong River – known as Lancang Jiang (Turbulent River) in Chinese – appears to be an outlaw territory inhibited by pirates and drug kingpins.
But I probed further, asking about the dams that are planned in the upper reaches of the Mekong in Yunnan Province. ”It is small and not popular compared to the Yangtze and Yellow rivers,” my friend said. She certainly knew about the notorious Three Gorges Dam, but admitted she didn’t know much about the controversial Mekong River dam projects.
The public has become more skeptical and resistant to dam construction in recent years, especially since the State Council admitted major geological, human and ecological problems resulting from the Three Gorges Dam. But even though the Mekong River originates in the Tibetan Plateau – just like the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers – the controversial dam projects there still aren’t on the radar for most Chinese.
In 1995, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to promote sustainable use of the river. China, along with Myanmar, is a “dialogue partner,” but not a member.
Indeed, China probably isn’t anxious to get too involved with the MRC. In 2002, China was blamed for damaging the Mekong’s pristine ecology when it collaborated with Thailand to dynamite shoals, rapids and reefs in order to free up navigation routes for large cargo ships.