Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 1

Ying Xing
January 20, 2005

Chapter 1:
Leftover problems of the Dahe Dam

      “Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the state
      has allocated a great deal of money to build more than 10 hydropower
      dams in Sichuan province, and the number of affected people has now
      reached 224,000. For a long time, problems have lingered as a
      consequence of dam construction, largely due to a low standard of
      compensation and shortage of available land in the resettlement zones.
      For example, in the case of Gongzhui hydro station on the Dadu River, a
      tributary of the Yangtze, 40 per cent of the peasants affected by dam
      construction have an average of less than 0.4 mu of farmland per head.
      In some villages the average is much lower – less than 0.1 mu per
      capita. In addition, a lack of other natural resources, and poor
      conditions related to agriculture, infrastructure and social services
      have all contributed to a miserable and difficult situation in the
      reservoir area. One-third of the people who have been displaced by dams
      are still living below the official poverty line, and these rural
      households are classified as ‘extremely poor.’ With problems such as
      the shortage of grain still unresolved, the affected people have
      undertaken collective actions, appealing to higher authorities for
      help. The poverty experienced by these people has become a critical
      political and social issue with significant ramifications for social
      stability and economic development in the reservoir area.”-

Head of the resettlement office of Sichuan
province, excerpted from an article, “The situation and tasks related
to population resettlement resulting from the construction of large
hydro dams in Sichuan province,” published in the Ministry of Water
Resources journal, Progress in Poverty Reduction in Water Conservancy
Projects and Development of Reservoir Areas, 1997, 3: 1-2.
On April 3, 1992, the fifth plenary session of the seventh National
People’s Congress approved a resolution to build the Three Gorges
project, with 1,767 deputies voting for, 177 against and 664
abstaining. After more than half a century of debate, the big dam was
going ahead. On August 19, 1993, the State Council proclaimed a set of
regulations governing the Three Gorges resettlement operation, marking
its transition from trial stage to formal start.

A few years later, in May 1997, I learned that the graduate school
of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was recruiting PhD students
to go to the Three Gorges area to work temporarily as local officials.
I was excited, because I had been looking for a way to go to the
grassroots level to gain a deeper understanding of rural China and
local communities, and so I put myself forward as a candidate. On June
20, I was told that I would be sent to Yunyang, a poverty-stricken
county in Chongqing municipality that is the most affected by the Three
Gorges dam, and that I would work there as a vice-governor for a year.
This chance opportunity not only took me to the Three Gorges area, but
also inspired my research interest in population resettlement resulting
from the construction of dams and reservoirs

On July 19, after travelling by boat for several hours, I arrived in
Yunyang county in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir region. After
a brief greeting, Hu Xiang, party secretary of Yunyang, asked me what
job I’d like to do. As temporary officials arriving from outside with
no knowledge of local issues, we were called “vice-governors” but in
fact were not supposed to be directly in charge of anything. Rather, we
were assigned to work as aides to county leaders. I was given three
choices, to work as an aide to the vice-governors in charge of Three
Gorges resettlement, agriculture, or culture and education. Secretary
Hu appeared to want me to work in the field of Three Gorges
resettlement, and I readily agreed to his suggestion because that was
what really interested me.

Secretary Hu brought me two books, Conditions in Yunyang County and Yunyang County Yearbook,
so that I could begin to familiarize myself with the area. Yunyang was
designated a county as early as the late period of the Warring States
(475-221 BC). A 68-kilometre-long shipping section of the Yangtze and
two tributaries on both banks of the big river provide Yunyang with
water transport. With its rugged topography, the county (area: 3,649
square kilometres) can be described as qi shan, liang shui, yi fen tian
– or 70 per cent mountain, 20 per cent water and 10 per cent farmland.
In 1997, the county had a population of 1.23 million, with most of the
people concentrated in river gorges and mountain valleys.

Yunyang is rich in natural resources but lags behind in economic
development: 350,000 of its inhabitants have difficulty obtaining
enough food to eat and clothes to wear. Yunyang is one of the Three
Gorges region’s most poverty-stricken counties, and one reason for this
stems from the years of uncertainty surrounding construction of the
Three Gorges dam. For a long time, the state hesitated to invest in an
area that would be flooded if the dam went ahead. Statistics show that
only 98 yuan (US$12) per head of state funding was put into Yunyang in
the entire 1950-85 period, less than 10 per cent of the national
average during that time.

