Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 13

(May 31, 1994)


An Interview with Sun Yueqi1

by Zhang Aiping2

Zhang Aiping: Old Sun, as a specialist in mining and metallurgy, when did you begin to do research on the Three Gorges project?

Sun Yueqi: During the War of Resistance against Japan, I was running four coal mines in Sichuan province and had already received some information about the Three Gorges. As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, I could not but show my concern for this matter.

Zhang Aiping: Is it true that Dr. Sun Yat-sen came up with the idea of building a dam across the Three Gorges 70 years ago?

Sun Yueqi: Yes. Sun Yat-sen had suggested a dam across the Three Gorges in his National Development Plan. Later, when I was in charge of the Natural Resources Committee, I invited J. L. Savage, an American dam expert, to come and study the Three Gorges project with us. At that time, the plan was to build the dam in the Nanjinguan pass in Yichang, about one or two kilometers away from the present Gezhouba dam. The Three Gorges project is a project of an unprecedented scale, both economically and technically. I therefore have read much material concerning it and have consulted many experts on the subject. You are never too old to learn.

In 1985, together with seven experts from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the Three Gorges Project Inspection Group, I took a 38-day trip from the Dujiangyan dam in Sichuan all the way down, to investigate the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. We rode on boats and in buses and visited many places, some of which were very dangerous, in order to conduct surveys, make inquiries, and listen to popular opinion. Although I was 92 then, I did not tire. After our return, I reported to the CPPCC on the results of our investigation and subsequently wrote four proposals.

Zhang Aiping: I have read articles by Qian Jiaju and others suggesting that a proposal concerning the Three Gorges project was made under your suggestion at the CPPCC in June, 1988. Did it have any impact? Or was it just “more water over the dam”?

Sun Yueqi: I drafted that proposal together with nine other experts.3 There was considerable publicity about the assessment of the Three Gorges project conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. But we think the way the assessment was conducted was neither democratic nor scientific. At an enlarged meeting of the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project, I gave two long speeches on the subject along with other members of the CPPCC. Although many different views were expressed at the meeting, nothing appeared in the summary of the proceedings, except the names of the speakers. Some experts presented different points of view, but none was accepted and the assessment reports on various subjects were adopted by the majority. The structure of meetings only reinforced “the single opinion” of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. We therefore suggested that since the Three Gorges project would have an important impact on national economic strategy, the assessment should be conducted under the auspices of the State Planning Commission and the State Science and Technology Commission, with the participation of some establishments that are not closely related to the ministry, such as the China International Engineering Projects Consulting Corporation, the Bank of China, the Construction Bank and individual experts and specialists from many fields. Only by making decisions in a genuinely democratic and scientific manner can we reach a conclusion on the basis of truth and facts. The proposal was handed over but nothing happened, and there was no reply at all. We should let the different ideas and opinions contend.

Zhang Aiping: What do you think we should do about the Three Gorges project? (Although Sun Yueqi is nearly 100 years old, he is still high-spirited and clear-minded. Taking out a sheet of white paper, he drew a picture of the water flow of the Yangtze River with a few simple strokes.)

Sun Yueqi: I believe that it is not yet time for the construction of the project. Priority should be given to small-scale projects that produce quicker economic results and which can improve flood control, electricity generation, and navigation within this century.

Some people say the major objective of building the Three Gorges reservoir is to control floods. In fact, the reservoir cannot handle this job effectively. Along the Three Gorges there are many valleys, so the dam would have to take the shape of the gorges. Because of problems with population relocation, the level of water storage in the reservoir cannot be very high. According to the present plan for a 150- to 180-meter water level, the storage capacity is not large enough to contain heavy floods. As a result the dam could not play a significant role in reducing the effects of floods on the lower reaches.

Originally, it was envisaged that the Three Gorges dam could take over the flood storage function of Dongting Lake and the Jingjiang River flood-diversion network in the middle reaches, thus transferring flood-control capacity to Sichuan in the upper reaches. I am afraid this plan of sacrificing the upper reaches in order to save the lower and middle reaches is just “shifting one’s trouble onto neighbors.”

The Yangtze River is more than 6,000 kilometers long, and the lower and middle reaches account for 1,800 kilometers. What about the upper reaches? Are they less important? Because of the project, more flooding disasters would befall Sichuan, where there have already been serious floods, such as the one that occurred in 1981. Regarding the middle and lower reaches, since the flood sources along the Yangtze River are from the Chuanjiang, Hanjiang, and Ganjiang rivers and four rivers in Hunan province, the Three Gorges, limited by geographic conditions, can only control floods from the upper reaches of the Chuanjiang River and would be powerless when confronted with those from other tributaries at the lower and middle reaches.

There are two facts that I think worth mentioning. In 1931 and 1954, heavy floods hit the Wuhan and Nanjing areas, while Sichuan province was unaffected. Conversely, in 1870, Sichuan suffered from the most severe flood since the time of Dayu, 4,000 years ago. The 1981 flood in Sichuan was also severe, but it was clear and calm in Wuhan. For the two flood types that I have mentioned here, we have the data and their study has been scientific, based on real historical practice. Practice is the sole criteria for verifying the truth.4

Zhang Aiping: What would you suggest to control floods?

Sun Yueqi: A comprehensive plan should be developed for all the reaches of the Yangtze River. It is unscientific to assert that “the project is the only one for the development of the Yangtze River.” The Three Gorges project will cost hundreds of billions of yuan, submerge 350,000 mu of arable land and 70,000 mu of orange groves, and necessitate the resettlement of one million people. Yet its flood-control ability is very limited. So we say, this is not the best plan. Although some people admit that generating power is the major aim of the project, flood control will be a more acceptable reason to start it, as flooding worries more people.

