Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 10

Ying Xing
March 22, 2005

Chapter 10: Baiyang 16 goes into battle

With the dispute over the calcium-carbide factory now a thing of the
past, the affected groups in Shanyang turned their attention to another
major struggle: extracting compensation for fields eroded by the Dahe
dam after 1978. The prefecture agreed to pay compensation for the 200 mu
of farmland that it confirmed had been washed away, but refused to
accept Feng the engineer’s calculation, worked out in March 1987, that
an additional 111 mu
had also been lost to the raging river. Officials from the district and
township governments, and the prefecture hydropower bureau, had also
estimated that a further 11.8 mu were eroded between April 1987 and June 1988.

With 10 years experience battling the authorities under their belt,
the villagers now knew to look out for, and take advantage of, any
cracks in the government structure or loopholes in policies, and a
heaven-sent opportunity soon presented itself. On December 3, 1988,
Wang Xiulan, newly appointed vice-commissioner in charge of the
prefecture’s industrial affairs, undertook an inspection tour of the
Dahe hydropower station. Staff from the township government leaked the
news to the three downstream groups, which had been unhappy with the
prefecture’s decision not to grant them a grain allowance. When
Commissioner Wang arrived, she was soon surrounded by peasants from the
three downstream groups clamouring for compensation for their losses
caused by the dam. As soon as news of this commotion reached them,
villagers from the five upstream groups and from Baiyang 16 also
converged on the station to press their own case.

Commissioner Wang was new in her post and not all that familiar with
the decade-old struggle between the governments and the local people
affected by the dam. She also lacked experience in dealing with such a
complex issue, and did not act in the conventional manner. Before
announcing any decisions, she should have consulted with local
governments and other officials in the prefecture government. Instead,
surrounded by so many angry complainants, a flustered Commissioner Wang
made several hasty decisions after only a brief discussion with one
county official. She announced to the people that:

  1. Compensation would be paid for the 11.8 muof farmland eroded in 1987-88. In view of the good quality of the soil that was lost, a grain allowance of 700 jin would be allotted on an annual basis for each of the 11.8 mu.
  2. Engineer
    Feng Mingyue’s calculations of farmland lost to erosion between 1978
    and 1987 could not be used as a basis for compensation claims. The
    district and township governments should remeasure the affected area,
    and submit a proposed compensation package to the county government for
  3. Baiyang 16 would be entitled to
    compensation of 42,600 yuan, calculated on the basis of the 1984 grain
    price, as well as an additional grain allowance from 1988 on.
  4. To protect farmland in the river
    valley below the dam, 60,000 yuan would be budgeted for strengthening
    the flood-control dykes and dredging the river channel between Shanyang
    town and Baiyang 13.

The three downstream groups and the five upstream groups were
delighted with these decisions. In fact, the announcement made everyone
in Shanyang happy, apart from one person: Commissioner Dong. He was
absolutely appalled, and vented his frustration to Feng the engineer:
“In all my years of dealing with the problems related to the Dahe
station, I have always been very careful and cautious in any
decision-making on compensation and money issues. And now this promise
of 60,000 yuan has been made all of a sudden!” In fact, that was an
underestimation of the amount Commissioner Wang had just pledged. In
addition to the 60,000 yuan for flood-control work below the dam, she
had assured the villagers of Baiyang 16 that they would be entitled to
a grain allowance from 1988 onward; confirmed the figure of 11.8 mu of newly eroded fields; and also accepted that 55.5 mu
of farmland had been affected by the dam between 1978 and 1987. She
arrived at that figure based on Feng’s calculation that 111 mu
of land had been eroded by the dam. She said that figure could not be
confirmed, and because of the difficulty and complexity of remeasuring
the area, the task could not be done again. But she said she would
accept half his total — 55.5 mu — as being eligible for compensation.

