China Energy Industry

Things you may not know about the history of the Three Gorges Dam Project

(February 8, 2012) Admissions of trouble at Three Gorges Dam by China’s powerful State Council last spring, left many wondering how the behemoth dam ever got off the drawing board. Now, in a first, behind-the-scenes account of raw power politics, Guo Yushan from China’s Transition Institute describes how Three Gorges critics were silenced, and China’s power mandarins maneuvered, to build the world’s largest and most troubled dam. Read this translation by Probe International of the article that went viral on China’s Internet.

By Guo Yushan
Executive Director
Transition Institute, Beijing

This article originally appeared on one of China’s most popular web sites, the Blog of Wangyi (NetEase: Dated July 25, 2011, the article received some 70,000 hits. The original posting in Chinese is available here.

Translated By: Madeleine Ross and Fang Li and Probe International

The Three Gorges Dam is a massive water control project built on the upper reaches of China’s famed Yangtze River. The dam is located near what used to be the town of old Sandouping (since submerged by the project and rebuilt), in the middle section of Xiling Gorge – the longest and once most dangerous of the Three Gorges – close to the city of Yichang, the major transportation hub of China’s Hubei Province. According to its design, the normal pool level (NPL) of the Three Gorges Dam’s reservoir reaches 175 metres; the reservoir itself stretches 660 kilometres along the Yangtze, creating a backwater rising upstream hundreds of kilometers to the industrial metropolis of Chongqing. The poured concrete wall of the dam towers 185 metres high above the Yangtze’s middle reaches, spans 2309.47 metres across, and measures 40 metres thick on top and 115 metres thick on bottom. Taking more than nine years to complete, the dam has entailed the excavation of 134-million cubic meters of earth and stone, the pouring of 28-million cubic meters of concrete, and the use of 593,000 tonnes of steel.

When the stored water in the reservoir is raised to its maximum level of 175 metres, the 660-kilometre stretch of previously dangerous river that runs from the dam wall all the way upstream to Chongqing, becomes a much-used water transport corridor that can be navigated even by large 10,000-tonne boats. Advocates of the Three Gorges Project have long stated that an increase in shipping was one of the main benefits of raising the level of the reservoir. It was also the reason why, in the early 1980s, the government of Chongqing City persisted in asking the central government to raise the NPL from 150 metres to 175 metres.

But raising the level of 660 kilometers of water from 150 to 175 metres, would also mean submersion for more counties and cities along the banks of the Yangtze, and force people who had lived there for generations to become yet another statistic in the growing tally of reservoir migrants. In 1989, before dam construction begun, the Ministry of Water Resources organized yet another evaluation of the Three Gorges project to estimate just how many people would be forced to migrate from the 19 counties that would be affected if the water rose to 175 metres. This tenth evaluation estimated 725,000 people would require immediate relocation and a total of 1,130,000 would eventually have to move.  In reality, according to a survey carried out in October 1991, 847,500 people had been forced to relocate from 20 submerged counties. By 2006, more than 1,200,000 people had been processed by Chongqing’s relocation and resettlement program, 26 counties and cities had been submerged – 22 of them in Chongqing – and the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee (TGPCC) acknowledged that, ultimately, the number of forced migrants would rise to 1,400,000: much higher than the original estimates given by engineers before the project began.

Measured only by the number of people relocated, the Three Gorges Project is an unprecedented hydro-engineering project. But if one also considers the technological and environmental challenges, it is a massive dam of truly astonishing dimensions that has tested the powers of human imagination.

How did such an enormously difficult and controversial project like the Three Gorges Dam win such a deep commitment from so many people? The audacious inspiration behind the massive project belongs, in fact, to a few political figures from China’s past.

The earliest inspiration for the Three Gorges Project came from Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of modern China. Sun raised the idea of constructing a large dam on the Yangtze River for the first time in his 1919 “Plans for National Reconstruction.”[i] The Kuomintang government, which respected Sun as the father of the nation, was the first to float the idea of damming the Yangtze at Three Gorges. The first effort began in the 1930s, when a project for two low dams was proposed, although work on them never began. The second effort took place in 1944, when the Chief Design Engineer of the United States’ Bureau of Reclamation, John L. Savage, began the ‘Savage’ project.[ii]  The Kuomintang government launched a series of inspections in relation to the project, which ceased only after their defeat in China’s civil war.

