Three Gorges Probe

The Story of the Dahe Dam: Chapter 2

Ying Xing
January 26, 2005

Chapter 2: Down to the grassroots in Shanyang

A huge rock lies across the heart of the river like a dragon,
The sound of waves can be heard night after night.
Can we ask what you are complaining about,
And why the resentment has not waned for thousands of years?

– Dragon Back and Waves in the Night, by Qing dynasty poet Li Yingfa1

In November of 1997, I had been in Yunyang for about four months. By
then I had acquired a basic understanding of county conditions,
especially as they related to rural resettlement and the construction
of the new county seat. I wanted to stay in a grassroots unit for a
while to gain firsthand experience and deepen my understanding of rural
migrants, and Shanyang township was definitely the perfect choice. The
resettlement related to the Dahe dam interested me immensely, and I had
a strong desire to explore what had really happened there in the past.

I revealed my plan to Hu Xiang, the party boss of Yunyang. He hesitated
at first and expressed concern for my safety, saying the migrants there
were a tough lot who would do anything to see their demands were met.
It was said, for instance, that they had pushed a car belonging to the
Wanxian prefecture commissioner into the Dahe River. But Hu approved my
request anyway, in the hope that after I conducted my research in
Shanyang I would be in a position to offer some ideas to help the
county address its rural-resettlement problems related to the Three
Gorges project.

When I arrived in Shanyang, party boss Peng Tinghui was out on a
village inspection tour with the head of the township, so I stayed in
my hostel room reviewing material I had already collected about the
area. Archeological evidence of some of the earliest human settlements
has been unearthed in the Dahe valley, with relics found indicating
that civilization there dates back to the Shang (16th-11th century BC)
and Zhou dynasties (11th century-771 BC). Like other places in Yunyang,
however, almost all the present-day inhabitants are descendents of
people who migrated from Guangdong, Guangxi, Hubei and Hunan provinces
in the Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1911 AD) dynasties. Although
its location shifted several times, Shanyang’s market and town centre
eventually ended up beside the Dahe River. Shanyang was a regional
centre of northwest Yunyang from 1942 (when Shanyang district was
created) until 1992, when districts in China became towns or townships.2

Sketch map of Shanyang township

The 14 villages in Shanyang township can be roughly grouped into three
main categories, based on differences in economic development. The
first category comprises villages located close to the town and the
river, with abundant rice paddy, convenient transportation and access
to natural resources such as coal. This category includes the
township’s most developed villages of Xinhua, Baiyang, Honglong, Bolin
and Tangfang. The second category includes Liuping, Mingyue, Qingxi,
Tuanba and Lishu villages. These are located not far from the town
centre, have some rice paddy but no natural resources, and can be
considered moderately developed. Shanyang’s poorest villages fall into
the third category, which includes Fenghuang, Shiliang, Lietou and
Gongle. These lie far from the town and the river, are inaccessible by
paved road, and have little paddy.

Taking Yunyang county as a whole, Shanyang falls somewhere in the
middle in terms of economic development, with an average per capita net
income of 447 yuan in 1992. The chief agricultural products include
wheat, rice, sweet potato, corn, peanuts, cotton, oranges and tea.
Shanyang is not rich in natural resources, and village and township
enterprises remain at a low level of development. Officials in the
township government have to devote most of their time and energy these
days to the arduous task of resettling local residents displaced by the
Three Gorges dam.

While I was having dinner on my first evening in Shanyang, I met party
secretary Peng and the head of the township, who had returned from
their village inspection trip. I explained what I had come for – that I
wanted to stay for a while and take part in local officials’
activities, such as sitting in on their meetings. I also wanted to
travel around to the villages of Shanyang to conduct my research. I
said I didn’t need anybody to accompany me and just wanted to be left
alone to do my work. I asked that they treat me as “a teacher from
Beijing” and call me Teacher Ying rather than Vice-Governor Ying. I
thought this would help local officials feel less apprehensive about my
status as a county vice-governor, and also allow me to get closer to
the rural migrants and really develop a sense of their lives. The local
officials seemed to understand what I wanted.

