Dams and Landslides

Dai Qing: ‘I have been trying to make a public speech for the past 16 years’

(November 23, 2005) Dai Qing talks to Hong Kong news magazine Asia Weekly about her first public appearance in China since 1989.

Dai Qing at Sanwei Bookstore in Beijing (Oct. 15, 2005)

For many years, Dai Qing, acclaimed journalist and ardent campaigner against the Three Gorges dam, has not been allowed to publish her work or to speak publicly in China – until a recent talk at the Sanwei bookstore-teahouse in central Beijing. Below, she talks to Liu Legeng, a reporter with the Hong Kong news magazine Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan), about her first public appearance in China since 1989. (The original interview appeared in Asia Weekly No. 47, November 2005. Translation by Three Gorges Probe.)

Liu Legeng: Why were you invited to give the speech?

Dai Qing: I got to know a couple of young people who love surfing the Net and taking part in community activities, and in early October, they invited me to give a talk at Sanwei Bookstore. I
went back and forth on the best choice of topic. Should I speak on the environment, freedom of the press or women’s issues? In the end, I decided to focus on the Three Gorges project, with which I am very familiar. Everybody knows it’s a tough topic, and no one dares to say much about it, so I decided to go for it. I informed the police about the event, giving them all the details: place, time and topic. From Oct. 5 to 15 [the date of the talk], I expected the police to arrive and prevent me from making the public appearance, but nothing happened. Even as I sat holding a cup of tea and waiting to begin my talk, I expected someone from the Public Security Bureau to suddenly show up and take me away.

Liu Legeng: Has that happened before, that you’ve been stopped just as you were about to give a speech?

Dai Qing: Yes, several times. I have been trying to
make a public speech for the past 16 years, but never managed to do so. In 1995, for example, I was preparing for a seminar on Three
Gorges-related resettlement, the worst aspect of the dam project. I was trying to convey the truth of the situation to top leaders in Beijing, as well as to the public. But after I reserved a hotel meeting room for the event, the hotel manager called and said: “We’re sorry, but we have to cancel your reservation because of another booking.” So I changed my usual approach and booked a meeting room at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel, and made the call from a payphone so as not to alert the police. But then other scheduled speakers started calling me to say: “I’m so sorry, but my Party boss won’t let me attend the meeting.” It was a tragedy for me. I am a writer but my readers heard nothing from me. After my 10-month imprisonment [in 1989-90], I was debating whether to  get the material I’d written in jail published abroad. But my husband and daughter opposed the idea, saying: “Don’t do that any more!” But
friends encouraged me to do so, arguing that expressing my opinions is my life. I also believe that I would feel suffocated if I couldn’t voice my views. After June 4 [1989], many writers in China were allowed to publish again, but I was an exception and I had no idea why I was being monitored so closely. To tell you the truth, I’m a journalist and a writer with an independent mind, but my writing is not really all that fierce and critical. What I did was to write what I saw, so why have I been banned for so long? Almost all Web pages containing my name are blocked in China. It’s true that I could earn money writing love stories under an assumed name, but I don’t want to do that.

Liu Legeng: Is the fact that you have now been allowed to give a public talk a signal that your freedom to do what you want has been restored?

Dai Qing: You can imagine how excited I was, given that I was not being at all furtive about the talk. I told the policeman who has been watching me for a long time exactly where I’d be going and what I’d be doing there. On my way to Sanwei Bookstore, I wondered whether a car was tailing me Ð and when I started talking, I felt so happy that nobody showed up to stop me. Does this mean that [President] Hu Jingtao is more tolerant and open-minded? In the face of the powerful groups with vested interests in the Three Gorges project, [former premier] Zhu Rongji and [current] Premier Wen Jiabao have done a great deal to try and reduce the harm caused by the construction of the dam. And so I am wondering whether the central government is now  more willing to listen to public opinion. However, I call myself a “pessimistic activist,” so I’m also always ready for setbacks. That the authorities allowed me to speak in public can be seen as some sort of progress, albeit fragile and weak Ð it is very likely that they will take one step forward and two steps back.

Liu Legeng: Did you get into any trouble after your talk, especially after it was posted on the Internet?

Dai Qing: No, none at all. And they really don’t have to worry too much about me. All I did was voice my opinions as a Chinese citizen. I have never advocated the overthrow of the Communist Party, and there’s a big difference between expressing criticisms of the Party and calling for its downfall. There are two types of revolution in China: the communist revolution led by the Communist Party, and a revolution to overthrow the Party. But I oppose violent revolutions. What I have been hoping to do is to push democracy forward in this country, little by little, one step at a time. What we can do right away is to allow more freedom of the press and permit different voices to be heard, and doing that doesn’t mean overthrowing the Party. We can even elect Hu Jingtao as president if he’s doing a great job; it Communist Party.

Liu Legeng: After you were allowed to give your public talk, people couldn’t help but wonder whether this was because Dai Qing has caved in to the authorities to some extent?

