July 20, 1999
Chinese engineer predicts powerful vested interests won’t allow project’s cancellation
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared in Hua Xia Wen Zhai (a Chinese on-line magazine produced in the United States) earlier this year. The author, a Chinese engineer who participated in the Three Gorges project feasibility study in the late 1980s, currently lives in Germany. In his book, Fortune and Misfortune, Wang has criticized many aspects of the mega-project, including the dam’s limited ability to control floods.
Although Zhu Rongji voted in favour of all the central decisions in the Three Gorges dam project before he became Chinese premier and leader of the Three Gorges Construction Committee in 1998, he has since revealed a more critical opinion that has led some analysts to wonder whether he might cancel the project.
After last year’s flooding, Zhu called for a strengthening and heightening of the Yangtze [river] embankment and an end to deforestation in the upper reach of the river to prevent soil erosion. These policies contradict the Three Gorges feasibility study, which stated that the dam was necessary for flood control because it was economically unreasonable and technically infeasible to keep strengthening and heightening the Yangtze embankment. The study also claimed that deforestation along the upper and middle Yangtze did not cause erosion or siltation. Even after the two new policies were adopted last year, Pan Jiazheng, the feasibility study’s technical chief still insisted that deforestation did not contribute to the Yangtze flooding.
At a meeting he chaired in December 1998 in Chengdu, Zhu also criticized the project’s quality control. In May 1998, the Three Gorges’ temporary ship lock closed for 52 days, disrupting navigation along the river. The ship lock was supposedly contracted out through “public bidding” by the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation (TGPDC). But the TGPDC-approved sub-contractor was actually the Gezhouba Group, a subsidiary of TGPDC. This incident was a result of the construction procedure, dubbed “one coordinated process,” advocated by Zhu’s predecessor, Li Peng, in 1984. In this process, TGPDC had monopoly control of everything from bidding to construction to quality control. There was no third or independent party to ensure the project’s construction quality. This monopolist procedure is against China’s Construction Law and has been the root of many quality problems in the project. In response to these problems, Zhu suggested inviting foreign companies to become quality supervisors.
Zhu has also disagreed with the original Three Gorges resettlement plan, which focused on local resettlement, moving farmers who lived in the valley to nearby mountains, most of which have slopes steeper than 25 degrees. China’s Water and Soil Conservation Law prohibits farming on such steep slopes because it causes soil erosion, but Li Peng insisted that building terraced fields on inclines over 25 degrees actually aided water and soil conservation. However, torrential rains in the summer of 1998 flushed away almost all the terraced fields cultivated by resettlers. Li Peng wanted to preserve the few remaining plots as “model fields” for the resettlement project, but when Zhu gained control, he ordered farmers to stop reclaiming land steeper than 25 degrees, allowing it to return to woodland.
Several other problems could provide Zhu with justification for cancelling the project:
First, the projected budget far exceeds the amount approved by the central government. When the project was approved in 1992, its investment budget was 57 billion RMB (US$6.9 billion). In 1995, an official report put the figure at 250 billion RMB (US$30.4 billion). In 1999, the estimated figure totalled 600 billion RMB (US$72.9 billion). The State Council regulations on infrastructure projects stipulate that a project should be cancelled if its budget exceeds the original estimate by more than 50 percent.
Second, the number of people to be resettled is much greater than the planned 1.13 million. The highest media estimate is 1.8 million, while I calculate that the final figure could be as high as 2.5 million. There is no way that such a huge population can be resettled in the Three Gorges area without creating a series of social problems and disturbances.
Third, the project will submerge part of downtown Chongqing and cause great economic losses. One of the central government’s stipulations in building the Three Gorges dam was that no part of Chongqing should be flooded.
Fourth, unsolvable technical problems still plague the ship lifters and five-level ship locks that are supposed to enable navigation of the river.
Fifth, engineers have presented no satisfactory solutions to the dam’s security problems: how to protect it from military strikes and damages from earthquake-induced landslides.
Sixth, there was a conflict of interest in reviewing and approving the project’s environmental assessment in 1992 and in reviewing and approving the project’s feasibility study.
Finally, the current plan for a 185-metre-high dam is against the wishes of the late Deng Xiaoping, who only supported a 150-metre-high dam.
But even with Zhu’s criticism and the dam’s many problems, the project’s history shows the difficulty in stopping the dam in the face of political fervour and fear of disastrous flooding along the Yangtze.
1958: The central government decided to build the dam but cancelled it soon after due to economic difficulties.
1984: The central government approved the project again with a dam height of 150 metres. The plan was opposed by many factions in the government.
1986: While the government undertook feasibility studies, opponents of the dam (most of them associated with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, CPPCC) voiced their opinions inside the government and to media.
1989: Dai Qing published the book Yangtze! Yangtze!, including the opinions of major opponents of the dam, such as Li Rui, Zhou Peiyuan, and Lu Qinkan. Shortly after the June 4 massacre, Dai Qing was imprisoned and the book Yangtze! Yangtze! banned. Meanwhile, Li Boning (then director of the Three Gorges Preparation Group and now head of the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation) wrote a report to the central government promoting the Three Gorges dam as an opportunity to mobilize the Chinese people and to showcase socialism. Jiang Zemin (now president) and the top leadership accepted the idea and started promoting the project in the national media.
1991: Serious flooding hit the Yangtze valley and the fear of worse flooding mobilized strong local public support for the Three Gorges project.
1992: The National People’s Congress approved the Three Gorges project.
Since the 1950s, many people have gained a stake in the project. The Three Gorges Construction Committee under the State Council is the only organization in the government that has no age limit on appointees who enjoy the privilege of the ministerial rank. The feasibility study was conducted by 412 scientists and engineers, 403 of whom signed the final study. As the key project of the Ministry of Water Resources for over 40 years, TGPDC has control over hundreds of billions of RMB. It has its own newspapers, journals, colleges, and technical schools.
Moreover, these interests groups are affiliated with large foreign business powers. For example, the project authorities have signed equipment purchase contracts with Siemens, ABB, and other companies in Canada, France, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland. When Jiang Zemin visited Switzerland earlier this year, he visited ABB’s headquarters and its turbine plant.
The Chinese government has often suspended construction of hydro-electric plants, for example the Sanmenxia dam, the Gezhouba dam, and the Tuoxi reservoir. But when the Danjiangkaou project was suspended in the 1960s and 1970s due to a funding shortage, then premier Zhou Enlai considered the costs and decided to continue investing in the project. This seems to be the pattern in China’s hydro-electric projects: the more money invested, the less chance the project will be cancelled.
Given this pattern and the power of the project’s vested interests, I think it is impossible for Zhu Rongji to cancel the Three Gorges project.
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