The Media and the Three Gorges Dam
Since 1989, China's rulers have barred adverse domestic media reporting on the Three Gorges Dam, touted as the world's largest hydroelectric power project and a major element in China's flood-control efforts. The story of this ban--which has not been entirely effective--demonstrates both the strengths and the growing weaknesses of the State in muzzling the media.
The Three Gorges project on the Yangtze River was initially conceptualized in the 1950s. It was approved for construction in an unprecedented split vote by the National People's Congress--China's national legislature--in 1992; one-third of the delegates voted no or abstained. This project is expected to take 20 years to complete. Estimates of the cost have ranged from $12 billion to $100 billion.
The government says Three Gorges eventually will have an electricity-generating capacity of more than 18,000 megawatts--about twice that of the Grand Coulee Dam in the United States. Over the years, critics have focused on the environmental damage the project is likely to cause, on the anticipated displacement of an estimated 1.1 million people from along the construction site, and on numerous unanswered questions about wastewater treatment, silting, and financing.
Between 1985 and 1990, People's Daily carried only six articles on this massive project. All these stories were centered around the official results of feasibility studies.(1) By contrast, the nonofficial media ran at least 40 articles, most of which opposed the project or were neutral about it. Qunyan, a journal of one of China's nine authorized non-Communist parties, was the most outspoken media organ on the dam project.
Dai Qing, a journalist with the Communist Party-operated Guangming Daily, sought to run an article in that paper that would be critical of Three Gorges, but was told there was an unwritten directive against using anything other than Xinhua material on the project. Using borrowed funds, she compiled a book, Yangtze! Yangtze! composed of 22 articles by--and interviews with--scientists and specialists who took part in the feasibility studies but who disagreed with the State's decision to build the dam. When the book was published in March 1989, more than a dozen newspapers, including People's Daily, Guangming Daily, and the World Economic Herald, reported the event despite directives from above not to do so. The Tiananmen Square crackdown brought an end to further publication of critical views on this subject, and Dai Qing was arrested and imprisoned.
Between December 1991, when the leadership apparently decided to go ahead with Three Gorges, and April 1992, when the National People's Congress gave its less-than-unanimous approval, the government made a concerted effort to push the project forward. Some 30 articles lauding Three Gorges ran in People's Daily, most of them signed by party leaders and specialists. Only one nonofficial individual, a villager living along the Yangtze, had any articles on the subject in People's Daily during this time. In the few instances in which criticism of the project appeared in the major media, it was unsigned.
In both the dominant pro-dam media and the anti-dam nonofficial media, quotes from the late leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai have been used to justify positions. Pro- and anti-dam media organs agreed that the party leadership had the right to decide the matter, while disagreeing over the wisdom of the decision itself. Dai Qing's book was an exception, questioning the legitimacy of such a decision by the party. As a result, her book was banned.(2)
A Chinese researcher who has closely followed the Three Gorges issue notes that, in the past four years, criticism of the project in the Chinese media has been limited and moderate.(3) Moreover, such negative reporting has been published in relatively obscure publications located far from Beijing and from powerful provincial party organizations. It has focused on mismanagement of financial or technical aspects of the project by local officials, and has mostly been couched in elliptical language--for example, through references to the problems of earlier Chinese dams and to uncertainties about the effects of major construction on the ecosystems of neighboring countries.
(1) Correspondence with a former Chinese journalist now living in Canada, March-September 1996.
(2) Interview with a Hong Kongbased Chinese media specialist, June 1996.
(3) Correspondence with a Chinese scholar living in Japan, May-July, December 1996.