The controversial Three Gorges Dam project, which flooded hundreds of square miles of land and required the relocation of more than 1 million people, was promoted as an effort to improve human welfare. No longer would the Yangtze’s periodic floods kill large numbers of Chinese. And the vast quantities of electricity to be generated by the dam would mean China could continue to electrify without having to rely entirely on coal-burning plants. But the dam was a blunt instrument. Its construction meant many existing towns were simply flattened or submerged. A fellow passenger on the boat had been relocated from his village of 180 people. His life was now more comfortable, he conceded, but he missed the village, and the relocation money he received from the government wasn’t enough.
When we docked below Yichang, a rickety cable car conveyed us up the hillside, and we trudged through a dusty terminal before boarding a bus that whisked us to the Three Gorges Dam. As we saw during the Olympics, the Chinese are enormously proud of their heroic feats of engineering—proud that they can afford to build them, proud that they can carry them out quickly, and proud that they seem to work. While the construction of this complex was hugely labor intensive, the dam is highly efficient and mechanized. Ships idled at the bottom, waiting to enter the locks that would convey them to higher water. Embedded in the walls of the dam are turbines with capacity to generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity. We took an elevator into the bowels of the dam, through an immaculate cavernous space that housed the turbines, and into the control room. When the guide pushed a button, the opaque glass cleared, and we watched three engineers monitoring an electronic array. In a frenetic country, here was one of the most placid power plants you’ll ever see—buried in the new Great Wall of China.