Despite their poverty, the people of Yunyang are renowned for their upright and unyielding personal qualities. As Conditions in Yunyang County puts
it: “The inhabitants of Yunyang are descendants of the Ba people, who
are honest, loyal, agile and brave, fond of forming associations,
particularly with their kin, and evincing no fear of power and
authority. They take their commitments very seriously, and value
loyalty above wealth. They are ready to go through fire and water for a
just cause, and to die the cruellest death for truth. They are generous
with their money if someone is in need. They fight back fiercely if
repressed, and seek to exact revenge by all means if cheated or
swindled. Loyal citizens, dutiful sons, honest officials and righteous
men are all respected and worshipped by people in the county. Dozens of
temples in the region honour the memory of Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Yue
Fei. During the Cultural Revolution, Yunyang was one of the parts of
the Three Gorges area that was most affected by chaos and vandalism,
with more than 1,000 local people killed.”

The above passage echoes another description of the people of
Yunyang, who are considered “intelligent and cunning, incorrigibly
obstinate, and unafraid of authority.” I read that in an old book, Annals of Yunyang County, before leaving Beijing, and it made me wonder whether Yunyang wasn’t really a rather unruly place!

The politics of presentation

Toward the end of July, the People’s Congress of Yunyang county
formally appointed me a vice-governor. I was confirmed as an assistant
to Wu Jiangqing, vice-governor of Yunyang, who was in charge of rural
resettlement and construction of the new county seat. My appointment
occurred just as the county was furiously preparing for a state
inspection of the first stage (1993-97) of the Three Gorges
resettlement operation. The inspection, which would judge whether the
work was proceeding as planned, was expected in October, and
preparation for it would be a top priority for the county government
over the next two months.

On August 1, vice-governor Wu and I went with officials from the
Wanxian resettlement office to Shanyang township. Our task was to check
how the resettlement work was going and to ensure that the township was
well prepared for an inspection from Wanxian officials later that week.
After driving for two hours, we saw a river in the mountains off in the
distance. The driver said it was called the Dahe River, a tributary of
the Yangtze. “That means Shanyang is not far,” he said.

I knew a little about Shanyang from the books that Party Secretary
Hu had given me. Shanyang is one of the townships that has been most
affected by the Three Gorges dam, with as many as 15,000 people
requiring resettlement. After we arrived, Peng Tinghui, the party boss
of Shanyang, gave us an introduction to the township. He said Shanyang
encompassed 14 villages, with a total population of 25,000. Of its
16,000 mu [1,070 hectares] of cultivated farmland, 9,000 mu [600
hectares] would be flooded by the Three Gorges reservoir. After a brief
review of the work already accomplished, Peng focused on three major
problems in the resettlement operation. These issues were obviously
enormous, because the atmosphere in the meeting room grew a little

First, Peng said that due to a lack of available land, it would be
impossible for the township to resettle all its migrants on higher
ground, despite the fact that government policy decreed that displaced
people must be resettled in nearby areas. Second, the township was
having great difficulty dealing with the huge discrepancy between the
losses that were estimated in the 1992 survey carried out by the
Changjiang Water Resources Commission, and the actual losses that were
going to occur. And, finally, resettlement officials in Shanyang were
finding that ambiguities in the state’s resettlement policy were making
their job very difficult. Peng said that, as a result, they had had a
hard time classifying 60 residents as migrants.

Vice-Governor Wu was growing irritated at Peng’s litany of
complaints, and interrupted him testily: “So do these 60 people want to
rebel against the government because of that?” Peng ignored his
superior’s irritated comment, and continued to argue that the
migrant-identification process was extremely difficult, and that his
health had suffered because he had worked so hard at it. Wu stopped him
again, saying he was well aware of how hard it was to work at the
grassroots level, as he himself had been a local official for more than
20 years. Wu said that sometimes he had wanted to cry like a woman in
the face of all the problems surrounding the resettlement operation.
But, Wu asked, does having a cry make any sense? He tried to motivate
the local officials by asking them to “stand on a high vantage point
and look far ahead.”

The head of the county resettlement bureau then answered several
questions about the resettlement policy and promised to bend the rules (kai kou zi) in favour of Shanyang if necessary, to help the township deal with the problems it was encountering.1
Wu stressed that however difficult the resettlement tasks, officials in
Shanyang had to do their best to get the job done, that this was a
priority for the township and also an order from the county government.

After supper, Wu met briefly with the head of the county
resettlement bureau. I was invited to attend, along with members of the
Shanyang township party committee. At the meeting, Wu gave township
officials tips on how to impress inspectors from higher echelons. When
making a presentation about their resettlement work, Wu said, township
officials should be careful to highlight positive aspects and also to
convey a strong commitment to getting the job done. The head of the
county resettlement bureau was even more direct: Don’t even mention any
problems! From his experience, he said, the apparent success of a job
depends on how an official presents his work, not on how well the tasks
have actually been carried out.

