Three Gorges Dam Opens To Public
China Photos  /  Getty Images
A tourist walks along the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, central China, on July 1, the day it opened to the public. The biggest dam in the world, Three Gorges is now in the final stage of construction.
By Kari Huus Reporter
updated 8/11/2005 8:19:21 PM ET 2005-08-12T00:19:21

Chinese leaders have a tradition of ambitious schemes — Great Leaps, Great Walls, Long Marches and the like — but never before has the world seen a bricks-and-mortar transformation of the nation like the one now under way.

In Western China, workers are boring through the Himalayan peaks to bring the first trains to Lhasa, Tibet. In Shanghai, engineers are racing to build the world's tallest building. Chinese engineers are working on the world's largest river diversion project, expected to displace 400,000 people, and building shopping malls that dwarf the Pentagon. But even these projects, huge by any measure, are eclipsed by China's mega work-in-progress, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

The building is changing the face of China with a reach that goes well beyond its shores, driving up the price of steel, copper and concrete around the world.

To some extent, thinking big is natural in China — it's a big country, and it's part of Chinese tradition, from the emperors who ordered the construction of the Great Wall, the Grand Canal and the Forbidden City, to the megalomania of Communist leader Mao Zedong. But now the massive building projects are fueled by demand in the most populous nation in the world, by the ready cash generated by a decade-long capitalist boom and in some cases by desperation.

"I think the building ... is just the tip of the iceberg of what is going on in China," says Eva Lerner-Lam, president of the Palisades Consulting Group, a New Jersey-based firm that works on transportation projects in the United States and China. "The Chinese have the world’s cash, and they are investing it domestically in their own research, development, education and training, and they are using it to buy capital, which we told them to do."

Now, however, the central government — once the main proponent of BIG — is trying to slow the building, concerned about an overheating economy, environmental problems and the social unrest created by the dislocation of whole villages.

But with wealth in the hands of provinces and Chinese businesses, ruling by diktat is no longer as easy as it once was.

Race to the skies
Chinese and foreign investors are enthusiastically competing for superlatives. The 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center, scheduled for completion in 2007, is designed to be 20 meters higher than the world's current tallest building, the Taipei Financial Center.

China has competition, however, from builders in New York and Dubai, who aim to surpass Shanghai's skyscraper in 2009.

When it comes to shopping malls, though, it will be hard to outdo China, home to 1.2 billion consumers. Counting on continued retail sales, which grew 13.3 percent in 2004, outpacing economic growth of 9.5 percent, China now has several of the largest shopping malls on Earth, and they keep coming.

The South China Mall in Dongguan will mix miles of shopping with amusement park features a la Las Vegas and Hollywood, Amsterdam and Paris cityscapes, including a replica of the Arc de Triomphe. At 6.5 million square feet, the complex will cover an area equal to 150 football fields, or about twice the area of the Pentagon. That compares with shopping paradises like Minnesota's Mall of America, which is 4.2 million square feet, and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, even bigger at 5.3 million square feet.

Lerner-Lam says that not only is there more construction, it is improving in quality and likely to reach world-class standards as more and more of China's young engineers and designers return home to work after being educated abroad.

Granddaddy project
China's biggest project, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, is a holdover from the era of old-style communism and by several measures the biggest hydropower project in the world.

Critics of the $25 billion project, which was a dream of China's leaders for decades, say it was finally pushed through by then-Premier Li Peng in 1992 as a monument to himself. More charitably, the project is sometimes compared to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive dam project in the 1930s that was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide power to seven states and control deadly floods.

Three Gorges will create a 400-mile-long reservoir, swamping more than a thousand villages, as well as ancient temples and other relics. Many of the estimated 1.2 million people in its path have already been relocated.

Controversy has always dogged the project, so much so that in the 1990s even the World Bank shied away from financing it. But heading into the 1990s, it became evident that China could fund the project without World Bank help.

Slideshow: China's Three Gorges Dam Without seeing the monolith, it's hard to imagine: a concrete structure roughly 40 stories high and a mile across, so large that cement and steel factories were built along the Yangtze solely to supply builders.

