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Who's afraid of Dai Qing?

YANGTZE! YANGTZE! Dai Qing Publisher: Probe International, Earthscan, London Price: L12.95

By Amit Mitra
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Place of battle: the Three Gor THE Chinese government, on the face of it: the saga of a mere mortal whose ideas on democracy and free speech exposed a state at its Draconian best begins on February 28, 1989.

A book, condemning the construction of the world's largest dam in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze river in China, is released at a press conference in Beijing. "For the first time, ordinary Chinese people have decided not to keep silent on a weighty economic policy decision. They don't want to see an endless repetition of foolish policies," says a joint statement at the press conference.

An innocuous journalist in the Enlightenment Daily -- disenchanted after a stint in military intelligence and frank writings on dissidents like the exiled astrophysicist Fang Lizhi -- is the newspaper's chief editor. But Dai Qing (pronounced Ching) is not merely a heretical scribe. Imprisoned for 13 months, hounded out of the country (she lives in Boston, USA, now), her travails and the success of the crusade she has led testify to, ironically, what Mao Zedong immortalised long ago: that the barrel of a pen can also usher in revolution.

Yangtze! Yangtze! is a superb piece of journalism, a damning indictment of totalitarian chicanery. Yet this collection of essays, interviews and statements is not just Utopian babble. It is the reasoned consideration of a motley group of Chinese scientists, journalists and academics, many of whom have tasted power, but without being poisoned by its inhumanity.

For instance, the legendary Li Rui, Zedong's former secretary on industrial affairs and vice-minister of water resources and electric power, who was purged in 1959; or Tian Fatang, a former director of the Research Institute of Planned Economy, of the State Planning Commission; both were elderly officials who oppose the dam out of genuine concern for China's economic health and political stability. The cross-section of viewpoints also includes pro-dammers like Li Boning, long associated with the project but now the director of the population Relocation Bureau of the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation.

The book was produced in less than 4 months to influence delegates attending the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC) meetings in March-April 1989, during which the final decision to build the dam was to be taken.

Yangtze! Yangtze! is credited with the decision to postpone construction for 5 years (the dam was finally cleared on April 3, 1992). Its contributors exhibit a commonsense disbelief in centralised, long-term planning, opting instead for incremental, decentralised investments that allow for flexibility to changing circumstances.

The Three Gorges project, with a 185 metre crest and a dynamic investment of $27.7 billion (1993 estimates), will displace a population of 1.13 million and submerge 98,753 ha of agricultural land. It is a "pragmatist's nightmare". The book predicts that like all mega-projects, this dam will be handicapped by its large scale, technical and organisational complexity and its experimental nature.

Because mega-projects are so long in the offing, politicians protect them from changing economic conditions and technological innovations by applying subsidies and monopoly controls that soon make them redundant and even more uneconomic. Not only are consumers and taxpayers ill-served in the process, often cheaper alternatives are neglected, with disastrous results.

This is the book's first English edition, published just a few months ago, with events after 1989 updated. But more than an indictment based only on technical data, it is a political document which argues for a true consensual and debate-based democracy.

The editors, Patricia Adams and John Thibodeau, and Qing herself, seem to lay the blame squarely on the Communist Party's totalitarianism, but it is not just that. The machinations of the state -- bans, repression, the secrecy, the obsession for large projects in the name of development, fudging statistics and bulldozing its arguments through -- are universal. Ask India's Medha Patkar.

Apropos a Chinese proverb, voices the world over are clamouring, "It's more dangerous to silence the people than to dam a river." Both the Chinese and Indian authorities are doing precisely that, but Qing's work reveals the folly of it all.

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