Peng appeared to learn a lot from this advice. He conceded that
earlier he had known nothing about how to make such a presentation, and
had thought he should talk to these higher-level officials as if they
were family members. I said nothing the whole day, but came to realize
how difficult the resettlement operation was, especially at the
grassroots level, and I too learned something about the politics of
presentation. I was intrigued by Peng, the township secretary who dared
to speak his mind in these circumstances, and decided that at some
point I would like to spend more time in Shanyang.

On August 6, I went to Shanyang for a second time, along with the
inspection team from Wanxian prefecture. The head of the prefecture,
known as the prefecture commissioner, appeared to be satisfied with
Shanyang’s resettlement work, partly because of the well-prepared
report presented by Peng. The commissioner said he was happy to learn
that local officials were doing a good job on resettlement and also
that there had been no mention in Peng’s presentation of any households
refusing to move (ding zi hu). He said he had heard of many
such resisters when he was head of a county near Yunyang while people
affected by the Dahe dam were being resettled.

The inspection tour would have transpired without incident, were it
not for a man who suddenly showed up just as the team was leaving. As
the commissioner was walking to his car, the man accosted him, and
shouted: “Dozens of people over there want to talk to you. They don’t
trust local officials, who always just tell them positive things. We
ordinary people only trust officials from higher levels. Please come
with me and see the people over there.” It took a while for the
township officials to realize what was happening, but when they did,
they helped the commissioner into his car, and the rest of us piled
into our cars too, and we all drove away at high speeds.

The next day, we went with the commissioner and his entourage to
visit the new county seat. While looking around the new town that was
being built, I chatted with Zhang Liandao, director of the Wanxian
resettlement office. Having heard about my interest in studying the
resettlement issue, Zhang spoke to me about a fundamental difference
between resettlement in China and in the West. In China, resettlement
is involuntary and by government fiat, while in the West, he contended,
nobody can be forced to move and so the need to deal coercively (ba ding zi) with households resisting resettlement does not arise.2

He said problems had emerged with resettlement related to virtually
all water projects in China, mainly because the compensation tended to
be so low. Compared with past resettlement schemes, the Three Gorges
project was offering the affected people much better terms. In
addition, government policy now included providing financial support to
people after resettlement. About 10 per cent of the income generated by
the Three Gorges project was to be used to help people rebuild their
lives after resettlement, in an effort to improve their standard of

However, a higher rate of compensation cannot address a fundamental
contradiction between the state’s long-term goals and the local
government’s short-term behaviour. From a long-term development point
of view, the state does what it can to ensure that displaced people
live and work in peace and contentment after resettlement. But
governments at grassroots levels don’t have the same vision as the top
leaders, and have attempted to use a great deal of the funding
earmarked for resettlement. Zhang said he did not mean to imply that
local officials had misused the money or even that they had pocketed
some of the public funds – just that the money would still be lost from
the resettlement budget if local officials decided to divert some of it
to build a new road or to provide the new communities with electricity.
In that case, migrants would receive less direct compensation than
promised, and numerous problems would arise as a result. Zhang also
talked to me briefly about some of the lessons that local governments
had learned from the resettlement related to the building of the Dahe
dam in Shanyang. This was my first tutorial on the history of
resettlement in China, imparted not by a professor but by a
knowledgeable local official.

Toward the end of August, officials from the Three Gorges Project
Construction Committee (TGPCC) came to Yunyang on an inspection trip.
The officials seemed satisfied with what they heard and saw, which made
Vice-Governor Wu happy, and he asked us to do yet more preparatory work
in the run-up to an inspection by central government officials.

One day, Wu and I were invited to a meeting called by the county
resettlement office. The head of the bureau came straight to the point
at the start of the meeting: “There are no outsiders here today so let
me speak frankly. As we all know, our resettlement projects are not up
to the standards set by the TGPCC. I don’t think we could reach those
targets even if everyone in the county were to be mobilized for the
work. And all of us here would lose our positions if high-ranking
officials knew the truth.”

Vice-Governor Wu was clearly unhappy about these remarks. He argued
that the county government did not submit false reports to the higher
authorities, but that it did take “a flexible approach” in recognition
of the fact that the county was pressed for time in meeting the
resettlement goals. This “flexibility” included filling out various
forms recording the county’s “excellent” progress in every single
category, without any consultation whatsoever with villages and groups
at the grassroots level. These glittering reports won high praise from
the TGPCC inspection team, who had no doubt about local officials’
success in the resettlement effort.

On November 8, while the Yangtze River was being dammed for the
Three Gorges project, People’s Daily declared: “Before damming the
Yangtze River, with strong support from all the Chinese people and hard
work by local officials in the Three Gorges reservoir area, great
successes have been achieved in resettling the affected groups. About
100,000 people have been moved into new homes, and their livelihoods
restored, and so the damming of the river will go ahead as scheduled.
The task of cleaning up the future bed of the reservoir below 99 metres
above sea level has been successfully completed. And the resettlement
work in the same region has passed a series of inspections and checks
by the relevant departments of the State Council. “The wonderful
‘resettlement with development’ operation is a tribute to the Chinese
people’s magnificent support and also a resounding response to foreign
countries that have questioned the big dam. This outstanding
achievement can be seen as the start of the successful resettlement of
more than one million people.”

