JUNBAI ISLAND, CHINA — FOUR decades after first opposing the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River, Li Rui still brands the massive project ``absurd and ridiculous.''
As the one-time powerful secretary to Chairman Mao Zedong and a leading official for water resources, Mr. Li says he still holds long-standing worries that the dam could become an environmental, financial, and structural disaster.
But what makes his opposition more compelling today is the vast and controversial resettlement of farmers now underway along the Yangtze banks. Amid rural restiveness, stirred by rapid economic change, he worries the project could provoke confrontation between the government and residents.
``The government guarantees that their future condition will be better.... But you know how Chinese farmers have a deep attachment to the land,'' Li said in a rare interview with the Monitor at his home.
``Farmers now are different than the peasants of the 1950s. Then, peasants beat the gong and the drum and gave resettlers a warm sendoff,'' he says, drawing contrasts to dam resettlement schemes 40 years ago. ``But now ... I can't predict if there will be problems, even violence, in the future.''
Li and other Chinese activists are the vanguard of an officially silent, yet prominent opposition to the Three Gorges dam. Their views are banned from the Chinese media and overridden by Communist leaders determined to finish the project at all costs.
Still, opponents who have links with international environmental activists say a strong current of trepidation about the project courses through Chinese officials and intellectuals. In a remarkable tally two years ago, one-third of the delegates to the rubber-stamp Chinese parliament either opposed or abstained in a vote approving dam construction. Opponents say even the top leaders were divided.
Last year, Li and eight other political veterans wrote to party leaders, saying, ``We are old people with our feet in the grave. However, if you go ahead in haste and blindly with Three Gorges, there will be enormous problems....'' The letter prompted a special examination of project resettlement plans by the government and a reinspection of existing dam reservoirs, according to Li, who enjoys access to top leaders and is a respected party figure.
Dai Qing, a feisty journalist imprisoned after the 1989 political protests, says that, while stopping the Three Gorges dam may be impossible, forcing changes is not.
``The government just wants to create the impression that the project has started and it is useless to oppose it. But that's not the case, because there is no money for it,'' says Ms. Dai, who is working on a series of books about the controversy at New York's Columbia University.
``Even if we can't stop it, we expect to delay it into the 21st century. And even if we can't delay it, we want to change the plan,'' she said in an interview with the Monitor during a trip back to China.
Critics say financial constraints could force the government to scale back the 175-meter height of the dam, thus reducing the size of the reservoir and the amount of land submerged. Activists and experts urge the government to look at alternatives, such as building smaller dams on tributaries in the upper reaches of the Yangtze valley that would minimize environmental damage and human dislocation.
Already the government is meeting opposition from some provinces over the electricity surcharge intended to help underwrite the dam's huge cost, activists report. While local officials echo official pronouncements, the project is hardening provincial resistance to sharing revenues with Beijing, they say. To raise funds, Beijing may eventually have to force workers to buy Three Gorges bonds as is often done with government treasury bonds.
But the government could have an ace card, activists worry. Dai Qing charges that Beijing is furiously courting overseas Chinese investors in Hong Kong and Taiwan, asking them to invest in the Three Gorges dam in exchange for favors.
``I am worried about the Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen, because they are willing to use money to buy their future position in China,'' Dia says.
Indeed, Li Rui maintains the costs of the resettlement will continue to rise along with the numbers displaced. ``The biggest problem is they can't plan the budget in advance because the resettlement is likely to increase as it goes on. It is like a big hole into which the government will continue to drop money,'' he says.
But that will in no way rival the human cost for hundreds of thousands of Chinese. ``If this [resettlement] happens, it will be a very terrible thing. Even when the Cultural Revolution ended, the reeducated youths could come back from the countryside,'' he says. ``But these people will be resettled and can never come back.''