For a long time, the problems associated with the Three Gorges Dam were ones that the Chinese government could deal with. Displacing over a hundred towns and over a million people? Just a question of administrative red tape. Flooding cultural sites? That¡¯s the past, Chinese development is moving us into the future. Increased ecological and environmental problems for surrounding areas? Obstacles to overcome when (and if) we get there, but let¡¯s not talk about that now¡ and let¡¯s imprison those who do.
However, the Chinese government¡¯s recent admission that the dam is responsible for ¡°urgent social and environmental problems¡±¡ªfollowed just a few days later by a Xinhua report documenting ¡°financial problems¡± at the China Three Gorges Corporation¡ªindicate that the current government may be tacking in a new direction.
The Three Gorges Dam project was launched in 1993 with an estimated budget exceeding USD 20 bn. Physical construction began in 2002, and the dam became fully functional in 2007, in time for the Beijing Olympics. However, the idea for a dam in the Three Gorges region has a much longer history, dating as far back as founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. The Three Gorges project has the dubious reputation of being the most contentious issue the National People¡¯s Congress, China¡¯s national legislature, has ever voted on. Roughly one-third of the delegates opposed the plan when it was finally approved in a session in1992.
On Tuesday May 24th, a simple search for the keyword ¡°Three Gorges Dam¡± on any English-language news portal in mainland China turned up articles that predominantly focused on the Three Gorge Dam Corp.¡¯s decision to increase water discharge in order to address near-record low water levels in downstream regions. Much of central China is suffering from a serious drought; to date, the Yangtze region has received 40% less rainfall than the 50-year average, according to Xinhua. The government has committed to large increases in spending on water projects. In another report by Xinhua, Minister for Water Resources Chen Lei announced that projected spending for the next several years would increase 400% over the last decade, with the goal of enhancing water conservancy through projects like reservoir consolidation.
Just one Xinhua article covered the other news regarding the Three Gorges Dam. As The Washington Post also details, on 18 May the State Council issued a statement admitting major environmental deterioration caused by the dam, and outlining a plan to address the challenges by the year 2020. The explicit admission of negative environmental outcomes associated with the dam, which has in the past been held up by the government as a shining example of Chinese engineering and an engine of economic development, is a surprising move from the administration. The 21st Century Business Herald, an in-depth magazine run by the Southern Media Group, quotes State Earthquake Institute researcher Gao Jianguo in their article. Gao says that the State Council¡¯s comments are not intended to undo or overturn the Three Gorges post-construction plan. Instead, they supplement it, ¡°making up for a few problems that were overlooked in the past.¡± These include increased threat of landslides upstream of the dam, and changing ecosystems downstream, as in Poyang Lake and Dongting Lake.
The new plan particularly addresses the problems associated with massive displacement of populations affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, stating that by 2020 they should enjoy the same standard of living as other residents in Hubei and Chongqing. Displacement has been a hot-button issue that has resulted in ¡°mass unrest¡± and heavy international criticism of the Chinese government ever since the plan was announced. In 1995, the organization Human Rights Watch published a report on ¡°forced resettlement.¡± A New York Times article from 1999 documents the publication of an anonymous report by a Chinese scholar detailing the ¡°social problems¡± likely to result from the forced relocation of communities upstream. And Western media began reporting on protests and unrest caused by the dam as early as 2001, evidenced by a special article in The Independent.
Dr. Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues on her blog that the decision to make an official statement acknowledging the negative impacts of the dam is important for two reasons. First, it helps those who have argued against Beijing¡¯s pursuit of an enhanced hydropower strategy. This group includes a wide range of players, from grassroots NGO activists to Premier Wen Jiabao. Second, Economy reads the Party¡¯s admission of mistakes as an opportunity for the public to question future policies and call for greater transparency. Orville Schell, quoted in The New York Times, espouses a similar optimism, saying that he ¡°hope[s] that the government¡¯s statement signaled a commitment to address the dam¡¯s problems.¡±
The editorial board at the Washington Post takes a more pessimistic view, arguing that although the statement may strengthen Wen¡¯s opposition to pro-hydropower actors in the Party, and potentially postpone or even derail the controversial Nu River dam project, it does nothing to fundamentally change the political system that approved, funded, and built the dam in the first place.
