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Concrete Colossus Versus the River Dragon


In all of the world nothing is more pliant than water.
And yet it has no equal resiliency against that which is hard.
It cannot be changed by anything.
That which is weak conquers that which is strong;
that which is soft conquers that which is hard,
The entire world knows this,
But no one can act accordingly.

Lao Zi, daode jing, verse 78

Three Gorges Dam, Chang Jiang, CHINA

This massive dam interrupting what the Chinese call simply “The Long River” (known to English-speakers as “Yangtze” or Yangzi) is now in place. It is the largest in the world, proudly pushing Itiapu on the Brazil-Paraguay border from first place. Over 600 feet tall and more than a mile long, tens of thousands of tons of concrete span the breadth of the once “Mighty Yangtze”. Twenty-six electric turbines are poised to make their contribution to global commodity production and ostentatious displays of wealth by those who benefit from it. Behind the dam, a reservoir is gathering which will stretch 350 miles.

Passing upriver from Yichang, just south of the dam cite, to Chongqing, at the far reaches of the filling reservoir, it’s disquieting to see city after ghostly city abandoned. In one of the most densely populated areas of the most overpopulated country in the world, these deserted cities evoke the abandoned cancer alley town of Diamond, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. The Chechen capital of Grozny is a city of rubble, but people still live in it. It’s less spooky. In the towns and cities along the submerging stretch of the Long River all the buildings are intact, except for windows and other salvageable building materials, but the only inhabitants are ghosts.

Big character placards in the valleys between the Three Gorges exhort the people to “Protect Nature” and “Turn Farmlands Into Forest.” The official relocation plan swaps higher ground for lower, as if steep crags are equivalent to the lush alluvial soil disappearing under the waters of the reservoir. This means peasants are being forced to scrape vegetation off rocks to create new fields. Those who fail will depart for cities, where, without proper documentation, they will be disenfranchised illegal immigrants within their own country. Others are ordered to participate in government-sponsored colonization, in which Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group, are sent to the sparsely populated plateaus of Tibet or the vast deserts of Uigher Xinjiang, in order to solidify Chinese control of these independent provinces.

Passing up the river new suspension bridges crisscross overhead, jewels on a necklace that is the new highway between the two cities. At construction sites sparks rain down from twelve story pylons throughout the night. As in many other parts of the country, construction continues twenty-four hours a day.

This driving pace reflects the immediacy of the desire to become First World. The bridge near Yichang lights up in iPod blue and dances at night, an imitation of the light show in Hong Kong every evening. Peasants’ relocation payments are often diverted to pay for the construction of these bridges.

Those who have lost or are losing their homes are enticed from cramped apartments in dirty alleys to new high rises. But many of the promises made to them are false. Over and over relocatees find themselves in worse situations than those they came from. When they try to return, they’re persecuted, or find that their land has already been submerged.

The displacements began with the groundbreaking of the project in the early ’90s. Displaced people who organized themselves for petition actions caravanned to the regional capitals of Chongqing and Wuhan, but the groups were disbanded following relocation or persecution. At least one man, Lei Weidong, paid the ultimate price for his objections. He was murdered on March 21, 1999 after two trips to Beijing to protest displacement. A Chinese investigator says the deed was committed by the mafia, presumably at the government’s behest.

I pick up a picture book, The Three Gorges Project On the Yangtze River, at the new Three Gorges Project (3GP) museum gift shop in Yichang. The preface enthuses over the benefits of the project. Indulging in the Chinese penchant for systematizing with numbers, it proclaims “When the Three Gorges Project is completed, it will be beneficial in ten aspects, including flood control, power generation, navigation, aquaculture, tourism, ecological protection, environmental purification, developmental resettlement, transferring water from the south to the north, water supply and irrigation.”

