Dams and Landslides

Three Gorges resettlement in chaos, awaiting central government directives

Wei Ming

October 8, 1999
Wei Ming, writing under a pseudonym, is a Chinese sociologist who recently visited five of the 22 Yangtze river counties that are slated for flooding by the Three Gorges dam.

Wanxian district, Chongqing municipality
(Click on picture to enlarge)

A recent fact-finding trip to the Three Gorges area reveals that the resettlement of up to two million people is in chaos. Since Premier Zhu Rongji announced a dramatic policy shift last April – to encourage distant resettlement and to close unprofitable and environmentally hazardous enterprises built to employ local resettlers – hundreds of thousands of people are living in confusion, awaiting new orders from the central government.

Official statements give the impression that resettlement is proceeding smoothly but in reality it has ground to a halt. In Wanxian – a district within the newly established Chongqing municipality that bears 80 percent of the resettlement burden – all resettlement-related infrastructure construction, residential building, factory projects, and real estate development – had been suspended when the author visited the region this summer.

Unemployment in the Three Gorges area hovers around 11 percent and if all money-losing, polluting enterprises are shut down as ordered, unemployment could jump to 70 percent, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work and creating havoc for local governments.

The central government banned reclamation of steep hillsides in the Three Gorges region last December, in an effort to curb soil erosion, frequent landslides and flooding, which means that thousands of displaced farmers are left without land or job prospects in sight.

Under the original resettlement plan, supported by former Premier Li Peng, the government controlled all aspects of resettlement, moving people to higher ground and providing them either with new farmland and villages, or urban jobs in newly-built towns and factories. But this plan has proven so unworkable, Premier Zhu, who took charge of the Three Gorges project last year, now wants resettlement
done differently.

Under the new plan, the government will encourage people to move to areas of their choice, either rural or urban, provided they can get permission from the host villages and townships. To assist individual resettlers, they will receive a portion of the funds that would previously have gone to the host community for infrastructure and other costs, in addition to the money received for lost property and livelihoods.

As resettlement officials wait for more detailed instructions on “distant resettlement,” Premier Zhu’s uncertain political fate has added to the confusion. In general, academics and scientists have welcomed Zhu’s directives, believing that the central government has recognized that the old plan wasn’t working and is now trying to improve the situation. Others believe that, although the new directives point in the right direction, they will be difficult to implement due to the vast numbers of people in the Three Gorges area that need jobs and land.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers will have no land to farm because there is not enough land available. Most of the reservoir area has steep slopes unfit for farming and even the central government now recognizes that moving so many people uphill would be an environmental disaster.

Using resettlement funds, local governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing industries and enterprises to employ Three Gorges resettlers which now, under Zhu’s new directive, are likely to be shut down. In Wanxian, for example, the government spent US$144.6 million on an outdated and hazardous facility which was supposed to employ 5,000 local people to refine salt to produce chemicals. Even before Zhu’s announcement, the factory stood idle, never having started production because there is no market for the product.

The multi-billion dollar resettlement program has also invited corruption. Counties, townships and villages have all reportedly inflated resettlement numbers in their area in order to win a larger share of resettlement funds from the central government. Instead of providing for resettlers’ needs, government officials have used resettlement funds to build ultra-modern office buildings, luxury hotels, and residential high-rises for themselves. In some cases, government officials have sold housing units built with resettlement funds to local residents at market prices.

Village and township administrations have welcomed Three Gorges resettlers as a get-rich-quick scheme because they bring money for resettlement, land reclamation, production materials and infrastructure to the host community. One impoverished village near Yichang, for example, has received over 300 resettlers and used its resettlement funds to build a new office building for government officials. Resettlers, meanwhile, are left without secure land or job prospects.

The central government has earmarked $7 billion for compensation and resettlement, but so far fewer than 100,000 residents have been moved. To keep up with the dam’s construction, the government is supposed to move 500,000 people out of the Three Gorges reservoir by 2003.

The Three Gorges Construction Committee’s Resettlement Bureau, headed by Zhu Rongji and composed of prominent deputy premiers and central government ministers, is responsible for issuing detailed resettlement guidelines.

Three Gorges Probe welcomes submissions. However, it is not a forum for political debate. Rather, Three Gorges Probe is dedicated to covering the scientific, technical, economic, social, and environmental ramifications of completing the Three Gorges Project, as well as the alternatives to the dam.

Publisher: Patricia Adams Executive Editor: Mu Lan ISSN 1481-0913

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