Interview With A Dissident

Tucked away on a mountainside high above Xiamaling, a country village northwest of Beijing, the quartet of trees Dai Qing planted eight years ago off the back porch of her farmhouse has grown lush and tall. Dai says they’re there to commemorate her four friends, Yang Zili, Jin Haike, Xu Wei, and Zhang Honghai, also known as the Young Thinkers. The group started a Website discussing freedom and human rights and wrote scathing critics of the Communist Party’s policies, from the repression of the Falun Gong to the plight of farmers - dangerous subjects in the People’s Republic of China. “The authorities arrested them and the sentence was quite long, 50 years,” Dai says, wistfully, as she recalls the circumstances surrounding their eventual convictions on charges of subversion in 2001.

At 66, Dai, remains an outspoken critic of the government herself, one who has also seen the inside of a jail cell for challenging China’s environmental policies and human rights record. Today, however, her most stinging criticism is directed at China’s Three Gorges Dam Project. She began reporting on the dam’s potential for environmental damage, the thousands of archaeological sites that would be swallowed up, and the millions of Chinese who would be displaced by the dam’s construction, in 1979, decades before the mammoth project caught the attention of the Western Press. China’s breakneck industrial development has fueled an equally astonishing rate of environmental damage, and many, like Dai, see this as an even greater threat to China’s long-term stability than any other issue. Dai says she doesn't want to see China “have so much [hydroelectric] power that it will continue being a big factory for the wholeworld,” responding to government forecasts that the Three Gorges Dam will drastically reduce China’s current energy shortages.

With short-cropped hair and an unremitting smile, Dai has alarge presence for such a demure woman, speaking out on subjects one can often only tiptoe around in China. She hammers the Communist Party on issues ranging from the repression of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations to the social ills being swept under the rug in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. “I love sports but I hate the Olympics,” says Dai, as her dog Bang Bang curiously eyes the guests seated around the picnic table on this clear June day. “Just because someone runs faster or jumps higher, it doesn’t mean your political system is good. It doesn’t mean that your children have enough playgrounds.”

Dai got an early start in her opposition to the Three Gorges Dam. In 1982, she left her career as a People’s Liberation Army engineer at top secret intercontinental missile laboratory to write for the Guangming Daily. There, she earned a reputation as a straight talker by being among the first to report on researchers who opposed the damming of the Yangtze River. Her book “Yangtze! Yangtze!” released as the pro-democracy movement was picking up steam in the late 1980s, is widely credited with persuading the Chinese government to postpone construction until 1994 to address structural and environmental issues. But as the 348-mile long reservoir created by the dam begins to top out, and the last generators are due to go online in 2009, Dai is the first to argue that the human and environmental toll caused by the project is still too high.

When government officials renewed their push to get approval for the mammoth construction project from the National People's Congress in the late 1980's, Dai says they estimated the number of individuals who would be forced to resettle at less than a million. “Only a few months ago," she adds, "the government announced that the number of forced resettlement is now four million.” In her lectures, Dai has warned that that the spillover from inadequate housing for the displaced could lead to increased emigration to United States and Europe.

For generations, Chinese leaders have dreamed for taming the Yangtze River. The Chinese government has spent 17 years and an estimated $27 billion to harness its energy and control its catastrophic floods. So when the dam officially opened in June 2007 it should been a high-profile political event. Yet, observers immediately noticed that not a single member of the Politburo attended the ceremony, fueling speculation that Party members didn’t want their names or images attached to the project. Engineers have warned that the silt that clogs China’s rivers threatens to render the dam unusable, and slippage along the banks onthe Yangtze has contributed to landsides that threaten to bury villages.

During a visit to Hong Kong in 1982, Dai was impressed with the open press coverage of the Three Gorges Dam project, leading her to conclude that the Communist Party cared more about modernization than its people. She became a no-holds-barred critic of the Chinese government, a remarkable transformation for someone witha Communist Party pedigree. Dai’s father, Fu Daqing, was an intellectual and Communist Party martyr killed by the Japanese during World War II, and she was later adopted by Ye Jianying, a high-ranking marshal in the People’s Liberation Army.

Despite the serious tone of the conversation, Dai peppers her stories with laughter, even when discussing her own imprisonment. In the summer of 1989, Dai found herself caught up in the Tiananmen Square protests. Working as a journalist and editor at the time, she invited prominent researchers to her newspaper to comment on the uprising. “The student’s leaders asked us to go to Tiananmen Square and to publish a statement,” Dai explains. “The statement was already written and... twelve people had already signed, but they left a space for me.” Although she was hesitant to sign, Dai’s name would appear at the top of list.

“I arrived in Tiananmen Square,so it gave the police an excuse, but actually the true reason is my writing,” Dai explains. On June 14, 1989, Dai began a 10-month detention at Qincheng Prison, a maximum-security facility she describes as a VIP club for China’s political prisoners, housing members of the 1989 Democracy Movement, Tibetan spiritual leaders, and Communist Party cadres purged during the Cultural Revolution. Imprisoned but never put on trial, Dai says she was only released when the World Bank petitioned the Chinese government in 1990 to release 200 political prisoners as a precondition for the bank to resume lending to China.

She declined offers of asylum from the United States and Germany, she says, earning her international praise, a high profile, and—for now—her continued freedom. Although she can no longer publish or lecture in China, Dai continues to write, visit universities abroad, and speak out. Indeed, the earnestness and defiance in her voice gives the impression of a woman who has only just begun to fight. Dai says she soon will release a report detailing the diversion of water from the rural provinces to Beijing, which she says is too often used to satiate the city’s thrust for extravagance, such as the country's over 1,000 golf courses that cater to China's new class of urban nouveau riche. "We have this kind of tradition," says Dai. "The military, they take power in Beijing, or anywhere, and just rob from the provinces."

Not far from the four trees Dai planted in honor of the Young Thinkers, another cluster of trees rises out of the steep, mist-shrouded mountains. “I started to take care of the buds and the seedlings,” Dai says.“Five years passed and it’s a small forest. This is for the unnamed young people killed in Tiananmen Square.”