Dams and Landslides

Chapter 11

(May 31, 1994)


by Dai Qing

Dai Qing: On November 30, 1988, the assessment by the leading group of the Three Gorges project, which had lasted for 2 ½ years, proposed “starting the construction early.” For the sixth time in more than 30 years, this has moved the project forward on the national economic agenda, which has inevitably drawn the concern of citizens who will assess the project through its impact on their shopping bag. From the very beginning, you have been involved in the debate over the project, and have already participated in decision making at the highest level. In fact, half of your career has been concerned with the fate of the Three Gorges. Could you tell us under what circumstances the proposal for this grand project was put forward?

Li Rui:In early 1954, I was visiting the Soviet Union with an electric power delegation from the Ministry of Fuel Industry. A telegram arrived from home, saying that the Ministry of Water Resources was considering starting a dam project at the Three Gorges. After discussing the matter with Liu Lanpo,2 I sent a reply, which said that we were not presently able to undertake such a project. I understood that the people at the ministry were anxious to start the project in order to control floods along the Yangtze River. Later that year, Wuhan was besieged by floods that lasted for 40 to 50 days, so the people from Hubei province in which Wuhan is located wanted desperately to launch the project. Three Gorges would not, however, provide effective flood control for Wuhan.

Dai Qing: As far as floods are concerned, isn’t it true that people were more worried at that time about flooding of the Yellow River than the Yangtze River?

Li Rui: Yes. In those days the General Bureau of Water Resources and Electricity under the Ministry of Electric Power was working closely with the Ministry of Water Resources in formulating an overall program for the Yellow River valley. Here, I would like to emphasize that it was not a project concerned only with flood control, but also with many other elements influencing all the reaches along the Yellow River. True enough, flood control is much more urgent in the Yellow than the Yangtze River. We can certainly say that the life of the Chinese nation, from its very origins, has been deeply involved in the struggle to control rivers such as the Yellow, Huaihe, and Yangtze. Innumerable historical cases involving flood diversion and dike construction fill the annals, from Dayu3 to the Nationalist era (1927-1949) when three resource committees were set up for the Yellow, Huaihe, and Yangtze rivers.

Since 1949 and the founding of new China, flood control has been a serious concern of the state, which began constructing reservoirs on a large scale. In the 1950s, Lin Yishan proposed a scheme involving a normal water level of 235 meters and a reservoir that would hold 100 billion m3 of flood water for the Three Gorges. Obviously, he had been influenced by the Russians during his studies in the Soviet Union, where there are world-famous reservoirs and water-power stations.4 But the situation in China is very different from that in the Soviet Union, where flooding results from melted snow, making the flood peak relatively low. In China the monsoon rains cause floods with high peaks. Furthermore, the Soviet Union has more land with a smaller population, whereas in China, the opposite is the case, resulting in greater human losses when the floods occur.

Dai Qing: Building reservoirs for flood control is something new. So, isn’t it good to learn new methods after all? In fact, the Sanmenxia Gorge dam plays an important role in flood control, right?

Li Rui: Right. But the Yangtze River is different from the Yellow River. The Sanmenxia Gorge dam, which is situated at the lower reaches of the Yellow River, can control over 92 percent of the watershed, while the Three Gorges dam, which would be located at the end of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, has control over only 55 percent of the watershed. Moreover, floods from the many large tributaries at the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze often cause serious damage. Comparatively speaking, floods are less serious along the Yellow River, the largest of which was in 1843 when the river flow peaked at only 36,000 m3/s and the total flood volume over 30 days reached 16.7 billion m3. As for the Yangtze River, the highest flood peak on record was three times as much, and the flood volume 10 times as much as that of the Yellow River. So I think it is of little use to rely on reservoirs to control floods along the Yangtze. We should not forget that the sedimentation problem at the Sanmenxia Gorge dam became so serious that within two years of its completion sediment had accumulated in the Weihe River and was rapidly extending towards the upper reaches, causing great alarm in the city of Xi’an. As a result, the reservoir had to be reconstructed.5

Dai Qing: As I understand it, the control of large-scale floods requires large-scale reservoirs. I have the impression that your argument confirmed the proposal first put forward by Lin Yishan at the end of the 1950s emphasizing the enormous capacity of the proposed reservoir to finally solve flooding problems. This view was reconfirmed in the leading group’s assessment, which said: “The role of the Three Gorges reservoir in flood control is irreplaceable, and only when the reservoir is built can the floods along the Yangtze River be harnessed.”

