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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

No Turning Back Now

For good or ill, China's Three Gorges Dam moves ahead

By Rose Tang / Yichang


WHEN THOUSANDS OF REGULAR citizens turned out to watch the historic damming of the mighty Yangzi River last week, many had to watch the proceedings through binoculars, or not at all. In truth, there was not much to see -- trucks dumping rocks in the water. But this was a defining moment for modern China, and no one was going to wreck the show. Troops and police were mobilized to keep ordinary folk away as President Jiang Zemin and other senior officials oversaw the ceremony, 38 km west of Yichang city.

And as it has done ever since rubber-stamping China's most controversial megaproject, the government backed up the muscle with propaganda. About 2 km south of the dam site, children waved red plastic flowers and danced and sang: "I love the Party, the Party loves me. I do everything the Party wants of me." Those who climbed nearby Phoenix Hill were greeted by popping firecrackers, colorful flags and long banners exhorting them to sacrifice "small families" for the sake of the "big family."

Mei Changan can relate. His family is sacrificing plenty. Mei lives in Zigui, a town about 40 km upriver from where the Three Gorges Dam will rise over the next 12 years. Before long, Mei's house will be at the bottom of a 660-km-long, man-made lake -- as will scores of heritage sites.

Mei points behind Phoenix Hill, where a modern city of white, red and pink tile is rising -- instant Chinese suburbia. "It's the new Zigui," he says matter-of-factly. "It's a bit far away from the river, not a very good location." There are other downsides. Mei works for the post office which will need a new building. Trouble is, there isn't enough money to build one, and staff must raise the cash themselves. That may explain why Mei is selling a series of commemorative stamps and photos called "Submerged," which depict eight doomed towns.

Mei is one of 1.2 million people being relocated before 2009, when the $24-billion (some believe it will cost far more) dam is to start producing the power of 10 nuclear plants combined. Moving two cities, 114 towns and 1,711 villages (by official count) is almost as breathtaking a task as building the 185-meter colossus. And while new towns such as Zigui are a testament to the government's determination, locals will be paying for a long time. A two-bedroom flat in a new town costs about 40,000 renminbi ($4,830). Of that, a family gets 30,000 renminbi in compensation; by local standards, the shortfall is a towering sum.

In old Zigui, Li Jiaying, 60, smokes a Three Gorges brand cigarette and watches her son Chen Bujiang and a group of workers pull down the house her family has called home for 100 years. "I don't feel happy about it," says Li, "but we must obey the government."

Others are less accommodating. "The dam is a stupid project," says a taxi driver. "The Communist Party does this for its own face, pretending it can do big things." Such sentiments are common in China and have been echoed abroad ever since Beijing floated the idea of one monster dam. Critics have long argued that the environment and local people would be better served by a series of smaller dams on the Yangzi's tributaries.

There is also concern that China is not sufficiently advanced for such an engineering feat. American engineers recently emerged from a fact-finding tour of the dam site warning of potential catastrophe. They say the temporary dam being put in place to divert the river while the real one is being built is at least six times more likely to wash out than conventional dams. That may have been a gambit to drum up business, but there are other major concerns. One is increased sedimentation and its impact on shipping. Another is the fear that the reservoir will be a toxic lake, seething with sewage and chemicals left behind in at least 1,590 abandoned factories.

The government does not have to listen to the carping -- when it greenlighted the dam in 1992, it banned further discussion. And to those who say the dam is an ego-project to enhance the Party's image, the government can convincingly argue that the long-term benefits -- improving flood control and navigation, bringing prosperity to the hinterland and producing clean power -- outweigh the short-term costs.

Yet authorities must balance ambition with social stability -- and that means keeping people happy. At the ceremony, Premier Li Peng told local officials that relocation funds must actually get to the people being moved. This is especially pertinent when the state sector is laying off thousands of workers.

"The government spent thousands of renminbi on the damming ceremony alone," gripes a minibus driver surnamed Liu. "Why can't they spend some of the money to compensate laid-off workers?" Looks like the Three Gorges Dam will stir controversy for years to come.


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