Commissioner Wang’s promises put Commissioner Dong and the other
officials who had been dealing with Dahe issues in an embarrassing
position. She had not just “bent the rules” and let a little water
through a hole in the dyke, but opened the floodgates, and the
prefecture now risked being swamped with further appeals. If the
prefecture honoured the commitments she had made, more requests and
more trouble would follow. And if her decisions were reversed, the
prefecture government would lose the trust of the masses. The
prefecture government therefore decided the best course of action was
to do nothing, and to take no further clear-cut stand on the issue.

The peasants, however, could not care less about how the prefecture
leaders were feeling. They were just intent on getting what
Commissioner Wang had promised, and they made repeated requests to
local governments for the policies to be implemented. Unlike the
factory issue, the governments at the district and township level sided
with the people and backed their demands. They saw it this way: The
funds to purchase the promised grain would come from the prefecture
government, and this grain allowance would help improve relations
between local governments and the people, and generally create an
atmosphere of unity and stability in the region. And so the township,
district and county governments all submitted requests to the
prefecture government, asking it to clarify its position on the issue.

On November 16, 1989, after seeking instructions from Commissioner
Dong, Zhang Liandao (Dong’s deputy) drafted a response to these
requests from the lower levels of government. The prefecture agreed to
pay compensation of 700 jin annually for each of the 11.8 mu
at issue, but refused to make any assurances regarding the fields
washed away between 1978 and 1987. The document also made it clear that
the grain allowance for Baiyang 16 should commence in 1993 rather than
1988. But what local governments found most disappointing was that the
document did not contain one word about the 60,000 yuan promised for
flood-control improvements downstream of the dam.

Fearing that the peasants would cause disturbances if they learned
the contents of the document, the government of Yunyang decided to keep
it under wraps for the time being, certainly until after the conclusion
of an impending county people’s congress.

But the peasants were losing patience, and after the county
congress, the people of Baiyang 16 created two major disturbances at
the Dahe hydropower station. After the second incident, the prefecture
softened its stance and agreed to pay compensation for 55.5 mu
of fields affected by the dam, as Commissioner Wang had promised.
Through this action, the prefecture was able to divide the affected
people: The five upstream groups, which governments at all levels had
found particularly difficult to deal with, were now placated, while
Baiyang 16 was left out in the cold.

Background to the unrest

How is that Baiyang 16 emerged as the big loser in the struggle?
Earlier, in 1984, the peasants of Baiyang 16 had scored a major victory
in their land dispute with the Dahe station when they received the
compensation payment from the prefecture of 42,600 yuan. This was big
money for a single group, and represented about 300 yuan for each
villager. Satisfied, Baiyang 16 withdrew from further confrontation
with the government.

But then, in 1986, Commissioner Dong came up with the new policy for
the five upstream groups, in which resettlement compensation funds were
distributed in the form of a grain allowance, bit by bit in a steady
stream, rather than delivered as a “one lump sum” cash payment. The
people of Baiyang 16 realized this was a much better deal than the one
they had received. The five upstream groups were now guaranteed a grain
allowance on a per capita and annual basis until the day the Dahe
station ceased generating electricity. While that arrangement ensured
those groups’ basic needs were met far off into the future, the
peasants of Baiyang 16 could spend their windfall any way they liked,
including on purchases not related to basic needs. They were now
worried about what would happen when their “one lump sum” was all used
up. And they had good reason to be concerned, given that most of the
land they once farmed had been taken over by the Dahe station.

Baiyang 16 made repeated requests to higher authorities to be
treated the same way as the five upstream groups. The good news was
that the prefecture government agreed to their demands; the bad news
was that it attached a condition. The 42,600 yuan compensation payment
Baiyang 16 had received had to be “converted” into an equivalent grain
allowance, and no actual grain allowance would be provided until that
sum had run out. So the key issue for Baiyang 16 became how to
calculate the grain-allowance equivalent of 42,600 yuan. The local
governments, at the district and township levels, were happy to do
Baiyang 16 a favour, which could be achieved at no cost to themselves.
And so, according to their calculations, the 42,600 yuan would already
have been exhausted, and Baiyang 16 was actually owed 6,000 yuan worth
of grain. This would mean Baiyang 16 was entitled to a new
compensation, commencing in 1989, in the form of a grain allowance.

