Three Gorges Probe

Reservoirs of repression: Part Two

Kelly Haggart and Yang Chongqing – China Rights Forum

April 16, 2003

[This is the second part of an article that first appeared in the journal China Rights Forum, published by Human Rights in China. See also Reservoirs of repression: Part One]

No one asked the migrants

The Committee considers that the procedural protections which should be applied in relation to forced evictions include an opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected. – Clause 16, UN General Comment No 7 on the Right to Adequate Housing, adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1997

The feasibility study on Three Gorges resettlement, conducted in the late 1980s, described enthusiastic support for the project among prospective migrants: "Local people are fond of the dam project and well prepared for their displacement psychologically. Motivated by a strong desire to improve their standard of living, the affected groups have displayed a rare cooperative attitude toward the project by supporting the construction of the Three Gorges dam."

The study did not mention that attitudes might have been influenced by the fact that the region had been starved of development funds for years as debate over the dam continued. However, several surveys conducted in the area in the mid and late 1990s painted a dramatically different picture. They found opposition to relocation and mixed feelings, but project planners played down the complexity of the responses.

A 1997 survey by psychologist Zuo Bing found that Three Gorges migrants preferred to conceal their views than give the impression that they opposed government plans. More than 87 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "I will obey and follow the instructions of the government regardless of how I feel about my relocation." Another survey, conducted in Yichang and Zigui Counties and published in 2000, found almost three-quarters of respondents unenthusiastic about the prospect of relocating: 34 percent said they "did not want to move," while a further 39 percent said they "had no choice but to move." The responses reflect a profound sense of powerlessness: the government had decided to build the dam and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Almost all dam-related resettlement in the past involved ideological campaigns, little or no compensation and hasty relocations often conducted like military campaigns. Historically, nobody cared about a dam-affected population’s willingness to move and a "project-centered" approach was vigorously pursued. Slogans appealing to the masses’ socialist consciousness and urging individuals to make sacrifices for the sake of society and the state as a whole (she xiaojia wei dajia wei guojia), can still be seen around the towns and villages due to be flooded by the Three Gorges reservoir. For the government and project authorities, the main task was to move people out of the area to be flooded as quickly as possible, with no regard to individual rights or willingness to relocate, let alone any concern about property losses or the restoration of livelihoods.

In the case of the Danjiangkou dam on the Han River, a Yangtze tributary, project authorities knowingly closed the gates of the new dam without warning in order to flood reluctant migrants out of their homes. Although Premier Zhou Enlai later criticized the practice of yi shui gan ren (using floodwater to force people out), the Danjiangkou case was far from unique. During a ceremony at the Yihe reservoir in Shandong to mark the project’s completion, dozens of elderly men and women clung to the beams of homes that were on the verge of being flooded. The situation was so dangerous that hundreds of local militia were called in and the old people were carried off, struggling and crying, "We’d rather die than leave our homes."

Some might argue that such tales of misery and coercion may have been characteristic of exceptional historical periods such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, and that things are different now. However, even accounts appearing in the official press suggest otherwise. In early 2002, the Xinhua news agency hailed the removal of 14,500 people from Fuling District, located 480 kilometers upstream of the Three Gorges dam, in less than three months as "just a miracle." More than 1,000 officials had been mobilized to move an average of 150 people a day in the biggest, fastest and “most efficient” relocation of people since the Three Gorges resettlement operation began.

Meanwhile, the official newspaper produced by project authorities, Three Gorges Project Daily, reported on February 8, 2002, that the homes of residents of Wushan County who resisted resettlement had been blown up. A hundred police officers and other officials in Nanling Township had conducted house-to-house visits to remind residents of the resettlement rules, the paper said. People who still refused to move were evicted and forcibly taken to their new locations to start "their new and peaceful lives," while their old homes were demolished to ensure that they would not return.

During an inspection tour of the reservoir area last year, Gan Yuping, vice-mayor of Chongqing and the municipality’s head of resettlement affairs, stressed the need for more "positive propaganda" about resettlement in order to maintain stability. He said illegal resettlement-related organizations would be banned and migrants prohibited from talking to foreign journalists without permission. "The stability of the resettlement operation is everything," Gan said.

Complain at your own risk

Legal remedies or procedures should be provided to those who are affected by eviction orders. – Clause 14, UN General Comment No 7 on the Right to Adequate Housing (1997)

The regulations on Three Gorges resettlement set higher standards for compensation than for previous projects, and place more emphasis on ensuring that displaced people achieve their previous income levels and, ideally, even increase their living standards after relocation. However, the recent surge of official corruption in China has given many Three Gorges migrants, who were supposed to benefit from the improved compensation terms, plenty of grounds for complaint.

Resettlement funds are dispersed in a "top-down" bureaucratic fashion, from the state level to the province, then to the county, township and village. In the absence of effective supervision involving outside monitors, the system allows local cadres enormous income-generating opportunities. For example, Huang Faxiang, an official in charge of building new towns for migrants in Chongqing’s Fengdu County, was convicted of embezzling $2 million and sentenced to death. Wan Sumei, an official in the Wanzhou resettlement bureau, was found guilty of using $230,000 in relocation funds for mahjong gambling and received a life sentence.

