Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 2

(May 31, 1994)


by Xiao Rong2

Due to the concerted efforts of scholars, reporters, editors and publishers, Yangtze! Yangtze! was published as intended just prior to the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual assembly in 1989.

More than a dozen newspapers and periodicals carried stories or commentaries on Yangtze! Yangtze!’s release. The newspapers included the People’s Daily, Enlightenment Daily, Literary Gazette, Workers’ Daily, Liberation Daily, Science and Technology Entrepreneur, Literature & Arts, China Daily, Beijing Youth News, and Newspaper Digest; the magazines which carried the story included Chinese Human Resources and Chinese Science.

Because the press enjoyed increased freedom in the months prior to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, most of the media reported on Yangtze! Yangtze!’s release in a favorable way, focusing primarily on the following three themes: First, the public’s concern about the Three Gorges project should be seen not only as a patriotic or emotional reaction, but also as a logical response by taxpayers concerned with protecting their own interests.3

Second, public debate on major government decisions was an important component in the democratization of Chinese national political life. And, third, it was unusual for intellectuals to make donations to fund the publication of an academically controversial book. In fact, in the June, 1989, issue of October, an important literary magazine, a non-fiction piece titled “The Three Gorges” by Ma Licheng and Qian Gang was published. Through favorable media reports such as this one, more and more ordinary people became concerned with the Three Gorges project. Finally, in March, 1989, a large number of delegates of the NPC signed a petition demanding that the Three Gorges project be stopped or postponed.4

After the March petition signing, the media voiced both pro- and anti-dam opinions. Although the public had more access to the relevant information-the Voice of the Masses magazine ran five consecutive articles contesting the feasibility of the project- the pro-project side succeeded in holding the dominant position in the media. On April 13, 1989, the Asian-Pacific Economic Times carried a long story with detailed figures and facts in an attempt to illustrate how the Three Gorges project was a choice that China had to make in order to survive as a nation. In late May, the Books Herald published an article critical of the way that Yangtze! Yangtze! was published.

Meanwhile, the first printing of 5,000 copies of Yangtze! Yangtze! was widely circulated throughout China thanks to NPC deputies who took copies of the book back to their various home towns. Showing unusual interest in the project, many people began contacting media organizations asking for copies of the book.

In this way, the media debate on the book and the project attracted interest from scholars and economists, as well as from ordinary taxpayers who wanted to participate. But this debate caused concern among some government agencies, who began to argue that their work had been “interfered with.” Consequently they became alert to the possible evidence of a “class struggle.”5

A number of private book sellers in Chengdu, Sichuan province, sensed that the book would be profitable and wasted no time in signing a contract with the People’s Publishing House of Guizhou to have another 50,000 copies printed. These copies were distributed through private distribution and retail networks throughout the Yangtze Valley. Then came the political disturbance of June, 1989.

Although the book was banned after the June pro-democracy movement was crushed, the attack on Yangtze! Yangtze! had started well before the June crackdown. On May 11, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO) of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power6 wrote to the Party Central Committee and the Guizhou provincial government. In the letters, the YVPO claimed that the book contained a number of factual errors and personal attacks. It did not, however, question the political intentions or goals of the book. A Guizhou provincial Party official, who was in charge of propaganda and the media, started investigating the case. In response, the Party group of the publishing company submitted a report to the provincial Party Committee defending its decision to publish the book. In the report, the book’s executive editor, Xu Yinong said that the decision to publish the book was based on two considerations:

First, as a publisher, we are committed to providing an opportunity for public debate on important issues, such as the Three Gorges project, which affect both the national economy and people’s livelihoods. Our decision was based on the guidelines charted at the Communist Party’s Thirteenth Congress [September-October, 1987], which said that major issues should be known by the people, and be discussed by them. We should provide space for different opinions on the project to be published (whether they are for or against the project), so long as they are based on reason and fact. In the future, if there are pro-dam materials to be published, we would publish them with the same willingness. Second, we hope that the publication of the book will contribute to an improved study of the project. Thus, more scientific and technically correct information would be provided for the central government to make its decision.

On May 22, the publishing house wrote a letter to the YVPO (with a copy to the Party Central Committee), which stated that the authors were responsible for any factual errors contained in the book. The letter argued that publishers who decided to publish books that presented academically different views on a controversial issue should not be considered to have passed judgment on the material or taken sides on the debated issue. The publishing house had no right to take part in a debate, but was committed to the Party’s cultural policy of “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” The letter continued by saying that the publishing house hoped a unanimous conclusion would be reached on the Three Gorges project, which would be based on a fully justified study.

