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The techno-politics of big infrastructure and the Chinese water machine

Britt Crow-Miller
School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA bcm@asu.edu

Michael Webber
School of Geography, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia mjwebber@unimelb.edu.au

Sarah Rogers
Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Melbourne, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, Melbourne, VIC, Australia rogerssm@unimelb.edu.au

ABSTRACT: Despite widespread recognition of the problems caused by relying on engineering approaches to water management issues, since 2000 China has raised its commitment to a concrete-heavy approach to water management. While, historically, China’s embrace of modernist water management could be understood as part of a broader set of ideas about controlling nature, in the post-reform era this philosophical view has merged with a technocratic vision of national development. In the past two decades, a Chinese Water Machine has coalesced: the institutional embodiment of China’s commitment to large infrastructure. The technocratic vision of the political and economic elite at the helm of this Machine has been manifest in the form of some of the world’s largest water infrastructure projects, including the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project, and in the exporting of China’s vision of concrete-heavy development beyond its own borders. This paper argues that China’s approach to water management is best described as a techno-political regime that extends well beyond infrastructure, and is fundamentally shaped by both past choices and current political-economic conditions. Emerging from this regime, the Chinese Water Machine is one of the forces driving the (re)turn to big water infrastructure globally.

KEYWORDS: Water development, infrastructure, techno-politics, South-North Transfer, China