After dinner, Peng invited me to go for a walk. He said I was very
welcome in Shanyang, and that he had been looking forward to having
somebody to talk to. He was not originally from Shanyang, but had been
sent to work there after graduating from a technical high school. He
had served as a local official ever since being appointed deputy head
of Shanyang district in 1983. He also mentioned that he now felt both
physically and mentally tired.

When our conversation turned to the resettlement issue, Peng said that
just that morning he had managed to dissuade a group of disgruntled
migrants from heading off to Beijing to appeal for help from higher
authorities. He said the peasants being displaced by the Three Gorges
project were extremely unhappy with the compensation terms being
offered, and they had chosen a retired local cadre, also named Peng, to
represent them. Peng the party secretary said he repeatedly urged Peng
the retired cadre not to complain to higher authorities, even appealing
to the older man’s sense of kinship (though they were not in fact
related) given that they shared a surname. After a great deal of
persuasion, the retired cadre did finally abandon the idea of going to
Beijing. This anecdote confirmed my impression that Shanyang was a
hotbed of simmering resentment related to resettlement, but fortunately
the current leader of the township, party secretary Peng, seemed to be
someone I could trust.

‘Grievance culture’ spreads

On my third day in Shanyang, Peng took me to several villages to hear
what migrants had to say. Most of the people in the township who were
being moved for the Three Gorges dam came from the village of Xinhua.
As we crossed the Dahe River by boat, I saw a dam upstream and wondered
if it was the famous Dahe hydropower station.

After going ashore, we ran into Liu Zhengxing, head of Xinhua 13 and
one of the migrant representatives, who was on his way to market in
Shanyang town across the river. Peng asked Liu to take us to his home
so we could have a chat. Liu’s house was close to the river and in a
style typical of the Shanyang area. After we sat down, Peng phoned
Tang, the party secretary of Xinhua village, and asked him to join us.
Soon after Tang’s arrival, dozens of villagers gathered, squatting
against the walls or standing in the doorway. Party secretary Peng came
straight to the point. He introduced me as a teacher from Beijing, and
said we had come to listen to the views of migrants.

Liu Zhengxing seemed a straightforward person, and asked, “What do you
want from us today – truth or lies?” To which Peng replied: “We want
you all to feel free to speak out today.”

Thus encouraged, Liu began explaining why they were seeking help from
higher authorities. He stressed that the migrants had no desire to
oppose the government, nor did they seek to enrich themselves by taking
advantage of the resettlement scheme. All they wanted was to recover
their former standard of living, in accordance with the central
government’s own policy. Liu said the peasants didn’t want much, but
did feel that “if you break my bowl, you should compensate me with a
bowl of the same size and quality; if you smash one of my jars, you
should replace it with a similar one.” But what’s happening with
housing, he explained, “is that three different compensation standards
[pertaining to houses in cities, towns and rural areas] are being
offered for homes made of wood and earth, and none of the compensation
packages actually provide enough to build a replacement house as big as
the old one.” Liu’s comments touched off a lively discussion, with each
of the migrants, inside and outside of the house, eager to put in a

Tang, the party secretary of the village, remained silent while the discussion centred on shangfang,
or appeals to higher authorities. But when the conversation shifted to
the compensation issue, he quietly filled me in on some of the
background to the problem. As to the issue of appealing to higher
authorities, party secretary Peng criticized the collective actions
taken by Liu and other people, which had caused the township government
much grief. He urged the masses to trust the township leaders, who had
already taken steps to address the resettlement-related problems.
Interestingly, however, with respect to the issues the township
government was unable to resolve, Peng was clearly on the peasants’
side. And by the end, he too seemed to have become somebody who was
eager to vent his grievances.

Party secretary Peng obviously knew more about resettlement policy than
the local people did. He pointed out that the compensation being
offered for houses was based on a price fixed in 1992, which did not
take inflation into account. This explained why it was difficult to
build a new house with the compensation money and why migrants were
reluctant to leave their old homes. Some had even returned to their
original locations after resettlement. Peng told me privately that he
hoped I would report problems such as this to higher levels.