However, after founding the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party continued to examine the feasibility of a Three Gorges Project. Li Rui, recollects that the Ministry of Water Resources [iii] was the prime instigator of the Three Gorges project. The main purpose was to create a large storage basin to prevent flooding on the Yangtze River. In order to contain as much floodwater as possible, the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (today it is called the Changjiang Water Resources Commission or CWRC) put forward a scheme in the 1950s to construct a 235-metre high dam project, one much taller than the present Three Gorges Project. If the dam had been constructed at that height, more than half of Chongqing would have been inundated and more than 2,000,000 people would have had to be relocated.  At the time, the hydroelectric department in the Ministry of Electric Power, where Li Rui worked, and the Ministry of Water Resources held different opinions about the dam’s height. Representatives from both sides, Lin Yishan and Li Rui, debated the topic twice: once in writing and once before Mao Zedong in 1956.

In the end, Mao Zedong supported Li Rui’s standpoint, which prevented the project’s immediate commencement. But it must be said that Mao Zedong was undecided about the Three Gorges Project all along. The first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, on the other hand, was unequivocally positive in his support of the project. According to Liu Jiming, the author of Meng Zhi Ba (Dam of Dreams), “Zhou Enlai endorsed and supported the Three Gorges Project from start to finish.” After the debates about the project in 1956, Zhou Enlai went on to head an inspection tour of Three Gorges. On March 28, 1958, at a meeting in Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, his opinion was accepted that “the Three Gorges Dam must be built and it can be built.”

Despite Zhou Enlai’s support, in the 1960s, Mao Zedong refused to let work begin on the project due to hostilities between China and the Soviet Union and the risk of war. Nevertheless, surveys and investigations of the proposed dam continued until 1966, when the Yangtze Valley Planning Office published the “Concise Report on the Design of the Three Gorges Key Water Conservancy Project.” And then in 1967, the same agency published a “Report on the Comprehensive Engineering and Geological Investigations of the Yangtze River Three Gorges Key Water Conservancy Project. Since Zhou Enlai had already made the case for the dam, the only issue remaining was to determine the date for the commencement of construction. During the zealous atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou Enlai delivered a stirring speech in 1970, drawing on Mao’s support for the dam (expressed in a poem he had written in 1956, entitled “Swimming”), saying: “The Three Gorges Project is Mao Zedong’s mighty dream, and it must be built in the not too distant future or we will be letting the party and Mao Zedong down!”

It was a fanatical idea. In 1970, because circumstances[iv] did not permit work to begin on the Three Gorges Project, a substitute project – the Gezhouba Dam[v] – was chosen instead and its construction begun in haste on Mao’s birthday. According to the original design, the Gezhouba Dam should have been built after the completion of the Three Gorges project, so the move to bring its construction schedule forward was a crazy idea, indeed. Even someone who was an advocate for the Three Gorges Project, such as Lin Yishan, would have opposed this plan. In addition, there were almost no experts on the team assigned to build the Gezhouba Dam so, just two years after construction began, work had to be stopped in order for the dam to be redesigned. By 1974, work on Gezhouba was restarted, but it was not completed until 1989, fifteen years later, when the feasibility study for the Three Gorges Project was almost finished.

Zhou Enlai’s position on the Three Gorges Dam quite clearly influenced policymakers after the Cultural Revolution. In 1982, the subject was raised again at the Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party, and very quickly a proposal was put forward to build the dam at the lower height of 165 metres with a NPL of 150 metres.  In 1983, this plan was approved by the State Planning Commission and 350 experts were invited to evaluate its feasibility. In 1984, the State Council approved the 350 experts’ feasibility report and, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Water Resources, changed the proposed design so that the dam would instead have “a normal pool level of 150 meters and a dam height of 175 metres.” Then, if the relocation of people up to the 150 metre mark went smoothly, the normal pool level would be raised to 160 metres. By this time, it was clear that the ball had been put in motion and there was no turning back. In September, 1984 the first vast army of workers moved onto the dam site and started work.

Until 1984, opponents of the project were still limited to those within the Chinese Communist Party. Li Rui maintained his opposition to the dam from the 1950s and argued against initiating construction of the dam. In both 1979 and 1984, he submitted letters to the Party’s Central Committee elaborating on his objections. But, in contrast to the 1950s, he was unable to persuade the central authority policymakers to call a halt to the project.  Nevertheless, a number of different opinions began to emerge within the Central Committee about how high the dam wall should be, and one of the main voices of this debate came from the city of Chongqing. In November 1984, the Chongqing city government submitted a paper to the Central Committee entitled, “Some opinions and suggestions about the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River.” It pointed out that at the 150-metre reservoir water level that had been approved, the reservoir’s backwater would barely reach the 180-kilometre stretch of the river between Fuling City and Zhongxian County. If that were the case, there would be no improvement in the navigation channel of the rather long section of river below Chongqing, and that would mean 10,000-tonne vessels would still be unable to sail directly through to Chongqing. The Chongqing city government, therefore, recommended the dam be built to a height of 185 metres, with an NPL of 175 metres, and endorsed a plan to “develop one step, build everything in one go, store water in stages and have a continuous program of relocation.”[vi] This was the plan later adopted when work formally began on the project in 1994.