Li Rui: I have to make it clear that I believe there are many other ways to control floods, and the flood-control capacity of the Three Gorges project should not be exaggerated. Because of the unique conditions of the Yangtze River, priority should be given to strengthening dikes, setting up flood storage basins and diverting water from lakes and low-lying land, constructing reservoirs along the tributaries and carrying out soil- and water-conservation projects. In support of an immediate start of the project, some people cite the major floods in 1870 and 1954, claiming that any recurrence would kill thousands or even millions. In my view, these people do not seek truth from fact.

Dai Qing: But what if the Jingjiang River dikes burst at Shashi City?

Li Rui: I’m afraid this argument doesn’t hold water. Before the Tang (7th-10th centuries) and Song (10th-13th centuries) dynasties, big floods were quite unknown along the Jingjiang River, where there were a number of outlets such as Yunmeng Lake to the north and Dongting Lake to the south that served very well as natural flood-storage areas and diverted the water flow. During the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries) Zhang Juzheng, a prime minister from Hubei, blocked the Haoxue diversion channel, the only outlet on the northern bank of the Jingjiang River, to ensure the safety of the north against floods, but only at the expense of the south. In 1870, a 1,000-year flood occurred in the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Because the southern bank was then lower than the northern one, the flood broke through at Songzikou on the southern bank and rushed into Dongting Lake. However low and weak the Jingjiang River dikes seemed, they withstood the flood above Jianli.

Today, after years of reinforcement, the Jingjiang River dikes are much stronger than before; therefore it is misleading to presume that the dikes would break again causing millions of deaths. The 1870 flood was from the upper reaches and the water level in Chongqing at that time was four meters higher than that of the flood in 1981. If a flood as serious as that in 1870 occurred again, the water level in Chongqing would be even higher due to the construction of the Three Gorges project, because it would store the flood waters and cause sediment to accumulate. Obviously then, Chongqing will be in danger if a flood occurs in the upper reaches instead of in the lower ones.

I remember well the big flood in 1954. The flooding in the lower and middle reaches was not very serious. At Yichang, the heaviest flow exceeded the security limit only by several thousand cubic meters per second, which was easily handled by the existing flood diversion network on the Jingjiang River. But, along the Xiangjiang, Zishui, Yuanshui, and Lishui rivers in Hunan province, the flood was ferocious, increasing the flow above Chenglingji to over 100,000 m3/s. Dikes along these rivers were not strong enough and finally burst, causing severe damage.

In 1980, (then premier) Zhao Ziyang gave instructions to the effect that flood-control methods along the Yangtze River should be undertaken but should not be delayed by the Three Gorges project. In response, the Ministry of Water Resources drew up a plan to build higher dikes, install dredgers for sediment management, and arrange flood-storage and diversion networks in the low-lying areas along the lower and middle reaches. This was not the first time this approach had been suggested. In 1972, similar programs had been put forward. But this approach does not interest those in decision-making positions. Therefore, we should not be surprised to learn that two of four dredgers at Shashi6 were removed, and the remaining two were working at a snail’s pace. Why does a plan that was formulated 10 years ago remain neglected? Let me remind you that the volume of the 1954 flood was about 100 billion m3. If the dikes along the lower and middle reaches were raised and strengthened, 50 billion m3 of flood waters could be channeled by the river itself. If the flood-storage basin and diversion network were set up as planned and safety facilities provided to the local people, the other half of the flood waters could be handled too. We should be quite confident that floods like that in 1954 could be successfully dealt with without the Three Gorges reservoir.

Dai Qing: But one might argue that once the Three Gorges reservoir is available, the other storage and diversion network at the lower and middle reaches will no longer be needed.

Li Rui: The point is that we have already built these storage basins and channels for this purpose. Why should we still think of building another big one to leave these existing ones idle? We have already imported dredgers. Why were they taken away for other purposes? Dikes that require constant, arduous work have proved to be the best way to control floods. Of course, dikes are not as grand as dams are and, hence, do not constitute a glorious testimonial to the builders. I firmly believe that the role of dikes is irreplaceable in taming irritable rivers. For the past 30 years, while the Three Gorges project has been frequently encouraged, the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power has not worked hard enough on dike construction and the establishment of flood-storage basins and diversion channels. As for the 1980 Ten-year plan, eight years have elapsed but less than half of the job has been completed.

