(March 19, 2004) Dai Qing, eminent Beijing-based journalist and veteran campaigner against the Three Gorges dam, discusses the suppression of opposition to the project in a recent talk at the University of Toronto in Canada.
Talk by Dai Qing, journalist and author of Yangtze! Yangtze! and The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and its People
Hosted by the International Human Rights Program, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, Canada, February 26, 2004
Introduction by Patricia Adams (executive director of Probe International): Dai Qing was born during the Second World War into an elite intellectual family. Her father was a prominent member of the Chinese Communist Party. Her parents, who had been introduced to each other by Zhou Enlai, were sent during the war with the Japanese to Japanese-occupied Beijing to conduct military intelligence. Both were arrested. Her mother was tortured and, because she was pregnant (with Dai Qing’s younger sister), was eventually released. Her father was executed by the Japanese in 1945 before the occupying forces fled the city in defeat. Dai Qing’s father subsequently became an honoured revolutionary martyr.
In 1946, Dai Qing was adopted by Marshal Ye Jianying, commander-in-chief of the elite Eighth Route Army, who was in Beijing during U.S. General George Marshall’s failed attempt to mediate between the Communist and Nationalist forces. In 1949, Marshal Ye Jianying “liberated” Beijing after the Communist victory in the civil war and later became Minister of Defence under Mao Zedong.
As the adopted daughter of one of China’s “Ten Great Marshals,” Dai Qing entered the highest aristocracy of Chinese communism and was very much a “child of communism.” In one of the many contradictions in Dai Qing’s life, this “child of communism” attended a former American Baptist missionary school. Later, on the recommendation of her adoptive father, she attended the Harbin Military Engineering Institute, from which she graduated as a missile engineer and was classified as a “national treasure.”
When the Cultural Revolution broke out in May 1966, Dai was working as an engineer in a top-secret laboratory specializing in the guidance and propulsion system of intercontinental missiles. Like so many others of her generation, she became caught up in the Cultural Revolution and joined the Red Guards. By 1969, Mao had decided to send the Red Guards to the countryside. At that point, Dai Qing and her husband were sent to do “reform through labour,” working as peasants, reclaiming land and raising pigs in the countryside. They were forced to leave their infant daughter with a worker’s family in Beijing. It would be 2-1/2 years before they were allowed to return to the capital and be reunited with their daughter.
That experience, of going from the top of the heap to the bottom, was profound for Dai Qing. It gave her the opportunity to see China and its leaders from the perspective of the poorest and least influential citizens. It soon led to her disillusionment with the monopoly of power held by the top leadership.
Like so many others in her position, Dai Qing was unable to return to her former position as a missile engineer, so she landed a job working on surveillance equipment, and later with the People’s Liberation Army intelligence as a writer. It turned out that she was very good at writing. So in 1982 she left the army and became a reporter with Guangming [Enlightenment] Daily, a leading national newspaper read mainly by intellectuals.
Her assignments took her all over the country, where she focused on sensitive political and environmental issues, and historical reportage. Dai Qing soon became the boldest and best-known woman investigative journalist and columnist in China, challenging government policy rather than publishing the expected propaganda.
Then, in 1988, Dai Qing became increasingly determined to reveal the potential problems with the Three Gorges project that she knew were being suppressed by the government. Dai Qing said: “Everyone was wondering, but no one dared to ask: Was this crucial decision to build the biggest dam in the world made on the basis of scientific feasibility or was it decided because of the ambitions of politicians, the desire for superpower status and national prestige? If we had freedom in China, the many eminent scientists and engineers could have voiced their own opinions, but we don’t.”
So, as you are about to learn, Dai Qing and her colleagues performed the extraordinary feat of publishing, independently, the shockingly critical book called Yangtze! Yangtze! That act landed her in political prison, in solitary confinement, where she was told she would be executed. She experienced a constant terror and kept her sanity by reciting poetry to herself and studying law in order to be able to defend herself in court one day. She also wrote two books – a memoir of her time in Qincheng Prison, and also My Four Fathers, in which she challenges the government’s version of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. These works are included in a book due to be published in English next month.