Peng and I went back to Xinhua village after lunch. Dozens of
villagers, including several party members and local cadres, were
invited to a meeting at the home of village party secretary Tang.
During a discussion on resettlement issues, I was especially impressed
by Zhou Kewang, a retired boatman from the Dahe Shipping Company, who
had a real way with words. Like Liu Zhengxing, Zhou was another
important migrant representative. He emphasized that villagers in
Shanyang did not oppose the government’s decision to resettle people,
but that they were not happy with compensation terms that made it
difficult for them to recover their previous standard of living. I was
most impressed on this day by the migrants’ absolute determination to
rebuild their lives.3

Despite my best efforts to keep a low profile, news spread fast that “a
teacher named Ying who is concerned about resettlement issues has
arrived from Beijing.” As a result, though I had been in Shanyang for
only three days, I was already receiving a steady stream of visitors.
People came to tell me about their personal problems related to
resettlement, and said they sincerely hoped I could help bring these
issues to the attention of the authorities in Beijing. I made it clear
that I was only an ordinary teacher, but at the same time I didn’t want
to disappoint them by not hearing their stories. And so, most of the
time, I listened patiently to a great flood of complaints.

My introduction to Teacher Xu

One afternoon while I was in my room going over some written material,
two visitors arrived. One of them left after introducing the other to
me. I had heard this man’s name many times before, because of his key
role in the 20 years of shangfang,
or appeals, mounted by people displaced by the Dahe dam. Before
actually meeting Xu Shaorong, I hadn’t imagined there would be anything
that set him apart from other residents of Shanyang. But Xu, a teacher
at Liuping village primary school, was obviously someone very special.
He was bright and articulate, and had a good understanding of official
resettlement policy and the current problems with the relocation

Commenting on my goal of doing research on Three
Gorges resettlement, Xu immediately observed that officials conducting
the Three Gorges operation really should learn lessons from the Dahe
experience. This was precisely my own area of interest, and so I asked
him to tell me more about Dahe. Teacher Xu was only too delighted to do
so, and he proved to be an extremely knowledgeable informant. He
proceeded to talk for two hours, outlining how local governments had
misused and embezzled funds earmarked for the Dahe resettlement, how he
was asked to write an appeal on behalf of the affected people, and how
he had then become more deeply involved, instructing local peasants on
how to negotiate with the governments, and finally, how he and others
had been successful in obtaining grain in the way of compensation. In
summary, he said the reason local people had pursued their appeals and
protests for so long was because the money earmarked for the Dahe
resettlement did not go where it should have gone, and that people who
had been displaced by the dam had failed to benefit from the project.

After finishing his account, Teacher Xu told me what he wanted from me.
He said he wanted to know whether students from the area who were
enrolled in universities or technical secondary schools outside the
resettlement zone were eligible for resettlement funds. Government
resettlement policy failed to address this issue. Xu argued that going
away to study was a form of resettlement, and that these students
should be regarded as among the displaced and therefore entitled to
compensation. The township government, however, was reluctant to count
such family members as being eligible for compensation, on the grounds
that the resettlement policy was not clear on the issue. Xu had been
working hard on this issue recently, travelling back and forth between
county and township officials. I felt that he had a point, and promised
to raise the matter with the county government.

As I later discovered, Teacher Xu was not the only loquacious resident
of Shanyang. During my travels I encountered a high-school teacher who
had a relatively high salary of 505 yuan a month [compared with local
peasants’ average annual income of 447 per capita in 1992] but still
complained about how poor he was. In one village, I listened as a
road-maintenance crew argued persuasively that their contracts should
be based on state labour law, but were not.

I befriended another teacher who was known as a “professional
petitioner.” Tao Qingming had begun his appeals to higher authorities
decades earlier after being severely punished because he had slapped a
district party secretary’s face during an argument. Carrying a book-bag
of petitions and supporting material, Teacher Tao spent all his time
and money on appeals to clear his name, constantly making the rounds of
government offices in the Yunyang county seat and Wanxian prefecture.
And over the years, he studied the law so intensively that he actually
ended up getting a lawyer’s certificate.

