The Three Gorges Dam, Why China is Run by Engineers
Perhaps the largest single engineering project of the 20th century was the Three Gorges Dam in China. Standing nearly 600 feet tall, and 2.3 kilometers in length, the Three Gorges Dam is the single largest dam ever constructed, holding a reservoir that stretches for 660 kilometers. Standing at the base of the dam, it feels less like a man-made wall and more like a mountain that extends two football fields into the air.
Officially, the dam has a capacity of 22,500 MW, equivalent to the power generated by nearly 25 large coal power plants. This capacity is enough to supply 3% of the power in China. Assuming a lifespan of 75 years, the coal emissions displaced by the dam over this period will prevent over 1.2 million people from dying from air pollution, a truly staggering figure. Additionally, the dam will provide significant ability to prevent the massive flooding that has ravaged the communities around the Yangtze river. This feature alone could potentially save millions of lives from perishing during massive flooding.
The Three Gorges has both been characterized as the largest dam in the world as well as the most controversial. 1.3 million people living in 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages have been displaced by the filling of the reservoir. While replacement housing and land has been promised by the Chinese government, complaints have been made that the money for displaced previous property has been insufficient to afford the replacement housing. In the process of these hundreds of towns and villages being submerged, hundreds of archaeological sites were lost to the waters. Ancient temples and other landmarks have been lost forever.
The story of the Three Gorges Project began in 1919 when Sun Yat-Sen mentioned the possibility of a series of dams or a massive project on the Yangtze river with the purpose of flood control and electricity generation. Over the next twenty years, several studies were undertaken to study the potential of such a project, including one conducted by American dam expert J.L. Savage in 1944. During the second world war, the idea gained momentum, and the US Bureau of Reclamation was contracted to design a large dam for the river, however a deep economic crisis and the upsurge of the Chinese civil war lead to the project’s abandonment in 1947.
With the rise of the Communist party and the floods of 1949 that killed 5700 people, a renewed focus on controlling the Yangtze took focus. It was Mao himself that suggested that a dam be constructed in 1953. One year later, planning activities began with the collaboration of Soviet experts, and the establishing of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office in 1956 to conduct specific design and feasibility studies for the Three Gorges Project. However, no construction began for several decades.
The actual design and construction of the project began in 1986 when the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power asked the Canadian government to finance a feasibility study that would be performed by a consortium of Canadian firms. The consortium, known as CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture, included three private companies (Acres International, SNC, and Lavelin International), and two state-owned utilities (Hydro-Quebec International and British Columbia Hydro International). On April 3, 1994, a full 75 years after it was first proposed, the construction of the dam was approved by the National People’s Congress. About 15 years later, the construction project officially came to a close.
The amount of material used in the building of the Three Gorges Project is staggering. Consuming 28 million cubic meters of concrete, the Three Gorges Dam used as over 8 times as much concrete as the Hoover Dam or nearly 600 Empire State Buildings. The amount of concrete used could build a two-direction 4 lane highway that stretches nearly 2000 miles long. The earth excavated could fill over 41,000 Olympic-Size swimming pools. Each of the 26 turbines could supply as much power as a small nuclear power plant (such as Vermont Yankee). To call the Three Gorges Dam a feat of engineering would be an understatement.
Perhaps because of the significance of the project, the Three Gorges has taken on several different symbolic meanings. For some, it is a symbol of the destructive power that man can have both on the environment and on itself. The environmental consequences far outweigh any potential benefits that could come out of the project. Most interestingly, the dam is a symbol of state planning as it is the last of the great projects, comparable in size only to that of the Great Wall itself. Truly, the Three Gorges is a giga-project, but the idea that the dam is significant to the very government structure is an interesting thought. What does the building of the Three Gorges reveal about the way China is run politically?
