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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

SANDOUPING: Building the Three Gorges Dam, 1992
A Battle Against Nature on the Yangtze River

For 30 years there has been heated debate over the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. But until the mid-1980s, the discussion was limited to internal political circles; people like me knew little about the project. In 1986 I attended a meeting of scientists who had returned from a fact-finding trip to the Sandouping construction site. At that time, I was a journalist for the Guangming Daily. We were not allowed to report any of the controversies surrounding the dam. But in the autumn of 1988 I traveled to Hong Kong, where I read stories that raised serious questions about the dam. It was then that I joined other concerned Chinese and voiced opposition to the project. It seemed wrong that at a time when most of mankind is reevaluating and actively regulating its relationship with nature, a group of poorly educated but powerful Chinese leaders are insisting on building one of the biggest industrial undertakings the world has ever seen.

China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

China's Wild Ride
The early years of Mao's new republic were exhilarating and disastrous. Deng Xiaoping brought the country back from the brink

Essay: Happy Birthday to Me!
A Beijing writer recalls what he was doing when the People's Republic celebrated some earlier birthdays

50 years of the People's Republic
presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

Quest for Dignity
The success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness

The dam, which was approved by the National People's Congress in 1992 and is now one-third complete, will have a total generating capacity of 18.2 million kilowatts. But by the time it is finished in 2009, it will inundate 26,660 hectares of land and displace more than 1 million people. And it will upset the delicate ecosystem of the Yangtze River, which is already exhausted as it supports 400 million people and serves a huge part of the national economy. When I visited the Three Gorges Dam area two years ago, I saw that the river was not as clear as it had been when I was growing up. There was silting and pollution from discarded construction material. The people living along the river looked depressed, and they voiced resentment about not being able to control their own futures. They also said they weren't sure what benefits the dam would bring. All they knew was that the government wanted them to move away from the homes their families have inhabited for generations.

Unfortunately, China's leaders insist on following the Maoist principle of putting politics in command, in an effort to show the rest of the world that the Chinese people can accomplish anything. By blindly giving priority to economic development, they are following the naive belief that man can simply triumph over nature even while making endless demands on it. In fact, a nation with dignity and self-confidence doesn't need to show off or flaunt its superiority. Only those who think deeply, plan carefully, act moderately and make the best use of their available resources can be called people of the new century.

In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao had to consider whether to divide the nation's wealth among the common people so as to lift them from poverty, or to focus resources on huge infrastructure projects that might earn China international respect. Mao decided in favor of state-planned projects and blocked all contrary opinions.

Under President Jiang Zemin's rule, the Chinese people are no longer willing to sacrifice their own interests to improve the nation's strength. And there will never again be a Big Brother to suppress the people if they start to assert their own interests and resist authorities. It is too bad that such a project was not undertaken at the right time. If such a dam was built during Sun Yat-sen's era, it would surely have attracted the world's attention. If it was built during Mao's time, it would have lifted the morale of the Chinese people as they tried to overcome the "imperialist" blockade. If it was completed in the '80s when Deng Xiaoping was pioneering reforms, it could have boosted the economy and attracted worthwhile loans and aid from foreign governments and multinational banks.

Unfortunately, the Three Gorges Dam has only now entered its second phase, with a decade of construction still to go. Meanwhile the numbers of people--inside and outside China--who oppose the project are growing far faster than those who stand to benefit by gaining power, profit and prestige.

Many of us wonder if the authorities will float a model of the Three Gorges Dam during the parade on Oct. 1 marking the People's Republic's 50th anniversary. It would send the wrong message. For the Chinese, the dam stands not for pride in the motherland but for deep worries about the soon-to-be-silted-up Yangtze and about the people who will have to be resettled. As for our leaders, though they dress in Western-style clothing, these fourth generation party headmen have not moved forward in their thinking, knowledge or style--including how to treat their citizens. The way they have mistreated the millions who live along the Yangtze River is the most tragic proof of their outdated mode of thinking.

Dai Qing is the author of Yangtze! Yangtze!, a collection of essays on the Three Gorges project

WUHAN: Swimming the Yangtze
SHIYAN: Hidden Factories

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