It was no exaggeration to say that a culture of “venting grievances” (suku) had spread widely throughout Shanyang. What interested me was: When had this phenomenon begun?4

Appeals in the people’s commune era

The Dahe dam’s sluice gates were closed in July of 1975, and by the end
of the year the first turbine had begun generating hydropower.
Unexpectedly, however, the event that brought the first beams of
electric light to the remote mountainous region also marked the
beginning of an endless stream of problems.

Soon after the hydropower station went into operation, Zhu the engineer
saw his worst fears materialize. The water was released through the
dam’s sluice gate at a height of 15 metres, and dropped down
turbulently to the river below. The furious flow of water started to
abate at a bend in the river about 1.5 kilometres downstream of the
dam, scouring both banks of the river and washing away valuable
farmland. The Mingyue area close to the dam was most seriously

Peasants from three production brigades, Liuping, Baiyang and Mingyue,
went to the hydropower station to report the situation. They feared
that all the farmland below the dam would be lost if the scouring was
allowed to continue. The erosion posed an enormous threat to lives and
livelihoods in Shanyang, where already the population had little land
to support them. Local people had an average of less that one mu per
capita to farm. Moreover, the farmland being washed away was the best
in the area. Almost all the high-quality land was concentrated in the
river valley, while the land higher up was steeply sloped and the soil
was poor.

The hydropower station officials paid scant attention to the erosion
problem. Station head Liu Xingjian, who was preoccupied with the
installation of the second turbine, just instructed Zhu the engineer to
give a verbal report on the matter to the prefecture’s hydropower
bureau. For its part, the bureau did not report the situation to the
prefecture authority. And despite witnessing the scene below the dam,
in which first-rate farmland was being swept away, local officials in
Shanyang also failed to report the matter to county or prefecture
authorities. Whether officials at higher levels were aware of an issue
did not depend on whether they knew about it personally; they relied on
receiving a written report. And from my review of official documents,
it appears that the prefecture authority that had designed and funded
the Dahe dam was not even aware of the whole erosion issue until it
actually happened.5

At the same time, similar problems began to emerge in the upstream area
behind the dam. The zone affected by the higher water level of the
impounded reservoir was larger than expected, and involved two communes
in Yunyang county (Xunlu and Guanqu) and two others in Bailong county
(Kaixi and Jiangkou). The team that conducted a survey for the Dahe
project in 1972 had failed to properly project the impact on upstream
areas of the backwater of the reservoir, which went up higher along
both banks and extended a little farther upstream than expected.

Authorities at all levels tended to turn a blind eye to “leftover
problems” such as these, but for the people affected by them, the
issues were too critical to ignore. The erosion was robbing them of
farmland on which their lives depended, and put them at risk of
starvation. They knew they didn’t have it in their power to halt the
discharge of water from the dam, but they felt sure that something
would be done once they brought the ensuing problems to the attention
of the authorities. The government was forever declaring concern for
the people’s suffering and misery. And, quite specifically, it had
stated that people displaced by the Dahe dam deserved to receive
reasonable compensation that would allow them to regain their original
standard of living.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and in the absence
of other complaint mechanisms, appealing to higher authorities for help
has been seen by ordinary people as a basic tool allowing them to bring
their problems to the attention of upper levels of government. The
villagers whose livelihoods were being undermined by the Dahe dam were
aware of how difficult the appeals process would be, but under the
circumstances felt they had no other choice. None of them contested the
notion that speaking out was a better option than suffering in silence.