One of the interesting observations that one can make about the government of the US compared to that of the Chinese government is that the US is run by lawyers while China is run by engineers. The Politburo, the highest political power in China, has historically been dominated by engineers. Of the 9 members of the 17th Politburo of the Communist Party, 8 of them held degrees in engineering. In a study conducted during the late 1990s by Li Cheng titled “Elite Transformation and Modern Change in Mainland China and Taiwan: Empirical Data and the Theory of Technocracy”, the results concluded that more than 80% of the major leaders (mayors of large cities, Party leaders, Central Committee members) held degrees in engineering or the sciences.
China has a strongly engrained notion that a knowledgeable elite should run the government, and as a result, a technocracy was a natural fit for this political culture. In the early 1980s, a major transformation took place within the Chinese government in which the majority of Mao Zedong’s political generation (dominated by soldiers, peasants, and the worker-class) was ousted under Deng Xiaoping and replaced by a generation of younger highly-educated leaders.
The majority of this incoming generation of leadership had an educational background in the sciences and engineering. This transformation was closely modeled off of the one Singapore used (and to a lesser extent South Korea and Malaysia), which had proved to be highly successful in stimulating national growth. Many of China’s intellectuals embraced the idea of establishing a technocracy, one of whom was Qian Xuesen, an MIT-educated rocket scientist who would head up the Chinese rocketry program. Xuesen is even quoted as saying that governments should be run like an engineering department. The notion that economic, social and even political problems could be approached with an engineer’s problem solving mentality seemed to resonate with China and was largely unchallenged.
This transformation into a technocratic government marked a turning point for the nation that previously had been gripped by poverty. The successful reforms that Deng launched during this period are ultimately the stepping stone to the unprecedented growth rates that China has experienced in the ensuing decades. Today, China’s GDP per capita is over $6800 compared to $193 in 1980.
The Three Gorges dam was a direct product of the political transformation that occurred during the 1980s. The timing of the 1986 feasibility study and design is closely linked to the reforms of the decade. Additionally, the construction took place as China’s technocracy was on the rise. It was during the construction that the Li Cheng study took place, and 80% of the country’s major leadership roles were controlled by engineers and scientists.
Even beyond this, the Three Gorges Dam project was one that could only be taken on by a state-run entity because of its size and capital intensity. Arguably, no corporation outside of a few major oil companies could support the $27.2 billion project (however some sources speculate that the cost may have been twice this figure). Few investors would have the nerve to undertake such a massive project with a multi-decade timeline.
The dominance of engineers in the Politburo has decreased in recent years. Among the 18 members of the 18th Politburo, only four are engineers and one holds a degree in mathematics. Six others hold degrees in economics, two in international relations, two in Chinese literature, one in political science and another in history. This diverse set of leaders reflects the increasingly variable set of challenges that accompany leading a complex society and economy. In the past, the focus has been placed on high-speed economic growth and development of technology. The 18th Politburo came into office in 2012, and in 2011, China’s 12th 5-Year Plan was published. This plan “emphasizes ‘higher quality growth’” that addresses questions about sustainability and social equality.
All of these factors have large implications for the coming decades of China’s growth as a nation. The Three Gorges Dam provides evidence of China’s ability to take on large scale projects successfully. It wasn’t the only successful project of similar scale. China’s high speed railway system recently was completed, and the line between Beijing and Shanghai alone cost $32 billion. The 820 mile stretch can be covered in just 288 minutes.
The nation’s highway system has also significantly developed in the past several decades since it was first conceived. With the first mile being laid in 1988, China’s National Trunk Highway system has grown to stretch a total of nearly 70,000 miles. Simply put. when China throws itself into completing a project, it will complete it. With sustainability now becoming a national priority, China is placing a significant amount of resources in developing its nuclear, wind, and solar energy portfolios.
Currently, China has 24 nuclear reactors in operation and 25 under construction. Dozens of others are about to start construction. The current plan is to have 58 GW of capacity installed by 2020, some 150 GW by 2030 and significantly more by 2050. It’s very likely that China will surpass the United States as the largest producer of nuclear energy within two decades. The fact that the accident at Fukushima did little to slow the growth of this portfolio says that the nation is has made these goals a significant priority. China would not be saying it would have 150 GW of nuclear capacity by 2030 if it didn’t intend on seriously pursuing the goal.