Because of the contrasting view raised by Chongqing, in February 1984, the State Council asked the National Planning Commission and the Science and Technology Commission to carry out further investigations into the dam’s proposed normal pool water level. In the same year, opposition to the Three Gorges Project began to consolidate in earnest, and in April 1985, not only was Li Rui’s book “Thesis on the Three Gorges published, but in the third session of the Sixth Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, 167 committee members either singly or collaboratively put forward 17 motions proposing that the Three Gorges Project be delayed. In May 1985, Sun Yueqi, an elder statesman of 92 years of age, led the CPPCC’s commission of inquiry in a careful 38-day investigation of the Three Gorges area. At the time of the inquiry, Sun Yueqi was the head of the National CPPCC standing committee’s economic group. (Sun Yueqi had been the President of the National Government’s Natural Resources Committee at the time of the Republic of China and, in the 1940s, was the founder of China’s first oil field – the Yumen oil field, and one of the founders of China’s present-day resource industry).  The investigation’s results revealed the dam posed seven major problems: cost, flood control, siltation, navigation, power generation, the relocation of migrants, and safety. In the short term, they argued, the project should not proceed. Moreover, that same year, the well known world-class physicist, who was at the time the deputy Chairman of the National CPPCC, Zhou Peiyuan, argued that experts with differing opinions should participate in a national debate about the Three Gorges Project in order to encourage a free airing of views and to promote collaboration. Dissenting voices continued to be raised until 1986, and in the fourth session of the Sixth National CPPCC, the economist Qian Jiaju openly criticized the Three Gorges Project, calling it “glory hunting.” At the same time, he censured the State Council, saying that allowing the acceptance of the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Project before it had been deliberated by the People’s Congress, went against democratic procedures.[vii]

These voices of opposition caused Communist Party leaders to vacillate. In June 1986, they published a report entitled, “Announcement About Problems with the Evaluation of the Three Gorges Project,” in which they repealed the order to establish a Three Gorges province that allowed for construction of the dam, and called for a re-evaluation of the project.  In that same report, however, the responsibility for the re-evaluation of the project was transferred from the National Planning Commission and the Science and Technology Commission to the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

Prior to this, in September and December 1985, the National Planning Commission and the Science and Technology Commission had jointly held very influential meetings to evaluate the water levels for the project. But in the end, due to the tireless efforts of Qian Zhengying – who was then in charge of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power at the time, and who had a showdown with the Director of the Science and Technology Commission, Song Jian – the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power took command of the evaluations.

Objectively speaking, it must be said that the procedure followed by the State Council was biased because the Ministry, actively in favor of the Three Gorges Project, was in charge of its evaluation. Because of the long-term and widespread consequences of a project such as this, the evaluation should have been carried out by the national government and not an individual ministry. Just as Li Rui had said, the evaluation was relatively objective when the National Planning Commission and the Science and Technology Commission were organizing it. All the different opposing opinions could be voiced, but when the the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power took over, “the whole evaluation, from the composition of constituent members to the actual content took on a ‘stay in line’ autocratic flavour.” This is the reason for the various contentious issues that the project has endured since the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power took charge of the evaluations in 1986, despite being evaluated by a massive team of more than 400 experts, organized into 14 specialist groups.

Since experts such as Huang Wanli and Li Rui were unable to participate in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power’s evaluation, they had no choice but to make public statements and speeches. In 1987, in the face of many obstacles, a group opposed to the Three Gorges Project successfully published a substantial work of opposing views called,  “Evaluation of the Policy Decisions relating to the Three Gorges Project,” which had a large impact on public opinion. Nevertheless, the fourth session of the Three Gorges Evaluation Conference convened by the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power  in April 1987 still approved the project’s plan, which was to “have a stored water level of 175 meters, develop one step, build everything in one go, store water in stages and have a continuous program of relocation.” The project, in effect, got the green light from a small evaluation group until the ninth session of the Evaluation Conference, which occurred in 1988, decided that “building the dam was better than not building it and that sooner was better than later.”