But now the question was: Who would be the best person to represent the
complainants? Under the people’s commune system, the production team
was the titular owner of farmland and had the power to deal with
related issues. Now that land was threatened, the production team was
the obvious body to take up the issue, and the head of the production
team was the natural representative of the affected people. And in
fact, the heads of the production teams affected by the dam were
willing to assume this role. They didn’t have to worry about funding
the appeals, because the villagers who were suffering as a result of
the erosion were quite prepared to pool their resources. And the
production team leaders could appeal to higher authorities at little
risk to themselves, because they were simply reporting ordinary
people’s concerns up the chain of command. For cadres at the grassroots
level, presenting local concerns to higher authorities would also help
them win villagers’ trust.6

Passing the buck: ‘It’s not my business’

And so the
heads of the local production teams were ready to go down the road of
appealing to the hydropower station, commune, district, county and
prefecture authorities. Some of them travelled to the Wanxian
prefecture office more than 10 times in less than a year, while others
did the circuit of commune, district, county and prefecture officials
on numerous occasions. What they found most frustrating was that almost
every official at every level declined to take any responsibility, and
passed the buck to others. Huang Guangfu, head of Liuping 4, recalled
his experience of trying to lodge complaints at this early stage:

“I asked somebody to write a report for me on the
problems being caused by the dam and then I took it to the hydropower
station. And you know what? The station said it could do nothing about
it because it was just responsible for building the dam. So I changed
tack, and went to the commune, where the official paid no attention
whatsoever to what I said. Then I went up to the district level, where
the official asked me to take my complaint to the county. And the
county said: ‘Yes, your problems should be resolved but we don’t have
the power to do so because the hydropower station does not belong to
us, but to the prefecture. Besides, the issue involves not just our
county but the neighbouring county of Bailong as well, so this is
actually outside of our authority.’

“I asked the county official to write a statement to that effect on my
petition and then hurried over to the prefecture in Wanxian, where I
tried to get help from the hydropower bureau, the planning commission
and the prefectural government. To my great dismay, I heard the same
thing I had heard at the lower levels. Plus, the prefecture officials
treated me like a child: ‘Go home,’ one said, ‘and I’ll call the county
and tell them to give you some grain in the way of compensation.’

“So I went back home but nobody got in touch! I had to go back to the
prefecture again, and this time the same guy did make a call to the
commune. The official who answered the phone said: ‘Yes, yes, we are
going to do something for them.’ But when I got back to the commune,
again nobody paid the slightest attention to me. Damn it! What could we
do? Just go straight back up to the higher levels!”

That people who had lost their farmland to the dam should be
compensated seemed like a simple, straightforward matter. But in
reality, resolving the issue became extremely difficult, and the
problem stemmed from a basic contradiction. The prefecture government
had planned, funded and built the dam, and also received all the
revenue generated by the hydropower station. But it shifted
responsibility for the resettlement operation onto lower levels. Local
governments, including commune, district and county authorities, were
meant to assume the task, though they lacked the ability and,
crucially, the financial resources to do so. This was why authorities
at all levels made no effort to address complainants’ problems, but did
do their utmost to shift the responsibility onto others. When their
problems were not addressed by the leaders closest at hand, villagers
were forced to bypass that immediate layer and take their appeals to
higher levels.

Facing persistent appeals from aggrieved groups, governments at the
commune, district and county levels reached a consensus that the
complainants should go to the prefecture with their problems, given
that the dam belonged to the prefecture. Local people appear to have
come around to the same view, learning through experience that it made
most sense to direct their appeals to the prefectural government.
Prefecture officials found it hard to shift responsibility back down
onto lower levels, and so they did promise to sort things out. Local
people were delighted to hear such assurances, but soon realized there
was a big gap between such fine words and a final settlement. Huang
Guangfu, head of Liuping 4, recalls a tortuous path, strewn with

“Before 1976, just a small part of our farmland was
eroded. But after that, the land affected by the rushing water was lost
in a dramatic way. Women in my production team were forced to go
begging for sweet potatoes, and even potato leaves, to feed their
families. The situation served to strengthen my resolve, and I made
repeated trips to the prefecture government, more than 50 in all.
Sometimes I went to the prefecture twice a week. I just have too much
to recount about all the difficulties and suffering that I experienced.”

