Published in October 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1988, Chinese political reformers produced a television programme titled Heshang (River Elegy), which presented the country’s future as a symbolic choice between the inward-looking Yellow River or the internationalist blue Pacific Ocean. Many choices in China’s past have come down to water. China’s huge agrarian empire could not have thrived for four millennia without the control and exploitation of huge quantities of water. The pre-war sinologist Karl Wittfogel developed the idea of a “hydraulic state” linked to the concept of “oriental despotism”; his case was that only an authoritarian government could control a society which needed so much water to survive.