Outside magazine, October 1997
I've climbed through swirling dust to an inauspicious cement platform that marks the prospective crest of this new great wall, a 26-million-ton slab of concrete that will rise as high as a 60-story building above the riverbed and span a mile and a quarter from shore to shore. I'm overlooking Sandouping, Hubei Province, former site of a waterside farming village and current site of what may be the largest industrial undertaking in the history of the world. From this height, the great turbid flow of the Yangtze seems to veer below like an afterthought, nearly obscured in a haze of dump trucks and cranes and hydraulic excavators and pyramids of gravel and barges weighted down with American-built bulldozers.
This is what national obsession looks like: the future home of the Three Gorges Dam, named in honor of the most revered 120-mile stretch of river canyon in China — an imposing landscape that is slated, very shortly, to suffer unredeemable alterations. A river will become a lake, forested hillsides will become slopes of waterlogged stumps, farmland and ancient stone villages will dissolve into blurred reminiscence, a ribbon of countryside — stretching a distance equal to that between Los Angeles and San Francisco — will find itself abandoned to the blades of 26 massive turbines and converted to beautiful invisible electricity.
For now, the dam gestates beneath the tundra of the sprawling construction site. Everywhere I look the skin of the earth has been removed, and what remains is gristle and pale fractured land. My escort, Shen Wenfu, a slight and overeager man of about 30 with a thick scar on his right hand, is a propaganda officer for the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corporation, a government-established agency charged with overseeing the grandiose venture, and he affects deep emotion at the sight of the blasted landscape. "Five years ago," Shen says, "there was nothing here, only mountains and villages. Now you see the temporary ship lock and the coffer dam and the diversion channel. I feel very proud."
A few plots of terraced farmland remain on the green upper hillsides, perched directly above the shredded mountain walls of the dam site, and a dozen peasants can be seen bending in the fields in their blue suits and straw hats, seemingly oblivious to the excavated world below. The scene lends itself aptly to musings on oblivion, because despite the enormity of the dam site, and despite the legion of 40,000 workers who will live and toil on the project until 2013, from my vantage point at this makeshift sentry tower the overwhelming impression is that of unreality, as if I were looking at a papier-méchë model of a disaster, one that a good rain could wash away. The sky is white and the sundered hills are white and the valley below is potted with white craters and even the gigantic earthmovers that totter everywhere on six-foot tires seem hushed and far away. "This dam is a dream for the Chinese people," an official at the project's headquarters told me, and like a dream the endeavor is propelled forward by its own logic. Unreality pervades the phenomenon that is the Three Gorges Dam, from the mock political debate that ensured approval of the $25 billion project, to the headlines in official papers saying things like "River Project to Improve Environment," to the numbed response of close to two million people who are already being uprooted from their riverside homes with promises of the good life to come in shining hilltop cities that have yet to be built.
According to officials, you have until November 16 of this year to see what a great river looks like when it flows unimpeded. "In China," says Wang Rushu, a senior engineer with the Three Gorges Project Corporation, "we have two exciting events in 1997. First is the return of Hong Kong to the Motherland. And second is the closure of the Yangtze River," which is often referred to as China's Mother River. It's a big year for Mother in China, and the country's genuine celebratory spirit has everything to do with a feeling of shaking off the final remnants of colonial garb and asserting dominion over Chinese territory and Chinese nature. China isn't suffering any guilty Western-style retrenchment from its idealistic nation-building mission, and I'm often regarded, pityingly, as a visitor from the past come to marvel at the future. "Mr. Mark," says Shen, "go home and tell your people the truth about this great Chinese dam."
To track the ripple of enthusiasm created by the damming of the world's third longest river, it's advisable to start your journey, as I did, hundreds of miles upstream of the dam site, in the blighted, tremulous heart of central China, where Chongqing, a gloriously decrepit city of 15 million, sprouts organically from the hills at the juncture of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. If you want to enjoy the spectacle of blind men competing to shine your shoes for a nickel, if you want to refresh yourself beneath a perpetual rain that stings the skin and smells like sour diesel, Chongqing will not disappoint. Fifteen hundred miles from the Yangtze's destination at the East China Sea, Chongqing is optimistically slated to become the hub of rampant development in the heretofore inaccessible and "backward" interior of China. The closure of the Yangtze will back up the river's eastbound flow for about 400 miles, creating a placid, 575-foot-deep reservoir with the disarming name of Three Gorges Lake. In a magical liquid jolt, the seedy river harbor of Chongqing will be reborn as a gleaming waterfront metropolis, and ocean liners will glide effortlessly across an artificial basin 25 miles longer than Lake Superior.
I could feel it collecting on my tongue, like the grit in Chongqing's breeze: the intimation that a cleansing flood is spreading inland and that this town, alive with desperate energy, is a chosen site awaiting the fulfillment of its destiny. Construction cranes dot the horizon and vacant skyscrapers hover over the chaos of the city below. A brand new department store displays washing machines and big-screen TVs and a full stock of other dust-coated amenities that no ordinary Chinese could possibly afford. A man squats in an alley over a pail of blood, slicing eels, and a crowd of other men, clasping worn tools, waits for offers of odd day-jobs. Most foreigners stay in Chongqing only long enough to book passage on one of the tour boats whose three-day trips downstream through the Three Gorges originate here. A tiny old woman in a blue sailor's suit grabs my hand in the newly built ferry terminal and urges me, in a hoarse whisper, to reserve my berth while I still have a chance. "The river," she says, "is crowded with people who wish to see the Gorges before they disappear."