A further trend that has emerged is that China is focused on exporting its technical knowledge not only in the nuclear sphere but also the hydroelectric sector. With the successful completion of the Three Gorges Dam, China is now exporting turbines and generators to other developing nations as they build up their own hydroelectric portfolios. It is safe to assume that once China is comfortable with its ability to build a nuclear fleet, it will do the same with the nuclear components and technology they develop.
All of these factors ultimately mean that China is going to be a dominant economy moving into the coming decades. In the past decades, thanks to its technocratic political system, it has developed the proven capability to take on massive infrastructure and energy projects. This ability has helped to drive China’s unprecedented economic growth over the past three decades.
“China’s 12th Five-Year Plan: Overview”, KPMG, Web. 2011
“Faster than a Speeding Bullet”, The Economist, Web. November 9, 2011
Miller, Alice, “The New Party Politburo Leadership”, China Leadership Monitor. Web
“Minds Like Machines” The Economist, Web. November 19, 2011
“Nuclear Power in China”, World Nuclear Association, Web. March, 2015
“The Technocratic Trend and Its Implications in China” Observa, Web. July 11, 2007
You could also mention China’s ‘New Silk Road’ … their plan to introduce HST networks throughout Asia, across Russia and into Europe. This is what we did after World War II, now we are looking for people to bomb.
I’m curious about the source of your claim that this is saving 1.2 million lives. If that’s true, then the other 97% of China’s power is going to kill 40 million people over that timeframe just from emissions. That’s a much more staggering figure.
I ended up calculating that figure by using the expected deaths per terawatt hour for coal (assuming this is the capacity that the Three Gorges Project is producing) and predicting the lifetime production based on capacity and capacity factor. Simply put, millions of people will die in the coming decades from ailments attributed to coal emissions.
You should get an “A” for effort. However, your efforts are, for the most part, an OpEd and wholly speculative. Presenting gross assumptions, as is repeatedly done in your article, and making speculative and declarative statements, again, as is done in your written effort, without substantiation and peer review, is a truly unacceptable process. Had this been captioned as an OpEd, then it would have been more appropriate. I have accessed this article via a SmartBrief from ASCE. I have seen more and more of this type of offering in these vignettes of supposed valid engineering news. It is unfortunate. Speculation, when tossed out to the public in a format that is supposed to represent truth and science, is often more damaging than pure error.
This is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal. This blog looks at the science of energy production, specifically nuclear energy, but also discusses the economics, politics, and regulatory environment in America and around the world that influences said energy production. Evan reports some facts, does some basic analysis, and does not make any grandiose claims unsubstantiated by those facts and analysis. I see more scientific basis for the claims here than I do in most peer reviewed literature written by Mark Jacobson or the like.
I appreciate your position. However, where I encountered the article was not at this venue, but via ASCE, and in that venue it should have been more closely monitored. Therefore, I will bring it up with the editors of ASCE SmartBrief. I stand corrected and admit my ignorance in commenting on the conditions whilst in this venue/format as non representative of real science.
Atomic Insights is not a peer reviewed technical publication and has never portrayed itself in that manner. We chose to include the word “Insights” in our name as a way to warn readers that this is a publication with an opinion and a point of view. We make every effort to be accurate – in our opinion – but we do not shy away from controversial positions.
Did you happen to read Evan’s biographical blurb?
Our open commenting policy provides the opportunity for interested people, whether peers or not, to participate and to respond with their own thoughts and research.
Could you be more specific?
“…making speculative and declarative statements…”
There are problems with Three Gorges that even the Chinese government has admitted.
A couple of places that discuss some of these are:
So the engineers did not think of all the unintended consequences.
“… China’s Three Gorges dam is a marvel, officially capable of generating 3% of all China’s energy needs … ” From email broadcast
“… This capacity is enough to supply 3% of the power in China.”
