Dams and Landslides

Chapter 1 – Damming the Three Gorges: 1920 – 1993

Gráinne Ryder and Margaret Barber

On April 3, 1992, China’s National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, erupted in a display of opposition unprecedented for this normally rubber-stamp body. The outburst was the latest in the decades-long dispute over the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. Although one-third of the 2600 delegates rejected the project, the dam – touted in China’s official media as the biggest public works undertaking since the Great Wall – was approved for inclusion in China’s current 10-year plan. It marked the most recent leap forward in the project’s turbulent seven-decade-long history.

The Yangtze River, 6300 kilometres long, is the world’s third-largest river, with a total drainage area of 1.8 million square kilometres. Springing from the glacial mountains of northern Tibet, the river carves its route through the mountains of southwestern China and then heads northeast to surge through a spectacular 200-kilometre reach of deep, narrow canyon, known as Sanxia or Three Gorges. From there, the river widens and meanders across southern China’s vast, fertile plains to the East China Sea at Shanghai.

The Yangtze River Valley, encompassing an area roughly one-fifth that of Canada’s, is China’s agricultural and industrial heartland. Supporting roughly 400 million people, one-third of China’s population, the valley produces 40 percent of the nation’s grain, 70 percent of its rice, and 40 percent of China’s total industrial output.

Although the river and its tributaries are the valley’s lifeblood, they have also produced some of China’s worst natural flood disasters. Five times this century, Yangtze floodwaters have ravaged the middle and lower valley, killing a total of 300,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

China’s attempts to prevent flood disasters while permitting navigation and irrigation date back to ancient times, and have traditionally depended on earthen dykes (or levees).

From the 5th century B.C. on, Chinese philosophers debated rival theories of river management, mirroring their respective theories of political rule. Taoists believing that rivers should be unconstrained, argued that levees should be low and far apart, allowing the river to seek its own course. Confucians argued for large, high dykes set closely together, tightly controlling the course of the river. This would open up fertile areas along the banks for cultivation, but risked disaster if the levee was breached by floodwaters.1

The idea of damming the Three Gorges, first proposed in the 1920s by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a founder of the People’s Republic, marked a departure from traditional Chinese water management, and led to increased reliance on modern hydraulic engineering, particularly large-scale multi-purpose dams.

Protecting roughly 10 million people living along the river banks and flood plains from life-threatening floods is the main rationale for building the Three Gorges Dam. The dam is also intended to generate 15,000 to 20,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity for urban industrial centres, and to improve navigation along the river. The favoured dam plan calls for a height of 185 metres, a reservoir that stretches about 600 kilometres upstream of the Three Gorges, and the forced relocation of about a million people.

Political debate over damming the Three Gorges has been as tempestuous as the Yangtze River itself. Human ecologist Baruch Boxer writes:

Planners, ideologues, visionaries and scoundrels alike have used it either to trumpet commitment to nationalistic ideals, assuage national pride, get rich and powerful, or strengthen competing government planning and energy bureaucracies when their autonomy and power were threatened.2

But efforts to push the project through China’s elaborate decision-making process have been interrupted over the years by war, ideological struggles, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, economic troubles, and prolonged governmental debate over the project.

In the 1940s, the United States Bureau of Reclamation, America’s foremost dam-building agency, cooperated with Chinese engineers to develop preliminary plans for various dam sites. Then in the 1950s, Soviet dam builders worked with the Chinese on preliminary studies until ideological differences soured relations between the two countries.

The Yangtze floods of 1954, which left 30,000 people dead and one million people homeless, brought an unprecedented sense of urgency to damming the Three Gorges. Chairman Mao Tse Tung vowed to speed up preparations for the dam, and the Yangtze Valley Planning Office* was established to conduct specific design and feasibility studies for the Three Gorges Project, as well as to develop an overall plan for water resource development within the entire Yangtze River basin.

In 1958, after lengthy deliberations involving Chairman Mao, top-level government officials, and Soviet experts, the central government announced that the Three Gorges Dam would be built, but not immediately. Concluding that flood control alone could not justify the dam’s construction, they set about redesigning the dam as multi-purpose, for hydropower and navigation as well as for flood control. More studies then evaluated the project in terms of the dam’s additional functions.

Since that time, hundreds of government agencies, bureaucracies, and academic bodies have participated in detailed studies on all aspects of the megaproject. But construction plans were delayed for decades because those involved in the deliberations were unable to resolve a number of key issues: the height of the dam and therefore the area to be flooded, which dictates the number of people who would be forced to move; financing the project; the impact of sediment build-up on navigation; reconciling the need for flood control with the dam’s other functions; and whether building the dam at all was technically feasible.

China’s Dam Builders Gather Experience

While the fate of the Three Gorges was still far from being resolved, Chinese engineers designed and constructed large-scale dams on tributaries of the Yangtze and in the Yellow River Valley. By 1970, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office was ready for the main channel of the Yangtze and construction began on China’s largest hydroelectric dam built to date – the Gezhouba Dam. Forty kilometres downstream from the Three Gorges site, this 45-metre-high dam was viewed as the final test before taking on the ultimate challenge of building the gargantuan dam at the Three Gorges.

China’s Modernization

In the late 1970s, Premier Deng Xiaopeng’s ambitious modernization plans, which included quadrupling the country’s electricity output by the year 2000, boosted enthusiasm for the Three Gorges’ tremendous hydropower potential. As planning for the next Five Year Plan (1981 – 1985) got under way, proponents stepped up their efforts to have the project included as a key investment in the plan. Top Chinese leaders appeared eager to proceed but as the Gezhouba Dam neared completion, six years behind schedule and requiring a total investment more than twice that originally estimated,3 they opted for a more cautious approach and called for more detailed feasibility studies. In 1981, American specialists were invited to visit the Three Gorges site, leading to a five-year agreement with the United States for technical assistance to Chinese dam builders.

Initially, the U.S. experts were highly critical of the project which, at that time, had a proposed dam height of 200 metres and a generating capacity of 25,000 megawatts. They warned that the dam would not solve flooding problems, that it would be a navigational and economic disaster, that it could cause a catastrophe in the valley by triggering landslides or earthquakes, and that it would concentrate too much hydropower capacity in one place, thereby creating a prime target for military attack. Instead, they advocated building a series of smaller dams on Yangtze tributaries. Despite the discouraging reaction from the U.S. experts, proponents within the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, and the Yangtze Valley Planning Office, carried on with their work although they modestly scaled down the project.

China’s Environmental Crisis Emerges

In the wake of Deng Xiaopeng’s economic reforms and political liberalization, one disturbing truth surfaced which changed the Three Gorges debate forever: China’s environment was in a state of crisis. Three decades of unrestrained industrial development and Mao’s “grain-first” policy, which promoted the conversion of all available land and forest into grain fields, had caused untold environmental destruction.4 For the first time, scientists with environmental concerns participated in official deliberations about the Three Gorges Project, and they wasted no time in publishing papers and articles about the dam’s potentially destructive affects on agriculture, freshwater and estuarine fisheries, wildlife habitat, and water quality.

The technical problem of keeping the Three Gorges reservoir sediment-free became a broader environmental issue related to upstream land use patterns and environmental conditions. Soil scientists warned that unabated soil erosion in the Yangtze Valley would not only exacerbate flooding but could drastically reduce the Three Gorges reservoir’s planned lifetime. Then in 1981, Sichuan province was struck by major floods which both the Ministry of Forestry and Sichuan province attributed to deforestation, not to a lack of reservoir storage capacity, as claimed by the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

Three Gorges Plans Proceed Amidst Opposition

By 1983, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office had completed a feasibility study recommending that a 175-metre-high dam with a 150-metre reservoir level be built with construction beginning in 1986. In 1984, the State Council (China’s cabinet) approved the project “in principle” which meant that the project would be formally adopted as a key investment in the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-1990) pending the approval of the National People’s Congress at their spring session in 1985.

