Dam Buster

The Three Gorges project stirs a writer into action





A middle-aged woman in a faded T-shirt and jeans walks through Beijing’s academic quarter and into a neighbourhood restaurant, attracting not even a glance from passers-by. As she takes her seat, though, a man approaches and shyly asks in Hong Kong-accented Chinese: “Are you Ms. Dai Qing?” she nods, and the man breaks into a wide grin. “Ms. Dai, thank you for your article in the Economic Journal,” says the excited visitor, referring to a piece criticizing Hong Kong’s handover published in the Hong Kong daily. “It really expressed our feelings.”

It is no surprise that the 56-year-old Dai is better known on the streets of the world’s Chinatowns than in Beijing. One of China’s most famous contemporary writers, for eight years Dai has been banned from writing in her own country and remains little known outside local intellectual circles.

Dai didn’t set out to be a writer. Trained at the prestigious Harbin Institute of Military Engineering, she began her career as a guided-missile engineer for the People’s Liberation Army. In 1979, she garnered modest attention after the Guangming Daily published her short story depicting the plight of a husband and wife separated during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It triggered thousands of letters to the newspaper from Chinese who had themselves suffered during the period. Keen to continue writing, Dai moved into journalism three years later, working as a Guangming Daily reporter. Eventually, she began writing about the Communist Party’s dark side--its excesses before and after the 1949 liberation, and its abuses of power. This created enemies for her within the party. But, Dai says, “The party is just like a person: You must admit you are ill before you can cure yourself.”

A visit to Hong Kong in 1988 marked another turning point for Dai. She discovered journalists there were freely writing articles criticizing China’s Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze River. Experts had warned that the project, which will be the biggest dam in the world, posed a serious threat to the environment and would displace a million people. On the mainland, the government-controlled media eschewed any criticism.

Sitting in her modest Beijing apartment, Dai recalls, “I thought this was very bad. We mainland Chinese were numb, while the Hong Kong reporters, thousands of kilometres away, were paying so much attention to the project. I felt ashamed.”

Dai set to work editing a collection of essays from leading Chinese experts and officials voicing concern about the project. The book, Yangtze! Yangtze!, came out in the spring of 1989. Following the June crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square, Dai was arrested, ostensibly for urging the students to demonstrate. The real reason for her arrest, Dai says, was her writings on the Three Gorges dam project. “I hate people who use revolutions or movements to change society, overthrow authority, and make themselves the leaders,” she says, her usually smiling face turning serious. “I have the same opinion as the government--let China develop peacefully.”

Of the 10 months she spent in Qingcheng Prison, Dai says, “The jailers were not cruel. But there was psychological pressure. You had no sentence, and did not know what the future was.”

On her release, Dai won a Nieman fellowship from Harvard University. She returned to China in 1993, to rejoin her husband--a fellow engineer she met soon after college--and her 28-year-old daughter, a graduate student of Chinese history.

In a nation where most dissidents are in exile or in jail, it is remarkable that Dai can voice her opinions--even if only abroad--with relative impunity. some observers point to the late Ye Jianying as the source of her protection. Ye, one of China’s eight marshals, the highest rank in the PLA, brought her up after the Japanese murdered her father, a cadre. For her part, Dai says the Party knows she is only trying to bring about constructive change. And she insists that many officials share her views on the Three Gorges dam.

Using grants from Western environmental groups, Dai produced an Internet newsletter on China’s environment and funded other green activities. “The international environmental organizations that gave me the funding made me an environmentalist,” says Dai. “Now, I can’t stop.” she recently flew to North America to promote The River Dragon Has Come, a book she edited that points up the potential problems that may flow from the Three Gorges project.

She is at work on two Chinese history books and translating English books. She talks of retiring, to focus on her hobbies: pottery, painting and piano. “China must change, and then there will another generation of young writers and artists who will be even better than us,” she says. “But if people need me,” she promises, “I’ll step forward again.” 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney