Three Gorges: ‘A World So Changed’

A worker stands among the ruins of Fengjie, one of the towns that will be submerged by the lake behind the Three Gorges Dam.
A worker stands among the ruins of Fengjie, one of the towns that will be submerged under the lake behind the Three Gorges Dam (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

The Yangtze River of China, which the novelist Pearl S. Buck described as the “wildest, wickedest river” on earth in her 1931 novel The Good Earth, is being transformed by one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects in history: the Three Gorges Dam.

The dam’s name refers to the towering limestone cliffs of the Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges, which stretch for about 200 kilometers from Fengjie, in Sichun province, to Yichang, in Hubei province, in China's heartland. When completed, the dam—a 600-foot-tall structure blocking the Yangtze River—will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, five times wider than the United States’ Hoover Dam.

On June 1, 22 sluice gates were shut in the city of Yichang to block the flow of the river. In the two weeks following their closure, the Yangtze rose by 400 feet, submerging some of the most stunning scenery in the country along with numerous towns, villages, ancient temples, tombs, and fortresses. On June 16, the first ships sailed through the two-way navigation passages at the Three Gorges.

Completion of the project is scheduled to take another six years. China expects the massive dam to produce 18,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power, aid navigation on the Yangtze, and reduce annual flooding downstream. The government also hopes its completion will confer prestige on China, confirming the country’s technological prowess and the superiority of its socialist system.

The idea of damming the Yangtze at the Three Gorges was first proposed in 1919 by Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the first Chinese republic. It never really went away. In 1956, Mao Tse-Tung swam in the Yangtze and penned a famous poem titled “The Lake Among the Gorges.” “Great plans are afoot,” Mao wrote, “The mountain goddess…if she is alive…will marvel at a world so changed.”

While Mao might not recognize today’s changed Yangtze, he might well agree with the June 17 commentary in the Communist Party daily Renmin Ribao that called the dam project a “masterpiece in its embodiment of the guiding ideology for modernization” and “a great feat in following the law of nature, using the natural world, and reconstructing the natural world.”

Chinese headlines have dubbed the project a “miracle,” “the pride of China,” and a “historical milestone.” The government-owned Xinhua News Agency set the tone in a June 16 report: “The Three Gorges project is showing the whole world a miracle: A great dam has vitalized a great river....The ease of navigating the Yangtze has been dramatically improved. The economy of the whole area has been stimulated.” In response to criticism that the project would submerge one of China's most beautiful landscapes and cause ecological damage, Xinhua reported that “the Three Gorges Dam area is designed to become an ecology-friendly economic zone....The mountains and rivers surrounding this gigantic dam will be kept clean and green in order to achieve a good ecological environment and sustainable development.”

The government’s financial dailies celebrated the surge of hydroelectric power the dam is expected to add to the Chinese grid. The China Economic Times’ June 19 report was typical: “The Three Gorges project, once completed, will bring revolutionary changes to China’s electricity networks and will greatly benefit the National Electricity Network Linkage Project and the ‘West Electricity for East’ Project.”

Workers’ Daily (June 15) likewise focused on the project’s expected role in powering Chinese development: “With the capacity to generate 18,200 megawatts, roughly one-tenth of China’s entire electric power output, the Three Gorges Dam will guarantee sufficient energy resources for China’s economic development and provide additional momentum for further growth.”

While the Chinese state media have been enthusiastic about this massive engineering project, the international media have been less so. Foreign perception of the project has suffered from the reputation of its main patron in Beijing: Li Peng, a former premier of China and a Soviet-trained hydro-engineer. Li, whom many historians hold responsible for the 1989 massacre in Tianenmen Square, championed the idea of the dam to guarantee China's energy supply amid the internal political repression and international isolation that followed Tianenmen. In April 1992, he pushed the project through the National People’s Congress despite no votes or abstentions from a third of the delegates—a rare display of dissent in the congress.

