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Discourses of deflection: The politics of framing China’s South-North Water Transfer Project

Britt Crow-Miller
Department of Geography, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon; bcrow@pdx.edu

ABSTRACT: Despite significant financial, ecological and social trade-offs, China has moved forward with constructing and operationalising the world’s largest interbasin water transfer project to date, the South-North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP). While it is fundamentally linked to broader political-economic goals within the context of China’s post-Mao development agenda, the SNWTP is frequently discussed in apolitical terms. Based on extensive discourse analysis and interviews with government officials across North China, I argue that the Chinese government is using "discourses of deflection" to present the project as politically neutral in order to serve its ultimate goal of maintaining the high economic growth rates that underpin its continued legitimacy. These discourses, which replace concerns with human-exacerbated water stress with naturalised narratives about water scarcity and the ecological benefits of water transfer, serve to deflect attention away from anthropogenic sources of water stress in the North China Plain and serve as apolitical justifications for pursuing a short-term supply-side approach rather than the more politically challenging and longer-term course of dealing with the underlying drivers of water stress in the region.

KEYWORDS: Discourse, interbasin water transfer, water politics, China