Dams and Landslides

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 3

Ying Xing
February 1, 2005

Chapter 3: A flood of troubles

The new dam shines like a bright pearl,
Its power sent everywhere.
But we peasants suffered when the floods came
And washed away our land.
The prefecture issued documents on the problem,
The hydro station gave money to help us.
But corrupt, greedy officials stole the funds,
Leaving victims of the disaster mired in misery.
Folk song for the flood victims

The No. 2 turbine of the Dahe hydropower station began generating
electricity in 1978, signalling the winding-up phase of dam
construction. The “leftover problems” from the resettlement operation
also intensified in that year.

The third session of the 11th national congress of the Communist
Party, held in December of 1978, marked a turning point in Chinese
history. The country had emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural
Revolution to begin the transition to a new era of “reform and opening
to the outside world.” Even before the congress approved the changes,
agricultural reforms had begun in some rural areas. In early 1977, the
Yunyang county government began implementing the household
responsibility system. Peasants were now allowed to farm land they
contracted from the village, and to sell any surplus grain above a
certain quota on the open market.

This new policy sought to end the system of “everyone eating from the same big pot” (da guo fan)
that had prevailed in the people’s commune era, and it proved a
resounding success: Grain output in Yunyang county increased
dramatically from 22.5 tonnes in 1976 to 32.2 tonnes in 1978, while the
average annual net income rose from 73.5 yuan in 1976 to 121.7 yuan in
1979. The standard of living in the county as a whole greatly improved
under the new policy. But for the peasants in Shanyang affected by the
Dahe dam, it was a different story. They fell further into poverty.

A major flood in July 1979 made matters much worse, with the
torrents of water washing away most of the fields on the banks of the
river directly below the dam. As a result, the average per capita
farmland available to the production teams affected by the erosion
problem fell from 0.57 muin 1975 to 0.43 mu in 1980, while average per capita grain output dropped from 210 jin
to 201 jin during the same period. The affected people struggled to
survive amid poverty and hunger, and felt terribly hard done by as they
saw neighbouring areas prosper. The peasants whose lives were being
adversely affected by the dam felt increasingly unwilling to suffer in

With the disbanding of the people’s communes and growing
decentralization in rural China, a series of subtle changes occurred in
the relationships between the central government, officials at the town
and township level, and the peasants. This was the wider context as the
curtain rose on a drama that would see groups affected by the Dahe dam
struggle with officialdom at all levels for the next 20 years.

On April 19, 1980, Pu Shaosong, the deputy party secretary and head of
Shanyang commune, called Jiang Xiangying, the official in charge of
resettlement and compensation related to the Dahe project, informing
him that an additional 23 mu of farmland had been washed away below the
dam. Jiang hemmed and hawed, and basically paid no attention to Pu’s

But on a market day soon afterward, people who had lost their land
began arriving by twos and threes in Shanyang. By this time they knew
about the 300,000 yuan in emergency relief the prefecture had agreed to
pay, and they wanted to know where it was going. They converged on the
office of Pu Shaosong, and asked him repeatedly about the money. Pu
became exasperated by the persistent demands of the unruly crowd, and
finally protested in a great rage: “What do you expect me to do for
you? We didn’t build this dam, and we haven’t benefited from it. You
should go higher up if you want money. You should go to the hydropower
station if you want food. Just don’t keep pestering us. If you have
nothing to eat, go to the hydropower station, where the cafeteria is
big enough for all of you!”

Hearing that, the crowd began to surge toward the hydropower
station. And by noon of that day, all the food that canteen staff had
prepared for the workers at the station had been devoured by the hungry
villagers, who proclaimed: “We’ll be back to eat here every day until
our problems are resolved!” The situation alarmed Liu Xingjian, the
head of the hydropower station, who repeatedly asked for emergency
assistance from the prefecture to deal with the mob.

Zhu the engineer sent to clean up the mess

The prefecture government dispatched Zhu Yundun, the engineer in
charge of safety and quality control at the Dahe dam, to deal with the
situation. Zhu sighed in despair, and recalled his earlier warning to
Liu Xingjian about the risk of erosion below the dam. He wasn’t
surprised that his predictions had come true, but he was taken aback
that he was the one being sent out on his own to cope with the
consequences of the problem that he had foreseen.

After his arrival in Shanyang, Zhu was surrounded by people from the
Liuping, Baiyang and Mingyue production brigades. He was shocked that
people who in the past had looked like meek lambs now seemed like wild
goats. People spilled out their tales of woe to him; many said they
would soon have nothing to eat. They gestured in the direction of their
lost land, yelling: “We had good fields, with excellent soil, and
that’s all gone now!” Others shouted at him: “We’re not leaving this
station until our problems are solved!”

