(October 16, 2001) “A government that respects democracy will never be allowed to build a dam project [Three Gorges] that will cause grave harm to the country and the people.” — Professor Huang Wanli (1911 – 2001).
Professor Huang Wanli, one of China’s preeminent water resources engineering experts and a longtime opponent of China’s Three Gorges dam project, has passed away in Beijing at the age of 90. Prof. Huang earned his master’s degree in hydrology at Cornell University and PhD in engineering at the Engineering Institute of Illinois. He worked at the Tennessee Valley Authority before returning to China where he held various top-ranking positions in the field of water resources engineering. From 1953 to the time of his death, he worked as a professor at Qinghua University’s Department of Water Conservancy.
The son of Huang Yanpei, the former Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Prof. Huang was in a favourable position to advance a political career but chose instead to devote himself to studying China’s water resources because of his deep love for the country’s rivers. Prof. Huang was denounced during the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957 – a short-lived period of open political and intellectual debate, which was initiated then brutally silenced by Chairman Mao – for expressing his critical opinions about Communist rule.
Despite political pressure, Prof. Huang voiced strong opposition to a proposal to build the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River, even though the majority of China’s experts and engineers not only accepted but praised the plans put forward by engineers from the Soviet Union. During the State Council’s seven-day “seeking of opinions and views from experts,” Prof. Huang insisted that the dam should not go ahead because it would cause severe siltation upstream of the dam at Tongguan. Even after he was labeled a “rightist” – one of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals who were persecuted for years as a threat to Mao’s socialism – and forced to work as a labourer at the Sanmenxia dam site, Prof. Huang continued his research and managed to complete an important article on how to approach managing the Yellow River.
The real tragedy is that nobody paid attention to Prof. Huang at the height of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-60), but less than two years later everything he predicted about Sanmenxia proved accurate. As a result, the Chinese government was forced to revise its original plans and designs for the Sanmenxia dam, although hundreds of millions of dollars had already been spent.
When the Three Gorges dam plans were revived in the 1980s, Prof. Huang used his 40 years of research and experience to remind policymakers not to repeat the mistakes of the past, where money was wasted, millions of people adversely affected, and the environment destroyed. He stressed that, “a government that respects democracy will never be allowed to start the dam project [Three Gorges] that will cause grave harm to the country and the people.” Prof. Huang also warned that the tail end of the Three Gorges dam’s reservoir, at Chongqing’s harbour, would be silted up by coarse pebbles and, as a result, would cause more frequent and severe flooding in the Sichuan basin; the project would become a bottomless pit for public funds, and resettlement was doomed to catastrophe.
Despite many obstacles, Prof. Huang never relented in his campaign to petition the government and publish articles in newspapers and journals, but to his disappointment, his articles were never published and nobody paid attention to his petitions, with the exception of one powerful leader, Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States. Prof. Huang wrote to President Clinton in 1995, expressing his concern that if the Three Gorges dam were built, siltation would choke Chongqing harbour and within several years of its completion the dam would have to be dynamited in order to restore the “golden waterway.” Responding from the White House, President Clinton wrote: “Thanks so much for writing to me. Your thoughts are welcome, and they will be considered carefully.”¹
Despite Prof. Huang’s outstanding expertise and dedication to China’s water resources, he was excluded from the Three Gorges dam feasibility study and decision-making process because of his reputation as an opponent of the dam and as someone who speaks the truth.
Prof. Huang was not allowed to teach in China either until 1998, when at the age of 87 he was finally approved to lecture postgraduates at Qinghua University. It is said, on the day of his first class, he entered the lecture hall wearing an all-white western suit and a red tie – the colour red in China symbolizing joy and festive occasion.
Seven days before his death, Prof. Huang celebrated his 90th birthday in the company of his students and family. At the celebration, his children honoured him, saying “He is a person of integrity. He speaks the truth rather than falsehood. Only can he speak the truth but he can never lie.” Days later, following a visit from two of his students at the hospital where he lay ill, Prof. Huang asked his wife to fetch him a pen and paper. Before he died, Prof. Huang’s last thoughts were devoted to finding a solution to Yangtze River floods. Wrote the professor:
“To my dear wife and children: Harnessing China’s rivers is a great undertaking for the country. Among the four major strategies such as “storing,” “blocking,” “regulating,” and “resisting,” the “blocking” should be seen as a fundamental method. For example, the dyke in the Hankou section [located in one of Wuhan City’s three towns in Hubei Province] of the Yangtze River should be strengthened by building the dyke on the side facing the river, with steel plates and stakes and by [reinforcing] the dyke with stones to ensure its absolute safety. Please bear that in mind. This is Wanli’s will, August 8, 2001.”
¹ In September 1995, the United States’ National Security Council recommended that the U.S. government not “align itself with a project that raises environmental and human rights concerns on the scale of the Three Gorges.” Following this recommendation, the U.S. Export-Import Bank announced its decision not to provide financing for the project in May 1996.
For more background on U.S. involvement in the Three Gorges project, see “Who’s Behind the Dam“.
Dai Qing is a Probe International Fellow and China’s most outspoken environmentalist opposed to the Three Gorges dam project.
Dai Qing’s interview with Prof. Huang in August 1993, was published in the English edition of “Yangtze! Yangtze!” (Earthscan: Toronto, 1994) – an extraordinary collection of interviews and essays by Chinese scientists, journalists, and intellectuals that remains banned in China.
Press, Dai Qing, Three Gorges Probe, October 16, 2001
Categories: Articles by Dai Qing