Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 26

(May 31, 1994)

MUST A FINISHED PROJECT FINISH ITS ENVIRONMENT?1

by Mao Yushi2

Since 1979, when I began to pay attention to the Chinese strategy of capital construction, I have noticed many serious problems in the decision-making process. For example, the pipes for natural gas were laid before the resources had been explored; coal was transported from the north to the south of China but the boilers that originally used coal for fuel had been changed to burn oil, and so had to be reconverted in response to the oil shortage.

Such changes caused great losses. Personally, I believe that under the present system, it is very difficult to make good decisions. Having taken part in the decision-making process, I have discovered that decisions reflect the political hierarchy.

Since 1949, national investment in capital construction has always been overextended despite very ineffective results. One reason is that decision makers are spending the state’s funds rather than their own, and, as a result, issues of economic efficiency and profit are being neglected. To those who support the immediate start of the Three Gorges project, I will ask only one question: “Are you willing to support the 20-year project by personally investing in construction bonds?” Here, the essential issue is that of investment systems, which need changing.

In the old days, when my uncle, Mao Yishen, designed the Qiantan River bridge, the director of the construction office in Zhejing province told him he would take care of the budget, and that my uncle was to be in charge of personnel. But one point was made clear: if the bridge turned out to be a failure then they both had to take responsibility and jump in the river. Today, however, after many failed and defective projects, people no longer feel personally responsible. It is ridiculous to make a final decision on the extraordinarily large Three Gorges project without an established decision-making process and a practical investment system.

Although there were several hundred experts and specialists at the assessment meeting, their responsibilities were not well defined. It is dangerous to make a final decision by relying on an assessment for which no one is responsible! Finally, I would like to draw your attention to another problem that has apparently not been mentioned by either side’s assessment: the life span of the reservoir.

We all know that the Aswan dam brought many problems to Egypt.3 What will happen to the Three Gorges reservoir after it is operational? At present, it seems that plans for nuclear power plants are not very promising, because after they are no longer in use, the land on which the plants are located is unusable. At the moment the Three Gorges’ scenic beauty seems much less important than its hydro-electric potential. However, in a few decades, when several hundred million kWh of electricity will be very easy to produce, or to replace by other energy resources, won’t we regret the irreplaceable loss of the scenic Gorges?

Another point I want to make relates to the problem of terrorism. Perhaps it is not a threat in today’s China. But what about the future? If terrorists choose the Three Gorges reservoir as their target, what costs might it inflict? The government would deplore its predecessor, which spent such large sums to create a project that could so easily become the target of terrorists.


Sources and Further Commentary

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

2Mao Yushi is a researcher at the American Studies Center of the Research Institute in Social Sciences, and is the past editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Chinese Economy.

3Problems included increases in the water table, in salinity and water logging, in erosion of the riverbed of the Nile, and in rats and scorpions, and in decreased fish stocks

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