My ‘discovery’ of the Dahe dam

I became interested in Shanyang, the township most affected by the
Three Gorges dam, during my visit there in early August. I learned that
a team from the provincial commission of science and technology had
just returned to Yunyang after completing an investigation into the
resettlement issue in Shanyang, and I was eager to meet them.

The head of the team told me that Shanyang had past experience with
dam-related resettlement. Years ago, a dam, located in Shanyang
township, was built on the Dahe River by the prefecture government.
Because of problems with the resettlement operation, people displaced
by the Dahe dam had kicked up a fuss for many years with numerous
appeals to higher authorities. He said people in Shanyang tend to be
brave and bold, intelligent and very adept at negotiating with
officials at all levels. Their protests were well organized. For
example, when the prefecture commissioner arrived to deal with the
resettlement issues, he was besieged first by old women, then by
weeping women and children. No village leaders or any of the young men
of the village were around at the time. They had all gone into hiding.
The organizer of the demonstration was a primary-school teacher who had
arranged the whole drama, and then left a few days earlier on a trip so
the government could not pin anything on him.

I recalled that Zhang Liandao, director of the Wanxian resettlement
office, had mentioned disturbances related to the Dahe dam. These
protests reached a peak in the 1980s. One of the main organizers was a
teacher who had graduated from Yunyang High School in 1966 and then led
a Red Guard unit during the Cultural Revolution. People who had been
displaced by the dam, but had received no compensation, appealed to
higher authorities to punish officials they accused of corruption. The
government was forced to respond to a situation that threatened to get
out of hand. Organizers of the disturbances were usually punished to
varying degrees, though the affected group as a whole would derive some
benefit as a result of the protests. In 1990, for example, several
“ringleaders” were arrested and some were sentenced after water pipes
at the Dahe dam were damaged.

Zhang, who was personally involved from the start in dealing with
the “leftover problems” of the Dahe dam, said he had learned valuable
lessons from the experience, and many of those insights had been
incorporated into Three Gorges resettlement policies. It struck me that
studying the impacts of the Dahe dam would indeed provide useful
lessons for Three Gorges, where a resettlement operation was under way.
In fact, this was part of the reason I had come here, to study
grassroots society in rural China by focusing on reservoir-related
I felt that studying the protests mounted by people affected by dams
and reservoirs would serve as a window onto the relationship between
the state and the peasants.4
My conversation with Zhang made me more confident than ever of the
value of this research. The first step was to consult the files in the
county archives. I found a great deal of material that was very useful;
in fact, I was overwhelmed by a wide variety of official documents from
higher authorities, investigation reports from lower levels, and
peasants’ petition letters and appeals. About 30 files full of
documents were marked “leftover problems,” with dates ranging from 1977
to 1994. The expression “leftover problems” has become a household term
in the reservoir area, but when and where did these “leftover problems”
begin? 5

Closing of the Dahe dam sluice gate

One day in July of 1975, local people gathered at the site of the
Dahe dam to celebrate the closing of the sluice gate. They had been
looking forward to this moment with great excitement and anticipation.
The rumour that a dam would be built on the Dahe River had been
circulating in the area for some time, but nobody took it seriously.
This was because survey teams had repeatedly come and gone, but nothing
ever happened as a result. Not until 1970, that is, when two wooden
boats arrived from upstream, and a man on one of the boats pointed a
bamboo pole toward an area of flat land near Baiyang village, and said:
“That is a perfect spot for a dam.”

The locals were surprised when a construction headquarters for the
dam was suddenly established the very next day. And on the third day, a
huge number of workers arrived, signalling the formal start of the
project. From then on, local people were told that the Dahe power
station would soon be generating electricity. But it took several years
for the project authority to finish the work, and now the people were
overjoyed to see the dam gate closing and the dream of power from the
dam moving a step closer.

The peasants of Shanyang knew little about how difficult it had been
for the dam authority to complete the project, due to a severe shortage
of funds. And they could not have foreseen how their own lives would
change dramatically soon after the closing of the sluice gate. But
alongside the joyful masses at the ceremony, several leading players in
the project were experiencing quite different emotions.

