Interviews with Dai Qing

Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing speaks out on Three Gorges dam

(May 26, 1999) In New York on May 4, Environment News Service reporter Wang Ai interviewed Dai Qing on the current situation with the construction of Three Gorges Dam and on her own story of becoming environmentally conscious.

The following is the interview in its entirety.

Editor’s note: During a State Council meeting in Beijing May 19 and 20, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji outlined “two policy readjustments” for the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Project, now in the second stage of its construction on the Yangtze River. Zhu cited environmental reasons for the policy changes – the first to “readjust and improve” the policy for relocating people and to readjust the policy for relocating enterprises. Over one million people are scheduled to be relocated to make way for the giant dam.

Zhu said the mountains are high and the slopes are steep in the Three Gorges reservoir areas and the environmental capacity there is quite limited. Following the rise in the level of the water stored in the reservoir, more farmland will be inundated. “Land reclamation on slopes with an angle greater than 25 degrees must be stopped and reclaimed land on such slopes should be gradually restored to forests…If we insist on relocating people in neighbouring areas, it will be inevitable that land will be reclaimed from steep slopes, vegetation will be damaged, new soil erosion will occur, the ecological environment will be damaged, and untold troubles will entail,” Zhu told the State Council.

Scheduled for completion by 2009, Three Gorges is the largest engineering project of any kind in the world. Its purpose is to control Yangtze River floods, while generating 84 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year, enough energy for most of central and eastern China. Current plans call for the dam to create a reservoir 375 miles long and 575 feet deep, with an average width of 3,600 feet – twice the width of the natural river. It will allow ocean cargo ships and cruiseliners to navigate 1,500 miles inland to the port city of Chongqing. With 15 million people, Chongqing will become the largest seaport in the world. Dai Qing, one of the most prominent Chinese environmentalists and the chief opponent of the construction of Three Gorges Dam is in the United States as a visiting scholar in the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

In New York on May 4, Environment News Service reporter Wang Ai interviewed Dai Qing on the current situation with the construction of Three Gorges Dam and on her own story of becoming environmentally conscious. The following is the interview in its entirety.

NEW YORK, New York – Wang Ai (ENS): What is the situation on the Three Gorges Dam right now?

Dai Qing (DQ): The debate on whether to build Three Gorges Dam dates back to 1980. In 1992, actual construction began. Construction is now in its second stage, which happens to be the most critical, quality demanding, and expensive stage. However, the project itself has taken a possible turn for the better. With the death of Deng Xiaoping and aged officials who supported Three Gorges for political reasons, as well as the rise of Zhu Rongji as China’s premier and increasing international opposition to construction, two conflicting sides have emerged with different goals. Those who are in favor of Three Gorges have been speeding up the project.

ENS: Would you please explain what kind of “turn for the better” you are talking aboPhoto courtesy of Wang Xiao-jiaut?

DQ: There are two possibilities as of now. First, opponents of Three Gorges Dam feel that they might have a chance to terminate the project completely. According to international environmentalists’ opinions, any big dam that works will greatly upset the environmental balance of the world. Therefore, to stop a dam’s construction at any point – no matter how far into the construction and how much money has already been spent – or to leave a completed dam inactive would be better than to allow the dam to function. We are now fighting to stop the construction of the dam.

The second possibility is to alter the original planning of the dam. Originally, Three Gorges Dam was designed to be 185 meters high. Now we hope that Three Gorges could be lowered to 165 meters – from a high dam to a low dam. If this were the case, the hydroelectric output of the dam would be cut by more than half. Yet the damage to the land would be greatly decreased. In addition, a lower dam would mean that fewer people would have to be relocated. And of course, lowering the dam would lessen its cost. Right now we have hope for both possibilities.

ENS: Can you elaborate on how the changing political situation has affected your hopes concerning Three Gorges Dam?

DQ: Most significantly, money. Three Gorges, as I’ve mentioned, has reached the most expensive stage of its construction. Originally, the project was to cost 600 billion yuan. A hundred billion has already been spent. However, the project is running out of funds. Back in 1992, then-premier Li Peng raised every household’s electricity bill by three to seven li (one li = one tenth of one cent) and collected two billion yuan. Since then, the government has used this method to get more funding for Three Gorges. More recently, the government has wanted to raise the electricity bill higher than it already has. However, Zhu Rongji is opposed to such a measure. As an economic expert, he says that the burden of building Three Gorges on ordinary people and businesses should not be increased again.

So where will the money come from now? The government has issued Three Gorges Dam stocks, but since the project is not a business for profit, not many people have bought them. Loans from foreign banks are also inadequate. All over the world, environmental organizations have pressured their countries’ governments not to support such an ecologically damaging project. In the entire world, only banks in Switzerland and Canada have given financial aid, and even these countries are facing active protests from their own environmentalists. Zhu Rongji has not spoken out against Three Gorges, yet he has not approved of it either. He has emphasized the quality of a completed Three Gorges Dam, saying that the government would like to invite some international experts to visit China and inspect the quality of Three Gorges.

