Three Gorges Probe


(May 31, 1994)


by Lawrence R. Sullivan1

The materials in this book condemn the Chinese government’s plan to build the world’s largest dam in the scenic Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. These documents are also an indictment of the political system that produced this decision. The contributors to this volume are generally not liberal, Westernized dissidents. Many are long-time loyal communists; others are veteran members of China’s normally compliant satellite parties. These are not the young idealists who filled Beijing’s streets in the democracy movement of 1989, but largely elderly officials with scientific and technical backgrounds who have opposed the dam out of a genuine concern for China’s economic health and political stability.

The criticisms that fill the following pages focus on a closed decision-making process that grossly distorts technical data and analyses to meet the political needs of a self-sustaining elite. Despite high-level rhetoric since the inauguration of China’s reforms in 1978 about creating more “open” (kaifang) and “democratic and scientific” policy-making, this book portrays a Party-state apparatus that remains profoundly authoritarian in structure and function.2 Outspoken opponents of the project have been silenced, especially since June, 1989, as key decision-making arenas deliberating on the Three Gorges dam have been packed with obedient and technically illiterate supporters.

Opposition views are not treated as mere differences of opinion, but evidence of disloyalty and “counter-revolutionary” intent. The political atmosphere surrounding the controversy over the dam is no different from the late 1950s when early critics, such as Chairman Mao Zedong’s ex-secretary Li Rui, were branded as “anti-Party.” Yangtze! Yangtze! itself has been a victim of the intense politicizing of this issue and the book was banned in 1989. Crushing students in Tiananmen Square not only allowed the communist leadership to remain securely in power, but also provided convenient cover to purge the Party and state apparatus of dam opponents.

The following documents, in short, portray a bare-knuckles political battle in which opposition to construction of the dam involves enormous risks. Western observers who portray policy-making in China as a process of “consensus-building” and “bargaining” must confront the realities described in the following pages.3 The fundamental lack of checks and balances in the Chinese political system is made explicit through the proliferation of committees that are used to confound and confuse rather than to enlighten. Newspapers carry only “positive reporting” on the dam; microphones at the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting considering the issue are shut off; and prominent opponents, such as the eminent scientist Qian Jiaju, are left with no choice but exile. Nor does the long arm of Chinese government control end at the country’s borders. Chinese engineers recently traveling in the United States to raise funds for the project were sheltered by their American host (Merrill Lynch) from an inquiring Voice of America journalist who had hoped to broadcast interviews on the controversy surrounding the dam back into China.4

“Consensus” is achieved. Case closed.

More than hard-line dictatorship, however, explains the ability of dam supporters to secure approval for the Three Gorges project. While clearly demonstrating the reliance of the Chinese Communist Party on standard totalitarian tools to deter political pluralism, this book also reveals more subtle and well-honed methods of countering potential opposition. On full display here are stock measures of “divide and rule” used by the pro-dam leaders to prevent a critical mass of opponents from coalescing among the scientific and intellectual elite. This is a masterful illustration of isolating critics and keeping such bodies as the NPC fragmented and incapable of challenging central Party decisions. Thus at the March, 1992, NPC session (that formally approved the dam) NPC delegate and dam critic Huang Shunxing attempted to distribute opposition literature among delegates only to discover that members of different delegations were prohibited from direct contact or exchange of materials.5 With no meaningful sharing of information, there was no debate, and no viable opposition. Procedural guidelines of the nominal legislature were blithely ignored as once again the Communist Party relied on ad hoc measures that totally defied any pretense of institutional process.6

Dam opponents also confronted the familiar features of the “mobilization of bias” in favor of the project that makes opposition to such megaprojects difficult to achieve in any bureaucratic environment-totalitarian or otherwise. The enormous momentum and pressure created by the large-scale bureaucracies composed of the Ministry of Water Resources and the powerful Yangtze Valley Planning Office have effectively stifled any “rational” policy process. All the ingredients familiar to bureaucratic machinations are here: promises of administrative position and influence, buying off of potential grass-roots opponents, unrealistic budgetary figures that seriously underestimate true costs, “smoke and mirrors” methods of financing, glossing over and even ignoring potential dangers while exaggerating the benefits, falsifying data and fixing crucial technical experiments, and bureaucratic manipulations to insure that viable alternatives never come up for discussion, let alone a decision. Readers of Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s exposĂ© on dam building and federal water projects in the American West, will feel right at home with Yangtze! Yangtze!7
Crammed in the volume’s highly detailed chapters, the facts seem to favor the dam’s opponents. Also represented here, unlike the government’s handling of the controversy, is an “opposing view” in the form of a long statement by a strong supporter of the project, Li Boning. Yet the ongoing effort in China and abroad to block construction of the Three Gorges project, even after its official launch in 1992, confronts many obstacles.

