NOW THEY TELL US: China’s ruling State Council has just issued a statement acknowledging serious flaws in the colossal Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River. Though the project has generated much-needed electric power and helped control floods, the statement said, “there are urgent problems that need to be addressed, such as stabilizing and improving living conditions for relocated people, protecting the environment and preventing geological disasters.” Even this relatively candid language was a euphemistic summary of the chronic deadly landslides, contaminated water and social dislocation brought on by the dam. Indeed, as the State Council spoke, shipping downriver from the dam is all but paralyzed by drought, which might not have happened if the Yangtze had been free to flow as in the past.
This is not quite the first time that criticism of the Three Gorges Dam has received an official imprimatur. In October 2007, state media quoted experts’ descriptions of the dams’ negative consequences and warned of environmental “catastrophe.” But the latest warnings represent the first time that the government itself has issued an admonition. As such, the statement raises an obvious question: Why didn’t China’s Communist rulers listen to the critics — instead of jailing and repressing some of them — before they spent 15 years and tens of billions of dollars and submerged 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,600 villages that 1.24 million people had called home?
China’s rulers have a lot of experience with halfway contrition of this sort — the salient example being the Communist Party’s oft-repeated condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, which is said to reflect the mistakes of extreme factions rather than anything inherent in an authoritarian, one-party state. In China, retrospective error correction must be read in light of contemporary political agendas.
The agenda served by the latest Three Gorges critique may be a relatively benign one: Premier Wen Jiabao’s battle against those who advocate a greater role for hydropower in the next five-year plan. Mr. Wen is said to have particular doubts about another big dam planned for the Nu River in southwest China. If he prevails, fewer of China’s rivers may end up dammed and damaged as the Yangtze has been, which is all to the good — but the centralized and dissent-intolerant decision-making process that enabled Three Gorges in the first place will remain essentially intact.
The State Council’s statement on Three Gorges came complete with a promise to set up disaster alert systems, increase funding for environmental protection, shore up river banks and aid the hundreds of thousands forced from their homes. In other words, the government says that the Chinese people can count on the same political power structures that created the problem to fix it. As long as the Communist Party retains a monopoly on power, that is the only choice they will have.