Some Cracks In the Facade

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NISID HAJARIIn this year of major anniversaries--the 10th of Tiananmen Square, the 50th of communist China's founding--authorities in Beijing are struggling to ensure that outsiders see no sign of dissent. Yet farther inland, near the port city of Yichang in Hubei province, Chinese themselves can now watch one of the country's sacred cows being hauled off to slaughter.

The half-built Three Gorges Dam, designed to tame the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, is instead facing a torrent of criticism. Last month, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji blasted the $24 billion project at a closed-door meeting of the State Council in Beijing. Pointedly, his criticism of official plans to relocate people and industries from the region was widely reported in the state media--part of a blizzard of negative comments that has been raging since the beginning of the year. Recently, a lengthy article in the newsweekly Southern Weekend complained that of the 20 bridges built as part of the resettlement program--compared by inspectors to dregs of bean curd--all but three have quality problems. Five have been destroyed. Officials have had to enlist foreign experts to oversee the pouring of concrete for the dam, in which cracks have reportedly appeared. It's unlikely the dam will be scrapped, but authorities certainly seem eager to lower expectations for China's most high-profile project.

They could hardly have raised hopes higher. The dam--first proposed by Sun Yat-sen in 1919 but pushed through only in 1992 by then-Premier Li Peng, a former hydropower engineer--has stood as an icon of China's modernizing ambition. When finished in 2009, the structure is to stand 185 m high and stretch more than a kilometer from shore to shore. Its power plant, touted to be the largest in the world, will churn out 100 billion kilowatt-hours of energy each year. State-owned newspapers, long barred from expressing doubts about the project, for years printed only a steady stream of progress reports and paeans to the dam's mighty scope.

Now, at last, China is airing publicly questions that have long been posed by Western environmental activists and a few lonely voices in China. We raised our concerns to the government seven years ago, but they delayed until it was too late, says Liang Congjie, head of Friends of Nature, a Chinese environmental group. Liang, who is also vice chairman of the Cultural Relics Association, says he pushed to preserve at least 10% of the ancient artifacts that will be submerged once the dam is completed. He now estimates that only 1% can be saved.

The project's pitfalls have become increasingly clear in recent months. More than 1 million people whose homes will be flooded by the dam must be resettled in the next decade. Studies show that many of the 150,000 who have already been moved can't find employment in their new towns; thousands complain that corrupt officials are pocketing at least half the meager compensation (equal to about $800) that they are supposed to receive. To prevent soil erosion, Zhu has forbidden land reclamation on slopes near the dam site. To streamline the state industrial sector, has ordered that inefficient factories not be rebuilt elsewhere. That means neighboring provinces may have to absorb hundreds of thousands of unemployed and potentially disgruntled rural laborers. Farmers without land could become the most disturbing force in society because they have nothing to lose, warned an article in the semi-independent Strategy and Management magazine last January.

Authorities are no less worried about finding the money to finish the project. The dam's budget has already more than doubled at a time when China is hoping to fund dozens of other infrastructure projects. Lu Youmei, president of the China Three Gorges Project Development Corp., insists that the company will have no problem raising more than $1.3 billion in bonds, largely from domestic banks. But so far no Three Gorges bonds have been floated overseas. American banks are especially wary, partly because of political opposition from Western environmental groups. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has refused to help fund construction, while shareholders of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter recently voted not to provide assistance for what might be a destructive project.

Zhu, insiders say, didn't dare speak out against the project until after he assumed the premiership from Li Peng last year. Although his comments have been read as an attack on Li himself, Zhu may only be distancing himself from the hopes raised by his predecessor. If there are problems later on, says a Chinese academic, Zhu doesn't want to have the whole responsibility put on his back.

Of course, the Premier's broadsides also serve a clear political purpose. The collapse of several bridges near the dam site--including one that killed 11 people last year--has spotlighted the perils of shoddy workmanship, and Zhu has built his reputation on scathing critiques of graft and inefficiency. By turning his sharp tongue to Li Peng's pet project, he only reinforces that reputation at the expense of a still-potent rival. Though unfamiliar, that's the kind of talk Beijing's mandarins can well understand.

Reported by Mia Turner/Yichang