China’s river of life

The extinction of the Yangtze dolphin is a small price to pay for the transformation of the river into a source of work and energy for millions of people.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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China’s industrial development is once again in the frame.

This morning’s newspapers report that the Yangtze river dolphin – a freshwater marine mammal found only in the Yangtze river that snakes 6,300 kilometres through China – has been declared officially extinct. A team of researchers, including conservation biologists from London Zoo and Chinese government scientists, surveyed a 1,669-kilometre stretch of the Yangtze from the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai and found not a single river dolphin. A survey conducted in 1999 estimated that the population of Yangtze river dolphins stood at 13 beasts; now, as the researchers report in the journal Biology Letters, there is none left.

The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin has been described as a ‘shocking tragedy’. The dolphin is the first large vertebrate that has been forced to extinction by human activity in 50 years. And this is only the fourth time since 1500 that an entire evolutionary line of mammals has been wiped off the Earth. Media coverage has been quick to indict China’s rapid and unstoppable industrialisation. One report says the river dolphin is a victim of the transformation of the Yangtze into a ‘crowded artery of mass shipping, fishing and power generation’ (1). The UK Independent, whose front pages look increasingly like idiot guides to world politics for schoolkids, has the word ‘EXTINCT’ emblazoned across today’s cover, with a picture of the river dolphin and the words: ‘This is the Yangtze river dolphin….it was driven to its death by mankind.’ (2)

Of course it is a shame when any animal becomes extinct. Some marine biologists have described the Yangtze dolphin as a ‘living fossil’ because it remained ‘essentially unchanged over the 20million years since it first entered the river’ (3). No doubt greater efforts should have been made to remove some of the dolphins from the Yangtze and preserve them in captivity. Yet those holding up the river dolphin as a victim of Chinese ‘environmental destruction’ – of China’s transformation of rivers and lakes into ‘dirty and dusty’ pools of poison (4) – are being one-sided indeed. The river dolphin has died off, not because the Chinese destroyed the Yangtze, but because they have enlivened it, turning it from a natural streak of water across the planet into a vibrant, life-giving source of food, work and energy for millions of people. The Chinese have made the Yangtze into a river of life, and not, as some have claimed, into a ‘river of death’ (5).

The Hungarian Marxist writer Georg Lukacs once said that the essence of opportunism is always to begin with ‘parts and not the whole, symptoms and not the thing itself’. This is an apt description of the current outbreak of mourning over the Yangtze river dolphin. It overlooks ‘the thing itself’ that caused the dolphin to die off: China’s transformation of the Yangtze into a source of nourishment, livelihood and wealth for millions upon millions of human beings. What the Chinese have done to the Yangtze in recent decades could be described as a mini-industrial revolution. Over the past 200 years, and the past 50 years in particular, the Yangtze has become one of China’s main lifelines: its waters support and enable vast amounts of agricultural work, which keep millions of people in employment and produce millions of tonnes of food; the river also allows the transportation of goods – food, medicine, bicycles, computers, furniture – through nine of China’s provinces, which cover 695,000 square miles of land.

The Chinese have harvested the river to make mind-boggling amounts of rice. And as one writer on the world’s rivers points out, rice remains ‘the world’s single most important food crop and a primary food for more than a third of the world’s population’ (6). China accounts for 35 per cent of the world’s rice production. A large proportion of this Chinese rice is cultivated around the Yangtze: each year, the river deposits more than 170million cubic metres of silt, which makes up the fertile plains of the Jiangsu province, and the Chinese use these plains to make ‘abundant harvests’ of rice (7). Millions are employed in China’s rice production industry, and their harvest feeds millions more Chinese as well as millions of people across the Third World. Remember that soppy Band Aid song ‘Feed the world’? Well, China’s harvesting of the natural properties of the Yangtze (or what some refer to as its poisoning of the Yangtze) is helping to do precisely that.

The river enables modern industry, too. Tonnes of fish are pulled from the Yangtze every day and transported to Shanghai and other cities across China. Most strikingly, 20,000 labourers are currently working on finishing the Three Gorges Dam. Work started in 1994 and is set to be completed by 2009. At 610 feet tall and one-and-a-half miles wide, the dam is China’s largest construction project since the Great Wall. It will be the biggest dam in the world. It will create a five-trillion gallon reservoir which will be 400 miles long and hundreds of feet deep. It will further stabilise the river, allowing freighters weighing up to 10,000 tonnes to navigate their way into the heart of China. The dam’s turbines will generate the same amount of electricity as 18 nuclear power plants, and will supply around a ninth of China’s electricity. Put another way, they will meet the electricity needs of 150million people. Modern China harvests the Yaghtze for fish, rice production and energy.

Of course, vast amounts of waste and sewage are created as a result of all this activity on the Yangtze, and they have given rise to pollution and caused hardship for certain animals. It should be hoped that the more China develops, the cleaner its industries will become. But it is a strange outlook indeed that sees only the crap created by the industrialisation of the Yangtze river rather than its creation of jobs and food and light and heat for huge swathes of mankind.

The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin is likely to be used as a form of environmental and emotional blackmail against China. Indeed, commentators in the West point out that the dolphin was once considered the ‘Goddess of the Yangtze’ and was even worshipped by earlier generations of Chinese; according to the Independent, when the last dolphin died, ‘so too did a piece of China’s soul’ (8). The Chinese, however, have grown up; they no longer worship nature. Indeed, when Mao expressed his interest in building a massive dam in the Yangtze, he said it was time the Chinese people ‘surpris[ed] the goddesses’ in the river – that is, China should no longer be beholden to nature or its myths. Maybe it is time some in the West grew up, too.

So let us stand up and say that, yes, the loss of the Yangtze dolphin is bad for biodiversity, but it is a small price to pay for the liberation of millions of human beings from absolute poverty.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen gave three cheers for China’s ‘economic miracle’ and said China should be free to develop as it wishes. Bill Durodié witnessed a Chinese cultural revolution at Tate Liverpool. Brendan O’Neill challenged fears of the ivory trade and Nathalie Rothschild did the same with seal hunting. Helene Guldberg said we should stop weeping over whaling. Or read more at spiked issues Asia and Animals.

(1) Yangtze river dolphin driven to extinction, Guardian, 8 August 2007

(2) EXTINCT, Independent, 8 August 2007

(3) Yangtze river dolphin driven to extinction, Guardian, 8 August 2007

(4) For an example of how China’s development is described as ‘dirty’, see Dust, waste and dirty water: the deadly price of China’s miracle, John Vidal, Guardian, 18 July 2007

(5) Endemic Dolphin ‘Extinction’ Mirrors Yangtze Health Decline,, 22 January 2007

(6) Yangtze River, The African Waters Website

(7) Yangtze River, The African Waters Website

(8) EXTINCT, Independent, 8 August 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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