These conflict: the perpetual confusion, even among ASME professionals who should know better, between “power” and “energy”. No wonder the USA public is confused about energy policy needed to “Run the World on Renewables”, as we eventually must.
You’re fully correct. That was a minor mistake on my hand. Regardless of my mixed terminology, the main point I was attempting to convey was that the Three Gorges Project provides a significant amount of the electricity consumed in China.
Great job Evan !!
From my study of Chinese history, the idea of an educated elite governing is traditional. They were called the Mandarins. China developed the Civil Service exam system which the British discovered when they first made contact with China.
And Chinese mercantilism also has a long history — it was after all the reason why Britain fought the Opium Wars…
Thanks for putting the Three Gorges Dam in context with China’s energy needs and other energy policies. Very thoughtful and informative!
One thing I have noticed is that the title “Engineer” is given far more honor in other countries. For example, at a geothermal meeting in Mexico, the professional engineers (P.E holders) were introduced as “Engineer Hernandez,” in parallel with the introduction of people with Ph.D.’s as “Doctor Gonzalez.” I think this country could have some more respect for engineers. Such respect might lead to more respect for science and engineering analysis, and better decision-making all around.
“I think this country could have some more respect for engineers”
Many in construction or the auto mechanics industry might strongly disagree with you. An engineer with field experience can be a real asset to a construction project. And an auto engineer that has spent a lot of time turning wrenches understands that ease of repair can be as important as operational function. Unfortunately, such engineers are rare. And it seems the most incompetent of engineers usually end up employed by the government in the role of inspectors.
Yet, without those engineers, your mechanics and steelworkers would be operating a short-handle shovel out in the sun for a living….and wishing some smart person would come along and design something for them to work on.
“The braying in the background gets a little old though.” (POA, post on Three Gorges Dam, 4/1/15 @ 8:45pm) Yes, it certainly does.
Pardon me. That post was on AIs 20th anniversary.
I see. So, merely by the merit of a label an individual has earned my respect.
There’s good engineers, and there’s bad engineers. If you’ve ever been involved in construction you’d cringe at the incompetence of far too many building inspectors claiming to be engineers.
I respect anyone thats good at what they do. But just because your label says you can do something doesn’t mean you can do it well.
Tehachapi is attempting to build a new hospital and it has been one delay and cost over-run after another for close two years now, due in no small part to poor engineering.
So, do these engineers deserve our kudos? I mean hey, after all, they’re “engineers”, right?
And by the way…..
As we continue to price a quality education out of the reach of all but the elite, you can count on the quality of our engineers to reflect that trend.
We are competing with countries that recognize the benefit of educating their youth. Its an investment we seem to be unwilling to make. In the end, it will ruin us.
The USA attempts to achieve “equality”, so public schools shortchange the education of the best in order to try to shrink “the gap”.
We are competing with countries that recognize the benefit of educating their youth. Its an investment we seem to be unwilling to make. In the end, it will ruin us.
With the exception of your pessimism, I agree with your assessment of our current situation. The solution is recognition and change, not acceptance. We must recall how the almost universal access to affordable education created a vast middle class that had useful skills and broad understanding.
(This is personal for me: My dad grew up in a family headed by a bus driver but went to college to study engineering on the GI bill. My mom was raised by a single mother – admittedly a well-educated lady with excellent accounting skills – who managed to send both of her daughters to college without loans because of the affordable prices for state universities.)
Despite the desire of the elites to remain in charge, we have the power to alter our trajectory. Modern communications tools can do wonders by providing an alternative way to distribute information and by converting passive observers into a large, distributed body of active participants. One of the best features of social media is that it occupies time that might otherwise be filled by watching commercially sponsored TV entertainment masquerading as “news.”
I was heartened by a story on Democracy Now! this week. (Yes Brian and David, despite their antinuclear blinkers, I enjoy the diversity of that program’s coverage and guests). It talked about a effort to take citizen recording of improper police action to a completely different level by asking people to openly inform officers that they are being watched and recorded.