Liu Xingjian, the worried project leader

As the first head of the Dahe dam campaign headquarters, Liu
Xingjian forced a smile as he watched the sluice gate closing, but in
fact he had mixed feelings about the event. The idea of building the
dam had been fuelled by a power shortage in Wanxian prefecture, but
what turned a dream into reality was a generator that otherwise would
have been scrapped. In the early 1960s, the province had proposed
building a medium-size dam somewhere and had imported three generators
from Hungary for the purpose. But something was wrong with the
foundations of the proposed dam, and the plan was abandoned. The
province managed to sell two of the generators, and then sealed up the
third one for safekeeping.

By 1969, somebody realized that this expensive generator was getting
so old it might have to be discarded, and so the province began
anxiously looking for an appropriate use for it. Hearing of this,
Wanxian prefecture immediately submitted a request to provincial
authorities, arguing that their power-starved area could really use the
generator. The province approved the request and asked the prefecture
to build a hydro dam as soon as possible.6
It was under these circumstances that Liu Xingjian was chosen to take
charge of the preparatory work for the dam. With its solid foundation,
the area known as Baiyangba near Shanyang was regarded as an ideal
location to build the dam, where the generator could be put to good
use, and the backwater would have no direct impact on the county seat
of Bailong.7

At first what worried Liu most was the race against time. At a
planning meeting in May of 1970, the province listed the Dahe dam as a
key project and asked the prefecture to build the dam and begin
generating electricity within a year. Responding to Chairman Mao’s
call, “Ten thousand years is too long; seize the day, seize the hour!”
the prefecture asked the dam construction team to start building even
as survey and design work and other preparatory stages were still under
way. In July of that year, more than 10,000 workers were mobilized to
take part in the construction of the dam. Taking advantage of the
people’s commune system, which allowed the easy mobilization of
labourers and materials, a grand campaign was formally launched in a
very short period of time.

Having witnessed such a spectacular mass movement, Liu became more
relaxed about the tight schedule. What made him more anxious now was
the shortage of funding. With a normal pool level of 150.1 metres, the
dam would have an annual installed capacity of 12 MW and a power output
of 6,400 kWh. The total budget was around 19.2 million yuan but the
province and prefecture together were providing just 7.2 million yuan,
much less than expected. Liu knew the dam authority had done everything
possible to lower the budget by offering very low compensation terms
for people displaced by the dam. In all, 100,000 yuan would be set
aside as compensation for lost farmland, and 300,000 yuan would be
shared among the 615 affected households, amounting to a total
compensation budget of just 400,000 yuan.

The requests made by two affected communes, Xunlu and Guanqu, added
to Liu’s frustration. Officials from Xunlu grabbed the chance to ask
for 510,000 yuan to rebuild their town, while those from Guanqu
requested 130,000 yuan to construct a bigger shopping mall. Their
requests made Liu, who was already worried about the money issue, even
angrier. “You’ll have to appeal to higher authorities for this money.
We can’t give you a cent.”

After Liu sent them packing, officials from the two communes took
their grievances to the county government. County officials in turn
sought help from the prefecture, but ran into unexpected indifference
at that level. The prefecture officials didn’t want to become involved,
let alone take any further responsibility for the resettlement issue.
Part of the reason for this was that the province was reluctant to pour
more money into the Dahe dam even though the prefecture government had
already put a lot of work into the project.

Burdened by the funding issue, Liu also became extremely annoyed
about problems with the expensive but aging generator that emerged
during its installation. A total of 21 million yuan finally arrived
from the province and the prefecture, but meanwhile the budget had
risen to 26 million yuan. The project still faced a deficit, including
a debt of 1.3 million yuan to a generator manufacturer in Hangzhou,
Zhejiang province, which had been contracted to provide a second
generator for the dam.

In March of 1975, after handing over a late-payment fine of 70,000
yuan to a bank, the Dahe project authorities were still unable to repay
a bank loan of 1.2 million yuan. To complete the installation of the
first generating unit and other related engineering work, additional
funding of about 2 million yuan was needed, and this figure did not
even include a downstream riverbank-stabilization project and
construction of a flood-prevention wall upstream. This was the
uncomfortable situation Liu Xingjian found himself in as the
sluice-gate closing ceremony got under way.

Zhu Yundun, the engineer with a heavy heart

Zhu Yundun, the engineer responsible for the dam’s safety and
quality control, also found it difficult to enjoy the ceremony. He had
been transferred from the prefecture’s construction commission to work
on the dam at the start of the project five years earlier. He was
touched by the workers’ unflagging efforts as they worked day and night
to build the dam. But as time went on, he became increasingly concerned
about a number of problems with the project.