After her release in 1990, Dai Qing was not permitted to publish in China, and Yangtze! Yangtze! was banned, on the grounds that it had “abetted the turmoil” in Tiananmen Square. To this day, criticism of the Three Gorges dam is strictly forbidden.
Despite this, Dai Qing has gone on to forge a remarkable career as a writer, environmentalist and lecturer. In 1992, she was invited to Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow, but was initially denied permission to leave China. After the intervention of then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, she was allowed to apply for a passport, paving the way for other Chinese citizens to do the same. Later, she became a research fellow of the Freedom Forum at Columbia University, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Washington, D.C., a Humanities Research Fellow at the Australian National University, and a Probe International Fellow.
Dai Qing has won multiple awards, including the 1982 National Non-fiction Award in China, the 1992 Golden Pen for Freedom (Prague), the 1993 Goldman Environmental Award (San Francisco), the 1993 Conde Naste Environmental Award, and a 1994 award from Taiwan for Best Essay on the Two Sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Dai Qing has become a rare creature in communist China – an independent thinker with an open, flexible mind, who dares to express her opinions. She is also an unusual dissident, because she refuses to leave China, although the Chinese government would much prefer that she just take herself into exile.
Shortly after the events in Tiananmen Square, a diplomat from the German embassy went to Dai Qing’s apartment. She told Dai Qing that she had cut short her vacation in Italy to return to Beijing, and had arranged for Dai Qing to travel to Germany. Dai Qing could have chosen exile at that moment, but with tears in her eyes, she said: “Thank you. When events in China settle down, then I will travel to your country.” Dai Qing had made her decision to stay in China, her country and her home, to try to make it better. The next evening she was arrested.
It is my honour to introduce Dai Qing.
Dai Qing: Though China has signed two United Nations international covenants – on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and on Civil and Political Rights – how many of its 1.2 billion citizens are aware of the concept of human rights? And though China claims to be a republic with a Constitution, how many Chinese officials know their powers are restricted, and how many citizens are protected by those constitutional guarantees?
In 1987, Aryeh Neier, who was then executive director of Human Rights Watch, went to Beijing to investigate the idea of opening a branch of his organization in China. I met him during his visit, and gave him my honest opinion: The idea of a Human Rights Watch office in China was completely unthinkable. Chinese leaders would never allow the New York-based human-rights group to “interfere in China’s internal affairs” and the way the Communist Party ruled the country. China had just opened to the outside world after a long period in which the concept of human rights was foreign, and foreigners were regarded as imperialists and enemies of a socialist country. Most ordinary Chinese were used to obeying a master, though not one as greedy and corrupt as the modern overlords. The average person really did not understand what “human rights” meant, or how respect for them could improve their lives.
Almost 20 years have passed since then. China’s human-rights record is now a matter of intense international scrutiny. But politicians, foreign journalists and human-rights organizations tend to focus their attention on the pro-democracy dissidents, who typically are educated and based in the big cities. Western observers risk neglecting the far more widespread human-rights abuses that are suffered by ordinary people in the Chinese countryside, where 70 per cent of the population lives.
In China, when a political campaign is launched or a showy megaproject that is supposed to “make the country more prosperous and powerful” is proposed, even enlightened individuals and the elite who are concerned about human-rights issues will practise self-censorship. In these circumstances, terrible human-rights abuses are hidden from view. The Three Gorges megaproject is one such tragic case.
After the Communist Revolution in 1949, Chinese leaders went on a dam-building spree, turning China into the world’s most dammed country. Today, China has 22,000 big dams, almost half of the global total. By contrast, Canada has about 800 big dams. Now China is building the world’s biggest dam, which will stretch for two kilometres across the Yangtze River, create a reservoir that is 660 kilometres long – three times the distance from Harvard to Yale. It will be the world’s biggest dam in terms of the length of the dam, the hydropower generated and the size of the resettlement involved. Nothing on this scale has been attempted before. The dam builders even now are very proud of these “world No. 1s.”
