BEIJING — FOLLOWING a propaganda campaign by China's leadership, the parliament today is expected to approve the construction of a potentially ruinous dam on the Yangtze River.
The National People's Congress would be giving the go-ahead to what would be the largest dam in the world. The behemoth across the Three Gorges is China's most costly and controversial public works project in modern times.
Beijing has granted full control over publicity on the dam to the most zealous booster of the structure, the Ministry of Water Resources. As a result, officials and the news media have exaggerated the benefits and concealed the harm from the dam, says Lu Qinkan, a government hydropower expert.
Moreover, Beijing plans to begin construction immediately once it gains parliamentary approval, despite earlier assurances it would wait until China can better afford the $10.5 billion structure, Mr. Lu says.
A go-ahead for the dam would be a political triumph for a leadership that for 40 years has sought to rally support for a structure it hopes will symbolize the "superiority" of socialism. Yet by relying on propaganda to win parliamentary approval, China's government has shown it is ill-suited to determine the feasibility of the dam, Chinese experts and Congress deputies say.
A government that bans free debate and is partial to titanic projects is unlikely to weigh properly the costs and benefits from a structure like the Three Gorges Dam.
"When it comes to deciding about the dam, the government has no sense of responsibility," says Congress deputy Huang Shunxing.
Mr. Huang and other deputies have filed a motion calling on Beijing to renew its feasibility studies and resubmit the dam proposal next year. The presidium of the Congress has not responded to the motion.
The government hails the dam as a bonanza for 17,680 megawatts in hydro-electricity, a boon for river transport, and a bulwark against fatal floods.
But critics say the dam would amass a vast bed of silt that would hamper navigation on the Yangtze and cause flooding upriver in the city of Chongqing.
Construction of the dam would cost nearly four times the official estimate and worsen China's record budget deficit. The dam also would harm the environment and be a prime target in the event of war.
Moreover, it would force more than 1.1 million people to move, making way for a 370 mile-long reservoir. China could more cheaply prevent flooding by reinforcing dikes on the Yangtze and building smaller dams on its tributaries, they say.
The arguments against the dam have been only softly voiced by the official news media.
"The biggest problem in the decision over the Three Gorges is the lopsided propaganda on the project," says Lu. He has opposed the dam since joining a survey of the Three Gorges by the American hydropower expert John Savage in 1944.
"The way the government has handled this issue is undemocratic," Huang says. "It simply does not want the people and deputies to know the facts."
The government has empowered the Ministry of Water Resources to review news reports concerning the dam and reject those that criticize the project.
The ministry has reported views that differ from its gung-ho attitude, but "not in detail and only for show," says Lu, a member of the state's advisory body, called the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Many experts and Congress deputies have shied from criticizing the dam since the 1989 crackdown on liberal protests in Beijing, Huang says.
Deputies courageous enough to speak out against the dam have been denied the floor during the two-week, annual session of the Congress, deputies say.
Premier Li Peng and other leaders have sought to dilute opposition to the dam by saying that China will not begin construction until it reduces its budget deficit. But if the congress approves the project, the Ministry of Water Resources next year will start spending $769 million dollars for "preparatory work," says Lu.
A project with such a high initial investment would be difficult to halt, even if the country's finances further deteriorate in coming years, Lu says.
Since Beijing first decided to build the dam in 1958, debate over the structure has repeatedly deadlocked the decision-making apparatus.
Critics of the dam say it has become a symbol of how China's leadership bans public debate, grasps at extravagant and wasteful socialist illusions, and forces a consensus on grand projects.
Still, many foreign banks have expressed interest in funding the project, with some suggesting loans of more than $1 billion, Guo Shuyan, governor of Hubei Province, said at a press conference. He did not identify the banks.
Dam critics in Beijing say the problem lies not just in the feasibility study. "Those who support the dam are eager for quick success and instant benefits," says Mao Bingyao, a deputy from Shandong Province. "They are not sober-minded."