China's Dams

Zhang Guangdou’s interview on Beijing TV

Beijing Television
February 4, 2004

Prof. Zhang reflects on the courage of his late colleague Huang Wanli: ‘It’s not easy for all of us to speak out the way he did, is it?’

Edited transcript of interview with Prof. Zhang Guangdou Beijing Television, Jan. 29, 2004 Host: Zeng Tao.

Editor/director: Peng Yuanyuan

Introductory remarks by Zeng Tao: We’ve heard a lot of debate recently about the Sanmenxia dam, and I’m wondering if anybody should be held accountable for its problems. Should Prof. Zhang Guangdou, for example, one of the project’s chief engineers, bear any responsibility? What interested me [in talking to Prof. Zhang] is
whether he would have been able to halt construction of the Sanmenxia dam if he had been brave enough to speak the truth openly, and had insisted on doing so. Amid this renewed debate, Zhang Guangdou recalls the process of building Sanmenxia and, for the first time, mentions Prof. Huang Wanli.

Zeng Tao: Prof. Zhang, do you think any of the dams you have been associated with have encountered problems or, frankly, been failures?

Zhang Guangdou: Sanmenxia was a mistake, and I am not the only one to say that. Qian Zhengying, the minister of water resources at that time, felt the same way, but we could do nothing about it because we had to heed the Soviet experts [who helped design
and build the dam in the late 1950s]. Actually, I did get into an argument with them, but somebody persuaded me to hold back to protect myself: “Don’t argue with them any longer or you’ll get yourself into trouble.” I did voice my feeling at the time that a dam should not be built at Sanmenxia, but unfortunately the Soviet experts saw no problem
with building a dam there, so what could we do?

Zeng: But Prof. Zhang, I read in the autobiography you wrote that it was the Water Resources Ministry that issued an order asking you to redo the engineering drawings in order to seal up the outlets at the base of the Sanmenxia dam. Was that true?

Zhang: That happened after the dam was completed.

Zeng: Did you feel that doing so went against your wishes?

Zhang: I didn’t want to do it. I was unwilling to do it. The Soviet experts had already withdrawn from the dam [as a result of the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s] and taken the engineering drawings with them. I said I wouldn’t do it, but they called Qian Zhengying. Qian told me that the decision [to seal the outlets] was not mine, and that I just had to do what I was told. You know what? Qian was my immediate boss so I had to do what she said. She was minister of water resources and I was director of a design
institute at Qinghua University, which was funded by the ministry. I did it [worked on sealing the outlets], though I opened them up again afterwards. Reopening the outlets was my idea.

Zeng: We’ve heard a lot from the press about the pros and cons of Sanmenxia. Wen Shanzhang [now retired from the Yellow River Water Resources Commission] has been mentioned as opposing Sanmenxia, and also Huang Wanli, who was treated badly because of his strong and persistent opposition to the dam.

Zhang: It was Huang Wanli who opposed Sanmenxia. I knew him very well. He had been fighting all attempts to build dams on China’s rivers. One thing is certain about Huang: He never ever lied. He just spoke his mind.

Zeng: In every instance? Even when under tremendous pressure? Do you think it’s possible for others to do the same?

Zhang: I think it’s extremely difficult. It was obviously a mistake to label Huang a “rightist.” I disagreed with that, but what could I do at that time? In any case, I didn’t criticize him, though I did disagree with some of his views.

Zeng: So you think it’s tough for anybody to insist on their scientific opinions, no matter what?

Zhang: It’s really tough, and Huang was labelled a rightist as a result. A rightist, do you understand? That was unfair, and I disagreed. We had different opinions, but not about political issues.

Zeng: The disagreements should be around dam issues.

Zhang: Huang Wanli just said what was on his mind. He was really concerned about the Sanmenxia area, with so many people and so much farmland affected by the dam. And what he was most concerned about was the silt problem. One of his principles was to
speak the truth openly; he wasn’t just out to make trouble. So I have a great deal of respect for him because he dared to tell the truth, which is a lofty achievement. And so I went to his birthday party [a few years ago] and celebrated along with many others. It’s not easy for all of us to speak out the way he did, is it?

Zeng: Prof. Zhang, you became involved with the Three Gorges project more than half a century ago. Is the Three Gorges dam the project you love the most and have worked on the most?

Zhang: Very much so. To be honest, I was responsible for working out solutions to some key technical problems with the construction of the Three Gorges dam.

Zeng: How do you feel about the quality of the project?

Zhang: As for the quality of the Three Gorges dam, I have to say that it’s far from excellent. Overall, it’s okay, but not first-class. In any case, I don’t think it will collapse or run into major problems.

Zeng: But why isn’t it a first-class project?

Zhang: The quality is not high enough.

Zeng: What’s the reason for that?

Zhang: We didn’t do a good job on the construction, though generally speaking it’s not too bad. So, overall, we gave it a “generally satisfactory” mark when we did our assessment of it [before the filling of the reservoir last year]. In other words, it’s not so
good. Do you understand? This is because our technology, management and quality control are not as good as in foreign countries.

Zeng: When talking about Three Gorges, many people think there are other problems with the project, for example, nine problems that have been revealed.

Zhang: What problems are you referring to?

Zeng: Many problems, such as environmental protection, how to deal with water pollution, how to preserve cultural relics, tourism, sedimentation and so on.

Zhang: Of course there are problems; nothing is 100-per-cent perfect in this world. But many people who know little about the situation just stay at home and make up this nonsense. The affected people, for instance, had been living in poverty and misery,
in an area long deprived of government investment because of the uncertainty surrounding whether the dam would be built. I witnessed their terrible living conditions because I travelled to the reservoir area and saw a lot. I was upset about their situation. Did you say that it’s hard for people to leave their places of origin? It’s understandable that the locals should be upset about leaving their old homes. But if new, villa-like houses are provided, why would they hesitate to move in? The distant migrants who have moved to other parts of the country are enjoying a much higher standard of living, though,
because many are getting jobs in industrial enterprises in the more economically developed resettlement region. Resettlement can improve their standard of living and also help protect the environment of the reservoir area.

Zeng: It seems to me that the Three Gorges project has upsides and downsides. Can you give us a clearer idea of the percentage of the good and the bad, from your point of view?

Zhang: The benefits outweigh the costs. Problems are inevitable with such a big project. And it’s also possible that, somewhere, the resettlement is not going well.

Zeng: Dam building in China is a big issue, particularly when it comes to big dams. Have you been guided by any personal principles, given that you have done so much for China’s dam industry?

Zhang: Yes, to act in the interests of the ordinary people. This is one of the most important measures of success for our projects. Don’t pay too much attention to personal connections or to what high-ranking officials or leaders have said. We should help the
construction workers build the dam well by putting our ideas, knowledge and skills into practice. I don’t think I’m a perfect person but I am a responsible man, and do feel accountable to the people.

Zeng: You have been involved in the construction of so many of China’s dams, and we have heard your thoughts about that during this interview. My final question is: Do you have any regrets?

Zhang: We have done so much already but the Chinese people, particularly the common people, have benefited little from it, and many still live in poverty and misery. This is my biggest regret.

Zeng: Despite being in his 90s, Mr. Zhang has shown his lively character. He has also stressed how important it is that people should speak the truth openly.

Translated by Mu Lan, editor of Three Gorges Probe (Chinese edition)

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