The third phase of construction is now under way. Technically the dam is experimental in many ways, and many problems have already emerged in the decade since construction began. Many basic policies have also already changed – on forced resettlement, for example. In the beginning, people were to be moved within the same district, but then the authorities decided to start moving them far away, to other provinces. Two of the top officials overseeing the project were recently removed from their posts. Serious problems have emerged in the Three Gorges reservoir, including erosion, sedimentation and terrible pollution. Other problems include forced resettlement and disrupted navigation. But these problems could have been avoided if the human rights of Chinese citizens had been respected. Chinese decision-makers would then have been informed of the real costs of the project, and those costs could have been avoided.
What is the basic human-rights situation in the Peoples Republic of China? In the Mao Zedong era, from the late 1950s until Mao’s death in 1973, China resembled George Orwell’s novel 1984, and its citizens suffered the same erosion of basic rights as the horses and hens in another Orwell novel, Animal Farm. Few people in China thought they had the right, or had the opportunity, to voice their opinion on important issues – speaking out would invite harsh punishment. Then, in the 1980s, as China struggled to emerge from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, who had himself suffered during the Cultural Revolution, launched the economic reforms, the “opening to the outside world” and the enlightenment movement.
At that time, the Ministry of Water Resources revived a 70-year-old plan to build the Three Gorges project. We didn’t have private companies in China then or even all the joint ventures we have now. The Ministry not only functions as a government department in charge of the project, but is also what we in China call a “benefit group.” This means that once the department has won the right to build a project, they can use the project funds any way they want, without monitoring or supervision. Before the Three Gorges project was even approved, people in the department had already used project money to buy fancy cars and to build cottages and houses in Beijing for themselves. They spent about 1/20th of the entire budget even before the project was approved or construction had started. The people in this kind of “benefit group” have the power and the networks to get a project approved, and then they can use the nation’s money in this way.
This “benefit group” seized the opportunity to promote the idea of building this controversial dam. At the same time though, eminent scholars and scientists, the best minds in China, had grave doubts about the technical and economic viability of the dam. They imagined the government would allow an open discussion about the project, but they were wrong. They underestimated the strong resistance the “benefit group” would put up when facing criticism that threatened to break their “golden rice bowl.” People in the department saw an opportunity to get money and promotions, so they really fought back. The order came from the top, that no newspaper or magazine was allowed to run articles by scholars critical of the dam.
At the time, I was a journalist with Guangming Daily in Beijing, writing on cultural and academic issues. In 1987, I was invited to attend a conference in Hong Kong, and while I was there, all the newspapers were running stories on the Three Gorges project and reporting that Hong Kongers were very concerned about the fate of the Yangtze River and our environment. As a mainlander I really felt ashamed in Hong Kong. Lots of people asked me about Three Gorges, but I couldn’t answer them.
I made friends in Hong Kong, and after I returned home they kept mailing me information about the project that had been published in Hong Kong, but not in China. People living in Beijing or Chongqing or Wuhan, very close to Three Gorges, had no information – we lacked the basic right to know. I knew something terrible was happening, but I could do nothing about Three Gorges. I could not change official policy.
But then some very important scientists and experts in China became involved, members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference [CPPCC, a legislative advisory body]. In 1945, the American government tried to push China to form a united government that would include all the important figures in the country. But then the civil war broke out, and the communists came to power. The Communist Party, wanting to show its legitimacy, created a new CPPCC, with influential non-communist scientists and other experts. And actually, everyone did come to respect the CPPCC members.
When Deng Xiaoping began the reforms, he also launched a period of “enlightenment.” This encouraged CPPCC members to believe that maybe now they could speak out, in a limited way, on Three Gorges – not on political aspects of the project, but on technical and scientific issues. They went to the Three Gorges area several times to conduct their research. When they returned and held a press conference to announce their findings, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party ordered the media not to report it. So the CPPCC members were silenced.
