Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 12

(May 31, 1994)


A Conversation on the Three Gorges Project Among Zhou Peiyuan, and Lin Hua2

by Qian Gang3

I. If decision makers are exposed only to positive arguments for the project, how can they make sound decisions? We have suffered greatly because of this one-sided approach. It should not be allowed to continue any longer.

Lin Hua: Less than 5 percent of the water resources in the Yangtze River have been developed. Some blame this situation on the endless arguing over the Three Gorges project. Who is to blame? Those who support the project have submitted some misleading information to elicit the backing of the leadership.

Zhou Peiyuan: Those people are dishonest and show little respect for the scientific method and for factual evidence. Let’s take the project’s budget, for example. They told the public that the estimated cost of the project would be Y30 billion, but amongst themselves it was known that Y36.1 billion would be needed. The missing Y6.1 billion in the publicized figure is not due to careless calculations but to careful pruning of the figure so as to rush the start of the project. The project’s costs will then be increased later on some other grounds, which they will argue is beyond the scope of their responsibility. (The Gezhouba dam construction is a case in point.)
How can we not be worried when the Three Gorges project is in the hands of people who show so little respect for the truth?

Once I was on a boat going through the Gezhouba dam. Accompanied by a person who worked at the dam, I asked how long it took to go through the shiplocks. “Forty-five minutes,” he replied. Later, I went into the pilot’s cabin, and was told by the captain that it should actually take four hours because the locks do not normally open until there are several ships waiting to pass. Of course, our boat was allowed to go through immediately, as we were members of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). So, you see, there is quite a difference between the reality of the situation and what is said.

Lei Shuxuan: (vice-counselor of the Research Institute of Energy Resources, who also happened to be present, interjected.) Please allow me to cite another example. We all know that one of the problems of the Three Gorges project is population relocation. But the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO) knows how to avoid the problem when it comes to reporting to the Party Central Committee. Since a dam of 170 to 180 meters would lead to the resettlement of about 700,000 to 800,000 people, it lowered the height, so that only 200,000 to 300,000 people would be involved in the relocation as the YVPO reported it. But, if the dam were lowered, the storage capacity would be decreased by tens of billions of cubic meters. How, then, could this dam fulfill its flood-control function?

So somebody came up with the terrible idea of building the dam 175 meters high, while keeping the normal pool level at 150 meters, thereby leaving 25 meters of the storage capacity unused during non-flood seasons. But if floods come, the remaining storage capacity would be filled up, otherwise the lower reaches would be affected by the flood waters. Yet, if the 25-meter capacity is filled up, several hundred thousand people would be submerged in the upper reaches. But the authorities in Peiling and Wanxian counties won’t agree to such an idea. They cannot let the people of their counties suffer because of administrative convenience. This is how the YVPO cheats the Central Committee on the one hand, and on the other, makes promises to the people concerned: If you want to have a comfortable life, then you must move and resettle as soon as possible; and once you move out, you will receive good compensation for it. All the old houses along the river will be demolished, and very soon you will see high-rises and modern roads winding up the hills.

Lin Hua: When I asked officials at Wanxian county and Peiling, they all urged an early start of the project. They asked for their compensation first before the land is submerged, so they could improve their life with state funds. How can the state afford to offer such a huge amount of money?

In 1985, Li Boning, former director of the Preparation Group for the Three Gorges Province,4 lectured me for three hours on the subject of population relocation for development. I told him afterwards that I didn’t understand what he meant by the term, and asked for more details. He went on talking about “less investment” and “faster profits.” I still pressed for more details. He argued that relocation could provide economic opportunities: “Take Peiling for example. There are natural gas resource deposits there, where we can set up a synthetic ammonia factory with a production capacity of 300,000 tonnes, and in Wanxian county, there are salt resources, where an alkaline factory can be built….” Frustrated, I just said “OK,” and clammed up.
Afterwards, at a meeting of the assessment group, I told Li:

Since I have been involved in the chemical industry for most of my life, I understand your plans in this respect very well. These two plants will cost about Y1 billion, but can only employ at most 6,000 workers. Some may say that since I work with chemicals, I am not familiar with hydro-electricity; but, as I have some knowledge of industry, I am quite sure that it costs more to equip a factory worker than a farmer. So I am not yet convinced that it is more economical to carry out a program of population relocation for development, as you claimed.

