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Date: Tue, 12 May 98 12:14:16 CDT
From: Mark Graffis <ab758@virgin.usvi.net>
Subject: Three Gorges Dam: A metaphor for changing ways in China
Article: 34614
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.11952.19980514001625@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Three Gorges Dam: A metaphor for changing ways in China

By Audrey Ronning Topping, Earth Times News Service, 12 May 1998

The controversy over the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the fabled Yangtze River has once again flared worldwide because of an authoritative field report warning that a major human disaster is in the offing as Beijing presses forward with the project.

A prominent Chinese sociologist, who guardedly writes under the pen name Wu Ming, issued the report after touring five of the 22 counties scheduled to be flooded by 2009, forcing the resettlement of almost two million Yangtze valley residents.

Wu charges that the resettlement program, which has already evicted thousands from their ancestral homes, has been plagued by official corruption, false reports of success, inadequate compensation and the lack of alternate jobs and fertile land. The evacuees also face hostility from people in the already overcrowded areas where they are being relocated.

Reporting widespread anger among the resettlers, Wu wrote that one Chinese official said: Authorities will have to rely on the military or a man-made flood to force people out of their homes.

The Chinese government has estimated that by the year 2009 the waters of the 385 mile-long Three Gorges reservoir will engulf 13 cities, more than 100 towns, 320 villages and 115,000 acres of the richest land in the river basin. In the process unique wildlife habitats and archeological sites dating back 10,000 years will be lost forever.

Opponents of the megadam are hoping that the report, distributed by International Rivers Network and Human Rights in China, will force the Chinese Government to scale down or even terminate the world's largest hydroelectric project even though, with the completion of the first phase of construction last November, it now seems beyond the point of no return. Dai Qing, a woman journalist and chief voice for the mounting opposition, asserts that the megadam controversy has fundamental ramifications for China that go beyond the ecological and human dangers. She characterizes the debate as a metaphor for the evolution of Chinese society. The struggle over the dam, she said in a recent interview is a microcosm of what is happening in the whole of China. It is really a struggle for a better, freer society. Wu Ming's account reported that local officials have filed false reports of progress in the resettlement program to impress the national leaders. While official records claim that some 200,000 people have already been relocated, Wu's study estimates only 50,000. The stage is set, he reported, for a repeat of the disastrous replacements of reservoir refugees that have occurred again and again since 1949 [when the Communists took over] involving hasty, sometimes violent reallocations to inappropriate sites, where the displaced often end up in extreme poverty. He was referring to a report by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1990 revealing that 40 percent of the 10 million people forced to resettle in the 1950s were still living in dire poverty 30 years later. The report was no surprise to opponents of the dam, but the frank account indicates that the seeds of political reforms crushed in the Tiananmen calamity nine years ago are sprouting again. Critics of the Three Gorges Dam, said Dai Qing, are fighting to expose the issues the government is trying to suppress. China is undergoing rapid change. The people want basic rights, more power and a better government in China, but through incremental change, not revolution, she said.

Critics feel the government is intent on forcing the project through as an icon of superpower status and national prestige. Dai charges that the politicians in power typify the rigid Mao Zedong mind-set that resulted in monumental disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. On the surface, she said, the conflict is about the dam and resettlement. But it is actually the story of how the Chinese people suffer and how we are working for a better future. The controversy over the dam is really between the old society and the emerging new society. Politicians seeking power by supporting the dam have all the characteristics of the old society--that is, authoritarianism, one-party system and no regard for the individual. They allow no democratic discussion.

Dai asserts that, Opponents of the dam--that is, the majority of China's intellectuals--have all the characteristics of the new society. We want the freedom to be heard. We are concerned about the environment, human rights and the welfare of others. What is the government afraid of?

Since January a number of prominent intellectuals have come out of their closets to express their support for the new society Dai Qing advocates. They have published articles in a number of journals stressing the need for individual rights and the pursuit of self-interest as well as extending village elections and diminishing the role of the government and the Communist Party.

A leading economist, Professor Mao Yushi, from the elite Communist Party school, recently blasted the climate of fear that he charges impedes free speech. Publication of his recent essay, Liberalism, Equal Status and Human Rights, has put him in demand on China's long-dormant college lecture circuit. In March, in a lecture to 150 students at the Chinese Geological University, he praised Western liberalism and called for human rights. Another prominent reformer, Li Shenzhi, the retired vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published an article in the January issue of Reform Magazine titled [We Should] Also Champion Political Reform urging that China adopt universal human rights. The implementation of political reform will determine the ultimate success or failure of economic reform, he wrote.

Shen Baoxing, a professor at the Central Party School, was quoted in the April China Economic Times as saying: Only in a democratic environment can people voice new opinions and can their intelligence, wisdom and ability be fully brought into play. . . . If we don't encourage people to think freely and voice new opinions, our society will actually be utterly stagnant, though it may seem tranquil.

All public debate on the Three Gorges Dam has been banned in China since the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989. At that time Dai was jailed for 10 months for writing a critical book, Yangtze! Yangtze! Undaunted, she has just completed another book of essays by China's top scientists and archaeologists, The River Dragon Has Come (M.E. Sharpe in Armonk, New York, and London, 1998). The book details the dangers of the project that scientists were prevented from presenting to the People's Congress in 1992 when the decision to construct the dam was being decided.