One of the issues Zhu became extremely worried about was that water
discharged from the dam was going to scour both banks of the river
downstream, including a sandbar adjoining the riverbank that was being
farmed by local people. Zhu seems to have been the only one aware of
the problem, which had been completely ignored in the dam’s design
report. Zhu suggested to project leader Liu Xingjian, “Why don’t we
just requisition the sandbar? It’s not that big, so compensating the
people who are farming it won’t cost that much. The discharged water
will have a major impact on the riverbanks downstream after the dam
goes into operation, and the sandbar is liable to be badly eroded.” Liu
replied flippantly, “No, no. I can take care of the upstream flood
zone, but where the hell can I get the money to take over that sandbar
as well? This is not my problem!” Zhu was speechless at Liu’s
dismissive remark, and muttered to himself, “Let’s just see what
happens then.”

The closing of the dam’s sluice gate meant the project was ready to
begin generating electricity, which made Zhu even more nervous.
Although he was in charge of quality control and safety, the engineer
knew he had no real decision-making authority. But he also didn’t want
to see anything disastrous occur after the dam began producing power.
What he could not foresee was that the closing of the dam’s sluice gate
heralded not only the beginning of the dam’s troubles, but also the
start of his own.

Jiang Xiangying, the official who played hide and seek

Jiang Xiangying, who was in charge of land requisition and
compensation, wasn’t quite as worried as engineer Zhu Yundun at the
sluice-gate ceremony. But he had become extremely annoyed by one of the
people displaced by the dam. Zhou Changfa was pestering him endlessly
with a request to be compensated for bamboo groves he had lost to the
reservoir. Zhou was told that the compensation money had gone to the
local credit co-operative, but he insisted on receiving the funds
himself. Now whenever Jiang saw Zhou approaching his office, he hid so
as not to have to deal with the man.

But right now, Jiang Xiangying was feeling a bit more relaxed,
knowing that he had gone to great lengths to keep the resettlement
budget under control. He knew how difficult it had been for his team to
achieve this goal, doing all they could to lower the compensation
standards. They had employed at least three strategies to reduce the
resettlement portion of the project budget as much as possible.

First, they set a low compensation standard overall: only nine yuan
for each square metre of residential space being requisitioned, six
yuan for each square metre of livestock shed, and 240 yuan for each mu
[0.07 hectare] of farmland. Second, they set an even lower compensation
standard for “bad elements” such as landlords and rich peasants. People
in these categories were sometimes forced to move after receiving very
meagre compensation. For example, compensation for residential space
owned by “bad elements” was set below six yuan a square metre, even
lower than for livestock sheds. But if members of this group dared to
resist or protest, they were accused of “disrupting national
construction” and severely punished. Few people labelled as bad
elements voiced any complaint, because they had already suffered so
much in the Cultural Revolution, which was still under way.

Finally, Jiang’s land-requisition team persuaded or bribed local
officials in charge of resettlement affairs to underreport the area of
affected farmland. For example, while Chen Yexue, head of the Baiyang
brigade’s No. 16 production team (or Baiyang 16 for short), and others
were measuring very meticulously the plots of land that would be
requisitioned to build the powerhouse, Jiang became anxious and
shouted: “Chen Yexue, why are you measuring the plots so carefully?
Doing this won’t benefit you a bit. So don’t do it that way, and I’ll
make sure you’re taken care of later.” Chen replied that he was just
doing his job. An argument ensued, and Chen said he didn’t want to do
the measuring work any more. Jiang visited Chen many times in an effort
to persuade him to finish the work. In the end, Chen did sign his name
to a survey that showed the area in question to be much smaller than it
actually was. No third party knew anything about this secret deal
between Jiang and Chen.8

Jiang felt fortunate to have been able to bring the resettlement
budget under control. He also knew how difficult it had been to achieve
this goal, and that it would not have been possible without employing
the above strategies. He had every reason now to relax and not to worry
about anybody questioning the survey results, because they had all been
signed. And he felt even better as he watched the dam’s sluice gate
closing. “All those compensation headaches should be over with when the
dam begins producing electricity,” he said to himself.

Zhou Changfa, the tireless ‘pest’

Zhou Changfa was one of those most affected by the Dahe dam in
Shanyang, and he had a terrible feeling about the project. Zhou was
from a rich-peasant family, and had experienced a great deal of misery
as a result. He was devastated when all his family’s farmland was
distributed to poor peasants and his father was humiliated during the
land-reform period after the revolution. He suffered years of privation
during the terrible famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. And now
his life was being turned upside down again by the construction of this

In July of 1970, his house was requisitioned for use as the dam
project headquarters because of its ideal location. But because his
father had been a rich peasant before 1949, Zhou was given not a single
cent for his home. He was forced to build a shabby thatched cottage on
a slope on higher ground for his pregnant wife and himself. Living
conditions there were so awful that his wife became ill, paralyzed with
hemiplegia, and was confined to bed. Zhou’s eyes filled with tears
whenever he talked about his crippled wife. Publicly, he still
expressed support for the dam and said he was happy to see the project
headquarters occupying his old home, though in fact his eviction had
caused him immense personal suffering.