Zhu was from a peasant family himself, and he was deeply moved by
the villagers’ plight. Before he was dispatched to Shanyang, the
prefecture leaders had told him to “take the appropriate action,
bearing in mind that social stability is the first priority.” And so
Zhu decided on the spot to offer compensation of 40 yuan per mu for the
200 mu of farmland that had been lost to the river. He also agreed that
an additional 8,000 yuan would be lent to five production teams
affected by the erosion, to address their urgent problems.

Witnessing all this, Pu Shaosong, head of Shanyang commune, quietly
suggested to Huang Guangfu, head of Liuping 4, that he should inform
four other production teams, from Baiyang and Mingyue, about what was
happening, so they too could get loans from Zhu. Pu found a pretext to
keep Zhu in Shanyang until the peasants from those four production
teams arrived, then he quietly slipped away. Zhu found himself
surrounded once again, and forced to make further deals with people
affected by the erosion. He agreed to lend 840 yuan to three production
teams from Mingyue and 1,500 yuan to Baiyang 16, based on the estimate
of 23 mu of farmland affected by the erosion.

This was the first recorded instance of people affected by the Dahe
dam creating a disturbance to press their case. I tried to work out who
had organized the incident, or even who had been the main participants.
But neither the official documents nor any of the people involved were
able to identify any “ringleaders.” Maybe it truly was a spontaneous
event, but if anybody played a particular role in instigating the
action, it was perhaps Pu Shaosong, head of Shanyang commune. He not
only had encouraged the villagers from the upstream areas of the
affected zone to eat at the station’s canteen but had also secretly
helped the peasants in the downstream area of the affected zone to
negotiate their own deals with the prefecture’s envoy, Zhu the engineer.

Conflict had arisen between the hydropower station and Shanyang
commune ever since the Dahe dam began generating electricity. These
disputes were the result of the station’s two conflicting functions:
hydropower generation and flood control. To maximize power generation,
as much water as possible had to be impounded in the reservoir during
the flood season. But for flood control, the reservoir water level had
to be lowered to make room for as much floodwater as possible. Since
the fundamental purpose of building the Dahe dam was to generate
electricity, and because the runoff of the river was far less in the
dry season than in the rainy season, the station hoped to take
advantage of the floodwater to produce as much power as possible during
the summer.

It was true that construction of the Dahe dam did bring electricity
to Shanyang commune. However, the commune not only did not share in any
of the revenue earned by the hydropower station, it also suffered the
damage caused by the discharge of floodwater from the dam. With their
fields washed away, crops submerged and livelihood lost, the locals
harmed by the dam complained to the commune again and again. The
commune, however, lacked the financial wherewithal to address the

When the prefecture agreed in 1978 to give the commune 300,000 yuan
to deal with the erosion problem, the commune realized that the
unresolved problems related to the Dahe resettlement actually provided
it with a golden opportunity to bargain with the higher authorities,
especially at the prefecture level. In these circumstances, the commune
actually wanted to intensify the conflicts between the affected people
and the hydropower station, in a bid to transfer the
resettlement-related problems to the station and prefecture government.
Doing so would reduce the pressure being put on the commune by the
affected groups, and transfer that pressure to the prefecture, which
might then be persuaded to deliver more funds. And since any additional
financial flows would have to go through the commune, officials there
would be able to control the funds. This was why Pu Shaosong, head of
Shanyang commune, urged the disgruntled local people to go and eat at
the hydropower station.

Why did Pu Shaosong also secretly inform the people in the
downstream part of the affected zone to seek compensation from Zhu the
engineer? Many households in that area shared his surname, Pu. In
addition, relatives of Lin Qingshu, former party secretary of Shanyang
commune and current deputy head of Shanyang district, also lived in
that area. And so officials at both the district and commune level
tried to take advantage of any opportunity, and they even created
opportunities, to take care of their own.2

‘We’ll compensate just this once’

Gathering at the hydropower station and eating at its canteen could
invite problems for the people who took part. “Creating a disturbance” (nao shi)
was seen as a threat to social stability and a direct confrontation
with the authorities, and people who did so took risks. The prefecture
authorities were annoyed about the incident but had trouble finding
anybody to pin it on. The reason for this lay in the fact that the
people involved really were just a disorderly bunch at that time, and
the commune officials who had incited them were operating behind the

More importantly, the resettlement-related problems existed in the
first place because governments had done a poor job dealing with them.
Along with the collective actions taken by people living below the dam,
similar incidents occurred in the upstream region of the dam,
especially in Xunlu and Kaixi communes, where local people had been
affected by a higher floodwater level than expected. Authorities at all
levels became aware of the severity of the problems. In a new era in
which social stability was considered the highest priority, the
prefecture government decided to send officials down to the grassroots
level to appease the affected groups and provide additional funds to
compensate the losses.3

