Dam Politics: How Three Gorges Plays in Beijing (Stratfor)

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at SPAMtao.ca
Thu May 4 15:13:42 MDT 2000

Dam Politics: How Three Gorges Plays in Beijing


Citing environmental and financial concerns, members of the Chinese
People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) petitioned the
government to slow work on the Three Gorges Dam. The CPPCC is a
consultative body with little official power but a constituency
that covers all of China. The real target, however, is not the dam
but its patron, the hardliner Li Peng. The dam is in the middle of
a political struggle, and the results of the struggle will alter
the balance of power within the Communist Party.


Fifty-three engineers and water experts urged the Chinese
government May 3 to delay work on the Three Gorges Dam, according
to the South China Morning Post. The petition was more than a
judgement on the environmental and financial wisdom of the project
- with one third of the signatories belonging to the Chinese
People's Political Consultative Conference it was a political
attack on Li Peng, the head of the National People's Congress and
the dam's biggest sponsor.

The Three Gorges Dam is one of the biggest construction projects in
history. If completed, the 600-foot structure blocking the Yangtze
River will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world - five
times wider than America's Hoover Dam. The government expects it to
supply China with 11 percent of its power. However, this progress
comes at a cost, as more than 1.2 million people in more than 1,400
towns will be displaced by the reservoir.
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Corruption and mismanagement have plagued construction. The project
was originally expected to cost about $11 billion, but recent
estimates put that cost at more than $24 billion, not counting the
cost of resettling those displaced by the waters. Stories about
shoddy engineering are common. The Chinese government has admitted
that more than $56 million was stolen from the project last year,
but that number is probably low.

The dam might not even work. Petitioners argued that the dam's
water reservoir could submerge drainage outlets in the nearby city
of Chongqing and back up its sewage system. Upstream, silt will
build up and make it difficult to produce hydropower.

The Three Gorges Dam sits squarely in the middle of the ideological
debate over the direction of China's economy. Prime Minister Zhu
Rongji, the country's leading reformer, has responsibility for the
dam but has consistently criticized it. Li Peng, a 72-year-old
Soviet-trained engineer and Zhu's biggest rival, is the real
sponsor. Li has advocated the dam since the idea was brought up
under the original economic reformer, former President Deng
Xiaoping, and Li had responsibility for the dam until 1998.
President Jiang Zemin appears content to let the two sides attack
each other.
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The state of the Three Gorges Dam reflects poorly on Li, and
criticizing the project is the same as criticizing Li. This latest
attack is particularly well timed, as the Chinese government has
started out the year with a strong official stance against
corruption. Li's apparent hypocrisy makes him look all the worse.
Li can hardly proclaim the advantages of state control of the
economy while connected to a colossal failure.

He has two ways of avoiding this fate. First, he could whip the
construction project into shape, cutting graft, improving work
quality and showing the world the efficacy of Chinese central
planning. Much more likely, Li can try to shift the blame for the
project on to Zhu's capitalists and their forerunners. Even better,
Li can blame the one man who can't fight back - the late Deng
Xiaoping. After all, it was his idea.

The 26 million tons of concrete for the dam will likely be poured,
if by nothing else than bureaucratic inertia. However, it will cost
the Chinese government an incredible amount of money and a large
amount of credibility as well. Zhu will continue to hound Li, and
Jiang will likely let the two sides spend time fighting each other.
Li can do what he can to shirk the responsibility, but his power
will be restrained by the 600-foot reminder that all of China can


Macdonald Stainsby
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