[Policymaking in China] The Legitimacy of the Three Gorges Dam

On May 18th, the Chinese State Council released a vague statement that said: “Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.” This generated a buzz among Chinese as well as international scholars who have been concerned with the Dam.

Chinese scholars and activists have heatedly debated the implications of the controversial establishment of Three Gorges Dam for decades. Proponents of the dam believed that the dam is an innovative and record-breaking “bioengineering” project: the Communist government wanted to prove to the world China’s ability to build “the world’s biggest dam, manage the world’s biggest human resettlement and also protect the environment.” Mao Zedong Even composed a poem praising the efforts in attempting a historical feat. Opponents cited the constructions’s underestimated budget and negative effects on the environment, including then-deputy head of the Organization Department of the Communist Party and vice minister of the Ministry of Water Conservation Li Rui. The Chinese government has also provided insufficient compensation for the displaced people, exacerbating the reputation of the construction.

Scholars have also written articles questioning the legal legitimacy of the Three Gorges project by exposing the government’s negligence and imprudent policymaking prior to construction. Engineering expert Wang Weiluo and public policy analyst Guo Yushan both argues that the debate on the Dam during the 1990s when the project was pending for authorization became factional rather than factual.

Wang argues in The Environmental Impact Assessment Report of Three Gorges Dam: How Science became the Chambermaid of Politics that politics altered the message of different scientific reports. He cites that the Dam project’s first environmental impact assessment report and concludes that the construction’s disadvantages overweighed the advantages. However, the government targeted a flaw in the assessment procedures and used it to renounce the entire report. The second assessment of the construction cherry-picked results from the first report’s research and concluded that the exact opposite: the government should build the dam because the advantages overweighed the disadvantages. Yet even before the second assessment report, the State Council bypassed the environmental laws and already authorized the construction. Wang contrasts that the officials did not pay much attention to this second “procedural error” that technically constituted a serious infringement.

Wang also cites that political atmosphere’s radical change after the Tiananmen Massacre heavily politicized the debate on Three Gorges Dam. Many opponents against authorizing the construction within the government gave in to political pressure after the imprisonment of major activist Dai Qing the banning of her book Yangtze! Yangtze!. Scholars refrained from criticizing the construction project and the ones against the construction were often excluded from relevant meetings.

While Wang criticizes the Dam’s illegitimate origin by using procedural and institutional standards, Guo Yushan focuses on the leaders misjudgments, particularly then-premier Li Peng who was the main Three Gorges Dam proponent. In The Price of the Three Gorges Dam, Guo argues that official’s political power mattered more than his technical expertise in regards to authorizing constructions by examining the recently leaked diary of Li Peng. Guo shows how the “unforgivable” Li Peng disregarded many scientists’ as well as qualified officials’ opinions towards the Dam. For example, Li Peng and Jiang successfully stopped the ardent opponent Li Rui from making critical decisions in regards to the construction. Li Peng wrote in his diary on April 15th of 1996: then-chairman Jiang Zemin implored Li Rui to “consider the situation as a whole.” Guo further argues in his article that this equivocal phrase meant for politicians to disregard scientific facts altogether, which will probably end up as “a catastrophe.”

In this context, one can understand how scientists could have questioned the Three Gorges Dam for decades, yet the Chinese government’s Xinhua News Agency only  recently warned the (English-reading) public of the possible “Environmental ‘Catastrophe’ From Three Gorges Dam.” Chinese scholars evaluate the political origins of the Dam in an effort to prevent future wasteful or unwise government investments in infrastructure. Your blogger applauds these efforts and shares similar hopes for legitimate policymaking in the future.


About Adrian

formerly published under the name Wendy Qian at the Atlantic, China File and Tea Leaf Nation.
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