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China's Symbol, and Source, of Power-- Three Gorges Dam Nears Completion, at High Human Cost

The Three Gorges Project, with 25,000 workers and a budget of $24 billion, is China's most ambitious engineering undertaking since the Great Wall. It has replaced Brazil's Itaipu Dam as the world's largest hydroelectric and flood-control installation, Chinese officials said, with the strength to hold back more water than Lake Superior and power 26 generators to churn out 85 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year when the final touches are completed in 2008. Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, by comparison, generates more than 4 billion kilowatt-hours a year. "This is the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in thousands of years," said Li Yong'an, general manager of the government's Three Gorges corporation, which runs the project under the direct leadership of Premier Wen Jiabao. In its scope and ambition -- as well as its human costs -- the Three Gorges Project has become a symbol of China's relentless energy and determination to take its place among the world's great economic powers. At the same time, the project has demonstrated the Communist Party's willingness to sacrifice individual rights for the country's general welfare and to take high-stake risks in the name of progress. The Chinese have long dreamed of a dam across the Yangtze to alleviate flooding and facilitate navigation. Sun Yat-sen, revered as the founder of the Chinese republic, urged construction of a dam as early as 1918. U.S. engineers suggested one right after World War II. Mao Zedong, whose Communist Party took over in 1949, wrote seven years later that "walls of stone" should rise from the river. It was left to the present-day Communist leadership, dominated by engineers and driven to build, to put the project into motion. Li Peng, a former waterworks official, got the project off the ground in the late 1980s when he was premier. The first earth was turned in 1993 under the president at the time, Jiang Zemin, a Soviet-educated engineer. The dam's completion is now being celebrated under President Hu Jintao, who was trained as a hydraulic engineer and has adopted "scientific development" as a mantra. But critics of the project -- they are many, in China and abroad -- have questioned whether building a giant dam is really scientific in the 21st century, when the United States and other nations are weighing the wisdom of damming their rivers. Despite the $24 billion price tag, they note, the Three Gorges Dam will produce only 2 percent of China's electricity by 2010. Moreover, environmentalists have warned that the backup of water behind the dam could end up as a giant waste-collection pool for Chongqing, China's largest urban conglomeration about 250 miles upstream. "There are two sides to everything, and the Three Gorges Project is no exception," said Cao Guangjing, the building company's deputy manager. "But many studies, undertaken since the beginning, have shown that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages." The government has set aside $5 billion to build sewage treatment plants around Chongqing and other upstream cities to prevent the river from turning into a cesspool, officials pointed out. Tests so far show that the water quality has not suffered, even though water has been backing up for several years, they said. "Look at that," Feng Zhengpeng, head of hydroelectrics, told reporters walking atop the dam Wednesday as he gestured toward the river far below. "Do you think my water looks dirty?" Li Yong'an, the dam-building company's manager, said that despite its difficulties, the project is running ahead of schedule and will solve "one of the Chinese people's most important afflictions," the flooding that has ravaged the Yangtze basin for centuries. Floods killed more than 145,000 in 1931, according to Chinese records, and another 142,000 four years later. As late as 1998, with the dam under construction, more than 2,000 were reported killed by river waters that spilled over the banks. Now, said deputy director Cao, engineers will be able to control the flow of water during the peak flooding months of summer, letting it back up in a huge basin that will reach as far as 385 miles upstream. To make way for the impounded water, which has risen to more than 400 feet above its natural level, at least 1,200 villages and two towns had to be moved. Displaced residents already total about 1.1 million, according to a government count. Wen, who heads the government's Committee for Construction of the Three Gorges Project, last week authorized a further rise to 470 feet next fall, which will displace another 80,000. Zigui, a community of 60,000 people, baked under a warm sun Wednesday several thousand feet away from its former location -- now underwater. The village of Zhongbao, whose inhabitants once prospered growing oranges by the riverside, also was submerged, reduced to a reflection on the river's surface just under the dam. One city farther upstream, Fengjie, was rebuilt about 10 miles inland from its traditional riverside location, only to be moved again nearby when engineers discovered the new site was unstable. "The displaced people problem is a big one," acknowledged Li, the manager, "and ultimately our ability to deal with it will determine whether the Three Gorges Project is successful or not." Li said Wen's government had guaranteed that all those displaced would be compensated and provided new houses and livelihoods. But many displaced families have complained from the beginning that their compensation was siphoned off by corrupt local officials and that they cannot make a living in their new locations. The state audit office reported as early as 1999 that millions of dollars in compensation funds were being embezzled. Scores of officials were investigated and many prosecuted, according to the official New China News Agency. But the complaints have not stopped. Chen Qun, a disgruntled Zhongbao villager, said Wednesday that his community's 2,000 residents were promised $450 each when they had to pack and leave in 1993. So far, he said, they have received only a third of that amount and corrupt local officials have pocketed the rest. When they heard that foreign reporters were about to visit the dam, Chen said, several villagers put up banners urging Beijing to "Punish the corrupt officials" and "Give us back our space for survival." But police jailed the activists for several hours Monday and tore down the banners, he said.
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