Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 4

(May 31, 1994)

QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS CONCERNING THE THREE GORGES PROJECT1

A Letter to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party2

from Zhou Peiyuan3

In September, 1988, I was appointed by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to head a Three Gorges project investigative group for Hubei and Sichuan provinces. We visited cities, counties and districts along the Yangtze River, from Wuhan, Hubei province to Chongqing, Sichuan province (two of several cities singled out for development) and investigated industry, commerce, science and technology, education, medical services and public health, as well as cultural activities. The investigative group was composed of 180 members of the CPPCC from Beijing, and, while on its field trip, listened to numerous reports by local government departments.

Among the group were many well-known scientists, including a few who had made important contributions to our national defense. Since the report of the trip has already been written, I would like to express only my personal opinions and suggestions on the issue of the Three Gorges project.

Since so many people in Hubei and Sichuan provinces, as well as members of our group, showed concern about this project, we took field trips to the Gezhouba dam, the Three Gorges work site at Sandouping, and the site of the planned reservoir.

We read pertinent documents, listened to reports and held two forums with officials from the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO). The majority of our group showed concern and anxiety over this large construction project. That concern can be broken down into two basic questions:

1. In developing the Yangtze River, should the tributaries or the mainstream of the river be dealt with first?
2. Should the Three Gorges project be started immediately, or put off until a later date?

The first question asks whether the harnessing of the Yangtze should be carried out on a regional basis or as part of an overall development plan. Of course, the development of the mainstream and the tributaries at once would be best, but given our present national economic situation, it is impossible to do so. People from Sichuan emphasized that the project should not bring benefits solely to the area of the lower reaches of the Yangtze at the expense of others, as has happened before. They reiterated over and over that development projects for the areas of the upper reaches should be carried out, irrespective of whether or not the Three Gorges project is started. They also suggested an early start for projects to develop the hydro-electric resources on the upper reaches of the Jinsha, Dadu, and Minjiang rivers. This view, to my understanding, does not support an immediate start of the Three Gorges project.
Of course, the people in Hubei province have quite different views on this subject. But I am not going to describe them in detail here since there is a much more urgent problem, namely the energy shortages in Sichuan province.4

Sichuan is a very large province, with one-tenth of the Chinese population (roughly 108 million people), that produces 6.7 percent of the nation’s gross national product (GNP). The success of its economy will have a direct bearing on the realization of our national economic goal, which is to quadruple the GNP by the year 2000. However, Sichuan now suffers a yearly shortage of electricity of six billion kilowatt hours (kWh) or more, which means about 40 percent of the demand cannot be met. Many enterprises and factories have to shut down three to five days a week because of lack of electricity, thereby greatly reducing productivity. This problem demands an immediate resolution.

Sichuan is a province with abundant natural resources, especially at the upper reaches of the Yangtze, which possess a hydro-electric potential estimated at 150 million kWh. There are very favorable conditions for tapping these resources and it is estimated that 92 million kWh of this potential is exploitable. With the efforts of Sichuan’s people and help from the government, smaller hydro-electric projects on the upper reaches of the Yangtze have the advantage of quicker completion, smaller investment, and immediate profits.

Similarly, Guizhou province could construct smaller projects on the Wujiang River, Hubei province on the Qingjiang and Hanjiang rivers, and Hunan province on the Xiangjiang, Zishui, Yuanshui, and Lishui rivers. Together these local projects could deal more efficiently with the common problems of flooding, hydro-electric power generation, transportation, and irrigation.

Despite all of the unresolved technical problems, the Three Gorges project, even if it is started right away, will not help achieve our national economic goal. The project will require dozens of years of resource inputs before producing outputs. It will require a longer time to complete, a large investment, and will begin to show profits only slowly. In other words, the Three Gorges project may retard realizing the desired economic objectives, by consuming so much capital funding that smaller projects, which could show quicker results, will have to be canceled.

Let me now comment on the second question regarding the best time and the proper conditions under which to begin the project. Quite a few members of the delegation agreed that “preparation had not been completed” and that technical problems such as how to flush sedimentation had yet to be resolved. According to the present proposal, it is easier to solve problems that will occur near the reservoir area. But regarding the sedimentation problem near the end of the reservoir (backwater reach), no effective remedy has yet been developed.