Zhang Aiping: It is said that the generation of electricity is one of the major advantages of the project. I wonder if this has been scientifically proved.

Sun Yueqi: According to the plan, the installed capacity of the Three Gorges power stations would be 13 to 17.68 million kW with an annual production of 67.7 to 84 billion kWh, which could satisfy the electric energy needs of central and east China and eastern Sichuan province. The Itaipu power station on the Parana River between Brazil and Paraguay, presently the world’s largest hydro-electric power station, has an installed capacity of 12.6 million kW with an annual output of 71 billion kWh. So, the future Three Gorges hydro-electric power station would be the largest in the world. But is it the best choice? We must be realistic and scientific and consider the project in the context of national power development.

I believe there are many other smaller projects that can be more effective and profitable. I suggest that power stations be constructed on the tributaries first, and then on the mainstream, and that both thermal and hydraulic power plants be built according to local conditions. It will take only four to eight years at most to build a number of thermal and water power stations on the tributaries of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River as well as in the areas of central and eastern China. Compared with the Three Gorges project, which needs at least a decade before generating power, these smaller stations can meet the urgent demand for energy in order to fulfill our national economic goal by the end of the century.

What’s more, considering that the Three Gorges project is higher and more complicated than the Gezhouba dam, which took 18 years to complete, I think it is unrealistic to claim that 17 years would be enough to build the world’s largest dam. Even if the project started now, it would not generate electricity until the beginning of the next century, thus leaving the country unable to meet its immediate energy needs. In addition, it will result in the needless diversion of materials from other projects. This is one of the reasons that it is inadvisable to start the project right now.

Zhang Aiping: Another advantage of the project is said to be navigation. What is your view on this?

Sun Yueqi: The Yangtze River is the third-largest river in the world, next only to the Nile and the Amazon. It is also the most important river course for navigation, connecting southwest, central and eastern China and serving as the main transportation route for the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou. If anything happens to this river course, it will affect the economy and future generations. For many years, the upper reaches of the Yangtze have suffered from deforestation and indiscriminate wasteland reclamation, both of which have contributed to serious water and soil erosion and increased sedimentation in the river, making the Yangtze the third most silted river in the world, up from its previous position-fourth. To build a high dam on the Chuanjiang River would inevitably increase sedimentation in the Three Gorges reservoir area and thus badly affect navigation and reduce the efficiency of power generation.

We can say that the success of the Three Gorges project lies in the resolution of the sedimentation problem. We should draw a lesson from our past experience with the Sanmenxia reservoir on the Yellow River, where unsuccessful attempts to deal with sediment resulted in great losses. To this day, we must admit that there is still no satisfactory solution to the sedimentation problem of the Three Gorges reservoir. Can smooth navigation be guaranteed, even though the office in charge of the project has plans to employ huge shiplocks and a shiplift with an 11,500-tonne capacity and a 100-meter height? These standards are already beyond international levels.

Zhang Aiping: You have mentioned the problem of population resettlement. In such an overpopulated country, this will indeed be a problem

Sun Yueqi: Yes. Because of this project, 13 towns and cities will be submerged and over one million people will need to be resettled. Where will they go? The answer from the office in charge is to move back from the river. Well, we made exploratory trips to the target areas, which are all hilly, steep, rocky and barren. It will be very difficult to resettle a large population in such an environment. It is terribly irresponsible to start this project without a proper solution to these serious problems.

Zhang Aiping: Considering the overall economic situation, what do you think the principal strategies should be?

Sun Yueqi: I would say that one should be truthful, honest and realistic: one should act according to the actual circumstances and deal first of all with easy projects and then gradually proceed to the difficult and extensive ones. There should be a comprehensive plan for overall development; work should proceed step by step. I believe the budget for the projects should be within our national capacity.

When the state is reducing its funds for capital construction, a project as vast as this will surely cause other more urgent projects to be delayed or canceled. If other smaller projects are implemented at the same time as the Three Gorges, it will be extremely difficult for the state to bear the tremendous financial burdens, and consequently, it would set back our national economic development. We have to give earnest consideration to these facts.

The price to be paid for the poor decision making will be extremely dear. Take the Gezhouba dam as an example. The decision to begin this big project was hurried. It was started by the Hubei Revolutionary Committee and the Wuhan Military Region, based on a report of a few pages. In the original plan, the cost was to be Y1.35 billion. It was to take 3½ years to generate electricity and five years to complete. As it turned out, the funds poured into this project reached Y4.8 billion, the dam took 11 years to generate power and 18 years to complete.
If we once again make a decision in an undemocratic and non-scientific manner, the laws of nature will mercilessly punish us and we will have to pay even more dearly. Unfortunately, the present organization of the assessment of the Three Gorges project is far from democratic and scientific. As I indicated earlier, this must be changed. A reassessment of the project should be conducted by the State Planning Commission and the State Science and Technology Commission.

Zhang Aiping: What else would you like to add?

Sun Yueqi: Though I am already an old man of 95, I will continue to be a faithful friend of the Communist Party. I sincerely wish all the best for the Party, the country and the generations to come.

Sources and Further Commentary

1Sun Yueqi is from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. He has held government positions specializing in the economic and financial sectors. He is now a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the Economic Construction Group of the consultative conference. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Zhang Aiping is a journalist with the Enlightenment Daily.

3 For this document, see Chapter 5.

4 A phrase popularized in the late 1970s, as part of China’s reform, that was aimed at injecting more scientific and realistic data into government decision making as opposed to the leftist and subjective dogma dominant during the Mao years.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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