In 1989, a decision on the dam was expected during the spring session of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. And so, in the fall of 1988, I invited journalist-colleagues from almost every major newspaper in Beijing to help me interview critics of the dam. Eleven experts had refused to sign the Chinese feasibility study undertaken for the dam, so we interviewed those 11 people. We also invited some other economists and sociologists to contribute articles. I tried everywhere to get this material published – in newspapers and magazines, not just in Beijing, but in distant provinces too – but everyone refused.
Finally, a friend from a publishing house in Guizhou province, far away in southwest China, happened to be in Beijing at that time. To be allowed to publish a book in China, you need to get a number from publishing-house authorities. My friend said: I can give you a number. And within four months, in February 1989, the book was published. We held a press conference in Beijing to launch the book, Yangtze! Yangtze!, and we tried to get copies of it to CPPCC and NPC delegates, who had arrived in Beijing by this time to attend their meetings.
Then the students filled Tiananmen Square, and the two parliaments, the NPC and the CPPCC, could not be held at that time. The State Council later announced that the Three Gorges project would be put on hold for at least five years. After the government crackdown on the student movement, the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee immediately wrote to the authorities, calling for Yangtze! Yangtze! to be banned, and saying that the people involved in the book were all troublemakers who had helped to stir up turmoil. I was arrested, and almost everyone else involved in the book – interviewers and interviewees – was also punished or demoted, or lost their job or their membership in the CPPCC or the Communist Party. Opposition to the dam was totally suppressed.
Although the authorities had announced a five-year halt to debate about the Three Gorges project, during the Spring Festival in early 1992, hardliner Wang Zhen held a meeting to which he invited scientists who supported the project. Then he wrote a letter to the central government, saying we should go ahead with the project, and the sooner the better, the bigger the better.
At the National People’s Congress session in the spring of 1992, the project was put to a vote, and one-third of the delegates either voted against it or abstained. One of those was Huang Shunxing, who used to be a legislator in Taiwan. In 1987, as part of China’s more open policies, some old soldiers from Taiwan started to move to Beijing, and Huang was among them. The Beijing authorities were delighted to have landed such a big fish, and gave Huang a high rank, making him a member of the Standing Committee of the NPC. Huang was opposed to the Three Gorges project, and he wanted to distribute material to NPC delegates and to speak at the meeting. He put his name on the speakers’ list and waited, but nothing happened. Finally he stood up and said: “I want to speak! I have something to say!” All of a sudden, the sound system in the hall was shut down. Huang was so angry, and he stormed out of the meeting.
Another man, Huang Wanli, was a true expert and a great scientist. He was a civil engineer who went to the United States in the 1930s to study how to deal with floods. He earned an MA from Cornell in hydrology and meteorology, and a PhD from the University of Illinois. Then he worked with the Tennessee Valley Authority before returning to China in 1937. Here was someone who should have been asked for his educated opinion about Three Gorges, but we had a terrible situation, where only engineers were driving the project, not scientists. And with a project like Three Gorges, on a big mighty river, not just scientists but social scientists too should have been asked their opinions. Despite Huang Wanli’s expertise, he was excluded from the Three Gorges dam decision-making process.
Huang Wanli had also spoken out in the 1950s against the Sanmenxia dam, which is now blamed for causing disastrous floods on the Yellow River, exactly as he had predicted. In 1957, during a big meeting with the Soviet experts who were helping to build Sanmenxia, Huang was the only one totally opposed to the scheme because of the dangers of sedimentation. Something will happen, he said: There may be no floods downstream, but the upstream area will suffer terrible floods. And that is exactly what has happened on the Yellow River. Huang said the same thing would happen with the Three Gorges project – only worse. But again, no one listened to him.
Huang Wanli was punished for speaking out against the Sanmenxia dam. In the 1980s, after his return from “labour reform,” he kept writing letters about the Three Gorges project to all the top leaders in China, one after the other. But no one listened to him – apart from one person, then U.S. president Bill Clinton, who did respond. And in 1996, the United States announced: We won’t dam our own rivers now, so why should we use taxpayers’ money to dam other people’s rivers? So the Americans cut their connection with the Three Gorges project, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank denied support to American firms competing for contracts. Canadians continue to be involved, however, and are building some of the turbines and providing computer systems for the project.
