China approves huge dam project on the Yangtze Decision overrides widespread criticism

April 04, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's legislature approved the world's largest hydroelectric project yesterday, but not before a quarter of the normally docile body abstained in an indirect show of dissent.

Legislative approval of the Three Gorges Dam, which would span the Yangtze River and alter the landscape of central China, leaves it to China's ruling State Council to decide when to build the dam.

Authorities have already begun relocating a small portion of an estimated 1 million people who will be displaced, but likely difficulties in funding the mammoth project could delay the start of construction.

Organized opposition to the controversial dam -- it spawned China's first environmental movement in the late 1980s -- has been crushed by hard-line advocates of central planning since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The dam's chief proponent, Premier Li Peng, broke into a broad smile when it was approved, 1,767 to 177. But 664 legislators abstained in a cautious show of concern over the project's environmental, financial and human costs.

Before the vote, one delegate, Huang Shunxing, boldly rose from his seat in the Great Hall of the People to shout that he wanted to air his objections to the project. Mr. Huang was ignored by the legislature's leaders.

"I said, 'I have the right to speak. Why don't you let me speak? My rights are based on law,' " Mr. Huang said later.

"We don't have enough funds for education. We don't have for this, for that. At this time, we're just saying that we shouldn't . . . spend this much money for this thing."

During the two-week annual meeting of the legislature, which ended yesterday, other delegates expressed reservations about the cost and environmental impact of the project -- concerns that even the state news agency reported. But from the start, it was clear that few in the body would openly challenge China's senior leaders.

The 608-foot-high dam will create a 370-mile-long lake east of Chongqing in Hubei and Sichuan provinces. Proponents claim that it will control flooding along the Yangtze as well as provide badly needed power to develop China's interior.

The dam is planned to generate 17.6 million kilowatts. The government says it will cost $11 billion, but critics believe it may wind up costing as much as $40 billion.

The opponents also say that it will create an ecological disaster, that there is not enough land for the displaced residents and that more power could be had for less money by building smaller dams on the Yangtze's tributaries.

For Mr. Li, the high number of abstentions was an insignificant rebuke compared with a major embarrassment he suffered yesterday: being forced to incorporate more than 150 changes into his report to the legislature, including a warning about the dangers of "leftism" or Maoist ideology.

Overwhelmingly approved by the legislature, the changes conform with the economic reform drive being espoused by senior leader Deng Xiaoping -- a reform drive opposed by the more doctrinaire socialists who have been Mr. Li's prime backers.

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