On November 10, 1980, the prefecture government convened a special
meeting to discuss issues related to the Dahe dam, to “seek truth from
facts” and work out the supplementary compensation budget. Several days
later, the prefecture’s construction commission issued “A report on
adjustments of compensation standards to address unresolved problems
with the Dahe dam.” The main points were as follows:

  1. 2,000 mu (500 mu in Yunyang county, 1,500 mu in Bailong
    county) of fields affected by an unexpectedly high reservoir water
    level will be compensated at a rate of 250 yuan per mu, 500,000 yuan
    in all;
  2. An additional 1,400 people (900 in Yunyang, 500
    in Bailong) need to be resettled, with 300 yuan going to each person,
    420,000 yuan in all;
  3. 310,000 yuan to help boost agricultural productivity in the affected areas, of which 235,000 yuan is to go to Yunyang county;
  4. 140,000 yuan in compensation for losses caused by erosion in the region below the dam in Yunyang;
  5. Another 100,000 yuan earmarked as compensation for short-term submersion of fields in the area below the dam in Yunyang.

A total of 870,000 yuan went to Yunyang and 600,000 yuan to Bailong,
as a final lump-sum compensation for the farmland ruined by the dam. On
December 18, 1980, the prefecture government invited various
departments to a meeting at which an additional 100,000 yuan was
allocated to compensate several production teams in the region affected
by the erosion. In March of 1981, the prefecture government issued a
formal document announcing this decision.4

The 1980 “disturbance” turned out to be a fruitless effort on the
part of the disgruntled locals, who (as they themselves later realized)
failed to gain any benefit from it. The prefecture government did
earmark a supplementary budget of 100,000 yuan for the region, but
unfortunately all of it went straight into the hands of Shanyang
commune officials. It was from this experience that local people began
to suspect how corrupt these officials were, and they learned valuable
lessons about future protest tactics.5

Out of the blue: the big flood of 1982

The flood of 1982 hit all of a sudden,
So devastating, and rarely seen in 100 years.
We have nothing to eat or wear, most cropland is under water,
It’s upsetting to watch our homes collapse and disappear.
People all over the country extend a helping hand,
Donating relief funds and grain to the flood victims.
But it’s despicable that corrupt officials are so heartless
And distribute only a tiny bit of the relief to us.
Folk song of the big flood disaster

Severe storms hit Yunyang from July 16 to 30, 1982, when the area
received its highest recorded rainfall (633.3 millimetres) since 1937.
The heavy rain triggered a series of landslides and riverbank collapses
in the county. One of the largest landslides, at Baota commune on the
Yangtze, disrupted navigation on the river for several weeks.
Floodwater reached a peak of 157.3 metres above sea level, exceeding
the maximum height for which the Dahe dam was designed by almost seven
metres. Embankments along the Dahe River collapsed for several
kilometres downstream of the dam.

Shanyang commune suffered greatly as a result of the big flood:
Average farmland per capita decreased from 0.4 mu in 1981 to 0.35 mu in
1982, while average grain output per capita declined from 257 jin in
1981 to 220 jin in 1982. Two production teams at Liuping, close to the
dam site, were hardest hit, with farmland falling to just 0.23 mu per
capita and grain output to 187 jin per person after the flood.6

People along the river were used to experiencing floods almost every
other year, but this time they had to contend with a double challenge:
a disastrous natural flood and the erosion caused by the man-made Dahe
dam. Many were experiencing the worst hardship they had ever endured.
Officials delivered some emergency relief, but it was so little as to
be meaningless. After trying every means at their disposal (reporting,
complaining and appealing to higher authorities), the affected
villagers faced real deprivation and hunger. Households with many
mouths to feed, or with sick family members, suffered the most. Those
who cared about “saving face” borrowed money or grain only from
relatives or friends, while those who were beyond trying to keep up
appearances went begging door to door. Most of the 33 households in
Liuping 4, for example, borrowed money or grain from other people, or
travelled to other places to beg.

Borrowing or begging money were obviously not long-term solutions to
their hunger problem, so the locals also went down on their knees
before commune officials, pleading to know where the 300,000 yuan
promised by the prefecture was going. But the officials said the money
had been spent long ago. When the local people were at their wit’s end,
Xu Shaorong showed up. The articulate teacher from Baiyang village
primary school, who was a resident of Liuping 4 near the dam, was
destined to play a pivotal role in the story of the Dahe protests.

Teacher Xu enters the fray

When did Teacher Xu first become involved in the people’s struggle?
Accounts differ, but Xu Shaorong himself recalls it this way:

“Troubles began to befall local people after the Dahe dam
was built, and their situation was exacerbated by the devastating
floods of 1982. People had no idea how to restore their livelihoods,
and many of them descended first on the township and then on the
hydropower station to plead for help. Crowds of people went down on
their knees in front of the party secretary and head of the township,
begging for help. At that time, the people had no idea whether higher
authorities had set aside any money to deal with the erosion problem,
nor did they themselves know what to do about their dire straits. What
they did know was that the discharges from the Dahe dam followed by the
merciless floods had washed away their fields, and they had nothing
left to eat.

“I also had nothing to eat, and I also had no choice but to go
begging for food. The people had been complaining and appealing to the
authorities for almost a year, but the village leaders seemed neither
to care nor really to be able to do anything. So people poured into the
township in a spontaneous act of desperation.

“Why did I become involved? The township didn’t want to give the
people any money, nor to do anything for them, but they did want to
cast blame on me. The township accused me of persuading local people to
seek help from the governments. As I recall, it was in 1983 that some
locals went to the township and went down on their knees asking for
help. Pu Shaosong and Lin Qingshu said: ‘Why have you come to ask for
help from us? You’ve all been tricked and manipulated by Xu Shaorong.’

“Why were the two officials so sure about that? First, because I was
well educated. And second, because I do have a little more guts. (Xu’s
wife chipped in: “Because he knows how things work.”) Yes, I am a
little more quick-witted, and know the ins and outs of how things work.
My family is also affected by the problems so the officials figured
that I was behind the protests, and they threatened to give me a hard
time. Pu Shaosong said that, without me, there would have been no
trouble around here.

“One day, some of the peasants who had met Pu Shaosong came and told
me: ‘The township officials spoke to us and called you a pain in the
ass. And they said everything would be okay again if only that pain in
the ass was put in his place.’ I became very angry at that, and said:
‘Am I a pain in the ass? I didn’t steal a single grain of rice or one
red cent from you guys. My family suffered the same disaster you did,
so how is it that I’m a pain in the ass?’

“‘The officials said they would come and get you into trouble.’

“‘What the hell do they want from me?’ I replied, angrier still.
‘Let me put it this way: I am not a pain in the ass – they are! And I
am solid rock: If you bite me, I’m hard. They’ll get nothing from me if
they come and see me. I think the officials treat you all like idiots.
They asked you to come and see me but what can you get from me?’

“Later, my peasant brothers wanted to prod me into action. ‘Teacher Xu,’ they said, ‘why don’t we accuse them of something?’

“‘Do you really have the nerve to do that?’ I said. I really didn’t
want to land myself in any more trouble; I’d had my fill of that in the
Cultural Revolution. I asked, ‘How do you dare go up against them?
Don’t you know that accusing officials of wrongdoing is like picking a
fight with a tiger? Be careful not to wind up getting hurt yourselves!’

“‘We peasants have made up our minds to accuse the officials, and all we’re asking you to do is write a letter on our behalf.’

“I said, ‘If I write the letter and you submit it, I’ll be the one
to get into trouble because everybody will know I wrote it. So how do I
dare write the letter for you? One more thing: You’re all so poor, how
are you going to raise the money for these appeals?’

“One of them answered, ‘Money is not a problem. We can raise some
cash by selling a bunch of onions or a handful of garlic. We’ll pool
our resources and collect 10 fen [cents] from each affected household.
You just have to get up the courage to write the letter for us!’

“So, in 1983 I wrote a letter to the county party committee. I
didn’t dare include accusations of corruption [on the part of Shanyang
township officials] or make any mention of the embezzled public funds.
I just focused on the people’s hardship and misery, and on their
grievances. For example, I wrote about how many people had been forced
to go begging for food, and how severe the floods and erosion had been.
I just told the truth. At the end of the letter, I asked the county
government to check into where the emergency relief funds were going.
Though we were not totally sure about the amount of money involved, the
people were in such extreme need that they looked forward to any sum at

“After I completed the letter of appeal, Huang Guangfu, the head of
the production team, and several others took the document to the county
government. County officials were sent to investigate the situation,
but the township officials knew precisely how to handle them – by lying
through their teeth. The officials walked away after doing nothing for
us. But oh yes, I got into trouble again.”

Teacher Xu gave a straightforward, logical account of how he first
became involved in the protests: The peasants, having suffered so much
as a result of the erosion and floods, were forced to go begging. The
township didn’t want to do anything for them, and used the tactic of
delay, but the peasants were persistent and went repeatedly to the
township asking for help. The township officials believed Teacher Xu
had stirred up all the trouble between the government and the peasants,
and in talking to the peasants, called Xu a pain in the ass. Xu became
angry, and said the township officials were the real problems, that
they had diverted emergency relief funds into their own pockets, that
the peasants were idiots who had been fooled by the officials, and that
he himself was made of solid rock. The peasants then asked Teacher Xu
to write an appeal letter on their behalf, accusing the officials of
wrongdoing. Xu refused at first, warning that accusing officials was
like picking a fight with a tiger and that they themselves could wind
up getting hurt. But the peasants repeated their earnest entreaties,
and finally, out of sympathy for their plight, Xu decided to ignore the
political risks to himself and write the letter on their behalf.

Xu’s account seemed reasonable, but one question remained: Why were
the township officials so nervous about, even frightened by, his
involvement? Why from the very beginning did they accuse Xu of being a
troublemaker, and try every means possible to engineer his downfall?
According to Xu, this was because he was literate, sympathetic to the
peasants’ cause, more daring than others, and very attuned to the way
things work. But as a matter of fact, even in these remote mountainous
areas, high-school graduates such as Xu were not totally rare
creatures. So the reason for the officials’ distress likely lay in the
fact that Teacher Xu knew a lot about the ways of the world, was very
adept at writing letters of appeal – and, the officials feared, could
really go after them and cause them personal grief.

Another petitioner provided more detail:

“Teacher Xu got to the heart of the matter with a single pertinent remark: that the calcium-carbide factory was the
compensation package the prefecture government had given us. Some of us
had worked there, but in the end we didn’t really benefit from that
investment. The state had sent a great deal of money in our direction,
but what did we get out of it? At the time, we had no idea that the
factory was the compensation package. I have to say that
Teacher Xu was more literate and intelligent than us, and he told the
truth.” (Interview with Wang Xueping)

I went to the county’s Letters and Visits Office and found a letter
of appeal asking the county government to investigate where the relief
money for the 1982 flood had gone. The letter appeared to be written in
Xu’s style. It was a powerful, sharply worded letter on which officials
in the county letters office had written comments such as: “This letter
is very important. The Shanyang district party committee should take it
seriously and launch an independent investigation into the matter.”

Having experienced a great deal of chaos and hardship during the
Cultural Revolution, Teacher Xu was well versed in political struggles.
He was also an eloquent writer, who appeared to possess no fear of
authority but plenty of courage to speak the truth. He was particularly
good at fighting legal-rights battles because he was able to draw on
his excellent command of government policies. His letter put the
Shanyang township officials in an awkward and embarrassing position
because the authorities at the district and county levels insisted on
conducting a serious investigation into the issue he raised. Township
officials were extremely unhappy when they learned that Teacher Xu had
written the letter that had caused them to lose face with their

The seeds of resentment

I wanted to learn more about Teacher Xu’s involvement in the
Cultural Revolution. During a chat with a county official who had been
his classmate in high school, I learned that Xu was not initially all
that interested in politics when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966.
Xu’s family was extremely poor, they’d been peasants for generations,
and he felt it was an achievement to be attending Yunyang High School,
the best in the county. So he really valued his time there, studied
hard and cherished the dream of going to university one day. But the
launch of the Cultural Revolution shattered that dream and plunged him
into deep despair. After a period of depression, Xu came around to the
view that he should follow Chairman Mao and participate in the great
political struggle.

Unlike most students at the school who joined either one of two main
rebel groups in the county, Xu started up a third organization and
played a leadership role within it. The political activity turned Xu
into a more energetic and aggressive person. He became a well-known
figure in the county seat because of his eloquence. He was adept at
both speaking and writing, and stood out for this reason in various
political debates and faction fights.

In the second half of 1967, the political campaigns were escalating
and becoming more violent. Yunyang county became the site of some of
the most intense and bloodiest incidents in the whole of the Three
Gorges region. Alarmed by the warlike atmosphere, Xu returned to his
hometown to hide out. When the violence abated in the county seat, Xu
went back to the school to continue his revolutionary activities. And
in September of 1970, he again returned to his hometown to farm, and
soon became a primary-school supply teacher.

Xu’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution gave him a taste of
hardship. He felt extremely frustrated at the local political
landscape, in which members of the two main rebel groups occupied
almost all key positions at the commune and district levels. Especially
during the late stage of the Cultural Revolution, Xu saw his problems
as an extension of the factional strife. In January 1972, for example,
his attempt to become a permanent teacher was rebuffed. Zhao Jiyun, the
party secretary of Shanyang commune, refused even to give him an
application form. Xu accused Zhao of using his position to discriminate
against him because they had belonged to different rebel factions and
had had political differences, as a “confession” written after the
Cultural Revolution by Teacher Xu, and dated October 25, 1977, makes

“I thought Zhao was still engaging in factionalism and
using the power of his position to put me down. So I tried everything I
could think of to fight back, and argued with him on many occasions.
One of the worst incidents occurred in June of 1972 while he was
attending a conference of local officials in the county seat of
Yunyang. I confronted him in the dining hall, arguing with him in front
of the many delegates who were eating there. Pointing at his face, I
shouted that Zhao ought to be severely punished by the party and the
people because of his wrongdoings in Shanyang. I have to admit that
although I accused Zhao of taking advantage of his position to exact
revenge on me, I too was guilty of factionalism.”