Huang Shunxing is now back in Taiwan, and Huang Wanli died two years ago at the age of 90. Another person I should mention is Lu Qinkan, who is now in his 90s. Since he refused to sign the feasibility study, Lu has been writing letters to the top leaders urging them not to raise the water level in the reservoir above 156 metres for 10 years, in order to watch what happens with sedimentation upstream. But the higher the water level, the more hydropower will be generated and the more money will flow into the pockets of the “benefit group.” Last June, they filled the reservoir to 135 metres above sea level, but then, with no discussion, raised it four metres to 139 metres a few months later. And recently, a terrible water shortage occurred in the river downstream, which caused ships to run aground. The Three Gorges Project Construction Committee was forced to release more water for the downstream area. Everything Lu Qinkan warned about has already started to happen.
I want to talk now about the two million people who are being forced to move for this dam. They are really, really poor, and this is the authorities’ most serious abuse of human rights.
In China, all land belongs to the state. The peasants have the right to plant crops, but if the state or the county or the township wants to build something on the land, the people living there have to move. In the past, when China was building its 22,000 big dams, the government just paid a bit of money and told the people to go – and the newspaper propaganda described them as being happy to sacrifice themselves for the nation. But 20 or 30 million people displaced by big dams in China since the 1950s are still living in poverty.
With the Three Gorges project, it was decided that the money would not all just be given directly to the displaced people, but to officials, who would then arrange for the construction of new factories, farms, houses, towns and roads. And the people being forced to move would be very happy about that – they were going to have a new life. But in fact, the money itself is very little. The central government offered 30,000 yuan (US$3,600) per head in compensation, but village, town and county officials – officials at all levels are getting money from this budget.
Three years ago, villagers in Yunyang county [about 200 kilometres upstream of the dam] pooled their funds to send representatives to Beijing, men in their 50s and 60s who would bring the corruption in the resettlement operation to the attention of top leaders. These village representatives gave me material that showed that everyone was getting less than 7,000 yuan (US$850). The compensation had gone from 30,000 yuan down to less than 7,000 yuan. But no one in Beijing wanted to see them – not the high-level officials and not the media.
I thought people all over the world should know about the information they had, because the Three Gorges project does not belong only to China – one day it could bring terrible disaster to the whole world. I arranged for the villagers from Yunyang to be interviewed in Beijing by CNN – but where should the six peasants from Yunyang county meet the CNN reporter? They went to a Starbucks, and had just enough money to buy a bottle of water while they waited for us. But the Starbucks staff were very polite to them; they wouldn’t have been treated so politely in a fancy restaurant. We met them there and took them to the CNN studio for the interview.
When the peasants arrived in Beijing a second time, bringing even more material, I promised to put them in touch with the bureau chief of The New York Times. We arranged to meet the peasants in a hotel and waited there for two hours, but no one came. Then we discovered that state security police had arrived and detained them. They were taken out of Beijing and handed over to the local Three Gorges police.
The men were held without trial for several months, and then we heard that they had been sentenced. One man, He Kechang, received three years for “leaking state secrets to a foreigner,” while three others were sentenced to two years for “disturbing social order.” Last year when someone tried to visit them, the men who were sentenced to two years had been released, but He Kechang was still in jail.
The migrants never stop struggling for their basic rights. It may not be clear to them exactly what is meant by “human rights,” they just want to fight those corrupt officials. The migrants are not educated people. They never say one word against the Three Gorges project. They never show their unhappiness about the small size of the compensation. They never ask why they are being moved off land they have lived and laboured on for generations. They never ask to whom their old house or ancient town really belong. They never ask questions like that. They just appeal to the central government, saying: Corrupt officials have taken so much money that there’s not enough left for us to rebuild our lives. And then they get arrested.