Dai Qing: I am the same person I was 16 years ago, and I still say what I want to say. An American friend remarked that Dai Qing is the only Chinese person he has met who is doing the same things she has always done, and saying the same things she has always
said. It’s true that I have made friends with the policeman who’s
assigned to watch me – that doesn’t mean I’ve capitulated, but rather, that I’m a person of integrity. I’m also an independent thinker, and as an independent observer, I want to speak up about what I see. As [the late Edward] Said observed, intellectuals are people who “speak truth to power.” The things I said about Three Gorges 16 years ago are things I’m still saying today.

Liu Legeng: When you were living for a time in the United States, you were well aware that you would have a hard time if you went back to China.1 So why did you return?

Dai Qing: You’re right. It would have been relatively easy for me to get a U.S. green card at that time. Why did I return and choose to make my permanent home in China? Because I am Chinese and I write in Chinese. I chose to be a writer, so I have to live among my Chinese readers. Do you know the [Aesop] fable about the sun and the wind racing to see who can be the first to make a person take off their coat? Like the wind, the Americans don’t do anything to make a person want to take off their coat; the person just wants to hold their coat more tightly closed! But when the sun is shining, bright and hot, a person will want to remove their coat of their own accord. So we Chinese can take care of our own business on our own. We can do it [achieve democracy] little by little, but we have to get together and work on it with all our heart and soul. I will write what I want to write, but I can also do other things if my writing  continues to be banned in this country. Can I lend my support to events and activities that help protect the environment? Or run an English training class? [In fact, Dai Qing is running an English language class and goes on in the interview to say:] I have been prepared for my English class to be closed, and every day have expected that to happen. But if the authorities don’t do that, I will do my best to carry on. The authorities allowed me to return to China from the United States not because of my special family background, but because I have insisted on continuing to struggle for what I believe in. As a Chinese citizen, I believe that I have the right to do things that can help to bring about a gradual improvement of the situation, which is my understanding of democracy. The autocratic system will collapse if we all work away at it together.

Editor’s note: <a title=”1” name=”1” href=”http://www.probeinternational.org/three-gorges-probe/dai-qing-i-have-been-trying-make-public-speech-past-16-years#%3Csup%3E1%3C/sup%3E”&gt;1
Dai Qing was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1991-92, a
Freedom Forum Fellow at Columbia University in 1993-94 and a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow in 1998-99.

Three Gorges and the environment

Talk by Dai Qing (Sanwei Bookstore, Beijing, Oct. 15, 2005)

It is my great honour to be here with all of you today. This is the
first time I have been able to meet my readers and friends in public
since 1989. I’m happy to have this opportunity, because I have not been allowed to say anything in public in my homeland for 16 years. I think this event today is an indication that my country has made obvious progress toward freedom of expression and greater tolerance of different and even dissident opinions. Hopefully we will keep moving in this direction, and avoid making a U-turn.

I know that many of you here are very adept at surfing the Internet, and so you’re doing much better than I am at getting information and broadening your horizons that way. Today, however, I’d like to take this opportunity to look back in time, and review our experience of the past 20 years – how we have struggled to voice our opinions on important issues that have a significant impact on our lives and the environment. I think you might learn something from our experience, and this will help us go forward, working side by side to build our country into a more open and modernized one.

Meanwhile, I hope we have friends here from the Public Security
Bureau and the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee. If so, I sincerely ask my friends if you could convey what I say here to your leaders. Tell them that both the speaker and members of the audience are extremely concerned about the future of our country, that we’re worried about our great rivers that are under threat. I’d really appreciate it if my friends could report on these views, which cannot be published in this country, to your respected leaders.

Before 1989, my name could be found in the newspapers on a weekly, if not a daily basis. In the 16 years since 1989, however, my name has been mentioned only twice in China’s government-funded newspapers. Ironically, I was mentioned in the Three Gorges Project Daily, when Lu Youmei, former boss of the Three Gorges Project Corporation, remarked:
“She thinks she’s somebody? She’s a nobody! I don’t think she’s
qualified to criticize the Three Gorges project because she knows
nothing about water conservancy or hydroelectricity.”

‘The government regards Three Gorges as top secret, so in the end it doesn’t really matter how much you read up on it.’

This is true, I have to say. I didn’t study water conservancy or
hydroelectricity, though I was a science and engineering student, and majored in space technology at university. But over the past 20 years, I have read a lot on the subject and gathered a great deal of

information from unofficial sources. However, the problem has been the impossibility of gaining access to key data about the Three Gorges dam, let alone knowing anything about the decision-making on the project. This is because the government regards Three Gorges as top secret, so in the end it doesn’t really matter how much you read up on it.

I’d like to take the opportunity today to share information with you
all. And it would be great if our friends who are here today from the
Three Gorges Project Corp., in particular, could provide some new
information. If I make any mistakes in my talk, please don’t hesitate to stand up at any time and correct me. I’d be happy to get some things clarified here today, and I also look forward to further discussion on the Internet.

My topic today is our Yangtze River and the Three Gorges project.
The largest river in China and the third largest on the planet, the
Yangtze supports 450 million people and can be seen as a generous gift from God. The water of the Yangtze was so clean in my youth that the riverbed could be clearly seen from its banks. There were at least two reasons for that: The river was well protected by dense forest in the valley’s “green reservoir,” and a natural water regulation system involving the river and connecting lakes functioned well. In the flood season, excess water could be channelled from the river to big lakes such as Dongting, 500 kilometres downstream of Three Gorges, and Poyang in Jiangxi province. When the floods receded, the water that had flowed into the big lakes would drain back to the Yangtze.

The first significant environmental damage inflicted upon the
Yangtze occurred in the Ming dynasty, when Zhang Juzheng (1525-82), who was prime minister from 1572-82, made the decision to build dykes along the north bank of the river, turning wetlands into farmland in an effort to feed a growing population in the area. But this turned out to be a serious mistake because it significantly altered the natural water-regulation system. With wetlands along the river replaced by farmland and human settlements, and no longer there to absorb any of the floodwater, severe floods in the valley became more frequent.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, there have been
three waves of environmental destruction: the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and the market-oriented reforms that began in the early 1980s. I believe the third of these waves was particularly significant and more serious than the second one. In my view, the damage to the environment of the third wave may be irreversible. It seems to me that it’s impossible to repair the damage done to the environment by people with powerful technology, no matter how wise the people doing the repair work and no matter how advanced their technology. This, at heart, is why the Yangtze River is in the state it is in.

‘As [Li Rui] put it, Comrade [Deng] Xiaoping made two serious mistakes in his lifetime: the suppression of the student movement in 1989 and the construction of the Three Gorges dam.’

Li Rui, who was a secretary on scientific affairs to Mao Zedong in the 1950s, recently commented on the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. As he put it, Comrade Xiaoping made two serious mistakes in his lifetime: the suppression of the student movement in 1989 and the construction of the Three Gorges dam. As for the first mistake, his successors could do something to rectify matters in the future; but as for the second mistake, unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about it. The mistake is too big to correct. Nobody can save the Yangtze now.

In talking about the Three Gorge project, we have to name some big names. The idea of building a big dam in the Three Gorges area dates back to early in the last century, when Sun Yat-sen made the proposal, enthusing about how much hydroelectricity could be generated from the project. The first half of the 20th century was an era in which a number of big dams were being built on rivers in the United States and Europe, and in the former Soviet Union and Egypt as well. In fact, the United States and the former Soviet Union became so enamoured of large-scale water projects that they proposed many mammoth schemes, such as diverting water from rivers in Canada to southern California and Mexico, transferring water from Siberia to the countries of Europe, and so forth.

With encouragement and funding from the United States, the
Nationalist government was all set to build the Three Gorges dam. The government of China accepted the American design for the project and sent a team of engineers to undertake a period of work-study with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States. But the idea of damming the Three Gorges did not survive the Civil War in China, which exhausted the resources, financial and otherwise, of the Nationalist government.

By tradition, for thousands of years, the emperor was both the head of state and the top official in charge of water affairs. This is why the first trip outside Beijing that Mao Zedong undertook after coming to power was to the Yellow River. And when he said, “Work on the Yellow River must be carried out well,” this was taken as the signal to build the Sanmenxia project, China’s biggest dam at the time. Before work on that project even started, [water engineer] Huang Wanli warned that building Sanmenxia would transfer a downstream water problem to the upstream area behind the dam. His predictions [of a dangerous buildup of sediment in the Sanmenxia reservoir] came true, and to this day people living around the Sanmenxia reservoir and in the valley of the Weihe, a Yellow River tributary, are still suffering the consequences of that in the form of increased flooding.

It might have been logical for the Chinese leaders of the time to
revive the plan to build a big dam on the Yangtze in the south, given
that they had just launched the Sanmenxia project on the Yellow River in the north. But, interestingly, they did not do that, precisely
because of the problems with the Sanmenxia dam. Even strong-willed Mao Zedong appeared cautious about making such a decision. In all his 27 years of rule, it was indeed a rare occasion when Mao invited two key figures, Lin Yishan, a proponent of the Three Gorges dam, and Li Rui, an opponent of the project, to take part in a top meeting attended only by top Communist leaders.

‘The Three Gorges dam was the only item dropped from the agenda [during the Great Leap Forward], and all because things were going badly wrong with
Sanmenxia on the Yellow River.’

After the meeting, Mao Zedong sided with Li Rui and abandoned the ambitious scheme, despite the fact that it had been listed as one of the key development programs to be undertaken during Great Leap Forward. The Three Gorges dam was the only item dropped from the agenda, and all because things were going badly wrong with Sanmenxia on the Yellow River.

I’d like to tell you an anecdote about our leaders that reveals how
they treated our great rivers, and people’s livelihoods, as things of
no consequence. On a trip to Chengdu [capital of Sichuan province], Mao was invited to Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation project on the Min River [a Yangtze tributary] that still functions well and is the pride of people throughout China, and in Sichuan in particular. Chairman Mao had a passion for swimming, and was keen to dive in when he saw the river. People around Mao persuaded him not to get in, solicitously expressing concern that the Min was too turbulent for swimming, which made the chairman extremely unhappy.

