Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Conclusion

Ying Xing
April 4, 2005

This is the concluding instalment of Three Gorges Probe’s serialization of sociologist Ying Xing’s fascinating, detailed account of the years-long struggle for redress pursued by thousands of people who were plunged deeper into poverty by the construction of the Dahe dam. Many of the farmers uprooted for that dam, built 30 years ago on a Yangtze tributary in what is now Chongqing municipality, are being moved again for the Three Gorges project. “To learn more about what goes on behind the scenes in China, this book about the ruinous consequences of one small dam is an excellent place to start,” Dai Qing writes in her introduction to the translation of this important work by sociologist Ying Xing. The original Chinese version of the book, published under the title Dahe yimin shangfangde gushi (A Tale of Migrants Displaced by the Dahe Dam), was banned in China in 2002, but is available on our Chinese site. The on-line publication and translation of this book have been made possible by the Open Society Institute.


Peasant protests: action and reaction

In this book, I have attempted to tell the long and detailed story of how villagers affected by the Dahe dam battled for almost 20 years to protect their interests by seeking help from higher authorities, and how officials at all levels tried everything they could think of to deal with the issues that were raised. The study of this protracted struggle offers insights into the relationship between the state and the peasantry in China. It reveals the strategies adopted by people at the bottom of the social hierarchy to communicate their grievances, and the methods employed by people at the top to address those problems and to keep a lid on social unrest.

The gap between the state’s ambitious goals and its governance skills not only endlessly produces “leftover problems” such as those surrounding the Dahe dam, but has also leads to difficulties in resolving those matters through normal bureaucratic means. In addressing the leftover problems, authorities can try bending the rules (kai kou zi), along with other tactics that are considered unconventional but that have proved effective in practice.

The top-down bureaucratic model has been a feature of the People’s Republic since its founding in 1949. However, the dismantling of the people’s commune system and introduction of rural economic reforms created more scope for the exercise of power from the bottom up. This has been achieved mainly through the system in which people seeking help from higher authorities send letters or pay visits to the Letters and Visits Offices operated by government and party institutions.

Set up in 1949, the shangfang system of appealing to higher authorities for intervention was used by the state in the early years as a means of mass mobilization that allowed the peasantry to blow off steam in a symbolic form of protest. But later, guided by rural elite, the peasants who lost farmland to the Dahe dam (through submersion or erosion) learned how to use the appeals system as a “weapon of the weak” to achieve their goals. In this way, the shangfang appeals system evolved unexpectedly into a new means by which some power could be exercised from the bottom up.

Ironically, the intersection of two unconventional strategies – the peasants’ new use of shangfang as a weapon of the weak, and the officials’ rule-bending responses – actually helped shore up the legitimacy and enhance the effectiveness of the state. Along the way, officials’ administrative skills did improve after the people’s commune era, with  “comprehensive measures” becoming part of their problem-solving toolkit. Let us now review the two kinds of power strategies that played a central role in the Dahe drama: the exercise of shangfang from the bottom up, and accommodation to those appeals from the top down.

The genesis of shangfang

Shangfang originated in the post-1949 land-reform period as a complaints mechanism that the authorities encouraged in the countryside. By dealing with a variety of “leftover problems” in grassroots communities, it proved to be an effective means of easing tensions between the state and the peasantry. Several forms of shangfang can be identified:

