Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 1

(May 31, 1994)



by Dai Qing2

It has been almost 70 years since the Three Gorges project was first proposed by one of the founders of the People’s Republic, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Since then, hundreds of government agencies, bureaucracies, and academic bodies, both Chinese and foreign, have participated in detailed studies of all aspects of the megaproject. While pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for an immediate start to the project has fluctuated over the years due to ideological struggle, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, economic troubles, and prolonged governmental debate, pressure for a rapid start to the project was once again mounting in the late 1980s.3

Despite roughly 70 years of debate within the Chinese government, the voices of opposition to the dam-whether those of National Peoples Congress (NPC)4 members, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)5 members, academics, journalists, or ordinary Chinese citizens-have been repeatedly suppressed by the Chinese government. (EDITORS)

Since the mid-1980s there have been only three occasions when the Chinese people have openly voiced opposition to the Three Gorges project. The first occasion occurred in 1986, when the Economic Construction Group of the CPPCC submitted a report titled “The Three Gorges Project Should Not Go Ahead in the Short Term” to the State Council and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Opposition surfaced a second time when the People’s Publishing House of Hunan published two books on the Three Gorges project by Tian Fang and Lin Fatang, On a Long-Range Strategy For the Three Gorges Project (1987), and A Second Look at a Long-Range Strategy For the Three Gorges Project (1989)6. The third instance was when I and several colleagues first published this book, Yangtze! Yangtze!, in China. Yangtze! Yangtze! was a joint effort by more than a dozen journalists from Beijing and was titled by 92-year-old Sun Yueqi, a CPPCC member, and former chairman of the National Resources Committee of the Nationalist Government.

In China, the media is regarded as a propaganda tool of the Communist Party. This is in keeping with Mao Zedong’s cardinal doctrine: “Revolution depends on two barrels, the barrel of a gun and the barrel of a pen.” Though Chinese citizens hold valuable opinions, they do not have access to the media. The media provides only jingoistic propaganda, such as “we only want to encourage bright communism and to discard decadent capitalism”; and “the Communist Party and its leadership has been great, glorious and errorless.” The propaganda is full of obvious paradoxes. For example, a country that was referred to as a “comrade-in-arms” yesterday, can be referred to as an “arch enemy” today, or an “intimate trading partner” tomorrow. But the Chinese know never to question such paradoxes.

Ordinary people do not understand why the officials who control the propaganda machine will not allow an open academic debate on an engineering project such as the Three Gorges dam, especially since it does not involve bothersome issues such as humanitarianism, egalitarianism and freedom. Many people are concerned that, if it is not handled properly, the project may spell the end for the Communist Party and the People’s Republic in a similar way as construction of the Great Wall more than 2,000 years ago brought down the First Empire of Qin (BC 221-207). It is unacceptable for the officials to forbid debate in the media on such an important project.

On every occasion where limited opposition to the Three Gorges project arose it was suppressed by various kinds of political movements.7 At the height of the reform and “open policy,8 Sun Yueqi and the Economic Construction Group of the CPPCC voiced their opposition to the project. The group, composed of senior scientists, had, in 1986, conducted a 38-day field trip along the project site. The scientists came back to Beijing with many opinions and a lot of advice, only to discover that no widely circulated, non-specialized newspapers had objectively reported the findings of their study.9

As it happened, Lin Hua, the deputy leader of the group, was a friend of my mother, whom I used to call “uncle.” Since government officials controlled the media tightly and were not allowing objective reporting, he asked my mother to invite me to conduct an interview with them.

My mother rarely asked me for favors. However, when she phoned this time, I knew she was as determined on this issue as she had been with her communist beliefs, even though she had repeatedly suffered for those beliefs.10

I went to the CPPCC auditorium where the construction group was to officially release its fact-finding report. At first, I thought that I was in the wrong place because there were no more than 100 people in the large auditorium. I took a seat at the side. Uncle Lin Hua, who presided over the meeting, spotted me and made reference to me in his opening speech. “A journalist from the Enlightenment Daily is present today!” he said. To my great surprise, the audience immediately began to applaud. All journalists know that reporting on meetings is a difficult task. Usually, journalists are fortunate to find a way to sneak into them without being driven away. Journalists were not usually given such warm receptions! As I found out later, the applause was because there was a government-imposed news blackout on the event.