Xu had offended the commune party secretary, and officials at both
the commune and district level were eager to give Xu a hard time
because of their past political differences. Local officials were
keeping a wary eye on Xu, lest he cause trouble for them by pouncing on
their every mistake. This is why, once they knew Teacher Xu had written
the villagers’ letter of appeal, the officials’ immediate response was
to go on the attack, and label him a pain in the ass.

Another reason Teacher Xu became involved in the appeals related to
the Dahe dam also made sense: He was one of the project’s victims. His
home, located beside the Dahe River close to the dam site, was affected
by both the erosion and the flood problems. At the best of times he
found it hard on his low teacher’s salary to support his large family,
which included elderly parents and four small children. And he found it
impossible to acquire replacement land when his own fields were ruined:
The peasants whose fields were not affected by the erosion and floods
were reluctant to hand over any of their land for redistribution to the
others. Tensions had arisen between villagers whose land was affected
by the disasters, and those whose fields were unscathed.

In these circumstances, Teacher Xu decided to take matters into his
own hands, and he took over a small parcel (0.2 mu) of reserve land
owned by the village. One after another, other villagers followed his
example, and the whole situation descended into chaos. It became
impossible to carry out the redistribution of land in the village, and
officials at the district and commune levels believed Xu was the cause
of all the trouble. The head of the production brigade, and many
villagers too, were unhappy with Xu for what he had done. But Xu tried
to deflect attention from himself back onto the local governments, and
to convince villagers that official corruption was the real cause of
the land dispute.

I discovered the following document at the Letters and Visits Office of Yunyang county:

Visitor Registration Form
Name: Lin Taiyou
Address: Production team No. 4, Liuping, Shanyang
Summary of the visit:
This production team is severely afflicted. Fifty people have to be
resettled, and half of them are ready to move if they are given 300
yuan each. But they have difficulty moving at the moment because of the
commune’s reluctance to contact the place that is supposed to receive
them. The commune asked the other 25 people, who have already received
300 yuan each, to return the money because they are no longer required
to move to a distant location, but instead are to be resettled in the
nearby area. They are refusing to give the money back.There are several children who were born in excess of
family-planning rules, but who were erroneously given farmland after
the introduction of the household responsibility system. The farmland
given to the children born in contravention of family-planning rules
has yet to be returned to the village. The commune has so far not dealt
with this issue.About 40 peasants in the
production team were not given any farmland, so they have no land on
which to grow crops and nothing to eat. Local people appealed to the
district and commune many times but the problem has persisted for more
than a year without resolution.
Liao, clerk at Shanyang district party committee, who said that Xu
Shaorong, teacher at Baiyang primary school, had two children already,
then had one more in 1977 and another in 1980, but still received a
salary increase. When district and commune officials went to collect
the fine [for exceeding the family-planning quota], they were scolded
and yelled at by Xu and his wife. If Xu continues to refuse to return
the land [he received for his “extra” child], it will be impossible to
redistribute the farmland among the people of Liuping brigade [because
nobody else would be willing to hand over their land for redistribution
either] or to implement the birth-control program smoothly. Local
governments at the district and commune level felt it was difficult for
them to address the Xu Shaorong problem.
Date: First visit on April 15; second visit on May 26, 1983.

It was hard to pinpoint exactly why Teacher Xu became such a pivotal
figure in the collective actions undertaken by the people affected by
the Dahe dam. But it seemed apparent that the seeds of resentment
between Xu and the authorities at the district and commune levels had
been sown even before the construction of the Dahe dam. A combination
of Xu’s personality – his integrity and determined defence of his
personal interests – and his past experience in general and in the
Cultural Revolution in particular, contributed to his decision to
become involved in the protests.7
Another important thing to know about Teacher Xu was that he had an
Achilles’ heel, which was soon to bring immense suffering to him and,
especially, to his wife: He was absolutely determined to have several
sons, in contravention of national family planning policies.


1 After the land reform and
people’s commune period [in the first three decades after the founding
of the People’s Republic], political class division co-existed in rural
China with relative economic egalitarianism. The former was seen as a
necessary prerequisite for political mobilization and social control,
while the latter combined the socialist ethic of equality with the
traditional value of equality in the countryside. Generally speaking,
the peasants tolerated seeing the gap widen between city and
countryside. Through the people’s commune system, the state retained
strict control over land resources and restricted freedom of movement,
but also successfully maintained equality among the peasants,
especially in economic terms. Poverty was commonplace in the
countryside, but the peasants did not find it too difficult to tolerate
a low standard of living, since the vast majority of people around them
were living in the same conditions. Zhou Xueguang (“Unorganized
Interests and Collective Action in China,” American Sociological Review
No. 58, 1993) has argued that it is the social phenomenon of “the vast
majority” that forms the basis of collective actions in contemporary
China. But Zhou has failed to see the other side of “the vast majority”
phenomenon: anything that leads to inequality or disintegration of this
“vast majority” will give rise to significant divisions among the
peasants, resulting in an upsetting of the social order, and escalation
of collective actions and social unrest.

