Hi, I’m Simone Gao, and this is Zooming In. China has been wracked with bizarre weather phenomena for nearly one month’s time. Floods are surging in China, and the ripples may be felt throughout the world. Another disaster may be looming over the city of Wuhan. It is well known by now that Wuhan was the origin of the pandemic, which many of us are still feeling in America. As for China, seasonal monsoon rains are putting a strain on the Three Gorges Dam. For the people of China’s sake, we hope nothing happens, but if something did, what does it mean for the world? Or even in America? Some people may respond with “nothing”, but our investigation suggests that may not be the case. In this episode of the China Angle, we’ll look at the man responsible for the dam, his motives behind the dam, and how he may have put people beyond its borders in danger. What can we do to avoid that same kind of danger?
Something is going on inside of China. Snow in summer. Massive tornadoes. Outlandish sounds from mountains. And unrelenting rainfall. Let’s look at the new disaster inside Wuhan. Summer in the monsoon season in China. The amount of rain that this season is bringing hasn’t been seen for nearly 100 years. Warnings from China’s Ministry of Water Resources said that in June, 198 rivers had reached a warning level. 25 more surpassed their warning level on June 28th. Floods and mudslides are common sights inside the south central Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Hubei, where Wuhan is located. The storms started in mid June, and have not relented. The overflow has caused widespread damage and destruction, filling cities with water and even nearly wiping some villages off the map.
But even adding to the disaster, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, has released large amounts of water building up in the Three Gorges Dam. Government officials confirmed releasing water on June 29. This would cause even worse flooding downstream. How much water did they release? This can be inferred through an announcement from the Three Gorges Corporation on June 23. They said that all 82 hydroelectric power generating units were active for the first time in 2020. That is, as much water is going through as possible. And all that water going through the generators has to go down stream. One river called Baishui raised its water levels by 27 feet in over a two-day period at the end of June, according to Chinese mouthpiece CCTV.
So far, authorities have confirmed that at least 121 people are dead or missing. 19 million residents have been affected. Reports also warned residents that anyone living on or below the fourth floor of their building should prepare to evacuate. The first floors of many residential buildings were already submerged underwater. Along with buildings, infrastructure in the area has also succumbed to the flooding. An unfinished bridge worth almost 20 million dollars was swept away in the raging waters. After all, disasters are expected in flooding.
So what does this have to do with the three gorges dam specifically? We may expect such a massive dam to help with flooding, instead of adding to the problem. For that, we have to look at the man who has been called the Butcher of Beijing, Li Peng, He was the premier of China from 1987-1998. He got the butcher nickname for creating the Tian’an Men Massacre. He maintained much of his, and his family’s power, through water management. His signature project was the Three Gorges Dam. He died in 2019.
Li was orphaned at a young age, and adopted by Chairman Mao’s right hand man, Zhou Enlai. Li majored in hydroelectric engineering while studying in the Soviet Union. Like many sons of the Chinese political elite, sometimes called Princelings, he rapidly ascended the corporate and political ladder. He was nearly the most powerful man in China, second only to Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. And like most of the CCP’s political elite, their power is used for money.
Li Peng is quoted as saying, “When the water wheels roar, the gold pours in”. To illustrate that, construction started on the Three Gorges Dam in 1994 after a rapid approval process. This was while Li was at the top of his 20 year political career. When the dam’s power generators came online in July 2012, after a year-and-a-half time, the dam had already earned over 26 billion dollars just from electricity. These large projects in China clearly have huge potential for personal profit.
During the 1990’s, while Li was acting a Premier of the CCP, he also expanded his monopoly in the Chinese energy industry. At the peak of Li’s power, his company controlled 70% of Chinese energy producing assets. His family staffed the company. This is right when the Three Gorges Dam passed through China’s rubber stamp congress. However, the project received two-thirds of votes, a surprisingly low number for the CCP congress. There were many warnings surrounding the dam too. The idea of such a dam has been discussed since the year 1919, but Li was the first to execute it. During those 100 years, officials discussed the dam multiple times, and warnings also came with it.
One Chinese hydrologist named Huang Wanli (黄万里) wrote 6 letters to the CCP giving warnings, according to his daughter. He wrote, “Problems with the naturally changing geography of the riverbed and objectively existing issues based on economic values would not allow a government who respects democracy and science to undertake an engineering problem that damages the environment and harms citizens.” He was publicly condemned under Chairman Mao’s rule. Huang prophesied that 12 things would happen to the Three Gorges Dam, including susceptibility to earthquakes, upstream flooding, and dislocation of residents and cities. All of them have been realized except for the last one: the Dam itself would collapse.
The recent alarming sign is that several earthquakes struck in provinces neighbouring the dam which greatly increase the vulnerability of the dam.And what about the warning of the riverbed? For years, observers of the dam have alleged the structure is warping. In 2018, satellite images circulated online, alleging the dam was deforming. The CCP has denied and excused those comments, until 2019. At that time, they said changes were within acceptable limits. But the concern may not come from flooding alone. Even before that, the state media showed flagging confidence. In 2003, state media said that the dam would withstand a flood that hadn’t been seen in 10,000 years. In 2007, a very similar phrase came out, but said 1,000 years. In 2008, more praise came, but the number was dropped to 100 years. Finally, in 2010, officials managing the Yangtze River said that not all hope should be put on the Three Gorges Dam.
Nonetheless, Li Peng followed the CCP example of pursuing potentially massive profit through the energy and construction industry. This is now seen in China’s belt and road initiative. Not surprisingly, one Chinese built dam is now faced with grave sustainability issues. In 2018, the New York Times published an article about a dam in Ecuador. That dam, along with many other public work projects were all financed by China. After two years of operation, the dam is filled with cracks, silt, trees, and ash from a nearby volcano. When operators turned the dam to full power, it knocked out the national power grid. Despite warnings and opposition to building the dam, like the area being prime for earthquakes, the Ecuadorian government went through with it. Many of the Ecuadorian officials who were involved are now jailed. Could other countries be involved now?
If disaster did strike the Three Gorges Dam, it could possibly lead to tens of millions of deaths along the Yangtze river, which is the heart of China’s economic powerhouse. Factories, shopping malls, investment would all vanish. Yet, the world is oblivious about this danger.
In the past few weeks, the Chinese stock market skyrocketed from massive infusion through the Chinese government. At the same time, concerted media reports boosted the Chinese people’s confidence in a post-pandemic economic recovery. The facade is to make people in the west believe that China is the only bright spot on the world economic landscape. This is to pull back Western investment in China, to plug the financial life-line back into the CCP. There has been much discussion of Western companies departing Chinese shores, but the real migration is yet to happen.
China’s economic splendor is very much like a lavish Skyscraper built upon sand. Everybody is admiring the might of the building but no one is paying attention to its foundation. In China, teetering between mighty glory and sudden collapse coexist at all times.
For now, let’s hope the best for the people living downstream of the three gorges dam. Thanks for watching Zooming In, I am Simone Gao. See you next time.