Interviews with Dai Qing

Three Gorges Madness: An Interview with Dai Qing

(December 24, 1997) The Daughter of a revolutionary martyr, a former missile technician and one-time intelligence agent, Dai Qing is China’s foremost investigative reporter. Dai Qing first criticized China’s Three Gorges dam project in the Chinese daily press, and compiled and edited Yangtze!, Yangtze!, a collection of essays by prominent Chinese intellectuals opposed to the dam, in 1989.

Yangtze!, Yangtze! was a watershed event in China; an overt appeal to public opinion in an attempt to influence policy. After the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Dai was imprisoned for 10 months, and Yangtze!, Yangtze was banned. Since release from prison, Dai has continued to campaign against the Three Gorges project. In 1993, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award. She has just released a new book on Three Gorges, The River Dragon Has Come!

If built according to government plans, the Three Gorges dam would be the world’s largest dam. Supporters say the dam will tame floods, provide electricity and improve navigation in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Dai Qing and other critics counter that it will cause extensive environmental and social damage, and force the resettlement of 1.8 million people. Due to problems of sedimentation, they say, the dam is likely to be highly inefficient in generating electricity; and, they warn, sedimentation-induced breach of the dam could cause catastrophic flooding.

MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: What is at stake in the Three Gorges battle?

DAI QING: If the State Development Bank of China can successfully raise money from the United States and other nations to pay for this monstrous project, construction will proceed through the year 2013. And after 2013? What will happen after that? What about 2023, and 2033? Will the outcome of this project on China’s longest river simply repeat the disastrous experience of another project, the Sanmenxia Dam, built on China’s second longest river, the Yellow River?

Starting in the late 1950s, the Sanmenxia dam was held as a great victory of man over Mother Nature. The trapping of the Yellow Rivers’ sediment behind the dam, which caused the water downstream to run clear, was also said to hail the coming of a “Great Man” — Mao Zedong. The plan almost worked, but then the sediment that had accumulated behind the dam began to threaten major industrial cities. The whole project had to be rebuilt and is now a “run of the river” dam.

The 300,000 people who were forcibly resettled to make way for the project once lived in the richest district of Sanmenxia, but have now been migrants for the last 30 years, and have protested endlessly. Ten, 20 or 30 years after the Three Gorges dam is built, will the problems be similar to or even worse than those suffered by the people along the Yellow River and other rivers of China?

Excerpts from The River Dragon Has Come!, by Dai Qing

The Three Gorges project has been meticulously planned and controlled from its original design to its final construction. But the people who have been doing this planning have failed to understand key Chinese concepts such as self-restraint and the control of brazen arrogance. …The project will cause some of the most egregious environmental and social effects ever: It will flood 30,000 hectares of prime agriculture land in a country where land is the most valuable resource; it will cause the forcible resettlement of upward of 1.9 million people; it will forever destroy countless cultural antiquities and historical sites; and it will further threaten many endangered species, some already facing extinction.

But perhaps the most astounding fact of all is that although the project has attracted the interest of the world’s businesses and the ire of its environmentalists, it has faced very little opposition at home. The National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the project in April 1992, but since then very little has been said or written in opposition to the dam that will disrupt the lives of so many and damage such great swaths of our territory. …

The best alternatives involve building smaller dams on the Yangtze River’s tributaries. But alternatives were never seriously considered by the top leadership. Why? Because China is in the midst of a phase of “uncontrolled” development where a sense of moderation and restraint are completely absent. This lack of control is evident at every level of planning for the Three Gorges project: From the “red specialists'” faith in technology, to the closed decision making of autocratic leaders, and the complete disregard for the environmental effects of the project on the river valley and its residents. …

Even if the Three Gorges project is completed at the appointed hour, the long-term upheaval and damage caused by the resettlement of upward of 1.9 million people and the destruction of treasured cultural relics will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. The havoc created by the vast resettlement scheme will not only carry an immense price tag, but will also forever damage the spiritual and psychological health of the relocatees. The dam is not just about the loss of beautiful tourist landscapes, but about the damage the nation will do to itself through the patent disregard and ignorance of its spiritual wealth. …

The human race has readily demonstrated its capacity to destroy the environment, and we do not yet know how to control our desires and greed. So what should we do when such an uncontrolled project is being carried out under the watchful eye of the Chinese public? I know that other countries subject their hydropower projects to public scrutiny with success. But how can the Chinese people struggle for the same assurances in the case of the disastrous Three Gorges dam?