But before this could happen, the Ministry of Communications and the municipality of Chongqing criticized the 150-metre-high reservoir level and called for a 180-metre reservoir level instead. And so began another round of criticism; but this time academics, intellectuals, and the press voiced their concerns about the dam’s environmental consequences, not least among them the sullying of the legendary Three Gorges which fine arts historian, Wu Shenfeng, describes as “the treasure of our motherland.”5

Opposition from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee

Opposition to the Three Gorges Project gained increasing national and international attention when the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) conducted a 38-day field trip in 1986 to gather opinions about the dam. Eminent CPPCC members visited eight cities that would be affected by the dam and convened over 40 open forums to hear from all concerned ministries and bureaus, from experts and scholars, and from local and national CPPCC members. At the end of their trip, they submitted their findings to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council, with the carefully phrased recommendation that the project should not go ahead in the short term.6 Specifically, the CPPCC report made a number of strong conclusions:

  • Cost: The main investment required would be over $21 billion, three times the official Chinese estimates.

  • Flood Control: The project would not solve flooding in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River; it would increase the severity of flood damage in the upper reaches.

  • Sediment: The proposed strategy for flushing sediment out of the reservoir was found to be unconvincing.

  • Navigation: The dam would obstruct, not improve, navigation.

  • Power Generation: The project would require a high investment and a long construction period.

  • Safety: The dam would pose a huge risk to the Yangtze Valley because the dam and reservoir could trigger landslides and earthquakes.

The CPPCC conclusions generated a heated debate within China, prompting the National People’s Congress to call for further deliberations and to exclude the project from the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986 – 1990) even though, by this time, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office had completed a preliminary design report and an environmental impact statement for the various dam heights under consideration.

U.S. Dam Builders Propose Joint Venture

Meanwhile in the United States, members of the dam-building industry were vying for direct involvement in the Three Gorges Project. A high-powered consortium known as the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group was formed, and included representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council, Guy F. Atkinson Company, Bechtel Civil and Mineral, Inc., Coopers and Lybrand, Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, Morgan Bank, Morrison-Knudsen Inc., and Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation.

In 1985, the working group submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, which reviewed technical aspects of the 180-metre and 150-metre schemes, and recommended social and environmental impact studies. It also recommended that a cost-benefit analysis acceptable to potential financiers be conducted and that the dam be built by a joint venture between the Chinese government and the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group with possible funding from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Sweden, Japan, and Canada.

Expounding the political significance of the proposed venture, the U.S. proposal states:

The long friendship and continuing cooperation between China and the United States is the foundation for the successful union on this project and others to follow. The waters of the Yangtze and the Columbia commingle inevitably in the Pacific. So too would our interests combine in carrying out the Three Gorges Project.7

U.S.-based environmental groups quickly learned of the plans and mobilized opposition to U.S. involvement, warning that the Three Gorges Dam would be the most disastrous dam ever built.

Canadian Dam Builders Offer Assistance

The Americans had competitors hoping to build the Three Gorges Dam. Since 1985, Canadian government officials have been busy meeting Chinese officials lobbying for Canadian involvement in China’s power sector development. In 1986, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the government’s foreign aid arm, arranged with China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power for CIDA to finance a feasibility study to be conducted by a Canadian consortium. The consortium, known as CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture, included three private companies, Acres International, SNC, and Lavalin International,* and two state-owned utilities,

Hydro-Québec International, and British Columbia Hydro International. A steering committee including representatives from CIDA, the World Bank, and China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, was formed to supervise the feasibility study. The World Bank also assembled an international panel of experts whose role, according to panel member and U.S. sediment expert John Kennedy, was solely “to evaluate the study and to assure that it met very high standards of international practice for these kinds of studies.”8

Both CIDA and the Canadian consortium were enthusiastic at the prospect of conducting a feasibility study for the largest dam in the world. In the words of Peter Haines, then Vice-President of Professional Services Branch for CIDA:

Our private sector is living up to its potential in the Three Gorges Project in China – the world’s biggest-ever power development. By working closely together, with some support from CIDA, a number of our leading consultants and utilities have good prospects of winning hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business for Canada.9

According to Haines, the Canadian engineers had muscled the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group and others out of the competition for the Three Gorges contract:10

Many countries would give their eye teeth for Three Gorges, but we beat them to the punch. They [the Chinese] like our expertise.11

According to the study’s terms of reference, its purpose was twofold: “to form the basis for securing assistance from international financial institutions” and “to form an input to [the Chinese] government in its decision-making process.”12*

Chinese Feasibility Study Commissioned

During 1986, the State Council commissioned its own final exhaustive feasibility study to be conducted under the aegis of the powerful State Planning Commission. Madame Qian Zhengying, then Minister of Water Resources and Electric Power and staunch supporter of the Three Gorges Project, appointed a 400-member Three Gorges Project Examination Committee including not only senior government officials and engineers but also members of the Chinese Academy of Science. Madame Qian also appointed a 12-member panel of Chinese experts to review the committee’s findings.