Other production teams affected by the erosion had similar experiences.
Huang’s story was echoed by many as they recalled spending enormous
amounts of time and energy travelling between their homes and the
prefecture, encountering much buck-passing and other delays along the

The ‘one lump sum’ plan

In October of 1977, officials
were sent from the prefecture to deal with the problem for the first
time. Two events coincided to hasten their visit: The No. 2 generator
at the dam was almost fully installed, and a high-level inspection team
was due to arrive to assess the project as a whole for approval. In the
circumstances, the prefecture government finally felt it was time to
sort out the festering resettlement problems.

A joint investigation by the prefecture and county governments found
that about 200 mu [13.3 hectares] of farmland had been eroded and an
additional 150 households in Shanyang and Guanqu communes had to be
resettled as a result. A plan worth 300,000 yuan was worked out between
the prefecture, county, district, commune and hydropower station. The
proposal aimed at a comprehensive solution, and included managing and
strengthening river embankments, paying subsidies in the form of grain
to affected people, and building a factory to absorb the excess farm
labour. The details were as follows:

    1. The hydropower station would put 100,00 yuan toward
    constructing river embankments. With this money, the commune would be
    responsible for organizing local labourers to do the work;
    2. The
    hydropower station would put 60,000 yuan toward soil improvement, in an
    effort to reclaim 200 mu, an area equivalent to the farmland lost due
    to the erosion;
    3. An additional 100,000 yuan would go toward setting up a calcium-carbide8
    factory that would employ some of the affected people (though the
    factory would operate chiefly in the water-rich season, so as not to
    impinge on the prefecture’s power supplies).
    4. A further 40,000 yuan would be set aside in a contingency fund.

On Sept. 13, 1978, the prefecture government issued a formal document
approving the proposal and confirming that 300,000 yuan would be
allocated, in instalments, to Shanyang commune.

Building a factory with a mere 100,000 yuan seemed impossible.
Nevertheless, Shanyang commune officials were excited about the idea of
having an “investment-intensive” enterprise under their control, and
they looked forward to arranging jobs in the factory for family
members. On Sept. 26, 1978, the commune worked out a budget of 210,000
yuan to build the factory, and sought top-up funding of 110,000 yuan
from the county. But the request was turned down, with the county
informing the commune in writing that: “The plan to build the factory
has been approved but the budget must be in line with the prefecture’s
original proposal.” In other words, only 100,000 yuan would be
available to build the factory.

The commune, having received the total amount of 300,000 yuan from the
prefecture, did nothing about building river embankments or improving
soil and reclaiming land. It put all its money (even the 40,000 yuan
contingency fund) into one basket: the calcium-carbide factory.
Ironically, construction of the factory was delayed for more than a
year because of a shortage of funds! And the enterprise never went
fully into operation, because among all the disputes that arose around
the dam was this one: The hydropower station did not want to provide
the factory with electricity.

So the “one lump sum” plan did not work out at all well. It left an
unworkable factory sitting on a hill near the dam site, which became
another contentious issue for the future. Even more ridiculous was the
fact that local people were not told about the deal that had been
struck between the prefecture and the commune, so they assumed the
prefecture government was still sitting on the case. This apparent
procrastination made some of the affected people lose patience with the
appeals process and withdraw from it altogether, prepared now to try
more drastic tactics to convey the urgency of their complaints.


1 Long ji shi (Dragon Back Rock)
is a sandstone ridge in the centre of the Yangtze near the county seat
of Yunyang that looks like a dragon swimming in the river. The top of
the rock emerges in the dry season – thus its name. The poem was quoted
in Annals of Yunyang County (1999).

2 Below the central government,
the administrative hierarchy in China consists of three main levels:
province, county (or city) and township. But because China’s provinces
and counties are so big, further divisions usually occur, with
provinces subdivided into prefectures, and counties into districts. The
administrative system varies from region to region, and may contain
five levels (province, prefecture, county, district and township) or
four (province, prefecture, county and township).