MM: Is there any positive alternative to abandoning the project altogether?

DAI: Encouraging the government to abandon Three Gorges is our goal. Of the 300 billion Chinese yuan projected to be spent on the project, they have spent maybe one fifth or one sixth.

Instead of a single massive dam, we suggest upstream and tributary dams that put together would be more efficient and use much less land and displace many fewer people. Five small dams upstream could give electricity, but they cannot give the biggest wattage in the world from a single dam — they cannot show how a socialist country can build the biggest dam in the world. So the Three Gorges promoters do not want to hear about proposals for smaller dams.

But we are also trying to suggest a new design for the dam — a lower one, 160 meters, so it will submerge less land, displace fewer people and be less of an environmental disaster. Of course it would also produce less electricity.

Even when the dam is built, we will urge that the gates be open and water let through, just like the Narmada dam in India, so the sedimentation problem is avoided.

MM: How many people have been resettled in connection with the Three Gorges project?

DAI: Already 100,000 have emigrated. This is only one fifteenth of the whole. Right now, the Hubei environment is very fragile. How can the other fourteen fifteenths move into the same district, and acquire new land, and build new factories? Other provinces are totally refusing to accept the immigrants from the Three Gorges project. No government today around the world can solve this kind of problem.

MM: What are the conditions of the 100,000 who have been moved?

DAI: In China, they always say they have new lives, a new house. But recently, some university students who investigated the resettlement areas said, “We should say something positive, but they are so poor, we feel sorry for them.”

In a Belgian documentary, the people insist they will not move, but they are forced to. The documentary showed one man, who did have a new house, but he had to borrow money — maybe two thirds of the cost — from his relatives to buy the house. He lost his land and livestock, he cannot plow vegetables. So he now needs lots of money to support him.

One government official who went to a resettlement area said he was very sad. He said that some young people will get a chance to go to factories, but the elderly — the government pays them only 50 yuan [about US$7] a month — and children will suffer.

The problem is being exacerbated by the way resettlement is being handled. With the Sanmenxia dam, the government gave money directly to the people and then sent them to the new district to try to buy land. With Three Gorges, there is a new policy: Money is given to corrupt local settlement officials, who are supposed to use the money to build and acquire new houses, farm land and factories — and maybe give a little money to the people themselves. The immigration officers are growing fat from the corruption; and relatives and friends of the immigration officials receive all of the best houses and land.

MM: Have the people being resettled expressed opposition?

DAI: Some of the elderly do not want to move. They say they will die with their ancestors. In one or two cases, the old people have committed suicide.

There is a rumor that when [Premier] Li Peng arrived in the area to speak, some people knelt before his car, and stopped his car, and said, “We don’t want to move.”

But things have happened only in dribbles. Only in a few special cases have people organized and tried to get some basic rights for themselves.

The people are very unhappy. But today in China, if you try to organize, the police can arrest you immediately and use any excuse, labeling you counter-revolutionary or some such thing.

I think in the future, as with the Sanmenxia project, when things get too difficult for the people to bear, then they will organize.

I hope this situation does not happen, because the government should respond to criticism from the people, and not wait and wait and press, press until the day of resettlement.

MM: How important is foreign financing to Three Gorges?

DAI: The World Bank, the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Asian Development Bank have all refused to finance the Three Gorges Project. Right now, the Chinese State Development Bank is trying to sell Chinese bonds in the United States. The greatest danger is that some of your companies will underwrite the bonds.

The Three Gorges promoters always say, “We can support ourselves, we don’t need any foreign money.” But you see at the same time they try and go around the world and get foreign money.