I have told you about the abuse of human rights and political rights during the construction of the Three Gorges dam, from the top – a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Huang Shunxing – to the bottom, the peasants who are being forced to move. But things changed a little last year. In China, we call 2003 “the year of citizens protecting their basic rights via the Internet.” In the eras of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, ordinary people had no hope of influencing the course of a project, but now things have changed a little bit, as the following case shows.
Last year, there was a proposal to build a dam on a tributary of the Yangtze River that would have destroyed the Dujiangyan irrigation system. Dujiangyan has been working well for 2,200 years and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The “benefit group” not only wanted to make money from building a dam, but they also wanted to stop the water flowing from the tributary into the Yangtze, because rivers throughout China are suffering a problem with drought these days. But Dujiangyan is such a valuable site that people used the Internet and the media to voice their opposition to the plan. And for the first time in China, ordinary people managed to stop a dam from going ahead.
People in China are becoming increasingly aware of their rights. At the same time, the authorities realize they should restrain themselves, limit their power and live up to the guarantees in the Constitution. So things are a little bit better now, but we have a long way to go.
(The Globe and Mail; formerly the paper’s China correspondent, 1988-94): You talked about how the Yangtze River doesn’t belong just to China, but to the whole world, and how this dam will affect the rest of the world. Can you explain how it will affect the rest of the world?
Dai Qing: All of you, living in Canada and the United States and Europe and Australia, experience immigration from China, legal and illegal. Why don’t those people want to live in their own country? First, they give political reasons, and cite human-rights abuses. But even me, I understand: I live in Beijing, which is getting ready for the 2008 Olympics and planning to transport water from the south to the capital. Every day in Beijing, we suffer the consequences of a severe water shortage: The place is not suitable for humans to live. What kind of situation will arise if 1.2 billion Chinese try to find themselves another place to live? So I always say, especially to the big companies that just want to sell their turbines and other such things to China: Okay, you’ll earn a little money from that, but maybe one day all the refugees will swamp your country, and you won’t be able to maintain your quality of life. And that’s only the refugee problem. In addition, if the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers dry up, and all of China dries up, it will change the climate around the world. It’s early spring now and the sandstorms from Inner Mongolia have already started, affecting Beijing and Korea and Japan, and even the west coast of America. The destruction of the environment in China will cause terrible problems around the world.
Stephen Dujack (editor, The Environmental Forum, published by the Washington-based Environmental Law Institute): You pose this as a story of corruption in a communist government. What about corruption in capitalist governments, specifically Western governments that have export-credit agencies that are driving this process you hinted at in the answer you just gave?
Dai Qing: I think that the situation in developed, democratic countries is better than it is for us, but it is also not totally without problems. In the middle of the 1980s, seven big Canadian companies, with the support of the Canadian government, conducted the feasibility study for the Three Gorges project. The seven companies could hope to secure lots of contracts afterwards. When I was in Norway, NGOs there organized a meeting between me and the PR people of some big companies, and we discussed the pros and cons of this project. And one of them said: “It’s none of our business if you want to build this project. It’s you Chinese who want the project, we only sell our equipment to you. My responsibility is only to improve the equipment that I sell to you.” And I said: “Do you know that during the Iran-Iraq war, we Chinese only wanted to improve our weapons, so we sold to both sides.” In capitalist countries, you have lots of NGOs who can act as independent watchdogs over governments and big companies, so things are better than for us, but still not totally without problems.
I don’t understand why the engineers who did the feasibility studies, some of whom were from Canada, seem not to have understood the problem of silting. I find it hard to imagine how high-priced engineers couldn’t understand that when silt is in water, it gets stopped at a dam, and there must surely be a way of solving that.
Ron Haggart (former senior producer with the CBC’s the fifth estate): I don’t understand why the engineers who did the feasibility studies, some of whom were from Canada, seem not to have understood the problem of silting. I find it hard to imagine how high-priced engineers couldn’t understand that when silt is in water, it gets stopped at a dam, and there must surely be a way of solving that.