Note for the English edition:
Before the reforms of the early 1980s, four administrative units were
subordinate to the county level in Shanyang. The highest of these was
the district, which was made up of people’s communes. The communes were
divided into production brigades, which were further subdivided into
production teams. After the reforms, which brought the people’s commune
era to an end, the communes became towns or townships, production
brigades were replaced by villages, and production teams became known
as groups.

Administrative hierarchy in Shanyang
in the 1970s (and 1980s)Central government
People’s communes (townships)
Production brigades (villages)
Production teams (groups)

Peasants’ resolve to recover their previous standard of living is
linked to their perception of loss. If a loss has been caused by
natural forces, they will accept their suffering as the result of cruel
fate. But if their loss has been caused by human beings, they will seek
compensation to return to their original state. Peasants will also
react differently depending on who exactly has disturbed their lives:
Was it an internal force from within their own community, or a more
powerful, outside force? To the former, the peasants simply ask: “Why
did you smash my bowl?” But after being forced, for instance, to make
way for dams and reservoirs, peasants have no choice but to make
demands along the lines of: “Now that you have broken my bowl, you have
to give me a similar bowl in compensation.” The peasants don’t question
why their lives have been altered against their will by the external
force, but they are adamant that the compensation must be sufficient to
allow then to regain their original standard of living, and they will
complain vociferously if it falls short.

4 Since 1949, the power of the central government has permeated rural China. One of the biggest differences between traditional suku (venting grievances) and a new form of suku
that emerged in the land-reform period (roughly 1949-53) was that the
former had nothing to do with the wielding of state power, whereas the
latter became a tool used by the state to divide and rule rural
communities through the creation of a new collective sense among the

The creation of the shangfang [appeals or
petitioning] system allowed the central government to become involved
in peasants’ everyday life, and was a key part of China’s “people’s
democratic” system. Especially before the mid-1980s, few Chinese
citizens took legal action, or were even able to access appropriate
legal weapons, in the face of economic disputes or social injustice.
Instead, many turned to party or government organs for help, through
“looking for qing tian (upright and powerful high-ranking officials)” or “seeking shou fa (an official explanation).”

The use of shangfang
became a frequent and widespread legal practice unique to China.
Citizens were not demanding universal rights, but rather, were seeking
the satisfaction of specific, personal interests. They often sought the
help of officials at various levels in the belief that the party and
government sincerely wanted to take care of ordinary people. Moreover,
before the mid-1980s, China’s legal system failed to address a wide
range of issues, particularly in the spheres of civil and
administrative law. This was because the legal system was part of a
state machine that was run by a highly centralized state power. The
legal system at that time was far from independent, and was subject to
the interests of the ruling party and government. In the United States,
almost all political issues become legal ones sooner or later,
addressed through the courts or legal processes. In China, by contrast,
almost all legal issues were to some degree turned into political ones.

In many cases, shangfang is not an effective
problem-solving mechanism. The state has so much work to do, and fresh
“leftover problems” crop up with such regularity that the government is
hard-pressed to deal with them all in an appropriate and timely
fashion. Bureaucratic delays and the practice of shifting
responsibility onto others often make the situation much worse.
Furthermore, the agency in charge of shangfang-related
complaints, the Letters and Visits Office, has been seen as a safety
valve rather than as a key government department. In other words, the
importance of the mechanism is seen to lie not in how effectively it
deals with problems, but in the opportunities it provides the masses to
blow off steam by airing their grievances.

5 Reports from lower levels were
an important means for higher authorities to obtain information about
what was going on in rural areas. But there seemed to be a tacit
understanding between the upper and lower levels that the subordinates
were to report only the good news, and withhold the bad. Reporting bad
news, in other words, carried political risks. In addition, the
subordinates were meant to handle the tough, practical issues on the
ground, without necessarily having explicit policies from above to
guide them. The superiors wanted the problems resolved at lower levels,
with no political heat turned on themselves. The subordinates would be
accused of incompetence if they failed to tackle the problems on their
own. And the superiors didn’t really care whether the subordinates told
the truth or not. The bottom line was that the subordinates should
bring the situation under control, with no citizens seeking redress
from higher levels, and certainly no problems being reported to top
leaders in Beijing.

