ExEAS Teaching Unit

Three Gorges Dam Debate
Lisa Fischler
Department of Political Science
Moravian College

Additional Documents
This activity can be used for undergraduate students in Chinese political science or contemporary society classes. It focuses on a specific case study that concretely demonstrates the complexities of environmental issues in China and gets students actively involved in decision-making in a politicized context. It works best to use this activity after students have studied China’s twentieth-century political history, the political institutions of contemporary China, and the political actors shaping China’s current transition. However, it could also be used in other contexts.
The activity has received good reviews on student evaluations. It encourages students to actively participate in class and promotes a better understanding of Chinese politics, especially the recent controversy surrounding the Three Gorges Dam.

Group Activity: Instructions for the Instructor
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Break the class into three or four groups. One group will represent the mediator, Qi Ren, and the others will represent Li Boning, Dai Qing, or other players in the debate over the Three Gorges Dam. Give each group an article from The River Dragon as Come written by the person they are representing. All students should read their respective articles before class to prepare for the in-class debate.

Dai, Qing. Edited by John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams. Translated by Yi Ming. The River Dragon Has Come!: The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China's Yangtze River and Its People. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Further reading for the instructor:

  • Henderson, Mark and Emily T. Yeh. “Teaching China’s Environment: Beyond the Three Gorges.” Education About Asia, Volume 9, Number 2 (Fall 2004): 4-11.

Group Activity: Background and Instructions for the Students
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Click here to download this as a student handout.


It is now 1998, five years before the first lock of the Three Gorges Dam in China will be flooded and at least eight years before the Dam itself is fully operational. You have been called to a mediation session about the Dam by mediator, Qi Ren. Qi Ren notes that proponents and opponents of the dam have been unable to reach any compromise on this project, not because there aren’t ways to compromise, but because opponents and proponents talk past each other, fail to listen, and derail the other side’s views. Some of them are motivated by self interest, either for survival or for their organization’s gain. Also at this meeting are villagers who have been or will be resettled by the dam project, Li Boning (an official and a major proponent of the Dam project), and Dai Qing (a vocal critic of the Dam project). You have been asked to join in this mediation because this is the last opportunity to reach a compromise on the project before it is implemented. You have arrived with the instructions not to talk past the other side, to listen, and to try and find a compromise solution.


  • Decide what your group’s main arguments are in terms of support or opposition to the Dam.
  • Decide on what points your group would be willing to compromise.
  • Come with reasons why your group is willing to compromise on these points, or why your group simply cannot compromise.
  • Be prepared to present your case to Qi Ren, the mediator, defend your case against or in alliance with other groups, and respond after Qi Ren renders a decision (about whether or not a compromise can be reached, what additional information is needed before a decision can be made, and on what points compromise is possible and why.