Steering Committee Calls for More Studies

In 1988, as the Canadian study neared completion, the steering committee identified serious gaps in the feasibility study and recommended that “complementary studies” on various environment and resettlement issues be conducted. CIDA granted the Chinese government an additional $4 million with which the Canadian consortium would undertake new studies. CIDA also hired various Canadian consultants to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the work undertaken by the consortium.13 Peter Haines, the CIDA vice-president who by this time had retired to become a private consultant, was also hired to coordinate the “complementary studies” and advise China on Canadian services, material, and equipment to be offered for the implementation of the project.14

Canadian Study Completed

Mounting public criticisms of Canada’s role in the Three Gorges Project, combined with public pressure to release the taxpayer-financed feasibility study, prompted CIDA and the consortium to hold a news briefing in February 1989. At that time, CIDA announced completion of the Three Gorges Water Control Project Feasibility Study* and released the summary volume of the study to Probe International. The feasibility study concluded that a 185-metre-high dam with a reservoir level of 160 metres is technically, environmentally, and economically feasible, and recommended that the project go ahead. When asked whether the roughly one million people in the Three Gorges region who would have to move had been consulted, a representative from China’s Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power replied:

Convinced of the improvement in terms of living standards and economic prosperity that [the project] will bring about, the local people and the local governments are greatly in favour and have no objections to this plan.15

Shortly thereafter, the Chinese feasibility study was completed, recommending that a 185-metre-high dam with a reservoir level of 175 metres (not 160 metres as recommended by the consortium) be built starting in 1992. Both feasibility studies were submitted to the State Council for approval and the Chinese government was expected to announce a go-ahead in early May.

Fierce Opposition Delays Dam Decision

Meanwhile, the project began to stir fierce opposition from hundreds of citizens’ groups around the world who, having seen the tragic legacy of large dams elsewhere in the world, condemned the proponents’ secretive and rosy assessment of the project. Critics believed it would be nothing less than a social and environmental disaster.

Within China, prominent citizens, scientists, intellectuals, and artists gathered to condemn the recommendations that the dam be built and to release Yangtze! Yangtze!16 a collection of interviews and essays critical of the Three Gorges Project. Speaking at the press conference organized by the book’s editors, author Zhang Jie declared: “We hope the authorities halt this big-name, big-money, low-benefit project that serves as a monument to a handful of people.”17 The critics’ press release stated, “for the first time ordinary Chinese people will not keep silent on a weighty economic policy decision. They don’t want to see an endless repetition of foolish policies.”18

At the spring session of the National People’s Congress, hundreds of delegates called for the Three Gorges Project to be postponed into the next century, leading China’s Vice-Premier Yao Yilin to announce that a decision to build it had been postponed for at least five years. Days later, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee denounced the Chinese feasibility study, saying it was not conducted in a scientific or democratic manner, and called for a complete reappraisal of the entire project under the leadership of the National People’s Congress.

This show of opposition to the dam, known to be Premier Li Peng’s pet project, was unprecedented and was one of many blows dealt to the Chinese leadership in early 1989. According to sinologist Frederic Moritz of Pennsylvania State University, the premier’s “loss of face” due to the Three Gorges Project opposition fuelled the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square.19

Tiananmen Square Massacre Interrupts Canadian Involvement

The Three Gorges controversy was eclipsed in a matter of weeks by the dramatic demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which were ended so brutally by the Chinese government on June 4, 1989.

