BEIJING -- In the spring of 1989, 270 members of China's national legislature proposed delaying until the next century plans to build the world's largest hydroelectric dam across the mighty Yangtze River.
For the National People's Congress, normally a rubber-stamp body, it was a rare moment of democratic debate, reflecting the relatively open atmosphere that led weeks later to the Tiananmen Square protests.
But during this year's two-week meeting of the congress, which ends April 3, there have been strong signals that such dissent will not be tolerated and that the controversial water-control project, known as the Three Gorges Dam, will at last receive official approval.
Environmental, technical and financial concerns about the huge dam still exist. But politics, particularly the Communist Party's need to display leadership and strength, account for the determination to forge ahead despite the project's risks.
As Chinese Premier Li Peng put it yesterday, the dam is "necessary . . . and economically rational."
Intensively studied since first conceived in the early 1920s, the 607-foot-high dam will irreparably reshape the landscape of central China. It will create a 370-mile-long lakeeast of Chongqing in China's most populous region, Sichuan Province, forcing resettlement of more than a million peasants.
Chinese officials now say that its 18 years of construction will cost $11 billion, an amount equal to a fifth of the nation's current annual budget. Other estimates have ranged up to $40 billion.
The huge investment is aimed at providing the equivalent of ten nuclear power plants' worth of badly needed electricity to China's impoverished interior. It also is intended to improve flood control along the world's third-longest river and open much of it to shipping.
The dam, however, will obliterate the most scenic and fabled stretch of the Yangtze, known here as the "Chang Jiang" or Long River.
Chinese critics also say that the project will lead to an ecological disaster. They say that there is insufficient land for the displaced, that cheaper electricity could be had by building smaller dams along the Yangtze's tributaries and that the dam's power generation will eventually be reduced by excessive silting.
But public criticism of the project, even from scientific quarters, has been one of the prime victims of the stifling of all forms of dissent following the massacre of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989.
That crackdown strengthened the power of central planners withinChina's bureaucracy, including that of Premier Li, a Soviet-trained hydroelectric engineer long predisposed toward such big projects. Then came last summer's record flooding in eastern and central China, which affected nearly 200 million people -- but which also was a godsend for the dam's proponents.
The Three Gorges project would not prevent a repeat of that disaster, because the floodwaters came mainly from rivers it will not control. But the flood gave new urgency to building the dam by underscoring the widespread failure to maintain rural water-control systems in the 1980s, when China shifted from collective to individual farming.
China's per capita water resources are only a quarter of the
world average, and 80 percent of that water lies in the half of the nation south of the Yangtze. Flood control and irrigation have consequently been key tests for every Chinese regime for two millenniums -- particularly for the Communist Party, which came to power in a peasant revolution.
So the current resolve to tackle the Three Gorges boils down to a high-stakes quest by the party for legitimacy and support, similar in motivation to another expensive, high-profile project recently undertaken by China, the bid to be host to the Olympics in 2000.
China's finance minister, Wang Bingqian, as much as admitted this in January. "The completion of the Three Gorges project will bring greateconomic benefits," he said, "but its political effects will be even greater."
The commitment to the Three Gorges project, however, has overshadowed another grandiose water-control plan with equal, if not greater, urgency for China: diverting the Yangtze's waters hundreds of miles north to relieve north China's chronic shortage of water.
North China has been suffering its worst drought in more than 60 years. The water shortage is expected to rapidly worsen over the next decade with continued population, industrial and urban growth, eventually stifling such major northern cities as Beijing and Tianjin.
To alter China's natural water imbalance, four channels have been proposed to bring the Yangtze's waters north. Three would have to be dug. The fourth involves reconstructing the 700-year-old Grand Canal, which runs 700 miles from the lower reaches of the Yangtze in eastern China almost to Beijing.
Remaking the Grand Canal was first approved in 1983, and it is only estimated to cost about $2.5 billion, or less than a quarter of the Three Gorges project. But progress has been stalled by disputes between provinces along the canal's path over how much water will be allowed to flow north and by China's limited investment funds -- money that now appears largely destined for the building the Three Gorges Dam.