I board the passenger ferry Yao Hua — "China Sunshine" — along with 700 Chinese, three German backpackers, and a psychologist from Buffalo, and since this is tourism Chinese style, dockside vendors are selling fried chickens' feet and roasted rabbits with teeth intact, and a barefoot woman scampers along hawking pickled eggs. Most of the Chinese passengers, who share rooms of eight wooden bunks, are already absorbed in card games and gambling before the boat leaves the dock. The harbor is cluttered with cruise ships jockeying for position among barges heaped with coal, and a fisherman works strenuously with a bamboo pole to unmoor his crudely patched rowboat from a sandbar. He's still quite stuck when the good ship China Sunshine pulls up anchor and discharges a clot of coal dust and sets off through the China smog.
The mood on the ship is jubilant. Only recently have a tiny percentage of Chinese achieved sufficient prosperity to head out on the tourist trail, and most of those I speak with on board — businessmen, minor government officials, retired factory workers — tell me this is their first vacation away from their hometowns. A travel agent from Henan Province who has named himself Wolf is accompanying a group of chipper tourists in orange baseball caps, and he provides me with an expert recitation of the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam: downstream flood control; the generation of enough electricity — 16 nuclear reactors' worth — to provide a full tenth of China's current energy needs; improved navigation of the former river. On a more personal note, Wolf lets on that the common notion that the Three Gorges will begin to "disappear" behind the dam's floodwaters come November has created a lucrative tourism frenzy. (An internal memo from a state security agency refers to the enthusiasm as Three Gorges Fever.) In truth, Wolf admits, the upcoming channel closure, dramatic as it is, marks only an early step in an alleged 16-year process of gradual flooding. Where the Three Gorges Dam is concerned, though, the distinction between fact and symbolism has become extremely watery.
One after another the passengers strike stiff poses on deck as their relatives snap pictures against the backdrop of rolling pine-covered hills and rich burgundy soil. The broad banks of the river, covered with softball-size rocks, host an incongruous blend of barefoot fishermen and soot-streaked factories. Coal chutes drop down the hills alongside patches of farmland; a stream of effluents runs into the river from an open pipe 50 feet from where a woman collects water in wooden buckets. We're 36 hours upstream from the Gorges, and the glamorous scent of imminent destruction is in the air. My sailing companions and I mill restlessly in the humid dusk like early arrivals at a celebratory bonfire. We know that the valley we're passing through will be inundated by the waters behind the dam and that this obliterating tide will rinse through the streets of 13 cities, 140 towns, and well over a thousand peasant villages. As far as I can tell, no one finds this prospect less than exhilarating. "Those towns are poor and ugly," says one of my roommates, Feng, a harbor policeman who is missing the tips of three of his fingers and whose shirt is speckled with dried blood.
Follow the river 600 miles downstream from Chongqing, leaping like a magical ocean-bound fish over the ostensible Three Gorges Dam, and you will find the place in a city called Wuhan where the Yangtze River flows past the offices of the Yangtze Water Resources Commission. At one point in my travels I dutifully ventured to Wuhan to receive official instruction on the scheme to stop up the Three Gorges with a monumental concrete plug. My government-sanctioned escort, an adorable 21-year-old from Beijing's All-China Journalist Association named Liu, was met by her escort, who took us to a military guard station on Liberation Avenue, where we were joined by a third escort, who told me he would act as my translator and then escorted us up an elevator to a paneled boardroom where two more translators waited, their job, it seemed, to take notes and giggle and roll their eyes and otherwise to remain coy and silent during my meeting with their bosses, three high-ranking officials who sat on bulky leather sofas 20 feet away from me and drifted in and out of the room when they weren't speaking — one of them, in particular, returning to his seat with much more neatly groomed hair. Tea was served, stacks of business cards distributed, the principle of friendship between nations extolled, and much time devoted to mutual assurances that this chummy get-together bestowed great honor on all concerned, despite the fact that I was a member of the despised U.S. press who was sure to spread lies about their fetish.
If it seems outlandish that the 12,000-member bureaucracy of the Yangtze Water Resources Commission would focus its attentions on a single river, it's worth considering that the Yangtze valley drains one-fifth of China's area and is home to one of every 12 people on the planet. Forty percent of China's grain, 70 percent of its rice, close to half of its total industrial and agricultural output, are produced in the Yangtze valley, mainly in the heavily populated lowlands downstream of the dam site. And there's the rub. "As you know," Luo said, "we have suffered extraordinary floods." One official told me that in the past 2,000 years of documented history, the Yangtze has jumped its banks in catastrophic fashion an average of once every decade. These aren't water-in-your-cellar floods, either; about 300,000 people have drowned in the swollen Yangtze this century. Wuhan, the city eight floors below me, was underwater for four months in 1931, in the aftermath of flooding that killed 140,000 and left about 30 million homeless.
Given the toll exacted by the Yangtze's caprices, it's hardly surprising that the issue of the Three Gorges Dam has long been bound up with politics and emotion as much as with economics and technology. In the early 1920s, two decades before the era of giant dams was born, Sun Yat-sen, one of the heads of the Republic of China, dreamed up the idea of mounting a wall of salvation across the Yangtze. His nationalist protëgë, Chiang Kai-shek, liked the plan well enough, too, and two generations later Mao Zedong himself was mooning rhapsodically over the fantasy dam in his 1956 poem called "Swimming": "Great plans are afoot.... / Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west / To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain / Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges. / The mountain goddess, if she is still there, / Will marvel at a world so changed."
