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Technology in the sociological scene – 3 – Huai River management in the Republic of China: Achievements in technology and limits

Su Qi / Deputy Chief Editor, Caijing Magazine / 2015-04-02

People were optimistic when modern theories, engineers, technical availability, international funding and support from the central government were all ready. The expected progress in water management did not arrive though. What did arrive instead was much more complicated.

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Water management has been at the top of the political agenda for the Chinese government since ancient times. Water channel management, especially the projects of great scale, were always prioritized by the court or the ruling class of the country when China was under feudalism. It was vital for the regime to build water irrigation systems for agriculture and put in place an effective canal network for food shipment to the capital.

State rulers took the ability to manage water channels as an important benchmark of their legitimacy. Failure to provide relief after a flood disaster was often followed by the collapse of a dynasty. History repeated itself during the Qing dynasty. At the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, subsequent flood and famine along the Yellow River and Huai River areas hit society and the economy with great chaos.

There are two explanations for the poor response by the Qing dynasty. One is ineffective resource allocation. Critics believe that after the middle of the 19th century, the court, under calamities both at home and abroad, was handicapped in managing the deteriorating areas along the Huai River. The abandonment of the Huai River area came along with the administration’s pivot to the coastal regions. In his book The Making of A Hinterland, Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out that such a strategy only gave rise to a vicious cycle, as rocks that were supposed to be used for construction were replaced by grass and mud due to insufficient funding. This, in turn, exacerbated the flooding situation.

The other explanation can be concluded as obsolete management techniques. Water management along the Yellow River and Huai River for a rather long time was mainly about following old methods of sand scouring by flow contraction. More and higher dams were built as a result, which only complicated the entire water system in its management and financing. Only poor performance was recorded in the work of water and soil conservation and waterway dredging. There was not even a draft for a comprehensive water management plan.

The downfall of the Qing dynasty was followed by decades of warlord fighting. Management of the Huai River was surprisingly kick-started during this time, even within such a complicated environment. In 1911 when the management work officially got off the ground, the Water Management Measuring Bureau of the Yangtze and Huai Rivers launched a measuring project under the leadership of Zhang Jian. In spite of the pains inflicted on the bureau due to lack of funding and interruptions from conflict, it still collected a great deal of valuable data and laid a solid foundation for stakeholders who conducted other projects along the rivers.

It was also in the year 1911 when international organizations assumed their presence in the Huai River’s management. With approval from the U.S. State Council and funding from the U.S. Red Cross, Charles James, an American engineer, joined the inspection work of the river in the summer. He suggested that the flooding issue could be handled by funneling the river water into both the Yangtze River and the ocean. He also pointed out that the government should set up an administrative branch to manage the work in this area on a full-time basis. Zhang Jian, who was a proponent of only funneling water into the sea but not the Yangtze River, held up James’ suggestions and invited another engineer from the Netherlands for a new round of inspection work along the Huai River. After thoroughly pondering the prospective plans, Zhang Jian ultimately stayed with James’ initial proposal.

River management projects can hardly see significant progress amid political instability. Nevertheless, it gradually became a common perception that Huai River management was correlated with agricultural and industrial development. In addition to this significant change, training of local specialists and arguments between domestic and overseas experts exerted great impact on water management in the days to come.

The Nationalist Government that reunited the state in 1928 made a few attempts to take over Huai River management, and listed the project as part of the national construction program. The government formed a committee specializing in the water management work of the Huai River, which was also the first national agency set up by the government. There were two objectives of the committee upon establishment: rein in floods and advance industrial development. In 1933, the committee became a subsidiary of the more powerful National Economic Council for Centralized River Management.

The Committee laid out its own working plans as an agency directly led by the central government while following guidelines of the central economic construction programs. Hydropower and modern transportation were among the development goals set by the Nationalist Government. David Allen Pietz, author of Engineering the State, acknowledged the detailed contents of these projects from the blueprint documents preserved. They exemplified the importance of the committee’s plans and the progressive comprehension of the modern hydraulic projects.

Blueprints were drafted by hydraulic engineers. The first chief engineer of the Committee, Li Yizhi, was also the inaugural president of the China Hydraulic Engineering Society. In the first thirty years of the 20th century, there was a surge in the number of talents who received professional training in hydraulic knowledge. By the 1930s, these professionals worked to establish industrial organizations, such as China Engineering Society and China Hydraulic Engineering Society, as vehicles for their contribution to society. More skilled workers became professional through practice during on-site engineering projects. By following the suggestion that departments at all levels should employ graduates from education institutions specialized in hydraulic engineering,  the committee took the lead in providing advice on curricula for major science and research institutions, such as Henan Engineering University. It set up training courses lasting from a few months to two years at all levels in provinces and counties. All trainees were required to provide services to the agency at the grassroots level.

The Nationalist government convinced these experts that it was able to adopt modern technology for the sake of its development target while respecting the professionalism of the specialists. But spats over whether to funnel water into the Yangtze River or the sea came up again when nailing down the plans. Representatives from Jiangsu and Anhui Provinces argued that funneling water into the sea would most effectively mitigate the impact of flooding. The plan, initially approved by Chiang Kai-shek, was later rejected by committee specialists including Li Yizhi, who believed the river water should also be used in hydropower, shipping and irrigation. Running this line of thinking, water should mainly be guided into the Yangtze River for the above reasons. Chiang and the Committee finally adopted this idea and opted for a more comprehensive water management plan.

The philosophy of comprehensive treatment is a guiding principle of the U.S. and other developed countries in water management. Chinese engineers have learned from massive management projects along the Tennessee River. Pietz noted that a great number of engineers from the committee did take the Tennessee River as the prototype when dealing with the Huai River. This could be a result of the technical support from the international associations. The committee was encouraged to make working plans with the knowledge of modern water management after actively building ties with international technological organizations.

With the support of the National Economic Council, the committee followed up on suggestions provided by the International Alliance of Transportation to help the project meet international standards. Experts from the alliance lent full credential to the technical design and played a significant role in helping the project win the Boxer Indemnity funds.

People were optimistic when modern theories, engineers, technical availability, international funding and support from the central government were all ready. The expected progress in water management did not arrive though. What did arrive instead was much more complicated.

The committee could not fully achieve its aim when it had to deal with a divided government short of authority. The ruling party at that time failed to get the whole river region under control. The committee was only powerful enough to manage the downstream section of the river, but never the upper stream.

There were also disagreements between the committee and departments of national construction. Though the committee had become part of the National Economic Council, heads of those two agencies failed to carry out effective cooperation due to divergent political views. In fact, the two shared the same management philosophy of expanding investment in agricultural infrastructure for industrial development. But Chen Guofu, the head of the committee, was a confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. So he was unwilling to put his own agency under the umbrella of the council, which was led by Wang Jingwei, Chiang’s political rival. As a result, the committee almost boycotted the entire council and gradually grew to be a subsidiary of the Jiangsu provincial government where Chen Guofu was the top leader.

The committee was also subject to unstable resource supply, which was an outcome of insufficient workers and ineffective management. The national government promoted the New Life Movement with great efforts and even dispatched the army to meet with set targets. Nevertheless, the project was rejected by the workers throughout.

Huai River management in the Republic of China ended up with a huge gap between ambition and reality. What was accomplished in the end was only funneling water into the sea, the result of which was hampered by the 1938 Yellow River flood.

With all being said, much data was gained from measuring done by the committee that was still quoted quite frequently after 1949. Experts from the committee retained their positions even after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (Translated by Feng Suwen)

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