Chinese premier suspends plans for dam system

News surprises project's critics, environmentalists


BEIJING - Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has unexpectedly suspended plans for an enormous dam system on the Nu River in western China that scientists have warned could ruin one of the country's last unspoiled places, according to news reports in China and Hong Kong.

Wen's intervention signals that China's top leaders have not approved a plan that most dam opponents had considered a fait accompli. His personal involvement is a rare and surprising response in a nondemocratic government that in the past has shown little concern about the environmental effects of major public works projects.

In written instructions, the news reports said, Wen ordered officials to conduct a major review of the hydropower project, which calls for a 13-stage dam. Environmentalists consider the Nu, which rises in Tibet and flows 1,750 miles through Yunnan province between the Mekong and Yangtze rivers, one of the last pristine rivers in Asia. Its upper reaches flow through a canyon region so rich in biodiversity that last year a United Nations agency declared it a World Heritage Site.

"We should carefully consider and make a scientific decision about major hydroelectric projects like this that have aroused a high level of concern in society, and with which the environmental protection side disagrees," Wen wrote, according to Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper.

The appearance of the announcement in a variety of news outlets suggests that the government wanted to make public Wen's decision. One of the first newspapers to carry the story was Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong publication considered closely allied with Beijing.

Elated environmentalists praised the decision, expressing surprise and hope that the move reflects a growing environmental awareness by the Chinese government. China is widely regarded as one of the world's most polluted countries.

"I was very surprised to hear the news that the prime minister himself sent down an instruction suspending the project," said He Daming, a professor at Yunnan University who helped lead opposition to the project.

The project has been advocated by officials in Yunnan province. They predicted it would provide jobs and raise incomes in one of China's poorest regions. Advocates also have argued that the dams were critical at a time that China is suffering energy shortages.

A Yunnan official reached by telephone said she had heard about Wen's decision but did not know any details.

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