Developmental, Social, and Environmental Issues in Contemporary China

When China appears in the international news today, the items tend to group around a core set of topics. In the past decade, the ability to discuss and deviate from the official government line has eroded precipitously. The following articles offer a Chinese perspective of these topics, not as unadulterated propaganda but, rather, the slow shift away from open, if contentious, discussion to one of considerable restrictions today. The chilling shift in the government's tolerance of outspoken dissent is visible in the manner in which the 2006 Freezing Point Weekly editorial (14.9) was generally tolerated, while more recent voices of dissent (such as Xu Zhan- grun) have led to detainment or house arrest. The editor's ability to publicize his side of the story over the Internet reveals the growing difficulty the government has in controlling information released to the public.

Similarly, the government's position regarding the massive Three Gorges Dam project (completed in 2012) and the numerous new dams being built across southwest China (14.4 and 14.5) reveal a more nuanced approach that is selective in its manner of censorship. Allowing Jia Zhangke, one of China's new generation of directors, to shoot a feature- length film (14.6) and documentary at the dam site (and to show it at top film festivals) is a far cry from the rigid oversight imposed on earlier directors, like Jiang Wen, encountered a decade earlier (9.3). Yet, neither of these films had a fraction of the audience and attention that Wu Jing's patriotic sci-fi thriller Wandering Earth received. None of these issues marks as abrupt a shift as the government's oversight of Chinese society, compared to the decision in 2015 to alter its one-child policy (13.7). Seen together, these issues suggest that while the central government still exerts a firm grip on the circulation of information, the variety of topics and freedom to express opinions on those topics is improving.


DAM—A massive hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze River at the head of the Qutang, Wuxia, and Siling gorges. The dam was completed in 2008, a year of head of schedule, supplying much-needed electricity but with severe environmental consequences.

A Roundtable Discussion: Why Is There Still Flooding in the Yangtze River Basin With the Three Gorges Dam? (July 20, 2020)

The Yangtze River flows from the Tibetan Plateau for nearly 4,000 miles through the heart of China before depositing nearly 960 billion cubic meters of water annually into the East China Sea. Since Sun Yat-sen first proposed the idea of a dam in 1918, every Chinese leader from Chiang Kai-shek to Mao Zedong has dreamed of tapping the river's hydroelectric potential as well as curbing the devastating flood waters that perennially threaten China's fertile heartland. Actual construction on the Three Gorges Dam only began in 1994, with the massive undertaking being completed in 2008. Its construction aroused international condemnation and concern over the ecological consequences. Chinese officials were steadfast, saying that, unlike the Americans who try and "preserve" the environment, the Chinese approach is to "correct" existing ecological shortcomings. In September 2007, a conference of experts acknowledged that the dam's performance had been less than anticipated and that structurally there had been "displacement, seepage and deformation." In recent years, international reports began circulating of the dam's shortcomings and potential threats to the Yangtze basin. In response, the government held a conference in July 2020 to forcefully refute any and all criticisms of the Three Gorges Project.


  • 1. What questions were being asked about the Three Gorges Dam by the international community?
  • 2. Does the article offer any insight into how Chinese officials respond to the external criticisms of the potential risks or threats to the Three Gorges Dams?

During the summer rainy season, serious flooding occurred across the upper, middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Our country's largest water conservancy project, the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River, has once again become the focus of attention at home and abroad.

In response to the deep concerns from all sectors of society regarding the Three Gorges Project, China Economic Weekly organized a roundtable discussion on July 7, 2020. Wang Hao, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Zhang Shuguang, chief engineer of China Three Gorges Corporation, and Wang Zhangli, deputy director of the Department of Flood and Drought Prevention of the Ministry of Water Conservancy, Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Hydro- power Engineering, Wang Yinan, researcher of the Resource and Environmental Policy Research Institute of the Development Research Center of the State Council, and other experts were invited to a roundtable to discuss the public's three most pressing issues regarding the Three Gorges Dam.

First Question: Can We Definitively State That the Three Gorges Dam is Safe?