As early as 1958, Premier Zhou Enlai warned that we should not wait for the Three Gorges reservoir to achieve flood control and we should guard against the illusion that it could solve all of our flood-control problems. Sun Yueqi, who is now over 90, once remarked that the first mistake was made when Zhang Juzheng blocked the outlet to guard the north against floods at the expense of the south; the second was when some lakes were turned into farms after 1949,7 which caused the flood-storage basins and diversion networks to be reduced by half; the third will be if the Three Gorges reservoir is built.

Dai Qing: It seems that the reason for starting the Three Gorges project in the 1950s was flood control, while in the 1970s and 1980s the major concern is power generation.

Li Rui: That’s right. In 1956 Lin Yishan wrote a lengthy report that barely mentioned power generation. But today, dam proponents cite electricity generation as a top priority. For instance, in the leading group’s assessment, investments in the hydro-electric aspects of the project account for 75 percent of the total budget, while flood control accounted for 21 percent and navigation 4 percent.8 At this conference, according to the proposed scheme of a 175-meter normal pool level the installed capacity would be 17.68 million kW and the annual electricity production could reach 84 billion kWh, solving the problem of an electricity shortage in central and eastern China and in eastern Sichuan. But it should be noted that it will take 12 years for the dam to generate power, and a total of 20 years to complete construction and resettle the people who are displaced. How then can the immediate problem of acute electricity shortage be solved? Li Boning, the former vice-minister of water resources and electric power, calculated that the cofferdam can generate power three years earlier than the reservoir. However, I resolutely oppose this idea of sacrificing a major navigation channel to install a few low-head power generation units. Premier Zhou Enlai once criticized this idea, calling it “tyranny on the waterway.”

Dai Qing: In the leading group’s assessment, isn’t it mentioned that the tributary development program should be encouraged according to the needs of local conditions and that the Three Gorges project will not replace the local program? Rather, they will complement each other.

Li Rui: This is merely wishful thinking. Given the present economic situation, it is impossible to do everything at the same time. After 1979, when I took over responsibility for the water-power construction program,9 I saw that many projects were being delayed because of the Gezhouba dam, which cost one-third of the total state budget for capital construction. In 1984, after the feasibility study on the Three Gorges project was basically approved by the State Council,10 the project preparation work began. As a result, the program for the Wuqiangxi power station in Hunan (1.2 million kW) and the Geheyan Power station in Hubei (1.2 million kW) had to be put off along with the Ertan Power station in Sichuan (3 million kW). Then, due to disagreement about the Three Gorges project, the preparation for the Three Gorges had to be stopped for reassessment by the leading group. Only then were these smaller-scale projects carried out. This has proved that it is impossible to undertake the Three Gorges project and those on the tributaries at the same time. There are currently a number of tributary power stations under construction, such as Tongjiezi (600,000 kW), and Baozhusi (640,000 kW) in Sichuan, Dongfeng in Guizhou (510,000 kW), Ankang in Shaanxi (800,000 kW), Wan’an in Jiangxi (400,000 kW), along with the aforementioned Wuqiangxi, Geheyan, and Ertan, with total power generation reaching 8.45 million kW. I believe that these medium-scale power stations are very effective in meeting the urgent demand for electricity, because they can be built relatively quickly. Their budgets should be guaranteed. But, in reality, the budgets are far from enough and some of them are still waiting to be initiated.

Other hydro-electric stations on the tributaries that have undergone either an initial preliminary design or a feasibility report, include: the Taipingyi in Sichuan (260,000 kW), the first stage of the Tianshengqiao (1.2 million kW) and the Hongjiadu (540,000 kW) in Guizhou, the Jiangya in Hunan (400,000 kW), and the Fankou in Hubei (510,000 kW). They are all awaiting financing. Given this, how can one say that the Three Gorges project does not conflict with stations on the tributaries? As everyone knows, projects on the tributaries are similar and do not involve complicated problems such as sedimentation, population relocation, and environmental degradation. It is not right to delay urgent and more realistic projects on the tributaries for the sake of the Three Gorges project that has yet to be decided upon. Just as flood control on the Yangtze River requires dam consolidation, a series of stations must be constructed on the tributaries to solve electricity shortages as soon as possible.

What a terrible waste it is that these effective smaller projects have to give way to an extensive one that even after years of discussion has produced no results at all! I was engaged in the field of hydro-electric construction for more than 10 years and tirelessly argued this point. Somebody was always occupying center stage with grandiose but impossible and impractical plans forcing the good but small players to wait in the wings. Isn’t that ridiculous? I retired from my post six years ago, but this painful situation still concerns me.