  1. Individual shangfang and collective shangfang:
    When an individual goes on their own to request the intervention of higher authorities in resolving a problem or seeking redress for a perceived injustice, they have to go up against the state face-to-face. In the case of a collective action, however, shangfang representatives or even a shangfang organization can confront the authorities on behalf of a group of individuals. Despite similarities in the two forms of shangfang, the state is far more concerned about collective than individual actions. There is always the danger that organizations that have sprung up around an issue will “go bad,” or that people with ulterior motives
    will come along to exploit mass actions for their own ends. For the state, shangfang was designed to be a grievance “safety valve” that would help prevent the growth and deterioration of conflicts arising between the state and the peasantry. But collective shangfang can sow the seeds of social instability. Thus, while the state has difficulty completely prohibiting collective actions, it still does
    everything possible to nip them in the bud and, failing that, to crack down on them forcefully.
  2. Bypassing the immediate leadership to present appeals to higher levels (in particular, to top authorities in Beijing): On the one hand, the state sees such shangfang as offering a direct channel of communication between the government and the people – a form of people’s democracy. Such contact with the grassroots can help enhance top leaders’ credibility and authority. On the other hand, too many such actions could put a great deal of
    pressure on those leaders, be they in a provincial capital or in Beijing, and pose a threat to public order in the national or the provincial capitals. Little wonder, then, that the state makes an effort to curb the kind of shangfang in which petitioners leap-frog over lower bureaucratic levels to take their grievances to the top.
  3. Reasonable shangfang and pestering shangfang: Reasonable shangfang is seen as a form of social mobilization and is encouraged by the state. The trouble arises when reasonable shangfang becomes pestering shangfang, which can interfere with the orderly functioning of bureaucracies at
    all levels and pose a threat to public order. For this reason, the government introduced the system of detaining “drifters” – including petitioners – at holding centres and then, without any investigation or legal process, repatriating them to their places of origin.1
  4. Different attitudes to shangfang by different levels of government: Authorities at higher levels (i.e., the central and provincial governments) are more magnanimous and tolerant toward shangfang because the state sees the appeals system not only as a channel of communication with the masses, but as a way to monitor the actions of officials at grassroots levels. Higher authorities ask subordinate administrative levels to deal effectively and efficiently with the
    masses’ problems in order to reduce the degree of conflict between the state and the people. At the same time, however, higher authorities’ concern about public order also leads them to protect their subordinates, given that these local officials fulfill important social-control functions at the grassroots level. One of their duties is to block the flow of collective actions from the grassroots levels.
    However, these low-level administrations have a hard time maintaining social stability within their jurisdictions when they lack the power to resolve people’s grievances, as is frequently the case. But they also hate to see these appeals bypassing immediate authorities en route to higher levels and, using conventional methods, do their utmost to nip these actions in the bud.
  5. “Normal” and “extraordinary” periods: The political situation will have an impact on the level of shangfang activity. From 1978 to 1980 for example, such activity reached a peak in terms of depth, breadth and frequency, as many people who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution sought rehabilitation. At other times, forms of shangfang that involve petitioners travelling to Beijing to seek help could be restricted because of circumstances in the capital [for example, during and in the run-up to the 1990 Asian Games – or the 2008 Olympics].

It can be hard for petitioners to determine how best to utilize shangfang techniques to achieve their goals. This is because it is extremely difficult to figure out:

  • when shangfang is encouraged and when it is restricted or even prohibited by the authorities;
  • which type of shangfang is most appropriate to achieve a particular set of goals, and which type should be employed only with great caution;
  • which level of authority will tolerate and even encourage shangfang appeals, and which level will prohibit and crack down hard on any such approach;
  • under what circumstances petitioners’ goals can really be achieved through shangfang, and under what circumstance the appeals system is merely symbolic window-dressing.

The knowledge needed to work out the above cannot be found in any official published documents or leaders’ speeches. It can be learned only through the arduous and risky shangfang process itself.

Peasant strategies to get noticed

It is a little naive to imagine that the authorities will take immediate action to rectify matters whenever peasants turn up to tell them their troubles. If they responded to all such pleas, officials would be overwhelmed with cases; there would be far too many problems to address, bearing in mind the gap between the government’s desire to
run the nation smoothly and its governance capabilities. In these circumstances, “leftover problems” always accompany the state’s high aspirations and grand construction projects. The widespread problems stemming from dam and reservoir-related resettlement constitute just one source of peasant grievance in China.

The peasants have to employ various strategies to get the government to pay attention to their particular problems. They try all manner of ways to convince the authorities that their situation is so dire it could even pose a threat to public order – and maintaining social stability is a top priority for authorities at all levels.

The peasants who lost farmland to the Dahe dam used three main methods to draw attention to their problems – “speaking out” (shuo), “making trouble” (nao) and “pestering” (chan).

By choosing wisely among these three approaches according to the circumstances, the affected groups were eventually successful in turning their unjust treatment and miserable situation into pressing matters that the government simply had to address without further delay.

“Speaking out” refers to the practice of talking about victims’ grievances and the misery they have suffered as the result of a government scheme. “Making trouble” is a strategy the affected people resort to in an effort to force the authorities to actually do something. “Pestering” presents an opportunity for peasants to seek the resolution of a problem by paying persistent visits to officials in charge of the scheme.

