Yichang, China — China is about to finish erecting the last segment of the Three Gorges Dam, its biggest construction project since the Great Wall.
On Saturday, workers will pour concrete to top off the dam, concluding a mile-and-a-half barrier that eventually will extend a vast reservoir 370 miles up the Yangtze River.
"We cannot say the Three Gorges project is perfect. We'll have to wait 30 years to make that judgment," said Cao Guangjing, the vice general manager of the construction company for the project.
Yet much of China seems to be feting the dam as a symbol of the nation's global power and vitality at the outset of the 21st century.
After a celebration at the dam on Saturday, workers will still need until 2008 to finish auxiliary projects, such as a ship elevator, and to install all of the 32 turbines that will power the world's biggest hydroelectric project. When the last turbine whirs to life, the dam is expected to provide one-ninth of China's gargantuan energy needs.
China says the $28 billion dam will help reduce the frequency of killer floods in the lower Yangtze, generate power equivalent to that of 18 nuclear plants and ease seagoing vessels' navigation deep into western China, where development trails the booming coast.
Almost since day one in 1993, tremors of protest have erupted near the Three Gorges Dam, which sits alongside a geologic fault line.
Its environmental impact remains a heated issue. Some people already uprooted by the huge reservoir's footprint complain bitterly of inadequate compensation. About 160,000 of them will be forced to reside far from their original homes, not just on higher ground.
China's ruling Communist Party stifles nearly all criticism, and so the dam has come to symbolize not only China's strength but also other facets of China's rise, including its disregard for the environment and authoritarian control of the peasantry.
Authorities recently cut the phone line to one of the most vociferous peasant critics of the relocations, Fu Xiancai. He couldn't be reached Wednesday.
Dai Qing, a Chinese writer and longtime opponent of the dam, calls the Three Gorges Dam "a ridiculous and evil farce" that will haunt China's leaders.
The final verdict on the dam hasn't been delivered, though. On Wednesday, the project's managers squired around three busloads of foreign journalists to peer down the impressive spillway from the 600-foot high dam's rim. The managers touted the security measures in place should disaster - natural or manmade - strike the project.
The next big test for the dam will begin in late September, when the level of the upstream reservoir will climb to 512 feet, then toward an eventual top height of 574 feet in 2009, leaving vast new areas inundated. The flooding is expected to trigger some landslides on steep slopes.