Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 6

(May 31, 1994)


A Letter to the Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party1

by Li Rui2

To: Comrade Jiang Zemin and other Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee members:

According to press reports, the State Council has set up the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation. Preparatory work for the construction of the Three Gorges project has officially begun. Lu Youmei, the general manager of the development corporation, has indicated that the company will strive to push the project ahead, so that the damming of the Yangtze will coincide with the reunification of Hong Kong and China. Lu has also said: “I hope that the comrades in the preparation office will not be afraid and just do it [i.e., build the dam]. If they make some mistakes, I will take responsibility for them.”

I wrote a letter to the communist leadership on January 1, 1992, in which I illustrated the many advantages and disadvantages of the Three Gorges project in great detail and explained why the project should not be started right away. This letter reiterates many of those points.

The last paragraph of the “Resolution on the Construction of the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River” passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in April, 1992, states:

With regard to future work on the Three Gorges project, research shall continue towards the proper solution of the potential problems that have been identified. We must be cautious, treat problems very seriously and welcome the opinions of all interested parties. In so doing, the construction of the Three Gorges project will be made safer and more reliable.

Unfortunately these words appear to be only lip service. When the motion to pass the resolution was discussed in group meetings of the NPC, many delegates voiced opposing opinions. Delegates from Sichuan province, in particular, made impassioned speeches, expressing their grave concern about the project.

Several months before the March-April, 1992, NPC meeting, the Chinese media launched a massive campaign to publicize the view that the project had to be started right way. The campaign pointed out that the Central Party Committee of the Communist Party had already approved the project, and that the approval of the resolution by the congress was a mere formality. Despite such a massive media campaign, one-third of the delegates still did not vote in favor of the project. Such opposition was unprecedented in communist China. It should make the people in charge think carefully.

Since the resolution was passed, I have been exposed to many different ideas and viewpoints concerning various aspects of the project. The most important issue, for which there are many opposition opinions, is sedimentation. It is feared that the current plan for a 175-meter dam would cause significant sedimentation, adversely affecting the port at Chongqing and blocking navigation. In the 1970s, when we discussed the sedimentation problem at the Gezhouba dam project, Premier Zhou Enlai clearly stated that navigation should be the number one consideration in the development of the Yangtze River. Premier Zhou said harshly, “the dam should be destroyed if it blocks the waterway.”

I have been told by comrades from the Ministry of Communication who were in charge of the navigation section of the assessment report, that technical problems concerning the construction of the shiplocks for a 175-meter dam are far from being resolved.3 Although navigation problems may not appear to be as important as the possible collapse of the Jingjiang dikes (which may occur once every 1,000 years due to flooding),4 navigation in the Yangtze waterway is of vital importance to the current economic restructuring in China and to the future development of Sichuan province.

The assessment report, which endorsed the current 175-meter dam, does not provide guaranteed and reliable solutions to the problem of sedimentation. In fact, many of the consultants and specialists argued against the project for this reason. They included Shi Jiayang, Tan Xiudian, Luo Xibei, Zhang Changling, Li Erding, Huang Yuanzhen, Zhang Qishun and others. Instead of a 175-meter dam these specialists proposed the construction of a 160-meter or lower dam, so that navigation on the Yangtze River would not be so adversely affected, and the number of people displaced by dam construction could be reduced. What I wish to emphasize here is that the sedimentation that will result from the 175-meter dam will create serious problems for navigation on the Yangtze. It is still not too late to “be cautious, treat problems very seriously and welcome the opinions of all interested parties.”

In short, there are many disadvantages to the Three Gorges project. Its capacity to control floods is limited and, worse yet, it passes the problem on to neighboring Sichuan province. It will necessitate massive population relocation, and its resettlement plan is ridiculous. The dam is not the best option for generating electricity, as there are numerous alternatives that would produce greater benefits. It would unnecessarily obstruct navigation and, finally, it goes against current wisdom, which states that large hydro-electric projects do not work and are often abandoned.

One must also remember that the environmental effects of such a large dam cannot be predicted accurately. At this time, there remain many unknown elements that make it difficult to give any definite answers and conclusions. (In this area, the viewpoint of Huang Wanli should not be ignored.)

Once again I would like to make my opinion known to the Central Committee of the Party-postpone construction of the Three Gorges project and bring all preparation work to a halt. This would reassure the public and prevent future troubles. In the past several years, I have attended many group discussions of the Central Advisory Committee of the Communist Party. Whenever the Three Gorges project was discussed, many veteran comrades expressed opposition opinions. However, they had no place to present these views. For example, last year a group of specialists with the Chinese Academy of Sciences undertook a field trip to the Three Gorges. Upon completing their study, they submitted a report with opposition opinions, but no one paid attention to it.

