Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 11

Chapter 11: ‘Time to lay down the law’

At a conference attended by prefecture and county officials on April
21, the joint work team gave a progress report to prefecture
commissioner Xu Zerong on efforts to deal with the disturbances at the
Dahe hydropower station. The record of the conference showed how the
significant decisions were made.

Zhang Liandao (director of the prefecture office and head of the joint work team):
The same group that caused the first disturbance at the Dahe station in
1984 was also behind the recent one. The peasants expected too much
from the government. They raised four demands, but we considered none
of them reasonable. They asked that the fields affected by the Dahe dam
be remeasured, but if we had agreed to that, many other groups would
have come forward with the same demand. Generally speaking, the actions
of the Baiyang 16 peasants were deliberately provocative. The event was
planned and organized in advance. They set up a team in charge of the
protest, with 10 members, 10 alternate members, a military strategist
and so forth.

By the night of April 17, the turmoil had subsided. After some
dialogue, the peasants no longer raised new demands, and five other
groups from Liuping, Mingyue and Baiyang villages distanced themselves
from the incident. Because we handled the situation in a timely
fashion, order was restored at the Dahe station and in the Shanyang
area. We need to combine education with punishment in dealing with the
problems at the Dahe station and take several specific steps:

  1. The 39.6 mu of fields affected by the dam is a final figure about which there can be absolutely no appeals lodged in the future.
  2. Compensation will be paid for 4.5 mu of “newly scoured” land that was not included in the previous requisition agreement. The compensation standard is 700 jin of grain for each mu, calculated from 1984 onward.
  3. Economic
    losses caused by the turmoil, such as stolen food, property damage and
    medical expenses, should be repaid through deductions from Baiyang 16’s
    grain allowance.
  4. The leading troublemakers will be investigated and punished according to the law.

The work team has reached a consensus that it will not budge on this
compensation offer, because its terms are the highest in the country.
If further promises were to be made, affected groups would submit more
requests and there would be no end of trouble. Now we have to
concentrate on strengthening legal education among the people and
developing production.

Wang Jintang (vice-governor): When we got there, we
saw a number of “observers” sent by other villages, who were watching
how the government would react to the situation. If we softened our
stance, those peasants were likely to become involved and create more

Xiang Zhili (vice-director of the county’s Letters and Visits Office):
There are two sides to a coin, and while the request to remeasure the
affected fields is unreasonable, the one-year delay in carrying out
Commissioner Wang’s policy was in part responsible for provoking the
peasants’ action. But then that premeditated disturbance went from
being a collective action to being a crime. The situation deteriorated
to the point where the troublemakers broke the law, and I suggest they
should be punished in accordance with the law.

County police section chief: Through the
interrogation of seven peasants, we have identified 43 people who took part in the turmoil, 15 of whom played a leading role. We believe those 15 people have violated Articles 137 and 158 of the criminal law. We think it’s necessary to punish one to warn a hundred. And so we police
plan to arrest Tan Shidao, Li Bi, He Licui and Zhang Ming, and punish
11 others in accordance with public-security regulations.
County chief procurator: I agree that they have
violated the law. The collective actions were conducted according to a
premeditated plan, and had a commander. The action led to serious
consequences, with water pipes destroyed, the canteen storeroom
ransacked, station property damaged and work-team officials attacked.

County law-court chief: I agree. I think it is of the utmost importance that we tackle the issue immediately and firmly.

County governor: I agree with all of you. Our priority must be to strengthen legal education among the people.

Qian Yungang (county party secretary): We must strike while the iron is hot.

Xu Zerong (prefecture secretary): The joint work
team has done a good job in curbing the turmoil and dealing with the
peasants. There have been several incidents at the Dahe station, and
one of our guiding principles must be to ease the conflict and bring
any confrontation quickly under control. This event spun out of
control, with serious consequences. The troublemakers must be
investigated and responsibility assigned. The incident should be
handled in accordance with the law. We also need to focus on tackling
the problems with the Dahe station. We have to separate the general
problems related to poverty from the problems that have arisen from the
erosion caused by the Dahe station. And it is vital that we discuss how
to develop production in the future.
Zhang Liandao: The newly scoured fields have been a
difficult issue. It is clear that the peasants’ fields were washed away
by the Dahe dam during the 1978-88 period, no question about it. But we
really don’t know exactly how much land was lost. The peasants insist
that the newly eroded land amounts to the 111 mu
that Feng Mingyue, the engineer from the prefecture, measured and
signed off on. But we cannot accept that demand. When the problems
arose with the newly eroded fields, we disbursed 100,000 yuan to help
build the calcium-carbide factory. The peasants should be held
responsible for the current problems because they failed to run the
factory properly, and so this is not the government’s responsibility
but the peasants’.