2 Before the start of the
economic reforms in the late 1970s, collective actions were rare in
rural China. But the collapse of the people’s commune system weakened
the central government’s control in rural communities, and also created
a new political landscape in which local governments and peasants were
allowed to pursue their own interests to a greater extent. For example,
it was not until 1979 that peasants who had been resettled years
earlier for two dams on the Yellow River (the Sanmenxia [commenced in
1957, completed in 1960] and the Liujiaxia [commenced 1958, completed
1974]) launched petition campaigns, appealing to the government for
permission to return to their original locations from distant,
unsatisfactory resettlement sites (see, for instance, Jing Jun, The Temple of Memories, 1996).

3 On Sept. 18, 1978, the
second national conference on the work of the Letters and Visits
Offices was held in Beijing, with a focus on finding solutions to
“problems left over from history.” On August 30, 1979, the central
government established a leadership group to deal with appeals and
petitions. On October 22, 1979, People’s Daily ran an editorial on
“treating the problems raised in petitions properly,” pointing out
that: “Dealing properly with letters and visits from the masses is a
major issue affecting the relationship between the party and the
masses, and political unity and social stability. The party and
government at all levels should pay due attention to the work, and
co-operate with each other to accomplish the work well. All reasonable
demands and problems that can be addressed according to current
policies and regulations should be dealt with responsibly and

In April of 1980, the same month in which the peasants in Yunyang
went to the Dahe station to create a disturbance, People’s Daily
published a self-criticism written by the party committee of Jiangyou
county in Sichuan province. The piece related to a petitioner who had
committed suicide because his problems were never addressed. The
article highlighted this lesson from the incident: “Seeking truth from
facts, reversing unfair verdicts and obtaining justice for people who
have been wronged are important measures to help create an atmosphere
of political unity and stability. When the problems remain unresolved,
the conflict between the government and masses will persist
indefinitely and the masses will continue to appeal to higher
authorities. The leaders will be constantly pestered – followed by
petitioners wherever they go, and even bothered at home. The aggrieved
masses will complain endlessly, the local cadres will become
increasingly annoyed, and the leaders at higher levels will have a hard
time getting any work done.”

4 After the April 1980 incident
at the Dahe hydropower station, when the peasants succeeded in creating
a disturbance for the first time, they became aware, albeit vaguely,
that stirring up a little trouble was an effective means of galvanizing
a government that had ignored their complaints, or responded to them in
a perfunctory way or with bureaucratic delays. In other words, to get
their complaints taken seriously, the petitioners had to use the tactic
of creating a disturbance in order to turn “minor issues” related to
building the dam into “major issues” that had the potential to
jeopardize local social order. In other words, they had to transform
everyday economic issues into critical political ones.

The commune had incited the peasants to create the disturbance at
the Dahe hydropower station in April 1980. The peasants learned not
only how to use this weapon but also went on to hone it in their
struggles with governments at all levels – including with the commune.
As a result, local governments in Shanyang commune ran into difficulty
for a while enforcing the birth-control program and even the spring
tree-planting campaign. One of the peasants’ most extreme tactics was
to go en masse to eat either at the hydropower station or the commune
government’s own canteen. As soon as they felt that the government was
not paying sufficient attention to one of their problems, the peasants
would organize such an action – and, almost every time, they met with
success. After receiving an emergency call from the hydropower station
or the commune, the prefecture government would act as mediator and
appease the disgruntled group with promises of additional compensation.
The Dahe hydropower station was a key enterprise within the prefecture,
while the commune was a representative of the central government at the
grassroots level. And if the turmoil caused by the peasants prevented
the hydropower station from operating or the commune government from
functioning, the losses in both economic and political terms would be
far greater than the cost of appeasing the peasants with a bit of

However, at other times a disturbance would be taken to reflect badly
on the local governments, who had clearly failed to do a good job of
maintaining social stability and unity. When the hydropower station was
forced to stop operating, or commune property was damaged, the
government was prepared to use the state machinery to quash the unrest
in the name of protecting national construction. The “troublemakers”
would be labelled “a small group of people intent on disrupting
production” or “damaging public property” or “disturbing the peace.”
Then a few protest leaders would be arrested and charged on various
counts, and the collective action would collapse as a result.