Dai Qing: At present the masses of Chinese who have experienced hunger have very few romantic notions. When they stand in long lines at crowded airports and train stations and at embarkation points for several days on end, they worry that after this life-line (the Yangtze River) is cut in half, the already seriously overtaxed transportation system will be even worse. However, it is said that the Three Gorges project will improve navigation, thereby allowing 10,000-tonne ocean-going vessels to reach Chongqing directly.

Li Rui: The Ministry of Communication is responsible for navigation. But I have yet to hear them suggest that the Three Gorges project will improve navigation. In fact, the Gezhouba dam has caused troubles for navigation. You misused a key term in your previous question. It is “10,000-tonne ships” not “10,000-tonne ocean-going vessels.” The latter term was used by Lin Yishan in his report to Mao at the 1958 Nanning Conference. The term was changed when it was discovered that ocean-going vessels could not clear the bridges at Wuhan and Nanjing.

I don’t think raising the water level with reservoirs is the only way to improve navigation. Waterway dredging has proved more effective, and thus, has been favored worldwide. For example, before the Mississippi River was dredged, the shallowest part was a mere 1.37 meters deep while that in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River is 1.8 meters. After dredging, the shallowest part of the Mississippi is now 3.63 meters, enabling fleets of 50,000-60,000 tonnes to navigate all year round.

Dai Qing: Here is a point that I don’t understand. For the sake of navigation, the Three Gorges reservoir needs to keep a high water level with a minimum depth of four meters in the section between Yichang and Chongqing. But in order to control floods and sedimentation, the water level must be lowered in the high- water season. So, should the water level be raised or lowered?

Li Rui: Well, that is exactly the dilemma this supposedly faultless project faces. One possibility exists for solving it. That is to keep a high water level for half of the year and to lower it to its natural level for the other half, which would keep the waterway safely open. However, when the high water level is maintained, many technical problems remain unresolved. As suggested in the leading group’s assessment, the shiplocks and the shiplift required will both exceed international standards. If any of the locks breaks down, navigation will have to be stopped in at least one direction. In the assessment report, the carrying capacity of the shiplift is estimated at 11,500 tonnes, and the highest elevation at 118 meters, both of which surpass world standards, and are far above the domestic record. (One in Belgium has a carrying capacity of 8,800 tonnes with an elevation of 23 meters; and the one at Danjiangkou carries 450 tonnes up 50 meters). Theoretically, one would like to believe that all of these difficulties can be overcome. But as for the actual problems, one cannot be too careful. Haven’t we had enough lessons in this respect?

Dai Qing: Sure. A recent lesson is the Gezhouba dam. There has been much praise for the dam. But we should not forget that, in order to coincide with the birthday of Chairman Mao Zedong,11 the Gezhouba dam was started in such a hurry that the whole project had to be stopped and redesigned. Apparently many people have forgotten this lesson. The Xinhua news agency has stated:

After completing the Gezhouba dam project, our domestic teams in charge of investigation, design, equipment and manufacturing, and construction and installation are now capable of carrying out the important task of development projects on any river in the country

Li Rui: High-sounding words like these have been common in the past 30 years. At the opening ceremony for the Gezhouba dam, Chairman Mao sent the following instructions: “I approve the construction of the Gezhouba dam. Designing the project is one thing. Unexpected problems and difficulties that might arise are another. Therefore, we must be ready to modify the design of the project.” These instructions, I am afraid, are not scientific in that they violated the normal working procedures of a construction project.

Certainly, we see that the Gezhouba dam has made some technical achievements, which, however, should not be overestimated and used in the hope of facilitating the immediate launching of the Three Gorges project. The Gezhouba dam is just 47 meters high while the Three Gorges dam will be at least 150 meters in height, and some plans even foresee a height of 235 meters. Therefore, the Three Gorges project will be more complicated than the Gezhouba dam, which has already proved to be no easy job.

The budget for the Gezhouba dam, when approved by Chairman Mao in 1970, was Y1.35 billion, and it reached Y4.8 billion in real terms; the planned construction period was five years, and turned out to be 18 years. At one session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Qian Jiaju pointed out that the Gezhouba dam construction was a typical case of a “long-and-dragged-out project.” That accusation was denied by those who denounced Qian’s remarks as being irresponsible, arguing that what had happened during the Cultural Revolution should not count. Yet, there are cases of smaller power stations, such as Fentan and Wujiangdu, which were built in 1970 during the Cultural Revolution, whose budget and construction schedule were all kept as planned.