In April 1972, the work team in charge of compensation affairs
headed by Jiang Xiangying arrived to assess Zhou’s losses. Although
Zhou was very unhappy with the amount of compensation offered, he said
nothing at the time. Later, he asked Jiang whether the project
authorities should also provide compensation for the loss of cash crops
such as bamboo and fruit. Jiang promised to look into the matter, but
took more than half a year to do so. Zhou’s compensation was calculated
at 414 yuan, of which 324 yuan was for 18 fruit trees and 90 yuan for
10 bamboo stands. When Zhou asked when he would be paid, Jiang replied,
“Just wait a while, it’ll be very soon.”

More than a year later, Chen Yexue, the head of the production team,
told Zhou to collect part of his compensation, 180 yuan. Zhou was happy
to receive another 60 yuan on the eve of the Chinese New Year, but
after that there was no further word on his compensation. Zhou visited
Chen many times but Chen always said: “Look, this is what we have
received from the project authorities. You can go and ask them yourself
if you have questions.” Zhou did go to see the officials at project
headquarters, including Jiang, who told him the money had been given to
the local credit co-operative of Shanyang. Zhou went to the
co-operative and was told that the funds were to be disbursed to
collective units such as brigades or production teams, and not to

For the next couple of years, Zhou repeatedly approached leaders at
the project headquarters, the people’s commune, the production brigade
and the production team, and was kicked around like a football between
the four parties. Everybody with whom he talked agreed that he deserved
to receive the rest of the compensation money, but nobody took his case
seriously. Then, on the morning of the day of the sluice-gate closing
ceremony, Zhou Changfa got up early as usual to prepare the traditional
medicine needed by his wife, who was still confined to bed. Then he got
himself ready to go down the hill to lodge yet another appeal for his
rightful share of the Dahe dam compensation funds.



1 Kai kou zi: Literally,
to break a dyke in order to channel irrigation water onto fields, but
here it means higher authorities bending the rules in favour of the

2 Ba ding zi:
Literally, to pull out a nail. Here it refers to the government taking
tough, even coercive measures to deal with people who refuse to obey
orders or to co-operate with official policies.

3 Resettlement related to dams
and reservoirs has become a widely studied topic around the world. In
China, however, few studies have been undertaken, for a variety of
reasons, but particularly due to the difficulty of obtaining data. Mu
Mou and Cai Wenmei (“A Review of the History of Population Resettlement
at Xin’anjiang” in Dai Qing and Xue Weijia (eds), Whose Yangtze is it Anyway?, 1996) and Leng Meng (The Massive Population Resettlement on the Yellow River,
1998) have written about resettlement that was related, respectively,
to the Xinanjiang reservoir and Sanmenxia dam, while Jing Jun (The Temple of Memories: History, Power and Morality in a Chinese Village,
Stanford University Press, 1996) has looked at “social memory”
surrounding the Liujiaxia dam on the Yellow River. The four researchers
had difficulty obtaining adequate data for their studies because of
their status as outsiders. By contrast, I was able to gain access to a
wealth of firsthand data and official documents while I was an
“insider,” working as an official in Yunyang on the Three Gorges
resettlement operation.

4 For centuries, the management
of water resources and construction of huge projects has been key to
governing China. Karl Wittfogel (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power,
1957) postulated strong links between water control and centralized,
despotic regimes in Asia. He wrote that China was a “hydraulic society”
in which management of water resources was key, and also an “oriental
despotism,” where control of water became the central factor in
determining political and institutional forms. Patrick McCully (Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams,
1996) has identified two main types of dam-building bureaucracies:
national agencies such as Moscow’s Hydroproject Institute, and river
basin development agencies such as the well-known Tennessee Valley
Authority (TVA). It seemed inappropriate to classify these two types of
bureaucracies as socialist or capitalist, because they shared the
similar goals of developing local resources at the grassroots level and
avoiding the problems inherent in capitalist bureaucracy. Established
in the 1930s and engaged in the integrated development of water
resources, the TVA failed to achieve its initial goals of developing
regional economies and protecting the environment, but itself became a
vested-interests or so-called grassroots bureaucracy. It’s interesting
to note that the TVA-like utopia was developed in the socialist Soviet
Union, and carried forward in socialist China under the influence of
the Soviet Union.

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, top Chinese
leaders saw the development of water resources as the first priority of
socialist construction. The leaders saw building water projects not
only as a solution to grain and energy shortages, but also as a means
to introduce state power into grassroots, rural China through a series
of mass campaigns and mass mobilizations. Harnessing rivers and
watercourses was not just a technical, water-conservancy issue but,
more importantly, a critical social and political task as well. The
infrastructure of such a “hydraulic society” serves continually to
legitimize a political regime, and to create “common cause” between the
centre and the provinces, between regions, and between the government
and the people.