Xiang Zhili: We need to address the masses’
problems, while also punishing the leading troublemakers. Baiyang 16
does have a particular problem given that the bulk of its land was
requisitioned for the station’s use. In addition, there is a tight
relationship between the people and land in this group, which helps
explain why so many peasants there are suffering real hardship.

Wang Jintang: Uncertainty still surrounds two issues: Commissioner Dong has never accepted the figure of 111 mu of newly scoured fields but Commissioner Wang agreed to accept half of it, or 55.5 mu. In addition, the 60,000 yuan promised by Wang for flood-control projects below the dam has yet to be disbursed.

Xu Zerong: We had better accept the figure of 55.5 mu
of newly eroded land, given that Commissioner Wang’s promise to do so
is widely known among local people. But we need to make clear that this
is the final figure. In addition, this conference should mark a turning
point: From now on, we need to de-link the Dahe station and the
problems in Shanyang. Don’t lump these issues together any more. The
problems related to people’s livelihoods in Baiyang should be treated
as general social problems. I’m wondering whether the grain and civil
affairs bureaus could come here to investigate the problems and whether
funding in future could come from the civil affairs bureau rather than
from the Dahe station. The county government needs to pay more
attention to the area and concentrate on poverty reduction and regional

Qian Yungang: The dispute over the calcium-carbide
factory reached a stalemate. The peasants were unable to run it
properly, but also refused to hand it over. Now the factory is useless
and apparently off the agenda. But I think it remains a hidden problem
that we need to address.

Wang Jintang: As much as 410,000 yuan was poured
into building the factory. As a matter of fact, the peasants hadn’t
really expected their problems to be solved through the setting up of
this factory.

Xu Zerong: Don’t touch the factory issue right now
or the peasants will create more trouble. We’d do best to put the
matter aside for the time being.

Qian Yungang: This conference has set the tone for
dealing with the problems in the area affected by the Dahe dam. In
terms of the compensation package, whether in the form of money or
grain, either way there will be no more “bending the rules.” To address
the people’s hardships, the county’s grain and civil affairs bureaus
should consider these issues throughout the entire area, and draw no
connection between these and the Dahe station. We hope the prefecture
government will pay more attention to the region. We need a
comprehensive approach to promote economic development here.

My suggestion is to organize a joint group from the various county
departments, including poverty reduction, resettlement, land management
and hydropower, which would focus on the development of the reservoir
area. Governor Wang would be the right person to be put in charge of
such a group. And what can we do? First, build a road linking the towns
of Huangshi and Shanyang. Second, conduct a feasibility study into the
idea of growing sugarcane here. Third, reinforce river dykes to protect
farmland. And finally, encourage local people to develop and extract
economic benefits from forests.

Xu Zerong (summary):

  1. When problems arise in the reservoir area in future,
    local people should turn to the district and township governments for
    help rather than to the Dahe station. The hydro station is a production
    unit. In future, the prefecture will no longer dispatch work teams to
    go down to the grassroots level, nor deal directly deal with the
    people’s problems. The prefecture government has authorized the county
    to deal with all such matters.
  2. It is vital to protect the Dahe
    station, and local governments have a responsibility to do so. If the
    station is unable to produce hydroelectricity, this will have a major
    impact on the prefecture as a whole.
  3. Legal education should be enhanced
    in both Shanyang and Xunlu districts. No party members or branches are
    allowed to support or take part in any disturbances. Any party member
    who does get involved in collective actions will be investigated and
    severely punished.
  4. Keep the criminal investigations
    into the disturbances secret. We have to handle these events according
    to the law, and take care to strike a balance between killing one to
    warn a hundred and maintaining social stability.
  5. The county has to keep a close eye
    on what’s going on with the masses ‚Äì their concerns, their hardships,
    their movements – and do a good job in dealing with any problems.

There is a need to draw a distinction between inside and outside.
Don’t talk to the masses about any of the issues under discussion here.
The key to our future work lies in organizing the masses and in
regional development. We can get the job done by watching out for and
analyzing new issues, and implementing the decisions made at this

Baiyang 16 and the bottom line

Why did the demands raised by Baiyang 16 make the authorities so
nervous that they felt they couldn’t yield another inch? Baiyang 16’s
request for remeasurement of the dam-affected fields went beyond the
governments’ “bottom line”: If Baiyang 16’s eroded fields were
remeasured, 108 other groups in the Dahe reservoir area would feel
encouraged to make the same demand, involving a total area of about
2,200 mu.

