A new biography of dissident Huang Wanli shows how his foresighted objections to China’s dams cost him personally and politically
Long River Journey: Huang Wanli’s Ninety Years of Struggle
By Zhao Cheng
Shaanxi People’s Press, March 1, 2012.
Sanmenxia is a stop on the railway line between Gansu and Qinghai. Several months ago I passed through on the train, and the Sanmenxia local sitting next to me in the crowded carriage started to talk about the area. He knew nothing of the contentious history of its famous dam.
But half a century ago debate among experts about whether or not the dam should be built – and if so, how – was fierce. At that time science was still highly politicised. Dissidents suffered. And one of the best-known of the dissidents was Huang Wanli.
Long River Journey, a biography of Huang,doubles as a primer on the debate over dams on the Yangtze.
From 1952, China invited Soviet experts to help manage the Yangtze. The experts – all dam engineers – proposed a dam at Sanmenxia that would prevent floods, generate electricity and provide water for irrigation.
Huang, a former Kuomintang government official and hydropower expert for the Communist Party, was convinced this was a mistake and that the dam would present risks in the future. But Mao Zedong and the enthusiastic heads of the Ministry of Water Resources supressed opposition. Huang’s objections were used as evidence that he was a “rightist” – even if he was later proved correct.
Huang was never interested in politics or factionalism. He had no abilities in this direction, to the point of appearing naive. The book recounts that in 1949, just before the Communists came to power, he was asked to lure nationalist officials to defect, and happily handed out copies of a book describing Chiang Kai-Shek as an enemy of the people. At the time head of the Water Resources Bureau in Gansu, Huang was required to hang a photo of Chiang in his room. He did so, with a single nail, and he let it hang squint.
That alone did not invite any political attacks. But this carelessness presaged his suffering under the Communist government. Three-quarters of the book describe how his lack of political awareness created problems – for him, for his family, and for his colleagues.
When he took a government post in China’s northeast in August 1949, he actually took his own team of people with him – a move author Zhao Cheng describes as “completely lacking political nous”. He also caused conflict by putting forward suggestions to his superiors. In 1950 he left for Tangshan, swapping government for academia. During a political campaign against corruption, waste and bureaucracy a year later he was heard to speak in English to someone who was under suspicion – and became a target himself.
In 1956 he spoke out against the Sanmenxia Dam. For the next year was struggled against as a rightist, suffering the indignities, beatings and ill health of reform through labour. Like most rightists of the time, Huang was stripped of his dignity.
But he remained outspoken.In 1957 he wrote a novel satirizing reckless construction and inaccurate experts. And in the 1980s he started writing to the government, objecting to plans for the Three Gorges Dam.
This edition, published in March, is a revision of a 2004 biography published by the Changjiang Literature and Arts Press.
Some of the section headings in the new edition have been toned down. In Chapter 9 one part originally titled “The people of the north-east are poor, while the government is rich”, is now “The Ministry of Water Resources intends to transfer Huang to Beijing.” The book lacks depth on Huang’s participation in the debate over dam-building, and is sometimes vague.
But there are no major omissions, and in fact some small additions, including some words from Li Rui, secretary to Mao Zedong and former vice-minister for water resources, in opposition to the Sanmenxia Dam.
The changes seem to hint at one of the subtleties of the age – the power of self-liberation fermenting within a political system which values stability.
In May last year the Chinese government admitted for the first time that there were problems with the Sanmenxia Dam, including locals’ relocation, environmental protection and disaster prevention. Policymakers appear to be becoming more realistic and pragmatic.
Huang, however, would still not be happy. Despite consensus on the flaws of the Sanmenxia Dam, Xie Chaoping, author of The Great Migration, a book on the poverty of those relocated to make way for the dam, was detained for a month for “illegal book-selling.”
Zhao Cheng is a deputy professor at the Shanxi Party School. At a seminar after the publication of the first edition he said, “People say we live in an age of declining morals. But I’ve found there is still a sense of justice. Many teachers from Tsinghua, Mr Huang’s students, and even ordinary people, have written to me talking of their respect for him… he spoke the truth, and in the end people respect that.”
There is a general lack of confidence today in public affairs, from waste incineration and nuclear power to GM foods and dam construction. People complain that academics and experts are motivated by political ambition and financial interests.
Huang Wanli is missed because, Zhao says, people miss intellectuals who were both honest and direct.
Meng Si is a Beijing-based freelance writer, and former associate editor at chinadialogue’s Beijing office.