Having observed this awkward situation, the party secretary of
Sichuan, Li Jingquan, asked local officials to build a reservoir nearby
so that Mao could swim at that spot. The officials responded that doing so would harm Dujiangyan, which had been working well for more than 2,200 years. Ignoring their protests, Li Jingquan did everything possible to push the Yuzui dam and reservoir project forward. The man put in charge of the construction project was really reluctant to do the work, and he and his colleagues kept hoping the order would come to halt work on the stupid scheme. Fortunately, the stop-work order did finally arrive in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, another project, the Zipingpu dam, is currently being built on the Min River just six kilometers upstream of Dujiangyan, our national treasure.

Sun Yat-sen didn’t build the Three Gorges dam. Nor did the

Nationalist government. Nor did Mao Zedong. So who did make the fateful decision to build the Three Gorges dam? That was Deng Xiaoping. Deng used to say that he was just “a retired old man,” but everyone knew he still wielded absolute power and had the final say on important issues, including Three Gorges. However, Deng wanted a smaller Three Gorges project [with the height of the reservoir kept to 150 metres above sea level, as opposed to the planned “normal pool level” of 175 metres]. He said, “I’m in favour of building the dam with a lower water level, and you can get started on it now if everything else is okay.” It later turned out that nobody took any notice of his preference for a smaller project, but just highlighted his support for building the dam.

Wang Weiluo, a Chinese water engineer now living in Germany, has

described the Three Gorges project as the emperor’s new clothes. With so many “world’s biggest” claims attached to the project, the Three Gorges in its new clothes sounds really terrific. And how did the “tailors” persuade the emperor to buy the new clothes? They touted the benefits of the dam to the emperor, telling him, for instance, that 10,000-tonne vessels would now be able to make their way from the sea all the way up to Chongqing, then the largest city in Sichuan [and now a separate municipality]. You can imagine how happy this made Deng, given that he was a native of Sichuan. The Yangtze has for centuries been the lifeblood of the province, linking it to the outside world.

But we don’t know exactly what the “tailors” told Deng about the
downsides of the project, which would require a huge financial
investment and massive population resettlement, and bring about untold harm to the environment. They could either withhold information about those negative impacts, or just lie. Two of the chief “tailors” were the Ministry of Water Resources and the Changjiang [Yangtze] Water Resources Commission, which lured Deng into making the decision to proceed with the dam by way of deceptions put forward in the interests of the “benefit groups.”

‘Many people have known something is wrong with the project, but few have dared to speak up. And even if they have dared to do so, they haven’t been able to get their views published…’

With the dam and the reservoir rising, nobody can do anything about it now, even though we’re told that the emperor is wearing no clothes and that building the dam was a disastrous decision. Many people have known something is wrong with the project, but few have dared to speak up. And even if they have dared to do so, they haven’t been able to get their views published because the media is tightly controlled by the Party.

However, we are citizens of a new era that is quite unlike that of

the boy who lived in the shadow of an emperor, and we have a right to express our opinions on important affairs of state, and that includes, of course, the Three Gorges project. Not only do we have civil rights enshrined in the Constitution, but we are actually shareholders in the project in that we are all contributing money to it in an invisible way.

One of the major financial sources for the dam is the Three Gorges
Project Construction Fund, which accounts for almost half the total
budget. The fund is collected via a surcharge levied on power consumers in China. In other words, almost all citizens, including me and all of you here, are forced to contribute to the construction of the Three Gorges dam, regardless of where we live or what we think of the project.

The Three Gorges dam under construction (2003)

Flood control

To push the scheme forward, the groups with vested interests in it
have had to deceive the emperor at the top and cajole the public at the bottom. And to do this, the project authority has repeatedly claimed that building the big dam would have four enormous benefits: flood control, hydropower generation, improved navigation and regional economic development.

Can the Three Gorges dam control floods on the Yangtze River? You may recall that at the time of the 1998 floods, Lu Youmei, general manager of the Three Gorges Project Corp., told China Central Television that the severe floods that year definitely would have been controlled had the dam already been completed. What he didn’t mention is that the flood threat to Wuhan, the largest city in central China [about 800 kilometres downstream of the dam], comes not only from upstream areas behind the dam, but also from heavy rainfall between the dam and Wuhan. And obviously, the dam can do nothing to control floodwater pouring in from downstream tributaries, in particular, the Xiang, Zi, Yuan, Li and Han rivers.

Who are the beneficiaries of the Three Gorges dam? Why were some people pushing so hard for the project in the late 1970s, when the Chinese had just recovered from years of famine and upheaval?

In my view, building the project as “the world’s biggest” showpiece
of the glories of the socialist system is all just rhetoric. The real
driving forces behind the scheme are the vested interest groups Ð
namely, the provinces of Hunan and Hubei, the Ministry of Water
Resources and the Changjiang [Yangtze] Water Resources Commission, which are all reaping substantial benefits from the dam project.

Hunan and Hubei, provinces located below the Three Gorges, have had a long-running dispute over where the floodwater should go when big floods hit the region. By building the Jingjiang dyke and settling tens of thousands of people in the flood-free zone behind it, Hubei has become richer and its people have achieved a higher standard of living than their neighbours in Hunan. This was why Hunan officials and residents alike have been complaining that floodwater would inundate their villages and farmland if the dyke ever has to be broken again.1

Now both provinces feel somewhat more relaxed about this issue thanks to the Three Gorges project, which holds back some of the floodwater in the wet season.