In the letter, the publisher noted that a majority of articles in the book raised questions about the construction of the project, and that these questions dealt primarily with issues of engineering, flood control, electricity generation, navigation, population relocation, environment, sedimentation, technology, and finance. After reviewing all of the articles, the publisher concluded that most of the questions raised were based on knowledge or information that was collected from the individual interviewees’ or authors’ personal research or work experience. “They spoke with good reason,” the letter continued, “and they had sufficient grounds for their viewpoints.” These materials were argued to be in line with the general principles of the company for publishing books on controversial issues.

Finally, the letter did note that some articles used inappropriate wording or were exaggerated in expression and that these cases were contrary to the principle of “convincing by reasoning.” The publishing company apologized to YVPO for the inappropriate wording and hoped that the matter could be “settled satisfactorily.”

After the June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Dai Qing was publicly denounced by the official media, and in July she was arrested. Now, the issue of Yangtze! Yangtze!’s publication became focused on the authors’ political intentions. The Party Committee of Guizhou province began to receive phone calls and telegrams from the YVPO claiming that the publishing of the book was driven by the “ulterior motives of the disturbance activists.” Also, in July, the YVPO delivered a report to the office of the Media and Publication Administration7 requesting that Yangtze! Yangtze! be censored.

In September, 1989, two members of the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project, which had been convened in 1985 to oversee and coordinate an assessment report on the project,8 submitted a letter to the Party branch of the State Planning Commission.9 The letter argued:

[Yangtze! Yangtze!] advocates bourgeois liberalization. It is a book opposing the Four Cardinal Principles,10 and a book that has provided opinions for the chaos (dongluan) and riot (baoluan). Comrades Lin Hua and Tian Fang of your unit were involved in this action. your unit and for the investigation of cadres.

The interviewers and authors of the book, along with the journalists who reported on it, were all subject to examination and punishment. The voices of opposition were viciously suppressed.11

Then, in October, 1989, four months after the disturbance, the Media and Publication Administration and the Publishing Bureau of Guizhou province officially denounced and banned Yangtze! Yangtze! The Party Committee of Guizhou issued a resolution in October, 1989, which was announced at the staff meeting of the publishing company.12 The resolution accused the book of launching a political attack under the guise of scholarly debate. The Party argued that the book’s authors had disguised their true intentions, and were guilty of “engaging in preparing opinions for the chaos (i.e., the period of the pro-democracy movement prior to the military crackdown on June 4), and riot (i.e., the days of the crackdown itself).” The resolution ordered the publishing company to recall the remaining 30,000 copies of the book and destroy them immediately. This caused the publishing company to eventually lose 60,000 yuan13 on the publication of Yangtze! Yangtze! (All documents between Beijing and Guizhou authorities concerning this incident have been sealed and the author was not able to access them for this article.)

As a further punitive measure, the executive editor of the book and the heads of the publishing company had to make self-criticisms14 during the reregistration of Party membership after the June 4 crackdown. Nevertheless, Xu Yinong continued to speak openly (even after her self-criticism) in favor of Yangtze! Yangtze! She argued that the charges against the book were groundless. The editors and publisher had started planning the project at the end of January, 1989, and at that time no one had the faintest idea of the student demonstrations and political disturbances that would ensue. In Xu’s view, it was necessary to recognize first that Yangtze! Yangtze!’s authors demonstrated good will in trying to make the government’s decision-making process more democratic and scientifically sound. Some inaccuracies were a result of inappropriate wording and should not be made a political issue. “I believe that history will decide whether the book is wrong or not. If there are any consequence that I have to face for keeping my own opinion, I am willing to face them,” said Xu.

Xu later commented with good humor that Yangtze! Yangtze! seemed to have a fate similar to China on the Edge,15 (another book she has edited), “they were both killed but still live.” Although Yangtze! Yangtze! is, to this day, unavailable on the official market, the 25,000 copies that were sold before the ban have spread across the nation like wildfire. As of 1991, the publishing company was still receiving letters requesting the book. Fortunately, with the publication of the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions, and now with the publication of the English edition, Yangtze! Yangtze! survives abroad.16

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.

