Scholars ask Jiang to help save ancient sites at dam

More than 60 prominent Chinese scholars have signed a petition addressed to President Jiang Zemin asking him to support demands for increased aid to protect relics which will be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is built.

Preserving the cultural relics was a matter of urgency, said the letter sent on August 8. Among the signatories were prominent female writer 95-year-old Bing Xin, leading architect Wu Liangyong and former Chinese ambassador to Washington Chai Zemin .

In May, a committee of experts sent the State Council a request for two billion yuan (HK$1.86 billion) to pay for the costs of excavation and protection in the years up to 2009.

But no response has been made by the council and many fear the consequences if the budget is cut or funding delayed.

Also, the Three Gorges Construction Committee headed by premier Li Peng has not allowed archaeologists to appeal for funding from abroad to preserve key architectural and archaeological sites along the Yangtze River.

Money allocated in 1994 to allow 300 scientists and scholars to survey the sites in the regions to be submerged has run out.

While the flooding will take place at different stages over the next 11 years, some sites on lower ground will be flooded from the autumn of next year.

Among the most vulnerable are the Ming Dynasty Precious Stone Fortress Temple, the Han Dynasty White Emperor City, the Qing Dynasty Temple dedicated to the hero of the Three Kingdoms epic, Zhang Fei, and numerous Han and Tang dynasty tombs and large-scale archaeological sites dating back to the ancient Ba people. In yesterday's China Daily, He Gong, vice-president of the China Yangtze Three Gorges Project Development Corp, warned that attempts to block the project by citing environmental damage would prove futile.

'The project is a touchstone . . . nothing can stop it now,' he said. Mr He, who chairs the company's panel of environmental experts, said surrounding scenery would remain largely intact and that teams had hastened to excavate cultural relics.

In response to May's decision by the Export-Import Bank not to back American companies bidding for contracts, Mr He said he was confident the reservoir's ecosystem would be as good if not better than those he saw on a tour of major dam projects in North and South America.

'We are willing to help the bank change its mind, but even if it does not, the Three Gorges proceeds. United States business interests stand to suffer,' he said.

Since 1994, half of the overseas orders for construction equipment, worth US$400 million (HK$3.1 billion), have been placed with American firms.

Mr He rejected the views of some experts by asserting the dam would not silt up for the next 30 or even 50 years.

China would eventually build two dams in the Jinsha River in Sichuan and reforest the upper reaches of the Yangtze. And even if no new dams were built, Mr He said China was prepared to remove the silt from the river bed with giant dredgers.

Critics have also charged that the reservoir would become contaminated by effluent discharged upstream, but Mr He said this would be solved by forcing upstream cities like Chongqing to restrict their discharges.