Mao wrote the poem shortly after doing the backstroke across the three-mile-wide Yangtze at Wuhan, a feat he'd undertaken to inspire the young revolutionary nation with his vigorous example and to provide an old-fashioned demonstration of the supremacy of human will over nature. Thus emboldened, he initiated the Great Leap Forward, the attempt to radically accelerate the pace of China's industrialization, which is said to have resulted in starvation for 20 to 30 million Chinese and which featured an extravagant program of dam-building. China, which had virtually no dams in 1949 at the inception of the People's Republic, now boasts half of the large dams in the world and some 83,400 dams in all. These fail at a rate ten times higher than those of the rest of the world. One series of dam collapses, following a 1975 typhoon, reportedly killed 230,000 people, though no such death toll was ever confirmed by the Chinese government and is nowhere mentioned in the promotional materials of the Yangtze Water Resources Commission.
Since 1992, when the National People's Congress formally approved the dam during an unusually contentious session in which floor debate was forbidden, the project has basked in the glow of rousing official unanimity. This glow should not be underestimated, since it is produced by an 18,200,000-watt light bulb dangling above the Three Gorges, and when you stare into the glow for a long time — say, 84.7 billion kilowatt hours each year — you're bound to see spots before your eyes, which may impair your vision. If you sail through the narrows of the Three Gorges on the ferry China Sunshine, for instance, you may want to bring your sunglasses. For the dam, you understand, "is a touchstone," as He Gong, vice-president of the Three Gorges Project Corporation, told Chinese papers. "Nothing can stop it now."
"The riverboat captain," says riverboat Captain Zhang, "is involved in an ancient struggle with nature." I've stirred him from a nap on day two of my Yangtze cruise, and for want of a more private place to talk, he sits in my cabin on a cot, smoking and fingering the fine hairs on his chin and brooding over the challenges of his vocation. We're 120 miles downstream from Chongqing, 12 hours or so from the Three Gorges. "The river," continues the captain, "is very mysterious. It looks quiet and peaceful, but the surface is deceptive and the depths are very dangerous. There are many shoals and rapids, especially in the Three Gorges, and many hazards that are invisible to the eye." Captain Zhang, who is 41, has worked this stretch of the Yangtze for more than half of his life, and he says it took ten years of studying the river to master it. Not long ago, navigation through the Gorges was a more hazardous business, but the frequent use of dynamite to break up the rapids and clear obstacles has made the captain's burden somewhat lighter. There's not much sporting thrill involved in making it through the middle reaches of the Yangtze. No spray of river water will muss your hair, and you can comfortably shave during the ferry's least steady moments.
"The Chinese people have strong emotions about this river," says Captain Zhang. A map of the region is spread on his lap, and his long pinkie nail glides from one town to the next. "Zigui will be under water," he says. "Wushan will be flooded. Fengjie, too, will be inundated. Wanxian will be half-drowned. Zhongxian — inundated. Fengdu — inundated. Fuling — inundated." I ask him to point out the level that the dammed water will reach on the surrounding hills, and he gestures to a whitewashed house hovering a third of the way up the slope. "I think a little above that house," he says. We are 250 miles from the dam site.
A few hours ago, the ferry docked at the town of Fengdu, and I followed the other passengers off the boat through a gauntlet of souvenir vendors awaiting us in the predawn mist. For the past 1,200 years, Fengdu has been regarded in folk mythology as a gateway to the underworld; ghosts are said to congregate here before passing on to hell. About 50 Buddhist and Taoist temples, destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, once clustered in the mountains above town, housing sculptures with names like Between the Living and the Dead and Bridge of Helplessness.
I stopped on a street corner in Fengdu to eat a fried breadstick beneath a colorful banner urging the locals to "Remain Agricultural — Protect the Soil — Be Happy to Move," and it was there I met Li, a 60-year-old seamstress with thick white hair and a commanding voice. Li said that like her fellow townspeople she was indeed happy to move, and she waved to a spot far across the river where a barren construction site marked the future home of Fengdu. "Our new town will have the same name," she said, "and the government will build a bridge across the river so that we can visit old Fengdu whenever we wish." Except, of course, that old Fengdu will be accessible only to divers. "The new city will be modern, and much richer," said Li. A crowd of children in blue and white school uniforms had surrounded us, and Li's voice grew shaky. "I will miss my home. It's hard for old people like me to move, but until it happens it won't seem real. And who knows, maybe I'll be dead by then."
I wandered through Fengdu, trying to avoid the dispiriting central avenue, where a throng of vendors pushed trinkets. The town relies on infusions of cash from the cruise-ship visitors, because there's no industry to speak of and a population of around 100,000 to support. The floodwaters of the Three Gorges Dam have been threatening the Yangtze valley for so long that the entire region has slid from the map of central economic planning, cut off from investment. This has had the effect of ensuring long-lasting poverty, which makes it easier for the dam-builders to argue that relocation can only benefit the people being moved. "Look around," said one merchant, after I had slogged through eight inches of muck to sit with him in his tiny cigarette shop in the shadow of a huge limestone overhang. "Who would want to live here?"
I drifted to the edge of town and came to a steep staircase cut into the red sandstone of a cliff, and I began to climb, peering down at the shallow steps, and after a while I looked to my side and saw a thin fog riding low over the Yangtze, and saw the China Sunshine docked along with five other cruise ships, and saw Fengdu spread out beneath me like an improvised blueprint.