Why were the local governments feeling so well disposed toward Baiyang
16? For one thing, officials at the local levels had closer personal
ties to the group than was the case among higher-level authorities. But
local governments also wanted to win the trust and support of the
group. They had found it really difficult when nine groups from the
affected zone banded together to lodge a joint complaint in 1984. The
peasants’ united front created such a complex situation that the
governments did everything in their power to divide the groups, and in
fact did manage to split them into the five upstream groups, the three
downstream groups and Baiyang 16. Local officials had also learned to
tackle a complex situation with a carrot-and-stick strategy. Their
tough line with the five upstream groups had been undermined by the
prefecture’s “education first, punishment second” approach. So now, to
balance their own relations with the masses, they wanted to draw other
groups over to their side by extending a carrot.

The county government had no objection to the new compensation offer
for Baiyang 16, but the prefecture could not go along with the township
and district governments’ calculations. If a grain allowance had been
distributed to Baiyang 16 according to prefecture policy, on a per
capita and annual basis, then the 42,600 yuan should have been the
equivalent of about 10 years of grain, in other words, covering the
period from 1984 to 1993. The people of Baiyang 16 were furious with
the prefecture’s proposal, which was far less generous than
Commissioner Wang’s promise that a grain allowance could date from
1988, and than the calculations approved by the county, district and
township governments.

Baiyang 16 had more accumulated grievances related to the Dahe
project than other group, because of its location immediately
downstream of the dam. Fishery was an important income source for the
group, but it had been badly hit by the dam. Nets were frequently
washed away when water was discharged from the dam without warning. And
catches were declining because the dam blocked fish pathways to the
downstream area, and silt was building up in the river. Baiyang 16
wanted an exemption from fishery fees, but this was refused. Tension
was building when, on March 14, 1990, the head of Baiyang 16, Tan
Shidao, and his son Tan Wanquan met to discuss the group’s predicament
with Governor Wang during his inspection tour of Shanyang. “Just wait,”
he urged them. But by this point the peasants were growing extremely
restless and much more inclined to take immediate action.

The first action

Four days later, Tan Shidao, head of Baiyang 16, called a meeting
attended by the heads of every household in the group to discuss issues
related to the spring plowing. But the Dahe station and compensation
package soon became the main topics of conversation, with many of those
present expressing their displeasure with the prefecture’s reluctance
to carry out the policy announced by Commissioner Wang. Someone said
that as the head of the group, Tan should take their problems to county
officials. But Tan said he had no idea how to pursue the issues, given
that Governor Wang had told him to “just wait.” Tan went on to say that
he really wasn’t interested in acting as a representative, and that he
was prepared to offer 1,000 yuan of the group’s funds to anyone who
would take on the responsibilities of leading the appeals.

Another villager suggested: “We should go to the Dahe station and
ask for food in order to call attention to our plight from higher
authorities.” Thus, the decision was made to eat at the station. Ten
representatives were chosen from among the five main family clans in
the group, and Li Bi, a young party member and demobilized soldier, was
selected as mission commander. The reward was increased to 1,600 yuan,
with 160 yuan to be awarded to each of the representatives if their
action was successful — in other words, if the Dahe station leaders
acceded to their demands, which including a remeasuring of all the land
requisitioned by the station and eroded by the dam. Li, the young
commander, declared: “Any villager who refuses to go to the station to
eat food will be fined five yuan and will not be allowed to share in
the grain allowance.”