Thus, in creating a disturbance, the petitioners could either look
forward to total victory or complete failure. It was imperative for the
peasants to maintain control of the action as a whole. While they had
to try to create a serious incident that would grab the government’s
attention, they also had to be careful to avoid breaking the law or
handing the government an excuse to crack down. Through case studies on
social movements in the West, William Gamson (The Strategy of Social Protest,
1990) discovered that vulnerable groups are most likely to achieve
their goals by creating a disturbance of some sort to draw attention to
their cause. But such tactics are not applicable in China because of
differences in social structure and ideology. In China, if the
disturbance created gets out of control, the protesters draw fire
against themselves. This is why, since 1949, there have been
spontaneous collective actions in China, but few cases of Western-style
social movements.

Based on studies of peasant collective actions, rebellions and revolutionary traditions (see B. Moore, The Social Basis of Dictatorship and Democracy, 1966; S. Popkin, The Rational Peasant, 1969; C. Tilly & L. Tilly, The Rebellious Century,
1975) and on his own fieldwork in Malaysia, James Scott developed the
concept of “everyday forms of peasant resistance” and published Weapons of the Weak
in 1985. These weapons include cheating, evading, pretending to forget,
pilfering, spreading rumours to stir up trouble, acts of deliberate
sabotage and so forth. Usually, these weapons are used by individuals,
without advance planning or formal networks. These forms of resistance
do not look particularly exciting, but can be observed in the everyday
life of the peasants. Like the “everyday protests” suggested by Erving
Goffman (see T. Oommen, “Erving Goffman and the Study of Everyday
Protest,” in S. Riggins (ed.), Beyond Goffman, 1990), the concept of “weapons of the weak” has great utility and value in the study of peasant resistance.

Based on his analysis of rural society in China during the 1966-86
period, David Zweig (“Struggling over land in China: peasant resistance
after collectivization, 1966-1986,” in F. Colburn (ed.), Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance,
1989) found that the peasants tried to confront the central
government’s land policy by taking advantage of the sympathy of local
cadres, loopholes in state policies and internal divisions within the
bureaucracy. Kevin O’Brien (“Rightful Resistance,” World Politics,
1996) has developed the concept of “rightful resistance” to describe
this form of confrontation, which differs from the “weapons of the
weak” (generally used secretly and individually) in that it is usually
carried out openly and collectively. If “everyday resistance” tends to
have a negative, even erosive effect on formal regulations, laws and
the power of the state, “rightful resistance” can be seen as a product
of “national construction,” working as a special mechanism to enhance
the legitimacy of the power system. It appears inappropriate, however,
to overemphasize the difference between the two forms of resistance
because in reality they are both the tactics – and trickery – of the
weak (M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984), and either may be employed according to the particular situation.

5 Vivienne Shue (The Reach of the State,
1988) argues that during the period of collectivized agriculture,
peasants and local cadres felt to some extent an inherent solidarity.
But the relationship gradually eroded with the collapse of the
collectivized system. Although Shue’s “local cadres” were the heads of
production teams and brigades, the relationship between peasants and
officials at the township and district level was experienced in similar

6 According to historical
records, floods occurred almost every two years in the Dahe valley. In
the fall of 1897, “excessive rain hit the Dahe valley and disasters
caused by the floods were so severe that locals had nothing to eat.
They competed for the leaves on trees, and the white clay that famine
victims would eat to assuage their hunger.” In late July 1931, a sudden
rainstorm caused major floods on the Dahe River, rendering many people
who lived along the river homeless for half a month. In July of 1965,
big storms hit the upstream area and resulted in devastating floods,
with 1,650 houses damaged, two people killed and 256 injured. (Annals of Yunyang County, 1990.)

7 In her study of politics in Chinese schools before the Cultural Revolution, Susan Shirk (Competitive Comrades: Career Incentives and Student Strategies in China,
1982) has described China’s political system as a “virtuocracy.” The
phenomenon she describes is associated with the “rule of virtue” in
ancient China, but is a contemporary political manifestation. According
to this reward system, social resources are distributed based on moral
character and party loyalty. The Chinese revolutionary leaders have
used the system as an instrument to propel social transformation,
mobilize the masses and solidify the legitimacy of the party. In his
study of a Chinese village, Richard Madsen (Morality and Power in a Chinese Village, 1984) has demonstrated how morality has been widely used in various political movements in rural China since 1949.

Chinese units of measurement:

  • mu = 0.067 hectare or 0.165 acre (i.e., about 15 mu to a hectare or six mu to an acre)
  • jin = 500 grams or 1.1 pound

    Translation edited by Three Gorges Probe (English) editor Kelly Haggart. The on-line publication (in Chinese and English) and translation of this book have been made possible by the Open Society Institute.

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