And I looked closely at this blueprint until it blurred at its edges, and beyond the edges I saw a crease form in the pale eastern horizon of Sichuan Province, widening as it approached, and lifting itself in a great wave toward the city, and sprawling through the courtyards and markets and groves of fruit trees, and wrapping Fengdu in a swift, devouring embrace.
Xu was waiting for me at the top of the steps, sitting against a wall on a slab of iron strung between two zinc buckets, dripping sweat onto his cigarette. He was returning to his home in the hills, bearing steaming slops to feed his pigs. I had followed him to this point 250 feet above the town, where surely, I thought, we had ascended beyond the last ring of destruction.
I said to Xu, jokingly, that at least in new Fengdu he wouldn't have to climb so many steps to bring food to his pigs. Well, he said, he was unsure if he'd be allowed to keep pigs there. "It will be modern, and much richer," he said, with a booming lack of conviction. I wondered if the dam-builders had been passing out inspirational tapes. The specter of the great distant unbuilt wall had thoroughly subdued Xu, who shared the broadly held Chinese belief that compliance is a virtue. "What difference does it make whether I want to go or not? When the government tells us to go, we'll have to go. The only choice is to remain and live underwater."
Chinese papers have lately run stories that hint at official awareness of a coming nationwide ecological crisis — stories about water shortages, soil erosion, respiratory ailments caused by foul air. The bureaucracies in charge of the Three Gorges Dam, on the other hand, who receive nothing but praise in the national press, have worked hard to cloak their monolith in a bright green mantle, insisting that the project's hydroelectricity can help alleviate the country's reliance on low-grade coal for three-quarters of its energy needs. Wang Rushu of the Three Gorges Project Corporation, author of the project's rosy environmental impact statement, says the dam's annual output of electricity is equivalent to that produced by burning 50 million tons of coal, without the accompanying discharge of greenhouse gases. That's the standard "clean energy" rationale for dams, and it has long served as a pious foundation for dams around the world. (Engineered reservoirs now hold five times as much freshwater as all the world's rivers.) There's a strong popular appeal to the notion that dams are environmentally friendly, and one side of Wang's office is covered with a painting of the Three Gorges Dam that renders it as an enhancement of nature, the centerpiece of a scene featuring a sparkling lake and sailboats and billowy clouds and lush forested hills and a waterfall whose waters foam at the base of a benign concrete wall.
Nonetheless, a cottage industry devoted to criticizing the dam sprang up in the West over the last five years. Groups like International Rivers Network, Canada's Probe International, and Human Rights Watch bullied the World Bank — whose habit has been to lavish cash on large dams in developing countries — into retreating from the project. (Sensing a messy international debate in the offing, the Chinese decided against applying for World Bank funding.) The White House, in a 1995 directive signed by Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, shied away from "a project that raises environmental and human-rights concerns on the scale of the Three Gorges," adding that the United States "should refrain from publicly condemning the Three Gorges project." The criticism from abroad has only brightened the dam's nationalistic hue within China. "We don't need your American money," Wang Rushu told me earlier. "We can build our own dam."
While in Beijing to learn about the state of environmental advocacy in China, I was eager to seek out some homegrown wisdom on the controversial homegrown dam. I made lots of phone calls and heard the phrase "sensitive issue" so many times it made my own ears sensitive. I took long cab rides to the gates of international aid agencies and was passed scribbled messages through iron gates and had a thoroughly gleeful adventure in paranoia. "You'll have difficulty finding anyone willing to talk to you about the dam," one potential Chinese source told me. "That includes me." Finally, a furtive whisper directed me to Pan Hongtao, a handsome, broad-shouldered man in his thirties who is a journalist and editor at a Beijing paper called China Environment News. Pan was busily assembling the Earth Day issue of his paper — circulation 250,000 — the old-fashioned way, with wooden rulers, scissors, and tape. Such was the level of his preoccupation that he refused to make eye contact with me once during our meeting. "I'm sorry for wasting your time," he mumbled, by way of introduction. He gestured for me to put away my notepad. "I'm not an expert, you see, and so I'm unable to provide you with any information."
"I really don't have any impressions of the Three Gorges Dam," he said. "It's a sensitive issue. The paper receives reports issued by official agencies and runs articles based on these reports."
What happens, I asked, if a reporter learns of information that conflicts with an official report?
"That doesn't happen," Pan assured me. I was relieved. "Our only sources are official reports." I looked past Pan's glass-enclosed office to the crowded newsroom and wondered what the reporters there did all day.
Pan didn't offer me any tea. He wanted me out of his office. His colleagues were staring and his manner was positively morose. No, he said, he was unaware of any Western criticism of the dam. No, he wasn't in a position to comment on the level of environmental awareness in China or to hazard a guess on what the most pressing environmental issues of the day might be. He did confirm, modestly, that China Environment News was the leading such paper in China. I remembered a Chinese journalism student I'd met a few weeks earlier in Shanghai, where the Yangtze spills into the sea, who told me that the press has an obligation to be optimistic — even, at times, to resort to what she called "white lies." "We must avoid unnecessarily exciting the people," she said. Not surprisingly, Chinese papers are as bland and cheerful as cereal boxes, but Pan Hongtao did not seem cheerful when he ushered me from his office.