According to Li’s plan, there are two approaches to population relocation for development. One is to transform farm land into groves, which in itself is no easy task. Experts have indicated that the orange trees will not survive at more than 400 meters above sea level. The other way is to develop industry, which, as I have already noted, will not solve the problems of resettling hundreds of thousands of people.

In order to convince Zhang Wei, vice-chairman of the State Association of Sciences and Technology,5 to speak in favor of the project, dam proponents set up a slide show on a boat, to show the results of experiments in transplanting orange trees from the future submerged area. The slides showed trees bearing beautiful fruit. As far as I know this experiment had only been carried out for about a year. From my visiting the Orange Research Institute in Chongqing, I learned it takes three to four years for an orange tree to bear fruit. So I ask, how could the pictures shown on the slides possibly have been taken of the particular groves involved in the experiment? Chinese people have suffered a great deal from such falsehoods, like Dazhai,6 for example. Why should we continue to repeat this time and again?

Zhou Peiyuan: It’s not uncommon to see things of this kind in the YVPO. Regarding sedimentation, the office submitted a report to the CPPCC inspection groups for Hubei and Sichuan in September of last year. The report noted that, according to a discussion chaired by Yan Kai, president of the board of China’s Water Resources Association, and Zhang Wei, experts believed the sediment load in the Yangtze River showed no signs of increasing. I know Comrade Zhang Wei is not an expert on this particular subject, and when I asked him if he had participated in the meeting with Yan Kai, he answered “no.” He said that, although he had been invited by the leaders of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, he was not in Beijing at that time and was therefore unable to take part in the meeting. People ignored this fact and still put his name on the report, which was issued to the members of the CPPCC.

Lin Hua: Dam proponents argue that the Gezhouba dam provides two power transmission lines, one to Shanghai, and the other to Wanxian county. This is sheer propaganda! All the state funds have been wasted. A transmission line of 500,000 volts from the Gezhouba dam to Shanghai was completed last year, at a cost Y1.1 billion, only to discover that there is no electricity to transmit! Because the installed capacity of the dam is only 2,715 MW, and because Hubei province is demanding the power, Gezhouba can only guarantee one-quarter of what Shanghai needs. The governor of Hubei province has said that the transmission of electricity to Hubei would have to be stopped if the power were sent to Shanghai. As for the transmission line to Wanxian county, its construction has been canceled altogether, because of insufficient electrical output.

It is incorrect to say that the Three Gorges project can transmit power to east China. Its installed capacity is 17,680 MW, of which more than 4,000 MW are guaranteed. By the year 2000, electricity consumption in central China alone will reach 200 to 250 TWh7 with a total load of 35,000 MW, which means that the total output will be used up there. How could it have power to transmit to Shanghai? In the assessment, taking an extra Y0.02 per kWh from the east China area to add to the budget for the Three Gorges project was suggested. But the people from the YVPO are well aware they will not be able to pay back the debt. Nevertheless, they keep telling lies for the sake of propaganda.

Another falsehood concerns the advantage of “channeling water from the south to the north.” Many people have been enthusiastic about the idea. But when asked, at a meeting chaired by Luo Xibei, just what those advantages were, the same people couldn’t give a definite reply and finally had to admit there were no advantages at all. If this plan of channeling water from the south to the north were implemented, the dam would have to be higher than 200 meters, which was, in fact, a proposal put forward in the 1950s. In the later schemes, the height of the dam has been reduced to 160 and 175 meters, which has effectively destroyed any plans to transfer the water from the south to the north. Yet, they still keep talking about it as if it were possible.
In 1985, when we visited the Three Gorges on an inspection tour, Li Boning told us that:

The Jingjiang River dikes are so old and dilapidated, that without the Three Gorges dam there would be tremendous losses should floods come. The economic losses from these disasters would easily cover the cost of the Three Gorges project.

But on the way from Yichang to Wuhan, by bus, we paid a special visit to the “dangerously dilapidated” Jingjiang River dikes. To our surprise, even though it was the flood season, the dikes were holding without any additional activity to shore them up. A deputy official with a hydrology background told us that he had been working on the dikes for 20 years, and they were certainly not in a “dilapidated state.” Here we see another example of how people have distorted the truth by exaggerating the seriousness of the floods along the Yangtze in order to get the project approved.

One of the major reasons for our failures in national economic construction since 1949 has been an unhealthy lack of respect for the truth. We often say that it was Chairman Mao who was responsible for the “Great Leap Forward.” Yet, to be frank, those who provided Chairman Mao with false information were also responsible. Today, some claim that Deng Xiaoping also supports the Three Gorges project; but how can these leaders make good and sound judgments when they are provided with one-sided information? For these reasons, we old hands from the CPPCC are responsible for speaking the truth and presenting different perspectives on this matter.