Here I have to add that the quality of the Gezhouba dam is far from satisfactory. Because of navigation requirements, the Gezhouba dam cannot adequately regulate the water peak and, as a result, the power generated is erratic-more when there’s more water, less when there’s less water. During construction, navigation was stopped for seven months. After its completion, the follow-up work, including the testing of the locks and sediment removal, also caused frequent halts to navigation. The activities interrupted navigation in the area of Chongqing, Peiling, and Wanxian county, the economic loss reaching Y30 million.

Since the Three Gorges project will be much more extensive, involving flood control, power generation and navigation, problems of sedimentation, population relocation, and environmental damage will arise. Therefore, it is very important to tell the truth to the departments concerned, to the Party Central Committee and to the mass media. Decision makers and policy consultants should call a spade a spade.

Dai Qing: The sedimentation of reservoirs is a worldwide problem. In terms of silt content, China’s rivers are rated among the highest in the world. In seven years, sediment deposited in the Gezhouba dam has swallowed up 44 percent of its storage capacity. For the dams of the Yanguo and Qingtong gorges, the situation is more serious. But the assessment of the project has stated that the sediment problems can be handled by such methods as “storing the clean water and flushing out the muddy.” Isn’t it over optimistic to say that the sedimentation problem can be solved?

Li Rui: It is true that the annual volume of sediment in the Yangtze River ranks fourth highest among the world’s rivers. The method of “storing clean water and flushing out the muddy” was first adopted after the reconstruction of the Sanmenxia Gorge dam on the Yellow River, which involved lowering the water level and clearing away the muddy sediment in the reservoir during the flood season and then raising the water level again during the low-water season by storing up the clean water. But in fact, this method will not be practical for the Three Gorges reservoir, which will be over 600 kilometers in length, and the sediment deposited at the backwater reach of the reservoir will not be effectively scoured. What’s more, this particular method is totally contrary to the reservoir’s flood-control function, that is, to store flood waters during the high-water season.

Anyway, we should not forget the lesson of the Sanmenxia Gorge dam, which had to be reconstructed because of a serious sedimentation problem. As a result of the reconstruction (which lowered the reservoir’s water level), a hydro-electric power station of 1.2 million kW has now turned into a run-of-the-river power station of only 250,000 kW. If this happened to the Three Gorges reservoir, which is supposed to be 15 times larger than the Sanmenxia Gorge reservoir, the economic losses would be very serious!

Dai Qing: Just now, you mentioned that the important lesson we should draw from the Sanmenxia Gorge dam is that people did not have adequate knowledge about sedimentation patterns.

Li Rui: Right. If we look back on history, we will see that it is not a technical issue. When the Sanmenxia Gorge dam was constructed, the Soviet experts made it clear that they had no experience in this respect. But based on the data provided by the Chinese, they predicted the life expectancy of the reservoir would not exceed 50 years, due to sedimentation. Unfortunately, we didn’t take them seriously. Hotheaded and overoptimistic, we believed that the “mass campaign” of soil and water conservation-“the sage has emerged and the Yellow River is cleansed”-carried out in the upper reaches would surely “turn the Yellow River into a clean stream.” This kind of unrealistic and unscientific attitude still dominates some of our people’s thinking. As far as I’m concerned, the severity of the sedimentation problem is still unknown today. I do not trust the tests (either complete or still in progress) physically modeling sedimentation build-up. I don’t think it’s reliable to extrapolate from a small-scale model to a large-scale project. Regarding the mathematical calculations used in the simulation, the disparity that results from averaging and relying on probabilities in examining complicated phenomena is much greater than is realized. In dealing with the sedimentation problem of the proposed Three Gorges dam we must be very cautious and clear-headed.

Dai Qing: Recently Li Boning made a speech to the CPPCC suggesting a new program of population relocation for development, which has been supported by the leading group’s assessment. It now seems that this problem can perhaps be resolved. What do you have to say about that?

Li Rui: In that speech, Li Boning mentioned that if the scheme for a 175-meter water level for normal storage is implemented, there will be an additional 300,000 people to relocate. According to his calculations, if the compensation payments are distributed as early as possible to encourage people to plant orange groves, Y1 billion will be saved, which means the cost will be only Y400 to Y600 million, instead of Y1.6 billion as originally budgeted.

Well, I’m afraid this whole idea is very unrealistic. Based on the census by resettlement experts, the total population relocation will reach 1.13 million with a cost of no less than Y1.1 billion by the year 2008, when the Three Gorges project is expected to be completed. Afterwards, with the water level in the reservoir raised due to sedimentation, more people will have to be moved. It is estimated that 20 years after the completion of the reservoir, another 300,000 will have to be resettled, which will bring the total number up over 1.4 million.