From the start, the prefecture and the hydropower station realized they
would have to go over budget once the dam project got under way, but
they also assumed it would be possible to obtain supplementary funding
from the province. They did not foresee that it would in fact be
extremely difficult to extract any money from the province, especially
in the later stage of dam construction. As a result, and much to the
prefecture’s surprise, they ended up with an underfunded, poorly
constructed and problem-plagued “troublesome project.”

For the governments, the dam was a very visible “concrete issue.” If it
was unable to generate electricity, it would stand as an indictment of
the prefecture’s decision to build it, and the decision makers might be
held accountable for “bureaucratic errors.” This was why, despite
facing an enormous financial challenge, the prefecture had struggled to
complete the project. As for resettlement, the prefecture viewed this
as a “soft” or “invisible issue.” Even if the problems with the
resettlement operation came to light, the prefecture still saw it as a
sideshow that would have no serious impact on the dam project as a

6 Zhang Letian (Farewell to the Utopia: Research on the People’s Commune, Shanghai Oriental Press Center, 1998) and Anita Chan et al. (Chen Village Under Mao and Deng,
University of California Press, 1992) argue in their case studies that
the authority of the head of a production team depends on whether the
peasants are satisfied with what this individual has done on their
behalf. It is worth noting here that usually the village has been seen
as the basic unit of sociological study in rural China. But, as I
discovered during the course of my research, the production brigades
(or village, after the end of the people’s commune system) in the
region affected by the Dahe dam took a passive attitude toward
collective actions. This was chiefly because the eight production teams
affected by the erosion issue belonged to three different production
brigades. No production brigade leaders were directly affected by the
problem, so they were reluctant to take part in the collective actions,
let alone to play a leadership role. This was why they took a cautious
approach toward the persistent appeals, and even tried to distance
themselves from the “troublemakers.” The passivity of the production
brigade leadership actually made it a little easier for the affected
groups to organize collective actions. And the absence in this loop of
the production brigade leaders caused their superiors at the commune
and district levels to be directly exposed to the complainants.

7 Delay typically is seen as the
result of inefficiency in a bureaucracy. But in China, delay has been
institutionalized within the bureaucratic system. Administrations at
all levels operate like a poorly constructed but well-organized
network. Despite its incompetence in addressing problems in an
appropriate and timely fashion, the network has managed to fend off all
other social forces that might play a role in tackling the problems,
and delays are a routine occurrence. Within the bureaucracy, the flow
of information has rarely been kept moving perfectly smoothly between
the bottom and top. Higher authorities, therefore, would have
difficulty discovering problems or recognizing their severity in the
absence of a complaints mechanism that allows peasants to bring these
issues to their attention through personal appeals or collective

Whether their problems are important or trivial, petitioners generally
try everything possible to underscore the seriousness and urgency of
the issues, in an effort to get officials to pay attention and to act.
But because of flaws in the bureaucratic system, government
administrations frequently lack sufficient information to judge the
merits of a case. And so delay occurs as a means of “information
filtering,” through which the governments are able to determine the
exact nature of the problems, and the order in which they should be
addressed. The delays that occur between various administrative levels
and government departments dramatically increase the cost to peasants
of any appeals to higher levels. It is hard for peasants to press ahead
in the face of these delays, for which they pay a high price in terms
of time, money and energy.

Within the bureaucracy, appeals are categorized according to a
perception of urgency. Appeals that have involved travel are seen as
more urgent than those conveyed by letter. Repeated, persistent appeals
also take on urgency, as do those that have involved bypassing the
immediate or even several layers of authority. Travelling to Beijing to
lodge an appeal is seen as more urgent than appealing within the home
province; and collective actions are deemed to be more urgent than
individual appeals.

8 Calcium carbide is used in the
manufacture of acetylene, a highly flammable gas whose industrial uses
include welding and cutting, and the carburization (or hardening) of

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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