I had better luck with Liang Cunjie, a sprightly 65-year-old who runs Friends of Nature, China's first and only grassroots organization devoted to environmental issues, out of a nondescript one-room office on the edge of Beijing's Forbidden City. "There are a number of environmental groups that call themselves nongovernmental organizations," he told me, "but actually they are GONGOs, government-organized NGOs, controlled and run by the government." The all-volunteer group that Liang founded in 1994 counts about 300 members, is run on a shoestring, and focuses on consciousness-raising activities, like a recent tree-planting trip to an arid stretch of Inner Mongolia. He recognized the need to be "artful" in criticizing government policy if he wanted to pursue his modest goals, and this despite the fact that Friends of Nature is tolerated in the first place only because of Liang's admittedly "privileged" status — he's a former vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Culture and a member of an advisory body called the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which he likens to an upper house of parliament and which others have called the "non-Communist Communist Party."
Liang said that since the Three Gorges Dam had received the official stamp of approval two years before his group came on the scene, it seemed impractical to mount a campaign of opposition. "The project is so politicized. It's not just a matter of engineering or hydroscience." The dam, Liang said, had grown into a central matter of national prestige for reasons that he claimed not to understand. "It's a mystery to me," he said. "It's just a dam. We have so many dams. Why is this particular one so important? There is no shortage of alternatives, either — we could build small dams on the tributaries and gain the same effects in flood control and energy production. Why build such a big project, when the results are unknown scientifically?"
For now, though, Liang's only means of combating grand symbolic schemes such as the Three Gorges Dam was to undertake small symbolic missions, like planting trees in the deforested wilderness. "After two days of painstaking work under the desert sun during the height of the summer, we planted about 2,700 trees. But when we were finished and looked back at what we'd done, we couldn't even find the so-called forest we'd just planted. Because this many trees in a desert is nothing."
Not far now to the Three Gorges: It's dusk on the Yangtze, day two of my river journey. I'm humming along with the tinny Chinese pop song that blares over the PA system of the China Sunshine, and I'm enjoying the stiff breeze on deck with a can of warm Tsingtao beer in hand, when I'm clipped on the side of the head with a Styrofoam carton of rice and soggy peppers. Passengers who've eaten in their rooms are tossing their takeout containers overboard, part of the the ship's after-meal janitorial spectacle. The dining room staff clears leftovers onto the tablecloths, gathers the tablecloths into tidy bundles, and pitches them into the river. Trash cans are emptied into the current. Last night I followed two giggling crew members as they dragged a barrel of garbage to the back of the ship and heaved the entire thing toward the watery depths.
The surface of the river is adrift with Styrofoam. Chopsticks and plastic bottles jostle like comical toy boats. No amount of sentimental cooing over the Mother River can conceal the truth that she is dirty and smells very bad. The Yangtze valley has been inhabited for thousands of years, and the river has always served as the common washbasin and sewer and burial site for settlements along its shores. Traditional habits of dumping haven't much adapted to the rapid industrialization of the region over the past 20 years, and now it's not just night soil and chicken bones that ride the downstream current, but hefty amounts of mercury, arsenic, lead, and cyanide. When the river is closed off by the dam, Yangtze sturgeon, the world's largest freshwater fish, will have its upstream travel blocked, but at least the sturgeon will be spared some unseemly wading; on the other side of the wall the 265 billion gallons of raw sewage dumped in the river each year will have its passage to the ocean thwarted. And though the agencies in charge of the dam have promised solutions to this problem — they have solutions for everything — it doesn't seem that any funds have been allocated for water treatment plants. Bucolic Three Gorges Lake, many critics say, will assume the refreshing attributes of an enormous clogged toilet.
I'm awakened abruptly at four in the morning. Feng, the harbor cop, is sitting on his bunk staring at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke. He points out the window, and I see the sheer walls of Qutang Gorge, the uppermost of the Three Gorges, whitened against the night by a full moon. I rush to the deck and join a dozen other passengers, some wearing only sandals and underwear, and the wind is stinging, and the river slaps against the mountains, and although a thin pencil of black sky is visible through a crevice thousands of feet above, for a few ghostly moments it feels as if the world has been reduced to its elements and these elements are enclosed within the gorge.
The ship docks at Wushan, a town where the schedule for relocation has been painted on the sides of buildings, and I board a small motorboat for a tour of the Little Three Gorges — not to be confused with the other, more famous Three Gorges — on a tributary of the Yangtze. The tour guide is wearing black leather hot pants and halter and squawks through a megaphone and spends a great deal of time selling commemorative stamps to support the Three Gorges Dam. "No more Little Three Gorges in November," she announces, repeatedly. She leads us on a tour of the battlefield before the battle has commenced: a stone bridge 350 feet high, spanning the canyon, that will be dismantled; rich alluvial fields whose farmers will be shuttled to rocky highlands; a town, settled in the third century, lined with buildings from the Ming Dynasty, awaiting the flood; a tiny strip of shoreline where a hundred displaced peasants, selling skewered potatoes and packs of Three Gorges cigarettes, live in striped plastic tents. The canyon, free of the factories that hover over much of the Yangtze, is gorgeous and appalling. The water is pale green, reflecting layers of green hillside, and a handful of old women scrub their laundry with stones along the banks. Terraced farms dangle high above the river. The boat winds through narrow, claustrophobic passages. Monkeys scamper in treetops, and passengers crane their necks and whistle and wave. "I hope those monkeys can swim," I shout, and everyone laughs and the tour guide sends an approving wink my way.
