THE art of survival is not only the greatest gift of Chinese culture but its most crushing burden. That a civilisation has thrived for more than 5,000 years in the face of daunting odds is a tribute to its people's innovation and resilience - and their singular ability to 'eat bitterness'. The Three Gorges Hydro-electric Project, which was officially inaugurated by Premier Li Peng and Vice-Premier Zou Jiahua last Wednesday, would not have been started if China was a democratic country in the 'Western' mode. In announcing the ribbon-cutting gala, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) and other official media highlighted the 'scientific' nature of Chinese-style decision-making by pointing out that the project was undertaken after 'a 40-year feasibility study'. What the propagandists did not say was that the mega-scheme had been delayed for several decades precisely because of its controversial nature - and the persistent opposition. Moreover, the voice of the naysayers has actually mounted, not lessened. Environmentalism - once the fetish of a handful of intellectuals - is gradually spreading into a national concern as China follows in the footsteps of Japan and Taiwan in taking heed of the irrevocable havoc wreaked by toying with nature's designs. The green light for the mega-dam - whose bill of 90 billion yuan is considered a gross underestimation - is also being given as inflation reaches the highest point since 1949 and the State Council is calling on every region to observe fiscal prudence. In spite of claims by Mr Li about the 'enthusiasm' of Hong Kong and foreign investors, funds committed have been measly. Then there are the grave reservations of the up-stream districts - principally Sichuan, China's most populous province - which have been asked to make sacrifices for the industrial zones in the lower reaches of the Yangtze, particularly Shanghai. No doubt, the unprecedented resources vouchsafed for the Three Gorges are a reflection of the expanding influence of the Shanghai Faction in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politics. The State Council has tried to sweeten the deal for Sichuan by promising state investments for the province as well as generous resettlement packages for the one million-odd Sichuanese displaced by the flooding. So far, not much has been forthcoming. Central coffers are so depleted that Beijing has had to force about 12 rich provinces and cities along the coast to cough up 60 million yuan to help with the resettlement. From one angle, the CCP's art of survival is attested to by the fact that despite its declining legitimacy and popularity, it can still bulldoze its way through a wall of opposition. The inauguration ceremony is a symbolic of the fact that, in spite of the worsening tensions between Beijing and the regions - and between different localities - the CCP could stitch together a facade of unity. The representatives of the 'losers' - former Sichuan party secretary Yang Rudai, his successor Xie Shijie, and Sichuan governor Xiao Yang - managed a put on a smile as they posed for a group photo with the 'beneficiaries', Shanghai party secretary Huang Ju and Hubei party boss Jia Zhijie. From a deeper perspective, however, the festivities at the Three Gorges headquarters at Yichang, Hubei Province, last week betrayed a disturbing malaise. To justify their claims, the ministers and spin doctors felt obliged to bombard their audience with dubious facts and figures as well as symbolisms that could arouse the wrong emotions. This has led to speculation about whether the 'largest-ever hydro-electric works in history' could ever be completed. To parry the charges of environmentalists, Three Gorges engineers have argued that theirs is 'China's largest environment-protection project'. Premier Li claimed there was 'sufficient guarantee' for construction finances. The Soviet-trained engineer, however, has failed to address spiralling costs: even officials conceded that outlays for 'static', mainly fixed-assets, investments alone had jumped from 95 billion yuan in 1993 to 130 billion yuan early this year. Then there are the clanging appeals to history. Premier Li enthused about how the grandiose dam would represent 'an achievement for this era, benefits for a thousand autumns'. Official commentators have pointed out how the project is 'a dream come true for this century', the fulfilment of the blueprints of revolutionaries from Dr Sun Yat-sen to Chairman Mao Zedong. Set aside for the moment the personal perspective, particularly the fact that Mr Li and Mr Zou, set to retire in 1998 and next year respectively, want the Three Gorges to be what history will remember them by. Appeals to 'historical monumentalism' carry inherent perils. Evocations of past grandeur could conjure up unsavoury memories of even more controversial projects like the Great Wall of China of Qin the First Emperor. Ostensibly an effort to keep out the marauding 'barbarians', the Great Wall exacted immeasurable costs in terms of human suffering. It also failed to prolong the lifespan of the Qin dynasty, one of the shortest in Chinese history. Premier Li is banking on the fact that as with mass movements for causes ranging from the Great Wall to the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese are willing to again deny themselves for some near-mythical 'common good' for their grand-children. Times, however, have changed. The country is gradually becoming a pluralistic society under the veneer of one-party dictatorship. The future of the Three Gorges is cast into doubt because it has gone ahead without the requisite consensus of the populace. The pro-dam lobby in the party - central planners led by Mr Li and the Shanghai Faction led by President Jiang Zemin - are riding a political windfall which might not last beyond the death of patriarch Deng Xiaoping. They have taken advantage of the June 4 crackdown to sideline anti-dam politicians and intellectuals, many of whom were associated with the pro-democracy movement. Military opposition to the project - for reasons including the fact that it will be impossible to defend the dam in war times - has also been silenced because of Mr Jiang's reported approval for contracts to be given to army-related construction companies. Should the fortune of the pro-dam clique falter, the lid on the opposition could no longer be clamped tight. Calls for the postponement of the project for yet another decade or so could mount, particularly if the budget deficit worsens as foreign interest in the Three Gorges remains lukewarm.