In the assessment, it is suggested that around the hilly areas of the reservoir some 13 cities and 657 factories can be resettled, the land can be cultivated and orange groves can be developed. But this is already an overpopulated area where food is insufficient and the land depleted. To resettle a population as large as that of a small European country will certainly exceed the local environmental capacity of this mountainous region.

Dai Qing: According to Li Boning’s speech, a four-year pilot project of population relocation for development has been completed and has been welcomed by the people around the reservoir area and supported by the local government as well.

Li Rui: Wherever there is resettlement due to reservoir construction there has always been enormous difficulties. It is surprising to see that the local population in the Three Gorges area is so willing to cooperate. Of course, there is a reason for all this. Due to the long delay in the final decision on the project, all of the development plans for the area are almost at a standstill, just as was the case in the 1950s with residents in Fujian in the areas of coastal defense. Today, the assessment has promised them Y11 billion in compensation, which is one-third of the total project budget. It appears as if each person would get Y10,000,12 with the money to be paid in advance. This sounds attractive to the local people. However, it may be a case of government officials engaging in wishful thinking.

Population relocation has always proved very difficult, no matter what the scale of reservoir construction . In 1979, when I resumed my job in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, the first task was to relocate 20,000 people from the Xin’an River reservoir construction area. I should say that I have quite a lot of experience in this field.

It is said that around the time of the Cultural Revolution, among those who presented petitions to the government, the majority were cases involving resettlement problems due to reservoir construction. Among them there were several tragic incidents, such as the murder of the person in charge of relocation by furious petitioners. China has never before attempted to resettle more than 300,000 people.

Most efforts at resettlement occurred during the 1950s, when the Party and government enjoyed greater popularity, the people followed Chairman Mao’s every word and “charged forward” in accord with his commands, cadre work style was much better, and the farmers were easily persuaded. In addition, a commercial economy and inflation were virtually unknown.13 But even then, there were problems.

It is by no means an easy job to resettle one million people in narrow mountain valleys. Qian Zhengying, the minister of water resources and electrical power, once said: “Population relocation is a key problem of both economic and political importance.” Why not let the local people stay and encourage them to develop the local economy?

Dai Qing: In fact, population relocation is far more than a political and economic problem. It is directly related to environmental and social issues. Unlike previous reports, the recent assessment has paid considerable attention to this aspect. Apparently, great progress has been made in standards compared with when the Sanmenxia Gorge dam was built.

Li Rui: Attention is only the prerequisite to a good decision and they are by no means the same thing. Of course, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office has conducted a large number of investigations and calculations on environmental issues. I would like to emphasize that one should not overlook the problems of sedimentation, soil erosion, induced earthquakes and landslides, as well as resettlement. I agree with Ma Shijun, an environmental expert, who said that the Three Gorges project will do more harm than good to the environment. I also support Hou Xueyu, an ecologist, who warned that in the Three Gorges area, which constitutes one of the unique subtropical climates in China, large tracts of fertile arable land and unique tourist areas will be destroyed by the construction of the reservoir. Even with today’s modern equipment, it is still difficult to predict what environmental chain reactions could be triggered by the construction of the reservoir. Therefore, it is unconscionable for people to assert that the project will have little or no impact on the environment.

Dai Qing: But why do some people still insist on this project, since it will bring so many disasters, rather than benefits?

Li Rui: This is exactly what has puzzled me, too, for the past 30 years. Here I can state again that my point of view is the opposite of the leading group’s assessment. I suggest canceling the whole project, or at least putting it off till a later date. If I once agreed to the plan for a relatively low 150-meter dam, it was because I had heard that it was approved by the Central Committee of the Party and I found it difficult to take an opposition stand.14 But I have to admit that my agreement was merely a trick to gain time. I knew then that this low dam would need another dam on the upper reaches, which was a whole new idea. It meant that time for the upper reaches was needed; as a result, the start of the project had to be delayed.

I would like to say a few words about decision-making procedures. For many years, we have been accustomed to the concept of rule by one man whether in politics, economics, science and technology, or culture.15 In other words, everything is controlled by one person who has unrestricted power, whether it is starting the Cultural Revolution or the construction of the Gezhouba dam. Those who favor certain projects exploit this patriarchal system by “contacting the very top” to gain approval rather than relying on facts. But as far as I know, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai never agreed to the launching of the Three Gorges project. On December 26, 1970, (Mao’s birthday), after hearing a report on the project, Premier Zhou said to Lin Yishan: “The Three Gorges project you are talking about is not our generation’s business. Leave this project to our children in the 21st century.”