II. There should be a general strategy for the development of the Yangtze River basin. We suggest that the priorities be given to work on the tributaries. That is, “the tributaries first and the mainstream of the river second.”

Zhou Peiyuan: In November of last year, I presented a report to the leaders concerning my views about the project. Zhao Ziyang then gave the following instructions:

Inform Old Zhou8 that all of the issues raised in the report should be given serious consideration, and an adequate assessment must be made before any decision can be made on the basis of possibilities and necessities.

These instructions beg two important questions: What is the meaning of “possibilities,” and what is meant by “necessities?”
For the YVPO, the major issue concerning the project has not been whether it should be built, but how to start it.
Before the Central Committee’s final decision, several opinions should be presented for comparison. It is impossible to come to a decision with only one option, that of launching the project.

The Jiu San Society9 and the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi recently adopted the principle of “the tributaries first and the mainstream of the river second” for the development of the Yangtze River. This leads to the question of whether it is necessary to construct the Three Gorges project at all. If the tributaries at the upper reaches were developed in ways that dealt with the problems of power generation, flood control and sedimentation, what is the point of the Three Gorges project?

When people from the YVPO said they had attached great importance to the development of the upper reaches, I replied they had done a lot in this respect but had not given priority to it.

Lin Hua: It is, in any case, preferable to develop the tributaries in the upper reaches, whether for the sake of flood control or power generation, rather than the mainstream of the Yangtze. Since 1984, we have conducted nine inspection tours along the Yangtze, including investigations of the tributaries. In the past two years, we have investigated the Wujiang River Valley in Guizhou province and the middle and lower reaches of the Lancang River in Yunnan; and this year we will investigate the Yalong, Dadu, Jinsha and Minjiang rivers, all in west Sichuan. Among those rivers, the Wujiang and Lancang have a hydro-electric potential of 34 million kW, making conditions for future power stations along these tributaries much better than those of the Three Gorges reservoir. The Three Gorges project is not the only solution to the hydro-electric power shortage in China. Many other locations have more advantages.

From our past inspection tours, we know that all the tributary provinces have shown great enthusiasm for tributary development, as well as a willingness to contribute their own local budgets to construction. Although very poor, Yunnan province has laid aside Y300 million for the tributary project, and Guizhou province has provided funds for the initial stage of the program. These development projects, which are separate from the Three Gorges, must wait for central government financing. Once profits are connected with local interests, enthusiastic cooperation will be ensured. Furthermore, the development of the water resources of any river by stages reduces the funds needed by 20 to 30 percent. Once the upper reaches are brought under control, then it will be easier to work on the lower reaches.

Lei Shuxuan: The reason the Gezhouba dam was so costly was that it had been planned to shift the construction machinery to the Three Gorges project after it was completed. So, among the Y4.8 billion invested in the Gezhouba dam, Y800 million was spent for construction machinery, including huge trucks and dredgers useful only in the Yangtze River. Since this equipment was imported, 20 years have elapsed, and there is still no sign of the Three Gorges dam. Some Y200 million has been depreciated from the equipment, and the remaining investment of Y600 million has gone to waste. What an enormous loss!

Lin Hua: All in all, the development of the upper reaches can enhance the tapping of more natural resources and promote both industry and agriculture, making rapid progress possible for the minorities in those areas and improving the environment at the upper reaches.

III. It is not appropriate to let the ministry in charge conduct the assessment of the project instead of the state. The “debate on the Three Gorges project” reflects the essence of the problem: whether or not we respect the demands of the sciences and of democracy.10

Lin Hua: In 1985 the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges project was set up in cooperation with the State Planning Commission and the State Science and Technology Commission. After June, 1986, however, it was handed over to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, thereby transferring responsibility for the assessment from the state to a ministry. Many were unhappy with this change. Within the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, some leaders claimed that the project was indispensable, ending all discussions on whether the project was necessary, focussing only on discussions of how to carry out the construction. This is one of the drawbacks of allowing the ministry in charge to undertake the assessment of such an important project. The technological aspects of the project only account for, at most, 30 percent of the whole. Moreover, they must be viewed in the context of the overall situation of our national economy and social environment. Thus, the assessment should be carried out in a comprehensive manner involving all the departments concerned.

