Dai Qing and Three Gorges

Dai Qing: Boosting support to dam migrants is just a start

Kelly Haggart and Mu Lan

August 27, 2006

Beijing’s decision to give 22 million farmers who have been displaced by dams a 600-yuan (US$75) annual subsidy for 20 years is seen by journalist Dai Qing as official acknowledgement of the high social cost of such projects, and of the simmering rural discontent they have caused.

“Problems linked to dam-related resettlement have been accumulating for half a century and have reached a point at which social unrest could erupt at any moment,” Ms. Dai said. “So it’s not a bad thing that the authorities have recognized this reality and are trying to do something about it.”

Ms. Dai has long been China’s most vocal critic of the Three Gorges project.1 The world’s biggest dam on the Yangtze River was supposed to have been accompanied by a showpiece resettlement operation that would raise living standards for the 1.3 million people who (according to the conservative official estimate) would have to move to make way for the dam’s 660-kilometre-long reservoir.

Instead, the biggest mass relocation in the history of dam-building has been marred by pervasive official corruption, unfulfilled promises and harsh repression for those who have dared to complain about being swindled and mistreated.2

The Three Gorges project has forced the resettlement of 1.9 million people, Ms. Dai believes, with many farmers plunged deeper into poverty after being moved to inferior locations, such as barren hillsides with poor soil and inadequate water supplies.

China’s powerful central planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, announced on Aug. 13 that the government would finance the additional compensation for the resettled farmers by raising US$1.6 billion a year from a nationwide electricity price hike.

Electricity prices were raised an average of 0.025 yuan (0.31 of a US cent) per kilowatt-hour at the end of June. “Nearly 40 per cent of the revenues from the hike will benefit the farmers,” China Daily quoted an NDRC source as saying.

Each farmer who was moved before July 1, 2006, will receive 600 yuan (US$75) a year for the next two decades, “to buy basic living necessities or use as ‘seed money’ for further development,” the newspaper said. “For new movers, the same 20-year benefit will start once they finish resettlement.”

In a bid to keep local officials from “withholding” any of the funds, the NDRC said the money will be transferred directly into personal accounts that will be set up for the relocated farmers.

“In my view, the new subsidy will discourage people affected by dams from coming forward to voice their problems and to vehemently defend their rights thus allowing the ‘smooth development’ of the power industry,” Ms. Dai said. “But on that point, I’d also like to say that Chinese farmers will not be cheated so easily in the 21st century.”

While welcoming the official recognition of the dam migrants’ plight, Ms. Dai also suggested that authorities have missed an opportunity to tackle some fundamental problems in China’s power sector.

Central government subsidies and policies have shielded the state-owned power companies from many of the financial risks and environmental liabilities associated with big dams, which has helped to promote unchecked development in the hydropower industry.

“In announcing the new compensation policy, the government unfortunately has not also bothered to ask: Who has reaped the colossal profits in building all the dams and power plants? What’s wrong with China’s energy policy? What’s the best way to restructure the power sector?” Ms. Dai said.

“Everybody knows that the dam industry makes a vast amount of money and huge profits by taking advantage of a vagueness surrounding water ownership, the cheapness of the land, and the powerlessness of a silent majority unable to protect its own interests,” she said. “As the saying goes in China: Build a bridge and get silver, build a road and get gold Ð but build a dam and get diamonds.”

Indeed, the lure of those diamonds has spurred an unprecedented dam-building spree: Before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the country had about 220 big dams (generally defined as higher than 15 metres). Now it has about 22,000 of them (close to half the global total) and more than 86,000 dams in all.

In densely populated China, the human cost of flooding people out of fertile river valleys to make room for dams and their reservoirs has been staggering. One widely cited estimate put the number of people displaced for dams in China in the past 50 years at 16 million, with as many as 10 million of the oustees still living in poverty.3

But the revelation that 22 million farmers are considered eligible for the new subsidy Ð which, China Daily reports, is to be given only to rural migrants and not to those who have been resettled in cities Ð suggests the true number of China’s reservoir refugees is much higher than previously imagined.4


Footnotes:

1.In early 1989, Dai Qing published Yangtze! Yangtze!, a collection of essays and interviews with Chinese scientists, journalists and intellectuals who were opposed to the Three Gorges project. The book was banned in China later that year on the grounds that it had “abetted the turmoil” in Tiananmen Square, and Ms. Dai was imprisoned for 10 months. She returned to the dam issue in another important compilation of essays, The River Dragon Has Come! [PDF] (1998).

2.See, for instance:

“Officials conclude self-inflicted injury in Fu Xiancai case,” Human Rights in China, July 26, 2006.

“Probe International calls on foreign funders to protest attacks on Three Gorges petitioners,” Three Gorges Probe, June 13, 2006.

“Five years in Wuhan Women’s Prison for requesting fair treatment,” Three Gorges Probe, Oct. 4, 2005.

“Freed migrant leader He Kechang still fighting for justice,” Three Gorges Probe, Aug. 11, 2004.

3.From “Don’t build dams everywhere, expert warns,” by Chen Guojie, Three Gorges Probe, Aug. 22, 2005:

“Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the unfortunate fact is that the construction of dams, large or small, has resulted in many ‘leftover problems,’ with those problems outweighing the project benefits. Over the past 50 years, more than 16 million people have been displaced by dams of various types, and as many as 10 million of those people are still living in poverty. And the reason is simple: Peasants living in hills and mountains lost the very ground on which their lives depended when the rising reservoirs flooded their farmland in the river valley. The planners and builders of the dams tended to focus narrowly on the project itself, and were reluctant to compensate the affected groups appropriately and adequately.”

4.From “Resettled farmers to get financial support,” China Daily [PDF], Aug. 14, 2006:

“According to the regulation, due to take effect on September 1, those displaced who registered as urban residents will not benefit from the regulation.”

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