The difference in organizational level between Baiyang 16 and the
five upstream groups was immediately apparent. In the case of Baiyang
16, the action was decided hastily in the absence of any prior careful
arrangements. (By contrast, before taking their action three years
previously, the elite of the five upstream groups had submitted “solemn
statements” in advance to governments, and also lectured participants
on the importance of maintaining discipline.) The people taking charge
of the Baiyang action lacked experience, and no duties or
responsibilities were explicitly assigned to individual
representatives. The goal of the action was not well thought out; in
particular, the demand to remeasure the lost farmland was unrealistic
and unreasonable. Finally, the representatives focused on the prospect
of a victory (as indeed the five upstream groups had managed to achieve
through their well-organized actions) but had ignored the danger of a
failure or the consequences of a confrontation with the government. The
action was off to a bad start.

On March 19, Li, the young commander, and the nine other
representatives set off for the Dahe station. Following behind were 80
villagers, who went to the station canteen and ate up the lunch that
had been prepared for station staff. District and township officials
responded to an emergency call from the Dahe station, arriving there at
noon. The local cadres tried their best to persuade the villagers to
leave, but to no avail. The Dahe protesters finally went home around 5

Over the next two days, the Baiyang 16 villagers arrived at mealtime
to eat the station-canteen food. When the kitchen staff stopped
preparing meals, knowing the food would be carried off, the villagers
went into the storeroom and found rice and vegetables to cook for
themselves. To the villagers’ disappointment, no one from the
prefecture or county showed up to meet with them, even after two days
of protests. The representatives began to worry about the consequences
of their actions, and so called a meeting both to lay some ground rules
(no one should enter the station’s office or disturb its leaders) and
to boost morale. Participants were reassured by their leaders that they
were involved in a “peasant rebellion,” so need not fear a beating or
imprisonment. Finally, a work team from the county did arrive on the
third day of the incident and persuaded the peasants to return home by
promising that the county would respond to Baiyang 16’s concerns within
a month.

On the morning of March 26, Zhang Liandao, director of the
prefecture office, called the county and stressed that no grain
allowance would be available to Baiyang 16 before the 42,600 yuan
compensation fund was exhausted. Zhang urged the county to bolster its
propaganda work among the masses, and in the meantime to make sure that
the protest ringleaders were dealt with in accordance with the law. The
county, however, didn’t immediately follow the prefecture’s
instructions, fearing that such a move would inflame the conflict
between the villagers and the Dahe station. In fact, presuming that
there would be no further trouble at the Dahe station, the county
government stopped paying much attention to Baiyang 16.

The second action

On April 14, Li, the young commander, called a meeting to discuss
the next action. At 3 p.m. that same day, more than 90 peasants, led by
Li, once again occupied the station’s canteen and took away the evening
meal that had been prepared for the staff. The 10 representatives vowed
to occupy the canteen until the people’s problems were addressed.

The next morning, knowing that no more grain could be found at the
canteen, Li ordered a group of about 20 women to ask for more rice from
the steward in charge of the canteen. Disappointed at his refusal, the
women surrounded the conference room where the station leaders had
gathered for a meeting, preventing them from leaving the room. When the
daughter-in-law of Feng Deqing, party secretary of the station, arrived
to deliver lunch to her father-in-law, the peasant women would not let
her go into the room and took the lunch box away. During a scuffle
between petitioners and canteen staff, a villager’s hand was
accidentally cut on a broken bowl. Someone cried out: “The station
workers are killing someone with a knife!” Enraged, the villagers
carried the injured man to the home of Secretary Feng. They pushed
their way into his house and forced his daughter to tend the man’s cut
and to give him some water and medicine. Then Li led a group of
villagers to the canteen storeroom, where they broke in through a
window and took everything out, declaring that now they were ready for
a long-term battle of resistance.