China has had a centrally planned economy since the founding of the People’s Republic. This means the central government controls the purse-strings for infrastructure projects. And those who can argue how important a project is from a political perspective and who have good contacts among the top leaders have an easier time obtaining funds from the central government.

When the major floods occurred on the Yangtze in 1998, I did an
interview with Professor Lu Qinkan, former deputy chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources. He told me that as early as the late 1970s, they had undertaken a flood-control study that concluded the best way to solve the flood problem on the river was to strengthen the dykes and dredge the waterways, and doing so would cost a fraction of the amount required to build the big dam. But how could the powerful Ministry of Water Resources be content with such a meagre funding stream? Have you seen the ministry’s headquarters? A good example of official corruption!

The Ministry of Water Resources is the government department in
charge of the project, which means that once the department has won the right to build a project, it can use the project funds any way it wants, without any outside monitoring or supervision. Before the Three Gorges proposal was even approved, people in the department had already begun using project funds to buy fancy cars and to build themselves cottages, and houses in Beijing.

As Lin Hua, former vice-chairman of the State Planning Commission, pointed out, the project’s backers would do everything in their power to repress us if it looked as if we were going to succeed in halting the scheme. They would have feared the prospect of an audit, given that 200 million yuan (US$25 million) of project money was spent even before the scheme was approved, so they had no choice but to push the project through at any cost. Once they won approval for the project, billions of dollars would start flowing from the central government, and nobody would bother to mention the small matter of that 200 million yuan.

But back to the dam’s much-touted flood-control benefits. As Li Rui

argued, building the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze River would repeat the mistake made on the Yellow River with Sanmenxia. That dam just relocated the flood problem upstream, moving it from Henan to Shaanxi province. The construction of the Three Gorges would do the same, and transfer the flood disasters in Wuhan, 800 kilometres below the dam, to Chongqing, 660 kilometres upstream of the project.


Generating hydroelectricity, of course, has been seen as one of the
biggest benefits of building the dam. In the context of China’s

centrally planned economy, the power companies fall over themselves to obtain government funds to get their projects started. They don’t care what consequences the construction of a dam might bring about, or even whether the electricity it generates will sell or not. As a result, China’s power supply has experienced significant fluctuations: a shortage of electricity today, but overproduction tomorrow.

Qinghua University professor Zhang Guangdou complained that “the electricity generated by the Ertan dam [on the Yalong River in Sichuan] is too expensive to buy.” And the price of Three Gorges power is definitely costlier than that of Ertan, so who’s going to buy it? Aware of this situation, the government has issued a series of special policies (a lower tax rate for the Three Gorges Corp., for instance) in an attempt to lower the cost of the electricity produced by the Three Gorges dam. Another measure is to make the more developed cities in coastal regions buy Three Gorges power, stressing that this purchase is a political responsibility.

Lately, the Three Gorges project authority has been promoting a role for its electricity in the scheme to divert water from the Yangtze to north China. The authority has argued that water can be transferred from the Three Gorges reservoir to Danjiangkou on the Han River, from where it can then be moved to Beijing. And if the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir is too low to get the water flowing to Danjiangkou, then Three Gorges electricity can be used to pump the water there.


After flood control and electricity generation, improved navigation
on the Yangtze was a third benefit claimed by the project authority. At the start of the feasibility study, proponents declared that
10,000-tonne vessels would be able to sail directly up to Chongqing on the wider and deeper reservoir behind the dam. But opponents pointed out that would be impossible because the bridges across the Yangtze at Nanjing and Wuhan are too low for 10,000-tonne vessels to go under. And so later, the project authority changed the “10,000-tonne ocean-going vessels” to “a fleet of ocean-going vessels with a total weight of 10,000 tonnes,” which means a string of boats rather than a single large ship. And the freight volume that is able to get through the shiplock is actually much less than the amount claimed by the project authority.

Another major problem is the possibility of accidents associated
with the shiplock. From the experience of the Gezhouba dam, 40
kilometres downstream of Three Gorges, we know that an accident can halt traffic on the Yangtze for dozens of hours, and even several days. The Gezhouba shiplock is a one-step, one-way system, whereas the Three Gorges project has a two-way, five-step shiplock, so there are 10 times as many chances for accidents to happen as ships make their way through the Three Gorges system. Building the shiplock has been so difficult, with cracks and holes found in the structure. To guarantee the quality of the shiplock, experts actually suggested dismantling it and starting again. But the project authority ignored that idea, and filled the cracks and the holes with cement, and God only knows when or how that shiplock is going to run into trouble.

The shiplock was actually designed mainly for freighters rather than passenger boats. To get the Three Gorges project approved, the project authority announced that it would build a shiplift to get passengers over the dam just as quickly as taking an elevator. But as you may have noticed, there has been no sign of the shiplift yet.

