Chinese leader indicates dam project in trouble

In speech, he suggests uprooted residents should be moved farther away

May 25, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING -- In an implicit admission that severe problems bedevil the giant Three Gorges Dam project, Prime Minister Zhu Rong-ji has announced a major change in strategy for resettling at least 1.3 million people who will be driven from their homes.

Zhu, in a speech that was heavily publicized yesterday, said more of the people who will be uprooted by a new 400-mile-long lake on the Yangtze River (also known as the Chang) should be sent to distant parts of the country.

The current effort to move displaced people to sites near their old homes has been beset by public bitterness, inadequate funds and an acute shortage of cropland. But critics say the new solution may be no more practical.

In his speech, given last week at a closed conference, Zhu also said many of the industries facing inundation by the new dam were so obsolete and polluting that they should be closed rather than moved. He also issued a new warning against misuse of funds intended to help the uprooted people.

Half the front page of yesterday's People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, was devoted to an article recounting Zhu's speech on the dam project and to an editorial voicing similar concerns.

The Three Gorges project is a special interest of Li Peng, the conservative former prime minister who remains No. 2 in the Communist Party, ahead of Zhu. Li and other leaders have portrayed the dam as an homage to China's prowess that will provide great benefits in electric power and flood control.

Zhu, who replaced Li as prime minister last year, has never shown enthusiasm for the dam, which will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Although yesterday's articles did not suggest that the project should be halted, they differed markedly in tone from the usual glowing accounts of progress.

The project long has been attacked by critics abroad who say the environmental and social costs will greatly outweigh the economic benefits. Many Chinese privately question the dam, but over the past decade public criticism has been suppressed. Only in the past few months have sporadic articles in the official press mentioned the emerging problems.

The relocation of at least 1.3 million people from a 400-mile stretch of the Yangtze River basin in central China, mostly in the crowded, mountainous province of Sichuan, has emerged as the most serious immediate obstacle.

In the next four years, when the serpentine lake is to be partly filled, more than 550,000 people, including poor farmers and factory workers in hundreds of towns, must be moved and given new livelihoods. As many additional people will have to be moved by 2008 when the project is completed.

Officials assert that 160,000 people have been relocated. But private reports indicate that some people have refused to move, that the slopes where farmers are being sent cannot support new farming and that the meager funds to help settlers have often been stolen or wasted.

In February, a journal in Beijing published a searing critique by an anonymous Chinese sociologist who said the plight of uprooted people may become "an explosive social problem."

The article also suggested that sending people to other parts of the country, the new answer offered by Zhu, will be no panacea. "In China," the article said, "all of the areas with better natural conditions were filled with people long ago."

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