This is very dense disinformation. How can aquaculture be improved by quintupling river traffic, as the development plans dictate, or by the algae blooms that inevitably accompany the creation of reservoirs, choking out oxygen and increasing acidity? Will tourists be drawn to an epic cesspool, in which millions of people’s raw sewage festers in stagnant water, or enticed by gorge stumps? What about the 1300 celebrated cultural sites and archeological digs that will now require SCUBA equipment to explore? The temperature of the reservoir will be several degrees higher than that of the river, possibly contributing to a surge of endemic infections-malaria, encephalitis, and the parasitic disease schistosomiasis-leading The Lancet, the prestigious journal of the British Medical Association, to warn that the 3GP could be the “Chernobyl of hydropower.” Anyone care for a dip?
“Ecological protection” is another insult to the intelligence, unless it refers to a new, post-3GP ecology which doesn’t include the precariously dwindling population of white fin dolphin, black finless porpoise, Chinese and Yangzi sturgeon, and other endangered species endemic to the region. Submerging 19 cities and 326 towns along with their industrial pollution is an odd definition of “environmental purification”.

The transfer of water from the south is an ambitious scheme to give new life to runaway development in the arid north. In essence, it calls for flooding lush farmland so as to irrigate dry plains thousands of miles away and provide more water resources for industrial production. Like the 3GP itself, it’s a ’50s era brainchild of Chairman “Man Must Conquer Nature” Mao Zedong. (Though the project’s propagandists constantly claim Sun Yat-Sen, the revered founder of the Republic, conceived of the idea in 1919, the dam site Sun proposed is much closer to the Gezhouba Dam, begun in 1970 and completed in 1989, than that of the Three Gorges.) The Long River will be connected with the Huai, Yellow and Hai rivers through three canals with a total length of more than 750 miles. One of the three stages calls for the displacement of 300,000 people.

The kicker in the propagandists’ proclamation of benefits is “developmental resettlement”, a prize entry in the dystopian lexicon. Official figures acknowledge that 1.3 million people will be displaced by the creation of the reservoir. This is a staggering number, but opponents suggest the real number is 1.9 million, because many displacees aren’t on local rolls and therefore won’t be compensated for their displacement. The word “developmental” in the above phrase is confusing. Is the transformation of peasants into an urban subproletariat-their only option once deprived of land-a policy goal? An observer comments that the project “was a boon to civil engineers and urban planners, who could finally create cities with efficient roads and good sewage systems.” These “created cities” are the cookie-cutter concrete hunks that cover the country like a pasty skin disease.

The implementation of the Three Gorges Dam has provoked a range of catastrophic fantasies, from dam collapse, to a rebellion spearheaded by displacees, to simple economic meltdown over the enormous expenditure.
More tangibly the government’s heavy-handed policy impositions-dams foremost among them-are pushing people to organize, which is causing change in the political climate. The Communist Party, for one, increasingly responds to outside pressure. A media campaign in opposition to dam construction on the Nu and Lancang Rivers won over public sentiment. Premier Wen Jiabao issued an instruction to suspend the Nu River dam project until a comprehensive environmental impact assessment is approved through the appropriate channels. The papers of the camp of Premier Wen and President Hu Jintao were the first to carry criticisms of the project. A Chinese observer of the project comments “Current leaders like Premier Wen and President Hu are trying to keep distance from this project, and make sure the project does not create nuisance and instability to their political reform inside the Party.”

The most pertinent question posed by 3GP is “What can be done with a completed project that never should have been built?” Our contention is that the fulfillment of an ill-conceived endeavor isn’t an argument for its persistence. The very ability of China’s leaders to conceive of and carry out a project of the scale of the 3GP means that they can consider dismantling it.
This is exactly what Premier Zhou Enlai suggested, in 1971, would be necessary if 3GP disrupted river traffic: “The Long River is too important a waterway to permit anything to go wrong. If navigation is interrupted, then the dam has to be blown up.”

A green perspective, combined with a positive desire for political change, can be channeled in China not just to prevent new dam projects, but to dismantle old ones. Chinese people desire a new order. What better illustration could there be of a capacity for change than the removal of this gargantuan imposition?

” DRAGON PIERCES TRUTH”* is a pseudonym of a writer who wishes to be permitted to reenter China.






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