Freed migrant leader He Kechang still fighting for justice

Yang Chongqing

August 11, 2004

He Kechang, jailed for three years for appealing to top Chinese leaders about corruption in the Three Gorges resettlement operation, has been released and is still struggling on behalf of people uprooted by the dam.


Yang Chongqing, a Chinese social scientist, travelled recently to Gaoyang, a township in Yunyang county about 225 kilometres upstream of the Three Gorges dam. There he met He Kechang [pictured at right], one of four men chosen by residents of Gaoyang to bring their complaints about rampant corruption in the Three Gorges resettlement operation to the attention of top Chinese leaders.

Mr. He, a retired Yangtze boatman who is now 63, was arrested on March 12, 2001, in Beijing, where he had gone to deliver a petition detailing the theft and misuse of resettlement compensation funds by Yunyang officials. (Yunyang is one of the counties most affected by the dam, with more than 120,000 people forced to move, including 13,000 from Gaoyang.)

Mr. He was charged with “disturbing public order” and having contact with foreign journalists, and was sentenced to three years in prison. Three other Gaoyang migrant representatives, also respected local men in their 50s and 60s – Jiang Qingshan, Ran Congxin and Wen Dingchun – received two-year terms, and were released last year.

But it was not known until now that Mr. He has also been released. Freed at the end of his sentence in March of this year, he has returned to Gaoyang, where he continues to struggle on behalf of Three Gorges migrants.

In the account printed below, Mr. He tells Mr. Yang about the harsh physical and psychological treatment he received in custody. In the early days of his imprisonment, he was held incommunicado and subjected to excruciating physical punishment that has left him with chronic pain in both wrists.

We also learn here for the first time that, in addition to the four men from Gaoyang arrested in March 2001, at least nine other people from that township alone have been jailed for protests related to the Three Gorges resettlement operation.

During their meeting, Mr. Yang asks Mr. He: “What are you going to do now?”

Without hesitation, Mr. He responds: “Keep fighting for justice.”


When I had a chance recently to travel to the Three Gorges area, I decided to try and find out about the fate of four migrant representatives from a township in Chongqing municipality who were jailed in 2001. For a long time, nothing has been heard of He Kechang, Ran Congxin, Jiang Qingshan and Wen Dingchun, four men from Gaoyang township in Yunyang county who received two- and three-years prison sentences for their courageous efforts to seek fair treatment for Three Gorges migrants.

As luck would have it, I was able to track down He Kechang. Though he now walks with a limp, the result of a broken leg he suffered after slipping on a wet prison floor, he still looks quite energetic, and shook my hand warmly when we met.

Yang Chongqing: We’ve heard no news of you for a long time. We missed you very much!

He Kechang: Many thanks to all of you who worked on my behalf. It’s true that I had the terrible experience of three years in jail, and that my family suffered greatly as a result. But to tell you the truth, I have no regrets, none at all.

Yang: When were you released?

He: On March 11 of this year. I was arrested on March 12, 2001, though I wasn’t sentenced until Nov. 8 of that year. I never signed the conviction papers because I believe I did nothing wrong. But it’s a long story; let me start from the beginning.

The relationship between people affected by the Three Gorges dam and the local government in Gaoyang had become pretty tense by March of 2001. I left Gaoyang secretly on March 10 to travel to Beijing and bring our problems to the attention of the highest authorities. A friend covered me with straw on the back of his truck and transported me out of Gaoyang. At a safe place by the Xiao River, we representatives who were heading for Beijing were given a simple farewell party by some local people, who toasted us with Chinese white wine and wished us success on our trip to the capital. Unfortunately, we were arrested at the Guanghui Hotel in Beijing before we had a chance to do anything significant.

Yang: How were you treated after your arrest?

He: Really very badly. In the first three days, we were given only one meal a day. We became too weak to do anything, even to speak. But that was just the beginning of our tragedy.

Yang: We heard that Yunyang police escorted you back to Yunyang from Beijing.

He: Yes. We were held for two days in Qincheng Prison [a special jail for political prisoners on the outskirts of Beijing], and then escorted to Yunyang detention centre. It was there that I was really badly treated. The officers there were “well-trained” and “professional” in dealing with detainees like me. To strike hard at the very first encounter, they handcuffed me tightly and hung me for a couple of days with my arms stretched high up into the air. I was handcuffed so tightly and deeply that my wrists were badly injured. Even today, they’re still so painful [he showed his wrists, wrapped in bandages].

Yang: We heard that your family was not allowed to see you in this early period.

He: That’s true. And I was interrogated because I insisted I had done nothing wrong. My lower body became terribly swollen as a result of the maltreatment. The problem became so severe that I couldn’t move. I asked to see a doctor but the police refused. I asked to see my family but nobody was allowed to visit. One of the guards at the detention centre, who was himself a Three Gorges migrant, was sympathetic to my plight, and said he had never seen anybody there so maltreated. And so, a few days later, he smuggled in some medicine for me from outside to help deal with the problem.

Yang: How did you fall and break your leg?

He: It happened a month after I was transferred to the Three Gorges Prison at Changtan in Wanzhou District, where the living conditions were terrible. The floor was damp, and the light was dim. As I recall, it was Dec. 7, 2001, and I got up in the night to go to the toilet, but slipped and fell on the wet floor, broke my leg and was knocked unconscious for a brief time. My family asked that I be allowed out for treatment, and even the jail authorities approved the request, but Yunyang county officials turned it down. Huang Bo, the party boss of Yunyang, said: “As soon as he’s treated and recovers, He Kechang will just travel to Beijing again. So we have to punish him harshly, for example, by declaring him a political offender [and thus liable to receive worse treatment in prison].”