Moreover, the land requisitioned for the Dahe dam had gone through
myriad legal formalities back in 1982; the State Council had even been
asked for instructions before the provincial government approved the
requisition. Reopening the issue risked setting off a chain reaction in
the reservoir area, with no end of trouble stretching far off into the

In addition, the fact that the disturbances at the Dahe dam
coincided with the anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s death the previous year,
which had triggered the student protests in Tiananmen Square, made the
local authorities all the more determined to be resolute. Even their
decision to form a team of station workers to guard the Dahe dam was
inspired by actions the Beijing municipal government had taken to try
and bring the turmoil in the capital under control.

In the past, prefecture officials had adopted the approach of kai kou zi
(bending the rules) to ease tensions in the Dahe conflict. Nonetheless,
they did still have a bottom line, and the Baiyang 16 peasants
unwittingly crossed that line by challenging the legitimacy of the
state’s land-requisition process with their demand for remeasurement of
the fields taken over and affected by the Dahe station. The authorities
decided to lay down the law with the petitioners this time not because
of the economic losses caused by the damage to the pipelines, but out
of concern that, if they relented, people affected by other dams and
reservoirs would follow Baiyang 16’s example and issue their own

Now, after many years of struggling with the groups affected by the
Dahe dam, the prefecture believed that a permanent resolution of the
problems required severing any direct link between the peasants at the
bottom and the prefecture at the top. In short, the prefecture wanted
to rebuild the administrative hierarchy that had been disrupted by the
petition activities. The petitioners who had opened a direct link to
the prefecture might get special treatment, which would be unfair to
others in the region. And lower levels of government could use the
resettlement issue, and the affected people themselves, as bargaining
chips in negotiations with the prefecture.

Experience had shown that the district and township governments were
ineffectual in curbing the collective actions. In some cases, local
cadres even incited the affected people to cause trouble, when doing so
was in the interests of local governments. The county government, on
the other hand, was reluctant to play an active role in tackling the
resettlement problems given that the Dahe dam belonged not to it, but
to the prefecture.

As part of its effort to cut any direct links with the dam-affected
groups, the prefecture wanted to place the people’s problems into two
separate categories. The first category consisted of the problems
caused by the Dahe dam, which the prefecture government believed it had
already done its best to resolve through kai kou zi (rule-bending).
The second category consisted of general problems faced by peasants in
the area that really had nothing to do with the dam. The solution to
those problems depended on developing the local economy and on a
concerted effort by various levels of government to pursue a
poverty-alleviation campaign.

Thus, the prefecture made it clear at the conference that the county
was authorized to deal with all problems associated with the Dahe dam
and that henceforth nobody would be permitted to turn to the prefecture
for help on these matters. The days of bending the rules to address the
peasants’ problems were over, as the prefecture now believed that if it
yielded one more inch, the petitions and disturbances would never cease.

A week after the conference, the minutes were finalized and issued
as Document No. 63, formalizing the new approach to dealing with the
dam-related problems. Now all that remained was to implement the new
policies and punish the troublemakers.

The three Tans go to Beijing

After the April 21 joint working conference, the county police
bureau stationed a group of officers at the Dahe station to investigate
the recent disturbances, gather evidence and identify the main
troublemakers. The villagers of Baiyang 16 were called to the station
one by one to answer questions and write confessions. The whole village
was in a heightened state of anxiety, wondering who would be the next
to be detained. One day, the villagers became so frightened that all of
them–men and women, young and old–fled into the nearby mountains to
hide. As Tan Wanquan recalled:

“After the protest at the dam, every villager was called to
answer questions about how it had all happened and who should be held
responsible for it. I answered this way: The disturbance? I wasn’t
there. Eating the canteen’s food? I ate at home. Fighting with the
station workers? I was talking with Director Zhang at the time.

“The next day, I was called to the station again. A police officer
identified me as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. I laughed and told
him that when I tried to say something, some of the young
representatives had cut me off, saying: ‘This is none of your
business.’ I stayed there until midnight, when the police told me to go
home but to return the next day to write a confession. ‘Don’t forget to
bring a pen and paper with you,’ they said.

“When I got home, I discovered that all the villagers had fled to
the mountains, and my wife said: ‘Let’s go! Even the 10 representatives
have left already.’ So we all went into hiding, and when the police
realized what had happened, they had no choice but to withdraw to the
county seat.”