In the aftermath of the June 4 events, Dai Qing – editor-in-chief of Yangtze! Yangtze! – was arrested, incarcerated in Qincheng, a top-security jail for political prisoners, and told she was on a list of six people to be executed.20 Later released, Ms Dai stated: “I was arrested because of my work on the Three Gorges.”21

Several weeks after the Tiananmen massacre, public outrage over the Chinese government’s use of force against its own citizens prompted the Canadian government to suspend several of its development assistance projects to China, including most outstanding work on the Three Gorges Project. CIDA’s sole exception involved Peter Haines, whose CIDA contract was extended to June 21, 1991, for the “provision of advisory services to China program [sic] in relation to the China Power Sector and the Three Gorges Project.” On June 14, 1991, Mr. Haines’ company, Professional Resources Inc., signed another CIDA contract to continue providing advisory services for China’s Ministry of Energy.22

Li Peng Revives Discussions

Despite public condemnations by foreign governments and international financiers, in the year following the Tiananmen massacre, high-level delegations quietly made their way back to the world’s greatest untapped market. The U.S. maintained China’s coveted “most favoured nation” status, the World Bank resumed lending to China, and while Canada’s work on the complementary studies for the Three Gorges Project remained suspended, Canada kept its consultants’ foot in the door, and its $2 billion line of trade credit to the Chinese government open. As Deng Xiaopeng predicted, it was just a matter of time before “business as usual” with foreigners would be restored.

In June 1990, only one year after the Tiananmen massacre, Premier Li Peng called a meeting of 76 experts to revive deliberations on the fate of the Three Gorges. Reporting on the findings of the committee members, China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, said, “Most favoured the project while some had different opinions or raised some questions.”23

According to the South China Morning Post, the dam builders now had a good chance to get the project off the ground, since the dam’s critics had been silenced by the government’s campaign against “bourgeois liberalisation.”24 The project was alive once more.

Canadian Engineers Accused of Negligence

But criticism of the project was not silenced abroad, and in a precedent-setting move complaints of negligence, incompetence and professional misconduct were laid against the Canadian engineers that completed the feasibility study.25 The complaints were lodged by Probe International with the provincial engineering associations – that are legally responsible for maintaining high standards among professional engineers – and were based on the findings contained in the first edition of Damming The Three Gorges published in 1990 (see Appendix B for details and outcome).

Probe International complained that the engineers failed to live up to standards of practice required of engineers licensed in Canada, citing their failure to make paramount the protection of the lives and property of those who would be affected by the project. To support its complaints, Probe International cited various infractions: the Canadian engineers recommended leaving half a million people to live in the active flood storage area of the reservoir; they failed to recommend compensation for as many as 30 percent of the urban population who are not registered residents; their seismic and dam safety analyses were inadequate; and the impact of sedimentation was underestimated.

But this challenge to the veracity of the proposed project was not about to interfere with Beijing’s schedule.

Damn the Approval. Full Steam Ahead

The Chinese government forged ahead with resettlement “pilot projects” in anticipation of securing formal parliamentary approval. By April, 1991, 10,000 people had been relocated. According to Guo Shuyan, Governor of Hubei province, “we are experimenting with moving households…so that when the project is approved we will be able to carry out the relocation process as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”26

Quick and efficient indeed. By July 1991 – only 4 months later – 40,000 people had been moved. Wang Jiazhu of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office and chief engineer of the project dismissed the need for due process, saying, “it’s out of the question to ask people if they want to be moved or to consult with them.”27

One resident faced with the prospect of losing her family’s ancestral home and small grove of orange trees despaired, “if the government decides to build the dam and you don’t agree to move, you can’t do anything about it. It really doesn’t matter what I think; there’s no point in resisting.”28

As the resettlement of over a million people was getting under way, the momentum of Beijing’s campaign to gain international funding for its favoured project was picking up steam. The pro-dam lobby marshalled specious arguments to justify its favoured project.

Floods Give Pro-Dam Lobby a Boost

The floods in June and July 1991, which took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, were cited by the Chinese government to the international community as proof that the Three Gorges Dam must be built for flood protection, and soon. News reports around the world repeated the theme.