Yang: What about the other three‚ Äì Wen Dingchun, Jiang Qingshan and Ran Congxin?

He: Wen Dingchun was the oldest, perhaps 70 at the time, and he very nearly died in jail. Wen developed anemia because of the bad conditions and poor food. Seeing his condition was so perilous, we three raised money [through our families] for a blood transfusion for him. Fortunately he recovered and felt a little better after that. But this was why he was released three months earlier than expected‚ Äì the police didn’t want any of us to die in jail.

Yang: How did your family members cope after you were sentenced?

He: I feel particularly sad on that point. All of them suffered a great deal as a result of my sentence. My wife had a really hard time because of me. She tried everything possible to visit me, and to support me financially and psychologically. And my sister, a primary-school teacher, never gave up hope of achieving justice for me. She and her family suffered so much because of me. I feel deeply indebted to all of them.

The families of the three other men also suffered a lot. Ran Congxin’s 84-year-old mother, for instance, suffered terribly as a result of his conviction. After Ran was thrown in jail and his house was demolished by the local government, Ran’s mother threw herself on her knees, begging for mercy, and one of the local cadres just kicked her. With her house destroyed and all her property gone, the old woman, gnawed by hunger, lay on the ruins of her home in the heavy rain for a day and a night, and became very sick after that. She died in poverty and misery earlier this year. Poor old woman!

Yang: We heard that you’d been charged with “maintaining an illicit relationship with a foreign country.” Was that true?

He: They threw not just one charge at me, but two. The other was “disturbing public order.” All the allegations were nonsense, totally ridiculous. How did we have a relationship with a foreign country? A reporter from Hong Kong [working for the South China Morning Post], named Becker or something like that, approached me and talked to me and took pictures of me. But was Hong Kong a foreign country?

Otherwise, I just talked about what was going on in Gaoyang. None of what I said had anything to do with state secrets. I am just a lao bai xing [an ordinary person]. Was it really possible for a lao bai xing like me to have access to state secrets?

The second charge, about “disturbing public order,” was also groundless. They laid this charge against us because we accused local officials of corruption, and because we tried to do something for the local people, and not for our own personal gain. The masses trust us and show us unwavering support.

Yang: How have local people reacted to your release? Do they still contact you?

He: Sure. The day after my release, I was invited to a big party attended by many local people. They were so happy at my return, and welcomed me back as if I were a hero. I was most touched by the red silk banner they presented me with [see translation below]. This felt like a great honour and also an indication that local people still trust me, because what I have done is for them, not for myself. I lost everything, my house, my property and my health as well. While our house was being demolished, the only things that could be salvaged were a couple of old chairs. My family still faces difficulties in making ends meet. My pension was taken away [by the shipping company He worked for], and my sons can’t find jobs.

Yang: How have local officials treated you since your release?

He: Ha! That’s a good question! It’s interesting to note that county officials, including the head of the county government, the secretary of the politics and law commission of the county party, and the director of the county public security bureau, all came to see me after my release. They made it clear they were visiting me in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of the government. The governor of Yunyang asked, “How are you?” And I answered, “Still alive.” One of the officials promised to get me a plot of land on which to build a new house, but I rejected the offer. Another asked if I had any difficulties or problems, and I said I had just one problem: I want justice!

Yang: Apart from you four, was anybody else in Gaoyang detained or sentenced?

He: As far as I know, at least 13 people have been detained or sentenced on various charges [see list below]. Some of them resisted moving, while others voiced complaints or asked for help from higher authorities.

Of all these people, two suffered the most: One is Wang Aixiu, an old woman at her 60s who was so beaten badly her clothing was covered in blood. The beating she received was so severe that now she has developed mental health problems.

Another was Yao Fuqing. It’s unbelievable that four members of his family were detained and even sentenced, including his two sons and daughter-in-law. Yao Fuqing died just days ago, at age 71, because of his family’s tragedy and the year he spent in jail. Did the Yao family do anything wrong? I don’t think so. All they did was to show local officials at a public meeting the resettlement policy documents that had been issued by the central government.

According to the earlier resettlement policy, people being displaced by the dam were encouraged to find, on their own, relatives and friends they could go and live with. But the government in Gaoyang decided to force us to move in a group to Tongliang or Jiangjing, more than 400 kilometres from here.

When Yao’s home was being demolished by force, local officials told the bulldozer operator to drive over it again and again, so the building materials were crushed to little pieces. Yao’s wife became so scared, and went to hide in the pigsty. But four officials from the town government found her, and they threw her into a field.

Yang: What are you going to do now?

He: Keep fighting for justice.

*** People sentenced from Gaoyang township

Name Sex Village Years
He Kechang M Gaoyang 3
Jiang Qingshan M Gaoyang 2
Wen Dingchun M Tuanbao 2
Ran Congxin M Tuanbao 2
Wan Xiaochun M Qingshu 2
Yao Jiansheng M Qingshu 2
Yao Fuqing M Qingshu 1
Yao Jiandong M Qingshu 1
Xiong Shijie M Qingshu 1
He Zhengkui M Gaoyang 1
Cheng Qishan M Mingchong 1
Wang Aixiu F Gaoyang 10 months
Luo Chunyan F Qingshu 3 months


The red silk banner reads: “Presented to Comrade He Kechang ‚Äì who pleaded on behalf of [Three Gorges] migrants and suffered a great deal in prison ‚Äì from Gaoyang township migrants, March 2004”
(Zeng gei He Kechang tong zhi, wei yi min qing ming, shou lao yu zhi ku. Gaoyang zhen yi min, 2004 nian san yue)

Translated by Three Gorges Probe (Chinese) editor Mu Lan.

Categories: Asia, China, Odious Debts

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