Finally, the nature and approach of Chinese responses have varied. GlobalVoices includes a collection of relevant comments on Weibo, China¡¯s Twitter-esque microblog site. They also include a translation of a post by popular blogger Han Han (here in Chinese). Since its posting, this post has received approximately 500,000 views, 12,000 ¡°likes¡±, and 13,000 comments. For example:
¡°Early on, experts brought up issues with the Three Gorges [project]. It¡¯s a pity that, at the time, these opinions were ignored and even attacked.¡±
A final translation on GlobalVoices comes from the pro-government Utopia site, where criticism of the Three Gorges Dam is countered with claims that the State Council¡¯s comments are a ¡°plot¡± to ¡°badmouth¡± China¡¯s true ¡°heroes¡± and ¡°revolutionists [sic]¡ªSun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin.¡± Perhaps an article from the Chinese edition of the Financial Times sums it up best. The author notes a collection of online articles that focus on the drought in Hubei and the water shortages, and argues that maybe this angle of coverage gives critics good grounds for their argument.
¡°In China, those who opposed the Three Gorges Dam (or any dam, really) were limited in their ability to express their opinions. Now that the government has openly moved in this direction, naturally people will respond [online]¡ ¡®Finally someone is taking responsibility! It¡¯s hard to tell the truth!¡¯¡±
Despite the fact that critics are disparaged as ¡°environmentalists¡± and that the relationship between the drought and the dam is still, as some news outlets report, ¡°in doubt,¡± online criticism of the dam¡¯s construction continues to be widely accepted.
By Sarah M. Brooks
¡°Three Gorges Madness: An Interview with Dai Qing¡±
24 December 1997
¡°State Council debates the ¡°Three Gorge follow-up work plan¡±
Official website of the Chinese government
18 May 2011
¡°China Three Gorges Corp. vows to rectify financial problems¡±
22 May 2011
¡°China¡¯s Three Gorges Dam releases more water to ease downstream drought¡±
16 May 2011
¡°China to spend almost four times as much on water conservancy over next 10 years: official¡±
23 May 2011
¡°China vows to curb environmental deterioration in Three Gorges project areas by 2020¡±
18 May 2011
¡°China to address pollution, disasters, relocation problems in Three Gorges region¡±
19 May 2011
¡°Serious drought a symptom of problems with the Three Gorges?: Issues of the ¡°Golden Waterway¡±
20 May 2011
¡°The Three Gorges Dam in China: Forced Resettlement, Suppression of Dissent and Labor Rights Concerns¡±
Human Rights Watch, available on UNHCR¡¯s RefWorld
1 February 1995
¡°Rare Expose in China Warns of Unrest Over Dam Project¡±
18 March 1999
¡°China¡¯s dam busters protest controversial resettlement project¡±
Calum MacLeod and Lijia MacLeod
19 July 2001
¡°The Truth about the Three Gorges Dam¡±
Elizabeth C. Economy
Asia Unbound (blog)
24 May 2011
¡°China Admits Problems With Three Gorges Dam¡±
20 May 2011
¡°China comes clean about the Three Gorges dams¡±
20 May 2011
¡°China: Three Gorges Dam, A Time To Reflect¡±
23 May 2011
¡°The Three Gorges is a great dam!¡±
22 May 2011
¡°The Right uses the Three Gorges Dam to discredit the older generation of leaders¡±
22 May 2011
¡°Media Notes: Inundated by the issues of Three Gorges Dam¡±
The Financial Times (Chinese edition)
23 May 2011