At the time of the meeting, I had no knowledge of the Three Gorges project. However, as a student of science and technology I felt that what these professionals were saying made sense. Nevertheless, as a newspaper journalist, I did not have the authority to make decisions on the content of the newspaper. Nor did I have the authority to dispatch reporters. My only hope for getting the story out was to consult the director of the Chief Editor’s office of my paper. When I spoke to him, I asked why the paper did not send reporters to cover such an important event. He replied that there was a “spirit”11 or unwritten rule from the higher authorities that allowed only “positive” reporting; that is, reporting that supported the views of the Party. Anyone who understood the politics of communist China would know that the “spirit” was something that only those people in the center of power could control. I told him of my own opinion and hoped that he would not take the rules on “positive” reporting too seriously. He was clear-minded and did what he thought was proper. Nevertheless, our effort seemed to be very limited in comparison to the powerful and resonant “positive” reporting campaign on the project.

After attending the meeting, I returned to my daily routine and did not concern myself with the Three Gorges again until the autumn of 1988.

That autumn, a group of writers, journalists and professors in Hong Kong (known as the “cultural celebrities”) hosted a conference for writers from both China and Taiwan, and I was invited to attend. I was shocked to see that the Hong Kong media was full of stories on the Three Gorges project which had attracted almost no attention from ordinary people in China. I felt very ashamed that I, a Beijinger, paid so little attention to such an important issue. But, I was still not sure how I could help those opposing the Three Gorges project. Fortunately, those I made contact with in Hong Kong sent me many clippings concerning the project. Without their help I could not have taken up the Three Gorges cause. The news reports that they sent made me both anxious and restless.

While I became personally committed to the cause, I was at a loss as to how my fellow journalists working in the science or news sections of their newspapers could do something to help, as the newspapers were under the tight control of Communist Party officials.

Then the big news came. The Hong Kong press had reported that the construction of the Three Gorges project would be started in 1989! Now, it was impossible for any Chinese journalist with a conscience to accept the old excuses for remaining uninvolved with the project-being “too busy” or “lacking a position of responsibility in a media organization” would no longer wash. It was then that I made up my mind to start minding the business of others.

Today, many Chinese and foreign newspapers and magazines have labeled me an “environmentalist.” I am quite flattered by the title. Although I have a great deal of respect for the environmental movement, neither I nor my colleagues considered ourselves environmentalists when we were compiling and publishing Yangtze! Yangtze! Our goal was to push China a little bit further towards freedom of speech on the issue of government decision making.

Deng Xiaoping once said:
Only when we realize democracy in our nation’s political life with a readiness to welcome and accept different views from the public, can we avoid serious mistakes and correct the minor ones in a timely fashion.

In a similar vein Zhao Ziyang12 said: “Make known the important matters to the people and let the people discuss them.” Even under very strict authoritarian rule, we can still find some leaders’ quotations to justify our work and serve as our arrow-shaped token of authority.13

Our first task in publishing Yangtze! Yangtze! was to interview the contributors and translate the academic language of these specialists into the popular language of the media so that ordinary people could make sense of it. The second task was to find a place to publish it.

The first task was relatively easy. Though I was unable to interview all of the leading scientists and scholars who opposed the project, there were many excellent journalists who, thanks to 10 years of reform, were no longer willing to act as mouthpieces for the Communist Party. We knew if we co-operated and worked together,14 we could turn out 10 interviews in one week. But where could these interviews be published?

We knew there was little hope of having the Party-controlled newspapers publish our work. At that time, the Shanghai-based World Economic Herald had not yet been banned15 and we thought it might be able to turn out a special issue. I carefully planned and discussed the issue with Zhang Weiguo, the director of the Herald’s Beijing office. Unfortunately, because of differences of opinion between myself and the paper’s editors, the plan was rejected by the main office in Shanghai.

There was no government interference.

Having no luck with newspapers, magazines were the next logical step. It was impossible with Outlook magazine because it was run by the Xinhua News Agency.16 The New Observer was considered liberal enough to publish the material but they already had enough articles for their next few issues (a common excuse). We then asked to have our material included in the New Observer as a supplement, but this was not possible because all supplements had to be approved by the authorities. We did not have time to seek such approval, nor did we think it would be granted. The Journal of Natural Dialectics was under the control of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but the new leader of the academy was said to be a very nice man who did not want to cause any trouble. The Voice of the Masses, the Chinese World and other magazines were all contacted, but I was politely rejected by all of them. The Communist Party’s control was so pervasive that it leaked nothing; not even a drop of water.