The villagers of Baiyang 16 hid out for several days; some of them
stayed in the mountain caves for more than two weeks. Aware that hiding
was not a permanent solution, the people decided that a better idea
would be to send representatives to Beijing with an appeal. Tan Shidao,
Tan Shiquan and Tan Wanquan were chosen to make the trip, to complain
to top authorities that “the Dahe hydropower station has illegally
occupied our farmland for two decades, refusing to go through the
proper legal formalities, and greatly harming our agricultural

However, bad timing and a shortage of funds turned their trip into
something of a nightmare. Tan Wanquan recounted the journey, which
sounded like a repeat of Tailor Wang’s first trip to Beijing in 1984:

“Having heard that the three of us had been named
behind-the-scenes manipulators, we became frightened and didn’t want to
stay home a minute longer, so we decided to go to Beijing for help. We
didn’t dare take the bus or train, so set off on foot to walk over the
mountain. Then we took a boat for Nanjing, where we consulted a lawyer
who warned us not to go to the capital, where preparations for the
Asian Games were under way. He suggested we lodge our appeal with the
provincial government instead.

“So we went to Chengdu, where we saw Tang, the director of the
provincial Letters and Visits Office. He wrote us a letter that he told
us to submit to the county Letters and Visits Office. With no money
left between us, we said we had no choice but to go to the holding
centre [for drifters and petitioners]. Director Tang told us that was a
bad idea, that it was no fun at the holding centre. And, exactly as he
had warned, we were not only forced to do physical labour there, but
were beaten as well. ‘Just don’t go there,’ he had said, but what could
we do without a penny to our name?

“I went to see the steward in charge of the holding centre and
showed him our petition materials, hoping to clarify our situation with
him. I stressed that we were innocent people who were at the holding
centre not because we had done anything wrong, but because we had no
money left with which to continue our appeals. I asked him how we could
get home. He said we could be transferred from one place to another but
that we would have to do physical labour at each of the places.

“I pleaded with him: ‘I have a temporary fishing licence. Please,
won’t you send me to the city of B, where I can befriend the fishers
there, who are likely to help me out?’ Sensing that I was an honest
person, the steward appeared sympathetic to my plight and asked one of
his colleagues to escort me home by train. When we arrived in the city
of B, I decided to try and run away despite the risk of being caught
and beaten. I was lucky and did manage to get away, find a fishing boat
and make my way back home.”

Tan’s wife added:

“The two guys he left behind suffered a lot. They had to do
physical labour and developed sores on their feet that became infected.
Their families did everything they could think of to get them back,
borrowing money here and there. But then, several days after their
return, the police arrested them and locked them up for several months.
And Tan Shiquan’s feet were still so swollen that he was unable to do
any farming for a long time.”

The denouement

On June 21, a large contingent of police officers arrived from the
county seat and called a meeting in the conference room of the Dahe
station. The three Tans and 10 representatives were ordered to attend.

Once everyone was in the room, the police closed the door and drew
their guns, shouting loudly: “Tan Shidao, Li Bi and Zhang Ming, on your
feet!” The three stood up, pale and trembling with fear. The police
chief showed the three men arrest warrants and ordered them to be

Then the police chief turned to Tan Wanquan: “Old Tan, come with
me.” Terrified, Tan followed the officer out of the conference room.
But the chief astonished him by saying: “You bear no responsibility for
any of this. The police bureau and township party committee have
decided to appoint you acting head of Baiyang 16.” Hearing this, Tan
Wanquan felt an enormous wave of relief.

From outside the conference room, he could hear one of the police
officers inside announce that the other representatives, Tan Shidao
included, were to be detained. Shortly afterward, the door of the
conference room swung open and the prisoners filed out. They were
escorted to a waiting prison van, which sped off immediately to the
county seat.

It was understandable that Li Bi was treated as the chief
“troublemaker” because he had played a leading role at “the front of
the stage.” But why was Tan Shidao, who did not take part in the
turmoil, charged as a principal “behind-the-scenes manipulator,” while
his son, Tan Wanquan, not only was not charged, but instead was
appointed head of Baiyang 16?

Tan Shidao hazarded a guess: “Fortunately they didn’t touch Tan
Wanquan, and this was because of his connections with local cadres and
with officers at the county public-security bureau. But when I was
detained, the police said I was a scapegoat because I had been head of
Baiyang 16 [at the time of the disturbances].”