Last spring, Chinese newspapers reported that freighters went
stranded at the port of Nanjing, one of the excellent harbours along
the Yangtze, due to a shortage of water. In the circumstances, the
project authority was forced to take the urgent step of opening the
spillways to allow more water to get to downstream areas.

Regional development

The fourth alleged benefit of the Three Gorges project was that the
affected groups were going to be resettled properly and their lives
improved. Resettlement schemes have been plagued by problems since 1949, so Three Gorges proponents came up with the new strategy of “resettlement with development.” With this project, it was decided that the resettlement funds would not all just be given directly to the displaced people, but rather 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, and just go off to have a wonderful new life.

How many people need to move for the project? At the start of the
feasibility study, proponents of the project came up with a figure of
around 725,000. At that stage, in order to get the project approved,
they were trying to lower the number of people who would have to be displaced. This was why Li Boning, in charge of the resettlement
section of the feasibility study, said at an internal meeting, “Don’t
mention one million any more or we’ll be giving opponents a bullet with which to kill the project.” After the project was approved [by the National People’s Congress in April 1992], the government announced a figure of 1.13 million, but we don’t believe this is the true number. Wang Weiluo’s estimate is 2.5 million, and mine is 1.9 million.

Where are the displaced people going? The project authority devised the policy of “settling the affected people in nearby areas, especially on slopes on higher ground.” The policy basically violates a state regulation that prohibits farming on slopes with a gradient of more than 25 degrees. This was why then-premier Zhu Rongji later issued a new policy after the big floods of 1998 that encouraged the affected people to move out of the reservoir area altogether, in an effort to reduce the resettlement pressure on the fragile Three Gorges environment.

Recently, villagers affected by the dam have organized protest activities in Hubei province, and one woman [Wang Xidong] was sentenced to five years in jail. I met one of the migrant representatives from Chongqing’s Yunyang county, surnamed He. And he told me that because of official corruption, many migrants have received much less compensation than the government promised. Affected villagers raised the funds to send He and other migrant representatives to Beijing to tell top officials: “We fully support the construction of the Three Gorges dam, but there are too many corrupt officials.” They went to visit many government departments, but the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee turned a deaf ear, and the official media gave them the cold shoulder. And so they had no choice but to talk to a reporter from a Hong Kong newspaper, as a result of which they were jailed for “leaking state secrets” to a foreigner.

A Chinese sociologist has written a book, The Story of the Dahe Dam, which is a wonderful piece of research on dam-related resettlement. He was a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who grabbed an opportunity that came along to work for a while as a local official in a rural area. As it turned out, he was sent to Yunyang county and assigned to work as an aide to the vice-governor in charge of Three Gorges resettlement. By dint of his position, he had access to official documents from the various levels of government, as well as first-hand information from villagers affected by the big dam. The author had also warned in a widely circulated article that leftover problems stemming from the Three Gorges population resettlement were likely to become explosive issues and a source of social instability in our country for the next 50 years.


Why are we opposing the construction of the Three Gorges dam? Our first concern is with the buildup of silt in the reservoir after the
damming of the Yangtze River. As early as the 1980s, experts voiced concern that the Yangtze could become another Yellow River in terms of its enormous sedimentation problems. Twenty years have elapsed since then, and the Yangtze has become so muddy that nobody would now recognize its descriptions in poems from the Tang [618-907 AD] and Song [960-1279 AD] dynasties, which extolled its beauty and cleanliness. And Prof. Huang Wanli pointed out that the Yangtze is full of pebbles that would accumulate behind the dam if it were built.

Before the project was approved in 1992, the National People’s Congress, the National People’s Political Consultative Conference, the trade union and women’s federations and so forth all sent inspection teams to the Three Gorges area. One of my friends went on one of those trips, and asked an official from the project authority how long the reservoir would last if the dam was built. Without hesitation, the official replied: “Fifty years.” My friend was shocked: “Only 50 years?” The official said: “I believe the younger generation is smarter than we are, so they’ll be able to solve this problem.” In any case, the buildup of silt in the Three Gorges reservoir is a terribly serious problem, with pebbles accumulating behind the dam and sediment building up at the tail end of the reservoir, posing a big threat to the port of Chongqing.

Geological disasters

A second major concern relates to geological disasters. A year or
two ago, Lu Youmei, the former boss of the Three Gorges Project Corp., gave a speech at Beijing University in which he praised the quality of the dam structure. However, he didn’t say a single word about the geological stability of the 660-kilometre-long reservoir, and whether all the new towns built on its mountain slopes were on equally solid ground.

While the feasibility study was being conducted, I happened to meet two people who knew something about that issue. One was an expert from the military survey team, who told me that he didn’t dare say anything, but that he had detected many geological faults during his aerial surveys of the Three Gorges river valley.

Another expert, taking part in a seminar at the Chinese University
of Hong Kong, revealed a similar problem. He showed us a geological map of the Three Gorges area with marks indicating areas of instability that were especially concentrated in the river valley. I asked him: “Can we fill the reservoir in these circumstances?” And he said no. “In that case, why have we gone ahead with the Three Gorges project?” I asked. He said nothing. “Are you in favour of the project,” I asked, and he said that he was. That left me confused. “Why did you say yes to the project, but no to ever filling the reservoir?” I asked. “Because the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has already made
the decision to build the dam,” he said.