The Three Gorges resettlement is taking place in a new era in which many of the old problems related to mass displacements remain, while additional ones have also emerged. A significant new factor is the sea change in public attitudes and expectations. The easily mobilized “masses” called to make selfless contributions to the state are no longer so pliable. As the collective economy is dismantled and replaced by a family-centered business ethic, there is a growing public awareness of individual political rights and economic interests and prospective migrants are demanding more compensation for their losses.

In various political struggles and movements since 1949, the masses have been lectured and hectored, but public participation of a more democratic nature has not been a part of modern Chinese life. In the absence of an accepted complaint mechanism, migrants who have suffered as a result of displacement have made their dissatisfaction known to higher authorities in two ways: complaining (gaozhuang) or appealing to higher authorities for help (shangfang). A 1997 World Bank report notes that most cases of gaozhuang and shangfang have been associated with reservoir resettlement. In other words, forced evictions have been a major flashpoint in relations between the Chinese government and people for the past half-century.

In attempting to seek redress, migrants run serious risks, and if their complaints are not addressed, the resentment will be deeply felt and may simmer for years. A long-running campaign pursued by people displaced by the Xiaojiang dam on the Xiao River, a Yangtze tributary, serves as a perfect example. The medium-sized project, built in the mid-1970s, pushed 20,000 people off fertile farmland and into poverty. In August 1987, after Yunyang County officials pocketed part of a small compensation package intended for the displaced farmers – won through years of petitioning all the way to Beijing – hundreds of migrants occupied the power station. Police and soldiers had to be called in to quell the battle that ensued between angry migrants and workers at the dam.

The Xiaojiang resettlement conflict lasted for two decades. Eventually, to restore order, the State Council mandated a compensation payment that saw the resettlement budget for the project escalate tenfold. While the migrants did finally receive this cash compensation, they paid a high social cost during their years of struggle. And not only were they hurt by Xiaojiang, but some of them are now being moved once again to make room for the Three Gorges project.

In an article in Qinghua Sociological Review in 2000, scholars Ying Xing and Jing Jun described how the various parties all drew their own lessons from the conflict. It reinforced the determination of state authorities to bring such situations quickly under control to maintain stability. Local governments became even more reluctant to invite public participation in resettlement affairs, lest such involvement lead to similar collective actions. And migrants themselves became aware that keeping up the pressure on government and resettlement authorities could, in the end, bear fruit.

But petitioning the authorities can also lead to harsh punishment, as Three Gorges migrant leaders from Yunyang County recently discovered. In 2001, four men who sought fair treatment for fellow migrants received jail terms, ranging from two to three years for "disturbing public order." The men, in their 50s and 60s, had been chosen by residents of Gaoyang, a town about 225 kilometers from the dam, to bring their grievances to the attention of top leaders. He Kechang, Jiang Qingshan and Ran Chongxing were arrested in Beijing on March 12, 2001; Wen Dingchun had been seized a few days earlier in Gaoyang. (Yunyang is one of the counties most affected by the dam, with more than 120,000 residents being moved, including 13,000 people from Gaoyang.)

The Legal Daily reported that along with 15 others, the four men had formed a group called the Gaoyang Town Resettlement Monitoring Association "to achieve the goal of extorting compensation funds from the state." In fact, the migrant representatives had simply tried to “appeal for help” from central authorities and submit in good faith evidence they had collected that indicated state compensation funds had been embezzled by corrupt local officials. In an interview more than a month after the arrests, Qi Lin, director of the Three Gorges Resettlement Bureau, was quoted as saying that no one had been detained for resisting resettlement or lodging complaints. "That’s ridiculous," he said. "No government at any level would do something so stupid."

However, the four men remain in prison. Early reports indicated they had been ill-treated in custody and held incommunicado. Details of their current situation are unavailable.


Livelihoods lost

China’s "reservoir refugees" have faced a host of problems over the years in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after resettlement, with many experiencing shortages of food, clothing and housing. Some of the 383,000 people displaced by the Danjiangkou dam ended up living in grass huts. Other migrants have had difficulty finding a means of transport to get their children to school.

Resettlement policy favors city dwellers over migrants from rural areas. Compensation levels are based on the estimated value of houses due to be demolished; the homes being vacated in most rural areas are often humble places in poor condition, deemed much less valuable than urban homes. As a result, rural migrants are often forced to borrow money from relatives and friends to build their new houses, and so start their new lives with a brand new home and a mountain of debt. Rural migrants are also more likely to be forced to move farther away than urban migrants as well as face daunting economic and social challenges in adapting to an unfamiliar environment.

The experts who took part in the official feasibility study for the Three Gorges project concluded that all of the migrants could be relocated in the reservoir area. They argued that a region’s “population supporting capacity” is flexible, that a new policy of “resettlement with development” could be adopted and that about 40 percent of the rural migrants could be redeployed in non-farming jobs. However, Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers who tracked a small number of rural migrants in the Wuqiao District of Wanxian City found that most of those households were significantly less well off than they had previously been, and that both newcomers and existing residents had only half as much land as before resettlement. With the amount of farmland available per person declining dramatically after the influx of migrants, the resettlement site was unable to provide new work for the individuals squeezed off the land. Almost all the households monitored in the study suffered an increase in unemployment and a sharp decline in income.