Dai Qing: In 1986, when the Canadian delegation went to Beijing to do the feasibility study, the Chinese side at that time just wanted to get money from the World Bank. This is why the Chinese asked the Canadians to keep the reservoir water level to 160 metres, because the World Bank would not support the project if it was any higher than that. The Chinese government just wanted the Canadians to give the project the okay, so it could say to the world: It’s not us, it’s people from a developed country; they did the feasibility study, and they said the project is okay.
Patricia Adams (executive director, Probe International: The Canadian feasibility study was a secret document, until we got it through Access to Information. It was in fact the first feasibility study for a large development project that had ever been released to the public. And until that point, I’m sure the engineers thought it would never be made public. We then gave it to a number of experts to review, from their own discipline, and we discovered that they had not even looked at the sedimentation data that the Chinese had. They weren’t accountable. It was secret and they were never going to be held liable for it in any personal or professional way, or in a financial way. [See Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You To Know
Haggart: So, like the famous British dossier on weapons of mass destruction, they wrote a report that they knew their audience wanted to see?
Adams: Definitely, in this case. The purpose of the feasibility study was to be a “bankable” feasibility study, which meant that they could take it to the World Bank to raise money.
Noah Novogrodsky (Director, International Human Rights Program, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto): It seems to me that the Yangtze River is an enormous cultural symbol as well as being a major river that flows through China. Much has been written about it, there’s much art and literature, and it would seem natural that it is a source of Chinese national pride. The hubris of damming the Yangtze River is extraordinary. I would think that the audacity associated with that enterprise – the potential destruction of a Chinese environmental or ecological treasure – would bring all kinds of parties together to work in opposition to this. Has that happened?
Dai Qing: Right now in China, I may be the only one who is against the political project of the Three Gorges, but many others are also opposed to it as a disastrous technological or scientific project. And other people, including many CPPCC members and famous artists and actors and actresses and Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, want to try to protect the relics, and show their concern about the project in this area. And they are absolutely right to do so. Probe International has published internal documents, in which a key person in the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee said: Why should we spend any money to protect these relics?
In China, there are two main cultural branches: One is along the Yangtze, another along the Yellow River. It’s easy for archeologists to find the relics on the Yellow River plain, and they can leave the job for some time in the future, when the equipment has improved. But suddenly, along the banks of the Yangtze, there will be water – and you can see how the engineers deal with this. The Three Gorges budget is divided into three parts: One part is for construction, one part for the electricity network, and the third part to pay for the forced resettlement. But no money was earmarked for the relics. You saw in Egypt how much money was spent during construction of the Aswan dam to save relics and move them to the Metropolitan Museum. But very little money has been set aside for relics in the Three Gorges budget, and even that has been taken out of the resettlement budget. But the resettlement budget needs money so badly for the resettlement! I interviewed Yu Weichao, former head of the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing, and he said that whenever he asked for money from the authorities, he was told there was none.
In 1998, a very beautiful, ancient bronze “spirit tree” dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) suddenly appeared at the International Asian Art Fair in New York and sold for $2.5 million (U.S.). One of my friends, an archeologist who had done her research along the Yangtze River, immediately recognized that this item was from the Three Gorges. So she took pictures, and tried to prove that this was smuggled from the Three Gorges area and the Chinese government had the right to get it back. She sent the pictures to me, and I secretly gave them to the newspapers – and the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee was furious: Who leaked this information? Then the premier, Zhu Rongji, called a meeting of archeologists, to ask how much money they needed to protect the relics.
Jan Wong: You talked about the Internet saving an ancient irrigation system last year, and you talked about how information was completely suppressed 10 years ago when you were starting to work on Three Gorges. Has the Internet changed the nature of your protest against the Three Gorges project?
Dai Qing: Yes. Almost 80 million people in China use the Internet. Most of them may just want to chat, and buy things online. But even if 10 per cent of these Internet citizens want to show their concern about human rights or other vital issues, this is very important. Before, we had no way to express our opinions, but now, with the Internet, everyone can do so.
Press, Dai Qing, March 19, 2004
Categories: Interviews with Dai Qing