The story was accompanied by a lawyer who carefully explained that there is no legitimate, constitutional law that prevents taking photos and videos in public places. The “authorities” have no right to confiscate cameras without a warrant or to erase files, destroy film or remove tapes.
I’m intriqued by your stance here, in regards to education and the elite. It seems surreal to your stance on undisclosed donors pouring huge amounts of money into the campaign coffers of our politicians.
I see that as just one more dynamic be enabling “the elites to remain in charge”. Try as I might, I just can’t see it as a “free speech” issue.
Unless people are actually selling their votes, which may rarely happen, more money in politics simply buys more ads.
Few of the people I talk to enjoy watching political ads and even fewer admit that those ads or robo calls have any impact on their voting decisions.
The groupthinking politicians and advisors – along with the media companies that make their living SELLING ADS – may believe that wheelbarrows full of cash sway elections, but I don’t buy the theory.
Sure, a candidate needs enough money to cover travel and a moderate media effort to get the word out, but after that, there are low cost ways to convince enough voters to allow victory in some elections.
I know, I’m opening myself to charges of idealism.
Sorry, but your position baffles me. This campaign cycle will require viable presidential candidates to spend over a billion. If this is not required to achieve high office, then why are they spending it?
And I do believe that our politicians ARE selling thier votes on policy decisions. Certainly the sway that AIPAC holds over our congress critters is reflected in policies we pursue in regards to Israel that are completely polar to what we claim to be.
Are you actually of the mind that a donor that contributes millions to a politician’s campagn coffer does not expect a return on their investment?
Many people waste money. Political animals are especially good at it.
Congressmen probably do sell the vote they are supposed to use to represent the best interests of their constituents. The cure for that is exposure.
Investors ALWAYS want a return on their investments. Our job is to apply pressure on our representatives to remind them who they are supposed to work for. The money will slowly disappear as the investments prove to have a low ROI.
The isn’t any law saying a winning candidate has to spend many mega bucks. James Webb might be the guy who shows that money is a tool, not a measure of human worth.
Actually Rod, Ron Paul showed good results raising grass roots funding, dimes at a time. Yet he was pretty much blackballed from participating in the debates and the process.
I think you have imagined a few more decibals to the volume of the people’s voice than actually exist. Its very hard for me to imagine we will regain the podium in time to save this nation, without major civil unrest.
The percentage of our young that actually vote is beyond dismal. Our politicians have squandered their credibility to the point that an entire generation has given up on them. And the middle agers and boomers that vote are unwilling or unable to admit how far we have strayed from what the founding fathers intended, so they’re still buying the con that the DC criminals are running.
Make no mistake, this country is in dire straits, and the window for saving it is closing rapidly.
Yes, Ron Paul made a step forward. However, he wasn’t exactly the kind of candidate I have in mind. He had many obstacles in addition to funding.
Webb is just one example of the kind of leader who might have a chance. For example, his campaign wouldn’t need to spend much on speech writers or campaign book ghost writers.
It occurs to me, poa, that you might have tossed in the towel. Personal question – do you have children?
I have a daughter that is 30 years old. I raised her as a single parent from the time she was in diapers. I went to work for a private school in Calabasas CA, as I could not afford to simply pay high tuition while plying my trade. The public schools were so bad that I felt I had to do it. She did not go on to college, although the opportunity existed.
Don’t believe this crap about vouchers. I know what a private school education costs, and even with vouchers it would be out of the reach of most young parents. It would still be priced out of the reach of most Americans, even those of the middle class.
And yes, I have kinda thrown in the towel. I don’t see any of these posturing scumbags I’d want as a nieghbor, much less as a president or representative. Vote for what? More of the same? Because thats what we are going to get from these people being paraded across our TV screens. Or worse. Some of these guys are batshit crazy, and could easily posture us into WWIII. I’m not thrilled that the neo-conservatives, held unaccountable for their crimes, are now being bandied forth as “experts” and potential cabinet choices of our crop of RW candidates. And Clinton is just as bad, having aided these crooks in their march to perpetual war.
