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"Desensitize" Three Gorges, face up to reality

10:50, June 01, 2011

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By Li Hongmei

The State Council, China's cabinet, said on May 18 that the Three Gorges faced "urgent problems" of geological disaster prevention, relocation and ecological protection, noted the negative impact on downstream water supplies and river transport, and vowed to restore things to order within the next eight years.

The spectacular dam has been dubbed as China's most impressive man-made wonder since it came into being in 1992, second only to the Great Wall, inviting boundless respect and admiration. But it seems that, all of a sudden, "the national pride" became a "problem child" just overnight.

Albeit the dam's ability to regulate the notoriously changeable flow of the 3,900-mile-long Yangtze, one of China's major rivers, the Three Gorges project has actually been dogged by skeptics. Environmentalists said it would destroy a stunning landscape of limestone cliffs regarded as one of the world's most scenic sites, and skeptics warned that it would lead to geologic and pollution problems.

All this, however, was taken as clamors in defiance of the mainstream eulogy; and critics should keep mute when the whole nation was then bathed in high-running pride. Besides, the dam-related information was considered a sensitive state issue, and should by no means be called in question.

That helps explain why many Chinese and even foreign experts highly regard China's official acknowledgement of the problems and its resolution to tackle them.

Orville Schell, an environmental expert who leads the Asia Society's Center on United States-China Relations, said he hoped that Chinese government's statement signaled a commitment to address the dam's problems.

"There's a kind of a balance sheet of benefits and liabilities that have come out of this project," Mr. Schell said. "My sense is that the Chinese government is getting better and better at collecting information about things like this." He added, "They know if they don't fix these problems there will be dire consequences."

The government statement on the dam, released after a meeting led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, is also seen by many outsiders as more responsive to average citizens' complaints than ever. The statement said that some problems were anticipated during the dam's construction, but that others "arose because of new demands posed by economic and social development."

The statement is welcome especially at a time when the Yangtze delta is caught in its worst drought in 50 years, forcing an unprecedented release of water from the Three Gorges Dam and prompting warnings of power shortages. Although no link has been proved, critics say the dam has changed regional water tables, contributing to the shortage.

It is of no doubt that a great contribution made by the State Council Standing Committee is the "desensitization" of the Three Gorges issue, even if making it less sensitive is far from enough to straighten things out. At least one tip of the iceberg has finally been unveiled, now open to the public gaze, forcing people to face up to the reality, no matter how bitter it is.

Only by exposing the problems in the broad light, can they win the public attention, attract the wisdom of masses, and be settled as a result.

Three Gorges is not only a grandeur of the time, but more of a realistic engineering project which needs maintenance and protection. But the best protection is not by assigning it as a sensitive subject and placing obstacles to cut it off from public debates, doubts and criticism, much the way people can harness water only by dredging, instead of blocking, lest the dam burst.


The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.

Columnists

Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

John 
Milligan-Whyte 
and
Dai MinJohn
Milligan-Whyte
and
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."

http://english.people.com.cn/90002/96417/7397347.pdf