With my anger mounting, I recalled that there was a newly founded magazine called the Science and Technology Entrepreneur in Shandong province, which had been begging me for stories. I contacted them right away. They were so excited they sent an editor to participate in our interviews in Beijing. We agreed that they would send someone again three days later to Beijing to get the manuscripts. Incredibly, they did not want to charge us for the publishing; instead they offered to pay us in order to cover our expenses in Beijing. I was overjoyed by this unexpected good news! However, as I walked the editor out of the building after the interviews with the economists, he stopped and I sensed that something was wrong. My heart almost stopped beating. He then conceded that in order to publish our interviews and articles he would need our help in obtaining approval from the National Association of Sciences and Technology (NAST), which oversaw the magazine’s affairs. Bravely, I said that this would be no problem. I knew that Zhou Peiyuan (a leading scientist and dam opponent) was the ex-chairman of the association, and hoped he would support us by allowing a scientific magazine to publish a special issue on the Three Gorges project. The topics were in the interests of the nation and the people and followed the guidance of the current leaders’ directives.17

I did not expect that the plan would fall apart at the last moment. However, the Beijing correspondent of the magazine felt that permission from the ex-chairman alone would not be sufficient. The current chairman was Qian Xuesen, a renowned scientist and patriotic statesman, who was considered fresh blood in the Communist Party. When asked for his permission, Qian responded: “Who is this Dai Qing? We should pay no attention to things in which she pokes her nose.”

I understood very well that Qian did not want to deal with anything that involved me. However, he was being disingenuous when he implied that he did not know me. Two or three years earlier, when I was a subordinate of his,18 we met and I made the comment that every time I met a great man and listened to his brilliant speeches, his wife was always playing the piano in the background. Accustomed to musing on issues of science and politics accompanied by his wife’s music, Qian asked me which of Beethoven’s symphonies I preferred. “Number Five,” I replied. Qian smiled and replied, “No, it should be Number Nine. This symphony represents his highest achievement-reconciliation, harmony and love between human beings.” I felt enlightened by his comments. Unfortunately, by the time we sought his permission to publish our interviews, I understood that for some, reconciliation, harmony and love existed only in the music of Beethoven. At this point it was clear that the only option left for us was to publish our articles in a book.

Several publishers in Beijing were contacted. They all rejected me politely and I fell into complete despair. Suddenly, I received a phone call from Xu Yinong of the People’s Publishing House of Guizhou province. Xu had joined the communist movement in the 1940s and was one of the most insightful and courageous senior editors in China. She did not mind making personal sacrifices to support good books and their authors. The most important thing for us was that as executive editor of the publishing house, she had the authority to give us a book number (ISBN). Finally, the “tightly controlled” system had developed a tiny loophole! Printing began immediately.

On February 28, 1989, we held a news conference in Beijing to announce the release of Yangtze! Yangtze! With the help of fund-raising activities held by the cultural and press circles (including the participation of many foreign news correspondents) and voluntary help from scholars, writers, artists and friends in the publishing business,19 Yangtze! Yangtze! was released as planned, to coincide with the annual assemblies of the NPC and the CPPCC, at which the Three Gorges project was to be approved.20 During the meetings, the books were available in the stores of the hotels where delegates stayed.21

On June 4, 1989, immediately after the release of the Chinese edition, the Sanlian Publishing House released the Hong Kong edition with the revised title, Debate over the Three Gorges Project. In 1991, as a new wave of pro-dam campaigning picked up in China, the Xindi Press in Taipei released the Taiwan edition, under the original title.

Our efforts may look weak and limited in comparison with the government’s strong and thunderous media campaign. Whether history proves the project to be a success or a failure, the fact remains that we were simply a group of journalists who took our profession very seriously. We tried to do what we felt was right at a time when we were needed.

Sources and Further Commentary

1This chapter, written after the 1989 publishing and subsequent banning of Yangtze! Yangtze! in China, was not part of the original book.