A joint work team from the prefecture and county, headed by Zhang
Liandao, director of the Wanxian resettlement office, and Wang Jintang,
vice-governor of Yunyang county, arrived on the scene the following
day. They went directly to the canteen, where they attempted to engage
the petitioners in a dialogue. But the peasants became overwrought and
emotional, and the discussion collapsed. In the evening, the work team
tried to talk to Tan, the head of Baiyang 16, and other representatives
and persuade them to withdraw from the canteen by promising to resolve
the problems. In fact, this was an opportunity for the two parties to
reach a compromise. The villagers could have achieved their goal of
receiving a grain allowance if they had withdrawn from the station and
dropped their other, unrealistic demands (such as, for the fields
affected by the Dahe dam to be remeasured). And despite its reluctance
to make any obvious concession, the government did want to bring the
turmoil quickly under control. But the peasants failed to grab this
chance for a compromise, and the representatives proclaimed: “We will
not withdraw from the canteen until we win our demand for the land
affected by the dam to be remeasured.”

The next morning, the prefecture government issued an order to
resume normal operations at the hydropower station. Station staff,
armed with wooden sticks, went to the canteen and ordered the villagers
to leave. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, the villagers felt
they had no choice but to abandon their occupation of the canteen. But
they were angry and restless, and two groups of peasants went off on
their own to try and disconnect pipes that transported water to the
station’s hydropower turbines. Police who had just arrived from
Shanyang managed to stop one group before they did any damage. But the
other group did succeed in disconnecting a pipe and rendering the
turbines unworkable.

Some of the villagers didn’t want to stop at that. Li, the young
commander, assaulted Director Zhang, grabbing him by his clothes and
pulling him, shouting: “Let’s go down to the river together!” He pulled
Zhang to within a dozen metres of the water. Others joined in, kicking
and hitting Zhang. During the scuffle, Zhang’s jacket was torn. “Stop
beating me!” he screamed. “I’ve never been hit, even by own parents. I
came here to help sort out your problems, but stop kicking me or I’ll
call the police!” Police officers did finally arrive to rescue Zhang.

The villagers creating havoc at the station appealed for help from
other groups across the river. And some villagers, particularly from
Liuping, were ready to head for the station. But Teacher Xu managed to
dissuade them: “Why do you want to get involved in this? Do you want to
end up in jail? Zhang and Feng have gone to the station to address the
people’s problems, so why do you want to get involved in the
confrontation there?”

That afternoon, the work team called the prefecture commissioner to
report on the situation and make suggestions on how to deal with it.
These included asking the petitioners to withdraw from the canteen and
the station, and to choose representatives who would hold discussions
with the work team; organizing a team to guard the station; and
implementing Commissioner Wang’s proposals. The commissioner approved
the suggestions.

After emergency repairs to the water pipes, the hydropower station
was up and running again by midnight that day. But electricity
generation had been halted for 12 hours, resulting in an economic loss
of 700,000 yuan. This was the first incident since the dam was built
that a protest at the station had actually interfered with power

Four representatives from Baiyang 16 met that night with the work team and put forward four demands:

  1. The official figure of 39.6 mu
    of farmland requisitioned by the station underestimated the true amount
    of land villagers had lost, and the area should be remeasured.
  2. The additional grain allowance should be retroactive to 1984.
  3. Villagers’ livelihood problems should be addressed.
  4. The Dahe station should build an irrigation and drainage pumping station to help Baiyang 16 irrigate its fields.

The work team demolished the representatives’ arguments, item by
item, and turned down all their demands. The representatives, under
heavy pressure from all sides, decided they had to accept reality and
ask the villagers to withdraw from the station. The three days of
tumult were finally over.

The peasants of Baiyang 16 were unaware that their protest at the
station had coincided with an unfortunate date: the first anniversary
of the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15. Hu’s death had sparked the
protest in Tiananmen Square the previous year, which culminated in the
events of June 4. Although there was no link between the peasants’
collective at the Dahe station in 1990 and the student demonstration in
Beijing in 1989, the state would never yield an inch at such a
politically sensitive time. And so, as they prepared for a joint
working conference to discuss the disturbances at the Dahe dam, local
officials were in no mood for compromise and had every intention of
laying down the law.

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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