Three Gorges Probe


(May 31, 1994)


by Patricia Adams and Philip Williams1

On February 28, 1989, an extraordinary alliance of Chinese journalists, scientists, engineers, scholars, and army generals organized a press conference in Beijing to release their independently produced book criticizing the proposed Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. “For the first time ordinary Chinese people have decided not to keep silent on a weighty economic policy decision,” these journalists and scholars stated at the press conference. “They don’t want to see an endless repetition of foolish policies.”

Their book, Yangtze! Yangtze!, marked what the Far Eastern Economic Review called “a watershed event in post-1949 Chinese politics as it represented the first use of large-scale public lobbying by intellectuals and public figures to influence the governmental decision-making process.”

Yangtze! Yangtze! was a feat of breathtaking determination. Produced in under four months-to influence delegates attending the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress (NPC) meetings in March-April, 1989, at which a final decision to build the dam was expected-Yangtze! Yangtze! is credited with the State Council’s decision to postpone the dam for five years.

But the daring act of launching China’s first public campaign against a project supported by the highest levels of government -China’s largest capital works project since the Great Wall-came at a cost. Dai Qing, the book’s chief editor, and the country’s best-known woman journalist, was arrested soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre and jailed without trial in a maximum security prison for ten months, during which she was told she would be executed. Yangtze! Yangtze! was banned on the ground that it “abetted the turmoil.” To this day, criticism of the Three Gorges dam is strictly forbidden.

With the critics silenced, Premier Li Peng, a Soviet-trained hydraulic engineer and one of the project’s prominent champions, revived the Three Gorges dam, aiming for its approval at the National People’s Congress of 1992. There, despite another extraordinary display of opposition to the dam-one-third of NPC delegates registered their opposition to the dam by voting no or abstaining-the Three Gorges dam was finally approved.
Though banned, some 25,000 copies of Yangtze! Yangtze! that evaded seizure remain in circulation, an annoying reminder to the government and the world’s dam building industry of the disdain held by independent experts for their rosy arguments in favor of the Three Gorges dam.

Yangtze! Yangtze! exposes, before it is too late, the extravagance of the proponents’ assertions and the poverty of their analysis justifying the dam: for operational, geographical, and structural reasons, the dam will fail to control flood damages; navigation will be impeded rather than enhanced; and promised electricity supplies will not materialize. Meanwhile, Yangtze! Yangtze! explains how the same services-flood protection, navigation, and electricity-can be provided more safely, more quickly, and at less cost.

Yangtze! Yangtze!’s contributors reject the proponents’ assertion that 1.3 million people can be successfully relocated to make way for the dam’s reservoir. And they dismiss the argument that the evacuees welcome the dam as a stimulus to their depressed economy, arguing that the citizenry cannot exercise its rights, and that the region remains poor because for decades no one invested there under threat of inundation.

Yangtze! Yangtze! describes the plan to build the world’s largest dam as “a day-dreamer’s delight, and a pragmatist’s nightmare.” It predicts the Three Gorges dam will be plagued by the same problems afflicting megaprojects around the world: their large scale, technical and organizational complexity, and experimental nature handicap them. Because megaprojects take so long to build, politicians must protect them by insulating them from changing economic conditions (by applying various subsidies) and technical innovation (by granting various forms of monopoly control) that soon make them redundant and even more uneconomic. Consumers and taxpayers are ill-served in the process.

Like commentators in other countries, the contributors to Yangtze! Yangtze! exhibit a common-sense disbelief in centralized, long-term planning, opting instead for incremental, decentralized investments that allow new information to be incorporated, and adaptations to changing circumstances to occur.

The irrepressible and universal desire for the freedom to debate important development decisions courses through Yangtze! Yangtze!‘s pages. Why, if the dam is such a good idea, such an engineering marvel, do the proponents refuse to defend it? Why are the public and scientists prohibited from debating the pros and cons of the dam?

The only way to separate the real development projects from the charlatans is to stop what Yangtze! Yangtze! describes as the Chinese pattern of reservoir construction, where “those who have suffered are not the beneficiaries while those who have benefited are not the sufferers.”

That requires an end to the secretive and unaccountable conditions that surround the Three Gorges project. As long as China’s decision makers need not account in the legislature, the courtroom, or along the river bank, to the people they displace from their homes, farms, factories and temples, there is no limit to the number of people that can be displaced. As long as decision makers spend the state’s funds rather than their own, in an environment free of scrutiny and challenge, economic efficiency can be compromised. As long as scientists and engineers are exempted from or coerced into abandoning their professional responsibilities, imprudent projects can be endorsed.

The people in China who have dared to challenge the Three Gorges dam are not alone. From the Canadian Arctic to the Amazonian rainforest to the vast flood plains of Asia, millions of people are challenging the dam-builders’ creed with massive demonstrations, scientific critiques, and legal challenges.

Yangtze! Yangtze! enriches the debate and fuels the resistance. By contributing to the growing body of independent critiques of proposed dams, Yangtze! Yangtze! helps document how a large dam like the Three Gorges can only be justified with unsubstantiated engineering and compromised economics, by denigrating the cultural values of the people affected, by discounting current economic activity in the ecosystems to be destroyed, by treating the environment as dispensable, by making unscientific and uneconomic choices, and by carelessly assigning risks to others who would not assume those risks themselves.

Yangtze! Yangtze!‘s prediction of failure parallels worldwide experience. In a 1992 exposé of the legacy of large dams, The Economist revealed that “the draw-backs of dam-building have become more apparent, and many of the purported benefits have turned out to be exaggerated…. No solid retrospective studies exist of the costs and benefits of large dams in developing countries.”2

“Taxpayers who eventually foot the bill, should look on dam-building with suspicion,” The Economist warned, adding “as always, things look better when some costs are left out.” The taxpayers include both those in the industrialized countries whose governments and institutions such as the World Bank (the largest single financing agency for large dams) may be asked to bankroll the building of the Three Gorges dam, and those in China. According to Dai Qing, that suspicion has already begun, with Chinese taxpayers demanding a voice in public expenditures.3

The Chinese government may come to regret its reprisals against Yangtze! Yangtze! and those who dare to debate the wisdom of the Three Gorges dam. By denying the good information and good judgment of the Chinese people, whether professor or peasant, the Chinese government dooms the entire country to pay the price. By denying the public the right to debate the wisdom of the dam, they doom themselves. Dai Qing, in accepting the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award in 1993 for her determination to ensure such a debate, quoted an ancient Chinese philosopher who warned: “It is more dangerous to silence the people than to dam a river.” China’s authorities are doing both.

Sources and Further Commentary

1Patricia Adams is the executive director of Probe International, a Canadian public interest research organization which forced public disclosure of the Canadian-World Bank feasibility study for the Three Gorges project in 1989. Probe International subsequently published an independent critique of that study titled Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You to Know, 2nd ed., eds. Margaret Barber and Gráinne Ryder (Toronto: Earthscan Canada, 1993). Philip Williams is a consulting hydraulics engineer who has reviewed much of the engineering analysis for the Three Gorges project. Dr. Williams is president of the International Rivers Network, which is the world’s leading citizen’s organization dedicated to protecting rivers and watersheds.

2“The beautiful and the dammed,” The Economist, 28 March 1992

3Jin Jun, “Dam Project Ignites China’s Intellectuals,” Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, 20 March 1989.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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