Meanwhile, that same year in Beijing, a group of 182 CPPCC committee members, led by Zhou Peiyuan, inspected the banks of the Yangtze from Wuhan upstream to the proposed dam site. Following the inspection, they submitted a recommendation to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party suggesting, in a very conciliatory manner, that the evaluation process should slow down. But the results of this CPPCC investigation were hardly discussed at the time due to widespread press reports indicating evaluation work had essentially been done and approved.

In March 1989, after two years of laborious work, the evaluations by the Ministry of Water Resources were finally finished. However, a great deal of disagreement and dispute persisted over its conclusions because the Ministry had not followed democratic procedures for its conduct.

Unfortunately, political pressure was applied and those voices of opposition gradually disappeared. Then, at the beginning of 1989, the Guizhou People’s Press published “Yangtze! Yangtze! edited by investigative journalist Dai Qing and others, which included protests against the project – now on the verge of commencement – in the form of a compendium of articles by Zhou Peiyuan, Xun Yueqi, Hou Xueyu and other critics. Not long after, Dai Qing was arrested because of the 1989 Incident, “Yangtze! Yangtze! was banned and more than 3,000 copies were burnt in Guizhou Province. At about the same time “Yangtze! Yangtze! was published, the Hunan People’s Press re-published “Re-evaluate the Policy Decision of the Three Gorges Project,” an anthology of dissenting opinions. In 1989, the Secretariat of the National People’s Congress and the CPPCC refused to accept the Hunan’s People’s Press document for their annual congressional deliberations.  In the end, the editor-in-chief paid personally for copies to be delivered individually to delegates at the 1989 annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In the special mood of 1989, Tian Fang, the editor of this anthology, was accused by two people responsible for the Ministry of Water Resources’ small-group evaluation of Three Gorges, of participating in Dai Qing’s activities, which authorities labeled as “capitalist liberalization.”[viii]

A petition was submitted by Xu Caidong and 272 representatives of the National People’s Congress to the NPC and CPPCC session that year, proposing the postponement of the Three Gorges Project until the 21st century, promoting instead the exploitation of the Yangtze’s upper reaches and its tributaries. Eighteen other motions by 300 people were submitted to the Congress, all voicing different opinions about the project and requesting further evaluation. The extent of controversy caused Yao Yilin, the Vice Premier of the State Council, to state, “It is impossible to begin the project within the next five years.”[ix]

In spite of this commitment, the Vice Premier of the State Council was unable to prevent advocates in favour of the project from urging its commencement. Wang Zhen, Wang Renzhong and Qian Zhengying vigorously supported the project and unexpectedly disagreed with Yao Yilin in public.  Qian Zhengying told reporters at the 1991 CPPCC conference, “Building the Three Gorges project is better than not building it, and it is better to build it sooner rather than later!” Very soon, in August 1991, despite ongoing opposition, the State Council’s Three Gorges project investigation committee approved the Ministry of Water Resources’ project feasibility report.

It only remained for the National People’s Congress to vote on the issue. Proponents prepared meticulously for the vote and, in the six months between October 1991 and March 1992, organized for 20 groups, or roughly 3,500 people, to visit the Three Gorges region to investigate the project. Without exception, they returned, unanimous in their praise. In addition, newspapers across the country began to direct public opinion, welcoming the forthcoming 1992 National People’s Congress vote in one eulogizing voice. The Two Congress Convention (NPC and CPPCC) began on 20 March, 1992 and on April 3; the resolution “State Council Proposal to submit the building of the Three Gorges Project for consideration” was put to the vote. The result was as follows: 1,767 votes in favour, 177 votes against, 664 abstentions; a further 25 people did not use their voting mechanisms.  The resolution was approvedFrom then on the curtain was raised and formal construction of the Three Gorges Project began.

The Transition Institute is a Beijing-based, independent think tank founded in 2007, focused on the privatization and deregulation of China’s economy, the country’s nascent movement towards democracy and the strengthening of civil society, as well as law reform.

A Who’s Who in the Three Gorges Dam Drama

Li Rui (1917- ), previously Mao Zedong’s secretary on industrial affairs, was also vice-minister of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, also a long-time advocate of faster political liberalization. Currently resides in Beijing.

Sun Yueqi (1911-2001) was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. He has held government positions specializing in the economic and financial sectors, was a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and chairman of the Economic Construction Group of the consultative conference.

Zhou Peiyuan (1902-1993), a physicist who studied under Albert Einstein and later headed Beijing University. He was vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Qian Jiaju (1909-2002), economist, member of the CPPCC.

Qian Zhengying, the vice chairman of the CPPCC (1993-2003), an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and minister of the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power (1952-1988).