In February 1950, the Changjiang [Yangtze] Water Resources
Commission was set up, followed in April of 1954 by the establishment
of the Yellow River Water Resources Commission. In the late 1950s, the
Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was completed as one of the grand
water projects of the Great Leap Forward. From 1949 to 1959, a total of
80 billion cubic metres of earth and rock were moved to build dams and
reservoirs nationwide, and 58 billion cubic metres of that was achieved
in 1958 alone. From 1949 to 1990, more than 86,000 reservoirs were
built across the country, with a total water storage capacity of 46.6
billion cubic metres. China had become the world’s most dammed county.

The construction of all these dams and reservoirs has been
accompanied by population resettlement problems. An estimated 12
million people were moved to make way for these 86,000 dams and
reservoirs. Most of the affected people were poor peasants who were
thrown even deeper into absolute poverty because of a dramatic drop in
standard of living after displacement. The net annual per-capita income
of people displaced by dams that were funded and operated by the
central government was only 572 in 1994 and 782 yuan in 1996, about 47
per cent and 40 per cent respectively of the national average in the
same period.

To deal with the worst of the “leftover problems” associated with
resettlement nationwide, a reservoir reconstruction fund was
established in 1986, and an annual budget of 300 million yuan disbursed
thereafter to displaced people in need. After a decade of attempts to
address the problems, the government had made some progress, but the
situation was still severe in reservoir areas and resettlement sites.

5 Dam-related resettlement in
China has been involuntary. The state has been responsible for deciding
to build the dams and reservoirs, and also for the consequences of
those undertakings. In China’s particular context, affected groups
seeking resolution of “leftover problems” have had no choice but to
appeal to higher levels through collective actions. Of all the various
appeals brought by peasants in China since 1949, protests by people
affected by dams and reservoirs have predominated in scale, frequency,
duration and degree of intensity. The introduction of the household
responsibility system and the dissolution of the people’s communes led
to a weakening of the central government’s control over grassroots
communities, resulting in yet more protests. Collective actions in
China are clearly very different from social movements and protests in
the West, to the extent that it can be difficult to explain them within
the existing theory of social movements in the West. Nevertheless, it
is the interaction between collective actions taken by the people
affected by dams and reservoirs and the state’s reactions to those that
reflect how power works in Chinese society.

6 It was not unreasonable to
look for a site to install a turbine that could not be used elsewhere
and would otherwise have to be scrapped. On the one hand, the province
wanted to do a favour at little cost to the prefecture that had borne a
disproportionate share of the cost of the long-term uncertainty over
whether the Three Gorges dam would be built. Even the provision of an
aging turbine would be seen as a compensatory gesture on the province’s
part to that region. On the other hand, the prefecture was also aware
that the province didn’t really intend to give the region all that
much, and was also trying to address the problem of what to do with an
aging generator. In fact, the prefecture wanted to get much more than
the old generator, and embraced the proposed dam as a “fishing
expedition” – an opportunity to fish for more and more money, which
would pour forth in a reliable stream, because the province would
hardly be able to walk away from the dam project once it was started.

So the Dahe dam got its start for both careless and elaborately
planned reasons. The project was carelessly designed, with insufficient
consideration given to a variety of potential technical problems and to
the resettlement issue. The elaborate planning occurred as a
subordinate administration struggled to extract the maximum financial
resources for itself within a highly centralized planning system.

7 Until the mid 1980s,
dam-related population resettlement was seen as an insignificant issue
in China. Displaced people in general and rural migrants in particular
were called on to make immense personal sacrifices for a greater common
good. In pushing a dam project ahead, the governments concerned tried
to do everything in their power to keep the resettlement budget to a
minimum due to an overall shortage of financial resources for national
construction. In the design report of the Dahe dam, the resettlement
budget was not listed as one of the major expenditures, but merely
included in the “other fees” category along with various miscellaneous
items. When selecting locations for dams, the authorities paid scant
attention to the resettlement issue but focused on three main factors:
1) whether the location would allow the full exploitation of
hydropower; 2) whether the foundation was sufficiently solid; and 3)
whether building the dam would have an impact on the county seat. The
government and project authorities did not view the peasants who would
be displaced and the farmland that would be inundated as major issues.

8 At that time, the
authorities at the commune, county and prefecture levels were able to
requisition any piece of land in their jurisdiction in the name of
development. No formal procedure was required. Land that was taken over
did not even have to be registered or listed in any way. In theory, the
requisition of land needed the approval of the production brigade or
production team involved, but in practice, nobody dared to raise any
objections since the undertaking was deemed essential for national
construction. Nobody at the grassroots level would want to invite
personal trouble by intervening in the serious political issue of the
uses of public property.

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.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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