Even though Chairman Mao showed great interest in the project by composing a poem that contained the line “Build a Stone Wall in the River,” he was still prepared to listen to different views. At the January, 1958, meeting in Nanning, where Mao strongly opposed the “anti-rash advance”16 policy and where he proposed the Great Leap Forward, he supported my view and criticized Lin Yishan’s unrealistic plan. (The farce is that someone twisted that fact in the archives, in which it is recorded that Chairman Mao adopted Lin’s plan.) Two months later, the Politburo held a session in Chengdu, which was supposedly a meeting to inaugurate the “Great Leap Forward.” But the document on the Three Gorges project and Yangtze River development was the only one approved by the meeting, which was in fact not in accordance with the “spirit of the Great Leap Forward.” The writing of the document was presided over by Premier Zhou (I participated in the writing), and later modified by Chairman Mao. Even in those days the Three Gorges project was still regarded as an important program which needed a great deal of consideration.17

Dai Qing: Although the document approved the construction, it gave a timetable of 15 to 20 years before the preparations for construction were to be completed.

Li Rui: That’s right, yet it didn’t mean counting from the year 1958, but from the time of the project’s survey and design. As you mentioned at the beginning of our interview, it is now already the sixth time since 1957 that the Three Gorges project has been given priority on our national economic agenda. Each time, when the national economic situation appears stable, support for the project reaches a climax. Today, the Central Committee has just put forward a plan to improve the economic order in order to further deepen the reform.

The next two years will be critical for the national economy, which could either slip into chaos or move onto a broader road towards prosperity. Under these circumstances, the proposal to start such a huge project in 1989 is very inadvisable. Even in 1992, it will all depend on the situation then. Personally, I think it better, over the next 10 years, to give priority to existing projects and to start a new series of power stations on the tributaries so that the acute energy shortage can be relieved by the end of the century.

I agree with Zhou Peiyuan’s letter of November 9, 1988, to the Party Central Committee that the Three Gorges project be postponed until the national economic goal is achieved. At that time there will be greater economic and technological resources to support it. The Central Committee should decide as soon as possible to delay the project so as to assure the local people that they can start their own development programs and revitalize their economy, which has been delayed for more than 30 years.

I also fully agree with the article “Views and Suggestions on the Assessment Report of the Three Gorges project”18 by Sun Yueqi, Lin Hua, Wang Xingrang and seven other members of the CPPCC where the authors suggest:

1. It is advisable to delay construction of the project.
2. The huge amount of money required for the project far exceeds the capacity of our national economy.
3. Some intractable problems remain unsolved. They include sedimentation, population relocation, navigation, environmental damage, the risk of earthquakes and landslides, and threats to national defense.
4. Development projects for the Yangtze River should be implemented on the tributaries first.
5. Work on dike reinforcement, flood-diversion networks and water and soil conservation should be strengthened.

In order to meet the urgent demands for energy resources, construction of the power plants on the tributaries should be sped up: for example, hydro-electric power plants should be built in the southwest, thermal plants should be built in eastern China and a combination of these two in central China.

Further assessments should be presided over by government agencies, such as the State Planning Commission, the State Science and Technology Commission or the China International Engineering Consulting Corporation. More specialists should be invited to participate, since, until now, the assessment group has been composed only of people from the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, who are all on the same side favoring an immediate start of the project.

Dai Qing: A project that has undergone assessment for 30 years is still undecided. This is quite a rare situation. What lessons can we draw from it?

Li Rui: If we put aside questions of fame and grandiosity, it is understandable to see people in charge of hydro-electric construction so eager to control floods and harness troublesome rivers. But one should always be realistic and act according to the laws of nature. It is true that the Three Gorges project has been through so much assessment over the past 30 years that it is difficult to reach a decision. The reason is that some of the people responsible for the project have been greatly influenced by rash emotions of a “leftist” nature. Instead of following democratic and scientific methods, they relied on directly contacting the very top, administrative means, and “the arbitrary will of officials.”

Dai Qing: Yes, you actually stressed this point some 30 years ago when you emphasized that only by overcoming subjectivism can the Yangtze River plan be carried out well.

Li Rui: I continue to stress this point today. I believe in a philosophy that perceives the world objectively and realistically and from all possible angles. One should consider not only the technical problems of the project but also the whole issue of national economic development; one should not just plan for a huge 235-meter dam, but, instead, work out more accessible options; one should take into account not only the mainstream of the river but also the tributaries; one should realize that reservoir construction is not the only solution to flood control.