Every year as the summer rainy season arrives, various rumors about the safety of the Three Gorges Dam circulate. For example, in June last year, a

Google satellite photo purportedly showing that "the Three Gorges Dam has been deformed" went viral. Even though experts in satellite remote sensing have come forward to clarify that the "dam deformation" is a technical issue with Google's satellite imagery itself, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation took the exceptional step to produce a complete set of photos from directly above the Three Gorges Dam using "High Resolution-6" satellite imagery to prove that "the dam is straight and safe."

However, during this year's flood season, new statements about the "deformation" and "dam collapse" of the Three Gorges Dam have spread on the Internet....

So, how safe is the Three Gorges Dam? Can it withstand the impact of a mega flood? Since there are instances of dam failures at home and abroad, can be we assured the Three Gorges Dam will not collapse?

Wang Hao, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a hydrologist and water resource scientist, told China Economic Weekly "There are no safety concerns with the Three Gorges Dam itself." His thesis is based on the following: First, the dam itself is designed to withstand the "once in 10,000 years" super flood. . . . Second, the Three Gorges Dam is a concrete gravity dam. It is the strongest type of dam. Not only is it impervious to long-term inundation, but its compressive capacity will only become stronger and stronger over the next 100 years.

In recent years, alarmist talks such as "The Three Gorges Dam has been deformed" or "The Three Gorges Dam has shifted 4 meters" have constantly appeared on the Internet, with new and different versions popping up every year during the flood season.

In response to this phenomenon, Chief Engineer Zhang Shuguang told China Economic Weekly: We did explain that "the elastic deformation of the dam is within the designed allowable range", but this statement was taken out of context by some people on the Internet who said "an official has finally admitted there is deformation in the dam." In fact, "elastic deformation" is a phenomenon that all structures experience after being stressed, including roads, bridges, high-rise buildings, and even the concrete floor under our feet. Elastic deformation is not inherently bad, it all depends if it is within the design's allowable range. . . .

Some people have even worried about whether the Three Gorges Dam can withstand an atomic bomb. Zhang Boting replied: This was actually a national defense concern as early as 1958. As a result of the special international circumstances of that historical moment the consequences of the Three Gorges Dam becoming a target of war had to be considered.... Stated hypothetically, if an atomic bomb hit the dam directly, the only consequence would be to blow a large hole in the dam, which is equivalent to a few large flood gates that cannot be closed. It is impossible to cause a complete failure of the dam resulting in the release of the entire reservoir in a single instant....

Experts' Conclusion

The Three Gorges Dam does not exhibit any safety issues: the choice of dam type, design standards, and quality assurances determine that it is not possible for Three Gorges Dam to be breached. The Three Gorges Project is the "Yangtze River's Great Wall of Steel."

Second Question: Will the Storage and Discharge of the Three Gorges Intensify Flooding Disasters Both Up and Downstream Along Yangtze?

Experts' Conclusion

In the past decade or so, the joint operation of the [up-river] reservoirs in conjunction with the Three Gorges as the mainstay has repeatedly saved the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River basin from the catastrophic disaster. Without the Three Gorges Dam and its 41 reservoirs upstream, the floods in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River would be more severe today. To solve the floods in the Yangtze River basin, we need more water conservancy infrastructure like the Three Gorges.

Third Question: What Are the Irreplaceable Functions of the Three Gorges Project?

One of the most widespread and influential objections when the Three Gorges Project was built was that "if the Three Gorges Dam is built, it will eventually be blown up." This prophecy was made by Mr. Huang Wanli, a famous water conservancy expert in our country. Later, many remarks against the Three Gorges, questioning the Three Gorges, and even rumors surrounding the Three Gorges were often based on Mr. Huang Wanli's prophecy. To this day, the perception and argument that the Three Gorges Project is "reckless decision-making and endless disasters" still exists. . ..

Experts Conclusion

The main function of the Three Gorges Project is to enhance the ability to regulate and control water resources. There may be other alternative power sources aside from the Three Gorges, but there is no alternative to the Three Gorges Reservoir's regulation and control of the Yangtze River's water resources. Floods are not an inevitable outcome of the natural disasters. It is necessary to improve the ability to regulate and control water resources as expeditiously as possible in order to overcome inherently unfavorable climate and geographical conditions, to achieve sustainable economic and social development, and to ensure the safety of people's lives and properties.

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