Zhou Peiyuan: It is inappropriate to change a state assessment into a ministerial assessment, presided over by the leaders of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. How could different opinions and views from within the ministry be made known to all the others involved?

Lin Hua: It seems that it really takes time to realize democracy and show genuine respect for the sciences. The feudalistic influence of thousands of years is definitely deep rooted, making it difficult to implement the values of “science and democracy” as was put forth in the “May Fourth Movement”11 in 1919.

The controversy over the project is related to our overall system and to the guiding principles of our industrial development for the past several decades. In the past, international pressures made it reasonable for Stalin to put great emphasis on heavy industry. At the beginning of the New China, in the early 1950s, it was also reasonable to carry out 156 large industrial projects and to mobilize the whole nation for the construction of the Anshan Iron and Steel Complex. But things have changed now. It is not always possible for the state to concentrate the efforts of the whole nation on one single job. At the assessment meeting, someone put out a slogan: “Total support for the Three Gorges project.” What will the consequences of this be? There are always some people who are unaware of the real economic situation, never considering the financial results, and blindly seeking something grandiose. In the final analysis, this is an old method suited to the old system. I therefore predict that modernization will never become a reality without economic and political reforms.

Zhou Peiyuan: The controversy over the Three Gorges project questions whether we want to respect science and democracy. The proposal to develop the tributaries should be adopted as soon as possible. We can no longer delay the decision on the project. The present hesitation will only bring greater economic losses to the populations of Wanxian and Peiling counties, in which there are 14 million people, many of them poor and waiting for relocation. The state and the provinces cannot put funds into the tributary projects in these areas because they are projected to be submerged. Moreover, in the upper reaches, there are many electrical power resources, much more than in the Three Gorges area. There is no coal in the area of Sichuan province where the energy shortage is very acute. The people in Sichuan truly hope that the Central Committee can quickly make a decision on the Three Gorges issue and authorize development of the upper reaches as soon as possible.

Lin Hua: For the past 30 years, over the course of the anti-rightist movement12 and the Great Leap Forward we have suffered culturally and politically by not speaking the truth. Today, the only way to find a solution to the issue of the Three Gorges project is to enhance political “transparency,”13 democracy, and respect for the sciences. We have to work hard for the “Spring of Sciences” and struggle for democracy because it will not come automatically.

Sources and Further Commentary

1This discussion took place in 1989, and was part of the Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Lin Hua is a member of the Economic Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and former vice-chairman of the State Planning Commission.

3Qian Gang, a journalist and writer, is editor-in-chief of Life (Shenghuo) magazine.

4This involved a 1986 proposal to carve out an entire new province in the Three Gorges area that Li Boning had hoped to head. It is no longer seriously under consideration.

5A non-governmental organization, not part of the state structure.

6A reference to a “model” agricultural brigade promoted during the Cultural Revolution which, contrary to its propagated ideal of self- reliance, had actually received considerable economic inputs from the state sector. Chinese, and many visiting Westerners, were successfully hoodwinked by this Maoist propaganda for years.

71 terawatt hour (TWh) = 109 kilowatt hours.

8A term of endearment.

9One of eight lawful democratic parties under the Chinese constitution, composed primarily of Chinese scientists and academics. The Society was outspoken in its criticism of the Three Gorges project in March, 1992, when member Chen Mingshao noted publicly, “There are very many scientific and technical problems that remain unresolved and require further study before the project can go ahead.” See Barber and Ryder, eds., Damming, p. 18.

10Obviously, the hard-line leadership in China ascendant since 1989 wants to avoid the kind of public outcry and demonstrations that were mobilized in other Socialist countries, as occurred in Hungary against the Nagymaros dam. See Virginia Fairweather, “Hydro on Hold,” in Civil Engineering, Vol. 59, No. 8 (August 1988), p. 54.

11On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from Beijing took to the streets protesting the Paris Treaty that the North Warlord government was about to sign. The demonstration was dispersed by force but students in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin started boycotting classes and soon they were joined by manufacturing workers from Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Anhui and Shandong who went on strike. This nationalist movement caused the North Warlord government to reject the treaty and release the jailed students.

12A brutal 1957 attack on Chinese intellectuals that followed their outspoken criticism of the Communist Party, prompted by Mao Zedong’s call to “let a hundred schools of thought contend.” This persecution effectively silenced intellectuals and scientists for years.

13Party General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s version of a Chinese Glasnost that, before the disturbance of 1989, produced greater openness in the Chinese press and decision-making bodies such as the National People’s Congress.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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