Developing the Yangtze River requires a comprehensive, overall program, of which flood control is just one part. In planning for the future, one should take into consideration present and future advantages and disadvantages.

Dai Qing: This reminds me of what Wan Li19 said in 1985, at a meeting on soft sciences. He said, when making decisions, some leaders have a tendency to rely on the assessment provided by the project research office as the only theoretical basis for policy. Because researchers may not be able to act independently, and may produce a biased assessment, this can be both deceiving and dangerous and is worse than no assessment at all. Soft science research work should be done by independent institutes free from the direct influence of decision makers, and can only be verified by practice, the judgment of the people, and history.

Li Rui: Unfortunately, the people in charge of the Three Gorges project do not listen to such advice and they still stick to their “leftist” ideas, singing the same subjective tune over the years. Another lesson is that due to the practice of relying on the leader’s personal experience and will in decision making, we have yet to establish a complete scientific and democratic decision-making process. Progress has been made in this respect over the past 10 years despite the fact that the project has been dominated by one school of thought and “self-assessment.”

There are, however, some encouraging signs of improvement, such as when different views can be seen in the newspapers and many more scientists and specialists have the courage to voice their different opinions.20 But we are still in a transitional period between “rule of men” and “rule by law.”

Dai Qing: To many of our readers, you are not only known as a Party official and an organizer of hydro-electric development, but also as a poet and essayist. Although you have already left your post in the hydro-electric department, you still show a great deal of concern over the Three Gorges project.

Li Rui: The Three Gorges project is such an important issue, how can I remain silent? I will conclude with what Premier Zhou once said: “Leave this project to our children in the 21st century.”

Sources and Further Commentary

1This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Liu Lanpo was, at this time, with the Ministry of Fuel Industry. In 1978 he was appointed minister of Electric Power. See Lieberthal and Oksenberg, Policy Making, pp. 51-54.

3A legendary figure from the Xia dynasty (2200 B.C.) who saved China from catastrophic floods.

4For a study of Soviet dam construction in the 1930s, see Anne D. Rossweiler, The Generation of Power: The History of Dneprostroi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

5“In 1965-1968, two parallel side tunnels, each eight meters in diameter, were excavated on the left bank [of the dam]. In 1970-1973 eight bottom sluices, formerly used for diversion, were reopened, and three unused penstocks were modified into conduits for sediment flushing. In the meantime, the elevation of the remaining five inlets of the powerhouse was lowered by 13 meters, and low-head water turbines were installed instead of high-head ones; the plant was turned into a run-of-river type.” Wu Xiutao, “Environmental impacts of the Sanmen Gorge project,” Water Power & Dam Construction, November 1986, pp. 23-24.

6Shashi is a town just downstream of the proposed dam site.

7A reflection of the heavy reliance in China on extensive rather than intensive agriculture.

8Similar shifts of priorities occurred in the construction of dams in the Soviet Union. See Rossweiler, Generation.

9After being politically rehabilitated.

10This earlier study was undertaken in 1982-1983 by the YVPO. It envisaged a normal pool level of 150 meters, and was approved “in principle” by the State Council. The plan, however, came under attack from the Ministry of Communication and from Chongqing because it could not guarantee access for 10,000-tonne ships to Chongqing harbor. These criticisms led to the establishment of the leading group’s study.

11An aspect of the Mao cult, which Li Rui and others in post-1978 China believed led to highly distorted and grandiose projects during Mao’s lifetime

12Approximately US$1,800.

13As a result, compensation payments did not lose their value.

14 A political situation once exploited by Mao Zedong but no longer the case with less obedient Chinese officials.

15This has been a major complaint of political reformers in China from the Mao era onward, but the system has been preserved by Deng Xiaoping and other hard-liners.

16A reference to Mao Zedong’s sudden shift in favor of advancing toward collective agriculture, a policy previously criticized as a “rash advance.”

17In other words, Li Rui is noting that at a time when the most grandiose Communist programs were inaugurated, such as backyard steel furnaces, the leadership was aware of the difficulties and obstacles of the Three Gorges project.

18 See Chapter 5.

19A senior leader on economic and financial affairs.

20This greater openness of the press on controversial issues such as the Three Gorges in the mid-to-late 1980s, as supported by then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, has all but disappeared since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which led to the purge of many officials opposed to the Three Gorges project.

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