Chief among them is that for many in the Party leadership the dam is much more than just another large-scale project. In the rich tradition of “engineering giganticism” that China’s leaders have found so perennially attractive, the dam is one of the last refuges of the old-style planned economy with secure and everlasting financing, personnel, and political power. Insulated from the economic reforms now sweeping the country, the massive project is a political, ideological, and economic sinecure-derisively referred to by dam critics as a “long-and-dragged-out project.” The Three Gorges project is proof of the Chinese government’s determination to inspire people to collective action for national goals. In the face of advancing individual consumerism, “poisonous bourgeois liberalism,” and growing economic power in the country’s regions, it demonstrates that the center can still be the boss. If, as a common Chinese saying goes, “only China can save socialism,” then the Three Gorges dam may be intended, in part, as political CPR.

Another major obstacle confronting dam opponents is the identification of the project with Chinese nationalism and ethno-centrism. This is to be the world’s largest dam and, like many aspiring great powers, China wants to be “number one”: in walls, cities, grain production, and now dams. Small is not beautiful in a country with 1.1 billion people. Opponents calling for a series of smaller and less costly dams on the tributaries of the Yangtze River constantly run up against the powerful force of Chinese nationalism, now in a communist guise that prefers grandiose monuments over efficiency. On top of this there is the deeply psychological notion that international standards, and indeed even universal physical laws, don’t apply in China, the “center of the world.” In a political and cultural milieu that values socialism, democracy and just about everything else with “Chinese characteristics,” dam opponents are fighting an uphill battle in citing “international standards” to back their opposition to this massive project. Proponents of the dam are identified with the power and glory of the Chinese state; opponents with the views and professional judgments of the easily maligned “foreigner.”8

The battle to halt construction of the Three Gorges dam is, however, still far from over. The Chinese political system is changing, though ever so slowly. Yangtze! Yangtze! is still banned, but its courageous editor, Dai Qing, works at home and abroad to quietly mobilize opposition by the project’s so-far apparently silent detractors among the communist leadership. News conferences by opponents have been recently held in China as the word in a genuinely more “open” society is gradually getting out. More importantly, the financial constraints of China’s reforms and continuing inflation (running in 1993 at over 14 percent) also make this costly endeavor increasingly unattractive. Avoiding ruinous inflation and a financial black hole may for the foreseeable future be the most important consideration of China’s new generation of leaders.

Nevertheless, in a system where “rule by the voice of one” is the norm, support for the dam by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping propels the project forward. In fact, construction is to be speeded up so that damming the river will coincide with another great national event: the reincorporation in 1997 of Hong Kong into China. One can only hope that with Deng’s health evidently fading, the opponents whose voices fill this volume may have time and money on their side.

Sources and Further Commentary

1Lawrence R. Sullivan is Associate Professor of Political Science, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York and Research Associate, East Asian Institute, Columbia University, New York.

2See Deng Xiaoping’s major August, 1980, proposal for political reform, “On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership,” in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: 1975-1982 (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1984). In August, 1986, a leading ‘liberal’ in the Communist Party leadership, Wan Li, called for more “scientific and democratic” decision making. In 1992, while chairing the National People’s Congress meeting that approved the project, he ruled that “no debate is permitted.”

3See David Lampton, “A Plum for a Peach: Bargaining, Interest, and Bureaucratic Politics in China,” in Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China, eds. David Lampton and Kenneth Lieberthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 33-57.

4The Chinese engineers were to be interviewed along with Dai Qing on the pros and cons of the dam.

5For more on this event, see Chapter 10

6The role of ad hoc decision making in authoritarian political systems has been analyzed most notably in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, but generally ignored in China. See Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 1992), p. 59, and Abdurkhman Avtorkhanov, Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party: A Study in the Technology of Power (New York: Praeger, 1959).

7Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

8Since the mid-1980s, the communist leadership has tried to mobilize ‘nativist’ opposition to so-called foreign conspiracies that they argue are trying to infiltrate the Chinese culture with Western values. The Chinese have derisively labeled this supposed infiltration “peaceful evolution.” The perceived threat of conspiracies has probably not helped dam opponents who often cite international standards and foreign specialists in questioning project design and physical specifications. Ironically, Chinese dam proponents invited these international comparisons when, in preparation for securing foreign financing for the dam in the 1980s, they asked the Canadian government and the World Bank to prepare a feasibility study that would “firmly establish, on bases acceptable to international financial institutions, the technical and economic feasibility of the Three Gorges Project.” See CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture (CYJV), Three Gorges Water Control Project Feasibility Study, Vol. 1 (1988), Appendix A.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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