As many migrants are discovering, most of the available land in the Three Gorges area is barren, rugged and steep with poor soil. Farmers in Wushan County, Chongqing Municipality, were reluctant to move uphill because of the inhospitable conditions, and said so in petitions they tried to submit to higher authorities. Migrants resettled in Zigui County, Hubei Province, asked to be moved again because so little farmland was available in their new location.

Meanwhile, People’s Daily reported in September 2002 that more than 180,000 workers and farmers would lose their jobs by the end of the year because of the Three Gorges project. The figure includes 100,000 people laid off from 500 technologically backward industries, which are being shut down to avoid further pollution of the 660-kilometre-long reservoir, and 80,000 of the rural residents being moved to new settlements in 2002.

In addition to the many industrial and farm jobs being swallowed up by the reservoir, some livelihoods tied to the region’s resources will also disappear. One such resource that has helped support many local families is the red sandstone deposits found along the left bank of the Yangtze River in Wanxian County. Every year, after the annual floods have receded, more than 2,000 local people mine the sandstone and sell it as a building material. This income source is about to vanish permanently under water.

Even more people will be affected by the loss of the orange groves for which the Three Gorges region is famous. In Bazimen Village, Xiangxi Township, for instance, each household has 80 to 100 orange trees, which generate a good average income of at least 5,000 yuan a year. Villagers feel a deep attachment to their trees, which represent not only a secure income but also funds for their children’s education and the family’s future. While Beijing plans to invest 3.8 billion yuan to bolster orange cultivation in the new resettlement townships, it will take 8-10 years for the new trees to mature and the industry to become established.

Liu Buxiu, a well-known Hubei writer, recounts the story of Jiang Shan, a man in Zigui County who moved into his orange orchard with his bedclothes and an axe. He couldn’t understand why his mature trees, which earned his family more than 20,000 yuan a year, were to be chopped down as part of the reservoir cleanup campaign and, moreover, why he was only offered a mere 2,400 yuan in compensation. Liu decided to defend the trees, with his life if necessary. In the end, the police who arrived to evict him pulled him, sobbing, off one of his biggest trees.

Restoring the livelihoods of small business owners is another challenge facing resettlement authorities. A prime location on a busy street often cannot be replicated after resettlement, as a tailor in Zhongxian County, located 370 kilometers upstream of the dam, discovered. Zhou Kangfu had built up a successful business in the lively town center of Shibao, but had been offered what he regarded as a far inferior location in the new town built on higher ground. Refusing to move, Zhou could only stand and helplessly watch as his three-story building was leveled. An official said local authorities had no choice but to demolish Zhou’s building as it acted as a warning to others not to resist the tight resettlement timetable. Prime sites in the new town center are reserved for office buildings and not small shops. The official warned ominously, "Without using some coercion now, next year we would have to close the dam and use floodwater to force the people out."

With the expansion of farmland and construction of hundreds of new settlements, soil erosion has become a serious problem in the Three Gorges area. To relieve the pressure on a fragile ecosystem, in 1999 Premier Zhu Rongji announced a policy shift in favor of moving migrants to distant parts of the country. The decision to move 125,000 migrants far from their homes was never part of the original resettlement plan.

In March 2002, the Three Gorges Project Daily reported that thousands of rural migrants who were moved under this new policy to Badong County in Hubei Province complained about substandard resettlement conditions and asked to be relocated. To maintain social stability, the migrants were moved again and project authorities had to find additional money to fund this second uprooting. Some migrants ousted by dam projects have never ceased struggling to return to their place of origin, a phenomenon known officially as a "reverse flow."

Migrants sent to distant locations have to contend with unfamiliar physical and social environments, and conflicts with “host communities” often arise. In the case of the Danjiangkou dam, which was completed in 1973, dozens of people were killed in armed skirmishes that broke out over scarce water resources.

In July 2002, 40 Three Gorges migrants were detained after scuffling with police as they tried to deliver a petition to city officials in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Representing a group of 1,119 people relocated from Chongqing, they said the land they had been assigned was too far from their homes, they could not afford to buy necessary farm equipment, rice cost three times as much as it had back home and they were encountering discrimination and language problems. A group of people from Sichuan who were resettled in Dafeng County, Jiangsu Province, also complained that they were confused by the local dialect. Dafeng natives, recognizing Sichuan accents, overcharged the migrants for everything because the prevailing notion (encouraged by the official media) was that Three Gorges migrants had received generous compensation deals.

So many lives are being turned upside down for a dam that even on its own terms appears set to fail. And of course this is just one example of many big dams that are under construction or where displaced populations are still suffering the consequences years later. The impact of the widespread violations of human rights involved in these projects will extend far into the future. Dai Qing cites a Chinese philosopher who warned, "It is more dangerous to silence the people than to dam a river." Thus it is at their own peril that Chinese leaders ignore the views, values and rights of people being uprooted for hydropower projects.

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