Song Jian, head of the Science and Technology Commission (1984-1993), member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Huang Wanli (1911-2001), a professor with the Hydraulic Engineering Department of Qinghua University, Beijing since 1953. After obtaining his doctorate in engineering from the Engineering Institute of Illinois, he returned to China in 1937, and was famous for his opposition to the Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River in the 1950s.

Hou Xueyu (1912-1991), a botanist, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and an advisor to the Experts’ Group on Ecology and Environment of the Ministry of Water Conservancy’s Three Gorges Project feasibility study.

Tian Fang, researcher and vice-director of the Economic Research Institute of the State Planning Commission.

Xu Caidong, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Yao Yilin (1917-1994), Vice Premier of the State Council (1979-1993).

Wang Zhen (1908-1993), general of the People’s Liberation Army, Vice Premier of the State Council in 1975 and Vice Chairman of the People’s Republic of China in 1988.

Wang Renzhong (1917-1992), Party Secretary of Hubei Province in 1950, Vice Premier of the State Council in 1978 and Vice Chairman of CPPCC (1988-1992).


[i] Return to text: A blueprint for China’s industrialization.

[ii] Return to text: Invited to China by the then chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, Chiang Kai-shek, Savage surveyed and designed his ‘dream dam’ – a project known, at the time, as the Yangtze Gorge Project.

[iii] Return to text:  The See-Saw History of China’s Ministry of Water Resources.

October 1949: The Ministry of Water Resources is created.

July 30, 1955:  The Ministry of Electric Power is created.

February 11, 1958: The Ministries of Water Resources and the Ministry of Electric Power are combined to form the new Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

February 23, 1979: The Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power is separated into the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Electric Power.

1982: The Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Electric Power are, once again, merged to form the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

July 22, 1988: The Ministry of Water Resources is re-established as a separate ministry, which it remains to this day.

The Ministry of Electric Power was eventually dismantled and the Ministry of Energy was created in 1988, combining the ministries of coal, petroleum and nuclear power. But the Ministry of Energy was short-lived: five years later, it was dismantled with the re-establishment of the Ministry of Electric Power in 1993. In 1998, the Ministry of Electric Power was dismantled again and put under the State Economic and Trade Commission, which itself was dismantled in 2003. So, the Ministry of Electric Power no longer exists.

For further details on the structure of China’s power sector see “China’s Power Sector Revolution Stalled.”

[iv] Return to text: Such as the risk of war.

[v] Return to text: The Gezhuoba Dam is 40 kilometres downstream of the Three Gorges Dam.

[vi] Return to text: This slogan means, develop water resources or hydro power capacity by building only one dam (not a cascade of dams), namely the Three Gorges project, between Yichang and Chongqing on the Yangtze (“develop one step”); and build all the components of the dam’s structure, such as the dam, power plants, ship-lock and so forth in the proposed construction period (“build everything in one go”).

[vii] Return to text: This refers to a lack of openness and public participation in the evaluation: for example, those who had different opinions such as Li Rui and Professor Huang Wanli were excluded from the evaluation, and no hearings or public participation occurred.

[viii] Return to text: Several years before the “6.4 Incident,” there was a surge in public debates and requests, especially in colleges and universities across China, calling for democratic reforms, including press freedom, freedom of speech and independent elections in universities. That ended in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Soon after, Chinese authorities launched the “anti ‘capitalist liberalization’” campaign during which everyone – university lecturers, for example – had to confess whether, when, and how they had participated in these so-called “capitalist liberalization” activities. Anyone who confessed would then have to make a self-criticism or endure criticism by colleagues.

Related reading:  

China Digital Times reprinted an excerpt from this report and noted the following:

Non-profit environmental advocacy group PROBE International released the English translation of a lengthy and informative article written by Guo Yushan last year. Guo is director of the Transition Institute, an independent liberal-democratic think tank based in Beijing. The article, which originally appeared on NetEase in July, explains the history and power struggle that allowed the Three Gorges Dam project to get off the ground in the midst of a bounty of criticism. Read the China Digital Times posting here.

China Digital Times is an independent, bilingual news website, currently blocked in mainland China.

2 replies »

  1. Impressive article, impressive in its detail, breadth, depth and connections. It’s also impressive for its greatest ommission, Li Peng. The adopted son of Zhou Enlai, Li Peng was a hydro-engineer and the Premier of China during the 80s and 90s when most of the political maeuvering for this damn happened. Everybody knows those facts and connections though and leaving him out is like not mentioning the elephant in the room, yeah the elephant is obvious, but shouldn’t it still be mentioned?

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