TikTok Confessions on Poyang Lake
Why is Poyang Lake an interesting case study for you?
Poyang Lake is one of the most famous lakes for sand mining in China, even worldwide. The sand is considered very high-quality because of the small size of the grains, so it can be sold for a high price. The dredging is carried out by two different types of companies, private or government-owned. The Chinese government is working to limit the intensity of dredging, but it seems that only the private companies are being targeted. Nevertheless, you can find evidence that private dredging is still going on by looking at social media, such as TikTok.
The usual reason given to limit the dredging is the ecological consequence, and of course this argument is well-known around the world. The dredging increases the depth of the lake and disturbs the lake bed, so it also threatens other industries in Poyang Lake, like fishing. Actually, Poyang Lake is quite a young lake (formed around 400 A.D.) and the water level fluctuates naturally, from season to season. In media reports, this is often misrepresented as a phenomenon caused mainly by dredging. After doing my research, I think there may also be economic motivations for limiting the activities of private companies while allowing state-owned companies to increase their activity. In general, mainstream news outlets only portray the government’s point of view, and rarely show the perspective of local people. Through TikTok, I discovered many videos that show what is happening in Poyang Lake through the eyes of those involved in the sand dredging industry day-to-day.
What kinds of stories did you find in the TikTok videos?
I found three kinds of stories, which feature both legal and illegal, state-owned and private dredging businesses. Some videos are made by entrepreneurs who show their industrial capacity to potential customers, who comment on the videos asking about prices and transport. Usually, the sand is transported to nearby cities in Jiangxi Province, but the increasing need for sand in China, especially for concrete construction and manufacturing, means that there is more demand from abroad. Still, there are issues to ship the sand because of the cost of transporting sand when it is wet and heavy, as well as the governmental controls on commercial truck shipment weights, so private companies seem reluctant to transport the sand too far.
There are also many videos posted by ship drivers passing time while sand is being loaded or unloaded, or waiting for permits or documents. These users, who seem to be employees of legal government-owned companies, often show the lake or details of the industrial process for interested or curious viewers.
Finally, there is a small number of videos uploaded by visitors complaining about the noise levels and environmental impact of the dredging boats, but these kinds of posts are especially rare in Poyang Lake because most people still see dredging as an economic opportunity and as their livelihood. My project puzzles together these different viewpoints to get a more nuanced and comprehensive depiction of sand dredging as it unfolds today.
How does your installation communicate this story?
My installation is made of materials that are inexpensive and readily available to everyone—cardboard and tape used to recreate a dredging ship symbolically, or the TikTok videos that are shown there. I use the figure of the ship, seven metres long and two metres high, in order to share the story with people more directly, without obscuring the topic through high art or design codes of communication. This ship has an important symbolism: for some, it represents the potential to make money, while for others it is a warning sign of environmental destruction or illegal trade.
Every year, the government destroys some dredging ships, but it seems to be more of a scare tactic than a real attempt to stop private dredging. In fact, often legally registered ships are destroyed because they can easily be tracked, as opposed to unregistered ships. It seems impossible to really stop all private dredging, since the local people can always make informal arrangements with officials in their community or find some legal loophole to continue dredging anyway. The opportunity for profit is simply stronger than the legal enforcement: in just a single night, the sand dredgers can make an enormous amount of money. I think this tension between personal economy, government policy and ecological risks is a pattern that most viewers today will intuitively recognise, even if they are not familiar with Poyang Lake in particular.