Wuhan: The city has plagued China’s leaders for a century

The Three Gorges Dam near Wuhan, China

By Christopher Harper

For those who have studied the history of China, it is rather ironic to us that Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus, should once again stand at center stage.

Before the virus outbreak, Wuhan, a place unknown to most Westerners, has played a significant role in the demise of the Chinese monarchy in 1911 and later as a symbol of the flawed vision of Mao Zedong.

Often called the Chicago of China, Wuhan is the leading city of the central part of the country because of its railroads and riverway near the Yangtze River.

But Wuhan’s place in history began in 1911 when revolutionaries launched the opening of the attack against the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China for 400 years.

Back then, many Western powers saw railway investments as part of the consolidation in their spheres of influence over China. Provincial governments, with permission from the Qing court, began to construct their own railways, obtaining huge loans from foreign countries that maintained financial control of the routes. This policy was met with stiff resistance, including massive strikes and protests. At one point, the military opened fire on protesters, leading to widespread dissatisfaction among the population.

On October 10, 1911, revolutionary forces within the military staged a mutiny in the Wuhan area and forced the Qing leaders out of government buildings and residences. Within two months, the country elected Sun Yat-sen as its leader and forced the young Qing emperor to abdicate the throne.

Fast forward to Mao and his dream for a huge hydroelectric dam. Wuhan, which sits near a critical part of the Yangtze River, became the site of the dam near an area known as the Three Gorges.

Mao started to promote the dam’s construction almost immediately after taking power in 1949. Although his ill-conceived economic plans stalled the building, the project was finally finished in 2008.

Although the dam provides 2 percent of China’s electricity, the project devastated the local economy, displaced 1.3 million people, and created numerous ecological problems from fish migration to landslides. Corrupt politicians lined their pockets with money intended to build the dam and help the local population.

During a trip along the Yangtze two years ago, I got to see the engineering feat and the consequences to the local population. The local economy is dependent on tourists—most of them Chinese–who travel along the river to see the dam and ignore its impact.

The coronavirus has put Wuhan on the international stage yet again. Not surprisingly, the government failed the recognize the impact of the disease on the population and limited public knowledge to help prevent the spread of the illness.

Although the ineptitude of President Xi is unlikely to result in the fall of the country’s current emperor, the coronavirus underlines the government’s failure to recognize the implications of its wrongheaded policies—much like the long-term impact of the Three Gorges Dam.

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