Navigation is another problem, and we debated whether the project would help or hinder it. The Gezhouba dam has only one sluice gate and a single ship passage requires 45 minutes. Since the dam is opened only when there are several boats lined up for passage, several hours are often required for any one ship to pass through. Unlike the Gezhouba dam, the Three Gorges dam will have five sluice gates, which means that a much longer time will be needed for boats to pass through. If any of the five sluice gates breaks down, this important channel will be totally blocked. Many members expressed serious concern about this problem.

The expense of population relocation poses another problem. The Y11 billion already proposed for the project is far from adequate. Thirteen cities and many factories have to be relocated around the future site of the Three Gorges reservoir in the hilly areas where the land still has to be leveled. The installation of auxiliary facilities (sewer and water) for the cities will also be very costly.

For such an important project, there should be more than one alternative so that comparisons can be made and the best choice selected by the decision-makers. Numerous options, including proposals favoring developing the tributaries first versus proposals favoring developing them later, should be compared. Only in this way can we help the leading organizations make the best decision possible. So far, many people in our group remain dissatisfied; I personally support the request for several options. I believe that the failure to work out a long-term plan now will create many problems in the future, so every effort should be made at this stage.

The last question I would like to examine is the budget for the project. So far, the amount projected is Y30 billion, not including interest charges. If the interest is included, Y50-60 billion (calculated at 1988 values) will be required. Y100-120 billion will be needed when potential price increases are taken into account. The total investment is sure to be even higher after all the probable expenditures are considered.5

During one of our discussion forums a former official who had worked on the project said the actual workload of the project is twice or two-and-a-half times greater than that of the Gezhouba dam project. And the machinery and power generating equipment will be six times as extensive as that required for the Gezhouba dam, with five times as many sluice gates, and a much larger population to be resettled. Upon hearing this, the group found it hard to comprehend the official calculations of time and workload, and many were worried.

As far as I am concerned, the major consideration of whether the project should be started or suspended should be based, apart from various technical issues that need further study, on considerations concerning our national financial strength. Especially at this critical moment of price and wage reforms,6 the project would only worsen inflation and cause economic turbulence, hinder the implementation of the strategic policies decided upon at the Third Plenum of the Thirteenth Party Congress,7 put psychological pressure on the population, and undermine political stability as well as the overall reform program. Therefore, I think the project should be postponed until such time as the national economic goal of quadrupling the gross national product is realized. By then, with a stronger economic base and higher standards in science and technology, this project can be successfully carried out.

During our trip, we heard frequent complaints from local people. Because officials have hesitated over the project for so long, many local development projects have become difficult to plan or have been delayed. Consequently, individual and local economic well-being have been badly affected which, I am afraid, is in itself a very serious problem. I therefore would like to suggest that the Communist Party Central Committee make a decision at the earliest possible time to delay the project in order to reassure the local people so that they can have more confidence in carrying out their own plans and programs assisted by central, provincial and local governments. This will also allow them to carry out rapid economic development, which has already been delayed for more than 30 years.

These are my personal views and suggestions, which may not be proper. I hereby present them only as reference for those who are concerned in the Communist Party Central Committee and the CPPCC.


Sources and Further Commentary

1This letter, written on November 9, 1988, was included in the Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Zhou Peiyuan, now deceased, was a scientist, past president of Beida University, and was vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

3Zhou Peiyuan is suggesting here that since Hubei as a downstream province would be a beneficiary of the electricity generated by Three Gorges, its provincial-level officials take a more positive stand on the project. Other downstream areas that stand to gain from the dam include the provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, and the city of Shanghai, while upstream provinces such as Sichuan will receive few benefits in terms of electricity, and they may see flooding worsened by the project. See Lieberthal and Oksenberg, Policy Making, pp. 278-279.

4For a more thorough and up-to-date discussion of budget estimates, see Appendix E.

5This refers to the general economic and budgetary retrenchment that was begun in 1988, and the continuing debate over wage and price liberalization among the top leadership of economic reformers and conservative opponents of economic and political reform.

6This meeting, held in September, 1988, called for a slowdown in proposed price reforms because of inflationary pressure and “an end to confusion existing in economic activities, especially in the field of [monetary] circulation.” See Beijing Review, 10-16 October 1988.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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