Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 20

(May 31, 1994)

THE TRIBUTARIES FIRST AND THE MAINSTREAM OF THE RIVER SECOND: A PRINCIPLE FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE YANGTZE RIVER

An Interview with Chen Mingshao1

by Gang Jian2

Gang Jian: I gather that you used to work in the field of water resources. One might assume that you would be very enthusiastic about the immediate start of the Three Gorges project, and yet it turns out that you are opposed to a hasty start. What are the primary reasons for your position?

Chen Mingshao: It is true that I care deeply about my work on water resources. Progress in this field has been quite encouraging and it is certainly my hope that the government can give more attention to it. Our country is rich in water resources, ranking first or second in the world, but only 5 percent of the resources have so far been tapped. The Yangtze River can have the transportation equivalent of 14 railway lines if it is put into full use. But, today, its efficiency is less than that of two railway lines, which is really too little. I therefore agree with all of the suggestions in favor of the development of water resources. This is my basic point. But the issue of flood control in the context of the exploitation of the Yangtze River demands thorough and careful research. Any passion or zeal in this regard is inadvisable.

Gang Jian: Let’s leave the details aside for the moment. Do you think it’s necessary to establish principles for the discussions on the project in order to facilitate reaching an agreement?

Chen Mingshao: Principles are certainly necessary, but they should not be formulated only on the basis of subjective goals. They must follow some general rules, most probably drawn from the philosophy of Chinese culture. I say this not because of my personal love of the philosophy of our culture, but because it provides solid guidelines. Here, then, are four principles that should be used to guide the water conservation project:

1. The simple problems first and the difficult ones later. During wartime, Mao Zedong emphasized the importance of dealing with smaller and scattered enemies first, and fighting against the stronger ones later. He had, in fact, led many battles according to the traditional principles, which I believe apply to any kind of job. So it would work with water conservation problems, too.
2. The upper reaches first, the lower reaches later. In traditional Chinese philosophy, there is a saying heng ben qing yuan, which means that the “root cause must be treated first.” Applied to a river, it means the source is the most important section. Therefore, priority should be given to the upper reaches, making things easier for the lower reaches.
3. The tributaries first, and the mainstream of the river later. The problems of the Yangtze River, such as floods, sediment deposition, and navigation difficulties in the low-water season, are all related to its tributaries.
4. River basins first, and the river channel second. Water and soil conservation in the river valley will greatly facilitate that of the river./p>

Gang Jian: Apart from these principles, your speech at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) has put the issue of the Three Gorges project onto a political level. What is the basic theory that you apply in this sense?

Chen Mingshao: I believe all important large-scale projects should be regarded from a political point of view, especially the Three Gorges project. Until now, all the technical problems including sediment deposition, possible earthquakes, national defense, financial implications, population relocation and the social impact of ecological damage, remain unsolved and are still under debate. Yet all these problems may become political if not dealt with properly.

The impact of the Yangtze River on production as well as on the daily life of the Chinese people is also a political issue. Sichuan province, the well-known “Land of Plenty,” is at the upper reaches; two rich lakes known for “providing all the needs under heaven” are at the middle reaches; the provinces of Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi, known as “the Lands of Fish and Rice,” are at the lower reaches; and then comes the city of Shanghai, the window for our international economic contacts and communication with the outside world, at the river’s mouth.

The river basin has a population of 390 million, accounts for 38.8 percent of the total population, takes up 19 percent of the land area of the country, generates 40 percent of gross national product, and enjoys the highest production per capita in all of China. The Yangtze River, regarded as the heart and artery of our country, is considered the central arena for our national development strategy. Since so many poor national minorities live in the area of the upper reaches, implementing a project of such a large scale is by no means a trivial matter, but involves significant political implications which require caution.3

Gang Jian: Could you tell me something more about the present physical conditions of the Yangtze River?

Chen Mingshao: First, floods are very serious and frequent, affecting large tracts of land for long periods of time. There are reservoirs on the upper reaches and little modern technology for flood control and water conservation. In this sense, the Yangtze is the worst river in all the world.

There are now seven large rivers in both the south and north of our country that can withstand the big 20- and 100-year floods. But the Yangtze can only stand the smaller floods, those which happen once every 10 years or so. Therefore, some think that if the Three Gorges project were built, all the problems would be automatically solved. But this is not a rational and comprehensive approach to managing the river as a whole. If it is followed, the administration of flood control and the overall development planning for the Yangtze River will not be ensured, which can only be seen as a tactical failure.

Secondly, the environment at the upper reaches is becoming more degraded. Increasing soil erosion and deforestation have caused more sedimentation and induced climatic changes as well. So, I regret to say, the physical condition of this precious river is worsening. Effective measures need to be taken immediately.

Gang Jian: But those supporting the immediate start of the project use the same arguments that you do when they claim that there is no alternative to constructing the project.

Chen Mingshao: I don’t agree with them. The fact that the river needs treatment doesn’t mean that the only way is to build the Three Gorges reservoir. In fact, I agree with the proposal to establish protected areas and resource development areas in the upper reaches of the Yangtze put forth by many of the affected provinces, and the suggestion that water-power stations be built at Xiangjia and Xiluodu on the upper reaches. Compared with the Three Gorges project, these stations could generate as much electric power with a similar storage capacity, but involve much less population relocation, require smaller budgets, have fewer environmental effects, and require less time to recapture the investment. On the five major tributaries (the Jinsha, Dadu, Yalong, Jialing and Wujiang rivers), at the upper reaches, 27 small- or medium-scale power stations (some are cascade water- power stations) have undergone feasibility studies, and so far, have proved better than the Three Gorges project.

Gang Jian: In 1985, when you were director of the Committee on Engineering Technology in the Jiu San Society, you organized discussions on the Three Gorges project and proposed to the authorities: In treating the Yangtze River, the tributaries should be dealt with first and the mainstream second. In your recent speech at the CPPCC, you emphasized the same idea. As a responsible person of a democratic party, this outspoken spirit is very admirable.

Chen Mingshao: Although I am an engineer, I am not a bookworm cut off from the outside world. As a student, I was quite active in the Students’ Union. When I started teaching, my concern with politics remained, and brought me lots of trouble; I was labeled as an “Anti-Party and Anti-Socialist Element” in 1957 (the Anti-Rightist campaign) and was sent to the countryside. But I still refused to give up my concern for political issues. As for the Three Gorges project, I must express my differing opinion. The suggestions about the project which the Jiu San Society put forth to the Central Committee have attracted the attention of the departments in question and have also won the support of the CPPCC. There is still a long way to go towards democracy, and I would like to make my contribution to this process.


Sources and Further Commentary

1Chen Mingshao was born in Dapu, Guangdong province, and graduated from Qinghua University in 1936 with a degree in civil engineering. He is now vice-president of Beijing Engineering University, vice-director of the Standing Committee of the Beijing People’s Congress, and vice-president of the Central Committee of the Jiu San Society. This interview was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2 Gang Jian is a journalist with the Enlightenment Daily.

3This is particularly true since political tensions between the Han majority and minorities have been on the rise in recent years. Indeed, the government blundered in 1993 when the China Daily announced that 470,000 evacuees from the Three Gorges dam would be resettled in Xinjiang province, populated by the Uygurs who are Muslims. The announcement caused an international outcry. The Chinese government soon retracted its statement although it is still not clear where all 1.3 million to be displaced will be resettled.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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