The leading group’s assessment that chose the plan for a 175-meter dam was completely under the control of the ex-leaders of the former Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, and of Qian Zhengying in particular. The discussions were not founded on democratic or scientific principles. Briefly, there were two major problems with the assessment report:

First, the study did not follow recognized river planning procedures. Normally, river planning should take into account the characteristics of the entire river valley, and through comparison with alternate plans, draw its conclusions. The Yangtze planners, however, had already decided that the Three Gorges dam was the only option even before they started to collect data and formulate arguments to support their decision. In this way, the discussions on the Three Gorges project can be compared to an election with a single candidate. This is all the more disturbing as we have had a very successful case of alternative planning in the Yellow River Valley. Why should we not follow that example in the case of the Three Gorges?

Second, all of the discussions were controlled by a single organization. They were originally to be led by the State Planning Commission and the State Science and Technology Commission. But it is argued that Qian Zhengying later persuaded the State Science and Technology Commission to let the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power lead the study.5 The leadership of the assessment group (including the members of the leading group and the heads of the experts’ groups) was composed completely of pro-dam individuals. The director and deputy directors of the leading group were ex-ministers, ex-vice ministers, and leaders in charge of the Three Gorges project in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, while the 14 experts’ groups were composed mostly of ex-department directors of the ministry.

The leading group approved and invited 412 specialists to be part of the experts’ groups but very few of them had different opinions from those of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. Many dissident scientists and specialists were excluded, and the participation of specialists was limited to the subject matter for which their experts’ group was responsible. The experts were permitted to approve or disapprove of only the section they were studying. None of them participated in discussions of the project as a whole and, as a result, many were unable to air their opposing opinions on the project overall. For these reasons, it is misleading to say that the plan for a 175-meter-high dam was approved by 403 of 412 specialists and opposed by only nine.

It is clear that the protracted nature of the assessment report was a result of an exclusive focus on the issue of dam height. The study concentrated on the comparative study of 185-, 180-, 175-, 160-, and 150-meter-high dams, but no comprehensive studies to compare the Three Gorges project with alternatives for achieving flood control, electricity generation, navigation and so on, were ever undertaken. In other words, the study was the verification of one option-the election of a single candidate. Can such approaches be considered democratic and scientific? This is simply a disguised form of the old tradition where the person with power lays down the law.

The January, 1993, issue of the periodical Party Documents published a number of instructions or directives concerning the Three Gorges project by Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou. One of the instructions was Mao’s written reply of April 10, 1966, to a letter by Wang Renzhong, in which Wang asked Mao’s direction on a report on the Three Gorges project by Lin Yishan.6 In his letter Mao wrote: “We need an opposition opinion.”

More than 27 years have passed since that letter was written; however, Mao’s instructions are not out of date. I request that the Central Committee invite a number of specialists who represent different points of view and oppose the immediate construction of the Three Gorges project (or the 175-meter-high dam plan) to a special meeting. Please pay careful attention to their opinions, and excuse me for using an old saying, “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened.”7

Sources and Further Commentary

1This letter, submitted on March 12, 1993, was not included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2Li Rui, previously Mao Zedong’s secretary on industrial affairs, was also vice-minister of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. He is currently an advisor with the Energy and Resources Research Institute of China.

3The Ministry of Communication is responsible for navigation and shipping and has thus generally opposed the Three Gorges project, arguing that it would severely disrupt river traffic during the long-drawn-out construction period. See Barber and Ryder, eds., Damming, p. 17, and Lampton, Policy Implementation, p. 172.

4The Jingjiang River section of the Yangtze is located between Jiangning and Jianli, where protection from floods is provided by embankments that, it is argued, can withstand a flow not exceeding 60,000 m3/s. In the event of a breach, it is estimated that at least 100,000 casualties would result. Debate over the sufficiency of these dikes is a key element in the larger debate over the Three Gorges. See Luk and Whitney, editors’ Introd. to Megaproject, p. 8.

5For more on this event see Chapter 28.

6In Chinese political culture, leaders usually write their opinions in short sentences on reports or letters submitted to them. These comments would then be considered directives for the lower ranks of the bureaucracy to follow.

7For a list of specialists whose views on the Three Gorges project differed from those of the leading group’s report, see Appendix F.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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