(October 15, 2012) Lauded by Chinese officialdom as a symbol of its growing might, the Three Gorges Dam had already been in operation for eight years when the Three Gorges Corporation issued its first-ever corporate social responsibility report. The release of the CSR report coincided with a wave of heightened concern surrounding the dam’s failings and impacts, and a rare admission by China’s State Council that all was not well with the jewel in its crown of modernity. A commentary by Li Tie at the time, published by China’s respected South Weekend, described the Corporation’s document as “awash in insipid content” and exactly not what the public needed, which was honesty. Li even went so far as to say reports that did not respond honestly to widespread concerns, in effect, posed a threat to the nation’s social stability, leaving Chinese citizens more likely to place their faith in the country’s rumor mill than official documents they could not trust. Li’s misgivings appear to have only gained in resonance this year, as China’s recent summer of protest bears out.
South Weekend commentator Li Tie took China’s Three Gorges Corporation to task in his critique of their first-ever corporate social responsibility report just as the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam Project were finally acknowledged by the government of China: the hardships endured by people displaced by the dam, pollution problems in the dam’s reservoir area and geological disasters in the reservoir region had intensified public unease about the dam’s long-term consequences. Instead of facing these concerns squarely, Li says the report issued by the Three Gorges Corporation used “vapid” language to confuse issues such as pollution and described relocated migrants as moving “toward a new and beautiful life” — the opposite of what many migrants continue to tell reporters and investigators, when their voices find a forum. Probe International’s most recent migrant testimony makes Li’s 2011 commentary worth revisiting. What has changed since June 2011 and now? Throughout the summer of 2012, violent public demonstrations, sparked by environmental concerns, made headlines as public discontent continues to mount. “If Three Gorges Corporation and others do not look at this problem squarely and give an honest answer it will likely become a wellspring of rumors and fear which will threaten social stability,” writes Li. “What is left to overcome rumors if a standard report is awash in insipid content? If someone spends all his time whitewashing and never shows his real countenance, how can people tell if he himself is a man or a devil?”
By Li Tie (李铁)
This is a translation of a commentary which appeared in South Weekend on June 23, 2011.
The public demands a report on the Three Gorges Dam which is honest, scientific, and comprehensive, which can effectively answer the many uncertainties of this project. The public does not want a perfunctory description which merely whitewashes this company’s face.
China Three Gorges Corporation issued the first ever Social Responsibility Report in Beijing on June 19. Many still can recall the vote during The Fifth Session of the Seventh NPC in April 1992 in which the project was approved. There were 1767 votes for it, 177 against, and 664 abstentions. Twenty-five others abstained even further by not pressing any buttons at all. This is how the “Resolution on Construction of the Three Gorges Dam” was passed. It was the first time a block of voters abstained in the history of the National People’s Congress.
The Three Gorges have gone through several historic stages over the past 19 years: the start of construction; damming and the first accumulation of water; completion of construction and a second accumulation of water; and a test of waters 175 meters in depth. Uncertainty has floated to the surface yet again, however, especially since 2008 in which the worst drought in 50 years has plagued the south of China due to the frequent geological disasters in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Do these events have anything to do with the Three Gorges Dam?
The entire project was completed five years ago. Whatever the benefits and detriments may be, they can be compared with the prognostications when the resolution was first passed. Which problems were predicted and which were unexpected? Everyone was concerned about the relocation of people who lived in the Three Gorges area, the [potential for] geological disasters, and ecological problems, but in practical terms how well have these problems been addressed? After 19 years with this resolution and five with the finished product, the relevant authorities ought to have systematic investigations and evaluations in place to answer the long-term uncertainties that reside in the hearts and minds of people everywhere in this society.
It was at this very moment in which the Three Gorges Corporation issued its first Social Responsibility Report in 18 years. Insofar as it fulfills its duty to society it is worthy to be praised. However, the contents of this report have left many feeling extremely disappointed. The public demands a report which is honest, scientific, and comprehensive, which can effectively answer the many uncertainties of this project. The public does not want a perfunctory description which merely whitewashes this company’s face.
Assistant Director Huang Shuhe (黄淑和) of the State Asset Regulatory Commission offered some food for thought when he spoke to the two representatives of the company as chair of the press conference: “Three Gorges Corporation needs to improve its communication with the public… There was controversy in the past, every method of communication needs to be used with society.” He said that the good things need to be said but existing problems also need to be spoken about. “Three Gorges Corporation needs to consider carefully how to communicate with society in the future and how to respond to contentious questions.” Huang Shuhe’s words can serve to represent the hopes of the greater part of society, but unfortunately this Social Responsibility Report seems to be fixated on singing the praises of Three Gorges Corporation. It is a far cry from truly addressing the concerns of society.
The three largest problems according to feasibility studies and the debate surrounding the dam are the displacement of residents, environmental problems, such as pollution in the reservoir, and geological disasters after the reservoir has been filled. After nearly two decades, neither the public nor the government feel at ease about any of these problems.
Let’s first address the issue of displaced residents. Media reports have stated that a portion of the rural migrants who were relocated from the Three Gorges region have been moving back since 2002. The new accommodations provided to many of these people simply were not an adequate solution for their livelihood needs. They had no way to integrate into their new environment and made the difficult decision to return. We are still waiting for an answer from the report as to exactly how many people have returned and what their situation is. The report states that we can see “relocated migrants are creating a new life together.” … “1,397,600 people left their native soil to create a new homeland. They have begun to move towards a new and beautiful life. As of the end of 2010, Three Gorges Corporation has handed out nearly 84 billion yuan in resettlement compensation funds and accumulated approximately 3.1 billion yuan in support funds for post resettlement.”
The second problem is that of pollution in the reservoir. When Wen Jiabao (温家宝) chaired an agriculture symposium in Chongqing in April 2006, he pointed out that one of the four things the reservoir must do well is “solve the difficulties for migrants and potable water.” The backdrop to these comments was the fact that 625 mines had been flooded, 1.2 million urban residents had been forced to move, and a large amount of industrial solid waste and construction debris had been submerged. The effect of harmful chemical contents of much of this material on the quality of the water cannot be ignored. How have these problems been solved? Unfortunately, the report only provides vapid words such as, “collectively building an ecology with a new civilization;” and “working to protect and recover the ecology, emphasizing the reduction of energy resources, using environmentally friendly methods, and maximizing the reduction of deleterious effects on the ecological system and environment.”
And then there is the problem of geological disasters and climate change which many over the last two years suspect have been exacerbated by the Three Gorges Dam. Compared to the two problems above, this one is more complex and ambiguous, and with a much larger potential effect, it is much easier to incite public panic and protestations. If Three Gorges Corporation and others do not look at this problem squarely and give an honest answer it will likely become a wellspring of rumors and fear which will threaten social stability.
When rumors flood, some government departments denounce others as having ulterior motives, that they are bedeviling the masses. Or they put the blame on the public for not being educated and refined, for believing such lies. But those who support such theories would do well to consider why the public chooses to believe the rumors and not official documents. What is left to overcome rumors if a standard report is awash in insipid content? If someone spends all his time whitewashing and never shows his real countenance, how can people tell if he himself is a man or a devil?
Li Tie is a Hong Kong-based commentator for South Weekend.
The original version of this article, in Chinese, is available here.