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Second thoughts on Three Gorges

By James Rose - posted Thursday, 8 June 2006

When the first sod of soil was turned on the massive Three Gorges Project in 1993, China was a very different place. Deng Xiaoping had only just stepped down from his official posts and begun his defacto leadership role. Jiang Zemin was in the early days of his reign. China itself was still in the early throes of its investment and export boom and most people around the world were still unsure about China’s fate. The worldwide shock and political repercussions of Tiananmen still hung in the air.

So, if it were started today, would the Three Gorges Project have been different? Would it have been done at all?

There are some clues that it might not. For instance, the ceremony marking the completion of construction was a somber affair, in comparison to other stages, which have been marked with much drum banging and official attendance. This time, the official China Daily was prompted to dourly editorialise on the loss of 100 nationals who died during the construction and the 1.3 million people relocated.


Around the same time (co-incidentally?), The China Daily was running an opinion piece entitled “Don’t forget all people are born equal”, which railed against the removal of poor residents to make way for upmarket real estate developments in Beijing.

The official media also carried comments from one of the project leaders, leading engineer Pan Jiazheng, to the effect that opponents have actually contributed to the project’s success. “Views from opponents helped improve the democratic and scientific decision (sic.) for the project”, he is quoted as saying in Xinhua’s English edition. It suggests an openness to criticism hitherto unseen in China and an indication alternatives can be acknowledged to exist.

Then, there’s the rise of environmentalism in the last decade. “Green GDP”, “Green Olympics” green-this, green-that: everything is becoming washed in the verdant hues of Beijing’s nominally pro-environment policy-making. It’s not just the ubiquity of the “G-word,” however. China may now have more environmental groups than any other country and the State Environmental Protection Administration, the country’s environmental watchdog, is arguably the most activist and forward-thinking department in Beijing’s pantheon of bureaucracies.

In 2005, SEPA, which didn’t exist in 1993, took on China’s dam sector, including the Three Gorges Project, on the laxity of its environmental reporting, and emerged victorious.

Beyond these direct differences, there are wider indicators of a changed context. Debates over income inequality, media freedom, freedom of association, and worker safety and minimum wages are raising dust and threaten to provide the platform for the construction of a model for China that may not resemble that presented by party officials.

Beijing hardly encourages such activism, but through gritted teeth, many are forced to admit the party can’t ignore the flexing muscles of China’s increasingly mobilised and engaged masses.


And, let’s not forget, the “harmonious society” ideal being pushed by Hu Jintao and his minions in the capital.

As such, it’s questionable whether the dam’s massive environmental and cultural heritage-related footprint and its huge social cost would be acceptable in today’s climate.

Moreover, China’s energy usage has moved on since the early 1990’s. By 2010, Three Gorges Dam will only provide around 2 per cent of the country’s electricity needs, say its critics.

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First published in The Standard (Hong Kong) on May 28, 2006.

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About the Author

James Rose is founder of the The Kick Project, an Australian football and development-based not-for-profit.

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