At one stop I talk to an old peasant who stands in sandals made of rope in a pasture with his four goats. He doesn't know how old he is. He doesn't know where he'll be moved when the waters rise, except higher, where the soil is no good. He doesn't know how long his family has lived on this river, though the tour guide tells me, contemptuously, that the old man is a member of the Tujia minority, allegedly descended from the Ba people who settled the region as many as 8,000 years ago. And the tour guide points to a cave in a cliff wall, a thousand feet above the water, where one of about a hundred remarkable "hanging coffins" has been left by the Ba people. The Ba had the right idea, suspending their remains beyond the reach of enemies or starry-eyed dam-builders. The Ba coffins are among the few archaeological relics in the region that are sure to be saved from the Three Gorges Dam.
Back aboard the China Sunshine, the new views I've been told so much about begin to emerge. In Xiling Gorge, the third and longest of the Three Gorges, abandoned villages dot the hillside. An old woman in a tattered blue Mao jacket sits beneath an umbrella on the roof of a vacant mill, pointing accusingly at the passing ferry. "She's lost her mind," says one of my shipmates. "She should be reported to the authorities."
The river begins to widen. We're coming out of the Gorges, approaching the threshold between China's backwaters and its presumed destination in modernity, approaching the induced limit of the Yangtze, approaching a wall that has to rise in the imagination before it can rise on the riverbed. We're ten miles from the dam site. The hillsides have become quarries, deforested, dusty pink undersides exposed. Barges line the banks, piled high with rocks bound for the cement factory.
I spot a man clambering from a cave far up a cliff, and for a moment he seems like a flickering vision released from a hanging coffin, a feral creature left to fend for himself on a deserted ledge, picking a neurotic zigzagging path away from the cave. While I'm watching he disappears in smoke.
A blast echoes through the mouth of the canyon. "Explosion!" shouts a child on deck. The ship responds with a full-throated call from its horn. Shale slides down the mountain toward the river, trailing a great dusty wake. Rubble splashes into the river. Passengers cheer. We've made it through the Three Gorges before they disappeared; our journey along the banks of the condemned is almost over. It's time to get off the boat.
A few days later i'm granted a glimpse of the human future of the Three Gorges by following the curves of the Yangtze, this time by minibus, to the resettlement center of Maoping — "Mao Village" — a former farming community that looms above the Yangtze about a mile from the dam site. In the dam-builders' dreamscape, Maoping will become a lakeside town of about 35,000 devoted to dam-related tourism and light industry, and I've been brought here, with official permission, because Maoping is considered to offer exemplary proof of the bounties of forced resettlement. I'm walking through the mostly unpaved streets of the town-in-progress with Yang, a local resettlement officer in his early thirties who moves with the bearing of a capo. Teenagers leaning against idle backhoes bolt upright as we pass. "Construction began here in 1994," Yang tells me, "when there was only terraced farmland. Now the village is covered with buildings." It's true. There's a hotel with mirrored windows and a barren department store and the hollow shells of schools and offices and apartment blocks, all faced in white ceramic tile — enough architecture, vintage 1996, to make an American subdivision developer tremble with possibility.
Yang regards his job as a patriotic calling, and it's a hard job, too, because no industrial project has ever involved the relocation of such a large population — between one and two million, depending on whose figures you trust. New homes must be built, new jobs provided, roads and schools and hospitals designed, and order maintained. The state security apparatus has already drawn up plans for containing disturbances, though Yang assures me that "there are no people who refuse to move," to which my charming escort Liu adds, "The Chinese people are very meek." Resettlement bureaus have dispatched a corps of agents to go door to door throughout the "affected areas," persuading those in the dam's path to do the right thing and offering "education" to those reluctant to pack their bags. Yang says, "There are 1.2 billion people in China, so this is a very small number to affect." An official from the Yangtze Water Resources Commission says, "The Chinese believe in sacrificing for the good of the country." An official at the Three Gorges Project Corporation headquarters says, "We tell them, if you move one million, then we save 15 million from floods. Very easy. We move one, we save 15." And one after another of the passengers on China Sunshine says, "They're peasants. They'll be glad to move."
Yang takes me to a marketplace in Maoping and introduces me to an old man, a model of what the government hopes to achieve in its resettlement efforts. The man, retired from a machine factory, tells me that he lives in a modern building surrounded by neighbors from his former town and that he makes extra money by selling vegetables on a patch of land the government gave him. "Life is much better than before," he says. "There's more entertainment here for old people. Of course I miss my old home, but I'm proud to put the nation first."
I'm glad to meet the old man, and Yang is glad for me to meet him. Yang cares about the people he forces to move here, and positive feedback brightens his day. About the only thing the old man has to complain about are the cracked lenses of his eyeglasses.
Yang and the old man help to remind me that this dam — so easily condemned as environmental folly and callous nationalistic muscle-flexing — was born out of a visionary impulse that has as much to do with social engineering as with the engineering of a river. The project — I'm thinking, while Yang beams at me and the old man polishes his cucumbers — reflects a desire to improve on nature and on human nature both. It's not easy for an American of my generation, who has come of age in an era of downsized utopian ambitions and downsized dams, to credit the Chinese with pursuing the drive to transform themselves. The old man in the marketplace is surrounded by other old people, selling meat and noodles and milky blocks of tofu, and they're smiling at me and tugging at my shirt and they all seem grateful for the great dam to come.
And then I slip down a gully past a garbage heap to a shadowy lane where Yang warns me that I am unlikely to meet "representative" members of the relocated population. Undeterred, I call up to a random second-story window of a brand-new building and summon Ming Wa to come speak to me. Ming is a pretty young woman with long braided hair and crooked teeth who tells me she moved to Maoping from her ancestral home, a tiny village barely a mile away which has been folded up to make room for the dam. What kind of work did you do there? I ask.