But ironically, inside China, even pro-dam officials did not seem so sure. Former Minister of Power in China and long-time dam supporter, Qian Zhengying, said that had the Three Gorges Dam been standing, it would have done little or nothing to prevent the floods, which stemmed from tributaries of the Huai and Hai rivers, downstream of the proposed dam site and close to the eastern seaboard.29

Opposition Inside China Revitalized

Meanwhile, as the Chinese government billed the Three Gorges Dam to its international audience as the only way to save millions from disastrous floods, a groundswell of opposition was growing inside China. This opposition came from the academic and scientific community and, for the first time since the Tiananmen Square massacre, their viewpoints began appearing in print inside China.

In an open letter circulated in intellectual and political circles in China, scientist and vice-chair of the CPPCC, Qian Weichang, invoked the Gulf War as a reminder that the Three Gorges Dam would become a major target should China come under air attack.*30

Just a few months later, in January 1992, a Chinese journal carried articles by six Chinese experts critical of the Three Gorges Project. In the journal, social scientist Chen Shaoming warned against wasting China’s limited financial resources on such a massive project, and scholar Wang Ping added, “we cannot blindly go ahead with megaprojects.”31

Soon afterward, at a March 1992 meeting of the Jiusan Society, which consists mainly of Chinese scientists and academics, members criticized the Three Gorges Project. According to Professor Chen Mingshao, vice-president of Beijing Industrial University, “there are very many scientific and technical problems that remain unresolved and require further study and investigation before the project can go ahead.” Professor Chen even criticized a report by Vice- Premier Zou Jiahua because it said “that the problem of sedimentation has largely been resolved but I can tell you it has not.”32

According to the Jiusan Society, other problems that remained unresolved included: population relocation, project cost, threat of earthquakes and threat of war.

The problems noted by the Jiusan Society, and others, continued to be debated by the international community.

International Tribunal Condemns Project

In February 1992, the International Water Tribunal in Amsterdam – established to review cases of water mismanagement and disputes – heard a case concerning the Three Gorges Project brought against the government of China, the government of Canada, and the Canadian firms that completed the CIDA-financed feasibility study.*

After hearing the evidence about the Canadian feasibility study, the Jury ruled that due to “expediency, the very high ecological and socio-economic risks of the megadam have not been adequately assessed by the defendant’s feasibility studies.”

The Jury further stated in its ruling that development projects like the Three Gorges Dam “often ignore the rights and interests of the very people they purport to protect and serve.” Until the rights of the people of the Yangtze Valley are respected, the Jury ruled, the project should be halted.

Such concerns about the economic, social, and environmental consequences of the project, which preoccupied independent jurists, engineers, scientists and scholars around the world, distressed neither governments eager to renew economic relations with China, nor engineers vying for contracts to build the world’s biggest dam.

Foreign Involvement

Just as the opposition to the Three Gorges Project was reappearing in the winter of 1991/92 after the silence that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre, so too did foreign involvement in the project increase at that time. In December 1991, the United States Bureau of Reclamation signed a contract with the Chinese government to provide consulting services and technology for the Three Gorges Dam.33 The contract also pledged assistance from the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

For its part, the Chinese government again proceeded with efforts to secure international assistance. Reports quoted Zhao Chuanshao of the Ministry of Water Resources saying, “we need foreign experience during construction, and we are interested in securing foreign loans.”34

Beijing made this announcement just prior to the March 1992 session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), at which approval of the Three Gorges Dam was expected to pass uncontested.

Dam Approved

Days prior to the NPC session and in accordance with NPC rules, delegate Huang Shunxing registered his intention to address the Congress on April 3 about the vote on the Three Gorges Project. He also wanted to present to the Congress a petition opposing the dam signed by Chinese students at universities in several foreign countries.

On the day of the vote, however, the chairman refused to allow any discussion before delegates cast their votes.

In a last-ditch effort to postpone the dam, Mr. Huang interrupted the vote by standing and shouting his opposition. Pandemonium reigned for five minutes as the press corps descended on the delegate. When the chairman yelled above the din that no one would be heard from, another delegate, Liu Caipin, shouted: “The NPC has violated its own law.” She then pressed the objection button on her computer and stormed out chanting, “I protest, I protest.”35

One-third of the NPC delegates registered their concern about the project by voting no or abstaining. But in the end, with two-thirds voting in favour, the Three Gorges Dam was included in the 1990 – 2000 ten-year plan.