The peasants have learned how to choose among these three tactics according to the particular circumstances, and also how to use them within appropriate bounds. For example, though they may appeal incessantly to the government, they cannot question the legitimacy of its rule. And though they may accuse some individual officials of
corruption, they cannot accuse the authorities of lacking sincerity in tackling the people’s problems. In the case of the Dahe dam, the aggrieved villagers could press their demands by eating the food in the hydropower station canteen, but they could not do anything more serious, such as interfering with electricity generation at the station. Though the affected people did appeal to higher authorities using the forms of “everyday resistance”
that have been described by James Scott (Weapons of the Weak, 1985), they more often resorted through their collective actions to the more open “rightful resistance,” a concept developed by Kevin O’Brien. (See “Rightful Resistance,” World Politics, 1996).

Moreover, in undertaking their collective actions, the petitioners – and, in particular, the elite of the affected people – run the risk of provoking retaliation from local cadres, who not only have a variety of resources at their command but also bear a responsibility to curb the momentum of such grassroots protests. The possibility of a violent backlash has hung over the petitioners, even though the state has adopted a more restrained approach, especially since 1982, when the principle of “civilized reception” was introduced in the work of the Letters and Visits Offices at all levels.

The Dahe petitioners were generally aware of the danger of pushing too far as they explored the government’s willingness to bend the rules in their favour. They knew that accusing officials of wrongdoing was as risky as picking a fight with a tiger. And yet they also went from submitting an initial phase of submitting a series of petitions on to the next stage of “making trouble” because, as the popular sayings go: “No disturbance, no solution. Small disturbance, small solution. Big disturbance, big solution,” and “The kid who cries loudest gets the most milk.”

An examination of how and why the peasants choose on different occasions to “speak out,” “make trouble” or “pester” can offer insights into the relationship between the state and the peasantry, and the limits to which both parties will go. It all has the appearance of an interesting but dangerous game: The peasants try to keep themselves out of jail while squeezing as much compensation as they can out of the government, while the government tries everything it can think of to bring the situation under control while promising as little as possible.

The boundaries of permissible action for the peasants are determined by: What can we say out loud? How far can we go in taking action? What can we achieve through that action? For the government, however, the boundaries are drawn by: What promises can we make? What action do we need to take immediately? When is the best time to lay down the law?

The boundaries of action are not determined by a single side nor by any written policies or regulations. They are constantly in flux, according to the interaction between the two parties.

The state responds

The practice of sending work teams to the countryside has been regarded since the land reform period as a basic tool for the government to become involved in the everyday life of rural communities. Work teams were dispatched to the countryside during the course of political movements, such as the land reform and people’s commune eras. Charged
with the task of dealing with collective actions and cementing the relationship between the peasants and government, the work team plays an important role in rural communities as investigator, liberator, educator and protector. As a watchdog of the state, the work team undertakes a range of investigative tasks on almost every assignment.
As liberator, the work team’s mandate is to address the peasants’ problems. As educator, the work team focuses on critiquing the bureaucracy and instructing the masses by way of various campaigns. As protector, the work team always tries to take local cadres under its
wing and treat them in a tolerant and generous manner. But whatever role the work team plays, it serves the overall interests of political unity and social stability and the need to balance the power emanating from above and below. To do so, the work team has developed three main strategies:

  1. Ba ding zi (responding coercively): Of all the petition activities, collective actions are the government’s biggest headache. They not only are characterized by force of numbers but also touch directly on the most sensitive organizational nerves of the state. Local cadres see mass actions as a direct threat to their political careers. One of the most commonly used and effective methods of dealing with such situations is to go after the leaders who planned and organized the event – pulling out the nails [the literal meaning of ba ding zi] that will bring the house down. The government seldom links this punishment with the petition activity, but finds some other excuse to target the individual. Teacher Xu, for example, was penalized not for his involvement in collective actions but for violations of birth-control policies.
  2. Kai kou zi (bending the rules): A special and unconventional method of dealing with conflicts arising from petition activities that could call into question the government’s very legitimacy. The technique of kai kou zi is usually employed first to restore order and then to address the peasants’ problems. The
    key to successful use of this technique lies in a careful balancing act: how to bring a tense situation under control by acting leniently toward the aggrieved group, while at the same time ensuring that other groups are not encouraged to come forward with similar demands.
  3. Jie gai zi (lifting the lid): Collective actions are likely to lead to a confrontation between the government and the peasants, while also generating some tension between the governments at different levels. For one thing, the local governments involved could be subject to an inquiry. For the higher authorities, how to deal with lower levels of governments that petitioners have
    accused of wrongdoing – whether to save or to sacrifice them – depends on a number of factors, including the need for a power balance between different levels of government, political unity and social stability.