On the surface, the benefits of the dam seem indisputable. The government claims the megadam will increase the supply of affordable electricity, control floods, boost the growing economy, reduce air pollution and increase capacity for shipping fivefold. Opponents recognize the need for all these things but ask whether the benefits are worth the costs and risks.

They warn of the world's largest flood if the projected 1.3-mile-long, 610-foot-high dam ever crumbled because of man-made or natural catastrophe. Between 270,000 and 400,000 cubic yards of crashing water per second would roar downstream, engulfing dozens of populous towns and cities and imperiling 10 million Chinese. Engineers and hydrologists say the same energy can be produced by building smaller power plants along the sparsely populated tributaries throughout the river system. These dams, they argue, would be less costly, save the antiquities, avoid massive relocation and the dangers of a gigantic flood.

Last November, when a 350-foot-wide, mile-long diversionary channel was finished, Chinese leaders cheered the completion of the first phase of construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Li Peng, then Prime Minister and the driving force behind the project, claimed: The damming of the Yangtze River is successful! and President Jiang Zemin declared it to be a symbol of China's emergence as a world power.

But opponents accused the leaders of putting politics before responsible engineering. Owen Lammers, executive director of International Rivers Network, saw it as merely the most recent evidence that science and engineering are taking a back seat to political agendas in order to erect this monument to China's hard-line regime. Critics say the dam will be the most hazardous hydroelectric project ever attempted.

In China the project conjures up terrifying memories of disastrous dam breaks from China's past, the worst of them the overnight crumbling of 62 dams in Henan province in 1975. That disaster was attributed to an unprecedented typhoon. In the deluge, the dams--including two of China's largest iron dams in the Huaihe River--held for only two days. The iron dams had been built in the early 1950s and government officials had proclaimed them indestructible, like the Titanic. When the dams fell like a row of dominoes before the raging torrents, the river dragon escaped with such demonic force that tidal waves wiped out entire towns; an estimated 86,000 to 230,000 people died. Two million more were trapped for weeks and some 11 million were stricken by disease and famine in the aftermath.

The catastrophe was concealed by a government news blackout. It was not exposed until 1995 when Human Rights Watch/Asia compiled a report from secret sources, but to this day the flood has not been publicly acknowledged by the Chinese government, nor has it been cited in government hearings on the Three Gorges project.

Opponents of the dam are appealing to the government to listen to the Chinese scientists and intellectuals so that the 1975 disaster will not repeat itself. Dai Qing says that if government officials in the 1950s had heeded the dire warnings from engineers, including top hydrologist Chen Xing, the 1975 disaster could have been prevented.

A coalition of 45 international groups opposed the project for environmental and human rights concerns is calling on international banking institutions to stop financing the project. They say that is the only way now to stop the project.

The cost of the dam is a major item in China's construction plans. Peter Passell, reporting on China's economic scene in the New York Times March 12, stated that, Chinese leaders have said they will increase spending, with $750 billion to $1 trillion devoted to new construction over three years. Passell says this is virtually impossible short of a total mobilization of the economy in the manner of Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward.

Opponents of the dam are basing their hopes on the appointment last March of China's economic czar Zhu Rongji as Prime Minister, replacing Li Peng. Zhu is the only Chinese leader who has never expressed enthusiasm for the project. So far he has not made any comments about the dam, but informed intellectuals say he is very ambivalent about the project, particularly as to its likely costs.

Official Chinese estimates of the cost of the dam has risen from $17 billion to $32 billion, but unofficial estimates reach $75 billion. Many investment firms are having second thoughts. Public pressure in Japan has led at least one investment company to stop offering bonds for the State Development Bank of China. The US Export-Import Bank has refused to finance loans for the project, and the World Bank, after a thorough investigation, declined financial aid. Ignoring the doubts and protests about the dam, Canada's publicly funded Export Development Corporation is backing Canadian firms competing to supply the 26 sets of 700 megawatt turbines and electrical generators that will be the heart of the dam.

When Bank America bought SDB bonds from China last March to invest in construction, Dai Qing attacked the bank in a public speech. Maybe you don't know that the middleman is providing funds to the Three Gorges Project, she said. What you are supporting are the dictators who are not interested in the people but are only interested in a milestone marker for their authoritarian careers. . . . Dictatorship in China is passing into history. Whether or not you have the contract now, in the end the market economy will provide the last opportunity, not the passing dictators. . . . Don't use your money to destroy the environment. Don't take advantage of farmers who depend on the river and send them into destitution. Help the Chinese people in other ways, not with this project, which supports dictatorial and corrupted officials.

Although talk of reform spreads in China, free speech and democratic methods remain distant. Thrice in recent decades--1966, 1978 and 1989--China seemed to be moving toward democratic change but was brutally repressed by the government. Concern over the Three Gorges dam has reached such heights that many patriotic citizens have been impelled to challenge the regime's mandate of heaven openly for the first time since the Communists took power. The emerging new society may prove a powerful incentive for political reform.