Three Gorges is the poster-child of China's building boom, and one of the reasons builders cite for the rising prices of everything from copper to plywood. It is of course just one piece of the big picture — in fact, only a modest portion of planned dam construction.

"There are dozens of dams planned on the Yangtze River and its tributaries," says Susanne Wong, spokesperson for the International Rivers Network, which opposes China.

With 22,000 dams already built — about half the world's total — the Chinese government has set hydropower goals of 150,000 megawatts by 2010 and 250,000 megawatts by 2020 — all told, an increase of 150 percent over the current level. The Three Gorges is designed to produce 18,000 megawatts.

Civil or social engineering?
The power of Beijing's central government is one reason that some projects don't falter under public opposition as they likely would if there were greater freedoms. Beijing's 670-mile "roof-of-the-world" railway, for one, raises troubling questions for the minority Tibetan population.

The railroad is an engineering feat, starting in the western military town of Golmud and
running hundreds of miles through the rugged terrain of the Himalayas, mostly at an altitude over 12,000 feet and carving its way through seven mountains. The $3 billion Qinghai-Tibet line will allow mass travel to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan autonomous region, which is now reachable only by a handful of airline flights and a hazardous mountain road.

While the government argues that the rail line will help Tibet by creating a link to the modern world, detractors say it will facilitate mass migration of Chinese, greater military control, and more mining, all to the detriment of indigenous Tibetans.

But opposition to the railroad — as with all opposition to Beijing's Tibet policy — is voiced outside of China, by Tibetan exiles, advocates for indigenous cultures and Tibetan independence activists — and mostly aims to pressure foreign companies bidding for the project. Beijing may be loosening up, but dissent on Tibet policy remains off limits.

Desperate situation, desperate measures
While the railway project reflects strategic ambitions, others suggest something closer to desperation on Beijing's part. An example: the world's largest water diversion project, which will move water from the Yangtze and other rivers in the south to Beijing and elsewhere in the parched northeast.

The three 700-mile-long aqueducts are designed to move water through mountains and uphill through some parts of China, displacing 400,000 people — more than the population of Miami — at a cost of $60 billion. The easternmost line is expected to deliver water to Beijing by 2007.

The Northeast used to draw much of its water from the Yellow River, but farmers and factories siphon so much water now that the river frequently doesn't reach the sea.

But Beijing needs the water now more than ever. The nation's gross domestic product has grown by as much as 9 percent a year for the last decade, and that has meant new homes for many of the city's 13 million residents. People who used to live without showers and flush toilets now have access to both, and have cars to wash to boot. Booming, inefficient factories also gobble up water, and pollution from them worsens the water shortage, which in turn causes social conflict, a strong motivator for Chinese policymakers.

This summer, plans to build yet another ski resort in the Beijing area, where at least 13 had already been constructed, prompted protest from rural residents.

"(Beijing) is talking about needing water rationing during the Olympics, so there’s no doubt of feeling extreme water scarcity," says Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Provinces flex their muscles
Since the start of the year, the government has tried to rein in the construction boom.

In a move seen as significant by environmentalists, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in January threw his support behind an environmental agency order to halt construction of 30 large projects, including dams and coal-fired power plants, after the initial order was ignored by several builders.

Wen, a technocrat who became premier in 2003, may have been weighing peasant protests that have erupted over relocation and poor compensation for land seized for construction.

The current leadership inherited the daunting and expensive task of preparing for the 2008 Olympics and Wen has responded by ordering builders to scale back construction where possible to host what has since been dubbed a "frugal Olympics." The showcase stadium, known as the Bird's Nest for its steel lattice design, was redesigned without its sliding roof to cut costs. The swimming stadium and other venues are being reviewed.

In his annual work report in March, Wen called for the nation to "refrain from vanity projects that waste both money and manpower."

But, Economy notes, "most investment now takes place at local level, so there that kind of mentality prevails."

Big egos, along with a lot money sloshing around, add up to a lot of building to come.

"I think they’re going along their merry way," says consultant Lerner-Lam. "These companies have a lot of cash. They turn to their engineers and ask, 'OK, what can I build with this much cash?' And it turns out to be a 50-story building."

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