Li has long had ties with China’s power industry. He served at various plants and power agencies in the 1950s, in Beijing’s power bureau from 1966-76, and as vice minister, then minister of energy from 1979-1983. He was responsible for constructing the dam until 1998, when the job was transferred to his political rival Zhu Rongji, who had publicly criticized the dam’s shoddy infrastructure and corrupt contractors throughout the years.

Zhu was not the only one to charge that the project has been prey to widespread corruption. Most recently, Hamish McDonald—China correspondent for Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the Financial Review—published a series of damning investigative reports into allegations of governmental ineptitude and corruption. “Three Gorges Dam authorities are still to clear up a miasma of financial mismanagement and...corruption that has hung over the project from 1992,” he reported on May 31. Hamish found local villagers displaced by the project rushing to tell him how thousands of them had been cheated out of the recompense the government had promised them. Many are now surviving on a monthly stipend of US$4.50, about one third of what they had been promised. As a result, Hamish told Australian readers, the villagers can now look forward to “an old age of bitter poverty.”  

Others point to the ecological consequences of building such a large dam. Silt and debris in the river have already increased since the sluice gates were shut in Yichang. The dam “could trap pollution from thousands of factories and villages, which dump large amounts of industrial waste and sewage into the Yangtze yearly, turning the reservoir into a cesspool,” Singapore’s pro-government Straits Times warned in a June 15 editorial.

“Decades of accumulated trash from villages, hospitals, and cemeteries, highly toxic waste material from factories, and the corpses of millions of poisoned rats are still there,” Dai Qing, a Chinese journalist who has been imprisoned for penning a string of banned books criticizing the project, told London’s liberal Independent (June 1).

Worse, cracks have already appeared in the dam, raising concerns about the possibility of a catastrophe. “Critics… are undeterred by the progress in construction, saying time will prove them right about what they call the folly of the project,” Hong Kong’s centrist South China Morning Post noted on June 16.

The Chinese government is aware of the problems, and has taken some steps to address them. It has committed 39.3 billion yuan (nearly US$4 billion) to pollution control and ecological protection, and plans to build more than 200 sewage and waste-treatment plants at the Three Gorges reservoir and the upper stream of the Yangtze River by 2010, according to Chinese state media reports.

Yet critics are quick to point out that the electricity generated by the dam comes at unnecessarily great human, financial, and ecological cost. They maintain that China would have been better off building several smaller dams.

A particularly thorny issue for the Chinese government is the relocation of peasants who have been removed from their hometowns to make way for the water. Over the past decade, around 720,000 peasants have been uprooted and relocated to 11 other provinces in coastal China. In its June 16 article, the South China Morning Post reported that while some relocated peasants say they are happy in their new homes, others “mourn the loss of community” and have returned to their home provinces, claiming they were cheated by empty promises from the government or simply could not find work. 

In February 100 displaced villagers who decided to return home staged a protest on the outskirts of the Communist Party headquarters in the government complex at Zhongnanhai, Beijing, damaging offices of the migration department there. If the resettlement issue is not handled well, warned The Straits Times (June 15), it could prove to be a real challenge not only to the great dam project but to the regime itself.

When the Three Gorges project is finished in 2009, the water will be 600 feet deep. Roughly 2 million people will have been moved. By then the dam will have 26 turbines in operation. “The 18,200 megawatts they are capable of generating will save China the pollution from burning 50 million tons of coal a year,” London's Independent reported (June 1).

The Chinese government also hopes to boost economic growth by developing China’s interior. In addition to reducing the risk of floods, the dam’s huge locks and the deeper waters it will create are being designed to enable large cargo ships to reach inland cities.

Yet worries that the engineering marvel will turn into an ecological and social disaster still abound. As Patricia Adam, executive director of the Three Gorges Probe, a lobby dedicated to opposing the dam, told The South China Morning Post, “For decades, the debate over the Three Gorges has been between propagandists and experts who were brave enough to speak out about the proposed dam. Now the dam will speak for itself.”