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Xi Jinping should take the Zhengzhou floods as a warning from China’s history | Philip Ball

The footage of a torrent of muddy water engulfing the broad thoroughfares of Zhengzhou, China, may look like a scene from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. But for China’s leaders, these images speak not only to a dystopian future but also to the struggles of the past – and to the issue of the Chinese Communist party’s mandate to rule.

Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million inhabitants, stands on the south bank of the Yellow River, once known as China’s Sorrow for its catastrophic and recurring floods. Spring downpours and the melting of snow upstream in remote Qinghai province regularly breached the river’s banks. For millennia, China’s rulers attempted to contain the deluge with handbuilt dykes stretching thousands of kilometres, mostly without success.

Some historians argue that the administrative demands of coordinating manual labour on such a tremendous scale are what made China such a centralised, bureaucratic and authoritarian state. To the German-American historian Karl Wittfogel, imperial China was the archetypal “hydraulic civilisation”, in which the dangers created by a precarious water situation justified rigid social control.

As an account of how China came to be the way it is, Wittfogel’s thesis is too simplistic. But there’s surely a kernel of truth to it, as China’s mythology attests. Like many cultures, China has a myth of a great flood in which a torrent of water threatens the entire civilisation. Yet in China’s flood myth, this problem was solved not by divine grace, but by a feat of civil engineering.

According to the myth, an engineer called Da Yu supervised the carving of passages through mountains and the dredging of sediment from rivers to allow the flood water to drain into the sea. His success, the story goes, paved the way for him to found the Xia dynasty around 2100BC and succeed China’s legendary Five Emperors, the pantheon of great rulers from prehistorical times.

The message of the flood myth was that an ability to manage China’s perilous waters legitimises the state’s rulers – whereas a failure to do so vindicates their expulsion. As David Pietz, a historian of China, wrote, “the sanctioning power of myths, adapted and retold to legitimise political authority, was expressed in a host of water management projects throughout history.” A ruler who can command the waterways as Da Yu did has the “mandate of heaven”, the divine right to rule.

No story better illustrates the hydraulic dimensions of China’s political history than the efforts to control flooding of the Yellow River. Conceived during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century, the Yellow River Administration became the prototypical mandarin bureaucracy: an expensive juggernaut overburdened with minor officials and opportunistic hangers-on. When the ancient city of Kaifeng, just downstream of Zhengzhou, was deluged by a breach in the dykes in 1841, the cost to the Qing emperor – already beleaguered by the opium wars with Great Britain – was unsupportable. A second huge flood two years later led to the dissolution of the water bureaucracy. With the dykes neglected, another great flood in 1886-87 near Zhengzhou itself killed between 1-2.5 million and left the Qing dynasty moribund. China became regarded internationally as a hopelessly backward state, ripe for exploitation by western powers.

Although Mao Zedong affected to reject all ancient beliefs and superstitions in constructing the communist state of modern China, he could not ignore the powerful message that good water management conveyed about the right to rule. His famous swims in the Yangtze were not merely Putin-style displays of machismo, but political theatre that signified mastery over the waters. That’s also why Mao made flood control a priority, ordering the construction of hundreds of dams on China’s unruly waterways. Many were built hastily (and badly) to impress party officials by coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. Some have since collapsed.

Controlling the Yellow River was particularly symbolic. The first large dam on the river, built in the late 1950s at Sanmenxia, 200km upstream of Zhengzhou, was emblazoned with the slogan, “When the Yellow River is at peace, the nation is at peace”. The mythical resonance is emphasised by a gigantic statue of Da Yu that stands guard on the cliff overlooking the dam.

Sanmenxia was poorly designed and never worked as it should, undermined by the heavy load of silt that gives the Yellow River its name. Today it serves as a perfect symbol of the Maoist era – neglected and unloved as massive machines slowly rust on its walls.

But China’s continuing obsession with huge hydraulic projects shows that the Communist party remains as determined as ever to claim the “mandate of heaven”. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, opened in 2003, is as much a showcase of state power as it is an exercise in flood control and hydroelectricity generation.

This, then, is why the flooding of Zhengzhou will cause alarm in Beijing beyond the economic damage and loss of life. It serves as a reminder to Xi Jinping’s administration that the consequences of the climate crisis, which will make extreme weather events more frequent, could shake the foundations of the Chinese state. The travails of China’s past give its leaders better reason than most to appreciate how such problems could provoke deep social unrest. For the sake of the world, we must hope that they heed the warning.

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