"I was a peasant," she says. "I tended paddies and raised plants for cooking oil."
And what do you do now? I ask.
A lively conference ensues between Yang and my escort before Ming's response is translated for me. "Temporarily unemployed," I am told. Ming has been "temporarily unemployed" since arriving in Maoping three years ago. Her husband has gone off to a city half a day's bus ride away to look for work. She gets by on a state-provided allowance of about $8 a month.
"I didn't like farming," she says. "Few people do. It's very hard work. But at least I could raise plants and vegetables for food. Here, everything costs money. It's all money, money, money."
I remind myself: Nearby, in a marketplace, a happy old man is selling vegetables.
I ask Ming to describe the compensation package she has received from the government. Yesterday, Wang Rushu of the Three Gorges Project Corporation told me, emphatically, "We compensate the people who have to move. We give them $5,000 for every person — $5,000 for an old man, $5,000 for a child." He elaborated. "Before, these people are rather poor. They live in the mountains; they work in the fields. Now we give them money to build a new house, to get new furniture. For instance, a new freezer. New television. And we train them. Before, they were farmers; now they are workers, working in factories, iron mills, maybe, or maybe they work as drivers. So they think: I've got a new house. I've got new furniture and a new TV. And the government pays me $5,000. So yes, I'm very interested in resettling. That's what they think."
There is considerable deliberation between Yang and my escort before Ming reveals to me the deal her family cut with the dam-builders. Finally I'm told that Ming's family received about $1,500 to compensate for the loss of their house and their land. "A lot of money," my escort says to me.
"That is a lot of money," I say. A peasant family in this area is unlikely to earn much more than $40 a month. "What did you do with it, Ming?"
"We had to pay for our new apartment," Ming says. "But it wasn't enough money to pay for the apartment, so there was nothing left over."
Yang isn't looking very relaxed anymore, but luckily a sizable crowd has gathered to enjoy our conversation — since as far as I can tell, Maoping is full of the temporarily unemployed — and one of the onlookers opens a burlap sack full of live snakes, and my escort shrieks, and the crowd dissolves in hysterics.
So we retreat into Ming's building, climbing a flight of concrete steps with the aid of a plumbing pipe for a banister, and Ming shows off her immaculate and nearly bare concrete apartment. "I definitely prefer living in a modern house," she says. "My old house was made from wood and soil and had no water. But my old village was beautiful. A stream ran beside the village, and we were surrounded by forest. When the authorities came and told us we would be moved, I was loath to leave. I returned to the village once, shortly after we moved here, but there was nothing to see. It was all a construction site." Yang is glaring at Ming. Ming looks like she could talk all afternoon, if such things were permitted. "There's no way to kill the time," she says.
The next day, while in Wuhan, I relate Ming's story to a committee of dam-builders, and I am told, "This woman is not representative."
Ming Wa of Maoping, Damland, is still very much on my mind when I pay a visit on Dai Qing, the woman anointed in the Western press as the official martyr of the Three Gorges Dam. Like Ming Wa, Dai Qing too is "temporarily unemployed," as a result of the Three Gorges Dam. "I've lost almost everything," she tells me. "I'm still a citizen of China, and I still have the right to live in Beijing, but I have no job, no income, no medical insurance."
Dai is a witty and energetic woman in her early fifties who has traveled the elite circles of Chinese intellectual society. She is the adopted daughter of one of China's highest-ranking military officials; she was a onetime Red Guard; she was trained as a missile engineer; she wrote a column for one of China's most prestigious newspapers. In the late 1980s, buoyed by a liberalized political climate, she edited a collection of essays, called Yangtze! Yangtze!, that criticized the Three Gorges Dam from various technical perspectives. It reads like an innocuous enough book, of interest mainly to engineers, and her sources for the essays were high-ranking government officials whose objections to the project were practical, not ideological. Dai was not unaware, though, that water power and political power are sometimes vested in the same source. "I got involved in this issue not for scientific reasons," she says, "but to promote the freedom of speech." We sit in near darkness in her apartment. A computer and fax machine are covered in plastic. A small American flag is propped on a bookshelf. "But of course this dam is a political project, and a person who is against this project is thought to be against the Party and against the government."
The book was published in March 1989, and a few months later Dai, who says she "hates revolution," headed to Tiananmen Square to try to persuade leaders of the student movement that they had accomplished enough and that they ought to head back to their campuses. "What did I do during the June 4 incident? Practically nothing." Dai was arrested and sent to Qinchen prison, a notorious Soviet-built retreat for political detainees. She was never formally charged with wrongdoing, though in the post-Tiananmen haze she was held in solitary confinement for ten months and was frequently promised execution by her jailers. Dai insists that Yangtze! Yangtze!, which was banned while she was in jail, was the cause of her arrest. "The government wanted to show people who were against the Three Gorges project what might happen to them. And it worked. Right now, censorship in China is not too bad, but self-censorship is the rule."
Dai, who likes to say things like, "For the dictatorship, the dam is a symbol of central control," has become a media darling of the Western press, profiled in the New York Times, venturing abroad for fellowships at Harvard and colloquia in Copenhagen. The problem is that no one is listening at home. The dissident's celebrity she enjoys in the West is mirrored by the virtual anonymity she suffers in China. (Pan Hongtao, the silent journalist at China Environment News, was not alone in telling me he'd never heard of Dai Qing.) She inhabits the limbo reserved for the audacious, a much emptier place in China than the limbo reserved for the timid and dispossessed, where Ming Wa waits for compensation or consolation. "Even though my phone is tapped by the authorities," Dai tells me, "even though police are sometimes standing at my gate, I must remain in China. If I live abroad, I lose the power to criticize."