They face this difficulty: the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power is using all of its money for this project. They stopped funding other, smaller projects; last year we had floods in some of the Yangtze tributaries because there was no money to repair the dikes. Other ministries and other provinces don’t agree with this project. They object to using the whole nation’s money for one project.

So on the surface, I can’t say with certainty that stopping foreign financing would end the project, but they really need the foreign money.

The change in the Chinese economic system from central planning to a mainly market economy will also make it very difficult for Three Gorges promoters to rely only on financial support from the government. Right now, every person who uses electricity has to pay an extra fee for Three Gorges, and income from government-supported energy projects is going entirely to pay for Three Gorges.

Why are people in Hong Kong and the Taiwanese unwilling to buy bonds for this project? The Chinese government typically raises capital in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in exchange for promises of political benefits for its allies. But the Hong Kong and Taiwan investors are refusing to pay for the Three Gorges project because they know it is too difficult to get money back from this project.

When the State Development Bank sells Chinese bonds to Americans, however, they make a promise: the Chinese government will guarantee payment.

Maybe the Chinese government will not be able to pay back. But even if it can, then it will have no money for environment purposes, for education, for everything in China. This is a horrible future.

MM: Are you hopeful that the project can be stopped?

Dai: I think we still have some chance to stop the project. The reason is the Three Gorges project is a political project. The main aim of this project is political. It was Deng Xiaoping’s pet project.

President Jiang Zemin has never said anything strongly supporting the Three Gorges project. There have been three periods with the Three Gorges project. The first period was the debating period, from the mid-1980s to 1992. Since 1992, is the first phase of the project, leading up to the temporary damming of the Yangtze River. Now they are going to start the second phase of the project. Jiang Zemin could do nothing in the debating period, Even as president, he could do nothing in the first phase of the project, while Deng Xiaoping was still alive. So now is his chance.

There are rumors of Jiang telling the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power that he will not support any new major water projects, that they have done enough with Three Gorges. There are also rumors of him saying he does not want to allocate any more money for Three Gorges.

MM: How difficult was it to get contributions to your new book?

Dai: In today’s China, people pay a very high price to speak out. They risk their personal safety, they gamble their futures. Since the June 4 massacre, suppression continues, just as China’s outdated authoritarian decision-making procedures continue. As a result, many of the contributors to The River Dragon Has Come! have had to hide their real names.

It was harder to put together The River Dragon Has Come! than Yangtze!, Yangtze! [a 1989 book on the perils of the Three Gorges project.] Last time, it was not so difficult. I said to my colleagues, “Come on, we are going to interview the nine experts who did not agree” [with a Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power feasibility study]. We did it in 15 days, and we published it in China.

When I tried to organize people to write for this book, my friends said, “We have respect for you, but we don’t want to do that. It is hopeless.” But I think there is hope.

MM: You have written and spoken about how suppression of dissent and freedom of speech has played a crucial role in protecting the Three Gorges project.

Dai: Following negative reports in the 1980s on the feasibility of the Three Gorges Dam, and reports urging a lower dam height, the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power decided to undertake their own research themselves, which of course would be positive.

During that research project, there were 412 specialists. Those specialists were only engineers. There are no real scientists involved in this research, not to mention social scientists — psychologists, social workers or anthropologists.

Nine of the specialists refused to sign their signature to the final report endorsing the dam. Those nine people gathered with me. We tried to reflect the concerns to the government, but we never heard anything from them, no matter how hard we tried. We never stopped lobbying, but we never received any feedback.

It would not be my duty, as a journalist who specialized in culture, to participate in the debate, had the real experts been given the opportunity to speak out. But silenced are the scientists and engineers. Silenced are the people who will be affected by the project. Even the highest levels of representatives in the National People’s Congress are silenced.

Instead, they are marching, willfully, to what could become the single most destructive dam ever conceived anywhere in the world. And so, even though there are just a few of us willing to speak out, we can and will not be silent.

Press, Multinational Monitor, December 24, 1997

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