(May 31, 1994)
RESETTLEMENT IN THE THREE GORGES PROJECT1
by Dai Qing
In contemporary China, many decision makers ignore the possible consequences of flooding the upper stream of the Yangtze River,2 and of blocking this vital waterway for 20 years in order to construct the Three Gorges project. China needs a solid financial environment for its economic reform, but decision makers insist instead on building a super dam at China’s most beautiful scenic spot on its largest river. The project will force the resettlement of between one million and 1.6 million people.
China’s official media have been eager to depict happy peasants thanking the government for their decision to move them out of their poverty-ridden villages on the Yangtze and give them new homes, jobs and farmland. But this is not the whole story. The Three Gorges valley-which has nurtured Chinese civilization, enjoys beautiful weather, and serves as the transportation hub of one of China’s richest provinces-has been denied economic development for years. The “wise decisions of the Communist Party,” as they are often referred to in the media, have, in practice, done great harm to the region. For example, the policy of “using grain as the key link to develop collective agriculture,” has caused deforestation and soil erosion. The policy of “larger population, greater labor force, and increased working morale,” led to the doubling of the Chinese population from 400 million to 800 million in 3 years. But it also led to the destruction of forests to make room for farmland to encourage “self reliance.”
While these harmful policies were being implemented, the country’s top leadership undertook a protracted debate on whether to build the dam. Local residents, however, were never consulted. They had no choice but to wait for the decision from the top, which would tell them whether they would be moved, when to move, how to move and where to move to. As the proposed dam site, or “submerged area,” had been denied any opportunities for economic development before the leadership reached their final decision, the poor local residents could do little more than advise the media of their willingness to be resettled and their gratefulness to the state.
Overlooking repeated warnings from dissidents, scientists, sociologists and environmentalists that the Three Gorges resettlement program would stir up social unrest and create many unforeseen environmental effects, the determined dam builders entrusted the job of resettlement to Li Boning, an ex-official from the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power. Li is viewed by many as being extremely brash and reckless. He has never implemented a resettlement project before.
Li argues that the resettlement program for the Three Gorges project is different from the forced inter-provincial and intercounty resettlements used by the Chinese government since the 1950s (when people received “one-time compensation”).3 The Three Gorges strategy has been termed “population relocation for development” and posits that people will be resettled up on the hillsides of the Yangtze valley rather than in other communities. The Chinese have termed this “the local solution.” But there are several problems with this strategy.
Population relocation for development is a theoretical concept useful only for propaganda purposes. Since there are no cases of successful implementation,4 the new approaches have not been corroborated by experience. Moreover, officials have not even devised a plan or model to guide implementation. Finally, even if there were one or two successful trial applications, there is no evidence the program could be successfully applied to a resettlement project as complicated as the Three Gorges.
The Three Gorges lacks the environmental capacity for resettling such a large number of people. The environmental balance is very fragile. The vegetative cover has been reduced from 20 percent in the 1950s to 10 percent at present. In some areas close to the river bank, the cover is as low as 5 percent. Farmland with a slope of over 25 degrees (which is not permitted legally in China) accounts for 30 to 50 percent of the total farmland in the resettlement area. Soil erosion, which affects 80 percent of farmland, also poses a serious problem for resettlement. About 40 million tonnes of sediment is flushed into the river annually. The dense forests that used to cover the Gorges area have gradually turned into bushes, then grass, and now the whole area could become barren. Such a degraded environment cannot sustain the quality of life of present or future generations unless emergency measures, such as tree planting, grass growing and the suspension of farming, are adopted immediately.
Of the Three Gorges project’s Y57 billion budget, resettlement accounts for Y18 billion, or Y16,000 per person. This figure does not, however, take into account increased costs due to pollution and soil erosion resulting from the process of resettlement, the expenses of future resettlement should the dam silt up, or the compensation now being demanded by the residents whose homes and land will be shared by the new settlers.
Even without considering these additional costs, the current resettlement budget remains inadequate. In 1990, the average per capita cost for resettlement exceeded Y20,000, Y4,000 more than will be provided for the Three Gorges project. For the Ertan Hydro-electric project, on a tributary of the Yangtze River, the figure reached Y36,000 per person. If Li is confident that only Y18 billion will be sufficient for resettlement, then let the public be informed of the detailed plans. If not, the people should be told as soon as possible. Li and other dam proponents’ use of the media to conceal the truth is not something new. They are simply using a small budget to get the project approved, knowing they can increase it afterwards.5
Qian Zhengying, ex-minister of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power and the head of the leading group, stated in 1992:
We have learned many lessons from previous resettlement programs. During the Cultural Revolution, people from places like Danjiangkou and Xin’anjiang [Zhejiang province] came to Beijing to protest their fate. I told the people in the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric power that I took these criticisms very seriously. Resettlement is an issue of economic and political significance.
Despite such statements, the judicial structure in China has never held decision makers responsible for the effects of forcible resettlement. Rather, decision makers are above the law: they are rewarded by the Party if projects are successful, but are exempt from penalty when projects fail.
Chinese people have suffered the consequences of numerous policy disasters. This time, however, when the decision concerns the beautiful Three Gorges and more than one million people, the old decision-making model should not be used.
Sources and Further Commentary
1This essay, written in March, 1993, was not part of the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!
2 Including the loss of 430,000 mu of farmland, about half of the total paddy land of the area.
3Usually a simple cash settlement for those being moved
4See the discussion by Chen Guojie, Research Fellow at the Institute of Mountain Area Disasters and Environment of Chengdu, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Tian and Lin, A Third Look.
5This appears to be happening. See Appendix E, in which a recent State Council Examination Committee estimates that the cost of the Three Gorges project has risen to Y75.1 billion (static investment) and Y224 billion (dynamic investment).