A report on the vote in the official New China News Agency commented “observers note the process from planning the Three Gorges Project in the early 1950s to today’s final approval is a reflection of the scientific and democratic approach in China’s major policy decision.”36

Despite the majority yes vote, foreign agencies were still unsure about casting their lot in with Beijing on the Three Gorges Dam Project.

Aid Agencies Step Back

Just after the NPC approved the Three Gorges Dam, CIDA announced in Canada’s Parliament that it would provide no more money for the project. Although the official explanation for withholding CIDA funds was budgetary restrictions, observers put forth the view that CIDA had buckled under widespread criticism over its participation in the project.37

At the same time, sources inside the World Bank said the Bank was “walking on eggs” when it came to the Three Gorges Project, and any World Bank money for the dam would be “camouflaged as some kind of social contribution – roads, schools and so on.”38

But the Chinese government kept up its search for international support for its favourite project.

China Dangles Bait for Foreign Investors

In July 1992, China announced it would open a huge stretch of territory along the Yangtze River to foreign investment, with the port of Shanghai anchoring the region as a “dragon’s head” of economic development. Among the 28 cities included in the scheme were Yichang (near the site of the Three Gorges Dam), Wuhan, Nanjing, Hanzhou and Chongqing.

In August 1992, and for the first time since the Communist takeover of China, the Chinese government allowed foreigners into its finance and insurance markets. A joint venture – including Merrill Lynch & Co. of the United States, a Taiwanese investment firm and the Lippo Group of Indonesia – was given special access to the markets on condition it provide financial support for the dam’s construction.39

A few months later, the People’s Construction Bank of China (PCBC) opened a branch in Yichang to secure financing for the dam. In addition to acting as cashier of state funds for the dam, the bank’s mission was to raise overseas funds by participating in international banking, trust and real estate deals.40

But despite having opened its door, and its markets, to foreign investors, Beijing was not attracting the money it had anticipated.

Environmentalists Upset Financing. Beijing Changes Tack

In January 1993, Yu Shizhong, deputy director of the Three Gorges technical advisory commission, admitted: “We know that environmentalists are putting pressure on the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and foreign governments….We may have trouble getting foreign loans.”41

But hardware was a different story. According to Mr. Yu, foreign companies that won equipment bids could still obtain concessionary export loans from their governments, adding “the Danes, the Germans, the French and the Americans are all trying to sell us equipment.”

To make it easier for potential suppliers, Beijing began holding major exhibitions and symposiums on the Three Gorges Project for “all interested organizations…to display their latest techniques and their experience concerning equipment manufacture, construction technologies and technical services.”42

After more than seventy years of chaotic debate and planning, the Chinese government was determined to see the Three Gorges Dam under construction before the turn of the century.


Sources and Further Commentary

*The Yangtze Valley Planning Office is now called the Changjiang Water Resources Commission.

*In August 1991, Lavalin Inc., unable to service its Cdn. $200 million debt, sold its engineering contracts to a creditor consortium of eight Canadian and international banks, which sold them to SNC Group Inc. SNC-Lavalin Inc., now Canada’s largest engineering firm, continues to be a partner in Canadian International Project Managers Ltd.

*The terms of reference were leaked to Probe International in 1987 after CIDA, acting on the wishes of the Chinese government, refused to release them. To obtain all the other documents related to, and including the Three Gorges Water Control Project Feasibility Study, Probe International had to resort to using the Canadian Access to Information law.

*At the news briefing, CIDA released only the summary volume of the 13-volume feasibility study, despite Probe International’s request for the entire study, and despite the Chinese government’s consent to the release of the entire study. Probe International then appealed to the Information Commissioner appointed by the Canadian government. But the engineering consortium, which had the right to withhold information on the grounds of third-party commercial interest, was apparently threatening CIDA with legal action if CIDA released the balance of the study. Behind closed doors, CIDA and the consortium reached an agreement and the remaining volumes (with many sections censored as per the clauses pertaining to third-party commercial interests) were released to Probe International in April 1989.

*On January 28, 1993, the Peruca Dam in Croati was seriously damaged when at least five explosive devices – strategically placed throughout the dam’s structure – were detonated.

*The Three Gorges case was brought by Probe International and the Federation for a Democratic China.

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