Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 30

(May 31, 1994)


by Dai Qing

It’s not difficult to tell that this book was compiled in a hurry. The initiative to publish it came from news reports in late November, 1988, that the 14 subject reports had been passed in principle by the Leading Group for the Assessment of the Three Gorges Project. This insured that the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO) would conduct a feasibility study on the basis of the assessment report. The feasibility study would then be submitted to the State Council in the spring of 1989. If it were to pass, according to the proposal for an “early start to construction,” this high-profile project could be started as early as 1989. Other proposals would have the project start in either 1992 or 2001.

The Yangtze River will soon be severed in two. Should it matter to us, the common folks, the journalists, the scholars and veteran cadres long retired from their important posts?

On the one hand, the answer seems to be “no.” Who knows more-we, or the 412 experts from the leading group? On the other hand, over the past 40 years there have been numerous occasions when someone should have stood up and said “no” to bad policies. But in practice, except for a few whispers, dead silence prevailed. “Forget about it-the decision has already been made by the authorities.” It was so 30 years ago. It was so 20 years ago, and it is the so today. Everyone wonders, yet no one asks, “Is policy made on the basis of science or political power?”

The Three Gorges project, however, is a rare exception to this trend. Just as history is formed by the specific acts of individuals, if not for the efforts of Li Rui the Yangtze River would certainly look different from what we see before us today. The debate has lasted for 30 years. Those who favor the project argue that the duration of its assessments show that it is well considered and feasible, while those who oppose it argue that so long an assessment without implementation indicates unfeasibility. From within the central leadership group, Li Rui alone opposed the project for 30 years. Today, we know that almost all of the engineers in the YVPO who opposed the Three Gorges project in 1959 were accused of being rightists. Directors of hydro-electric planning and design institutes in the eight southern provinces were also accused of being members of the “Li Rui anti-Party gang.”

In 1985, following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the 1978 Third Plenum (which initiated China’s current economic reform), the old scholars stood up. Sun Yueqi shouted out the first “no.” In 1988, Zhou Peiyuan-contrary to the present tradition of not uttering opposition until after retirement-led an inspection team to the Three Gorges and submitted a letter in his own name directly to the general secretary of the Communist Party. Given the profession and rank of the inspection team, and the urgency of the issue, major newspapers should have reported on the event. But they did not and only a few articles appeared in small professional journals.

To redress this situation journalists came forward to help air the views of the inspection group by helping to compile this book. They came from the New China News Agency, the People’s Daily, the Liberation Army Daily, the China Youth News, the Literary Gazette, and the Enlightenment Daily. They were not sent by their newspapers; they represented only themselves and acted according to their own judgments. They were a group of journalists in mid-career whose names and reputations were well known to their readers. They did not hesitate for an instant, and said what they had to say.

All of the participants-journalists, editors, and scholars, young and old-came together on January 23, 1989, and decided to promulgate their opposition just prior to the decision of the State Council. But in what form? Time was short and they felt the best option was to convey their views through newspapers. But this proved impossible. Perhaps through a journal? Seven or eight journals expressed initial interest, but eventually all turned us down. The last option was to publish a book. There was, however, only one month left before the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) meetings, and the Chinese New Year would occur in the interim. Considering that it generally takes between six months and two years to have a book published, the journalists felt this option to be impossible. In addition to time limitations, no publisher would touch the material.

Finally, one publisher, the People’s Publishing House of Guizhou, did agree to publish the book and appointed Xu Yinong as editor.

The cover design of the [original Chinese] book was completed in two days. Senior art editor, Ma Shaozhan of the Sanlian Publishing House, gave it her all without compensation, despite having just been released from hospital.
Many thought a book could not be published in so short a period of time. Of course, it could. China is full of talented people. All in all, it took only fifteen days for Yangtze! Yangtze! to see the light of day.

The last difficulty we confronted was that of financing the project. Twenty thousand yuan was needed. It was a very large sum, but was no more than large companies pay for one-page advertisements in many newspapers. However, at a time when, despite the introduction of market reforms, business was in many ways still dependent on non-market factors, we could not secure their help.1

The only option left to us was to have the book published with borrowed money which would be repaid from royalties. In approaching various writers, scholars, and other interested parties for loans, I was never once turned down. A woman manager at a private hotel promised to make up any shortfall. She was not that wealthy herself, and had had a very difficult life, but she was now willing to help those in need with benevolence and generosity.

There is only one Yangtze River and we have already subjected it to many stupid deeds. Such stupidity must not be repeated. The Yangtze River belongs to all Chinese people and to the entire world.

The poet Bei Dao once wrote:
Today, I too declare: I do not believe…
I do not believe that the Chinese will forever
refuse to think for themselves;
I do not believe that the Chinese will never
speak out through their writings;
I do not believe that morality and justice will
vanish in the face of repression;
I do not believe that in an age in which
we are in communication with the world,
‘freedom of speech’ will remain an empty phrase.2

Sources and Further Commentary

1 Dai Qing is intimating here that any business that sponsored the book would suffer at the hands of the state.

2Poem translated by Geremie Barmé, Research Fellow at the Australian National University.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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