Matthew P. Johnson
Yangtze! Yangtze! earned Dai the dangerous label of dissident, and after she renounced her membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, the government arrested her. Dai spent ten months in the Qincheng prison north of Beijing, enduring six of those months in solitary confinement. In October, eight months after publication and four months after Dai’s arrest, the Chinese government banned the collection and destroyed all the copies it could find.
Dai was no stranger to rebellion and its consequences. She was born in Chongqing in 1941 to parents that had close connections with founding members of the CCP. When the Japanese occupied China during World War II, Japanese soldiers captured and tortured her mother and executed her father. In the 1960s, she studied military and missile engineering in school and after graduation, she got a job working on guidance systems for intercontinental missiles in a secret government lab. However, Dai became disillusioned with the CCP during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and protested by marrying and getting pregnant before the approved age. As punishment, the government sent Dai and her husband to work on a farm. She became further disenchanted with the CCP when she found out that they had tortured her mother and stepfather, the latter of whom was driven to insanity and died shortly thereafter.
In the 1970s, Dai returned to Beijing and began working as a spy for the Ministry of Public Security. During one of her missions the Ministry sent her to France disguised as a journalist. She played the part well and found that she actually liked writing stories. In 1982, she lost her job as a spy because colleagues exposed her identity to foreign intelligence agencies, but she had become so enamored with journalism that she decided to take up writing full time.
In 1993, Dai won the Goldman Environmental Foundation’s prestigious annual prize—which is also known as the Green Nobel Prize—for her activism against the Three Gorges Dam. Ironically, Dai does not identify as an environmentalist. She considers herself an investigative journalist fighting for democracy and human rights. She is a political moderate and tries to use that to her advantage as an interloper between the government and the democratic movement. Despite not being a self-identified environmentalist, Dai played a vital role as an environmental defender during one of the twentieth-century’s grandest and most controversial environmental re-engineering projects. Her fearlessness and dedication to democracy brought international attention to the environmental consequences one of the world’s largest dams. Though she could not stop the dam, her efforts raised awareness about the negative impacts of mega dams, which helped to reduce their appeal among international lending agencies.