Three Gorges Probe

Chapter 29

(May 31, 1994)


by Jin Jun2

I would like to analyze the problem of population relocation from a sociological perspective. Although the Liujiaxia Gorge reservoir has been completed for many years, the resettlement problems created by its construction are still with us and can be used as a point of comparison with the Three Gorges project.

When people are resettled from low-lying areas of natural irrigation to the hillsides with less arable land and poorer soil quality, their self-sufficiency is destroyed. The insufficient nature of state compensation, a situation aggravated by improper and impractical distribution, only makes things worse. In many cases, the compensation never reaches these people, who, because of their hardships, inevitably feel resentment against the government.

One constructive approach to the problem is to compensate peoples’ losses and improve their situation by introducing lifestyle changes and modern methods of production. But, in China, this seems difficult or even impossible, because of poor national economic conditions, the low levels of education of many local people, and the inappropriate policies governing population relocation. As a result, the lives of the people are worsened rather than improved. For a long time, they feel resentful and even cheated. They rely on the government for everything, and try to get as much as they can from it. This mentality, known as the “culture of poverty,” makes the economic situation worse, hindering the effort to alleviate poverty and causing a vicious circle.

Chinese society is based on an established pattern of relationships among various clans, each having its own social customs and family roots in different regions. The process of resettlement inevitably breaks existing relationships and increases the chances of friction and conflict among the different groupings of newly resettled people, thus negatively affecting society as a whole.

The population to be relocated from the Three Gorges area would probably reach 1.3 million-far more than that from the Liujiaxia Gorge reservoir, or on any other previous project. These are not only farmers, but also city dwellers, who may make up as much as 40 percent of the people to be moved. The land to be submerged includes villages and numerous towns and cities, where all of the industrial establishments would be destroyed. This massive economic loss could lead to complicated and unpredictable problems. Since the beginning of our economic reform in 1978, economic relations among urban and rural areas have undergone a great deal of change. In the rural areas the economic pattern is neither that of collective (the state) nor of household ownership, but rather of community ownership. Therefore, the policy concerning resettlement should be based on contracts between the community and the government rather than on an administrative basis. But at present, all of the policies are of an administrative nature, and could easily cause failure.

Resettlement on such a large scale is not just an economic or engineering issue, but is also a social one. Therefore, sociologists and anthropologists should be invited to participate in project assessment. However, decision makers always tend to treat projects merely from an economic perspective, rather than from a sound overall perspective.

During a recent conversation concerning China’s hydro-electric projects with Ma Rong, the vice-director of the Institute of Sociology at Beida University, Michael Cernea, an American sociologist employed by the World Bank, was surprised to learn that no sociologists had participated in the assessment of the Three Gorges project. He went on to say that in the contemporary world, the participation of adequate numbers of sociologists in the assessments of hydro-electric or agricultural projects of such a large scale has become a criterion for determining the appropriateness of the project. Whether to assess large-scale projects for their social impacts relates to the broader question of how to treat the interests of the common people. Cernea has written a book titled Putting People First3; and we hope, during the assessment work on the Three Gorges project, the people’s interests will be put first.

Sources and Further Commentary

1This essay was included in the original Chinese edition of Yangtze! Yangtze!

2 Jin Jun is a former journalist and researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Beida University. He is currently completing a PhD at Harvard University in the United States

3Michael M. Cernea, Putting People First, Sociological Variables in Rural Development. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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