Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project

The Chang (Yangtze) River in China provides water and rich silt to the farmlands through which it runs, but it has also caused floods that have devastated villages and cities, killing millions. The proposed Three Gorges Dam would not only provide water for a vast segment of the Chinese population but would also save lives, generate electricity, and be a source of enormous national pride. The project, however, could also cause the demise of countless species of wildlife, pollute the Chang, wipe out cultural landmarks, and force the relocation of some 1.4 million people.

Summary of Event

In 1919, China’s first provisional president, Sun Yat-sen, proposed that the Chang River, also known as the Yangtze River, be tamed by the construction of a dam that would not only halt its flooding but also provide the nation with an abundant source of electrical energy. Political and social upheaval during the ensuing two decades effectively ended planning, yet in 1932, the National Defense Planning Commission of the Guomindang took up the plan again, this time beginning a survey of the Three Gorges site. Engineering;dams
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[kw]Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project (Dec. 14, 1994)
[kw]Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project, Premier (Dec. 14, 1994)
[kw]Three Gorges Dam Project, Premier Li Peng Announces the (Dec. 14, 1994)
[kw]Dam Project, Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges (Dec. 14, 1994)
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[g]China;Dec. 14, 1994: Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project[09040]
[c]Engineering;Dec. 14, 1994: Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project[09040]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 14, 1994: Premier Li Peng Announces the Three Gorges Dam Project[09040]
Li Peng
Mao Zedong
Deng Xiaoping
Jiang Zemin
Hu Jintao

Again, tumultuous political conditions interfered with the work, and it was not until 1954, when severe flooding devastated the countryside, that Communist officials resumed plans for the building of one or more dams along the river. Vice minister for electric power Li Rui later determined that the project would be too costly and would wreak too much devastation on the countryside to be undertaken in the early years of the People’s Republic of China.

The plan for construction of one or more dams was favored by Chairman Mao Zedong, and in 1958, he urged construction on what he hoped would be the largest hydroelectric plant in the world, a symbol of technological innovation in “New China.” Yet this was also the time of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which crippled the nation and led some thirty-five to fifty million people to starvation and death. Any construction of dams was once again ruled out.

With the intensification of the Cold War, and particularly Chairman Mao’s fear of nuclear attack from the United States, the hope of subduing the Chang was seen as part of a comprehensive plan for national defense. In what was termed the Third Front Defense Initiative, in 1964 Mao ordered the dispersal of military bases, armaments, and industries from the vulnerable coastline and northeastern lands (the “First Line”) to the less accessible interior regions of the southwest. Military armaments and bases were to be hidden in seemingly impregnable mountainous areas, and defense industries were to be scattered throughout the territory.

During the Japanese invasion of 1937-1945, China’s capital had been moved to Chongqing and consequently was never captured by foreign intruders. Mao believed that the same military strategy would be effective against American incursions, now that the United States military was becoming more deeply involved in the conflict in Vietnam. Relations with the Soviet Union were worsening, and China’s natural resources in the areas between the first and third fronts (what was termed the Second Front) seemed vulnerable to attack.

In Mao’s initiative, new sources of energy production would be exploited along the Third Front. Suddenly, Sun’s plan for the construction of a massive hydroelectric plant along the Chang seemed more important than ever, but even these highly compelling reasons did not lead to implementation of the dam project. China simply did not have the finances or the requisite technology to bring the plans to completion.

In 1994, Li Peng, who had been trained in engineering in the Soviet Union, proclaimed the official commencement of the Three Gorges Dam Project. The Three Gorges Project Committee of the state council was formed, as was the Power Grid Development Company, which would be responsible for the dam’s electrical output. The project was to be financed by institutions worldwide, including many of the preeminent investment firms of the West.

Xiling Gorge, the third of the Three Gorges, just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam site. The dam would create a reservoir that would partially submerge upstream gorges, damage the environment, and displace approximately 1.4 million people.

(Robert S. Carmichael)

Eleven nations joined in underwriting the Chinese project: Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Various international entities, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, supplied many of the funds, as did Chinese financial institutions, among them the Three Gorges Dam Construction Fund, the Gezhouba Power Plant, and the China Development Bank (established in 1994 to finance large infrastructure projects). Among the principal American investment corporations to commit themselves to the project were Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, J. P. Morgan & Company, the U.S. Three Gorges Working Group, Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse First Boston, BancAmerica Securities, and Morgan Stanley & Company.

In 1992, the People’s Congress approved the building of a dam that would span 1.24 miles across the Chang River, at a height of almost 600 feet. The dam, to be constructed of concrete, would create a reservoir of between 350 and 400 miles behind it and would have a capacity of approximately 1.39 trillion cubic feet. The site would also have enormous locks for the moving of heavy shipping vessels up to the level of the reservoir, for travel to Chongqing.

At the dam site, a hydroelectric plant containing twenty-six generators was also being constructed; it would produce some 18,000 megawatts of electrical energy, almost one-ninth of China’s total power. The dam, four times the size of the Hoover Dam in the United States, would be the largest on Earth and would probably be visible from space. Approximately twenty thousand workers labored on the project around the clock, and although the original plan called for the dam’s completion by 2009, officials were predicting that work would be finished near the end of 2008.

Water started rising on June 1, 2003, and later that year, the first group of generators began operating. By May 20, 2006, structural work had been completed—nine months ahead of schedule—and on June 6, 2006, the temporary construction barrier behind the dam was destroyed. Total cost of the project was estimated at $100 billion.


Opposition to the project, both domestic and international, was intense. Critics warned of impending environmental disasters, such as the elimination of countless species of animals, the creation of breeding grounds for disease-bearing insects, and the concentration of pollutants and garbage in the reservoir that would create a giant, deadly swamp. Just as controversial were the issues surrounding the destruction of ancient temples and the annihilation of the cultural sites of the ancient Ba ethnic group as well as the eradication of hundreds of villages, towns, and cities. Fishing in the East China Sea would also be irreparably damaged as a result of the altering of the water flow and silt patterns of the Chang. The most egregious negative projection, however, was the forced relocation of almost 1.4 million people from the region. Engineering;dams
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Further Reading

  • Chetham, Deidre. Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Contains data, historical analysis, and an overview of political figures who were instrumental in the development and implementation of the project.
  • Dai Qing, John G. Thibodeau, and Philip B. Williams, eds. The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Collection of essays by Chinese and international scholars examines population displacement, environmental hazards, loss of cultural sites, and military considerations of the project. Includes data and appendixes on all aspects of the initiative.
  • Heggelund, Gørild, ed. Environment and Resettlement Politics in China: The Three Gorges Project. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Looks at Chinese policy making regarding resettlement and other impacts of the project, and concludes that the Chinese government has not adequately acknowledged the social costs of such a phenomenon.
  • Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York: Perennial/HarperCollins, 2002. Includes a chapter titled “The Dam” that provides a personal account of the effects of the Three Gorges Dam Project on those who live on the banks of the Chang River.

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