If ba ding zi (dealing coercively with complainants) and kai kou zi (bending the rules) fail to work, the technique of jie gai zi (lifting the lid) could be used, with certain local cadres sacrificed as a result. Facing a series of well-organized, persistent petitions by the five upstream groups affected by the Dahe dam, the authorities were forced to bend the rules (kai kou zi) time and again, but never did try to lift the lid (jie gai zi).

By contrast, in 1997 the government removed almost all Shanyang township officials on charges of corruption related to the Three Gorges dam. Even though the filling of that reservoir was still six years away and many local people were not yet ready to take part in any collective actions related to the world’s biggest dam, the government was taking
no chances on the politically important Three Gorges project.

Temporary ceasefire

Before the 1980s, the authorities governed rural China through the people’s communes system, a state monopoly on resources and strict control over peasants’ mobility. In the tightly controlled era of people’s communes and class struggle, peasants had only one complaints mechanism to turn to with their problems, the Letters and Visits Offices. But the peasants’ problems – and the official embezzlement about which they complained – often went unaddressed. In the 1980s, China’s peasants gained more freedom with the dissolution of the people’s communes and introduction of the household responsibility system. And as people affected by the Dahe dam faced an increasingly serious erosion problem, they began to bring the matter to the attention of higher authorities. The involvement of Teacher Xu represented a turning point in the peasants’ struggle. An elite group of the affected people was formed, various strategies (including speaking out, making trouble and pestering) were skillfully employed, and the goal of striving to protect their own interests was established.

In general, the peasants’ struggle ran counter to the country’s transition from an approach centred on revolution to one focused on economic development – from the era of mass mobilization to one that emphasizes maintenance of public order. But because of the local governments’ inability to keep the collective actions under control, an economic issue linked to the Dahe dam resettlement funds turned into a political problem with the potential to pose a threat to local social stability. To patch up the quarrel and reconcile the parties, the government decided to “bend the rules.” This conciliatory approach, however, gave rise unexpectedly to an escalating series of conflicts between the peasants and the local governments, between the affected people and the Dahe hydropower station, between local governments and higher authorities, and even among the affected groups themselves. Commissioner Dong’s intervention marked a fundamental shift in the way
problems in the resettlement operation were handled. The new policy was a real departure from kai kou zi (rule-bending) in its previous incarnation. Commissioner Dong found that the key to success lay in addressing the peasants’ concrete problems, alleviating their hardships in a comprehensive way, with a view to laying the groundwork for a long period of peace and stability ahead. The authorities would no longer simply issue promises and dole out funds to the affected groups, but would concentrate instead on building stronger bridges between the government and the peasants so that the affected people were really able to benefit from their resettlement. Disbursing resettlement compensation funds little by little without let-up in a steady stream, rather than in one lump sum, ensured that people’s basic needs were met while also relieving the government of the need to “bend the rules” over and over again, off into the distant future. Throughout the struggle over the Dahe dam, the governments and the affected groups each had their bottom lines. The authorities alternated between two approaches, according to the specific circumstances: kai kou zi and ba ding zi – compromise and coercion, carrot and stick, education and punishment. If they ever pushed beyond the government’s bottom line, petitioners or “troublemakers” would be punished immediately without mercy. The peasants had a bottom line as well: endeavour at all costs to stay out of jail. But when the villagers of Baiyang 16 exceeded what the
government could tolerate by damaging water pipes at the Dahe hydropower station, the prefecture government decided to lay down the law and throw the “ringleaders” into jail.

This action brought almost 20 years of confrontation to a temporary halt. Even after such a long-drawn-out struggle, neither the government nor the affected groups could easily be declared the clear winners. For one thing, a temporary ceasefire always contains the danger of a resurgence of hostilities, thus denying the government the peace and
stability it seeks. As for the peasants, they faced yet more upheaval and uncertainty in the struggle that soon lay ahead to claim their rightful compensation and battle official corruption in the Three Gorges resettlement operation.

Note for the English edition:

1 In March 2003, Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old fashion designer from Wuhan, Hubei, was beaten to death while in police custody in Guangzhou. He was not carrying his ID and
had been picked up as a vagrant. The ensuing public outcry over the incident led Chinese authorities to turn migrant holding centres into “voluntary service centres” and begin to relax temporary residence permit requirements.

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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