The pleasant voyage of the china sunshine ends in Yichang, a city 30 miles downstream from the dam. Here is the headquarters of the Three Gorges Project Corporation and a site to which foreign industrialists make regular pilgrimages in hopes of winning bids. My own pilgrimage is nearly complete. I pay an official at Dam Central a sum that represents a month's salary in China, and I'm led to a waiting van that speeds me at 80 miles per hour along impressive new infrastructure built to service the dam's construction: a new highway, closed to the public and guarded by armed police, attended by work crews also guarded by police; darkened tunnels that snake through the granite mountains; a gleaming bridge crossing the Yangtze and entering the site of the Three Gorges Dam. The bridge towers are emblazoned with the calligraphy of current premier Li Peng, a Soviet-trained engineer who is widely regarded as the henchman of Tiananmen Square and who is mocked by cynics for wearing his pants hitched high on his torso to evoke the image of Mao Zedong. I've reached my destination. Soldiers wave us in.
From ground level, the dam site looks like a shantytown, its rows of workers' barracks covered with tin and tar paper. Hard hats are a rare sight, and loafers seem to be the footwear of choice. In one direction work proceeds with sophisticated hydraulic drills, in another with picks and shovels. A few men nap in the shade beneath a bulldozer. Women sell dusty bottles of water. Transients drift through the site, pulling bamboo carts of rubble, but I'm not permitted to talk to these people — they're not "representative workers." I'm taken far and wide in the blazing heat on an absurd mission to find "representative workers," and when I find some I draw a blank. What do I ask them? What can they tell me? That the work is hard, but the wages — around $70 a month — are good? That they have come here far from home and miss their families, whom they visit once a year? That they are proud to work on a project that "means to modern China what the Great Wall meant to ancient China"? It's all true, and all I can do is wish them well. I hope they build a good dam.
I hope they build the world's best dam, in fact, and I hope that one small corner of the dam remains available for the inscription of some graffiti that commemorates the involvement of my own proud dam-building nation. If I'm ever to return here with a fat can of spray paint, I'll make a note that in 1944, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, whose dams have slackened the flow of all but 42 miles of the Columbia River, sent its chief designer to China to draw up plans for the Three Gorges Dam. I'll mention that in 1985, a consortium called the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group, comprising members from leading American industrial and financial concerns, proposed to the Chinese that the dam be built as a U.S.-China joint venture. I'll find a vibrant color with which to record Caterpillar's angry response to the Clinton administration's withdrawal of support for the project: "A politically correct export strategy," argued the peeved supplier, "can end up as a politically incorrect trade imbalance." And I'll give my paint can a final shake and append an asterisk with the name Bi as a reminder to those sometimes sanctimonious friends of the environment, including myself, who tend to get lulled into romanticizing the simple charms of the impoverished peasantry.
I met Bi on my last day in China, along a stretch of the real Great Wall, 70 miles outside Beijing at a place called Simitai. I'd gone there, to the rustic core of ancient China, where the land is plowed with oxen and cleared with handmade scythes, because I wanted to build a wall in my mind big enough to surround and overtake the wall rising above the Yangtze. I wanted to mute the chorus of voices I'd heard — those of officials, environmentalists, tourists, the displaced and the soon-to-be-displaced, the shrill and the complacent — and listen to the sound a wall makes when its only function is that of vague remembrance. Nixon famously told Zhou Enlai that American astronauts had seen the Great Wall from space, a claim as mythical as the notion that Hoover Dam remains visible from beyond. I suspect that the farther you sail from Earth, the more all walls must fade into the poignant insignificance of human dimensions. Some hold back rivers for a while, some hold back armies for a while. Some mark frontiers, some surround prisons. Some enclose the tombs of emperors and some enclose the vaults of bankers and some enclose the mud huts of peasants like Bi.
Bi joined me at the base of a mountain at the Great Wall at Simitai, and she trailed beside me for four hours beneath the midday sun. At Simitai, few efforts to preserve the wall have been made, and its granite sentry towers are crumbling, and the precipitous path that the wall follows across the spine of the mountains is littered with yellowed chips of stone. Bi took my picture with my camera, and she directed me around treacherous gaps in the trail, and at one point she gestured to a spot two valleys away which she said was her home and from which a thin plume of smoke rose. She sold me three bottles of water for 40 cents each. At the end of the day she sold me some postcards. Each of the 30 or 40 Westerners at Simitai that day was escorted by someone like Bi, a destitute local peasant for whom this form of entrepreneurship was the best chance of survival.
The wall stood there in a state of glorious incomplete collapse, holding nothing back, revealing nothing, and I stood on top of it and watched it define the landscape. It was a marvel. Its 3,000-mile expanse is said to be held together with mortar ground from the bones of the slaves who died building it. I looked down toward the valley, where a small dam had been built in a stream, and I followed Bi still higher, to the highest sentry tower, and I looked out across both sides of this wall that had divided the country, this wall that had been breached repeatedly, this wall that had stood for centuries as a symbol of oppression, this wall that endures now as an eroding token of archaeology.
Photographs by James Whitlow Delano
Filed To: Snow Sports