Interviews with Dai Qing

‘My Books Are Banned. But I Can Speak Outside’

(June 14, 1999) Business Week Asia Editor Sheri Prasso interviewed Dai on a brief visit to New York in early May.

DAI QING, 57, THE ADOPTED daughter of a famous revolutionary, could have capitalized on her connections to gain power and prestige. Instead, she maintained strong convictions, particularly her opposition to China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project. Now, with China’s leadership acknowledging problems with the dam, the environmental concerns she has long voiced are finally being recognized.

Trained as a guided-missile engineer, Dai first looked to be just one more bright patriot. “I was so loyal to the party,” says Dai, “I thought I would die if Mao Zedong needed me to.” But she began to question her blind loyalty and later turned to writing as a new, more challenging career. Shocked by the $30 billion-plus dam project, Dai published critical essays. Officially banned, illegal copies of those essays have circulated widely. Dai hopes her writing encourages people to speak out and avoid repeating past mistakes. Chinese now “have the opportunity to open their eyes, to see the whole world,” she says. Count on Dai to do her part.

‘My Books Are Banned. But I Can Speak Outside’

Dai Qing is a Chinese writer and environmentalist who has been active in opposing China’s Three Gorges Dam. A former guided-missile engineer, she takes some of the credit for marshalling opposition to the huge project. Dai has been in the U.S. for the last year as a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., but is due to go back to China shortly. Business Week Asia Editor Sheri Prasso interviewed Dai on a brief visit to New York in early May. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What’s the status of the Three Gorges Dam?
The Three Gorges is a political project, not an engineering project. What the government has announced [electricity, power generation, etc.] is an excuse. All these people [who supported the project, including former Premier], Deng Xiaoping, they used to be engineers. [Current Premier] Zhu Rongji is not an engineer. He understands the economy. He knows how difficult it is. Zhu Rongji doesn’t like this project, but he has to find a way to change what is going on. So he has invited these foreign engineers. What he said about taking responsibility for the project is very important. It has to be international quality. This gives us a chance — maybe the international inspectors can speak to the Chinese scientists. It’s an opportunity. Zhu is very clever. Currently, we are getting in touch with scientists at MIT and other institutions in the U.S. to get their scientists to accept the invitation.

Q: What was your role in fostering the debate about the Three Gorges?
Three years ago I wrote a letter to the People’s Congress. It said, “It was you who gave the permission for the project, but you depended on some wrong information, the financing, the environmental impact. I urge you to do an investigation yourself.” The response: silence. Now, I think Zhu will not give a silent response. The financing is [in jeopardy]. The World Bank experts know the environmental impact is terrible. The situation is too difficult for them [Chinese leaders]. China has to accept the international standards. Before they thought this only can affect China. It [the environment] is a whole problem for human beings [all over the world].

Q: What are the chances that the dam will be scaled down or called off entirely?
There is a a 50-50 chance that they will change the design of the dam. Lower it. Beyond that, I don’t want to say [what the] chances [are].

Q: Why has there been this turnaround in thinking about the environment in China, and what role do you think you have played in that?
The Post-Deng era has been enlightening. They [Chinese people] have some chance to look back and learn lessons. They have the opportunity to open their eyes, to see the whole world. [She mentions her winning of the 1993 Goldman Environmental Award.] What I fought for is freedom of speech. I cannot escape that it’s also a fight for the environment.

And there are other reasons. The new era is making new Chinese. The situation in China is different. Ordinary people are exercising their rights. People now realize, in Canton and in the north and other places, that they have to pay for this project. People now say they have to pay to support it, but they get no benefit. They have their own voice.

In Mao Zedong’s era, human beings believed they could have victory over nature, they can win over nature. But right now, even Chinese acknowledge the need to take care of the environment. Not just use it. This philosophy has changed in the minds of the Chinese people.

Also, the Chinese government is more tolerant of people like me. I can accept this fellowship [at Woodrow Wilson], give you this interview, and I can go back. Only thing is that I cannot be published in China. My books are banned. But I can speak outside. I am a writer and a journalist. My voice is the most important. They only silence me on the inside [of China], not the outside.

Before reform, the environment in China was being damaged by the centrally planned economic system. They destroyed the Yellow River, for example. After reform, once again there is terrible destruction of the environment. We don’t have freedom of speech. If people had more opportunity to speak out, we could have stopped the Three Gorges in 1992. Those people [People’s Congress] were not allowed any outside materials [presenting all sides of the environmental impact]. They were only allowed one [piece of information]. No one could have gotten another side of the story.

Q: What role did your growing up in the prominent family of Marshall Ye play in your ability to speak out, to be more courageous?
In the 1950s and ’60s, the whole situation was terrible. But people like me — we were called the “party princesses” — could enjoy a better life. I had a healthy environment. In your country, almost every child enjoyed this kind of environment. So my mind is healthy compared to other Chinese. I didn’t have this kind of hurt, being criticized. I like to say I am an ordinary person, only the situation was not ordinary. In your country, what I did would just be common, normal.

I trained to be an engineer. When I decided to be a writer, I cut my connections with the privileged group. I never got any benefit from this privileged group, the Ye family. I remained independent. I suffered after that, arrest, police surveillance. I made a lot of compromises [with Chinese authorities], and now I have got the right to live here [in the U.S.].

Q: What kind of compromises?
For example, in 1995 at the Women’s conference in Beijing, they asked me to speak on a panel there, and Hillary Clinton came and wanted to see me, to meet with me. She gave them [authorities] a list of the people she wanted to meet, and I was on it. The police called me and told me that when Hillary called me, to tell her I refuse to meet her. I told the police, “no, I’m not going to do that.” Then they said O.K., you need to go on a trip. I said, “No, I want to speak on the panel.” So I negotiated with them. I thought, what is the most important thing? To stay in China. To meet Hillary is important, but it’s more important to stay in this country. So they bought me a ticket to Hainan. The police did. And I insisted, “round-trip!” So I missed the conference. But I could come back.

Q: What happened to you that made you want to change your life’s work? Was it during the cultural revolution?
In 1966, when I was 23, I was so loyal to the party. I was so loyal to Mao Zedong, I thought I would die if Mao Zedong needed me to die. About three to five years later, I started to think it over. It was just by chance that I wrote a short story. People loved it. My daughter, she was 7 or 8 at that time, she had no books to read. When I was a child I had English children’s books. They had such wonderful children’s books in English. But nothing to read in Chinese. So I thought I would try to get a chance to study English, and to translate these books for my daughter. It was very difficult. At that time, only military people and other privileged people could study English. I didn’t want to get money from privilege. [My father died when I was four, in 1945]. So I started to change [in that direction towards being a writer].

I worked on guided missiles, you know the ones like are aimed at the U.S. I was a technician for the thing that spins around, to make the missile go straight [gyroscope]. As an engineer, I thought I could do only so-so. But I thought I could be a perfect writer. That was in 1979, I was almost 38.

BusinessWeek, June 14, 1999

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