A major dam project suspended last year by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (
The conflict highlights growing tension between the need for environmental protection in one of the world's most polluted countries and China's insatiable hunger for new energy sources to fuel a booming economy.
The original project called for a 13-stage dam on the Nu River, which flows through a remote, pristine region in western China that is designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Last spring, Wen unexpectedly halted the project for further study of possible environmental damage, a decision that led to speculation in the Chinese news media that the project was dead.
But in recent months, new accounts in Chinese newspapers have suggested that the project may be restarted in some form. Witnesses have reported that some ancillary construction work is under way beside the Nu near the city of Liuku, a site planned for one of the dams.
The ultimate fate of the project remains uncertain, but the debate within the government has trickled into the public domain. In November, Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Authority, announced that public hearings would be held early this year to discuss the impact of the proposal.
The hearings, a very rare step in China's closed political system, come as environmental officials are trying to gain greater regulatory power after years of being steamrolled by more powerful ministries charged with economic development
Zhu Xinxiang, director of the environmental agency's assessment division, said an environmental feasibility study on the project was still under way and that no timetable had been set for deciding if the dams would be built.