It will be Clinton or Bush, Rod, because thats who power wants in power. And meanwhile the effort to divide us will continue unabated, because as we squabble along carefully scripted partisan lines, these despicable bastions of unfettered corruption will continue to sell us down the river. We are headed to a caste system of governance, a democracy in name only.
My experience with public schools was quite different. Both of our girls attended public schools throughout their education. I was fortunately in a position where my income was sufficient and my wife didn’t have to work for the first 10-13 years of their young lives. That also meant that we had some flexibility to seek a home in the best available school districts wherever the Navy assigned us. We were both active in the schools as volunteers.
There are some terrific teachers out there and quite a few good administrators. (My mother, two uncles and two aunts were all teachers and/or administrators.)
I freely acknowledge there are also many of the opposite.
Some on the right always blame the unions and fail to recognize that a severe lack of respect and resources is also to blame.
Not a fan of vouchers.
Don’t agree that we are fated to be ruled by hereditary dynasties.
“Yet, without those engineers, your mechanics and steelworkers would be operating a short-handle shovel out in the sun for a living…”
That would be true if innovation and invention were skills limited to engineers. But history tells a different story, doesn’t it?
Agreed. Many of history’s most famous inventors were tinkerers with good manual labor skills, but lots of ideas about reducing his own effort.
“A good engineer is a lazy cheapskate.”
That doesn’t mean cutting corners or using inferior materials.
I understand what you are saying. There are good, bad and indifferent engineers. However, all registered Professional Engineers have taken difficult certification tests and have to keep their credentials up to date. And American society gives very little respect to this effort. Meanwhile, a person with a Ph.D. in the equivalent of underwater-basketweaving can write a paper about nuclear energy economics. This person will be addressed respectfully as “Doctor” in every context.
I was at a meeting of an entrepreneur’s club at Dartmouth a few years ago. I went there with a woman engineer who was considering starting her own company. I was next to her when she gave her card to the meeting organizer, a man from the Business School faculty. “Hmm…” he said, looking at her card. “P.E.? Does that mean that you are petroleum engineer, then?”
Not all engineers are stellar. And the rules for being in a government bureaucracy don’t necessarily encourage competence in any field. However, I would like to see Professional Engineers given some of the same respect as Ph.Ds., and I would like to see business people aware of what a P.E. means.
(By the way, I am a chemist. I don’t have a P.E., and I am not even remotely eligible for one.)
Thanks to those that gave a courteous response to my comments about engineers and education.
Some here seem to think I’m the enemy.
Energy is the foundation of economies. It is the ultimate source of nearly all wealth. Oil companies and coal companies, of course, have been exploiting this fact to make fortunes for over a century now.
China sees that the combination of hydro, nuclear, and maybe to a lesser extent, renewables, is the new fountain of long term wealth. While the US is largely still focused on drill baby, drill, and still making money off of that, China is laying the foundation to severely disrupt the energy industry. 50 years from now, money will be made more by selling electricity, than by selling fuel, and by selling the infrastructure to generate electricity, and China will be dominating that market.
Evan, I’m looking forward to talking to you more about this blog article.
I didn’t see any reference by you about China’s astonishing progress in its space program, both manned and unmammed.
It seems they’re fully committed to retrieving Hemium3 from the moon soon enough, and using it here on Earth to develop and use fusion power for electrical generation and a variety of other uses that serve human needs. Also, I think they’re planning on a viable Moon colony by around 2030!
Any comments, sir?
In my prior comment, I made a typo, and printed Hemium 3, when I intended to print Helim 3, which is an ideal fuel for thermonuclear fusion in the opinion of many nuclear physicists.
In my last, I erred again; it should be Helium 3! Mea culpa, old age and diminished vision cause such blunders!
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