As you know, the new county seat of Badong had to be moved at least twice because of problems with its geological foundations. Even the official media carries frequent reports of disasters in the area such as landslides, riverbank collapses and mud-rock flows, and this is with the reservoir filled only to the 139-metre level. How many more disasters can we expect to see happen when the reservoir is filled to the planned level of 175 metres?

Cultural relics

The loss of cultural relics is another huge concern. In China, there
are two main cultural branches: One is along the Yangtze, and another along the Yellow River. It’s easy for archeologists to find the relics on the more accessible Yellow River plain, and they can also leave that job for some time in the future, when the technology and equipment will have improved. But suddenly, water will be rising in the Three Gorges reservoir on the Yangtze, and you can see how the engineers have dealt 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. Chinese archeologists at universities and institutes became so anxious about the situation that many of them rushed to the Three Gorges valley and did their best to salvage the precious treasures. Using their own limited funds and living at cheap hostels, they worked hard, day and night, and managed to identify many of the locations containing ancient relics and to report their findings to the relevant authorities.

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 US$2.5 million. 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. I asked her to send me the pictures and was able to get them published in three Chinese newspapers. Premier Zhu Rongji was shocked at the news and asked how much money would be needed for the relic-salvage operation. He also ordered an investigation into the case of the spirit tree. It turned out that after the archeologists finished their survey and left the area, the smugglers moved in, discovered where the ancient treasure was located and just dug it up! They smuggled it out to Hong Kong, and from there on to Europe and the United States.

Water pollution

Water pollution is a huge problem. Almost all industrial and
domestic waste is still going directly into the Yangtze River, with no
effective measures taken to deal with the problem. This was why former water minister Qian Zhengying and Zhang Guangdou, chief quality inspector for the Three Gorges project, became very angry at officials with the Chongqing Bureau of Environmental Protection, complaining that they had not done a good job of controlling water pollution. After their trip to Chongqing, they both wrote to Guo Shuyan, head of the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, asking for 300 billion yuan (US$37.5 billion) from the central government to help tackle the water-pollution problem. As you can imagine, it was impossible for the government to earmark such a large sum for the task, considering that the total budget for the Three Gorges project budget is 90 billion yuan (US$11 billion) [at 1993 fixed prices; or 200 billion RMB (US$25 billion), taking inflation, project bank-loan interest and other factors into account].

Cost of construction

How much money is needed to build the colossal dam project? The cost estimates have skyrocketed over the years, from US$4.5 billion in the early 1980s to around US$7 billion during the feasibility study. It went up to US$9.3 billion in 1992 when the project was approved, and a year later the project authority changed the figure yet again to US$11 billion. When I interviewed Qiao Peixin, former vice-director of the Chinese People’s Bank, he told me: “According to my calculations, about US$40 billion will be needed to get the job done.” Lu Qinkan told me that an insider at the Ministry of Water Resources said the cost could soar as high as US$75 billion by the time the dam is finished.

Early in the 1980s, we predicted that the Three Gorges project would become a gaping black hole under China’s economy and political system. Since the launch of the project, additional funds have continually been poured into it. The central government was forced to designate an additional US$375 million for salvaging cultural relics and an additional US$625 million for cleaning up the bottom of the reservoir. And how much was added for settling those who are being moved to other provinces, since not a single penny was budgeted for that in the feasibility study? And how much more money was needed to relocate and rebuild the new county seats of Badong and Fengjie, and to purchase and install the six extra generators [in the underground powerhouse at the dam], and to design and build the complicated shiplift? Some people believe that the whole job cannot be done even for US$75 billion. Another member of the “inner circle” told me that the final cost would definitely amount to at least US$125 billion.

China is in a transitional era, politically and economically. During
such a tough period, however, so much money has been spent, and will continue to be spent, on a project that is so destructive and so disastrous, both environmentally and politically.

Why is the Three Gorges dam such a disastrous project politically?
Because in the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy, we have to abandon the old system in which the top leader had the final say on important issues, and make it possible for the public to participate in decision-making, and enable society to head down the road to a democratic system. Economically, we should say good-bye to the rigid planned economic system and replace it with a market-oriented economy. To our dismay, however, some people took advantage of one of the dirtiest aspects of the old system – the emperor as final decision-maker – to push the dam project forward, and to destroy the environment and natural resources of which we Chinese are so proud and care so deeply about.

In my view, building the Three Gorges dam is a ridiculous and evil
farce that has played out in China in the latter part of the last
century and early part of this century. Today, I can tell you: We
fought against it, resolutely and without let-up, but we failed. And
yet, we have no choice but to keep on struggling as long as we still
have breath.

Question and answer session

Question: You have listed so many problems with the Three Gorges project in your speech. What would be a better energy strategy to promote China’s development?