We tend to like this idea because international analysts will be less afraid to speak the truth than Chinese experts within China who are very cautious not to offend the government. All of this which I have just explained is the reason we have new hope. Particularly, we feel that a lowered dam is a definite possibility.

ENS: Would you please tell me how you came to be involved in Three Gorges Dam?

DQ: Let me tell you a little story first. Back in 1993, when I was a visiting scholar at Harvard University, I was once invited to give a lecture to students about Three Gorges Dam. Just as I got up there in front of my audience, I started to cry uncontrollably. I felt too lonely!

Around 1986, a group of old, respected Chinese scientists, including Zhou Peiyuan and Lin Hua, visited Three Gorges to inspect the region for dam construction. Upon returning to Beijing, all of them voiced opposition to the idea of Three Gorges Dam. One day they organized a conference in the Hall of the Chinese People’s Political Forum. The Ministry of Media told the press not to report this conference. The hall is huge, capable of accomodating 2,000 persons, but only 200 people – none of whom were reporters – attended the conference.

Lin Hua called my mother and asked her to send me to the conference, for at the time I was a reporter at the “Guanming Daily.” So I ended up being the only reporter to go to the conference. At that point I knew nothing of Three Gorges Dam, but I found what the scientists said there to be very reasonable. Because I was not assigned to work on the section of the newspaper that would have covered Three Gorges Dam, all I could do following the conference was to walk into the office of my chief editor and tell him to be careful when publishing articles in favor of Three Gorges Dam, for the opposition I had heard in the conference sounded impressive. Besides this there was absolutely nothing else I could do at the time.

In 1987, I visited Hong Kong. I discovered that many residents of Hong Kong were talking about Three Gorges Dam, and I was very touched by their concern for China. I met a writer named Lin Feng. After he learned of my own concern about Three Gorges, he started mailing me all Hong Kong newspaper articles about the dam. This was how I got to know the issues of Three Gorges Dam inside out.

Before the Chinese New Year in 1989, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (the two most important legislative bodies in China) were going to open their sessions for that year. One of the major items on their agenda was Three Gorges Dam. At the time, hardly a single Chinese citizen knew of the disadvantages of building the dam.

I was extremely anxious. I felt that it was my responsibility to let people know the opposing views on Three Gorges Dam. I thus invited some of China’s preeminent journalists to interview the scientists who were against Three Gorges Dam. What I didn’t know was that even these prestigious journalists would be unable to publish their interviews in the newspapers they dominated.

Next we tried to get the interviews published in Beijing magazines, to no avail. After this we found a distant magazine in China. The people there were very pleased by the opportunity to include articles by such top journalists. They sent a representative to Beijing to meet us. Because he failed to get authorization from his superior in Beijing, this attempt failed as well. Eventually, an editor of the Guizhou People’s Publishing House named Xu Yinong got our interviews published in the form of a book. This was the book “Yangtze, Yangtze.” Due to the student demonstrations in early 1989 that ended with the June 4 massacre, the two government conferences did not meet. By the time the conferences met again in 1992, however, one-third of the representatives voted against the construction of Three Gorges Dam. You can say that my book had an effect on public opinion.

ENS: So how did you become an environmentalist? Was it because of your involvement in Three Gorges Dam?

DQ: No. Actually, before I received the Goldman Environmental Award in 1993, I always thought of myself as a human rights activist, particularly a free speech activist. Had there been free press, the opinions of the scientists who were opposed to Three Gorges Dam would have been made public without my involvement. So when I received the award in 1993, I was very touched by those who shared the award with me for that year. They had risked their lives for environmental protection. Compared with them, I was nobody. I think that it was because of the Goldman Award and the experience of meeting other winners that made me an environmentalist.

ENS: What are you doing now?

DQ: Right now I am a visiting scholar in the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. I will be going back to China soon. I am an individual member of the group The Correlation of Three Gorges Dam, which is a worldwide organization for Three Gorges Dam. Presently, I attend all meetings that have something to do with Three Gorges – no other Chinese groups do so, although I am still very busy with my other writings.

I believe that it will take time for the Chinese government and people to change their behavior pattern. The same is true for human beings worldwide. As time passes, people’s environmental consciousness will strengthen. People in China will get more information about the environment. I hope that more people will become aware of and pay attention to the situation of Three Gorges Dam.

I also hope that more people will voice opposition against the financiers who support the project and those who want to sell old machinery to China for the dam.

ENS: Thank you very much for your time.

Environmental News Service, May 26, 1999

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