Pan Jiazheng, a top hydraulic engineer and staunch advocate of the Three Gorges Dam, has died of cancer, aged 85, in Beijing.
As one of the first domestically trained engineers after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Pan dedicated most of his life to dam construction and was awarded a national lifetime-achievement prize only last month. But he was best known for his pivotal role in the approval of the world's largest dam project nearly two decades ago and his enthusiastic defence of the country's most controversial project ever since.
While Xinhua hailed him as the most acclaimed hydraulic expert on the mainland, it was a view not shared by environmentalists and other dam opponents.
Pan's academic achievements, his critics say, were largely tainted by his public image as an apologist for politically driven projects, such as the Three Gorges and the massive South-North Water Diversion Project.
A native of Zhejiang province, Pan enrolled at Zhejiang University in 1946, majoring in civil engineering. Like many other hydropower engineers of his generation, Pan was apparently influenced by the Soviet view of dams as engineering marvels and a source of national pride by conquering nature, despite possible environmental and social impacts.
Pan was made a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1980 when he was 53.
In 1985, he became the technical chief for the feasibility study of the Three Gorges Dam Project at the recommendation of the water resources minister at the time, Qian Zhengying. While the dam has been touted as the country's most prestigious engineering project of the past three decades, it also attracted controversy from the outset when it was given a green light by Deng Xiaoping in 1982.
Top leaders, including Mao Zedong Deng, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng were obsessed with the project. Advocates believed it would provide clean energy, flood control, navigation and jobs. But others feared the dam would wreak ecological and social havoc.
Pan earned notoriety for his efforts to sideline prominent scientists who spoke out against the dam.
Witnesses' accounts in recent years showed that he even overruled the conclusion of a panel of top environmental and geological experts who said the dam should not be built given its grave environmental impact. He then rewrote the verdict and said the impact could be managed.
Geologist Chen Guojie, who was involved in the study, recalled that Pan attacked those who tried to alert decision-makers about the project's environmental consequences as demonising it.
In an interview with state media two years ago, Pan admitted he turned a deaf ear to those critics.
'At the beginning of the dam project, I was most impatient with any criticism and felt angry whenever I heard people challenging it.'
Pan was also renowned for his advocacy of other controversial dam projects, such as those along the Jinsha (Yangtze) and Nu (Salween) rivers. He continued to be a staunch supporter of damming Tiger Leaping Gorge, a World Heritage Site, even after the project was suspended in 2007 amid widespread opposition from the public and government-backed scientists.
Dai Qing, a writer and opponent of the Three Gorges, said: 'Pan could have become an pillar of academic excellence given his intelligence and diligence. But intentionally or not, he chose to serve those in power at the expense of academic conscience, like most other mainland engineers.'
Geologist Fan Xiao said Pan failed to distance himself from powerful vested interests. Historian Zhang Lifan wrote on the Sina Weibo microblog that it was a shame for scientists like Pan to be involved so heavily in political projects.