March 1, 2007
Dai Qing is a journalist-turned-environmental activist, whose family was part of the Chinese revolutionary “aristocracy.” After her father was killed in battle with the Japanese in 1944, just three years after Dai’s birth, she was adopted by Ye Jianying, one of the top generals in the People’s Liberation Army. Ye also served as Defense Minister and was one of the most powerful men in China until his death in 1986.
Between 1982 and 1989, Dai reported and wrote for the national newspaper Guangming Daily. She became well known inside and outside China for her opposition to the flagship Three Gorges Dam project, and for publishing, in the late eighties, a compilation of essays critical of the dam by scientists, engineers and activists. The book, titled Yangtze, Yangtze was quickly banned.
In 1990 Dai was imprisoned for her role in the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. However, as Dai was one of a group of academics who advised the students to leave the square and return to their campuses, it seems possible that her incarceration may have been in revenge for her outspoken criticism of the dam. She was released after a year.
Dai’s opposition to the Three Gorges Dam project is largely political rather than technical. There are many who worry about the practicalities of relocating over a million people, or about silt building up behind the dam and preventing it from generating electricity, or about polluted water gathering in the dam’s huge reservoir, but Dai is perhaps more concerned that the people in government and industry responsible for implementing such megaprojects as the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion are not accountable to the public.
It’s true that there is enormous potential for unscrupulous officials to make money when awarding contracts, as companies provide them with a “commission” for choosing their products.” According to Chinese press reports, just between 2004 and 2005, nearly 300,000 Party members were punished for corruption, including Party secretaries and nearly 500 judges.
This sort of wheeling and dealing means that substandard products are often chosen over more suitable or safer counterparts. In an interview with China from the Inside, Dai cited the example of a faulty crane which broke down on a construction site, killing four people. “It was bought as a brand new crane, but in fact it was an old one which had been written off,” she said.
Dai also said that compensation payments for the million-plus families who had to relocate to make way for the dam were first given to local governments to distribute rather than directly to the people. “This gave them a good opportunity for embezzlement,” Dai says, “and we were not allowed to supervise or investigate. The officials in charge of relocation stole the money.”
As a self-described “pessimist activist,” Dai does what she can to make things better and to model environmentally correct behavior, like buying a piece of land near Beijing’s Yongding River and allowing trees to grow there to prevent soil erosion, but she thinks that a countrywide environmental shift will be hard-won if possible at all. “I think China needs to change. It needs to change slowly. The change must start from people’s heads and their behavior. This way the country, its environment and resources, will change too. But I don’t think we have enough time,” she said.
It has been said that as long as there are people like her in China, there is always hope for the future. But given the hardships Dai has faced, including prison and the censorship of her work, why does Dai continue to be so outspoken?
Her answer lies in her definition of happiness: “What is happiness for you? Coming from my family background, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to be a corrupt official now. Nor would it be difficult to have kept my position at the paper, to have been promoted and go work for the Central Ministry of Propaganda. But I wouldn’t have been happy. Happiness comes from being an independent character and a free spirit. This is what I’ve chosen.”
Dai has been awarded a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University (1991), an International PEN Award for Freedom (1992), and a Goldman Environmental Prize (1993).