Tan Shidao was sentenced to eight months in jail on a charge of
“disturbing public order,” Li Bi received a six-month term, and the 10
others were detained for periods ranging from 10 days to three months.

Sitting on the cold floor of the county lockup, Tan Shidao couldn’t
help but feel a sense of injustice at his sentence. He also knew it was
inevitable that someone would have to be scapegoated after such a long
and bitter struggle with the authorities. The collective actions had
taken a variety of forms over many years as the peasants of Shanyang
battled local governments and the dam authorities. And Tan Shidao
realized that, as head of Baiyang 16 when that group threw itself
somewhat chaotically into the fray, he had been in the wrong place at
the wrong time.

The peasants had struggled with all their might to claim the
compensation they were due for losses caused by the Dahe dam but, like
the local governments, they too had a bottom line, and that was to
avoid being rendered homeless or thrown in jail. However poor they
were, being at home with their families was immeasurably better than
languishing alone in a prison cell.

Tan Shidao didn’t bother to launch an appeal against his sentence –
he knew that would be pointless – but just focused his sights on his
release in eight months time.

In 1991, more land tilled by the five upstream
groups was eroded by the Dahe dam. According to the document issued by
the prefecture government in 1990, the hydropower station was required
to remeasure the “newly scoured fields” and pay compensation
accordingly. But the station failed to do so, and nobody in the five
groups was really much interested any longer in pursuing appeals.

A survey team from the Changjiang Water Resources Commission (CWRC)
went to Shanyang that same year to conduct an inventory of losses that
would result if the Three Gorges dam was built. The Dahe dam was listed
as a location that would be fully flooded in the third phase of the
Three Gorges project (2004-09). The Dahe hydropower station would be
unable to generate electricity after the Three Gorges reservoir was
filled to 135 metres above sea level in early June 2003. The CWRC team
indicated its reluctanct to include fields scoured by the Dahe dam in
the Three Gorges compensation package.

Tailor Wang, who was working as an itinerant labourer again, found
himself in Shanghai in 1991. He called up Commissioner Dong, who was
now working as director of Wanxian prefecture’s liaison office in the
city. Commissioner Dong invited Tailor Wang over for a congenial dinner.

From 1991 to 1998, Governor Wang was in charge of
the construction of a big dam in Yunyang county. As a resettlement
expert who had visited Shanyang more than 30 times, Wang dealt very
proficiently with the resettlement issues surrounding that dam and no
significant petition activities, let alone any disturbances, occurred

On February 17, 1992, the prefecture approved a
proposal to change the name of the “Dahe hydro station headquarters” to
the “Dahe hydropower plant.” The new name signalled that the station,
which by then had been in operation for 16 years, had gone from being a
construction unit to being formally regarded as a production unit.

On April 3, 1992, the National People’s Congress
formally approved the construction of the Three Gorges project. The big
dam’s reservoir would eventually submerge the Dahe hydropower station.

In October of 1992, Baiyang 16 began to receive the grain allowance for its 39.6 mu of eroded fields. The allowance failed to cover two mu
of scoured land for which the government had agreed to provide
compensation, but nobody in the group was in much of a mood to protest
any more. (Grain allowance for Baiyang 16’s two mu and the five upstream group’s “newly scoured fields” was finally granted in January of 1999.)

In late 1992, about 200 Dahe station workers were
transferred to another big hydropower project within the prefecture. To
fill in the personnel gaps, the Dahe station began taking on local
people from Baiyang 16 as temporary workers, and so relations between
the station and the local community gradually improved.

On November 25, 1992, the 60,000 yuan for flood
control rashly promised by Commissioner Wang and approved by the joint
working conference was disbursed to the three downstream groups.

By October 1993, Zhang Liaodao, Commissioner Dong’s
unpopular former secretary, had been promoted to the post of director
of the prefecture resettlement office. He made a speech at a conference
on the Three Gorges resettlement operation that focused on lessons
learned from the Dahe experience.

In December 1999, after several years of appeals on
the issue, Teacher Xu won resettlement compensation for his son, who
had left the Three Gorges reservoir area to study.

In June 2003, the Dahe hydropower station ceased operating when the Three Gorges reservoir was filled to its initial level of 135 metres.

Many of the villagers who spent the better part of two decades
battling for compensation for their losses caused by the Dahe project
are now being uprooted to make way for the Three Gorges dam. A lower
standard of compensation has been offered to Three Gorges migrants such
as themselves in densely populated Yunyang, because the county’s
soon-to-be-submerged farmland is deemed to be of lower quality than
that of other counties in the reservoir area.

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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