Dai Qing: I think we need to examine and even alter
somewhat our way of life. In terms of resource use and environmental conditions, we cannot follow the U.S. model, nor copy the way Americans consume electricity. It’s true that electricity is playing an increasingly important role in our own lives, but we cannot obtain hydropower at the expense of our rivers. People usually realize the value of a river when it begins to falter, stop working and even die. The price we would pay for that is too high to calculate in any economic accounting and all because of human carelessness and ruthlessness. If we really want to do something on the rivers, we should learn from our ancestors, who built the Dujiangyan project, which has worked flawlessly for more than 2,200 years, providing both a flood-free environment and irrigation water for people living on the Chengdu plain. The success of the Dujiangyan scheme appears to have been founded on an unspoken pact between people and nature, and it is a great example of how our ancestors used the river and water resources wisely and in an environmentally friendly way.

Question: How do you feel about the project to transfer water from the south to the north of the country?

Dai Qing: I have at least three concerns. First, as with the Three Gorges dam, how many people are going to have to be resettled Ð for instance, all along the 1,200 kilometres of the central route? Second, the canal project is going to be built across four river basins, which will have a tremendous impact on those areas. What will
the consequences of that be? Third, again like the Three Gorges,
building the water-diversion project will make companies rich through various corrupt means, while society will be left to bear the social costs and environmental problems.

The government has a hidden agenda Ð that the water from the south should arrive in Beijing before the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympics. It wants to impress the world with how attractive Beijing is, and how happy the Chinese people are. But actually, the water drawn from the Yangtze cannot save the rivers around Beijing. Even the level of the Han River, the water source for the central route [of the three-pronged south-north water diversion scheme], is becoming too low to contribute much to the Yangtze, so how can we divert water to the north in such circumstances? Even the intensively studied central route is in poor shape, and then there’s the even more problematic east and west routes to conisder.

Question: The construction of the Three Gorges dam
has entered its final phase. Does it make any sense for us to talk
about it today? Supposing the top leaders did want to listen and take our views on board, what’s the best-case scenario for the dam?

Dai Qing: Opponents of the dam are weak compared
with the project’s powerful backers, who are funded by the government, supported by the official media and protected by the army and police. I feel I am not capable of doing anything to save the Yangtze, just as Prof. Huang Wanli and others failed to save the Yellow River. So I call myself a “pessimistic activist,” which means I’ll continue to do my best even though I know I cannot do anything much about it.

What can the Three Gorges project authority do at this point? For
one thing, they can ensure that the reservoir water level rises no
higher than 160 metres [above sea level], rather than the planned 175 metres. With the “normal pool level” kept at 160 metres, fewer people will be affected, fewer flood disasters will threaten the safety of Chongqing, and less silt will be deposited on the bottom of the
reservoir. But it would make the people who earn the profits from
selling Three Gorges electricity extremely unhappy because the lower the water level, the less hydropower generated from the dam.

Question: Do you have any comments on the 6.4 incident [June 4, 1989]?

Dai Qing: I don’t think it was a “political riot” eventually brought under control by the government, nor a great democratic movement either. In my view, it was a tragedy that occurred in the course of China’s modernization. Led by the students, people from all walks of life joined the demonstrations, which indicated that
the Chinese wanted more freedom and reform of the political system, but in the end those goals were not achieved. The incident was, in my view, a major setback on the road to freedom of the press and democracy, and we have to learn lessons from it.

Question: China has had two movements of ideological liberalization, in the 1950s and the 1980s. What do you think the future holds?

Dai Qing: There was no ideological liberalization
in the 1950s. The Party appeared to be willing to listen to the people at the bottom of society, and to consult with intellectuals, but later this turned out to be a con.2

But as for now, things have changed already. I am a citizen and a
taxpayer, so I deserve to enjoy my rights that are protected by the
Constitution. The full development of a civil society is the best way
to ensure the collapse of the autocratic system.

Since the 1990s, people have had more private space in their lives,
and more personal freedom. The state has withdrawn from some areas of our social life; now you can sing folk songs or roll ‘n’ rock or
whatever you want. But the party still seeks to keep a firm grip on key issues such as nuclear weapons, the Three Gorges project, direct elections at the grassroots level and so forth. In these circumstances, don’t expect our leaders to give us everything we want. But we must continue to struggle and to move forward. And we have to have a clearer sense of the relationship between citizens and their leaders; not begging them for things, but putting it this way: “You have been chosen by us, so you should serve us.” This is  what we are working toward. Of course, achieving that goal is difficult in the short term, but we have to keep trying.

Editor’s notes:

1 When floodwater rose dangerously high in 1954, the government decided to blast open the Jingjiang dyke and allow water to inundate a vast area of Hunan, in order to protect the major city of Wuhan farther downstream.

2 During the Hundred Flowers
Movement in late 1956 and the first half of 1957, top Chinese leaders encouraged a short-lived period of open political debate. Citizens (intellectuals, in particular) submitted millions of letters to the central government, most of which expressed criticisms of Communist rule. Mao Zedong began to worry that the criticism had gone too far, and could even lead to his downfall. And so, despite having initiated the movement, Mao brutally silenced it, ordering the humiliation, arrest and torture of intellectuals in the crackdown known as the Anti-Rightist Movement.

Dai Qing beside a small dam in New England (2005).Photo courtesy of Steven Benson.

Liu Legeng, Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan), November 23, 2005

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