2Dai Qing, a newspaper columnist for the Enlightenment Daily from 1982 until 1989, was the first Chinese journalist to publicize the views of dissidents such as astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. The daughter of a revolutionary martyr executed by the Japanese, Dai was adopted by her father’s comrade-in-arms, Marshal Ye Jianying, who by 1980 had become one of the five most powerful men in China. Trained as a missile engineer, Dai worked in military intelligence, which led to a growing disenchantment with the draconian policies of the Chinese government and exposure to a community of writers. While at the Enlightenment Daily, Dai began questioning the proposed Three Gorges dam, leading to the publication of Yangtze! Yangtze! in 1989. Jailed, banned, and then fired from her job at the Enlightenment Daily, Dai Qing has not relented in her struggle for government accountability, press freedom, and public debate on important matters to the Chinese people. In recognition of her contribution, she was awarded Harvard University’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalists in 1991, and the Goldman Environmental Award in 1993. Today, Dai works as a freelance journalist, writing on a variety of subjects, including a series of books on the history of dam building in China. Yangtze! Yangzte! is the first of that series.

3For a chronology of events covering the history of the dam, see Appendix A.

4The National People’s Congress is China’s parliament and, in theory, its highest organ of state power. In practice, it is controlled by the Communist Party and serves as its rubber-stamp organization.

5An advisory body to the Communist Party whose annual assembly generally meets in conjunction with the NPC’s annual meeting. It is composed of mainly non-communist figures from academic, bureaucratic, and intellectual backgrounds, who, especially in the mid-1980s, strongly opposed the Three Gorges project.

6A third book on the subject was also published: Tian Fang and Lin Fatang, A Third Look at a Long-Range Strategy for the Three Gorges Project (Hunan: People’s Publishing House of Hunan, 1992).

7Here, political movements refer to communist political mass movements such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969).

8Open policy refers to efforts by the Chinese government to open the country for trade and investment to the outside world.

9During their trip, the CPPCC members visited eight cities that would be affected by the dam and convened more than 40 open forums to hear from all concerned ministries and bureaus, from experts and scholars, and from local and national CPPCC members. At the end of their trip, they submitted their findings to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council, with the recommendation that the project should not go ahead in the short term. This report and its effects on the debate over the Three Gorges project are more fully examined in Chapter 3. For the complete report see Economic Construction Group of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, “The Three Gorges Project Should Not Go Ahead in the Short Term,” in Megaproject: A Case Study of the Three Gorges, eds. Shiu-hung Luk and Joseph Whitney (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1993), pp. 110-120.

10Dai Qing is implying here that, although a committed communist, her mother suffered at the hands of the Party for pursuing issues such as the Three Gorges dam that challenged the Chinese Communist Party.

11For a description of the origins and history of this “spirit” in the Communist Party, and its destructive consequences for opinionated intellectuals, see Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and “Wild Lilies”: Rectification and Purges in the CCP, 1942-1944 (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1994).

12Former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang was purged after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June, 1989, and was replaced with the current general secretary, Jiang Zemin.

13“Arrow-shaped token of authority” is a Chinese cultural term. In ancient times, emperors gave special arrows to their officials. To possess one of these arrows was to carry the emperor’s authority and approval.

14This was no mean accomplishment since such actions by journalists outside direct Party authority could expose Dai Qing and her colleagues to political persecution.

15It was banned in 1989.

16The Xinhua News Agency is China’s official news agency, and is at the top of the hierarchy of the Chinese mass media system. Its director is nominated by the premier and approved by the NPC.

17This is a reference to the quotes by Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang mentioned earlier in the chapter.

18Dai Qing worked as an engineer in the Seventh Ministry of Machine Building when Qian was the vice-minister. During the Cultural Revolution she was one of the key activists in the faction in which he was involved.

19Xiao Rong reports that Liang Congjie, a scholar, topped the list of donors. Other supporters included writers from Taiwan such as Chen Yingzhen, Wang Tuo and Guo Feng and a number of cultural magazines in Beijing.

20For more on the NPC and CPPCC’s opposition to the dam at this meeting and 1992 meetings, see Chapters 3 and 10.

21In fact, many CPPCC delegates were said to have sneaked out of their assembly meetings to attend Dai Qing’s news conference.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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