2Xiao Rong, formerly a journalist with Wen Yi Bao is now the director of a private company in China.

3In fact, Dai Qing has appealed for a Chinese version of a “tax revolt” over the Three Gorges, especially among the new, wealthier elements of Chinese society who must now pay income tax. Indeed, there have been calls by wealthy individuals for the government to recognize the “rights” of taxpayers.

4The petition, which recommended that the Three Gorges project be postponed until the 21st century and that the upper reaches and tributaries be developed first, was signed by 272 National People’s Congress delegates, one-tenth of the entire body. For more information on this event see Chapter 3.

5An ideological judgment characteristic of the Maoist era that would have justified political persecution of the authors.

6These two bureaucratic units are strong supporters of the Three Gorges project. The Yangtze Valley Planning Office, established in 1956 and headquartered in Wuhan, has more than 12,000 personnel. It has been subordinate to the Ministry of Water Resources since the 1970s. The YVPO has been responsible both for the overall plan for developing the Yangtze River and for the Three Gorges Feasibility Report completed in 1989 (discussed more fully in Chapter 3). The Ministry of Water Resources was from 1958 to 1979, and again from 1982 to April, 1988, part of a hybrid ministry-the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, which was headed for many years by Qian Zhengying. The electric power side of the hybrid ministry was most concerned with bringing new and cheap sources of electric power on line as quickly as possible and thus generally opposed the Three Gorges dam. In contrast, the water resources side was most concerned with flood control and strongly supported the dam. In the reorganization of April, 1988, the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power was once again divided. The Ministry of Water Resources was reformed while the electric power departments were merged with the Ministry of Power. See Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 94-102, 283-287, and Lampton, Bureaucracy, pp. 52-53.

7The Media and Publication Administration falls under the State Council. Its functions include approving all publication licences, supervising the sale and distribution of newsprint, and studying press law. Originally conceived as a liberalizing force in the media, the administration has, since 1987, been controlled by conservative forces in the State Council.

8In China, leading groups are powerful bureaucratic organs led by a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, the Party’s highest decision-making body. Established in 1985 under the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, and headed by Li Peng, the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project oversaw and coordinated the 14 studies that composed the assessment report, which preceded a full decision by the NPC. See Carol Lee Hamrin, “The Party Leadership System,” in Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China, eds. David Lampton and Kenneth Lieberthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 96. The studies covered various topics including: hydrology, flood control, sedimentation, navigation, power systems, and resettlement, among others. The leading group examined previous studies and conducted supplemental research. A directory of the sessions of the leading group and their functions is found in Appendix B. A partial list of experts from the various subject groups who held opposition opinions is found in Appendix C.

9Established in 1952, the State Planning Commission manages China’s centrally planned economy. A supra-ministerial body, the commission develops five-year plans and guides the construction of significant projects such as the Three Gorges dam, which key bureaus of the Commission supported in the early 1980s. See Lieberthal and Oksenburg, Policy Making, pp. 64-65, 284-285.

10Uphold the Socialist Road, Uphold the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Uphold the Leadership of the Communist Party, and Uphold Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.

11According to Shi He and Ji Si, authors of Chapter 3.

12According to some anti-dam activists, the director and chief engineer of YVPO submitted a proposal during the March, 1990, NPC assembly demanding that Yangtze! Yangtze! be handled sternly. (The existence of this proposal cannot be confirmed due to difficulties in accessing NPC motions.) The proposal apparently provided the keynote for the resolution that was read to the staff of the publishing company in October, 1989.

13In late 1988, the official exchange rate was US$1-Y3.7. By 1993, it reached US$1=Y5.7.

14Self-criticisms are a popular means of control in the communist system. Those seen to be acting out of line with Party policy must criticize their own behavior, either publicly or in written form.

15He Bochuan, China on the Edge: The Crisis of Ecology and Development, ed. Xu Yinong, trans. (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals Inc., 1991), was originally published in China by the People’s Publishing House of Guizhou, and was subsequently banned-evidently because of its devastating critique of economic mismanagement and environmental problems. Reportedly, it is still widely read by top Party and government leaders.

16It is worth noting that, despite being banned, as of March, 1990, some copies of Yangtze! Yangtze! were still on sale in Beijing. They were apparently displayed openly on the shelves of bookstores at the entrance to the auditorium of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference during its annual meeting.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s