Ardent Foe Takes On China Dam

Uphill Battle

It's generally considered unwise to single-handedly take on the leadership of the world's largest Communist Party.

But don't tell that to Dai Qing.

"When I was in prison, I prepared to be executed, and I have nothing to lose now," says the Chinese journalist with the close-cropped hair: "I will never, ever give up."

For eight years, Ms. Dai has castigated Beijing for its plan to build the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River. For that, she has spent 10 months in prison, had her writing banned in China, and endured years of phone taps and police surveillance.

In her latest jab at China's leadership, Dai is touring the US to promote "The River Dragon Has Come!," a collection of essays detailing how Beijing has hidden the dangers of what she calls possibly "the most destructive dam ever conceived."

So far, Dai is losing the battle. Last weekend, workers blocked the main channel of the Yangtze, clearing the river bed for construction of the $29-billion structure.

Some say the diversion makes the project irreversible. Still, Dai hopes to at least slow construction and reduce the dam's planned 607-foot height.

To Dai, Three Gorges epitomizes the major problems bedeviling China today: autocracy, fiscal profligacy, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses. By promoting awareness of the dam's shortcomings, Dai believes she can help create the political ferment vital to reform.

Dai also has another, more personal goal: to vindicate in the eyes of China's strongmen the betrayed political idealism of her father, an early member of the China's Communist Party who has been hailed as a "revolutionary martyr."

In China, only Dai voices persistent public opposition to the dam. Other opponents consider it a lost cause, fear state reprisal, or just privately lobby the government.

Dai has been called the founder of China's green movement. But the distinction understates the magnitude of her challenge. Since the structure was first proposed by Sun Yat-sen in 1912, history's most ambitious hydroelectric dam has stirred a longer and bigger controversy than any other public-works project in modern China.

The dam will create a 371-mile-long lake and hold 26 turbines that generate 18,200 megawatts of electricity. The power is equivalent to 10 percent of China's electrical output, a huge boon to a country starved for energy.

Premier Li Peng and other dam champions say Three Gorges will help control Yangtze Basin flooding that this century has killed more than 300,000 people. And it will enable oceangoing vessels to ply the reservoir deep into the hinterland, to the 15 million people of Chongqing.

But Dai and other critics say the dam has colossal costs.

Estimates for the project range up to $72 billion. Snubbed by the World Bank, US Export-Import Bank, and other international lenders, Beijing is aggressively seeking financial backing. The dam is a big risk for a state banking system already heavily saddled with bad debts.

Critics also say the dam's vast reservoir, stretching as long as Lake Superior, will become an open sewer, soiled each year by a 1-billion-ton load of chemicals, heavy metals, and human waste. So much silt will collect that it could block ship traffic and clog the dam, they say.

Moreover, the reservoir will inundate some 1,200 archaeological sites and cultural antiquities, some of them dating back 100,000 years to the Paleolithic period. The project will also reduce fish stocks and threaten numerous plant and animal species along the river.

Moving residents out

Perhaps most important, the government is relocating 1.2 million riverbank residents in what would be the largest-ever resettlement for a dam. Officials have already swept up 90,000 residents.

Beijing has acknowledged that resettlements for other dams in China have generally failed: "Many people were left stranded without employment or adequate shelter and in a state of destitution, creating considerable social and political instability in reservoir areas," writes Li Boning, one of the government's leading experts on resettlement, in "River Dragon."

As construction costs exceed estimates, money set aside for resettling residents goes to the dam. Embezzlement is also a big problem. "People along the river say that local officials today are getting as fat as fleas," charges Dai in her peppery Chongqing accent.

Opponents say Beijing should build smaller dams on Yangtze tributaries. It could achieve the same goals in flood control and power generation at a fraction of the budgetary, environmental, cultural, and human cost.

With the damming of the river, Dai apparently may be able to claim at least a Pyrrhic victory: By warning about the dam, she has discouraged future spectacular mistakes.

But Beijing has shown reluctance to embrace lessons from blunders in water conservancy. Indeed, Dai's book, soon to be released by M.E. Sharpe, is named after the last cry heard from victims of the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao and Shimantan dams and many smaller flood-control structures in Henan Province.

What is especially remarkable about that disaster is not just the death toll - 85,000 officially; up to 230,000 by other estimates - but Beijing's success in concealing the extent of it for years. "River Dragon" reveals details about the flood.

Despite her outspokenness, Dai is well insulated from repercussions in her efforts to spotlight past debacles and sound a warning about the Three Gorges Dam. She boasts an impeccable revolutionary pedigree, and her 1989 imprisonment has given her international recognition.

Dai's parents joined the Chinese Communist Party early and served as spies in Beijing during its occupation by Japan. Her mother was eventually captured and tortured; her father, Fu Daqing, was executed by the Japanese when Dai was 3.

A member of the elite

Dai grew up among the top elite as the adoptee of her father's friend, Marshal Ye Jianying. She earned a degree in missile engineering, worked on China's program in intercontinental missiles and, after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), assumed the cover of a writer while spying in Europe for military intelligence.

The cover stuck, and Dai returned to Beijing to work at Guangming Daily. In 1989, just weeks before the spring popular uprising in Beijing, Dai gathered together in 15 days several essays from journalists, engineers, and scientists describing the shortcomings of the Three Gorges Dam.

The controversial result, Dai's book, "Yangtze! Yangtze!," helped spur the rubber-stamp parliament to perhaps its most assertive act under communism. In 1989, following a heated debate in the National People's Congress, Beijing decided to postpone a decision on the dam for five years.

The book and Dai's outspokenness apparently prompted the leadership to jail her for 10 months after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989.

Dai's activism and state reprisal have won her foreign recognition: a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1994. Along with the sacrifices of her parents, this deters official retaliation.

Dai believes a gradual easing of the party's totalitarian grip will help her thwart what she considers the communist world's last grandiose public-works blunder. The expanding market economy will weaken the hold of Beijing over lower-level officials and common citizens.

"The Three Gorges will become a symbol of a turning point in China from the old way of rule by a single powerful leader to a new way in which Chinese people have more say," says Dai. By spurring such progressive change, Dai believes she will vindicate her parents and their betrayed ideals.

"My parents fought for a New China, for a democratic system and against the corruption of the old order," she says. "But when the New China appeared, so did dictatorship, injustice, and corruption - I feel very sorry for my mother and my father and the [party's] first generation of idealists."

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